Phil has been Agent Barton’s handler for three months when it happens.
Barton had gone through handlers at an alarming rate since he was first recruited - authority issues, complete inability to maintain radio silence, disappearing from base without authorisation. If he hadn’t been so damn good at his job, SHIELD would have dropped him ages ago. So Fury assigned him to Phil, with the instruction make it work, somehow.
Thirty minutes into his first op with Barton, Phil decides the other handers were all idiots. “Barton, you got a visual?”
“Yeah, I got a visual. I got all sorts of visuals. Lots of crap visuals, but hey, don’t ask me, I’m just the help, right?”
“You got a better idea, Barton?”
“Wait, you’re actually asking me?”
“Yes, Barton. I’m asking you. Do you have a better position in mind?”
“Yeah, eight-storey office building at your 4 o’clock.”
“That's two blocks further away.”
“Yeah, but the angle’s much better. More lines of sight means more opportunities to take the shot. I can make the distance.”
“Ok then, we’ve got ten minutes. Redeploy and report when you’re in position.”
Barton makes the shot on the second opportunity - the first having been blocked by an unexpected truck of sheep. By the time the truck moves, the target is nearly to the door of the building, and completely out of sight of the original position Barton had been assigned by Logistics. The fact that that position is also the first swarmed by the target’s men after his brains decorate the sidewalk is just the icing on the cake.
“Good work, Barton,” Phil says into the comm as he watches heavily armed men search in vain for the sniper. Phil can practically hear the surprise in the silence before Barton replies.
Back at headquarters Phil calls Barton up to his office for a debrief.
“Ok, here’s the way this is going to work,” Phil says, when Barton has parked himself in a chair and doesn’t even scold him for sitting on it sideways. “The position you chose today allowed us to complete a mission that would have otherwise been a failure. You have suggestions like that in the future you let me know, and I promise to consider them. If I don’t take your advice, I promise to at least tell you why. You can chatter on the comms all you want unless I tell you otherwise, but don’t expect me to answer you. And if I do tell you to keep quiet, you better be silent unless you have time-sensitive intel to pass on. Think you can live with that?”
Barton is watching Phil like he’s waiting for the catch, but finally he nods. Phil raises an eyebrow. Barton rolls his eyes.
“Yes, sir!” The tone is just this side of insubordinate, but Phil doesn’t call him on it.
“Will you be off base tonight?” Phil asks. Barton’s eyes widen.
“Probationary agents aren’t allowed to leave base without permission,” he replies guardedly.
“I didn’t ask if you were supposed to be off base, I asked if you were going to be off base.”
The slightly panicked look on Barton’s face is answer enough. Phil turns to his computer and pulls up Barton’s file, making a few quick changes.
“Congratulations, Agent Barton. You are no longer probationary and are free to come and go as you wish, unless ordered otherwise. Feel free to keep sneaking around, however - it keeps security on their toes. I believe Agent Philips has offered a reward for the first person to tell him how you got out and back in without being caught last time.”
Barton grins. He’s beautiful when he smiles. “I like you,” he says, and Phil’s stomach flip-flops disconcertingly. Years of practice keep it from showing on his face.
“My life is now complete,” he responds dryly. “Get out of here.”
Barton rolls to his feet with his famed acrobatic grace. He waves a hand at Phil as he heads for the door.
“Barton,” Phil calls when the man’s hand is on the doorknob. Barton looks back over his shoulder quizzically. “Don’t make me regret it.”
“No, sir,” Barton says, and there’s nothing flippant in his tone now. The words are accompanied by a genuine smile and the only thing going through Phil’s mind as Barton closes the door behind him is that he is so, so screwed.
The halls of SHIELD headquarters are abuzz with the news that Coulson’s the one who finally tamed the Hawk and there’s speculation everywhere on just how Mr. By-the-Book himself managed to get Barton to play by the rules. At least that’s what they wonder until the time Phil catches a group of junior agents discussing it by the watercooler (seriously? How clicheéd can you get?).
“What do you think, Barton,” he asks, “Have I tamed you?” The junior agents look at him in guilty bewilderment until a voice drifts down from above.
“Me, sir? No, sir. Never, sir!” Barton replies as he swings down from the rafters where he’d been listening, much to the discomfiture of the agents below.
“Well, there you have it,” Phil tells the agents. “And I would expect agents of SHIELD to have better situational awareness. I’m sure Agent Barton would be happy to continue to help you develop that particular skill.”
Barton’s grin is predatory, and the junior agents very quickly find somewhere else to be. “You realise I’m now going to have to find a different eavesdropping spot, sir.”
Phil rolls his eyes. “It’ll be good practice for you, Barton.” Barton’s answering smile is good practice for Phil, who is getting very good at not showing how much it affects him.
And so, for the first three months of their partnership, everything goes smoothly. Phil lets Barton pick his own positions in the field, which annoys the hell out of Logistics but Phil’s got the evidence to back up the fact that Barton’s picks are nearly always superior. He still keeps up a running commentary on the comms, but far from being annoyed, Phil finds he enjoys the chatter. Barton’s smart - several times his insights have improved the running of an op and Phil appreciates his dry, sarcastic humour. More surprisingly, Barton appreciates Phil’s sense of humour, whereas most other agents don’t even realise he has one, and after the first month or so, Barton has become ‘Clint’ and the comm chatter decidedly less one-sided.
Clint has taken to sprawling on the couch in Phil’s office for debriefings and sometimes bringing take-out, or sticking around afterward to help Phil out with the post-mission paperwork. He still disappears off-base every night, but whatever it is he does, it doesn’t interfere with his work in any way - Phil never gets any reports of public intoxication or petty assault or any of the other misdemeanors agents got up to that led to the no unauthorised trips off-base rule being instated in the first place.
So Phil buries his attraction, because what they have is good enough. They work well together in the field, so Fury’s happy. They’re friends, and it’s an easy, comfortable relationship. Phil doesn’t fool himself into thinking he knows all Clint’s secrets, just like Clint doesn’t know all of Phil’s, but he knows everything he needs to. At least he thinks he does, and he believes it until that moment three months in when everything he thought he knew about Clint is turned upside down.
It happens like this: They’re on an op in Pakistan. Clint and Phil are huddled together on a roof a block away from the building where intel says the target is hiding. They’ve been waiting for him to show for three hours, and Phil thinks if he doesn’t show up in the next hour he’ll call it.
Phil’s watching the building through a pair of night-vision binoculars, and Clint’s eye is pressed to the scope of his rifle. Suddenly he straightens up, head cocked slightly to the side, eyes distant.
“We got company, boss,” Clint says, and ten seconds later Phil hears it - the rumble of souped-up engines over rough terrain. He and Clint watch as the target is taken out not by them, but by the forces of a rival warlord and it’s not exactly an optimal outcome but it’s not their job any more.
Phil’s not thinking about that though. He moves on autopilot through the clean-up and extraction, typing out a report to Fury that he’ll probably have to edit in the morning because all he can think about is Clint’s voice saying ‘We got company’ well before he could possibly have known. Seeing Clint staring into space with that little head-tilt Phil’s seen before, long ago and far away, sitting on the back porch of an old plantation house in the Louisiana summer, hearing his sister tell him dinner is coming several minutes before Frank and Emmett come tromping out of the forest with a deer across their shoulders, her head tilted just like that listening to something only she can hear.
Back at base, Phil submits his report to Fury and cashes in a week of leave. He steals one of Clint’s t-shirts from the locker room and packs up the car, heading South.
General domestic fluffiness of the non-Clint/Coulson variety dominates this chapter, as do a number of OCs. I promise, they don't dominate the fic as a whole.
Phil finds his sister in the back yard, lounging with a book on a deck chair watching the pups. She greets him with a simple “Hey, Phil,” as if it hasn’t been two years since the last time they’d seen each other.
“Which ones are these again?” Phil asks, as he pulls up another chair, watching as the pups wrestle on the grass. The black-furred one pins the grey one, growling playfully.
“Frank and Josie’s youngest,” Becca replies. “You haven’t met them yet. Hey boys!” she calls. “Come meet your Uncle Phil.”
The black pup rolls off his brother, and the two race for the chairs, skidding to a halt in front of Phil and blurring into two identical small naked boys.
“Hi Uncle Phil,” the one on the left lisps around a handful of teeth.
“Yeah, hi Uncle Phil,” his brother echoes.
Phil smiles. “Nice to meet you.”
“This is Aiden,” Becca says, running a hand through tousled black hair. “and Camden.”
“Aunt Becca?” the one on the left, Camden, asks.
“Can we have popsicles?”
“One each,” Becca says sternly, “and wash your hands first.” The boys grin, and Aiden grabs Cam’s hand as they scamper for the house.
“How old are they?” Phil asks, when the screen door has slammed behind the boys.
“Three and a half.”
“How many does this make?”
“Just the five - Emmett and Alice’s two girls and Frank’s eldest, Cathy.”
“And how are they all doing?”
“They’re good. Cathy’s taking classes at LSU. Emmeline and Lucille start fourth grade next year. Karl’s over the moon that we finally have some boys around. How about you, Phil? Anything going on I should know about?”
Phil smiles. His sister and he have a pact - she doesn’t ask for details about his work and he doesn’t insult her by pretending she doesn’t know what he does for a living.
“Actually I need a favour.” Phil reaches down and pulls Clint’s t-shirt out of the bag by his feet and hands it his sister.
“A target?” Becca asks as she takes it, nose wrinkling slightly.
“No,” Phil replies. “Someone I work with.”
“Good,” she says. “I’d hate to think you had the hots for the enemy.”
Phil blushes. It’s impossible to keep such things secret from Becca. “I just need to know. Is he - ?”
“A wolf?” Becca asks. Phil nods.
“Yes,” Becca answers, straightforward as always, handing the shirt back. “But you must have suspected that or you wouldn’t have stolen his clothes and come all the way down here to let me take a whiff. What tipped you off?”
“Nothing big. He’s good. He has a habit of disappearing at night, even when he was supposed to be confined to base. His situational awareness is impressive but that could have just been training. But then recently he knew a caravan was approaching well before I detected it, and he had that same tilt to his head you get when you’re listening.”
Becca nods. “Is it going to be a problem?”
Phil shakes his head. “Not for me. I don’t know what would happen if he’s found out though. That’s part of the reason I wanted to know for sure.”
“So you can help cover,” Becca finishes, and it isn’t a question. “You’re a good man, Phil Coulson,” she says with a smile.
“You’re genetically obliged to think that,” Phil answers, a little embarrassed. Becca opens her mouth to reply but stops herself, head tilted and nose flaring and Phil’s seen that look on Clint more than just the time in Pakistan and wonders how it took him so long to make the connection.
“Phil!” a deep voice booms from the back porch as Becca’s Pack-brother Emmett steps into view. “I thought I caught the stink of man-meat!” Emmett is a tall bear of a man, but he throws himself down on the ground next to Becca’s chair and tilts his head to the side, chin lifted, baring his throat. Becca places a slim hand on the curve of his jaw, accepting the gesture of deference. It’s a casual exchange, born of long practice: the Pack equivalent of a peck on the cheek.
Phil can’t help but wonder what Clint would look like, throat bared like that. Yeah, he’s got it bad. Becca just gives him a knowing look.
“You sticking around for awhile?” Emmett asks, hopeful.
“I’ve got a week’s leave,” Phil replies.
“Excellent!” Emmett says, “Caroline will be thrilled.” Caroline is Emmett’s sister-in-law: his wife Alice’s sister. She and Phil share a secret love for domestic reality shows.
“I’ll tell Karl to break out the gator,” Emmett says as he straightens up to head back into the house. Phil perks up at that - since Becca settled here he’s discovered a love of game meat - particularly alligator. Hard to come by outside the Gulf.
“Need any help?” he asks, despite knowing the answer.
“Nah,” Emmett replies, predictably. “Frank and Josie’ll be back shortly with the girls anyway. You and Becca do your sibling bonding thing,” and Emmett grins. Becca just gives him a wave as he heads into the house.
“You should come by more often,” Becca says softly when they’re alone. “You know you’re always welcome here.”
“I know,” Phil says. And he does. It’s a far cry from his first meeting with Becca’s Pack, when he thought his little sister had been seduced into some dangerous cult (although Phil still thinks he was justified in jumping to that conclusion at the time).
But once the misunderstanding had been rectified, and Phil had proven his love for his sister trumped any discomfort with her new family, the Pack had welcomed him with open arms - and paws. Phil is pretty sure most Packs don’t treat their members’ human relatives nearly as well and he’s grateful - Becca’s the only family he has left.
So Phil stays with the Pack for the rest of his leave. Becca’s Pack consists of the Alpha - or Patriarch - Karl, his two sons Frank and Emmett and their wives Josie and Alice, Alice’s sister Caroline, the children, and Becca, who is Beta and Karl's chosen successor. And because there are no secrets among the Pack, by Phil’s second day they all know he’s working with a Lone Wolf and by the time the week ends all of them except the children have given him advice.
Most of it Phil ignores - Alice and Caroline are unrepentant match-makers, Emmett and Frank want Phil to bring Clint home to hunt, and Josie just wants an extra babysitter. But as Phil’s packing up the car to head back home, Karl pulls him aside.
“Whenever you get around to having the conversation,” he says, because how to tell Clint he knows is one thing Phil hasn’t figured out yet, “you tell your friend he ever needs anything to call here, or just come by anytime. I know your kinda life don’t lend itself well to Pack, but it’s hard being Lone, and he’s got a place here any time he wants it, for as long or as short a time as he cares to stay.”
Phil’s surprise must show on his face because Karl chuckles as he answers the unasked question. “You know him - I know you. You’re both welcome any time.” Phil nods, honoured by the trust Karl has shown in him, and promises himself he won’t wait so long between visits next time. Maybe some day he’ll be able to bring Clint with him.
Karl shakes Phil’s hand as he stands by the car door. “Remember, any time you want to join, you just let us know,” he says, as he turns back to the house. It’s a long-standing offer, but Phil likes working for SHIELD, and the life of a Lone never really appealed to him. Maybe now, with Clint in the picture - Phil shakes his head. He’s getting way too far ahead of himself.
Becca steps up to give him a big hug, only half joking when she makes him promise to call more often so she knows he isn’t dead.
As Phil starts the long drive back to DC he thinks about Becca and Clint and how his sister has a whole Pack to support her and Clint seems to have no one. The life of a Lone is hard, Karl had said, and Phil’s determined to do what he can to make Clint’s life just a bit easier. If only he can figure out how.
Sorry for the wait -- I'm on vacation in Mexico and haven't had as much time to write as I'd originally anticipated. And to those of you who were expecting more actual plot this chapter, sorry to disappoint. Clint wanted to talk :)
When Clint is first transferred into Coulson’s care, he thinks his time is nearly up. Everyone knows about Agent Coulson, Fury’s right-hand man and the Agent’s Agent. Perfect, Untouchable, and very much By the Book. Clint almost decides to skip town before his first op with the man just to save some time and hope that maybe SHIELD doesn’t look for him too hard. But sheer curiosity has him sticking around long enough to get to see for himself how the Legend works.
Coulson’s voice over the comm is everything he’d expected - calm, confident, and efficient - no time wasting, no unnecessary instructions, just a request for status. Clint could have played along, answered the way he was expected to, been a good boy, and maybe he’d get to stay employed a little longer. But Clint hasn’t rolled over for anyone since childhood and he isn’t going to start with some government suit, even if it is Perfect Coulson. So he does what he always does - he bitches about stupid Logistics and their dumb-ass idea of the perfect position - as if any of them has ever shot a rifle in their lives.
And that is when Coulson completely blows Clint’s image of him out of the water - asking if Clint has a better idea like he means it, like he actually wants to know the answer and isn’t just being sarcastic. And then he actually listens when Clint tells him his idea - listens and lets Clint act on it and get the job done. And when it is all said and done and the mission accomplished, Coulson actually says ‘Good work’ like he appreciates Clint - like Clint is a person, a professional in his own right and not just a tool to be used and misused by the higher ups.
Clint spends the entire trip back to base waiting for the other shoe to fall - he figures he’ll get it in the debriefing: some sort of show of authority, some reminder not to forget his place - to not mistake the exception for the rule. Instead, what he gets is a couple of reasonable guidelines for what feels an awful lot like a partnership.
Coulson wants to hear his ideas, won’t make him stay silent when it isn’t necessary, even promises to explain when he makes a different call. And then the ultimate gift - Clint goes from one handler shy of being kicked out to being taken off Probationary, giving him the freedom he needs to maintain his secret. Because Coulson trusts him. Clint doesn’t remember the last time someone actually trusted him.
The months that follow are arguably the best months of Clint’s life since everything in the circus went so horribly wrong. As surprised as Clint was at the way Coulson treated him when they started working together, he’s even more surprised that Coulson actually keeps his promises. After the first few ops start out the exactly same way: Coulson telling Clint what position Logistics assigned him and Clint pointing out a much better position - Coulson starts ignoring Logistics completely and simply telling Clint to pick his position. After the first month they make a game of it - Coulson waits until after the target is eliminated to point out to Clint where Logistics thought he should have made the shot from, and Clint enumerates with exaggerated indignation all the ways that spot is inferior to the one he’d chosen.
The regimented on-base schedule that Clint was used to and chafed under with other handlers disappears with Coulson. Coulson, apparently, doesn’t care how Clint spends his time when he’s not on an op or in debriefing. Whereas other handlers responded to Clint’s ‘insubordination’ by being more and more controlling to the point that Clint had to ask permission to use the range, Coulson just quietly removes all the restrictions from Clint’s ID badge and tells Clint to let him know if he has any problems.
Coulson doesn’t even yell at Clint the first time he works the range until his fingers bleed after a failed op - he just shows up and stands in the doorway until Clint finally puts his bow away and then takes him down to Medical to get patched up. Coulson doesn’t ask where Clint goes every night, just asks him to check in when he gets back. And if the watercooler incident is anything to go by, Coulson doesn’t even mind Clint terrorising the junior agents - in fact, Clint has a sneaking suspicion Coulson was amused.
Clint still chatters on the comms, but it stops being a way to vent his frustration and starts being something he does for those little sighs and huffs of almost-laughter that tells him Coulson’s actually listening.
And then one day Clint is mocking the petty dictator in his sights: “And that hat, Coulson, what the hell’s up with that? It’s like putting a huge-ass bright red target on the guy’s head shouting ‘shoot me, shoot me!’”
“But it’s such a very fetching hat,” Coulson actually answers, “I’m tempted to get one myself - what do you think Barton? Would it suit me?”
Clint is silent for a moment in shock before he gasps out a strangled laugh. “It’d bring out your eyes, sir,” he replies with a grin.
“Take the shot, Barton,” Coulson orders.
“Yes, sir,” Clint says, and spatters the man’s brains across the general standing next to him - all without knocking off the splendid hat.
No one told Clint that Coulson was actually funny. Although that could be because no one else seems to know. The idea that Coulson’s sense of humour might be reserved for him alone gives Clint a warm glow of satisfaction.
After the first time, Coulson starts responding to Clint’s snarky comm chatter more and more often. So Clint starts bringing take-out his debriefings - he’s noticed that Coulson likes the little Chinese place down the street when he remembers to eat at all, and since Coulson never seems to go home until late, Clint figures the least he can do is feed the man while he’s taking up his time.
Clint uses the excuse of finishing up his own meal to stick around Coulson’s office even after the official debriefing is over. The first time he does it, Coulson shrugs as if to say ‘suit yourself, but don’t expect me to entertain you’ and starts work on a stack of his seemingly endless paperwork.
“Need some help with all that?” Clint asks, because Coulson’s got bags under his eyes and he looks tired and the part of Clint that is glad Coulson trusts him enough to let him see it is overshadowed by the part of him that wants to fix it.
“Barton, I’ve seen your reports,” Coulson says, raising an eyebrow, and Clint grins, because yeah, he’s been known to turn in reports that read “There were bad guys. I shot them with my arrows. They died.” complete with illustrative stick figures.
“No, really. I can be serious when I need to be,” he says, and the eyebrow just goes higher. “I can!” Clint protests, and Coulson looks at him speculatively.
“If you’re sure?” he says, like he thinks Clint will suddenly remember he has some place better to be and it hits Clint all at once that there really is no place he’d rather be right now than here in Coulson’s office helping him with his paperwork. Clint hasn’t had a run in two days but that’s ok, it can wait and oh shit, Clint thinks, he’s totally in love with his handler.
But freak-outs will have to wait too, because Coulson’s actually waiting for a response and Clint nods emphatically and says “Really, it’s not a problem,” and accepts the stack of forms he’s handed - all related to their most recent op and Clint had no idea how much bureaucracy is involved in shooting people. Clint grabs a pen from Coulson’s pen-holder - because of course all of Coulson’s pens are exactly where they belong - and loses himself in the simple fill-in-the-blank nature of his task. And if his heart does a little flip-flop when Coulson thanks him for his help at the end of the night with a real, genuine smile that actually reaches his eyes - well, no one has to know that part.
Clint doesn’t even bother going to the small apartment he’s renting that night. He just drives off into the mountains and grows his fur and runs for hours and when he finally comes in from the woods in the morning, human skin filthy and scratched and belly full of rabbit, it only serves as a reminder of why he can never have what he wants.
It’s not as disappointing a realisation as one might think. For one thing, Clint Barton very rarely gets what he wants, at least when it comes to his own personal happiness, and he’s rather used to it. His general response to not getting what he wants is to convince himself he never wanted it in the first place, and Clint can be very persuasive. So Clint goes back the next morning and Coulson thanks him again for his help with the paperwork and Clint makes a crack about expecting to be repaid in sexual favours that Coulson actually laughs at and the next time they debrief, Coulson hands over Clint’s share of the reports without protest. It becomes their thing - Chinese and debrief with a paperwork chaser - and Coulson starts calling him 'Clint' and tells Clint he can call him 'Phil' - at least when they’re alone in Phil’s office - and they’re friends and it’s very near perfect.
