He's not even supposed to be here.
That's the only thing Clint can think about as he stares into the crowd of people munching away on barbeque and birthday cake and happily chattering amongst themselves. As he zeroes in on one man in particular, wearing pressed jeans and a loose-fitting t-shirt, staring down at his chocolate-sprinkled cupcake in bemusement, completely unaware of Clint's eyes on him.
I'm not supposed to be here, Clint thinks again, and he almost turns around and runs back to New York right then, because it would be easier. Easier than seeing this, easier than dealing with what he's seeing right here in front of him even though it's impossible, has to be impossible.
Six years ago, Phil Coulson died when he faced down with a god and didn't come out on top. Six years ago, Nick Fury told Clint that his handler, his best friend, his entire reason for being the man he was now, was gone. Six years ago, Clint spent two weeks drowning himself in Natasha's vodka and his own guilt.
Five years, eleven months, and two weeks ago, he crawled out of his alcohol-induced haze long enough to remember that Fury lied, and then he began searching. He looked everywhere, on his downtime and during missions, every crevice in New York and around the globe. He searched secure databases and open networks, and even convinced JARVIS into some of the places he couldn't hack himself.
Three years and five months ago, Natasha punched him in the jaw after a mission that went sour on his watch, because he'd been distracted and trying to secretly follow up on a non-lead at the same time, and he was finally forced to give up the search as a lost cause. The flicker of hope in his chest had died, and it felt like Clint had lost him all over again.
And now here he is, staring at Phil Coulson like a ghost from the past, and he remembers again that Fury lies, and for the first time he also recalls, but so does Coulson. And Coulson had always, always, been better at it.
So here Clint is. He's on suspension from S.H.I.E.L.D., and Cap told him flat-out the Avengers don't need him until he's cooled down from that incident, which he thinks is going to take a while, since he can't even think about it without grinding his teeth. In the meantime, he's been barhopping and hitchhiking his way from one state to the next for a couple weeks now.
He's got nowhere to be and nothing left to lose.
It's nothing at all to shimmy his way up the tree at the edge of the property in this suburban hellscape, to find a spot with a clear view of the guests that still keeps him well hidden. He's still got the mini-crossbow Tony slipped him on his way out of S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters, and the receipt from his current motel is easily affixed to one of the small arrows.
And then he waits, perched like the bird he's codenamed for, and he watches.
Eventually, as expected, his target makes his way to the edge of the crowd of partygoers, heading for a place he can surreptitiously dispose of his chocolate atrocity. Clearly Coulson hasn't changed that much, wardrobe notwithstanding. It would almost make Clint grin, if he wasn't pissed off enough to spit fire right now.
He takes careful aim, waits until Coulson's looking in the opposite direction, and shoots. He knows it hits the cupcake dead center because he hasn't missed a single mark in ten years, but he doesn't stick around to check, already hurrying down and out of sight and away.
At least he gets to hear the surprised yelp, though. He didn't even know Coulson could make that sound.
The morning was completely normal. Roll out of bed, fifty push-ups. Shower, breakfast, an hour of training on the practice range. Bring coffee to Coulson because the man was useless without his caffeine fix and they both hated the sludge S.H.I.E.L.D. provided.
It was sunny out, and he had the vague idea that maybe he'd be able to trick his handler into taking a break for a walk somewhere before he went on duty in the labs.
Idle conversation while Coulson sipped gratefully at his coffee, a grin and a wink as Clint reached for the door handle to go.
"What time do you get off?" Coulson asked, and then before Clint could reply, he said, "Right, never mind. Lab duty always runs late. Well, meet me back here anyway if you want, I'll treat you to a very late – or very early, I suppose – pancake breakfast down at the diner. I know you hate being assigned to Selvig's lab all day." Coulson's lips twitching up into an almost-smile, and the answering thump of Clint's heart.
"It's a date, sir."
One thing you can say for Phil Coulson, he's nothing if not prompt. Clint hasn't even been back in his room for five minutes before he hears the knock on the door, which is a shame because he's still shaking with adrenaline and anger and fear and God only knows what else, and he's definitely not ready for this confrontation.
But he'll be damned before he lets any of that stop him. He jerks the door open and drags Phil inside by the shirt collar, shoving him against the wall and getting right in his face and demanding, "Tell me about Budapest in the next twenty seconds or I put an arrow through your temple and leave you for the cleaning crew."
Of course, Phil doesn't hesitate. Doesn't even flinch, the bastard. He just stares at Clint for an endless five seconds of his twenty, and then he says, "You received some bad intel. You got yourself and Black Widow trapped in a standoff against two-dozen insurgents who were holding your handler hostage. You saved both her and yourself, and you saved him, and you didn't leave a single one of them alive." He blinks, his lips quirking down a little.
