Desperation is a strange bedfellow, one that Clint can't say he's too enamoured with. It doesn't ask him for his opinion, though, just takes over and makes him shake apart, makes him startle awake over and over again even though everything around him is still. So many times he has caught himself reaching for his phone, only to remember that there'll be no one on the other end, that he's been left behind yet again. Stark's kind and too-knowing, and Clint appreciates the offer, he really does, but living in the construction zone that is the Tower right now? Not something he ought to subject the poor workers to. Natasha is gone, slipped out of SHIELD on a wisp of wind, a weathervane to Fury's whims. He has no way to reach her, and isn't sure he should try just yet. She went through a lot, did Tasha, the past month; undercover, no decompression before The Other Guy almost shook her off the merry-go-round, and then having to cope with the aftermath of the attack, of Clint coming back to himself and finding out--
It's not just SHIELD that lost something that day.
Ridiculous notion, because it wasn't Clint's to lose. It never had been. Looks and small quirking of lips and shared lunches mean nothing in the grand scheme of things; Clint should think himself lucky that he doesn't know what it's like to feel Coulson's hand on his arm, on his skin, that he doesn't know what Coulson looks like just as he yawns awake in the morning. Despite the countless missions he and Coulson and Natasha worked together, Coulson remained a mystery, apart.
Those small, secret glimpses behind his mask when he took the gun Clint held out to him, butt-first, or when he came back from the restroom to find a steaming cup of coffee in front of his seat, Clint studiously perusing the day-old paper? Those don't count. They don't. Their job wouldn't let them mean a single thing that isn't the forging of a good team.
(They could have. Clint could have let himself notice the way Coulson wordlessly placed his buttered ciabatta on the edge of Clint's plate, or the way the olives Clint hates mysteriously disappeared when he wasn't looking. He could have said something that one time when he'd slunk back to their safehouse after a hit, soaked to the bone, to be met with a roaring fire in the grate, a stack of clean, warm clothes on the stool near the hearth, a neatly folded towel on top of them, the heat of the flames trapped inside when he lifted it to his face.
He could have. But the moments slipped through his fingers like the sand in an hourglass, and they're gone now. He's gone.)
Still.Clint can deny it all he wants, but the fact remains that he can't sleep, not in his quarters on the helicarrier, not in the small, cluttered apartment he and Natasha keep on retainer, off any and all kinds of books, just in case. Not even the lingering traces of Nat's scent can soothe him now, not when his insides vibrate like the string of his bow, pulled as tight as it'll go.
He has to do something, because he is becoming a liability, and if they should send him out now, his altered state could mean the difference between his team coming back in one piece or not at all.
Desperate times call for desperate measures.
He's not supposed to know about this place. It's been three weeks since--The Battle of Manhattan, and the place hasn't been touched in the meantime. Clint wonders if Coulson's next of kin are just slow to react, locked in denial as helplessly as he feels, or if there are no next of kin. Either way, the place is dark, empty, the air stale from lack of movement.
Clint's brain doesn't seem to care. It marches his slowing body down the hall, to a sofa that looks like it shouldn't hold him when he's sprawled-out full-length but miraculously does, hidden depths, just like its--late owner.
Clint wants to scream when that thought registers. Luckily, for once his mind decides that mercy's on the cards, and he passes out before he can even turn his head further into the pillow.
This event marks a definite change in his off-duty habits. Whenever he can get away with it, whenever he feels the pressure building and building until it's ready to snap, he disappears from the slowly recovering helicarrier, takes to the rooftops, slips soundlessly over tiles and fire escapes, twists his body through the cracks until he reaches his target, soundlessly opens the lock and drops inside on cat-like feet. No matter how often he tells himself to expect to find the place empty when he gets there, it remains untouched, and Clint is starting to suspect that there's no one coming, no one left to care about the belongings of a dead man slowly gathering dust.
