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Things To Do in Portland When You're Not Really Dead

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The morgue is cold and lit only with a pale blue light when Clint drops down from the ceiling. It reminds him too much of Loki, that immeasurable time spent in blissful obedience, and it makes him sick to think, to remember what he'd done on Loki's command. That's a huge part of the reason he's here. Phil's death might not have been at his hands, but it's in his ledger all the same, no matter what assurances Natasha tries to give him.

The others had wanted to come with him. None of them trusts Fury and seeing a body's the only way to know Phil is actually gone. They'd argued about it, the six of them, the way they're probably going to argue about most things when the world isn't falling apart in front of them, and each and every one of them has a good reason for wanting to be here. To see the proof of Coulson's death for themselves.

The Avengers is a group of cynics and skeptics. Clint wonders if Fury realizes exactly what he's got on his hands without Coulson around to rein them in: six dysfunctional personalities with enough combined technical know-how, questionable ethics, brains, brute strength, and training to do considerable damage if they wanted to. Clint knows Phil's a master at making orders feel like suggestions and managing to make you feel like you did a good job even when he's dressing you down for something stupid. But Coulson's not here.

Clint had won the argument, or at least he'd yelled loudly enough the others had backed off when Clint said, "I'm the one going, and that's fucking final!"

His winning probably had something to do with the bow in his hand, although he doesn't remember grabbing it, and with the tears Natasha said were falling off his cheeks. He doesn't remember that either, but he's got no reason not to trust Nat about this. It's Coulson, and he was their handler, the three of them a team to be reckoned with for years. And before Tasha came along, he was Clint's handler and maybe that's enough.

Maybe there's a hell of a lot more to it, but Clint's not ready to think about that.

He steels himself in front of the drawer the records indicate houses Phil's body and offers up a prayer. It's habit more than anything, ingrained by the nuns at the orphanage, and Clint's not sure he even believes in God, but if Phil's life can somehow be bargained for, a prayer is a small price to pay. He'd get down on his knees and beg if he thought it would bring Phil back.

He closes his eyes and slides the drawer open, met with a familiar rush of stale air from the refrigerated unit, and Clint's spent too much time with the dead. This is why he tells himself to keep his distance from people, and every time, he fails. Distance was supposed to keep him safe, stop this dull ache in his chest from ever happening again, but distance wasn't something that separated them so much as something that defined them for so long: two voices on a comm link, an extra set of eyes on high, a back-up gun for an empty quiver.

The drawer is stainless steel, antiseptically clean. And empty. Just to be sure, Clint checks every other drawer, faces the rest of the dead, some of whom are here because of his flawless aim. He wishes he had time to apologize, but there are more important things: he can't save the dead. When he comes up with the thirteen other bodies that are supposed to be there, and not one of them is Coulson's, there's only one thing Clint can think.

Nick Fury is a lying son of a bitch.

*

Phil can hear the low, soothing sounds of a cello being played before he reaches the door of the small blue house. He pauses on the front step and lets the music roll over him like a wave. It pushes some of the worry away, and Phil knows coming here was the right decision. He hadn't been given a lot of choices, but Fury seemed to approve of this one. (Of course, what Fury thinks he knows about Phil's personal life and what he actually knows are two entirely different things.)

Phil's hesitant to ring the bell, but the notes are slowing anyway, and he knows his scent has probably been caught. As if to confirm it, the music stops altogether. Phil waits.

The door opens to a face that's familiar and friendly.

"I do have a doorbell, you know, Phil," Monroe says, giving him a once over. Phil sees the minute twitch that probably means Monroe's caught the scent of the wound, although Phil had been straight-up with him about everything on the phone. Well, almost everything.

"I hated to interrupt," Phil says honestly, and Monroe's smile guarantees Phil will have personal cello concerts for as long as he stays in Portland.

Monroe reaches out to take Phil's suitcase, and Phil lets him. He doesn't have anything to prove, and his left arm is in a sling anyway. Loki's jab did a number on his body, inside and out, and Phil will be grateful when he can move without feeling exhausted after walking ten feet.

The house looks exactly as Phil remembers it from the last time he was here. Maybe six months ago, or a little longer. Phil reaches out and runs a hand fondly down the curve of the cello, its wood still warm from where Monroe's leg had been resting lightly against it.

A bottle of beer swings in front of Phil's face, then withdraws. "Wait, you're probably still on meds, right? Can you drink this?"

Phil finds himself licking his lips, and he really wants to lie because Monroe has excellent taste in micro-brewed beer, but he shakes his head. "I'm not supposed to, no, but I really, really want to."

The bottle's quickly whisked out of Phil's sight and he's presented with a glass of water. Phil makes an effort not to sigh.

"That sucks, man," Monroe says, flopping back into his easy chair and taking a drink from his own bottle. "So what gives?"

Phil looks at him steadily. "I told you on the phone. I got stabbed. Work decided I needed some enforced R&R, so I came to visit. You're always telling me I should."

"Yeah, I am, and it's good to see you, but you rarely come by, and only when you're already in the area on business anyway." Monroe doesn't seem upset by it, just curious. "So what's different this time?"

"I told you—"

"Phil." Monroe's tone says the bullshit isn't appreciated, and Phil sighs.

"It's classified."

Monroe just laughs, and Phil relents. He wouldn't have come here if he wasn't prepared to tell Monroe something, and Monroe knows it.

"I was dead," Phil says, trying his best to sound like this sort of thing happens all the time. "I was stabbed through the chest with a magical staff wielded by a Norse god. It seemed like a good idea at the time to use my death as a catalyst to convince our people to start acting like a team and go save New York, and probably the world, from an alien invasion. Which they did," Phil adds proudly. "Except by some miracle I didn't die and the team still thinks I'm dead. Work hasn't quite figured out what they want to do about that yet."

Monroe takes a thoughtful swig of his beer. "Sadly, that's not even the strangest thing I've heard this week, man."

Phil laughs because Monroe's not being facetious, he's obviously telling the truth, and Phil's suddenly stupidly grateful that his friendships run to the bizarre. He's not sure he could cope with normality right now.

"The spare room's ready for you. Why don't you hit the hay? You look awful," Monroe points out. "We've got time to catch up while you're here."

Phil gets to his feet, muscles stiff and joints protesting. He feels like a much older man, and if someone doesn't clear him to start working out again within a week, he thinks he's going to go nuts.

"Monroe? Thanks."

"Not a problem, Phil. Get some sleep."

Being here means Phil will get a decent bed, good food, and someone who cares enough to pay attention, but who's smart enough to know when not to push. It's why he and Monroe have gotten along in spite of their somewhat inauspicious beginning. It's also why Phil knows he can avoid saying much tonight, but in a few days, Monroe's not going to be letting him get away with that shit.

And maybe, Phil thinks, that's part of the attraction of this particular port. Monroe's not big on self-deception, and doesn't indulge it in other people. Phil knows he's got some hard decisions to face, and it might help to have a friend who'll push him to get to the truth without judging him for how hard that is to do. If nothing else, Phil knows Monroe will call him on his bullshit without a thought, and right now Phil needs someone to be straight with him even if the answers aren't things he wants to hear.

In some ways, Monroe's not that different from Clint Barton, and Phil allows himself a smile at that thought. It's hard to practice self-delusion when you spend most of your time around Natasha and Clint. They're both too perceptive and they tend to wield honesty like a blunt object. Phil's borne the brunt of that honesty in the past, but he's never been able to fault them for it. They're just as brutal with themselves and each other, and on some level, Phil knows it's a privilege to be part of their inner circle of two.

Phil climbs the stairs slowly. The guest room's neat and well-suited to his tastes. It will be a good place to recover; it might even be a chance to think through some of those things that have been weighing heavily on Phil's mind for ... well, years, in some cases.

But not tonight. Tonight Phil sheds his suit and washes himself down with cool water. He slips between crisp white sheets that smell faintly of lavender. He closes his eyes and mercifully, finds sleep.

*

Clint hasn't slept in two days. Not really. At least not for any substantial length of time or with any degree of real restfulness. He dozed off for maybe ten minutes while pouring over classified files he and Nat had liberated from Fury's office, waking up angry and stiff, his neck muscles aching from the odd angle at which he'd fallen asleep.

"You have to sleep sometime," Natasha says, staring at him across the table they've been using to sort through the stolen files.

"I'll sleep when we find what we're looking for," Clint says sharply, grabbing a file folder he knows he's already read three times. There has to be something that will tell them where Phil is. Fury won't and everyone else believes Phil is dead.

They're in Stark's lab/workshop in the tower because Tony says it's the safest place around with the tightest security measures. Even if half the building needs repair after the Chitauri attack, Clint trusts Tony on this, mainly because he recognizes the look in his eyes. The one that says no one messes with his people; somehow between going to war together and discovering Fury lied to them, Clint, Natasha, and Phil—maybe especially Phil—became Stark's people more than SHIELD's. Clint doesn't have any problem with where his current loyalties lie.

The lab's interior walls are glass because Stark's an exhibitionist at heart, and Clint catches sight of Pepper making her way down the stairs with a tray of what appears to be sandwiches. He goes to open the door for her, ignoring Natasha's smirk.

"Shut up," Clint says, as he walks by Tasha. "She's nice. Too nice to be with Stark."

"Oh, thank you, Clint, you're so—" Pepper's got her hip pressed against the glass door when Clint reaches her and pulls the door the rest of the way open, extricating the tray of food neatly from her hands. "—sweet, I can see why you and Natasha—"

Clint almost drops the tray. "There's no me and Tasha," he stammers. "Not like that."

Pepper looks mildly embarrassed, and Clint feels his cheeks flush. Nat's the only one who seems to be enjoying herself as she laughs.

"I think Clint was always a little afraid I'd kill him after I slept with him," Natasha says. She nods her thanks at Pepper for the food, and starts assembling a plate.

"Would you have?" Pepper asks, eyes wide.

"Probably." Natasha takes a bite of her sandwich, chewing thoughtfully. "So, it's much better this way."

"Yeah," Clint says. To be honest, he'd always suspected Natasha's Black Widow moniker was well-earned, and not just because she assassinated high profile men, leaving their wives to grieve. "I prefer relationships where I don't die."

"You prefer relationships where you pine pathetically from a distance," Natasha says, not quite quiet enough for anyone to miss. If Pepper hears the comment, she politely ignores it, and Clint refrains—barely—from throwing the cheese knife at Tasha's head.

Clint's not sure if Pepper's used to meals where knives are thrown, and he doesn't really want to upset her. He settles for glaring daggers in Nat's direction. Pepper seems so proper and professional with her simple navy dress and her neatly bound hair. She's standing confidently on five-inch platform heels, handing over chilled drinks and linen napkins to the two assassins working in her boyfriend's lab, as if she does this every day. Clint finds her oddly intimidating. He can see why she and Phil got along.

"Oh my God," Pepper says suddenly, a hand flying to her mouth. "Phil's cellist! Has anyone told Phil's cellist Phil's not dead?"

Natasha and Clint exchange looks, but it's Natasha who asks the question they're both thinking: "Phil's cellist?"

Pepper drops down onto a lab stool beside Natasha. "Yes! He'd told me he was seeing a cellist from Portland."

"Oregon?"

"Yes. I mean, I think so." Pepper seems to be searching her brain for relevant details. "He would've said if he'd meant a different Portland, don't you think?"

Natasha's already setting her plate aside and tossing file folders into haphazard piles. "Could be a cover story. A safe-house, maybe. Code?"

Clint's nodding, all thoughts of food forgotten. "Phil's mother played the cello, but she's been gone a long time. Could be family, though. A relative."

"Wait, wait, what are you talking about?" Pepper's on her feet again, looking between the two of them with a frustrated gaze. "Isn't it just possible he has a girlfriend who's a cellist in Portland?"

"It's possible," Natasha concedes, carefully not looking at Clint. "But we've known Phil a long time, and neither of us has heard of this before now."

"It's the only real lead we've got," Clint acknowledges, telling himself he won't even care if they find Phil shacked up and alive with some cellist in Portland. He'll deal with it. The important thing is Phil's alive. Somewhere.

Pepper seems to take stock of the situation all at once, and a fraction of a second later, she's issuing commands.

"JARVIS, are you still able to access the SHIELD records I'm not supposed to know that Tony hacked into?"

"Of course."

"I want you to cross-reference any files related to Phil Coulson, searching for instances of the words cellist or cello, Portland or Oregon."

There's a moment of silence, just long enough for Clint to be aware his heart is beating a little faster than usual, and he's been holding his breath without even realizing it. Across the table from him, he can see Natasha with the same look of cautious hope on her face that Clint knows he's wearing.

"Cross-referencing complete. Shall I compile a report?"

"Just tell us what you found," Clint says without thinking, forgetting for a moment Stark's AI doesn't take orders from just anyone.

"JARVIS, tell us," Pepper repeats, and the AI complies immediately.

"In files referencing Agent Philip Coulson, there are 28 instances of the word cello or cellist being mentioned, 463 references to Portland, 2700 references to Oregon, 132 references specifically relating to Portland, Oregon. But—"

The three of them lean forward, and Clint thinks only a computer programmed by Tony Stark would pause for dramatic effect.

"—there are only 2 files that reference all the requested words."

"Send those files to the lab computer," Pepper says, already walking over to where a screen is flickering to life. Natasha and Clint crowd in beside her. "And please tell Tony to come down here immediately."

Pepper taps the screen and the page zooms in on an address in Portland, Oregon.

"Tell him we might have found Phil."

*

Phil wakes up the same way he has since Loki stabbed him through his left lung two weeks ago: chest tight with anxiety, fingers scrabbling at the thick bandages, his breath coming in panicky gulps. He's learning to get himself under control faster, but Phil could do without the morning freak-out. He doesn't remember his dreams, but he doesn't really have to; it's painfully clear what sort of nightmares have been occupying his subconscious thoughts.

It's only a little after six-thirty in the morning, but Phil can hear the squeak of equipment downstairs, so Monroe's probably doing his Pilates. Phil allows himself a small smile at Monroe's expense. When SHIELD's doctors had originally told him they were prescribing a regime of diet, drugs, and Pilates to help Monroe control the Blutbad impulses, Phil had figured the drugs were the key and the rest was the medical team being the health-and-fitness crazy people he knew them to be. They kept trying to get Phil to do Tai Chi for his stress levels, after all, but he tended to take the meditative postures to their natural conclusion as martial arts moves. That turned out to be less restful than the doctors had intended.

However, Pilates and yoga have managed to withstand the test of time for Monroe, even when medications have outlived their effectiveness. He seems happier and more stable than Phil has ever seen him, and given the way Monroe's life could have gone after SHIELD got hold of him, that's some kind of miracle. The cello had also been part of the therapy that stuck, and which ultimately has been a shared pleasure for both of them.

Just as Phil is considering the slow process of getting out of bed, there's a knock on the door, and Monroe sticks his head in.

"I know you're a stubborn son of a bitch, Coulson," he says, stepping inside the room and crossing over to the bed, "but I'm a big believer in letting people help when you need it."

Phil sighs and reaches an arm up around Monroe's broad shoulders, letting himself be raised to his feet. It takes only a few seconds, and Phil knows the strain on his stitches is considerably less than it would've been trying it himself.

"Thanks," he says, grudgingly.

Monroe takes one look at Phil's unhappy face and laughs. "I've got a friend you'd like. Nick. Half the time he's on my doorstep demanding help and advice; the other half, he pretends he can take the world on by himself."

"How's that been working for him?" Phil asks, already suspecting the answer.

"A whole lot of people want him dead."

Phil isn't even a little bit surprised.

*

"Maybe JARVIS made a mistake," Pepper offers as they stare at the onscreen files. She immediately turns the speakers off to shut out the indignant response from the AI.

There's a 2001 mission report that's so carefully-worded, Clint's positive Phil didn't give SHIELD the full story—he probably didn't even give them half the story. Clint can't remember seeing a mission brief that's less than a page long in ... well, ever, and this is maybe 150 words, tops. Clint's usually pretty good at reading between the lines when it comes to Phil, but this time he's got nothing. It reads like a report that's been redacted, but without all the annoying black lines to tell you there's something missing.

"What the hell's a Blutbad?" Clint asks.

"Nothing good," Natasha says, shaking her head and giving Clint the same kind of look she generally reserves for when they're about to face hyper-intelligent killer robots or mind-controlled dancing bears with razor-sharp claws. "It's German for 'bloodbath.'"

"That's just awesome," Clint says. Phil's "cellist" appears to be either a serial killer of some kind, or possibly a werewolf given the things hinted at but never said, and Phil cared enough about the guy to at least attempt to shield him from ... well, from SHIELD.

Tony shows up and peers over everyone's shoulders at the screen.

"Huh," he says. "Phil's cellist has a beard?"

*

"Come into the kitchen and I'll make you some coffee," Monroe offers when Phil makes his way downstairs in khaki pants and a polo shirt. Monroe looks comfortable in jeans and a well-worn green plaid shirt. "You can tell me what new ass-hattery the Stupid Half-Assed Incredibly Egotistical Long Damn name people—"

"S.H.I.E.L.D."

"—ah, that's it—have been up to besides getting you killed and shuffling you off to the northwest when your death didn't take."

Phil follows carefully, accepting a chair as Monroe starts pulling out mugs and grinding beans.

"Did you sleep, Phil?"

"Some. Can't say I've been sleeping all that comfortably."

"A punctured lung and deceit will do that to a man." Monroe leans back against the counter while the coffee starts to drip. "Come on. You're clearly not happy with the situation. I get the 'secret' part of being a secret agent, but this is your team, right? They deserve to know you're alive."

"It's not my call," Phil says stubbornly, even though he doesn't like it. He's an agent. He understands the importance of following orders, the need to put personal feelings behind things like national security and the goals of the mission. He long ago gave up the idea that he's anything more than a small cog in the grand scheme of things. What he wants doesn't matter.

Monroe sighs, and shakes his head. He starts pulling out breakfast things. "Man, do you really think no one cares? That no one's back home grieving for you? I can't believe that."

Phil shrugs. "Most of the people I know are agents. People I work with. They understand sacrifice and secrecy are part of the job."

"That's bull, Phil. It doesn't make losing someone any better or any easier."

It's true. Phil knows it, but he can't change the situation. Not only did he promise Fury he'd stay on the down-low until he was recalled, but Phil's signed a ridiculous number of non-disclosure agreements in his time. His life—and his death, apparently—are going to be on SHIELD's terms, and unless Phil truly wants to disappear permanently (as only government agencies can manage), he'll be sticking to the terms of those agreements.

Besides, Fury assures him the team is keeping a low profile themselves at the moment, and he's promised to update them on Phil's situation when they call in. "Of course," the director had said, "I doubt very much any of them are going to show up on our radar any time soon, but when this immediate crisis with the World Security Counsel has passed, they'll be brought up to date as soon as it's feasible."

