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I would give it all if only for a moment,
That I could just understand the meaning of the word you see

 

"That little shit," Jasper snarls, throwing himself in the seat across from Phil in the mess hall, glasses slightly askew and eyes sporting that look Phil has come to associate with a certain specialist recently collected into SHIELD's fold.

Phil doesn't look up from the file he's annotating, pen moving in quick, precise strokes. It takes quite the effort to school his expression, to stop his lips from twitching with mirth, but the exasperated air of Jasper's huff makes the effort worth it. Besides, Phil knows full well that Jasper won't be able to stop himself from recounting the most recent disaster Clint Barton has unleashed upon his unit.

"It is all your fault, you realise," Phil says mildly, enjoying winding Jasper up far too much. "You're the one who spotted and recruited him."

Jasper groans, rubbing his hands over his eyes, wireframes balancing on his knuckles. "Why the hell didn't you stop me, Coulson? You know everything; surely you could see this was going to be a disaster from the start."

Phil considers this situation good practice for holding his impassive face without cracking up at Jasper's dramatics. "'The kid's got potential, Phil'," he says, in a good approximation of Jasper's dry, accent-less voice. "'He's the sharpest shooter I've ever seen, Phil.' 'He'll make a fucking badass agent in less than ten years, Phil'."

Jasper scowls at him. "Shut up, asshole. Sure, the kid's good, but it doesn't stop him from being a fucking pain in my ass. You know what he's gone and done now?" he demands, warming up to the topic.

Phil gives up the fight and grins. "No, but I'm sure you're going to tell me anyway."

"He only went and pinned Wu to the wall of the training room with three paperclips and a pencil," Jasper reports, and Phil smiles at the pride in his voice that Jasper probably thinks he's doing a good job of concealing. Jasper dotes on that kid, handful though he apparently is. Phil has yet to meet this marksman prodigy, and going by Jasper's frequent, voluble explosions, it's going to be an occasion to remember.

"Well, Wu should work on his evasive manoeuvers," is all that Phil says, in his trademark unimpressed manner. The only reason Jasper doesn't buy it along with everyone else is that Jasper knew Phil way before he'd started putting this calm, unruffled, unflappable image together, back when he'd been Staff Sergeant Coulson to Jasper's Private Sitwell.

Jasper seems to focus on him now, a speculative look in his eyes that makes Phil distinctly nervous, although he'd never show it. There's a reason Phil recommended Jasper for recruitment as soon as Nick picked him up, and it wasn't his baby blues and youthful demeanour.

"What?" he says a little defensively. It’s a miscalculation, a mile-wide opening that Jasper isn't going to miss. Never show interest, damn it, Phil should know this by now. All he can do is don his mask and wait to see what fresh hell Jasper is going to unleash upon him this time.

"I," Jasper announces, looking distressingly pleased with himself, “am a genius.”

'Oh, god,' Phil groans in the safety of his own head. Outwardly, he merely sighs in resignation. "Care to share the reason for this conclusion?" he drawls.

Jasper lifts an unimpressed eyebrow in his direction, but then gets distracted by whatever idea he's just had. "No, really, I am. I'm going to recommend to Director Fury that you be assigned as Barton's handler.

"No," Phil says flatly, all pretence of cool gone without a trace. "Jasper, come on. You can't saddle me with the kid, I've got enough baby agents to juggle already."

But Jasper isn't listening, isn't even aware of the conversation anymore, a faraway look in his eye that Phil knows from experience heralds one of his (admittedly terribly smart) ideas. Thing is, Jasper is the strategist to Phil's implementer, the one who sees much farther than his short-sighted glasses would suggest, and if he thinks Phil and Barton ought to work together, Fury will listen -- and make it happen. Phil knows this is a lost cause already, but he feels that letting it go without a token protest would smack too much of giving up.

"Jasper. Seriously? What makes you think the kid will listen to me when he's been running circles around the entirety of SHIELD for months now?"

Jasper comes back to himself with a blink and a sharp inhale, fixing Phil with an intent look. "Because you're you," he says, which makes no damn sense. When Phil scowls, though, Jasper apparently decides to give him a rare explanation -- Jasper hates to be second-guessed with a passion. It's a measure of how long and successfully they have worked together, of what close friends they are, that Phil merits one at all.

"Look. I've known you for close to a decade, Phil, and you are literally the only person in SHIELD I would feel comfortable leaving in charge of Barton. Kid's rash, plenty of rough edges, he has no fucking manners to speak of, and to say he has issues with authority is like saying Michael Jordan can play a bit of basketball. He's a bastard, and an asshole, and the only likeness that his life has had to sunshine and roses is long-dead ones in a ditch in the middle of a stormy night."

Phil lifts both eyebrows at this, because while Jasper is inordinately fond of metaphors, this is shoving one all the way up a steep hill. Jasper glares at him, though, and Phil decides not to push. He's a little bit impressed, actually -- no one else Phil has met has gotten this kind of protective surge from Jasper Sitwell. Barton must really be something else.

"You're the only person I know who can get through to him," Jasper adds, much quieter than the rest of his speech, and for a long moment all Phil can see is the stubborn, taciturn young man he had first met eight-odd years ago, skinny, too tall for his frame, a 'what's it to you' glower directed at everyone who so much as glanced at him. He knows that Jasper's childhood hadn't been the easiest, either, and this Barton has obviously tapped in pretty deep to invoke so much faith from someone like Jasper Sitwell. In the end, Phil knows his men. He hasn't gotten where he is today without learning a thing or two about trust himself.

"All right," he says, holding his expression open, letting Jasper see that he means it. "If that's what you think is best."

"I do," Jasper says, relief spreading all over his round face. "I really do, Phil, you'll see, it'll work out great. Thanks."

Phil nods. He's going to end up regretting this, he just knows it, but Jasper -- it's hard to say no to him, not when he reminds Phil so much of Phil's mother, her passion, her conviction. In another life, Jasper could have been Phil's kid brother, and there's nothing Phil can do in the face of that but listen to his instincts and let Jasper do what he does best.

"Hey," Jasper says, nudging Phil's ankle with the square toe of his shoe. "Don't look so glum. Who knows? You might enjoy it."

Because it's the middle of the night, and they're all alone in the dim light of the mess hall, Phil lets himself fold his arms over the file in front of him and drop his head in the crook, groaning in despair. "You had to go and jinx it. Barton's probably going to break me by the end of the year."

Jasper laughs at him, half in triumph and half in evil enjoyment of the power he wields. They both know that Phil is no pushover; that the harder he is pushed, in fact, the more immovable he gets. Besides. It sounds like Barton could use a bit more of a stabilising influence in his life.

---

I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form.
"Come in," she said,
"I'll give you shelter from the storm."

 

"Holy shit, that's Agent Coulson," someone whispers behind Clint. Clint ignores them, snorts to himself at the near-reverence whichever of the people he's stuck with for the training infuses the words with. He neither knows nor cares who 'Agent Coulson' is supposed to be. He keeps on practicing his throwing knives skills, which have gotten a little rusty, what with going on the run from the circus and leaving his set behind. He allows himself the smallest of smirks when all of them find the bullseye on the target, leaving it bristling like a heavy-duty hedgehog.

"Barton," he hears Sitwell say, and sighs. He likes Sitwell better than most -- which means he actually reacts when the man talks to him. Still, the guy didn't have to do what he'd done; he could have just left Clint to sort out his own mess (in that case, five heavily-armed thugs whose bank robbery he'd intentionally interrupted). Clint hates to feel indebted to anyone, it's like an itch under his skin, and until he can repay Sitwell he guesses he's stuck tolerating the guy.

He turns around, and takes in the man at Sitwell's side. He looks like just another agent, clad in standard-issue black, even though he's got far better taste in ties than Sitwell does (which really isn't hard).

"I heard he took out the Kingpin with nothing more than an office waste bin," Wu whispers, and Clint rolls his eyes. Seriously, SHIELD is like a damn barber shop when it comes to gossip. He takes in the man's bland expression, the easy way he walks, body perfectly aware of his surroundings. He concedes that there might be more to him than meets the eye when the man neatly sidesteps the nunchuk some intrepid rookie loses his grip on and sends flying in their direction.

"Yeah?" Clint replies gruffly. Around him the other trainees take two smart steps back, giving the three of them a wide berth, already eager to find out what Clint is going to get chewed out for this time. Clint scowls. He hates feeling like the butt of all jokes, the guy who inevitably screwed up. He got enough of that in the circus, from his so-called brother, too.

Sitwell and the other guy come to a stop a couple of yards away from him, and he follows the unspoken order, closing the last of the distance.

"Clint Barton, I'd like you to meet Agent Phil Coulson. Agent Coulson has been assigned as your handler until further notice."

Clint inwardly recoils. If there's one thing he hates more than people's unspoken expectations of his imminent failure, it's men telling him what to do. (Women, he can mostly take. He has fond memories of the few women who'd stuck around long enough for Clint to get to know them. Men are a whole different ballgame.)

Coulson hasn't moved, hasn't so much as blinked, except to nod at him in greeting. His hands hang loose at his sides, and there's something so calm about him, like the stillness of the ocean, tranquil, almost. It brushes over the surface of Clint's thoughts, manages somehow to soothe his instinctive bristling. It's so damn inviting, like he could sink in that calm, let it carry him along, lay down, for just a few moments, the torrent of anger that carries him through every day, every minute.

...And then what? What happens when Coulson, too, walks away, decides Clint is too much of a hassle to bother working with? Yeah; no, thanks. The anger is there for a reason. It has seen him through things most of these babies have no idea lurk in the night, and to put it away at all is not a good strategic decision.

"Specialist Barton," Coulson says, and even his damn voice is like a port in a storm. If it hadn't been for the fire flickering in his eyes, the inkling of something behind the mask that he wears like a king wears his mantle, Clint wouldn't have given him a second glance. "Agent Sitwell has much to say about you, most of it not even particularly terrible."

Clint darts Sitwell a look, amused despite himself to find two spots of colour high on Sitwell's cheeks. He doesn't miss the aggravated look Sitwell shoots Coulson. Somehow, despite himself, Clint is intrigued.

That’s not to say that he'll just blindly and quietly go along with this, but it's something.

"I look forward to working with you," Coulson finishes, and that's when Clint gets his first real shock. The guy means it. Clint is a proficient liar himself, has learned from the best. This guy? Not lying.

Huh.

"You'll report to Agent Coulson's office at 0800 tomorrow," Sitwell instructs.

Clint doesn't bother responding, other than to ask, "That all?"

The sharp inhales of the baby agents behind them make him grin inwardly. Sitwell scowls, which Clint has kind of gotten used to by now, and it's always amusing to get a rise out of him. Coulson merely watches him, sharp-eyed, assessing. Clint finds himself wanting to squirm under the weight of that gaze. He straightens his back instead, pushes his shoulders out, looks Coulson straight in the eye.