No one but Clint. Three weeks after the first time he wakes up in Coulson's old place, Clint tracks down a certain phone number, calls it and negotiates the taking over of the apartment. No, he assures the landlady, there will be no need to hire a service to take the previous tennant's things into storage. They have an arrangement. The lie stings, but only because Clint wishes he weren't lying at all. The lady's only too happy to drop off a second copy of the keys -- she needs the rent money, Clint surmises when he sees her threadbare but neat skirt suit. She smiles at him guilelessly, clearly without the slightest idea of what her departed tennant did for a living, or her new one, for that matter. She just looks him up and down, nods, smiles kindly, and leaves him to it. Clint feels the load that's always pressing him down these days lightening a little -- only slightly, not nearly enough, but it's something. This place is his now, his to care for in a way that he couldn't care for Coulson, not when it mattered.
To his surprise, there are other things to care for, too. Coulson didn't have any pets -- few agents do, because an agent's life is not conducive to raising any kind of living being. But it appears that in this, too, Coulson was... just that little bit different. Clint might have not believed it himself, had he not seen it with his own two eyes that never miss a thing.
On every flat surface in Coulson's apartment: plants. Small plants with round, fleshy leaves; large plants with spiky foliage that curls in on itself when it grows anew. Orchids, beautiful, filling the place with colour, white, purple, the palest yellow. There is so much life in Coulson's place that when Clint had first opened his eyes to it, after that desperation-fuelled break-in, he'd thought he'd been dreaming: the newly risen sun just peeking through the clouds, a shaft of sunlight making it through the half-closed blinds, through the wide, nearly translucent leaves of one of the plants on the windowsill, a halo of luminescent green to Clint's still sleep-blurry eyes. It had been like waking up in a different world, not so shatteringly lost as Clint had thought.
The poor plants had been dying of thirst, soil cracked in their pots, leaves wilting hopelessly. Something painful had shuddered through Clint at the sight, something that nearly bent him in half with despair. But the sight also brought purpose, and for the next couple of hours, Clint had made the short trek to and from the sink over and over again, ferrying a plastic bottle of water that he'd found on the side of the counter, until every pot had been watered, until the smell of moist earth had dispersed the musty, unused air.
Clint sometimes wonders what he might have done, had it not been for the plants.
He knows this isn't particularly healthy. He's more than likely transferring the attachment he never intended to develop and yet had been powerless to stop from happening. Now that the object of said attachment was--gone, he was gone--Clint finds himself, for the first time in his life, afraid of being sent out on a mission that lasts for more than a week. No one knows about this; it's nothing illicit, yet Clint finds himself desperately secretive, actively deceitful about the fact that he lives in Coulson's old place, that he has found an understanding with a dead--you can say 'dead', Barton; you should get used to it, because that's what he is--man's belongings. He doesn't want to share the last piece of the man that he's ever going to have with anyone -- he shared too much already, much too much.
Life really is a fucked-up piece of work, however. Clint wonders bitterly why he is even surprised: the very next mission he's handed goes FUBAR with a speed that is astonishing in and of itself. A full three weeks pass before he finds his way home, bruised and bloody and with half of his team missing, but not broken (no, never broken, not even by the countless hours of debriefing, the thinly-veiled suspicion of his new handler, before Fury himself had gotten involved) -- except when he finally manages to slip Medical and make his way ho--no, not home. Not home, not without--to Coulson's place, rush inside as quick as he can with his twisted ankle and bum knee, switch on the lights and hobble over to the corner of the room, to the small fern he'd placed by the window for maximum light exposure, hoping it will be the cure for whatever illness had taken over that Clint couldn't fight in its place.
He knows he should have expected it, but the sight of the shrivelled brown leaves, the cracked soil drained dry with no one to add the drop of water that might have made the difference--
Things are not good, for a while. He hadn't let himself touch most of Coulson's things; the apartment resembles some kind of twisted shrine, to something that never existed at all. What's the point of that now, though? Clint can't manage to keep a fucking houseplant alive. No wonder Coulson never closed the distance between them, never took that last step. He'd known all too well that Clint Barton is poison, infecting everything around him. Clint's father had known it; he'd tried to beat it out of him, but it's clear he didn't succeed, no matter how dedicated to his quest he'd been. Barney had known it, and he'd chosen the faster way out, walking away and never looking back. Natasha had known it, of course; Nat, his beautiful Russian girl, the one woman in his life who had known him and hadn't run away, not until she couldn't stand it anymore; until Clint had managed to drive her away, too. Who did he think he was fooling? It's only a matter of time until he kills everything he cares for, until all the gorgeous plants that Coulson so obviously loved are no more than shrivelled twigs, just like that poor, small, defenceless fern that had had the misfortune to attract Clint Barton as its carer.