In the meantime, Phil has to trust the director knows what he's doing.

Monroe slides a cup of fresh coffee across to Phil, and proceeds to whip up a batch of pancakes that are better than anything Phil's ever tasted. They chat about neutral subjects: the Portland Winter Hawks and the Trail Blazers, Monroe's latest antique clock find, the book club he's in. It's all very superficial and they both know it, but Phil's grateful for the reprieve.

Monroe hands Phil a set of keys to the house and the Beetle, shows him where the bike is if Phil wants to check out the park or the neighborhood, and writes down his cel number and another number with 'Nick' beside it.

"If there's any trouble and you can't get in touch with me, call Nick. Or call Portland PD and ask for Detectives Nick Burkhardt and Hank Griffin." Phil raises an eyebrow, and Monroe flashes a teasing grin. "Yeah, yeah, you can take care of yourself. Says the man who got killed last week. Forgive me for taking precautions."

"You're not actually anticipating trouble, are you?" Phil asks, committing the names and numbers to memory.

Monroe shrugs. "Portland's a weird town, and it's getting weirder all the time. Especially now that we've got a Grimm."

"A what?"

"A Grimm." Monroe's smile promises a good story. "I'll tell you all about it tonight over dinner. Just take it easy today. Try to remember you're not running at 100% capacity yet."

"I'll try."

"And I'll try to remember to keep my mouth shut about things that aren't my business."

"What would be the fun in that?" Phil says. "I came here knowing full-well you'd ask the hard questions, say the things I didn't necessarily want to hear. Everyone needs a friend who's brutally honest."

"Thank you, I think." Monroe pulls a light jacket on and laces up his boots. "If there's anyone you want to call—"

"I can't." Phil shakes his head. "Not yet anyway, but I appreciate the offer."

He waves goodbye as Monroe heads out with a page-long list of errands, then locks the door behind him. If Phil's honest with himself, there are only two people he really needs to get in touch with. Two people who've already had too much loss and too much betrayal in their lives, and Phil hates to think he's added to that tally. He knows it's not fair to let Barton and Romanov continue to believe he's dead, and he doesn't quite understand the director's reluctance to come clean on the matter, but Phil's never known Fury to be deliberately cruel, so he has to trust the director has his reasons.

Phil hopes they're worth it.

*

Stark offers to fly them directly to Portland, but it's Natasha who insists on the road trip.

"You're pissed off, you're hurt, and I'm not convinced you're capable of being rational right now," Tasha says, and Clint glares.

"I don't want to be rational! Two people I trusted have lied to me about something I consider pretty damn important."

"Do you mean Phil's death or his relationship status?" Natasha stands with her hands on her hips, watching Clint throw clothes haphazardly into a duffel. "I understand; I do, Clint. But right now, airport security will take one look at you and start checking 'America's Most Wanted' and the FBI watch list. Two words: cavity search."

"We'll take a Quinjet."

"We'll have to file a flight plan. Fury will be notified. If he moves Phil, we might not find him again."

"Then we'll steal the fucking jet, Nat, or hey, file a false flight plan. We're spies. We've got this."

"Fury won't hesitate to turn us over to the FAA, and you know what they're like."

Clint shivers. Yeah. They need to avoid falling afoul of the FAA if at all possible.

"So why can't we just take Tony up on his offer to fly us to Portland right the fuck now?"

"Because Iron Man is monitored the moment he takes to the air, as is every other piece of tech Stark has. You know Fury's got eyes and ears on all of us. He's not about to let us too far off the leash, no matter what he says. Especially you and me. We're still SHIELD. He owns us."

"Jeez." Clint scrubs at his face. He's flushed, and his hair is sticking up like a pile of hay. He catches a glimpse of himself in the dresser mirror, and Natasha's not wrong. He looks like a man who's ready to murder someone, which isn't how he actually looks when he's about to kill, but perception beats reality any day of the week and Clint knows it. "Everything's so fucking screwed up right now."

Natasha drapes an arm around his shoulders and pulls him down to sit beside her on the bed. "I know."

"Phil's alive."

"Yes."

"In Portland, Oregon."

"Yes."

"With a—a cellist. A bearded, very male cellist who may or may not be some kind of werewolf-like creature." Clint drops his face into his hands. If it were anyone other than Natasha, he wouldn't be acting this way, but she's seen him at his best and his worst, and she's known about his crush on Coulson forever. "How is this my goddamn life?"

Beside him, Natasha shrugs. "I don't know. But we've got to stick around another couple of days to see Thor leave with Loki, and then it's only a few days drive to Portland. If we go right now, it's going to be like Dublin all over again."

Clint winces. Dublin was ... yeah, Dublin was very, very bad, and Clint has since tended to listen to Natasha's advice when it comes to his own stupid feelings. Particularly where Phil's concerned. She's generally a much better judge than he is. He really doesn't want a repeat of Dublin. No one wants a repeat of Dublin, especially not Dublin itself.

"Clint, Phil's not going anywhere, at least for a little while; not unless we spook him into running. The last thing we want to do is tip our hand when we don't know exactly what's going on."

"Sure we do. Phil and this cellist are going to live happily ever after in freakin' Portland, probably raising musically-inclined mutant wolf babies with slightly receding hairlines."

Natasha cuffs him in the head gently, swearing in Russian, and Clint feels her arms wrap around him even as she's muttering, "you idiot!" at him. She's right, of course, but Clint doesn't care. He lets his head fall to her shoulder, lets himself be angry and jealous, abandoned and grief-stricken. Lets her hold him, and hold the world at bay, if only for a little while.

It's not enough, but it's something.

*

Phil doesn't actually get the story of the Grimm at dinner like Monroe promised. He doesn't even get dinner unless you count the drive-thru cheeseburger Monroe throws his way with a rushed apology, but Phil finds himself riding shotgun—literally—in a Volkswagen Beetle at two in the morning. He's pretty sure his doctors would not approve, but he doesn't plan on telling them. It's the first time he's felt like himself since the stabbing, and he's tempted to stick his head out the window and howl.

"It's okay," Monroe says, glancing across at him with the biggest, stupidest grin Phil's ever seen, as if he knows exactly what Phil's thinking. They're bumping along in the Beetle down some backwoods road through the fog following a vague and somewhat cryptic message left by Monroe's police detective friend Nick. "I totally understand the urge."

Phil laughs and laughs, and it's almost as good.

*

It's three days before Clint and Natasha can get on the road, and Clint lets Natasha deal with the team in the meantime. He doesn't have the energy or the patience to field all their questions when he doesn't have any answers himself, and the more he thinks about Phil and the cellist in Portland, the angrier he gets.

He's putting the last of their stuff in the back of the Acura TL when he hears a noise behind him. It's Pepper. She's obviously got something on her mind because she dives right in the moment she sees she's got his attention, not even waiting for him to stumble through "hello."

"You know, Phil and I had lunch every few months when he could manage to find the time."

Clint feels his stomach clench and his fists wrap themselves into tight-knuckled balls. He's not sure he can handle any more revelations about Phil's personal life right now. He doesn't realize he's closed his eyes until he's opening them again, and Pepper's two steps closer, reaching for his clenched hand.

"No, no, no," she's saying in the kindest tone imaginable. "Phil's a friend. He listens to me complain about Tony, and I get that he probably claims the lunch expense under 'intelligence gathering' or something like that, and has to file a report, but I also know I can trust him. If he hasn't contacted you and Natasha, he believes there's a good reason for it."

"That's kind of you," Clint manages to say.

"No, you don't understand." Pepper steps right into his space where Clint can't avoid her eyes. He's figuring this is probably how she deals with Tony. "He only ever mentioned the cellist when I asked if he was seeing someone. Never once did Phil mention him first. I didn't even know it was a him. The people he did talk about were you and Natasha."

Clint doesn't try to hide his surprise. The thought of Phil chatting away about them over a high-class lunch with Pepper Potts seems vaguely unreal.

"Clint, you and Natasha are Phil's family. He canceled our last lunch because you'd been hurt on a mission, and he wanted to be there."

Clint nods almost without thinking. That would've been right after he'd caught a round from a rival sniper. Coulson had been waiting at medical when they brought Clint in, and he'd been there when Clint woke up in recovery. Phil was always there when it mattered.

"What are you saying?" Clint asks, his voice hoarse.

Pepper's face is knowing and sympathetic. "Let him explain. We're not always so good at showing how we feel about the people we love. Just give him a chance to explain. I don't think he'd hurt you like this deliberately, not if he could help it, and not without a good reason."

Natasha clears her throat politely. Pepper leans in and hugs him, a quick press of hands on his shoulders, the brush of her lips against Clint's cheek, and then she's walking away, wishing them luck and safe journey. Natasha shuts the trunk, fishes the car keys out of Clint's front pocket, then gives him a shove towards the passenger side.

"I'm driving," she says. "Get in."

Clint doesn't bother to argue.

*

After almost ten days at Monroe's, Phil's gotten to like the early morning routine. Well, he can live without the nightmares, but he's got experience with those at least; he knows they'll stop eventually. They always do.

Monroe's a first-class cook, provides coffee that makes Phil's toes curl in the best possible way, and when they're not tearing off into the night on crazy missions, things are pretty quiet. It's a little like home in a scaled-down way. Plus, the SHIELD-approved doctor at Portland General has certified Phil's okay to start most normal activities again.

"No hand-to-hand combat and really, running isn't going to be an option for a while, so try to avoid situations where you might need to flee at more than a slow jog, but otherwise, I think you're good to go."

Dr. Regina Garr is young, bright, and efficient, and her sense of humor is something Phil thinks SHIELD medical could do with a little more of. He gives her his card and tells her to call him if she ever wants a change of scenery.

"And give up all this?" she asks, glancing around at the chaos of the emergency room. She's a trauma specialist, and when she'd agreed to check on Phil's recovery, she'd done so with the stipulation that it not interfere with her regular work or availability. So Phil had come to her.

"I can promise you even bigger and better traumas," Phil says, completely serious.

"Sweet talker! You know just what a woman wants to hear."

"I really don't," Phil admits on impulse, coloring when she gives him an evaluative glance and a small nod that makes her dark curls bounce. "But I do keep my promises."

"Okay," she says. "I believe you. I'll think about it."

She does a quick scan of a patient's chart, accepts the syringe a nurse is handing her, and gleefully jabs the patient in the arm. The man, strangely enough, thanks her. Phil thinks she might actually have a chance of keeping Barton in line in medical, and that would make her some kind of miracle-worker. Phil really hopes she decides to give him a call.

So with Dr. Garr's blessing, Phil starts biking in the mornings, keeping the pace leisurely. He's a tourist here, after all, so he might as well enjoy being able to take life slow for a little while. Monroe's happy to direct Phil to a nearby gym with reasonable rates and a law enforcement discount, and Phil lets concentrating on getting his strength back take over his thoughts, pushing everything else to the back of his mind.

He's just come back from a five mile ride and is about to hop in the shower when the doorbell rings. Monroe left a note about running out to grab the best pastries in the city, so Phil turns off the tap and pulls his cycling shorts back on. Maybe Monroe's locked himself out or has his hands full. Both have been known to happen—this week, in fact.

"Did you forget your key again?" Phil asks as he opens the door, but it isn't Monroe at all. The man's probably in his early to mid thirties, Caucasian with dark hair and striking blue eyes. He does a double-take when he sees Phil.

"You're not Monroe."

"Neither are you."

They stand staring at each other for minute, Phil cursing himself mentally for not grabbing his t-shirt too. He feels vulnerable with his scar visible and it must show because the other man pulls his eyes away from the stitched flesh and meets Phil's gaze.

"I'm sorry. You've got to be Phil. I'm Nick Burkhardt."

"Of course," Phil says, extending his hand, then waving Nick inside. "I was on my way to the shower. Monroe should be back any minute."

"Pastry run?" Nick asks.

"Yes. How'd you know?"

"It's Thursday around eleven. It's practically a ritual."

"So you're here for pastry."

Nick laughs. "I guess I am. And coffee. Monroe always has the best coffee."

Phil nods his agreement. Nick seems to know his way around, so Phil excuses himself. He takes the quickest shower possible, and by the time he's dressed, he can smell fresh coffee. There's the sound of low voices downstairs.

Phil stops at the bottom of the stairs when he realizes Nick and Monroe are in the living room, and Monroe's pressing an ice pack to his head. There's a cut on his cheek and bruising around his jaw.

"What happened?" Phil asks from the edge of the room. Nick's kneeling in front of Monroe, peeling the wrapper off an antiseptic swab. He dabs gently at the cut on Monroe's face, his own face a study in anger.

"Lausenschlange," Monroe says as if that explains everything.

"Lousy snake?" Phil frowns. His German's a bit rusty. "Is that one of those things we ran into the other night out in the woods?"

"Wait, you know about those?" Nick gets to his feet, sounding shocked. "Is he Wesen?"

Phil doesn't know that word, but he's suddenly keenly aware of Nick's eyes on him, staring with a fixed intensity, until Monroe slaps Nick on the leg and says, "Down, boy. He's human just like you." When Nick doesn't move, Monroe pulls the icepack away from his face and looks up at him expectantly. "Nick, sit down. Phil's one of the good guys. He helped me save your sorry ass the other night; if you hadn't been unconscious at the time, I would've introduced you. I'm sure you would've told me to pass on your thanks."

"Thanks," Nick says without a hint of gratitude, continuing to stare at Phil as if he's waiting for something. He doesn't look convinced even with Monroe vouching for Phil. "How does he know—does he know about ...?" Nick makes an indecipherable gesture and looks to Monroe for confirmation.

"I know everything," Phil says because sometimes he likes being a complete ass, and he hasn't had anyone to mess with in a few weeks. Nick Burkhardt seems like he could be a lot of fun to wind up and watch go.

Monroe shoots Phil a glare even as he catches Nick's wrist and tugs him onto the couch.

"Phil's just fucking with you, Nick."

"I thought you said he was one of the good guys."

"He is." Monroe shoots Phil a half-hearted smile. "Doesn't mean he isn't occasionally an asshole. He got stabbed in the chest by a Norse god a couple of weeks back, and he's still kind of cranky."

Phil notices Monroe hasn't let go of Nick's wrist. Interesting.

"Did you say a Norse god?"

"Loki, Thor's brother." Phil points to his chest, and Nick obviously remembers the scar. The information's supposed to be a kind of peace offering. Phil doesn't like seeing Monroe roughed up, and he's never been fond of snakes. HYDRA's always been overly enamored with the serpent motif, and these Lausenschlangen seem to be exactly the kind of recruits HYDRA would look for. Phil has a feeling his recuperation period is about to be cut short.

"Do you know what they wanted?" Phil asks with a nod toward Monroe's bruised face.

Monroe shrugs. "It was a warning. 'Stay out of our affairs or there will be dire consequences.' The usual."

"This is because of me," Nick says, looking guilt-stricken, and the man seems so much like Clint Barton at that moment, Phil feels something in his heart clench. He turns away and tries to get himself under control.

"It's not your fault." Monroe's set the ice bag down and has turned to face Nick, holding him in place with two big hands on his shoulders. "I'm perfectly capable of making my own choices, Nick, and choosing to help you is not something I'm ever going to regret. So stop blaming yourself, okay?"

"Why would you think it was your fault?" Phil asks.

He has to do something to break the awkward moment—awkward for him, anyway. He's always seen Monroe as a kind of lone wolf (flattering himself for the private joke), but the look in his eyes as he reassures Nick suggests Phil's misread the situation. There's obviously more between them than a simple friendship, and Phil suddenly wants nothing more than to be back in New York, back at his job with the people he cares about, where his one-sided and completely inappropriate feelings for Clint Barton are par for the course.

Nick seems flustered. "Because I'm—I'm a—"

"A cop?" Phil tries. It makes sense Nick would be seen as a threat, and Monroe's friendship with a cop probably hasn't made him a whole lot of friends considering the crowd Monroe used to hang with .

"No," Nick says, taking a breath and looking to Monroe, who nods. "I'm a Grimm."

*

If Clint had his way, they'd be driving in six-hour shifts with minimal stops for food, gas, and restrooms. According to Google Maps they could make it in about forty-eight hours of driving. Instead, Natasha's been insisting on regular meals not eaten in the car and motels at night.

"I'm beginning to think you don't want to find Phil after all," Clint says after they've checked into yet another folksy inn somewhere in Wisconsin. "It's not even dark yet! We could get in another four hours of driving easy."

"No."

Clint picks up the closest item within reach, which turns out to be the television remote, and throws it at the wall where it comes apart in a shower of black plastic, drywall dust, and "AA" batteries.

"We could've been there by now, Tasha."

"And what would that have accomplished?" Natasha gives the broken remote a pointed look. "Are you planning on throwing Coulson against a wall?"

Clint honestly has no idea what he's going to do when he sees Phil again. Part of him wants to take the man and shake him, yell at him for doing this to the team, to him. But there's another part of Clint that wants to wrap his arms around Phil in a way he never has and just hold on because Phil's alive and nothing else matters. Except there's also the damn cellist, and just thinking about the brown-haired bearded man from the mission report photo makes Clint feel like throwing something again.

"I don't know what's going to happen," Clint admits, a little shaky. He sits on the edge of the bed beside Natasha. She pats his leg as if in understanding.

"That's why we're doing it my way."

*

"What's a Grimm?" Phil asks.

"I am," Nick replies, and Phil's sure he means it to be helpful but it's really not.

"He's a direct descendant of the Brothers Grimm, Phil. All those stories they wrote? They weren't so much fairy tales as they were a record of things they'd encountered. Hunted. They took it upon themselves to rid the world of things they thought were ... evil."

Nick looks embarrassed by his family legacy, and he's quick to point out times have changed. "I'm not a fan of killing people, and I don't agree with the Grimms' 'certain types of creatures should be automatically put down' policy." The look he gives Monroe tells Phil all he needs to know about what the Grimms would have thought of being friends—or potentially more—with a Blutbad. "I'm a cop, and I've tried very hard to keep the two things separate, but it's not always possible."

"Especially when people keep trying to kill him."

"Why do they want to kill you?" Phil asks Nick.

"There's an order called the Grimm Reapers." Nick checks to see Phil nodding at the familiar term. "Well, they're literally the reapers of the Grimms. As my ancestors took on the task of keeping order in the creature world and meting out death as they saw fit, the Reapers provided their own sense of justice by killing Grimms and their descendants."

"Except Nick's not that kind of Grimm," Monroe adds. "Look, Phil, my parents used to scare me with stories about the Grimm when I was a kid. They're the bogeymen of the Wesen—creature—world. I never thought I'd meet one, and if I did, I didn't think I'd live through it."

"So, you're a kinder, gentler sort of Grimm?" Phil can't help the smirk.