"Bring your weapon of choice," Coulson says, before turning on his heel and walking away. Clint makes sure not to watch him go.

Sitwell shakes his head ruefully at Clint before following, falling easily into step with Coulson. Clint wonders despite himself what their history is, because it's perfectly obvious to anyone with eyes to see that this is not these two's first rodeo together. Coulson says something, and Sitwell does that thing with his shoulders when he's not sure whether to laugh or deck him. It's a move Clint is getting all too familiar with himself.

The upshot of the morning is that the other trainees have gone from unimpressed to distinctly jealous, because Clint is the first one out of the pool to get picked for active duty. It makes Clint act even more obnoxious, so that he doesn't let on how much their mistrustful, annoyed glares get to him, but it's not like he's here to make friends.

The downshot... Well. That remains to be seen, doesn't it?

---

You've been acting awful tough lately
Smoking a lot of cigarettes lately
But inside, you're just a little baby
It's okay to say you've got a weak spot
You don't always have to be on top

 

A bow. The kid had brought a bow. 'Are you serious right now?' Phil wants to ask, not that he'll let himself, because he's got a persona to maintain, but a bow?

As if guessing what's on his mind, Barton scowls. Phil should probably stop calling him a kid, even in his head, because the guy's two inches taller than him, way broader in the shoulders, with muscles in places that Phil studiously avoids thinking about. Still, he's over a decade younger than Phil, and it's a hard habit to break.

Manner of address notwithstanding, Phil isn’t going to make the mistake of underestimating him. It's one of the lessons drilled into him since childhood, the directive to give anyone a chance, no matter what they look like. He only needs to think back to his own mother, Major Coulson neé Strauss, a tall, willowy woman who could break men three times her size and weight in half with no more than a look. And that's even before Steve Rogers and Peggy Carter and James Barnes entered the equation, people that Phil grew up knowing as if they were his closest friends. Colonel Carter had been his mother's hero until her death.

So yeah. Barton's getting a chance, whether he wants it or not. 'Deserving' doesn't even enter into it. Phil knows the type all too well: childhood out of some psychological horror film, thinks all he's worth is what he can do for other people, hides behind anger and attitude like they're his last line of defence, won't let himself open up to anyone if his life depended on it (not that Phil can blame him. People can be scumbags sometimes). That's fine. Phil can work with that. In time, he hopes Barton will see that some people at least can be trusted, but Phil's not going to push -- it would lead precisely nowhere fast. Phil's a patient man; he can wait him out.

Meanwhile, he can show the kid that he's got his back, at least. Phil can and will happily put up with any amount of attitude and posturing, provided the guy can listen to orders and do the job that's in front of him. It's all any of them can do. Being liked is not high on Phil's list of priorities. He fully expects any soldier of his to leave him behind in the field if that's what's best for the mission.

Getting Barton to unwind a bit around him would be nice, however. The strain of holding himself so rigidly closed up looks painful

Phil settles back in his chair, folds his hands in his lap. "Go on, then," he says mildly. "Show me what you've got."

Barton looks around, lifting a mocking eyebrow. "Here? It'll mess up the paint job."

"I trust you to find ways to avoid that, Specialist." The 'if you're as good as you think you are' remains unsaid, but very much hangs in the air.

Barton gets that glint in his eye, and Phil inwardly smiles. It's a 50/50 toss-up whether the walls of his office are going to end up looking like Swiss cheese in retaliation for his challenge, or if Barton will rise to it.

Phil blinks. It's a mistake. When he opens his eyes again, there are three arrows forming a perfect equilateral triangle in the tower of unfinished paperwork to his side, penetrating just the top three files without disturbing the arrangement or the surface of the desk.

O-kay. That's... kind of hot. Certainly all kinds of useful in the field. Phil can maybe see what Jasper had been so excited about.

Barton has a smug, self-satisfied smirk on his face. Phil can't help but want to wipe it off; but on the other hand, he's always been a fan of giving credit where credit's due.

"Well, you know the basics of geometry, at least," he muses, forcing himself not to grin when Barton scowls.

"Seriously? That's all you're going to say?" Barton demands

"It's nice to know that you'll get the right angle when you need to," Phil says. It's fun fucking with the kid, and Phil is only human. Besides, if Barton can't deal with this kind of stuff from someone well-meaning, it doesn't bode too well for his future at SHIELD.

"Oh, I'll get the right angle, all right," Barton promises darkly. It sends a strange frisson of something down Phil's spine. It's the utter, unquestionable confidence that he can do it, Phil supposes.

Phil gives him a measured nod, and he can see that his message has been received when Barton's ruffled feathers settle and the hint of a smirk is back, not as broad as before but somehow realer, more genuine. They understand each other. It's all Phil can ask for.

"Get your stuff together. We're heading out at 0430 tomorrow morning."

"Yes, sir."

It's probably not cool to be this inordinately pleased that Barton called him 'sir', when Phil knows for a fact that it's the first time he has said it since his recruitment, but it's not something Phil can help. The guy is angry, and stubborn, and a bastard, but – Phil can’t deny that he is kind of warming up to him.

---

Come closer now
if you wanna talk to me
Come tell me now
Do you like what you see?

 

Clint knows this is stupid; knows it's probably going to end up in a burning, squidgy mess, but the thing is: he has never been able to resist a challenge. Cracking Coulson's cool has, within a week of meeting him, escalated to the top of Clint's list of things to do before it all ends up in flames. There's something about him that makes Clint want to impress him, however fucked-up that is. Clint doesn't need anyone; he knows he's the fucking best at what he does without being told.

Still. When Coulson had nodded at him in his office, obviously approving, something had shifted for Clint, and even now, days later, a lingering warmth remains, that of a job well-done.

It's kind of... sad, a little. Pathetic, maybe, that Coulson has so quickly become the focus of Clint's energies. Clint is kind of furious about it; surely he's got far more important things to focus his energies on than Coulson.

But. Here's another thing that's just as true: Clint is... not used to feeling secure. Not used to taking in his surroundings without checking them every-which-way-to-Sunday first, without maintaining a perimeter in his own head, what belongs inside, what doesn't. He has an obsessive need to evaluate, to assign threat levels to everything in his day-to-day existence. Since it's something that has kept him alive more times than he can count, he doesn't fight it too hard. Coulson is just a natural progression of the way Clint's life has gone for far too long -- he needs to know him, needs to understand him, needs to unpick every single thing about him, find out how he works, the kind of leverage that can be used to flip him if needs be, to eliminate at worst. He needs to know what he'll have to do if Coulson, along with the rest of SHIELD, turns on him, decides that his usefulness has been depleted. He can no more help it than he can stop reacting to gravity, stop looking over his shoulder.

He has spent so many years reacting to what goes on around him that it's ingrained in him now, to understand all the variables, go looking for explanations when he doesn't have them. People are variables more often than not, and he has a pathological need to find out what makes them tick. All Clint knows is how to push-push-shove if pushing doesn't work, and he needs to know exactly how far he can take it before he's 'assisted' in taking a flying leap off a tall building. He needs to know where the cracks lie, where he can force the end of a lever in and press, crack the man wide open. In a way, Clint will never feel safe until he has found just the right spot.

For another thing, the fact that he is already succumbing to the waves of calm flowing off Coulson's person scares Clint more than anything has so far in his miserable life. The fact that, if he let himself, he could come to trust Coulson so much farther than he can throw him, is what makes him shake at night, wake up covered in cold sweat.

He'd better nip this thing in the bud if he wants to make it to his next birthday still breathing.

So.

Fact #1: Coulson is always at his desk before Clint gets there, even when Clint makes a point of getting there at five in the morning. (Granted, he's asleep when Clint arrives, head pillowed on a bunch of folders, body slumped forward like he just dropped off while he was writing up his notes. Clint pads over silently, takes the pen out of the guy's lax fingers, manages to resist the urge to leave a witty (if unhelpfully incriminating) note. Coulson doesn't wake, although his eyelid twitches just the tiniest bit. Clint doesn't know what to make of that at all. It's not like Coulson sensed him and decided he's no threat—because it can’t be. Can it?)

Fact #2: Coulson loves his job. It's subtle, he doesn't shout it from the rooftops, makes a good play at being angry with his baby agents -- they certainly run properly scared of him, as they should. They don't stick around long enough to see the twitch in the corner of his mouth, the way his eyes are smiling even when his lips aren't. He swans around with his jacket off and the sleeves of his shirt rolled up to his elbows, baring strong forearms to the patches of sunshine that make it through the window of his office. He hums when he thinks no one is watching him, and his mouth is lax most of the time, in repose, comfortable and content. Clint honestly worries for the future of this country's security if the baby agents can't see how good at his job their Senior Agent in Charge is, how dedicated he is to it, or the lengths he goes to, making sure he has their backs. Clint supposes that understanding comes with exposure, with seeing what Coulson is prepared to do for them in the field as well as in the office. Certainly all the older agents seem to know it. It's probably why Coulson is so universally liked.

Fact #3: Coulson would spend every hour of every day with his nose in a book, if his job permitted it. Clint has never caught him reading while at SHIELD, but there are a few paperback novels tucked away on a low shelf in the bookcase behind his chair, where Clint imagines most people never bother to look. Their covers are soft, worn, pages slightly yellowing as they tend to on a well-loved book (Clint has a few of those, okay, don't look at him like that, he can read, geez). Clint has managed to refrain from memorising the titles or authors, out of some strange, unfamiliar sense of respect for his handler's boundaries (the very fact that he can say that with a straight face is the most worrisome). He's sure it's only a matter of time.

Fact #4: Coulson is absolutely deadly. He's like a rattlesnake with a grudge, so damn fast you'd never see him coming (or leaving, but for different reasons -- like the fact you'd no longer be in possession of your head). For all his skills, he's also intensely controlled, projects that unassuming image to make his life easier, not because that's what he is. Clint suspects that one of his parents must also have been in the military, because it’s something ingrained in Coulson, in how he is the epitome of precision control on the job, in the way he carries himself -- calm, yet one wrong move away from exploding all over you.

Fact #5: For all his deadliness, he is also incredibly loyal -- to Fury, to Sitwell, to their ideals if not to those of the rest of the chain of command that rules the country. He would do anything to protect them. It's... strange. Clint fights to understand it, but he fears some of it will forever be lost to him, chased away by the ghost of a raised fist, the shadow of his brother walking away from him.

Still, with Coulson as a role model (not that those words will ever pass Clint’s lips this side of the grave), he thinks he might be getting a hint. Certainly it makes it just a touch easier to understand the variable of Phil Coulson, adjust his behaviour accordingly. Maybe... Just maybe, Clint might stick around for a while.

