It starts with a low-voiced comment Clint doesn't understand, spoken over an empty grave.
"You know, I envy you."
There is a moment's frozen silence, an indrawn breath measured in full seconds, before Clint turns to face Sitwell. He is grimly stoic, good cover for grief and fury, when he grits out, "You want to explain that, Sitwell?"
And Sitwell gets it, he really does, because who would envy Clint now, standing at the edge of his lover's (partner's? friend's? handler's? all that and more?) grave waiting for a body or some sort of deliverance? And yet, there it is.
Sitwell says, "You get to mourn him."
He's not expecting a good reaction to that, not expecting Clint to understand. He's braced to duck a swing or maybe step sideways if Clint decides to be more direct, but all the other man does is growl, "What's that supposed to mean?"
Clint has tells, though, and Sitwell knows most of them. He can see knuckles white in clenched fists, tension at the corners of Clint's eyes, the way his mouth tugs downward, taut at the edges. Clint is a contradiction, hot-headed free-wheeler in a profession that demands coolness and precision; he has a remarkable amount of control and he's exercising most of it now.
Sitwell has perhaps paid more attention to Clint Barton than is strictly necessary.
He tries to think of a way to appropriately explain what he means. It isn't that Clint can mourn him, exactly, or that Sitwell can't. It's just a question of something intangible, something he is struggling to voice.
"It's fine for you," he says, finally, and recognizes immediately that it's a mistake from the miniscule shift in Clint's posture, the way the bloodlessness spreads over his hands as he tightens his fists. He continues. "I mean, nobody questions it if you're upset. Hell, you were his…" he trails off, searching for a word that doesn't leave him irrationally frustrated, but doesn't find one. "You get to mourn him," he concludes instead. "The rest of us are just expected to go right back to work when this is over. Like we don't care, like he was just another stuffed shirt behind a shiny, wooden desk."
"They give us mandatory counselling," is Clint's reply. It takes Sitwell a moment to realize how that fits in with the things he was saying.
"We have it, too, but what good is it? Really?" He's a fairly by-the-book employee at S.H.I.E.L.D., attends all the mandatory sessions, briefings, staff meetings, brown bag lunches, but even Sitwell sometimes wonders what the point of some of it is. Talking about his feelings isn't going to help anyone, and it's faintly embarrassing every time the staff counsellors pass him in the hallways.
Sometimes, he wishes he were more like Clint. He'd like to have the wherewithal to say no once in a while, the sheer intestinal fortitude not to show up for a scheduled appointment. Clint's got brass balls and Sitwell admires it.
There are other reasons he wishes he were more like Clint, but they are hardly relevant at the moment.
Clint's chuckle is bitter, is dark and shaded with something that makes Sitwell almost nervous, when he replies, "I'm with you on that." Sitwell has to think to remember the last thing he said.
"Thing is," he says, made bold by Clint's leaden laughter, "everyone figures it's valid for you to, you know. Because the Avengers were his pet project. Because he… because it was on your mission. Because you and he had a… thing." It's not that Sitwell doesn't know what their relationship is – was – it's just that, for some reason, he's reluctant to put it into stark, clear, boundary-defining words. "They forget," he says instead, rushing ahead so that Clint has no time to respond, "that we worked with him, too. They forget that he was our friend."
It starts there, with Clint's hand on his shoulder as Phil Coulson is lowered into a six-foot-deep hole in the ground and covered over with new earth.
It starts there, at a good Irish wake for a good Irish man, where Clint and Sitwell both try a little too hard to forget, and succeed a little too well.
It starts there, the next day, when Clint nods at Sitwell in the corridor and neither one of them says a word about the previous evening.
Fury gives them two weeks of aimless drifting before he summons the Avengers together and informs them that Sitwell will be their new handler.