Nick rolls his eyes, but some of the tension's gone out of the room. "My aunt—she's the person I inherited this legacy from. She died last year and that's when I started being able to see ... things."

"Ah," Phil says. He knows the sort of things Nick's talking about. He can imagine how startling that would've been. Phil remembers feeling a little like he was going crazy the first time he saw Monroe's Blutbad side, but that was a long time ago.

"Can he see you?" Nick's staring at Monroe, questions in his eyes. "How can he see you if he's human? You said—"

"I said it's too much for most humans to handle. Phil and I met under really unusual circumstances, and—"

"And I'm not most humans," Phil finishes.

SHIELD hadn't exactly prepared him for someone like Monroe, but Phil had learned early on to take the believable with the unbelievable and treat them both the same unless shown otherwise. It had served him well in a world with superpowers and magic, meta-humans and experiments gone wrong.

"Maybe you'd better fill me in," Nick says.

There's a hint of something that sounds like jealousy in the tone, and Phil does his best to keep the smirk off his face. If Nick's got a problem already, he's going to have an even bigger one after the story of how Phil met Monroe.

This should be fun, Phil thinks.

*

Portland, Oregon, 2001

Phil hated the woods, or at least he hated these woods in particular. They were like the ones you saw in scary cartoons as a kid or in horror movies, full of half-dead trees with spindly branches that snag at clothing and hair. Phil was starting to think the trees were moving their damn roots around—he'd never tripped so many times trying to walk through a forested area, and it wasn't even full dark yet.

Of course, the drugs HYDRA's goons had pumped him full of before he managed to escape probably had something to do with his lack of coordination. And possibly why the trees sometimes seemed to have red, glowing eyes.

Phil blinked. Nope, the eyes were still there. He turned and looked in a different direction, stumbling onward. He knew he should probably stop and try to hide from the HYDRA agents on his trail, but they were too close. He couldn't give up the small lead he had on them, and he seriously didn't think he had the coordination at the moment to climb a tree.

He stopped for a minute to breathe and get his bearings. Well, to breathe anyway. The trees were tall and leafy, allowing only partial glimpses of the moon and a few stars. Not enough for Phil to figure out his directions, and as near as he could tell moss grew on all sides of the damn trees, not just the north one. It also appeared to grow on rocks, which made them slippery in the damp, foggy woods, and falling on rocks, even moss-covered ones, hurt like hell, so that was no help at all. If he could, Phil would go back and give his Scout leader what for.

Oh, and there was also the small fact he was apparently bleeding—quite badly, really—from a stab wound in his thigh. Phil used his belt to cinch the thigh above the injury, trying to limit the blood loss. The sleeve of his dress shirt was sacrificed to bind the wound as best he could. Pretending it didn't look like a skeletal arm reaching for him, Phil snapped off a dead branch. It wasn't much of a walking stick, but it would have to do.

He trudged deeper into the woods.

*

"You do realize, I was the red glowing eyes you kept seeing, right?" Monroe interrupts.

"Well, I didn't at the time, but yes, I figured that out, thank you."

"And moss is usually thicker on the north side of the tree, assuming the other three sides get greater sun exposure, but most people don't have the experience to be able to—"

"Do you want to tell the story?" Phil asks.

"Would you two like a moment alone?" Nick's grinning, his whole face lit up with amusement.

"No." The answer is in stereo, and Nick offers to make coffee (and get Monroe a fresh ice-pack), which seems to dissipate the slight tension in the room.

"He seems like a good man," Phil says, when Nick's gone.

"He is," Monroe agrees, eyes directed fondly towards the kitchen for a moment before settling back on Phil. "You should really consider calling whoever you left behind."

It's only Phil's training that prevents him from starting at the implication. "You mean my team?" he says carefully.

"No, I mean, the person you left behind. The one you're tying yourself in knots over because you can't stand the thought he might be hurting because of you." Monroe levels his sharp eyes at Phil. "I've seen you reaching for the phone and stopping yourself. I know there's someone, Phil. It's your archer, isn't it? That's who it's always been."

"We're colleagues, that's all. Nothing's ever—"

"It doesn't change the way you feel." Monroe sounds sure about that, and Phil suddenly understands the looks, the casual touches, but the lack of anything obvious.

Phil drops his voice a notch. "It seems as if it's mutual, Monroe. Why aren't you—"

"Nick's got a fiancée. He's had so much upheaval in his life—his aunt dying, suddenly learning he's a Grimm and everything that entails, people trying to kill him. He needs a friend, and I can give him that. If there comes a time he's ready to admit he wants more, well, I'd give him that too. But I like Juliette—she's a good person and she's good for him. I'm not willing to be the one to mess that up."

Nick returns then with a fresh ice-pack for Monroe and checks how Phil takes his coffee.

"Black as the woods at night."

Nick snorts with laughter. "You are kind of an asshole; I can see why Monroe likes you."

"You're lucky he didn't say, 'black as your cold, dead heart.' That's another personal favorite."

"No one forgets how I take my coffee," Phil points out, accepting a steaming mug from Nick. "So, shall I continue, or do you want to pick up the slack, Monroe?"

"Go ahead. I'll chime in if you miss something."

Phil has no doubt he will.

*

Portland, Oregon, 2001

Between the bleeding and the disorientation, Phil knew his chances of evading the HYDRA agents were slim, but he knew if he didn't get help soon his chances of surviving the night were nil. He didn't have a transmitter or a flashlight or a weapon, not even a packet of matches, and it was getting colder by the minute. At least it wasn't winter, Phil thought, trying to stay positive. (There really wasn't much of a bright side to the situation.)

Of course, it was then he tripped over another one of the goddamn tree roots and tumbled down an embankment, landing on a combination of hard earth and river-smoothed stones beside a dry creek bed. He could hear the shouts of HYDRA agents in the distance. It was likely they'd either seen his silhouette drop out of sight, or heard him cry out when he hit the ground. Either way, there wasn't much time left, and Phil tried to pull himself together enough to lift his head and get moving again.

He couldn't do it. Moving made his vision swim, and he felt on the verge of throwing up. Something was angling toward him through the bush around the creek bed, something moving cautiously, unlike the HYDRA agents who were making no secret of their progress through the woods. Phil could hear them shouting to each other.

"Stay still," a voice said from a few feet away, and Phil didn't have much choice but to obey. He couldn't make out more than a shadowy form bent low in the brush. A man's voice.

"Can you help me?" Phil asked. "I'm a government agent. The men chasing me are ... well, they're not good men."

"Yeah, I've had some experience with them myself."

"Then help me. Please."

There was a pause, and Phil thought the man must be afraid, and Phil didn't blame him. If the man knew anything at all about HYDRA, then he knew they would kill both of them without a second thought.

"Okay, but man, you have to not freak out on me."

Phil thought it was a strange thing to say, especially considering even with his wound and being chased through a forest, Phil was the epitome of calm.

"I don't freak out," Phil said, mildly offended, but when the man came closer, Phil had to blink a few times to clear his vision. The drugs must have affected him more than he'd thought. For a moment, it looked as if the man had red eyes. And a really full beard—more like his face was furry, and that was a strange thought. The hands reaching to lift him up were also very hairy. Maybe this guy was some kind of mountain man, Phil thought, but honestly, he was too far gone to be fussy about the help he was getting.

"I think I'm going to pass out now," Phil told the hairy man, and there was a soft chuckle.

"That's probably a good idea."

When he regained consciousness, Phil was somewhere else entirely. It seemed like a small cave, perhaps, and there was a small fire lit. Phil lurched to a sitting position.

"Put it out," he ordered in a harsh whisper, picking up a handful of dirt and throwing it towards the fire. The dark silhouette on the other side of the fire moved equally fast, scrabbling around the edge to grab Phil's arm with a hairy hand. Claw. Paw. What the fuck?

Phil was wide awake now, and the man—Phil wasn't sure if that was the right term anymore—holding on to him was far more than a mountain man with overgrown facial hair. Now that he was really looking, Phil could see the angles of the face were more sharply defined, narrower through the cheeks and jaw, and that the ears, visible through the man's brown hair were more pointed, like an animal's, and lightly furred. His eyes glinted in the firelight with a wild red tinge.

"You promised you wouldn't freak out."

Phil frowned. "I'd hardly say my behavior constitutes 'freaking out'. If anything, I think I'm taking it rather well."

There was a laugh, and then, "Yeah, I guess you are." The "creature" across from Phil sounded like a perfectly ordinary American male, and as Phil stared at him, the creature withdrew the hand that was holding Phil's arm and retreated back into the shadows.

"The fire's going to call attention to us," Phil said, trying not to sound disapproving.

"There's no one left to notice."

Something in the man's tone made Phil take another look. He was naked from the waist up, his chest, arms and back brown with fur, and Phil realized the man's shirt was draped around his own shoulders. It was some sort of plaid. There appeared to be traces of blood on it, but not much, and it was a little damp in spots as if someone had made an effort to wash the blood out.

"I can't say I'm sad to see them go." Phil let out a deep breath. "But I'm sorry you had to ... dispose of them. I gather you've had some experience with this before?"

"Some."

Phil tried to ignore the glint of teeth in the firelight. He was positive he hadn't been saved only to fall prey to something worse. He didn't feel unsafe or in danger, and everything the man had done so far had been to minimize the amount of Phil's trauma. Phil had stayed alive so far in this business by trusting his instincts, so he wasn't about to stop now.

"I'm Agent Phil Coulson with SHIELD. Can I ask what you are?"

"The more polite question would be 'who are you?', but under the circumstances, I'll let it go. Name's Monroe, and I'm a Blutbad."

Phil knew enough German to know "blood-bath" wasn't likely to be a good thing.

Monroe must have registered the understanding on Phil's face because he leapt in to explain immediately. "It's an old term, it's not necessarily an accurate one, at least not most of the time, although I can see you might be wondering about that at this particular moment since I did kind of eliminate your HYDRA problem." Monroe leaned forward a bit, and Phil could see the frustration on his face. "Think of it as being a bastardization of the 'big, bad wolf' from the fairy tales. A wolf is the closest thing to what I am."

"A were-wolf?"

"Why does everyone ask that?" Monroe sounded annoyed. "Is that somehow more believable than me saying my true nature is a wolf? Silver bullets and infectious bites are more glamorous? Seriously?"

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to offend you."

Monroe waved it away. "No, it's fine. You have to understand, though, usually I don't look like this. I'm a normal guy and the only people who should be able to see me like this are the ones I want to be able to see me, and that's a select population."

Phil was surprisingly glad to hear that. "So, what's changed? Full moon?"

Monroe seemed about to launch into the "not a werewolf" speech again when he caught Phil's grin.

"Oh, fuck you," he said mildly. "The people chasing you, they've been—" Monroe looked away. "They've been experimenting on people like me, people who aren't so much people as they are something else, and trying to bring out the worst traits of our creature sides. They implanted something that doesn't let me revert to normal, and the stress of trying to maintain human behavior when the wolf is pulling the strings ... well, let's just say, we should try to get you out of here as soon as possible. The smell of blood isn't the best thing for me to be around."

Phil's eyes were drawn to his belted thigh, the shirt sleeve dyed with blood. "Where's the implant?"

"In my back. Believe me, if I could've torn the damn thing out myself, I would've already done it."

"Do you have a knife? Sharp. Something I could use to take it out?"

Monroe looked skeptical. "Look, dude, not that I'm not happy for the offer, but quite frankly, we just met and I'm not sure I trust you enough to let you go digging around under my skin with a pocket knife."

"I trusted you," Phil pointed out.

"You didn't have a lot of choice, although I'm still not sure why you're not freaking out. Generally people don't cope well with accidental exposure to this side of me."

Phil shrugged. "I work for the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division—I see a lot of weird stuff."

"You look like an accountant."

"It's my secret agent disguise." Phil grinned before growing serious again. "Now show me where you think the implant is. We can't take the chance it might also have a tracker built into it."

"Shit, I hadn't thought of that, but it makes sense. I've gotten away before, but they always seem to track me down." Monroe reached into his pants pocket and withdrew a knife that had formerly belonged to a HYDRA operative, handing it to Phil. Then he very deliberately turned his back to Phil, stretching a hand around to point at the general area where he thought the implant would be.

Phil moved closer, letting his fingers gently map the area beneath the covering of hair, checking for scar tissue or anything unusual. It didn't take long before the small ridge of a scar rose beneath his fingertips.

"Are you sure?" Phil asked, dipping the blade into the flame to make it as sterile as possible under the circumstances.

"Yeah," Monroe said, and didn't make a sound when Phil pressed the knife into his skin.

*

"Are these guys—HYDRA—still around?" Nick asks, getting to his feet. He sounds like he's about to storm out the door and round them up. Phil can't help but think of Clint. There's another man with a protective streak a mile wide and not a whit of common sense when it comes to his self-preservation.

Monroe's already making soothing noises in Nick's direction. "It was over a decade ago, Nick. You were barely out of the police academy, and I was still the big bad wolf. Although I was starting to get tired of it. I wanted a different life, some control over it, and Phil happened to come along at the right time with the right kind of offer."

"And what kind of offer was that exactly?" Nick asks.

Phil takes in Nick's defensive stance, his positioning between Phil and Monroe. It's sweet in a way, and Phil suddenly feels for Monroe. Nick obviously cares about him a great deal, but Phil knows that's not always enough. Not with fiancées and expectations and responsibilities dogging at your heels.

Phil resists the overwhelming urge to be an asshole. "An offer to help him manage the wolf, if that's what he wanted. Which it was."

Monroe nods, gratitude evident on his face. "And I've never regretted it, Phil. Not ever."

*

Portland, Oregon, 2001

Removing the tracker turned out to be a relatively simple thing, although Phil didn't like the way Monroe had gone pale and sweaty when Phil finally produced the chip on the end of the knife. Monroe lifted the offending device from the tip of the blade and proceeded to grind it to a fine electronic pulp beneath the handle.

"Thank you."

"Can you change?" Phil asked, but Monroe shook his head.

"Not quite yet. Near as I can tell, the implant produced some kind of neural blocker, so it's going to take a little while before my body registers it can shift again. Sorry."

Phil shrugged. "No problem. I've kind of gotten used to you being exceptionally hairy."

As if on cue, Phil shivered, and Monroe added another handful of small branches to the fire. Just enough to keep it burning.

"We should get some sleep," Monroe suggested. "There's no point trying to navigate these woods at night, and no one's going to be looking for us until first light. The bleeding seems to have stopped. I think we'll both survive a few more hours."

*

"And that's really about it," Phil says. "When dawn broke, Monroe had shifted back to fully human, and we managed to find our way to a ranger station for help. I brought him into SHIELD medical, and in exchange for some very useful intel on HYDRA's Portland base, the team came up with a regimen that seems to help suppress the blood-lust."

"And I've been a Wieder Blutbad ever since. Mostly." Monroe gives a boyish grin and shrugs. "Nobody's perfect."

"What happened during the night?" Nick asks. He sounds suspicious, and Phil almost sighs with how not a surprise this is. He didn't honestly expect to get away with being able to skip the end of the story, and from the look on Monroe's face, he's not alone.

"You want to take this part?" Phil asks, although he knows Monroe wasn't quite in his right mind for part of that night.

"No, you're doing fine. Finish it."

*

Portland, Oregon, 2001

Phil woke up shivering in the dark, the realization that the fire had gone out only one of the things that hit him all at once.

"Monroe?" he asked, sensing another presence in the dark a few feet away. He felt the implicit need for caution.

The voice that came back to him was more of a growl than Phil was expecting.

"Something's wrong. The implant—removing it did something," Monroe said.

"What kind of something?"

"I feel—I feel ... wild. Like I could rip someone apart and it would feel wonderful."

The only thing that stopped Phil from getting up and running for the entrance to the cave was knowing he'd never make it.

"Well, since I'm the only one here, Monroe, I'd really rather you didn't."

"You think I don't fucking know that, Phil?" Monroe sounded like it was taking everything he had not to launch himself at Phil. "I've been sitting here for the last ten minutes smelling your blood and imagining what you'd taste like."

"That's not a euphemism, is it?" Phil asked calmly, and the surprised laugh he managed to startle out of Monroe was all he needed to know. "If it's not, then I imagine I taste like beef, but I've got too little body fat to be all that desirable as a meal."

"Fuck, Phil, you're insane."

"I trust you. I've trusted you since the moment I met you, Monroe. You're not going to hurt me."

"You met me less than six hours ago, and I've killed four people since then."

"'Yes, but they were all bad'," Phil assured him in his best Arnold Schwarzenegger accent.

Monroe let out a slightly hysterical bark of laughter, and Phil's eyes had adjusted to the point where he could see Monroe's outline in the dark from the small amount of moonlight the cave entrance let in. He still appeared to have wolfish features. He was holding himself rigidly against the cave's back wall, obviously trying not to act on the impulses coursing through him.

"You're not going to hurt me," Phil said with what he hoped sounded like complete confidence. He moved slowly in the direction of Monroe's shadow.

"What are you doing?"

"I'm trusting you."

"Phil, don't—don't come any closer. I don't know if I can control it."

Phil ignored the advice and kept moving. He'd seen sloths move quicker than he was going, but he knew Monroe needed the time to believe what Phil already knew. Monroe wouldn't hurt him. Phil knew that, and if he was wrong, well, it would be the last mistake he ever made.

"I'm freezing and you're furry, so start making yourself useful, Monroe, and keep me warm."

"You have got to be fucking kidding me, man!" Monroe's voice shook. "Do you have a death wish? What part of 'I'm jonesing for your blood' did you not get, Phil?"

"The part where it's you, Monroe." Phil had reached him and he tentatively laid a hand on the shoulder closest to him. Monroe flinched, but didn't pull away. "Fuck, you're warm."

"That's called blood-lust, Phil. I'm sure you've heard of it."

"I don't care. You're warm and I'm freezing. Stop holding out on me and share the warmth."

"Jesus Christ, Phil," Monroe said, having no choice but to open his arms as Phil insinuated himself into Monroe's space. "I don't want to hurt you. Or worse."

"You won't," Phil murmured soothingly. "You won't, Monroe. You saved my life; you're not going to hurt me now. I trust you. Relax."

And the stupid, amazing thing was Phil was telling the truth. He did trust Monroe, strange as it might seem. He felt a connection to the other man. Maybe it was because they'd somehow saved each other, but whatever the reason, Phil wasn't about to let Monroe go through this alone. Not when he could offer something that might help—his trust.

Monroe was still in there, battling the wolf. Whatever toxin had been released when the implant was detached, whatever surge of hormones it had set off, wasn't enough to entirely suppress the man and allow the wolf free reign. It was that fact Phil was counting on to keep him safe. Monroe wasn't a killer. He didn't want to be controlled by the wolf, and he would do everything he could to prevent that from happening. Phil was betting his life on it.

