"Come in," Phil responded to the knock on his door which had broken the comfortable silence that previously sheathed his office. His eyes instantly flickered up in the direction of the person who swung it open as soon as the first syllable was out of his mouth, gaze breaking away from where they had been focused on the weekend schedule that still required his confirmation. "Coming in the traditional way?" He asked in surprise as Clint Barton sauntered across the room, the door brushing closed behind him with a discernible click. "To what do I owe the honor?"
"Thought I'd go the official way of things since it's an official thing I want to talk about." Clint perched himself on the seat opposite Phil and picked up the miniature replica of Cap's shield that Phil always kept on his desk. Phil watched as Clint span it like a top on the flat surface of a freshly completed pile of mission reports Phil had yet to file away. Every time it failed and stopped, Clint resorted to rotating it faster and faster, until it succeeded in becoming a blur of blue, white and red. Something Phil had learned long ago was that the best way to get what you wanted out of Clint was to let him say it in his own time. Pressuring the other man into letting out what was on his mind would just trap the thoughts in an airtight cage to which only Clint held the key.
"I was thinking," Clint said after a pause that was starting to feel like eternity, Phil had sat with his hands braced against his keyboard, unmoving ever since Clint had entered, "I don't really see any point in me going on that SHIELD bonding thing. I mean, me and Nat are Avengers now. It's not like you really need us there." The tiny Captain America shield flattened out to rock around on its edges for a couple of revolutions before finally shuddering to a rest.
After the events of the Chitauri invasion, Loki, and Phil's not death, SHIELD had been in dire need of new agents. For the first time in years, they'd taken on a lot of trainees all at the same time, and unfortunately, whilst they were bonding amazingly well with each other, there had been difficulties integrating them smoothly into team work with the older, more experienced agents. Another problem they needed to tackle was that other than a few select people, namely Natasha and Phil, the SHIELD personnel who were present for the Helicarrier attack still didn't have the level of trust in Clint that they had before. A co-worker walking the enemy into their midst and killing off their friends wasn't something that was easy to come to terms with, even if the concerned party had been brainwashed at the time, not without living through it or having someone close experience a phenomenon of the same ilk. People were wary. It was understandable. Still, as much as Clint would never admit to it, Phil knew their attitude was getting to him. There was only so long anyone could put up with being the subject of mistrusting stares and the main topic of whispered conversations. Even people Clint had considered friends were hesitant to give him the benefit of the doubt. So, when Tony had offered Clint space in the newly named Avengers Tower, Clint had jumped at the chance of getting off-base to live with a group of people who had taken him under their wing with a single nod from Natasha.
Now it had been decided that to help with rebuilding or, in the case of the new agents, creating the trust that was so vital to the running of SHIELD, select groups were being sent off on weekend team building retreats. The first batch had been a huge success, and so it had become a mandatory hoop for all SHIELD employees to jump through. Since Clint and Natasha were still SHIELD agents as well as being Avengers, they weren't exempt, in fact, part of Phil thought that it was best for them to have time away from the superhero influence before they forgot their SHIELD allegiance altogether.
"That's not really an option, Clint. You may be an Avenger, but you're still a SHIELD agent. I know you don't want to go, but we all have to do it." Phil kept his tone neutral and his face impassive. Clint needed Phil not to fail at being objective. After all, Phil would never let anyone else avoid essential training, he was hardly going to let Clint be the one to start.
There was tension in Clint's jaw betraying that he was gritting his teeth to keep back words he knew Phil wouldn't want to hear. Phil wasn't going to be swayed on this point and Clint clearly suspected any further arguments would fall on deaf ears. It didn't mean the other man wasn't still bursting to say what was on his mind.
"What do you thinking they're going to do, Clint? It's a work thing. Just because people aren't back to normal around you yet, doesn't mean they won't be. Hiding out in Stark's tower is not going to help."
At Phil's words, Clint's eyes flashed with anger, but a softer light lay underneath, displaying his hurt and pain that he couldn't escape this easily. It was going to have to be something that he worked through. Even if he didn't want to admit it aloud, Phil knew Clint was aware he couldn't hide from this forever.
"Look," Phil's tone softened as he continued, "you're not always going to be doing missions with the Avengers, you need to work with everyone here as well. Besides," Phil said with a rare smirk that Clint perked up slightly at the sight of, "don't you want to see how the Director's going to handle all of this? You do know he was picked to be in our group this weekend?"
Clint's expression morphed from residual apprehension to pure delight. "You mean that Fury has to do this too? Nat never told me he had to, or that he was with us." He started to get more animated, his hands flailing as he talked with rapid gestures. "This is going to be the best thing ever," Clint said with a grin.
Phil, caught up in Clint's sudden rush of positive emotion, smiled along with him. It was good to see Clint happy, even if it was just because his misfortune was being shared by an unexpected person. The weight dragging Clint's spirit down had lifted at least enough for it to flutter above the ground even if it wasn't soaring at its usual lofty height.
"Do you want to stay over on Thursday?" Phil asked, moving his hands away from his computer and flexing his fingers. Every few weeks Clint would spend the night with Phil rather than go back to the tower with the Avengers. It was how Phil knew just how much things were affecting Clint after the attack. As much as Clint protested the contrary, Phil knew that Clint slept better with him around. The weariness in Clint's eyes eased when Phil was curled up next to him within easy reach. Even if during their time together Clint woke in a cold sweat, clinging to the bed sheets until Phil could talk him down and convince him that he was safe and no longer under Loki's twisted control. It might not appear to be the best of arrangements, but it suited them fine. Their relationship was relatively new despite having danced around each other for years. They certainly weren't ready for the step of living together, especially not when it meant Phil would likely have to move into Avengers Tower. He had enough stress on the job without adding to it and having to put up with Tony Stark in his living room. Clint insisted Phil just didn't want to say something embarrassing to Steve when he was half asleep and unable to control his inner fanboy. "The bus we hired will be leaving early and my place is closer."
"Bus?" Clint asked in wide-eyed disbelief. "We're not just flying?"
"Believe it or not, Clint, not everywhere has the facilities for us to land quinjets. So, yes, we have to take the bus."