Under cover of the eyepatch, Clint shoots an accusing glare at Sitwell. Sitwell shrugs helplessly back; this is the first he's heard of it, too. Of course he knew someone was going to have to replace Phil, and sooner, rather than later. They were all expecting it to be Agent Hill, though. They were so sure they didn't even bother starting up an office pool.
Their gazes are all on him now, varying degrees of hesitance and uncertainty and disbelief and outright hostility; it feels like a particularly bright, judgmental spotlight and he can't help but blink against it. Fury is asking him to fill Agent Coulson's shoes – shoes that took the Avengers from wanting to kill one another to saving the planet – and Sitwell is under no illusions that he is ready, or that he is welcome.
Might as well be straight-up about it; if he wants their respect, he'd damn well better start earning it.
"You didn't want this," he says to them, which is true. "I didn't want it either. Not this way, at least." Not at all, not really; he was happy spending his life as an ordinary S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, but saying that to the team would be horrendously unprofessional; Phil would disapprove. "But we're stuck with each other now. So I'll do my job, and you do yours." He manages to stop himself from tacking on an 'and' to the end of his sentence, because it doesn't feel like a complete thought, but he has no idea what else he would add. The last thing he wants to do, remembering Phil's precise phrasing, his economy of speech, is end up babbling like an idiot.
It's Captain Rogers who saves his ass, standing up and facing the team. "The world doesn't need heroes any less than it did before," he says. "Agent Coulson didn't do what he did so that we could fight one battle and then decide we were done. What kind of testament is that?"
Nods around the table show that he's getting through. Thor brings a hand down onto the table (palm open, not fisted, so he's getting better) and says, "We fight!" Clint nods again, seriously, and Bruce looks away without making eye contact, because fighting means something a little different to him. But he's here; he answered Fury's summons and he hasn't left yet, so Sitwell thinks maybe he can count that as a positive.
Fury looks at Sitwell and there's a slight edge of amusement to it, glinting somewhere at the edge of his gaze, in the imperceptible upturn at the corner of his mouth. "Think you can handle this?" he asks.
"Sir, yes, sir," Sitwell replies, because over-eagerness has always been a minor downfall of his and because he can. Phil Coulson gave a lot to assemble this team – gave everything to get them to cooperate – and Sitwell is going to carry on that work. Anything else would be letting him down.
They sit in awkward silence for a minute, until Sitwell realizes Fury is waiting for him to dismiss the meeting that the director called. He mutters something, "okay, we're done here," feeling like he's overstepping already, but the Avengers get up from the conference table and clear out in a noisy clatter (with the exception of Natasha, naturally, who slips out silently before Sitwell even realizes she's leaving). Fury leaves, too, but as he heads for the door, he pauses with one hand on the back of an empty chair to give Sitwell a nod of approval, and Sitwell catches something in his eyes. Not the amusement that was there minutes ago, but something deeper, graver – and Sitwell remembers that Phil was Fury's friend, too.
When he walks out of the briefing room door, Clint is waiting for him.
To be precise, Clint is leaning against the wall behind the door, where he has to straighten up, clear his throat, before Sitwell notices him. (Sitwell would start questioning his powers of observation, but this is Clint Barton and nobody sees him unless he wants to be seen.)
So Clint is waiting for him, and falls into step beside him as they walk back to his office. They don't speak for a little while, twin footfalls near-silent against the linoleum flooring, but then Clint says, "They'll get used to you."
He's a little surprised. He wasn't expecting support, least of all from Clint, so when the archer goes on to say, "But don't think this makes you a replacement for Ph– for Coulson," things seem much more normal.
"I'm not a replacement for Agent Coulson," he says. "I'm just doing his job."
They're clearing out Sitwell's office when he arrives.
There's a moment's stunned silence, because Sitwell has been at S.H.I.E.L.D. for eleven years, and nearly nine of them have been spent in the same office. He likes it here.
It's worse when he realizes where they're moving him, though, because he follows the assembly line of junior interns around the corner and down the stairs and recognizes the route from deep muscle memory before he catches on consciously – they're putting him in Phil Coulson's old office.
