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Clint Barton's used to suits barking orders: Status report. Sit-rep. Update. What the hell are you doing, Barton? That last one's never a question so much as it's a "this is going in your file" kind of warning. By now, Clint's used to the way his name sits in other people's mouths, like sour candy. He knows as far as most of SHIELD goes he's something to be spit out rather than swallowed.

It galls a lot of the college boys in suits that Clint's as good as he is at his job. It makes it hard for them to suggest getting rid of him, and the last guy who tried out the "it's either me or him" routine on Director Fury was shown the door.

"And you," Fury said, pointing a finger at Clint. It was surprising how menacing a one-eyed glare could be, and Clint immediately quashed the smirk he'd been wearing during the debriefing/firing. "If you cost me one more good agent—"

"Are we talking about Agent Rand?" Clint couldn't help the skeptical eyebrow. He really couldn't.

"I said, good agent, Barton, so no, we're not talking about former agent Rand." Fury stood up and leaned forward on his desk so Clint was about eye-level with the patch, which was more than a little creepy. "Your name has been coming across my desk a lot lately, and not in the good way. You may be the World's Greatest Marksman, but if you continue to work on being the World's Greatest Pain in the Ass, we will drop you at the nearest circus tent, possibly from this carrier and without a parachute, and we will not look back."

"Sir."

"The only thing I'd better be hearing about you for the foreseeable future is that you hit your targets, and that you are a goddamn pleasure to work with. Am I making myself clear?"

Clint knew an invitation to retreat when he saw one. He might not have gone to college, but he wasn't stupid, and getting paid to do what he did best was about the most anyone could ask for in life.

"Perfectly clear, sir," Clint said.

Word about Rand's firing made its way through the ranks pretty fast, so now the suits mostly put up with Clint because they like their jobs even if they don't like him. That's fine. Clint can work with that.

He knows he's got a rep for being difficult—"problems with authority figures," the shrinks like to say—and that's only slightly less problematic than his rep for being a few arrows short of a quiver. You jump off one measly ten story building without a harness (or a grapple, or backup), and suddenly you're "crazy."

But then SHIELD gets a new agent in charge of Field Operations and things start to change. At first, he's nothing more than a rumor, a whisper down the comm lines, and all Clint knows is a last name: Coulson. As far as anyone can tell the guy's first name is "Agent" with a capital "A."

"He's like a spook's spook," Malone says in the break room, and Clint's all ears. He takes his time fixing himself a cup of tea. Chamomile with honey and lemon. He'd spent the last two days on a rain-soaked rooftop with Agent Sitwell, and his throat feels raw.

"I hear he's ex-Special Forces," Lind says.

"No way. Definitely Army Rangers," someone else counters, and then the speculation really starts, everyone throwing their bits and pieces of gossip into one messy pot while they drink their coffee.

Near as Clint can tell this Agent Coulson must be a robot or the result of some government experiment, either of which is not as far-fetched as he used to think before he started working for SHIELD. Even he's heard the stories about them experimenting with super-soldiers back in the forties, and he can't get the image out of his mind that this Coulson's a seven-foot tall cross between Jean-Claude Van Damme and Duke Nukem except with a Men in Black suit and aviator shades.

Everyone agrees Coulson's got to be ex-military, but no one can confirm what branch of the services he might've been in. It's rumored he's a top-notch marksman, possibly a sniper even, and Clint bristles a little at the suggestion he might have serious competition. He'll believe it when he sees it. Apparently Coulson's also fluent in nine languages, can kick your ass in pretty much any martial art, and supposedly rescued six hostages in Afghanistan with nothing more than a Swiss Army knife, a bottle of Jack, and a Zippo lighter.

"He sounds like fucking James Bond."

"He's Batman," Sitwell says, and the room degenerates into hoots and terrible Michael Keaton impersonations, which are ten times better than the Sean Connery and Pierce Brosnan impressions.

On top of everything else, Coulson's supposed to be ex-CIA, ex-FBI, ex-MI-6, ex-NSA, and a few other acronyms Clint isn't familiar with. At this point, Clint wouldn't be surprised to hear the guy can walk on water he's turned into wine, too.

"Maybe this Coulson just can't hold a job," Clint offers, and is pleased with the laughter that follows.

Lind's shaking his head, and usually he's a guy who gets his intel straight, so Clint's inclined to listen a little more closely to what he has to say. "Fury's impressed with this guy, and nobody impresses Fury, so you know he's something else."

"He's supposed to be a real heavy hitter," Fletcher offers. "By the book all the way, chapter and verse. One of those guys they bring in to clean house."

That shuts everyone up nice and tight for about ten seconds, and Clint can't stand the tension. This guy hasn't even shown up yet, and he's got half of SHIELD punching up their resumes and the other half jumping at shadows. Clint may not be a huge fan of the rules and regs that go with the place, but it's currently home and he doesn't want that to change.

"You know what I heard?" he says. His voice sounds like a pair of rusty chains dragging over someone's grave because his throat fucking hurts and the tea's not helping much. The room's so quiet he can hear Fletcher's mildly asthmatic breathing, the moment Malone gulps his mouthful of coffee. "I heard he once killed a guy with a fucking paperclip."

"Shit," someone whispers. Clint keeps his eyes focused on the tea in his hand, but Sitwell walks up to him and dips his head low enough to get a look at Clint's eyes.

"You motherfucker," Sitwell says, punching him in the shoulder. "You're so full of shit."

There's an unsteady round of laughter and curses when Clint starts to grin, and people begin to wander back to where they're actually supposed to be. Clint sips his tea and cheerfully flips Sitwell off when he suggests Clint "go down to medical and get some goddamn lozenges, you sound like Joan Rivers."

Clint tries not to be the guy who goes looking for trouble, mainly because trouble seems to find him whether he's looking or not, and he doesn't want to give Fury any more reason to question Clint's value as an asset.

So, he puts Coulson out of his mind. He'll deal with the guy when and if he has to. That's if the guy ever really shows up; Clint's half-convinced Coulson's a scary bedtime story the director cooked up to keep the junior agents in line. He wouldn't put it past Fury.

*

Clint's on assignment in one of those tiny African countries that's changed names and leadership more times than anyone can track. There are at least two dozen agents on this op, including Sitwell, and Clint's been happy to leave the political stuff to someone else. It doesn't matter to him anyway. He's here to eliminate a target—if the suits in charge can figure out who it is they actually want taken out. The players keep changing, and Clint's starting to wonder if they shouldn't just get the hell out of Dodge and let the country figure things out on its own or die trying.

Of course, the senior agents come to the same conclusion about the time revolution breaks out, and Clint's stranded on a probably tetanus-inducing rusted water tower, ducking machine gun fire and trying to ration both bullets and arrows. Sitwell's position's been over-taken and Clint doesn't have eyes on him. It's worrying, but there's not much he can do about it at the moment. Clint's trying to broadcast troop and rebel movements and anything helpful he can see, but there's so much noise on the comms, he's not sure anyone's listening to him. He does it anyway.

