Work Header

Hollow Your Bones Like a Bird's

Chapter Text

The moment a hawk ceases to hunt, it is destined to die.

It doesn't matter why. Damage to the eyes, or the beak, the talons or the wings or tail, all of it would cripple a bird, leave it struggling and fighting even as it descends into starvation and death. Until the elements and predators finish what hunger has begun.

If a hawk cannot hunt, it is destined to die. The only question is, how long it will suffer before it does.

He thought about that, as he crashed through the window, as he bounced across the carpet, trailing broken glass and blood in his wake. He had a moment to think about hawks and windows and failed hunts, and then the pain overwhelmed him, driving him into the darkness.

It was Natasha's voice that brought him back. It was fitting, somehow. It was Natasha who'd pulled him back from the nightmare of Loki's control, it was Natasha who set his mind to rights, and it was Natasha who who'd told him he was dying. It was Natasha who loosed him for one last flight, one last hunt, who saw to it that he had one last chance to clear his ledger before the end came for him.

And now it was Natasha, yelling over the commline about the Tessaract and the portal and the Chitauri, that dragged him back to consciousness. Agonized, he rolled over, trying to drag himself up, or forward, trying to move. Ignoring the sharp bite of the glass in his palms, in his arms, the metallic smell of blood and fear, he scrambled for his weapon.

His fingers closed on his quiver.

The shafts were gone, used up, but the arrowheads were still held in reserve, double and triple the number of shafts that he carried, because he could reuse recovered arrows, because he never knew if he'd need to fire every one of them as a barb tip or an explosive or an EMP. The shafts were gone, but...

He fumbled it open, his fingers slick with blood, and he didn't notice the cuts, he didn't notice the pain, he only noticed that his fingers couldn't get a grip on the slick surface, couldn't get it open, and he wanted to scream, but he didn't have the air. Somehow, he got it open, wrenched it out flat, fingers tracing the arrowheads when his eyes failed him, because if they came, when they came, he would not die easy.

One last explosive arrowhead, clutched in bleeding fingers, would make sure of that.

He laughed, and it was humorless, it was brutal and ugly. Let him be the bait in one last trap, one last suicide by proxy. He might die here, he might leave blood staining the wind and no other trace of having been alive, but if they came for him, they would not find him an easy kill. He never had been, and now, glass in his skin and blood in his mouth and his brain a wasteland of agony, he had rage to propel him. Rage to sustain him. Rage to carry him.

To keep the guilt and pain and grief at bay.

There was a shriek of noise outside the shattered window, and he wasn't sure what it was. Another attack? A retreat? He couldn't seem to focus, the words in his ear and the shattering sound of brick and metal and glass coming apart were rattling inside his head. He couldn't focus, couldn't understand. Head injury, he supposed, when a rare moment of lucidity allowed him to recognize his position, his back braced against a desk, some small bit of cover.

He tried to pull himself together. He tightened his fingers on the arrowhead, letting it bite into his skin, letting the pain clear his cloudy mind. Bombs. Death. Natasha's voice, sharp and hard and edged as she waited for the order. Rogers' voice as he gave it, resigned and strong despite it.

And the Hulk's roar carried from the street without the help of the comms.

From a distance, he listened to Stark talking, and that was good. That was right. Phil had always liked Stark, for all his whining, all his complaints, Phil had... Liked Tony Stark. Liked his bravado and his stubbornness and his brilliance. He'd believed in Stark, had gone head to head with Natasha about the man. Stark was talking, and Phil would be glad. And Clint was glad, so glad, not to have one last death on his hands.

“And shwarma after.”

Natasha's response was a breathy sigh, partially relief, partially disdain, and that was nice. That was normal. “I've got Selvig, and a line of sight on our last problem.”

“Selvig's with you, Stark, Banner and Thor are here with me,” Rogers said, sudden urgency in his voice. “Where's Barton?”

“He's not with-” Her words stopped, silence descending. “The rooftop he was on is gone. Hawkeye, I need a check in.”

He stared at the arrowhead, rolled it over in his fingers. The building wasn't stable. Wasn't sound. This little explosion might be enough to end it, to bring it down. They'd never know what happened. Even if the explosion was traced back to one of his arrowheads, there would be no way of knowing if it was triggered deliberately, or went off for some other reason.

He flexed his fingers against the arrowhead until his skin went white.


He closed his eyes, his world narrowing to the weight of the arrowhead in his fingers, and the grip of his bow in his other hand. His fingers flexed against the controls on the bow's grip. He could do it. He could trigger it, a flick of a thumb, a quick squeeze, and he wouldn't have to think about this any more.

He wouldn't have to think about anything any more.

Clint took a deep breath, ignoring the tearing pressure on his ribs. The air tasted like dust, and blood, and burning ozone. It was a layer on his throat, a film that wouldn't go away no matter how often he swallowed. His jaw flexed, and he choked on a cough, not wanting to give away his position. There were words, in the earpiece, and he thought about taking it out.

Wondered, idly, if he still had that voice mail on his phone, Phil bitching him out for leaving the laundry in the washing machine until it had fused into a mildewed ball of hate. Phil's dry, unemotional delivery of just how this was inappropriate had sent Clint into gales of laughter at the time; now he just wanted that voice. The earpiece burned, and he reached for it.

He didn't really want to hear anyone else's voice. Not over this. Not ever again. The only voice that had ever seemed comfortable in his ear had been reduced to a mechanical memory.

Phil Coulson would never again call him home. Or call him off. Or call him an idiot. The agony was so overwhelming that he would've screamed if he'd had the air left to do it. Instead, he folded forward, wrapping around himself, clinging to himself because there was nothing else to cling to.

“Clint? Let me hear your voice,” Natasha whispered, and that was more than he could stand. His bow clattered to the ground and he ripped the earpiece out. He flung it as hard as he could, a sound like a sob ripping free of him. The comm unit clattered across the ground, and he fumbled his arrowhead, clutching it against his heart, rocking with the force of his grief.

The wind caught him off guard, and off-balance, knocking him back on his haunches, making him scramble for his bow. He brought it up, little more than a blunt weapon, his body a live wire of desperation as the huge blonde man came through the shattered window, sending more of the walls in all directions. Glass and metal rained down, chunks crashing to the floor as the massive hammer slowed, the air humming in its wake.

“Hawk eye'd one?” Thor's voice was raw and exhausted. “Thank the All-Father, you still live.” His hand reached out, his fingers spreading in Clint's direction. “We must go, this structure has not long to stand.”

The reaction was visceral, a wave of terror that was on him without any warning, and he knocked Thor's hand away. For an instant, they just stared at each other, and Clint struggled to get his breathing back under control. “Don't touch me,” he said, and his voice was broken, the words rattling free of the pressure of his throat. “Don't ever touch me.”

Thor nodded, his face serious, eyes tight. “There is no other who can get you free of this,” he said, his voice soft. Almost coaxing. “The man of iron is too badly injured, your vessel is not capable of flight, and no other can reach you. I know you have no reason to trust me, and every reason to bear me ill will, but I cannot leave you to die here.”

Clint wasn't sure how, but he got his legs under him, his fingers scrambling at the ground as he forced his body up. He left behind tracks of blood where his fingers had pushed hard, like gaping wounds on the floor. He dragged himself up, inch by aching inch, forced his joints to lock into place, forced his spine and his shoulders and his entire body into place. “Don't touch me,” he repeated, his voice a raw snarl. “Just- Don't.”

He shifted a step back, and the building shuddered beneath him, nearly knocking him back on his ass. Thor inched closer, jaw tight. “Do not do this,” he said, his voice agonized. “Please, do not do this. There has been enough death, has there not?”

Clint's fingers were digging into the arrowhead, the hard lines cutting into his skin, slicing his palm open. Blood dripped to the floor, down the length of his shaking arm as he held it up between them. “Don't touch me,” he repeated, shuffling backwards. He groped behind him, his fingers catching on some piece of office furniture, and he used it to stabilize himself.

The arrowhead scraped against the metal.

“He's your brother,” Clint seethed, words boiling out of him. “You know what he did to me. What he did-” His jaw ground tight. “What he made me do.”

Thor nodded. “Yes.”

“And if I demand the right to put a fucking arrow into his fucking eye socket, then will you care how many people he's killed? How many lives he ruined?” Clint said, and the tip of his bow scraped against the floor. “If I leave here with you, you gonna let me do it?”

The silence stretched, and Thor laughed, the sound humorless and dark. “Always, he wished to curry our father's favor.” He reached up, pushing his hair away from his face. “Perhaps losing an eye in the wake of a great battle would make him feel a connection. I've lost all hope of creating one on my own.” His armor stretched, and Clint saw the slice, low under his arm, the blood sticky and dried there. “He has no love of me. I make no excuses for him. All I can do is minimize his damage.”

He paused. “All I can do is make amends.”

Clint stared at him. “Some things,” he said, at last, “can't be forgiven.”

Thor's mouth opened, then he paused. His hand came up, his fingers pressing on his ear, and Clint realized someone had given him a comm unit at some point. He'd wonder when, but he found he didn't much care. Thor nodded, his brow furrowed.

“The Lady Natasha,” he said to Clint, “says that the pact still stands. That you have a promise made to the Son of Coul. That you will not betray that promise.”

Clint's fingers tightened on the arrowhead, one last time, and then his fingers went slack. It clattered to the ground, the last out he had. His last escape route. “Tell her,” he said, stumbling towards his discarded quiver, “that I only agreed to that because I thought I'd be the first one to die. If I'd known how things were going to end up, I would've told him to go fuck himself.”

It took more effort than he would've dreamed to heft his quiver back on his shoulder. “Let's go finish this,” he said to Thor. “Before I change my mind.”


“I figured something out today. I figured out that I'm done with watching good men die and not doing a damn thing to stop it. I couldn't help them. But I'll be damned if I won't save you. Sign the form.”


“Agent Barton.”

Clint opened his eyes, but didn't bother turning his head. “Sir.” The word was thick as cotton in his mouth, thick as his head, fragments of memories and dreams and nightmares, caught on the jagged edges of confusion that the medication caused.

He did better without it. Medical, unfortunately, didn't share that view.

There was a faint stuttering unevenness to Fury's steps, the tiniest indication of a limp in the way he moved, slower than usual, something approaching hesitation in the way he crossed to Clint's bedside. Clint stomped down on an annoying spike of panic at the approach. An uncertain, injured Fury was outside of his experience, and he didn't know how to cope with that.

He stared, resolute and blank, at the far wall. If he bothered to blink, he wasn't aware of it.

Fury took a seat in the empty visitor's chair, settling down with a faint sigh. He slumped low, his whole body seeming to give into the weight of gravity all at once. He tipped his head in Clint's direction. “Not going to ask how you're doing. Think we'll leave that bullshit to those who think the question means something.”

Clint didn't move. “Yes, sir.”

“You know that Phil and I, we had a running tally,” Fury said, the blunt force of the words hitting Clint like a sledgehammer in the stomach. “Boons granted. Chits called in. Favors owed.” His lips twitched up in a macabre smile. “As it turned out, I owed him quite a few.”

“With all due respect, sir, it's because you're a son-of-a-bitch,” Clint said, no trace of emotion in his voice.

“Damn straight, Agent.” Fury leaned back, his hands sliding along the thin arms of the chair. His fingers drummed an irregular rhythm. “And no one knew that better than Coulson.” He took a breath, and it was a thin, strained sound in the room. “Right after you were taken, he showed up in my office. With a little red ledger. Every goddamn nasty trick I'd played, every time I'd used him as a pawn, every time I fucked the man over, neatly accounted for.”

He reached into his jacket, fished it out, and held the small volume up between two fingers. “Laid it on my blotter, and named his terms.”

Clint didn't look, didn't react, as Fury tilted the leather bound volume forward and back, letting the diffused lighting play along the spine, glowing like blood. Fury tossed it down on the white hospital linens. “He'd wipe my slate clean, and all I had to do was bring you back. And keep you.”

“He's dead. He won't know,” Clint said. The empty nothing on the other side of the room was blurred around the edges, and he blinked, ignoring the raw, gritty feeling of his eyelids.

“Yeah, but as it turns out? I will.” Fury stood. “He played his hand, he emptied his coffers. Everything he had on me, he traded it in for you. That we find you, and when we found you, no matter what, you stay with SHIELD, and we protect you. And that's what we're going to do.” He tucked his hands in his pockets. “None of this was your fault. I saw it with my own eye, and I'll swear to that.”

Clint's lips curled up, cold and empty. “Until it's convenient for you to change your mind, sir?”

“And that's why I gave you Phil's ledger,” Fury said, grinning back, and his teeth were white and sharp. “Your own little insurance policy.”

He made no move to touch it. “How do you know I'm back?”

Fury shrugged. “We haven't perfected a blood test for magic yet, so we're going on observation, and your actions. If you start exhibiting signs of being out of your own control, then we'll handle it.” Clint didn't have any doubt of how he planned to handle it, and that was bourne out when Fury continued. “We've confiscated your weapons for now. We'll need a little breathing room before you're gonna get 'em back, but we'll work out some range time for you, and we'll go from there.”

“We'll go from there?” Clint echoed. “So, what? I go back to running ops? That'll go so well. I mean, I can try to fill in for the agents I killed, but that's gonna be tough for the rest of the squad.”

Fury's eye was on him, sharp and dark, fathomless. “For the time being, you're going to be on medical leave,” he said, and ignored Clint's curse. “You're going to get back into form, you're useless like this.” He tipped his head at the bruises and cuts on Clint's hands and arms. The doctor had made an attempt at bandaging them; Clint had made it clear that if they got bandaged, he was just going to take them back off as soon as he was alone. “I've arranged for a standing psych appointment.”