He doesn't want to be there. He doesn't want his colleagues to think he thinks he belongs here, to think he thinks these are shoes he can fill. He doesn't want the Avengers to think he's trying to fit himself into the gap Phil left behind. And most of all, he doesn't want to sit here for eight hours a day (or, more likely, double that), in his dead friend's office, knowing that he should be on the other side of the desk, knowing that every minute he spends in this not-quite-right office chair blurs the sharp outlines of the memory of Phil Coulson in this place.
It's too late, though; not his choice. They've already moved most of his things in here, though he doesn't really have enough to hide the scrubbed-clean, sterile look that seems to emphasize what happened to the office's previous owner. Most of it is paperwork that Phil would be doing (would have done already), were he still here to do it.
When all of the junior agents are gone, he grabs one edge of the solid wooden desk and pulls it a few inches out of place. It's heavier than it looks, and it takes him several tries to shift it just over a foot from its original position. Straightening up to take a deep breath and roll his shoulders, he turns away from the desk for a moment and does a startled jump back into the wall.
Clint is standing in the doorway, looking in. There's a kind of helpless expression on his face, like he's lost something and he's not sure what, and his eyes keep travelling from Phil's old desk to the window to the disconsolate cardboard boxes on the floor, filled with papers and office supplies and one valiantly struggling potted plant.
"What the hell, Sitwell?" he asks, and Sitwell knows exactly what he means.
"I didn't ask for this," he says, simply.
The stare Clint fixes on him seems to indicate that he doesn't much care what Sitwell did or didn't ask for, but then he steps around the desk and grabs hold of the other side. "Come on," and together they heave it out of its old (practical) location and settle it sideways so that it faces the far wall.
It makes the office look different, at least; that was all Sitwell wanted.
Clint says, "They didn't let you keep the couch."
No. Phil's desk and chair are here, waiting to be inherited; the lamp, too, is Phil's and bears the marks of night after night spent doubling as a target for a bored archer with a handful of paperclips. Everything else is gone, though. The two guest chairs that stand in the corner are new, probably rejected by whoever took the couch in their place. The shelves are bare, laminate peeling at one end; the filing cabinets are empty, tan paint flaking to reveal the dark metal below. Sitwell doesn't think it should be so easy to erase a life completely, but aside from the memories, there is nothing of Phil here anymore.
Almost nothing. Clint, too, is hovering hesitantly just inside the door, as if he's not sure whether he belongs in this office or is only a relic, a ghost of the man who used to work here just like everything else the junior agents have removed.
Sitwell sits behind the desk because he's supposed to, because it's the middle of the morning and there is a stack of paperwork to handle, because he is the handler for the Avengers Initiative and all the attendant duties that brings, because he doesn't know what else to do. He sits behind the desk, pulls out the first stack of papers, and is about to begin filling them in when he pauses.
"Can I help you, Agent Barton?"
"That's not fucking funny," Clint growls, and Sitwell looks up in alarm before realizing how he must look, sitting in Phil's office at Phil's desk with his paperwork spread out in front of him and Clint, still in the doorway, trying to come to terms with this shift in his reality.
There's nothing he can do about it, though, not really, and so he buries himself in his (Phil's) paperwork, and if Clint spends most of the afternoon in silence on one of the uncomfortable guest chairs, there's no one to raise an eyebrow at it, least of all Sitwell.
His trial by fire comes three days later, and it's remarkable that it's taken so long.
Sitwell thinks it's mildly unfair that the first assignment he ever deals with as the Avengers' handler calls itself Apocalypse; he feels like that's something he should have worked up to over time, but it isn't as though he had much say in the matter. So there he is, sitting behind a bank of monitors providing various information about his team, the battlefield, and the surrounding area, and wishing he were on-site or out sick or just about anywhere but here.