Ok, so I know I promised a few people that the big reveal would happen this chapter. I really should stop promising such things, because every time I do, the boys insist on chattering on and on about their *feelings*. So, er, not this chapter. But soon! I prom- Uh, yeah. Soon.
To say that Clint is surprised when Coulson disappears for a week after Pakistan would be an understatement. The worst part is that he can’t figure out why. Ok, so the op hadn’t exactly been a resounding success, what with someone else taking out their target, but it was hardly a disaster either. For one thing, no one died who wasn’t supposed to. For another, the target had been eliminated. And as far as Clint is concerned, any day that ends with no casualties and mission objectives fulfilled is a good day, regardless of the circumstances.
Clint has actually been really looking forward to their little post-op debriefing ritual. He is still wired from all the time spent setting up a shot he never got to take - all the anticipation with none of the satisfaction and Clint thinks there should be a clinical term for that: sniperus interruptus.
What Clint really wants to do is go for a run, but he hasn’t survived as long as he has by making stupid mistakes. The first twenty-four hours after an op is when he’s least invisible, and Clint can’t afford anyone paying too much attention to where he goes. Phil practically saved Clint’s life when he gave him authorisation to come and go as he pleases, and Clint wishes he could tell the man how much it means to him and why.
Instead, he shows up at Coulson’s office with their typical take-out order ready for an evening of food, company, and paperwork. What he gets is an obviously-distracted Coulson, a small stack of paperwork completed in silence, and an early night. Something is obviously wrong, and Clint thinks about asking Phil about it, but he’s always been careful not to overstep his bounds by being too inquisitive about Phil’s personal life, so he figures he’ll wait until tomorrow and only ask if something is still wrong in the morning.
But then the next morning he comes in to find that Phil has apparently taken a vacation. You don’t have to work long at SHIELD to know that Agent Coulson never takes vacation. In fact, most of the junior agents think he sleeps in his office -- either that or that he’s a robot and never sleeps at all, Clint’s heard both theories. Clint’s a little lost without Coulson to report to, but when he asks Hill, she tells him that he’s off-duty for the rest of the week unless something urgent comes up, and that he should take Phil’s example and go on his own vacation.
As if. Clint has never taken a vacation in his life. He actually tries - he goes back to his off-base apartment and putters around for a little while, watching reruns of bad TV movies. Eventually he goes for a run, grabs a few rabbits, chases a few deer, and curls up to sleep in a rock hollow. The next morning he returns to his apartment and finds he can’t stand the thought of spending another minute there, so he grabs a shower and some fresh clothes and heads back to base.
Clint spends the rest of the week alternating between the range and the rafters. The main topic around the water cooler this week is speculation on what exactly Agent Barton had done that was so bad it drove Coulson to take vacation. The rumours range from messing up an op and getting someone killed to breaking into Coulson’s house in the middle of the night and trying to molest him. It is universally agreed, however, that it was just a matter of time before Barton did something that even Coulson couldn’t countenance. The junior agents still haven’t learned to look up, so Clint hears everything.
All the speculation makes Clint feel sick, mostly because he’s been asking himself the same damn question and he still can’t figure it out. He’d thought they were good. He hadn’t sensed anything wrong the last time they debriefed before Pakistan. And even the first part of that mission had been fine - they’d worked through the set up like the well-oiled machine that they were, and the silence as they waited for the target to show had been a comfortable one. Then someone else had barged in and taken out their target but even though Clint is usually quite good at making things his fault he really can’t see a way he can be blamed for that one. But then Coulson had left, so what other explanation could there be?
Clint spends the rest of the week in a kind of confused, dejected haze. He works the range until his fingers bleed and this time no one comes to stop him. He spends hours hiding in the air ducts above Phil’s empty office and replays Pakistan over and over in his head, trying to figure out what he did to drive Coulson away. Again, he thinks about skipping town before Coulson comes back so he won’t have to actually face the man, but to do so would be to give truth to all those people who call him immature and irresponsible and a coward and Clint is not going to let them be right about him. Not this time.
When Coulson gets back on Monday, Clint fully expects to be told that either he’s getting another handler, or he’s kicked out. Deciding not to prolong the inevitable, he knocks on Coulson’s office door as soon as he hears the agent is back in.
“Barton?” Phil - no Coulson, now - says when he opens the door. “Since when do you knock?” he asks, as he steps back to let Clint in.
“Welcome back, sir,” Clint says, ignoring the question. Coulson shrugs and goes back to his desk as Clint sits - not sprawls - on Coulson’s couch.
“Thanks,” Coulson says. “I’m afraid I don’t have a new mission for you yet - I just got back in and haven’t had a chance to catch up.”
“Am I getting a new handler, sir?” Clint asks suddenly, and then winces. He hadn’t really intended to be quite that blunt about it, but when Clint’s nervous, his mouth tends to get away from him.
Coulson looks up in surprise. “Why would you think that?” he asks, with what sounds to Clint like genuine bewilderment. Something tight in Clint’s chest starts to relax.
“I just . . . you left kinda suddenly after Pakistan. The junior agents were all talking about what I’d done to piss you off that much and I figured maybe they were right.” He knows this makes him sound pathetic, but for some reason, Clint can’t quite make himself not be honest with Coulson.
Coulson - no, Phil - looks at him searchingly, and then gives a little half-smile. “Not everything’s about you, Clint,” he says. “Believe me, if I think you’ve done something wrong, I’ll tell you. In excruciating detail.”
Clint grins, finally relaxing fully. God, the power this man has over him. The worst thing about thinking Coulson was mad at him hadn’t been about the part where he’d probably lose his job, and maybe go back to being on the run again. No, the worst part had been thinking Coulson was mad at him. Clint doesn’t remember feeling this vulnerable to anyone since Barney, and that should scare the hell out of him but somehow, with Phil, it just feels right. Clint pushes those thoughts away. He doesn’t want to analyse them too closely because if he does, he’ll start remembering all the reasons why he shouldn’t allow himself to be vulnerable to anyone.
“I was visiting my sister,” Phil offers, and Clint starts. Coulson has a sister? “She lives with her family down in Louisiana,” Phil continues, “and I don’t see them as often as I’d like. I saw something in Pakistan that reminded me of her, and, well, in this life you should take the opportunities you have. You never know how long you’ll have them.”
Coulson says all this with a perfectly conversational tone, as if he weren’t opening up about his family and feelings. Clint feels . . . honoured. There’s really no other word for the awe and the warmth that’s building in his chest.
Phil straightens up and pulls a stack of papers on the desk toward him. “Now go terrorise some junior agents or something,” he tells Clint with a mock-severe look. “I’ve got paperwork to do.”
“Sir, yes sir!” Clint replies with a salute. He leaves Phil’s office feeling a hundred times better than when he came in, and full of ideas on what to do to those nosy junior agents who dared to spread rumours about him and feed his paranoia. He waits until he’s passing another agent in the hall to let loose with an evil cackle and grins when the agent glances at him nervously and hurries away, head down. Clint quickens his steps as he heads for his locker. He’s got an appointment with the watercooler crew and some suction cup Nerf arrows.
After Clint leaves, Phil props his elbows on his desk and puts his head in his hands. He should have known what his sudden disappearance would do to Clint but he hadn’t even given it a thought. Phil is very good at reading people, and he’s known for a while that Clint’s boisterous, smartass attitude is a facade intended to hide a deep-seated insecurity and a profound lack of self-worth.
Becca had once told him that kind of insecurity was common among Lones. Wolves are very social animals, much more so than humans. A wolf is meant to have a Pack to both support them and to rein them in when necessary. Those wolves who don’t have that kind of support turn out one of two ways - either they get extremely reckless, arrogant, and overconfident leading up to a kind of megalomania, or they begin to constantly second-guess themselves and start to think that they lack a Pack because there is something deficient in them.
What most people at SHIELD see as arrogance in Clint, Phil sees as rightful pride and confidence in his ability as a sniper. Phil just wishes Clint would have the same pride and confidence in his worth as a person. Phil knows that if he’s ever going to get Clint to trust him with his secret he’s going to have to convince him that he cares enough about him to keep that secret. He will need to make Clint believe that Phil won’t just sell him out to SHIELD the first time something goes wrong or Clint becomes a bother. Not that Phil would ever see Clint as a bother - he’s more than worth every bit of trouble he makes - but Phil knows that Clint often sees himself that way.
There’s a knock on Phil’s door and he pushes his thoughts aside, calling out “Enter.” A nervous junior agent pushes the door open just enough to stick his head inside, as if he were using the door as a defensive shield. Phil keeps the evil grin off his face by dint of long practice.
“Can I help you, Agent?” he asks blandly.
“Er . . I just thought you might like to know, uh, sir. Hawkeye shot a bunch of agents with those little Nerf arrows - you know, the ones with suction cup heads?”
“And?” Coulson replies, as if it is entirely usual for Clint to go around shooting junior agents with toy projectiles. Come to think of it, it pretty much is.
“Well, he put superglue on the suction cups, and he aimed for skin. No one can get them off. Agent Thurmond is really upset.”
Thurmond is an asshole, thinking he’s someone important just because he’s in charge of all the junior agents. Phil’s not really worried about him.
“Let me ask you something, Agent. Does anyone have any proof that Barton is behind these . . . ‘attacks’?” Phil knows what the answer will be - Clint is way too good to leave any evidence behind.
“Well . . . no. I mean no one saw the shots,” the agent answers, “but everyone knows it was him.”
“So let me get this straight, Agent. You are accusing my agent of breaking regs without any proof? Is this how SHIELD works now - guilty until proven innocent? I don’t remember getting that memo.”
The kid visibly winces. “Er . . . no, sir! That is . . . well, who else could it be?” Phil just raises an eyebrow. “I mean . . well . . . Thurmond said . . . I just . . .”
Phil finally takes pity on the kid and cuts through his babble. “Come back when you have some evidence,” Phil orders sharply, knowing they’ll never find any. “And you tell Thurmond that if he has a problem with me or my agent he can come to me himself.” Phil knows he won’t. Thurmond is a coward.
“Uh, yes, sir. Sorry, sir,” the junior agent replies, and ducks back into the hall, pulling the door shut hastily behind him.
Phil finally lets out the chuckle he’d been holding in during the whole encounter. ‘Well done, Clint,’ he thinks. Those agents had made Clint doubt himself, made him doubt Phil. They should count themselves lucky if all they get is a foam arrow superglued to their person. Phil would not have been so merciful.
Phil doesn’t allow himself to forget about Clint’s vulnerable side again. He doesn’t do anything obvious like lavish him with praise - Clint would find that suspicious anyway. He just makes sure that Clint knows that Phil appreciates his company, and not just his abilities as a sniper. It’s not exactly hard to do.
What is hard to do, however, is figure out a way to bring up Clint’s wolf half. For two months after getting back from Louisiana, Phil tries to think of a way to bring up the subject.
It’s not that he never has chances, it’s just that none of them seem like the right moment. The first one comes three weeks after his return to work. They’re on an op - supposedly a simple long-range target elimination, but once again Logistics has screwed up, and Clint ends up needing to get much closer than either of them are comfortable with in order to get a clear shot.
Clint makes the shot, of course he does, but the target has barely hit the floor before his better than average goons trace the trajectory back to Clint’s perch. Phil hears a barrage of gunfire and sees Clint fall and he’s running, completely heedless of any danger, trying to get to Clint as fast as possible and repeating wolves are hard to kill over and over again in his head like a mantra.
As Phil nears the corner he hears cursing - Clint’s cursing, and his knees nearly buckle in relief. He makes it around the corner at a pace that is still fast, but not quite as breakneck as before, to find Clint leaning up against the wall of the building he’d been perched in, still muttering curses and wrapping a strip of cloth cut from his field suit around his leg. Blood is hard to see on the black of the suit, but his leggings are torn and wet-looking and there’s two drops of red on the pavement Clint is sitting on.
Clint’s bow is lying next to him and there’s a rappelling cord hanging down from a grappling arrow lodged in the side of the building across the street. Phil relaxes even more at the sight. He’d been expecting to find shattered bones from the impact at least, but looks like Clint caught himself on the way down, and Phil is going to give whoever over in R&D invented those grapplers a raise and a promotion.
Phil already has his bag open, rummaging for disinfectant and real bandages with one hand while digging out his phone to call for medics with his other. But as he nears, Clint looks up, and the rueful smile on his face turns into panic at the sight of the phone.
“Don’t!” he pleads sharply. “Please, don’t,” he repeats, a little softer, “it’s not that bad, honest. I can take care of it myself.”
Phil takes in Clint’s desperate face and lowers the phone from his ear. New information collating with previously misunderstood phenomena in his head and suddenly Phil realises why Clint is infamous for ignoring injuries and escaping Medical before released. Wolves can survive injuries that would kill a normal human being and they heal much faster. Any extended period in Medical and it would be impossible for Clint to hide his accelerated healing. SHIELD doctors are not the type to shrug and let something like that go. They’d probably assume mutant, and have Clint dragged off for all kinds of tests, pull him out of the field, interrogate him. Phil doesn’t want to believe that Clint would actually be locked up, but Fury, as much as Phil admires the man, can be ruthless in his pursuit of answers.
It doesn’t take Phil long to make a decision. He puts the phone away and kneels next to Clint, who is now managing to look both wary and grateful at the same time. “Let me see it,” he says. Clint starts to protest but Phil interrupts him.
“Someone is going to look at that leg, Barton. It can be me or it can be Medical - your choice.”
Clint’s face twists into a grimace, but he obediently shifts his leg toward Phil. Phil begins unwrapping the blood-soaked cloth. Once he gets a good look at the wound, he can see that it’s already healing. It’s a simple through-and-through - the bullet passing through the meat of Clint’s calf. The bleeding has already stopped completely, and knowing what he knows from Becca, Phil figures it’ll be just another scar in two to three days.
Phil glances up to where Clint is watching him warily. It’s certainly an opening to talk about the whole wolf thing, but Clint looks like he’s halfway ready to bolt as it is. Phil knows that if he brings it up now, Clint really will run. The leg won’t slow him down much and Phil will be lucky if he ever sees the man again.
So he doesn’t say anything, just dabs a bit of disinfectant into the wound - and Clint doesn’t flinch, effortlessly hiding his pain and Phil can’t help but think this is a step backward - and then wraps the leg in a sterile bandage, more for the support and pressure than for its primary use, considering the lack of bleeding.
“If anything goes wrong, or if it’s not healing the way it should, you tell me, got it?” Clint starts at Phil’s harsh tone, and then all the tension bleeds out of him and he nods wearily.
“I will,” Clint promises, and the wariness is gone from his eyes but the gratitude remains.
When they make it back to HQ, Phil waves off the medics who notice Clint’s bandaged leg and want to do something about it. It’s not hard to convince them to leave it alone once he tells them that the injury is minor and that he treated it himself: both true, since for a wolf that kind of injury is minor and Phil did treat it himself. Clint’s dislike of doctors is both well-known and reciprocated so none of them bother to press the issue.
There are two more opportunities in the next six weeks for Phil to cover for Clint with Medical. Although it’s not quite the full-blown panic Phil saw the first time, Clint still gets nervous each time until they are safely out of HQ. Phil once again considers bringing up his knowledge of Clint’s true nature but from the barely suppressed agitation Clint displays (at least to Phil’s keen eyes) after each encounter, he eventually decides that having that discussion when Clint is injured and already in fight-or-flight mode is probably not a good idea. Not if Phil wants Clint to stick around, which of course he does.
So two months pass, and Phil is no nearer to an answer. That’s when the gifts begin.
The gifts are small to begin with. The first one is a plate of cookies - Phil dumps them in the trash. He’s been the recipient of unsolicited gifts before, but it was usually at work, not at home. Seems like every year at least one impressionable young female junior agent falls in love with him. He’s turned letting them down gently into an art form. At home is different - Phil isn’t really around much, except occasionally on the weekends. Phil checks his home security tapes and watches a man in jeans and a grey hoodie drop the cookies off, but he’s careful to keep his back to the camera and there’s nearly nothing to go on.
Phil ignores it at first - the cookies are followed by homemade banana bread and a cherry pie. The next gift is a little more disturbing - cupcakes with the letters “PC” iced on top. Phil’s not sure how this man got his name, but it’s just become a little more personal. He takes them into the lab at SHIELD and runs some tests, but there’s nothing there that shouldn’t be in a cupcake.
Phil starts pulling up background information on all his neighbours, looking for any sign of obsessive behaviour in their pasts. The man who lives three doors down has a history of domestic disputes (Phil makes a mental note to keep a close eye on the guy’s wife) and the woman across the street has a sealed (but not to Phil) juvie record for shoplifting and possession, but no one on the block has any kind of history of stalking or harassment.
Clint finds out - of course he does. Phil’s not sure if he hacks SHIELD’s systems or if he just drops in through the ceiling and snoops around but however he does it, Clint knows a lot more than he should about what’s going on at SHIELD, particularly whenever Phil is involved.
Since he got back, Clint has taken to bringing Phil a cup of his favourite tea after difficult meetings (most of which Clint isn’t even supposed to know about, much less know they went badly). He makes it strong and sweet with a dash of milk, just like Phil likes it (Clint also seems to be the only one who’s figured out that Phil prefers tea to coffee, although the latter is easier to come by). He even manages to figure out Phil’s birthday - the second most well-kept secret at SHIELD, right behind Nick Fury’s marital status (happily married to an incredibly patient and forgiving woman) - and leaves a mini birthday cake with one (unlit) candle and a box of matches on Phil’s desk in his (locked) office.
So Phil isn’t really surprised when Clint bursts into his office one day with a scowl on his face and demands, “Why didn’t you tell me you have a stalker?”
Phil sighs. He really doesn’t want anyone from SHIELD involved in his personal business. Phil regularly faces some of the worst criminals and evil masterminds the world has to offer - to ask for help in dealing with a simple obnoxious secret admirer would totally ruin his image. “It’s just a couple of baked goods, Clint. I can handle it.”
“And when it becomes more than just a few baked goods?” Clint challenges.
Phil stares him down, “Then I’ll handle it.”
Clint glares. “Fine, be stupid. It’s your funeral,” he snarls, turning on his heel and slamming the office door behind him. Phil sighs. He has a feeling Clint’s going to be angry with him for a while.
It does become more than just a few baked goods, much to Phil’s frustration. Apparently deciding that food isn’t the way to Phil’s heart, the anonymous suitor moves on to flowers - a dozen roses first, then daffodils, mums, and back to roses - three dozen this time. Phil’s getting annoyed, but there’s been nothing dangerous - no threats, no dead animals, nothing to suggest whoever it is will turn to violence.
Finally, Phil types up a note, kindly requesting that the admirer refrain from leaving gifts on his doorstep, and that if another gift is left, Phil will be forced to call the police. Well, he’ll be forced to call SHIELD, but you get the idea. The next day when he comes home the note is gone, but there is no gift, so Phil counts it as a win.
That night, Phil is lounging on his couch watching Supernanny when he hears a *thunk* from near the back door. He is instantly alert, grabbing his gun and moving silently to the back of the house, hugging the wall adjacent to the sliding glass door that lets out onto his back patio. As he nears the door he hears a new sound: a low steady growl that sends shivers up his spine.
Phil flips the switch for the porch light and quickly faces the door, gun at the ready. Despite everything, he’s still not prepared for the sight that meets him. His secret admirer is lying spread-eagled on the patio, clearly unconscious, a trickle of blood visible under his head where presumably he’d cracked it as he fell. There’s a handgun lying on the patio a few feet from the man’s hand and a large golden wolf is standing over him, teeth sunk into his calf. The note Phil had taped to the door is now stuck to the side of the house with a large hunting knife. So much for thinking this guy wasn’t violent.
Phil lowers his gun and opens the glass doors. The man is obviously down for the count so Phil allows himself a moment to appreciate the beauty of Clint’s wolf form. His fur is the same golden brown as his hair and his eyes - golden like most wolves’ - nonetheless have a tint of green to them. He’s magnificent. He also looks like he’s about to run. Clint has dropped the man’s leg and licks his lips to erase the evidence of blood. He wags his tail, apparently hoping to pass for a dog, and starts to back away. It’s Phil’s best chance and he decides to take it, but first he has to deal with his crazy fan.
“Watch him,” Phil orders Clint, hoping that his willingness to follow Phil’s instructions will carry over. Phil goes back into the house and up to his bedroom where he retrieves his SHIELD issue handcuffs and a pair of sweats. The latter he leaves folded out of sight just inside the door. When Phil emerges again he suppresses a sigh of relief: Clint is still there, watching the unconscious man intently.
“You were right,” Phil says to him, as he drags the limp body closer to the house. “I should have taken this more seriously,” he admits, as he handcuffs the man to the iron railing surrounding the stairs leading down to the cellar.
Phil grabs the knife and wrenches it out of the wood siding, removing the note as well. He turns around as he reaches the door. Clint is standing just off the patio, four feet planted wide, wary but not yet running. Phil meets those green-golden eyes unflinchingly.
“You might as well come in, Clint,” he says as he enters the house, leaving the door open. He’s proffered the invitation. What happens next must be Clint’s choice.
The perch is too close, Clint knows that, but he doesn’t really have a choice. Seems Logistics missed the memo about the construction site that had sprung up, blocking the line of sight for the only other decent perch within a mile radius of the target. Coulson is ticked, Clint can see it, and he has a feeling that heads will roll when they get back. For now, though, he has a job to do.
He takes the shot the first opportunity he has, and immediately grabs a grappling arrow, aiming for the building opposite him. He jumps as soon as he’s sure the line will hold, but it’s a split second too late - a bullet catches him in the calf as he’s swinging down and he barely manages to use his good leg to absorb the impact as he hits the side of the building. He lets go of the line and drops to the ground, leg screaming in protest. He manages to stumble over to the only spot with decent cover, huddled against the side of the building he’d been perched in a few seconds ago.