So Clint heads straight to the kitchen cupboards, and procedes to methodically plough his way through Coulson's stash of expensive booze, decades-old whiskey tasting sour on his tongue, but he swallows it down anyway, bottle after bottle, until the tinkle of empty glass fills the ghostly silence of the apartment that Clint has no right to be in at all.
After a while, blissfully, the whiskey does its job, and he gets to the point where his stupid brain stops thinking at last. He likes it here. He doesn't think he'll be leaving anytime soon. What would be the point, anyway?
Eventually, when he opens his eyes again, it's to bright, bright hair, to small fingers pressing tightly to his neck, shaking just a little. Everything hurts, but that's kind of something Clint has gotten used to, the past few months, so he doesn't pay the pain attention it doesn't deserve.
"'Tasha?" he croaks, more of a whisper than a word, but Natasha jerks back, looks down at him with haunted eyes.
"Дурак," Natasha snarls as she swings, and fuck, Clint closes his eyes as his head snaps back, waits for the world to stop swimming and the stars to subside. "Я думалa, что ты мертв, ты идиот! I ought to kick the living shit out of you for that one, Barton."
Her eyes are flashing with fury, lips peeled back to show her sharp white teeth. Clint groans. "At least wait till my head stops spinning," he rasps, throwing an arm over his eyes to shut out her glower.
The dead silence coming from the other end of the sofa is ominous in its mere existence. Clint looks again. Natasha's eyes are rimmed with red, and she's still shaking, imperceptible to anyone who hasn't spent years sitting with her in small, dank spaces, studiously ignoring the tiny, infrequent fragments of time spent listening to her breath hitch ever so slightly. Clint forces himself to sit up, his whole body seizing from the beating it had taken the past few days -- or has it been longer? He has no idea how much time has passed since--
The small, dead pot is still on the coffee table where Clint had carefully laid it before heading for the cupboards. Clint looks away, chest clenching all over again.
He doesn't ask Natasha if she's okay. She'd said she thought he was dead. It explains a few things, drives home the fact that Clint is a fucking idiot. Just because he'd been (is, likely always will be, god) in love with Coulson doesn't mean he deserves any special treatment. Coulson hadn't been his anything other than a good colleague who would be missed -- nothing more than he was to everyone else who worked with him, people like Natasha, whose history at SHIELD was tangled up with Coulson's just as much as Clint's. Natasha may be used to people dying, but it's been a while since Clint made the mistake of thinking she didn't care.
"I'm sorry," he whispers. "I know you miss him, too."
She sits there a bit longer, face averted, blood-red hair shimmering like a curtain, shielding her from his eyes. She'd kept it together when it mattered, but now Clint can see that the effort of it is trying to break her in two.
"It's okay," he whispers, slides a cautious arm over her shoulders. She doesn't push him away immediately, so he scoots closer, tugs her in against him. She goes, tension leaking slowly out of her, face a mask of misery through her hair.
"I'm sorry, too" she says, which makes no sense.
"For what?" he whispers.
"For not snapping out of it in time. I could have helped him. I could have taken Loki down, if I hadn't frozen like a useless rookie."
Clint's shaking his head before she has even finished talking. "No. You don't know that; you could be just as dead as him, if you'd tried. It's not your fault. I'm the one who let Loki in in the first place."
It's her turn to shake her head, to turn around in his arms. Her eyes are dry, if even redder than before. "We've been through this. It was Loki, not you. Not you, Clint."
Clint laughs. It's painful, raw, and it's tearing through him to even try, but god, what a pair they make. "How about this," he says in the end, squeezing her shoulder gently. "We've both got red on our ledgers, and the only person who could cancel it out is--not here anymore. So you and me, Natasha, we get this done together. It won't be the first time."
She searches his eyes for a moment, and then fists her hand in his black SHIELD-issue t-shirt.
