There's nothing like being loaned out to the CIA to make Clint appreciate how far he's come since his nameless, faceless sniper days. He still has a tendency to fade into the background (it's damn easy when Stark's out in front of the PR blitz and Cap is standing right beside him--it'll take a lot longer than a year for the media outlets to get past those two, which Clint is pretty okay with), but he has a name and a place on a team now. Truth be told, he'd never just been "the asset" with SHIELD. Clint knows he owes that entirely to Phil Coulson and how he'd run his ops, but even without Coulson somewhere in the background, the attitude still persists. Treating your people as people: it's not bad as a legacy even if it goes without saying that nobody wanted it to actually be a legacy so fucking soon.
Still, as much as Clint hates getting sent out on a Company job, it's ten times worse for Natasha. Clint knows she's fighting against every single second of her early conditioning just to stay calm and cool on the surface. It's Natasha, so nobody else has a clue, but Clint knows all the signs. Having to debrief at Langley, which makes Clint want to claw his face off, has to have Nat close to choking. He can't let on that he knows how much it costs her to be here--he likes his balls attached to his body and functional--which makes having her back a little more challenging than usual, but it's what they do for each other. Even now, being a part of a team--truly a part, not just out on the fringes--there are times when the only thing keeping each of them whole and functioning (Clint isn't going to say sane, because he knows goddamn well how close to that edge they skate sometimes) is the other.
Yeah, so: Langley. CIA headquarters, and a complete clusterfuck of an assignment to debrief, complicated enough that they're locked up in a room full of Company spooks for the better part of a day and night. Clint's gone through every biofeedback trick he knows three fucking times, and Nat is agitated enough that she's flipping pens like she does her knives before they finally get turned loose, but finally they're done. They might be a little punchy from sheer relief (not to mention getting about five hours of sleep over the previous three days) but it's nothing fifteen hours in a bed and a couple of pounds of ribeye won't cure, or at least that's what Clint thinks until they're halfway back to the front lobby and he sees Coulson coming through security.
It's not the first time Clint's looked at a random guy in a dark suit and seen Phil. Hell, for the first couple of months after it all went down, Clint saw him every fucking day. PTSD, the docs said. Guilt, Clint's brain said (when it wasn't saying dereliction of duty or collusion or traitor or the all-time favorite, murderer.) Breathe through it, Natasha would say. Just breathe. It'd taken a couple of months but his brain started calming down, and lately he's only seen the faces of the ones he'd killed (the ones *Loki* killed, the Natasha-voice in his brain says automatically, and maybe one day Clint will believe her) in his dreams. Since he's dead on his feet (when a Company op goes south, it generally goes nuclear with fall-out lasting for days and this last one hadn't been any different), it's possible he's just hallucinating, but it doesn't feel like the other times. Coulson looks older; almost... well, not frail, because Clint doesn’t care what shit is going on in his head, he’s never going to see Coulson as that diminished. Thinner, maybe. Refined down to the bone, maybe. It’s too damn weird, but the real thing that’s fucking with Clint’s head is that no matter how many times he glances away and back, it's still Phil he’s seeing. Normally, on the second, or maybe the third look, Clint sees the real person. On the plus side, at least this vision isn’t bleeding out or glaring accusations at him.
"Clint," Natasha says sharply, and Clint realizes it's the third time she's said his name. He shrugs off her concerned look and starts walking again, so they can get the hell out of this place before he completely loses it. He can't help looking back, though, and fuck, it's still Coulson he's seeing.
"Nat," he manages to say, and he doesn't mean to sound like he's going down any second, but that's how it comes out. She spins around like she's expecting an all-out assault and just then, the guy Clint's staring at looks up and sees them both, and--
"Fuck me," Natasha hisses in Russian, right before Fury's there and they're all swept down the hall and out of public view.
* * *
There's a helicopter waiting for them, and a jet from Andrews to LaGuardia, and another helicopter from there to the Tower. Clint spends the entire trip clamping down the seething mass of emotions masquerading as higher thought processes, alternating between raging fury, a sort of unbelieving relief, and the deep, familiar sear of exclusion. Natasha stays with him, sitting between him and the world, and though he can tell she wants to go up to the front and confront them, raise hell with Fury, with Phil, Clint can't bring himself to send her off.
He never said he wasn't a selfish bastard.
By the time they get to the Tower, the rest of the team's there and when they walk into the conference room, Natasha and Clint first, Fury and Coulson right behind, there's a split-second of utter silence before all hell breaks loose. Clint grabs a seat in the corner and lets it all play out, the initial relief giving way to the ugly realization of just how neatly everyone had been played. Banner and Thor are the calmest of the lot, which isn't saying much, as Cap is quietly livid, Nat is still spitting curses in Russian, and Stark looks close to rupturing something.
"People," Coulson says in that quiet tone that's talked Clint through more fucked-up ops than he can remember--but none of them, not the shitstorm in Chechnya or the hit they had put out on them in Kyiv or even the fifteen days they spent in bamboo cages in Southeast Asia (Clint never has figured out exactly where they were) were anywhere close to as FUBARed as this. "People," Coulson repeats, and the room falls silent for a few seconds.
"Someone," Stark spits out, his eyes flashing back and forth between Fury and Coulson. "Someone has some serious fucking explaining to do, because you," he pokes at Coulson, "we fucking buried you." He turns and glares at Fury. "You know what? Never mind. This has your fingerprints all over it, doesn't it, Nick? Dramatic speech, rally the troops, save the fucking world. The end justifies the means, right, Direct--"
"It was my call," Coulson interrupts in that same calm voice. Every eye in the room is on him. "It was my decision, Stark. Something needed to happen, and I just happened to be it." He looks at each one of them in turn, saving Clint for last. "I'd do it again in a heartbeat."
And that--that's it for Clint. He holds Coulson's eyes as he stands and walks to the front of the room. Natasha has to know what he's going to do--hell, Coulson, too. Clint's never pretended to be deep. He's just the guy who sits back and watches, the guy who makes the shot when he needs to. He's seen a lot of crap in his time, sat through a lot of fucked-up scenes to get to where he needs to be, but this, now--he can't stand another second of it.
"Fuck this shit," he says, and the punch he's had coiled up in his shoulder ever since he realized the Technicolor pictures of Phil down, bleeding out because Clint brought Loki to kill him, the ones he's had playing out in his head in excruciating detail every day for a year aren't true, have never been true--that punch sings out and Phil doesn't do a thing to block it, just lets his head snap back and wipes the blood off his mouth as Clint walks out the door.
* * *
Natasha comes after him, of course, and so, too, does Thor, following Clint without a word to the shithole bar he found months ago.
“I would not intrude, my friends,” Thor says when Natasha gives him the what-the-fuck-do-you-think-you’re-doing look. If Clint weren’t so furious he could barely think, he’d be mildly impressed at Thor’s smile. “I am here merely to guarantee your safe return.”
"Fan-fucking-tastic," Clint says, and motions for the bartender to hand over the entire bottle of cheap whiskey. Natasha has her own bottle of vodka, and Thor alternates between the two. It probably could be uglier, but with the two of them still running on fumes from the last op it's all over embarrassingly quickly, Thor half-carrying them back out in less than two hours. Clint ends up on his hands and knees in the alley, puking hard enough that he's not sure he hasn't lost an internal organ or two, but between that and the quart of water he downs before he passes out, he's in surprisingly decent shape when he gets the call to Fury's office the next day.
"No, sir," Clint says, when Fury's done with his song and dance. "With all due respect, I will be goddamned before I go talk to one of your shrinks about how I feel about being lied to for a year." He's so far over the line of insubordination he can't believe there isn't a security team in to escort him to the brig, but Fury just puts his hands flat on his desk and watches him. Clint keeps his eyes on a point just over the director's left shoulder and lets the silence draw out. If Fury wants to try to wait him out, Clint is fucking up for the challenge.
"If I could, I'd tell you to pick a shrink that doesn't work for SHIELD," Fury says finally, quiet and somber. "But that's not feasible, not right now." Clint wants to snort at that, because yeah, there's a surprise, but he sets his jaw and keeps quiet. "It was a call made in the heat of battle, Agent. You know how those go. It is one I'd make again, but it wasn't without consequences. You know how that goes, as well." Clint does, but that doesn't mean he's in any kind of mood to engage. Fury takes the hint and leaves it, saying only, "What I need to know, Agent, is whether you feel yourself capable of completing a mission without endangering yourself or your team."
"That depends on whether or not Coulson's running the op," Clint says, still staring at the wall. "Sir," he adds, after just enough time to make it the insult he intends it to be.
"Phil Coulson died on the helicarrier during the first wave of the Chitauri invasion," Fury says, right on the edge of a snarl, and Clint knows a moment of satisfaction at having gotten to the son of a bitch. "The only people who know differently were in that conference room last night, and that’s how it’s going to stay. Agent Hill will be running this operation. You can report to her now."
"Sir." Clint spins on his heel and makes for the door. He doesn't know whether he's hoping for something that needs explosives or something where he and Nat can slide in and out with no one ever knowing for sure they were there, but he'll take anything to get the fuck out of New York and away from the Tower.
"Barton," Fury says, still with that underlying snarl. "I cut you some slack here, but if you ever bring that attitude into my office again, you'd best be prepared to have it walk you right out of this initiative."
"With pleasure, sir," Clint answers, and lets the door slam shut behind him. Hill briefs him and sends him off to where Natasha is waiting for him at the jets; she looks him over with a critical eye but doesn’t say anything other than the coordinates they're aiming for. Clint punches them into the nav system and loses himself in the familiar adrenaline rush of infil-surveil-acquisition-exfil.
Once they're back, Clint automatically reverts to keeping his distance from everyone but Natasha--because even as fucked up as he is about all this, he knows she wouldn’t let that fly--but it turns out it doesn't matter. The team lets him do his thing, but when he looks up after a month he realizes that even if half of SHIELD is back to avoiding him, the team has closed ranks around him. There's a clear and unmistakable line and he's on the Avengers side of it.
"Of course," Cap says, sounding faintly offended that Clint might think otherwise.
"One for all, and all that shit," Stark adds, barely looking up from the prototype he's been working on 24/7 the last few weeks.
"Or possibly 'You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave,'" Banner quotes, with one of his rare smiles.
"Where else might we have sent you?" Thor asks, honestly mystified.
"Yay, team." Natasha rolls her eyes, as if acknowledging the ridiculousness of either of them being a part of anything, but she's right there beside Clint, inside the line, too.
It takes Clint another week or so to process that, but when Stark walks up and taps his phone against Clint's, Clint knows that whatever he decides to do with the file that just got transferred--a set of coordinates, with a picture of a small, neat house--his team trusts him to do what's right, and they've got his back.
* * *
In the end, Clint goes with what he does best: watch and wait. The coordinates resolve to a small neighborhood off the river in Alexandria, Virginia; the townhouses all meticulously restored Colonials; his target in particular looking to be a former gatehouse or possibly a restored barn. Clint settles into a perch behind the ridgeline of a neighboring roof, the chimney at his back shielding him from all but the most determined of viewers, and waits. There's someone moving around in the house--okay, fine, Clint can think his name: Coulson's moving around in the house--but it's otherwise quiet and peaceful. Clint lets himself drop into the zone where he's almost resting except for the part of his brain that correlates everything he sees and throws up a flag for anomalies. There aren't any of those, at least not until Coulson stops in front of the big bay window and leaves a tiny flash of color on the glass. Clint deliberates for a while, but finally pulls out one of his smaller scopes and looks through it. It's a Post-It note, with handwriting Clint knows as well as his own reading, If you think I don't know when you're out there watching, you're losing your edge.
Clint's down off the roof and halfway back to the airport before he stops to think about why he's running, but it doesn't stop him from catching the next flight back to New York.
* * *
"Agent Barton," Fury says as they break from a debriefing two weeks later. Nat gives the eyebrow arch that means she'll be right outside and for Clint not to do anything stupid; the rest of the team follows her lead. Fury waits for the door to close behind them before he says, "It took eighteen hours of surgery to repair the damage to his heart and lungs, and they kept him sedated for another week, but the first thing he asked when he was conscious was whether we'd gotten you back."
"Sir," Clint says, but that's apparently all Fury wanted to say, so Clint leaves and catches up with his team.
* * *
Coulson doesn't bother waiting the next time; Clint has barely gotten himself settled before another note goes up. This one reads, It's going to storm like a bitch here soon; don't be an idiot and sit out in it. Clint still waits until the first few drops fall, but instead of the airport, he finds himself on Coulson's small front porch right as the door opens.
"It wouldn't be the first time I've held tight through a storm," Clint says.
"Doesn't mean it wouldn't be idiotic," Coulson answers. He's wearing a coat and carrying a leather briefcase, clearly on his way out, but he stands and watches Clint watch him as though he has all the time in the world. "I have a seminar," he says finally. "You're welcome to come along."
"Sure thing," Clint says, telling himself he's going only because it'd been pretty clear Coulson hadn't expected his offer to be accepted. It doesn't explain the baseline feeling of right that slides in on the heels of his decision, or the way the fine lines around Coulson's eyes relax at Clint's words. They make it to the car right as the sky opens up and the rain comes down in sheets, and yeah, Clint's sat out in worse, but he has to admit he's just as happy to be inside listening to it pound the roof rather than out getting soaked to the skin.
It's not a long drive; their silence doesn't have quite enough time to go from screamingly awkward to unbearable, but it's still a relief to pull up outside a strip of shops and restaurants and be moving on to the next part of whatever the hell is going on. Clint follows Coulson into what turns out to be a small, brick-walled bar.
"A seminar, huh?" Clint slants a look at Coulson, who answers with a familiar half-smirk that kicks Clint in the head with how long it's been since he's seen it.
"They're grad students; they're entirely capable of holding a round-table discussion in the presence of alcohol," Coulson says before turning away to greet the bartender and drop his briefcase on a table in the far corner. Clint just stands there and tries to figure out what the hell is going on. He's not gotten anywhere when Coulson circles back and says, "We'll be discussing the battle strategies of pre-Augustinian Roman legions and how they reflected the political and socio-economic realities of the republic-cum-empire. Feel free to join in, or I can introduce you to Kate at the bar?"
As far as Clint knows, Rome--before or after Augustus--wasn't big on archers, so he says, "Lady with the booze," and tries to ignore the way his body wants to lean into the light touch on his shoulder Coulson uses to guide him over to the long, copper-topped bar.