---

i never knew you before,
i’ve been walking around with my eyes on the floor

and now you’re everywhere to me
you’re every face that i see

 

To say that this mission isn't going well would be the understatement of the fucking century. The mission went FUBAR about twenty minutes back, and all that Phil is hearing is silence, which is so not good that 'bad' doesn't even begin to cover it. There were eighteen agents going into this situation, and Phil has heard from maybe half of them, if that. He hopes fervently it's a case of comms being broken rather than what the evidence points towards. He hopes like hell that for once in his damn life his instincts are wrong.

There has been no sign of Barton since about five minutes in. Phil is surprised to find that that one aches the worst. Barton is a grown man, a specialist; he can take care of himself, probably better than most of the other agents, given his background. Doesn't make the ball of anxiety in Phil's stomach any looser.

He is caught unprepared when the thing they're after swipes away the car Phil was taking cover behind like it's made of papier-mâché. It has long, muscular arms, a tiny head that is perched directly onto its shoulders; its waist is wasp-thin, leading down to goat-like legs. Its physiology is extremely bizarre, which is decidedly not what Phil should be focusing on right now, not when the thing has seen him. Phil empties what's left of his mag into it, but it barely falters. They need something bigger -- one of Barton's exploding arrows would have been just the thing.

If Barton doesn't make it, Phil is never going to forgive himself, his fault or not. He has become rather fond of the kid in the past month, more so once Barton finally cracked and started talking to him over the comms during missions, smartass remarks that sometimes proceeded to outline the flaws in a superior agent’s plan with vicious, surgical precision. (It was never Phil’s plans that Barton went to town over. Phil tried and failed to not be stupidly pleased about that.) Phil has learned that Barton sees things much better from a distance, finds patterns that SHIELD strategists have missed altogether, has the extremely rare ability to adapt on his feet in the most stringent circumstances. It's why Phil is still clinging to the hope that Barton is alive, has scrammed to call for back-up to contain the threat that SHIELD intel has severely underestimated. It's the right decision, because they are in the middle of a civilian area where the casualties could be much, much worse than seventeen agents and the agent in charge of the operation.

The thing zeroes in on Phil now, through the plumes of concrete dust the flying car left behind, its glowing yellow eyes intent on Phil's position. This is it, then; he is out of ammunition, out of cover, out of options. He gets up, straightens his jacket, reaches inside his pocket for the modified grenade he always carries on him, limited blast radius but potent enough to take out even something as strong as this creature -- provided it's close enough, which it will be once Phil gets his arms wrapped around it.

He gets his thumb in position on the trigger, but waits, waits until the thing hunkers down and charges. The closer it comes, the clearer he can see its skin, some kind of scales, most of them dented by bullets but none of them torn. Phil falters for no more than a second, wondering whether the grenade will penetrate at all. Nothing else he can do, though. He just needs to get it to come close enough--

He is lifted off his feet and carried away, even though the thing is still more than fifty meters in front of him, and then thrown unceremoniously down onto the ground, bringing up all kinds of aches and pains. They don't signify, though, because when he twists and looks up, he sees a pair of powerful legs that he'd know anywhere, crouching slightly as they stand over Phil, shielding him from the creature. Phil looks further up to see the muscles in Barton's back twist and bunch when he draws back the string of his bow, takes aim. His arms are... something else. Maybe it's the angle; maybe it's the shock of not dying when Phil had been perfectly prepared for it, but the sight of Barton squaring off above him, levelling his bow and arrow on the charging thing makes Phil shake inside, makes his gut clench with something that utterly terrifies him, something he has never felt before, yet fits all too well a certain description he'd first heard from his mother’s mouth, a long time ago.

While Phil is having his little feelings-related panic attack, Barton doesn't move a single muscle until they can practically see the thin red veins in the creature's eyes. Then Barton's fingers twitch, releasing the string with a thwap that carries through the air. The arrow goes straight through the thing's right eye, all the way into its head and out the other side, sending a spree of orange liquid through the air. The thing staggers, carried by its own momentum, and then crashes in the dust, sliding a few more feet before finally lying still.

After a long moment of shock, Phil manages to push himself to his feet, brushes himself off (extremely ineffectively; he seems to be wearing half the street on his suit, but it's the principle of the thing), stows away the grenade in its usual place, and turns to look at Barton, who is still watching the creature for any sign of life.

"Nice shooting, Specialist," Phil says, finding with some surprise that his throat feels raw. He can't think about this right now.

Barton looks away for a moment, eyes dragging up and down Phil's frame, looking suspiciously like they're ticking off points of injury, which is not right because that's Phil's job.

"Thank you, sir," Barton drawls easily, putting his bow away with a practiced movement. "Nice distraction technique."

Phil stifles an extremely unprofessional giggle. He is actually a little proud that Barton made such good use of a fucked-up situation.

"I do my best," he says.

They stand shoulder-to-shoulder, surveying the damage.

"That building is gonna be a motherfucker to put back together," Barton remarks conversationally.

Phil follows his eyes to a building that is listing to the side. Its structure looks like it used to intentionally twist at an unnatural angle, which has now gone all the way to screwed. Phil hums in agreement, then twists his neck to loosen his strained muscles and pulls out his phone, checking on back-up.

"Barton," he calls quietly when Barton makes to leave, undoubtedly to gather up as many of the arrows he just used as he can find.

Barton turns immediately, eyebrow raised.

"Thanks," Phil says simply, letting his lips twitch into a small smile. They both know what Barton should have done, instead of coming back for him. He isn’t a big enough asshole to reprimand Barton for it, even though he probably would if it were any other agent. (Phil doesn’t think about the fact that if it were any other agent, he would be dead right now.)

"My pleasure, sir."

Phil watches with half-an-eye as Barton walks away, and concedes that he has some thinking to do in the aftermath of all of this -- thinking, and planning. He might be falling for his assigned agent, but that doesn't mean anything has to, or is going to change. As far as Phil is concerned, Barton will never know about his lapse in control.

---

You are the bearer of unconditional things
You held your breath and the door for me
Thanks for your patience

 

Ever since he inadvertently saved Coulson's life, things have been... different. Easier. Worryingly so. Coulson no longer feels like the slightest of threats, which Clint considers a result of some of his more reckless tendencies. For all his finely-honed skills at self-preservation, he has always been partial to staring into the abyss until it stares back. No matter how hard he tries to coach himself through this, though, his shields remain firmly lowered around his handler. He tries to fight it, goes so far as to actively avoid him. Coulson doesn't even seem to care. Where other handlers would have gone nuts trying to track him down, and then have had him up on charges of insubordination, Coulson isn't even surprised when Clint shows up after a few days spent roaming the SHIELD complex, finding out all of its secrets, learning all the abandoned pathways and unofficial shortcuts, ferreting out all the best angles where a sniper can set down, and also all the best ways to neutralise said sniper once they are in position.

On the third day of his self-assigned reconnaissance mission, Clint gives in to his mischievous side, the one he has had to long keep hidden in the name of good working relations, and drops into Coulson's office via the ceiling vents. Coulson merely glances up, and gives him the now-familiar once-over. Clint has received a version of it every time he has been out of Coulson's sight, Coulson’s sharp eyes cataloguing possible injuries he might have been hiding, or any other ways in which Clint might have been compromised since the last time he was in Colson’s presence. A moment later, satisfied there are none to be found, Coulson just goes back to his work.

"Can I help you with anything, agent?" he asks mildly, and as always, the shock of his sincerity hits Clint right in the gut. No one has ever shown this much trust in him, or this much care about his well-being, in his life. He does not understand it, at all.

"Just checking in, sir," Clint replies, the unfamiliar address rolling off his tongue instinctively, like he has been doing it all his life. The scary thing is, he means it. He actually accepts that Coulson is his superior officer. He must be losing his damn mind.

Coulson just nods, says, "Thank you, agent. Dismissed."

Clint goes.

The first time he throws himself onto the ancient sofa in the corner of Coulson's office, whips out a battered paperback and settles in for the day, all Coulson does is lift his head, send him a long, considering look, and then looks back at his laptop screen like nothing out of the ordinary has happened. Clint spends the first five minutes on edge, waiting to be told to leave if he doesn't have anything to contribute to Coulson's work. When that doesn't happen, he dares to relax, dares to settle in properly, let the quiet peace that always seems to radiate from Coulson sink into his bones and find a home.

When he wakes up two and a half hours later, to the off-rhythm whisper of the keys of Coulson's laptop being pressed into work, he knows he is truly fucked. He hasn't willingly fallen asleep with anyone else in the room for almost two decades. Even if he’d wanted to, his body wouldn't have let him, always on alert, always ready for the next threat. That he feels safe enough to sleep with Coulson sitting not three meters away from him -- well, it really tells the whole story, doesn't it? He has slipped up, and now he trusts the guy. He is so screwed.

"What are you doing this weekend?" Coulson asks, during one of the rare downtimes they are afforded.

Clint thinks for a moment, decides there's no reason not to share his plans.

"I was thinking of going hiking. There's a decent trail not far North of here, going up into the mountains. I was gonna pack up a tent and a sleeping bag."

Coulson nods, a strange, almost wistful light in his eyes. Before Clint knows what he's doing, his mouth is opening and he hears himself say, "If you're not busy, you're welcome to come with me." Which is stupid on a number of levels, but it's not like he can take it back. He prepares to shrug away Coulson's polite rebuttal, when it inevitably comes.

He should, he realises in hindsight, have known better by now than to assume how Coulson is going to react to any given thing. Coulson sends him another of his penetrating looks that Clint feels all the way down to his gut, and then smiles mildly.

"If you're sure I wouldn't be intruding," he says. There is genuine excitement under his carefully even reply, and fuck, Clint can't take the invitation back now without feeling like an utter dick.

"The mountain is a big enough place," he offers with a shrug. "Swing by my place at six tomorrow morning."

Coulson agrees easily, and Clint takes the chance to flee, so he can spend his evening wondering what the hell came over him that he has chosen to voluntarily spend time with his handler outside of work. This can only end in disaster.

--It doesn't. Coulson shows up at his door at 0600 on the dot, dressed in a pair of worn jeans, the collar of a grey Henley shirt peeking from under a sweater that looks so soft and warm that Clint immediately covets it with a single-minded obsession, and what appears to be a battered but original Barbour jacket. He also has a large--yet not too large to manage--backpack thrown over his shoulders, and sturdy hiking boots on his feet. It is immediately obvious that this is not Coulson's first time going on a trip like this, and Clint finds himself idly wondering who might have accompanied him the last time, whether Coulson had shared this hobby with someone special.