For the first few minutes, Captain Rogers was providing concise, informative updates (Sitwell likes having a trained military man on the team). After that, though, he's too busy with his fists and his shield and Iron Man, who is his designated aerial transport for the mission ("I'm not a city bus," grumbled Tony, and Sitwell gave him a warning look that might almost have been worthy of Phil). Fortunately, the AI in Tony's suit provides a constant, closed feed to one of Sitwell's monitors, but it's not the same as having a real person updating him.
The second he says it, he's cursing himself internally – should have said Hawkeye, code names only during Avengers Initiative operations; he's used to working with Agent Barton on S.H.I.E.L.D. assignments, but he's never worked directly with Hawkeye before.
Clint doesn't react to it, though, just comes crackling over the comm line to give everyone's position and as much of a combat update as is visible from his vantage point. He doesn't say where he is, and though Sitwell knows where the mission parameters say he's supposed to be, he's betting Hawkeye isn't any better at sticking to the plan than Clint Barton is.
It's right around then that everything goes to hell. There's a short, sharp outcry over the comm channel and then Sitwell can't raise Hawkeye at all; his monitors explode in a riot of warning reds and yellows, live fire here, enemy engagement here; there's static hissing in his ears and klaxons blaring in the corridor outside his office and he's doing everything he can to regain control of the situation, but everything he can do is turning out to be pretty much nothing at this point.
He orders a helicopter support squadron to the site. One chopper leaves the flight bay, then another; on the third and final helicopter, Sitwell is sitting in the open passenger area, still trying to get a response on the comms.
In the end, it takes more than S.H.I.E.L.D. has to offer to defeat the unfortunately aptly-named villain. The Fantastic Four show up plus one, Reed Richards and Hank Pym fiddling with some sort of blinking-lights-and-gleaming-metal device in the back of the Fantasticar while the others join in the battle on the street. Sitwell, afterward, finds that the English language lacks appropriate words to describe what he sees when the two quasi-mad scientists activate their machine, but Bruce (who doesn't see it, being somewhat otherwise occupied at the time) assures him that it has something to do with pocket universes and mobile dimensions and other things that make very little sense. He doesn't quite understand it, but Bruce's and Hank's and Reed's reports are filled with impenetrable scientific terminology and Tony tells him they stuffed Apocalypse into a bubble universe prison, and that's really all Sitwell needs to know.
Clint is carried in unconscious by Thor, blood matting the hair on one side of his head, and taken straight to medical.
Sitwell leaves an order with the medical staff to contact him when Clint wakes up; no one is sure how long it might take and waiting in medical… well, that was something Phil did. Sitwell has no right to take on that particular duty of his predecessor's. Nonetheless, he's still sitting in his new office, staring blankly at the screen saver on his computer, when he gets the call from the medical team that Clint is coming back.
It takes him a while to come around completely, so Sitwell is already there and waiting when Clint regains full consciousness. "Uh, hi," he says, as if he's not sure what Sitwell is doing here, and Sitwell bites the inside of his cheek awkwardly, says welcome back, and, for want of anything better to say, launches into a full mission debrief.
Ten minutes into it, he realizes Clint is fast asleep.
He leaves new orders with the medical staff to call him when Clint is ready for release, then goes home because it's nearly midnight and he desperately needs a shower and a few hours' sleep.
They call him in the morning when Clint argues his way out of medical. Before he can do anything about it, though, Clint shows up in his office and promptly begins to make fun of him (seriously, I had a concussion and a head wound and you tried to debrief me?). It's good-natured, sort of, but Sitwell has spent all morning so far filing reports on what went wrong and why mission parameters were violated, all morning thinking of the ways he could have done better and picturing the way the monitors lit up with danger, and he is not in the mood.
"Fine," he says quietly when Clint pauses for breath. "I messed up. I'm not Coulson. I'll never be Coulson. Is that what you want to hear? I'm not him." He rests his forehead against his computer monitor, staring into the bright-blurred pixels, and there's silence.