Suddenly, a man cuts through the radio chatter like the voice of God, ringing sharp and clear through ten channels of chaos, and miraculously people shut up. It's Agent Coulson.

Clint will give it to the guy; he knows how to make a first impression. He sounds absolutely calm and almost reassuring as he asks pointed questions and issues crisp no-nonsense orders. Clint can feel the collective exhale of the SHIELD operatives as training overrides panic, and people start preparing for evac in a somewhat orderly way.

There's a click to tell Clint someone's tapped into the channel he's broadcasting on, then Coulson's in his ear calmly saying, "Talk to me, Agent Barton," as if they do this all the time. The words aren't delivered like an order, and Clint, who generally feels an urge to do the opposite of what he's told, finds himself bringing the guy up-to-date—as asked, and without a hint of sarcasm. No one's more surprised than Clint. He chalks it up to the situation and some unconscious desire not to fuck-up the new guy in the middle of an international incident. Clint's good that way.

"You're on the central water tower?" Coulson clarifies, and there's the sound of keys tapping as if Coulson's pulling up an image of the area. Truthfully, Clint doesn't even know where the guy is. He could be on the ground, in the air, or a thousand miles away with a laptop, which is probably most likely. Clint's met a lot of Field Ops people who never actually go into the field. He didn't think Coulson was overseeing this op, but then again, Clint supposes the agent in charge can pretty much check up on any mission any time he wants.

"Yes, sir. Position confirmed."

"The rusted metal structure that's leaning like the Tower of Pisa and no longer has an exit ladder?"

Clint looks over the edge to see the ladder disappearing into the crowd. Well, he hadn't been planning on using it anyway, and they seem to have something in mind for it the way they're approaching the local government building. Clint's not about to argue with them.

"That's the one, sir."

There's a pause on the line. "Do you need a lift out, Barton?"

"Not necessary, sir. I was actually thinking I'd take the short way down, and bring the water tower with me. Might help cool off some of the more bloodthirsty elements."

Clint's already pulling an explosive arrow from his quiver when he hears what sounds like a chuckle from Coulson. Clint waits to be told to forget it and to get his tail back to base without unnecessary property destruction, at which point he figures it's out of his hands if an arrow with an explosive charge just happens to go off while he's in retreat.

"Good thinking," Coulson says. "Be careful on the way down, or medical will be waiting for you with a tetanus shot."

"Understood, sir. Barton out."

Clint laughs because honestly, he's got the best job in the world, and Coulson might actually be an alright guy if he can recognize the value-added play of providing a distraction while also dispersing the angry mob. Clint sets up his descent line at the rear of the tower and jumps off the instant he releases his arrow. He's half-way down when the tower makes a horrendous creaking sound and begins to topple forward, water spilling from the gaping hole in the reservoir's center and onto the crowd. There are shouts of surprise, a few screams, but mainly people are working at getting out of the way, the crowd dispersing outward from the central square. Revolution quelled, Clint thinks, at least for the moment.

Four armed men in SHIELD field uniforms jog up as Clint touches the ground. "Follow us, Agent Barton," the first man says. "Agent Coulson asked us to direct you to an evac point."

"Where is he?" Clint asks, wondering if he's going to get a chance to meet the voice in person and put a face to the name.

"One of the carriers, sir," the man says, and Clint knows better than to press for information in an unsecured location. He nods and falls in step with the four men. He'd anticipated having to get back to base on his own, but Coulson seems to have thought of everything. In less than ten minutes, Clint's on a helicopter en route to the air base where a troop transport is waiting to take them and a bunch of U.S. military personnel to Europe, and then home.

Grabbing a seat in the back of the Hercules, Clint finds Sitwell with a bandaged head and a rueful expression.

"I didn't mean to leave you hanging," Sitwell says over the noise of the engines revving up. "I would've gone back for you, but I was kind of unconscious at the time."

Clint waves him off. "It's fine. I got to talk to Agent Coulson."

"Really?" Sitwell looks curious. "How'd that go?"

"He let me blow up the water tower."

"He did not."

"He really did." Clint can't help grinning like an idiot. "I think I like this Coulson."

A medic stops between them then, checking Sitwell's bandages for leakage and flashing a pen light in his eyes. Before Clint realizes what's happening, he feels the cool sweep of an alcohol-dipped cotton ball and the prick of a needle in his exposed bicep.

"What the hell?"

"Tetanus shot. Agent Coulson's orders," the medic replies with a shrug, withdrawing the syringe. "You were about due for one anyway."

"You know, you might be right, Barton." Sitwell's laughing practically in Clint's ear. "I think I'm going to like Agent Coulson too!"

Clint makes a face at him as he rubs the sore spot on his arm and settles in for the long flight home.

*

"Talk to me."

Clint thinks Coulson would've made an excellent psychologist, although he'd never tell him that. Clint's generally not fond of anyone associated with the mental health professions, and he wouldn't want Coulson to get the wrong impression. He means it as a compliment even if he can't quite explain why.

He likes the even tone of Coulson's voice, the way nothing ever seems to faze him, even things that leave Clint cold with fear. He thinks there's something to admire in that sense of almost ruthless calm. It definitely goes a long way toward keeping people together when the shit hits the proverbial fan, as it always does, sooner or later. Coulson's exactly the kind of guy who should be commanding missions from a secret helicarrier somewhere over the Atlantic.

He seems larger than life, even without all the hype, and Clint can't help but wonder if it's going to be a let down when he finally meets Agent Coulson. He doesn't honestly think so because there's something in that voice that says, trust me, and that's not something Clint believes from a lot of people no matter how much they want him to. But Coulson's the guy who always sounds confident. Certain. The word steadfast comes to mind, and Clint's not sure he's ever thought of anyone that way before. Coulson seems dependable, and in this business, that's a rare thing.

Clint's actually given it quite a bit of consideration. He's had time. People might think he goes into some kind of sniper head-space when he's waiting out a target, but the truth is, if his mind goes blank he's likely to fall asleep. So, he's gotten very good at selecting an idea to consider, and then pursuing it, logically, methodically, to its conclusion, or at least to a point where the thought no longer holds his interest.

So, yeah, he's probably spent more than his fair share of moments considering Agent Coulson and the way his disembodied voice over the comm feels more grounding than many of the handlers Clint's worked with side-by-side. Yet it's still a mystery to him how Coulson manages to do what he does, and how some of the agents think the guy's standoffish. Cold. Distant. Clint doesn't get it. As far as he's concerned, Coulson's the guy you want to have working the other end of the suicide hotline, the one who's there to comfort the dying.

Clint knows what he's talking about. He's been in that position more than once—the dying part, anyway—and there's no real comfort to be had when you're on an empty rooftop, bleeding out from two bullet holes, unable to tell if it's blood or rain soaking through to your skin. He's cold and everything fucking hurts, but it's made a hundred times more bearable by that voice in his ear.

"Barton, I need you to talk to me."