Phil maneuvered the two of them down onto the firm ground, wrapping himself around Monroe's warmth. Monroe was taller and broader than he was, but Phil moved him easily, another sign Monroe was allowing Phil a hell of a lot of latitude despite his warnings for Phil to stay away.

"Phil," Monroe whispered, his nose pressing against Phil's hair and inhaling sharply. "This is a bad idea. A really, really bad idea."

Phil could feel every inch of Monroe tense against him, every hard inch, and honestly, maybe the thigh wound and the blood loss were having a contributing effect, but Phil didn't care much. Monroe smelled like the woods, earthy and dark. He was warm, sort of plush and cuddly, yet inherently dangerous, and Phil liked that combination in a man. It did things to him. Not to mention the way Monroe was slowly starting to kiss Phil's ear, working his way down to Phil's neck. He could feel Monroe's pulse jump when his tongue licked across Phil's jugular.

"I trust you," Phil said, feeling the scrape of teeth along his neck, followed by a soothing lick. "You won't hurt me."

"You're fucking insane."

"Not yet, but I will if you want me to," Phil grinned at his own inappropriateness, and Monroe bit him on the shoulder. Hard enough to leave a mark, but not enough to make him question his judgment.

"Yeah," Monroe panted as Phil started unbuttoning his trousers. "You're crazy, but I trust you too."

*

"Okay," Nick interrupts suddenly, and honestly, Phil had kind of forgotten he was there. Monroe's staring back at him with a bright red flush on his cheeks, and Nick seems to be looking anywhere but at the two of them. Oops.

"So," Nick continues. "Like you said, you got through the night, Monroe changed back, SHIELD was a big help, and the rest is history."

Phil clears his throat. "More or less. We try to stay in touch."

If Phil puts a little extra emphasis on the word 'touch', well, Monroe already knows he's an ass. Phil knows he's being deliberately vague about the current state of their relationship, but he likes Monroe, he's always liked Monroe, and it really doesn't matter if they spent one weird night together eleven years ago and never since, Phil doesn't like to see Monroe hurt by someone who's trying to have it both ways. It's painfully obvious to Phil that Nick's in love with Monroe; whether he's got the balls to admit it is something else entirely.

"How in touch?" Nick asks, but it's low enough Phil figures he's not actually supposed to hear it. Monroe's hearing, though, is acute, and he definitely hears it.

"Nick."

"You know, it's really none of my business. I shouldn't have pried," Nick says, heading for the door. Phil stops Monroe halfway to the door with a hand on his arm, and they hear the door close with a click. Nick's truck is gunned to life, then pulls away with a roar.

"Let him go, Monroe. It won't hurt him to think about why he's so fucking jealous of something that happened a lifetime ago."

"You really are—"

"An asshole? Yeah, got the memo," Phil says. "You deserve better than someone who can't commit to what he wants."

"Really?" Monroe crowds Phil back against the wall, letting his anger bleed through his usually calm exterior. Phil isn't easily intimidated, but the flash of red eyes and the press of a muscular six foot two frame against his still healing chest isn't something he should ignore, either. "What about you, Phil? What about what you want, what you've always wanted? Or should I say, 'who' you've always wanted? Nick's not the only one afraid of making a commitment."

"You don't know what you're talking about."

"Yeah, I do." Monroe shakes his head knowingly. "How much longer are you going to drag this out before you admit how you feel? Before you decide to do something about it?"

"Monroe, it's not that simple."

"Maybe it is, Phil. Maybe it's exactly that simple."

*

"You were gone less than five minutes."

The entire car shakes when Clint gets in. He throws the surveillance equipment on the backseat, and slams the door behind him. Tasha knew it was a bad idea to play things this way. She knew it and she allowed it anyway because it's Clint and as much as she wants to kick him in the head some days, she would bleed for him without question, and there's no getting around that. He's family and sometimes that means you let stupid call the shots.

Natasha's already putting the car in gear as if she's driving the getaway vehicle. It feels a little like it considering they've been spying on someone they both care deeply about.

"Is he in there?" she asks, although she doubts Clint would be this angry if Phil wasn't there. He'd be disappointed or maybe concerned, but he's so wound up he's shaking, and Tasha's fairly certain now is not the time to test him, but she needs some kind of confirmation. "Clint, is he—"

"Yes."

Natasha lets go of the held breath and nods. At least there's that. Phil's alive. In Portland, Oregon. And if Clint's reaction is anything to go by, the cellist is still part of the equation. Somehow. She turns in the direction of their motel.

"Do you want to tell me—"

"Not particularly."

"You're angry," Tasha says, hoping it might provoke Clint into responding.

"You're not?"

"That's not the point." Of course she's angry. But both of them being angry in a confined space without a proper outlet is only going to result in bloodshed. "You're being angry enough for both of us at the moment."

"No shit."

"You know no one likes the Hulk when he's angry, but did it ever occur to you, no one likes you when you're angry either, Clint?"

He shoots her a glare, but doesn't give her anything else. "Just drive."

That's it. Natasha swerves across two lanes of honking traffic and pulls the car over onto the shoulder, ignoring the fact Clint has a grip on the grab handle. She's out of her seat belt and across the gear shift before Clint's got his belt undone, and that more than anything tells her how upset he is by whatever he heard. She leans her forearm against his throat. But gently.

"I'm not the fucking chauffeur; I'm your partner, and the only friend you've got right now. Stop being a selfish prick," she says. "You weren't the only one who lost him, and you aren't the only one who loves him. He isn't dead, Clint. Whatever else is going on, don't forget that. Phil isn't dead." Natasha thumps him with the flat of her other hand against his sternum. "Would you rather he were dead?"

"No! Of course not. I'd just—"

"What? What, Clint?' she says, searching his face. She's never seen so many emotions tripping over themselves trying to get out. "Say it."

"I'd rather he were with me." Clint looks devastated. "I waited too long, Nat. I never told him how I feel, not a word. Sometimes I thought he knew, but maybe not. I don't know. I promised myself if we survived, I'd tell him. No more waiting. No caring about frat regs or what people might think. No worrying about protocol and Fury and all that shit."

"And now?"

Clint makes a sorrowful sound against Natasha's shoulder. "He looks good even through a dirty window. Sounds fucking great. And maybe he made himself a few promises too when he was dying because it seems as if his cellist is pushing for some kind of commitment. He told Phil he should admit how he feels and do something about it."

Natasha slips her arms around Clint's back. "Are you sure they were talking about—"

"It's hard to misinterpret a conversation like that when one person has the other pressed against the wall, Nat. I know what I heard."

"I'm sorry," she murmurs, kissing his hair. "I don't know what to say."

"Let's just go home, okay?"

*

Home turns out to be their motel, and Clint doesn't have the energy to complain. He wasn't really expecting Tasha to head straight back to New York, but he won't be sad to see Portland, Oregon, in their rear view mirror.

They stop at a drive-thru and grab burgers, fries, and shakes, then eat them spread out on the matching double beds at The Palms Motor Hotel, the television droning on in the background.

"I want to see him," Natasha says out of the blue. She's lying on her back on her bed, staring at the sea foam green ceiling. "You don't have to go with me, but I need to see him."

"Nat."

She rolls her head to the side. She looks as determined as Clint's ever seen her, so he just sighs. He doesn't feel like fighting, especially when his chances of winning are slim to none.

"You can do whatever you want, Nat. I'm not going to stop you."

"Clint, doesn't this seem even a little strange to you?"

"Which part? The part where Coulson's shacked up with a cellist in Portland, or the part where he didn't bother to tell us he wasn't dead?"

"Any of it. All of it. When has Phil ever left us in the dark like this?" Natasha frowns. "I can think of only twice in all the years we've worked with him, and neither was his choice."

Clint knows the missions she's referring to: Kiev and Leipzig. Both times Phil was acting under direct orders from Fury. Phil hadn't liked it, had noted his objections for the record according to the post-mission reports, but he'd followed through believing it was for the good of the mission, and until those missions had gone to hell, Phil had kept quiet about the real objectives.

But when their lives were on the line, Phil had thrown the ops manual out the window and gone in after them. Kiev hadn't been a total disaster, although they'd stopped speaking to Coulson for a few weeks when they realized he'd held back information. But Leipzig was a bloody mess. Literally.

There'd been a lot of yelling after Leipzig by all parties: Fury, because Phil had disobeyed a direct order and violated the need-to-know protocols; Phil, because Clint had almost bled out and Tasha had to have surgery to fix a broken jaw. If Tasha's jaw hadn't been broken, she would've been yelling too. Clint was too damn high on drugs and being alive to do more than smile at Phil and repeat "you came back for us" over and over, only stopping when he realized every repetition somehow made Phil look more guilty and miserable than he had before.

"What's your point, Nat?"

"The only time he lies to us is when he's ordered to, and even then, he does it under duress. He's used to putting the mission and his assets first, not himself. It seems strange he'd choose now to finally pursue a relationship with someone he's known for over a decade."

Clint can't help narrowing his eyes. He's know Phil about ten years now. "What's so strange about that? Maybe they've been dancing around it for all these years?"

"Jesus, Clint, I refuse to believe Coulson has a dating M.O., and frankly, if this is how he manages all his personal relationships, he's worse at it than you are." Natasha props herself up on her elbows. "Think about it. The man we know doesn't jerk people around like this."

"Yeah, well, maybe we don't know him very well, Tasha. He's a spy, remember? We should know better than anyone how good Agent Coulson is at his job."

"But that's just it, isn't it? He's good at his job. The best. But he traveled here under his own name. He's staying with someone he told Pepper Potts about, for God's sakes. We know he was badly injured by Loki. That part wasn't a lie, so what if he's here on, I don't know, vacation maybe."

"Spies don't take vacations."

"We don't, but remember, Fury told us all to make ourselves scarce after the battle in New York. We're all supposed to be lying low, but not so low we can't be found easily enough if someone knows how to look. Maybe he sent Phil away too."

"Why?"

Natasha shrugs. "To protect him from the World Security Council? To keep him as far away from Loki as possible? To let him heal? I don't know, Clint, but I'm having a hard time believing he's anything but a pawn on the board this time. Same as us."

"And what about what I heard?" Clint asks. He doesn't want to, but it's been eating at him. Phil's voice, low and flirtatious. An obvious play to make the third man—Nick, that was his name—jealous. The way Monroe accused Phil of avoiding commitment, of wanting something, but not wanting to take the risk.

"You were listening for maybe three minutes before you bailed and stomped back to the car."

"It was long enough!"

"Long enough to hurt, maybe, but not to give us a context of any kind, Clint. You know how little it takes for a conversation to be misinterpreted; it's possible you jumped to conclusions. Admit it, you were already angry. Did you need much of an excuse to think the worst of Phil?"

Clint scowls, but Natasha's not wrong, and they both know it. Clint can feel his protest dying in his throat, and the sad thing is he wants to believe everything Natasha's saying. He wants there to be a reasonable explanation. He still wants to believe he's got a chance with Phil, and he already knows he'll forgive him. Clint's so stupidly in love with the man it's embarrassing.

"Clint?"

"Yeah, alright. We'll—we'll go talk to him," Clint relents. "But you've got to give me a couple of days to get my game face on, Nat. I can't—I can't see him with somebody else and pretend everything's okay. Listening to it was bad enough."

Nat seems to understand because she doesn't push for more than that. "I'm going to call the others," she says, grabbing her phone. "Give them an update. Anything you want me to pass on?"

"Yeah, tell Tony I need a dozen silver arrows. Pure sterling silver."

Natasha raises her eyebrows. "You're kidding me, right?"

"I just like to be prepared. Tell him to send us some silver bullets too. 9mm."

"I'm not telling Tony that because, first of all, there's no such thing as a werewolf, and secondly, even if Phil's cellist were one, you're not going to shoot him!"

"Of course not." Clint's pretty sure even priests and small children wouldn't believe him with that tone, so Natasha's certainly not fooled.

"Clint."

"Go make your call, Tash. I'll be fine."

It's not exactly the truth, but it's closer than Clint would've thought a few hours ago. That seems to be good enough for Natasha who gives his arm a quick squeeze before ducking into the parking lot to make her call.

*

Phil and Monroe spend three days carefully ignoring one another, which is pretty hard to do in a small house. Phil takes longer than usual bike rides and wastes one afternoon wandering around the Oregon Zoo. He decides it's time to go back to the house when the antics of the monkeys have him feeling nostalgic for the Avengers, Stark in particular.

Monroe works on his clocks, does double the usual amount of Pilates and yoga, and quietly punishes Phil by serving him inferior coffee. Phil drinks cup after cup with a polite smile, refusing to admit it tastes awful. He's been tortured by professionals. He's not going to break over crappy coffee.

In retribution for the coffee, Phil spends a lot of time downloading new cello music onto Monroe's iPod, particularly from the New Age category. Phil's got a knack for finding self-produced albums with instrumental cello music peppered with names like "Unicorn Dreams" and "Your Effervescent Soul." He can practically see the twitch developing in Monroe's left eye.

Nick's been quietly absent from the scene, ostensibly caught up in a case that doesn't involve anything other than humans killing one another for money, but Phil can see the worry in Monroe's face whenever he looks at the silent phone. Phil considers calling Fury to ask for an update on the Avengers, or maybe just to beg to be allowed to contact them himself, but Phil's almost positive he'll be told they're still in the wind and to concentrate on his own recovery. The thing is Phil's reasonably sure this particular ache in his chest isn't at all related to the stab wound, and the more time passes, the more he wants to do something stupid like tell Clint Barton exactly how he feels. That way lies madness, no doubt, but Phil's never been averse to a little madness in his life.

He's almost back to normal except for some tightness around the chest scar, a kind of phantom pain that sometimes wakes him. Phil misses work and his team. He misses Stark's pretension and Banner's quiet genius, Natasha's brutal honesty and the Captain's unerring goodness. He even misses Thor's 100 decibel enthusiasm. But most of all, he misses Barton's presence. His ridiculous jokes. His feet on Phil's desk. His uncanny ability to know when Phil's planning to skip lunch or stay late. The way he uses the ventilation system the way most people use hallways. The bright blue of his eyes. His strong, capable hands. The way he holds a bow.

Phil is so screwed. He has some decisions to make.

Somehow evenings at Monroe's house seem to represent a kind of unspoken truce. After listening to a frightening array of appalling cello selections during the day, Monroe generally spends an hour or so bringing to life the music Phil grew up hearing his mother play: Rachmaninoff, Mendelssohn, Saint-Saens, Dvorak. It's heart-breaking and beautiful and neither of them says a word if there are tears on Phil's face when the music stops. Monroe makes a pot of real coffee and brings Phil a mug of it. Neither of them talks, but the silence is somehow more comfortable than the polite interactions of the day.

They're about to turn in when there's a sound from outside, which in itself isn't unusual. Monroe lives across from a park. At any time of the day or night it's possible to hear joggers, cyclists, families with small children, teenagers, dog-walkers and their entourages, beat police, senior citizens, and the local birding society going by.

This sound makes Phil and Monroe both freeze. Phil can't place it, but everything in him is screaming "threat" and Monroe's instinctively shifted to Blutbad, scenting the air.

"Anything?" Phil whispers.

"Nothing." Monroe's voice is barely audible. "Which means someone's using wolf's bane to cover their scent."

"My gun's upstairs." Phil instinctively knows he won't make it there before this goes down. "Do you have any weapons?"

Monroe grins at Phil the way he hasn't in three days. "I'm the weapon."

They're standing back to back, ready, when the door is kicked in.

*

"Clint Barton, if you don't get in the car right now, I'm going without you!" Natasha yells through the closed bathroom door of the motel room. It's rapidly approaching an hour where polite people wouldn't consider dropping by. Natasha may be an assassin, but she's not rude, and she doesn't like turning up on people's doorsteps at midnight unannounced and uninvited unless she's there to kill someone.

Tasha's had enough of the stall tactics. Clint's managed to put off the trip to see Phil for three days, including one memorable afternoon where Clint insisted they go to the Oregon Zoo. He spent entirely too much time looking longingly at elephants and tigers, reminiscing about the circus, until Natasha had to forcibly take him by the hand and lead him out like a reluctant child. All it tells her is that Clint's emotions are still too close to the surface for his comfort, but she's not certain he can successfully hide them anymore, at least where Phil's concerned. Believing the person you love is dead can do that.

She's spent the last hour watching Clint try on every piece of clothing he brought with him, which isn't much, and then he'd disappeared into the bathroom without a word to her and turned the shower on, although she knows he's already showered. Twice. If she didn't know he couldn't fit through the window, she'd be worried about an escape.

"Jesus Christ, woman," Clint says, bursting out of the bathroom, red-faced. "Can't a man have any privacy?" He's holding one hand behind his back, but it's not really doing much to hide the dozen or so arrows with very shiny tips that Natasha's positive he didn't have when he went into the bathroom.

Natasha's eyes narrow, and she flings open the outside door, scanning the sky. A familiar red-and-gold figure is hovering not far off, and she grabs the nearest thing—which turns out to be a decorative gnome—and hurls it at him. She hears the satisfying sound of ceramic breaking on metal, and Stark's close enough she hears him swearing a blue streak before he flies in her direction.

Clint's standing in the motel room door when Stark lands, and Natasha can see he's changed—again!—into the dark blue jeans and purple button-down she'd told him to wear in the first place. Men! She used to think Clint was pretty low maintenance, but she's starting to reevaluate her assessment.

"Barton, Natasha!" Stark calls, as he descends warily, obviously checking to see if Natasha's picked up anything more dangerous than a gnome. "Is this your hotel? What a surprise. Nothing says Oregon like fake palm trees, plastic flamingos, and garden gnomes."

"Gnome sweet gnome," Clint says, shamelessly tucking the dozen new silver arrows into his quiver.

"There are no such things as werewolves!" Tasha can't help herself. She points at Stark accusingly. "And you shouldn't be humoring him."

"Who says I'm humoring him? We know a super-soldier who was a Capsicle for 70 years, a Hulk, and a couple of gods with magic weapons. We fought an army of reptilian soldiers from outer space and a bunch of flying metal eels. Werewolves in Portland aren't really any stranger than that." Tony shrugs, in as much as it's possible for a guy in a 200-pound metal suit to shrug. "You're just unhappy because I didn't bring you a present too."

"Am not," Natasha says only because she'll never admit Stark might be right.

"Well, surprise! I did bring you a present, but I'm only handing it over if you've been a very good—" Stark catches the death glare Natasha's giving him. He swallows and tosses her a box of ammunition. "Why don't I just leave those with you?"

Natasha cracks open the box to see row after row of gleaming silver bullets. She sighs, but it doesn't stop her from reaching for the empty clip Clint's already handing her.