"You're right," says Clint. "You're not him."
Sitwell waits for more, but there is nothing. When he looks up from his computer screen again, the office is empty.
Director Fury refuses to transfer him to another project.
He goes in with well-thought-out arguments, clear reasoning, even sections from the S.H.I.E.L.D. policy manual. He goes in expecting to be able to explain the obvious issues to the director, receive permission for reassignment, and have the whole mess sorted out by the end of the day. There might, he thinks, be a minor attempt at keeping him where he is now, no more than a convenience, a courtesy, almost.
He doesn't expect Fury to flat-out refuse his request.
"They need you there," he says, and when Sitwell protests that there are plenty of other agents who can fill the position (Hill, perhaps? Delancey? Jackson? Quartermain?), Fury just laughs at him and then drops into solemnity like someone's flipped a switch. "No," he concludes, in a tone that brooks no opposition.
So Sitwell leaves Fury's office still the Avengers' handler, still the chief S.H.I.E.L.D. liaison to the Initiative, still trying to figure out how to be somebody he's not.
Four hours later, Clint Barton knocks on his door and marches in without an invitation, spinning one of the guest chairs around to sit backwards on it.
"Why'd you quit?" he asks without preamble.
"I didn't quit, Agent Barton," Sitwell points out. "If I had, I wouldn't be here."
"Yeah, but you tried," says Clint, and Sitwell wonders for a moment how he knows before remembering that Director Fury's office is extremely well-serviced by the ventilation system. "Why?"
"I tried to transfer," he clarifies, "not quit." Jasper Sitwell is many things, but never a quitter. That's not what life and S.H.I.E.L.D. have taught him.
"Because…" and he's already started the sentence before it occurs to him to wonder why he's even bothering to try to explain. And to Clint, of all people; Clint, who knows better than anyone exactly what it is that Sitwell will never be able to live up to.
"Because," he says again, because he's tired and he's not allowed to transfer and there is no real way to fix this and his filters are dangerously low, "I'm not Phil Coulson. And the Avengers Initiative deserves someone who, maybe, someday, could be." Or, he thinks to himself without voicing, someone who doesn't need to be.
"That's bullshit," says Clint, and the anger in his tone is startling. "We don't need another Coulson. We just – " and his voice breaks, but he goes on anyway, pushing roughly through his own weakness – "we just need a good agent."
That's the problem, Sitwell thinks. Phil Coulson was a good agent, and no one else is going to match his standard. He doesn't say it, though. He's said enough for one day.
"And anyway," Clint mutters, pressing his forehead against the back of the chair so that Sitwell can't see his face and his words are muffled by his hands, "nobody could be another Phil."
It comes out sounding more broken than Clint probably intended, but Sitwell knows enough to overlook that.
"No," he says, "nobody could."
He wakes up sometime in the middle of the night, slumped in one of the guest chairs. Clint is asleep in the other, one hand flung over the arm of the chair so that the trailing edges of his knuckles are barely brushing Sitwell's knee.
The failing Indiglo of Sitwell's old Timex says it's nearly four o'clock in the morning, and he decides it's not worth trying to relocate Clint at this point. Instead, he lets the archer go on sleeping (he looks so young without the world on his shoulders, Sitwell almost envies him) and sits awake, filling out sheet after sheet of post-mission paperwork in the dark and listening to the tiny, involuntary sounds Clint makes in his sleep.
The spot on Sitwell's knee where Clint's fingers were brushing is cold. For the rest of the morning, he feels like something is missing.
The next mission goes better. Maybe it's because they're only fighting a few renegade Doombots; maybe it's because the Avengers are prepared this time for a new voice on the comms, a new way of running the missions. Maybe it's because Sitwell knows he's not going to be reassigned no matter what, and so there is no choice but to make it work.