"Fine, I'll stay over at yours," Clint said with a soft smile betraying how pleased he was with the turn in events. "If I'm not going to get you alone at all this weekend, we might as well have one night together before having to go through the ordeal of team building." He hopped to his feet and carefully placed the shield back on its stand just how Phil liked it to be displayed. "I'll see you later. I need to goad R&D into trying to compete with Stark's new arrowheads for me. If I'm lucky, then I'll get double the firepower." He rubbed his hands together gleefully. "Just imagine the explosions!"
There had been some grouching at first, especially from Clint because he knew that he was close enough for Fury to hear every word, when they had seen what they had to deal with for the duration of the drive. However, Natasha had just popped her earbuds in twenty minutes into the journey and acted like Clint wasn't there at all unless she had to slap his hand away from the snacks she'd brought along for the trip. How could Clint have known that was an option? Phil probably had had a whole pack of donuts that he was sharing with Jasper, whilst Clint was stuck being hungry and ignored.
The rhythmic motion of the wheels on the asphalt must have lulled Clint to sleep at some point because he woke with a start when they pulled up at their destination. Unlike New York, the whole area was completely calm, without the hubbub of people swarming around on the sidewalks, and instead of vehicles and their angry horns, the air was filled with the sounds of birds and insects and their cacophony of calls. Trees stretched far into the clear, blue afternoon sky and the only building for miles was the one provided for the visitors and employees of the center. A little two storey place with wood-paneled walls, a communal showering facility and bunk beds like Clint hadn't seen since his time in the orphanage. Not that he would have the chance to use them just yet, but he did get his first chance to call top bunk when they threw their bags into their assigned rooms on the way to an induction and safety meeting that had been set up for them.
The lead instructor was a little peppy and touchy feely for Clint's tastes, but then he supposed that was to be expected from a man who dedicated his life to improving the relationships between people who were strangers to him. In truth, he seemed like a decent enough guy. Unless he was going to start making them stand around holding hands and singing Kumbaya.
Their first activity was just getting out on the pond - lake? Clint wasn't too certain on where the difference came in between the two - they could see from their rooms in canoes. He wasn't entirely sure how this was going to work as team building, but he dutifully paired up with some new girl that was pointed in his direction. Everything was just a sea of familiar and unfamiliar faces with a range of facial expressions from joyously delighted to seriously unimpressed. Clint's own feelings lay firmly in the middle. Better to just get on with it. He could see Nat and Phil each paired up with their own new agent; Fury seemingly found a reprieve compared to the rest of them, and was matched with Hill. The woman Clint had been partnered with clambered excitedly into the front of their canoe as Clint sat at the back.
They nudged the boat away from the shore with their oars, slipping gracefully into the still water, casting out an abundance of new ripples and a couple of waves in their wake. It didn't take too long for Clint to work out how to move the paddle effectively so that it sliced through the water in precise movements, moving them along almost effortlessly. Up front, Clint's partner was having a couple of issues that were preventing them from moving along as smoothly as they could. The angle of her oar tore into the water jerkily instead of at an effortless slide.
"Just turn your oar over slightly. Yeah, that's it," Clint said as she adjusted the trajectory the blade and how her paddle bit into the water. Their canoe instantly gained a lot more power in its movement.
Clint steered as they raced off ahead of the others. A lot of the pairs still seemed uncertain of how to move together effectively, hesitant to end up capsizing and looking like fools in front of their colleagues. Unlike Clint who had taken to it, well he'd taken to it like a duck to water, if truth be told. As long as no one ever said it to him aloud, he was happy enough to think it. For SHIELD agents, the others were really letting the team down with their inability to be up to the challenge of canoeing. It was hardly a worthy foe.
"I'm Clint, by the way," Clint said as they continued forwards. There was an advantage in knowing the name of the person he was trusting to not capsize him and get him completely soaked through, and it was that Clint would able to curse their name should he end up submerged.
"Claire," she stated as she pulled the paddle back in a determined stroke. "We're not doing too badly at this," she laughed as though it came as a surprise. "I've never done this before."
"Me neither," Clint added. "We're doing better than that lot at least." He jerked his head over his shoulder at the floundering agents on the far side of the lake, not that she'd be able to see the gesture.
"Oh, yeah," she crowed. "And I'm supposed to be the new girl. Eat my waves!" Claire laughed again, and Clint found himself laughing along with her.
"What they get you for anyway?" He might as well try at some bonding. It was his mission objective after all. If Clint kept thinking about it that way, it made it easier to get through.
"Couple of bank robberies. Nothing that bad. We just drew a bit of attention to ourselves is all."
"We?" Clint hadn't heard of SHIELD pulling in multiple people for recruitment together in such a way. Sure, there were their super secret recruitment drives, but the fact that she was new and had a high clearance level straight off the bat lent itself to the theory that whatever had gone on was more than a simple case of SHIELD looking for new people.
"Benny as well. He's the one who worked out how to get the weapon working in the first place. He's amazing like that. We'd have never managed it otherwise. Don't go thinking I'm not the brains behind it though." She paused as she adjusted her grip on the paddle before sweeping it back. "I came up with the plan, just because he managed to get alien tech working, doesn't mean that I wasn't pulling the strings."
If Clint's blood turned to ice and a small shiver ran through him at the realization that she was talking about Chitauri tech that he'd been responsible for existing on Earth in the first place, then he didn't let it stop him from acting like everything was normal. However, he did take a moment to compose himself before he answered.
"So, you're with Sitwell then?" His voice sounded slightly hesitant to his own ears, but hopefully Claire, not knowing him, wouldn't catch it. Clint knew that Jasper had taken over from Phil when Phil had been resting up. The promotion seemed to have been good for the other man, Clint hadn't seen him so confident before. Now, he walked around with his Level 7 badge like it was a medal of honor. It was kind of adorable. Not that Clint would ever let him know.
"Yeah, he took us out with some pretty wicked moves, even after I shot at him through the wall."
"Don't sweat him," Clint said. "He's a total bunny rabbit when you get used to him." He wanted to say more. That Phil was really the one to fear because Sitwell may lull everyone into a false sense of security and then bring someone down without breaking a sweat, but Phil was the one Jasper had learned everything from and Phil could bring a person down with any item that could be found in a nursery. Bragging about Phil wasn't really something Clint did though. Everyone knew what Phil could do already, so he just kept quiet.