"Can we go now that you have your anti-werewolf arrows?"

Clint grins. "Yup."

*

There are moments when Phil considers it would be much, much easier if he couldn't actually see Monroe and the rest in their creature forms. For example, it would mean the thing currently with its hands—talons—around Phil's throat wouldn't be staring at him with snake-slit yellow eyes and sporting a mouth with honest-to-God venom-dripping fangs. But apparently it's a lot like those stupid Magic Eye pictures or the piece of plexiglass between Indiana Jones and the cobra in Raiders of the Lost Ark—once you've seen what's really there, you can't unsee it.

Phil catches a sideways glimpse of Monroe just before the Blutbad goes down in a heap of green-scaled men in slick business suits, and Phil redoubles his efforts. He's only got two of them on him, but they're strong and ... weirdly bendable, plus Phil's finding the double-vision of man and snake is more than a bit disconcerting. He's gotten used to it with Monroe over the years, but this feels a little like he's hallucinating every few seconds as his brain struggles to make sense of someone who appears to be two different things at the same time.

A forked tongue flickers against his cheek and Phil tries hard not to gag, the sense of cold revulsion so strong, it's probably evolutionary, a holdover from when small mammals knew better than to get this near a snake unless they wanted to be suffocated and eaten slowly. Phil gets a hand up—his left, which is still weaker than he'd like—but he aims for the eyes, and that gives him a few inches of breathing room. It's all he needs.

Man or snake, a kick to the nuts still hurts like hell, and Phil has never been opposed to using every weapon at his disposal. There's no such thing as fighting dirty when you're fighting for your life. Trouble is, the snakes seem to live by that philosophy, and the sharp finger/talon-jab to his chest scar manages to white out his vision for long enough that when the pain starts to subside and Phil's able to breathe again, he's already tied to one of Monroe's kitchen chairs that's been dragged into the living room. The ropes are constrictor tight.

Phil scans for Monroe immediately and finds him similarly trussed up, on his side on the couch, although it looks as if the snakes used a thin chain interwoven with the ropes. He's in much worse shape than Phil. Claws have torn through his shirt and into the flesh of his chest, leaving dark red patches on the green plaid. He's got blood matted in his hair and smeared down the side of his face. There's an obvious bite mark on his neck, fresh and ugly, the two entry holes dark, swollen-looking bumps, and Monroe's eyes are glassy. Phil assumes that's the venom at work.

"Monroe," he whispers, betting the Lausenschlangen's hearing isn't as good as Monroe's. There's a faint groan, and Phil's grateful for it. "Okay?"

"Peachy," comes the barely there response, and Phil hides a smile. Sarcastic men. His life seems to be full of them. "I'm sorry," is what Phil hears next, and he doesn't know why these moments always come when he's tied up somewhere or dying or otherwise fucked up, but when he says, "I'm not," Phil trusts Monroe to know it isn't about the last three days—which he is kind of sorry for—but the whole shebang, their friendship and all its weird complications. Phil doesn't regret any of that, and never could. Even if he's tied to a chair and there's blood on his mouth and the next thing that walks through Monroe's front door is a six and a half foot tall guy with a cold, angular face, and he's carrying a fucking scythe.

"Fuck," Monroe says on an exhale, fear obvious in his tone, and Phil realizes what this is. The guy's a Grim(m) Reaper, and they're the bait. Death is waiting for Nick Burkhardt.

"Fuck," Phil agrees. There really isn't anything else to say.

*

"Maybe we should've called ahead," Clint says.

He and Natasha are parked with their lights off down the street from the little blue house belonging to one Edmund Monroe, and there's more activity than Grand Central Station. All the curtains are closed, but not tightly, and they can see multiple figures pacing back and forth on the main floor. There are three heavies standing guard outside in the shadows of the building, and they've yet to get a glimpse of either Phil or Monroe.

"They look like they're waiting for something," Tasha says.

"Or someone."

Clint needs a higher vantage point, and he's about to suggest he'd be better off in the neighbor's tree when Natasha shakes her head and blinks.

"What?"

She scowls. "I don't know what it is, but sometimes they look—"

"Like snakes?" Clint finishes, grateful when Nat nods slowly. "I've been noticing that. It's fucking weird."

"Magic?"

Clint shrugs and doesn't do anything to hide the shiver that passes over him. He's not overly fond of snakes, but he hates magic, and Tasha knows it. Especially after Loki, but Clint wasn't keen on it even before the monumental head-fuck, thanks very much.

"We need eyes in there," he says, as if it isn't obvious what they need. He gestures to the house beside Monroe's, even as he's grabbing his bow case and fitting an ear bud into place. "The big maple should give decent enough coverage, and it'll put me close to the second floor if we need access. There doesn't appear to be anyone guarding that level."

"Does that guy have a scythe?"

Clint stops to look, and okay, he's fond of archaic weapons, but Clint thinks the guy that's walking up to the front door carrying a full-size scythe totally has him beat. The snake guys let him in without question, which is so not a surprise.

Clint hauls on a black sweatshirt from the back seat and pulls up the hood to hide his light-colored hair. He's half out of the car when he turns back to Tasha and smiles.

"You've always wanted to learn to play the cello, right?"

*

Phil's contemplating whether there's any point in dislocating his wrist or anything else in order to try slipping the ropes binding him. So far, any movement bigger than a minute shift seems to pull the ropes fractionally tighter rather than loosening them. Phil's afraid he's going to end up cutting off his own oxygen supply halfway through his escape attempt, and that would just be embarrassing.

The snakes are busying themselves with poking at Monroe and enjoying the chance to torment someone who's generally considerably higher up the food chain. It's really starting to piss Phil off given that between the blood loss, the chains, and the venom in his system, Monroe's effectively immobilized. He's never thought of Monroe as helpless—ever—and it hurts to see him this way, like a caged lion taunted by ignorant children.

It makes a piece of Phil's heart ache. The snakes are adding insult to injury, and Phil can't stand bullies. Like these Lausenschlangen. Like Loki. He can't watch someone else he cares about be taken over and abused, and Phil's gearing up to do something stupid when the doorbell rings.

Everyone seems surprised, and Phil thinks it's because the big guy with the scythe just got here and hasn't had time to do much more than praise the snakes for their good work. They haven't even gotten around to making the phone call to Nick yet, the one where Phil's sure he and Monroe will play a vital role in a "come alone if you wish to see your friends alive again" scenario.

When the doorbell rings a second time, Phil feels the barrel of a gun resting against the nape of his neck. He doesn't have to look across to know Monroe's in the same situation. Point taken. If either of them moves or says anything, they're dead.

One of the business-suited snakes slithers to the front door, and Phil's sure the guy presents a charming picture to anyone who can't actually tell what the guy is. The man with the scythe is hanging back out of sight. Phil figures it doesn't matter who you are, it's pretty hard to explain a guy with a scythe in the living room under any circumstance. He wonders how the guy makes it through airport security with it, but then dismisses the thought. Phil's traveled with Romanov and Barton on commercial flights, and he's constantly horrified by what they manage to get past security screenings.

"Hello," Phil hears someone—a young woman, it sounds like—say in a heavy European accent. "I am looking at—no, um, looking for Mr. Monroe. I am—uh, lesson, da? Cello lesson. Here. He is here, nyet?"

Phil closes his eyes because despite the broken English and the impossibly heavy Russian accent, he'd know Natasha's voice anywhere. He isn't sure whether to be grateful or terrified because he's willing to bet she's not alone, and Phil isn't a coward, but he's not sure he wants to face Barton right now. It's too soon and he's not ready, not to mention he doesn't really know what Fury's told them, if anything. There's a reason if they're here in Portland, and Phil doubts it's to rescue him and Monroe from the clutches of the creepy snake people, although he's not going to complain about the save.

Phil can sense the reptile at the door is trying to play it cool, but Natasha in full-on "helpless foreign waif in strange land" mode is hard to resist, especially to creatures who seem to like easy, attractive prey. Phil can see a few of the others edging for a better look at the girl at the door, and no one seems to be asking the obvious question as to why someone would be having a cello lesson at almost midnight. Of course, Phil's heard stranger euphemisms than that, and Natasha does have a tendency to turn men's minds to jelly when she turns on the charm. (She can achieve the same thing with a dozen kicks to the temple, and as far as Phil's ever been able to tell, Natasha prefers that method to the first.)

The men trying to sneak a peek at Natasha are rewarded by throwing knives to the throat, and Phil hears the satisfying crack of a neck breaking, which means Natasha's dealt with the door opener. Scythe guy is past the momentary shock of an unexpected attack, and now he's whirling in Phil's direction, blade up and ready to swing.

He never gets the chance. The window on the side of the house explodes in a hail of glass and shredded curtains, and Phil hears the familiar thwack, thwack, thwack of arrows embedding themselves in flesh. Phil looks up just in time to see an arrow stop its flight a foot above his head, stuck in the throat of the guy holding a gun to Phil's head. The gun falls useless to the floor, as does the man.

Phil can hear Natasha going toe-to-toe with one of the bigger snakes out on the front porch, and Clint appears to be trying to turn the guy with the scythe into a pincushion, but it's having a lot less effect than it should. Phil doesn't want to be impressed when the Reaper uses the scythe to cut the ends off the arrows poking out of his own chest, but fuck, he can't help it. It's like something out of Lord of the Rings, and Phil thinks this is the point where everyone realizes they should be running back to the Shire for reinforcements.

The Reaper, looking far too pleased with himself, grins at Phil and swings the blade in a wide arc that's going to end level with where Phil's head would normally be attached to his neck, and Phil really wants to keep it that way. He throws all of his weight to his left, knowing coming down on his healing side is going to hurt like hell, but it's better than decapitation.

Except Phil's so tightly wrapped, he doesn't have enough momentum to tip, and he wonders if this is it, if he's used up all his second chances. He can hear the blade whistling through the air, and then there's weight slamming into him with such force it takes him and the chair down with a hard jolt.

He's not dead.

The blade sails harmlessly overhead and Phil watches it with a kind of surreal detachment, registering how close death came. Again. Maybe he should go buy a lottery ticket.

The weight rolls off him and Phil feels the ropes slipping away as Barton slices through them with a combat knife. He presses the hilt into Phil's now free hand.

"I can't leave you alone for a minute, sir," Clint says against Phil's ear, and Phil bites his tongue to stop from saying, "I wish you wouldn't." He shakes his arms loose, gets the blood flowing again. By that time Clint's on his feet, using his bow to counter the twirling scythe like a quarterstaff, and shouting at Natasha to "get the fuck in here and shoot this guy!"

Phil crawls over to Monroe and the combat knife works well enough on the rope; once it's loose, Monroe shakes the rest without much struggle. His eyes go wide suddenly, and Phil finds himself being grabbed and rolled again—over the back of the couch—this time under two hundred pounds of Blutbad, and Phil's going to protest all this man-handling when they're no longer in danger of being sliced, stabbed, or decapitated. The couch breaks into two distinct pieces.

"Motherfucker," Clint says, and Phil can't help but agree.

"I liked that couch," Monroe complains, throwing the two of them out of the way of the blade again, and Phil ducks his head and lets Monroe control the roll. It's like dancing or sex—it's much easier if both of them don't try to lead at the same time.

The up-close sound of a gun being fired stops them all, and Phil pushes Monroe's furry head out of the way enough to see the Reaper fall to his knees with a half-dozen holes in his chest among the broken arrows. The guy's still grinning like Death, and he's looking right at Phil. Natasha's gun is trailing wisps of smoke and Clint's nocking another arrow, but Phil can already tell they're running out of options. They're not likely packing an arsenal and clearly this Reaper has metahuman qualities at the very least. He should've dropped long ago.

Clint glances in Phil's direction, an unreadable expression crossing his face when his eyes slide over Monroe and the way he's got Phil protectively pinned. Clint snaps his fingers at them: "Go! Run!"

Phil doesn't have a chance to protest. Monroe's hauled him to his feet and is dragging him towards the door, although Monroe's not in any better shape than Phil. The Reaper seems to be caught in a violent pinball death match where he's getting simultaneously hit with arrows and bullets, and the guy is fucking laughing at them.

Phil hears the click of Tasha's empty gun just as they reach the porch, and Nick's truck is slamming to a stop in front of the house.

"Thank fucking God," Monroe murmurs as they hit the lawn. Nick's got a shotgun in one hand, but he stops long enough to check the two of them aren't in imminent danger of dying. Nick's got a hand on Monroe's neck and he's asking him if he's okay, but what Phil hears him really saying is "I'm sorry" and "this is my fault" and it's him and Clint all over again. Phil isn't sure whether he wants to tell them to stay the hell away from each other or get a room. Either way, it's going to hurt and keep on hurting.

What Phil says instead is "The tall scary guy's a Reaper. The woman and the archer are friendlies even if they don't seem like it."

"Got it."

Nick takes the steps two at a time, stepping over a few bodies, passing Natasha with a nod. The shotgun blast is enough to push the Reaper out the front window and onto the lawn, but not enough to stop him. At this point, Phil's thinking a Mack truck might not be enough to stop him. He could have given the Terminator lessons.

"Stay here," Monroe says to Phil as Natasha reaches them, and Phil can feel Natasha's arms go around him as Monroe launches himself with a wolfish growl at the Reaper, dislodging the scythe from his hand. The next instant, Nick's picking up the weapon and wielding it with a deadly grace, curving the blade at precisely the right angle and height to separate the Reaper's head from his body. The body falls aside, twitching; the head rolls to a stop a few feet beside Monroe. The guy is still fucking grinning, and Phil has to look away because that's too creepy, even for him.

"You have interesting friends," Tasha says, and Phil laughs, letting his head drop, feeling her small solid body beside his.

"I have wonderful friends."

It's not quite a hug, but there are arms around one another and Phil lets himself have the moment because it's rarely offered, and he's missed Natasha. He's missed them both more than he'll probably ever admit to without being stupidly drunk or high on morphine.

Phil glances over to where Nick and Monroe are talking in low tones beside the dead Reaper, their hands on one another, their eyes saying a lot of things they're apparently not ready to say in any other way. Phil hopes they find a way to work it out. Somehow. Monroe deserves to be happy.

There's police sirens in the distance and Phil can see straight through the front window, but he can't see the one thing he's looking for.

"Tasha, where's Barton?"

*

Clint's suddenly alone in the living room and not a hundred percent sure what just happened. One minute Phil and the werewolf dude are heading out the door, then Natasha's out of ammo and Clint's making himself a distraction so she can get the hell out of the way of that fucking blade and out the door.

Clint feels the air move by his face, and Jesus, this could be some kind of extreme shaving commercial he thinks. That's how close this guy is getting with some of those swings.

"For men who like a real element of danger in their close shaves!" Clint says to the guy wielding the scythe because there's no one else to appreciate his humor. Maybe the guy's sensitive about the jokes because he takes a vicious swing at Clint that comes too damn close to making him half the man he used to be, or twice the man, depending on how you look at it.

He winces as the blade cuts through his best pair of jeans and into the tender flesh of his hip. It feels like a paper cut, which means for the first half a second, Clint doesn't do much more than register you cut my date jeans and fuck, that stings, but a few seconds later it's a lot more like someone poured salt and lemon juice and possibly acid onto the wound.

Then some dark-haired guy with a shotgun comes in and blasts the creepy guy with the scythe straight through the front window. Not that the shotgun does any more damage than Tasha's bullets or Clint's arrows, but the guy goes down hard enough, Phil's friend manages to knock the scythe away with an impressive growl, and the shotgun-toting dude who appears to be Portland's version of the cavalry whisks the blade off the lawn and neatly lops off the guy's head. It's kind of awesome.

Clint gratefully stands down then—or falls down, actually—because for one little paper-thin cut, it's bleeding a lot. He wonders if he should tell someone.

*

"Clint?"

"I feel sort of light-headed."

Phil's hands comes away bloody when he touches Clint's arm, and he realizes the fabric covering Clint's torso is actually in tatters of black fleece and purple silk. It's like the moment in a Zorro movie where material falls away to reveal the "Z," but this is so much more horrifying.

"Tasha!"

"Shit," Clint says, looking down at his own tortured skin, and Phil tells him to close his eyes because looking isn't going to help anything right now.

Natasha's there in an instant, taking in the razor-thin cuts that look as if they should be minor, yet are managing to bleed steady and red. Clint looks like a barber pole, and Phil remembers stories of barbers and blood-letting, wrapped bandages curling around a brass-topped pole.

"You're going to be fine," Phil murmurs, resisting the urge to touch. Right now it's only going to cause pain, and Phil won't do that. Clint's not in any danger of bleeding out, but the blood loss is significant enough Clint's feeling it. Tasha goes to get Nick, and Phil can hear him confirming a medi-copter's already en route.

"Less than five minutes," Natasha says, appearing at Phil's side again. She's stripped off her own jacket, and thin crescents of red are visible on her bare arms as well. She's got Clint's bow and as many arrows as she was able to salvage, and when she kneels down, she gently pillows Clint's head on her thighs. Phil suddenly feels as if he's intruding, and he wonders if maybe he should go check on Nick and Monroe.

"It happens so fast you don't even notice you're bleeding," Natasha says, and Phil doesn't realize she's speaking to him until he feels the weight of her fingers against his shirt, just above the scar. There are a few spots of blood there, which he could try to pass off as Clint's, but Tasha's looking at him with pensive eyes and he can't help but nod, although he's not entirely certain what he's agreeing to. They've shared too much with one another for him to deny her this need to see for herself that's he's damaged, but still with them.

He feels Tasha's fingers nimbly unbuttoning his shirt until she can pull it back enough to expose the mark Loki left. The stitches are barely visible anymore except where the one Lausenschlange had pressed against the wound hard enough to bring blood welling to the surface. The beginning of a bruise is already darkening the middle of the scar.

Tasha doesn't touch—it's not really her way—but Phil startles when he realizes Clint's eyes are open, watching, and the fingers that reach to gently trace the ugly ridge of scar tissue are Clint's.

It's a strange tableau, Phil supposes, but to the medical team's credit they simply insinuate themselves and do their jobs, only asking them to move when it's absolutely necessary. Tasha goes in the chopper with Clint and Monroe, and Phil promises to meet them at the hospital once he's helped Nick keep the situation contained.

The Portland SHIELD office arrives on-site so fast Phil's convinced they must have been monitoring the police band, but since the three member team actually appears to be competent and already has a feasible cover story in place—hooray for Doomsday Cults—Phil feels reasonably comfortable leaving them to deal with the situation.

"If we don't get to the hospital soon," Phil comments, "they're going to come back for us."

"I know," Nick says. He looks like he wants to offer Phil an arm as they head to the truck, but wisely doesn't.

"If it helps, Monroe wouldn't want you to feel responsible for something you had nothing to do with. He knows this isn't your fault. Any of it."