It could be the start of any other mission, Clint settled in his nest high above everyone, Coulson's voice steady and warm in his ear. But the mission's already gone to hell and Clint doesn't have any answers for him. There's no one else on the comms, and Clint knows that's bad. There were six agents with him and Clint hasn't heard anyone except Coulson since the guns went quiet. Clint can hear a chopper somewhere in the distance and there's rain in his eyes, but he can't seem to lift his hand to wipe it away. He doesn't really want to die like this, cold and wet and alone on a rooftop, although he supposes it's not really a surprise. He's been heading here for most of his life.

"Come on, talk to me. Don't go radio silent on me now. You never have before."

It's true, and Clint knows it drives Coulson a little nuts sometimes, but it's part of the game, and he's very good at knowing just how hard he can push before Coulson gets legitimately pissed off. There's an undercurrent of a tone, as obvious as an eye twitch to Clint, and the tension Clint imagines is settled in Coulson's jaw translates into a shortening of his vowels, sharper consonants. All Clint can think is that he'd like to meet this guy with the great voice and the seemingly unflappable calm and the uncanny ability to know exactly when things have gone to hell even if he's a thousand miles away on a helicarrier and Clint hasn't said a word.

"I know you've got something to say. You always have something to say, Barton. Talk to me."

And it probably means he's pretty far gone, but Clint doesn't want to let Coulson down, so he says the first thing that comes to mind, and it's the bit about Coulson having that amazing voice, and Clint would like to have met him once. Just once. They're strangely intimate for people who've never met. Clint's pretty sure he's told Coulson stuff he hasn't told people he's sleeping with and that's kind of weird. It doesn't seem right he's spent all this time with a guy whose first name he doesn't even know.

“It's Phil," Coulson says with such warmth Clint thinks he can feel it down to his toes. "Keep talking, Clint. We're coming."

Either Phil really is that amazing, or Clint's stopped noticing the cold and the pain, and he'd be thrilled, except he knows it probably means his body's shutting down, adrenaline and endorphins trying to ease the way. Coulson's saying something, louder, more emphatic, and Clint gets the impression he's disappointed him somehow. He's sorry about that.

"Jesus, Barton, don't be sorry. We've got you in sight. Don't you dare check out on me now. If you hang on, if you promise to hang on, Clint, I'll come and get you myself.”

Clint smiles at Coulson's lame attempt at bribery. It tells Clint everything he needs to know about how much time he doesn't have. Clint pulls his strength together for one last snark.

“Aw, sir, you're going to make me think I'm special. What will the other agents think?"

“You are special, Hawkeye,” Phil says, and the conviction in his voice is more than a little overwhelming. Clint hears the stereo effect of the helicopter over his earpiece and right above him. Coulson's shouting to someone: "Get us down there now!"

The chopper blades whip a cloud of dust around Clint, and it feels good to close his eyes, rest for a minute. Then there are shouts, hands on his arms lifting him up. He's cold and stiff, the protesting ache of unmoved muscles, and Clint almost laughs with how relieved he is when someone fits an oxygen mask over his nose and mouth, someone else sticks a cannula in his hand and tapes it down. There's the familiar crinkle of an emergency blanket. Someone gently tugs the ear bud from his ear.

It's not over, but at least he's not going to bleed out on this rooftop in the cold, late summer rain. If he's going to kick it, he'll be warm and possibly drugged. It's more than he'd hoped for.

There's a hand on his arm, warm and solid, a squeeze.

"You're going to be okay,” comes from near Clint's right ear, and he knows that voice, would know it anywhere. He fights to open his eyes, but there's a gentle pressure like a hand against his chest. "Goddamn it, Barton, lie still and let them help.”

When Clint wakes up, the first thing he manages to rasp out is “water,” even before his eyes open. Somehow, miraculously, there's a strong hand helping him sit up, and a plastic straw pushing gently against his parched lips. He drinks greedily until the straw's withdrawn, and then that same firm grip is laying him back gently. Clint expects to see a nurse or a doctor, someone in white or green scrubs.

Instead it's a guy a bit older than Clint, with light brown hair, a dark suit and an unassuming face. His eyes blue and sharp, and there's a flash of relief that's there and gone in a blink. Clint doesn't know who he is except ... he does.

“Coulson?”

The man's response is a smile that just lifts the corners of his mouth, barely a smile at all, but Clint thinks it looks like the biggest shit-eating grin he's ever seen. He's too high on the good drugs to worry he might be hallucinating.

“Nice to meet you, Agent Barton. Although, I have to say, if I'd known you wanted to meet me so badly, I would've arranged something before this. You didn't have to go and get yourself shot just to get me to introduce myself properly.”

"Not everything's about you," Clint says automatically, half under his breath, and it's the first time he hears Coulson laugh, spontaneous and loud. He kind of likes it. "Besides, you seem to be the one waiting for me to wake up." At the expectant raised eyebrow, Clint hastily adds a hoarse, "Sir."

"Not at all," Coulson counters smoothly. "I just stopped by to check when you might be returned to active duty status. There's a considerable amount of paperwork involved if I have to train a new asset to replace you."

As if you could, Clint thinks, and he knows Coulson can read the thought on his face. Now it's Clint's turn to laugh. "I thought I was special, sir."

"Oh, you're definitely special, Agent Barton." Coulson manages to make it sound as if Clint's as thick as a Cold War bunker and yet somehow also the prize at the bottom of the cereal box. It feels like teasing, which is strange and a bit confusing, but Clint still ends up smiling at Coulson. Phil, he thinks, somewhat giddy.

"Okay, I'm going to give you a pass on that one because you're on the good drugs, but you should really call me 'sir' when we're at work."

"What about when we're not at work?"

Phil stares at Clint for a moment, surprise evident in his half-open mouth, stalled on the edge of saying something. Then he shakes his head, and the calm, professional mask slides back into place.

"I guess we'll wait and see."

Clint's not sure if it's the drugs or the simple fact he doesn't usually have visitors when he's in medical. There's something in the way Phil's eyes are sizing him up, and it makes Clint feel flushed and a little afraid. He licks his dry lips and accepts the water more steadily this time. It's been a pretty good day, what with the not dying, and he's finally gotten to meet Phil, even if the circumstances were less than ideal. Clint's relieved to realize Coulson seems to be one of the good guys.

"Just do what the doctors tell you, Agent Barton." Phil sets the glass within easy reach. "The quicker you're back in the field, the better it will be for everyone."

"Yes, sir." The words slur together, and Clint can feel himself starting to fade. He fights it so he can say one more thing. "Thank you for coming to get me."

"Any time." Clint feels a solid touch on the skin of his forearm, and when Coulson speaks it's almost a whisper. "Thank you for not dying."

Clint hears the fading footsteps, the quiet click of the closing door. The heat where Phil's hand had briefly rested seems to linger long after the man has gone.

*

It's the beginning of a pattern that will hold for years: Phil says, “Talk to me,” and Clint does. It's an invitation and permission all in one, and it does things to Clint, unlocks something inside him. It's like his personal brand of kryptonite, better than the so-called truth serums the bad guys try to sweat them with for interrogations, and Clint has absolutely no idea why three simple words from Coulson make him want to open up.