"Kate, Clint." Coulson introduces him easily, as though there's nothing but a simple friendship between them, no death or betrayal. "Add him to my tab--" He gives Clint that Do not start with me arched eyebrow when he tries to object, and finishes smoothly, "And if he's throwing darts against you, he's left-handed--so make sure he's throwing with his right."
"Sure thing, doc," Kate says with a smile, and just like that, Clint is established in the hierarchy of the place. Kate keeps his drinks fresh, snorting once when he tries to pay for a beer. "How about I let you fight it out with him," she says, waving the receipt in Coulson's general direction. She does lean over and ask if Clint's really good enough to have to throw off-handed to make it a game, and when Clint nods, she jerks her head toward a group in the front and says, "You’d make my week if you could take them down a notch or two."
Since she's been taking care of him all night, Clint smiles back at her and says, "No problem," and lets himself be drawn into their game. It definitely doesn't have anything to do with the satisfied smile he catches on Coulson's face after he wipes the floor with Kate's group of disfavor in every variation they can think of.
"You can bring this one back any time," she says to Coulson as he's settling up. "See you next week, Doc."
"Doc?" Clint says when they’re alone in the car.
"The Ph.D. kind," Coulson says. "Classics and archeology."
"Is that for real, or Nat's kind of deal?" Clint asks. He'd like to say he hadn't thought through how insulting it'd sound, but that'd be a lie.
"For real," Coulson says mildly. "I'd show you the actual diploma but it says Phil Coulson on it, not Carl Phillips, so it’s in a vault somewhere. I do teach, though."
"I consult on an as-needed basis. No names exchanged, that sort of thing.” They're back in the short driveway in front of his house, but Coulson shows no sign of going inside. Clint could leave, but he doesn’t, and he isn’t thinking too closely about why he’s not even considering it.
"I didn't think I'd make it when I told the director to spin the story however he needed," Coulson says into the darkness, and Clint makes himself breathe through the sudden change in subject. "I remember that all pretty clearly--it's the later part, after I woke up, that's sketchy." Clint's seen the video of Loki and Coulson, the footage that was shot while Clint himself had been on a tear, blasting his way through the ship without a second thought, at least until Nat had caught up with him. He knows it’s pretty much a miracle Coulson did make it. "Even then, though--I was good with the decision. Having to walk away hasn't been… easy, but it happened and that's where we are."
"Teaching," Clint says, and he doesn't bother to keep his disbelief out of his voice.
"There have been some irregularities centered on research funded here," Coulson says. "So, not only teaching, but I have to admit I'm enjoying my tenure."
Clint doesn't have the first idea what to say. Coulson seems okay with this life, but Clint’s been on the receiving end of him managing ops that spanned the fucking globe; he can’t quite reconcile that expertise--not to mention the dry humor that always, always had time to match Clint snark for snark--with lectures and seminars. Then Coulson adds, in a low, rough voice, “I'll never pass a field physical, not with the shape my heart's in now. I'm lucky to just--” and Clint stops listening, has to, because that, that’s all on Clint, and the only reason he doesn’t flinch away and throw himself out of the car is because the brutally calm assessment has pitched him headfirst back into all the shit he’s managed to wall off.
It gets quiet again, Clint trying to get his act together, get Loki shoved back down far enough that he won't start screaming when he opens his mouth, and Coulson... Clint honest-to-fuck doesn’t know what might be going on there. They used to work together so closely, him and Nat and Coulson, that they were halfway to reading each others minds; Clint hopes like hell it hasn't carried over into the post-Loki world. Slowly, Clint finds a space in his head that's not a little corner of hell, a place that feels like life used to, because it doesn't matter what name Phil's going by, or how he got there, he’s sitting next to Clint and that's something Clint never thought he’d have again.
"This,” Phil’s saying, "is something new. A challenge."
He says it as though he’s braced for Clint’s pity, and that’s enough to kick Clint the rest of the way out of his backslide. This really fucking isn’t about him, and for everything he owes Phil, so much he'll never be able to repay, he can at least get this part right.
"I should have sat in on your seminar," he says, and if it’s not his most infuriating tone, he knows he’s found enough of the right attitude when he can feel Phil relaxing next to him. "Checked out your style so I could give the rest of them the dirt. You know they’re going to want all the details."
"The Romans liked javelins more than arrows; you'd have zoned out in two minutes," Phil says dryly. "That's hardly a fair assessment of my ability."
"You know how you used to give me that unimpressed look and tell me excuses were nothing but a waste of everyone's time?" Clint says. "Payback’s a bitch, man."
"Next month is the Welsh archers--Llewelyn ap Iowerth through to Agincourt. Definitely more your area," Phil says as he opens his door.
“Sounds like trying to stack the deck before an eval,” Clint says, following Phil’s lead and not needing any light to know he’s getting the long-suffering look to go along with the sigh. It’s an easy way to end the day, more of an even keel than they’ve been on since, well, before Loki took Clint and changed the world. Clint’s so relieved to be there it doesn't click that the part about the archers was an invitation until he's back at the Tower and Nat is rolling her eyes at him.
“It’s okay to take him up on his offer,” Cap says with that trademark unassailable niceness. Clint sighs and looks around for an escape.
“You’re allowed to move past the anger,” Natasha says, and Clint should have known the whole team-bonding-over-food-even-though-there’s-not-a-mission invitation was a set-up. Not that he could have refused--it’s a thing now, their thing; no excuses accepted, not even being down and close to bleeding out (more than one of these has happened around a hospital bed). He could have at least been prepared to duck the Sincere Twins, but now he’s trapped, stuck in a booth with Nat and Cap while Banner and Stark are off explaining jukeboxes to Thor.
“I know she has no respect for anything like personal boundaries--especially mine.” Clint sends a glare toward Natasha, who arches an unimpressed eyebrow in response, and then turns to Cap. “But you--you’re supposed to be from when guys didn’t talk about shit like this.”
“I’m adapting to my new culture,” Cap says with a shrug that Clint recognizes with no small amount of alarm.
“You’ve been spending too damn much time with Nat, is what you’ve been doing,” Clint mutters, and okay, fine, maybe he has been walking around pretending like he doesn't know what he wants to do about Phil. “I just--what about the team?”
"I can't speak for the rest of them," Cap says slowly, as though he's feeling his way through a minefield, "but, for better or worse, I… can see where this situation came from. I don't like it, and I will keep on saying that for as long as it takes, but things happen in the heat of battle."
"And after?" Clint makes himself say, because it might have been a year since they'd gotten Loki's thrall out of his blood, but he can still feel the echoes of bringing that battle to life.
"You deal," Natasha says simply.
* * *
Clint doesn't need Natasha's input over the next few weeks to know his attempt to deal is pretty goddamn hopeless, but she (of course) gives it to him anyway. If he's honest, she's taking it easy on him, but everything about Phil and where he is now and how he got there is like unhealed scar tissue Clint can barely bring himself to look at, much less touch, so even Nat taking it easy on him is enough to make him snap and snarl. They catch an assignment in the middle of it all, a simple in-and-out in Tallin: Natasha on the ground, ghosting through security like it's not even there; Clint up high, keeping watch on the big picture. It's smooth and easy, no surprises, and the routine of it all calms him enough that he can find words to go along with the shit in his head.
“It doesn’t matter,” he says once they’re clear. It’s the first thing he’s said in two days that isn’t mission-specific, but it’s Natasha so she doesn’t have to ask him what he’s talking about. “It shouldn’t--he’s one out of the hundreds that I--” He stops before they get derailed on how much blame he can assign to himself, because they’ll just go round and round on that like they have a dozen times before and that’s not what he needs to say right now. “How does him not being gone change anything?”
"It is what it is," Natasha says fatalistically, and Clint is so giving her shit the next time she says she only used to be Russian. "The question is: what are you going to do about it?"
Clint shrugs, and she leans over and--no matter that it's just them in a safe house waiting for exfil, no one else around for ten clicks--whispers, "What do you want to do about it?"
* * *
It takes Clint almost a week of Thor randomly throwing even-weirder-than-usual English at him to figure out he's being played, but We few, we happy few, we band of brothers is a little too on-point for even Clint to miss.
"It is good to celebrate the victories of our ancestors," Thor says. "It does not surprise me that he would want you to be a part of that."
"Hell," Clint says. He puts down his bow; it's looking less and less like he's going to be able to work through this alone. The thought doesn't set off as many alarm bells as it might have in the past. Thor claps him on the back and is happy enough to confide where he learned “the most noble epic.”
"Seriously?" Clint asks, walking into Banner's lab. "Shakespeare?"
"Agincourt, in context--you can’t expect us to let that opportunity pass," Bruce says with a smile that's really close to Stark's smirk. The thing about Banner is that he has a freaking ridiculous sense of humor that he lets idle along under the surface. It doesn't come out to play very often, but all bets are off when it does.
“Us?” Clint asks, because he might as well get a good idea of what he’s up against.
“Well, Thor and I, obviously,” Bruce says. “Tony, too. And JARVIS, whom I’d like to count as an extension of Tony just for my own sanity, but who keeps sliding in there on his own merit, regardless. Steve thinks we owe you one. Natasha... actually, I don’t know her opinion on the subject, but since no stingers have been thrown, I assume we’re good.”
“Fuck,” Clint sighs. “Everybody’s in on this?”
“Not surprisingly, Steve took your concerns about us very seriously,” Bruce answers.
Clint nods, because yeah, Cap does pay attention to the team-building thing. Someone should, he guesses, and it’s not like the rest of them have high marks for it on their profiles.
“You couldn’t just trap me in a booth and talk me to death?”
“And miss all this fun?” Bruce leans against the lab table and takes his glasses off, still with that ghost of a smirk on his face. “You have no idea how happy our displaced son of Asgard is to find out we have epics celebrating our warriors. He would have done the whole play for you, but we weren’t sure we’d have the time.”
“I guess you get points for creativity?”
“I’ll admit there might have been some mead involved in the planning process,” Bruce says, his smile brief and genuine this time, before it smooths out into something more serious. “No offense intended--it’s your decision and I can see where it could be a difficult one. We all can.”
“That’s just it,” Clint hears himself saying. He hasn’t spent a lot of time with Bruce--their skill sets, so to speak, don’t intersect much during a situation and they tend to spend their down-time in their own domains, lab and range, where, again, there’s not much overlap. The words come spilling out of him regardless, maybe because Bruce listens quietly, intently. Bruce doesn’t know Clint the way Natasha does; Clint has to explain with him, pull everything out of his head and make it real. “We worked together a long time, Coulson and I. Even before Nat came in--a while before that. When she told me he’d gone down, I--it was like I’d lost a part of me, an arm or a leg.”
Unlike Tony’s shop, which is always filled with screaming guitars and heavy bass lines, it’s quiet in Banner’s lab; nothing but the muted hum of classical music in the background. Nothing to cover the low, mean voice in Clint’s head, the one every shrink thinks should sound like Loki but instead is always, has always been, Barney at his worst. It sneers at him; calls him gutless, a coward and a quitter for not being able to own up to how there’d always been more lying under the surface, more that Clint had never gotten the nerve to even name in his own head.
Bruce waits Clint out without a hint of impatience, and Clint finally manages to say, “I as good as killed him; he... walked. That should mean something, right? It should make anything more than knowing the truth a no-go. At least make it hard to decide whether it's even worth trying.”
“But it’s not,” Bruce says. It’s not a question, but it’s also not an accusation.
“No,” Clint says. “It’s not.”
“Which part of that scares you more?” Bruce asks in that calm way of his, and when Clint honestly doesn’t know the answer, Bruce doesn’t press him; only adds, “It’s always better if you can figure that out.”
* * *
Clint figures he still has about a week to really make his decision. He tells himself that every night, when he’s up and roaming the halls or shooting another hundred of Stark’s prototypes. When the call comes in from the Fantastic Four that Doom is playing one of his games, Clint is pretty happy to volunteer to go along with Cap and Stark to help out. Chasing fucking Doombots around a NATO Summit at least means he isn’t skulking through the halls at the Tower trying to avoid Nat and her fraying patience while also doing his best to not figure out the answer to Bruce’s questions. When it’s all over, though, the Latverian contingent safely contained and the team back at the Tower going through debrief, Clint finds himself prowling the conference room, tense and edgy and unsettled.
The Agent in Charge is eyeing him nervously but, rather than having the balls to tell Clint to sit the hell down, he just keeps losing his place in the sequence of events and having to back up and start over. For a couple of seconds, Clint misses Hill and her stone-cold-bitch routine. Now that she's in charge of the carrier she doesn't have time to run debriefs, but she'd have had them in and out in no time. Of course, she'd also have had Clint nailed to a chair if he couldn't keep from distracting everyone, so maybe he actually doesn't miss her all that much.
"I don't think we're gaining much from this," Cap finally says, and though his voice is kind, the agent visibly wilts at his words. Under ordinary circumstances, Clint would feel for the guy--nobody likes disappointing Cap, not even Stark--and probably would have thrown him a bone on how it's mostly Clint's fault, but Cap's words are his walking papers and he's out of the room like a shot. He's already halfway down the hall to the elevators when Stark calls, "Captain Fussypants wants Italian today." Clint waves without turning around, because he can't see how him being there with this attitude is going to be a good thing, but knows he can’t blow them off just because he’s in a pissy mood. Tony adds, in the blandest voice Clint's ever heard from him, "Unless you have other plans," and Clint stops dead as he finally buys a clue. It's really too fucking stupid of him not to have noticed before, but apparently his subconscious has it all worked out that yeah, he does have other plans and time's running out.
"Jeez, finally," Stark says, and when Clint looks back over his shoulder, he’s rolling his eyes.
"I'll, uh, catch you guys next time?" Clint says. "If that's not going to cause--"
"Go accept the olive branch, already." Tony makes shoo-ing motions at him with one hand and opens the door to the conference room with the other. "Hawkeye just remembered he already has a playdate tonight, so it's just you and me, big guy."
Cap leans out of the doorway and nods to Clint, which is all Clint needs to take off. He’s cut it right down to the wire, but the bat-out-of-hell driving he’s picked up over the years serves him well and he manages to get to the airport for the last flight out of New York that will get him there in time. He learned most of the really crazy shit from Phil, and he decides he’ll take that as a sign--there’s a certain symmetry to it that his brain likes.
Welsh longbows are fucking ridiculous in size, especially when you scale up for the difference in average height now as opposed to a thousand years ago--but if Clint’s doing this, he’s doing it right, so he flashes them his SHIELD ID and manages to talk his way into gate-checking the bag. He makes a point to find the air marshal on board so he knows Clint’s nothing to worry about, but spends the rest of the flight not thinking about what he’s doing.