“Fuck you, sir,” Clint said with a pleasant grin.

Fury arched his eyebrows. “That's how we're going to play this?” he asked, his voice just as pleasant. “Coulson mortgaged himself down to his socks and his soul; he made damn sure that you wouldn't end up in a prison cell or on the run. He did that, and you're going to pitch that in his face?” He leaned back, a low whistle pushing through pursed lips. “Guess you really don't believe in the afterlife, do you? Because that's a bitch move, Barton. Best man I ever knew, and he bought you a safehouse, one last hand up and out, at a monumental cost. And if you can't-

The pain was blinding, and Clint had to resist the urge to take his own fingernails to his eyes, to his ears, to his veins, anything to make the words STOP. “Shut up,” he gritted out. “Just-” He pressed shaking fingers to his face, forcing his eyes shut. It didn't help.

There was a long moment of silence, the faint sound of breathing and the scuff of Fury's boots on the tile the only thing to hear. “You're a suicide risk right now,” he said at last. “You're going to be assigned to Agent Romanov until psych clears you.”

Clint sucked in a thin breath, air like a drug in his lungs. “She on the shit list, too?”

“Always, she's a permanent fixture. She likes it there.” Fury's heel rattled against the floor. “Be real helpful right now if you did something to deny that suicide risk thing, Barton.”

Clint dropped his hands to his lap, kept his eyes on them. “Sir? I had an alien stick his fingers into my brain and rip me apart. Under his cheerful little interference, I took down my own people, I set in motion something that could quite literally have ended life as we know it on this planet, and I killed the only man who's ever believed I was worth anything.” A semi-hysterical laugh caught in his throat, choked him. “I really have no idea why I'm alive right now.”

Fury stood. “Because Phil Coulson went to his death wanting you to live.” He paused. “I was with him. When he died. He didn't die alone.”

Clint's right hand was trembling against the sheets. “Is that supposed to, I don't know, make me feel better?” he gritted out. “He's dead. He's fucking dead, who gives a damn if he was alone when it happened?”

Tucking his hands in his pockets, Fury crossed to the door. “You do.” Before Clint could say a thing to that, he pulled the door open. “Agent Romanov?” As if she'd been waiting for the call, Natasha slipped through the narrow gap, closing it behind her. “Everything set, Agent?” Fury asked her.

“Yes, sir. Paperwork's been filed, medical's released him. I think it's best if I get him out of here now.” Natasha moved around Fury, coming to the edge of Clint's bed. Her eyes were sharp, focused, despite the bandage on her forehead, and on her cheek. Her fingers were gentle as they stroked Clint's cheek, her knuckles ghosting over the jaw she'd punched so often. He spared her a glance. She spared him a smile. “So, you're my responsibility for the time being?”

“You always get the shit assignments,” he told her.

Her smile softened. “Only because I enjoy them.”

“You got this?” Fury asked her, tucking his hands into his pockets. He seemed worn, lines etched deep into his face, but he met Clint's eyes without flinching.

“Yes, sir.” Natasha brushed Clint's hair away from his forehead, the backs of her fingers so gentle against his skin. “I have his schedule.”

“Great. I get a social secretary when I no longer have a social life,” he said. They both ignored him.

“His first appointment with the shrinks is tomorrow. Make sure he's there,” Fury said. “Dr. Blánaid O'Brien. She's been assigned his case, for as long as she can stand him.”

“Don't recognize the name,” Clint said, his fingers flexing, slow and careful.

“She's one of the few you haven't terrorized over the years. That's why she's got this now.” Fury paused at the door. He didn't look back, he didn't even glance in their direction. “Loki took a lot of good men, good men and women,” he said. “But that ends now. He doesn't get you, too.”

The door shut behind him. Clint pushed himself around, working his aching legs towards the edge of the bed. “Let's go,” he said, head down, avoiding Natasha's eyes. “We can be to the border in a couple of hours.”

She caught his face between cool palms, tipping his head up. “If you try to slip away from me,” she said, eye to eye with him, “I will hunt you to ground. Tell me you understand that.”

Clint considered her. “Nat. I'm an international terrorist. I aided and abetted a war criminal, and I'm gonna be the only one they have to prosecute,” he said, his voice gentle. Almost amused. “How long do you think it's going to be before Fury has to choose between keeping my head above water and keeping SHIELD above water? We both know what choice he'll make.”

“We'll worry about that when we have to,” she said, her fingers smoothing down his neck, his shoulders, his chest. “Let's go.”

He went. It was nice, he supposed, to still have someone in his corner.


“If you try to bring me back to Phil's place, I will put a bullet in one of us. Haven't decided which one it will be,” Clint said, his tone conversational.

“You're a class act, Barton, you know that?” Natasha said, settling down in the driver's seat. “Put your seatbelt on.”

“Jesus, you're a harpy,” he said, his fingers fumbling at the strap. He managed to get it in place, and let his head fall back against the headrest, his eyes sliding shut. “So where are we going?”

She waited until his seatbelt was securely fashioned, then she started the car. “My place,” she said, putting the car into gear. The doors locked automatically. Clint gritted his teeth, struggling not to panic, struggling not to feel trapped. Like his last line of escape was swiftly slipping through his fingers.

“You don't have a place,” he said, breathing around the words, his jaw tight. “I would know if you had a place, Nat.”

“No, you wouldn't.” She sounded amused. “You always think you know things. You don't.”

“I'm not-”

“It's not SHIELD property,” she said, cutting him off.

His hands were twitching, his fingers flexing for something out of reach, and he ached for his bow, ached the way he had to imagine that people ached for a phantom limb. He could almost feel it there, solid and strong, flexing like bone and sinew, like a living thing. He forced his fingers into a fist, hard and tight, his nails digging into his palm hard enough to leave. He stopped short of drawing blood.

He had always taken pains to keep his hands intact.

“Fury know you're taking me off reservation?” he asked, concentrating on flexing each finger, one by one, like a puppeteer playing with strings.

“Director Fury trusts me to do what's right for you. And the organization.”

Clint barked out a laugh, hard and sharp. “When does that become putting a bullet in my head?”

“When you annoy me too much. Try not to do that, will you please? I just had this car cleaned.”

That was somehow more comforting than some completely unbelievable speech about how she had his back, how she'd defend him, protect him. There was no defense left to him, nothing left to hide behind. He was exposed, shown for the killer he was, the traitor, the empty shell of a human being. Clint fumbled at the front of his jacket, his fingers digging into the fabric, gripping hard.

“We need to stop,” he said, his voice quiet in the darkness. He kept his eyes shut, not wanting to see anything else.

“No, we don't.”


“I know how you function, Barton. I know your escape routes.” There was the faint sound of strain to her voice, the note he knew and kind of feared, when she lost her clipped, unaccented delivery. A flex of the vowels, an elongation of certain sounds, just a hint, just barely there, and he knew what it meant. “Thor picked it up.”

Clint didn't flinch, but it took effort. “Yeah?

“Yeah.” Her breathing was regular, even. “I told him to do it.”

“How'd you-”

“Because I know you.” The words were too sharp, too hard, and he heard her suck in a breath between clenched teeth. Heard her struggle to get herself back under control. “You always leave yourself an escape route, always an out.

“How'd you see this playing out? Telling me that you'd left behind one of your explosive tips? And that you had to recover it before it ended up hurting someone?”

He could almost feel the pressure of her eyes on him. “It was a mistake. I wasn't thinking.” It sounded like a lie to even his ears, but then again, he knew he was lying.

Natasha snorted. “You're many things, Clint, but clumsy with your weapons? Not one of them. Just out of curiosity? What would you have done if I'd insisted upon going up with you? If there was a bomb lying between the two of us? Would you have taken me out as well?”

“Fuck you,” Clint said, and it lacked heat. It was matter-of-fact, tired, it ached on his tongue, the words too heavy. “Fuck. You. I've never turned a weapon on-”

And that was a lie now, too. His face screwed up, his fingers latching on the fabric of his jacket so hard that he could feel the zipper digging into his palm. He struggled against the impulse to scream, to howl, to rage. Instead, he swallowed it, huddling down against the car door as he tried to breathe, tried to force himself back into something that resembled control.

“Why do you think I'm the one in this car with you?” Natasha said, ignoring the whole thing. “Because I'm the only one who can take your pitiful ass down.”

Clint felt his lips twitch up, and he let the chuckle out. “Nat?”


“You know he picked it up?”

“I've got it. I know he picked it up.” She was silent for a moment. “I know what you're thinking.”

“You really don't.”

She ignored that. She was good at ignoring him when he was saying things she didn't want to hear; he wasn't sure why he'd always liked that about her. “I need you to not do that again.”

“Yeah, well, I'm pretty sure they're not giving me my bows back for a while, Nat, so, no big deal, is it?” He shifted, arms folded tight in front of his body, legs drawn up, head down in the cradle of his hunched shoulders. He was cold. He considered asking her to turn on the heat, but he knew it wouldn't help. “It's not something I can do for a while, so-”

“Don't take that particular escape route,” she said, and he fell silent.

“Yeah. I won't,” he said, and it was too light, too easy, too glib to be true.

“You're all I have left.”

He didn't look at her. “Nat-”

“I got used to the two of you,” she said, her voice calm. “I'm accustomed to having you around. To not having to do this alone.” There was the smallest hitch in the words, a faint crack between the syllables that sounded like a scream. “I couldn't save him.”

“Because you were too busy saving me,” Clint said, and there was a bang, her fist colliding with the steering wheel, a loss of control that he'd seen only once or twice, and he flinched that time, as if she'd hit him instead. “Nat, you know-”

“I saved you,” she said, and he opened his eyes. He opened his eyes, because the words were an order. She was staring at him, her fingers locked on the steering wheel. “I did what he wanted, I did what Fury wanted, I did what I wanted.” Her jaw worked, skin pale in the moonlight, lips thin and tight. “I went after you.”

“And look at how that turned out,” he said, tired of this already.

“I'd do it again. Even if this was the result.” She glanced forward, and he realized they were stopped at a red light. “But you don't take that particular escape route, Clint. If not out of respect for me, then out of respect for Phil.”

He wondered how long the name was going to cause his whole body to jerk. “He's dead,” Clint said, because maybe if he said it, if he said it a lot, he could desensitize himself. If he could make it stop feeling like an open wound with the knife still inside. “He doesn't get a vote.”

“I'm casting his vote for him. So go fuck yourself,” Nat said, and she smiled at him. “He was always on my side, anyway.

“That's true.” Clint let his eyes close. “Green light, Nat.”

The car moved forward. “Do I need to get out the handcuffs, Clint?”

His lips twitched. “Kinky.”


He shrugged, the movement quick and shallow. “I'm not going anywhere.” He'd promised. He'd promised Phil. A proper burial. Not some empty ceremony, no pomp and circumstance. There would be someone, two someones, who would stand by his grave with the full knowledge of what had landed him there. How he'd lived his life, what that had meant, really meant.

Clint had no doubt Phil's funeral would be well attended. But the majority of the people there would have no idea who they were mourning, and that was a crying shame.

He didn't sleep, but the next thing he knew, Natasha's door was slamming shut. Too loud. Too hard, she did it to pull him back to the world of the living, because she knew better than to touch him if he wasn't expecting it, or to speak to him if he wasn't replying. He wondered if she had been talking to him. He didn't remember.

Natasha had his bag out of the trunk by the time he'd fumbled himself out of his seatbelt and out of the car. It took more effort than it should've, and he ended up leaning back against the car, his breath coming too hard, too fast. He pushed away from the metal with hands that did not shake, he was determined that they would not shake.

She didn't give him his bag.

“You need to eat something,” she said, leading the way to the elevator. “And a shower.”

He tucked his hands into the pockets of his jacket, head down. “How long have you had this place?”

“A while. It's a bolt hole, nothing fancy. But it's not SHIELD,” she said, and he knew she was repeating that for his benefit, that she'd keep repeating it, that this was not part of Fury's kingdom, but he had no doubt that Fury knew about it. Fury knew everything, in the end. “It's clean, it's stocked, and it's going to be our base for a while.”

“Most of my stuff's at Phil's.”

“I know.” She paused. “You know they're going to have to-”

“Yeah, I know.” Clint folded his arms in front of his chest, folded them up tight, trying to breathe slowly through his nose as the elevator headed up. “Whatever. Nothing much there, anyway. Clothes, that kinda stuff. I kept most of my gear at my SHIELD barracks.” He felt, more than saw, her look in his direction. “I want one of his dogtags.”

There was silence until the elevator came to a stop. Neither of them moved.

“His family-” she started

“Fuck it,” Clint said, rage overwhelming everything else. “Fuck it, Nat, you think I don't know that everything will go to his family? That they're going to sanitize his place, wipe out any trace of me, wipe out any trace of his job, his life, burn bag everything? I know that, I've always known that, but he-” He choked on the word, gagged on it, like he couldn't quite force it down. “He was here when it happened, they have the body, they have his tags, he always carried them, he always had them, I know he-”

He was almost yelling, and with a jolt, he pulled himself back. Natasha was watching him, her head tipped forward, the sweep of her hair curling around her jaw. Clint scrubbed his hands over his face. “Sorry,” he gritted out. “Sorry, I just-”

She shouldered his bag. “I'll get one of them for you.”


She slipped out of the elevator doors, and he fell into step behind her, his feet leaden and too heavy to lift properly. “Shut up, Barton. Eat. Shower. Sleep.”

“In that order?” he said.

“You want to try to eat in the shower, that's your problem,” she said, with a faint smile. “Yes. In that order.”

The apartment was small, clean and modern, and clearly unoccupied. Clint hovered by the door as Natasha set the alarm and paced off the rooms, checking each one. When she came back, she headed for the small kitchen, pulling open a cabinet. “Stay inside, stay away from the windows,” she said, because they both liked rules. Defined limits. “Don't go near the door, and no, you cannot get past my alarm system. Even if you could get out, I'll get you before you reach the garage.”