It's entirely too much like the salivating dog and the bell, and Clint didn't ever see himself as the mutt in that scenario, so he refuses to make it easy for Phil. Sure, Clint's going to tell Phil what he wants to know—they're on the same team, here—but there's nothing that says he has to give up information easily. Clint indulges in sarcastic barbs, friendly teasing, shameless flirting, and occasionally making Phil's life downright miserable over the comms, but Clint's been hearing that voice in his ear long enough to know when there's room to be a smart-ass and when he needs to stick to business.

"Talk to me, Agent Barton." Coulson's words are clipped and he's switched them to a secure, encrypted channel. Clint knows he's over-stepped. It's the first time he's ever disobeyed a direct kill order from Coulson, and Clint already knows there's going to be fall-out. Phil's politely restrained at the moment, probably because he can't be otherwise where he's at, but Clint knows he's got a limited amount of time to explain.

"She wants to come in."

"The Black Widow told you she wants to surrender herself to SHIELD?"

Clint knows he has to choose his words carefully. "Not in so many words, no."

"Agent Barton—"

"Sir, trust me. She wants to come in. She doesn't want to run anymore."

The pause is longer, and Clint can hear the market sounds from where Phil is set-up. They're not the only agents on this op because it's Black Widow, and the risks are substantial. Clint's got a pretty good idea there's a back-up sniper already in place, just waiting for the word from Phil.

"Safehouse. Fifteen minutes," Phil says. "And you'd better have a damn good sales pitch."

"Yes, sir."

Clint climbs through the window of the seedy apartment about two minutes before Coulson bursts through the door. He points at Clint and then to a seat at the kitchen table while he grabs two bottles of water from the fridge. He tosses one at Clint, and takes the other for himself.

"Sit. Talk to me. And make it good."

"She let me get her in my sights."

Coulson laughs. "I didn't think you'd ever have an ego problem, but okay, I'll play. Maybe you're just that good, Agent Barton."

"I'm not," Clint says honestly. "She's better. Probably the best I've ever seen. She knew I was there; she knows we're all here. She's asking for help."

"How do you know?" Phil asks. "And keep in mind if you say, 'I just know,' I'm well within my rights to shoot you."

Clint lets out a frustrated sigh and takes a drink. He pours a handful of water onto his palm and scrubs it through his hair. He's dry and dusty, and he's not sure he can explain, but he has to try.

"You've read my file, sir."

"Of course."

"So you know the only reason I'm SHIELD is because someone gave me a chance instead of a bullet to the head."

Phil sighs and sits down across from Clint. "You can't make it personal. Just because someone brought you in, doesn't mean—"

"It's not that." Clint knows he's doing a crap job of explaining this. "It's the look on her face."

Phil stares at him for a moment, then laughs sharply. "Jesus fuck, Clint. What do you expect me to do with that? This isn't my call, and Fury's going to have my head—and yours—if I go back to him with looks and feelings."

"Fury will accept whatever you tell him, and you know it. If you say you can bring her in, he'll say okay."

"It's not enough. Give me a reason why you're so sure that's what she wants."

"Because I know that look, Phil, alright? I've been there. When you're so damn tired of the running and the blood, when you don't remember what real food tastes like or what a bed feels like, and you start thinking a bullet in the head might be an improvement after all."

"Clint."

"I'm serious."

Phil sits back and studies his face. He sips his water. "I know you appreciate the position she's in, but is it possible that's clouding your judgment? She's a beautiful woman with an impressive set of—"

"Oh, fuck you."

"—skills, and it wouldn't be the first time someone's thought they could win her over." Phil doesn't blink. "Those people usually die in particularly unpleasant ways."

"If she was going to kill me, she already would've ..." Clint trails off at the look on Phil's face. It's angry and knowing, and Clint can sense more than see the hand Phil has on his sidearm, which is now drawn.

"She's here, isn't she?"

Clint feels a kick of breeze from the bedroom door opening silently behind him. He stands, and lets Black Widow have his chair, while he drifts to the side of the room. He casts an apologetic glance at Coulson. Clint figures it's going to take some time before Phil forgives him for this breach of trust.

It couldn't be helped, though. Clint had known that look in her eyes—defiant and lonely and so desperately fucked up you're on the verge of begging someone to show you another way out. It wasn't so much that he couldn't pull the trigger as he didn't want to; for once in his life, he wanted to be the person offering that second chance. He knew what it could mean to someone who thought she was all out of chances.

"Miss Romanov," Phil says, lips pursed, voice as pleasantly neutral as always. "Please keep your hands where I can see them. I'm Agent Phil Coulson of the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division. Let's talk."

*

"Clint, talk to me."

Phil's used to those words paving the way. They've always seemed to hold the key to getting Barton to talk, and not just chatter on the comms, but real conversations. Phil's grown to appreciate how Clint can make a long assignment pass with easy talk or equally comfortable silence. For such a long time Phil's been in charge of other agents, responsible for their lives, their orders. It's not a position that's conducive to friendships, and Phil's careful to maintain a certain distance. But Barton's always been different. Phil's only recently come to terms with how unique their back-and-forth is, and when Sitwell had said, "Will you stop flirting and do something about it already," Phil had given it considerable thought.

But now Phil's wondering if he's made a huge mistake, and possibly ruined his friendship with Barton too. He watches as Clint hits the target dead centre with one of his practice arrows.

"Clint, please." Phil holds out his hands in a placating gesture. "Help me understand what's going on here."

"I don't know what you want from me." A second arrow follows the first.

"What I want from you?" Phil laughs awkwardly. "I thought that part was fairly obvious considering I kissed you."

Clint glances at Phil, then at the security cameras in the shooting range.

"I thought it might be better if this talk wasn't on the record."

SHIELD doesn't have any hard-and-fast rules against fraternization as long as it doesn't interfere with the job, but Clint's been avoiding him for three days. Phil has to at least consider they might not be able to work together after this, and that more than anything, is making him want to figure things out, the sooner the better.

"Yeah, okay."

Clint starts to pack up his bow, and peels off his shooting glove. He grabs a seat on the long leather bench that's nearest the door and pulls a bottle of juice out of his bag. He doesn't meet Phil's eyes.

Phil takes a breath and wills himself to calm down. He can do this. "I'm sorry I upset you the other night. It won't happen again."

There's something about snipers and archers, the way they seem to be able to pierce all a person's secrets with a look. Clint's expression is wary, but he doesn't seem angry. Maybe Phil hasn't fucked things up completely.

"You didn't upset me." Clint's voice is quiet. Thoughtful. "Surprised, yeah, but not upset."

"But you've been avoiding me."

"I had some thinking to do."

Phil feels some of the tension lessening. "So, it wasn't the kiss?"

There's a grin touching the edges of Clint's mouth, and his cheeks are flushed. "The kiss was fine, Phil. It was a good kiss."

Phil's so damn relieved he almost grabs Clint and kisses him right there. "Then what?"

"I told you, I'm not sure what you expect, what you want." A shrug. "You kissed me; you must have had something in mind. I'm just trying to figure that out."

"Honestly, Clint, I wasn't thinking about anything other than hoping you would kiss me back."