The cabbie who picks him up outside the airport in Virginia gives him and his bag a bored look. Clint slaps a hundred up against the glass and says, “That’s for if you can get me there in under twenty minutes.”
The cabbie takes Clint at his word and tears off into traffic. It’s an impressive effort, one that earns him his C-note, but there’s only so much he can do and Clint still walks into the bar late. There’s a couple of seconds when he doesn’t see Phil or his group and starts to think that--like pretty much everything in his life not related to putting an arrow or a bullet through a target--he’s fallen short again, but then a familiar voice says, “Our guest instructor is more the hands-on type,” and he has to work hard not to sigh in relief.
He gets it together enough to have a pretty credible smirk in place when he turns around to where Phil’s set up in the opposite corner from where he’d been the last time. “Just let me know when you’re done with the boring crap and we can take the real deal out for a test drive.”
The same lady is at the bar; she’s pulling him a beer before he even makes it over to her, and she doesn’t so much as blink when he pulls close to 7 feet of Spanish yew out of his bag and starts the process of getting it strung right. Clint’s happy to see Coulson--whatever name he might be going by now--still surrounds himself with women who don’t flip out no matter what happens. Continuity is a good thing.
This particular bow is one of his babies; he made it by hand, from curing the wood to carving the horn for the nocks and hunting down the exact right kind of hemp for the string. He doesn’t use it in the field, of course, but he’s taken it to a couple of historical exhibitions and shared it with people who appreciate it on its own merits. There’s no place to shoot with it here--it’s built to put an arrowhead through chainmail from a quarter-mile out--but just seeing it is an education in and of itself.
Clint gets it strung and glances up to find Phil watching him, an unreadable expression on his face. Clint doesn’t look away.
* * *
“I’m still a little bemused that you actually let anyone touch it,” Phil says two hours later, the bow leaning against the wall behind their corner table. Clint wonders if it’s obvious that he’d taken the seat that let him see the whole room without having to turn his head. Then again, it’s Phil, so it doesn’t matter if Clint was obvious; he noticed anyway. “I remember you working on that one.”
Clint shrugs. It’d taken him nearly a year to get it right, researching how they’d done it a thousand years before, putting it together piece by piece between missions. He’s pretty sure Phil knows why he’d gotten so obsessed with it, how he used it to smooth the jagged edges that particular run of assignments had left behind.
“Didn’t figure anyone could do much with it,” Clint says. “The draw weight’s up around one-fifty, one-sixty-five--hell, I can’t pull much past one-ten without feeling it the next day. They’ve found skeletons on battlefields from, whenever, twelfth, thirteenth century, and the archers actually have deformed shoulders, problems with their elbows and wrists--” He shuts his mouth with a snap, aware that he’s babbling, but Phil doesn’t say anything, only keeps watching Clint with that same unreadable expression.
This time Clint does look away; picks up his beer and finishes it; studies the glass and the table beneath it.
“Why did you come?” Phil asks, and when Clint darts a quick glance at him, he’s got his eyes down, too, all his focus on the last few bits of ice and water in his own drink.
“I... don’t know,” Clint says, and try as he might, his voice still comes out hoarse and low. He looks up finally and waits for Phil to meet his eyes. Whatever else has changed, it’s still easier to say the hard shit when it’s Phil he’s saying it to. “I don’t know which is worse: that I put you here, or that I didn’t know I put you here.”
Phil doesn’t argue with him, just says, “You came, though.” Clint shrugs, but then thinks better of it, because whatever he’s doing, he didn’t just fall into it and he finds he doesn’t want Phil thinking he doesn’t care enough to have made a reasoned decision.
“I needed to,” Clint says, and it really is as simple as that.
* * *
Clint’s been riding a streak for over a year: he hasn’t been in Medical since Nat nearly kicked his head in, but it can’t last forever. He supposes a couple of cracked ribs and fifty-something stitches to close the gash that curves over his left hip aren’t the worst way to break it, but he’d still rather be anywhere but in a hospital bed--especially one at Walter Reed, which was entirely too Regular Army for him even when he’d cared about trying to be the perfect soldier. These days, it makes him so twitchy he can barely keep himself in the bed.
“If you’d let them give you something stronger than an aspirin, maybe you wouldn’t mind as much,” Natasha says. Clint likes to think the dumbass implied by her tone is affectionate, but he won’t be taking any bets on it. He also wants to point out that he’s not that bad--he’d gone ahead and taken naproxen from the stash in his quiver--but he doesn’t think it’s going to do much good with her. Still, she’s got her feet propped on the end of his bed and he hasn’t had the remote for the TV since she walked briskly into his room and took it out of his hand, so he doesn’t guess she’s going anywhere. “Even a little codeine would help,” she adds.
“I--it messes with my head,” Clint says. “Not going there, not for something like this.”
Natasha hears what he isn’t saying and her expression softens slightly. It still says You’re an idiot, Barton, but it claims him as her idiot, which is all that’s really important.
“You did let them use a local when they were stitching you, didn’t you?”
“Yeah,” Clint sighs. It’s just his luck that glue wouldn’t work over the joint. Lidocaine is about as mild as drugs get, but even watching it be administered, having to trust that it was only that, had nearly tripped him over into the hypervigilance he’d spent a couple of months fighting his way back out of. “They said they could hit me with it again if I want, but--”
“They probably won’t let me give it to you, but if I stay in the room, will you let them do at least that?” Natasha says.
“Just the local,” Clint says finally. He keeps his eyes on the TV mounted on the wall like she won’t notice how freaked out he is if he doesn’t look at her, but it’s hard not to think about the last time it’d been just the two of them and a hospital bed.
“Okay,” Natasha says. Clint halfway expects her to push for more, but she just turns the volume on Shark Week down to a murmur and wordlessly sets herself up to keep watch so he can let himself focus on breathing through the dull throb in his ribs and and the fire dancing across his hip.
He doesn’t think he’ll sleep, but the second round of lidocaine takes enough of the edge off that the post-mission exhaustion drags him under not long after Nat supervises its administration. The last thing he remembers thinking is that the nurse who’s handling the injection is pretty damn badass herself, because she hadn’t looked at all rattled to have Natasha watching her every move. When he wakes up, Natasha is curled against the wall on the window seat, asleep. Clint knows she can be conscious and in full Black Widow mode in less than a heartbeat, but he also isn’t at all surprised to turn his head the other direction and see Phil in a chair next to the bed, tablet in hand, because she wouldn’t stand down without backup.
“She wouldn’t leave, but she said she’d sleep if I stayed,” Phil says. “I didn’t think you’d mind if that was the reason I was here.”
“No, that’s good; she needed to rack out,” Clint says. He should say he wouldn’t have minded Phil being there even without an excuse, but that’s apparently a little too much honesty for his brain to deal with. Instead, he reaches slow and careful for the water he’s supposed to be drinking.
“Anything new?” Phil asks, watching Clint with the familiar post-mission assessment attitude.
Clint takes a semi-normal breath; every muscle in his body has stiffened up, but that’s it. He shakes his head, and Phil says, “Good--if the CT scan in the morning is clear, they’ll probably cut you loose.”
“This is not bad news,” Clint says. Natasha comes awake then, alert and on point. It’s testament to how tired she is that she slept through him and Phil talking as long as she did. Keeping up with the super-powered crowd is freaking exhausting sometimes. Phil reaches down and comes up with the biggest coffee Clint’s seen in forever--seriously, it’s like a Big Gulp--and hands it across Clint’s bed, Nat swooping in before Clint can get his brain in gear enough to grab for it. She pries the top off and purrs a little as she drinks, and when Clint looks back at Phil, he’s got a matching cup and the same deeply satisfied expression.
“Aren’t you forgetting some--”
“No,” they answer in unison. They’ve been here a dozen times over the years, the three of them and a hospital room. Whoever’s in the bed doesn’t get the coffee and the other two ignore the sulking and they all play like it’s been no big deal, no matter how many stitches or casts or surgeries have happened. Clint lies back and lets the familiar scene play out and doesn’t think about Phil and heart-lung-bypass machines and no one there with him, because the only way Clint knows how to deal with the emptiness that image calls up is to get pissed off and that’s not going to help anyone.
Phil doesn’t stay long once he’s finished his coffee. His stuff is packed up and he’s gone before Clint can tell him not to go. Natasha doesn’t say anything to stop him, but once the door is closed she shrugs at Clint and says, “He wasn’t going to stay at all.”
“So you let him talk you into taking a nap while he kept an eye on things?”
“It seemed stupid that you wouldn’t know he’d been here.”
She says it dispassionately, as though Phil and his comings and goings are the least of her concerns. It’s very good. Textbook, even. No emotion, totally smooth, pure Black Widow--and the only tell Clint’s ever worked out for her.
“Don’t let my shit fuck up the two of you,” Clint says, which is a still a little bit of a guess, but one that’s confirmed by the minute narrowing of her eyes. He smiles, because no matter how much he aches, he has to properly appreciate being a half-step ahead of her. God knows it doesn’t happen all that often. “Don’t even try to front, Romanova: you go all ice-princess-y and the next stuff out of your mouth is nothing but lies and misdirection.” She eyes him thoughtfully, but before she can work her way up to ice queen--and really fucking pissed, which is an entirely different story--he says, “Seriously. Don’t... I appreciate you having my back on this, but don’t let that make it so you lose him, too.”
For a second, Natasha looks as though she might deny everything. Clint gears up for a fight, because now that he’s thought about it, it bugs the shit out of him that him taking so damn long to work things out in his own head might have messed things up for her, too, but in the end, she just smiles an evil smile at him and says, “You’re talking about your feelings--did we miss a concussion in there?”
“Shut up,” Clint grumbles, mostly for show. Mostly. “I’m talking about your feelings; that doesn’t count.”
“My feelings would like to point out that if you’d quit dancing around the whole subject, we wouldn’t have to be talking about them.”
“All right, Jesus, I give. Put the fucking sharks back on.”
* * *
Since the three of them started catching the stupid-crazy SHIELD ops, it’s been a fact of Clint’s life that no matter what he does, Natasha won’t be impressed and Phil won’t be surprised. Nat’s never going to give him a break, but Phil.... There was the one time in Central America when Nat hadn’t been quite quick enough to dodge the barrage of poisoned darts thrown at her and Clint had taken a bullet to his shoulder (through-and-through his right one, thankfully, so he could still shoot and throw a knife or ten). It had taken them an extra five hours to get through the rainforest to the exfil point, and Clint had maybe seen a flash of relief in Phil’s eyes when they came staggering into the clearing, but he’s not sure if that counts.
He thinks the look on Phil’s face as he opens his front door to find Clint standing there does count, but since Clint’s overestimated his level of fitness and is trying not to faceplant into one of the neat topiaries on either side of the door, he can’t really even gloat about it.
“I was bored out of my mind up in Bethesda,” Clint says, aiming for one of his more annoying smirks, to prove it’s no big deal that he’s here on Phil’s doorstep rather than in the hospital. He doesn’t think he’s entirely successful.
“AMA?” Phil asks, his phone already out.
“Not... exactly,” Clint answers, trying to brace himself discreetly on the door frame. It’s the truth--he hadn’t left against medical advice, but three separate doctors had given up trying to keep him in bed. They were probably thrilled to see him go, Hippocratic Oath notwithstanding. He tries for a smirk again. He thinks it’s even weaker this time.
Phil sighs and steps back to let Clint in.
“Thanks,” Clint says. “I gotta...” He waves toward the cabbie waiting semi-patiently at the curb, but Phil fixes him with a deeply unimpressed look--one of his better ones, which is ridiculously comforting--and points down the hall.
“Sit,” he snaps, visibly refraining from pushing Clint toward the living room and the couch under the window as he goes to deal with the guy himself. Clint sits.
Phil comes back carrying the duffel with Clint’s stuff, reading the discharge paperwork as he walks. Clint knows he’d shoved those forms down deep into his bag, but it doesn’t surprise him that Phil found them.
“You’re still not taking anything,” Phil says. “For the pain.” It’s not a question, so Clint just shrugs. “I know you know that having to deal with pain depletes your energy and slows down the recovery.”
“Yeah,” Clint breathes, because it’s possible he hadn’t exactly accounted for what knocking around a cab from Bethesda down to Alexandria might do to his ribs, and now that he’s stationary, they’re letting him know exactly how big of a moron he is. “I know I’m fucking around with my readiness and all--”
“Your mission readiness is not what concerns me,” Phil says through gritted teeth. He drops the duffel and stalks back toward the kitchen, leaving Clint blinking. “What have you eaten today?” he calls, and makes a disgusted sound when Clint mumbles, “Uh, Jell-O?”
There are banging sounds coming from the kitchen, cupboards and glassware and drawers, and then the whine of a blender. Underneath it all, Clint thinks he hears Phil muttering, but it’s too far away to make out any words. Before Clint can steel himself enough to stand up and see what’s going on, Phil’s back, an oversized plastic cup in each hand and a bottle of water held between his arm and his side. Clint takes the cup Phil holds out to him, and then the water, and tries not to look too stupid.
“Chocolate milkshake,” Phil says, pointing to the cup Clint’s holding. “Extra protein powder. Drink.” He stares Clint down until Clint obediently takes a taste, and then a second one, and a third, because he hasn’t really eaten since Nat left and it turns out he’s fucking starving. Phil finally sits in a wingback chair across from Clint and drinks his own shake, much more slowly. It’s a dark, sludgy green, so Clint can understand why.
“Now,” Phil says, once Clint’s finished inhaling the shake and has started in on the water. He pulls four foil packets of ibuprofen from his pocket and watches while Clint takes them. “From the beginning?” It’s his Sit-rep, agent voice; Clint answers automatically.
“They were set to discharge me--the CT scans came back fine--but then Nat had to go deal with some dickhead and they didn’t have another agent there to get me back up to Manhattan and... hell, I don’t know. You know what the military’s like with paperwork and shit. They kept going around and around, and--”
“And the walls started closing in,” Phil finishes for him. Clint sighs and nods.
“It’s the first time I’ve been in a hospital since--” Clint stops and lets his attention be absorbed by peeling the label off the water bottle. Phil waits him out. “Since Nat kicked my head in. On the carrier,” Clint finally finishes.
“All right,” Phil says. “And you ended up here because...?”