"I gather feeling guilty about stuff someone else has done is something you're familiar with?"

It's clear Monroe's filled in some of the blanks for Nick, and yeah, maybe they're two of a kind in a way. Maybe Phil should take some of his own good advice.

"Yeah. But I also know life's much too short to waste time on guilt. The only thing that really matters when it comes down to it is the people we care about. Trust me on that one, Nick."

Phil watches Portland at night slide by outside the window. It's a full moon, or close to it. It's the kind of night made for sky-watching, or campfires, or heart-to-heart talks. Phil isn't sure he's ready for that. For any of it, but Clint's here, and he won't be for long if Phil says the wrong things.

"You really care about him, don't you?" Nick asks, and Phil's so caught up in his thoughts of Clint, the truth runs off his tongue before he can stop it.

"I'm in love with him."

"Oh," Nick says. "That's—that's great. He deserves someone who knows exactly how he feels."

It's kind of an odd comment for Nick to make considering he's just met Clint, but Phil's got too many other things on his mind to do more than register its strangeness in passing.

The rest of the ride to the hospital passes in silence.

*

Dr. Regina Garr joins Nick and Phil as they enter the building, leading them through a maze of corridors to a room with a Portland police officer and a SHIELD agent outside. They've put Clint and Monroe in one semi-private room, citing it's easier to secure one room than two, and neither is actually injured all that severely.

"Don't look so horrified, Agent Coulson," Dr. Garr says, and Phil's fairly certain his face is its usual calm mask. "Maybe they'll become friends."

"You have a strange and cruel sense of humor."

She laughs and doesn't deny anything. Phil really needs to get her into the New York/helicarrier detachment. He wants to let her take a run at Tony Stark.

"Mr. Monroe's responding well to the anti-venom, and the rest is mainly bruises. Agent Barton's wounds are ... impressive-looking, but now they've been cleaned and salved, they won't take long to heal. Agent Romanov's wounds have also been cleaned and salved, but she could've easily handled them herself with Polysporin and some Band-Aids."

"I've seen her handle knife wounds the same way," Phil points out. "Doesn't mean she should."

"I should take a look at your chest, Agent Coulson." He starts to protest, but Dr. Garr holds up a hand. "Just to ensure there's nothing more than superficial bruising. It'll take two minutes. We can pop in here." She indicates a small examination room across the hall from the guarded room, and suggests Nick can go in and see the patients.

"Is there something else?" Phil asks when Dr. Garr has him alone. He's been in this business a long time, and he's good at it in part because he reads people well.

"No." She's pressing lightly around his scar with gloved fingers, cleaning the blood with an antiseptic wipe. "I just thought Monroe might need a moment with his friend. Honestly, if I'd realized the extent of the relationship drama going on here, I would've given them two separate rooms."

Phil simply raises an eyebrow, and Dr. Garr rolls her eyes.

"I'm the youngest of nine kids, Agent Coulson. Four sisters, four brothers: two doctors, a psychologist, a psychiatrist, an English professor, an artist, a shoe engineer, a television scriptwriter, and a professional dog-walker. Believe me, I know all about relationship drama. Also, you should call me Regina, which never, ever rhymes with vagina unless you're some stupid city in Western Canada."

"Noted."

She tugs off her gloves and tosses them into the trash. "Nothing to worry about as long as you're not having any residual pain."

Phil shakes his head. "Not so far."

"Good. Then it's just a matter of getting the rest of your life sorted, and you should be fine."

Phil's fingers fumble a little on the buttons of his shirt. "I'm not sure what you think you know, doctor, but—"

Regina deftly pushes Phil's hands out of the way and continues buttoning his shirt for him. "I know there are two men in that room who care about you deeply, who are currently eyeing each other trying to figure out where the other stands in your life. Both of them would do anything for you. Believe me, the testosterone readings in that room are off the charts at the moment. They've stopped short of beating their chests, but not by much. You should probably let them know what's going on here."

She finishes buttoning the shirt, and rests a gentle two fingers against Phil's heart. Phil glances down at them with a sigh.

"Did anyone ever tell you you're not terribly subtle?"

"Everyone I've ever met." Regina steps back so Phil can slip off the examination table. "Shall we?"

Phil follows her out the door and across the hall, his heart pounding loudly in his chest. Knowing what he wants hasn't ever been his problem. Being brave enough to do something about it is something else entirely.

He steps into the room. There are two standard hospital beds with curtains that can be drawn down the middle of the room and around each bed for privacy. The nearest bed is curtained off, and Phil can hear low voices going back and forth. Nick and Monroe. The bed near the windows has Clint lying scrunched up against a pile of pillows, light gauze wrapped around most of his bare torso. Natasha's perched on the window sill, swinging her feet back and forth.

Dr. Garr's standing beside Clint, and it's only then, Phil realizes Clint's got an arrow clutched in his hand. A really shiny silver arrow.

"Most people prefer teddy bears," Regina says.

"Most people aren't sharing a room with a werewolf when there's a full moon," Clint mutters.

"For the last time, I'm not a fucking werewolf!" Monroe's growl of frustration comes from the curtained off bed.

"He's really not," Phil says, and that gets everyone's attention. The curtain's pulled back, and Phil gets a nod from Nick, as Monroe glares across the room at Clint. "He's a Blutbad. A person with the attributes of a wolf, for lack of something more exact. He saved my life the first time we met—years ago, now—and he's been a good friend ever since."

Phil can see Monroe's face and posture relax slightly. "You okay, Phil?"

"Yeah."

"So this is the guy." Monroe's eyes flick skeptically over Clint, and Phil can't even say he's surprised at this point. Apparently everyone in this room has a vested interest in his love life and an opinion to offer on what he should do about it. The next time Phil wants to avoid dealing with something, he's not coming to Portland.

"The guy?" Clint asks.

"I thought he'd be taller," Monroe says to no one in particular, and Tasha starts to laugh. Dr. Garr hops up on the windowsill beside Natasha, and says something in her ear, which only makes Tasha laugh louder. Fantastic, Phil thinks. Natasha doesn't need a female ally.

"What the fuck is he talking about?"

Clint looks annoyed. Phil knows he's pretty far gone on Clint because he actually finds it kind of endearing. Watching Clint and Monroe glare at each other from matching hospital beds is like being in a live-action monument to his terrible taste in men, and that's a sobering thought. Maybe putting the two of them in a room together wasn't a great idea.

"The guy Phil's been stupid about for years. The guy who's supposed to have eyes like a hawk and can't see what's right in front of him. The one from all those classified missions he can't tell me about. The archer in New York. Phil's archer."

Like a charging bear, Monroe just keeps going, and Phil wonders if he should sit down somewhere out of the way. Maybe it'll be easier if he lets them handle all the emotional crap for him. He might not even need to be here for this conversation, but Tasha shakes her head when she sees him eyeing the door. Busted.

"Seriously, what the fuck are you talking about, Wolf Man?"

"You're the guy. Phil's archer."

"So? You're Phil's cellist." Clint manages to make "cellist" sound like a dirty word, and not the good kind of dirty. "And a hell of a lot of other things apparently."

"Phil's cellist?" Monroe seems confused. "I play the cello. What's that got to do with—"

Regina and Tasha who've had their heads bent together, snickering, suddenly burst out laughing. "Oh my God, it's just too good!" Regina says. "They both use a bow. Oh, Phil, the psych people are going to have so much fun with you."

"Will someone please tell me what the fuck's going on?" Clint yells, cutting through everything else, and in the silence that follows, Nick, who's been following the conversation like a tennis match, suddenly smiles bright as a flash bulb.

"Oh! When you said you were in love with him, you didn't mean Monroe. You meant him!"

Phil puts his head in his hands and wishes it were possible for the floor to swallow him up. It's possible, he knows, trans-dimensional portals being what they are, but the likelihood of one appearing underneath him within the next few seconds is highly unlikely.

"You're in love with me?" Clint asks, sounding soft and stunned, and Phil doesn't answer until he hears all the shuffling footsteps fade away and the door close behind them.

"Yes." There's no point denying it. Not after everything that's already been said tonight, and Phil waits for Clint to laugh at him or tell him to go to hell or get angry because Phil's been a coward for a long time about this one particular thing.

What he doesn't expect is for Clint to say, "Come here," in a tone that doesn't allow for refusal. Phil goes, sitting on the edge of Clint's bed.

"Fury told us you were dead." Clint sounds matter-of-fact, although there's a shake in his voice that tells Phil otherwise. "We didn't want to believe him, so we went looking for proof one way or the other."

"And you found me." Phil can't help but smile. "As usual, you and Tasha have excellent timing."

"Whereas you and I have timing that's shit." Clint leans back against his pillows with a slight wince. "You were dead, and then you weren't, but you were with somebody else, and—"

"Whoa," Phil interrupts. "I was never with Monroe unless you count one very weird night over a decade ago. You got the cellist bit from Pepper, didn't you?"

Clint nods.

"I got tired of people asking if I was seeing someone. It was easier than saying no and then having them try to fix me up with random friends and co-workers for the next several months in a series of pity dates. Monroe's a friend, that's all." Phil reaches out and extracts the silver arrow from Clint's hand. "And he's really not a werewolf. I promise. Where did you even get these?"

"Stark." Phil should've known and says as much.

"Phil, why didn't you tell us you were alive?"

"I wanted to. You have no idea how much I wanted to, Clint. But it's never that simple, especially not with SHIELD. Fury wanted the Avengers to have a chance at being something good, and I believed him when he said he'd tell you all as soon as it was feasible to do so."

"Yeah." Clint scowls. "I'm not certain he ever planned to tell us. I think he was waiting for the day you could walk back in and deal with the brunt of it yourself."

"I'm sorry. If I'd known, if I'd realized—I never meant to hurt you."

"Look, before we left New York, Pepper gave me a piece of advice."

Phil lifts his eyes. The thought of Pepper giving Clint advice is amusing. "Oh?"

"Yeah, she said I should let you explain, but I don't think I can do that. In fact, I think we should skip all the apologies and explanations. All that talking never seems to work out well for us."

"If that's what you want."

Phil feels like someone kicked him in the gut, but he knows Clint's been hurt and he isn't someone who forgives easily. Phil gets up to leave, only looking up when he feels Clint's hand on his arm.

"Instead, let's go back to that other thing. The one where you're in love with me."

"Clint." Phil's tired, and he doesn't have the energy to play games. If Clint won't let him explain, there isn't anything left to say.

"Or maybe the one where I'm in love with you, and have been for years."

Phil's brain catches up to what Clint's saying, and he looks up in shock. "What? Why didn't you say something?"

Clint looks at him like he's an idiot, and okay, pot, kettle, Phil can totally understand that, but they've always done so much better without words. Phil sinks onto the edge of the bed and there's no mad grab for one another, no desperate tug into open arms, but it's better somehow, this purposeful step forward. It feels real, like love grown-up, like mountains and glaciers and things that last forever. When they meet in the middle, there's something so right in Clint's touch, the feel of his mouth on Phil's, as if this simply reaffirms what they already know. They work.

This isn't new, even if Phil hasn't ever kissed him before now, or slid his tongue over Clint's, even if Clint's never panted harshly against Phil's ear and whispered his name like something holy. This is who they are, the way they fit into each other's spaces, and acknowledging it seems suddenly so easy.

Of course Phil knows the way his hands fit around Clint's shoulders, the same way Clint knows the planes of Phil's face, the touch of his skin, the scent of him. When Clint clutches at Phil's shirt, Phil goes like gravity, falls deeper into the kiss, rubs his face against Clint's, buries both hands in his soft, lovely hair, and lets a delicate thrill of pleasure transgress his spine.

He loves this man. He wants him. He would die for him if it came to that. Those things have never been in question. They're Phil's universal constants.

The only question Phil's ever had has been answered with Clint's mouth on his, Clint's hand warm against the curve of Phil's jaw, the look in his eyes that's saying, "Yeah, me too. Of course, you idiot. Always. Fucking always." Phil wonders what his own eyes are saying to Clint, but it must be enough because Clint's nodding at him between kisses, and he doesn't stop kissing him even when there's a polite, then a not-so-polite, knock on the door.

"Fuck off," Clint yells, and Phil hides a grin against Clint's gauze-wrapped shoulder. This is what he's signed on for with Barton. Hospital bedsides and obscenities and last minute rescues and kissing that leaves them both breathless. Phil's glad Loki missed his heart because he fully expects to put it to the test with this relationship.

Clint grabs Phil's face in both hands and leans their foreheads together.

"I don't care what anyone else wants, Phil. I don't even care about Fury or SHIELD or what anybody might say. I thought you were dead and the biggest regret of my whole life—my whole fucked-up life!—was never telling you how I feel, and I can't go through that again."

"Neither can I," Phil admits, tracing the edge of Clint's lower lip with his thumb.

"So come home," Clint says simply. "Come home. Stop being dead. Ditch the cellist. Be with me."

Phil lays a finger gently over Clint's lips. "You had me at 'home'."

*

"You're both morons," Natasha says, sitting on Clint's hospital bed. He's back in street clothes and anxious to leave, especially since it's him, Natasha, and Dr. Garr. Phil's conveniently disappeared to make vague-sounding arrangements for transport back to New York. "Morons. How many years have the two of you managed to avoid talking about your feelings? When we get back to SHIELD, I'm requesting to be assigned to work with men who aren't morons."

Regina signs Clint's release forms with a flourish and shakes her head sympathetically at Natasha. "That's harder to find than a donkey in pants, hon. I'm not sure it's fair to expect them to achieve the impossible. Maybe ask for a woman partner next time."

"Hey," Clint protests, but not too loudly because Dr. Garr scares him, possibly more than Natasha.

"Look at this one," Dr. Garr says, and Clint knows he shouldn't have opened his mouth. "Dozens of lacerations with a blade sharp enough to cut through bone and he doesn't even notice!" She prods Clint's leg with the tip of her fountain pen. "I would love to do some studies on you regarding pain tolerance."

Phil walks in the door, looks at the three of them with Clint trapped in the middle, and starts to walk out again.

"Don't you dare leave me here!" Clint's not too proud to beg. "Sir, she wants to hurt me."

"For science," Phil says, adding his signature to a form Dr. Garr hands him. "It's different."

Clint vehemently doesn't agree, but he keeps quiet because he doesn't want to distract Phil from signing whatever he needs to get Clint released. He doesn't want to get trapped here one more day because Phil forgets to sign something that will keep Clint safely away from Dr. Pain.

"And I think that's it," Dr. Garr says. "He's your problem now, Agent Coulson. In more ways than one, I expect."

"I can live with that." Phil lets a smile crease the corners of his mouth, and Clint wants to kiss him so badly, but this is all still new (in its strange not-really-new-at-all way) and he's not sure where the lines are yet.

He catches Natasha rolling her eyes, but he can tell she's happy for him. For them. He and Phil might be morons, but they're her morons. Clint should probably be more offended by that, but he can't bring himself to be bothered.

"I'm heading out," Tasha says. She's booked on an early afternoon flight back to New York, and Clint and Phil will follow in a day or so, once they've debriefed the Portland field office. "The room at The Palms is paid for one more night. If you're here longer, you're on your own."

"Got it."

Phil has to stop back at Monroe's to collect his stuff, but the house is a shambles and part of a crime scene, so no one's going to be sleeping there regardless. Clint and Monroe had managed to share the hospital room without much fuss, but Clint thinks that had more to do with Phil and Nick hanging out all night. At the time, Clint had been grateful to have Phil close by, their fingers interlaced, but now he wonders if it wasn't a ploy to keep Clint and Monroe from talking to one another. Clint's betting Monroe's probably got a few stories he could share.

"Thanks, Tasha," Clint says, and her quick nod of acknowledgment is all he gets before she's out the door. Turning to Phil, he asks, "where to, sir?" The "sir" is partly reflex from so many years of working together, and maybe it should feel weird, but it doesn't. They're still Agents Barton and Coulson as much as they're Clint and Phil, probably more so at this point.

"Monroe's. Nick took him back there this morning to pick up some things and do a bit of clean-up. I want to see if there's anything he needs."

"He and Nick aren't—"

Phil shakes his head. "Nick's got a girlfriend. It's complicated, and we're not exactly in a position to throw stones at other people's relationship snafus."

"I wouldn't dream of it."

*

Monroe's still feeling shaky from the liberal dose of snake venom that'd been coursing through his veins the night before, and that's before he gets a good look at his living room.

"It's probably not as bad as it looks," Nick says, laying a steadying hand on Monroe's shoulder.

It looks pretty bad. A knock-down drag-out fight with a half-dozen Lausenschlangen and a Grimm Reaper doesn't do a house any favors, not to mention there were arrows, bullets, and a scythe flying through the air. Monroe knows it could've been far worse. No one's dead except the people who were planning on killing them all anyway, and none of them were even badly hurt, which is a miracle in itself.

Monroe's bookshelves are mostly intact, and the clocks on the walls seem fine. The living room bore the brunt of the damage, so the rest of the house is virtually untouched. The police department helpfully covered the windows with plastic sheeting and yellow police tape, but basically Monroe figures he's going to have to strip the room down to nothing and go from there. Well, maybe it was time to redecorate anyway.

"Oh, no, no, no," Monroe says, looking around suddenly. "Where is it?"

It's got to be there. It's always there in the living room because it's where he practices, and he doesn't see it. The music stand's up-ended in the corner and the sheet music's a lost cause, but Monroe doesn't see anything that looks like it used to be a cello.

"Where's what?" Nick asks.

"My cello. It should be here, it was right here." Monroe knows he sounds frantic, but he doesn't care. He loves that cello. It's like an old friend, and it's been with him through a lot of hard times. It's helped him keep his sanity on days when he thought he'd go mad.

"It's fine," Nick says, soothingly, and Monroe shakes his head. "It's not fine, Nick. I don't know where it could—"

"No, Monroe, I mean, I have it." Nick's cheeks color, which happens far more than Monroe would've expected from a grown man over thirty, but it's charming, like so many things about Nick.

"You have my cello?"

"I had Sergeant Wu drop it off at my house. I didn't figure it would be good for it to be outside all night."

Monroe doesn't care how it looks to the nosy neighbors or to the police and agents doing whatever crime scene analysis stuff they do. He puts his arms around Nick and hugs him, hard, because that cello means more to him than all his clocks combined, and there are only a handful of people who might understand. One of them's Phil, and he's back at the hospital checking out his archer.

Nick takes a second to get with the program, but when he does it takes Monroe by surprise. There are hands touching his shoulder blades and Nick's hugging him back with an intensity that makes Monroe thinks this isn't about the cello at all.

"You almost died last night," Nick's whispering against Monroe's shoulder. "They hurt you to get to me, and I should've been there sooner. I should've—"

"There was nothing you could do. It's not your job to protect me."