"Together," she says hoarsely, nodding a fierce agreement. "That means no more trying to drink yourself into a slow death, asshole."
Clint winces, looks away. She doesn't know -- or he thinks she doesn't know. She is Natasha Romanov, after all, and the terrible kindness in her eyes kind of tells the whole story. Clint doesn't want to talk about it. Can't, not yet; all those missed chances, they're blades under his skin, slashing him to ribbons. It's going to be a while yet before he gets over it, and talking to Natasha, much as he loves her, won't help. She'll try to understand -- but she's impatient, is Tasha; the need to bounce back from any weakness is too deeply ingrained. She can't abide being compromised. And whatever she knows, or suspects, the simple fact is this: Clint has no reason to expect her compassion. He was nothing to Coulson. There was no 'him and Coulson'. There is just Clint, weary, tired of losing yet another person who mattered. But it's no one else's problem to deal with, just Clint's. He doesn't want something that he isn't due -- and so he clears his throat and kisses Natasha's forehead, avoids her eyes, the silent offer of support he knows he will find inside.
"It won't happen again," he tells her quietly, and means it. He doesn't deserve to be cut any slack.
"I can't lose you, too," she whispers, almost lost in the hush of the apartment, the soft rustling of the night breeze through the curtains. He nods briskly against her hair, but doesn't reply.
He's going to have to do better than this.
He names the plants. If he's doing this, he's doing it properly. There is this one plant, small, with thin spiky leaves that nevertheless take up half the corner it shares with a couple of his relatives; it doesn't take long until Clint starts calling it Tony, and from then on it's a slippery slope. There is a plant with deep green leaves that has just put out a big red bloom in the middle -- the book he got from Amazon tells him it's a Bromeliad, which sounds suitably epic. It really takes no imagination to name it Thor, after that. He was going to name a pot of clovers Steve, but after a night of thinking it over he still couldn't convince himself that what happened to Steve was lucky. The guy lost everyone he knew and loved to time and war. It's not something that fits the definition. Instead, the clover gets designated as Bruce, because it seems to Clint that the accident that turned him into what he is now also brought him to them, the small circle of weirdos who will stick up for each other until the end. Thus, Bruce.
Instead of the clover, 'Steve' gets attached to the Japanese peace lily. Okay, so Steve isn't the most peaceful person that Clint has ever encountered (not that there have been many), but the fact remains that Steve is the only person who can pacify a meeting of the six of them without expending masses of effort or blowing his top. Well, the only one since--but Clint isn't thinking about that. No, sir.
The pot of ivy becomes 'Maria', because even though it's not poison, it can still wind all over you and squeeze you to death -- or it could, if it were the size of a man--and yeah, Clint's done explaining himself. The ivy should just consider itself lucky it gets someone as badass as that for a namesake.
The lumpy, bald cactus with the bump like an eye on one side of its face isn't even a challenge.
There's no 'Natasha' in the apartment for the longest time. Clint tends to the plants, reads a number of increasingly detailed books that he probably doesn't need (they're soothing, though, and these days he takes what comfort he can find), and takes to talking to the plants. (He tries not to think too hard about the fact that he hardly exchanges three words together with actual people these days.) The plants are good listeners, and they seem to like the attention -- there are no repeats of the incident with the baby fern, for which Clint can only be grateful. Instead, the plants grow and grow, and flourish, and then Christmas rolls along and Clint wakes up one morning to find the poinsettia blooming. He has never seen such beautiful, vibrant red, the poinsettia just like Natasha, keeping its cards close to its chest until just the right time, and then letting rip.
(There is no 'Phil', because there can't be a Phil, because everything is Phil, the sturdy yukka, the graceful Benjamin, the deep pink of the geraniums, the lush white of the begonias. It's all Phil, and to separate him out to a single thing would be like taking a summer day and stripping it down to the way the wind blows, or the scent of freshly cut grass, or the warmth of the sun's rays on your skin -- a travesty, impossible and unacceptable.)
