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Loved Long Since, and Lost Awhile

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Clint doesn't go to the funeral. He doesn't go to the overblown public memorial service, the shrink-ordered SHIELD remembrance ceremony, the White House photo op where Phil gets a fancy posthumous medal, or the unveiling of the portrait in the Hall of the Fallen, which all the SHIELD people actually call "the Walk 'n Gawk."

The people who give him knowing looks regarding his absence at these things are Tony Stark, who seems to have suddenly warmed to Phil now that he's dead; Steve Rogers, who barely knew him but is intent on honoring his memory at every opportunity; Director Fury, who is probably more broken up about it than he lets on; and even Natasha, who hides everything better than almost anyone else, but misses Phil almost as much as Clint does.

But how can he go? How can he show his face at any of the stuff for Phil? How can he face Phil's parents, who fucking loved Clint, treated him like one of their own? Who gave him birthday cakes and family dinners and Christmas presents, and normalcy. Even before Clint and Phil started sleeping together, Phil's family adopted Clint, happily took him in like the wary stray he was, and it was great. Clint's life was great.

Now, Clint's life is ashes.

~*~

Clint and Natasha fell into bed as soon as they found five minutes and a flat surface. They had fantastic, primal, sometimes deliciously painful sex in all kinds of places all over the world, straining against each other until they collapsed in a panting, grinning heap, and then when they woke up they would do it again. They fucked like they worked, two pieces of a puzzle clicking together.

The work lasted, but the sex didn't. The closer they got, the more they cared about each other, the less interested Natasha became in sleeping with him, until she finally just stopped completely. They never talked about it, because it didn't seem necessary. He knew he wasn't going to change her mind.

So he let her call the shots, and waited for her to just come right out and tell him they were only teammates and friends now, nothing more, but it wasn't that definitive, or that easy. Instead, it was a long, slow slide of watching her slip away in one sense as she became forever his in another, something so simultaneously gratifying and painful that most of the time he was at a loss as to how to feel about it.

~*~

Phil's mother sends Clint an email, the day after the funeral.

We expected to see you there, and we're worried you were injured, or worse, when Phil was hurt. Please let us know you are okay as soon as you can.

We love you, and you will always be a part of our family.

It's signed Love, Mom & Dad

Clint stares at the screen. When Phil was hurt? That's the understatement of the century, isn't it?

He means to reply, when he's ready, but he's busy pretending he's still a fully functional human being, and then the Avengers become an official thing and go public. Phil's parents see Clint on the news or in the paper or on Jay Leno—wherever—alive and well. He gets another email:

Well, now we know why you haven't been able to contact us! We are so proud of you, and Phil would be, too. Looking forward to hearing from you.

Love.

Mom & Dad

He should just delete the emails, because the Coulsons have no idea what happened, and no idea how their innocent words and friendly overtures just make everything even more gut-wrenching.

Injured, or worse, Clint thinks, unable to stop the bitter laughter that turns into a glass of orange juice smashing against the wall next to the door, and an arm sweeping all of Phil's neatly organized office supplies off the desk.

Definitely worse.

~*~

For approximately two minutes, Clint thought Phil was just a guy in a suit laboring under the delusion that he was going to tell Clint what to do. He looked deceptively ordinary, sitting at a conference table, typing doggedly on a tablet. Even when he looked up at Clint and gave him a quick, close-lipped smile, he seemed like nothing more than a milquetoast bureaucrat.

Clint had already been through three handlers, and wasn't really eager to hook up with another. In fact, he had a speech all prepared for Fury, requesting he either let him work alone or cut him loose; he was going to deliver it as soon as he went through the motions of meeting with Agent Coulson.

Then Phil stood up and shook Clint's hand, and in those simple motions Clint knew instantly that this was not some desk jockey--this was a guy who was aware of his surroundings, who was aware of his body and the space around it, and who had calluses on his hands, scars on his knuckles that definitely weren't paper cuts. Clint squeezed just a little too hard, because the macho posturing just came up out of nowhere. And Phil—fucking Phil Coulson, who looked like an accountant—didn't squeeze back, but he didn't flinch, either. He just smiled at Clint, a "my balls are so big I don't even need to bother with this juvenile shit" kind of smile that would put any guy in his place instantly.

Clint sat down, impressed and a little chagrined, and heard him out.

~*~

The first time they go out on a job after Phil dies, Natasha slips into Clint's arms when they go to bed—they're supposed to be a married couple—and lets him curl around her, clingy after too many nights spent aching for a warm body next to him. She moves against him in the morning, an offer, and he sinks into her body, comforting and familiar, as the sun rises over Cartagena. She's gentle with him like she's never been, until he goads her into grabbing his hair and swearing at him, because he wants it like it used to be. He wants to pretend everything is like it used to be.