Phil bites his lip remembering the moment Clint seemed to realize what was happening. Phil suddenly had his arms full of warm, enthusiastic archer, and it was the best feeling he could've imagined, at least until Clint had pulled away abruptly and said goodnight. Then had come three days of trying to talk to Clint and having him disappear every time Phil got close. He likes to think he's a sharp guy who picks up on things fast, but he feels as if he's missing the most important piece of the puzzle. Clint's look isn't giving Phil anything to go on.

"You must want something," Clint insists. "Everyone does."

The words are matter-of-fact, but Clint looks disappointed. Resigned. Phil suddenly knows with a dreadful certainty he's going to end this conversation wishing he could go back and beat up a lot of people who've been part of Clint Barton's life. Phil tentatively reaches out and slips a hand over Clint's, pleased when he doesn't immediately pull away.

"Let me see if I understand this," Phil begins. "You think I kissed you because I want something."

"Don't you?"

Phil pauses before he answers the question. He has a feeling whatever he says here is going to decide their future, and he wants Clint to be a part of that on more than just a professional level if it's even remotely possible.

"I do, but not what you think." Phil rushes on: "I want you to want to kiss me back. I want you to be happy. I want—I want you, Clint."

"So, sex then."

Phil finds himself shaking his head, and then wonders exactly what kind of an idiot he is. "I mean, yes, sex would be great, but we can take our time getting there. It's not something I want from you; it's something I'd like to share with you. If that's something you want, too."

Clint still looks puzzled, and Phil hates everyone who's contributed to Clint believing love and affection come at a price. He tries a different approach.

"I want to take you out to dinner. On a date." Phil wishes he didn't sound so much like a high school senior, but he's got a feeling spelling everything out is the only way he's going to convince Clint that there's no ulterior motive here.

"And then?" Clint's waiting for the other shoe to drop, and Phil can't help but hold his hand a little tighter.

"And then, I don't know. Maybe we'll take a walk or go to a movie, or maybe I'll ask if I can kiss you again. I probably should've asked the first time, but—well, I thought if I didn't just do it, I'd lose my nerve."

Clint smiles at that, an honest-to-God grin, and Phil finds himself leaning in before he can stop himself. When their lips are a breath away from meeting, Phil whispers, "I only want what you're willing to give, Clint. If you decide this isn't what you want, I won't hold it against you. This isn't blackmail. I just want a chance to see where this thing between us might lead. If you feel the same way."

"You're serious about this whole 'date' thing, aren't you?" Clint sounds surprised.

"Yes." Phil cups Clint's jaw in his hand. "I think it's time someone treated you better than you think you deserve."

"I think it's time you kissed me again," Clint replies, reaching out and pulling Phil closer, his warm mouth sure and strong against Phil's. It's a good kiss, better even than their first, Phil's hands sliding into Clint's wheat-coloured hair, reveling in the feel of Clint kissing him back.

"All I want is you," Phil says, pulling back only enough to be sure he's got Clint's attention. "Just you."

Clint still looks like he doesn't quite believe it, but Phil's willing to work on convincing him. He's a patient man, and he knows a good thing when he sees it. And when he kisses it.

Clint is definitely a good thing, and Phil plans on being good for him too.

*

"I need eyes up high. With a gun," Phil orders. There's no answering confirmation, but he knows Barton will already be running to the on-site armory to grab his rifle. Or more likely one of his bows. He has a certain fondness for disregarding Phil's instructions.

Phil can follow the progress of the big blond guy as he punches his way through the ranks of some of SHIELD's best men. If he wasn't so annoyed, Phil might be impressed by the show of force. But it's raining, it's late, and even though he's been expecting some sort of try for the "hammer"—he can't think of what else to call it—he's caught a little off-guard by the one-man wrecking crew who's getting closer all the time.

Phil checks in with his people, and then puts his radio close to his mouth. "Barton, talk to me."

"You want me to slow him down, sir? Or are you sending in more guys for him to beat up?"

"I'll let you know."

Phil ducks through the plastic-sheeted tunnels towards the centre of the complex. Lightning is brightening the sky every few seconds, and Phil remembers those old stories he'd read as a child; gods and legends who came from the sky to teach humanity lessons. He's seen a lot of things in his time at SHIELD, and he's not about to dismiss any possibility until he's given a good reason.

Barton interrupts his thoughts. "You better call it, Coulson. I'm starting to root for this guy."

Of course, Phil thinks. Clint might work for SHIELD, but he still operates a lot like an independent contractor. Sometimes Phil thinks it would be too easy to lose Clint and Tasha both; they could slip off the grid, and never be found unless they wanted to be. It worries him sometimes. It's no surprise Clint would root for the underdog, although Phil's not entirely certain a six-foot-five well-muscled and obviously well-trained fighter would fit anyone's definition of the underdog.

"Last chance, sir," Barton warns, and Phil can picture him up above in the basket with his bow drawn, steady and calm even as the rain pours off them both.

The blond's made it to the lower level of the central tower where the hammer's been since it was discovered in the center of an impact crater. The guy's moving with absolute intent. He knows what's here, and he's driven by more than some local's desire to try his hand at moving the immovable object. This is something different, and Phil can't help but want to see how it plays out.

Coulson knows Barton's window for a decent shot is rapidly closing, but he needs to know who this man is. If this artifact that apparently fell from the sky holds any answers.

"Wait," Phil says, trusting Barton to understand. "I want to see this."

He watches the blond approach the hammer with confidence, wrapping a big hand around its handle. His muscles tense as he pulls, and ... nothing happens. Phil sees the surprise there on the man's face, the absolute disbelief. As Phil watches him struggle two-handed to move the hammer, the man's expression shifts to disappointment, and finally, something closer to despair. He lets out a yell that tears at the sky, water running freely down his face from the rain. Phil's soaked too, the rain wetting him through to the skin, and he realizes he's disappointed too. He almost believed the big blond had come to retrieve something that was his by right, and it feels as if Phil's been witness to something deeply personal and private. He suddenly feels embarrassed to have been present for what he senses must be this man's greatest failure. The moment that hammer failed to move, the will to fight went out of him, the way a flame is snuffed completely between a finger and thumb.

"All right. Show's over."

The man's led away in cuffs, and Phil can hear the metallic whine of Barton's basket rig descending. He's sorry he dragged Clint out on a night like this for no good reason, but at the same time, he's grateful. Phil has a feeling this moment—however, disappointing—is still significant, and there's so much of his life he can't share with anyone, but it feels right to have Clint present for this.

If nothing else, maybe Phil can call it a night after he's checked on the big guy, asked a few questions. If he's very lucky, he'll be in time to catch Clint in the shower, and Phil can't imagine anything that would feel better right now than a hot shower and climbing into bed with his arms full of Clint Barton.

But first, duty calls. Phil wipes the rain from his face and heads back to the command trailer.

*

"Talk to me," Coulson says, and Clint can't help but smile even though there's no one around to see it. "And why are you smiling?"

Clint schools his voice into something that sounds more fitting a disgruntled sniper who's spent hours doing nothing but watching tumbleweeds—literally—blow by. It doesn't take much.