They set off right on time, both easily keeping pace with each other, legs eating up the ground. The trail is beautiful, even -- perhaps especially -- in late fall, the woods vibrant with a tapestry of colours, like the trees are trying to best each other in a pageant. The air is crisp and fresh, and Clint sniffs it eagerly, loving the scent of dew-wet leaves drying on the ground, the way the sun cuts through the morning mist, warming them up. He feels calm, content in a strange way that reaches deep, all the way to the core of him. The quiet huffs of Coulson's breath at his side somehow deepen his enjoyment of the outing instead of disturbing it, like he'd feared. He is cautiously thrilled with the silence, almost pathetically grateful that Coulson doesn't use the opportunity to make him talk, share more of himself than he’s comfortable with. Nothing disturbs the blissful quiet but the chirping of birdsong, the rustle of the leaves under their feet mixing with the sound a rabbit makes as it darts across the path ahead of them. With every step further, Clint feels calmer, happier. It would be disturbing, if it were anyone but Coulson with him, Coulson who Clint worries sometimes knows him better than he knows himself.

The wonderful quiet continues when they reach their destination. Clint dumps his pack on a flat spot just above a stream, kicks off his shoes and heads straight for it, whooping with delight and then shock at the freezing water. Coulson watches him with an easy expression on his face, like he's pleased that Clint is pleased. It's bizarre, but not in a bad way. It's almost like what sharing this with a friend would feel like, Clint imagines.

By the time Clint is done snooping around investigating the place he's chosen, Coulson has set up his small tent, put away his backpack, and got together an armful of twigs ready to contribute to their camp fire as evening approaches. Now he sprawls over one side of a large picnic blanket, his head pillowed on top of his rolled-up sleeping bag, and yes, nose stuffed in a hardcover book. The Fifth Elephant, it reads, by Terry Pratchett; it doesn't look like Coulson has gotten far into it yet, but there's already an amused twist to his mouth. Clint has been meaning to give the series a try for a while now, and Coulson's reaction all but seals his intent.

Coulson looks absorbed, and so Clint affords him the same courtesy as Coulson gives him: he potters around quietly, unpacking his own things and pulling out his own reading material along with his first love. Mandy might be old, her varnish a little worn, but she still sounds just like the first time Clint had picked her up, easy and sweet, a little rough, rich with character. He strums her strings, and watches Coulson's smile turn unguarded and deepen with real pleasure.

The night passes under the sound of old country tunes, a bit of Elvis, some Beatles, and the crackle of their small fire. Not one word is said the entire time. It is the most pleasant outing Clint has ever been on, and how right it feels doesn't bother him even once. Perhaps he is growing as a person. He feels a knot inside him, one that had been present for so long Clint had forgotten a time when it hadn't been there at all, start to slip loose, like a muscle when you apply just the right kind of pressure. Could be it’s because he is indulging in the one thing he remembers fondly from his childhood, that life and his father and the circus had not managed to corrupt; or it could be basking in the bone-deep contentment he always feels when he’s around Coulson's easy presence.

Either way, he can no longer deny that Sitwell had been onto something when he'd paired the two of them together as a team.

---

A warning to the people,
The good and the evil,
This is war.

To the soldier, the civilian,
The martyr, the victim,
This is war.

 

Bratislava changes everything. In Bratislava, Clint (and he is 'Clint' now, you can't watch someone almost bleed out right in front of you, try to stem the flow with your bare hands, and not be on a first-name basis with them) almost dies in his arms. Phil himself gets shot trying to shield him with his body. He's pretty much expecting the cold blackness of a bullet through the brain at any second when a red-headed fury comes out of nowhere and saves them both, slaughtering a round dozen killers for hire on the way. Afterwards, she stands there, blood dripping down her arms from up to her elbows, vivid blue eyes looking at them from behind long, matted tresses as Phil calmly levels his gun at her and asks her for a reason not to use it.

"No," Clint rasps, tugging weakly on his arm. "No, Coulson, don't. She's important. I don't know how, or why, I just, I can feel it."

For the first time in his life, Phil makes the choice to go against his instincts. He lowers the gun, praying he isn't making a fatal mistake in trusting her -- in trusting Clint.

She proves him wrong, though, light, nimble fingers reaching inside Clint's wound and pressing hard, ignoring Clint's near-scream of pain and stemming the bleeding vessel, holding tight until the extraction team gets there and Clint is descended on by a flock of medics. They whisk him away, nodding hurriedly as Phil mentions the strong possibility of infection and prays to any deity still out there that there wasn't anything contagious in the blood covering the stranger's hands and arms, because if there was, then Clint is done for.

He watches helplessly as Clint disappears into the belly of the chopper, then takes a deep breath and shakes himself, turning to deal with the next problem in line.

"All right," he says, tugging two crates over by the window of the small, stifling room, situating them so that both he and the strange woman have clear lines of sight to both each other and the door. "My name is Philip Coulson. I work for the Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division, also known as SHIELD. Would you like to tell me who you are, and why you have chosen to align yourself with us?"

Her name is Natalia Romanova, and he discovers this only after he has tried a further five languages and then switched to Russian for number six. She remembers absolutely nothing, apart from an order to kill the two of them, and then falling for a long time, after she'd got slammed by one of the goons. After she had woken up and seen two of the henchmen leering over her, she had broken both their necks in three moves and then seen their friends come after Phil and Clint. The enemy of my enemy and all that.

"What else do you remember?" Phil asks calmly, and then wishes he hadn't. This is more Nick's line of work, the memories in this woman's head so tangled up that Phil has no hope in hell of sorting through them on his own.

She is silent for a long time, looking out into space. "I remember a cell," she says at last, voice rough, a little raw. Somehow Phil gets the impression that it's not just the strain of the recent fighting talking. "I remember ice, cold, a chamber with white walls and blue light. A chair. Before that, I don't remember anything."

"But you remember your name."

"I don’t know that it is my name. It's just--it sounds right. And--there's something else that sounds right, too, but I don’t see how it could be real."

"What is it?"

"Another name. It feels truer. It feels like who I am. Чëрная вдова."

'Black Widow'. Holy shit. Phil swallows, trying not to show his unease, but by the way she tenses, he thinks he fails. Still. There is an opportunity here.

"What if I told you we can help you find out who you are? There is a technique SHIELD has developed to help compromised agents regain their selves. I will arrange for full access to the equipment for you and the scientists to help you make sense of the data recovered, under the condition that any and all information we do recover, we will use against your former masters. Do we have a deal, Ms Romanova?"

Romanova stares at him, with the most calculating look that Phil has ever seen, and he has worked with Nick Fury and Clint Barton for years now. It spears right through him, peeling back a multitude of masks and covers and layers of armour. He has no idea what she finds beneath it all, but after a time that feels like centuries, she nods.

"Agreed, Philip Coulson of SHIELD." She makes the name sound like an identity, a kind of brand that Phil had never been aware he had been stamped with, but recognises it as incontrovertible fact anyway. That is who he is; he feels no need to deny it, or defend himself in any way.

"Very well. In that case, you and I are going on the next transport, due in about ten minutes. We will be taken back to SHIELD headquarters, where you will meet with General Nick Fury. He is my superior, and he will most likely insist on questioning you himself before holding up our deal. Tell him what you have told me, and try not to lie to him, he will take it badly. I may not be present for the debriefing, but I will be right outside the room at all times, for what that is worth to you."

She nods, once, snappy, like a soldier receiving her orders. Phil may not understand any of this, let alone why this woman, who could have probably killed him thirty times by now, has chosen to trust him, but he isn't going to question it. Stranger things have happened to him since he started working for SHIELD, stranger even than one of their own feeling this kind of connection to an unknown, probably hostile subject he has never met before. He wonders about that, wonders what Clint found when he looked at her, with his eyes that see deeper than anyone else’s, all the way through to the core.

Romanova appears to be thinking along the same lines. "Who was that man? Your agent," she asks levelly, and almost, almost succeeds in hiding her curiosity from Phil. Anyone else might have been fooled.

Phil narrows his eyes at her. "And what do you intend to do with that information?" he asks levelly. It shocks him a little, that he was willing to tell her about himself, and SHIELD, but the moment she asks about Clint, it's like a ten-inch-thick metal door slamming shut, like that would protect Clint from Romanova and whatever designs she may have on them all.

….Damn, and now she's seen it in him, this need to keep Clint safe, whatever the cost. It's all there in the sharpening of her gaze, the way her posture shifts minutely, taken aback.

Then, she surprises him. Something changes in her, transmutes. Phil knows when he is being lied to, when he's being manipulated. It's something else he inherited from his mother; she used to call it her 'spider-senses'. (His mother was such a big geek. He misses her so much sometimes it feels like it's going to tear him in two.) Romanova? Not lying, at least, not right that second.

"That man saved my life," she says, low, quiet, like something private she's letting Phil see. "Don't try to pretend you wouldn't have taken the shot if he hadn't stopped you. You are an agent, but you are also a soldier, and I am a threat to you and yours. But you listened to him. I don't like being indebted to people, and I am in his debt, that is irrefutable. So. I would like to know whom it is that I owe."

Phil debates this for longer than is necessary, he knows. She will find out sooner or later, if Fury decides to keep her; and if he doesn't, then she will be dead before long. Besides. He understands the sentiment.

"His name is Clint Barton. That is all I can tell you right now, since your clearance level is non-existent at this moment. After you have been briefed, you may seek him out, if you wish."

She looks at him for a moment longer, then nods again. This time it's more fluid, somehow easier. "That is acceptable," she says, evidently satisfied for now.

Phil spends the time waiting for their transport checking himself obsessively, over and over again. Is he making a mistake? Is he being played? Is he bringing hell in a handbasket back to SHIELD? Is he a fool, to trust Clint so blindly, not just with his own life (which is acceptable) but with the lives of others? Just what is it that Clint saw, that made him reach out as he was bleeding out, for Christ's sakes? (Clint will be okay. He will be. He has to be.)

Romanova spends the time staring out into space, looking somehow smaller than before, when she had been dwarfed by six-feet-plus men looking to take her down. She looks exhausted, too; something tells Phil that the fact he can see that is a huge show of trust, coming from her.

In the end, Phil decides to let it go. He can second-guess himself until the end of time, but the decision to trust Barton has already been made -- had been made a long time ago, if he's honest. All he can do is live with the consequences.

---

Written in graffiti on a bridge in a park
'Do you ever get the feeling that you're missing the mark?'

 

Clint wakes to the sound of slow, rhythmic breathing that is not Coulson's. Or, rather, not just Coulson's. He checks his surroundings: he doesn't have to try too hard. He would know that smell anywhere -- he's back in Medical. He's back in Medical, and his side aches, and he remembers slim fingers pushing him open, slipping inside him, in an obscene mimicry of something he normally enjoys rather more.