Clint hates getting shot. It hurts like hell and each time is an opportunity for his secret to be blown wide open. Clint has nightmares sometimes - being tied down to a table while doctors peer down at him and the light is too bright in his eyes. The worst ones are the ones where he wakes up in the morgue. When a wolf is injured badly enough they go into a healing coma - all other bodily functions slow to a point where they can’t be detected as all resources are diverted to healing the injury to the point that it’s safe to finish healing at the regular rate. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, and Clint’s heard horror stories of wolves being thought dead and finding themselves in a morgue, or worse, under the coroner’s knife.
No chance of that this time though - it’s a simple through and through on his lower calf and he’ll be right as rain in a couple of days, as long as he can hide it from Medical.
Clint is cursing up a storm as he pulls out his knife and cuts a strip of fabric from his tunic. He can hear Coulson’s pounding footsteps and he didn’t even know the man could run that fast. Clint knows the moment that Coulson hears his voice because the steps stumble to a stop and he can hear Phil heave a sigh of what sounds like relief. Clint’s heart speeds up because Phil sounds . . . worried. Really worried. Not just ‘I may just have lost an asset’ worried but more like ‘I may just have lost a friend' worried and Clint forgets about pain in his leg for just a moment as he contemplates that.
In the weeks since Phil returned from vacation, Clint has noticed that Phil has been going out of his way to treat Clint like a friend, and not like a subordinate. Clint would feel patronised if it wasn’t obvious that Phil is being completely sincere. And Clint knows that Phil covered for him with the whole superglue arrow thing. In return, Clint had started bringing Phil tea after all those annoying meetings Clint listens to from the ventilation ducts. So Clint had known that Phil cared for him as more than just an asset, but he’d never thought Phil cared enough to be scared for him.
Phil is turning the corner and Clint starts to look up at him with a self-deprecating smile when he notices that Phil has a phone in his hand. He’s calling Medical.
Clint panics. He’s not exactly sure what’s coming out of his mouth but he’s pretty sure that he begs Coulson not to call Medical and that’s not really cool but Clint has a feeling that Coulson isn’t the kind of handler who’d let him get away with ditching Medical before they can notice that his wound is healing a hell of a lot faster than it’s supposed to be.
Phil hesitates a moment, but eventually he puts the phone away. Clint pointedly doesn’t sigh in relief.
“Let me see it,” Phil demands, and Clint inwardly cringes. Phil’s smart and exceptionally observant. There’s no way he won’t notice. Clint tries to protest but Phil cuts him off, “Someone is going to look at that leg, Barton. It can be me or it can be Medical - your choice.”
Thing is, Clint trusts Phil. Certainly more than he trusts Medical. It may mean the end of their friendship, but Clint trusts Phil not to turn him into SHIELD. So he inches his leg toward Phil, who begins unwrapping Clint’s temporary bandage.
Clint already knows what he’ll find. The bleeding will have stopped already, the healing already begun. He watches Phil’s face nervously, waiting for the shock, the questions, the recriminations.
But Phil doesn’t say anything. He just cleans it and re-bandages it without comment. “ If anything goes wrong, or if it’s not healing the way it should, you tell me, got it?” Phil’s tone is harsh, harsher than Clint has ever heard from him, but he nods gratefully and finally relaxes. Phil’s not going to make him go to Medical.
Phil keeps his word back at HQ and waves the medics off. He also doesn’t say anything when Clint comes back to work two days later not even limping.
Phil covers for him with medical two more times in the next month and a half -- all for injuries that were relatively minor for Clint, but would have required medical attention for anyone else. Each time Phil examines the wound, patches it up, makes Clint promise to tell him if anything goes wrong, and says nothing when Clint comes back to work well before he should have been able to. Each time Clint relaxes a little more
Clint’s not stupid, he knows what’s happening here. Clint hasn’t had much luck with Alphas in his life, that’s why he’s Lone. His father had been a drunken abuser whose Pack consisted only of his immediate family because all the rest had run for the hills. After his parents had died, Clint had looked to his brother Barney for guidance, which in retrospect, hadn’t exactly been a great idea. Then there was the circus - Barney had pretty much abandoned him out of jealousy after the Swordsman had taken Clint under his wing. And then when Swordsman put him in the hospital he’d foolishly expected Trickshot to protect him. He should have known that an Alpha who let his Beta break a kid’s legs would hardly be the protecting type. After Trickshot left him for dead Clint decided he would never trust an Alpha wolf again.
But Phil - Phil is everything an Alpha should be: he’s authoritative without being overbearing. For all his maverick tendencies, Clint doesn’t mind taking orders from Coulson because he trusts him. It’s a strange feeling after all this time to have someone he trusts watching his back. And yes, Clint is head over heels for his handler, he knows that and has made his peace with it, but it’s more than that. The fact that Phil's not actually a wolf doesn't matter: for the first time since Trickshot Clint doesn’t feel like a Lone. He doesn’t ever want to lose that.
Which is why he freaks out a little when his eavesdropping reveals that Coulson had cupcakes tested for poison. So Clint drops by Phil’s office when he’s not there and checks out his computer - Clint’s actually a better hacker than most people give him credit for but in this case he doesn’t need to hack, he’s known Phil’s password for months.
Turns out Phil has been investigating his neighbours. Clint can put two and two together. He takes a quick look at Phil’s calendar before going down to the range to work of some of his anger.
Clint waits five minutes after Phil is due back in his office before storming in. “Why didn’t you tell me you had a stalker?” Phil just assures him that he’s “handling” it, and nothing Clint says will make him take it more seriously.
So Clint takes matters into his own hands, er, paws. For days he stakes out Phil’s house in wolf form, making sure that the guy, whoever he is, doesn’t make an appearance while Phil’s home.
For several days there’s nothing, but Clint can tell by the pinched look on Phil’s face that the gifts haven’t stopped. And then one night, he comes.
Clint follows him at a distance as he rounds the side of the house toward the back door. Clint itches to sink his teeth into the man, but he has to make sure this is the guy, has to catch him trying to break in or doing something else threatening, lest he get himself shot on sight for a rabid dog.
When the man pins a sheet of paper to the side of Phil’s house with a knife, that’s all the excuse Clint needs. Clint charges from across the lawn, grabbing the man’s leg in his teeth and pulling. The stalker lets out a surprised grunt before falling, cracking his head on the pavement of the patio and lying still, a handgun skittering away on the cement. Clint growls at the threat the gun represents. It’s only when the light comes on and Phil appears in the door, gun in hand, that Clint realises he’s still growling.
Phil lowers the gun and opens the door, quick eyes taking in the scene. Clint immediately drops the man’s leg and licks his lips to get rid of the blood. He doesn’t think Phil would shoot him, but best to look as nonthreatening as possible. To that end Clint deliberately pricks his ears forward and wags his tail. It’s not a natural movement for a wolf, but it’s dark, and if he’s lucky, Phil will think he’s someone’s dog.
Clint starts to back away from Phil’s appraising gaze, but Phil looks down at the man, still unconscious, and then back to Clint saying, “Watch him,” before heading back into the house.
The part of Clint’s brain that recognises Phil as Alpha obeys instinctively, just like he does on missions. Clint could leave, it’s not like he’s actually obligated to follow Phil’s orders off-duty, let alone as a wolf, but he also won’t take the chance that the man may wake up and go after Phil again.
Phil returns and drags the man closer to the house, handcuffing him to an iron railing near the door. “You were right,” Phil says, seemingly to no one. “I should have taken this more seriously,” he continues, and it occurs to Clint that maybe Phil is talking to him.
Clint’s mind is racing - he had told Phil to take this guy more seriously, but that was at work, in human form. How could Phil possibly look at Clint now and recognise him?
Phil walks over to the side of the house and wrenches the knife out of the wood panelling, pocketing the note. He turns around and meets Clint’s eyes steadily, and there are things in those eyes Clint can’t quite read but it’s not the way one looks at an animal.
“You might as well come in, Clint,” Phil says, and then turns and walks into the house, leaving the door open.
Clint is frozen in shock. Phil knows. It’s the only thought in his head right now, running on an endless loop of philknows philknows philknows philknows. Clint had grown up believing that to be found out was tantamount to death, but Phil knows and Clint isn’t dead yet. Phil knows and Clint feels like he should be panicking but somehow he’s not, because Phil knows but he didn’t run, he didn’t yell, he didn’t freak out, he just invited Clint in and all Clint really feels is a sense of relief.
The door is still open but there’s nothing stopping Clint from running and he knows he has a choice. He can run, leave SHIELD, leave Phil. Start over somewhere new, always looking over his shoulder. Or he can go through that door and talk to Phil, to find out what this all means for him - for them. Clint’s surprised by how easy a decision it really is.
Clint steps over the threshold an into the house. The house smells clean, lingering scents of the chicken Phil must have had for dinner and the scent of Phil everywhere. Clint can hear him moving around inside, opening the refrigerator, closing it, pencil scribbling on a pad of paper. By the door Clint notices a set of sweats that Phil must have picked up when he went in to get the handcuffs. Clint’s grateful, because the upcoming conversation would have been even more awkward if he had had to have it naked, but it makes him wonder just how much Phil knows.
Checking to make sure Phil isn’t anywhere in sight, Clint changes quickly pulling on the sweats as soon as he’s back in his skin. Taking a deep breath, he squares his shoulders and with more confidence than he really feels, heads deeper into the house, heading for Phil.
Clint finds Phil in the kitchen, leaning against the counter and scribbling on a notepad. “There’s black cherry soda in the fridge if you want,” Phil says, not even looking up from his writing.
Clint heads over to the large chrome refrigerator. Sure enough, there are cans of Doc Brown’s sitting there, and Clint grabs one, bemused. Phil doesn’t drink soda if he can help it, and yet he has Clint’s favourite stocked in his fridge, like he was expecting Clint to be over. Clint wonders what other signs he’s missed, and is actually looking forward to finding out.
“What are you doing?” he asks Phil as he pops the tab on the soda.
“Notes,” Phil says. “I’m going to have to write up a report on this and I want to get the details down while it’s still fresh.”
Clint goes a little cold. “Report?” he asks in a strangled voice.
Phil looks up immediately. “I invited you over and we were just watching TV when he came by. Luckily one of the local strays I’ve been feeding took exception to him being in my yard. It ran off when I came outside. That work for you?” he asks softly.
Clint takes a deep breath, forcing himself to be calm. “Yeah, that works,” he replies. “What are you going to do with him?” he asks as he makes himself at home on the couch, still in full view of the kitchen.
“He’s fine where he is,” Phil says with a scowl. “He’s not going anywhere.”
“Unless he picks the cuffs,” Clint points out.
Phil grins. “Magnetic lock,” he says smugly, “Those cuffs are unpickable.”
“How come I don’t get any of the neat toys?” Clint demands, exaggerating an indignant tone that’s not really fake.
“I’ll get you a pair,” Phil promises with a smile, putting the pencil down, apparently done with his notes.
“How long have you known?” Clint asks.
“Since Pakistan,” Phil answers, seemingly unperturbed by the abrupt change in topic. He walks over to the couch, sitting down sideways so he’s facing Clint. Clint obediently shifts to the side as well so they’re face to face.
“So it was my fault you needed a vacation,” he concludes miserably.
“No,” Phil says firmly. “Yes, it was because of you, but it wasn’t your fault.”
Clint dismisses the distinction as irrelevant. “How did you figure it out?” he asks, because he really doesn’t remember doing anything on that op that would have given him away.
Phil sighs. “You heard the caravan coming well before you should have been able to. And I knew you heard it because you have a characteristic head-tilt when you’re listening to something.”
‘Damn,’ Clint thinks, bowing his head. Stuff like that could get him killed and he didn’t even know he was doing it. “So I assume you went somewhere to freak out after, huh? Thanks for not freaking out during the mission, I guess.”
“Clint,” Phil says his name in a strained voice. Clint looks up - Phil’s face is a confusing mixture of sad, angry, and pleading. “I did not freak out. I went looking for confirmation and advice,” he says, all earnest sincerity. Clint lets his confusion show. Who the hell could Phil have gone to for advice?
“Remember how I told you I went to visit my sister because something in Pakistan reminded me of her?” Phil continues. Clint nods, not sure where this is going. He remembers being so grateful that Phil was opening up to him about his family. Now it turns out to have been a lie, a cover for his real reason for running: Clint.
“You were what reminded me of my sister,” Phil says. ‘Is he really still sticking with the sister story?’ Clint thinks. But Phil is looking at him, totally open, eyes begging Clint to believe him.
“Becca gets the same exact tilt to her head when she’s listening. That’s how I figured it out. My sister is Beta of the Louisiana Pack. I know what a wolf looks like when they’re listening intently.”
The shock of that sentence jolts Clint out of the spiral of self-pity he’d been indulging in. Phil’s . . . sister? A wolf?
“But . . . you’re not a wolf!” Clint protests. He takes a deep breath of Phil’s scent just to be sure . . . definitely human.
Phil, damn him, actually chuckles. “No, I’m not,” he says. “Becca was turned seven years ago.”
Clint gapes at him. “They made a turned wolf Beta?!” Clint had heard of the Louisiana Pack, of course he had. They were the oldest continuous pack in the country but despite their history, or perhaps because of it, they were also considered one of the most ‘progressive.’ Still, making a turned wolf Beta - a female turned wolf at that. That’s beyond ‘progressive.’ “I thought their Alpha had sons?”
Phil nods. “Karl has two sons, Frank and Emmett. But neither of them wanted the position. From what he’s told me, Karl started grooming Becca for it practically from the moment she joined.”
“Karl?” Clint’s eyebrows raise practically to his hairline. “You’re on a first name basis with the Alpha of the Louisiana Pack?” he asks incredulously.
“Yes,” Phil says, in a tone that indicates he has no idea why that’s such a big deal. “I have been since not long after Becca was turned. Of course, at first I thought she’d been seduced into some scary cult, which I still think was a reasonable assumption given the circumstances, but once all that was sorted out they were very welcoming. I’ve stayed with them a few times now. The pups call me ‘Uncle Phil’ and Karl has said I’m to consider myself an honorary Pack member.” Phil smiles a little sappily at that. Clint just shakes his head in wonder.
“I have never heard of a pack accepting a human like that,” he tells Phil, “even if they are related to a pack member.”
Phil actually blushes a bit. Clint’s heart skips a beat at the sight. “I’m glad they did,” Phil says softly. “Becca was the only family I had before the Pack. I don’t know what I’d have done if I’d lost her.”
Clint could say that this wasn’t where he’d expected this conversation to go, but truth is, he never expected this conversation to be happening at all. Phil knows Clint’s a wolf and he doesn’t care. Phil has a whole Pack that he considers family and he’s sharing everything with Clint.
Clint is used to Phil’s ‘Agent Coulson’ persona. It’s what he sees the most of, after all. Phil drops it a bit when they’re hanging out, eating and doing paperwork together. He’s been dropping it more and more often when Clint’s the only one around to see but right now it’s completely gone. There is nothing of Agent Coulson in him now - it’s all just Phil. Phil opening up and telling Clint about his family and his feelings as if it were only right that he knows these things. No one has ever shown Clint this kind of trust before and Clint has never been around someone who wasn’t just a little bit wary of him. Clint’s used to not being trusted, he’s never known anything different, and the idea that someone like Phil could trust him so completely makes his head spin.
Clint knows now that he will do anything for this man. After that opening up to Phil the way Phil has opened up to him is easy.
“I know you’ve read my file,” he tells Phil, “but some things aren’t in there, obviously. My father was an Alpha who drove his whole Pack away with his drinking and violence. My brother Barney finally killed him and my mother both, which technically should have made him Alpha, but Barney was never good at leading. I thought things would be different when we got to the circus. There was a pack there, but the Swordsman was Beta to Trickshot as Alpha, and I guess you know how well that turned out. I’ve been Lone ever since.” It’s an old story - old pain - but thinking of it never fails to remind Clint that nothing good ever happens to him. He looks down at his hands, twisting the fingers together to stave off that familiar feeling of wanting to run, to run so far that no one will ever find him again. It’s habit - a habit he’s going to have to work hard to break because Clint doesn’t want to run from Phil.
“Clint,” Phil says, and reaches out, closing his hand over Clint’s where he is twisting them them together. “You’re not Lone. Not really, not anymore,” he says, “I may not be a wolf, but I’ve learned a lot from Becca and her Pack, and I’m here. You don’t have to pretend with me.”
“Phil . . .” Clint whispers, overwhelmed.
“Oh, and Karl told me to tell you that if you ever need anything or just want a place to stay for awhile with those who understand you can give him a call or just come by. I’ll make sure you have their number and address,” Phil says with a smile.
“He doesn’t know me. Why would he . . .”
“I asked him that, actually,” Phil says, “Karl said that he knows me. And I know you.”
“Enough to trust me with your family?” Clint asks, incredulous.
“Yes,” Phil says simply.
Clint can’t help it, he puts his head in hands and laughs, half-hysterically. “You’re serious?” he asks.
Phil leans forward and wraps his arms around Clint’s shoulders. “Yes, Clint,” he says firmly. “I’m serious. And I want you to come with me to Louisiana sometime soon.”
“Yeah, ok,” Clint says into Phil’s shoulder.
From the back patio they suddenly hear the rattle of metal on metal. The stalker starts shouting to be let loose, interspersed with some creative cursing. Phil sighs and leans back. “Guess I should call SHIELD to come pick that guy up,” he says, reluctantly.
“Yeah, guess you should,” Clint says. Phil sighs and gets up from the couch, pulling his phone from his pocket.
“Hey, Phil?” Clint calls, before he can dial.
Phil looks back, eyebrow arched in query.
“Thank you,” Clint says, holding his gaze.
Phil smiles. “My pleasure.”
As an apology for making you wait longer than a few days, here's an extra-long chapter!
It takes all of Phil’s self control not to show his immense relief when Clint shows up in the doorway wearing the sweats he’d left by the door. He knows he is treading a very thin line - one wrong move and he could lose everything. Clint is clearly expecting either an epic freak-out or anger and betrayal and Phil is going to make sure he doesn't give Clint any excuse to think either of those things is going to happen. Normal, that’s what Clint needs right now. He needs to know that his being a wolf doesn't change a thing as far as Phil is concerned.
So Phil pointedly doesn't look up from the paper where he is scribbling down as many details as he can remember and formulating a cover story that will be both plausible and won’t be at odds with any evidence left behind, instead telling Clint there is soda in his fridge. Most people probably think Clint is a Coke or Mountain Dew kind of person, assuming he drank soda at all, but Clint avoids anything with caffeine unless absolutely necessary. He doesn't want anything that could interfere with the steadiness of his hands.
No - Clint has a sweet-tooth, and his favourite is the fruit-flavored sodas. Orange is the easiest to come by but Clint has a secret passion for black cherry soda, something Phil had discovered on the many long drives he and Clint had taken while on assignment. Clint would crow with delight whenever he found a convenience store that had black cherry, and Phil always responded with amused indulgence. Phil has his snack donuts, Clint has his Doc Brown’s. Phil has kept some stocked in his fridge for months, hoping.
“What are you doing?” Clint asks, popping the tab on the soda and taking a long draught.
“Notes,” Phil replies absently, “I’m going to have to write up a report on this and I want to get the details down while it’s still fresh.” He knows it’s the wrong thing to say as soon as the words leave his mouth and he winces inwardly.
“Report?” Clint repeats, voice blank and wary.
Calm, Phil reminds himself as he looks up to meet Clint’s closed-off gaze. Normal. “I invited you over and we were just watching TV when he came by. Luckily one of the local strays I’ve been feeding took exception to him being in my yard. It ran off when I came outside. That work for you?” he asks softly.
Clint takes a deep breath and relaxes. “Yeah, that works,” he says, voice no longer cold, and Phil thanks whatever might be out there that he hadn’t completely fucked up this conversation before it really started.
Clint asks about the stalker while he settles on the couch, and Phil knows what he’s doing, getting everything else out of the way before they start in on the serious stuff and Phil doesn’t mind one bit because Clint is sitting on his couch which, in addition to the small possessive jolt that runs through Phil’s body also means that he’s not planning on running. Not yet, anyway.
Phil is torn between being ticked off at this man who dared to stalk Phil Coulson and grateful to him for being the catalyst for the coming conversation. Either way, he’s fine where he is for now.
Phil says as much and the banter that follows is so familiar and normal he has to work hard to not start grinning like a loon. He promises to get Clint a pair of shiny new magnetic handcuffs (which are really only supposed to be for senior agents, but Phil’s got connections in R&D) and puts his pencil down as he finishes his notes.
“How long have you known?” Clint asks casually, tone no different than when he asked about the cuffs, but Phil knows this is when everything could all start going to hell if he’s not careful.
“Since Pakistan,” he replies, just as casually, and walks over to sit sideways on the couch, facing Clint who obligingly turns to face him.
“So it was my fault you needed a vacation,” Clint concludes, sadness and self-loathing clear in his voice and Phil wants to track down every single person who ever hurt his archer and kill them with his bare hands.
“No,” he replies firmly, tone brooking no argument, “Yes, it was because of you, but it wasn’t your fault.” He can tell Clint isn’t quite buying it but he lets it go for the moment because Clint is asking more questions.
Clint asks how he had figured it out and Phil tells him, watching Clint curl in on himself just a little more, probably mentally berating himself for not noticing his own tell. “So I assume you went somewhere to freak out after, huh? Thanks for not freaking out during the mission, I guess.”
Phil wants to punch someone. Not Clint, obviously, but whoever it was that made Clint so very sure no one could love him like -- Phil’s train of thought stutters to a stop as he realises the word that just went through his brain and how right it sounds. Huh. It’s neither as surprising nor as panic-inducing as Phil would have thought it would be and he says Clint’s name in a voice that is barely audible behind all the complicated emotions behind it.