There is a 'Pepper', once Clint has met the lady properly, a beautiful orange orchid standing strong, immovable, unbreakable despite its delicate flowers. There is even a 'Jarvis', a magnificent bonsai maple that catches Clint's eyes every time he enters the apartment's bedroom on his watering routine (and for no other reason, not ever. He is only human). It is man-grown, but no less strong, no less impressive and amazing and important for it. It seemed somehow appropriate.
And so it goes.
Until, one morning, it doesn't. It doesn't, because Fury calls them all in (Clint takes a special kind of vindictive pleasure in visualising Nick the cactus at moments like these), tells them to sit down and, without preamble, says "Come on in, they're settled" into his earpiece.
The door opens, and Clint's world comes to an abrupt stop.
The others are speaking, shouting, some of them; Natasha is swearing viciously in Russian, and Steve has to actually hold Tony back so he doesn't lay one right on Fury's jaw. Coulson stands there calmly, taking in the chaos without so much as batting an eyelid. After a moment, his eyes come to rest on Clint, that soft, worn blue that Clint's world used to centre itself on, that Clint had thought he'd never see again, and Clint--
Clint can't. He just can't. It's too much.
He gets up and walks away, ignores Fury's voice calling him back. The one-eyed bastard can go fuck himself. Clint has things he needs to do.
He vacates the apartment as silently as he arrived, taking with him the small bag of clothes that have somehow found their way in, scattered around the couch he's been sleeping on these past six months. He wonders vaguely if he's going to revert to sleeplessness again, now that Coulson is back, or whether that, too, will pass. He considers the possibility that he's in a state of shock right now, because he's cold, colder than he should be when he knows for a fact that the temperature in the apartment is kept at a constant 22C, so that the plants are comfortable and don't get a chill.
He walks through the rooms, methodically erasing any trace of ever having been here. He washes last night's cutlery and puts it away. He takes out the trash. He straightens the sofa cushions. Then, on his way out, he strokes a wistful finger over Bruce's leaves, trails his hands through Tony's, smiles as best he can at Natasha, back to her green disguise.
"Bye, guys," he tells them, voice breaking a little, which is fine, it's okay, there's no one here but the plants, and they have been witness to much worse in his tenure. "You be good for your daddy. I've done all I can, but I bet you've missed him. I know--I know I have," he finishes on a whisper, daring at last to believe that he wasn't hallucinating this morning; that Phil Coulson is alive, and whole, and back.
Doesn't mean a thing, of course; Clint isn't expecting anything to change, but at least Coulson is still around. That counts for everything, and Clint will take it with both hands and hold on as tight as he can.
Things are... not right. Phil would scoff at himself for that world-class stating-the-obvious award-winner, but he's much too worried to spare it a thought. The Avengers are furious with SHIELD and Fury, mistrustful, hurt, even, which, okay, is a little bit flattering, even though Phil knows he shouldn't let himself think that way. They have closed ranks around him with a speed that is frankly startling, insisted he got reinstated as their handler, whisked him away to what is now the Avengers Tower (Tony), scanned him head to toe for anything they could find (Dr Banner), calmly informed him he is to present himself to the Tower's gym at 0600 the next morning for evaluation (Natasha), earnestly, if a little awkwardly, talked to him about psychological triggers that could persist due to the time lag between dying and coming back (Captain-Rogers-call-me-Steve, who else?), fussed over him like a mother hen with a bundle of ill chicks (surprisingly, Thor, even though Phil had tried to, as tactfully as he could, put it across to him that he isn't angry with him, doesn't blame him, not even a little).
What there isn't, is a voice in his ear, dry, sardonic, keeping up a constant, gently mocking commentary of everyone's well-meaning efforts to welcome Phil back, show him that he's still one of them. What there isn't, is a steady presence at his back that Phil has gotten used to over the years, the assurance that he only need turn around and there Barton would be, watching his six, ready to share a joke or an exasperated eye-roll.
What there is instead is a radio silence that is starting to make Phil twitchy. Even in the middle of a mission, when Barton had needed all his focus for something, there had still been the slow, measured cadence of his breath, the sense of 'being there' that soothed Phil more than he'd let himself admit. Now? Nothing. A hole in space that scrapes at his senses, refuses to smooth away.