"I don't care if it's not my job. I should've been there. Do you know how I felt driving up and seeing you, your house—"

"Nick, it doesn't matter."

Monroe means for it to sound normal, reassuring even, but when he takes a breath to tell Nick exactly how much none of that matters, he feels his senses go off-line for a second with how fucking good Nick smells. It's like forked lightning in a dark forest, the sharpness of ozone overlaid with something woodsy and clean as rain. It's all Monroe can do not to bury his face in Nick's neck and groan, and the rest of him wants to do oh so much more than that.

Monroe starts to pull back, but Nick's having none of it, and he's strong in his own right. They must be quite a sight, two grown men clinging to each other in the middle of a broken living room, and the crime scene people seem to have subtly drifted outside. He's always suspected his sense of smell would be his undoing, and this feels like glorious torture, feeling Nick, smelling him, the heat of arousal starting to claw at Monroe's belly.

"Nick, listen." It comes out guttural and heavy with want so obvious even Nick can't help but notice, and Monroe tries again to extricate himself, both of them, from a situation that's rapidly getting out of hand.

Monroe probably should've seen it coming, but he's completely blindsided when Nick suddenly lets him go, only to follow-up with those lovely long-fingered hands cupping his face and dragging him forward into a searing kiss. They hit the section of the wall beside the broken front window and Nick may be shorter and leaner than Monroe, but he's a fucking immovable force when he wants to be.

Right now he seems to want Monroe against the wall where he can lean his whole body flush against Monroe's, wedging a thigh between them. Monroe hasn't gotten hard this fast with so little effort in a long time. Nick's mouth is hot on his, pushy and greedy all at once, and Monroe wants to tell him to slow down, they've got time, except maybe they don't. Maybe this is all they'll ever have before Nick gets married and settles down.

It occurs to Monroe maybe this is goodbye, and he's a good man, but he's not a saint, and he's wanted Nick for the better part of their friendship. He's not too proud to take what's offered, and he'll be damned if he's going to feel guilty about it. He didn't start it, but he's not backing down now. Not unless Nick does first.

Nick's got a hand under Monroe's shirt, fingers stroking frantically over warm skin, twitching at nipples and scraping down ribs. His mouth has migrated to Monroe's exposed neck, soothing the bite marks the Lausenschlange left.

"I wanted to kill someone when I saw your neck," Nick whispers, kissing the bruises. "I wanted to do this."

It hurts, but in the same way a hard run or a good day's labor can, and Monroe pushes against Nick's mouth, wanting more of that exquisite blend of pleasure and ache.

"You can do whatever you want," Monroe promises. The words slip through the tide of lust and adrenaline they've been riding, and Nick just looks at him, swollen mouth and hungry dark eyes.

This is the turning point. Monroe licks his lips, his left hand clenched in the fabric of Nick's shirt, his right index finger hooked through a belt loop, pulling Nick's hips tight against his own.

"Say that again." It's nothing and everything like Nick's voice, and who knew the guy could sound so fucking commanding when he wanted to.

"You can do whatever you want." Monroe repeats the words slowly, meaningfully, and doesn't look away.

Nick leans closer, his eyes never leaving Monroe's. "I want to take you upstairs and fuck you. Right now. That's what I want. Can we do that?"

Monroe kisses him, wet and dirty enough to say, "yeah, we can fucking do that," and it's an effort to make it to the stairs and up to the bedroom without stripping down and doing it right the fuck there, but they manage.

*

Phil and Clint make their way to the car in silence.

Well, it's not exactly silence since they can still hear Monroe and Nick fumbling their way up the stairs with apparent stops for loud kissing, clothing ripping, and a whole lot of filthy promises.

"They obviously didn't consider there's no actual door right now," Phil says, almost conversationally, and Clint can't help but stare.

"That's what you're choosing to focus on?"

Clint would really like to adjust himself, but he settles for putting on his damn seat belt. Phil's gripping the steering wheel a little tighter than is probably healthy for either Phil or the wheel itself.

"What would you prefer I comment on? The surprisingly see-through quality of the window sheeting? Or maybe—" There's a distant crash. "—the fragility of the average household lamp when encountering two males bodies?"

"I thought there was a girlfriend."

Phil shrugs. "You also thought I had a cellist in Portland."

"You do have a cellist in Portland," Clint points out, maybe more sharply than necessary, but at the moment, he can still hear the cellist in question moaning, and he doesn't want to know what Monroe's sex noises sound like if this is foreplay.

"Not the way you thought."

"No," Clint allows. "Not the way I thought." Even with the car windows and doors closed tight, they can hear the moment the wooden headboard slams against the wall. "I honestly don't know whether to be mortified right now or impressed."

"Impressed," Phil says with a saucy grin, and seriously, Clint is thinking about denying Coulson sex before they've even started having it because he did not need a visual of Phil and Monroe with a soundtrack of house-damaging sex sounds.

"I'll give you something to be fucking impressed with," Clint mutters, wondering if it's too early on to be threatening someone with amazingly good sex, "but if you don't put this car in gear and drive right the fuck now, I'm getting out and running as far away as I can get while sticking my fingers in my ears and making 'la, la, la' sounds."

Phil starts the car. Clint's pretty sure he sees a sweaty palm slap against the upstairs window as they're driving away, and the house seems to quiver with the impact. Clint would, in fact, not be surprised to see the whole thing collapse in a sweaty, sated heap in the rear view mirror, but he's not going to mention it to Phil because he's far too likely at this point to grin at him and agree, which is only going to piss Clint off.

"Where are we going?" Clint finally asks when he realizes they didn't have much of a plan beyond "go to Monroe's and pick up Phil's stuff," and the couple trying to have sex in the house pretty much made that impossible.

"The motel."

Of course they are. Clint's life is a cruel parody of a romantic comedy. He tries to keep his breathing steady. "Fuck."

"If you want," Phil says.

This time Clint bangs his head gently against the window, and doesn't even try to hide the fact he's adjusting his dick.

*

Monroe thinks he'll probably be able to convince his State Farm insurance rep that some of the most intense fighting took place in the bedroom. There are two smashed lamps, a trail of discarded clothing, and Monroe's relatively certain they just broke an oak headboard. It was worth it.

Nick's sprawled out in an exhausted puddle beside Monroe. He's covered in love bites, and Monroe hopes Nick doesn't freak out when he sees them. He hadn't realized he'd been quite that, um, thorough, considering it had felt a little like having sex at warp speed. Monroe's a little unclear on the exact sequence of events, but there had been Nick's hands, Nick's tongue, Nick's fingers, Nick's hard cock, and quite frankly, order isn't important. Monroe's still reeling from the fact they just had oak-cracking sex, and he wonders if he'll be able to convince Nick to have more of it before he comes to his senses and runs home to Juliette. (The bites are really going to be a problem if that happens.)

"You're staring at me," Nick says, eyes closed.

"It's you or a bunch of broken furniture, and you're much prettier." The smile that brings is a reward in itself, and Monroe mentally pats himself on the back.

"Did we break the bed?"

"Just the headboard." Monroe can see the crack in the wood above his head, and he knows his Blutbad self is stronger than he is, but he's totally blaming Nick for that one.

"I really thought we broke the bed." Nick sounds almost disappointed, and Monroe leans over to kiss his smug mouth. It's perfect, warm and relaxed, and Monroe could kiss Nick like this all day.

"Next time," Monroe promises, pleased when there's an arch to Nick's back, and a definite show of interest from other parts. "It's good to have goals."

*

Clint hasn't felt like this since he was a teenager. Maybe not even then. He's always been a pretty free-spirited guy when it comes to sex—spending one's teen years in the circus surrounded by attractive, bendable people will do that to a person—so he's not sure what's going on now that he's alone in a motel room with the person he's been wanting to get into bed for more years than Clint wants to count.

"We don't have to do anything," Phil's voice soothes from the other side of the bathroom door. Clint couldn't feel more like a teenage girl if he tried.

"It's fine. Just—just give me a minute."

Clint splashes cold water on his face. He's almost forty for Christ's sakes, not fourteen. He's got this. He reaches for the door knob and stops.

Nope. He really, really doesn't.

"Clint, talk to me."

Phil sounds exactly the way he does when they're on an op and he's not sure what's got Clint tied up in knots. He's projecting patience and calm, and Clint closes his eyes, takes a few deep breaths, and tries to get his heart to stop doing the rumba.

He's an international covert assassin. He's faced down warlords and drug cartels and fucking alien invasion forces. He's friends with Tony Stark, the Hulk, and Natasha Romanov, and that is not something a cowardly man could say. He does not panic over the mere possibility of sex with someone he's head over heels for.

"Do you want me to leave?" Phil asks, his voice quiet, and that's apparently the push Clint needs. It doesn't do anything to stop the rising flood of panic in his system, but he gets the bathroom door open and his hands on Phil.

"No," Clint says, sure of this if nothing else. "I don't want you to leave."

Phil gives him a small genuine smile and nods. "How about an early dinner then? There's a nice place not that far from here. Great view. I think you'll like it."

Clint's agreeing before he can consider other options, then they're out the door with Phil's hand on the small of Clint's back and into the car. Phil keeps up a surprisingly detailed patter while they drive, and it's obvious he knows Portland pretty well, pointing out historical landmarks as if he's lived here all his life.

"I spent a lot of time biking around here," Phil says when Clint asks.

Of course, he could be making it all up just to fill the air with something that isn't silence. It's not as if Clint would know the difference, but it doesn't really matter.

They end up at a highrise hotel with a rooftop restaurant. Not one of those that spins, but it doesn't matter because the whole place is windows and the view is spectacular, as promised. The booths are all constructed on different levels, surrounded by real plants, and it gives the illusion of being alone even in the midst of a busy restaurant. Clint laughs when Phil tells him the restaurant's called The Treehouse. Phil really knows his comfort zones too damn well, but Clint's grateful.

They share a bottle of wine—something mid-priced that Phil selects—and by the time their meals arrive Clint's halfway through regaling Phil with tales from his road trip with Natasha, and most of the tension is gone. Clint can't explain it, and it certainly isn't because sex is off the table, not with the way Phil keeps looking at him while they talk, all intensity and focus.

They watch the sun drift lower in the sky and when the sun sets over the water, the whole vista seems to burn with it. It's gorgeous in a completely different way from New York's skyline, and Clint isn't at all self-conscious when he reaches for Phil's hand, lacing their fingers together. They order dessert and coffee, and Clint's never had a dinner date this long. No one seems to think it's strange, though, and so they trade tastes of dessert, and Clint automatically starts scheming to get more of Phil's tiramisu because frankly, it's like eating a sugar-coffee-brandy cloud, and Clint might be in love with more than Phil.

"Stay away from my tiramisu," Phil says, cupping one hand protectively around the crystal dessert dish, and raising his fork like a weapon in the other.

This is how Clint learns Phil's frighteningly good at fending off an attack—with cutlery—and Clint's got a dozen little pinprick holes in his hand from where Phil's jabbed him with the fork, all the while scarfing down tiramisu and licking whipped cream off his lips. Clint's reconsidered that not only is sex not off the table, there's a possibility it's going to be on the table in about thirty seconds if Phil keeps doing that thing with his tongue and the whipped cream.

There's maybe a couple of spoonfuls left when Phil slides the rest of the dessert across to Clint, who is not too proud to grab what he's given. He's about to do something lewd with a spoonful of whipped cream when Phil reaches across and lifts Clint's fork-punctured hand to his lips, kissing the tiny red marks as if they're hard-won badges of honor.

"We should—" Clint stops to clear his throat, and drops the spoon back onto the remaining tiramisu. "We should maybe think about—"

"Yeah, I think we should."

A waiter appears from somewhere out of the greenery the moment Phil raises his hand, and there's an exchange of credit cards, signatures, and pleasantries before they end up in the down elevator with ten other restaurant patrons.

"Could someone press fifteen please?" Phil says. Clint gives him a look, but the elevator's crowded so he doesn't exactly want to ask what's going on. Maybe Phil saw something.

The doors slide open on fifteen, which appears to be part of the hotel. Clint would've just kept staring at the ornate hallway if Phil hadn't given him a solid push forward.

"What are we—" Clint isn't sure he's finished a sentence recently, but Phil seems to be reading his mind, so it's okay. There's a key card in Phil's raised fingers, and Clint lets himself be guided along the hall to a numbered doorway at the end.

"I took the liberty," Phil says. "I hope you don't mind."

Clint leans in and kisses him in answer.

*

Monroe will admit, if anyone cares to ask, he's waiting for the other shoe to drop. The punchline. He's been waiting since the after-glow faded from the first round. Truthfully, it was more like after the second round and the amazing nap that followed, but it's been nagging at him pretty consistently since then.

Nick sticks his head out of the bathroom, rubbing his wet hair with a towel. "You ready to grab some food and get out of here?"

Monroe's first instinct is to say no. Even though there's no door on the house, plastic on the living room windows, and occasional intrusions from various law enforcement divisions, Monroe doesn't want to leave. They've been in a hazy, pleasant bubble of sex and denial all day, and Monroe isn't quite ready to pull up stakes and roll the wagons out. If this is all he gets, he's going to hang on to it for as long as humanly possible.

"Hey, Monroe, did you hear me?"

"Yeah, yeah, sustenance is good. I'm sure there's something in the kitchen—"

Nick comes out of the bathroom looking clean and awake, smelling of Monroe's shampoo. "The kitchen's attached to the living room which currently has no door. There's going to be a unit on hand during the night, so don't worry about your stuff."

"I'm not worried about my stuff," Monroe mutters.

"Is this about Phil?"

"Is what about Phil?"

Nick comes close, his face grave. "I know things kind of went off plan today, but you've only got a day or so before Phil heads back to New York. If you want to see him, that's cool."

"I've got to give him his stuff back," Monroe says, gesturing to the black bag in the corner. Monroe had brought it in here rather than leave it in the spare room. It's just clothes and such—Phil had collected his gun and taken it with him—but Monroe still feels responsible for it.

"Didn't you say he sent a text saying he'd get everything tomorrow? There's no need to stay here any longer. We can give Phil a shout and hand over the goods in the morning."

"I have to find somewhere to stay," Monroe admits, hating that it sounds like a hint, but he needs to know what's happening here. What Nick thinks this is.

Nick looks at him oddly. "You can stay at my place. Is that what you're worried about? Of course you can stay, Monroe."

It sounds so simple when Nick says it. Grab some food, maybe drop by Nick's house and pick up his cello, or hey, why not stay for the night? Monroe can feel the giddy wave of hypocrisy threatening to overtake him. Sure, that's exactly what he wants.

Hey, Juliette, he'll say. Thanks for letting me borrow your couch for a few nights. You don't mind that I slept with Nick, do you? Awesome!

The laugh that slips out sounds just shy of hysterical, and he's got Nick's full attention now. Perfect. All the pinpoint energy of a police detective and a Grimm aimed in his direction.

"What's wrong?" There's a cool hand against his forehead. "Are you feeling light-headed? Dizzy? Do you want to sit down?"

"What's Juliette going to say?" Monroe blurts out because he's never known when to keep his mouth shut.

"It's a little late to be worrying about that, isn't it?" Nick asks.

His voice is calm, collected. Nick doesn't sound like someone who's worried about how his fiancee's going to react, but he also doesn't sound like someone who wants to pretend it never happened. Monroe feels the slide of Nick's cool hand against his cheek.

"She left, Monroe."

"You didn't tell me."

"There wasn't any time. She was packing her things and telling me all the reasons it could've worked if I'd just been there for her when I heard your address on the police scanner, and ... I got in the truck and drove like hell."

"Dude," Monroe says. He's got a pretty good idea how that must've gone over. The concept of "lead balloon" doesn't even begin to describe it.

Nick shrugs. "It proved her point. My life's changed. I'm not the same guy I was when she met me. She thought you were more important to me than she was, and she was right."

"Oh," Monroe says. He liked Juliette, but he'll be the first to admit he was jealous of what she had with Nick. It's funny to think she'd felt the same way about him, jealous of his place in Nick's life. The universe is a pretty screwed-up place.

"Monroe?" Nick's got his hands on Monroe's hips now, and he's holding him close enough it's impossible to misinterpret what's happening between them. "I'm not really the kind of guy who does unfaithful, but I wouldn't have slept with you if Juliette was still part of my life. The split's been coming for a long time; I kept hanging on because it felt like the only thing 'normal' left in my life."

Monroe's never been fond of being in the "not normal" category, but he lets it slide. "What about now?"

Nick kisses him fiercely. "We make a new kind of normal. Together. We're pretty good at figuring things out as we go, and even when things go to hell, I'd still rather it be with you."

Monroe loops his arms around Nick's shoulders and draws him close, breathing his scent. "There's something you should probably know."

Nick's grinning even before he speaks. "I already know you snore, you bite, and when you come, you growl, which is really kind of hot."

"I also don't share."

Nick's response is immediate. "Neither do I. If it helps, you haven't been sharing me with anyone for quite a while now."

Monroe flashes Nick a grin because, yeah, it's a small thing, but it helps the part of his brain that says you find your mate and stick to her. Or him, as the case may be.

"Now can we get food?" Nick asks. "I'm starving, and I need to keep my strength up."

"Oh, why's that?"

"Because I never know when I'm going to need to rescue your ass." Nick nips the side of Monroe's neck playfully. More quietly, he says, "You know why. Come on."

Monroe follows him down the steps, admiring the way Nick's jeans fit the curve of his hips exactly right. He catches up to him on the porch, and slips a hand in one of Nick's back pockets, leaning over to kiss him once more just because he can.

In spite of the wreck of a house they're leaving behind, Monroe feels pretty damn happy. All things considered, he's had weeks that have been a hell of a lot worse.

*

"Let me look at you," Clint says after they've spent several long moments kissing, undressing each other with quiet surety in the half-dark room.

The moon's just passing full, and with the curtains open, it's bright in their suite, bright enough for Clint to catalog the new scars on Phil's naked body as they stand beside the bed. One scar above and to the side of his heart, a matching mark on his back where the scepter plunged in and tore back out. Clint's seen the security footage because he needed to know exactly what went down in the aftermath of him leading Loki aboard. It's at least partially on him, and nothing Phil or Tasha or the psych department says about mind-control and consent is going to completely erase that debt.

"They're not pretty," Phil says, but he doesn't try to dissuade Clint from looking at the damaged skin.

"Yeah, because I'm only interested in you because you're pretty," Clint snorts.

Phil lets him touch, lets him memorize the wounds with fingers and mouth, because they both have their scars and it's best to acknowledge they exist. Clint eases Phil back onto the king-size bed, lies down close and touches: shoulders, abdomen, ribs, arms, cheeks, throat.

"You're beautiful," Clint says, and he doesn't need much light to know there's an eye-roll happening across from him.

"You're biased."

"Biased doesn't mean I'm wrong."