“You left pretty fast yesterday,” Clint says. “It--I kept thinking about that, about why, so you were in my head and I thought, hey, at least it’s more or less the same city, and by then they were getting really fucking sick of me, and, uh, I swear it made more sense when I was thinking it in the hospital.“
“Given how much you dislike hospitals, I’m sure twas brillig and the slithy toves would have made perfect sense if it got you out of there,” Phil says, and for the first time since Clint rang the doorbell he sounds like himself, dry and amused. Clint hasn’t really forgotten how much he likes being the reason Phil Coulson is amused, but something eases off inside him regardless. “I’m glad I was home.”
“I thought about calling, but if I didn’t call, you couldn’t say no,” Clint says, which is more of a confession than he’s entirely comfortable with. He covers it by finishing off the water and flipping the bottle from hand to hand, like the admission isn’t a big deal. As diversions go, it’s pathetic. Clint can’t figure out why Phil lets him get away with it, at least not until he hears himself agreeing that he’s pretty wiped and he could use some rack time and ends up being chivvied into a bedroom that is clearly Phil’s.
“Yes, there’s a guest room, but it’s on the next floor and I’m not risking you tearing stitches when this is right here,” Phil says almost patiently. Clint takes it to mean he’s looking like shit, because that’s about the only time Phil ever gives him that much of a break.
“When was Natasha called back?” Phil says, and it is blatantly unfair how he’s using all his weight to keep Clint moving the way Phil wants him to go.
“Couple hours after you left,” Clint mutters, knowing where Phil’s going with this and too fucking tired to head him off.
“I take it you haven’t slept since,” Phil says, not even waiting for Clint to try to deny it. “Hypervigilance?”
Clint shrugs. He’d had a bad couple of weeks right after everything. This is nothing on that scale--they were dumping all kinds of shit into him to get even an hour of sleep then, no matter who was in the room with him--but he’s not unaware of the parallel track he’s on here. It’s the same thing with the food: the Jell-O had been pre-packaged, which is easy enough to tamper with if that’s in the game plan, but that tiny bit of extra security had been enough to let him choke it down.
Phil nods and keeps him moving toward the bed. “I’m not particularly fond of people coming up behind me these days.”
“Put anyone in the hospital?” Clint asks, and if his smile is a little on the black side, Phil is right there with him.
“Surprisingly enough, only the idiot who really was trying to mug me.”
Clint forgets his ribs and laughs, and then has to hang on to Phil to keep from going down. Phil doesn’t fuss at him, just eases him the rest of the way onto the bed.
“I could just crash on the couch,” Clint says, giving it one last try, but the way his breath sighs out of him as he stretches out on the bed pretty much kills that argument before it even gets off the ground.
“Lights, door, drapes?” Phil asks, as if Clint hadn’t even spoken.
“On, open, open,” Clint sighs, gradually shifting himself into the least uncomfortable position for his ribs. “Thanks.”
“I left because I didn’t think you would want--” Phil says. “We’ve... gotten past a lot, but...”
“There was a lot to get past, yeah.” Clint closes his eyes. “I’m sorry I decked you. At the Tower. I was--”
“Angry,” Phil supplies.
“Yeah.” That’s the easy answer, but it’s not untrue, Clint decides. Phil moves around the room, grabbing stuff he might need; after all the years they’ve bunked out together in places all over the world, nothing but the two of them and then Nat to rely on to stay alive, the sound is ordinary and familiar. Soothing. Clint feels everything start to unknot.
“You can always call,” Phil says from the door. His voice is quiet, as though he thinks Clint might have already fallen asleep.
“You can always stay,” Clint counters. “I’m not fucking kidding, Phil. If you--if you can stand to be in the same room with me, I’m sure as hell not going to object.” That’s a little blunter than is probably smart, but fuck it, it’s the truth. When he finally gets the nerve to open his eyes, he half-expects to see Phil’s I-humor-my-agents-when-they’re-injured-no-matter-how-it-pains-me expression, but instead Phil’s just looking back at Clint, open and transparent, with a depth Clint’s never seen before--or never let himself see before. Clint doesn’t look away, and after a few seconds, Phil nods once.
“I’m going to go make a few calls, let the Director know his prize archer isn’t lost,” Phil says. “Make sure Natasha doesn’t take hospital security apart for not stopping you.” He smiles as he steps away and Clint lies back and tries not to overthink this and where it might be going.
It’s pretty fucking scary how easily they fall into a routine, so Clint does his best to not analyze things, just go with what’s working. It’s been a little more than a week since he got to the point where he could do more than move between couch and bed; it’s already second nature to be leaning against the kitchen island, two mugs of coffee on the counter, a skillet of bacon hissing and popping on the stove next to the one where the onions and peppers and potatoes wait for the eggs.
Phil’s kitchen is--like the rest of his life--neat and precise, organized down to the last detail. The pantry, with its shelves of sauces and spices, condiments and snacks, is like a catalog of all the places he’s been. Clint knows the stories behind most of the bottles and jars and bags and is slowly learning the non-classified details of the ones he doesn’t know. Privately, he’s pretty smug that nothing he’s heard so far is anywhere near as entertaining as the stuff he’s been in on.
Phil arrives with his customary foul morning mood. Clint shoves his coffee toward him and doesn’t bother with pleasantries, because he’s not in the mood to talk to himself, but when Phil starts to wave off actual food, Clint says, “Seriously, we’re going to do this again?”
They’ve had the same non-discussion every morning, ever since Clint got back on his feet and really noticed how thin Phil still is. It’s been more than a year, and maybe this is as good as he’s going to get, but Clint’s seen what Phil eats and Clint figures actual food might help some.
It generally surprises people that Clint knows his way around a kitchen, but for a while when he was a kid the only thing that kept him fed was knowing what to do with a bag of rice and whatever scraps he could scrounge. Later, when he was still obviously too young to tend bar, the cash--and the odd burger--he picked up as a short-order cook meant he didn’t have to pick between eating or having a place to crash. That’s generally all it is, though: one more line item in his skill set, something he can make use of when he needs to but otherwise fades into the background with the rest of his un-talked-about life before SHIELD.
“Seriously?” Clint repeats. “Say the word and I can go through the whole food-is-good-and-Stark’s-seaweed-shakes-don’t-count-and-if-you-don’t-stop-trying-to-convince-me-otherwise-I’m-telling-Nat riff again, but you know how that makes you late.”
Phil mutters, but he sits at the table and waits while Clint scrambles the eggs into the potatoes and peppers and onions and throws on a handful of cheese for good measure. Clint figures he’s ahead of the game not to be wearing the contents of the plate he drops on the table in front of Phil, so he doesn’t try for conversation.
Phil manages about three-quarters of what Clint piled onto his plate. That’s a hell of a lot better than coffee and maybe stopping halfway through the morning for one of the protein sludges that seems to be his default, so Clint doesn’t press. A second round of coffee is never a bad idea, either; once it’s down, life is almost back to normal.
Usually, once they get through breakfast Phil is off to deal with his everyday life: meetings, classes, lectures… Clint isn't exactly sure, because asking would involve dealing with all the issues that Phil not being Agent Coulson is going to dredge up. Clint gives himself a pass for the first week or so--he'd forgotten what a fucking drag cracked ribs are, and how just breathing is an exercise in pain management--but after that, there's not a lot he can say for himself. So, when Phil gets them both a third refill rather than leaving, Clint doesn't know if that's because Phil doesn't have anything else going on or what. From how Phil settles back at the table, stretching his legs out in front of him and watching Clint thoughtfully, Clint thinks maybe he should have paid more attention: enough that this wouldn't have been a surprise; enough that he could have had a plan in place for dealing with no-event mornings.
Worse, Clint knows that look: it's Phil’s I-am-nearly-finished-processing-data-and-am-about-to-start-taking-action look. Sometimes--like when there's a gun pressing up under Clint's jaw and a crazy Bulgarian with a hair-trigger temper on the other end--it's a very good look to see. At other times--ones that may or may not have included an entire year’s worth of unfiled paperwork or the occasional enthusiastic application of explosive arrows in a situation that did not strictly warrant the same--it signals Clint's impending re-assignment to points north of the Arctic Circle. Right now, it’s probably nothing but the start of a conversation about how Clint should be thinking about getting back to the Tower or seeing what non-active assignments Hill or Fury have for him, but that doesn’t mean Clint is in any mood to hear it.
Clint sits under the thoughtful gaze as long as he can, and then he finds himself on his feet gathering the plates and forks and heading for the sink. Phil doesn’t say anything, just lets him go, and after a few seconds Clint hears him stand: the scrape of his chair across the old oak floor; the soft, measured steps out of the room and down the hall as he goes to collect everything he needs for the day.
"Have a good day, dear," Clint calls without turning around. He's mostly decided that not talking about this domestic thing they've got going on is the way to go. That’s easier some days than others, but this morning he's got the right attitude, the right tone, exactly like any of a thousand randomly inappropriate things he's said over open comms, nothing more than another quip in a long line of wisecracks and asides that had defined the two of them during an op.
"About that," Phil says quietly, and Clint turns around to see him just inside the door, no jacket or briefcase, nothing that says he's on his way out for the day. There's a look in his eyes, one that’s equal parts the openness from the first day Clint elbowed his way into the house and the determination Clint's known for years, and it sends Clint's brain into a wild, crazy spiral. When Clint doesn't say anything, Phil takes one step back into the room, and then another; moving slowly, deliberately, giving Clint plenty of time and space to move away or tell him to stop. Given where they both are in their lives, Clint appreciates the consideration and tries to return it, but he's halfway across the room before he stops to think about it, and then Phil is there with him, a hand on Clint’s good hip and his mouth slanting hard against Clint's.
Clint is very good at not letting himself want what he can’t have--a lesson learned hard and young--but there’s been a night or two over the years when he’s let himself go, let his brain spin out whatever it wanted, no matter how impossible. He’s let himself wonder how Phil might taste, what he might like, how he might like Clint; and at the end of each night, every time, Clint has taken all that and shoved it as far down as he can so he could wander back into Phil’s office and lean against the wall and make as many wiseass comments as he normally did.
This, Clint thinks--when he can think again, when Phil’s let him up for air and moved on to finding the places under his jaw and down his neck that make Clint half jump out of his skin--This doesn’t have to go away. He smiles at that, absolutely can’t help grinning at the thought, and when Phil looks up at him, arching one eyebrow in that familiar way, Clint just shrugs and shakes his head. Phil lets one corner of his mouth quirk up into a smile before he leans back in and kisses Clint again. It’s not quite as hard this time, but it’s more certain: a long, careful kiss where Phil’s tongue slides into Clint’s mouth changing to quick, sharp bites at Clint’s lower lip and back to another one that goes on forever, as though Phil can’t decide but doesn’t care because he has time for everything.
Clint can absolutely get behind that idea.
He lets Phil steer him step by step out of the kitchen, knowing without having to look that Phil will take care of it, every turn and corner and door navigated perfectly, smoothly, nothing to jar his ribs or interfere with the slow heat building low in his belly. They stop for a time in the hall and Clint gets Phil’s shirt untucked and unbuttoned, slides his hand under layers of crisp cotton and soft wool and sighs out a long, shaky breath at the feel of Phil’s skin against his. Phil gets them moving again, the final few steps and the last corner into his bedroom accomplished with the intense focus Clint knows from the field. It’s always been kind of a turn-on when it’s directed at him there, but that is nothing on what it feels like now.
“Do you know,” Phil murmurs against Clint’s mouth, his jaw, “how difficult it’s been, knowing you’re here in my bed?”
“Yeah, fuck that; I’m actually the one who was in the damn bed,” Clint answers, and he’d like to sound like he isn’t about to start shaking apart from how much he wants, but Phil’s stroking lightly over the curve of his hip and every touch is taking away that much more of Clint’s control. “Every night, thinking about where I was,” he says, as the backs of his legs hit the mattress. Phil steadies him, one last check to make sure Clint’s okay, and then his hands are moving quick and sure to unbutton Clint’s shirt, his jeans, stripping him with a deliberate care that comes close to undoing Clint completely.
“Good?” Phil asks, as though Clint isn’t arching into his slightest touch. Clint hasn’t been a monk in the last year, but it’s been nothing more than the most casual of hook-ups and this, the way Phil’s touching him, is worlds away from that.
Clint nods blindly and reaches for Phil, stupid and clumsy in his eagerness, but it doesn’t matter when Clint finally gets his shirt pushed off his shoulders and runs his palms down over Phil’s biceps and forearms and Phil shudders against him. It’s a race then, Clint wrestling himself the rest of his way out of his jeans, Phil stepping out of his pants, both of them stopping to touch and taste in uncoordinated bursts until they’re down to boxers and Phil’s T-shirt. It’s real, Clint’s thinking, all of it’s real--and then Phil stops him, catches Clint’s wrists as he’s sliding his hands up under that shirt, and it’s suddenly real in a very different way.
“It’s not pretty,” Phil says quietly, and Clint nods. Phil starts to say something more, but then shakes his head and lets go. Clint keeps his hands steady as he finishes the job, but when it’s done, the shirt off and dropped on the floor, it’s like ice water shot through his veins. The scar slashes across Phil’s chest and Clint knows there’s a matching one on Phil’s back, and his hands are shaking again, but for all the wrong reasons.
After a long few seconds, Phil says, “I’m fine with leaving the shirt on,” and Clint jerks his eyes away from the ridge of scar tissue.
“You think I’m freaked because of how it looks?” Clint grits out. “That’s not--Jesus, Phil. I just--tell me how this is going to work, how you’re going to let me near you when I planned it out, all of it--”
“Every fucking detail, Phil,” Clint says, and he’s tired, so tired, and so incredibly stupid to have forgotten how this has to go.
“You didn’t do this,” Phil says, fierce and almost desperate.
“I might as well have,” Clint says. There’s more he could say, but he shuts his mouth because he doesn’t think he’s ever heard Phil sound like that and Clint’s already done enough here; he doesn’t need to make this harder than it’s already going to be. He lets himself drop down to sit on the edge of the bed, almost not feeling the jolt that slams through his ribs, and welcoming what does penetrate. He braces his forearms on his thighs and and stares at the floor as he tries to figure out what to do next.
Phil stays quiet for awhile, long enough that Clint has worked out a somewhat reasonable plan. Even if he can’t get a flight right away, there are a couple of hotels not more than a mile or so away. That close, he won’t even have to call a cab. One of them will probably have a room for the night and he can figure out flights and everything and be gone by the next morning. He just needs to make himself move, get dressed again--
“Nicaragua,” Phil says very quietly, and Clint jumps at the light touch tracing over the jagged seam on the back of his shoulder, the one that marks the exit wound from where he hadn’t quite ducked quick enough when the AK-47s came out. Phil slides the tip of his finger up behind Clint’s ear, unerringly finding the small ridge where it had taken six stitches to close the gash he’d gotten when he’d mouthed off to a dirty cop. “Kyiv,” Phil murmurs. Unthinkingly, Clint looks up at him and Phil touches his thumb to the bridge of Clint’s nose, the break that never healed cleanly. “Belfast,” he says as Clint realizes what he’s implying and flinches away.