Later, in the solitude of the shower, he breaks down for several long, awful minutes, for the first time since he came back to himself cuffed to a bed in the infirmary.

Even later, he puts an arrow through the Adam's apple of a human trafficking piece of shit, and feels normal again for the first time in weeks.

~*~

Clint's relationship with Phil Coulson took a lot longer to get off the ground than the thing with Natasha, and played out the way most of Phil's ops did: thoughtful observation followed by careful planning, followed by strategic execution and ending with a mad scramble to pull a miracle out his ass when the whole thing nearly went FUBAR. After all the dust settled, Clint felt a little silly for not taking the bait sooner, but he was getting laid too regularly and skillfully to dwell on it.

Phil never specifically had a talk with Clint about what happened with Natasha, but there was one careful conversation about it almost three weeks after it finally ended where he asked if the team was okay, and would continue to be okay. Clint said it was, and Phil never mentioned it again, because somehow Phil always seemed to know when to trust Clint's judgment and when it was necessary to step in and redirect him.

A few months later, Phil casually walked into the infirmary and handed Clint a greasy white bag with a bacon cheeseburger and a strawberry shake in it, and hung around while Clint ate, leaning on Clint's bed and drinking his own shake. They talked about what had gone wrong and what had gone right, and just how much it sucked that no matter how meticulously planned, an entire mission could go tits up over something as small as a burned-out light bulb. Then, because talking about work all the time got boring, they talked about hockey, and just what kind of chances the Rangers had for the coming season.

When the food was gone and they had decided the Rangers' chances were good, Phil clapped him on the shoulder and told him to get some rest, maybe they'd let him go home tomorrow.

"Hey, thanks for coming by," Clint said, suddenly grateful, because he hadn't realized until right then how nice it was to have someone besides Natasha give a shit about his comfort and happiness.

A few weeks later they went to the Rangers home opener together, and ate hot dogs with too much mustard while the Zamboni lumbered across the ice. A few weeks after that they did the same thing, and then went out for a beer after. The next time, they went to an Italian place and ate huge plates of lasagna first, and then had several beers after.

After this went on for a while, Clint started to think Phil was interested in him, but Phil never made a move, and Clint sure as hell wasn't going to, because he'd already been down that road with Natasha and he didn't think it was a good idea for him to have fucked both of his teammates. But it sure as hell felt like Phil was taking him out on dates.

Clint had a shitty apartment in Jersey that he'd lost the key to a couple months back, so he mostly lived in one of the crash rooms in the bland building SHIELD kept as a back-up base in Manhattan, or in cramped temporary quarters on the Helicarrier. If anyone noticed Clint was a perpetual squatter, they never mentioned it, but there wasn't much point in trying to hide anything from a bunch of spies.

When Phil showed up at his door on the Helicarrier, for a second Clint thought he was busted, but Phil just politely asked to come in, and Clint let him. Phil looked around the place with bland curiosity--at the stack of candy bars on the desk, and way too many clothes to pass off as just a few days' stay—and nodded, as if it were exactly what he expected to see. Maybe it was.

Then he said, "If you aren't doing anything for Thanksgiving, you're welcome to come to Florida with me. My mother's turkey and stuffing is fantastic."

So Phil wasn't trying to date him, Clint decided. He just felt sorry for him, maybe, or wanted to be his friend. Clint wasn't sure which option was the less desirable of the two, really.

But he went to Florida anyway, because Tasha always took leave around American holidays even though she never celebrated them, and with both her and Phil gone, the team would officially be on hiatus. If he couldn't kill people, he might as well eat pie, Clint figured.

~*~

Phil is buried in Arlington. Clint has never visited his grave.

~*~

When Clint brought Natasha back to the safe house—an unimaginable breach of protocol—he figured his days with SHIELD were over, and the best case scenario was he and Tasha could fight their way out without killing too many people. But Phil looked at Clint, that same inscrutable stare he always gave him when they were about to do something that could land them in a basement with their nuts in a vise, and waited for Clint to say something. There wasn't much to say, and neither of them were prone to making or listening to speeches anyway, so Clint just nodded. Phil nodded back, and then spent twenty minutes in the back room with Natasha.

In the days that followed, there were probably a lot of meetings Clint wasn't privy to, and a few he was, but eventually he and Natasha, already fucking by this point, became Strike Team Delta, and Phil became their handler. The next two years were a blur of danger and sex and teamwork, and they were the best years of Clint's life up to that point.