"After seven hours you think I'm smiling." Clint sounds skeptical. "I'm disappointed, sir. You realize that blows our chances for ever getting on The Newlywed Game."

Phil stops short of snorting over the open comm frequency. "Quite frankly, that's the least of the reasons why we wouldn't be considered for that show, Besides, I'm already married to my work, Barton. Isn't that punishment enough?"

"Ouch, sir. I guess this means the magic is dead."

"The magic won't be the only thing that's dead," Sitwell interrupts, "if you two don't shut up. A jury of my peers would never convict."

"Radio silence, Barton," Phil says, but he's not even trying to hide the chuckle in his voice.

"Radio silence, sir," Clint says, settling back into position. He's still smiling.

*

"Clint, you've got a concussion. I need you to stay awake. Talk to me."

It feels like Coulson's yelling in his ear, but Clint is willing to concede that it might be the loss of blood that's making the world seem so loud. A hand pats his face, harder than normal, and Clint remembers he lost his earpiece somewhere in the fight at least two warehouses back.

"Yeah, yeah, I'm here," Clint says, coming back to full awareness. He and Coulson are propped up against a set of crates in the ass-end of a hopefully-abandoned warehouse in Chechnya.

"Follow my finger."

Clint wants to roll his eyes, but he suspects it would hurt his head, so instead he heaves a put-upon sigh, which comes out more like a wet cough, and tries to track Phil's finger as it moves through the air. He thinks he's doing pretty well until Coulson snaps his fingers in front of Clint's face, and he realizes he'd zoned out again.

"Stay with me, Clint."

He's trying—honestly, he is—but everything feels heavy, as if someone's strapped weights to him, and all he wants to do is let that weight bear him down to the ground, press him into welcome sleep. He's tired. Why doesn't Phil understand that?

"You can sleep when I'm sure you'll wake up again," Phil says, patting his cheek hard enough to sting. Clint can't even manage a glare in his current rag-doll state. "Talk to me, Barton. Just until Natasha gets back with help. Tell me about the circus."

Clint snorts. "You don't want to hear about that."

"No, I do," Phil says, and he sounds sincere. He probably is, Clint knows. Phil's the kind of guy who takes a genuine interest in people's lives; Clint's usually impressed by it, but today all he wants is for Phil to shut up and let him sleep. He starts to lean, head tilting towards the floor. Maybe he can lie down without Phil noticing, but no, there's a sharp tug on his arm and he's sitting back up. Ware house. Crates. Concussion. Right.

So he skips past the bad memories because he's in no fit state to deal with that bullshit today, and zeroes in on the good things. The ones that make him actually want to stop and go past the gates when he spots a circus or an amusement park. It's the smells Clint will never forget. That combination of things you can't find anywhere else: machine oil, animal shit, fresh hay and sawdust. It's buttered popcorn and hotdogs, sunshine and crushed grass, and the sweet, sweet scent of candy floss. It's sweat, paint and longing. Anticipation. Blood.

Clint reaches out a hand to paw at Coulson's shoulder, ignores the swearing and finds the source of the wet, stickiness covering Clint's palm.

"You're bleeding, sir," he says, knowing he's stating the obvious, but it seems like it needs to be said since Coulson's been fucking ignoring it the entire time they've been here.

"So are you."

It's true, Clint knows. The ache in his thigh reminds him of the bullet that grazed there, but the wound's not deep. The rifle butt to his temple bloodied him up more than that, and he avoids touching the spot because his head already feels as if there's a chorus of bells going off in there.

"You're bleeding more."

Clint instinctively knows it's true, and it's coming back a bit now. The moment they knew their covers were blown was about the same time the bullets started flying, and they were out-numbered and out-gunned, even with Natasha waiting in the wings. When the smoke cleared, the bad guys were down, but so were they, and Natasha had been literally the only one left standing, and therefore, the one elected to get help.

"Does everything have to be a competition with you?" Phil says mildly.

"No. Not everything."

"Really. Name something."

Phil sounds profoundly skeptical, and it makes something in Clint's chest flare with the desire to prove him wrong. He concentrates. There's got to be something he's not freakishly competitive about. If he didn't have this stupid head injury, he's sure it would be coming to him. Phil just laughs when Clint tells him that.

"It's sweet you actually believe that," Phil says in a tone that's the vocal equivalent of a pat on the head.

"If you weren't bleeding, I'd smack you." Phil doesn't deserve a 'sir' at the moment, and Clint's not going to give him one.

"No, you wouldn't." It's softer and Clint kind of wishes he could curl up in that voice and go to sleep. Put his head on Phil's shoulder, and just ...

"Clint. Clint, don't fall asleep." There's a touch of alarm in Phil's voice, but it's quieter, and Clint forces his eyes open, forces his brain to fucking cooperate for ten seconds while he gets a good look at Phil. His shoulder's bloody, but no longer bleeding, but he's too pale by far. Even Clint in his slightly foggy state can see that.

"Phil, did you get hit? Besides the shoulder?"

The guilt lights up Phil's face like a neon sign. Clint swears and pulls himself to his knees, ignoring the wave of nausea that hits him. He pulls open Phil's suit jacket.

"Jesus, Phil!" The lower half of Phil's shirt is dark with blood. "You fucking idiot, why didn't you—does Tasha know how bad—"

Phil nods slightly. "She'll do her best."

Clint flinches. He knows Tasha's best is usually better than anyone's, but he's heard that tone in Coulson's voice before. It's the one that says, "You weren't responsible for what happened." It's meant to comfort him when people die on his watch, and Clint isn't fucking ready to lose Phil. He eases off Phil's jacket and uses it to help keep pressure on the wound.

"You should've told me," Clint says accusingly, "instead of letting me babble about the circus."

"I like your babble."

"Phil."

"She'll make it back in time, or she won't. There's nothing you can do. So just talk to me."

Clint lets his head drop forward as he keeps pressure on Phil's abdomen. "Why do you always say that to me? My entire life people have been telling me to shut the hell up, but not you."

"Because I don't know what you're going to say."

"That makes no sense."

"It does." Phil takes a deep breath, and it's clearly an effort. Maybe Clint should be the one doing all the talking after all. "Most people are predictable. After awhile, you know everything interesting there is to know. All their anecdotes, their stories."

"You've read my file. You know more than anyone."

"Your file isn't you."

Phil sounds exhausted, and Clint's head feels as if it might explode from the pressure. He's blinking every few seconds just to keep his eyes open.

"And what about when you know everything interesting about me?"

"Not possible. You'll always be interesting to me."

The smile that curves Phil's mouth is so genuinely happy, Clint feels something inside him break. He eases himself forward enough that he can kiss Phil, just a firm press of lips, acknowledgement of all those things they don't say. Clint's surprised by the strength of the man kissing him back, Phil's hand managing to find its way to Clint's nape, pulling him closer. He can't lose this.

"Don't leave me," Clint says, not caring if it sounds desperate. "Phil, please."

There are shouts outside, and the sound of a metal door being cranked open. Clint hopes it's not too late.