“I did not freak out,” he assures him. “I went looking for confirmation and advice.” Clint is looking at him with honest confusion in his gaze and Phil realises that Clint doesn’t believe that he actually went to see his sister - probably thinks it was a cover story for simply needing to get away from Clint and Phil wishes he could hold him but he knows it’s not time yet.
So he explains, as quickly as he can, that he really did visit his sister because his sister is a wolf and he only figured out Clint was one because he reminded him of her. It is clearly not an explanation that Clint was expecting because the shock seems to pull him out of his insecurity, at least for the moment. Phil hadn’t realised until he sees Clint’s amazed and awed reaction that his sister’s role within the Pack - and his acceptance in it as well - were that far out of the ordinary.
Karl had told him that he was very thankful to have Becca as a member because until she’d come along he’d been at his wits end about what to do to ensure the succession of the Pack. The Louisiana Pack is the longest continuously existing pack in the country, he explained - meaning that each Alpha of the Pack had been the chosen successor of the Alpha before since the Pack was formed out of French Lones who had come over from the old world to the new in the mid seventeenth century.
Often times the Alpha-ship was passed on from parent to child, but in some cases another pack-member was chosen. Karl himself was not the direct descendant of the original Alpha, the line having shifted several times over the centuries. Neither Frank nor Emmett wanted the responsibility of leadership, and truthfully, neither was well-suited for the role. Karl had no intention of forcing his sons to take up a mantle they didn’t want, but with neither of their wives being the Alpha type either, he was in the precarious position of not having a successor. And then along came Becca, who had much the same calm competence as her brother, and even when new, pretty much fell into the Beta role without even being asked. Until Clint mentioned it, it had not even occurred to Phil that Becca’s status as a turned wolf rather than a born one would have made most packs see her as unworthy of leadership.
Clint’s incredulity at Karl’s completely open acceptance of Phil into the Pack makes Phil all the more grateful to the man. He knows his relationship with the Pack is unusual, but according to Clint it is not only unusual, but unprecedented. He takes a moment to imagine his life if Becca had truly been lost to him when she was turned and shudders inwardly. Becca is five years younger than he and had only been thirteen when their parents were killed in a mudslide. Phil had been out with friends, but Becca had been home when it happened. She’d been outside reading and had barely managed to escape the path of the mud. Their parents had been inside and hadn’t made it out and Becca had had to watch as their house was buried and her parents killed right in front of her. From that moment on, Phil has made protecting his baby sister his life. When Becca had gotten old enough to protect herself and began to chafe under Phil’s care he’d made a career of protecting other people. If he’d lost Becca, if he’d continued to believe that he failed her, he would never have joined SHIELD. He says as much to Clint and sees the awe on the archer’s face, like he can’t believe Phil is sharing something so personal with him.
Truth is, Clint is the only person Phil trusts enough to share it with, and Phil wishes that Clint understood that, that he understood that he was worthy of that trust. And then, apparently feeling like he owes Phil something, Clint fills him in on the parts of his past that aren’t in his file. He’d already figured out that Clint was probably a born wolf, so the parts about his father and brother, while infuriating, aren’t really surprising. But finding out that the Swordsman and Trickshot were wolves as well makes a twisted sort of sense, and explains even more about why Clint was so quick to trust them, only to have them turn on him. Phil wonders if part of the reason Clint seems to trust him is because he isn’t a wolf. Clint clearly has had very little positive interaction with other wolves. Phil’s pretty sure Becca and the Pack can fix that, if he can convince Clint to come with him some time.
“Clint,” Phil says, waiting until the other man looks him in the eye, and daring to put a gentle hand over Clint’s where he’s twisting them nervously. “You’re not Lone. Not really, not anymore,” he says, “I may not be a wolf, but I’ve learned a lot from Becca and her Pack, and I’m here. You don’t have to pretend with me.” What Phil doesn’t say is that he wants Clint to be his Pack, and more. Baby steps, Phil thinks. The last thing he wants to do is scare Clint away by going too fast.
“Phil . . .” Clint whispers, clearly both touched and a little overwhelmed.
Phil goes for broke. “Oh, and Karl told me to tell you that if you ever need anything or just want a place to stay for awhile with those who understand you can give him a call or just come by. I’ll make sure you have their number and address,” he says with a smile.
“He doesn’t know me,” Clint practically wails, “Why would he . . .”
“I asked him that, actually,” Phil replies, “Karl said that he knows me. And I know you.”
“Enough to trust me with your family?” Clint asks, disbelief in every syllable.
“Yes,” Phil says adamantly. No elaboration, just a simple straightforward answer. Phil trusts Clint. Has since almost the beginning. With himself, with his family, with everything.
Clint puts his head in his hands, and his bark of laughter is almost hysterical. “You’re serious?” he asks.
Clint looks so lost, trying to wrap his head around the idea that anyone could care about him and trust him like it’s a completely foreign concept and Phil can’t help it - he leans forward and wraps his arms around Clint’s shoulders, light enough to not be confining but strong enough to not seem hesitant.
“Yes, Clint,” he says firmly. “I’m serious. And I want you to come to Louisiana with me sometime soon.” Phil hopes he’s not pushing too hard but Clint needs more people who like him for who he is, to help remind him that he is worthy of friends and family, and Phil knows the Pack can do that.
“Yeah, ok,” Clint says, resting his head on Phil’s shoulder, and Phil never wants to move again.
Unfortunately the clang of metal and a muffled shouting from the back patio informs them that their prisoner is awake. Phil sighs and reluctantly lets go of Clint. “Guess I should call SHIELD to come pick that guy up,” he says, disappointed, as he gets up and starts to pull out his phone.
“Yeah, guess you should,” Clint replies as Phil stands, sounding disappointed himself and making no move to get up from the couch.
“Hey, Phil?” Clint calls, and Phil turns around, cocking one eyebrow in inquiry. “Thank you,” Clint says softly, but sincerely.
Phil smiles. He knows now that they’ll be ok. “My pleasure,” he replies, before turning to call SHIELD to get rid of their unwelcome guest.
Some people have been wondering about when this takes place and how old the characters are and I realise I've never really mentioned so here it is. This is my head-canon so I've pretty much ignored any official ages/dates, which are conflicting anyway. This story takes place about 10 years before the events of the Avengers. Phil is 35, Clint is 27. Becca is 30, although she looks younger because she's a wolf. Phil and Becca's parents died when she was 13 and he was 18. Becca was turned when she was 23 and Phil was 28. Fury is a few years older than Phil and Hill is about the same age as Clint. Hope that clears things up.
SHIELD is nothing if not efficient and the stalker is quickly bundled off to a holding cell in SHIELD Headquarters. When they are gone, Phil turns back to the living room where Clint is once again lounging on the couch, but he’s tense, looking up at Phil as if not sure he’s still welcome.
“Do you need a run?” Phil asks him, hoping that the simple, casual acknowledgement of the wolf might put him at ease. Clint looks surprised, and Phil wonders if he thought they’d just go back to ignoring his nature now that the talk was over. Phil has no intention of doing that. Clint is the wolf and the wolf is Clint. Clint needs someone who will acknowledge and accept him as he is - all of him. Phil intends to be that person.
Clint watches Phil intently, probably looking for some sign of discomfort. He won’t find one. Finally he answers, “Nah, I’ve spent the last few nights in my fur watching this place. I’m good.” The look he gives Phil is both challenging and vulnerable at the same time. Phil just nods.
“I figured,” he says. “And thank you for that by the way. I should have taken it more seriously. It’s just that I try to keep home separate from work. I didn’t want SHIELD up in my personal life.” Clint’s answering smile is strained, and Phil immediately realises how Clint must have taken his statement.
“Not you!” he rushes to clarify “You are welcome up in my personal life any time,” he continues, and then feels himself blush spectacularly when he realises how that sounds.
Clint laughs, insecurity fading away into genuine mirth. Phil wants to say that he doesn’t mean it like it sounds, but the truth is he actually does mean it like it sounds - he just hadn’t intended to go there yet.
“Very funny,” he tells Clint dryly, but inside he is revelling in the sound of Clint’s laughter. “You have a dirty mind, Barton,” he accuses, trying to sound stern.
“Guilty as charged, sir,” Clint says with a bright grin. He glances over at the clock on the mantle, which tells them it’s close to two am. Clint sighs and starts to stand. “I guess I should be getting home,” he says reluctantly.
Phil frowns - Clint’s apartment is a forty minute drive from here. “You don’t have to,” he offers quietly. “I mean, it’s a long way back to your place and we both have to be up early. You can stay here if you want. The couch is actually pretty comfortable.”
“Are you sure?” Clint asks, a wistful note in his tone. Phil smiles.
“I’m sure,” Phil says. They’ve shared accommodations before, on missions, even occasionally slept in the same bed, but this isn’t a mission - it’s different, and they both know it. “Hang on, I’ll get you a pillow and some blankets,”
When he returns with the spare blankets, Clint has already removed the back cushions to give himself a little more room. Phil hands over the pillow and blankets without comment, watching as Clint makes up the couch.
“I’m upstairs, at the end of the hall, if you need me,” Phil says. He lays his hand on Clint’s shoulder as he passes on his way to the stairs, just a brief touch, but he can feel some of Clint’s tension release at the gesture.
“Phil?” he hears Clint say as he starts up the stairs. Phil turns halfway to look at Clint, eyes shining in the dim lighting. “Thanks,” Clint says, and he’s not just talking about the blankets and the couch.
“Any time,” Phil replies with a smile. “Really. Any time.”
Phil falls asleep quickly, but is woken about an hour later by the squeak of his door hinges. He’s thought about getting them fixed, but he rather likes the idea of always knowing if someone enters the room. His hand is on his revolver instantly, years of experience turning it into instinct, but when he looks all he can see is two eyes, shining green in the reflected moonlight and only about three and a half feet off the floor.
He sits up as his eyes start to adjust to see Clint in wolf form, backing out through the door. His ears are flat and he makes a soft whine of apology.
“The end of the bed’s free,” Phil offers, before Clint can completely disappear. Clint cocks his head in a clear ‘are you sure?’ gesture. Phil smiles and pats the blankets near his feet.
Apparently making up his mind, Clint comes fully into the room and jumps up on the bed, curling into a circle with his nose pointing toward the head of the bed, watching Phil from under heavy-lidded eyes.
Phil gives into temptation and runs his hand, once, through the soft fur on Clint’s head, scratching slightly behind one pointed ear. Clint’s head leans into his touch and he rumbles with pleasure.
Phil gives Clint’s shoulder a last pat and lays back down. “Good night, Clint,” he says into the darkness. Clint doesn’t make a sound, but he lays his head down to rest on top of Phil’s feet, the heat of his body seeping through the blankets to warm Phil’s toes, which are always cold. With a contented sigh, Phil drifts back to sleep.
Clint isn’t in the room when Phil’s alarm goes off the next morning, but a light smattering of golden fur at the end of the bed proves it was no dream and the smell of bacon wafting up the stairs lets him know that Clint hasn’t gone far.
When Phil comes down the stairs Clint is still in the sweats Phil lent him, scooping bacon out of the pan and onto plates already laden with omelets. The scene makes Phil’s heart clench with longing. Clint looks like he belongs in Phil’s kitchen and Phil wants him there every morning.
Clint looks up with a shy smile when Phil enters the kitchen. “G’morning,” he says.
Phil smiles. “Good morning. You didn’t have to make breakfast, you know.”
“I wanted to,” Clint says, handing Phil a plate. “Sorry about . . . last night.”
“What part?” Phil asks, confused.
Clint ducks his head, cheeks colouring. “The part where I slept on your bed.”
Phil smiles at Clint’s flustered look. “Usually when I stay with the Pack, Becca sleeps at the foot of my bed. Sometimes it’s one or more of the pups. I don’t mind at all.”
In fact, Phil is thrilled that Clint felt secure enough to sleep in wolf form on his bed. Wolves don’t sleep well alone, and any unmated wolf in a pack will usually end up in wolf form on the bed of whomever in the pack they trust the most. Phil knows that when he’s not visiting, Becca either sleeps on Karl’s bed or in her own bed with Caroline at her feet.
Phil takes a step closer and Clint looks up at him. “If you’re waiting for me to freak out about your wolfishness, you’re going to have a long wait. Now eat up. I’ve got a meeting with Fury this morning, after which I’ll probably have a whole new crop of trainees for you to terrorise.”
Clint’s eyes light up with unholy glee. Phil sighs.
“Just no permanent damage, please,” he requests as he digs into Clint’s breakfast.
Clint doesn’t answer, he just starts shoveling in his own eggs, but Phil doesn’t entirely trust the smirk on the archer’s face.
When Phil arrives at Headquarters the first thing he does is check on the status of his stalker. He’s still down in the holding cells and there’s a dossier on Phil’s desk with all the information he could possibly want on the man. Turns out he works at the Chinese restaurant Phil usually gets his delivery from, which is how the man knew his address. With all of the strangeness that goes on at SHIELD it feels odd to have been targeted by a simple delivery man with a crush. Phil signs off on the paperwork to have the man transferred over to the local police and makes a mental note to move before the guy gets out of prison.
The second thing he does is check his email to find that Fury has assigned Clint to a mission with Agent Carrero later in the week. Phil reads over the mission brief and decides it isn’t something that needs Clint’s unique talents. One of the other agents can do it. There are only a handful of people Phil would trust to handle Clint in the field, and Carrero, who wouldn’t recognise independent thought if it masticated on his posterior, is definitely not one of them. Phil adds another action item to his mental agenda for this morning’s meeting.
The first part of the meeting with Fury goes exactly the way Phil expects it to - Fury gives him a lecture about not reporting the stalker right away and then gives him a new crop of trainees to whip into shape. While the junior agents fall under the jurisdiction of Agent Thurmond, Fury insists that Phil gets general oversight of the trainees. Apparently, according to the Director, Phil has an uncanny sense of who does and doesn’t have potential to be a SHIELD agent. Which brings up the topic that he really wanted to talk to the Director about.
Phil packs up the files Fury had given him on the new trainees, but he speaks before Fury can dismiss him. “Could I have a moment of your time please, Director?” he asks, figuring he’ll start professional and go on from there.
Fury raises an eyebrow. “What’s on your mind?”
“When you gave me Barton and told me to make it work, he’d already run through five handlers. Why did I never get a chance to evaluate him when he came in?”
“Barton was already as trained as he was going to get when we got him. If we’d put him in with the trainees or junior agents he’d only get bored and breed resentment. I made the decision to put him in as a probationary agent from the start. Why?”
“Because if you’d let me evaluate him from the start I could have told you that he’d never work with the kind of handlers you were giving him.” Phil lets a little bit of his anger slip into his voice as annoyance.
Fury leans forward and steeples his fingers. “And why is that, exactly.”
“Because he doesn’t trust easily and he won’t trust anyone who treats him as a weapon rather than a person, sir. Those handlers were all idiots.”
Fury’s ever-expressive eyebrow indicates amusement. “Well, he’s yours now. You seem to be doing a good job with him.”
“Exactly,” Phil replies, glad that Fury gave him such a perfect opening. “He’s mine now. Which means I get to approve any and all assignments, and he is not going out with Carrero this week. There’s nothing in that assignment that can’t be done by someone else and Carrero can’t think his way out of a paper bag. I’m not letting my agent go out with someone I can’t trust to bring him back if things go wrong.”
Fury just sits back, his single eye dancing with mirth and with that they are no longer Agent Coulson and Director Fury, just Phil and Nick, old Army buddies. “You do have it bad, don’t you Phil?” he says with a smirk. Phil doesn’t even bother denying it. Nick knows him too well. Unfortunately for Nick, the knowing goes both ways.
“I’m telling you right now to keep your meddlesome nose out of it, Nick. There are no anti-fraternisation regulations at SHIELD, as you well know, considering what you and Hill get up to in this very office every Wednesday afternoon.” The slight widening of his single eye is the only indication Nick gives, but Phil knows Nick didn’t expect him to be privy to that piece of information. “Oh, and Barton and I are both taking a week’s leave starting Monday,” he adds, deciding to push his luck while Nick is still slightly off-balance.
“Do I dare ask what you will be doing?” Nick replies, resignation in his tone.
“I’m taking him to visit my sister,” Phil says, and Nick doesn’t even try to hide his surprise at that.
“Exactly how much does your sister know about what you do?” he asks suspiciously.
“She knows I work for a government agency. She knows my work is classified and sometimes dangerous. That’s all she knows. I imagine she probably has some pretty accurate ideas about the specifics; she is related to me after all,” Phil answers, allowing himself a slightly smug smile. “She’s not a security risk and you know it, Nick. And if you want Barton to work well with others he needs to see what healthy interpersonal relationships are like. He hasn’t exactly had much experience with them.”
Nick looks thoughtful for a moment, and then nods. “All right. Just be careful.”
“Of course,” Phil replies. As if he would ever be otherwise with his family.
“Any other demands, Agent Coulson?” Nick asks sardonically.
Phil grins. “Not at the moment, sir. I’ll be sure to let you know if any come up.”
Fury makes a sound that would be described as a snort on anyone else. “Get out of here, Coulson,” he says.
“Nice doing business with you, sir,” Phil replies, lips quirking as he turns to leave Fury’s office.
“Phil?” Nick calls, just has he reaches the door. Phil looks over his shoulder expectantly. “Don’t get your heart broken,” Nick tells him, concern etched on his features.
“It’s not my heart I’m worried about, sir,” Phil says softly, and closes the door behind him.
Sorry about the wait, guys. My muse is a bit worn out, so updates to this and my other stories won't be every few days like they used to be, but I promise I'm not abandoning anything.
Clint hangs in the background while the SHIELD team packs up the stalker and takes him back to Headquarters. They do so with the efficiency typical of SHIELD and Clint settles back on the couch almost wishing they would have taken longer. Nothing about this night has gone the way he’d expected and Clint finds that he is irrationally scared that if he leaves it will all turn out to not have been true. He’d been trying to prepare himself for weeks now to lose Phil’s friendship over his secret and to find out that Phil had already known and doesn’t care has turned his mostly predictable world upside down.
Phil comes back into the living room after seeing the SHIELD agents out the door and Clint watches him nervously, wondering what the protocol is for this. It’s getting late - will Phil kick him out soon? Should he offer to leave first? Is there anything more to say about the wolf stuff? Should he ask now or are they going to go back to ignoring it until next time? Clint still doesn’t know how much Phil has picked up from his sister (Phil’s sister is a wolf! Clint still can’t quite wrap his brain around that information) and there are definitely some things he should make sure Phil knows.
Clearly Phil knows wolves heal fast - Phil’s been covering for him with Medical for a while and Clint now knows why he never asked for an explanation - but does he know how far it can go? Clint really doesn’t want to ever end up in the morgue ahead of his time. What about-
Clint’s racing thoughts are interrupted when Phil asks, “Do you need a run?”
Huh. So apparently they’re not ignoring it at all. Or maybe Phil is just doing his obligatory ‘see how cool I can be’ moment and they’ll go back to ignoring it later. Too bad Clint’s never been one for following a script.
“Nah,” he replies. “I’ve spent the last few nights in my fur watching this place. I’m good.” he continues, tone a little flippant because Clint lives to push boundaries and he needs to know how far Phil’s comfort zone extends. Clint doesn’t think he can handle Phil freaking out, not anymore, not now that he’s starting to believe that maybe he can be who he is - all of who he is - with Phil.
But Phil just nods. “I figured,” he says. “And thank you for that by the way. I should have taken it more seriously,” Phil admits, and Clint relaxes only to tense a second later as he continues, “It’s just that I try to keep home separate from work. I didn’t want SHIELD up in my personal life.”
Right. Of course Phil wouldn’t want SHIELD in his personal life. And Clint is SHIELD. Clint didn’t even realise how much he had been hoping for something more than just work with Coulson until this moment. He knows that the smile he gives Phil is strained, but it’s the best he can do.
Phil picks up on it - of course he does - and his eyes widen almost comically as he quickly clarifies. “Not you!” he insists, and he sounds so earnest that Clint can’t help but believe him and that traitorous flame of hope in Clint’s heart flares. “You are welcome up in my personal life any time,” he continues, babbling, and then he does the most amazing thing. Phil Coulson blushes.
Clint laughs. It’s clear that Phil hadn’t meant it quite as salaciously as it had sounded and Clint never thought he’d see Agent Coulson make an unintentional innuendo and then blush about it.
He still hasn’t, Clint realises, because the man in front of him is not Agent Coulson, he’s Phil, and they are subtly but definitively different. Phil doesn’t just keep SHIELD out of his personal life, he keeps Coulson out of his personal life and Clint is starting to realise that Phil is someone that no one at SHIELD has ever seen before. Except maybe Fury . . . and Clint. For some inexplicable reason, Phil lets Clint see him.
“You have a dirty mind, Barton,” Phil says, with a hint of Coulson in his tone but the smile on his face is all Phil.
“Guilty as charged, sir,” Clint answers with a grin. He glances at the clock - almost two am. Better to end the evening on a high note, he thinks as he sighs and stands up. “I guess I should be getting home,” he says reluctantly. Clint is watching Phil’s face as he says it and his heart leaps when Phil reflexively frowns.
“You don’t have to,” Phil says, and while it’s phrased as an offer it feels like a request. “I mean, it’s a long way back to your place and we both have to be up early. You can stay here if you want. The couch is actually pretty comfortable.”
It’s a thin excuse. Phil may have to get up early because Clint’s never seen him come in later than seven am but Clint doesn’t have to be in at SHIELD until nearly noon and Phil knows it. “Are you sure?” Clint asks, giving him one last chance.
Phil just smiles. “I’m sure,” he says. “Hang on, I’ll get you a pillow and some blankets.”
Clint busies himself making up the couch - removing the back cushions to give it more depth and spreading out the sheets and pillows Phil returns with. “I’m upstairs, at the end of the hall, if you need me,” Phil says and he lays his hand on Clint’s shoulder as he passes. Clint’s body relaxes involuntarily at the touch and it’s too brief but the warmth stays long after Phil’s hand has left.