"I don't think anyone in this organization could ever be a rabbit," Claire said, sounding skeptical.
"You've never seen Watership Down have you? Cute little bunnies one minute, rabid beasts the next. Seriously. Sitwell is just like one of those. Just wait. You'll find out soon enough," Clint added. He twisted back around, not having realized just how far they'd separated themselves from the rest of the group. They'd traveled half the length of the pond, lake, whatever, now, most of the rest of the group shrinking towards being mere dots on the horizon. Some, having managed to break away from the pack, were not blurred blobs, but actually almost recognizable. "We should probably turn back."
Claire agreed, and they maneuvered the canoe back around so that they could meet up with the others. A slight breeze was picking up, the cool air raising goose bumps down Clint's bare arms. It didn't take long before they were pointing in the correct direction and moving through the water as effortlessly as they had when paddling out. The group that had earned their water wings and started exploring for themselves was not far away and gaining ground quickly.
"Hey, baby," Claire said as they pulled up at the canoe that held Phil and a guy Clint had never seen before, but who Clint assumed was Benny. "Having fun?"
"Sure," Benny said. However, the look he gave Phil from behind his back made Clint feel he definitely thought that Phil wasn't as fun to canoe with as being partnered with his girlfriend would have been.
"Sir," Clint responded merrily.
It was nice to see Phil looking relaxed around people from work, even if Benny and Claire weren't aware of just how privileged they were to see Phil this at ease. There wasn't even going to be a suit involved for Phil the whole trip, which practically equated this whole thing to a holiday. Even Clint rarely saw Phil out of a suit; Phil liked the composure they gave him even at the weekend. Not that Phil didn't have his own clothing that weren't suits, but what made Clint particularly happy to see him out of his normal attire today was that Phil was wearing Clint's t-shirt. No, it wasn't purple. Clint did have some variety in his wardrobe.
"Don't even think about it," Phil added when they got closer, scowling slightly. "I might not be in a suit, but if you get me wet, you will be disciplined."
"Promises, promises," Clint muttered to himself. "I thought we were supposed to be having fun and learning to trust each other?" Clint asked as they slowed their approach. All four of them stopped paddling, letting the canoes come to a stop on their own a couple of meters apart. "Do you not trust me?"
The expression on Phil's face told Clint that right now there was no way that Phil believed that Clint wouldn't splash him.
"You wound me!" Clint said, placing his free hand over his heart. "No trust at all."
"I trust you. I trust you to do it despite what I say. Sometimes I just hope you'll listen."
They were putting on quite the show for the other two, who had met neither of them before, but Clint didn't really care. Whereas Clint and Phil behaved with more reserve around the people they normally worked with, with Benny and Claire, Phil seemed to be less guarded. It was either the people or the place, and Clint was inclined to think it was the company. After all, if they had no idea how Clint and Phil normally behaved around one another, then who were they to say what was normal? Who could say that it might be seen as inappropriate?
Clint splashed water at Phil as they passed.
Standing next to the river, they looked at the two ropes were suspended above it, the water trickling along merrily over the sun warmed rocks beneath them. The idea, according to their esteemed leader, was to get everyone across the "bridge" - Clint figured that the instructor must be using the term loosely; after all, it was just two ropes, one suspended vertically above the other - and then to get everyone back over without anyone falling into the water. As much as Clint questioned the usage of the word bridge, at least they shouldn't have any problems in doing it. It was simple. Just a matter of balance, and Clint could do that with his eyes closed. None of this tentative sidewards shuffling like was expected from them. He could probably just hop up onto the top one and take a sedate walk across the thing. No problem at all. Looking at Natasha and the smug look she was supporting, clearly she believed the same.
The first couple of people made it over just fine. Once on the other bank, the agent who led them across helped further by holding the upper rope steady for the rest of the group. It was as simple as Clint thought, and Natasha made it look even easier when it was her turn, gracefully stepping across like she was born to walk on similar obstacles. Newbies to SHIELD that had been placed on their team seemed a little more hesitant and wobbled a bit more on the rope as they attempted their crossing, but when everyone encouraged them to keep going, they were all soon huddled together on the far bank, celebrating.
No problem at all, now they just had to get back over and they were all done. Maybe they could even manage it in record time for the center. That would be nice. Everyone was certainly up for the challenge.
Clint offered to be the last one to cross back over. It didn't bother him to only have someone steadying the rope on one side. The chance of him falling in was so small that he really didn't see any point in not being the one left. He watched as one person after the other got back to where they had started. Everyone was a lot more confident now that they had managed it once. All of them were congratulating each other as soon as they got a foot on dry land, patting each other on the back or hugging. Only Phil was brave enough to get in Nat's personal space when she accomplished it, the soft smile that lit up her face was enough for Clint to know she was more than happy with everyone else's distance being the case. Phil and Clint may be allowed close to her, but the other agents were not yet welcome.
Springing up onto the rope, Clint was halfway across when he heard Phil call his name. Clint looked up questioningly at the man who was holding onto the rope to help keep Clint steady, not that he needed it.
"Remember to lean forward."
"What do you think I'm doing?" Clint grouched and leaned forward a bit more just to make a show of that he was. As he went to take the next sidestep, he saw a flash of movement out of the corner of his eye, and felt his arms yanked upwards as the upper rope moved so that he went from leaning forward, to standing straight, to leaning backward in a jerky ark. Before he knew what was happening, he'd lost his grip, hands torn away from the rope, and tumbled into the river.
He sat up, bracing himself on his arms and struggling for a moment to find decent purchase on the shifting surface beneath his hands. Stones and sediment were swirling with the flow of the water and his scrambled movements. Clint spluttered a little as he spat half of the river out of his mouth, looking over in shock at the bank where Natasha stood at Phil's shoulder. Even through his poker face, Clint knew that he was amused by seeing Clint land on his ass in the freezing water. Completely drenched from head to toe, wet clothes clinging to his skin, Clint couldn't believe that it had happened. Natasha was laughing about it, which he supposed was fair play given his own reaction to her misfortune. Phil's hand was still resting casually, far too innocently on the upper rope.