Either way, the mission goes well. Twenty-one Doombots are neutralized (Clint takes out eleven single-handedly; he and Natasha have a running tally and that puts him in the lead), no Avengers are seriously injured, and the property damage is kept to five figures (which is impressive; they can cost the City of New York more than that just by going for coffee in the morning). Sitwell is pleased. In fact, he's positively looking forward to filing an official report.
When he congratulates them over the comms and Clint thanks him using someone else's name, it takes them both a second to realize what Clint has just said.
There's no more communication until the helicopter arrives back at base; Sitwell meets it, but Clint stalks straight past him without making eye contact and vanishes through the far door. The rest of the team wait for debrief, and Sitwell makes it curt and professional and doesn't congratulate them again, though they deserve it.
He finds Clint (or, rather, JARVIS finds Clint) at the archery range, firing crossbow bolts into a ragged target.
"I thought you preferred a recurve bow." It's his job to know everything about his agents, but everyone at S.H.I.E.L.D. knows that about Clint.
"Yeah, well, you thought wrong."
He decides to let that one slide. What was he expecting Clint to say, after all? "You still need to be debriefed on today's assignment."
"I'll file a mission report."
"That would be a first. In any case, debriefing is still mandatory."
Clint lowers the crossbow, digs the stirrup of it into the leather uppers of his combat boots. "Who invited you down here, anyway?"
"It's an unrestricted range, Barton."
"I don't need a goddamned baby-sitter."
"I never said you did."
"Then what the hell are you doing here, Sitwell? You're not here for the scintillating company."
"I came here because one of my assets took off without completing mission requirements," Sitwell says evenly. "And because you're down here beating yourself up over something that – " doesn't matter, he almost says, but swallows the words, because it shouldn't, but it does, very much. "Because I was worried," he finishes, lamely and yet more honestly than he was intending.
Clint says, very, very quietly, "You don't get to worry about me."
And that pisses Sitwell right off, because it's his job, and because Clint is the one who said he didn't have to be Phil Coulson to be a good agent, and because he never meant to worry about Clint, never meant to stray so far into someone else's territory, never meant for any of this, and yet.
"Yes, I do," he says. "Yes, I goddamn well do, Clint, because someone has to and it can't be Phil anymore and it sure as hell isn't you and who the hell else is it going to be?" He's shouting now and it's lucky he runs out of breath, because he really doesn't know what he might have said next, if nothing had stopped him.
"I do worry about you," he continues after a few deep breaths, the intensity of Clint's furious scrutiny burning into him as he avoids the other man's gaze. "I worry, and it's not up to you to decide whether or not I 'get' to, like this is some kind of fucking privilege. Because believe me, I didn't exactly choose any of this either."
Clint stares at him, and stares, and stares, until they're both sure he's completely out of words. It's tearing him up, watching the expression on Clint's face go back and forth between anger and uncertainty and bravado and raw grief; Sitwell knows all of them are true, which only makes it worse, and finally Clint just crumples, sagging against the soundproof wall of the firing lane with his crossbow still in one hand, the other clenching and releasing at his side like he's not sure whether to throw a punch or throw his hands up in defeat.
It's instinct, or weakness, or maybe just bone-deep weariness, that makes Sitwell sit next to him on the floor, back against the wall, shoulder-to-shoulder so that he can feel Clint's warmth through his suit jacket. He wishes there were something he could do, really do, but he's useless here. He can't even tell Clint he understands, because he may have lost a friend (the best one, possibly the only one, he's ever had), but Clint – Clint has lost more.
Instead of saying anything at all, he just rests a hand on Clint's shoulder and hopes it conveys all of his inadequacies.
There are the looks.
There are other things as well. There is the time Director Fury calls him into his office to inform him that he is now Agent Barton's handler for all S.H.I.E.L.D. missions as well, and when Sitwell attempts to protest that Barton might have an objection to that, he is further informed that Agent Barton requested him personally. There is the gradual increase in chatter over the comms, and Sitwell learns first-hand what Phil was talking about when he used to say Barton didn't know the meaning of radio silence. There are the fresh scratches in the finishes of Sitwell's desk and lamp that bear witness to the return of Clint's creative office-supply bow-and-arrow construction.