“I'm feeling the trust here.”

Natasha ripped the cover off a drinkable cup of soup, and put it in the microwave. “This has nothing to do with not trusting you,” she said, stabbing at the buttons with a vicious finger. In the low light of the kitchen, she looked exhausted, her face scraped, her neck rubbed raw. There was a cut through her lower lip, and bruises on her wrists. As the microwave whirred, she turned to meet his eyes. “This has everything to do with reassuring you that you're not going anywhere.”

“Does that even make sense?”

“Sit down,” she said.

“I don't need to eat,” he said, not moving away from the door. “Shwarma. It was pretty good.”

Her lips twitched. “Stark. Man's an idiot.” The microwave beeped, and she reached for it. “I keep surrounding myself with them.” She pulled the soup out, slapped the lid on the top and put it in his hand. “Drink it.”

“You like us,” Clint said.

“I don't know where you're getting this impression.” She slid a careful hand through his short hair, the touch too rough to be considered affectionate, but too comforting to be anything else. “I don't like you at all.” Her free hand tucked under his wrist, pushing the soup to his mouth. “You're an annoyance.”

Clint smiled at her. “You can open the shades, Natasha. I've already seen what I did.”

“What Loki did.” She flicked a finger against the cup. “Drink it all. It's been a damn long day, and I want to go to bed.”

He gave up and drank, quick as he could manage. It was hot and salty and it burned the whole way down. She took it away from him. “Clint,” she said, meeting his eyes dead on, “the city's a mess, SHIELD's a mess, we're a mess. This is going to be chaos, for a long time. The helicarrier's a mess, God only knows what Fury's up to behind everyone's back-”

He glanced away, and she caught his chin, forcing his head back around. “Clint-”

“I can't do this right now,” he said, his voice sharp. “Nat-” He leaned forward, and his forehead rested against hers. “I can't do this right now.”

She stroked a hand up his arm, cupping the back of his neck. She didn't say anything else, but she steered him to the bathroom.

He wasn't sure how he made it through the shower and into the bed, but he was pretty sure it had more to do with Nat than it did with him. Pushing, pulling, prodding, cursing him the entire way, she managed to get him through the brief, hot shower, dried, and under the sheets. He had only a moment of mild surprise as she crawled in after him.

“Are we having sex?” he asked, not really interested in her answer.

There was a long pause. “No,” she said, her voice gentle. “If we're going to have sex, Clint, you'll know it.”

“Yeah? How?”

“I'll be unbuckling your pants and saying, 'we're having sex now,'” Natasha explained.

Clint thought about that. “I'm not sure if I'll pick up on that,” he said. “It seems pretty subtle. Obtuse, even. I'm a little slow on picking up those kinda cues.”

“Go to sleep, Clint,” she huffed against the nape of his neck. The warmth of her breath was familiar and foreign, all at the same time. Her skin was soft and her lips gentle, and he missed the faint scruff of Phil's jaw, the way he would nuzzle the short hairs at the base of Clint's skull.

The memory was enough to swamp him, put him to sea again.

“So, is this part of the suicide watch?” he said, as her arm slid around his waist, her body curling into the line of his back.

“This is I've lost too many people, and I will not lose you, too,” she whispered against the skin of his shoulder. The brush of lips and breath was oddly comforting, the tiniest sign of life. Her arm slid up his chest, her fingers brushing over the spot where his heart beat, slow and steady, and lingered there. “Don't leave me alone,” she whispered.

The darkness had shades, and he wasn't sure if they were in his eyes, or in his mind, but he could make out shadows and soft edges where light tried to gather. He blinked, slow and careful, letting his lashes fold down all the way against his cheeks for a bare second. “I'm trying,” he said at last, safe in the dark.

Her hair was soft where it curled against the nape of his neck, when she buried her face between his shoulder blades. “Try harder,” she said, and it tried to be hard and sharp, and failed.

Clint fumbled for her hand, catching it in his and weaving their fingers together. He didn't have anything to say to that, and she didn't seem to expect a response in any case. But her fingers clung tight to his, the bones pressing down hard, hard enough to make his hands ache. Hard enough to reopen the tiny scrapes on his fingers, and he wondered if he was bleeding.

It seemed appropriate, somehow. It wasn't as if he could cry.

“Goddamn you, Phil,” he whispered into the darkness. “I trusted you.”


Dr. O'Brien was really hard to hate.

He gave it his best try, of course, he wanted to hate her. He really did. But she was small and soft on the edges, her hair a cloud of pale brown curls, almost but not quite honey blonde, with streaks of paler hair shot through, hints of grey that seemed to cause her no concern. Her eyes were big and warm and brown, like whiskey, with the glitter of ice there in their depths, but her smile was warm. Sweet. Kind.

Clint really wanted to hate her.

“I'm not going to ask you how you're feeling today,” she said, and there was a trace of an accent there in her words, just the faintest hint of something, almost gone, but soft at the vowels and pulled like taffy at the end of some words. “In that we both know the answer.”

He considered her, not moving, not letting his eyes flicker, but he had always been good at picking up the edges of thing, the flicker of long fingers against paper, the way her pinky nail was just a shade off from the others, probably a fake nail, the glitter of a gold chain at her throat, a cross or something else, but tucked discreetly into the neck of her blouse.

Conservative skirt and blouse, not a suit, not fancy, not designer. But her shoes probably cost about half a year of Clint's salary, so that was interesting.

He kept his eyes on hers, and she let her eyebrows arch, a small upward stretch. “You're going to be meeting with me for an hour every morning and afternoon for now,” she said, calm and precise. “As you go through your recovery, as your therapy progresses, we'll drop that down as needed.”

No schedule for when that would happen. No promises that she couldn't keep. No false hope.

“This isn't 'Good Will Hunting.' You need to talk to me. I don't much care what you say, especially not at the beginning, but the trauma that you've suffered, it's left many of us concerned that you will withdraw from contact.” She paused, her eyes going soft for a second, warm and lit in the sunlight. “Right now, that's not beneficial. You are here to talk. You can choose the topic, we can discuss whatever you'd like. You can recite baseball statistics for an hour, you can go over your favorite Portuguese curses. We can talk about Jack's latest bone headed mistake on 'Days of Our Lives.' But if you don't talk, we'll consider that appointment a wash, and we'll reschedule it.”

Clint felt his right hand tense against his thigh. “How many do we reschedule before you give up on me?” he asked, only mildly curious.

“You mean, how many do I reschedule before Agent Romanov is allowed to join us for the entire hour?” She gave him a faint smile. “We'll leave that up to interpretation, but since she has her own counseling to attend, I'd recommend against making her come to yours.”

This office already seemed too small for the two of them. It wasn't. It was a nice office. All the psych counselors had nice offices. Soothing natural color scheme, comfortable furniture, broad windows and good light. It was laid out so he had his choice of places to sit, and it was nice here. Comfortable. Warm.

His skin was crawling already.

“I'm sure she's overjoyed,” Clint said.

Dr. O'Brien's lips curled up. “One of the crosses that the psych department has to bear, Agent Barton, is that no one is every overjoyed to see us.” Her eyebrows arched. “We understand that going in. The best we can hope for is half-hearted cooperation.”

She was probably right about that. Her gaze was too much to take, the warmth there was disconcerting, not pity or fear or anything else he could identify. His eyes flicking towards the window, to the cloudless sky. But he could still see the haze from the damage. From the fires and the wreckage and the chaos. The recovery would be slow.

And some things would never be fixed. Could never be fixed.

“And if I want to talk to you about birds for the hour?” he asked

“I've always liked birds,” she said. Her head tipped to the side. “Do you like birds?”

“Are you trying to read something into that?” Clint asked, scrubbing a hand over his face. God fucking dammit, this was going to be exhausting. Waiting for her to draw conclusions from things that literally were inconsequential. Having to watch every word out of his mouth.

“No, Agent Barton. I'm attempting to encourage you to speak,” she said, that faint smile reappearing. “Part of how we do that is by asking probing questions that will set you on another potential conversational path. You're going to have to come to terms with that.”

“So you're not going to be psychoanalyzing me?” he asked, disbelief clear in the words.

Her smile bloomed into a full grin, her teeth flashing white. She had a small gap between the front two teeth; he didn't know why he noticed that. “Of course I am, Agent. That is, after all, my job.”

He huffed out a faint laugh, rough on the edges, weak to his own ears. “Why you?”

“Excuse me?”

Clint shifted on the couch, trying to find a position that didn't feel so much like he was sinking. “Why did Fury assign me to you?”

She leaned back, folding her hands in her lap. “Because I am one of the few fully experienced therapists that you have not already dealt with.”

“I have managed to alienate most of the department,” Clint agreed

“It's fairly impressive,” she agreed. “You're very intelligent, and very intuitive. And you have excellent defense mechanisms. It makes you difficult to diagnose.” Her eyes flicked down, and then back up to his. “And even harder to treat.”

His teeth tightened into a richtor of a grin. “I'll take that as a compliment.”

“I wish you wouldn't. But I understand why you might.” She leaned forward, her folded fingers sliding beyond the plane of her crossed legs, and despite the fact that her hands were laced together, their stark presence in midair was disconcerting. “So, ought I bring my bird book to our next meeting?”

“No. But you can brush up on the corvus genus if you want,” he said.


Clint glanced at his watch and stood. “Crows and ravens.”

“Any particular reason?”

His smile felt unnatural on his face. “They are the eaters of the dead on the battlefield.” He glanced at the windows, at the clear blue sky. “They chose you because your office faces away from the damage.”

“No. I moved into this office for that reason.”

It hurt, and he'd known it would, but it still hurt. “Just because you can't see something, doesn't mean it's not still there.” He turned on his heel. “I'll see you tomorrow, Doc.”

“Will you?” she asked his retreating back.

He paused, hand on the doorknob. “You want the truth?”


“I'd put up with much worse than this to get my bow back.”

“I'll keep that in mind.”

Chapter Text

Lying was easy.

Clint was always kind of ashamed of that. Not ashamed enough to stop doing it, but he knew, on some level, that it shouldn't be this easy to put on a false front. To slip a mask on that hid what he was thinking, what he was feeling, what he wanted, what he needed. He could create a persona and disappear into it, until it felt as natural as breathing.

Until he could almost forget that it was all a lie.

It made undercover missions easy for him. He could hold cover, better than most. When his life was at stake, he was almost flawless. He could survive, because he could lie. He could hide, and no one would have the slightest idea that he was coming apart on the inside. That he was holding himself together by his fingernails and his teeth, that it was all he could do to sit here and not scream.

He could sit in the strangest debrief of his life, and act like nothing was wrong. Of course, it helped that no one was paying much attention to him.

Thor's fist hit the table, and no one flinched, but it was a hard won battle on all sides. “I will take him back to Asgard,” he snarled. “And he will face the justice of our people.”

Nick Fury sipped his coffee. “Him and the tessaract,” he agreed. “Take them both and go. But it will be as soon as we can find-”

Thor cut him off. “The damage-”

“The damage is another thing entirely.” Nick set his cup down and stood, bracing his hands on the table top. “The damage isn't going anywhere. You want to make good on that? No one is objecting. But get the prisoner off this planet, and do it as soon as possible.”

“You dare to order me,” Thor breathed.

“Not ordering. Just explaining some facts. You want him, you need to get him clear of this planet now,” Fury said, calm about it. “Right now, things are still so fucked up that I don't know if anyone in the high command can find their asses with both hands and a map, but we are running on borrowed time. Sooner or later, they are going to come knocking, and they are going to want to put your boy in a very deep hole for a very long time.” He straightened up and spread his hands wide. “What're you gonna do? Fight every damn army that comes knocking? 'Cause let me tell you, there's a lot of them, and they'll all want that particular prize.”

“You overstep your place,” Thor said, his voice a threatening rumble.

Fury's head tipped to the side. “Is that right?” he asked. “As I see it, my place is between you, and everyone who wants a piece of you. And let me tell you, that's a damn long list.”

Thor turned on him and for an instant, Clint really thought he was going to take a swing, and for an even briefer second, he wondered what the fuck would happen then. But as quickly as the storm had come, it passed, and Thor slammed out of the room, his feet pounding on the floor hard enough to shake everything.

Silence descended, and it wasn't a great silence. Fury was the only one who seemed unaffected, calmly gathering his things and moving at the door. “Well, then, guess we're done,” he said, his tone off-hand, and Clint wondered how the hell he did it.

The door shut behind him, and for a moment, everyone else just sat there.

“That could've gone worse,” Bruce said, his arms crossed over his chest. His lips were twitching like he was trying to smile and failing at it. Or if he was freaking out and trying to hide it.

“Not really,” Tony said. He was fiddling with something on his phone, his head down, his chair turned away from the table, his legs tossed out in front of him. “I mean, no body died, that's a plus, but as meetings go?” He gave a slow, descending whistle. “I haven't been involved in one that bad since the tech crash of the mid-nineties.” He paused, his brows drawing in tight. “Who am I kidding, I was involved in one that bad last week, but I shouldn't be used as a barometer for these things.”

Rogers was staring at him, a faint expression of consternation on his face. “Do you ever listen to what you're saying?” he asked at last.

“Absolutely not.” Tony slouched a little lower in his chair. “I know it's all bullshit, no real point in listening to it.” His heel rattled against the floor, and Banner rubbed his forehead. “What was up with big and blonde, anyway?”

“He didn't get to see Jane.”

Clint didn't realize he was speaking until the words had slipped out, and as every eye in the room swiveled in his direction, he bit back a mental curse. So much for staying invisible through this stupidity. With a force of will, he kept his face calm and still, a half smirk on his lips, his arms draped over the arms of the chair. Nat's eyes narrowed, but she kept her mouth shut.