Even when shit went bad—and it did, plenty of times—Clint never forgot, and never stopped being grateful for, that moment in the safe house when Phil gave him the benefit of the doubt. He wasn't sure if Phil realized at the time just how much it spoke to the level of trust Clint had in him that he let him take Natasha into that back room, out of his sight. It could have been, and maybe with another handler would have been, a perfect opportunity to put a bullet in her brain.

Sometimes he would look at Natasha, feel her digging her teeth into his shoulder, watch her strip and clean her guns in a record time, wake up and feel her warm breath on his neck in the middle of the night, and he was so fucking grateful for Phil Coulson, and for the belief Phil Coulson had in him.

He was never going to let Phil down, no matter what it took. He was going to have Phil's back, forever.

~*~

Phil isn't the only person who dies because of Clint, and many more are injured, some permanently. Clint goes to every single service and memorial and medal ceremony, talks to every spouse and child and parent and sibling he can identify. He can't tell them it's his fault—the government absolutely does not want the public to know one of its best and deadliest agents was an accessory to Loki's killing spree—but he hugs and shakes hands and utters bland sentiments to people who will likely never know the part he played in their grief. The official stance of secrecy saves him from having to decide whether or not to confess, but it feels a little like cheating, a lot like he's getting off easy.

It's the other people at SHIELD, the ones who are in the know, who are easier to deal with, because it's all right out there. Many of them have forgiven him, or act like nothing's changed, but a few are wary, a few others downright hostile. He thinks it's justified, and doesn't try to hide from it, or defend himself.

He knows the higher-ups are worried that he thinks he deserves to be punished for what happened, but they're not worried enough to yank his security clearance or bench him, so he rolls with it. All he has left now is his work, and his friendship with Natasha, and that used to be enough. Someday, it will be enough again.

The higher ups aren't naïve enough to take their eyes off him, though, and he doesn't blame them. There's an invisible asterisk next to his name, one that tells everyone he was compromised once, and could be again. The extra security measures are warranted, and his privacy is a small price to pay for the chance to keep working; he doesn't try to hide anything from the shrinks and the telepaths who are now part of his daily life.

His regular assigned telepath is nice—a big, burly biker dude with a handlebar mustache and blurry tattoos all over his knuckles. Like most of the specialists, he initially used his unique abilities to commit crimes, until he was recruited by SHIELD. Now he lives in a big, ugly house on Long Island, and spends his weekends in Atlantic City and Las Vegas.

He's surprisingly soft-spoken and apologetic when he does Clint's daily scan, but also very thorough, because he knows what's at stake. But no one has to worry. At the first hint anything like that is about to happen again, Clint will slit his own throat.

~*~

Phil's father was former FBI, and looked like a movie FBI agent, meaning he was more on the Tommy Lee Jones end of the spectrum where the fictional agents tended to fall, as opposed to what they usually looked in real life, which was more like Phil. He gave Clint a once-over and said, "I heard you don't miss," and Clint, who knew full well that Coulson Senior had helped bring home six consecutive first place trophies for the FBI's pistol competition team, said, "I heard you don't, either," and they were instantly buds.

It was immediately obvious Phil took after his mother both in looks and demeanor; she had the same unflappable but slightly bemused air about her. When Clint walked in the door she hugged him and gave him a smacking kiss on the cheek, and then started bossing him around like he was one of her own kids, much to Phil's amusement. Clint, who had spent the last several years being subtly conditioned to respond to the Coulson way of giving orders, had no defense against her.

The next morning brought the arrival of Phil's sister, Miranda, who took after their dad looks-wise, and was in the Army. She was home on leave and in attendance with her husband, who taught French, and their four kids, all girls. The ease with which Phil and his sister fell into what were obviously lifelong rhythms of siblinghood was hilarious, even if it did make Clint long for things that were forever out of his reach.

Phil's nieces were terrifying, like living with a pack of giggling predators in sparkly shoes and Hello Kitty barrettes, and Phil was quite obviously completely devoted to them. Five minutes after their arrival the middle two—twins—cajoled Clint and Phil into a group wrestling match in the back yard, which was how Clint discovered both girls were green belts in karate.

"Are you having a good time?" Phil asked him on the third night, when they were safely ensconced in the twin beds in the guest room.

It had been a busy day. Following a morning at the local firing range with Phil and Miranda and their father, Clint had spent the afternoon lounging by the pool while one of the twins painted his toenails a blinding shade of neon green. After dinner, he'd come within millimeters of taking a head butt to the groin during a game of tag, which ended abruptly when the littlest niece suddenly barfed an impressive quantity of half-digested pizza down the back of his shirt.