The first time he sits down to dinner with the others, they're all there, all six plus Pepper, who sits between Tony and Steve, chatting easily about a concert they'd taken Steve to last night, sending Phil warm, happy looks. He watches her steal a crouton from Tony's salad absentmindedly, no comment necessary from either of them, looks down at the olives in his own plate, and aches. Because Barton is sitting as far away from him as he could get while still remaining at the table, pushing his own olives away to form a tidy pile at the edge of his plate, looking tired and worn out and sporting that pinch around his eyes that says that he's having trouble sleeping. After five years of working almost every mission together, with or without Natasha, there is little Phil Coulson doesn't know about Clint Barton, and what he does know sets off the wail of a siren in his head, red flashes of light at the back of his mind, danger, danger. This is not a Clint Barton who is coping well with things. The fact that he's still alive, wasn't taken out in the fighting as an agent compromised and therefore marked for termination almost always is, fills Phil with knee-weakening relief, but it doesn't change the fact that there is something out of whack, something very much Not Okay.
Phil isn't an idiot. He's been gone for a long time, long enough for the world to move on without him, to begin to heal, to get on with the day-to-day. Yet the fact remains that his apartment is still his own, rent fully paid up for the next two months that would bring them up to the end of June. It's clean, all his things remaining right where he left them -- including his one indulgence, something he'd been worried about the most while he'd been laid out in medical under fifteen different layers of security protocols. His plants, his babies, they're all alive and well -- more than well, beautifully cared for, grown, thriving under the attention someone has bestowed on them. Only the one little fern is missing, the one Phil had gotten a few weeks before the attack, sickly already. He'd hoped he could nurse it back to health, but then the New Mexico nightmare had happened, and after that the plants, much as Phil loves them, had been the last thing on his mind, shoved into near-irrelevance by the horror of knowing that unless they could get Barton back, and soon, someone (him, or Natasha) would have to take him out. (They'd promised Barton, that one time, after watching him almost break under the strain of being made to shoot prisoners or watch the gang that had taken them knife Natasha to shreds, promised they'd be the ones to take care of him, to stop him by whatever means necessary if the need arose.)
His plants are fine, and no one is saying a word about going in to take care of them. No one even looks like they're hiding something from him, utterly guileless--well. Okay. Correction: almost no one. The only person avoiding Phil like the plague (and that's not hurtful, not at all, it's fine, they all need to cope with the lightning-fast changes of the past few months one way or another) is Barton.
Occam's Razor. Barton somehow, for whatever reason, went to the trouble of finding Phil's apartment, breaking in through the elaborate security Phil had set up, and kept the place going, took care of his plants, unknowingly kept a little slice of normality for Phil to come back to. And he hasn't even mentioned it, hasn't crowed about it like Phil would have expected him to, not even a throw-away allusion. Meanwhile, he's been quiet, and withdrawn, and hasn't spoken two words together to any of the others that Phil has seen.
The conclusion is inescapable, and Phil is steadily getting more and more frustrated as the days tick by. It would fucking help if Barton wasn't intent on spending as little time as possible in his company, always with that blank (Phil shies away from calling it 'mindless', especially after everything), almost -- numb? -- expression on his face, a flat disinclination to engage in his voice, "yes, sir", "no, sir", until Phil wants to scream. Phil has never seen him like that, not even after Budapest, when Natasha had been captured, brainwashed and flipped on them, had come this close to killing them both before she had somehow mysteriously (or not so much, now that the cognitive recalibration trick has been employed on Barton, too) coming back to herself and helping them take out the entire nest of rogue KGB operatives. That had been rough on all of them, Natasha especially, but Barton had been quick to forgive, if not so quick to forget.
What makes it worse is that Phil's plants begin to--pine, there's no better word. They pine for who Phil can only assume is Barton; they droop, leaves turning limp and listless no matter how often he takes to watering them. He wonders what magic Barton employed that had them responding so well, that they'd opened for him, drank in the care and attention he must have lavished on them to make them look like this. Phil considers getting jealous, but since at this point he doesn't know if he's more jealous of Barton or his own plants, ridiculous as that may be, he shelves the prospect, choosing instead to focus his energies on getting through the inexplicable, endlessly frustrating wall Barton appears to have erected between them. The truth is, he misses the easy camaraderie that used to exist between them with a visceral tug. He knows he has no right to expect that things will get back to the way they were before his over-exaggerated demise, but he can't help but wish he were still the recipient of Barton's attention, that he could still look up at his office ceiling and know that Barton is lurking behind the tiles, ready to mock whatever lame attempt at thwarting him Coulson's junior agents have come up with now. The old saying seems to be true, after all: you don't know what you have until it's gone.