Clint lets his fingers trace and retrace the fine lines of Phil's skin, the muscles he's built up over years of field work, the taut thighs that are thanks to cycling and swimming, and occasionally running for their lives. He drops a delicate line of kisses down Phil's sternum all the way to his belly, pleased with the almost fully hard cock nestled in wiry dark hair. Clint carefully nudges Phil's legs wider, settles down between them and buries his face in the musky hair.

"You smell fantastic."

Phil's hands drift over Clint's blond hair, the back of his neck. All their touches feel lazy now, as if each is as important as any other, and Clint thinks maybe this is what true arousal is, touches so profoundly adoring that every nerve in the body is singing with it. Clint's been the one mostly doing the touching, but he's as hard as Phil and leaking against the sheets even without more external stimulation.

He thinks it's entirely possible he could come just from touching Phil like this—learning the subtle shifts of his skin, the small moans and stuttering breaths. Clint wants to touch and kiss and lick, and he smiles when he sucks Phil's cock lightly. It's enough to make the man beneath him arch into the touch without reservation, and Clint lifts Phil's hips gently and tucks a pillow beneath him before he continues on.

"God, you've got a fantastic mouth," Phil says, the words pulled out of him as though on a kite string.

They're both sweating a little, even though they haven't done much more than making out. Clint alternates between long wet slides of his pursed lips down Phil's shaft, and full, flat licks that leave Phil wet from cock to balls. He experiments with sucking the soft curves of Phil's balls, with licking around and into his tight pinkness, with sucking Phil's cock while sliding two glossy lubed fingers inside him.

The range of sounds is exquisite, and Clint thinks each one is better than the last because it's Phil, and making him lose control is all about small victories. The way he whispers Clint's name over and over. The way he lets "fuck" slip breathlessly from his mouth as he grabs Clint's head and drags him down, Phil's hips bucking up in erratic punches, trying as hard as he can to get deeper into Clint's warm mouth.

"I spent the first two years trying to get you to talk, and the next eight trying to get you to shut up," Phil says, tangling his fingers in Clint's hair.

"And how many of those years fantasizing about what else my mouth could do?"

Phil grins. "All of them."

Clint relaxes his jaw, takes everything Phil gives, and when he's certain Phil's right on the edge, he pushes four fingers in fast and hard, his aim in this as good as it is anywhere else.

"Fuck, Clint, you—fuck!"

Phil's coming down Clint's throat, hips a half a foot off the bed, heels dug in, and his voice is a jumble of expletives in languages that aren't English. Clint's pretty damn pleased with himself, and Phil doesn't argue.

"Gold star, Barton," he says when Clint surfaces to kiss him again, the taste of himself in Clint's mouth a turn-on he'd never counted on.

Clint wanted to look and touch, but Phil wants to touch and talk. Clint gives himself over to Phil's meticulous hands, relaxing into each appreciative touch, listening for the things Phil's saying that aren't idle chatter or distraction.

"Touching you's the only way I know for sure you're alright," Phil admits, tracing ribs and hipbones with gun-calloused fingertips. "Medical's the only time I have a legitimate excuse to touch you, and there were so many times I wanted to put my hands all over you so I would know you were alive."

"You don't need excuses to touch me. You have something better. Permission."

By the time Phil's done with his survey of Clint's body, carefully avoiding the thin red scabs from the scythe blade, Clint's almost painfully hard, and Phil's showing signs of renewed interest.

"I really want to feel you inside me," Phil whispers against Clint's mouth, and Clint nods because, yeah, he wants that too. But he doesn't want to hurt Phil or overdo it. His body's been through enough trauma, and Clint refuses to add more. Clint's been called reckless more than a few times in his life, not without good reason, but he's not prepared to take unnecessary risks with Phil.

"Here," Clint says, and repositions himself sitting up, weight on his knees, back against the headboard. The lube's dripping everywhere, but all Clint can do is laugh because he'd rather they were sliding together like oily seals than risk not using enough on himself or Phil.

"That's the least sexy image you've ever presented," Phil says, but it doesn't stop him from kissing Clint hard, biting his lower lip enough to make him cry out, then soothing it afterwards.

Clint's hands are gorgeous and strong with long-tapered fingers. He uses one hand to steady Phil as he gets ready to sink down onto Clint's condom-wrapped cock, and the other is holding himself rigid and at the right angle to make this as easy as possible for Phil. When he sinks right down onto Clint's thighs, Clint thinks this is going to last an embarrassingly short time.

"You set the pace," Clint murmurs, kissing Phil's chest as he feels him shifting, adjusting to the hard length of Clint inside him. "Whatever you need, Phil. However much you can do."

"I'm cleared for normal activities, you know."

"With all due respect, sir," Clint says, feeling Phil shiver at the word, "sex with me hardly counts as a normal activity."

"I'm hoping we can change that," Phil says.

It sounds like a promise to Clint, and he's good with that. He's too old to be on the fence about what he wants in a relationship, and he doesn't have a problem with the thought of regular sex with Phil. He didn't think he'd ever see him again, so every thing Clint gets—a smile, a kiss, a touch—feels like a gift, and he'll fight to be able to have this all the time. They've both waited a long time, put their own wants and needs on hold for the good of the service, the country, the world. Clint figures it's time they took a little something for themselves.

Phil's starting to find a rhythm, his hands clenched on Clint's shoulders. He's kissing Clint like he wants to climb inside him, and Clint's starting to feel the pressure building in his spine, his gut.

"You're not going to hurt me, Clint," Phil whispers, starting to clench his muscles with every slide. Clint's eyes roll back in his head for a second, and he's got two handfuls of Phil's solid ass.

"You're sure?"

"I'm absolutely positive."

Clint covers Phil's mouth with his own, sucks on his tongue the way he'd sucked his cock earlier, and Phil obviously remembers because he gives a full-body shudder and moans. Clint takes advantage of Phil's distraction to tip him toward the middle of the bed, Clint cushioning Phil's landing with arms wrapped around him.

He feels Phil hitch his own legs higher, wider, and Clint's got the leverage and the motivation to move past the smolder of heat he's been feeling for the last several minutes. He wants so much more. He wants the rough friction of two bodies slapping together. He loves the way Phil's muscles seem to work at pulling him deeper, making him thrust hard and steady until there's sweat dripping down his face and his chest, Phil's hands rubbing over his nipples and back, telling him it's okay.

"Clint, come on," Phil says, and there's no doubt his cock's happy to be involved. Phil's got a hand on it, stroking in time with Clint's thrusts, and seeing the pleasure on Phil's face, the absolute ease with which he'll let Clint see him like this, overwhelms his senses. He digs his fingers in to Phil's solid hips and fucks him with a half-dozen hard, slamming thrusts until Clint's cock is twitching hot and milky in its condom, and Phil manages a shaky second coming on the heels of Clint's first.

Neither of them moves, settling through the tiny aftershocks, and then comes the process of extricating themselves from each other without jarring anyone's injuries. They manage pretty well, but then again, they've both had lots of practice with injury care. They get cleaned up and slide back into bed beneath amazingly silky sheets, bodies automatically gravitating to one another until they're a comfortable cocoon of two.

"I'm glad you didn't run," Phil says finally, and Clint realizes they're going to talk about what happened—or didn't happen—at the motel. He'd been hoping they could just forget about his momentary insanity, but he should've known Phil couldn't resist an opportunity to debrief their love life.

"I think Tasha deliberately chose a place where the bathroom windows are too small to get out of," Clint acknowledges, trying to keep it light.

"I would've waited until you were ready. However long you needed."

Clint nods because what can he say to that, really? They've both been waiting far longer than two grown men should have to and it's their own inability to talk about their emotions that's to blame. They're probably going to have more than a few monumental fuck-ups before they get this right, but this is the first time Clint's honestly wanted to weather the storms with someone in order to get those moments of perfect sunshine.

"And for the record," Phil adds, "I wasn't necessarily bucking to be able to say our first time was at The Palms Motor Hotel either, but the bed and where it was, was never the important part."

"Location, location, location."

Clint thinks that's part of it. He hadn't really freaked out until they'd been kissing their way over to polyester floral spreads and threadbare sheets, and it had occurred to him he wanted to be able to give Phil something so much more than a quick and dirty romp. Phil deserved the best of everything.

"This is pretty fucking nice, though," Clint says, glancing around the huge room. He doesn't actually want to know what this is costing.

"Fury owes me," Phil says. Again with the mind-reading. Clint wonders if he should be worrying how freaking good Phil is at that. "I've decided to collect at least some of it via my expense account."

"You're saying you put our first date on your expense account?"

"I can neither confirm nor deny that statement."

Phil's eyes are twinkling as he says it, and Clint wonders when he started thinking things like that. Eyes. Twinkling. He used to be a bad-ass, and now there's twinkling. Phil is to blame for so much.

But Clint knows Fury's no fool. He's going to see right through that expense voucher in about a tenth of a second, and Clint isn't sure how he feels about letting the director in on their change of relationship status. The man lied to them. Greater good or not, Clint's not certain he's ready to forgive.

"Besides, our first date was more likely August, 2002. You wore purple and put an arrow through my best Dolce & Gabbana suit jacket—the only designer suit I owned at the time, I might add—"

"And you put a bullet through my leg," Clint reminds him, his hand drifting unconsciously down to the almost invisible scar on his thigh.

"It was a small caliber," Phil says. "Hardly even worth noticing." But Phil's fingers still unerringly find the mark and rub it gently, an apology in the touch.

"You shot me. Then asked me to come work for you."

"You said yes," Phil points out smugly.

"That might've been the morphine talking, you know."

"I think it was because you found me irresistible."

"Nope, I'm pretty sure it was because I was drugged to the gills and threatened with arrest and prison if I didn't join your merry band of secret agents."

"Irresistible."

Clint suspects Phil's right. Even that first night, he'd thought Phil was the most interesting person he'd met in a long time, and he was intrigued enough, in spite of the bullet wound—hell, because of the bullet wound—to want to find out more. It's not easy to minimize damage with a bullet at close range, but Phil had managed to wound him with amazing precision, and maybe it was right there Clint started to fall a little in love with him. He'll never admit that to Phil, though, at least not out loud, so he kisses him instead, and Phil takes the victory with grace.

They lie there for a while, drifting, when Clint feels eyes on him. He lifts one eyelid and yup, Phil's staring at him with a look Clint can't quite place.

"Phil?"

"I love you." It's so matter-of-fact, so Phil to just put something important out there, laying his cards on the table, and Clint gives him the courtesy of both eyes open and his full attention even though his pulse rate has gone ballistic. "When I thought I was dying, when I had no idea whether Tasha could get you back or not, I realized how stupid it was not to say something."

Phil's thumb brushes lightly over Clint's bottom lip, a kind of reverence in the touch. "I thought it was regret, at first, when I woke up, that I'd never said anything to you, but that wasn't it. I didn't regret the past—all the missions, all the time we've spent together. It was more like I was disappointed there might not be any more in the future, and that—that was unacceptable."

Clint smiles and nips at Phil's thumb. "You know I hate it when I have to admit to being an adult, but ..."

"Yes?"

"Is it possible we've grown up?" Clint shakes his head to stave off what's clearly going to be a stab at his maturity. He knows maybe the incident at the motel isn't necessarily evidence of him being a mature, responsible person capable of an adult relationship, but he understands everything that Phil just said and it makes perfect sense to him. "I mean, I've done fast and stupid and reckless with people. It's fun. It has its place. But, I never wanted that with you. I never wanted it to be over, and it seemed more important to have you in my life than to have you, if that makes sense?"

"When did you get to be so smart?" Phil asks, laying a kiss on Clint's lips.

"I've always been smart," Clint says, waggling his eyebrows. "I just hide it well."

"You really do."

"Hey!"

Phil kisses him again, longer this time, and with the barest hint of tongue. "I love you."

"I'm getting that," Clint says. "I—I do too, you know." Even that acknowledgment is making his throat go dry. "But I might need a little more time to convince myself you're not going to leave me."

They both know Clint isn't talking about breaking up. Phil died, and it's a genuine possibility in their line of work that it's going to happen again, sooner rather than later.

"I won't leave you." Phil's voice is absolutely solid with conviction. "Not by choice, and not because of orders, either. Not again."

"Because you love me."

"Now you're getting it," Phil says, settling against Clint's bare shoulder, trying to hide a yawn. "So you know, I've been waking up with nightmares. Don't take it personally if I have my panic attack in the morning."

"I'll do my best. I haven't been sleeping all that well, either."

"It'll get better."

"It's already better than it was, Phil," Clint says, holding him a little tighter.

"Because you love me?" Phil's voice is soft, but there doesn't seem to be any doubt in his voice.

"Yeah, I do."

*

Portland's SHIELD field office is a rented floor in an old brick building that looks like it used to be a post office. Or possibly a jail.

"I like the bars on the windows," Clint says, his hand coming away with a fine sheen of rust. "It gives the place a certain charm the New York office lacks."

Phil, looking every inch his professional self in a perfectly pressed navy suit, ignores Clint and turns back to the five junior agents who seem to be the entire Portland contingent.

The debrief goes something like this:

"Under no circumstances are you to discuss the events of the last few days with anyone outside of this field office, excluding myself or Agent Barton. Copies of your filed field reports, marked 'Clearance Level 7 or above,' should be encrypted and sent directly to me at the New York office."

Junior Agent #1, big and blond, who Clint thinks looks a little like a Captain-America-in-training, raises his hand. Clint almost laughs out loud except he knows what that minute twitch of Coulson's brow means, and Clint can't afford to get shot right now.

"Agent Stanley, it's not necessary to raise your hand. What's your question?"

"Sir, I know it's probably a mistake, but I was verifying your information with the New York office, as per protocols, and—well, they say you're dead, sir."

"That's correct," Phil says without missing a beat. "Anything else?"

"Should our reports be double-spaced?" the nerdy junior agent in the back asks, and this time Clint doesn't bother to hold back the laughter.

It's totally worth the slap to the back of the head it earns him.

*

Lunch is a strangely low-key affair. After the visit to the SHIELD office, Phil and Clint meet Nick and Monroe at a local pub. The beer and the coffee have passed both Phil and Monroe's exacting standards for consumption, the food's freshly made, and Clint's a little in love with the decor, which seems to be a cross between a movie prop house and a genuine medieval weapons locker.

"I know it's a little eclectic, but I like it," Nick says when he notices Clint eyeing a double crossbow hanging from the ceiling. "In a pinch, it's a great place to score a Doppelarmbrust in a hurry."

"Cool." Clint wonders if they can postpone their departure a little. He really wants to get up on the rafters and check out what looks like it might be a Welsh longbow.

"Feet on the floor at all times." Phil doesn't even look up from his menu. "Or I'll personally make sure your range time gets cut in half when we get back."

"Man, he must be an absolute peach to work with," Monroe says.

Clint drops his eyes from the ceiling over to where Phil's studiously trying to ignore him.

"It has its moments."

*

Phil watches Nick and Clint shake hands before heading to their respective vehicles.

"I can't even begin to imagine the trouble the two of them could get into if left to their own devices," Phil says, shaking his head.

"Well, let's do our best to limit their alone time, okay?" Monroe replies.

He hands Phil his bag. It's heavier than Phil remembers, and he shoots an enquiring glance in Monroe's direction.

"I might've slipped in some brews for you and Robin Hood to try. You can let me know which ones you like."

"Thanks."

Phil reaches into his pocket and pulls out a single CD in a blank case and passes it over. "It's to make up for some of the, um, more questionable selections that might've appeared in your music library recently."

"Nothing can make up for Justin Bieber." Monroe shudders.

"That wasn't me," Phil says, glad to know it apparently wasn't Monroe either. He'd been worried enough to wonder if he should be asking about recent blows to the head.

"That son of a bitch."

Monroe's eyes flash towards the truck as Phil starts to laugh. Phil likes Nick; he likes even more that there's no more fiancee in the picture to complicate things between Nick and Monroe. Phil thinks with all the weird going on in Portland, they're going to need each other, and Phil's never been one to underestimate the importance of having someone you trust to watch your back.

"What's this?" Monroe holds up the CD.

Phil's not big on gifts—or friends, in general—but Monroe's seen him through a lot of craziness, and Phil couldn't think of any other way to say thank you that would show how much Monroe's friendship means to him.

"You're aware my mother was a cellist," Phil says, ignoring the tremor in his voice.

"Of course."

"It's the only recording she made of herself playing solo. It's from a practice session, I think, so it's not perfect, and the sound quality's a little inconsistent—"

"Phil."

"It's mostly classical, bits and pieces of things, but she played beautifully. Like you do. I thought you might like it."

"Phil." Monroe gathers him into a careful hug, and Phil lets him. "If I didn't think your archer would shoot me with one of his paranoid silver arrows, I'd kiss you."

"He might shoot you anyway," Phil says, catching a glimpse of Clint's face through the car window. He looks ... concerned, but not exactly in a jealous kind of way. Maybe a little.

"Well, in that case," Monroe says, leaning his forehead against Phil's, and turning them enough Clint's view is going to be at least partially obscured. Phil hears the car door opening, and he smiles, pressing a kiss against Monroe's bearded cheek.

"Thank you. For everything."

"Likewise," Monroe says, releasing him. He turns around and gives a cheerful wave to Clint, who's leaning against the side of the Acura, trying to look nonchalant. He's failing miserably, and Phil can't say he minds the odd show of possessiveness. It's flattering, more so because he knows it's not a ploy for attention. Clint could have anyone he wants, but for some reason he wants Phil, and Phil's absolutely fine with that.

"You know, Phil," Monroe says, even as he's ambling away, "you can visit any time you want. Portland's a nice town, even with the strangeness. You don't have to be dead to have a good time here."

"I'll keep that in mind."

When Phil reaches the car, Clint's already strapped into the driver's seat, sunglasses in place, appearing to not have a care in the world. "Airport?" he asks, guiding the car into traffic.

Phil nods and leans back against the seat, sliding his own dark glasses into place. He moves his hand over Clint's thigh, leaving it rest there. It's comfortable, and Phil thinks he's going to like being able to do this now. He's earned it, and he's damn well not going to pretend it isn't happening.

If someone had tried to tell him the most mature, adult relationship of his life was going to be with Clint Barton, he would've laughed at them, but Phil's starting to think maybe Clint's right. They've both grown up a lot in the ten years they've known each other, and if they'd tried this back in the beginning, or even halfway through, it would've been a completely different thing. Not necessarily bad, but definitely more fraught.

This feels better. It feels right. As if maybe for once, their timing isn't complete crap.

"Phil? You okay?" Clint's right hand has slipped from the wheel to cover Phil's left where it's still resting on Clint's thigh. He gives a quick squeeze.

"Perfect," he says, and means it. "Let's go home."

 

THE END