But most of all, there are the looks.
They happen after post-mission debriefs, when Sitwell wishes he could whisper, I'm glad you're okay, and Clint looks as though he has more to say as well, but never does. They happen in medical, when Clint is not okay but carries on insisting that he is and demanding release until Sitwell shows up, white-faced, to see for himself that the damage isn't as bad as he fears. They happen in the mornings, when Clint shows up to breakfast or meetings sleep-tousled and enveloped in an oversized grey S.H.I.E.L.D. hoodie and Sitwell stands on the other side of the room in his neatly-pressed suit and wishes for things that are not and could never be.
There are the looks.
And then there is a night, eight months after Sitwell joins the Avengers Initiative, six months after becoming Barton's official handler, when there is too much paperwork and Clint has just come back from far too many days in Moscow without a safe house, and they both find themselves sitting on the floor in the empty space where once there was a couch, leaning into one another just to stay semi-upright.
That's how they start out, but as Clint talks in a low voice about the mission, about why it took so long and what went wrong and about his personal history with Moscow, Sitwell's arm finds its way around his shoulders, and as Sitwell promises that Clint won't have to go back, that someone else can take over in Moscow, Clint rests his forehead against Sitwell's, eyes closed, and just listens.
It is some time before Clint opens his eyes; by then, his hands are tightly gripping the fabric of Sitwell's shirt, their positions slightly shifted so that they can face one another, hold onto one another, bump knees and touch hands and breathe one another's air. Then, and only then, Clint opens his eyes and tries to say something, but the words catch in his throat and their eyes meet, wide and worried.
Sitwell wants to say something, too, feels like he should be saying something, but he can't find the words for it and he isn't sure what he would say with them if he could; something in Clint's face changes and he thinks that's it, he's lost him, only Clint leans closer instead of away, and kisses him.
When they separate, there's trepidation on Clint's face, sadness and happiness at once, alarm, anticipation. Sitwell sees it all, knows it must be mirrored in his own expression, but all he can think about right now is what's running through his head on repeat, I'm not him.
Saying it would shatter everything they have here, every fragile attempt at reaching out, overcoming the ghost of Phil Coulson and continuing to live. Saying it would be the biggest mistake he's ever made.
So, naturally, he says it.
Clint recoils backward like he's been slapped and Sitwell has never hated himself so much. He opens his mouth to say other things, I'm not him but I'll try if you want me to; I'm not him but I wish I were; I'm not him but maybe one day I could be someone you want, too, but before he manages the first words, Clint is on his feet and heading for the door.
He pauses in the doorway, says without turning, "I know you're not him. Do you really think that's what this is about?" and leaves.
The words stay with him for the next three days; he doesn't see Clint Barton once.
I'm not him, Sitwell said; I'm not Phil Coulson, I can't be that.
And, Do you really think that's what this is about? Clint asked, and Sitwell doesn't know. He doesn't know what else it could be about, because the only thing he is is Jasper Sitwell, mid-level S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, relayer of orders, de facto liaison to the Avengers. Clint Barton is the next best thing to a superhero; he's handsome and clever and funny and he was a part of Phil Coulson's world, so there's only one reason Sitwell can think of for what happened (might happen? is happening?) between them.
He retreats to his office, to paperwork and S.H.I.E.L.D. duties and relative quiet, and tries not to think about anything else. Once or twice, he thinks he might hear something in the air ducts, but he dismisses it out of hand because Clint wouldn't be up there, and if he were, he wouldn't let himself be heard. Once, he handles a mission with the Avengers; Hawkeye and the Black Widow are not present and their absence is not explained to him.