"Nat, he's not breathing," he shouts. There's the pounding of running feet, and then someone's there at his side, sliding him gently out of the way. They've started CPR and someone's readying an adrenal needle, the big scary ones they plunge straight into your heart, but Clint never sees if they need it because Tasha's right in his face, checking his eyes, and getting him to his feet.

"Let them work." Natasha slips under his arm to help support his weight without a backward glance, and because she's confident, Clint can be too. She wouldn't turn and walk away if she thought Phil was going to die, so Clint lets himself be led outside where the sky is dark and sharp with stars. Natasha is many things, but uncaring isn't one of them.

"You can pass out now," she says. Her voice is as close to kind as she ever gets, and Clint knows a good offer when he hears one.

"Okay," he says, and doesn't hesitate to obey.

They're going to be fine, he knows. They're all going to be fine.

*

"You're not saying anything." Phil sounds far too calm for the situation, and Clint is doing everything he can to pretend he's just as calm. That Phil hasn't completely blind-sided him.

Clint opens his mouth, then closes it again. It's not his best look, and he can't help that his eyes automatically search for the nearest exits when he's nervous. Phil, knowing exactly what he's doing, narrows his eyes slightly.

"Clint."

Mouth open. Closed. Clint feels as if he can't get a breath, as if there's a constrictor around his ribs, and his heart's thumping wildly, trying to get free.

"Clint, breathe."

Phil's hand is rubbing soothing circles on his back, and it helps, but not enough to let Clint do more than suck in a shallow breath. He feels dizzy, so he closes his eyes, and concentrates on inhalation. Exhalation.

"Breathe with me," Phil's saying in that calm, "we can deal with anything" voice that's talked so many agents through life-and-death situations. Clint responds automatically. He's always been good at following orders.

When Clint finds his normal rhythm again, Phil's there beside him, one hand still gentle on his back.

"Are you okay?"

Clint can't help the nervous laugh that escapes, and he shakes his head. No, he's definitely not okay. He's ... he honestly thinks he might be in shock, but there's no way he can tell Phil that without making everything worse than it already is.

"Should I contact Agent Romanov?" Phil's voice is carefully neutral, but Clint's known him long enough to hear the note of hurt underneath it, and he hates that it's there, but he can't fix it right now. All he can do is nod stupidly, and hope Phil will forgive him eventually.

Phil's already got his phone out, and he moves away from Clint to make the call, although he doesn't leave.

"Natasha. Barton needs you." Phil sounds resigned. "No, weapons aren't necessary. It's personal. ... He'll explain. .... My apartment. ... No, I won't be here. ... Okay. Thanks, Tasha."

The phone slips back into Phil's pocket, and Clint knows Phil's about to leave. He should stop him. If he doesn't, he's going to lose him, probably for good this time. There are only so many screw-ups a relationship—is that what this is? Clint has no fucking clue how these things work—can come back from. He needs to say something.

Clint hears the jangle of keys as Phil lifts them out of the dish by the apartment door.

"It's alright if you need to say 'no.' Nothing has to change," Phil says.

Phil's being careful with him, and Clint hates that he needs to be. It shouldn't be this difficult to care about someone—except that's never really been the problem. It's more that Clint can't believe someone cares enough about him to want to ... he's never fucking imagined someone would ... he can feel his chest start to tighten again, the pressure building behind his eyes.

"Breathe," Phil says from the doorway. It's exasperated and fond and everything that Phil is—his patience, his steadfastness, his conviction. Clint feels humbled by it.

"I didn't mean to ..." There's a vague gesture from the doorway, which Clint assumes is Phil's way of apologizing for Clint's current state of idiocy. He'd laugh if he didn't think it would sound hysterical. "But I needed you to know. We don't have to talk about it again."

Tasha's going to hit him in the head when she finds out what he's done. And Phil ... Phil's going to leave him. Clint wouldn't blame him. He's surprised they've lasted this long. He's an idiot, and Phil was bound to figure that out sometime.

"Remember, Tasha's supposed to be leaving for Russia tonight, and Fury wants you back on watch over Selvig and the scientists tomorrow. I'll be at SHIELD if you—well, you know where I'll be."

The door closes softly as Phil leaves. Clint rests his head against his knees, and concentrates on remembering how to breathe.

*

"Phil, it's Clint. Nat says you'll be able to hear what I'm saying, but I'd rather you wake up and talk to me yourself."

Clint's not supposed to be here, isn't even supposed to know Phil's alive, but Clint's learned a few things over the years. One: Phil Coulson would never carry his vintage Captain America trading cards in his jacket at work. Two: Nick Fury's not beyond doing anything if he thinks it's for the greater good. Most of the time Clint can respect that instinct, but not today. And three: Natasha Romanov is the best friend he's ever had, and she loves Phil almost as much as he does. Just differently.

Clint wraps his hand tightly around Phil's, careful not to jostle the IV line, or any of the sensors monitoring his various body and brain functions. He's in a coma, and that's better than being dead, but only just. The doctors that Tasha interrogated aren't sure if he'll ever wake up, or what state he'll be in if he does. He flat-lined more than once. There could be brain damage. Loss of motor control. Holes in his memory as deep as the one in his lung.

Clint doesn't care about any of that. He just wants Phil to wake up. If he has to, he'll walk him through physical therapy. He'll help him relearn anything he needs to know, fill in the gaps with all their shared stories. He'll do anything as long as Phil can live. That's the only thing that matters anymore.

"Phil, come on. Don't leave me here by myself. You know how radio silence drives me a little nuts. I need your voice in my ear. I can't go back to Sitwell, or some other handler. I need you here."

It's pathetic how true that is. Clint's tried not to need people—it never ends well—but somehow he can't seem to avoid emotional entanglements, and when he falls for someone, he falls hard. With Phil, he fell so hard, he's pretty sure the earth shook.

"Did you know that?" Clint asks. "When you kissed me that first time, I'd been thinking about it for months. It was better than I'd ever imagined, and my imagination is pretty damn good. I couldn't believe you wanted me. Why would someone like you want someone like me? I'm still kind of baffled by that."

The machines drone on, beeping, measuring god-only-knows-what. Clint laces his fingers through Phil's. He kisses the fragile bones in Phil's knuckles, the weathered lines of his palm.

"We didn't have a chance to ..." Clint trails off, uncertain what exactly he wants to say. They didn't have a chance to talk—either about Phil's question or Clint's panic attack—and there hadn't been time for apologies or make-up sex or for Clint to explain. Then there'd been Loki, and now this.

Clint brushes his fingers lightly across Phil's forehead. He's cool, a little clammy, and he's more pale than usual, which for a guy who spends an unreasonable amount of time in a windowless office is saying a lot. Clint thinks he should be making boyfriend in a coma jokes. Phil would expect it, and probably even appreciate it on some level, but Clint can't do anything but stare at Phil's closed eyes, the even rise and fall of his chest.

He's aching with the unfairness of it all. If Phil doesn't make it, he'll never know Clint's back in his right mind, or that the Avengers Initiative (and Phil's stupid sacrifice) worked, or what Clint's panic was really about.