“Stop.” It’s been a long time since words have come so close to choking Clint. “Stop it. That’s--it’s not the same.”
“No,” Phil says, still in that quiet, quiet voice. “It’s not. I hadn’t been subjected to any sort of coercion before I sent you into those clusterfucks, much less had a power-mad demi-god playing games with--” He stops and breathes slowly, in and out and in again, before he finishes, “You’re right--it’s not the same at all.”
* * *
The first time Clint had been out on an op with Phil, they weren’t working together. Phil had been babysitting one of SHIELD’s more borderline assets, one whose cryptography skillset only barely made up for his psycho behavior, while Clint was on a short leash with the most uptight jackass he’d ever had the misfortune to work with (and that was counting at least three different Company handlers and a butter-bar lieutenant who used Full Metal Jacket as his mantra for life). Somewhere in the middle of Clint repeatedly having the shot but not getting the authorization to take it, an idiotic order had been given that exposed Clint’s position and the jackass decided that Clint didn’t need to know.
A quiet voice in his ear had filled him in and then told him, “If you can still make the shot, Specialist, I will personally cover your back.” Clint watched the mark step into range and, in the split-second he had, somehow decided to trust that voice enough to step out of his cover and put two arrows dead-center. Three days and four countries later he finally saw the person behind the voice, and then it was another two days to the point on the opposite side of the world where they actually met. Clint spent the rest of his hitch TDY to SHIELD, and nobody was surprised when he signed on with them permanently after his discharge.
They don’t ever talk about it, but Clint knows him making the shot saved what was gunning to be a career-ending op even though no fault could be laid on Phil. He also knows Phil took down at least three bodyguards who had him targeted. The trust has always run both ways--always--and that’s the only thing that keeps Clint from leaving now. It takes everything he’s got just to stay, though; thinking isn’t really an option, so when Phil hands him his clothes he dresses mechanically and then finds himself out in the living room with a couple of ibuprofen packets and a bottle of water.
The clouds are making good on their threat and dumping rain, but Phil’s on some kind of a roll and already has a small fire going in the fireplace, so it’s easy to persuade himself to find a spot on the couch that doesn’t kill his ribs and zone out to the rain beating on the windows and the crackle of the fire. Phil, his reading glasses hooked into the open collar of his shirt, drops a stack of books and notebooks on the floor next to his favorite chair and sorts through his collection of honest-to-God vinyl. He decides on something low and classical and then settles into the chair and starts reading.
Clint watches him for a while, and then, when Phil reaches for a second book, says, “Don’t you have to be... somewhere?”
“No,” Phil says, taking his glasses off. “No classes, no office hours, no consults, nothing.” He marks his place in the book and sets it back on the stack. “I’d thought we could talk, but that obviously didn’t happen.” He rubs one hand over his eyes; for a second, he looks tired and worn down. Clint hates the idea that he’s the cause of that.
“Is that what this is supposed to be? Talking?”
“No,” Phil says. “This is--I’m not sure what, exactly. Just... being, maybe? Me, making sure you know I don’t want you to disappear. You....”
“Not disappearing,” Clint offers, and is rewarded with that rarest of sights: a full-on smile. Clint never actually forgets what a high it is to have one of those directed at him, but it still half-kills him every time. “I can do that.”
“That would make me very happy,” Phil says simply, like he doesn’t know how his words have re-centered Clint’s world. Or maybe he does know; his smile lingers even after he goes back to his books, and maybe no one else would notice, but Clint can see Phil’s shoulders aren’t nearly as tense as they had been.
The morning moves along. Phil reads and makes notes and reads more; Clint watches Phil and keeps the fire going and, for the first time in more than a year, doesn’t find the quiet threatening. The turntable is set to replay the album when it hits the end; on the third time through, Clint gives up and goes to at least turn the damn record over. He’s okay with silence; he’s fine with the low music Phil likes to have on as white noise, but once his brain knows the pattern of the music, it starts being a distraction and he has better things to think about.
“Handle it by the edges,” Phil says without looking up. “No smudges.”
“Sir, yes, sir,” Clint murmurs, and knows he’s not imagining the faint snort he hears in answer.
* * *
Clint’s willing to coast on Phil’s idea to just be for however long he can get away with it--which he doesn’t think surprises either of them--but it’s unnerving that Phil seems to have the same mindset. Phil always has a plan or an agenda or, at the very least, a to-do list; Clint isn’t sure exactly how they're supposed to work without one. They seem to be, though, so if they don’t wind up pretending this day never happened he makes a mental note to remind Phil that life goes on even without A Plan. This will preferably take place in the middle of one of Phil’s I-am-deeply-unimpressed-by-your-improvisation non-lectures.
Clint can’t just sit and do nothing, of course. He saves that for when he’s on the job and lives depend on it; it’s not what he wants for the rest of his life. Stark’s been sending him ideas for new and exciting arrowheads, things Clint would have thought were impossible before he’d seen the results of a Stark-Banner all-nighter in the lab, so once he's gotten a little equilibrium back, he spends some time prioritizing the designs and throws out an idea or two of his own. He knows an EMP would take Iron Man and all the SHIELD gear offline, but he can think of a couple of times when it’s just been him and Nat, outnumbered and out-teched to hell and back, when taking down every piece of electronic equipment in a five-mile radius would have made their lives a lot easier, so he’s prepared to push a little on that one. Stark goes back and forth with him a little--Clint thinks he’s probably working on two or three other things at the same time, but he likes having little projects in the middle of the crazy ones and Clint is happy to fill that space. Clint's surprised that Tony's main argument is that he wouldn't be able to cover Clint's back if electronics were down, and even pointing out that Cap or Thor or Banner could come get him if necessary doesn't entirely eliminate the objection. They leave it with Tony working on something to shield Iron Man's systems from the pulse, which Clint is fine with.
Once the impromptu design session is done, Clint harasses Phil into eating again using the simple tactic of sitting and staring unblinkingly until he breaks and picks up the sandwich Clint made for him. Clint takes way more satisfaction from that than is probably necessary, but given everything else that’s happened recently he’s not going to beat himself up over it. Plus, after all the years when Phil’s taken care of everything, Clint figures it’s about time somebody else dealt with the mundane shit. He sits and eats, too, and thinks this being-together thing might actually be working; that they might find a way through.
Of course, his timing for anything that isn't connected to taking the long shot being what it is, that is exactly when his phone chimes with an incoming video conference from Deputy Director Hill, who wants to know if he can provide tactical assistance on the bridge during some war-games exercise they’re running with Xavier’s people. She phrases it as a request since Clint’s technically still on medical leave, but Clint knows how dicey his rep is within SHIELD. He’s solid with his team--he finally doesn't doubt that--but there are still a lot of people on the helicarrier who had front-row seats to him blowing through their sections with clear intent to kill anything that got in his way. By asking, Hill is putting her own rep on the line for him; there’s no way he can turn her down.
“We’ll have a helicopter waiting for you at DCA,” Hill says. “Thirty minutes.”
Clint disconnects the call and, without looking up, says, “I’m not disappearing on you, I just--I have to do this.”
“Of course,” Phil says calmly. Clint wants to think Phil believes him, but Phil can keep that same steady tone no matter what. He had it even after Loki had run him through. Clint nods like he doesn't have any doubts, either, and Phil sets his book and notes aside. "I can take you up to the airport if you like. It'll be quicker than waiting for a cab."
Clint can get anything he might need on board the carrier, so there's nothing to do but shove his feet in his boots and snag his credentials and favorite sunglasses and swear silently to himself that he isn’t going to let this thing between them end with him not coming back.
* * *
Clint’s been back on the helicarrier since Loki and the Chitauri invasion, but not for longer than it takes to pick up a jet or brief for a mission. Being there for an extended period is both easier and more difficult than he’d imagined. Easier, because it’s still pretty fucking amazing to be on the bridge when Hill gives the command to engage and the whole ship thrums with the energy it takes to go airborne; to know that this is something he’s part of, something he’s built. Harder, because being there blindsides him with memories, ones that flash across not just his mind but his body as well. They hit him at odd times: he’s gone down ladders at the usual full-tilt slide a dozen times before his brain dredges up how he’d done it while sending an explosive arrow in front of him. It’s not the same ladder or even the same section of the ship, but for a few endless seconds, he’s nothing but Loki’s toy again. He hits the deck, managing to stumble out of the way of the next guy coming down, and by some miracle is back in his own body before anyone notices. It helps to be on the bridge; his brain is fully engaged there--Hill has him liaising with Ororro on the X-side of things, cross-referencing what her team's seeing with what the carrier's systems are picking up, everyone scrambling to figure out what insane shit Fury and Xavier have dreamed up to test the always-volatile inter-team cooperation. They're creative, Clint will give them that. He guesses they have to be, what with the still-unsettling news that the galaxy really does contain beings who are more than happy to stomp all over Earth.
Midweek, Clint comes off a shift almost jittering from suddenly not having to focus on multiple streams of input and finds Natasha curled up in his rack with one of Stark’s latest tablets. She arches an eyebrow at him, one that says Yes, I’m here checking up on you; please do not pretend you wouldn’t be doing the same in my place; don’t even bother, Barton.
“I thought I heard your voice on comms,” Clint says, poking at her hip until she moves enough that he can fit himself in behind her, the wall at his back. Substantial evidence to the contrary, he is not a complete idiot; if she wants to see how he’s doing, taking over his bed is the least of the actions she could be initiating. There’s no sense forcing her hand.
“Sometimes flying’s more fun than spying,” Natasha answers, angling the tablet so he can see, too. She’s watching Independence Day and he can’t help laughing. “I’m assessing tactics,” she says with a very credible deadpan.
“You just like watching aliens get punched,” Clint says as Will Smith does exactly that.
“It’s important to reward yourself,” Nat says, relaxing back into Clint. Clint’s seen the stupid movie so many times he can recite the dialogue in his sleep, but he watches along with her, the tension bleeding from his body at the steady in-and-out of her breathing. He's almost asleep when she murmurs, "You're doing good, you know."
For all that she's been there the whole time--kicking his ass and picking him up out of the gutter (metaphorical and not)--they've had exactly one conversation about this: the one that happened right after he woke up with a head full of nightmares that turned out to be real. It's how they roll, how they've always rolled: words taking a back seat to actions right from the start when she turned and faced him head-on, letting him see everything in her eyes, and he put an arrow through her shoulder rather than her heart. Neither of them trusts easily or well, so it's pretty goddamn ridiculous that it feels like her words take a hundred-pound weight off his shoulders, but it's not like the rest of his life isn't equally ridiculous.
"Some days are better than others," he finally manages to say, and she shrugs, a tiny movement and a little tilt of her head that he knows better than his own face sometimes. "I wasn't doing so great the day Hill called me up here," he adds. "With Phil."
"Did you say anything stupid?"
"Define stupid," Clint says, mostly to buy himself some time.
"Telling him you couldn't trust him," Natasha answers sharply.
"Doesn't matter." Natasha pauses the movie and lays the tablet flat on the mattress. "That's the big one. If you managed not to screw that up, everything else is fine."
"Nat," Clint sighs, but she's shaking her head before he can say anything else.
"You two," she says, with a laugh that sounds entirely too indulgent for someone who could take Clint out in the next heartbeat without breaking a sweat. "Do you know I almost didn't come in with you after I saw you with him?" She laughs again. "You were taking the arrow out of my shoulder and arguing with him about why not killing me was the right call and… It was so clear to me that you were fucking each other and I had no intention of putting myself into a situation where that was accepted behavior. Not again," she finishes, no trace of laughter at all at the end.
That whole week is a blur of no sleep and tensions so high it'd taken Clint almost a month to come down from the focus he'd maintained to first track her and then bring her in, but he remembers the conversation she's talking about. Phil had been thrown enough by Clint showing up with a bleeding but still-alive mark that he'd actually lost his legendary calm and started snapping back at Clint's stubborn arguments. It's still the only time Clint can remember that happening.
"I told him that, after he made you sleep," Natasha says slowly. That was another argument, one that Clint had lost. He remembers waking up with her next to him on the bed, Phil in a straight-backed chair keeping watch, the air heavy with unnamed tension. Clint had chalked it up to him throwing the whole mission out the window, but apparently he'd missed a little something. "I was so tired," Nat continues, in that matter-of-fact voice she uses on the few occasions when she talks about her life. "So over it all, I didn't care; I told him he could go ahead and put a bullet in my head, but I wasn't coming in only to have to deal with that same scenario." She gets quiet again; Clint lets her work through the memories. "He was amused, mostly," she says. "Maybe vaguely insulted that I thought he'd allow sex to complicate your relationship. It took me years to realize he never actually denied what I told him I saw and how I interpreted it."
Clint lets that settle into his brain; it's nothing he doesn't already know, not really, but hearing it from the outside is something he can hold onto when the problems rear their heads.
There's no room for Natasha to roll over so she can face him--there's not really even room for the two of them to lie on the narrow bed--but she twists her head enough that if he leans up on his elbow she can look him in the eye. "You're not in the same place now. There are… options that couldn't exist before."
"We're working on it," Clint tells her. She holds his eyes for another few seconds, then nods and settles herself back down against him, picking up the tablet and re-starting the movie.
“Good,” she says. She’s asleep before he can ask how the rest of her life is going, but he guesses it’s not too bad if she can go out like that. The movie keeps playing but he doesn’t really watch, just lets her steady breathing ease him down, too.
He comes awake when she crawls out from under his arm.
“Sorry,” Natasha murmurs. “You should sleep more; I’m just going to go see if I can blackmail Logan into letting me fly the Blackbird.”
“Yeah, good luck with that,” Clint mumbles. “Hey, that’s--uh, when we’re done here, fly me back down to DC?”
“Of course,” Natasha says, like it’s no big thing, but Clint’s known her a long time and he doesn’t miss the glint in her eye that says he’s so cute in his fumbling attempts at communication. It’s true, but he flips her off regardless and pulls the pillow over his head to muffle her laughter.