Rogers was frowning, not an angry frown, but a concerned one. “Jane?”

“Dr. Jane Foster. The scientist he crashed into in New Mexico. She's been looking into the Einstein-Rosen bridge-” Clint stopped, because Natasha and Rogers were just staring at him, their faces blank, and Stark and Banner looked far too interested, and he did not want to get involved with them. Instead, he quirked a smile. “I was on guard duty down there for a while. Before, well-” He stopped, his fingers rattling against his hip. It was as if he could feel the bones under his skin, loose as if nothing held them together, as if the tendons and muscle were gone.

Only bones left beneath a thin veil of skin.

“Agent Coulson had her evacuated,” Natasha said, drawing the attention of the rest of the room. “When Loki reappeared. She was on a short list of protected subjects, and SHIELD got her as far away as we could, fast, before Loki could get a bead on her.”

“Thor was probably expecting to see her before he had to bolt,” Clint continued. “And now, it's not happening. It sucks, but there it is.” He spread his hands. “Damage control's got a lot of collateral damage to control, after all. I doubt getting our favorite alien a date is anywhere on the list.”

Rogers sighed. “Yeah. Things don't always work out the way we want, do they?” He stood. “I'll see if he'll speak to me, at least a bit.”

Stark looked like he had something to say to that, but Banner caught his attention before he could. Banner leaned forward, speaking quietly, and Stark nodded, his fingers tapping against the tabletop.

Natasha rolled to her feet. “Barton?”

Clint shook his head. He had therapy. Which she knew, judging by the sharp look she was giving her watch. “Yeah. I know.” He pushed himself to his feet. “I've got an appointment, so I've gotta go. Call me if there's anything else.”

With a faint smile, Rogers met his eyes. “Thank you for coming in.”

“Yeah, well, for a debrief, it was blessedly brief,” Clint said, flashing him a grin as he tucked his hands in his pockets. He could hold it together, a little while longer. Just like being undercover, after all, even if the gun at the back of his neck was a little different here.

He just had to hold his cover story. That was all that mattered.

Natasha intended to follow him, he was sure of that, but Rogers caught her attention, and Clint was able to slip out the door unaccompanied. He didn't mind. He was kinda glad, if he was being honest with himself. He needed a couple of minutes to pull himself together before he had to face down the joy that was therapy. His lips twitched in a humorless smile.

Somehow he didn't think that Dr. O'Brien would be quite so easily tricked by his facade. Of course, he was pretty sure he didn't care. Just another line item in his file, just another mark on the checklist, the one that would eventually get him sidelined. It might come in handy for his trial, though.

“Hey, Barton.”

Clint slowed his steps, glancing back over his shoulder as Stark jogged up beside him. His head was down over his phone, and his jaw and his neck were a mess. From this distance, Clint could see the damage, and he was impressed despite of himself. Stark must've been thrown around in that armor like a toy, but he gave no sign of it, his shoulders back, gaze clear. He moved like he was used to pain.

“This Dr. Foster,” Stark continued without looking up, his fingers tapping out an insane rhythm on the clear interface of his phone, “she'd know you?”

Clint dug his own hands in his pockets, ignoring the way his right hand twitched, the fingers flexing against the fabric. “Yeah.”

“You're sure?”

Clint felt a lopsided grin cross his face. “Uh, yeah. New Mexico: land of enchantment and really batshit insane situations. Trust me. She'd know me.”

Stark glanced at him, and his eyes were very sharp. A flicker of a glance, and he looked away. “Yeah. New Mexico. Coulson said that he was going to New Mexico.”

In his pockets, Clint's hands formed fists, muscles flexing so tight it was like his own bones would shatter under the pressure. But his voice was light when he managed, “Yeah, he did. Intersection of some stuff, I guess, you and Thor-” He paused. “Coulson liked you.”

They both stopped walking on the same step. Clint hadn't intended to do it, and judging by Stark's face, neither had he. For an instant, the man seemed to hang between rage and regret, the whites of his eyes visible around the irises, the color in his skin washing out, the shallow pallor replaced an instant later by a flush. “No, he didn't,” Stark said, with a tight smile. “But-”

“He really did,” Clint said, and the words were calm and almost kind. He didn't know why he was saying it, but he couldn't seem to stop. “Said you were a pain in the ass, so don't get me wrong. But he liked you.”

Stark's eyes snapped shut, his whole face working as he struggled with something, and then, the storm passed, and he offered Clint a professionally smooth smile. “I'm a very likable pain-in-the-ass, just ask my PR Department, it's one of my few and undependable saving graces,” he agreed, and his eyes were shuttered now. Blank. A mask with empty holes where the eyes should be. “If I got this Doc Foster on the phone, you could talk her into coming back to New York, right?”

“Probably, but Nat said they had her stuck in some SHIELD-”

Stark waved him off, not the least bit impressed. “Yeah, that's not the question, the question is, if I got her on the phone, can you get her to follow orders?”

Clint's eyes narrowed. “Yes.”

“Good. Catch.” Stark flicked the phone in his direction, and Clint caught it out of force of habit, and he wasn't surprised that the single glance he managed at the face told him that Stark had, indeed, located Jane Foster. “Dirty little secrets,” Stark sing-songed. He stuck his hands in his pockets and rocked back and forth on his heels, smirking at Clint. It wasn't nearly as annoying as it should've been.

From a distance, he heard a thin, strained, “Hello?” and Clint brought the phone up.

“Hey, Doc,” he said, and that was as far as he got.

“Clint! Oh, GOD, Clint, are you okay, I saw the news, it was all over the internet, I thought that was you, I saw you, are you okay, Thor called and told me about- But he didn't have much time, and he's, this is going to kill him, I don't know what he'll do, and I was so afraid about Erik that I didn't ask him about you-”

Clint blinked under the wash of words. “I'm fine,” he said, and he realized both of his hands were cradling the phone against his cheek, holding it like a lifeline. “It's okay, thank you, it's just fine.”

There was a broken sound over the line, and he winced. “Doc, is Darcy there? Okay, take a deep breath, don't cry, it's fine, it's all going to be fine. Selvig's just fine, he's okay, and so's Thor, just please don't cry.”

“Clint?” Darcy's voice was shaking. Just a little, but she could be counted upon to hold it together if Jane was falling apart, just like Jane could face down the world if Darcy needed her to. They had that weird sister-pact thing going on; Clint never understood it, but he respected it. “Clint, are you okay?”

“I'm fine, really.” He looked up, and Stark had pulled a tablet from god only knew where, and was scribbling. “Here's the thing. Thor's gotta go, and we're running out of time. We wanna see if we can get Jane back here long enough for him to see her, to see that she's okay, and she can see that he's okay, because-”

“Loki,” Darcy said, very soft and very angry. “Yeah.”

“Thor has to get him off earth,” Clint said, and maybe someday his chest wouldn't seize up at that Goddamn name. Not today, of course, but maybe, maybe someday. He took a deep breath. “Thor's gotta go, we've got a narrow window, we're going to get him to the right place, and get him gone. But we have, we think we can get Jane back here.”

Stark held up the tablet, and Clint read through the information with a growing sort of respect. “There's a private jet that's going to be waiting for you at the nearest airport in twenty minutes,” he said, shaking his head. “Fueled and ready. Can you get her in a car like, now?”

“We're already moving towards the door,” Darcy said, and Clint grinned.

“That's my girl,” he said.

“That ship has sailed, I offered, you turned me down, you are a heartless prick, go to hell,” she said, and her voice was watery and warm and full of relief. “Tell me, and don't you lie to me, I will know, I have magical girl powers, so you tell me right now. Tell me you're okay.”

Clint sucked in a slow breath. “I'm not.” His lips twitched. “But I'm getting there.” He tossed the tablet back to Stark, who caught it with one hand and went right back to work. “You're going to get an itinerary in about five minutes. Follow it.”

“To the letter, I know to do what you tell me to, when the sky's falling in.” She paused. “Thor and Erik are all right?”

“Yes,” he said. “Get her here, and Thor'll be much, much better.”

“Let's do this thing,” she said, and Clint grinned at the phone. She sounded like she was arming herself against some unseen army. Maybe she was. Maybe that's what this was, what all of this was, all of them fighting an enemy that the couldn't fight any longer.

He was so tired he didn't even question it. “Let's go, Darce. Move it.”

“Yeah, yeah. Hey! Wait, Clint? Is Coulson-”

“He didn't make it.” Clint cut her off with ruthless efficiency. There was a beat of a pause, and he sucked in a breath. “He didn't make it. Otherwise, he'd be-”

“The one bringing us back. Yeah.” Her voice was shaking, the vibration there in the words, but Jane needed her. As long as Jane needed her, Darcy could hold it together. “Clint, I'm-”

“Airport,” he said. “Now. Move it, we're running out of time.”

“Sir, yes, sir!” and it wasn't mocking, not at all. He held on, listening, until the line went dead, and then he held on for a little while longer. When he finally offered the phone back to Stark, he'd been listening to the emptiness on the other end for a few minutes.

“Thanks,” he said. Stark looked up, brown eyes sharp beneath the cuts and bruises. He shrugged.

“Yeah. Well, someone's gotta do it.” He went back to his work, but he didn't seem surprised when Clint fell into step beside him. “Now, more than ever. Keep love alive, ya know?” He paused, his jaw locking tight. “What's SHIELD gonna do about Coulson's- He had, I don't know, Pepper said a cellist?”

“What?” Confused, Clint glanced at him. “A cellist?”

Stark's eyes darted up, and back down. “That's what he said. Portland. I think.” It was offhand, deliberately so. Masking a deeper interest, but the strain was pushing him too hard for him to do a good job of hiding what he knew.

Clint stared at him, puzzling through that. “A cellist...” It hit him like a bolt, sharp and hard, and nearly knocked him to his knees.

His idea. His sarcastic little suggestion. When Phil had told him, with a weary voice, about Pepper Potts' kind and enthusiastic attempt to fix him up with a lovely woman from HR. Phil had been amused, Clint had found he wasn't. And in his usual socially inept manner, he'd shot his mouth off about making up a fake girlfriend.

Who worked with a bow.

He didn't know how he did it, but Clint kept his body moving forward. “Depends on if they were still-” One hand came up, see-sawing in the air. “If he was still with her. I don't-” He shook his head. “If they broke up, I doubt SHIELD would tell her anything.”

Stark's shoulders hunched forward, his face twisting. His fingers were white knuckled on his phone. “Yeah?” he said, and there was a rough note to his voice. “Did you know her name?”

“Leave it alone, Stark,” Clint told him. The words were swimming in him, soft and gentle. “Some people would prefer not to know the people they once loved are dead.”

He started walking faster, knowing he was at his limit. “It's a grace most of us are denied. Let her think he's still out there, saving the world.”

“Denial never helped anyone,” Stark said.

“It helps the ones that don't know they're in denial. Let them keep that cold comfort.”

Stark wasn't walking any more, and Clint headed up the hallway alone. He was glad. It was a relief to be alone.


“So how does this work? Do I have to lie on the couch?”

“Not at all.” Dr. O'Brien had a soft smile. Which didn't do much to distract from her sharp eyes. “You can sit where ever you would like. Or stand.” She leaned back in her chair. “Do you want this one?”

“No, thanks.” He paused. “What would you have done if I'd said yes?”

She considered that, her fingers rolling over the barrel of a gold pen. It caught the light, glowing in her grip. “Gotten up,” she said at last.

Clint let out a faint chuckle. “Why?”

“I prefer my patients be comfortable,” she said. “It's better for both of us.”

He took a seat on the couch, because he was exhausted. He'd slept more than he'd ever thought that he would, but it wasn't enough. What little sleep he'd gotten had been interrupted by nightmares that he didn't want to think about. Even waking to find Natasha, warm and comforting against his spine, hadn't done much to shake the sensation of horror.

“I don't think I'll ever be comfortable here,” he admitted. He gave her a faint smirk. “It doesn't really matter. It's not like I can change therapists.”

She folded her hands in her lap. “Would you prefer that?” she asked.

“It's all the same to me.” He avoided looking at the window. “I don't really care. I have to be here, who's doing the note taking doesn't much matter.”

Dr. O'Brien smiled. “Ah, will I have to take notes? I had thought we were going to discuss birds.” She waved a hand towards the end table. “I found a copy of Sibley's guide.”

Found, she had. It wasn't a new purchase, either, the spine was creased, and the cover bent and battered. There was a slight warping to chunks of pages, the clear sign of someone caught in the rain with their book open, and repeating the mistake. This was a book that had seen use, and in the field.

“Field journal,” Clint said. “You should always take notes about what you see.” Needing to occupy his hands, he picked up the guide, letting it fall open between his palms. “Otherwise, you might forget.”

“Why birds?” she asked, and her hands were occupied, too, her pen clasped in one hand, held over the clean white sheets of a simple steno pad. He kept his gaze averted, but even at this distance, he could see the graceful, smooth rhythm of her writing. He could see the letters curl, one after another, across the sheet.

Clint turned the pages idly, lingering on descriptions of hawks and eagles, on the hunters. “If you spend any time in hiding, especially up high, or in secret, you'd better make friends with birds,” he said at last. “They're everywhere. Cities, forests, jungles, deserts. They like hidden nooks and they move fast. They can draw attention you don't want, or they can be a very effective diversion.”

His fingers traced over the lines of a drawing. “Make friends with your environment. Keeps you alive. And staves off the worst of the boredom.” He let the book fall shut.

“Do you have a favorite?” she asked.

“Are you going to psychoanalyze my choice?” he shot back.

“Of course.” Dr. O'Brien smiled at him.