"You have to wake up, Phil. I need to talk to you. See, you probably think I freaked out on you because you asked me to marry you." Saying the words out loud makes them sound that much more ridiculous. Clint laughs. "Okay, maybe it was partly because of that, but Jesus, Phil, you asked me to marry you. You could give a guy a little warning before you pounce on him with rings and feelings and stuff."

Clint clutches Phil's hand a little tighter, imagines what their hands would look like with matching bands. It still freaks him out, but not in a bad way. Not at all.

"I panicked, Phil, but not for the reason you think. It wasn't because I wanted to say, 'no,' but because the first thing I wanted to do was say, 'yes.' Do you get how terrifying that is? Fuck, I've never been good at this, never really had somebody I wanted like this who wanted me right back just as badly. So it kind of threw me into a fucking tailspin to realize maybe we can have this."

Clint lays his head against the edge of the hospital bed. He's exhausted, afraid, and alone.

"You have to wake up, Phil. Please. For me. All you have to do is wake up. I have so many things I want to tell you."

*

"Talk to me."

Clint throws back his head and groans as Phil licks the spot just behind his ear, then nuzzles his neck. They're both naked, and Clint's on his hands and knees, one hand braced against the headboard, the other reaching back to encourage Phil to go deeper.

"You expect me ... to talk—" Clint manages a messy open-mouthed kiss when Phil lifts his lips from Clint's neck. "—while you're ... fuck, you feel ... good, that's, ah ... fuck, right there, Phil."

Clint curls his head down, let's himself relax a little into the bed, as Phil holds Clint's hips steady, thrusts into him with intense, even movements that brush his prostrate on every slide.

"I like the way you sound," Phil says, low, a little ragged as his rhythm falters trying to get a hand around Clint's dick. Sweat and pre-come help the glide and Phil's hand strokes Clint in long, sure touches even as he continues to fuck him.

"Jesus, Phil, don't fucking stop. God, you're amazing. I'd put myself in your hands any day, let you do whatever the fuck you want." Clint feels sweat running down his chest, the small of his back, and Phil's hot draped over him, hands seemingly everywhere, keeping Clint steady, drawing him even fucking closer than he was before. Phil's mouth is hot, damp breath on Clint's shoulder blades, and Phil's panting hard, teeth rough against Clint's skin, trying to hold on to the tight coil of anticipation just a little longer.

"Fuck me," Clint says, and he means it. He loves it like this, the wanton spread of his knees, ass curved into the air, and Phil, solid and so fucking strong, pushing into him like he could do this all night, like he wants to do this forever. "Come on, Phil, harder." Clint drives himself back onto Phil's cock, flexing his muscles as he does, and Phil makes a keening sound Clint's never heard before, but he likes it. He wants to hear it again. "Phil, do it, I'm yours, just fucking take me."

Clint's face mashes against the bed, but he doesn't care because there's the electricity in his spine, the holy fucking Jesus moment, the gut-punch of pleasure ratcheting through his entire body as Phil bucks into him hard enough to shake the bed, coming and coming. Clint's back curves like a bow, his own hand joining Phil's for those final few strokes on his dick, and he's pulsing ropey strings over their hands and down his shaking thighs, Phil's cock still tight inside him, and both of them breathing like marathon runners at the finish line.

They collapse onto the bed sideways, avoiding the wet spot, which is big enough to probably have its own zip code, and Clint makes a mild groan as Phil pulls gingerly out of him. They're both breathless.

"Did I hurt you?"

"No, that was fantastic," Clint says, grabbing Phil's hand and kissing it soundly. "You're fantastic. If people knew, they'd understand why I married you." Clint feels more than hears the smothered snort of laughter against his back. "What?"

"Why you married me?" Phil's tone is an odd mix of sarcasm and affection that very few people can pull off. "You do realize for most people it's the other way around, trying to figure out why I married you?"

Clint counts off the reasons on Phil's fingers. "Charm, good looks, fantastic ass—"

"True."

"—ability to hold one position for a long period of time, agility, flexibility, acrobatic tendencies—"

"I did marry you for more than your abilities in the sack, you realize."

"You did?" Clint says, all wide-eyed surprise, and laughs when Phil muscles him onto his back and lies on top of him, pinning his hands over his head.

"Of course," Phil says, completely serious. "It's nice to have a husband who can cook."

Clint wraps his legs up and around Phil's waist, slips his wrists out of Phil's admittedly not-very-tight grip, and uses his strength and flexibility to leverage them both over. Phil winces as he lands heavily against the mattress, and Clint can't help the hand that automatically drifts over the skin inches from Phil's heart. It's been three months, but the pink scar tissue is still a harsh reminder of what they almost lost.

"Hey," Phil says, sliding one hastily wiped hand into Clint's hair. "Talk."

"I'm so fucking grateful you woke up." Clint's voice cracks in the middle, and Phil pulls him down and kisses him. He takes Clint's hand, the one unconsciously tracing the scar, and kisses that too.

"How could I not?" Phil asks, looking into Clint's blue eyes. "How could I not wake up with you to come back to?"

"You didn't know that then," Clint reminds him. "I could've still been Loki's puppet. You already thought I wanted out of this."

"No." Phil's shaking his head. "No, I didn't think that at all. I knew it was too soon, and that you might respond less than favourably."

Clint rolls his eyes. "Only you would think a proposal-induced panic attack count as 'less than favourable' rather than 'holy shit, we're in trouble'."

"Clint, if you were going to run, you would've walked out when I asked the question. If you were going to say 'no,' you would've told me to fuck off, and not turn something good into a life sentence."

Clint can't really disagree with him.

"The fact that you, who have never had a problem talking to me, were speechless told me your reaction had more to do with what you wanted to say but couldn't, than with the actual proposal."

"I guess you think that makes you pretty clever."

Phil shifts, and if he was sitting up it would probably look like a shrug. "Not really. Just lucky."

"Me too."

Clint lets himself be shifted to Phil's side, the two of them comfortably entwined.

"I am sorry about the not talking thing, though," Clint adds.

"Me too."

Clint smiles against Phil's chest. "It's a little different. A coma is an excellent excuse for not holding up your end of the conversation."

"I'm still sorry I wasn't there for you."

"You made up for it when you accepted my proposal."

Phil's eyes are drifting shut. "See? Competitive. Couldn't just say 'yes' when I asked, had to have a go at it yourself."

Clint rubs a finger lightly over the ring he's wearing, the ring that exactly matches the one Phil has on his left hand.

"I promise I'll always talk to you."

"That's nice." Phil lets out a sleepy exhale.

"You don't have to worry. I'm getting much better at this communication thing."

"Mmm."

"It was sort of in my vows, if you noticed. The part about being there for you, being willing to talk about everything."

"Clint, stop talking."

"I thought you liked it when I talk?" Clint tries to sound wounded, but he's too warm and happy to do much more than close his eyes and yawn.

"I do. But please shut up before I'm forced to smother you with your own pillow."

"Yes, sir."

"Clint."

"I mean, yes, dear."

 

THE END