* * *
They wrap the active portion of the exercise after six days and move into the first stages of debriefing almost immediately after. Clint runs down a list of carrier-specific items with Hill and then manages to talk his way onto an early helicopter leaving for Manhattan so he can get through a second round at the Tower as quickly as possible. Once they work through the initial interviews, it’ll take a couple of days for the analysts to crunch the data from the system logs; he’s planning on making a break for Phil’s then. It’s not perfect--he’ll have to come back fairly soon after he gets there--but waiting around until the “right” time feels like a cop-out, especially since he’s almost due to come off medical leave. Once that happens, there’s no telling where he’ll end up or for how long.
It’s quiet as Clint comes in from the helipad, but JARVIS tells him the whole team is around somewhere. That’s good, Clint finds himself thinking. It’s been a couple of weeks since he’s been around; he’s looking forward to seeing people. He’s still chasing that thought around in his head--even once he fell into partnership with Phil and Natasha he never expected that circle of trust to expand--when he keys open his door and stops dead.
“You’re back early,” Phil says, looking up from another of his ever-present books. Clint knows he’s staring like an idiot, but he honestly can’t quite get his brain working again. Phil lets the silence draw out for a couple of seconds, but then says, “Excuse the intrusion; I didn’t want to be in some obscure lounge and miss you if you were only here for a short time.” Clint regains enough brainpower to step into the room and let the door close behind him, but that’s about all he can manage. Phil stands up and holds out a key. “You left this in Virginia.”
Clint reaches out automatically and takes the key. “I was coming back,” he says, and it’s too quick, too defensive. “I--” He shuts his mouth before he says too much, makes it worse.
“I know,” Phil says, one side of his mouth curling up into the start of a smile. “It just suddenly occurred to me that you were the one making the effort, again, and that it didn’t have to be only that way now. So. Here I am.” There’s the smallest of hesitations in that last part, so tiny almost no one would notice. Clint, though--he’s spent the better part of a decade with Phil’s voice his one link to the world outside the shot he’s lined up to take; he knows every shade of that voice and Phil knows he does, which means Phil wanted him to hear it. “If you’d rather I lea--”
“No,” Clint says, words falling out of his mouth in a rush again, but this time it doesn’t matter because he can’t say this too quickly. “You can--I’m--” He stops and takes a breath and says, “Stay. Please.”
“Thank you,” Phil says. He doesn’t smile, but his face is open and unguarded and that’s a thousand times better, Clint thinks.
* * *
They could go find the rest of the team and see what the consensus is for food, but there’s no fucking way Clint is sharing Phil with anyone just yet, so he makes do with the basics JARVIS keeps stocked in all the suite kitchens. He’s gone a lot longer on far less than a dozen free-range, organic eggs and some seriously good bread and chicken-apple sausage--JARVIS’s idea of the basics differs from any reality Clint’s known, but that’s nothing new. And there’s never going to be any need to go search out something in place of the high-end coffee Tony has flown in as a baseline requirement of life, which is all Phil really needs, so they’re set.
It’s easier to talk when he’s doing something else, so in the middle of food getting cooked, Clint’s not surprised to hear himself say, “We should probably talk this time.”
“I’ll agree with that,” Phil says. “Do you want me to start?”
“No,” Clint says. “No, let me--I need to just get this out there, okay?” He doesn’t look up from where he’s slicing through the loaf of bread, hard crust and soft interior falling away from the sharpened edge of his knife. “I remember everything. I don’t know if you know that, if Fury told you or anything, but I do. I don’t remember feeling anything--it’s anybody’s guess whether that’s just my brain disassociating now or if that was the staff, but I remember everything I thought and planned and did.” He makes himself look up for the last part, because Phil deserves to have this conversation face to face. “I meant what I said earlier--I don’t know how this is supposed to work.”
Phil looks back at him, easy and steady. “However we want it to,” he says. “Emphasis on the ‘we’.”
“Just like that,” Clint says, the words sharper and more bitter than he intends, and if he’s being honest, it’s from things that go back way beyond Loki.
“Yes.” Phil comes right back at him, no hesitation, no doubt, no uncertainty. “Flashbacks and guilt and hypervigilance and anger and every other fucking thing that will undoubtedly rear its head aside, yes, just like that, because that’s how it’s always been.”
Clint looks at him for a long minute, each word sinking into him, becoming a part of him, and then carefully puts the knife down next to the round loaf, laying his hands flat on the counter. They’re not shaking; he’s not shaking, but it feels like he should be. Phil watches him, steady and sure.
“Yeah, okay,” Clint says, leaning a little harder on the counter. “Yeah,” he repeats, and lets himself think it’s not going to be a disaster if he believes it, because Phil said it and more than anything, Clint knows just how far Phil goes to keep his word.
* * *
When Clint comes back in after debriefing, Phil is still awake, standing in the middle of a holographic projection of what Clint recognizes as the blueprints to his place in Virginia. The lines in the air shift and blur and redraw themselves as he and JARVIS carry on a low-voiced conversation, but Phil steps out of the projection as soon as he notices Clint.
“Castles in the air,” Phil says, with a smile. “Literally.”
“Welcome to Stark Tower,” Clint says. “We get all the cool toys.” Phil leaves the hologram up, which Clint takes as an invitation to look a little more closely. The attic--completely unlivable now, Clint thinks--is where the bulk of the changes are, and there’s a lot of attention being paid to an outbuilding that Clint knows is nothing but a falling-down shed now, all of which results in a nice chunk of new living space without knocking down interior walls and messing with the vibe of the place. It’s still a hell of a lot of work.
“I was offered a more permanent position with the university,” Phil says in response to Clint’s unspoken comment. “I’m seriously considering accepting.” In Phil-speak, Clint knows that means a detailed, cross-referenced list of pros and cons, with a table of contents, footnotes, and an index. “I thought I’d look and see what it might take to make the house more livable long-term. JARVIS is being kind enough to help me prioritize based on cost and complexity.”
“You always did know how to make your own fun, but it used to be a little more, you know, fun back in the day,” Clint says.
“Says the man who would never be caught dead sitting around base post-mission,” Phil says, on point as always.
“Hey, it was a training exercise,” Clint says. “No real need to decompress.” Phil rolls his eyes and tells JARVIS to shut everything down. Once Clint keys in his privacy setting, it’s just the two of them and he adds, “Plus, my real post-mission tradition is sitting around your office with a hangover, listening to you bitch about how four sentences and a schematic of my shot lines isn’t a remotely adequate report, so... I’m just skipping the hangover.”
“And the inadequate report,” Phil says.
“No, I already forwarded that to Hill.” Clint tries for a smirk, but doesn’t think he makes it. “I kept the important part, though.” He’d thought he’d be able to keep this light, but there’s a year-plus of not having been able to do any of that clawing at his chest, and the last part comes out serious. He tries again. “Feel free to skip the bitching.”
“I can do that,” Phil says. It hits Clint, then: the full impact of where they are, what they’re doing. If this blows up, it isn’t something they can brush aside or pretend only happened because of the adrenaline rush of finding themselves alive after all. This is real. He waits for the panic to wash over him, but there’s nothing like that in his mind, only a calm certainty that feels a lot like hearing Phil’s voice in his ear no matter what hell might be raining down on him otherwise.
“Stay with me tonight?” Clint says, not quite believing that it can be this simple, but willing to try.
“I can do that, too,” Phil says with a gorgeous smile that makes Clint’s breath catch hard. There’s no way he’s going to be able to say anything more, so he just steps closer, until he can lean in the final few inches and press his mouth to Phil’s.
It feels good, right, in a way Clint doesn’t have much experience with, but it’d felt that way the last (only) time they’d done it, too, and that hadn’t exactly ended well, and Clint can’t quite let himself relax into the kiss.
“It’s the journey, not the destination,” Phil murmurs against Clint’s mouth. Clint should have known they’d be on the same page; it’s part of the reason they’re so good together in the field. “We don’t get dinged for not getting to an arbitrary point at an arbitrary time.”
“Fancy words,” Clint tells him. “I’d agree, except it’s been too damn long of a journey already. I’m ready to be there.”
“I’m not going to argue,” Phil says, bringing one hand up to cup the back of Clint’s head and hold him steady. The next kiss is easier, and the one after that easier still, and it ends up being no big deal to walk into the bedroom together. Phil sits on the edge of the bed to untie his shoes; Clint’s been running around in half-laced boots since he got down off the carrier, so he can toe out of them at the door. The light from the living area spills in behind him, enough that he can see Phil watching him as he crosses the room, pulling his shirt off and dropping it on the way. Clint knows that look, the simmering intensity Phil can bring to bear on situations and scenarios, but he’s never had it focused on him like this. It calms all the second-guessing Clint’s brain is doing, dismisses all the doomsday predictions, reels him in and sparks an answering need in his blood, so he’s almost shaking by the time Phil reaches out and fits his hands to the curve of Clint’s ribs.
It makes it so Clint’s hands are steady when he unbuttons Phil’s shirt, and it makes it so he doesn’t just feel the tight, smooth scar tissue when he touches Phil’s skin, but also the strong, steady heartbeat under it. It makes it okay; it makes everything okay, because they’re here and Phil wants him and Clint has lost track of how long he’s wanted that.
He finds the words and the breath to tell Phil that, his voice low and hoarse but as steady as he can make it even if Phil is unbuttoning his jeans with quick, sure motions that are leaving Clint half-crazy with want. Phil smiles at him again, another blinding, gorgeous smile and Clint loses a little time, just falls into that smile and the warm hands on his skin and comes out the other side already naked on the bed, Phil stretched out next to him.
“What do you want?” Phil asks, and Clint almost laughs, because what doesn’t he want? Phil’s right there with him again, though; he ducks his head down and bites at Clint’s bottom lip. “What do you want first?”
Clint opens his mouth and he knows he means to make as filthy of a wisecrack as possible, but what comes out is, “Touch me--my, my face, touch my face.” There’s a split-second where he’s horrified at his subconscious, but then Phil makes a low, wordless noise that’s just as needy and possessive as Clint feels and his thumb is tracing Clint’s cheekbone, his mouth, so fucking good Clint can’t breathe. He turns his face into Phil’s hand, chases down his mouth as it follows the same path his hands had taken.
“There are so many things I want to do to you,” Phil says when Clint lets him up for air. “Things I have waited for years to be able to do.” Clint is in favor of all of them--he doesn’t have to hear them to know that--but he hopes Phil can do the mind-reading thing again because Clint has no plans to stop kissing long enough to say any of that.
Phil smooths his hands down over Clint’s shoulders, his palms skimming along Clint’s biceps and forearms before reversing the path, trailing the backs of his fingers in a barely-there tease that skims over wrist and elbow and inner arm, not quite a tickle but enough to make Clint want to shiver. Phil smiles into the kiss, but before Clint can get his brain functioning enough to retaliate, Phil’s stopped playing and is tracing patterns down Clint’s side, circling his hip to stroke over his ass, the back of his thigh, and up again to cup his balls.
Clint does shiver at that, one long, helpless tremor; he tears his mouth away from Phil’s to drag in air and Phil takes the opportunity to bite along his jaw, quick, sharp stings that make it harder still to breathe even before Phil starts teasing his balls, closing his hand over them lightly, rolling them, tugging them just hard enough to make Clint whine.
“I’ve thought about this,” Phil says, his words sliding along Clint’s skin, drawing more tremors in their wake. “Took my time, worked out all the details--”
“Control freak,” Clint manages to gasp, the last word fading into a moan as Phil drags his thumbnail up Clint’s dick to tease at the nerves just under the head.
“You have no idea,” Phil murmurs, pressing down a little more firmly. Clint arches into him, getting his leg up and over Phil’s hip and dragging him closer. “I had plans, Barton,” Phil says, and that’s when Clint really starts to believe this is all going to work, because it doesn’t matter that they’re both naked and panting, that Phil’s got his hand wrapped around Clint’s dick, that Clint is digging his own hand into Phil’s hip hard enough to leave marks--none of that matters, because Clint knows that voice. He’s heard it for years, has trusted it all along and now is no time to stop.
“So many plans,” Phil says, shifting his hand so he can start jerking Clint off in slow, easy strokes with a wicked twist over the head. “And now we’re here and you’re so fucking gorgeous all I want to do is watch while I make you come--”
“Doesn’t matter,” Clint says. “‘S all good.” He thinks he should care that it’s more of a whimper than an actual conversational tone--it’s a hand job, nothing exotic; he should have some pride--but him losing it is clearly making Phil crazy and that’s too fucking awesome to worry about minor details, especially not once Phil shifts enough that he can get his own cock lined up next to Clint’s and starts working them both at the same time.
“Tomorrow,” Clint says, pulling Phil closer and ducking his head down to lick into his mouth. “You can fuck me then--” Phil’s hand tightens hard around their cocks; Clint can’t breathe for a couple of seconds. “Or, or, I can suck you--God, Phil, finish it, please, please.”
“Come on,” Phil’s saying through gritted teeth, rubbing his thumb, rough and nasty, over the head of Clint’s dick at the end of every fast, tight stroke. Clint can’t help moving into them, low, raw noises spilling out of his throat. “Come for me, let me see you,” and Clint does, lets go and comes, everything irising down to Phil’s voice in his ear, his mouth and his skin and his cock against Clint’s, nothing in the world but Phil.
* * *
Clint’s still not at a hundred percent from the cracked ribs and he hadn’t slept worth shit on the carrier, but even as tired as he is, it’s been a long time since he’s actually slept with someone and he keeps jerking awake through the night. It’s not a total catastrophe, though: every time he jolts up, he gets to remember that it’s Phil in bed with him. It’s not a bad way to come down off an adrenaline rush.
Phil wakes up every time Clint does, of course. He waits until Clint relaxes and won’t be going for his throat, and then throws an arm or a leg over him and mutters unflattering things about high-maintenance assets and their hair-trigger reflexes. It’s strangely soothing.
The last time, Clint manages to remember before he comes up fighting, so he just kind of twitches awake and doesn’t disturb Phil. He’s kept the reflectives in the floor-to-ceiling windows synced to sunrise; they go clear about an hour beforehand so he can watch the sky lighten and the sun come up over the city. A good number of times over the past year, that’s the only decent thing he can remember about a given day.
This day, with Phil breathing steadily into the curve of his neck, is not going to be like that.
Chapter 4: Epilogue
Really, all I wanted to do when I started this whole story was to write the curtain-fic epilogue which is why, of course, it took me months and months to figure it out after I posted everything else.
It’s still pitch black when Clint’s phone chimes with the text from Nat saying the SI jet is on the runway at LaGuardia. It’s the end of December, though, so it’s not all that early. Clint eases out of the big bed, moving carefully so as not to wake Phil. He’s got enough time for a decent shower and to get breakfast organized before he’ll need to leave to make the quick trip up the river to meet Natasha. Theoretically, Nat is the last person in the world who needs an airport pick-up, but Clint knows she’s more than a little freaked by this whole thing, so he figures he’ll make it so she has to ditch him in person if she ends up with cold feet.