"Your guilt over that last part had you taking the blame for the failed op, giving Widow the credit for the save, and typing up a resignation letter you know Fury would have burned before accepting. Luckily, your handler had the sense to set the record straight on all counts, and smack you over the head a few times."
"Jesus." Clint lets go abruptly, raking his hands through his hair and retreating three fast steps back. "Jesus fucking Christ, Coulson. Where the fuck have you been?"
Phil sighs as he straightens his rumpled t-shirt. He's not looking at Clint when he says, "I retired, Barton. I didn't have much of a choice, according to the doctors who fixed my heart. Too much stress would have done what Loki's scepter didn't quite manage."
The breath Clint draws in at that isn't nearly as steady as he was hoping to be for this conversation. "And the new identity? The disappearing? The lying and making me – us – think you were dead?" Yeah, he definitely sounds bitter. Well, fuck it. He is bitter. He thinks he has a right to be.
"Ah." At least Phil has the grace to look guilty. "That was Director Fury's call. Apparently, the World Security Council got it into their heads that I was the one person with any power over the Avengers. Since you trusted me, they wanted to bring me in. Use me. A means to an end, basically."
"That's…" Clint swallows, doesn't say what he really thinks because he's supposed to be working on his anger management right now, and if he starts saying all the things about the Council that he wants to, he'll probably never be calm again.
"I agree." Phil responds to the words Clint doesn't say, a skill he hasn't lost with lack of practice, apparently.
Clint sags against the wall next to Phil, mostly so he won't have to look at him anymore, folding his arms and blinking hard down at the carpet. "But damn it, why me? I mean, I get you couldn't tell all of them. But. I thought—" He cuts himself off abruptly, but it's too late and he knows it.
"Barton." Phil pauses, then pushes himself off the wall and turns so he's facing Clint directly, and way too close. "Clint. If there's anyone I wanted to tell…but I couldn't. You were being too closely watched then, and Fury warned me not to specifically. He said you were too close, that you'd never be able to hide it if you knew. I knew better, but I was badly injured and I couldn't argue."
Clint leans his head back until it thumps against the wall. "And, what? After you got better, it was just easier not to care?"
"Yes," Phil replies, surprising Clint enough that he blinks and stares at his former handler. "Or to pretend, anyway. You were off saving the world, and I was…here. Useless."
Shaking Phil until the stupidity he's been infected with rattles loose won't solve anything, Clint reminds himself. But God, it's tempting anyway. "You're an idiot," he growls instead, and has the pleasure of watching Phil flush when the words hit home.
"I know." Phil shrugs, stuffing his hands in the pockets of his jeans. He takes a small step back. "Hindsight. Nothing I can do about it now except to apologize."
"I haven't heard an apology yet," Clint says pointedly. He folds his arms, glaring at his former handler.
Phil actually smiles a little, and Clint wonders if it's a trick of the light that's making his eyes look shinier than normal. "I'll apologize over breakfast tomorrow, how about that? I still owe you, anyway."
He stomps down hard on the hysterical laughter that wants to bubble up and out of him. He holds back the obvious joke, the, 'If I get brainwashed between now and then, I'm blaming you,' because he doesn't think either he or Phil will be able to handle jokes like that right now. Probably not ever. Instead, he can only nod. "I'll hold you to it."
"That's all right. I'll hold you to not disappearing before then." Phil has always known him too well. He moves to the door, and Clint doesn't make any move to stop him. With his hand on the knob, Phil pauses. Doesn't look at Clint when he says, "I'm glad you're here, Barton."
"I'll see you in the morning, sir."
The only thing that really changed was Clint's devotion.
Everything he loved, everything that made his life worth living, everything he fought for and cared for and yearned for, faded into the background and was replaced by Loki.
After, that was the thing that would hurt the most. Knowing that his love, his heart, wasn't strong enough. That he was too weak to hold on to and protect the things that mattered most.
The people who mattered most.
Clint looked tired, worn around the edges in a way Phil doesn't think he's ever seen, even after all the years they worked together. Even at his worst, even when he was first recruited, Clint never looked so raw.
Phil keeps up with the news, he knows every single time the Avengers are out there doing what they do best. But that doesn't tell him what put that look in Clint's eyes, or why the marksman has been suspended from his job and the team. It doesn't tell him why Clint is inches away from a total meltdown, or what Phil can possibly do to fix it.
It doesn't tell him why he still feels like this, worries like this, even now after all this time.
The diner is warm and bright when he steps inside. It's early, and they never agreed on a time or exchanged phone numbers (Phil still has Clint's memorized anyway, assuming it hasn't changed), but if Clint hasn't skipped town, he'll be here. Habits are habits, after all.