"Yeah, I am," Clint said, though he wouldn't deny it had taken him a day or two to adjust to the strangeness of family life. It was a good strangeness, though. He looked over at Phil, who was turned away from him, and already half-asleep if his breathing was anything to go by.

"Good," Phil said drowsily. "Because I've already been ordered to bring you back for Christmas."

Clint laughed and said, "Well, I wouldn't want to get you in trouble," because he had no doubt where that order had come from. "I'm really glad I'm here," he confessed a minute later. Whispered, just in case Phil was already asleep. Or maybe in case he wasn't.

~*~

The newly-minted Avengers go out for a drink together after the press conference officially introducing them to the world, some place with a VIP room where they order expensive booze and discuss which reporter was the biggest asshole about the whole thing. Clint gets kind of drunk, feeling safe with Natasha right there with him, and burned out from the effort of keeping a poker face while he sat on a stage watching Phil's dream come true without Phil there to see it.

Steve sits down next to him at one point and tries to have a serious discussion, which is the last thing Clint wants when he's deep into their second bottle of tequila.

"I lost someone, too," Steve says, but Clint already knows that. Clint lived with Phil Coulson. There are probably things Clint could tell Steve about his own life that even Steve doesn't know.

Clint just nods and tries to look like he appreciates the gesture. "So if you ever need to talk…" Steve trails off, and Clint nods again, though hell will freeze over before he ever does any such thing.

The truth is, Steve Rogers, with his big blue eyes and his earnest fucking face, isn't helping at all. It doesn't make Clint feel one bit better to see him sitting there, straight-backed and strong-chinned, looking so pulled together, despite what he's been through. Looking like nothing can touch him.

Clint remembers feeling like that, a long time ago. He's still trying to figure out how to get it back.

~*~

Clint woke up tied to a makeshift cross in some damp hellhole, naked from the waist up, and unable to see through his left eye. The eye was the most worrying part of it, because he needed his eyes—needed both of his eyes—to do his job. His hands twitched futilely as he instinctively tried to touch his face, find out if his eye was just swollen shut, or.

Or gone.

Best not to worry about it now. Instead, he tried to think back and figure out how he'd gotten here, and as he focused, it slowly came back in disjointed pieces. Texas. They were in Texas, just him and Phil, taking out a target. That part had gone off without a hitch, that much he knew. Something had obviously happened on the way to the rendezvous point. Something Clint couldn't remember. He had what looked like burns on his chest and torso, so maybe an explosion? A fire?

Didn't matter. He had to find a way to get loose and then he had to find Phil and then some motherfuckers were going to be very, very sorry.

Before he could do more than wiggle against the knots holding his wrists, the door opened and a man Clint recognized as The Patriarch walked in, followed by two sibling criminals Clint had seen once or twice on surveillance footage, known as Big E and Little E. This was bad news, because the woman Clint had just killed, a notoriously vicious weapons expert, was rumored to be romantically involved with The Patriarch.

The Patriarch was a short, slight, bald man in wire-rimmed glasses and an immaculate gray suit. He was also a murdering scumbag who was incredibly good at evading capture or neutralization. As far as Clint knew, no one from any law enforcement agency had ever seen him in person and lived to tell about it. There was a first time for everything, though.

Clint had just enough time to brace himself before The Patriarch strode across the room and grabbed a fistful of Clint's hair, bending his head back until his neck muscles screamed. He was surprisingly strong for a guy who looked like he never lifted anything bigger than a pen all day.

"Where is the kid?" he shouted into Clint's face.

It was not at all what Clint was expecting, and he let his confusion show. "What kid?" His neck was bent at such an extreme angle it was hard to talk.

Clint winced as The Patriarch tightened his grip. "Don't be stupid. I know that less than five hours ago you put an arrow through Blaise's heart. I also know my son was with her. Where is he?"

"I would never hurt a kid, man," Clint choked out. Just the thought of a little boy being there when he'd taken Blaise out turned his stomach. All he could picture when he thought about kids was Phil's little nieces. He wouldn't hurt a kid.

Just before he thought he might lose consciousness again, The Patriarch let him go, hissing his displeasure as he stepped back. "He's playing dumb," he told his minions as Clint sucked in a couple coughing breaths. He jerked his head toward the door. "Go get the other one," he said, and then hit Clint with an almost indifferent backhand that split his lower lip open. "And be prepared in case he won't talk to me, either."

Clint probed the inside of his lip with his tongue and rolled his neck from side to side as The Patriarch took a restless turn around the room, tugging at his shirt cuffs, regaining his composure. When he spoke again, he was much calmer, and his tone implied he was doing nothing more complicated than ordering lunch. "If you tell me where my son is, I'll let you go."