“Then I think I'll keep that to myself.”

“So you do have a favorite.”

“Sure.” He let his head fall back. “Any other questions?”

“How do you like your new team?”

That brought him up short. “I don't have a team, Dr. O'Brien.” His fingers flicked against the cover of the guide. Sharper than he'd intended, and he worked at stilling them. “There was a group of people who had a shared goal. That's done now.”


He considered the question. The people. The circumstances. “Yeah. I wasn't on the team. I was a last minute addition, they let me tag along.” He was grateful for that. For a small chance at redemption. And he resented the feeling that he was beholden to them.

“Why did you go, then? If they weren't your team?”

Clint forced his fingers into a fist. At least then, he could hold it still. “Because they were going in my direction. And I had skills they could use.”

“Is that the only reason?”

He thought about it. About Natasha and Stark, Banner and Thor, and Rogers. Most of all, Rogers. God, the hours he'd spent listening to Phil babble on about Captain Goddamn Fucking America. It had be amusing at first, almost cute, to find out that his controlled, austere handler had a childish crush on Captain America, of all people.

It had been cute until Rogers had resurfaced. Literally.

Then, it hadn't been nearly so funny. Clint had put up with it, because God knows, Phil put up with a lot of shit from him, but he'd started to grit his teeth at the merest mention of Steve Rogers. Damn boy scout. War hero. Upstanding hero. Perfect human being. It was a joke, to Clint, the fact that he felt, on some level, that he was in a competition that he was never going to win.

After all, he was a lot of things. But he wasn't even close to being in Captain America's league.

He'd jammed Phil's Cap t-shirt behind the drier two weeks ago. If Phil had noticed it was missing, he hadn't brought it up. Now, of course, he never would. And Clint had proof positive that he never would've won that particular battle.

Clint shook off the uncomfortable thought. “That's the only reason I need.” He shifted on the couch. “Next question.”


“Have a seat, Agent Barton.”

Clint considered the chair. It wasn't really worth the fight to stay standing. That had never stopped him before, of course, but he was tired. And he wasn't sure he cared. This had been the longest week of his life, and it wasn't getting any easier. Even with Natasha blunting whatever rough edges she could manage, he was barely holding on. He wasn't sleeping. Eating was a chore that he had to be reminded to suffer through.

Even the act of getting dressed was so draining that if he wasn't so desperately trying to keep up appearances, he doubted if he would've bothered.

Fury sighed, a gusty exhale that held a world of expiring patience. “I don't have time for this,” he said, leaning forward. “Sit your ass down, Agent.”

Clint sat.

“Thank you,” Fury said, and it wasn't nearly as sarcastic as Clint was expecting it to be. Which made him very, very nervous. Fury folded his hands on his desk, his shoulders a hard line. “I've got a request for you.”

“Sir?” Clint couldn't quite hold back the word. Because Fury didn't request, Fury ordered.

“You're aware that the Asgardians have sent diplomatic overtures?”

SHIELD was all but howling with the news, and even if Natasha was keeping him out of sight, for the most part, he heard things. Whether or not Thor had reappeared, he wasn't sure, but Asgard was attempting to mend the damage done. He nodded.

“They've made a request,” Fury said. “And it's not one that anyone likes, but right now? We've still got dead space dragons draped over the remains of midtown, and we're not equipped to deal with that. We need them. It's not something I like to admit, it's sure as hell not something anyone wants to admit, but that's the reality of the situation, Agent Barton. So far, they've been very, very helpful, and there's only been one request from the diplomatic team.”

Clint stared him down, waiting for the shoe to drop.

Fury took a deep breath. “They want to talk to you and Selvig. As the only two survivors of-”

“No.” The word was too loud, too sharp, and it hurt his throat. He swallowed. “No,” he repeated, and it was a little more controlled. Not much. But a little. He'd take a little; it was all that he could manage.

“I know,” Fury said, his head cocking to the side. “Listen-”

“No,” Clint said. “No, I won't- I can't-” He swallowed hard. “No.”

“Selvig's already agreed,” Fury said, his one eye sharp, pinning Clint in place. There was a strain there, in his face, in the set of his shoulders, in the way he held himself. Clint studied him, wondering on some level of Nick Fury was actually that close to the loss of his control, close enough that the strain was visible through his ironclad control. Or if he was letting Clint see something that wasn't real, a false front, another mask designed to manipulate Clint into doing just what Fury wanted him to do.

Or if he was always that close to the edge, and for once, Clint was close enough himself that he could recognize the precariousness of their perch.

“We need you to do this,” Fury said, his voice tired. “You know that.”

“Fuck you,” Clint said.

Fury arched an eyebrow. “This isn't a request from SHIELD,” he said, ignoring that entirely. “Or me. This is from the city of New York. We're still bleeding out, down there on street level. The damage is immense. Which you know.”

Clint smirked at him, a distinct 'fuck you' hovering around his mouth. “Yeah, I was there.”

Fury came to his feet in a sustained rush, slamming both hands down on his desk. “Then do your goddamn part, Agent. Sit in the goddamn room and have a goddamn conversation, because we don't have anyone else to send in there! You think I like putting my money down on this? You're a sucker bet right now, and you know it. They Asgardians won't meet with the President, with the UN, with anyone! You're it! You're about to stand as the representative of humanity, Barton!”

Clint choked on a laugh, high and hysterical and unsteady. “And just when I thought you couldn't make this situation sound less appealing, you pull that out. Wonderful. Thank you, sir, may I have another?”

Fury's jaw worked, the muscles jumping. But when he spoke, his voice was calm and clipped. Professional. In charge. “You need to do this, Agent.”

Clint swallowed, and it tasted like metal and dust and ash. “Yes, sir.”

After a moment of consideration, watching Clint like a hawk, he subsided back into his seat. “We'll do everything we can to minimize the-”

“Just tell me when and where, sir.” His hand was jumping against his leg, his fingers spasming. He forced them into a fist and left it lying there against his thigh. “Is there anything else, sir?”

Fury leaned back in his chair, his face unhappy. His head fell back as if he couldn't hold it up any longer. “How's therapy going?”

“She's an Orioles fan and we agree that Field of Dreams is a horrible movie. We know this because we've both watched it about fifty times.” Clint force a smirk onto his face, and it hurt, it hurt to force his face to accommodate it. He hated having to make the effort; he was out of energy, out of time, and he hurt. All over, down to the marrow of his bones. “So there's that.”

“There's that,” Fury agreed. His fingers rolled against the desktop, and his mouth opened. He closed it without saying anything. With an audible breath, he reached for a file folder. “That'll be all, Agent Barton.”

Clint stood. “Thank you, sir.”

Natasha was waiting for him outside Fury's office. He wasn't surprised. He also wasn't surprised to see the back of Maria Hill striding away, her spine ramrod straight. Clint didn't slow down, and Natasha fell into place beside him. “What?” she asked, skipping anything resembling pleasantries.

“I'm going into a closed meeting the Asgardian delegation,” he said, his steps going faster and faster.

Natasha kept up with him. “Clint? Are we okay with this?”

“I don't know how you feel about it,” he admitted, “but I'm about to throw up, so... Probably not.” With that, he cut hard into the men's bathroom. Mercifully, it was empty, and he shot to the back stall just in time to lose his lunch.

By the time his stomach was empty, when he was reduced to dry heaves, he was shaking all over, his fingers scrambling against the gleaming tile of the floor. To tired to get up, too afraid to stand, he just collapsed back against the wall, his head falling back with a thump. It was a struggle to breathe, and his mouth like blood and bile and ash. He coughed, gagged.

No matter what he did, no matter how much he drank, or how hard he scrubbed, it was the taste of ash that he couldn't get out of his throat.

The sound of heels on the tile was expected, and he ignored it anyway. The water ran in the sink, splashing and clear, and he folded his legs up in front of him, wishing that he could cry. A moment later, Natasha held a cup of water out in front of him. He told himself his hand was not shaking as he reached out to take it. After a quick rinse, he spared her a glance. “You do realize this is the men's room, right?”

She leaned against the wall, her arms crossed over her chest. “You do realize I don't care, right?”

He swished the rest of the water around his mouth and spat it out. “I do. Just thought I'd call your attention to the fact.” He slumped back against the tiled wall, his legs slipping out as if he didn't have any control over them, until they were a tangled heap on the floor.

“Is there anyone in the SHIELD hierarchy who would have the balls to tell me to leave?” Natasha asked. She took the cup from him and crossed to the sink to refill it.

Clint considered that. “Fury.”

She snorted. “Like he uses a public bathroom.”

Clint grinned. “Hill.”

“If she's in here, I get to stay, too. That's only fair.” Natasha handed him the cup. “Swallow this time. You're acting dehydrated again.”

He had the shakes, and they both knew it, and neither of them would ever acknowledge it aloud. His hand was steady enough to keep the water in the cup, steady enough to get the cup to his mouth. That was the best he could manage. “Don't know if it'll stay down.”

“That's okay. You've always had a weak stomach,” Natasha said. “I'm used to it.” Her hand ghosted over his hair, just stirring the tips, as if it was all the contact either of them could stand.

Clint sipped the water, letting it linger on his tongue. It was a good excuse not to talk.

“You don't have to do this,” Natasha said.

He swallowed. “Yeah. I do.” He shoved himself to his feet, and Natasha's hand was there, on his elbow, on his arm, her grip firm and impersonal and he loved her for it. “And you know it.”

“Yes.” She met his eyes. “I was just making sure you did.”

Clint stared at her. “Phil,” he said, his lips twitching. “Phil would've had the balls to tell you to get out.”

Her smile was sad and gentle. “Phil,” she said, reaching up to put a cool palm against his forehead, “wouldn't have bothered. He would've just raised an eyebrow and asked me why I was so determined to traumatize the whole of SHIELD.”

Clint choked on a laugh, and his head fell forward to rest on her shoulder. “Goddamn,” he said, as Natasha stroked his hair. “I miss the snarky bastard.”

Her lips brushed against his hair. “I do, too.”


He wasn't sure what he was expecting.

There were ten of them, nine warriors in full armor, and in their midst, seated at a simple, unadorned interrogation table, a single cloaked woman. Swathed in pale silk that settled around her like snow, she was nearly lost in the sea of silver and gold armor. Her face was hidden in the shadows of her cowl, but Clint had the sense that she was watching. Watching and seeing things that the others did not.

Thor had been regal. Loki had been imposing. The Asgardian delegation was built for size, for intimidation, for spectacle. The SHIELD delegation was singularly unimpressed.

Clint kind of liked that about SHIELD. They might well lose a fight, but they weren't going to preface that loss with anything less than the biggest screw-you that they could manage. It wasn't always the smartest decision, but it was the one that he could put his weight behind.

They may be fucked, but they'd go down swinging damn hard.

“You have brought us the afflicted one?” the spokesman for the Asgardians asked, his voice ancient and bristling with hard edges. Clint's shoulders hunched, but he kept his head up, his face set in grim lines.

“Agent Barton,” Fury said, not breaking his gaze from the armored figures. His hand rested easily on the butt of his gun, holstered as always on his hip. Despite that, his body language was relaxed, easy, open. “No more afflicted than I am, so let's not take that route right now, because he doesn't have to be here.”

The warrior looked down the sharp blade of his nose at Fury, who shrugged. “Take it or leave it. You wanted to speak to him. He's here. So speak.”

There was a moment of tense silence, vibrating between the solid black wall of SHIELD personnel and the armored mass of the Asgardians. Clint watched, out of the corner of his eye, as Hill shifted her position, her hands open and ready at her sides. Natasha was on Fury's other side, her hands on her hips, her head tipped to the side.

“That is not-” one of the armored warriors began, his voice hot.

The robed figure seated at the table raised a hand and the Asgardian delegation went silent. “Leave us.” The voice was feminine, almost delicate, but there was a thread of steel to it.

The men in armor exchanged a glance, and the one who appeared to be the leader spoke up. “My Lady, should anything happen to you-”

“It will not.” She was amused, Clint could hear it in her voice, in the wry tone of her words. “I have long since been capable of protecting myself.” The gloved fingers, clad in delicate white silk, gestured towards the door. “You will leave us. I will speak to Agent Barton alone.” For an instant, no one moved, and she sighed, faint and soft. “Now. Go.”

The Asgardians stared at the SHIELD personnel, and Clint couldn't take it any more. “You're the one who wants to speak to me?” he asked the cloaked woman.


Clint nodded. “Okay. We're fine, sir.” Natasha slid him a glance, and he flicked his head to the side. “Thank you, but if that's what she wants, I'm fine with it.”

“It is,” she said, still and unmoving. “I am unarmed, Agent Barton.”

“Great. Me, too.” Fury was staring at him. Clint met his gaze with a shake of his head. “We both know what's riding on this meeting. If that's what she wants...” His voice trailed away, and he shrugged.

Fury took a deep breath. “We'll be outside, Agent.” He tipped his head at the door, and the SHIELD personnel turned as one. The Asgardians waited only a moment before following, the rattle of armor and weapons loud in the small space.

The door closed behind them, and Clint turned to the robed figure, wondering if this was what it felt like to face an executioner. “You wanted to speak to me?”

“You are one that was taken by the spear? The staff wielded by Loki?” she asked.

Clint's mouth tightened. “A lot of people were 'taken' by that spear, ma'am. But if you mean, was I one of the ones brainwashed into being his puppet, the answer is yes. Why is that important?”

“It is important,” the robed figure said, delicate hands reaching up to push the cowl of her cloak back, “because he is my son.”

She was slight and fine of feature, her hair coiled in an elaborate coif around her finely shaped head. Her face was pale, her eyes clear, her lips curved in the slightest, saddest smile that he had ever seen. There was something to her, something beyond regal, beyond beauty, that terrified him. Thor had been unearthly, Loki had been alien. This woman was something else entirely, more than both of them.
“I am Frigga,” she said, and her voice was beautiful. “Wife of Odin All-Father, mother to Loki and Thor.”