Sure enough, the small round table in the shadowy corner toward the back has a sole occupant, hunched over with his elbow on the Formica and his chin propped on his fist as he looks over a grease-stained menu. Clint looks sleep-rumpled still, like he came here directly from rolling out of bed, and something in Phil's chest does a weird little somersault at the sight of the mussed hair and the sleepy eyes.
He takes a seat across from Clint, surprised when the man visibly startles. "Morning," he greets as calmly as he can manage. He doesn't bother with the menu; he knows it by heart already. "Sleep well?"
Clint scowls. "Peachy, thanks." Before Phil can so much as frown, Clint cringes. "Sorry. I'm… damn. I'm sorry. You ever have that moment when you're so goddamn happy about something that you could explode from it, but at the same time, you're angry enough to shoot the thing making you happy?"
Phil blinks and can't stop his mouth from quirking up. "I might be a little familiar with that conundrum, yes," he says, and takes great pleasure in the way Clint stares for a few seconds, and then pretends to look outraged. Then Phil sobers again. "I imagine it's probably worse in your case, though." He tries to focus on the positive: Clint is happy to see him. Somewhere below the surface, it's not all bitterness and resentment the way Phil feared it would be. Surely that's got to count for something.
The waitress, Billie, comes to take their orders. She gives Phil a bright grin when she greets them, asks him how his summer vacation is going and if he's looking forward to getting back to his kids in the fall.
"Jesus," Clint says when she's gone. He's staring at the table and wearing a look like a kicked puppy. "I shouldn't have done this. You have a whole damn life here, and here I am, screwing things up like usual."
"Don't," Phil demands, grabbing the hand that Clint tries to rub over his face. Trying to ignore the way his heart is pounding so frantically in his chest, the way he's already preparing for how he'll chase Clint down if he runs. And he will give chase, he already knows that. He thought he could live without this, these people, him, but he's already sure that losing it again would do him in for good. He doesn't know how he made it this long. "Please don't say that."
Clint's never been good at calling him by his first name except when it really matters, when his emotions are so close to the surface that they're ready to burst out at any moment. Hearing it now, Phil can't help but let himself crack, finally spill some of the truths he's been burying inside for a long time now. "I never wanted this life, and I wouldn't be sorry to leave it behind," Phil says, lowering his voice so only Clint has a prayer of hearing him. "It's been hell, Clint, do you understand that? I exist here, but it's not a life. It's not home. It's not…it's not you."
He doesn't entirely know what to make of the way Clint startles, the way his eyes go impossibly wide and his breath catches. "You…what?"
Phil leans back in his chair with a sigh. "You know, the day everything happened with Loki, I'd finally decided I was done hiding it. I was going to take you out for breakfast and tell you how I felt. It would have been outrageously juvenile and completely inappropriate and I just didn't care anymore. I even had a spreadsheet prepared, how we could make it work if you were interested in pursuing something. With me." He smiles sadly, remembering the color-coding of the spreadsheet and the bubbly anticipation and the way he'd enjoyed imagining the director's expression. "So, really, you showing up here out of the blue and entirely by accident? Not the worst thing that's ever happened to me."
Clint stands, shoving his chair back so abruptly it almost clatters to the floor. "I need some air," he says gruffly, and marches out of the diner before Phil can say a word.
It's not exactly the most surprising reaction.
Billie comes over, looking worried. "Is everything all right, Mr. Francis?" she asks.
Phil just sighs again and puts his head in his hands.
Clint was in trouble.
And there was nothing Phil could do.
Instead, he did his best to hide what he was feeling. He put his all into assembling the team, finding the Tesseract, pretending it was just another day at the office. If he babbled a little more than usual, or made a fool of himself in front of his childhood hero, he could perhaps forgive himself for it, because at least it meant he wasn't curled up somewhere being useless with his fear.
And then the ship was attacked, and his only thought then was that he had to provide a distraction. He had to keep Loki occupied for just long enough that Natasha (it was always going to be Natasha, of course) could figure out how to get Clint back.
He had a really big gun, and he had conviction, and those two things were more than enough. If he didn't make it out of this, at least he knew that Clint would.
"Thought you'd be halfway to Mexico by now," Phil says, tentatively leaning against the brick beside Clint.
"Not running away," Clint replies. His voice is low and rough, and he won't look at Phil, but that's okay. He's still here.
Phil decides to try something a little easier. "So, tell me about the team. I know the Avengers are okay, that much is easy enough to get from the news. But how is Natasha? And Tony and Bruce, and Thor, and…" He hates that he can't help the way his face flushes a bit. He loves but will pretend to hate the answering smirk he sees when he glances over.