Of course, it could just be that he’s the one in need of a little moral support, but either way, it’s enough to get his ass out of bed and stumbling into the bathroom.
By the time Clint makes it down to the kitchen, the coffeemaker is just finishing up its first, timer-fired carafe. He fills a thermos and a couple of travel mugs and gets it set up again to go off at a more civilized time for Phil. He knows he’s pushing his luck, but he goes ahead and sticks a double serving of the steel-cut oats in a glass bowl, topping it off with enough brown sugar and chopped pecans to send a class of kindergarteners into hyperactive mode before he puts it all in the microwave. It’s Phil’s favorite--not that he’d actually admit to liking anything that sweet, but Clint has eyes. Trained ones, even, and they don’t miss how quickly the sugared stuff disappears.
2 min on HIGH, Clint writes on one of the ubiquitous Post-It notes. Extra cream in the fridge--EAT, DAMMIT.
He sticks the note on the front of the microwave and leaves a spoon and napkin next to the coffee mug on the counter. The more trouble it looks like he’s gone to, the less likely Phil is to skip out on eating. It’s sneaky and manipulative, but successful and that’s all Clint cares about.
He’d packed up the truck the night before; all he needs to do is juggle his duffel and the coffee out to where it’s parked and officially get this whole insane idea underway.
* * *
It’s ten miles and close to twenty minutes before she sets the travel mug down and sighs. “He does know I have no idea what 'normal' is, right?”
“Like I do?” Clint snorts. He doesn’t have a clue what had prompted Phil to decide that the three of them, of all people, could celebrate Christmas together, but Phil is not above a little sneaky manipulation himself, so here they all are. To be fair, Clint had agreed to the idea (theoretically, at least) and he'd been in the room with Nat when Phil had called to invite her formally. Total current freakout aside, he'd seen the look in her eyes when Phil had said, "We would very much like it if you could join us for the holiday, Natasha," and she was also theoretically onboard.
"Technically, we've done Christmas before," Clint offers.
"Trying not to freeze to death in a cave in the Urals doesn't count," Natasha says sharply. Clint isn't stupid enough to ask if she still knows all the words to Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer, even if she had willingly participated in learning them from him in a successful bid to both stay awake and irritate Phil enough to keep him from slipping away from them from blood loss and shock while they waited for ex-fil.
"This--it's not a job. That makes it different," Natasha sighs. Clint shrugs.
"Pepper's riding herd on Stark, Cap andBanner," he says. "And Rhodes. Tell me that doesn't make you, me and Phil sound like a picnic."
Nat mutters something under her breath, just loudly enough that Clint can identify the language as Bulgarian, which he knows she reserves for the rare times she has no clear idea of what to do, but then she takes a deep breath and says, "We're fifteen miles past Phil's house; where are we going?"
"If I told you to trust me, I'll explain when we get there, would you?" Clint knows the answer before he even asks, but some days he likes tilting at windmills. Natasha slants a Do not fuck with me, Barton look at him and he grins in reply. "Yeah, didn't think so." He waits another second, just to wind her up a little bit longer--because he knows she knows he wouldn't jerk her around if he thought there was really a problem and he thinks they both need the reassurance that this whole Christmas thing isn’t really going to be a disaster--and then says, in an obnoxiously cheerful tone, "You and me, babe--we get to go shoot mistletoe."
Even if she does follow through with the threat he sees in her eyes and guts him before he gets another mile down the road, the pure disbelief on her face is worth it.
* * *
Their host, one of Phil’s former doctoral candidates, leads them across the open field toward a stand of trees. Phil hadn’t said much when he’d sent Clint off on this crazy ride, but the guy is clearly military, clearly Special Forces, and clearly high-ranking. He’d also taken one look and known exactly who the hell Clint and Natasha really are, but isn’t making any kind of a fuss. Clint trusts Phil not to have sent them to somebody who doesn’t know how to handle himself, so he’s not making one either, and Natasha is following his lead.
Clint steps back and gives her space, letting her set up the shot to the clumps of mistletoe dotting the very tops of the trees. She fires both barrels in quick succession and two basketball-sized bundles of green tumble the thirty feet to the ground. She doesn’t exactly smirk when Clint tosses her two more shells to reload, but the tightness around her eyes has relaxed, which makes him relax, and then he has to laugh at how well Phil still knows how to handle the both of them.
* * *
“Yes, it’s entirely my fault,” Natasha says, smiling as she takes both of Phil’s hands in her own. “There was no one else around.”
“It’s astonishing how often that happens.” Phil leans down so Natasha can press quick kisses against his cheek. “Sometimes I wonder if I’m just living with a hologram.”
“Nice,” Clint cracks, even if he still sometimes has a hard time catching his breath when Phil drops those casual comments about them actually being together. “Remind me why I put up with this shit again?”
“The sex is phenomenal,” Phil says, giving Clint a quick, flickering look as he’s ushering Natasha into the house and leaving Clint to grab her bag.
Clint would bitch about being treated like the hired hand except he’s too busy trying to get his brain back under control after that look, the one that said Phil still had plans for him no matter that they’d spent half the night before wrapped up in each other, Clint jerking himself off while Phil watched, Phil barely opening Clint up before fucking him with a slow, deep rhythm that made them both crazy.
Phenomenal is an understatement.
Clint gets his act together and catches up with the other two mid-way through the grand tour of the remodeling. The attic and cosmetic stuff throughout is done; Phil’s new office, slated for what had been the old kitchen outbuilding is still to go. Even having that much done is pretty impressive, but Stark had sent down the construction company he uses on his own property. Clint thinks they’re actually kind of in love with Phil--in a strictly contractor-client sort of a way--just because he doesn’t show up with redrawn blueprints every morning or insist on industrial wiring at the drop of the hat.
“It’s very serene,” Natasha is saying as Phil shows her where she’ll be staying. Even in winter, the muted greens and blues make it feel like a water garden. “Peaceful.”
“I hope you’ll like it,” Phil says, and Clint will give him credit: he’s still got the straightest face of any agent ever. It had taken Clint a while to figure out why Phil had turned the house upside down and moved his room to the attic (their room, Phil always says, but it’s going to take Clint a while longer to be able to think that without stumbling) but he’d clued in once he’d seen the separate entrance and the tiny kitchen and laundry tucked into a corner and realized how very few people Phil would have gone to that much trouble for. “If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go make sure your handiwork from this morning doesn’t go to waste.”
Clint had never seen Phil’s private life while they were at SHIELD together; he has no idea if this person who knows the people who live around him and participates in the community is how Phil had been then. Based solely on the hours Phil had worked, he doesn’t think it’s likely. Even if it’s not something he’s entirely comfortable with, Clint kind of likes seeing it happen now, watching as Phil greets his neighbors and makes sure everyone gets at least a sprig or two of the mistletoe.
“I’m afraid to even ask how you explained that,” Natasha says as Phil comes back inside.
“Surprisingly enough, it wasn’t all that difficult,” Phil says. He points at the two of them. “Federal agents. Partners. Never ones to turn down an excuse to shoot things.”
“Smooth,” Clint says.
“Sometimes you just have to keep it simple.”
“And that,” Clint says, hauling himself to his feet to go get the oil started heating for the turkey he’s planning on deep-frying. “That is why he got paid the big bucks at SHIELD.”
The temperature drops steadily through the day; by the time Clint gets the turkey cooked and back inside he’s cold enough that he doesn’t even bother giving Phil the standard hard time about latent pyromaniacal tendencies before he parks himself in front of the kitchen fireplace and lets his hands and face thaw out. Natasha wanders in and settles herself on a counter while Clint finishes off the rest of the food. She’s quiet, but not strained; Clint starts to think this whole ideas of Phil’s could end up being not just awkward-but-good but really-and-truly-good.
“If I cook, he eats,” Clint explains when she arches an eyebrow at the cream and butter he’s mashing into the potatoes. “And the more calories the better.” She nods but continues to eye him thoughtfully. Clint knows that look; he can only take it for so long before he breaks and sighs, “What?”
“If I’d known about all this--” Natasha waves her hand to encompass the kitchen and Clint, the turkey resting under aluminum foil, the bread and vegetables keeping warm on the back of the stove. “Who knew my gift shopping issues could have been resolved with an apron or two?”
“Oh, screw you,” Clint says, laughing. “I make fucking awesome mashed potatoes and if you can’t be nice, you won’t get any.”
“Threats, Barton?” Natasha jumps down from the counter, landing lightly. “Are you sure you want to go there?”
“No blood,” Phil says, coming into the kitchen. He still moves as quietly as he had when he’d been an agent. “The walls have just been repainted and it’s a bitch to get out of the carpeting.” He steals a piece of turkey from the platter Clint had found in one of the cupboards and surveys the rest of the kitchen. “You do know it’s just the three of us for dinner, yes?”
Clint shrugs self-consciously. It’s stupid and all, but he’d maybe imprinted on one too many cheesy holiday TV shows as a kid, where there was always too much food to fit on the table that everyone crowded around, so utterly alien to everything Clint knew as reality.
“Sorry,” Phil says quietly. He leans into Clint for a second or two, just long enough for the subtle physical reinforcement that works for them both, long enough that it’s not a lie when Clint nods and answers, “‘s okay.”
Before Natasha can execute a pure Black Widow fade-into-the-background--which is not what he or Phil want at all--Clint bumps his hip into Phil’s and goes back to dealing with the food, saying, “I can throw some MREs onto a tarp if anybody really needs some comfort food--”
“Please do not make me stab you,” Natasha sighs.
“What the lady said,” Phil agrees and the moment passes, another tiny bit of the history between the three of them. It feels bigger than a couple of seconds in a kitchen should, but there isn’t any blood or pain or weaponry involved so maybe it really is a Moment.
* * *
Phil being Phil, Clint is sure there’s an agenda somewhere, probably with a color-coordinated timetable and possibly supporting flow diagrams. Ordinarily, Clint would be giving him a hard time about it, but given that neither he nor Natasha have much of a clue about celebrating anything other than making it out of an op-gone-wrong still alive, who’s Clint to complain about a plan that doesn’t include heavy weaponry. He just tips his head back so he can see Phil from where he’s sitting on the floor, leaning against the couch Phil’s sitting on, and asks, “What’s next, boss?”
“We can do presents now,” Phil says. “Or we can open them tomorrow, in the morning. Either way is fine by me.”
“Now,” Natasha says, lifting her head up from where it’s been pillowed on Clint’s thigh. “Before some moron decides it’s a good time to launch a worldwide attack.”
“She has a point,” Clint says, trying to sound casual about it all, presents and a tree and he doesn’t even know what else, all the things he’d decided as a kid weren’t actually real because they’d never existed in any world he’d known. He’s pretty sure he’s failing big-time, but Phil only nods and Natasha rolls to her feet gracefully and disappears. Phil arches an eyebrow at Clint, one that says No, I will not be retrieving anything until you leave, because God forbid Clint not have to work to figure out where Phil stashes things he doesn’t want Clint to find. Clint grins and goes to get his own stuff.
Natasha’s gifts are perfectly wrapped, of course, and Phil opens his--a heavy, flat package that all but screams I’m a book--with typical care, prying up the folds and working the tape loose gently. She waves a hand at Clint, though, tacit permission to rip away at his own, much bigger, box. Phil’s book turns out to be a history of the property, painstakingly compiled from land deeds and newspaper clippings, while Clint’s box is full of soft, silky-feeling sweaters.
“Cashmere,” Natasha says, adding “You never wear a coat.” That’s true enough; he doesn’t like the extra weight or the hit it deals to his mobility, even if he’s only walking down the street. “I get tired of watching you freeze.” What she isn’t saying is that his usual hoodies don’t always fit with this life he seems to be carving out and he hasn’t quite gotten to where he can do anything about it.
“You are an amazing, frightening woman,” Clint says, leaning over to kiss her before Phil recovers from his geektastic speechlessness and takes over the actual communications. Just for a second, Natasha lights up at his words, a flash of emotion she still only rarely allows anyone to see. Clint thinks back to the cold woman he hunted and to the closed-off, defensive asset he was then, and it only barely seems possible that they’re here now. He looks back at Phil, who’s still heads-down in his book, flipping back and forth between several different photos with the kind of interest he used to reserve for alien artifacts falling from the sky, and nudges his own present toward Natasha.
They only had one rule about the presents: nothing work-related. Clint is right up on the edge with both his gifts, but he thinks they’re okay. He hopes. Natasha makes quick work of the wrappings and box and holds the necklace he had custom made for her in the palm of her hand. It’s a collection of charms and gemstones, everything from an Orthodox cross (they’ve taken refuge in more than one cathedral over the years) to the coat of arms of Budapest (which, he gets why it’s important, he just would rather not think too much about how close they’d cut it that day) to rough-polished chunks of chalcedony and lapis for brotherhood and friendship. He holds his breath as she sorts through each charm without looking up, but when she’s done, she slips the chain over her head and reaches out to cup his face in her hand. She doesn’t say anything, at least not in words, but since Clint knows he wouldn’t be able to answer anyway, it’s better that they keep it like this.
“Phil’s turn,” Clint finally says, and nobody comments on how rough his voice sounds, for which he is very grateful. Phil does his thing with the careful unwrapping again, even though Clint’s standards are nowhere near Natasha’s. Clint is less uncertain about his gift than he had been Natasha’s (that’s always going to be a minefield, he thinks) but it’s still harder to breathe than it should be. Phil knows Clint’s freaking out, of course, and he drops one hand down to rest on the back of Clint’s neck while he fumbles open the box with the other.
“Very nice,” Phil murmurs, and Clint almost doesn’t care that Phil lets go of him because he does it so he can take the cufflinks Clint had made for him out of their box, holding them like they’re worth a lot more than the couple hundred bucks Clint had spent on them. “Roman?”
“Yeah,” Clint says. “First century.” Natasha makes an impatient noise and Phil holds his hand out so she can see them, too. Clint has to admit they look better than he’d ever even hoped for, the silver of the coins JARVIS had helped him find worn down by time but still unmistakable. He hadn’t been sure whether setting them into cufflinks was a good idea, but they’re small enough to not be tacky. He thinks Phil will be okay with wearing them, at least some of the time.
“Apollo.” Natasha rubs her thumb lightly over the tiny figure on the front face. She smiles up at Clint. “The archer.” Clint shrugs again, only a little self-conscious this time. It’s not especially subtle, but that’s probably not a surprise to anyone who knows him even a little bit.