“Phil?” Clint calls as Phil starts up the steps. Phil turns back, an expression Clint recognises as fondness on his face. “Thanks,” Clint says, knowing that Phil will understand that he means thank you for all of it - for accepting him, for supporting him, for caring about him.
“Any time,” Phil replies easily. “Really. Any time.”
Clint settles on his back on the couch and stares up at the ceiling, thinking. The part of him that wants to take everything that happened tonight at face value and then dares to hope for more is warring with the part of him that knows better than to set himself up for disappointment, even if that last 'any time' had sounded an awful lot like an open invitation. For a moment he allows himself the luxury of contemplating what life would be like if he actually got everything he wanted - Phil as Mate, a Pack who accepts and cares for him as he is, pups to love and spoil and protect. To be able to give others the childhood Clint never had. It’s a beautiful fantasy, but that’s all it is.
Clint rolls over to face the back of the couch, burying his head under the pillow. He tries to force himself to sleep, tries not to think that Phil is just upstairs. One would think he’d have gotten used to sleeping alone by now but even after all these years it just feels unnatural. And so very lonely. Clint has always found the nights to be one of the worst things about being Lone, which is part of the reason he sleeps as little as he does.
Clint has been fantasising about sleeping - just sleeping - with Phil practically since he met the man and the knowledge that Phil is so close is just too much temptation to resist. Just a peek, Clint tells himself.
Clint grows his fur and pads quietly up the stairs. When he reaches the door at the end of the hall he pauses for a moment, listening to the sound of Phil breathing evenly on the other side. The sound calms him instantly, and he moves forward, pushing the door open with his nose. The door squeaks loudly and Clint freezes. He sees Phil sit up straight in bed, hand going for his gun and for all that he wishes he could disappear Clint doesn’t move - it’s never a good idea startling people in their line of work and nothing draws the eye like movement. So he waits silent and motionless until Phil relaxes, recognising him, and pulls his hand back.
Clint flattens his ears and looks down, embarrassed, as he backs out the door, whining in apology. Stupid! he berates himself. Getting caught watching Phil sleep? He can just see it now, Phil looking everywhere except at Clint as he tells him maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all . . .
Phil’s voice interrupts his self-flagellation before Clint is halfway out the door. “The end of the bed’s free,” he offers, and Clint blinks, sure he can’t possibly have heard what he thinks he’s heard. He cocks his head at Phil questioningly but the other man just smiles and pats the covers at the foot of the bed.
It’s too good an opportunity to pass up, and Clint jumps up on the bed, curling into a comfortable ball, head pointed in Phil’s direction, watching him to make sure he’s really comfortable with this. Phil just watches Clint with affection and awe as he runs his hand through the thick ruff at his neck. Clint closes his eyes and revels in the feel of Phil’s strong fingers running through his fur and when Phil scratches behind his ear he can’t help but let out a pleased growl - a sound that would definitely have been a moan in his human form and Clint is never so grateful to be a wolf right now.
Phil gives Clint’s shoulder a last pat and lays back down with a soft, “Good night, Clint,” and the use of his name soothes the last of Clint’s fears that Phil had forgotten just who he’d invited into his bed. Clint settles with his head resting on Phil’s feet under the blanket and lets that small almost-contact ground him and send him to sleep.
Phil is still sleeping when Clint wakes from the best sleep he’s had in years. He’s way too awake to stay in bed, as tempting as it is with Phil there, so he jumps down and squeezes through the still-open bedroom door. He changes in the hallway because he’s never been able to get a handle on going down stairs quietly as a wolf, and hopes no one outside is in a position to see a naked man walking down Phil’s stairs through the windows. Then again, it’s one way of warding off other potential stalkers.
Clint pulls on Phil’s sweats that he left abandoned by the couch and replaces the cushions, folding the blanket and stacking it neatly with the pillow at the end of the couch. Then he turns his attention to exploring Phil’s kitchen.
Clint has never felt so at home as he does in this house, despite the fact that it’s his first time here. That’s all down to Phil and the urge to give him something in return is undeniable. Breakfast isn’t much, but it’s pretty much all Clint can do right now and besides, Phil doesn’t eat nearly enough. Clint finds eggs and cheese to make omelets and is frying up the bacon when Phil comes down.
Just looking at him makes Clint feel simultaneously blissfully happy and nervous as hell and he supposes this is the ‘morning after’ feeling he’s heard so many people describe. Clint wouldn’t know - he’s never stayed the night with any of his anonymous partners, never trusted anyone enough to actually sleep in their presence. Sleeping with Phil last night, for all that it was just sleeping, feels so much more meaningful than anything Clint’s ever experienced before.
Clint smiles when Phil enters the kitchen, trying - and probably failing- to hide his nervousness. Clint really is usually quite good at hiding his emotions - you have to be to survive in his line of work - but deep down he doesn’t really want to hide from Phil, so his efforts are half-hearted at best. “G’morning,” he says.
Phil’s answering smile is beautiful. “Good morning,” he says. “You didn’t have to make breakfast, you know.”
“I wanted to,” Clint insists, handing Phil a plate. “Sorry about . . . last night,” he continues, looking away.
“What part?” Phil asks, with seemingly honest confusion.
Clint is horrified to find himself actually blushing as he clarifies. “The part where I slept on your bed.”
Phil smiles again, wider this time, and Clint notices something like . . . smugness? in the quirk of his lips. “Usually when I stay with the Pack, Becca sleeps at the foot of my bed. Sometimes it’s one or more of the pups. I don’t mind at all.” And yeah, Clint thinks, if Phil actually stays with the Pack for extended periods of time it makes sense he’d probably get a few bedmates.
Phil steps closer, deliberately moving into Clint’s personal space until he raises his head and meets Phil’s eyes. “If you’re waiting for me to freak out about your wolfishness,” he says softly, “you’re going to have a long wait.” The tension abruptly leaves the room, because yeah, Clint has been waiting for the freak out.
“Now eat up,” Phil orders, “I’ve got a meeting with Fury this morning, after which I’ll probably have a whole new crop of trainees for you to terrorise.”
Awkwardness forgotten, Clint grins in anticipation, already working out which tricks he’ll play this time in the name of ‘proper training.’ Clint loves fresh meat, and no one can argue with success - the trainees Clint ‘tortures’ consistently perform higher at their end-of-training evaluations. Which is probably why Phil always gives his tacit approval.
“Just no permanent damage, please,” Phil requests, starting in on his omelet with obvious relish. Clint just smirks.
So once again the scenes I had planned for this chapter ended up requiring two chapters. However, I am going to continue working on it, so I hope to have the next chapter out by the end of the weekend.
Just as Phil had promised, by the time Clint gets into Headquarters there is a new gaggle of trainees that Phil is putting through their paces. Since Phil has given him permission after all, Clint heads for his locker and his nerf arrows. He forgoes the superglue this time - these kids haven’t done anything to piss him off yet.
Phil and the twelve trainees are in one of the training rooms, and Clint slips in through the ceiling, taking up a perch on the top of one of the climbing scaffolds. He listens as Phil goes through the basics - the rules and regulations, what will be expected of them, etc. Most are listening intently, some are scribbling notes. Clint catches sight of three who look bored and overconfident. Excellent.
When Phil gets to the part about how situational awareness is probably the most important skill they’ll ever learn, one of the three leans over to the trainee next to him and whispers “Constant Vigilance!” with a roll of his eyes, and his partner giggles.
Half a second later a nerf arrow hits each of them in the temple. The kids who were hit stand there in shock, while the other trainees scatter, looking wildly around for the attacker. None of them bother to look up.
Clint’s keen ears pick up Phil’s sigh and he grins. Phil walks over to check on the stunned trainees and Clint lets loose another arrow, aiming at the third cocky kid who is trying to hide behind Phil and his two friends. It’s a vain attempt, of course. Clint’s arrow is on a perfect trajectory for the kid’s head when Phil reaches up and catches it a split second before it hits.
The kids are now staring at Phil in awe, which is exactly what Clint had intended. Phil has amazing situational awareness. Clint once made it a mission to hit Phil with one of the nerf arrows, because no matter how sneaky he was, Phil always caught them.
The one time he finally did hit Phil, the man had not reacted in any way, letting the arrow fall to the floor before glancing up unerringly at Clint’s position and asking mildly “You happy now?” and Clint had realised that Phil let that last one hit him. Clint had stopped trying after that.
This time, Phil just looks up at Clint, eyes catching his immediately and Clint knows that Phil has known exactly where he is from the moment he dropped down from the ceiling.
“Barton,” he says, sounding stern but his eyes are twinkling with amusement. “Get down here.”
Clint shows off getting down from the scaffolding, executing a number of flips and actually touching the scaffold only a handful of times as he swings himself down. He lands in a crouch and then stalks over to Phil, a smirk on his face and nerf bow in hand.
Phil turns back to the trainees. “This is Agent Barton,” Phil introduces him. “He’ll be spending the rest of the week helping you work on your situational awareness. Anyone who manages to not be hit when he shoots at you will get an automatic high score on your performance evals.”
Clint grins wickedly at the trainees, who stare at him with wide eyes. “Don’t you have a meeting with Hill?” Phil asks him, raising his eyebrows.
“Soon,” Clint answers with a shrug.
“Come to my office after,” Phil says, and like always, manages to make the order sound like a simple request.
“Yes, sir!” Clint replies, sketching a mocking salute. Phil gives him that look that says he would be rolling his eyes if it weren’t unprofessional. Clint winks at the kids unrepentantly as he goes to leave, using the door this time.
As he passes out of what would be earshot for any normal person, he hears the trainees burst into furious whispers.
“Was he up there the whole time?”
“How the hell did he--”
“Did you see those flips?”
“Screw the flips, did you see those arms?” - this spoken in a husky lust-filled voice and Clint chuckles softly to himself. Oh yes, this will be fun.
Clint knocks on Deputy Director Hill’s door exactly on time for his meeting.
“Come in,” she calls, and Clint enters the office, taking a seat in the chair opposite from Hill. He struggles to keep his expression neutral despite the heady aroma filling the office. It’s Wednesday.
“You got somethin’ for me?” he asks, cheerfully.
Hill sighs. “Not anymore,” she says, removing a file from her desk and tossing it in a drawer.
Clint sits back, startled. “What do you mean?”
“Ask Coulson,” Hill says with an annoyed look. “And get out of my office. I have actual work to do.”
Clint obeys, heading straight to Phil’s office. “What the hell, Phil?” he demands, throwing himself down on Phil’s couch. “Hill said she had a job for me and now she doesn’t and to ask you why.”
Phil grimaces and puts down the folder he was reading. “Have you met Agent Carrero?” he asks.
“Good. I vetoed that mission for a reason, Clint. I don’t know why Fury and Hill assigned it to you anyway, it’s way below your skill level and Carrero is an idiot. He does ok on milk runs, but throw him a curveball and he can’t be trusted to make the right call.”
Clint slumps back on the sofa. “You didn’t think I could handle working with him,” he concludes.
Phil shakes his head. “I know you can handle working with him. I just didn’t want to put you in the position of having to choose between disobeying orders or doing something stupid because you were told to. I know you’d complete the mission even if it went pear-shaped but you’d be doing it despite Carrero, and frankly, I don’t want to have to deal with him trying to bring you up on charges of insubordination for saving his incompetent ass.”
Clint brightens at that, even more so to hear Phil say ‘ass.’ Phil isn’t usually so open about disparaging colleagues, although he is a master at insulting someone while seeming to compliment them. Listening in on all those brass meetings Phil attends is worth it just for the entertainment.
“My hero,” Clint says with a grin, affecting the vapours. Phil smiles back, but then he turns serious.
“Clint,” he says, using that tone that Clint has learned means he’s about to say something important and Clint had better be listening closely. Clint sobers as well, leaning forward attentively.
“They’re going to assign you missions with handlers other than me sometimes. I don’t like it, but it’s unavoidable. Normally I’m not one to encourage noncompliance with orders, but don’t let them make you do anything stupid.” Phil stares at Clint intently, oozing earnestness and something almost like desperation. “No matter what anyone says, no matter what anyone threatens they don’t have the authority to punish you or fire you or anything else. And if someone tries, you come to me and let me handle it. That’s my job. If someone gives you a bad order, you ignore it, and let me handle the fallout, ok?”
If he and Coulson had had this conversation in the first month or two of their working relationship, Clint would have easily agreed and then gone off and done whatever he thought would cause the least trouble for Phil - and Clint has a decent idea of how much trouble it causes a handler when their asset disobeys orders in the field, no matter how stupid the order might be. It’s why most of his previous handlers had washed their hands of him. Ironically, he’d had no trouble disobeying stupid orders in the past because he hadn’t cared how much trouble it got his handlers in. None of them had had his back, so why should he have theirs? Clint would do whatever he thought would keep his hide in one piece and if that got the asshole of the week in trouble, so be it.
Coulson has never given Clint a bad order, but it is amazing how quickly the desire to not add to Coulson’s burdens had outstripped his own sense of self-preservation. Clint had desperately wanted to not cause Phil any trouble - he wasn’t worth it. Clint still doesn’t believe he’s worth it, but he’s accepted Phil as Alpha now even if Phil isn’t aware of that fact and it is an Alpha’s job to take care of his Pack, just as it is the wolf’s job to make that duty as easy as possible. It doesn’t really matter what Clint thinks, Phil is letting him know that he’s worth it to Phil, somehow, and Clint vows to never give Phil reason to change his mind.
“Ok,” he answers finally. “I promise,” he says firmly, meeting Phil’s eyes so that he knows Clint is serious, that he’ll keep his word, and it is only when he hears Phil’s sharp indrawn breath that Clint realises he’s subconsciously bared his neck. It’s clear that Phil knows what the gesture means and Clint meets his shocked gaze with defiant challenge in his eyes. He hadn’t meant to declare himself so unequivocally so soon, but he’ll be damned if he takes it back.
Phil stands up and walks around his desk until he is standing over Clint, still sitting on the couch with his head still tilted in deference. Phil’s eyes are blown wide and the scent coming off him is nearly as strong as the one emanating from Hill earlier. Clint knows Phil is attracted to him, it’d be hard not to, but he never imagined Phil would actually do anything about it.
Clint isn’t sure what he’s expecting, or even what he’s hoping for. But Phil doesn’t kiss him, or push him up against a wall, or ravish him over the desk, or any of the other scenarios that keep running through Clint’s head and he’s a little relieved - he’s so far past simple attraction with Phil now that he doesn’t think he could handle just a one night stand.
Instead, Phil reaches down and rests his hand on the curve of Clint’s tilted jaw, two fingers pressing lightly at the pulse point in his bared neck, and then he smiles. It’s soft and sweet and full of fondness and acceptance and his hand is like a brand across Clint’s cheek and for several seconds Clint can’t make himself breathe. He feels like something has shifted inside him, something clicking into place, an emptiness being filled and he aches with completeness.
Clint doesn’t know what Phil is looking for as he gazes down at him but whatever it is, he must find it because his smile widens slightly in satisfaction and he drops his hand and takes a few steps back to lean casually up against the edge of his desk.
“You going for a run tonight?” Phil asks, and just like that the moment is not so much broken but . . . moved on.
It takes Clint a moment to find his voice. “Was planning on it,” he answers, proud that his voice is steady and at its normal register.
Phil nods like he was expecting that answer. He looks sideways for a moment, the way he always does when he’s debating with himself on how to phrase a difficult sentence.
“What I said last night,” he finally says, and if Clint couldn’t smell the slight tang of anxiety he would never know Phil is nervous, “When I said ‘any time’ I meant it, you know. I’m not trying to push, but I know you’ve been alone for a long time and I just wanted to let you know that . . . I’d like the company. If you ever want to just hang out or crash at the end of my bed again . . . I’d like that.”
So it really was an open invitation after all. Phil’s cheeks are just the tiniest bit pink, and Clint is elated. “So . . .” he drawls, “how late are you working tonight?”
Phil grins, relieved, and answers, “Not too late, for once. I’ll probably get home around eight.”
“So, eight-thirty work for you?” Clint asks. He tries for his normal smirk but he can’t stop it from turning into a grin.
“That’s perfect,” Phil answers, eyes bright with happiness, and if Clint had his tail right now he’d be wagging it, proper wolfish behaviour or no.
“Ok,” he says, pushing to his feet, eager to get out of Phil’s office before he makes an even bigger fool of himself. “See you tonight.”
“Tonight,” Phil confirms, and Clint bounces out of the office. He has some trainees to stalk.
As soon as Clint leaves Phil locks the door and digs his private cell phone out of a drawer. He dials Becca’s number and waits anxiously as it rings.
“Phil?” She asks when she picks up, clearly concerned about the unexpected call.
“He bared his throat to me,” Phil blurts out, by way of greeting.
After a moment of silence Phil hears Becca call out “Caroline, can you keep an eye on the pups for me?” He hears an indistinct affirmative from Caroline and then the sound of a door closing, and Phil knows Becca has retreated to the privacy of her room for this conversation.
“Did you accept?” Becca asks, and that’s Phil’s sister - direct and blunt and way too observant at times.
“Of course I did,” Phil says, sighing.
“Then what’s the problem?” Becca asks, and although the words are a question her tone indicates that she already knows the problem and just wants to hear him say it. There are times when Phil would have made Becca draw it out of him, never quite comfortable with admitting fear even to his sister but this is about Clint, and Clint is too important to Phil for him to play word games.
“What if I mess it up?” he asks Becca, pushing away his discomfort displaying vulnerability. “What if I can’t be what he needs?”
Becca sighs. “You said he doesn’t trust easily, yes?”
Phil snorts at the understatement. “You could say that,” he answers dryly.
“But he trusts you?”
“Have you seen his wolf form yet?” Becca asks, and Phil has an idea where she’s going with this so he tells her about the stalker, about how Clint had been watching his house, had taken out the threat; how he hadn’t run when Phil had given him the chance and how he’d spent the night as a wolf on Phil’s bed and cooked breakfast in the morning.
“Jesus, Phil!” Becca says when he’s done. “I’ll yell at you about this whole stalker business later. But to get back to your wolf, seems like he made you his Alpha a while ago. This wasn’t a spur of the moment thing. And his previous Alphas?”
“His father was abusive, his brother abandoned him, and the Alpha of the Pack he joined as a kid beat him and left him for dead,” Phil answers in monotone, struggling to suppress his anger.
“So he had the childhood from hell, was abused and betrayed by all the people he should have been able to trust, but rather than giving up or moulding himself in their image he picked himself back up, went Lone, and survived to become the kind of man my brother who still believes in heroes could fall in love with?”
Phil sputters, “I never said . . .”
“You didn’t have to, Phil,” Becca interrupts, “it was obvious even when you came down last time.”
Phil doesn’t bother to protest further because Becca is right, Phil is completely, terrifyingly in love with Clint and in the scheme of things, the fact that his sister figured it out before he did is simply a minor annoyance.
“Phil,” Becca continues, voice softening to something almost tender, “He has every reason in the world to never trust anyone ever again, but he trusts you. He trusts you enough to reveal himself in order to protect you. He trusts you enough to sleep on your bed. You know how big a deal that is. He bared his neck to you, and trusted you to accept it. He chose you. At least do him the honour of respecting his choice.”
Phil falls back in his seat, stunned. He’d been looking at each event individually, really. But put together like that . . . “I’m being an ass, aren’t I?” he asks.
Becca chuckles. “Just a bit,” she says. “You’re not going to take advantage of him, Phil. It doesn’t work like that. You know how many arguments Karl and I have? Or Frank? God, Frank and Karl have had some fights that have shook the house. Karl’s our Alpha, but it doesn’t mean we let him walk all over us, or that we’re afraid to disagree. Give your boy some credit, Phil.”
“He’s not my boy,” Phil grumbles half-heartedly, a little embarrassed at being caught out.
“Not yet, anyway,” Becca says, and Phil can hear the smirk in her voice, but he ignores it, not rising to the bait. Becca has always seen her big brother through rose-coloured glasses, and she hasn’t met Clint yet. She doesn’t know how ridiculous it is to think that Clint would be interested in anything resembling a relationship with Phil. Clint trusts him, sees him as Alpha, as Pack, and that’s amazing enough. But someone like Clint could never want someone like Phil.
“So do I get to know this guy’s name?” Becca asks when Phil doesn’t respond to her teasing. There’s something in her tone, a feeling of words held back, and Phil wonders whether she knows what he was thinking. Phil has never really been able to put anything past his sister, which was annoying as hell after their parents died and he was trying to raise her on his own. It just got worse once she was turned.
“Clint,” he answers, more than ready to move past the topic of his hopeless love life.
“Clint,” Becca replies, as if tasting the name on her tongue, judging its appropriateness to her mental image of the man Phil had described. “So when do we get to meet him?” she asks.
“Uh . . . next week?” Phil says sheepishly, because he had meant to ask Becca about that first off. “Assuming he agrees of course.”
Becca laughs. “You’re lucky we’re all such homebodies, Phil. I’ll check with Karl but I think that’ll be fine. I’ll give you a call if it isn’t, ok?”
“It’ll be fine, Phil, you’ll see. Now go make sure Clint knows you’re planning on kidnapping him next week. I can’t wait to meet the guy that has you all in a tizzy.”
“Go easy on him, Beck,” Phil warns, imagining the whole Pack swarming over Clint like bees on honey.
“We’ll be gentle,” Becca assures him. “Now go. The pups are getting hungry and I have to go brush up my repertoire of embarrassing stories.”
“Stop worrying, big brother. It’ll be great, you’ll see.”
“Somehow that does not fill me with confidence.”
“Pessimist,” Becca accuses. “G’night, Phil,” she says and hangs up the phone before he can answer.
“Goodnight,” Phil says down the empty line, lowering the phone and glancing at the clock. He has enough time to finish the paperwork on that damn stalker before heading home. To meet Clint. Despite all his worries Phil can’t help the thrill that runs through him at the thought.