Clint didn't believe that for a second. "There was no kid," he said again. "She must have stashed him. We wouldn't take a kid!"

"You would do anything to get to me," The Patriarch said, with a small smile. "We all know that." He made a show of taking his glasses off and polishing them with his handkerchief as the door opened and Little E brought Phil into the room.

Phil's hands were tied in front of him with his own necktie. His suit coat and shirt were gone, his undershirt smudged with soot and blood, but he didn't look much worse for wear otherwise, so the blood probably wasn't his; his hair was barely messy.

"Hey, Coulson," Clint said cheerfully, pretending his cut lip didn't sting like hell. "Fancy seeing you here."

"This one doesn't want to talk," The Patriarch said to Phil, gesturing toward Clint with his glasses before fastidiously placing them back on his face. "Maybe you can change his mind."

"I doubt it," Phil said mildly. "He's not that good at following orders." That was actually a lie, but Phil always liked to say that when they were being held hostage.

"That's unfortunate for you," The Patriarch sighed, and Phil's head snapped back as The Patriarch's elbow caught him on the underside of his jaw.

He worked on Phil for a while after that, mostly his face, until he was swaying on his feet and drooling blood. Little E held Clint's head up the whole time, forcing him to watch. Then it was Clint's turn again.

"You're idiots. Both of you," The Patriarch said a little while later, when he'd hit Clint so hard his knuckles split. He was sweating and breathing hard, his suit coat discarded, shirt sleeves rolled up. It was hard work torturing people. "You'll die for nothing, and your government won't even care. They'll send your wives flags and medals."

"I don't have a wife," Clint said, through a wet grin.

"And now neither do I," The Patriarch said, and hit Clint right in the solar plexus, then went back to Phil while Clint writhed against the cross, trying to breathe. When he finally managed to take a couple wheezing breaths, he hung limply against the ropes, focusing on the burn in his shoulders, the numbness in his hands, instead of Phil's groan of pain when The Patriarch kneed him in the stomach.

"Thanks a lot, Barton," Phil bit out.

"Anytime," Clint said. He thought he was doing a pretty good job of pretending he didn't care what they did to Phil.

Or maybe not, because The Patriarch cast a speculative glance back and forth between them. "Give me your knife," he said to Little E, holding out his hand like a doctor waiting for a scalpel.

Little E's knife had a thin, pointed blade. Small enough to hide easily, but big enough to make you feel it if someone used it on you.

The delicate blade slipped easily between two of Phil's ribs and he let out a startled "Oof!" When the knife came out, he slid to his knees and slowly collapsed in crumpled heap while Clint watched, powerless to do anything, or even let on he cared. Phil curled in a ball on the ground and pressed the inside of his arm to the wound as best he could, but Clint could see the blood seeping into the material of his shirt, spreading bright red.

"Go see if your sister is ready for us," The Patriarch said to Little E, and the smirk that crossed Little E's face as he left the room made Clint's blood turn to ice. Big E was rumored to be a specialist in the field of electricity.

"You have one last chance to tell me where he is," The Patriarch said as he came to stand in front of Clint.

"I already told you: I don't know," Clint rasped. He could feel blood running down his chin; he focused on that so he wouldn't be tempted to look at Phil.

"Suit yourself," the Patriarch said with a shrug. "You're a soldier, he isn't." He gestured behind him with the blood-slicked knife. "This one is weak, and now he's bleeding, and eventually he'll tell me what I want to know."

Clint tipped his head back against the rough wood of the cross and let out a hoarse laugh as Phil rose up behind The Patriarch, tied hands clenched around one of his own shoes, and the fourth most-wanted drug kingpin in the world went down like a ton of bricks when Phil hit him behind the ear with three hundred bucks of Dolce & Gabbana.

~*~

It's days before they get a chance to be alone, and Clint tries to act like he's not going out of his mind, like every time he looks at Phil, he doesn't see blood coming out of his mouth.

There are a lot of examinations and interviews and endless on-the-record statements and also a few off-the-record conversations to be dealt with before they can go home, where Phil's parents are waiting with tearful hugs and cake. Clint unashamedly eats two pieces, and then finishes Phil's, too.

When they're finally alone, they sneak into the bedroom and kick off their shoes and kiss on the bed for a while. It takes a lot longer than usual for their clothes come off, both of them still a little raw, and more careful with each other than usual; Clint's not even sure he wants to see what's under Phil's shirt.