Paper rustles, and he drags his heavy eyes open, looks to the side. He's surprised, but not shocked, to see Sitwell sitting there, legs neatly crossed, a report propped over one knee as he cross-references whatever it says with a thick dossier he has to hold with both hands so the pages don't end up all over the floor. Sitwell hums to himself every now and again, brow furrowing, mouth twisting. He has the most expressive face Clint has ever come across. It's kind of relaxing, reassuring.

Some more rustling, from the other side of the bed this time. Clint turns his head, and is considerably more surprised to find Coulson sitting in the uncomfortable plastic chair, dozing with his head at an angle that will surely result in agony when he wakes up.

"He won't let me put him to bed, the stubborn bastard," Sitwell says irritably. Clint tears his eyes off Coulson's slack, tired face and back to Sitwell, who looks resigned.

"I didn't realise your relationship extended so far," Clint rasps. "You ought to try harder."

Sitwell glares at him; but he also pushes his papers aside and picks up a plastic cup of water with a straw in it, sticking the latter in Clint's mouth. Clint drinks gratefully, relishing the way it soothes his parched throat.

"I should have fucking known better," Sitwell is muttering to himself in the meanwhile, eyes narrowed on Coulson. "He always takes these things so seriously, and you, you're just a magnet for disaster, boyo. He's going to spend more time watching you sleep, or sleeping in hospital chairs, than any other handler we have on the payroll, I just know it."

Clint's mind stutters, caught between the horror of someone, anyone, watching him sleep, and the surprised pleasure of anyone wanting to.

"Wipe that grin off your face, Barton. Guy's stuck his neck out for you plenty this week."

Clint frowns. "Huh?"

Sitwell grins. It's not a friendly grin. "You acquired a little friend on your last mission, don’t you remember? I hope you don't live to regret it."

A hazy memory rises, of an urgency he doesn't understand, of Coulson's safe arms around him and a blood-slathered woman standing before him, a woman he somehow knows yet doesn't, a woman so tired of life yet incapable of lying down and just stopping. He knows her in his bones, knows that look in her eyes, has seen it enough times in the mirror to recognise it instantly in another. Sees Coulson's gun levelled at her, arm perfectly steady, protecting them both, and knows he can't let this happen.

"Is she okay?" he demands, as forcefully as he can while still flat on his back and feeling about as powerful as a new-born kitten.

"She's fine. Fury debriefed her himself, although you can expect a right ass-chewing in your future for that bit of improv. Coulson wouldn't let him take her out without talking to her, though. Insisted on it. Wouldn't leave the corridor outside the room. Then, once she was cleared to go through the debugging sequence, he came here to pass out. So don't you fucking dare make fun of him, you little shit. I don't know what you said to him, but it must have been some speech."

Clint remembers nothing of the sort. He does remember something very close to begging, for the first time in his life -- he'd never bothered before, because there hadn't been anyone who would have cared, or listened. He'd known Coulson would hear him, though. Somehow, he'd known. He has never trusted anyone, the way he does Phil Coulson.

"I won't," he tells Sitwell seriously. He knows what Coulson must have done, on nothing more than Clint's word. It's absolutely staggering, to have his trust returned, let alone to this extent. Why would anyone want to?

Sitwell stares at him for a moment longer, then appears satisfied. "Good," he says grudgingly. "Now get some sleep."

Clint doesn't want to. He slept plenty, he doesn't feel the need for more -- but Coulson's steady presence is damnably calming even when he is asleep, and Sitwell is there, too, to watch both their backs. Clint slips under before he even knows it.

Calming presence or no, Clint still manages to talk (wheedle) his way out of Medical four days later. The bullet was a through-and-through, thank god, and apart from the pesky blood loss, he feels fine. Well, for a given value of fine. Not bad enough to want to spend more time on his back, certainly, even if he has been expressly forbidden from firing his bow on pain of torn stitches and a further week spent strapped in a bed with nothing fun to do. He can still fire a gun, though, so he decides that keeping up his sniper rifle skills is the lesser evil.

The fact that he decides to do this at three a.m.? He's bored, and the range is deserted, and he has weaned himself off all the drugs, not just the good ones, and his side aches, and he can't sleep. It's better to ache because he gives himself a reason to than because he's stuck in bed and going nuts with questions he doesn't have the answers to. Like why Phil Coulson would choose him of all people to trust. Why Sitwell would bother to come and see him in Medical. Why anyone would take his word about anything, let alone Director Fury himself (even though he knows that Coulson must have been the reason Fury had listened at all). If he will ever find out who the mysterious woman was, or if she'll disappear in the bowels of SHIELD, never to be seen again.

He shoots, and reloads, and shoots again, amusing himself by indulging in a form of art that probably no one else can do: shooting WB cartoons into the targets. He's kind of wasting ammunition, but it's a perk of the job, and it keeps him occupied. Fury will deal.

When Daffy Duck is fully formed, bill open and eyebrows going nuts, he gives himself a rest, stretches to ease his stiff muscles.

"That's an interesting hobby you've got there," a woman murmurs from very, very close by.

Clint freezes. He hadn't even sensed her coming, let alone heard a damn thing, even though he's using a silencer. He turns slowly, finger itching on the trigger. It's her, the red-haired woman who had plugged the hole in him until it could be stitched up. She is standing with her feet apart, arms loose at her sides, sleeves rolled up to show she is unarmed. Clint wouldn't bet on it, though. He has a feeling there are at least ten things she can kill him with in the vicinity, and he's not even counting the rifle in his hands.

He shrugs. "Keeps it interesting."

They stand there, staring at each other, taking stock. Clint knows he is weak right now, knows that he is nowhere near as fast as he normally is. Knows that if she wants him dead, he will be. But he also trusts Coulson's assessment, knows that if Coulson thought she was truly a danger to SHIELD, he would never have allowed her to run unchecked, trust in his agent or no.

"Suppose you tell me who you are?" Clint says at last, making a show of relaxing his trigger finger.

There is an answering lowering of tension on her side. "I would like to be called Natasha Romanoff." Her accent is Eastern European and strong. Clint notices the choice of words, knows reinvention when he hears it.

"Okay, Natasha. I'm Clint Barton."

She nods, but doesn't look like she's committing that to memory. Clint wonders if she already knows his name, and how she came across it.

"Agent Coulson told me," she says, like she had reached inside his head and plucked the thought from it. "I wished to know to whom I am indebted with my life."

Huh. Her words are slow and careful, sounding oddly like she is picking them out of a dictionary as she speaks.

They are also honest.

He shrugs, not knowing what to say to that. "I'm surprised he listened," is what comes out, truth for truth.

Natasha stares at him. "Why would you be surprised? It is clear he places great value on your opinion."

Clint feels his eyes widen and try to pop out of his head. "What? He does not."

Natasha looks at him like he's the stupid one. "You may have the eyes of a hawk, but you do not see what is right in front of you."

Clint glares at her. "Whatever." Like she could possibly know anything. She doesn't know who they are, where they come from.

She merely shrugs, like it's of no importance what he thinks. "Phil Coulson has been assigned as my agent-in-charge, also."

"It's called 'handler'," Clint corrects, and watches as her eyes darken with ghosts, and her jaw clenches fitfully. "But whatever. Coulson won't care what you call him." He can let her have that. He knows that look, knows what kind of experience would have put it there, knows what words can do to you, when you have no choice but to assign a certain meaning to them so you can stay sane.

She breathes in and out, centering herself. Clint, knowing how much he hates it when other people watch him pull himself together, turns around, reloading the rifle. "If Coulson is your superior, that means we'll most likely be working together. Have they told you what assignments you're going to be taking?"

Natasha's voice is calm when she answers, "My specialist skills lie in infiltration." Confident. Professional. Yeah, Clint can work with that. Looks like Fury is grooming them to go on assignments as a team, with Coulson on call.

They could do worse than having Coulson watch their backs. He grins to himself. This is shaping up to be an interesting time in his life. At least he has zero chance of being bored.

---

Hearing the song in your laughter
A melody I chase after
No one else has done this to me

 

Phil has kind of forgotten what daylight looks like by the time he sits in the cafeteria under the New Mexico desert, looking at his watch and trying to decide if that's one a.m. or p.m. it's showing. His eyes ache from staring at monitors, his bones ache from the tension he can feel in the air, his heart aches--but it's better if he doesn't go there. He has had years to get used to the stab of longing in his chest every time Clint smiles at him, or is brilliant at his job, or sleeps on the floor next to Phil's chair, trusting Phil to have his back. It is what it is, and he's not going to ever put himself in a position where he would lose Clint's hard-earned trust. He can put up with a lot, as long as he has that; and besides it's not as if Clint is ever going to respond to it, not in the way Phil might wish he would. The almost-decade he has had to observe his and Natasha's turbulent relationship more than testifies to it. At least there is this, Clint at his side, letting Phil have his back.

"Fucking hell, you're not moping again, are you?" Jasper grumbles, throwing himself in the chair across from Phil in an eerie repeat of the scene from over ten years ago that had changed Phil's life. "For god's sake, Phil, you have to tell him. That, or just forget about him and move on. Jesus, if I'd known this would happen, I--"

"--Still would have made me take him on, don't lie," Phil says with a crooked grin.

Jasper deflates. "Yeah. True. You make a hell of a team, even before Romanoff joined in."

Phil shrugs, toying with the remains of his chicken sandwich. "They make a good team all by themselves."

Jasper, when Phil looks up to check on the cause of the suspicious silence coming from his side of the table, looks appalled. "Fuck me, Coulson, you have finally lost it."

Phil sends him a warning look. "Jasper--"

"No, nuh-huh, don't you 'Jasper' me. You think either of them would still be alive if it weren't for you keeping watch over their sorry asses? Because let me tell you, the amount of times you have pulled them out of trouble, well, I've lost count, I don't know about you."

"They are perfectly capable of saving themselves--"

"Not without causing an international incident in the meantime. Good god, never thought I'd see the day I'd have to give you the self-esteem pep-talk. This must be messing with your head something fierce, huh?"

Phil sighs, suddenly exhausted of pretending. "You have no idea," he murmurs, letting himself lower his guard for once and rubbing at the bridge of his nose.

Jasper considers him for a long minute. "Phil. You should tell him. He respects you, and I know he has started to wonder about the distance you've been putting between the two of you these past six months."

Phil somehow resists the urge to whimper. "I can't," he groans instead. "If Fury gives the Avenger Initiative the go-ahead, which, FYI, I think is going to happen sooner rather than later, I'll be the whole team's handler, not just his and Natasha's. I just know I'm going to screw this up somehow."