Clint stared at her, his breath seizing in his lungs.

She smiled, just a little, but her eyes were sad and clear. “Hello, Agent Barton,” she said, rising from her seat. There was a grace to her that turned his stomach to ice, an unreasonable fear gripping him with sharp talons. “Thank you for agreeing to meet with me.”

“Thank you, ma'am. Your majesty?” He paused, his weight shifting as he tried to hold himself still. It was a battle he wasn't winning. “I'm sorry. I don't know how to address you.”

Her lips curled up again, soft and gentle. “You may address me as you would like,” she said. “You are not one of my people; you owe me no allegiance, and no reverence.” Her hands came together in front of her, delicate fingers weaving together. “I am called Frigga, that is well enough, should it please you.”

“I don't think that's a good idea, ma'am,” he said, because she was cold and fine and beautiful, but she was not one to be taken lightly.

Her perfect, sad smile wavered, but did not disappear. “As you wish. How shall I address you?” She lowered herself back into the chair, her skirts settling around her legs. She waved at the other chair, just out of reach, out of touch.

Clint took it, feeling awkward and ungainly. “Clint's fine, ma'am.”

Frigga nodded. “Thank you.” Her hands were still folded, resting easy now on her lap, against the fabric of her skirt. She studied them for a moment, her head ducked. “I have come to bear our regrets, for the actions of my son.” In the stillness that followed the words, she raised her chin, pride and pain in the flex of her neck. “What he has done, these are things we will never be able to make amends for, but I seek to offer you what reparations that I can, to ease this sin from us.”

“Why?” Clint asked. The words seemed to be coming from a great distance. “What difference does it make?”

“He is a prince of Asgard,” she said. Her eyes closed, just for an instant, as if she was too tired to hold them open any longer. “And he made war upon your world. Brought death and suffering and pain, opened you to a force that should never have set foot here.” She paused, her breathing slow and deep. “His actions shame us all, for all of us had a hand in what has happened.”

“That's the thing,” Clint said, too tired to be diplomatic. Too tired to care. SHIELD knew what they were getting when they sent him in here. “He did this. Not you. Not anyone else. There's nothing for you to make amends for, nothing you can make amends for.” He stood, sharp and jerky, his muscles vibrating with the repressed need to do something, anything, everything. “It's his crime. Not yours.”

She didn't move, didn't flinch. “He is my son,” she said. She looked at him, her chin held level, her eyes clear. “His crimes weigh heavily on me.”

“Why?” Clint sucked in a breath, and another, his chest hurting with the force of it. “He's not even-” And this woman, this goddess, was not his enemy, he knew that. The odd thing was, he found himself truly opposed to hurting her, no matter how easy it might be to do. “Thor said he was adopted.”

Her smile was slight and sad. “He was but a babe in arms when Odin brought him to my care. I am the only mother he's known, and for all that he is not of my line, he is my son.” Regal and commanding, she stared Clint down. “He is my son,and it is in my keeping that he remains, even now."

Clint choked on a laugh. “He made his choices. And they had nothing to do with you, or Asgard, or even me. Or any person on earth. He wanted to bring death and destruction, and he did. And he would again, if you let him loose, and I should've shot him when I had the chance.”

Frigga flinched, the tiniest shudder in her frame. “Thank you for not doing so.”

“Why do you care?” Clint asked. “It would've lifted the burden from you, and your people, if he'd died in the war he made.”

“He was, he is, my son,” Frigga said. “I shall always be happy that he lives. I am always happy that he returns home to me, to our people. And were I a better mother, then he would've trusted in that. He would have known...” Her voice trailed away. “His crimes are unspeakable, I realize that. I seek not to make you understand him, I offer you no excuse. His heart, I fear, was turned, somewhere along the way. Down a path that I could not follow.

“But I am his mother. And I love him with all of my heart.”

“Do you know what he said to me?” Clint asked. He was shaking, all over, his whole body vibrating. “The last words I remember?” He glanced up, meeting her eyes, and he wanted to hate her, he ached for that. He wanted to hate all of them. And he hated himself for failing. “He said, 'you have heart.'”

His face twisted. “He said, 'you have heart,' and then he ripped it out of me.” His fingers closed over the front of his shift, clawing at the fabric, trying desperately to find a grip. “You have heart. Well, I don't, not any longer, he took it from me.

“He took it OUT OF ME,” he said, and it should've been a scream, but it wasn't. All the force that he could muster, and it was a broken little whisper, a sob rather than a howl. “He took my heart, and he twisted it to his use, he turned me into a weapon, into a fucking nightmare.” His breath was shuddering in his chest. “You want to make amends? You want to make this right?”

She was so sad, her eyes blank and empty. “Yes.”

“Then give me back my heart.” Clint wrenched his fingers away from his chest, forcing them down. “You want to fix this? Then make me whole again, and get me my fu-” He stopped, swallowing the word, swallowing all the emotion behind it. Exhausted, too tired to stand, let alone move, he closed his eyes. “Make me whole before they bury me. Give me back my heart.”

“If I had the power, I would give you mine,” she said.

Clint choked on a laugh. “You know what, ma'am?” He stood, because he was tired, and because he couldn't sit here any longer without screaming or sobbing, and he still had a bit of pride left in him. “I believe you.”

Her lips twitched, an attempt, a valiant attempt, but it ended in failure. “Agent Barton?”

“Yes, ma'am?”

She took a breath, and released it, slow and careful. “May I weep for you?”

Clint stared at her. “Why? What good do tears do?” he asked, when he could find words again.

“None at all,” she admitted, and her smile went a bit wider, a bit deeper. A tear slid down the perfect curve of her cheek. “And yet, I cannot seem to make them stop.” Her eyes closed, and the tears didn't slow. She made no move to hide them; she didn't duck her head or cover her face, and when her eyes opened again, her gaze was sharp. “My sons have no need for them either.”

Clint scrubbed a hand over his face. “I don't-” He shook his head. “Do what you want.”

“It has little enough to do with what I want,” she said. “I want many things. I am unlikely to get any of them.” She stood, lithe and graceful and ageless. “Thank you for seeing me, Agent Barton.” She paused, and she was still crying, silent and calm. “Will you speak to me again?”

He felt raw, like he was bleeding, or numb. But he met her eyes and wondered if that was better. At least it was something. “Yeah. Just-” He turned away, because he couldn't do anything about it. About any of it. “Just tell SHIELD, they'll get me.”

“Will you be here?” she asked.

Clint stared at her, at her tear-stained cheeks, at her sad smile. “I don't know.”

She moved towards him, and it was all he could do to stand his ground. She made no move to touch him, but she was within reach. “He took your heart,” she said, her voice gentle, and kind, so inordinately kind, “because it is strong, and loyal. You have a warrior's heart, and that is common enough. But there is something else, some reason he chose you, from those who were there.”

Her hand came up, her fingers stopped just short of his cheek, and he flinched away, panic and fear clawing at the edges of his mind. She didn't pull back, and she didn't touch him. “You persevere,”she whispered. “You have the will for that, for survival. And an amazing capacity for-”

“Stop.” Clint took a step back. Just one. It felt like a retreat, it felt like he was fighting to live. He wasn't sure which it was, or if it was both. “Don't.”

She nodded, just a dip of her chin. “I regret if my words have caused you pain, Agent Barton.” She lowered her hand back to her side. “I shall call upon you again, if you permit it.”

“Yes, ma'am,” he said, because that was all there was to be said. That was all he had left in him to say.


Chapter Text

He'd always felt comfortable with heights.

As a scrawny, scared kid, he'd learned, very quickly, that going up was the best thing he could do to avoid detection. He had been fast, light, and fearless when he climbed, tiny fingers fitting into handholds that barely existed. He loved moving upwards, loved the sensation of freedom, of safety it granted.

Predators seldom looked up. It was a fact that he'd learned, very quickly, in life, and human beings were predators. He'd learned that early, too.

Clint's feet found the edge of the narrow stone wall that surrounded the roof of SHIELD's headquarters. His toes scraped the bare air as he tipped his head back. His face baked in the sun as the wind tore at his hair, and he spread his hands out, let the wind curl around him, until it felt like he would lift up, until he could swear that the air would take him along. As if his body was no more than one more dry leaf caught in the updraft.

Clint opened his eyes and stared down at the city, so far down below him, and let the faint feeling of vertigo sweep through him. He concentrated on it, on centering himself, on finding the stability in his legs. The wind felt cold on his skin, and he was fine with it.

“Agent Barton?”

He glanced back, over his shoulder. Bruce Banner was standing just outside the roof access door, his hands tucked in his pockets, his salt and pepper hair a tangled mess that moved with the wind. But his eyes were steady, his feet braced, his shoulders hunched against the wind.

“Hey, Doc,” he said, looking back over the city, keeping Bruce in the periphery of his vision. “What're you doing up here?”

Banner shrugged, the fabric of his battered suit jacket riding up awkwardly with the motion. “I can, well, I can only take so much time inside,” he said, with a faint smile. “I'm still not, people are a problem, a bit.” He moved forward, his steps very careful. “What're you doing up here?”

“Just catching my breath.” Clint glanced away, looking out over the smoky, darkened sky. The sun was there, somewhere hidden in the smog. It was still there, struggling through the darkness, and maybe one day, he'd see it again.

“Can I ask you to come down from there?” Bruce said, drawing Clint's attention again.

Clint felt his lips twitch. “I'm not going to jump, if that's what you're worried about,” he said.

“Okay.” It was an easy acceptance, but Bruce didn't move. “Will you come down?”

Halfway to saying something snarky, he paused. The muscles in Banner's shoulders were tight, his face was set in very pleasant lines, but his eyes were dark, focused. “It bothers you.”

“It worries me,” Bruce said. “Very much.”

“Thanks, but I'm fine,” Clint said, and it was such an obvious lie that both of them ignored it. He sighed. “I like being here,” he said at last. “Every instant making the choice to stay. To keep my feet where they are.” He gave Banner a grin that held no humor, no joy. “It is the farthest from death that I can get, to decide, second by second, not to jump.”

“And what if you make a different decision?”

Clint paused. Thought about that. “I guess I'll cross that bridge when I come to it, won't I?” He turned back to the skyline, breathing in, wondering if he would always taste the burn of ozone in the city air, if he was imagining the sensation.

Banner was silent for a long moment. “It's none of my business,” he said at last, and there was an aching note to his voice. “I'm aware of that, Agent Barton. But I just-” He paused, glanced to the side. “There aren't many people in this world,” he said, “who know what it's like to wake up in the ruins of a world and wonder how bad the damage is this time. To know that-” He swallowed, his throat working with it. “To know that people are dead, and you did that. Knowing that, without a doubt. Having to face that.”

He looked up at Clint, and his gaze was steady. “Having to ask who you killed. This time.”

Clint felt his right hand spasm and made an effort to smooth it against his thigh, because he control this, he could control the fear and the panic and the pain. He could control himself.

“You ever jump?” he asked, his voice coming from a distance, his own mind pushing the words away, trying desperately for separation, for control, for denial.

“Yes,” Banner said, his voice stark. He tucked his hands in his pockets, his eyes never leaving Clint's. “Or, rather, no. I knew jumping wouldn't do it.” He shrugged. “Gun.”

Clint nodded. “Didn't work.”

“Didn't work.” Banner cleared his throat, his lips pinched tight. “It won't work for you, either,” he said, and the tone was almost apologetic, soft in the wind. “Jumping, I mean. I just-” His eyes closed. “I'll go over after you. He, um, the other guy seems to have a pretty good instinct for catching, so, I don't-” He took a breath, and expanded with it, far more than he should've. “It's not going to work for you,” he said. His eyes opened, and now there was no fear in them, no doubt. “Don't jump. Please. Stay with me.”

“I didn't ask to be saved,” Clint said, his toe scruffing close to the edge, finding the rough texture of the rock and running the sole of his boot across it. It pulled against his foot, resisting as he pressed down, making the muscles in his leg ache with remembered injury. “What gives you the right?”

There was no heat to the words, no anger, just the strangest sense of curiosity, as if he really did want to know why. Bruce studied him for moment, then he smiled. “I have a right,” he said at last, “as another human being. As someone who hates violence. As someone who's seen enough death.” He shrugged, his shoulders rising and falling with a quick jerk. “I'm sorry. But I am so sick of death.”

Clint grinned, and he didn't know why, he didn't care why, but he was grinning, and Banner was smiling back. “Can't argue with that,” he said at last.

“Come down? It's not good for my blood pressure, and that's, well, that's not good for anyone,” Banner said, and there was kindness in the broad, weathered hand he held out to Clint. It was a broad hand, weathered and battered and this was a man who worked with his hands, who worked hard. Who'd see more than a few cold winters and burning summers.

And his hand was steady as a rock.

Clint paused. “You know what's odd?” he said, and he meant it, it was strange what was going through his head. “You know what's holding me back? That I'll leave a mess that someone else has to clean up.” He turned his head, his eyes finding the remains of the devastation, even at this distance. “One last mess, that someone has to clean up. Doesn't seem fair.”

Bruce grinned, eyes crinkling up, cheeks creasing with it. “Whatever keeps your feet on the ground,” he said. “Please come down, Agent Barton.”

Clint hopped down to the roof, not meaning to, not even aware of moving, but all of a sudden he was on the roof, his feet steady and Bruce's big, warm hand in his. For just an instant, Bruce's fingers clung to his, squeezing tight. Bruce released a shaky, uneven breath. “Thank you,” he said. The grip was almost painful, and Clint was glad for it.