Lust eventually prevails, though, and eventually they're skin-on-skin, Clint trying not to wince when his scraped elbows rub against the sheets. Phil kisses Clint next to the stitches above his eye and says, "Close one," and Clint runs his thumb down the center of Phil's chest and then along the curve of his lowest rib. When he thinks about the blade—

"Stop it," Phil says sternly, and pushes his tongue into Clint's mouth so Clint can't even tell him to quit bossing him around.

He kneels on the floor and sucks Phil off, begging forgiveness the best way he knows how, and Phil cups his hand around Clint's ear, more gently than he needs to, and tells him all the things he's going to do to him once they've got their feet back under them, when all their wounds have healed.

Clint swallows around him when he comes, hot and throbbing, forcing himself to take more so he can pretend it's the pressure in the back of his throat making his eyes water. He pulls off, gasping, and presses his forehead to Phil's heaving chest for a minute while he composes himself, letting his breathing fall in time with the rhythm of Phil's heart. Just the gentle thud of it under his face is enough to make his fingers tighten on Phil's thighs, an urge to hold on that he can't seem to quash.

Phil's grabs him under his arms and pulls until Clint clambers up into his lap, suddenly desperate to be touched. He whines into Phil's shoulder when he strokes him, and comes with Phil's voice in his ear, telling him it's okay, they're fine, they're going to be just fine.

Later, Phil cups one hand around the bruise on Clint's hip and works him open with the other, nipping at the inside of his thighs when he thinks Clint is starting to drift. Clint has a tendency to get a little pleasure drunk, and usually Phil encourages it, and seems to enjoy watching him drift along, moaning helplessly and looking up at Phil through barely-open eyes, but not this time. He keeps pulling Clint back just as he's about to tip over into the place where it's all feeling and no thinking.

Clint's not allowed to not think tonight, it would seem, even though that's exactly what he wants.

"I'm sorry," Clint says into Phil's neck, as Phil shifts his hips to find the angle he wants and settles over Clint on his forearms.

"It wasn't your fault," Phil says, sliding a little deeper. His hand finds Clint's and presses it down onto the bed next to Clint's ear. He rocks his hips, and Clint forgets he wants to argue that point.

Phil refuses to fuck him any faster or any harder, no matter how breathlessly Clint begs, no matter how greedily he arches up for it, no matter how desperately he moves his own hips. Phil thrusts into him slowly, over and over again, fingers clenching Clint's so tightly it almost hurts. It feels like it takes forever to come, and then forever to make his hands stop shaking afterward. Even longer to make his mouth stop saying Phil's name.

"I'm sorry," Clint says again later, just before he falls asleep, desperation sneaking in to fill the spaces where his mind is finally still. He mashes his face Phil's shoulder blade, digs his fingers into Phil's hip a little too hard. "Don't go away. Don't ever go away."

"Never," Phil says. His hand closes over Clint's, gently holding it there, not desperate at all. The calm to Clint's storm, as always. "Never."

~*~

They watched the last game leading into the semi-finals at Phil's house, hunched over cardboard cartons of Chinese food, yelling at the TV because the Rangers had to win in order to advance and they just weren't acting like they wanted it badly enough.

The Rangers won the game, and after a few celebratory high-fives, Phil leaned over and slid his hands up under Clint's T-shirt, and they kissed. Clint, who was several weeks past the point where he'd decided it was actually okay for him to sleep with both his teammates, said, "Finally. Jesus Christ."

The Rangers went to the playoffs, and Phil fucked Clint into the mattress for the first time, on a rainy Sunday morning. "God, you feel so good," Phil murmured as the headboard banged against the wall, two cups of coffee cooling on the table next to the bed, Clint's increasingly urgent pleas lost in the pillow.

The Rangers won the Stanley Cup, and Phil asked Clint to move in with him.

Clint said no.

~*~

Clint plans ahead. He requests a few days off, buys a plane ticket, and takes his suit to the cleaners, because Phil loved seeing Clint in a suit. Even though he was always more comfortable in jeans and a T-shirt, Clint had to admit that Phil's reaction to the suit was worth with hassle. Phil is still worth the hassle.

Despite the planning, Clint almost doesn't make it. He and Natasha nearly get killed when an informant turns on them, and spend two days slogging through a swamp before SHIELD can scoop them up. They both earn a few days of medical leave that make Clint's scheduled vacation days unnecessary, and about two dozen stitches between them.

When he finally gets to Arlington, Phil's parents are there, arms around each other, heads bowed. He almost trips over his own feet before he regains his composure. Virginia is a long way from Florida, but they wouldn't miss this, so he isn't all that surprised they're here; it's the shock of seeing them for the first time since Phil died that throws him off balance. Like Clint, they're dressed up, as if it's a funeral all over again.