On the evening of the third day, he's had enough. Of empty offices, of radio silence, of the absence of all the little things that make up Clint Barton, things Sitwell never even realized he'd grown used to. And he's never been a man to beat around the bush (it's one of the reasons Phil liked him), so he makes up his mind and pulls open his office door to go and talk to Clint.
Who is standing right outside the door with one hand raised as if to knock or turn the knob.
It takes them both a moment to recover from the double-take, and when they do, Clint is looking at him, half-anxious, half-confused. It's the anxiousness that gets to him, even reflected as clearly as he knows it must be on his own face, so he clears his throat and says the only thing he can think of in time. "Hi."
"We need to talk," says Clint, and despite the fear alight in his eyes, his voice comes out steady, the statement firm.
The words might be an old phrase, hackneyed, overused, but he's right; they do need to talk. Or shout, or sit in silence next to one another so that their shoulders touch and their elbows bump and the heavy denim of Clint's jeans scrapes against the fine wool of Sitwell's suit trousers. Anything but this strange, misplaced silence they've been carrying for the past three days.
We need to talk, Clint said, and so they stare at one another across an unfathomable three-foot gap in Sitwell's office, neither one wanting to be the first to speak, until they both do.
"What are – " Sitwell begins just as Clint says, "I don't – " and they both cut off, stare at each other again, and Sitwell gestures to Clint, you go first.
"I don't – look, I – this has nothing to do with Phil, okay?" Clint says, in a rush of words as if it's now or never, all or nothing. "This… thing. I like you, okay? I like you and it has nothing to do with Phil and I feel like shit about it but I can't help it, I didn't mean to, I'm sorry. Fuck, I'm sorry."
There's silence. Clint has said more than he meant to, more than Sitwell was expecting, and Sitwell doesn't need to ask him why he's sorry; he knows. Because this has nothing to do with Phil and it should; because it should be Phil here in this office, in this conversation, in Clint's life, and Sitwell should be somewhere on the other side of a glass wall; because this has nothing to do with Phil and it should and yet it shouldn't; because Clint deserves to be happy with more than a memory and Sitwell deserves to be happy with more than a hand-me-down legacy.
"Don't be," he says, and it bothers him more than he can say that he has to tell Clint this at all. "Don't be sorry. Just figure out what you want, and then…" He shrugs helplessly. "Do it."
"Yeah?" Clint asks quietly. "That's your advice? Officially, as my handler?"
"No," says Sitwell. "Not as your handler."
Clint nods; Sitwell suspects he knew that all along.
"Okay," says Clint, "okay, I'm gonna… just…" He's looking at Sitwell, clearly wary of his next move (this is all pre-meditated now, no exhausted, half-asleep impulse to blame, no hazy reality where everything can be blinked away as if it had never happened), stepping closer, and then his hand closes around Sitwell's wrist and he's tugging him out of the office and into the deserted corridor.
Then he kisses him, and it's only afterward that he smiles crookedly, sadness gathered at the corners of his eyes but something else layered over it, something that might be better.
"I just didn't…" and he gestures at the office door, Sitwell's now, but someone else's once, and Sitwell nods.
"This is okay?"
"Yeah," says Clint. "Yeah, this is, this is okay."
It won't always be this way, Sitwell thinks; their ghosts will fade with time, not to be forgotten, but laid aside in favour of the living. They won't always hesitate, won't always look over their shoulders, won't always offer apologetic smiles and unfinished sentences. For now, though, even the uncertainties, even the pauses and the gaps in conversation, even this slow progression is a beginning.
It starts here, with Clint's hand on Sitwell's arm as they stand in an empty hallway in the middle of the night and make the decision to go on.
It starts here, with a quiet, contained kind of happiness, the safety of the knowledge that they're not about to take this lightly or take it for granted.
It starts here, with the promise that this is okay, that it will be okay for as long as they want it to be, that this is not a mistake or a substitution or anything but an honest, complicated truth.