"I told you to lean forward."
The sky was just starting to darken and the air had become chill. Everyone who had managed to get themselves wet had been given the chance to change their clothing. Clint was definitely grateful for the opportunity as wet denim was not comfortable to be in, let alone traipse around the woods wearing. They'd also had a break for some food, before being dragged straight back out for one last session before being left to their own devices for the night.
"We have to, it's part of the program," Phil said with a smile. He looked far too happy about the whole thing. Clint wouldn't have been surprised if Phil had known this was going to happen, maybe he'd even suggested that they undertake the ridiculous task.
"You realize you're going to be doing it too? You should not look this happy."
"Oh, I know. I'm just thinking how we aren't the only ones doing it. You really need to remember that this isn't about humiliating each other, but learning to trust-"
"Yeah, yeah. I get the message. Love and trust and acceptance and suddenly we'll all work so much better together. It's not like I don't trust you. I just don't want to do it." Clint knew he was being rather petulant, but it was just such a stupid idea. He was starting to think that all of these people just liked to get a laugh out of random things they'd made up, because there was no way anyone just thought this up as a good idea of a trust exercise.
"If you do it, I'll let you be the one without the blindfold when Nick's wearing his," Phil whispered to him as he leaned in close. "I know you want to. I just have to trust you won't lead me astray whilst you're too busy laughing, which, by the way isn't the point." Phil moved back, looking around to see if anyone was close enough by to hear them. "I really shouldn't be encouraging you," he said, discreetly bumping shoulders with Clint.
Clint considered the proposal for a moment. He supposed getting to see a blindfolded Fury being led around by Jasper and made to hug a tree might actually be worth the feeling of humiliation bubbling uncomfortably in his stomach. It wasn't the worst thing he'd done after all; it was just a bit of fun. Nat probably wasn't too fond of the idea either, but then she was probably going to cheat and mark the tree some way so she knew exactly which one it was without having to go around and feel up a bunch more.
"Okay, fine. I suppose that's a good compromise," Clint agreed reluctantly, even though the thought of Fury hugging a tree and actually getting to witness it would remain secreted away in a very happy part of his brain forever. Then again, it would be worth it for Jasper alone, who was probably going to be so into making sure his new recruits were watching that he'd probably take it far too seriously and treat Fury like he couldn't walk anywhere without his express guidance. Thinking about it, people were going to be far too busy making sure their superior or fellow agent wasn't going to land flat on their face in the undergrowth and not looking at the other blindfolded people stumbling around.
People had taken up blindfolds all around them, and since Fury was leading Jasper around first, that meant Clint was the first of their pair to be taken to his tree. Phil slipped the blindfold over Clint's eyes, tying it securely and skillfully so that complete darkness surrounded him. Clint could smell the trees and dirt. After a few seconds everything seemed sharper, at least it felt that way to Clint, but it probably just came down to the fact he was paying more attention to any little snap of a twig or shuffling footstep.
"You ready?" Phil asked him.
He felt Phil's hand reach for his, warm fingers curling around it in a secure hold. Shifting his fingers in Phil's grasp, Clint gripped onto Phil's tightly as he took the first few uneasy steps forward. His other arm came up automatically to aid with his balance even with Phil keeping him relatively steady. Still, Phil led him confidently as he moved, and Clint found himself focusing on the familiar sound of Phil's breathing to keep him grounded. After a few paces, Phil turned him to the right, then after they continued on for a while, left and another couple of steps before going right again. Phil guided Clint with touches and murmured warnings when Clint needed to avoid things that Phil couldn't maneuver him around, but instead had to step over like raised tree roots and loose stones.
Every now and again, Phil would stop him completely and then spin him around a couple of times, telling Clint he wasn't going to make it easy on him. Anyone could remember the turns taken and paces walked. After the second time Phil did that, Clint stopped trying to keep track of the course he'd been following, instead just relaxing and letting Phil lead him. Eventually, not that it could have been much longer than five minutes, time seemed to be moving as strangely as they were, Phil pulled him to a final stop.
"Okay, arms out in front of you. That's it. This is your tree."
"Funny," Clint told him as he gingerly stretched his arms out, fingers connecting with the rough bark. He tried to map out some sort of pattern or at least attempt to guess on what sort of tree it was. "I'm not going to hug the thing though." He paused. "Are the others hugging their trees?"
He waited for a moment with his fingers caressing the bark and finding a place where a branch had recently been cut off, the smooth flat wood of the stump that had been left feeling dramatically different underneath his fingertips.
"I can't see many people from where we are. I don't think you really have to hug the tree if you don't want to, as long as you can find it again."
"Good," Clint said and focused on seeking out more distinct markers on the tree. He carefully guided himself around it, stumbling a little when the toe of his boot scrapped just a little too low and collided with a raised root. "Let me know if Tasha hugs her tree though. She'll probably just be slipping something on it to track herself back, but Tony'll get a kick out of it. Maybe even get a picture."
"If I take a picture of her hugging the tree, I'll have to get one of you too," Phil informed him. "You can take one of me if it makes you feel any better, but just remember that as entertaining as Tony will find Natasha doing something like hugging, he'll have twenty more jokes about you and bird names than usual."
"I don't like you sometimes." Clint sighed, making one more pass around the tree. "Okay, I think I've got it. I'm not going to get anything else out of this." He held his arms out in the direction where he thought he'd left Phil, and sure enough, Phil's comforting hands wrapped around his own in seconds. Phil's thumb idly stroked the sensitive skin of Clint's inner wrist. "Take me back so I can find her again."
"I'm not even going to ask how you decided the tree was a girl," Phil just said, leading Clint back via a different route than the one that had gotten them there. The longer they walked, the more Clint started to hear clear voices again. People were laughing and joking about their trees which was just such a bizarre concept because they were trees in a forest. That was all.
They stopped and Phil carefully undid Clint's blindfold, urging him to keep his eyes closed for a little bit and gradually letting the light back in instead of just opening them straight away. Clint blinked a few times before opening his eyes fully. Phil was a little blurred around the edges at first, but he soon came back into proper focus.
"Going to find your tree then?"