They fold him into a group hug and everyone cries a little, mostly Phil's dad. Clint is expecting anger or bitterness—he's only made their pain worse, he supposes, with his silence—but there is none. There's only warm acceptance, relief that he's okay, and love. Still love. These are the people who made Phil, Clint remembers all over again, feeling stupid that he's so stunned they haven't given up on him, and aren't going to give up on him, for not being perfect.

"I’m sorry," he chokes out, and for the millionth time or so wishes he'd died instead. "It was my fault." He's never said those words out loud to anyone until now, not even Natasha. It feels good to get it out, even if they'll never know how literally he means it.

Phil's dad takes Clint by the shoulders and looks him in the eye, shakes him gently. "We know if you could have done anything to save him, you would have," he says, and Clint has never felt so ashamed and so unworthy of anyone's faith in his entire life, and that's saying something. "Don’t blame yourself."

But there's no one else to blame, is there?

Phil's dad hugs him again, a tight, painful hug, and Clint clings to him like a little kid, feeling broken open and miserable. He doesn't make a peep when Coulson Senior squeezes his sore ribs too hard, or when Phil's mom bumps his fresh stitches as she kisses his forehead. He's too grateful to care.

Just when they start to separate themselves, all of them trying to talk at the same time, a big black SUV pulls up. Unbelievably, Fury gets out of it and walks across the grass toward them. Clint turns to face him, angry and embarrassed. Everyone's been on his case to do something to honor Phil, and now he is and they won't let him do it in peace.

Fury stops a few feet away. Behind him, two more SUVs pull up behind the first. Somewhere, Clint can hear a helicopter.

"Agent Barton," Fury says, and gives him a curt nod.

"Director Fury." He won't reach up and wipe his eyes. This is what Fury came to see, isn't it? Clint Barton in mourning. Suffering, doing his penance.

Several more SUVs pull up, and a dozen or so agents get out and stand on the edge of the grass, arms crossed over their chests. It's a goddamn party at Phil's grave. Fitting, given the day.

Fury turns his attention to Phil's parents. "Mr. and Mrs. Coulson." He reaches out to shake hands. "I'm sorry to intrude, but I need a moment of your time," he says.

The Coulsons give Clint a quizzical look, but he just shakes his head. He has no idea what's going on. After a moment of hesitation, the two of them start to follow Fury to his SUV, but Clint balks.

Fury pauses mid-stride and lifts an eyebrow. "Barton?"

"Not interested," Clint says. He and Natasha just spent two days belly-crawling through reeking mud, picking leeches off each other when they stopped to rest, so he could be here today. He's not leaving. Whatever medal or certificate they've decided to award Phil this time can go home with his parents, like all the others. Clint lives in a house full of things that were Phil's when he was alive; he has no use for the ones he's earned in death.

For a moment it looks like Fury is going to argue, but finally he just shakes his head and walks away, muttering under his breath. That at least is normal.

Coulson Senior puts his arm around his wife's shoulders, and glances back at Clint as one of the agents smoothly opens a rear door for them. Fury climbs in the passenger seat and nods at the driver, and Clint feels a moment of unease as he watches the truck drive away with Phil's parents inside. Something is off, but he doesn't know what.

One by one, the other agents load up and drive away.

Leaving Clint alone with Phil's grave.

~*~

"Too soon?" Phil asked, a few days after Clint told him he didn't want to move in with him. They were all alone in the Helicarrier mess, somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, which was probably a weird place to have a serious relationship talk, but it wasn't news that they weren't like other people.

Clint was tempted to lie and say yes, but Phil deserved the truth. "No, that's not it," Clint began, and then his nerve suddenly deserted him. Phil waited patiently, sipping his coffee, until eventually Clint had no choice but to explain himself. "It's just that—this'll go bad eventually and it'll just be easier if we're not living together, you know?"

"How do you know it's going to go bad?" Phil asked him. He set his cup down and turned his full attention on Clint, which was either the thing Clint loved most or hated most in the world, depending on the situation. He wasn't loving it now.

Clint shrugged and dropped his wadded up napkin on the table. "It always goes bad."

Phil nodded, like he understood, and Clint figured that was that. Conversation over. The mess was kind of a depressing place to break up.

Then Phil pushed his chair back away from the table, and shifted a little, so he was facing Clint dead-on. "Every other relationship you've had has gone bad, but none of them have been with me. You can't predict what will happen with me."

"Yes, I can," Clint said, smirking. Phil didn't always know everything. "Because all of my relationships have a common denominator: me."