Jasper’s eyes flash. "You give yourself too little credit. You have the unquestioning loyalty of everyone you have ever worked with. You are an amazing handler. Do you even know that no one else will work with Barton but you? I don't know how it is that you don't see that you are the only person Barton lets tell him what to do. There's something between you, Phil, I don't know what it is, some bond I don't understand. Also you should probably know that after the whole Hammer of God fuckery, everyone who heard the two of you over the comms thinks you're dating."

Phil's mouth feels suddenly as dry as the desert above them. "They what?" he whispers. "Does Barton know?"

Jasper shrugs. "Probably. He hasn't said anything about it, though, has he? Which means he isn't as opposed to the idea as you think."

Phil shakes his head. "I can't, Jasper," he says, and it's painful, how much he wants to, but how doomed the whole endeavour is from the start.

Jasper sighs. It's the special version of 'I am surrounded by idiots' sigh he keeps around just for Phil's sake. it's a lot more fond than other people get, and it makes Phil smile ruefully now, as it always does.

"I still think you're an idiot," Jasper says.

"I know," Phil replies. It's--the thing is.

What Jasper doesn't understand is that Phil isn't just attracted to Clint. This isn't one of those 'fuck it out of your system' instances that happen to all of them over the years. This is the kind of thing that Phil remembers from the way his parents had looked at each other, the sense of inner peace he could feel emanating from both of them when they were together. His father is an unassuming-looking Physics teacher, but when his mother, the Army Major whose uniform was weighed down with medals and distinctions, looked at him, it was like Joe Coulson was seven feet tall and had the world on a string. His father never recovered from his mother's death; he has never even looked at another woman twice in the almost three decades since. Why would he, when he'd had her? He'd known, even then, that no one else could compare.

And the secret is that this is what Phil feels when he looks at Clint. They have never been together; he has never known what it might be like, having Clint for his own. But they've always had that connection, the knowledge that as long as he is able, Clint will be just one step behind him; that Phil could tell Clint anything, anything at all, and he would never be judged for it -- that more often than not, it would spark off one of the bantering sessions Phil cherishes more than any other thing in his life.

He doesn't want to fuck Clint and put it behind him. He wants 'forever', or as much of 'forever' as any of them can give. He wants Clint half-asleep and bumping into walls, and he wants the two of them going hiking for weeks, and he wants hot cups of coffee placed at his elbow when he's too absorbed in a case to get it himself.

That's why he can't say anything. He gets most of this now, even if it is not really his alone, even if Natasha merits the same attention more often than not. He would rather keep what he has than risk all of it on the uncertain chance of more.

His phone rings, interrupting the heavy silence between Jasper and him.

"Coulson," he says into it.

"Agent Coulson, this is Erik Selvig. You might want to come down here for a moment, sir. As soon as you can."

"On my way," Phil says, and Selvig cuts the call. "I gotta go," he adds for Jasper's benefit. "Something's spooked the scientists, better check it out."

"You want me to come with?" Jasper asks, dropping the earlier conversation like it never happened -- and this is why Jasper is still Phil's favourite subordinate.

"Nah. I'll let you know if it's something that requires intervention."

"Right you are, boss."

Phil wonders, in hindsight, whether he would have been so eager to escape Jasper's questions if he had known the flavour of the oncoming storm that would swamp them all.

---

Keep your clever lines
Hold your easy rhymes
Silence everything
Silence always wins
It’s a perfect alibi

 

Clint has been wondering for the past month whether or not losing his mind would be preferable to reality, to the glaring hole at his side the absence of Phil Coulson had left. As if it's a conscious choice; as if one morning he could wake up, take a piss, and decide he'll go insane today.

(If it were a choice, he might have made it already.)

He knows Natasha disapproves. He knows she expects him to accept that it wasn't his fault, that he was Loki's plaything, that he is not responsible for this outcome. But she didn't know Phil Coulson when he was the only person who believed in Clint Barton; didn't know him when he sat there in his chair and dared the new guy that everyone walked on eggshells around to show him what he's got; wasn't there when he put three bullets through an Argentinian drug lord whom they had been ordered to bring in alive, just because he had a weapon levelled at Clint's head and his finger on the trigger. She didn't know Phil Coulson when Night Watch came out, when he took two whole days off work just so he could queue up to meet Terry Pratchett in person, and then inhale the book throughout the next day. She wasn't there when, even though he was completely absorbed in the story, he still got up to let Clint in when he knocked, and hummed gratefully when Clint handed him half a sandwich (finger food which meant he didn't have to let go of the book to eat), and a can of Coke that Clint had opened for him, and had let Clint lounge on the sofa in his living room and channel-flip through the afternoon without a single noise of protest.

She wasn't there through the many times when Clint would wake up in a hospital bed, and not feel like he was crawling out of his skin, because always, without exception, Phil Coulson would be sitting in the visitors' chair, even when his own arm was in a sling, or with his side or head bandaged, even when he himself was asleep. The steady, calming presence was always there to soothe Clint back to rest, to remind him he had at least one person who would always have his back.

She wasn't there that day when Clint got up and headed to Phil Coulson's office like always, only to find it empty, the desk tidy, a note addressed to him telling him to take the day off, to go do something fun and try not to blow up the city. Wasn't there when Clint crept into Personnel Records through the air ducts, found Phil Coulson's file at the back of a dusty cabinet, and found the answer he was looking for on the very first page of it. Wasn't there when Clint made it to Arlington to find Phil Coulson and someone who could be Phil Coulson's older brother (his father) standing at a nondescript grave, close enough that their shoulders were touching, an enormous bouquet of daisies brightening up the memorial stone. Wasn't there to read the grief on Phil Coulson's face, a quarter of a century without his mother.

Natasha had been there for many, many moments afterwards, but for all their closeness, she hadn't--Phil Coulson had never meant to her what he'd meant to Clint.

So when he walks back from his first assignment back on active duty, on the shores of a small fishing village in Italy, bizarrely enough, to see Phil Coulson sitting in one of the deck chairs at the safe house, yeah, Clint knows, then. Knows he has lost his mind at last, that he is hallucinating, that he's seeing what he so desperately wants to see, and the thing is? He doesn't care. He does not give a single damn that he has clearly snapped, that he is going to have to go back to SHIELD only to tell Fury or Hill that he's resigning, and then hightail it back out. Because truthfully? Life as an insane person hallucinating dead people, over life as someone who is perfectly sane but still has that gaping hole at his side? There is no competition.

The ghost of Phil Coulson raises his head from the inevitable book, Snuff this time, he really has a penchant for Watch books (Clint has maybe been reading up on the series, while he was stuck going through one hellish evaluation after another) -- and of course, Phil hasn't read this one. It came out not long before his death, Coulson never had the chance to get it while they were stuck under New Mexico, and after--well. He hasn't read it.

"Hello, Clint," the ghost says, and fuck, fuck, it sounds just like him, that same click on the 't' that Clint remembers so very, very well. He doesn't know whether he wants to cry with relief or wreck the safe house in rage.

"Phil," he answers. Fuck it, the guy's dead, there are no rules to abide by now.

Phil looks startled, like he didn't expect that. True enough, Clint has never allowed himself to call him by his first name; like he'd had any hope of preserving the distance between them that had been shrinking and shrinking over the years. Stupid, so stupid, when he thinks of it now.

"Mission complete?" Phil asks, and Clint finds himself answering by habit, "Yessir. Target down."

"Good work," Phil says, like nothing is different, like Clint isn't standing in the middle of an empty house talking to a dead man.

But since he's here...

"I'm sorry," Clint grits out, hands squeezed into fists so hard that the normally unyielding surface of his bow feels strangely fragile under his fingers. "I'm so fucking sorry, Phil."

The startled look is back on Phil's face. It looks foreign there. "Whatever for?" he asks, genuinely puzzled, and Clint really wants to just break down and cry like a little kid.

"That I didn't do my laundry before I left, what do you fucking think?" he snarls.

"I honestly don't know," Phil says, still with that damnable calm that Clint has missed like a lost limb.

"For killing you," Clint chokes out, because Phil deserves this, deserves his remorse. Deserves everything Clint has to give.

Over the years, Clint has seen many expressions on Phil Coulson's face: angry, disappointed (though never at him), pissed-off, furious, sad, worried -- but he has never seen Phil look as scared as he looks right now.

"Clint," Phil says, like his name will call him back from the brink, which is ridiculous: he is far over it now, and happy to be there. "Clint, look at me. I'm not dead."

Yuh-huh. Pull the other one, Clint thinks, snorting. "Sure you are. You don't have to lie to make me feel better. I know I'm losing it off at the deep end. As long as you're here, though -- I'm fine with that."

"Clint," Phil starts, sounding distressed, but just then Clint's comm unit goes off, and he's responding that, yes, he is in the safe house, yes, confirmed extraction in thirty minutes. This ought to be over sooner than he thought.

"It's okay, Phil. I'm just going to go in, tell Fury I'm resigning, and then I'll be all yours, I promise. I'm not missing my chance twice."

"For fuck's sake, Clint, listen," Phil tries, and yeah, that jars Clint a little, because Coulson never, ever swears. Just another reason this can't really be Coulson.

Clint walks around, systematically returning the safe house to the sterile location it was before Clint got there, and ignores Phil's words, focusing on his increasingly agitated voice. He wishes there was a way to make Phil understand that it's fine, he just needs another twenty-four hours tops pretending he's sane, and not seeing ghosts of dead people, and then he can let go.

The hand on his arm is a shock to the system, because it's warm, so warm, and strong, strong enough to bruise.

"Barton, you are not listening to me," Phil accuses, still with that edge of wildness in his voice, and it takes all that Clint has not to fold into himself and just say "I'm sorry, I'm sorry" over and over again, until Phil has heard it enough times to know that Clint really is sorry, isn't just saying it, isn't moving on without him.

"Look, Phil, I just need a little bit more time. Okay? Can you give it a rest until after I've seen Fury? Then you can do your worst."

God, he can feel Phil's touch. When his mind decides to do something, it doesn't do a half-assed job, does it? In a way, this is everything he could have hoped for. Maybe one day, years from now, maybe Phil will forgive him; maybe Clint might just have that second chance he craves so badly. Or maybe (most likely) his mind is trying to make his reality bearable for him. And let's face it, he's not going to turn it down anytime soon.

Phil does subside at that, thankfully, but he looks pale, and drawn, and so upset. It kills Clint to see him like that, tears him up inside, knowing that he is again responsible for putting that expression there; that even when Phil is dead, Clint still can't manage to stop hurting him.

They travel back in silence, but Clint can't stop throwing little sideways glances at Phil, sitting next to him and ignored by everyone else around them -- because, of course, they can't see him. Only Clint can, which is a boon where he was done looking for any.