Maybe Becca is right. He’d been terrified when Clint had bared his throat earlier. He had known that the future of this thing he was building with Clint depended on his response and he’d been desperate to get it right. Apparently he had.
Phil Coulson has never failed to achieve whatever he set his mind to. He’s not going to let anything, even his own insecurities, make him break that streak now.
“I talked to my sister today,” Phil says as he joins Clint on the couch.
“Because of what happened in your office?” Clint asks, tone casual, but his grip around the soda can he’s holding tightens, making the thin metal crinkle with a sharp clang.
“In a way,” Phil murmurs, trying to organise his thoughts. Clint has been surprisingly open and candid with him recently, a braver man with his emotions than Phil thinks he could ever be, but he’s trying.
“I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable,” Clint says, voice small but clear. “I don’t expect anything from you --”
“You should,” Phil interrupts, maybe a bit too harshly, but he hates hearing that voice from Clint and hates it all the more when he is the cause. “That’s why I called Becca. I’m . . . I don’t want to disappoint you.”
Clint makes a little noise of surprise, and when Phil looks over, Clint is staring at him incredulously, eyebrows raised almost to his hairline.
“Seriously? I really don’t see that happening,” he says with a small smile. “You’ve never disappointed me,” he adds, softer, “to the contrary, you keep exceeding my expectations. What did your sister say?”
Phil responds with an embarrassed smile. “She told me I was being an idiot and that I should trust you to know your own mind.”
Clint grins. “Good advice,” he says with a nod. “I like your sister already.”
Phil groans. “Just what I need, the two of you ganging up on me,” he says, shaking his head in resignation head. “Come with me to Louisiana next week?” he asks.
“What if something comes up?” Clint asks, frowning.
“I already cleared it with Fury.”
Clint whistles, low and long. “You must have something really good on him.”
Phil rolls his eyes. “We’ve known each other a long time, we were in the Rangers together. So?”
“I take it you cleared it with the Pack too?”
“Becca said it should be fine. She’ll call if Karl has an objection but she doesn’t think he will. She’s looking forward to meeting you.”
“Did you tell her about my past?” Clint asks.
“Just the basics,” Phil replies. “That’s ok, isn’t it? I figured they should know at least some of it so that they understand.”
This time it’s Clint who rolls his eyes. “What part of what happened this afternoon did you not get? Of course it’s ok, and yes, I will be happy to go to Louisiana next week and meet your Pack.”
“I understood,” Phil says quietly. “I just wanted to make sure . . .”.
“Seriously, Phil, it just means that I trust you, which I hope you knew before today,” Clint says earnestly, turning slightly on the couch so that his knee rests against Phil’s, radiating heat.
Phil pulls his gaze away from the point of contact with effort, looking Clint in the eyes as he nods. “I do know,” he assures him, and watches Clint relax minutely.
“I trust you because you’re you. No extra effort required, ok?”
Phil has to swallow thickly before responding. “I trust you too,” he says.
Clint rubs a hand over his face. “I know,” he says, “and to be honest, sometimes that scares the hell out of me. I just hope I never give you reason to regret it.”
“You won’t,” Phil says firmly. “I trust you because you’re you,” he continues, letting the corner of his mouth turn up in a gently mocking smile. “No extra effort required.”
Clint laughs, a short, happy burst of air. “Fair enough,” he says, as he turns and leans back into the cushions, still close enough that Phil can feel the heat of him along his side.
“So what do you usually do with your evenings off when not having serious emotional discussions with a wolf in your living room,” Clint asks, eyes twinkling with happiness and amusement.
“I’ve got a couple of episodes of Supernanny on the DVR,” he says solemnly, and Clint laughs again, loud and bright and beautiful.
“Bring it on!”
Sorry for the long wait folks. Here, have two chapters to make up for it!
Clint spends the rest of the week pelting trainees with Nerf arrows and not-so-subtly moving into Phil’s house. It’s actually Phil who starts it - when Clint comes over the second night he finds a brand new toothbrush sitting in the grey checkered holder next to one that is obviously Phil’s. The next night, Clint brings a duffel with some clothes to find space already cleared in Phil’s closet and drawers. They don’t talk about it, but Phil keeps making space and Clint keeps filling it.
As he leaves HQ on Thursday to go for his run, Clint pulls out his keys to find that another key, bright silver and shiny and new, has found its way onto his keychain. When Phil gets home later that evening, Clint is in the kitchen, making stir fry, steaming rice in the rice cooker that Phil doesn’t own.
Phil looks at the rice cooker, and over at Clint’s backup bow and care kit leaning against the edge of the couch, and smiles. Then he steals a strip of beef out of the wok with a smirk, and Clint brandishes his spoon threateningly and the feeling of home and Pack hits him so hard that he closes his eyes and leans up against the counter to keep from stumbling. When he opens his eyes seconds later, Phil is standing there, pilfered beef hanging forgotten from his fingers, confused concern written all over his face. Clint just shakes his head and smiles to let Phil know he’s ok.
“Pack,” he says simply in explanation and Phil’s expression clears in realisation and the look in his eyes is soft and fond.
“Yes,” he says simply, and Clint knows that this has been building for a while but it’s been so long since he has felt that sense of belonging that comes with Pack and even then it had never been accompanied by the sense of safety that he has now. It’s a little overwhelming, so to lighten the mood, Clint reaches out and snatches the beef strip from Phil’s fingers and pops it in his own mouth with a grin. Phil looks startled for a moment, and then he laughs, loud and completely unrestrainedly and it’s one of the most beautiful sounds Clint has ever heard.
They leave for Louisiana before dawn on Saturday. Clint convinces Phil to let him drive first by pointing out how late it had been when Phil had gotten home the night before, staying late at SHIELD to finish up the trainee evaluations. Of the twelve he started with, eight of them are continuing on as Junior Agents. Unsurprisingly, the three Clint had targeted that first day had washed out halfway through the week, and one more had decided that being a SHIELD agent was just too stressful and quit.
Phil writes evaluations for all of them, of course, reporting in exhaustive detail why each trainee succeeded or failed, what areas of strength and weakness each had and suggestions on how to best cultivate their talents and minimise their vulnerabilities. Phil’s evaluations are a work of art, and Clint knows that Fury relies on them heavily as the agents progress through the ranks at SHIELD.
Clint wonders how different his early career would have been if Phil had evaluated him when he first started, rather than being thrown straight into the pool of probational agents. It would probably have been much easier, but then he wouldn’t have been given Coulson as a handler of last resort, so he’s glad it worked out the way it did.
Despite his protests, Phil is asleep in the passenger seat before they make it out of D.C. In his jeans and t-shirt, with the ever-present lines of tension relaxed and an expression of contentment on his face, Phil looks nothing like Agent Coulson. Clint is still amazed and awed that he is allowed to see Phil like this. Wolves are tactile creatures and the urge to touch is overwhelming, but Phil looks so peaceful and Clint wouldn’t risk waking him for the world so he keeps both hands on the steering wheel and watches as the woods and fields of Virginia pass by.
Clint pulls into a Waffle House near Roanoke a little after 9am and Phil stirs when he puts the car in park.
“Breakfast?” Clint asks as Phil sits up straighter in the seat and runs a hand through his hair, which is adorably sleep-rumpled.
“Coffee,” Phil says with longing, and Clint’s mind presents him with an image of a bleary-eyed Phil grabbing the coffee pot out of the hands of a bewildered waitress and chugging it down direct from the pot. He bites his lower lip trying not to laugh out loud.
“They have coffee,” Clint assures Phil as they get out of the car. Phil’s looking a bit more alert now that he’s on his feet but the look of contentment is still there and his posture is still relaxed.
They both shovel in plates of greasy goodness and Phil gets his coffee while Clint has the waitress put cherry syrup in his Sprite. Loaded up on sugar and caffeine they make their way back to the car and Clint pauses by the passenger side door, adult pride warring with childish longing. Phil raises his eyebrow when Clint makes no move to get in the car and there is such a look of indulgent fondness on his features that Clint can’t help but let childish longing win.
“There’s something I’ve always wanted to do, since I was a little kid, and I never got the chance,” he tells Phil. “You can tell me ‘no’ if you think it’s too dangerous or not appropriate or . . .” Clint’s babbling and he knows it and so he’s relieved when Phil interrupts.
“Clint!” Phil’s voice is all fond exasperation. “What is it?”
So Clint tells him. Phil stares at Clint blankly for a moment and then he bursts out laughing but it’s not a mocking laugh at all.
“Go for it,” Phil says with a grin when he gets himself under control and that’s how they end up driving down the highway, Phil behind the wheel, and Clint with his head hanging out the window, open-mouthed and grinning, as the wind whips through his fur.
“So how did your sister end up being turned anyway?” Clint asks as they pull back out on the highway past Knoxville. He’s a little hesitant asking Phil about the Pack, but it would be really nice to know a little something about them when he meets them.
Luckily, Phil doesn’t seem to think the question is out of line. He’s lounging in the passenger seat while Clint drives, seat back reclined, one knee resting up against the dashboard. He watches Clint drive with a little smile on his face as he answers.
“Becca met Karl while she was working on her Ph.D.,” he says. “Becca was doing her dissertation on fairy tales as literature and Karl is an anthropologist with a focus in folklore.”
“Wait a minute,” Clint interrupts. “Fairy tales? Like the ‘Big Bad Wolf’?” he asks incredulously.
Phil grins. “Oh, the irony,” he says dryly.
Clint laughs. “Ok, yeah, sorry, go on.”
Phil rolls his eyes. “Anyway, they started working together pretty closely. Our parents died when Becca was only 13, so I think she saw Karl as a kind of surrogate father figure.”
Clint had figured Phil’s parents must be dead after he’d told him that Becca was the only family Phil’d had left, but he hadn’t really realised what that must mean. If Becca had been only 13 . . . had Phil spent his young adult years caring for his teenage sister? It certainly explains Phil’s protective nature. “I’m sorry,” Clint says softly, but Phil just shrugs.
“Was a long time ago,” he says simply.
Clint doesn’t push for more. “So, Becca?” he asks, getting the story back on track.
Phil nods. “I was overseas in the Army at the time. Becca started having some health problems - muscle spasms and weakness, sciatic pain, that kind of thing. She assumed it was stress at first and ignored it, but when she starting messing up words Karl made her go to a doctor. Eventually she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She didn’t tell me,” Phil says ruefully, a slightly bitter twist to his mouth and before Clint even realises what he’s done his hand is on Phil’s thigh, squeezing gently in in reassurance.
It takes all of Clint’s willpower not to snatch his hand back like he’s been burned when his brain catches up with his instincts. Instead he puts his hand back on the steering wheel slowly like he’d known what he was doing all along. He’s almost afraid to look at Phil, certain that he’s crossed a line, but when he does look over, Phil just smiles at him and continues his story.
“After the diagnosis, Becca went to Karl for comfort and support and he took her home for the weekend, explained the whole wolf thing, and asked if she wanted to join. When I asked him later, Karl told me as far as he was concerned it was a win-win situation. Apparently he’d thought Becca would make a good wolf and a good Beta from the start, but he didn’t have a good excuse to disrupt her life with an offer until she told him about the MS. As a wolf, she doesn’t have to worry about the deterioration that comes with the disease and Karl gets a Beta he actually likes.”
Clint nods. It makes sense, and it’s certainly not the first time a Pack has made an offer to a human friend with a life-threatening illness. Wolves don’t get seriously ill - although apparently even a wolf’s immune system isn’t exempt from the common cold - and the Change heals all pre-existing conditions.
“So what happened when you found out?” Clint asks.
“I didn’t. I finished my tour and came to see my sister only to find that she’d quit school, moved in with a bunch of rednecks in a big house in the woods, and refused to tell me why. So I attempted an armed rescue mission against the Pack plantation,” Phil says with a grimace.
Clint feels a cold wash of primal fear sweep over him, despite the fact that the danger is clearly long past. “Holy shit! How the hell are you alive?!”
Phil smiles. “A big black wolf came tearing out of the house to stand between me and the other ‘guard dogs’ and then it turned into my sister. By that point I was happy to sit down and listen to explanations and Karl invited me to stay with them as long as I needed to be convinced that they weren’t trying to take advantage of Becca. And Becca promised to go back to school the next semester,” Phil says, the last part almost like an afterthought.
The more Clint hears about the Pack the more amazed he is. Wolves tend to be incredibly territorial, and yet they let a new member dissuade them from retaliating against a direct attack? Clint knows his own experience with packs has been uncommonly negative, but he’s still quite sure that even good packs are not generally that tolerant. It’s actually making him a little uneasy - in Clint’s experience, things that seem too good to be true usually are.
They stop for the night at a Day’s Inn just west of Birmingham. The clerk behind the desk gives them a disapproving look when Phil asks for a room with a single Queen bed, but Phil doesn’t blink and Clint runs his eyes over the man’s too-skinny frame with an appreciative smirk and flashes his most charming smile. The clerk practically throws them their keycards and retreats to the back room.
“You know there’s paperwork to fill out if you give anyone down here a fatal case of moral indignation,” Phil says dryly as they exit the lobby.
“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir. Won’t do it again,” Clint says, grinning unrepentantly. Phil just rolls his eyes.
They grab a bucket of chicken at the Popeye's across the street, take it back to the room, and watch reruns of Law and Order while they eat.
“I haven’t had real Southern fried chicken since I pulled a job in Savannah,” Clint says as he takes a bite out of his drumstick.
“It’s much better homemade,” Phil replies, licking his fingers. “Josie makes incredible fried chicken.”
“Which one is Josie?” Clint asks, hoping he can keep them all straight when they actually get there.
“Frank’s wife,” Phil replies. “Aiden and Camden, the three-year-olds, are hers, and they’ve got an older daughter Cathy who’s off at college, although she may come down for the weekend.”
Clint files it all away in his head and finishes eating in silence, listening to Phil mumble about all the ways the case being tried on TV should have been thrown out for improperly filed paperwork.
Clint wakes in the middle of the night and it takes a moment for him to identify what has disturbed him. Phil is mumbling in his sleep, too softly for human ears to pick up, but Clint’s not human at the moment. The words are hard to make out, but Clint hears the name ‘Becca’ several times, and the tone is fearful and pleading.
With a low whine of sympathy, Clint crawls on his belly up the bed, instincts screaming at him to touch, to comfort his Packmate.
“Why won’t you just talk to me?” Phil says, the words louder than the others, harsh with frustration and distress. He sounds lost, and Clint gives into his instincts, stretching out to his full length and pressing his furred body as close to Phil’s as he can.
Phil mumbles something relieved-sounding and turns onto his side, throwing an arm across Clint’s back and tugging him closer, burying his face in the thick fur at Clint’s neck. The mumbles stop, and Phil slips into a more restful sleep. Clint doesn’t move.
Clint wakes first, as usual. Phil makes a small noise of displeasure when Clint extricates himself from the bed, but he doesn’t wake. Clint scribbles a note on the hotel stationary just in case, and walks over to the gas station next door. He grabs a mini bottle of orange juice for himself and a coffee and mini donuts for Phil.
Phil is awake and dressed when he gets back, but still bleary-eyed. It had surprised Clint to find out that Phil is not a morning person - Agent Coulson seems like he should be the type, but the more time Clint spends around Phil the more differences he finds.
The second day of their trip is much shorter - Clint drives until they decide to stop for lunch around Hattiesburg, after which Phil takes over for the final leg of the trip. Phil gives no indication that he remembers his dreams from the night before and Clint is just sorry he brought up bad memories.
They spend most of the drive in a comfortable silence - Clint has never been so happy to just be with someone without feeling the need to fill the quiet with small talk. After Hattiesburg, Phil sticks a CD into the dash player, explaining with a slight blush that Becca had made it for him and that it was ‘tradition’ to play it on the last leg of the drive.
It’s an eclectic mix, and it’s clear the only thing tying the songs together is that they’re all about Louisiana. Clint bounces in his seat to Feufollet and “Down at the Twist and Shout”, which makes Phil roll his eyes, but he’s smiling. Clint sings along to “Me and Bobby McGee”, “City of New Orleans”, and “Do You Know What It Means” and smirks as Phil tries to hide the fact that he’s impressed.
The last two hours from Hattiesburg to the Pack plantation go by more quickly than Clint is expecting and they arrive before he’s entirely ready. The Pack lives on a large tract of land south of Ponchatoula near the Joyce Wildlife Management Area on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. Phil maneuvers on thin dirt roads through a cypress and live oak forest that seems only a few decent rainfalls away from turning into swampland.
The house is huge and clearly lovingly maintained - plantation-style, painted white with light blue accents, three columns in front, and a wraparound verandah. Phil pulls up the circular gravel driveway and parks near the side of the house. Alerted by the sound of the car, people are gathering in the front yard, one or two coming out the front door, but most coming around the side of the house.
Clint takes a deep breath, trying to hide his nervousness as they roll to a stop. Phil looks over at him, brow furrowed in concern.
“You ok?” he asks.
Clint nods before tilting his head to the side. Phil just smiles and reaches over, cupping Clint’s chin in his warm hand for a moment, before sliding it down and giving Clint’s hand a reassuring squeeze. “They’ll like you,” he promises.
Clint’s not exactly sure how he expects this introduction to go, but he’s definitely not expecting the two weanling pups who race across the yard to attack Phil’s ankles. Phil laughs and bends down to pet the wriggling pups, each of whom is trying to shove the other out of place for the honour of licking Phil’s fingers. Having given his wolfy greeting, the lighter of the two pups shifts with an ease Clint is surprised to see in one so young into a dark-haired boy of about three who lifts his arms in the classic ‘pick me up’ gesture and says “Uncle Phil” with all the commanding confidence of a young child who doesn’t want to waste words on what he knows will be obvious anyway.
Phil chuckles and lifts the boy into his arms and Clint is so lost in the sight of Phil holding a child and smiling that he doesn’t notice the other pup headed his way until he feels a tug at his feet. He looks down to find the black pup with the cuff of his jeans held by tiny sharp teeth. The pup pulls again, shaking his head with a small growl. Clint stoops and realising that he finally has Clint’s attention, the pup wags his tail and lets go of Clint’s jeans, sticking his tongue out a few times with an adorable look of disgust on his face.
The pup shifts as quickly and easily as his brother and looks up at Clint with a considering stare that is only marred by the finger he has stuck in his mouth. “You’re Uncle Clint,” he says with a nod as if finally figuring out the answer to a particularly perplexing question.
Clint rocks back on his heels a little in shock. Uncle Clint? Most packs wouldn’t let a strange wolf within twenty feet of one of their pups even if they are supposed to be allies, but no one seems to be making a move to retrieve the boys and the one in front of Clint is clearly certain of his statement and waiting to be praised.
“I . . . guess I am,” Clint says and although his voice is tentative, it’s clearly confirmation enough for the pup.
“I’m Aiden,” he says and holds out a tiny hand which Clint shakes gravely. Aiden grins wide and lifts his arms in imitation of his brother, demanding “Uncle Clint carry.”
Bemused, Clint carefully lifts the boy into his arms and stands, looking over to see Phil still holding the other boy, and smiling at Clint smugly. “Told you,” he says, and Clint is still a little too off-balance to come up with a smart response so he says nothing, turning to look at the other wolves gathered in the yard.
Introductions among wolves are usually quite formal and it feels strange to be doing this while holding a pup of the pack he’s about to meet, but he stands his ground even as Phil steps closer to his side and a large older man steps forward.
He is tall and well-muscled, although shorter than the two younger men who must be his sons. He looks about fifty which means he’s probably in his seventies. His hair and beard are sandy with a reddish tint and he is utterly relaxed, grey eyes shining with good humour as he sticks one meaty hand out toward Clint. “I’m Karl Boudreaux,” he says with a friendly smile.
Clint shifts Aiden’s weight to his left hip and reaches out to shake Karl’s hand. “Clint Barton,” he introduces himself, tilting his head briefly but not holding it, a sign of respect without a profession of allegiance. Karl nods genially in acknowledgement and steps back, allowing another to take his place.
Clint knows that this is Phil’s sister as soon as he sees her. She has long dark brown hair and sparkling grey eyes and she looks just like Phil - if Phil were female and a decade younger. She may not be what most men would call traditionally attractive, but she has a strength and a kind of gravitas that makes it clear that a superficial resemblance is not the only thing that marks her relation to Agent Coulson.
She sizes him up with the same penetrating, calculating gaze Clint has seen Coulson direct toward practically everyone he meets and Clint resists the urge to fidget. Whatever she’s looking for in him, she must find it because suddenly she smiles and it transforms her face. She has Phil’s smile too.
She sticks her hand out and Clint shakes it mutely, still reeling from the intensity of her examination. “I’m Becca Coulson,” she says, and her voice takes on a sly, teasing tone as she continues, “and you’re the wolf who managed to capture my brother’s attention.”
“Becca” Phil practically whines under his breath and Becca’s eyes dance with mirth.
Clint bites back a laugh but can’t help a smile at the very un-Coulson-like tone in Phil’s voice. “I’m Clint Barton,” he introduces himself to Phil’s sister, “and yes, I guess I am,” he finishes with a grin. With everyone relaxed and smiling Clint can’t quite remember why he was nervous about this meeting.
Suddenly remembering his manners, Clint tilts his head briefly to Becca, just as he had done to Karl, but instead of an acknowledging nod, she returns the gesture exactly, indicating that she is greeting Clint as an equal.
His surprise must show on his face because Becca fixes him with a stern look. “Don’t argue,” she says as she turns to Phil and repeats the gesture with a wicked grin. Phil rolls his eyes but nods in acknowledgement as he steps forward to hug her, Aiden’s brother squished between them but appearing quite content nonetheless.
Phil and Karl exchange nods over Becca’s shoulder and one of the girls, who had apparently been waiting with dwindling patience for the formalities to end, pipes up. “Can we eat now?”