There's another thing that is true, however: Phil Coulson has never failed a mission that he has set for himself, not since deciding that four years old is not too early to learn to read and write. He's going to get to the bottom of this mystery. He hopes that his growing suspicions prove correct; and if not, then at least the Avengers will get Hawkeye back to optimum performance. Phil is not the kind of guy who puts his own feelings and emotions first, never has been.
Still, he can't help but hope that his luck will hold; that he won't have to ever again endure the torture of lying in a bed waiting to find out if he'll live or die, dwelling on all the missed chances, all the regrets, all the right-yet-not-quite-right decisions that meant keeping away the one thing he had ever wished for.
Eventually, something has to give. The rest of the Avengers are starting to notice, and it's not just Natasha throwing Barton sidelong concerned looks anymore. Barton himself doesn't seem to see them at all, locked in whatever place he's gone to in his head despite all of Phil's careful poking. In the end, though, it's not the job that makes him crack. If he's honest with himself, Phil always knew that would be the case; Barton can do his job flawlessly even when severely compromised.
No, it's the small, lumpy, stubborn cactus that lives in between his more leafy siblings, in a flowerpot stand in the middle of Phil's living room. It has been fading all the while, since Phil came back, bristles wilting, base starting to wither in a way that is worrying Phil not a little. He takes it with him to the office one day, a snap decision he has no idea would yield such consequences, but there it is: proof that even he can't know everything.
He almost forgets it's languishing dramatically just off-centre on the low table by the sofa in his office, the one that normally contains nothing but piles of paperwork, until the moment Barton walks in, opens his mouth to deliver his report--and freezes, eyes swivelling unerringly to the plain terracotta pot.
"What the hell have you done to Nick," he demands, with more feeling that Phil has heard from him in the past six months combined.
Nick? Phil mouths to himself, but before he can say anything at all, Barton has swooped over to the unfortunate plant, fingers careful where they trail over the rough, prickly surface.
"What's he done to you now, baby?" Barton murmurs, and Phil would take offence at any number of things in that sentence if he weren't so floored by the delivery. He has never seen Barton like this, so careful, so concerned, in voice as well as action -- it's always one or another with him, gentle hands while he yells, quick, merciless twists of his fingers while he croons quietly to his bow. Phil watches, stunned, as Barton checks the soil for moisture, deftly squeezes the body of the cactus to uncover any soft spots. There's nothing to be seen, Phil has checked himself, over and over again, but the fact that Barton knows what to do at all gives the game away.
Then Phil loses his train of thought entirely when Barton snarls, "Wasn't it enough that you died and left them? Now you gotta neglect them as well?" Vicious and hurt and lashing out, clearly saying much more than he intended but unable to stop himself. Things start to click together slowly, then faster, making all the sense in the world, impossible as the conclusion seems. And Phil? Phil is honestly just relieved, because this is emotion, this is something that Barton hasn't shown since Phil came back; and this is progress, no matter how it comes about.
"Barton," he says, knowing his voice is too gentle for reproach, for anything even approaching professionalism, and not caring in the slightest. "Clint." He gets up from his desk.
Clint ignores him, staring stubbornly down at the little cactus, shoulders hunched up and tense. He'd called it 'Nick', and Phil feels a totally inappropriate wave of amusement at the realisation not just that Clint had named it, but whom he had named it after. Not the time, he tells himself sternly.
"They miss you," he says quietly instead. "The plants," he clarifies, when Clint still won't look up at him. "You can stop pretending now. I know it was you who took care of them. Thank you. They would have died without it."
Somehow, it's exactly the wrong thing to say. Clint's shoulders slump miserably, and he sinks into the sofa like his strings have been cut.