When they land, Natasha is there, and god, the hardest test was always going to be first, wasn't it? Because Natasha is definitely not going to let him go without a fight, and she is absolutely not going to let him pretend that the ghost of his... everything isn't standing right next to him. He grits his teeth and avoids looking at Phil. If he can just do this, then he'll be in the clear, he can fool everyone else but Nat.

She looks apprehensive when Clint climbs out of the chopper, subdued and worried and Clint is starting to think there is maybe something not quite right going on. Is it Loki again? The sceptre? Is his mind being fucked with again? He doesn't think he can take that, not when he just miraculously got Phil back, he can't, he's not giving that up.

"Are you okay?" Natasha asks, straight to the point as always, eyes darting to Clint's side, like she can--

"I'm fine," he says roughly, at the same time that Phil says, "He doesn't believe that I'm back."

Natasha's eyes dart between Clint and the ghost of Phil, and Clint is bracing himself to lie, tell her anything that will make her leave him alone, when she says, "What do you mean, he doesn't believe you're back? You're standing right there."

Clint's knees refuse to hold him as his mind processes that, reaches the only logical conclusion that it can when Natasha is right there, alone and perfectly, frighteningly sane, and if she's seeing--

"You can see him?" he croaks.

Natasha looks at him like he's lost his mind, which he's still not certain he hasn't. "Of course I can. When you were late checking in, he insisted on flying out to make sure you were okay, but of course by the time he got there, you had checked in... Are you telling me that you can see Coulson standing there, talk to him, touch him, and you don't believe he's alive?"

Clint's vision fades and twists, and he grabs hold of Natasha's shoulders with a death grip, even as he feels strong (unforgettable) arms close around his waist, holding him up. "Tell me," he demands (begs), shaking her. "Tell me."

"Budapest," Natasha says, calm and perfectly sure as always, their safe word, the confirmation that this is real. "Budapest, Clint, floor twenty-three of Sofitel, overlooking the Danube. You told me the name of the hotel reminded you of your mother's name, Sofia. I told you it reminded me of that time I had to kill a couple in Sofia and I ended up having to sleep with their son to get to them."

Oh, shit. Shit. This is happening. This is real. "Phil," he groans, letting himself sag into those sure arms, knowing they'll catch him (they'll always catch him), sitting right there on the airstrip's tarmac, held tightly between the only two people he has ever trusted to tell him the truth.

"It's okay," Phil repeats, mouth muffled by Clint's hair when Clint buries his face under his chin and clings while Phil lets him. "It's okay." The warmth of Phil's voice hasn't changed, and he smells the same, and he exudes the same peace as he always did, and Clint can't even feel embarrassed about the things he said to him, when he thought Phil was a ghost come to haunt (deliver) him.

"How?" Clint demands, as soon as he's got his bearings back, as soon as he lets the other two walk him inside and into a spare room, away from prying eyes.

"Over fifteen hours of extensive surgery and an experimental healing serum derived from Captain America's DNA," Phil says easily, like he's talking about the fucking weather.

"Why did Fury tell us you were dead when you weren't?"

"Because, at the time, for all he knew, I was. I had to be hooked up to a bypass machine so my heart could be repaired. For all intents and purposes, my heart was not beating."

Clint shudders, hard, and clings to his side, and the hell of it is, Phil is still letting him, like his own killer isn't cosying up to him and refusing to let go. (Okay, so he wasn't the one holding the sceptre that stabbed him, but he was the one who put it there so it could, and no one is going to convince him he isn't guilty when he knows damn well he's to blame for it all.)

"But then why didn't he tell us when you woke up?" Clint asks. He isn't prepared to let this go, not until he knows. Not until he's sure.

"Because he only woke up a fucking week ago. Fury was waiting for you to come back so he could get the team together and announce it, but this asshole checked himself out of the hospital as soon as he physically could, and before Fury could get wind of it, he went after you," Natasha says, coldly furious.

Clint turns around and gapes at Phil's pale, sweaty face. "Why the fuck would you do that, you idiot? You should be in a hospital. In fact, that's where you're headed right fucking now," he snarls, angry beyond belief that Phil would put himself in danger like that, for him, for whatever reason Phil found it necessary to jeopardize his health again so he could come get Clint himself.

Phil shrugs, face twitching a little, and Clint thinks with a staggering amount of self-hatred about making Phil catch him, making Phil exert himself, and for what? To be told he's still no more than a ghost, that Clint would prefer to believe that Phil is six feet under than really in the same room as him.

Clint has no idea how Phil can even stand to look at him.

"Come on," he demands, grabbing Phil's elbow and helping him up. "You're going back to Medical."

Phil, though, won't budge. He clings to the front of Clint's uniform, fingers as strong as they have always been, despite the fine sheen of sweat over his pale face. "I'm not going unless we talk," he says, stubborn, always so stubborn.

"Fine," Clint bites out. "We can talk after you've been checked out."

"Promise? I'll have your word, Agent."

Not like it's worth much, at this point, but why the hell not? "I promise. I'll be in my quarters. Come find me when you have been discharged -- and you'd better bring medical documents to that effect, or I'm sending you straight back in."

Phil huffs a pained laugh. "It's so amusing that you think you are in any position to give me medical orders," he says, and fuck, that one hurts. Oh, does it ever, and by the way Phil's face falls, Clint doesn't think he has managed to conceal just how much. "I meant because you've always been the one to try and escape from medical as soon as they take their eyes off you," Phil backtracks, but Clint just grits his jaw and keeps walking, doesn't say anything back. Phil has every right to say any damn thing he wants to him, and Clint doesn't have the right to resent him for it. He deserves every single mite of Phil's dislike, distrust, even hatred. He'll have to live with it, just the way he has to live with all the faces of the dead.

"Clint," Phil tries again, when they reach the flying doors to Med Bay and Clint lets go of his arm, but Clint just smiles tightly.

"Let them make sure you're okay. Then come and find me. I'm not running, I promise. I'll be waiting for you."

He about-turns and marches off, and if it feels a little like he's marching to his doom, so what? It's nothing more than what he deserves.

---

I just want to be there
When we're caught in the rain
I just want to see you laugh not cry
I just want to feel you
When the night puts on its cloak
I'm lost for words don't tell me
All I can say
I love you 'till the end

 

Phil takes a deep breath and squares his shoulders, facing off against Clint's door. He can do this thing. He can. He has to, because he has never in his life been so paralyzed with fear as when he had looked into Clint's hooded, hopeless eyes and seen nothing but emptiness looking back; when Clint had calmly accepted that he was losing his mind, and hadn't even wanted to fight it. This is not the first time Phil has almost died for his country; it likely won't even be the last.

The difference is, this time, Phil knows why he fought to come back; why he wouldn't let the calm peace take him, the satisfaction of a job-well-done. This time, he was leaving people behind that he cared about more than the siren call of rest at last. That he was willing to endure ten times this kind of pain for, and he'll be damned if he's going to leave one of his men drowning, especially bearing in mind who that man is. No, he's dragging Barton back kicking and screaming, by whatever means necessary. Clint wants him to bare his soul? Fine. Phil has no false pride to cling to. He would give all this, and heaven, too, if it would help.

No use putting it off. He fixes the lapels of his suit jacket (unnecessarily) and knocks on the door.

The silence is absolute for over thirty seconds, and an edge of nausea is starting to churn in the pit of Phil's stomach, wondering if perhaps Clint hadn't decided to run after all, cut his losses and disappear, when the door snicks open and Clint stands there in the gap, back military-straight, a thousand-yard stare on his face, like he's preparing for the gallows. Phil almost falters for a moment, almost scraps his plan.

But he'd lain there in the dark, in the uncomfortable hospital bed, aching and thoroughly, miserably alone, and he hadn't been able to escape the nagging realisation that he'd never even hinted at how important Clint was coming to be to him, and for some reason, the thought that Clint might go through his whole life without knowing, without understanding that he was Phil's everything, it was insupportable.

It was that itch that had made Phil quit the hospital bed, had driven him across countries and thousands of miles, had found him waiting in the stuffy air of an almost-but-not-quite abandoned safe house for the one person who made his life worth living. And so he isn't going to back down now. He is going to walk in that room, and say his piece, and if Clint decided that it wasn't what he wanted, then so be it, but at least he'd know. He'd know that out there was this one man to whom Clint meant everything. Who loved him with everything he had, and who would keep loving him until there was no more air in his lungs, whether Clint wanted it, needed it, or did not.

(Besides, if this changed everything between them, Phil had paved the ground for others, at least. Hill, for one, would work well with Barton; she was a woman as well as a master tactician, and Barton always did better in scenarios where women were in charge. Phil was more the exception to the rule than the rule itself. They could, would all move on. It's not like Phil would push Clint for anything he wasn't willing to give. He was raised better than that; he is better than that, wants more than that for Clint, when he is ready for it.)

"Can I come in?" he says calmly, and Clint startles a little, enough to look Phil in the eye. It's not much, but it's a start, and it gives Phil hope that there is a chance here, still.

"Of course," Clint says, stepping aside, and all right, that's enough now. That note in Clint's voice, the helpless defeat, standing there like he's prepared to take whatever he is given, that is not something Phil will stand to see.

Clint checks him up and down swiftly as he walks in, looking like he’s trying to gauge Phil’s physical condition through sight alone. Phil fights back the urge to snap “I’m fine,” because that wouldn’t solve anything, apart from making Clint clam up and look like he’s bracing himself some more, at which point Phil might really lose his temper.

Clint closes the door and stands there, shoulders straight, arms behind his back, feet shoulder-width apart. Phil sighs heavily, grits his teeth and prays for patience.

“I’m curious. Just what do you think is going to happen here?” he asks, deceptively calm. “Do you think I’m here to give you another dressing-down?”

Clint looks like he is debating what to say. In the end, he goes with “Sir,” which really, it could mean anything. Phil is almost impressed by his evasion skills.

On the other hand, he hasn’t seen Clint like this since the early days, and even then, there was more life in him, more defiance, a ‘fuck-you’ to the universe. Now, he looks defeated. It makes Phil ache inside.

“That isn’t what is going to happen, Agent. What is going to happen, however, is that we’re going to have a talk regarding how you think that the decisions I made, in the heat of battle, is something you have the authority to question.”

That gets a reaction. Clint’s jaw ticks fitfully, and his shoulders bunch as he squeezes his hands into fists.

“It was my choice,” Phil says again, stressing it like if he says it enough, it might actually sink into Clint’s thick skull. “I would make it over and over again, if it would get this result. If it would mean that the Avengers closed ranks, and we got you back safely.”

Clint swallows dryly, looking absolutely furious. “How could you do that, sir? How could you put my safety above yours?” he bites out, voice so rough he sounds like he’s been screaming.

“I would do it every chance I get,” Phil states, like the unshakable fact it is.