Phil leaned forward, his clasped hands hanging between his knees. It was an unusual posture for him, one so rare Clint didn't know what it meant, only that it must mean something.

"Do you want this to work?" Phil asked him.

"Yeah. Yeah, I do," he admitted past the lump in his throat. Because he did, goddamn it. But that didn't mean it would.

"All right, then." Phil cupped his hands over his knees for a second and then stood up, buttoning his jacket, smoothing his tie. Like everything was normal.

"Are we done?" Clint asked, hating himself for wanting to know. "I mean, you and me—are we done now? Because I don't want--"

"Of course not," Phil said, and Clint's relief was so great he had to force himself not sag back against his chair.

Three days later, a stack of file folders appeared on the table in Clint's Helicarrier quarters. The files themselves were unusual enough, because SHIELD almost never used paper for anything anymore. That they were in Clint's quarters, and obviously left there by Phil, was even more puzzling.

He sat down on the bed and quickly flipped through them, a little surprised to find they weren't related to anything Strike Team Delta was currently working. Instead, what he held were makeshift files, incomplete records pieced together from print-outs of documents in the massive SHIELD database. Most of them contained only summary reports, maybe a letter of commendation here and there, from missions Clint and Phil had gone on together over the years.

Each folder was labeled with the op name, in Phil's precise handwriting. Operation Anvil. Operation Glacier. Some really early ones like Bumblebee and Neptune, and then the one where they brought Natasha in: Valkyrie.

Clint didn't have to read the reports--he remembered the ops. He spread the files out on his bed and looked at them, going over them in his head, remembering close calls and bullet wounds and a few times when he thought one of them was going to bring the other home in a body bag.

Every one of the missions in front of him had gone bad in some way, forcing them to improvise. Sometimes, Clint did things that would have made any of his prior handlers scream with frustration or recommend he be pulled from active duty, but every time, Phil backed his play. Other times, Phil did things that seemed downright suicidal, and Clint followed along right behind him, without hesitation. Together, they did some crazy shit, like rigging a doorknob to electrocute anyone who tried to follow them, and jumping out of an airplane together with only one parachute.

And in every one of those instances, they made it. They came back alive. Together.

Clint lay back on his bed and stared at the ceiling for a while, but there wasn't really much to think about. After a few minutes, he got up and grabbed his duffel bag out of the cubby above the desk, and started packing his candy bars.

~*~

Clint's not the kind of guy to talk to a grave, so he doesn't. He just kneels in the grass and stares at the grave marker and thinks about all the stuff that’s happened since Phil died. Some of it's huge, like the Avengers, and some of it's small, like the way the oven, always finicky, finally gave up the ghost and just plain stopped working right in the middle of baking Clint's frozen pizza. It's the small stuff that hurts the most, he finds.

Other people have been here recently, if the collection of mementos left behind is any indication. Clint sifts through the pile, curious. There's a Rangers travel mug, a small bouquet of flowers, an empty beer bottle, and an Avengers logo pin. What finally gets to him, what makes him have to cover his eyes with his hand, is the handmade card addressed to "Uncle Phil."

It didn't even occur to Clint to bring anything. He's arrived empty-handed, except for his grief and a hopeless desire to turn back the clock. But he supposes almost everyone comes here bearing those.

After a while the black SUVs come back, even more of them this time, and Clint studiously ignores them, save a quick glance over his shoulder to make sure Phil's parents have returned. They get out but don't come over, simply stand next to the open door of the truck and wait as SHIELD agents swarm around them, looking up at the sky and holding their fingers to their earpieces. The helicopter is back.

Clint doesn't understand what all the heightened security is for, unless they think he's going to finally lose it and go on a rampage, but that seems unlikely. If the telepath had found something that morning, they never would have let him off the Helicarrier. Whatever's going on, he's offended by the spectacle. He just wanted to visit Phil's grave, because it seemed like it was time. It seemed like he was ready. But if he'd thought he'd get a bit of that closure everyone talks about, he was wrong. There's nothing here but more heartache.

He can see the SHIELD agents, silent guys in dark suits, in his peripheral vision, fanning out around him. Behind his left shoulder, one of them keeps coming, closer than the rest. That's the one Clint would probably punch, if he could bring himself to care enough. Phil's parents are still hanging back, holding on to each other, giving Clint a few last moments of privacy. It's appreciated, but he's done everything he came here to do, except one last thing.

He stands up, wincing where he's stiff and sore, and brushes the grass off his knees. Maybe he is the kind of guy who talks to a grave after all. "Happy birthday, Phil," he says.

And from behind him, Phil says, "Thank you."

The End