Several chuckles greet this outburst, including Phil’s which sends a shiver down Clint’s back. “Emmeline Boudreaux!” one of the women chastises, and that must be Alice - Clint is pretty sure Phil had told him that the girls were Emmett and Alice’s children.
“I’m hungry!” Aiden declares, the words somewhat muffled by the finger still stuck in his mouth and the fact that he doesn’t bother to lift his head from where it rests on Clint’s shoulder as he says it. A chorus of ‘me toos’ erupts from the other children and is overwhelmed by the deep resonance of Karl’s laugh.
“Fine, fine!” he says, turning back to face Phil and Clint. “I think the rest of the introductions can take place over dinner,” he says, winking at them. “And yes, Phil,” he continues with a grin, “there is gator.”
Phil brightens, excited as a little boy promised ice cream, and starts following the others into the house. He turns back to Clint as he falls into line. “I told you,” he says again.
Clint looks down at the little boy resting against his shoulder and smiles up at Phil. “Yes you did,” he concedes, and Phil shifts his own burden to reach out and place a hand on Clint’s shoulder.
“You’ll love the gator,” Phil promises as he opens the front door and Clint, smiling, follows.
In case anyone was wondering, Caroline is Caro-line and Emmeline is Emma-leen. FYI :) And *so* sorry for the long wait.
As they take their seats Phil tells Clint that the Pack always has a great feast of traditional Louisiana food waiting for him when he arrives. Karl’s gumbo pot is so large the bowls are are passed back and forth from the kitchen. Crawfish etouffée, corn on the cob, red beans and rice, and of course Phil’s blackened alligator are heaped on the table along with cornbread and biscuits and tall glasses of iced tea. It looks like something out of a Better Homes and Gardens magazine and smells even better.
The two younger pups refuse to sit anywhere except next to Phil and Clint, Camden at Phil’s side and Aiden at Clint’s. Their mother glances apologetically at Clint even as Phil assures her it's fine, but Clint just smiles at both her and the pups and shrugs his shoulders amiably.
“You’re in for it now,” Phil murmurs. “Josie’ll have you on pup-sitting duty all week.”
“That supposed to be a bad thing?” Clint asks with a grin.
Phil rolls his eyes. “Wait until the first tantrum.”
The Pack are apparently not ones to stand on ceremony. Once Karl has finished distributing the bowls of gumbo, he takes his seat and everyone digs in. In between mouthfuls of rich Cajun fare, the other members of the Pack briefly introduce themselves.
Karl’s sons Emmett and Frank look as alike as possible without actually being twins. Like their father they are stocky and muscular, although several inches taller and their hair and beards are bright ginger. The biggest distinction Clint can see is in their mein, not so much in their looks: Emmett bounces like an over-excited child while Frank, though still open and friendly, is calmer and more patient.
Frank’s wife is Josie, the harried mother of the two young pups attached to Clint and Phil. She is a thin, dark-haired woman of Hispanic descent, the granddaughter of a former Pack member from Karl’s father’s time. She grew up with the Pack, and chose to stay when her grandfather died and her father left to form his own pack.
Emmett’s wife Alice is a pretty blonde with a core of steel - Clint can see it in every word and gesture. It’s seems like a strange match for the effusive, happy-go-lucky Emmett, but Clint knows better to think what he sees on the surface is all there is. Alice and Emmett are the parents of the two older pups. Unlike the two boys, Lucille and Emmeline are fraternal twins, close but not identical, with long blonde hair that Lucille wears in braided pigtails and Emmeline wears free and straight.
Finally there is Caroline, Alice’s sister. Where Alice is pretty, Caroline is gorgeous, with long honey-coloured hair, large sky blue eyes, and the looks of a model. She also exhibits a shy, nervous nature that is at odds with her strong, confident sister. Clint’s sure there’s a story there, but he curbs his natural curiosity. This family has accepted him with open arms - he’s not going to abuse that trust by digging into their personal lives.
Aiden and Camden have been sitting in their booster seats, making a mess of bowls of red beans and rice when Camden apparently decides he’s had enough.
“Wanna get down!” Cam whines, wriggling in his seat.
“Not until everyone’s done, Cam, you know that. You want some etouffeé?” Josie asks.
“No fay!” Camden retorts. “Get down!”
“If you don’t want anything else to eat, you can wait there patiently until we’re done,” Josie says firmly.
Cam sulks for a moment, and then a wicked grin spreads across his face. That’s all the warning any of them have before the smirking three-year-old blurs into a wriggling grey pup who begins to slip out of the chair.
Phil reaches out effortlessly and grabs Cam by the scruff of the neck as the pup tries to escape. He swings the pup up back into the chair where he turns back into a pouting little boy.
“Camden Boudreaux,” Josie reprimands sharply, with a grateful look at Phil, “what is the rule?”
“No Changing at the table,” Lucille, Emmeline, and Aiden chorus dutifully. Aiden looks up at Clint for approval.
“Camden was bad,” he tells Clint solemnly. “But I’ve been good, right Uncle Clint?”
Clint grins and ruffles Aiden’s dark hair. “Yeah, you were good, Aiden.” Aiden beams up at Clint who can’t help a wide smile and a low chuckle which is interrupted by a clash. Clint looks up to see Emmeline, her cheeks bright red, staring at the fallen platter of cornbread she had been trying to pass to Lucille.
Lucille is giggling and Clint looks bewildered for a moment before Phil leans over and whispers “You’ve got an admirer. Your smile dazzled her,” he says with a grin, and Clint goes almost as red as Emmeline.
Not one to let his niece suffer for long, Frank turns to Clint. “You a hunter?” he asks.
“On two legs or four?” Clint responds with a smirk.
Emmett hoots. Frank grins. “Either,” he says.
“A little of both,” Clint admits, “but more of the latter. Not many places to go gun hunting close to D.C.”
“Well, for four-legged hunting we’ve got some coney, but not as much as up north. There’s plenty of nutria though - powerful ugly creatures, but good eatin’. And of course there’s plenty o’ waterfowl, but they can be hard to catch. Mostly we do bowhunting. You any good with a bow?”
Even Emmett looks at them like they’re crazy when Phil and Clint burst out laughing.
Since dinner started early it is still light out when the meal is finished and the Pack congregates in the backyard where Karl nudges the smouldering coals of a small hearthfire back into blaze. The others grab seats on the several plastic lawn chairs littering the yard or just sit on the ground, in either form. Frank changes and obliges the pups in a game of blind hide and seek. Caroline, whose wolf form is a beautiful spotless white, settles at Becca’s feet, resting against the Beta’s legs. When Phil takes a seat next to his sister, Clint plops down on the ground in front of him, mirroring Caroline, although still human.
Phil throws Clint a questioning look, glancing at a nearby empty chair with a slightly furrowed brow that Clint easily interprets as Phil’s worry that Clint might feel pressured into gestures of submission. Clint shakes his head with a smile of reassurance and, boldly, leans back against Phil’s legs. Clint can feel the tension run out of Phil at the contact and he smiles.
Looking over at Caroline he sees her roll her eyes and give a wolfy sigh of commiseration. Clint flicks his eyes up at Becca, animatedly talking with Phil, and Caroline nods, putting her head down on her paws with a long-suffering expression. Clint smirks inwardly. Seems Phil and his sister have something else in common as well.
Clint basks in the feeling of Pack for a while. Everyone is doing their own thing - Emmett has joined Frank and the boys, Emmeline and Lucille are whispering together, Josie is knitting and Alice is reading, while Karl is simply drinking a beer and staring at the fire. But still the bonds that join them as Pack are palpable. And Phil and Clint, with their own fledgling connection, are firmly enwrapped and cushioned within. The part of Clint that is insisting this is all too good to be true is still yammering away, and he hates himself for it, but at least it’s a bit quieter now.
There’s a cooler near the house that people have been grabbing drinks from all night and after a quick check with Phil and Becca to see if they want anything Clint heads over. He has to appreciate the way Karl manages to just happen to be doing the same thing at the same time. To most people it would seem a complete coincidence.
“You’re good to him,” Karl says as Clint approaches, with a nod to Phil. Clint is beginning to think bluntness is a Pack trait.
“He was good to me first,” Clint replies easily.
“He would be,” Karl says. “Phil’s like that. He’s a good man. Loyal. Go to hell and back for the ones he cares for.”
“I would too,” Clint says softly. Karl simply grunts an acknowledgement.
“The pups seem to like you. You’ve certainly captured Aiden’s fancy.”
“He’s a good kid. They both are, although I take it Camden’s more of a handful?”
Karl laughs. “He is at that, though Phil has him well handled. He bother you too much, either of them, you can just cuff ‘em and send ‘em back to Josie.”
Clint stares at Karl in shock. “I would never strike a pup!”
Karl just chuckles and claps a meaty hand on Clint’s shoulder. “I know,” he says, “That’s why I said you could,” and Karl snags another beer from the cooler and heads back over to the fire. Clint stares after him, bemused. Karl Boudreaux is a strange, strange wolf.
Clint turns back to the cooler and opens it. Nestled in among the cans of beer, Coke, Mountain Dew, and root beer are several cans of black cherry soda.
This starts Phil's POV of the events starting at chapter 14, so if you've forgotten you may want to go back and re-read the last three chapters :)
The toothbrush is a calculated gamble. Clint had gone to pains to assure Phil that he doesn’t expect him to do anything ‘extra’ but that’s not how Phil works. An Alpha is responsible for the care and wellbeing - physical and emotional - of their pack, and the protectiveness Phil has always felt toward Clint has now increased three-fold. Phil doesn’t want Clint alone in his apartment any more - wolves don’t sleep well alone and Phil wants Clint here with him, even if their relationship never evolves beyond where they are right now.
The problem is, Phil still on uncertain footing when it comes to the relationship between them. Ever since Clint found out that Phil knows about wolves, that he knows about Clint, things have been moving fast. Phil doesn’t mind, but he’s still afraid that if he pushes too hard, Clint will spook. He doesn’t want to lose the ground they’ve gained by pressing too far out of Clint’s comfort zone. If only he knew for sure where that is.
So rather than asking point blank that Clint move in, Phil does his best to make sure Clint knows that he’s welcome. A toothbrush doesn’t need to mean anything if you don’t want it to. An empty drawer could just be practical.
But then the toothbrush gets used and the drawer gets filled and Phil has a key made and slips it onto Clint’s keychain when he’s not looking and prays he’s doing the right thing. He is rewarded when he walks in the door that night with heavenly smells and the sound of Clint cooking in the kitchen.
The smell of beef and teriyaki draws him in and he sees Clint stirring a mixture in the wok and on the counter next to him is a . . . rice cooker? Phil doesn’t own a rice cooker. It is then that Phil notices the bow and care kit leaning against the sofa and he can’t help the wide smile that spreads across his face. If Clint is bringing over his bows and kitchen appliances, he must really mean to stay.
Slightly giddy with the realisation, Phil darts a quick hand out snag a strip of beef from the wok and jumps back as Clint turns on him, brandishing his spoon threateningly. Phil’s answering smirk turns to concern when Clint suddenly closes his eyes as if in pain and falls back against the counter. Phil scans him quickly for injuries but there is nothing he can see - nor should there be, since Clint hasn’t been on assignment recently.
Phil is about to say something, ask what’s wrong, when Clint opens his eyes again. There’s a dazed look in them, but no pain. Clint’s eyes focus and he clearly notices Phil’s concern because he smiles and shakes his head slightly, as if to say there’s nothing to worry about.
“Pack,” Clint says, as if that one word were all the explanation needed and it really is, Phil thinks, seeing the awe and reverence in Clint’s eyes as he says the word. This is probably the first time in Clint’s life that he has had the support of a Pack connection without having to fear for his life at the same time.
“Yes,” Phil affirms, because this is what he’s here for. While Phil has always been grateful that Becca has found a father-figure in Karl, he can’t help being a little jealous too. Because for years it was just him and Becca, and he was the one she turned to for support and protection. Now Phil has to share Becca with the Pack, and he knows that the bond she shares with Karl, and possibly also the one she has with Caroline, have long since eclipsed her bond with Phil. But Clint - Clint is Phil’s.
Phil is so lost in his own thoughts he actually starts visibly when Clint grabs the forgotten strip of meat from Phil’s fingers and promptly stuffs it in his mouth, chewing loudly around a wicked grin. Yes, this man with his quicksilver moods, his smart mouth, his maverick tendencies, and most of all his inner strength and caring - not to mention amazingly sexy moves - this man is Phil’s to love and support and protect. And Phil wouldn’t have it any other way. He throws back his head and laughs.
Phil stays late on Friday finishing up the trainees’ evaluations. This crop has gone about the way he expected. The three Clint targeted on the first day didn’t make it past Tuesday - overconfident and mediocre at best - and one more had come to Phil on Thursday to say he’d changed his mind about being an agent. That means he has eight full and four partial evaluations to get done before they leave for Louisiana.
It’s after midnight when Phil finishes, and by the time he gets home it’s a little after one am. He goes upstairs to find Clint already curled up at the foot of his bed. He raises his head when Phil comes in and yawns, jaws wide and tongue curled. He huffs a soft greeting, watching as Phil strips down to his boxers, stumbling a little. It’s been a very long day.
Phil scratches with one hand behind Clint’s ear as he slips into bed and falls asleep as soon as his head hits the pillow, Clint a warm weight on his feet.
Phil doesn’t argue too much the next morning when Clint insists on driving first. Instead he curls up in the passenger seat and sleeps. When he wakes the car is stopped and parked in the parking lot of a Waffle House.
“Breakfast?” Clint asks, with a fond humour in his voice that tells Phil all he needs to know about how disheveled he must look.
“Coffee,” Phil counters, longingly, because he feels fuzzy and Clint looks far too awake and cheerful.
“They have coffee,” Clint assures him as they get out of the car and Phil’s feeling a bit more awake now that he’s on his feet but the sun still looks too bright and the surrounds still feel a little unreal. Such is the way of long road trips.
Phil gets his coffee, Clint gets something fruity and bubbly, and they both get deliciously greasy bacon and eggs. As they head back to the car, Phil makes for the driver’s side to take his turn driving, but Clint hesitates near the passenger’s door looking conflicted about something. Phil raises an eyebrow, waiting for Clint to explain.
“There’s something I’ve always wanted to do, since I was a little kid, and I never got the chance,” he says. “You can tell me ‘no’ if you think it’s too dangerous or not appropriate or . . .”
“Clint!” Phil says sharply, cutting across the babble. “What is it?” he asks, hoping that whatever it is, it’s something he can say yes to just to get that insecure look off Clint’s face.
“It’s just you see dogs doing it all the time and it looks like so much fun but my parents would never let us out in public in our fur no matter what, and then there was the orphanage and the circus and then I was Lone so I didn’t have anyone who knew what I was so . . . I just never got to stick my head out the window as a wolf.”
Clint’s cheeks are burning as he finally spits out what he wants and Phil just stares blankly for a moment before his brain supplies him with the appropriate mental image and he can’t help bursting into laughter.
“Go for it,” he says, grinning, when he gets himself under control and Clint grins back, all puppyish enthusiasm as he ducks behind the dumpster and reappears on four legs, taking a running leap into the passenger seat as Phil holds the door open for him.
Driving down the highway, watching out of the corner of his eye as Clint sticks his head out the window, tongue hanging out, eyes squinted, ears laid back, the long fur of his ruff dancing in the wind, Phil realises he hasn’t been this happy in years.
Telling Clint about Becca’s Turning is harder than Phil had been expecting. It’d been years, and they’d worked through it, but it had been the low point of their relationship. With the perspective that comes with time Phil realises that he is as much to blame as Becca for letting things get that far. It’s hard to raise a teenager, especially when you’re barely more than a teenager yourself. In the wake of their parents' deaths, Phil had centered his life around protecting his sister. When she started trying to pull away, started resenting him for that protection, his feelings were hurt, and he ran away to the Army in a fit of pique. He’d gone too far in the opposite direction, practically abandoning Becca simply because she wanted a little space. So, perhaps it shouldn’t have been a surprise that he was no longer the first person she went to when she was in trouble. The fact that that trouble had ended up being what brought them back together is just another thing Phil has Karl to thank for.
Knowing what he knows about the man now, Phil is certain that Karl had known exactly who was invading his land and that he’d never have allowed Phil to come to actual harm. The entire incident, however, had served to pull both his and Becca’s heads out of their asses.
Karl’s easy acceptance of Phil once he was assured that Phil once again had his priorities straight allowed the two siblings to be close again. Although it may not have been under the circumstances she would have chosen, Phil is now privy to his sister’s biggest secret, and the longer he proved worthy of that knowledge, the faster the trust between them was rebuilt. For all they no longer saw each other in person on a regular basis, Phil’s relationship with Becca is better now than it had been even when they were children.
Phil wonders just how much of this Clint has picked up on. Probably not Karl’s deliberate part in the reconciliation, considering he has not met the Alpha yet and has no experience with the man’s sneaky ways. But certainly he had picked up on the fear and resentment Phil had felt when Becca wouldn't talk to him, if the comforting hand on his thigh was any indication. It had certainly improved Phil’s mood, and the light flush at the tips of Clint’s ears when he realised what he’d instinctively done had been adorable, not to mention promising.
They stop for the night just past Birmingham, and Phil has to bite his lip to keep from laughing at the panicked look on the clerk’s face when Clint gives him his seductive look - until Phil catches a glimpse of the look itself and then it isn’t a laugh he’s biting back. Clint’s smug grin as they leave the lobby is a different kind of endearing. Phil is beginning to seriously worry about how he’s going to manage to keep his hands to himself.
The chicken isn’t as good as Josie’s but it’s authentic in a way none of the chains up North seem to manage. Clint sprawls across the bed as he eats, limbs loose with the utter unselfconsciousness of a dog lounging in the shade. They watch TV and finish their dinner and the evening passes in comfortable silence.
Phil wakes up during the night with his face buried in the thick fur at the back of Clint’s neck, one arm thrown across the wolf’s side, holding him close. He doesn’t remember what he was dreaming, but he can tell by the lingering ache in his chest that it wasn’t good. Phil gives half a thought to being embarrassed about his position, but Clint is warm and soft and comforting and sound asleep, so he clearly doesn’t mind. Phil flexes his fingers through the soft belly fur under his hand and falls back asleep.
Clint is gone the next morning, but the empty bed beside Phil is still warm and there’s a note saying he’s gone to the gas station next door for “essential morning consumables.” Phil chuckles a little at the phrasing and grabs a quick shower. He’s just finishing getting dressed when Clint comes in with coffee (one cream, two sugars, just how Phil likes it) and a pack of mini powdery donuts. Phil inhales the coffee like it’s a glass of water in the Sahara and ignores Clint’s amused chuckles as they get back in the car.
It’s the last leg of the trip and the shortest. They should hit the plantation a little after three. Phil dozes a little while Clint drives, glad that at least one of them does well with mornings. The morning passes in companionable quiet. Phil had been more surprised perhaps than he should have been to find that for all his reputation for never shutting up in the field, when Clint is actually relaxed and at ease he is perfectly content to just sit and be.
Not that he sits still, of course. That part of the rep is true. The only time Clint sits still is when he’s in sniper mode. Right now he’s bouncing in the seat just a little, tapping his fingers on the wheel in time to the music on the radio, which is down low enough that Phil can’t hear any words, or even really a tune, just a muffled beat. Clint catches him looking and flashes a sweet, slightly bashful smile, but doesn’t stop. Phil just smiles back and turns to look out the window.
They stop for a late lunch in Hattiesburg. After, Phil takes over driving and sticks Becca’s “Louisiana Road Trip” mix into the car’s CD player with a flush and a short explanation. Becca had given him the CD right before he left to return to base after that first month spent getting to know the Pack and reconnecting with his sister.
Phil knew that for a seemingly innocuous gift quite a bit of thought had gone into it. Becca’s taste in music was as random as Phil’s, and making themed mixes for one another was something they had done often after their parents died, but not at all since Phil had joined the army. The Louisiana mix, then, was both apology and forgiveness, as well as a way for Phil to feel connected to the land where Becca had made her new home and an invitation to visit often as possible. Listening to it on the final leg of the journey had become both tradition and something of a superstition for Phil, a good luck charm he isn’t willing to forego with so much riding on this visit.
Phil isn’t nervous, per se. Well, maybe a little. He’s not at all worried that Clint won’t be welcome in the Pack, but he is worried that that very welcome might be a bit too overwhelming for someone who has never known the unconditional affection of true family, much less the Pack’s own brand of easy acceptance and openness to those even peripherally related to a Pack member. As far as the Pack is concerned, Clint became family the moment Becca intuited Phil’s growing attachment to the archer. Clint, on the other hand, is probably expecting to have to pass some sort of test, and will most likely have a hard time wrapping his mind around the idea that he’s already passed. Phil just has to trust that Karl and Becca will understand, and know how make Clint believe it.
But all that will come later. For now, though, Clint is in a good mood, dancing in his seat to the quick, Cajun beats and singing along with a frankly amazing voice to the slower jazz and folk songs. It’s rare to see him so unrestrainedly happy, and Phil grins so hard his face hurts as they pass into Louisiana toward the place Phil thinks of as another home.
He has hope that Clint, eventually, will too.
They arrive at the Pack plantation only a little later than expected due to traffic around New Orleans. As usual, the sound of Phil’s car has brought the Pack out from the woodwork, all of them congregating in welcome by the circular driveway. In the seat next to him, Clint takes a deep shaky breath.
“You ok?” Phil asks, looking over and seeing the trepidation in Clint’s eyes. Clint nods unconvincingly and tilts his head to the side. This time, Phil knows the right way to respond. He rests his hand on the bare throat and chin for a few seconds, feeling the tension in Clint’s frame subside at the touch, before moving down to give Clint’s hand a squeeze.
“They’ll like you,” he assures the archer, before pulling back and opening the car door to step out, Clint only a few seconds behind him.
Phil barely has enough time to straighten up when the pups barrel into his legs, nipping playfully at his ankles. He laughs and bends down to run his hands over their soft fur as the boys vie for the right to lick his fingers.