Phil takes the cufflinks back from Natasha, but he doesn’t return them to their box, only drops them in the pocket of his shirt before leaning in to drop a kiss on Clint’s temple. For all that it’s the merest brush of Phil’s lips across his skin, the casual intimacy of it still rocks Clint’s world a little. Phil’s wearing a tiny, not-quite smirk; Natasha isn’t even that subtle, but before Clint can decide how best to get a little of his own back--a guy’s got to keep at least a little dignity--Phil is handing Natasha a small box wrapped in the tackiest fucking paper Clint’s ever seen.
“This is technically from the both of us,” Phil says. Clint tries--and fails--not to roll his eyes because ‘technically’, yes, he did say he was good with it, but it’s not like he had anything to do with the actual grunt work of putting it all together.
Natasha raises an eyebrow at the paper, but doesn’t pretend that she isn’t invested in getting to what’s underneath it. Clint kicks back and enjoys watching her rip through the wrappings but he doesn’t think it’d surprise anyone to know that he really gets his thrill out of watching Phil watch her. When she gets to the box and the keys fall into her hand, she stares at them unblinkingly for long enough that Clint doesn’t even have to look hard to catch Phil starting to shift into crisis-management mode.
“Is this what I think it is?” Natasha finally asks in that perfectly calm voice, the one that says to Clint she’s buying herself time, and fuck, but Clint seriously hopes it’s time she needs to process, not start running.
“If you think it’s a set of keys to the side door on the apartment you’re sleeping in, then yes, it is what you think it is,” Phil answers, in the same calm voice, which tells Clint he’s trying to figure out how to avert an impending disaster.
They stare at each other for long enough that Clint figures he better step up, before one of them does something stupid. If he wasn’t kind of holding his breath waiting for Nat to lose it and Phil to overreact in response, he figures he’d be enjoying this whole being-the-one-who’s-not-freaking-out thing more. As it is, he’s mostly just... jittery, so he takes a deep breath and lets it trickle out, like he’s lining up a shot and can’t afford to let anything in his head bleed through to the rest of his body.
“Nat,” Clint says quietly. He thinks he sounds good. Solid. Nothing in his voice that even hints how much he doesn’t want this to turn into a complete clusterfuck. “You need to breathe, so Phil can, too.”
She shoots him a sharp glance, but since it’s really only at DefCon 2 or 3, he’s not too worried. He’s survived worse, and with far less important outcomes at stake. It breaks the spell, though; Natasha meets Phil’s eyes, while he leans in and folds her hand around the keys. Clint doesn't sigh in relief--that's a sure invitation for a couple of extra kicks to the ribs the next time he and Nat spar--but he thinks about it. Phil smiles at him like he knows what Clint was thinking, but then he's holding out a flat box wrapped in different, but equally obnoxious paper and Clint has better stuff to think about.
"Damn, Phil," Clint says, tearing at the ridiculous amount of tape Phil had used. "I'm kinda afraid to ask where you got your wrapping style."
The words are out of his mouth before he thinks about them. About all Clint knows is that Phil had been an only child of older parents, long-since passed away. He doesn't know if there's any extended family or anything, or if Phil might not appreciate being reminded that he's spending the holiday with a couple of assets instead of with them.
“If everything’s perfect, it’s a magazine spread, not reality,” Phil says, as calm and unperturbed as ever. “My father always said that--mostly, I think, to excuse his incredibly bad taste in--well, everything.” He smiles to himself.
“Yeah?” Clint asks, glad that fighting with the damn package gives him a plausible reason not to look at Phil while he talks. It makes it easier to keep from sounding like a sentimental idiot over hearing Phil talk about his family, however insignificant it might be. “You get your tape technique from him, too?”
“No,” Phil says, and his smile, when Clint darts a quick look at him, is wicked now. “That’s just because Natasha and I wanted to see how long you’d work at that by hand before you tried to steal one of her knives.”
“Hey,” Clint sputters indignantly. “I was trying to be classy here, but if that’s the way you want to play--” His practice quiver is right inside the door; he can cut with an arrow as easily as he can a knife, but before he can actually stand up and go get one, Natasha’s tossing one of her small stilettos in the air and he catches it almost by instinct. “Don’t piss off the guy who’s getting up to make your breakfast,” he grumbles, slicing through the fifteen layers of tape Phil’s wrapped around the thing and throwing the knife back to Natasha.
“Maybe I just like watching your technique,” Phil murmurs. He lets his eyes linger on Clint’s hands for a second or two longer than strictly necessary and then smiles at Clint and Clint decides he can probably forgive him.
Just this once.
Clint already owes Nat for more than he’ll ever be able to square up with her; letting her give him a hard time about something like wrapping paper doesn’t seem like much of down payment, even before he gets to the part where he can put up with a lot more to see her as relaxed as she is now, so he just rolls his eyes at her and digs into the package.
“Gee, honey,” he says, when he pulls out an accordion file that’s stuffed so full it’s barely closing. “You got me... paperwork? You shouldn’t have.” Phil’s still smiling at him, but he’s starting to look almost nervous around the edges, which is enough for Clint to cut the chatter and seriously pay attention to whatever it is in his hands. Natasha makes an impatient sound and Clint starts passing over pages once he’s skimmed them and--
“Numbered accounts in the Caymans?” she murmurs and Clint shrugs helplessly, because he’s ten pages ahead of her and they’re articles of incorporation, two levels deep and the only asset he’s seeing is a quit-claim deed.
“For fuck’s sake, Phil, are you crazy?” Clint ruffles through the pages again, but nothing changes, not the dummy corporations or the bank accounts or the address on the deed, and he really fucking cannot deal with this.
Clint shoves the rest of the paperwork at Natasha and looks up at Phil, who shrugs at him and says, “I wouldn’t have done even half as much work here without the money you threw in--”
“Like I told you, it wasn’t a big deal,” Clint interrupts, because he had told Phil. They’ve had this conversation a dozen times, Phil not wanting to 'risk' Clint’s money in the real estate market or whatever, no matter how many times Clint told him it was stupid to have the money right there and not use it. “It’s just money and putting to work here--” Clint gestures around the room, at the unseen new plastering and Natasha’s apartment and everything else Phil had organized and researched and planned and supervised, everything laid out like one of his ops, except there wasn’t a target or a mark, only a house, which, it’s turning out, is a much bigger deal. “This is better than me just blowing it on whatever, and it’s not like I’m gonna need a retiremen--”
Clint snaps his mouth shut but it’s too late, the words are already out there. Natasha is so still Clint doesn’t think she’s breathing and Phil... Phil just sits and looks at Clint and the silence stretches out between them until the fire pops and hisses and a log falls in on itself with a soft shushing noise. Phil sighs and rubs at the bridge of his nose, but his voice is calm and even when he says, “Given that I’m the one who’s technically a dead man, it seemed prudent to vest the title in some way that couldn’t be revoked on a technicality.” He leans down to kiss Natasha, once on each cheek and then on the forehead before he stands slowly, as though he’s suddenly worn out. “You’ll excuse me,” he says to Natasha, but he brushes his fingers across the back of Clint’s neck as he leaves the room.
Clint counts to a hundred before he trusts himself enough to speak. “Christ, I’m such a fucking moron.”
“Well, yes, but not for saying that,” Natasha says calmly. Clint doesn’t think he’s ever been more grateful that he didn’t just follow orders and put an arrow through her heart all those years ago. No one has ever had his back the way she has, even when she’s kicking his ass. “You were thinking it--it’s always worse when you shove it down and don’t address it.” Clint groans, and she goes on, “This life--it is what it is, Clint. You know it, I know it, Phil knows it. Maybe he doesn’t like it, but he knows it.”
Clint sits there for a while, Natasha’s eyes on him the whole time, and finally says, “This’d be where I go address it, yeah?”
“I think so,” she says. She’s not unsympathetic, which Clint is choosing to attribute to the season, not that she thinks he’s totally fucked things up and she needs to treat him with care. “Your timing is exquisite, as always, but it’ll be fine.”
“Vote of confidence, check,” Clint says and drags himself to his feet. “You’re not gonna bail, are you? You’ll still be here in the morning, right?”
“Is the bacon I saw in the refrigerator for breakfast?”
Clint thinks of the three pounds of thick-cut, maple-cured bacon he hadn’t been able to resist when he’d been appropriating supplies from the Tower on his way down. JARVIS has the best dealers for everything; Clint is sure this will food of the gods.
“And you’re frying all of it,” Natasha says. “Emphasis on the ‘you’ and the ‘all’.”
“And I will only have to fight off you and Coulson for my share?”
“Then please, feel free to go deal with your interpersonal crisis and I’ll see you for breakfast.” She lets Clint bring her the rest of the bottle of wine she and Phil had cracked but then arches an eyebrow at him until he sighs and aims himself toward the stairs. As he starts up to the attic suite, she’s settling herself more comfortably on the couch, wineglass in hand and her eyes on the fire. Clint can’t remember the last time he’s seen her so still.
Clint runs through a dozen different apologies on the way up, but when he opens the bedroom door, they all fly out of his head and he and Phil end up back in the quiet place, at least until Phil smiles the smile Clint remembers from debriefings after several extremely fucked-up ops and says, “That’s... not exactly how I thought things might go.”
“Fuck, Phil,” Clint says, the words rushing out of him. “I’m sorr--”
“Don’t,” Phil says. “Let’s just... not do this now?”
That actually sets alarm bells off in the back of Clint’s brain--Phil never backs away from anything--but it’s been a while since he’s seen Phil looking quite so exhausted, so he promises himself he won’t take the easy out and let it slide, and nods in agreement.
Phil waits patiently for him to brush his teeth and strip out of his clothes before he kills the light next to the bed. The moon is full enough that it doesn’t take Clint long to be able to see in the silvered light that spills in through the half-open curtains and he knows Phil is watching him as he climbs into the bed. For someone Clint knows can sleep on bare rock if he needs to, Phil is ridiculously picky about the sheets and covers on his bed. Not for the first time, Clint is grateful that Phil had indulged himself because there’s something very comforting about sinking into sheets that are as soft as silk and a duvet that wraps around them like a shield against life’s problems. Clint used to think it was nothing but a pretty cover, not real in any way that actually counts, but settling in next to Phil, feeling him relax and hearing his breathing even out, Clint is beginning to think this is the only real thing there is.
“I shouldn’t have sprung it on you like that,” Phil says. He’s sprawled out like he usually does, an arm and a leg thrown over Clint, but he doesn’t stop Clint from sitting up.
“Wait,” Clint says. “You’re not trying to apologize to me, are you?”
“It was incredibly manipulative--”
“No, really,” Clint snaps. “It wasn’t. I’ve been played by the best and you’re not even close, Coulson.”
“Clint,” Phil says, stroking slow and easy along where Clint has his forearm braced on the mattress. “If I’d wanted to do this fairly, I should have brought it up at a neutral time, not tied it all up in the holiday.”
“Yeah? So why didn’t you?” Clint can’t really account for all the anger that comes bubbling up when he hears Phil blaming himself, but Phil doesn’t look surprised at the edge in his voice and he doesn’t take his hand off of Clint’s arm.
“I told myself it would be okay, that it was all in the spirit of the holiday.”
“It was,” Clint says. “I just--I told you I don’t have any idea how to do this Christmas shit.”
“No, you were honest,” Phil says, as though that’s what’s important, not Clint totally fucking up the night. “Which I’m grateful for, no matter how little I might like to hear some things.”
“We can talk about it in the morning,” Phil says, and now Clint knows exactly where the anger is coming from.
“No,” Clint snarls. “We can fucking well talk about it now.” He gets a grip, holds himself still, as though he’s in a nest and needing to take a shot because it’s the only way he knows how to stay calm. “I can’t--” He takes a breath and tries again. “Putting it off until morning isn’t going to help.”
Phil breathes in a careful, controlled rhythm that Clint knows is meant to keep everyone calm, but he nods and sits up next to Clint.
“Okay,” Clint says. “Okay, seriously, I--was a little freaked and I’m sorry.” He looks at Phil and it doesn’t matter that they’re in the dark, nothing but the moonlight to see by, he knows every inch of Phil’s face, had known it long before they were together like this. “I meant it, though--the money doesn’t mean anything. You shouldn’t feel like you owe me this.”
“I--would you believe me if I told you I would have done the same thing even without the money?”
Clint shrugs because he’d really like to believe it but it’s pretty hard to get there.
“You wouldn’t take a promissory note, or any kind of a guarantee; this seemed to be a compromise.” Phil waits until Clint shrugs again. “I knew you wouldn’t like it, but I thought--if it was a gift, you might not throw it in my face. Or, well, I told myself that was why I did it the way I did.”
“You don’t have to do this,” Clint says. “You don’t owe me.
“I know that,” Phil says. “If I thought I did, it would have been a check, and it wouldn’t have been wrapped up as a present.” He leans into Clint a little. “This is something I want to do. Very much.”
Clint knows his baseline for normal is seriously fucked up, but this, letting someone in this far, he thinks this might be what he’s supposed to be doing. He’s not sure, though, mostly because he’s ricocheting between the kind of contentment he’s always thought was fiction and a bone-deep fear that he’s going to screw up irrevocably.
“I--” Clint finally makes himself speak. “I don’t have any idea what I’m supposed to do here.”
“The manipulative part of me wants to tell you to just say ‘yes,’” Phil murmurs. “The more mature and less insecure part insists that I tell you to do what you want.”
What Clint wants and what he gets have never been all that closely linked to each other, but Phil’s alive and sitting next to Clint in their bed, all of which never seemed possible in any way. Clint doesn’t think he’s supposed to take that as some kind of a sign that he should press his luck, but he’s always sucked at doing what he’s supposed to.
“Okay,” he finally says. “Yes.”
“You’re sure?” Phil is very still next to Clint. “You mean it?”
“Yeah,” Clint answers, and then repeats more strongly, “Yes.” He looks at Phil and can’t decide whether to shrug or smile or what, so he just nods.
“Good.” The tension bleeds out of Phil and takes Clint’s with it, too. “I--good,” Phil says, more ragged than Clint’s ever heard him. He lies back and brings Clint down with him. “Gotta tell you, I thought I screwed this one up but good.”
Now that Clint’s sure that he hasn’t done just that, he’s kind of lost all incentive to do anything but be still and maybe poke at the pronoun change they just perpetrated on the house (their house, fuck.) He can’t come right out and say it, but he can actually think it and not stop breathing and that’s not a bad start at all.