Clint looked around the area of forest that had been blocked off for this little game, he couldn't see all of the trees, but he felt like he had enough of the sense of direction to start walking towards the right section. It took him a couple of seconds to walk far enough in to spot the one he knew was his and Phil just shook his head in disbelief as Clint got it correct first time without even having to get close enough to touch it again.
"Perhaps we should send you out to find needles in haystacks," Phil joked as Clint gloated about being right.
"Nah, I'd get bored and you'd be down the best marksman in the world."
"We would. Guess we'll just have to keep you on the Avengers then."
"Come on, sir, time to find you a tree!"
Jasper set up a poker tournament. Only a couple of the more senior agents took part, most of the table was made up by the new recruits, all missing the amused smiles on the faces of the people who knew better. It didn't take long for the majority to learn their mistake and retreat to where the wiser members of the group sat making small talk. Clint, not in the mood for his ass being handed to him, was content to half watch the game and half join in any conversations that caught his attention.
Natasha disappeared for a few minutes, returning with something concealed behind her back. There was a slight spring in her step, even though her face didn't betray her pleasure. Clint watched her approach, until she draped herself over the back of his chair and shoulder, one arm hooked around his neck as she leaned in closer and the other dangled a bottle of vodka loosely from the loop of her fingers in front of him. Her breath tickled against the back of his neck as she exhaled. "Fancy making things more interesting?"
"Did you raid Tony's bar before you left this morning?" Clint tilted his head so that he could look at her properly. The light from the ceiling fixture created a halo of gold in her red hair. "Because I'm not entirely sure that was included in his 'mi casa es su casa' policy."
"Please," she said twisting open the cap with a grating click as the two parts separated, "like Stark would know good vodka if it poured itself for him." Standing up straight, Natasha threw back her head and took a swig directly from the bottle. "And this is good stuff."
Clint held out his hand, and Natasha handed it over without hesitation. He took his own mouthful, a pleasurable burn as he swallowed, just taking Nat's word for it being decent. It all just tasted the same to him.
"Did someone say vodka?" It was Claire and she looked delighted at the prospect of alcohol. Clint couldn't blame her. He offered it to her at Natasha's nod of acquiescence.
"I've got more if you want to be civilized and drink out of a glass," Natasha said with a shrug. "We just don't normally bother."
"No, don't worry. This is fine." Claire followed their lead and took her own drink straight from the bottle. "Thanks."
Soon enough, word got around about Natasha's alcohol stash and people all gravitated towards them, in the corner they'd set themselves up in. When they ran out of the first bottle, Clint held the fort as Natasha nipped back to their room, or wherever she had squirreled away the rest of her stash, to return with more. A couple of rounds later, there was a drunken suggestion (that may have misguidedly come from Clint) that they should play Pictionary. Since it would clearly be the best thing ever to do and there could be teams and the senior agents would totally kick the asses of the junior agents and everything would just be wonderful. Even though Natasha started looking at him like he was crazy after his suggestion, especially when the call was taken up for them to actually play, she still passed the alcohol between them.
Two hours later, Clint was feeling rather pleasantly buzzed as he lounged across two chairs with his head in Natasha’s lap, her fingers playing with his hair like he was a pampered pet. Occasionally shouting out random answers to both his team and the other when he thought he knew. The more sober residents in the room looked to be pleased that it was Pictionary and not charades that was being played. At least random squiggles on a board that could be either a mouse or house or a car were easier to decipher than having drunken agents falling over themselves and giggling as they tried to act something out.
Clint rolled over to tell Phil something, Nat's hand slipping from where it lay as he did, but as he moved, he realized that the other man must have gone to bed. Squinting slightly, Clint took in the room; there were definitely fewer people than there had been earlier. Perhaps it had something to do with the severely questionable drawings that were happening. In fact, their group size had dramatically decreased with a lot of people deciding to call it a night. It was probably a good time to go to bed and he told Natasha as much, and being the bestest best friend ever, she entertained his whim and dragged him through to the room they were sharing with a few others. If the people in Clint's room stayed up gossiping a couple more hours into the early morning like children at their first sleep over, then that was something they kept to themselves.
"I didn't think you even drank that much last night," Clint said, clutching the giant mug of coffee he'd commandeered and trying to decide if he could risk adding toast to his stomach.
"I didn't," Phil said flipping his sunglasses up onto his head; eyes bright and far too alert for Clint to be happy with him. "I just wanted to wear sunglasses. There's sun."
Clint sighed and tried to drown himself in his coffee.
"Do you know what's on the cards for today?" he managed to say after a minute. His hand strayed to rest against his stomach as he tried to settle it. Just watching as Phil tucked into his cereal caused a new bout of nausea to make itself known. Milk. Urgh. No.
"No idea." Phil's sunglasses were down over his eyes once more. "You want some?" He offered his bowl to Clint, who felt as though he'd turned green at the offer and Phil smirked a little at his discomfort. Smug bastard. "You only have yourself to blame."
"I don't know why I put up with you," Clint grouched. "Besides, it was Natasha's fault. I don't think she even bought any spare clothes in her hold all. Just vodka. Lots and lots of vodka. Who does that?"
Clint just hummed, tipping his coffee mug back as far as he could, waiting patiently for the last few sweet drops of caffeine to roll towards his tongue so he could savor them. He loved coffee. And gravity. Especially when they were working together in his favor.
Natasha walked in looking fresher than Phil, and Clint sort of hated her right now. He should never have tried to keep up with her. At least he assumed that was what he'd been doing. She grabbed herself some breakfast before taking a seat next to Phil.
"You kick in your sleep," she accused jabbing her fork in Clint's direction.
"Oh, sorry," he mumbled, trying to work out when exactly he'd kicked her because he certainly hadn't woken up in bed with her.
"It's ok." She shrugged as she shoveled a food into her mouth, "You only did it twice before I kicked you out of the bed."
"That explains why I woke up on the floor at least." He had been wondering about that, but at the time the fact he was waking up naked was the more pressing concern to address.
"I can't let you out of my sight, can I?" Phil chuckled as Clint rubbed his fingers over his forehead.
"Apparently not. I remember getting into my own bed though. I remember the climbing."