"And Steve?" Clint's gaze slides over to meet his, his lips still curling.
Clint laughs, letting the previous tension break a little even as he faces forward again. "Everyone else is…good, actually. They're doing okay. Steve went to see Peggy a couple years back, just before she passed away. Guy didn't talk to anyone for a week after, but I think it did him some good. Thor's on Asgard a lot, but he's getting more used to how shit works here. Bruce and Tony are working on a serum to give Bruce more control over his emotions, or something…honestly, when those two talk it's like trying to understand a dead language. And Natasha…" His smirk widens. "Well, these days, you'd be better off asking Tony and Pepper, to be honest. They see her more than I do."
Phil blinks, taking that in. "Are you implying… You know what, never mind. I don't need to know."
"Yes," Clint answers anyway, because he's a bastard. They're quiet for a long moment, and then, "You should've told me sooner."
Phil's heart skips a couple beats.
Clint sighs. "Christ, that's not fair at all, is it? Not like you're the only one who coulda said something." He folds his arms, closing his eyes as he leans his head back against the unforgiving brick.
Now there's a painful throbbing in Phil's chest. "Clint—"
It's the space of one heartbeat to the next that Clint moves in, so that when Phil blinks, suddenly he's right in front of him, radiating heat, eyes dark with something Phil doesn't know how to put into words.
"I'm not letting us make all the same stupid mistakes this time," he says. His voice is gravel-rough, like every word aches. One of his hands grips Phil's hip while the other comes up to brush against his cheek, and Phil is absolutely sure that he has to be dying right now because there's no way he can survive this intensity. "Not letting you go again." Clint's eyes fall closed for a moment as he takes an unsteady breath. "I'll stay here with you if I have to, but don't make me leave you again."
Phil starts at that, his eyes wide as he pushes Clint back just enough to read his expression. "You can't stay here, Clint. You're an Avenger. That's more than a job to you. You love it."
"I love you more," Clint says, laying it right out there. Phil's too-fragile heart skips another couple beats, and then begins thumping so hard that he's afraid it's going to beat right out of his chest and into Clint's hands.
"I'll go back with you," Phil says, and it's the first time he's thought about it, but he instantly knows that it's the right choice. The only choice. "I'll go back to New York. Screw whatever Fury and the Council have to say about it."
Clint laughs, sounding broken open in a hundred different ways, and rests his forehead against Phil's. "Dating a superhero is gonna be really bad for your heart, Phil."
"I've worried about you every day since I recruited you, and a lot more in the last six years. If anything, being able to keep a closer eye on you will probably improve my stress levels immensely." He won't be allowed in the field, may not be allowed anywhere near S.H.I.E.L.D. at all because Fury is a surprisingly overprotective asshole. But he'll be close. He'll be there to patch Clint up when he comes home. He'll be able to hold on and know that Clint is okay.
God, he needs that. He's needed that for so long.
The look in Clint's eyes is piercing, stripping away every defense Phil has ever had. "I want it all, Phil," he says, too serious. "If you come back for me, I want every single part of you. You're damn well gonna marry me, and you're never, ever gonna pull this shit again."
Phil's laugh is breathless, his heart thundering so loud in his ears he can barely hear himself think. He wonders if this is a dream, because it feels like one, it feels a lot like a lot of dreams he's had both before and since Loki. He doesn't feel anything like the Phil Coulson that Clint used to know, and yet he feels everything like that guy, in ways he hasn't felt like in a long time. "You haven't even kissed me yet," he manages to say.
Clint sways a little closer. "Yeah, well you haven't given me that apology you promised yet."
Phil swallows. "I'm sorry, Clint. I'm so s—"
"Shut up," Clint growls, and presses Phil hard against the brick as he swoops in and claims his mouth in a brutal kiss.
This doesn't feel like a dream. It feels like flying, or maybe falling, but it feels like the exact opposite of a dream as Phil's hands come up to clamp around Clint's arms, like he's afraid Clint will disappear if he dares let go. (He is afraid. He's terrified. He's also never been surer of anything or anyone in his life.)
Clint licks at Phil's lips, moaning into Phil's mouth when it opens under his, but he pulls back before it can go any further. Breathing hard, he rests his forehead against Phil's again. "You haven't answered me yet," he says, breathless. "About my conditions." His voice is a whisper pressed into Phil's skin as he hides his face against Phil's neck.
"Yes," Phil says. "To all of it." He doesn't say the please sitting on the tip of his tongue, but he's pretty sure Clint hears it anyway. "Let's go home, Clint."
"Yeah," Clint replies. He's beaming at Phil when he pulls away now, looking more alive than Phil's seen him since last night in the motel room. "Home sounds pretty damn good."
He closes his hand around Phil's, and he doesn't let go.