"One of them did," he mutters, rubbing his knuckles over his eyes, sounding tired and helpless. Phil hates to see him like this; he absolutely cannot help the way his body moves closer, walking over to the coffee table. He stays on the other side of it to Clint, even though all he wants is to close the distance between them. His hands yearn to tug Clint in until his head is resting against Phil's middle and Phil can hold him, try to take some of that terrible weariness away -- but he has no idea if his nearness, his touch would be welcome at all, or would only set Clint off again. He isn't sure of anything anymore.
"It was a little fern," Clint goes on sadly, and Phil refocuses, tries to catch the drift of Clint's words. He's talking about the sickly fern, the one that hadn't made it, and he sounds like he personally killed it with fire, which Phil knows must be far from the truth. "I killed it. Couldn't take care of it, not properly. I don't even know how the other plants made it."
This.... is not right. At all. "Okay," Phil says, because no. "First of all, that fern was ill anyway, and it was a 50/50 toss-up whether it was going to make it at all. Second of all, my plants have never looked healthier than when I came back to the apartment, so I would hazard a guess that you did a pretty damn amazing job all by yourself. And third," he says, softer now that Clint's expression has taken on a cautious shift into something lighter, happier. "They miss you, Clint. You did far better at taking care of them than I had before--well." He waves his hand lamely, trying to encompass everything that has happened in the past year or so.
Clint snorts quietly, but he's smiling a little, looking pleased. Phil's chest aches when he realises that this is probably the first time that Clint has ever been told he did good on anything unrelated to his job.
"They miss me, huh," Clint says after a minute of oddly comfortable silence.
"They do," Phil confirms, letting himself smile a little.
"Not as much as they missed you," Clint tells him, turning abruptly serious. And then, quietly, making Phil's heart pound in his chest: "They weren't the only ones."
Clint looks up at him now, finally, after what feels like years without that piercing blue-grey looking so open, so free of demons. "Clint," Phil hears himself say, gut-wrenched and full of desperation.
"Jesus Christ, Phil," Clint sighs, just like that, like they've been doing this for years, forever, always. He reaches up for Phil's hand, warm, sure fingers wrapping around his wrist, tugging him gently closer. Phil goes, because he can't not go, can't not step nearer when Clint clearly wants him to, is asking for permission in the only way he can let himself. Phil's legs fold to dump him onto the sofa, on his side, facing Clint and that look in his eyes, both of them tired, so tired of pretending, of pushing things away that are stronger than either of them can resist.
"Tell me to stop," Clint says, inching closer, the heat of his body, the scent of sandalwood and a hint of fresh sweat making Phil want to bury his face in Clint's neck and cling.
"No," Phil snorts, inching closer himself, until he can just tilt his head and kiss him, kiss him like he means it, has always meant it, like all those years of small moments, of secret glances, of reading each other's thoughts in the flicker of an eyelid has lead them to this, natural like first kisses never are. Phil's hand curls around the utter implacability of Clint's upper arm, strong, immovable in his grasp, feeling like an anchor that Phil can let pin him down, hold him fast, safe against the tide. Clint sighs into his mouth, going boneless against the back of the sofa, letting Phil crowd him in, coaxing Phil even closer with a hand curling around the back of his neck, another at his hip. His tongue is utterly pliant when Phil licks into his mouth, beautifully accepting. Phil can't hold back the soft groan that grows a little louder, rougher, with the nudge of Clint's hardening cock against his hipbone. He is seriously having trouble breathing here, and it has nothing to do with the healed-over hole in his chest.
"Come home with me," Phil gasps at last, when they break for air, foreheads touching, fingers clinging everywhere they reach.
"Home," Clint breathes, like it's something foreign, something he hasn't dared to imagine, has longed for, for so long now that he can hardly believe it's real.
There are no unnecessary questions, no "are you sure", "is this wise". There is only the "yes", soft and sweet on Clint's lips, the tiny hitch of his breath at the end of it, the seemingly-unconscious squeeze of Clint's fingers on Phil's hip, keeping him close.
It's a nice sentiment, and it feels divine, and wonderful, and it's not like Phil is going to ever push him away, but the thing is -- it's unnecessary. Phil isn't planning on going anywhere any time soon.