"You got cold at about four this morning and decided that instead of putting clothes on like I suggested, that you wanted snuggles and Phil was too far away to provide them for you. That and a lot of talk about how he wouldn't let you get in bed with him with him if Fury was around anyway, because he doesn't know. So, unfortunately, I was your next choice and had the displeasure of your cold feet everywhere until you fell to sleep and decided that you were going to be a mule and kick the hell out of me. There was only one thing for it really." She placed her fork down and lifted both of her hands up in a pushing motion. "Off you went."
"Why do I put up with either of you?" Clint moaned and pushed himself to his feet to go and gather more coffee. "You are both evil." He gestured wildly with his coffee mug. "I'm going now; see if I spend time in your company again."
He trudged back over to their table a minute later when he had coffee again, starting to feel at least half human by this stage. They had been joined by Claire and her boyfriend who were squabbling amicably over breakfast; it went on like that for a while. Phil was quieter now, observing all of them from underneath his sunglasses and composing new files from his gathered intel in his head. Natasha was praising Claire's level of alcohol tolerance compared to Clint the lightweight. Lies. He could hold his alcohol fine. Just not around Natasha. Claire hadn't even drunk as much as they had from what Clint could remember of the evening. So it was definitely unfair to compare the two of them.
After breakfast, they cleared away their things and moved into the hall as directed. Most people seemed to be there already, grouped into smaller parties of five or six people. Clint just followed along with Phil and Natasha when they joined up with Hill, Fury and Jasper; all greeting each other with varying levels of alertness and enthusiasm.
The director of the program got up on a small stage at the front of the room and asked for everyone's attention before explaining to them what the upcoming day would involve. Clint was only half listening, and Natasha appeared to be doing some stretching exercises just for the hell of it. Phil was of course paying rapt attention, nodding along with the instructions even though he occasionally turned to Jasper to add a comment or two. Fury stared off into the distance looking like there were a million places in the world, or off it, that he'd rather be. Clint didn't blame him.
"You were listening, weren't you?" Phil asked when their instructions were over.
"Yes, sir," Clint said with a roll of his eyes. "Trust exercises. In here all morning. Looking and touching and it all sounds wonderful."
He started slightly when Fury came to stand in front of him, arms crossed against his broad chest looking even more like he didn't want to be here than before.
"Us together first then? Just for sixty seconds. This is going to be simple."
Head up, Clint stared determinedly into Fury's eyes. Well, eye and eye patch, he supposed. Four seconds in, he wondered who the others were paired up with and looked away to find out. Hill and Tasha were locked in what appeared to be a battle of wills, taking it a step above being able to look each other in the eye for sixty seconds and instead looking like they were dueling it out for supreme ruler of the universe if only the other one blinked first. Clint chuckled and Fury sighed at his inattention, but didn't say anything. Clint watched them for a few seconds before turning back to Fury. He could do this. They started again, this time making it to twelve seconds of continuous eye contact before Clint wondered if Phil and Jasper were finding it as easy as he expected. Of course they were, just standing there having a conversation like he'd seen them do a million times before.
"Oh, come on! That's not exactly a challenge for them!" Clint complained. "Sixty seconds is nothing. I've seen them not break eye contact for an hour when they talk in the mornings. I don't think they even blink then."
"Barton," Fury warned and Clint turned back to him with a huff. Maybe this wasn't as easy as he thought. He could do it though. No problem.
They started again. Fifteen seconds and Clint wondered whether it was best to be looking at both eyes. It's not like the eye patch needed the contact. In fact, surely they should only have to do it for half the time, or maybe just forty-five seconds. They only had three eyes between them after all. Now he was just thinking about the eye patch, maybe he should ignore it and just look at Fury's good eye. So he did and then everything just seemed too focused and was it rude to ignore the eye patch? He'd never really thought about it before. He probably shouldn't. Then somehow, forty-two seconds in, he realized he'd started staring at just the eye patch and that was probably a whole lot worse.
Fury cleared his throat not so subtly. "I wouldn't have thought such a simple task would be causing you problems, Barton."
"It isn't," Clint snapped. "I'm just used to taking everything in." He gestured around the room. "Not used to having to concentrate on something so close all the time."
They started again, this time Clint firmly making sure his eyes were focused not just on Fury's good or bad eye but both, and eventually managed to make it to the full sixty seconds.
When Natasha was his partner for the second task, Clint knew it was going to be easier. He took her small, deadly hands in his without a second thought and made it to sixty seconds of easy eye contact the first time through, chatting about how stupid it all was. Since they finished easily and before most of the others, they moved on to critiquing everyone else. Unlike the last round, Phil seemed to be having more trouble keeping Fury in his line of sight when holding his hands. It made Clint rather happy that he wasn't the only one struggling with how to deal with looking into Fury's eyes. The biggest surprise was how unnerved Hill was. Her hands gripped onto Jasper's as she stared into his eyes, his expression perfectly calm and neutral even though she seemed to be trying her hardest to make him break.
When everyone else finished, they switched partners once more. Clint was actually looking forward to this one. He wasn't entirely sure if it was playing by the rules, but a comfortable distance between him and Phil was probably a lot closer than most people would consider appropriate for co-workers to stand. So, when they were asked to move closer and position themselves to their satisfaction, Clint may have been a little overeager. By the time they were pressed together the full length of their bodies, Phil was starting to look a little curious about just how far Clint would go.
"Clint," he said, his voice rough around the edges. "I don't think this is exactly what they had in mind by stand a comfortable distance apart and then move closer."
"Are you not comfortable?" Clint asked, leaning his head in closer so that his breath brushed against Phil's ear, his hand itching to settle on Phil's hip.
"You know I have no problem being this close to you," Phil replied, breathing controlled, but a lot shallower than normal, "in private, but the point of this exercise isn't to turn me on." He moved his hands up so that they gripped loosely around Clint's biceps for a moment; Clint enjoyed the touch up until Phil gave him a slight push backward to separate them. "So, maybe we should move onto the next part of the exercise and move further apart and compare how the different distances feel."
"I already know the answer to that," Clint said, taking a step away. "Not half as fun." He grinned devilishly. "Don't say you disagree with me."