Then, just like that, his knees buckled, and Clint had to grab for his shoulders. “Whoa, hey, you okay?” Fumbling, grabbing for his shirt, his arm, Clint managed to keep Bruce on his feet. “Doc?”

His whole body was shaking, and for an instant, Clint fought against a spike of fear. But when Bruce raised his head, he was laughing, his fingers gripping the front of Clint's shirt. “You scared the hell out of me, Clint!” he said, and the words dissolved into laughter.

As Bruce collapsed against him, lost in gales of laughter, Clint shook his head, a chuckle slipping past his guard. Then another. And a real laugh, mixing with Bruce's, until he was laughing too hard to stand, let alone support Bruce, and they both went down, landing hard on the slate. Side by side, behind the shelter of the wall, they laughed, the sound half relieved and half hysterical.

It took forever to get himself back under control, but when Clint finally managed it, Bruce was still sitting next to him, shoulder to shoulder, wiping his face with one shaking hand. “Oh, my God,” Bruce managed, a giggle erupting from him. He gave Clint a sideways look, and his face was flushed, his eyes dancing. “Sorry.”

Clint grinned back at him. “Why? I think I needed that.” He relaxed back against the stone, his arms held loose and crossed on top of his upthrust knees. “Thanks.” He took a deep breath. “Thanks.”

“Yeah.” Bruce was fumbling in his pockets, fingers digging, brow creased. “How are you doing?”

Considering that, Clint gave a faint little nod. “Pretty fucking lousy.”

Bruce came up with a handkerchief and a faint smile. “Yeah, I imagine so,” he said. He started cleaning the lenses of his glasses with quick little twitches of his fingers. “You talking to anyone?”

“It's the only reason I'm allowed out on my own.” He took a deep breath. “Doesn't really understand, though.”

“No,” Bruce agreed. He kept his head down over his work. “They wouldn't.”

“Can I ask you something?”

“Yes,” he said, without a beat of pause.

“You don't have to answer,” Clint started, and Bruce glanced at him.

“Yeah. I do. I started this,” he said, calm about it. “You didn't come looking for me.”

Clint paused. “Did you come looking for me?”

Bruce's eyes fell away. “It's better,” he said, sidestepping the question, “if you're not alone. That's, well, that's what I figured out. Mostly, that it was better if you're not alone.” He slid his glasses onto his nose. “No good comes from being alone.” He swallowed, and cleared his throat. “I thought it would work. Thought that was the, well, the magic bullet, and it wasn't. Isn't.”

He glanced at Clint. “Being alone doesn't make anything better. So, ask.”

Clint watched as he folded the handkerchief, the white fabric disappearing between Bruce's fingers. “Do you remember?” he asked, and the words tasted horrible, thick in his dry mouth. “When it- Happens, do you remember it?”

Bruce paused, his hands going still. He took a deep breath, his shoulder and chest expanding. “Fragments,” he said at last. “Brief instants, most of the time. Enough. Enough that I can't deny that it's me.” He looked up, meeting Clint's eyes. “Enough to know. What's happened.” His head moved, and his glasses caught the light. “How about you?” he asked. “What do you remember?”

The wind whispered around them, and Clint opened and closed his mouth twice before he managed to force the word out. “Everything,” he said, a whisper that could easily have been lost. But the wind stilled, everything went quiet, and the single word hung there.

Bruce nodded. He didn't say anything. But there was no disgust in his face, and better than that, no pity.

Clint swallowed. “I remember everything,” he said. His knees pressed tight against his chest, his arms wrapped around them now, folding himself up tight. “I could see it all, hear it all, and it was...” He ran his tongue around the inside of his mouth, and it tasted like blood, like ash. “Like being along for the ride in my own body,” he said at last. “I could see it all, I knew what I was doing, and I couldn't stop anything. I couldn't stop...” He ran a thumb against the inside of his palm. “Me.”

There was silence then, and he stared down at his hand, stared at the fingers as they twitched. There was a pattern there, that he could almost understand, in the muscle spasms. He forced his hand closed into a fist. “I couldn't stop me,” he repeated, because he wanted, so desperately, to believe that.

To have someone, anyone, believe that.

“No, you couldn't,” Bruce said. His gaze was steady. “Clint, no one could.”

The sense of relief was dizzying. Untrustworthy. Unneeded. But still, dizzying.

“I can't sleep,” he said, looking up. “I close my eyes and I see my hands. I see-” He broke off. Swallowed hard, and the burn in the back of his throat was like smoke or acid. He coughed, tried not to gag. “Everything. I can't stop it. And I know I should be able to.”

Bruce was silent for a moment. When he spoke, it was with deliberation, each word formed with care. “Somethings are beyond our control. Some things, once they happen, force us down paths we wouldn't take, otherwise. We can't take that back. We can't change it. We can only live with what we've done.” He took a deep breath. “We can only live with what's been done to us.”

Clint braced his back against the stone wall, one knee drawn up in front of him. “Bruce?”


“How do you do it?”

Bruce paused, his head tipped back so he could study the sky. “There's a lot of choices we can make in this world,” he said at last. His feet scuffed on the roof as he drew them up, curling his body forward to fold his arms around his upthrust knees. “There are choices, Agent Barton.” His lips twitched. “Living with this is the best choice I've got right now. I don't always like it. I don't always, you know, handle it well. But the other choices that are open to me...” He took a deep breath. “I like them less.”

“Least of the evils?” Clint asked, and he wasn't moving. Not moving felt okay, felt good. Felt fine. He was almost close enough to feel the heat of Bruce's shoulder, and that was fine.

“Best of what choices I can make,” Bruce said. “And I'd still like to make whatever choices are open to me.”

Clint tipped his head back, and the sky was blue today, blue and bright and clear. “Okay,” he said, because he didn't know what else to say.

“Okay,” Bruce agreed. “Don't fall, Agent Barton. I don't think we can bear another loss.”

“Okay,” Clint repeated. He wasn't sure if that was agreement or just acknowledgment. He wasn't sure it mattered.


“Hey, you planning on getting up today?”

Phil muttered something into the pillow, but didn't bother to raise his head. Grinning, Clint sat down on the edge of the bed and tugged the comforter away. Still covered by the sheet, Phil turned his head in Clint's direction. He yawned, and batted Clint's hand away. “Go away,” he said, wrapping his arms around the pillow and burying his face in it again.

Clint's smile died. “Hey,” he said, leaning over. He stroked a palm over Phil's hair, down to the nape of his neck. “Are you sick?”

Phil gave him a look and a half-smile. “I'm fine. Go to work, Agent, I'll-” He yawned again. “I'll be right behind you.” Then he rolled over and snuggled back down into the pillows, the sheets tangling around his waist.

“Uh-huh.” Clint braced his hand on the bed, using it to brace himself as he reached around Phil. “Let me-” He ignored Phil's attempts to fend him off, and pressed the back of his hand to Phil's forehead. “You feel warm.”

“I feel sleepy,” Phil corrected him. He pushed Clint's hand away, rolling onto his back. “It's fine, Clint. Go. To. Work.”

“What's wrong?” Clint shifted closer, and this time, Phil caught his hand, weaving their fingers together. Phil squeezed his hand, giving him a faint, warm smile.

“It's okay,” Phil said. “I'll fix it.”

“Fix what?” Clint shifted, and his hand slid on the sheets. Distracted, just for a second, he picked up his hand and stared down at it, confused.

It was wet with blood.

“What the hell?” His eyes dropped down to the bed, where his hand had pressed into the sheets. There, in the dent produced by his weight, a dark shadow was gathering. Confused, not willing to believe it, Clint reached out and touched the sheets. The blood swallowed his fingertips, and he jerked back, hard. Drops of blood chased the movement, splattering along the white fabric. As he watched, horrified, each drop spread, blooming out, spreading. Each drop filled a hollow, and began to overflow, thin streams going in all directions.

“What the-” Clint scrubbed at the sheets, pushing away the blood, trying to empty the wrinkles, but the more he tore at the sheets, the more blood welled up beneath his fingers. “What the everloving-”

Phil's hand caught his wrist. “Stop it,” he said, soft and chiding. Clint's head jerked up, and Phil smiled at him, even as drops of blood appeared on the plane of his cheek, at his hairline. The blood began to run, over his face, over the length of his fingers.

“Oh, God.”

“It's okay, Clint,” Phil said, his head lolling in Clint's direction. “You know I'll fix it.”

“Fix it, there's no, oh, GOD,” Clint was fumbling, his legs tangled in the sheets, his hands scrambling across Phil's skin. “Where- Where's all this, oh, oh GOD Phil, where's this coming from?”

Phil's arm came up, slow and languid, and he pressed one finger over his breastbone, pressing down on the skin. Blood welled around his fingertip, pooling on his skin, then rolling in slow rivulets across the plane of his breast. “Here, of course.” His eyes closed as the finger slid down, leaving a trail of blood in its wake. “Where you stabbed me.”

Clint shoved his hand away, going to his knees, pressing down hard, but he knew it wasn't going to work. Even as he leaned his weight against the welling flow, he knew it was useless. The blood oozed from between his fingers, and he choked on a sob. “I didn't, I swear, I didn't, Phil, you have to believe me, I-” But the blood was everywhere, washing over his hands, splattering down in puddles against the white sheets, spreading like the coming dawn.

“It's okay,” Phil said, and he was smiling, that soft, gentle smile that he employed sometimes. The one that made him seem so blandly innocuous. He was smiling now, even as blood spattered across his throat, across the angle of his jaw, washing over his shoulder. “Clint, I'll fix it. You know that.”

Clint stared at him, sobbing for breath, wanting to scream and not being able to pull in the air necessary to do it. “Phil?”

“I always fix your mistakes,” Phil said. His teeth flashed, and there was blood on his lips, crimson and thick. “Don't I?”

Clint woke up choking on a scream went unheard, his limbs flailing, his whole body seizing. For an instant, he couldn't breathe, couldn't see, couldn't get past the horrifying images.

Natasha's pale face swam into focus in front of him. “Clint.”

Her fingers were tight on his shoulders, holding him down. He sucked in breath in raw pants, focusing on the pinpricks of pain where her nails dug into his skin. When he slumped back onto the bed, retreating into sporadic tremors, her grip relaxed. “Clint.”

He brought a hand up, scrubbing his fingers over his face. “Yeah,” he said. His skin was damp with sweat. “Fuck.”

“Are you with me now?” Her hands released him, and he missed the contact instantly.

“Yeah. Sorry.” He pushed himself up, sitting up so he could bury his face in his hands. “I'm awake.” His voice sounded raw, rough. “Yeah.”

“Bad?” she asked.

“Just the usual,” he said, running his hands through his hair, over the back of his neck, scrubbing at his shoulders and arms. His skin felt cold and clammy to his fingers. “You know. Seen one city burn beneath your feet, you've seen 'em all.”

Natasha didn't say anything to that, but she held a bottle of water out to him. “Here. Drink the whole bottle, you're dehydrated."

Clint made a face, but he did as he was told. There was an odd aftertaste to it, and he gave her a look. "What'd you spike it with?"

"Just a painkiller," she said, and she caught his arm when he made to stand up. "Just a painkiller," she repeated, her voice sharp.

"You're a fucking liar, and I'm not going to keep your damn drug in my system," he said, shaking her off. "I am not getting trapped in that nightmare because you think I need sleep."

She placed both hands on his chest and shoved. "I didn't drug you. It's basically electrolytes and Tylenol," she snapped, and Clint paused. Her eyes flashing, she glared at him. "You think I don't know what the nightmares are like? I. Did not. Drug you."

They were both breathing harder than they should've been. Clint held up the facade for another minute, then lowered himself back to the sweat-damp sheets. "Fuck," he said, rubbing both hands over his face.

"Yeah." She didn't move from in front of him, always waiting for a trick on his part. Which was probably wise of her. "You need to sleep, Clint.”

“I need a lot of things.” He chugged the rest of the water, getting it all down as quickly as he could. Finishing it off, he wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. “Where were you tonight?”

Natasha sat down next to him. “Out,” she said.

Clint gave her a faint, crooked smile. It felt unnatural on his face. “Yeah, I noticed.” He rolled the empty bottle between his hands. “Giving me a longer leash, aren't you?”

She gave him a look. “I can't hold your hand forever, Barton.”

He chuckled. “Aw, really? But I was hoping you'd upgrade to one of those monkey backpacks with the tail that you could hold.”

Natasha's lips curled up. “As pleasing as that thought is, no.” She stood. “I've been backing off.”

“Only in the physical sense.” He took a deep breath, then another, letting it chase the tremors from his body. “You think I don't know you didn't show Bruce the way to the roof?”

She gave a faint shrug. “He needed a breath of fresh air. I have the clearance to get the door open.”

“You are a menace,” Clint said. Another deep breath, and he pushed himself to his feet. “Thanks.” She responded only with a shrug. “You okay with him, then?”

Natasha paused. “Yes,” she said at last. “I-” She stopped, her lips pinching tight. “Yes.”

“He scares you,” Clint pointed out.

Natasha's eyes were clear as she met his. “So do you, right now.”

Clint nodded. Slowly, he headed for the door. “Since when do you admit to being afraid?”

“Since when do you?”

He stopped in the doorway, one hand gripping the frame. “I guess neither of us have anything left to lose.” He looked over his shoulder at her. “Nat, where were you tonight?”

She slipped past him. “At your place.” Her footsteps steady, she headed up the hall. “Come on. I think I really need a drink.”

His feet felt cold on the floor, and he focused on that. He focused on that sensation of pinprick pain, because if he let it, those words would send him over the edge. He knew they would. So he concentrated on his feet, on the slow, cold walk to the kitchen. He hovered in the doorway while Natasha turned on the light.