Phil had gotten quite close to the two youngest pups the last time he’d been down, especially Camden, who is more restless and outgoing than his brother, with a mischievous streak a mile wide. Phil’s calm, firm, no-nonsense response to Camden’s frequent acting out only made the toddler love him the more, in the paradoxical manner of small children everywhere.
Having delivered his lupine greeting, Camden shifts quickly into human form and reaches his arms up imperiously, greeting Phil with a demanding “Uncle Phil!” Phil chuckles and picks the little boy up, catching Clint gaping out of the side of his eye. Phil knows that standing there grinning with an excitable three-year-old in his arms is hardly in line with his reputation at SHIELD, and while Clint is catching on to the Phil/Agent Coulson split a lot faster than most of the people who know both sides of him, he’s sure it’s still a somewhat incongruous image.
Besides, the surprised and somewhat wistful look on Clint’s face is better than the nervous face he had before getting out of the car, so Phil calls it a win, although he resolves to keep an eye on Clint, especially after he notices Aiden picking his way across to Clint’s feet.
Listening to Camden’s babbling with half an ear, Phil watches as Aiden gets Clint’s attention through the expedient method of grabbing the hem of Clint’s jeans in his teeth and pulling. Clint looks down, startled, but recovers quickly, stooping in front of the pup who is now making an adorable disgusted face at the taste of denim in his mouth.
Aiden shifts as quickly as his brother and sticks a finger in his mouth, looking up at Clint with a solemnity that seems out of place on his youthful face.
“You’re Uncle Clint,” the pup finally decides, punctuating his conclusion with a nod, and Phil watches Clint almost fall backward in shock. Phil wonders whether it was Becca or Karl who told the pups to call Clint “Uncle” and resolves to find out and thank them.
“I . . . guess I am?” Clint finally replies, the answer more than half a question, but Aiden is immediately satisfied and holds a hand out for Clint to shake.
“I’m Aiden,” he introduces himself, and Clint, clearly bemused, shakes the offered hand gravely. Official introductions out of the way, Aiden grins and holds out his arms to Clint. “Uncle Clint carry,” he demands, and Clint obligingly gathers the boy into his arms and stands, a half-amused, half-reverent expression on his face. When he looks over at Phil, the raw emotion in his eyes - wonder, incredulity, longing, cautious joy - brings a lump to Phil’s throat that he has to swallow before he can respond.
“I told you,” Phil tells Clint when he’s recovered, allowing himself a slightly smug smile. For once Clint has no snappy comeback, apparently still too off-balance from Aiden’s immediate greeting and acceptance. Phil knows that wolves are extremely protective of their pups and considering how disbelieving Clint has been about Phil’s own unconditional trust in him, Phil is pretty sure it’s the fact that none of the other Pack members are rushing forward to ‘rescue’ Aiden from his clutches that has Clint so shell-shocked.
Phil moves closer to Clint in silent support as Karl steps forward. Karl greets Clint in his usual genial manner. He sticks a meaty hand out for Clint to shake as he introduces himself. Clint shifts Aiden to his left hip so he can shake Karl’s hand and responds in kind, giving Karl the quick head-tilt that Becca has told Phil means respect without allegiance.
As Karl steps back, another figure takes his place and Phil mentally groans at the mischievous expression on his sister’s face right before she blanks it to give Clint a considering stare. Apparently satisfied that Clint meets her standards, Becca smiles sticks her hand out abruptly.
“I’m Becca Coulson,” she says as Clint shakes her hand, and then her words take on the teasing tone that Phil has learned to know and dread, “and you’re the wolf who managed to catch my brother’s attention.”
Phil resists the urge to put his head in his hands. “Becca!” he whines. Becca ignores him, still smiling at Clint, but her eyes have taken on an aspect of unholy glee. Phil knows his sister well enough to know that the teasing will continue all week and that she won’t be subtle. The chances of Clint not picking up on are nil. Phil just hopes it doesn’t make him uncomfortable enough to leave.
Clint smiles and introduces himself. “I’m Clint Barton, and yes, I guess I am,” he adds with a grin. As if only just remembering his manners, Clint angles his head to Becca just as he had done to Karl, but rather than acknowledging it with a nod, Becca repeats the gesture to Clint, greeting him as she would another Beta. Clint’s eyes widen in surprise, and Becca fixes him with the stern look she’d learned by copying the look Phil gave her far too often in her teenage years.
“Don’t argue,” she says firmly, and Phil feels a surge of grateful affection toward his blunt, no-nonsense sister. Irrespective of the fact that there are only two in his and Clint’s little Pack, Clint is excellent Beta material. Not quite confident enough yet for Alpha, but brilliant at leading by example, not afraid to question authority but also able to follow orders when needed. Yes, Clint would make an excellent Beta for any pack, and looks like Becca intends to convince him of that fact.
Then Becca turns to Phil and repeats the gesture with a wicked grin and a teasing glint in her eye. The gesture throws Phil’s mind into overdrive, and although he should have been expecting it, he’s amazed by the complexity of the emotions it arouses. There’s a sense of elation and perverse satisfaction to seeing Becca submit to him as she would to Karl, even if she is being cheeky about it. On it heels comes a rush of shame, because Phil hates himself for being jealous of Karl in that way and of feeling so possessive.
But there’s also this strange sense of absurdity, because Becca has always been the expert on this stuff. For all that the Pack seem to think of Phil as one of their own, he’s not actually a wolf, he doesn’t live with them. Becca holds a position of authority in the Pack, Phil has watched the way the others obey her subtle instructions without question, without even really thinking about it, and for all that he’s occasionally considered taking Karl up on his offer to join, he never imagined he’d ever actually outrank his sister, much less do so without even being a wolf himself.
He’d almost protest except - and Phil knows Becca knows this, is probably counting on it - to refuse Becca’s greeting is to deny his position as Clint’s Alpha, and Phil would never do that to the man who has placed so much trust in him.
In the end, Phil simply rolls his eyes and nods in acknowledgment, recognising the flash of Oh, good, you’re not an idiot after all in Becca’s gaze as he steps forward to pull his little sister close, exchanging nods with Karl over Becca’s shoulder, Alpha to Alpha. Phil catches Clint’s eye and returns his soft, fond smile. Holding his sister in his arms, having Clint here with him, with the Pack, is very nearly perfect.
The moment is broken by Emmeline’s outburst and Phil laughs as he pulls back from Becca, even as Alice hisses and embarrassed rebuke at the girl. Aiden chimes in with “I’m hungry,” barely intelligible with his finger still stuck in his mouth and his head resting contentedly on Clint’s shoulder.
Phil smiles at the look of wonder on Clint’s face as he watches the little boy so clearly comfortable in his arms, and catches his breath as his mind presents him with the image of Clint looking the same way at another child in his arms . . . at their child. Wishful thinking. Even if Clint is interested in mating with Phil, their lives don’t exactly lend themselves to the raising of pups. But Phil can’t quite help the pang of longing that accompanies the image.
The other pups are chiming in to agree with Aiden, and Karl bursts into deep laughter at the cacophonous consensus.
“Fine, fine!” he concedes. He addresses Phil and Clint. “I think the rest of the introductions can take place over dinner,” he says with a wink, before turning his manic grin at Phil. “And yes, Phil, there is gator.” Phil’s eyes brighten with excitement and he can’t help but grin back. Phil loves gator, and it’s hard to get the good stuff up North.
The crowd breaks up to start heading into the house for dinner, Phil following eagerly. As he nears the door, he turns back to Clint, who is coming up behind him with Aiden still balanced on one hip.
“I told you,” Phil says again with a smug grin. Clint looks down at Aiden with such fond affection that Phil feels his heart skip a beat. It skips at least two more when Clint looks up at him again with a beatific smile just for Phil.
“Yes, you did,” Clint says happily, and Phil shifts Camden onto one hip so that he can reach out and rest his hand on Clint’s shoulder because he absolutely has to touch him, right now. There are things Phil wants to say, but he can’t quite find the words and the others are just inside waiting for them to join them for dinner and Camden is starting to wriggle impatiently so in the end Phil says the first thing that comes to mind.
“You’ll love the gator.”
The days are long in Louisiana in the summer. By the time the light starts to fade it’s half past seven, and Clint is half-dozing against Phil’s legs, eyes closed, listening to the homey sounds of a happy Pack. At some point Phil’s hand has found it’s way to Clint’s head and gun-calloused fingers are threading gently through the hair at the nape of neck.
Clint can hear Frank and Josie conversing in soft tones from across the fire and the muffled giggles and occasional electronic chime from the girls who are huddled over their cell phones doing whatever it is pre-teen girls do on their phones these days.
Clint is vaguely aware that he should not feel this comfortable among people he has only known for a few hours, but somehow he can’t bring himself to worry about it. The lazy contentment he feels at this moment is something he’s only just learning to appreciate, having never truly experienced it until that first night spent on Phil’s bed, and he is rapidly becoming addicted to the feeling.
The low whine of a lupine yawn has Clint opening his eyes to see Josie lift a sleepy Camden into her arms.
“I think it’s time for the little ones to get to bed,” she says as Frank picks up his other son. Clint twists his head to glance up at Phil, who smiles down at him with the utterly relaxed expression Clint has only ever seen this last week during their evenings together at Phil’s . . . their home.
“Us too, I think”, Phil says, nudging Clint’s back gently with his knee, “Long drive.”
Clint leverages himself to his feet awkwardly, leg muscles cramping slightly from being held in the same position too long. Once he steadies, he reaches a hand back to pull Phil up from his chair, not that Phil needs help, but just for an excuse to maintain a physical connection for as long as possible.
After years of neglect and self-imposed isolation, Clint finds himself aching for touch, specifically Phil’s touch - contact without the expectation of pain. All the instincts he’d spent a lifetime suppressing have surged to the fore at the possibility of finally being satisfied and there’s a part of Clint that is like a pup again - helpless and desperate for the tactile reassurance of Pack, of Alpha, of protection.
Phil takes his hand without comment, or even a raised eyebrow, and when they are both on their feet he relaxes his grip, but doesn’t move away so that they are standing shoulder to shoulder, fingertips still brushing against each other. Every time Clint thinks Phil can’t possibly be more perfect that man still manages to surprise him. The rest of the Pack is heading inside as well and Phil gently herds Clint toward the back entrance to the house.
“We still need to get our stuff out of the car,” Clint reminds him, but Phil shakes his head.
“Frank or Emmett will have taken care of it already,” he says with a smile, and Clint lets himself be guided down a hall toward the left wing of the house.
“The rooms are upstairs, Phil knows where to go” Becca says, coming up behind them as they pause at the base of a narrow winding staircase, “and you’ve seen where the kitchen is. Make yourself at home - we don’t much stand on ceremony here, as you’ve probably noticed,” she adds with a grin. Then she steps forward until she’s toe to toe with Phil, and the smile she gives him is softer, almost wistful.
“I’m really glad you’re here,” she says, and reaches up to hug him again. It’s that kind of lingering, full-body hug Clint has seen other people give to family and he feels a sharp stab of jealousy. If his mother had ever hugged him like that, Clint doesn’t remember it. His father showed affection with his fists, and Barney never touched anyone if he could help it.
Becca pulls away from Phil and turns to Clint. She steps forward slowly, telegraphing her movements, eyebrow raised in hopeful query and Clint knows that nothing more than words will be exchanged without his permission. It’s refreshing, and it gives him the courage to nod slightly and meet her halfway as she puts her arms around his neck and rubs her cheek against his in an approximation of lupine affection. She smells like Phil, only layered with that indescribable wild scent of Wolf and Clint’s brain files the smell away under ‘close-Kin’, ‘female’, ‘not-Mate’ and ‘safe.’
“It is good to meet you, Clint Barton,” Becca says softly into his shoulder, “and I’m really glad you’re here too.” Then she pulls away before he can reply and moves back down the hall at a brisk pace, calling out to someone in the kitchen - Clint isn’t paying attention to her words. Clint isn’t paying attention to much except the lingering warmth on and in his chest and the quietly supportive presence of Phil at his side.
“Ok?” Phil asks tentatively when Clint looks over. Clint smiles reassuringly.
“Definitely ok,” he answers. Phil grins.
“Tooooold you,” he sings, gently mocking, as they head up the stairs. Clint laughs.
“How many times are you going to say that?” Phil turns back and snags the fingers of Clint’s right hand in his.
“As many times as you need me to.”
Clint wakes with a literal jerk. The bedsheet under him is pulled taut at the edge of the bed. A soft thump is followed by barely audible frustrated whine and the tension is released. Phil is sound asleep under the covers.
Clint shuffles over to the edge of the bed and looks down just in time to see Camden take another leap at the bed, blunt claws scrabbling at the sheets as he slips down again to the floor.
Clint huffs in amusement and is immediately presented with two sets of literal puppy dog eyes and two stubby wagging tails. With a sigh he reaches down and clamps his jaws around the scruff at the back of Camden’s neck, lifting the pup up on the bed before doing the same for Aiden.
The black pup immediately squirms his way between Clint’s front paws, curling himself into a ball against Clint’s chest. He yawns wide, baring sharp puppy teeth and tucking his head under Clint’s chin.
Clint half-expects Camden to go curl up with Phil, but instead the grey pup drapes himself half over his brother’s legs and half across Clint’s ribs, burying his muzzle under one paw and sighing in satisfaction.
Phil’s calves and feet a solid line against his back and the pups a couple of warm, comforting weights across his leg and side, Clint drifts back to sleep.
Chapter warnings: Non-graphic discussion of past non-con as well as physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.
In Clint’s line of work you don’t live long if you don’t develop a sixth sense for when you’re being watched. It is this instinct that wakes Clint up the next morning to find himself staring into light blue eyes in a grey-furred face. Camden is nose-to-nose with Clint, watching intently. When he sees Clint’s eyes open he jerks back, jumps to his feet and prances slightly on the bed tail wagging. Over his shoulder, Clint can see Aiden doing the same.
With a quick glance to see that Phil is still sleeping, Clint herds the two pups off the bed before their antics wake Phil. Clint changes and pulls jeans and a t-shirt out of his bag as quietly as he can, getting dressed quickly. The pups wait with barely restrained impatience. As soon as Clint takes a step toward the door, the pups bound off down the hall. He finds them waiting by the stairs. When they look at them expectantly, he sighs and stoops down, gathering a pup under each arm, and carries them down the stairs. As adults, most wolves spend most of their time in human form even when just among other wolves - hands are wondrous things - but pups usually have to be coerced into taking human form. Mobility comes easier on four legs than two.
Clint gets to the bottom of the stairs and puts the pups down and they scamper off down the hall and through the kitchen, Clint following at a more sedate pace. He enters the kitchen just in time to see Aiden and Camden burst through the back door. It closes behind them with a loud bang, and through the screen window Clint can see Karl by the firepit, laughing as the pups jump at his legs.
Caroline is sitting at the table in a light green sundress, eating a bagel slathered with cream cheese.
“Good morning,” Clint says. Caroline smiles up at him with a mouthful of bagel, waving one hand in the air in a ‘one moment’ gesture.
“Morning,” she replies cheerfully after swallowing.
Clint heads over to the refrigerator, pulling out the carton of orange juice.
“Glasses?” he asks Caroline, and she gestures to one of the cabinets above the counter on the far wall. Clint pours himself a tall glass, and puts the carton back, taking a seat at the table opposite Caroline.
“Where is everyone?” he asks, because wolves are usually early risers but Clint hasn’t seen anyone other than Caroline and Karl, and the house is quiet.
“Becca’s up and around somewhere. Alice and Emmett have gone for a run . . . among other things,” she says with a wicked smile and wagging eyebrows. “The girls are still asleep - they tend to stay up too late at night whispering and sleep late when they can. Frank and Josie are sleeping in too, since apparently you had the boys last night.”
“That ok?” Clint asks, worriedly, wondering if anyone had been looking for the pups and unable to find them. But Caroline just smiles widely.
“Of course it is,” she assures him. “As long as they aren’t bothering you. They tend to bed-hop a lot.”
“It was fine,” Clint says. “Kinda nice, actually,” he admits, cheeks burning a little.
“It goes away eventually,” Caroline says softly, watching him with something like empathy in her gaze.
“What does?” Clint asks, confused.
“That feeling that this is all too good to be true and that there must be a catch somewhere,” Caroline answers matter-of-factly, ignoring Clint’s startled look. “I thought so too, when I first got here, but this Pack really is that open and friendly.”
“How did you know?” Clint asks, subdued, wondering if his skepticism has been so obvious as to offend anyone.
“I recognised the look,” Caroline says, “and Phil told us a little of your background. Did he tell you about Alice and I? Where we came from?” Clint shakes his head.
“No details. Just that you had a hard time of it before you came here. He said the rest was up to you if you wanted to explain.” Caroline smiles sadly.
“A hard time is rather an understatement,” she says ruefully, playing idly with the crumbs on her plate. “We came from one of the West Texas packs,” she says, as if that’s all the explanation needed, and it kind of is.
There are a lot of wolf packs in the Southwest - the land and the culture being more suited to their needs. Only the Pacific Northwest and the Appalachians have a similar number of packs in close proximity. And of them all, the West Texas packs are the most aggressive and militant. Inter-pack feuds are common, and alliances are being made and broken all the time.
As a result, most of the packs in the area are run much like a cult - the Alpha has absolute authority, disobedience is punishable by death, and female wolves are subservient to all, often bartered or traded for favours or goodwill.
Clint imagines that someone with Caroline’s looks would fetch a good ‘price’.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “You don’t have to tell me this.” Caroline shakes her head.
“No, I want to. Everyone else in the Pack knows, and it’s nice to talk with someone who sort of understands.” Clint just nods, expression open.
“Alice is several years older than me, you see,” Caroline says. “I won’t tell you how many, because a lady must have some secrets,” the corner of Caroline’s mouth turns up slightly, but her posture is tense, “but it was enough. She figured it out before me, and I thought she was just jealous . . .”
“It was clear from when I was young that I would grow up to be beautiful. Not just pretty, the way Alice and some of the other girls were, but truly striking. Our father was Beta, so we were a high-ranking family, and he spoiled me. He always acted so proud. I ate it up.
“Alice tried to tell me, several times, that the way women were treated there was wrong, but I didn’t want to listen. I didn’t care. Sure, some of the other girls were . . . unfortunate . . . in the husbands that were chosen for them, but I was the Beta’s daughter. I was the most beautiful bitch in the pack. The Alpha’s son was a few years older than me and I just knew I was going to be given to him. Only the best for the Alpha-to-be, and I was the best,” Caroline looks down at her hands, swallows dryly, and clears her throat. Clint pushes his half-full glass of orange juice across the table toward her and she takes a long drink, smiling at him gratefully as she puts the glass down.
“When Alice was sixteen, they announced her chosen husband. She was to be given to a lower ranking wolf who had acquitted himself well in the last skirmish with one of the other packs, as a reward. He was a brute, a talented but ruthless fighter, and there were already rumours that he’d used several of the omega bitches harshly.” Clint nods his understanding. In the more savage packs, omegas were the weakest, lowest ranking wolves, who could be used practically as slaves by any higher ranking wolf without consequence. It was considered the price they paid for the protection the pack afforded them.
“The night before she was set to be mated, Alice came to me and begged me to run away with her,” Caroline continues. “I thought she was jealous. Sure, she’d had the bad luck to be gifted to a savage wolf, but what had that to do with me? I was going to be the Alpha’s bitch.” Caroline smiles self-deprecatingly, “of course it didn’t work out that way.” Her fingers tap agitatedly on the table.
“Alice left, and I didn’t see her again for three years. The Alpha was furious, and he near killed Father for raising such a disobedient daughter. I should have figured it out then, but I was so sure that it would be different for me, so certain I was special,” Caroline spits the words bitterly, and Clint reaches out and lays his hand over hers, lightly, resting his fingertips against the backs of her knuckles, stilling the restless twitching. Caroline smiles at him gratefully, before returning to her story.
“We’d been at war with a neighbouring pack for years, and a few months after my fifteenth birthday the Alpha announced that there would be a truce. He had met with the Alpha of the other pack and agreed on a truce-price. Me.” Caroline swallows convulsively and her hand spasms underneath Clint’s fingers.
“It all happened so fast. I was turned over that very day, before I could have the chance to run, and he mated me that night,” Caroline takes a deep shuddering breath. “It hurt. It hurt so much and before I knew it I was changing. He was caught off-guard, and I tore his throat out.”
“I ran. If they’d found me I’d’ve been killed. Alice had sent me a few letters, so I knew she was living in New Orleans. Of course, by then she had met Emmett and moved in with the Pack. Luckily she still kept in touch with some of her old friends, including the woman who lived next door. I was a bit of a mess. She asked if I was all right and somewhere in the blubbering I managed to get out that Alice was my sister and I was looking for her. Jess called up Alice and she came and got me,” Caroline takes a steadying breath and looks Clint straight in the eye.
“The Pack welcomed me without any questions. I didn’t think of it until much later, but Karl would have had a fight on his hands if either of my old packs had come knocking. Hell, I was rather surprised they didn’t band together and come after me.
“It was months before I stopped waiting for the other shoe to fall. Alice slept with me every night, apart from Emmett because I couldn’t rest in the presence of any male. Karl was the only one without a mate and I kept waiting, kept expecting him to take what he was owed from me, but of course he never did. It took nearly a year before I stopped tensing whenever Karl or Emmett or Frank walked in the room, before I stopped looking over my shoulder.
“So I know what it’s like to find something that seems too good to trust. But this place really is what it looks like, and these people really are who they seem, I promise,” Caroline extracts her hand from Clint’s and wipes quickly at her eyes. He pretends not to notice.
Clint looks out the window at where Karl is showing the boys how to stalk bugs. He thinks of Phil and his unconditional acceptance, his unqualified support.
“Yeah,” he says quietly, “I know.”