"With this many co-workers around," Phil said keeping his voice low enough to just cover the few footsteps between them, "then this is perfectly acceptable distance. Exhibitionist," he joked.
"You know it," Clint shot back with a smile of his own. It wasn't as though Clint wanted to do anything with Fury looking on anyway. Fury, who was standing a perfectly respectful distance away from Hill as they discussed their feelings on the matter, whilst Nat looked to be trying to unnerve Jasper by seeing how close she could get to him before he was forced to take a step backward. Her approach was seemingly a lot more successful than that of Hill's staring contest, as Jasper actually looked uncomfortable.
"Love you too," Phil said, his tone jocular, but the words still made Clint freeze as he heard them. Was it just something Phil said? A joke? Because they hadn't said anything like that before. It was probably best to ignore it, brush it off, but Clint's head still jerked back from where he had been looking at Natasha, silently encouraging her, and looked at Phil who was relaxed and happy, only frowning when he caught sight of the look on Clint's face. "What?" Phil asked.
"Nothing," Clint said forcing a smile. "Nothing at all."
A loud clap drew their attention back to the man from the training centre.
"Well now that we've done that, and you've all proven that you can trust each other in your personal space, some more than others, we're going to up the level of trust needed for the exercises. Next, you need to trust that person to catch you when you fall." He called up a member of his trust squad or whatever they called themselves, and showed how to safely fall back into the arms of someone else so that they wouldn't hurt themselves - as though SHIELD agents weren't capable of working that one out for themselves and hadn't done worse in the field anyway. It wasn't as though it was as dangerous as Hulk catching Tony from space or anything.
Clint admitted it. Maria Hill was actually rather scary. He was best friends with Natasha, who could kill him as soon as look at him, but Hill was the one he truly feared. It was something about the eyes; he just couldn't trust what was going on behind them. Now, apparently, he had to trust her to catch him. She had told the World Security Council about him, he knew that. If there was one thing it took to get where she was, it was balls and boy did she have them. If a rogue agent, even if it was due to mind control and even if there was a chance they were completely gone, were to have the opportunity to undermine all that Clint had worked for, then he would have fought with everything he could to get them back before reporting the incident. A person came before a job, especially when there was a life on the line. However, he did begrudgingly understand her position, even though it didn't mean he was going to just fall into her arms willingly.
"Clint," Hill complained after the third time of him trying to turn around and look to see if she was going to catch him if he did fall back. "You jump off buildings on a regular basis with either the trust that someone will catch you before you fall, or that you can manage to shoot an arrow at the right thing at the right time to slow your descent. How is trusting me to catch you when you lean backwards worse than that?"
"Because I'm good at what I do!" He complained, turning to face her properly. "I know that whatever I do, I'm going to save myself somehow. How do I know you won't just let me hit my head on the floor?"
Anger flashed through her eyes. "Fine, you don't trust me. You just stand there and hold your arms out for me to fall into them. Can you do that?"
"Of course I can!" He stuck his arms out and watched mutely as she turned around and crossed her arms over her chest like they'd been shown. She fell back with no hesitation and he caught her straight away, helping her back up to her feet. "You trusted me?" Clint asked, not meaning to voice it, but the words flew out of his mouth anyway.
"Of, course I do, Barton. Why wouldn't I?"
"Loki," he said simply. "Like everyone else."
"That wasn't you," she replied with a sigh. "You know that. I don't hold it against you. Now," she said, gesturing over in the direction of Phil and Tasha who seemed to be doing progressively more dangerous catches as though they were just having a nice quiet stroll down the beach, "are you going to catch me, or am I going to catch you? I'm not letting them win when I have the fool who throws himself off skyscrapers as a partner."
Clint took one more look at them and turned back to Hill. "Oh, it's so on!"
Clint's group was the first to do the spider web exercise. He wasn't suicidal enough to make any jokes about its name to Natasha or imply that they clearly had this one in the bag because of it. So, the first part of the afternoon involved their newly formed group of six traipsing across the open ground to a sparsely populated section of the forest. In the small clearing, there was a structure that was apparently the spider's web that they had to contend with. Their challenge was to work out the best way to get all of them through holes in a rope web suspended between two vertical wooden poles. It sounded easy enough, but since there were additional rules in place where they couldn't touch the ropes or use the same hole twice it was actually more difficult than one would first suspect. On top of that, they then had to get back through the web, still not able to use a gaps multiples times. The holes were all different sizes and shapes, so moving too quickly and just having people go through whichever one they wanted would result in them making a mistake and having to start again.
Clint held his tongue against just saying it would be so much easier to walk around it, or just climb over the top. Even if that was what he wanted to do and save on the hassle. Doing that hardly counted as teamwork though, which is what they were supposed to be improving, even though there was nothing wrong with how Clint worked in a team, in any position. Ask him to lead it, fine. Ask him to take orders, also fine. Just being tasked with things that felt like they didn't have much of a purpose was irritating. When he had gone to Phil earlier in the week to try and get out of coming, it had mainly been because it all just seemed like a waste of time. Still, since he was here, he might as well go through with it; nothing could be worse than the tree thing.
It was easy enough for them to get through to the other side. There were more than enough spaces for them to be able to simply step through the web, or even crawl through some of the smaller holes. However, now that they were on the far side of the obstacle, getting back was going to be more complicated and involve using the higher holes. Some of the gaps they still had left to use didn't touch the ground at all, or weren't near it enough to step through, and so they had to plan out a way to effectively get one person across so that they could then lift the other people through. Obviously with whoever was left at the end needing to get through by themselves as well.
Clint volunteered to go through first. There was one hole that was large enough for him to get through at a jump and not touch anything, it was a close thing, but soon enough, he was on the side they had started on. The rest of the group was transferred through with varying stages of difficulty until only Natasha was left. She gave the gap she had chosen an appraising look, before stepping forward, and Clint saw her draw a deep breath. At the last second, she exhaled slowly, in a controlled manner, as she dived through. Her body moved in a graceful arc as she passed through the web, standing elegantly from the crouched position her tumble had landed her in.
They had all made it though. Clint was actually rather proud of it. It didn't make sense.
"I don't see how that was all that difficult," Natasha said to him as they moved on to the next challenge, keeping step with each other and letting the rest of the group move on slightly ahead of them.