“Well, you shouldn’t have,” Clint yells, eyes flashing. “You should have fucking left me behind, isn’t that what you are always telling new agents, to leave you behind if necessary?” He spits out that last like it personally offends him enough to shoot it.

“That is never going to happen, and if you can manage to crawl out of your pit of self-flagellation, you will realise how absurd you sound.”

“Bit high and mighty of you, sir, picking and choosing what part of your own advice you practice.”

“This was my decision, Barton, and you will respect it as you respect me.”

“Oh, I respect you. I don’t have to fucking like it, though, do I? It was a stupid risk to take, and it almost cost you your life!”

“I am a senior agent of SHIELD, and you are naïve if you think that there was any other choice I would make, under the circumstances.”

“Then don’t try to dress it up as somehow doing me a favour, because you dying? Not what I would call a favour to me. More like spitting in my face.”

“Contrary to what you think, not everything is about you.”

“Then why are we having this conversation at all, sir?”

Phil sighs. “Because, agent, some thingsare about you.”

And then he does the only thing he can, the only thing he has wanted for so many years now that it is a part of him in the same way as his own heart. He reaches out, grabs Clint’s furious face, drags him down, and kisses him.

Clint freezes. His arms ghost over Phil’s elbows, and then drop again. His lips fall open a little, in shock, Phil presumes, and Phil takes full advantage of the only chance it looks like he’s ever going to get: he kisses them, softly, sweetly, tasting anger and pain and hurt, and something sweet and tangy at the same time, something that tastes like Clint. He takes Clint’s lower lip between his, licks over it, sucks lightly, then pulls back when it’s clear that there will be no reaction to this. Heart curled up small and tight in his stomach, he lets go of Clint’s now-startled face, and takes a good step back.

Clint’s mouth opens and closes, once, twice, and under different circumstances, Phil would relish being able to turn Clint Barton speechless. As things stand now, it only confirms what he has long suspected – there is nothing he can do, nothing he can say, to make Clint want him back.

He clears his throat, gathers his calm around himself like a mantle. “That is all I wanted to say. I understand that it isn’t something you reciprocate, but it felt important to me that you knew. Shit happens. I need you to know that I don’t blame you for a single thing that happened on the Helicarrier during the Battle of New York. As for this: nothing has to change between us. I will certainly not pressure you for anything you aren’t willing to give.”

Clint doesn’t say a word – until he does. “How can you even—“ he grits out, looking miserable and guilty and upset. “You can’t possibly, not after what I did.”

Phil nods to himself once, decisively. “Do you trust me, Barton?”

Clint looks up, shaken out of whatever pit of denial he had sunk into. “You know I do,” he says, achingly sincere.

Phil swallows hard against the helpless desire to take him in his arms and kiss him until that look is gone from his face. Since he can’t do what he wants most, he has to resort to the second-best option. “Then trust me to know my own mind. This isn’t something new. I loved you back when you stood between me and the South African assassins, and when you took that bullet for Natasha in Berlin, and when you stood up for those kids in Shanghai. There hasn’t been a single moment when I have regretted falling in love with you. This isn’t contingent on something you do or don’t do, have or have not done, on any way you behave, on whether you can reciprocate or not. Do me the honour of letting me have the dignity of my choice without trying to tell me how I feel. I love you. It is just that simple. You don’t have to do anything but accept that I mean it.”

Clint stands there staring at him, looking like his whole world is breaking apart and remaking itself. It is clear that there can be no further talk right now, not when they are both so raw, not after all the revelations the day has brought. Phil tells himself he isn’t disappointed, that he isn’t hurt, because he’ll be damned if he makes Clint feel like he has to do anything here. It is what it is.

He clears his throat and takes a step back, then another. “I’m going to go to my quarters now. I’ll be there if you need to talk, or—anything.”

Clint still doesn’t say anything. Phil nods once more to himself, turns on his heel, and leaves, closing the door softly behind himself.

He does go to his quarters, but he can do nothing but sit on his cot and stare at the door, even though he has no expectations of anyone coming through it any time soon (--Well. Maybe Natasha, because Natasha sees and hears far more than anyone realises, even when they’re bracing for it). He misses his apartment in the city, and he honestly can’t wait to be back on solid ground, back in the New York offices where he is usually based when he isn’t away on a mission. He can’t wait to get lost in a bookshop, like he normally does when he needs to get his head straight, or go for a wander through the flower market, or do any one of the tiny little things that make civilian life bearable for him.

But he can’t, because he is on the Helicarrier, over a hundred miles away from the East Coast, and so all he can do is sit, and wait, and stew, and hope he hasn’t just ruined his and Clint’s working relationship.

After twenty minutes too long of this pointless moping, he gets up off the bed, takes off his suit, hangs it up, steps into a pair of SHIELD-issue sweats and a t-shirt he puts on oh-so-carefully, chest aching from something as mundane as healing flesh, for once. Once set, he gets a glass of water and goes to sit by the small window his quarters merit, watches the sky dim and melt into the sea, and thinks of nothing at all.

Until a knock comes on his door, and he startles a little, pulse racing. It’s probably Natasha. Or Nick. Or someone who needs him for something, now that he is officially alive again. There is no reason to expect anyone else.

He opens the door, and stares at Clint standing on the other side, looking flushed and agitated and antsy, like he gets when he needs to do something or jump out of his skin. Phil steps wordlessly aside, in an ironic mirroring of the situation earlier in the day, when it was Clint bracing himself for things he didn’t want to hear (but would, because it was Phil saying them). Clint strides inside, looking determined. Phil closes the door. Takes a deep breath. And turns, straight into Clint’s hands.

They curl over his shoulders, squeezing a touch too roughly, but hell, Phil isn’t going to complain. Clint is touching him at all, which is more than he thought he was going to get.

“You stupid, stupid, infuriating asshole,” Clint growls, and before Phil can open his mouth to defend himself, he is being kissed, desperately, like Clint’s life depends on it. While he’s busy processing the warmth of Clint’s mouth on his, how different he tastes now that he apparently wants this, is an active participant in the kiss, he is being drawn against a strong chest that he has always known would feel like this, strong, firm, a shelter from the storm, but was never bold enough to imagine he would get the opportunity to have his deductions confirmed.

Before he can draw up the courage to do more than kiss back, before he can curl his hands around those biceps for no other reason than to feel them flex against his palms, Clint draws back and just looks at him, lips red, chest heaving, hair standing up every-which-way.

“God, you drive me insane,” Clint chokes out, hands clenching and unclenching fitfully. “If you had—if I’d lost you—Well, you saw me, I was a mess, I am going to be a mess if you ever do this to me again. How you could have thought I didn’t—don’t you fucking know?”

“Know what?” Phil asks, daring to hope.

“That you are my life, you bastard, Jesus Christ.” Clint is half-laughing, half-choking, and Phil feels the warmth of his words sink through him, come to rest in his bones, fill up a place inside him that had been waiting, and waiting.

“I love you,” Clint says, after a long minute of catching himself, putting himself back together under a semblance of control. “I love you so much, I—I have no words, none, that has never happened, do you know how rarely—“

Phil has no choice. He kisses him again, tastes all the caught words on his tongue, steps in, until he can feel the coiled strength of Clint’s body against him, held back just for him, his to command. It is intoxicating.

“No more dying,” Clint admonishes once the kiss is over and they are breathing into each other’s mouths. His hands have moved around to Phil’s back, stroking uneven paths of heat over his t-shirt.

“No more dying,” Phil agrees. He would have agreed to anything, if it meant that this bliss could continue. His own hands hold tightly onto the t-shirt Clint has changed into, wrinkling and stretching the fabric and caring not a whit. “You, either.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Clint breathes around the most enormous smile Phil has ever seen on his face. “I’ll have you to keep that from happening.”

“Always,” Phil says, and it feels like a promise, like an oath. Always.

Clint wrinkles his nose at him adorably, and kisses him again.

---

Crack the shutters open wide
I want to bathe you in the light of day
And just watch you as the rays
Tangle up around your face and body
I could sit here for hours

 

Clint isn’t crying. He isn’t. There’s just something in his eye—or, no, actually, the curry they just finished was too hot. Yeah. He certainly isn’t crying over Dirty Dancing like some fourteen-year-old kid. He coughs and crosses his arms over his chest and tries to pretend that Johnny ‘doing the right thing’ and driving away from Baby isn’t tearing him up inside. Why are they watching this again? Surely there’s some action flick on another channel that won’t make him want to bawl.

He reaches for the remote. Without looking away from his book, Phil’s hand catches his and draws Clint further into his side, trapping Clint’s arm under his to keep him from moving away, not like Clint is going anywhere. He just slumps further into the sofa, sniffles pathetically and refuses to catch Phil’s eye. Phil doesn’t say a word, but the soft, fond smile curling his mouth speaks volumes.

When Johnny walks into the banquet hall a little while later, and makes a beeline for the table where Baby is sitting, this scared yet determined expression on his face, Phil draws Clint’s hand up to his mouth, places a brief kiss on the back of it. There is no stopping the way Clint melts inside, the way his head falls, coming to rest on Phil’s shoulder, the way his body curls into Phil’s with an ease that speaks of long-standing familiarity.

Phil doesn’t look like he’s watching the movie – and maybe he isn’t, maybe it’s the catching of Clint’s breath in anticipation that snags his attention, but he still manages to turn his head and murmur “Nobody puts Baby in the corner,” into Clint’s hair, at the exact same moment that Johnny says it on the screen, and Clint—

Clint had this whole thing planned. He went and bought the rings, while putting up with both Natasha’s gentle mocking and ruthless research in a show of maturity he is particularly proud of. He was going to book a table at Phil’s favourite restaurant on his birthday, and he was going to give him a signed edition of I Shall Wear Midnight, and then he was going to pull out the little velvet box, and try (and probably fail) to find the words to express how much Phil means to him, how much he would like it if Phil agreed to, well, let him put a ring on it (because Clint can’t help being himself, and Phil loves him anyway).

All that, it goes out of the window in that moment. All Clint can do is gasp for breath, and then blurt, “Oh my god, you goofball, marry me.”

And Phil, because he is Phil, because nothing Clint can do can surprise him, or make him walk away, and how did Clint ever get so lucky? Phil smiles and, as Johnny kisses Baby’s nose before twirling her for the first time, says, “Of course.” Like it’s just that simple. Like getting married to Clint is a no-brainer. Clint stares at him, at those gorgeous blue eyes that he has loved so dearly, and so well, for much longer than he had realised, and kisses him, because it’s that or die.

Making love to I’ve Had The Time Of My Life is cheesy, and corny, and not something that Clint would admit under any circumstances that he wants. But this is Phil, and as usual, Phil already knows.