"I think the point is that we work together, not that they try to make us do really difficult things, Nat. Regular mortals have to do these exercises too, not just SHIELD agents."
She looked a little put out at that fact but shrugged after a moment of quiet contemplation, accepting that Clint was right for once. Defending the place to Natasha felt strange. He hadn't even wanted to come. However, it wasn't as interesting as how much he could feel his attitude changing towards the other people. Maybe by the end of this, he'd actually consider letting them in a bit.
Clint surveyed the field and decided on the optimum position for seeing everything he needed to and settled himself there, waiting for Fury put a blindfold on. He still looked disgruntled, but did reluctantly do as the instructor asked. His eyes scanning over the field, Clint plotted out the quickest route, rapidly discarding anything that would result in a dead end or would be difficult to navigate around. A couple of sections, while looking to be plausible options at first, soon turned into an area dense with mines.
"Any time now, Agent Barton," Fury said his arm across his chest. "We've not got all day."
"I thought you'd appreciate some forward planning, sir. My mistake."
Despite his grouching, Fury did as he was told as soon as Clint gave his first direction. Clint fired off move after move, Fury responding almost as fast as Clint gave the commands, their actions combined working like Swiss clockwork. Even Clint was impressed with how well they were working together, he noticed that Fury seemed more relaxed and there was even a smile or two as Clint threw in unrelated banter as they undertook the task. It was sort of like being on a mission, but this time he was the omniscient person in everyone's ears. Take that, Phil!
Everything went smoothly and they only had one very small near miss with one mine. With Fury following his instructions with no complaint at all, Clint may have been purposefully seeing just how close he could get him to the mines. It felt like more of a skill than simply giving them a wide berth.
As much as he wanted to abseil down the little wooden structure built specifically for people doing it, he was left for last, watching as Natasha took it all in her stride, walking down the tower as though it was a simple case of walking backward on the flat ground instead of perpendicular to it. Fury seemed almost as comfortable doing it, but the new agents who had been placed on their team all seemed rather nervous as they backed cautiously to the edge and then over it. All of them managed it, with a little encouragement from the instructors, but it did make Clint doubt them since how could they ever handle working on the Helicarrier if they couldn't deal with not being apprehensive only thirty feet up in the air?
Clint was the only one to jump as he repelled. Pushing himself off and out away from the tower as far as he could go as soon as he was given the signal by the person in charge of the safety of his descent at the top. He made it down in four jumps, the exhilaration of it all thrumming through his veins and wishing he could have held onto the fleeting feeling of flying for longer. If they'd have let him, he would have been up the top of the tower again in a heartbeat.
The chance to do it again.
The chance to fly.
Unfortunately, Clint didn't get another chance. Instead, they were all ushered off for an evening meal and then settled down like sleepy children in the common room once more. This time a large screen had been pulled in, and a selection of DVDs produced so that they could keep themselves entertained without resorting to games that made people want to tear their hair out. Natasha secured herself, Phil and Clint a few chairs, which Clint pulled together for them all to sit on, along with a blanket to cover them. Hidden from view, Clint snaked out a hand to Phil who turned and smiled at him before entwining their fingers and settling down to watch whatever got put on.
The whole mood seemed to be darker at breakfast. They didn't linger in the dining hall, and were all soon lined up for their last trust exercise. They had to stand on a tall pole and jump out for a swing similar to that one would find in a circus for trapeze acts. In a harness though, of course.
They took turns and everyone succeeded, all sporting large smiles on their faces when they came down. Clint was the last to go and stubbornly refused to wear the harness. Or rather, he got to the top and took it off, launching himself from the platform before they could think about what he was doing and get him to stop. Health and safety for the place were probably having a coronary, but Clint didn't care. The feeling of being free and falling in a controlled manner towards the swing felt wonderful and liberating and just everything he wanted.
His hands stretched out just a little bit further. One more inch. Fingers grasped securely onto the swing. He was there. He was safe. Clint let his momentum allow him to swing for a moment before he flipped himself up onto the top of the trapeze with ease. Steadying himself, he got back onto the pole and clambered back down. Now on solid ground, his feet were not happy to be there.
Fury looked like he was trying to not laugh at how stressed out the people from the center were and Natasha just looked as though she expected nothing less from him. Phil looked livid.
Clint tried to look contrite. Really, he did. Okay, maybe not that much. Phil approached him and pulled him to one side.
"What do you think you're doing? I'm used to this behavior on the field. I expect it from you, but you don't need to make stupid risks like that when you aren't in a life or death situation!"
"It wasn't that bad. I did more in the circus," Clint grouched. He hated it when Phil chewed him out. Especially when it was over nothing. "Besides, I was in no danger. I knew you wouldn't let anything happen to me."
Phil raised an eyebrow. "How could you possibly know that? What could I have done?"
"Don't be ridiculous, Phil. There were about five things you're thinking of right now that you could have done and you know it."
Phil's silence and the knowing look on his face said it all.
Maria cleared her throat next to him and he rolled his head towards her. She nodded back down the bus to where Clint and Phil were sat. Both had fallen to sleep. Whether consciously or subconsciously, Phil's head now rested on Clint's shoulder, his breathing deep and even. However, what was likely not as subconscious, was that Clint's hand was placed on Phil's knee, Phil's own hand covering it protectively their little fingers crossed over each other. Clint stirred in his sleep, and without lifting his head, Phil nuzzled at his shoulder, turning his head to press a kiss to it. Phil murmured something that was too slight for Nick to be able to lip read, but whatever it was soothed Clint back to sleep and he quieted once more.
Nick couldn't help but smile; a small smile, very small, just in case Maria saw it. As much as he had hated going on the retreat that weekend, as well as Phil's hand in the schedule, he couldn't really hold a grudge against his right hand man. He definitely didn't begrudge Phil the happiness he'd clearly found. Phil could certainly do a lot worse than Clint. Although, Nick suspected that Clint would argue it wasn't the case. Not that he'd ever voice it, but Nick thought they were a pretty good match.
"You owe me twenty bucks." Maria yawned, stretching her arms above her head to stave off the battle with sleep. "Whenever you're ready."