Clint flinched back, not wanting to see anything too clearly right now, but he couldn't resist the hint of warmth that the small room offered. Carefully, he slipped inside, leaning against the cabinets.

Natasha nodded at the medium sized file box on the table. "It's what I could get. I didn't want to risk taking too much, or certain things," she said, her words clipped. "Things that would be noticed. But..." She ran a hand through her hair, a quick flick of her fingers, disordering her curls. It was a nervous tic that she usually controlled, and Clint kept his face blank. "I got what you needed."

Slowly, painfully slowly, he sank into a chair. "His effects?"

"What I could get," she repeated. He glanced up; the banked rage and frustration in her voice was painful to hear; even through his numbness, he flinched at it. But Natasha met his eyes, her face set. She gave a flicker of a shrug. "It's enough."

"Yes," he agreed, but he didn't reach for the box.

"You want to do this alone?" she asked, leaning back against the counter.

"I don't want to do this at all," he said, and he was tired, bone dead tired, he ached with it. Bracing his elbows on the table, he let his head fall into the cradle of his palms. Pressing hard against his closed eyes, he took a few deep breaths.

The brush of her fingers against his hair was almost agonizing. “I need to know if there's anything else you can't live without,” she said, her voice still. “Before-”

He reached for the box, the movement sharp and violent. “Yeah. I know.” Despite that, his hands were shaking as he dragged it over. It took him too long to get himself under control, or at least to control the shaking of his hands and arms. “Fuck,” he mumbled under his breath.


He ripped open the box, shoving the flaps back before he had time to stop himself. “Yeah, I- Yeah.” He reached in, pulling out a battered blanket first, a fleece monstrosity that he'd picked up somewhere, or was it Phil? One of them had. Or both, together. It was a blue and gray plaid, something that should've faded into the woodwork, but somehow, it stood out like a sore thumb no matter where it was.

Clint loved it. Phil had rolled his eyes a lot and still, on those rare nights when they were curled up together on the couch, it was the first one he pulled out. It was warm, and comforting, and stupid. Clint set it aside with careful hands, and turned his attention to the rest of the box's contents.

A well worn Ranger shirt, a thin, battered paperback with a broken spine. Clint's recipe file, a three ring binder filled with hand lettered loose leaf paper and the occasional photocopy. A pair of brown slippers, Phil's, not his. A slim pen, silver and gold, in a wooden box; it had been a present from Clint. Two ties, one with tiny, almost invisible Starship Enterprises dotting its pristine silk surface, the other a more classical stripe. A tin that Natasha took from him as soon as he pulled it out, heading for the stove.

An envelope that he weighed in his hand before splitting it open. A quick shake, and two dog tags, connected by a chain, slid into his palm. He held them up, reading the familiar lines of text half a dozen times before he allowed his fingers to close around them. Beneath his fingers, he could feel a dent that he'd put on one of them, a shot he'd had to take, to save Phil's life. “How?”

Natasha was at the stove, stirring milk in a pan. “I had replicas made,” she said. “Traded them out of his file. The Coulsons won't know the difference.”

He wanted to say that it wasn't right. He wanted to give these back to Phil's family, to the parents who'd raised him well, to the sisters who loved him, to the family who mourned him. He wanted to. He wished he capable of it. Instead, he wrapped the chain around the tags and jammed them into the pocket of his pajama pants.

“Thank you,” he said, gripping them tight beneath the cover of the table. At the stove, Natasha gave a one-sided shrug, uninterested in his praise.

“There's some photos in there, as well,” she said, the words almost off-hand.

Clint nodded, carefully peeling the flap of the envelope out of the way. There were six photos there, most of them familiar. He lingered on one, of Phil and him in the snow, their bodies angled together. He was grinning at the camera, leaning forward, his hands behind his back. There was snow on his shoulders, in his hair. Phil was upright, in a black overcoat and a red scarf at his neck, a faint smile on his face. One gloved hand held a snowball, and an instant after Natasha had taken the picture, they'd been back at their war.

Phil had won. Clint had landed more shots, but in the end, Phil'd ended up pinning Clint in the snow, both of them laughing as Natasha had stared down at them with amusement.

The last one was on a transport, after some mission, he wasn't sure which one. But he was asleep, his head on Phil's shoulder, and Phil was smiling, a warm, affectionate curve to his lips, his cheek on Clint's head. Clint stared down at it. “You took this one?” he asked.

“I think I took most of them,” she said, not even glancing in his direction. “Occupational hazard, you don't have many other friends.” She reached into the cabinet for a mug.

“What'll happen to-” He stopped, almost mid word, knowing better than to ask. He knew the answer, anyway.

“They've already sent a sweeper team to remove all the classified things, everything pertaining to SHIELD.” She tapped the spoon against the edge of the pot with a brisk flick of her wrist. “Before Coulson's family arrives, they'll remove everything else.”

“Everything having to do with me,” Clint said. He rubbed a hand over his face, tossing the photos down. “Yeah. I know.” Only the continuing chaos in the city had bought them this much time. Travel was still highly discouraged, especially in and out of New York City, except in cases of necessity. He wondered what kind of a cover story SHIELD had provided the Coulsons, and if they suspected the true part their only son had played in saving the Earth.

It didn't seem fair that they might never know. Phil wouldn't have cared, of course. But Clint did.

Natasha didn't say anything for a moment. “They'll pack your things up,” she said, her voice gentle. “I just wanted to be sure you'd get some-” She shook her head. “There's more.”

Knowing a change in subject when he heard it, Clint reached for the box. The folded gray fabric gave him pause; he knew what it was even as he unfolded it. Still, just to convince himself that he wasn't imagining things, he unfolded the shirt. The logo was a simple reproduction of Captain America's shield, a stark print of red, white and blue that covered the chest.

The shirt he'd shoved behind their drier in a fit of pique.

He stared down at it. “How'd you-”

Natasha gave him a faint smile. “Phil knew.”

Clint gave a faint chuckle. “Of course he did.” He ran his fingers over the worn Captain America emblem. “How'd you know?”

“He asked me what I should do about the fact that his lover was an immature little boy who dropped his favorite shirt behind the drier vent.”

“That's unfair,” Clint said, with a faint smile. “I didn't drop it back there. I jammed it in with my foot so hard that I nearly broke something. The drier or my ankle, it was a tossup.”

“Childish,” Natasha said, smiling.

Clint's fingers sank into the fabric, wadding it up between his hands. He folded forward and buried his face in the soft shirt. It smelled of their usual fabric softener, and Phil's cologne. “Why didn't he get it out, then?” he muttered.

“Because he knew you'd come to terms with it, eventually.” Natasha set a cup in front of him, the faint click of porcelain on the table top bringing his head up. “He-”

“Stop it.” Clint reached for the cup, not willing to relinquish the shirt entirely. “I know what- Just stop, Natasha.”

It's Phil's mixture, chocolate and cinnamon and some hint of vanilla that Phil had always denied, made with hot milk and a swirl of whipped cream. It wasn't as sweet as commercial brands, it didn't have that chalky aftertaste, but right now, Clint almost wished for Swiss Miss in a little paper packet.

Maybe he could forget what this stuff tasted like, if he drank enough of the commercial crap.

Natasha was watching him, her eyes hooded beneath lowered lashes. Without anther word, she reached into the box and pulled out a small stack of black bound notebooks. She set them down in front of him.

Clint didn't even bother glancing at them. “You need to turn those in to Fury,” he said, and his voice shook on the words. The mug was something to hold onto, and nothing more. A prop.

“No, I don't.”

He shrugged, a quick jerk of his shoulders. “Get rid of them, Nat.”


He stood up, too hard, too fast, and the cup jolted on the table. “Get. Rid. Of them.” He leaned over, his face twisting. “I don't WANT them, and I won't HAVE them.”

“I only took yours and mine,” Natasha said. “But you should-”

Clint turned on his heel and stalked out of the room. If there was a door to the kitchen, he would've slammed it behind him. By the time he made it to the bedroom, he hadn't the energy left for the gesture, and instead, just started stripping as he walked, peeling away clothes that were sticking to his skin with new sweat. And it was panic that dampened his skin now, panic that made him shake, made him choke on his breath.

Leaving his clothes where they fell, he stumbled into the bathroom, and into the shower. He turned it on full blast, and didn't wait for the water to warm before he stepped into the punishing spray. The water was icy cold for an instant, stinging against his skin, and he reveled in it. As the water heated, he folded his arms against the wall and let his head fall forward onto them, letting the water pound his head and back.

Letting the water drive every thought out of his mind, until he was aching and exhausted and dizzy with the heat. Only when he swayed on his feet, his vision pale gray at the edges, did he fumble for the taps, turning the water off. There was a folded towel on the sink, clean and dry and unfamiliar, and he was grateful for it. Even more so for the fresh clothes she'd left for him beneath it.

He'd considered the Captain America shirt for only a second before he pulled it on. It was too tight in the shoulders and the arms, but he didn't care.

Natasha was in bed already, her form barely large enough to disturb the blankets. He reached for the blankets, and couldn't manage to force his fingers to make contact. Pulling back, he gripped the hem of his shirt instead, pulling hard against the fabric.

“Clint. Come to bed.”

The words were simple. Calm. And he obeyed, because he didn't want to make his own choices any more.


“Are you sleeping?”

“Define 'sleeping,'” Clint said. He was seated on the back of the couch, perched there with his feet hanging down over the back. Dr. O'Brien hadn't said a word about it, she'd just moved her own chair so that she could stay in his line of sight. With a flick of his wrist, he bounced a small rubber ball against the wall, the floor, and back into his hand. He repeated the gesture an instant after he caught the ball again, adjusting his aim, adjusting the angles.

“The state of unconsciousness that is an important part of your body's cycle of recovery,” Dr. O'Brien said.

“Fuck, no,” Clint said. He paused, squeezing the ball in the palm of his hand, letting the muscles of his arm flex with the force of his grip.

“Are you still having nightmares?” she asked.

“Yes.” He threw again, with a little more force this time, and a little more spin, tracking the path of the ball before he could snag it back out of the air.

“Tell me about them.”

Clint flexed his shoulders. “No, thanks.”

“Why not?” O'Brien asked. Her heels were black today, but the inside of the heels themselves were bright, lipstick red, a sharp slash that began at the bottom of her foot and arched like a blade through the air. As she crossed her legs at the ankle, the heels brushed against the carpet.

“You hear one nightmare, you've heard 'em all,” Clint said to her. “And I'm sick of thinking about it.”

“Everyone's dreams are different. Yours are not like any one else's.” Her pen moved against the paper, soft and rhythmic and smooth as silk. Even as she spoke, it didn't pause in its forward momentum. “And they speak to what is happening. Tell me about your dreams, Clint.”

“I stood over a burning city and guided a monster towards the destruction of my world,” he shot back, throwing a little too hard. He picked the ball out of the air, but it was a close thing, his fingertips barely managing to make contact. “What do you think I dream about?”

“Not that.”

He paused, but didn't look in her direction. “Why not?”

“Because you'll talk about that,” Dr. O'Brien said, her lips curving up.

“Point to you,” Clint said. He threw the ball, straight down now, compensating for the deadening effect of the carpet. “And I'm still not going to talk about my nightmares.”

“All right,” she agreed. “Tell me about your team.”

“Still don't have a team,” he said. “Is Fury pushing this?”

“Director Fury doesn't ask to see my files,” she said. “What he thinks of the situation, he hasn't shared with me.”

“Then why do you keep bringing it up?”

“Because you need connections,” she said. “And you've been attending the briefings.”


“Why? If they're not your team, why are you going?”

“Because Natasha wants me to.” He shrugged. “I gotta be somewhere during the day. I can zone out just as easily in the meetings as I can at home. Not like I can do more than basic practice shooting on the range, and I'm not cleared to do anything else.”

She ignored that. She was pretty good at ignoring his digs. “Why does Natasha want you to go to the briefings?”

“I don't know.”

“She hasn't told you?”

Clint flicked his ball against the wall, a rapid tattoo of one, two, one, two. “She tells me. I don't believe what she tells me is the truth. So I don't know.”

“Do you like them?”

“I don't know them.”

“You know Agent Romanov.”

“A little.”

The stroke of her pen almost came into alignment with the bounce of his ball. “Tell me about Natasha Romanov.”

“Natasha,” he said, after a moment of thought, “Is a shrike. A great gray shrike.”

The pen paused, the faint scratch coming to a gentle halt. “Tell me about shrikes.”

Clint bounced the ball with a flick of his wrist. “Shrikes are little birds. Pretty. In a plain way, they're grey and black and white. They're easy to overlook, you could mistake them for a sparrow, or a songbird.” He caught the ball and rolled it between his fingers. “You can look right past a shrike. You can mistake them, or ignore them. Even if you like birds? Even if you look for birds? It's easy to miss a shrike. Easy to think they're no threat. Until you see their beaks.

“The Latin name of the Great Grey Shrike is Lanius Excubitor.” He caught the ball and flipped it into the air. Watched it fall into his hand. “Literally translated? It means the sentinel butcher. They take high ground, the highest point they can found, on the tips of tree branches, and electrical poles. They can hover in the air, they take prey on the wing, and on the ground.

“They take mice and other rodents, lizards and frogs. They'll wait until they see movement; they watch, they see everything. And if their prey cannot be lured out, they'll flush it from the undergrowth.”

“They take birds, too. They're known to imitate the calls of songbirds to flush other birds out of cover.” Clint rolled the ball over the knuckles of his fingers, and flicked it at the wall with a twist of his wrist. It bounced, hard, and he snagged it on the return. “Mostly males. In spring, when they're distracted with their mating displays. A shrike will come in from beneath them, or behind them, and snag their legs with its beak. Bring it down and use its hooked beak to batter the skull until the prey dies.”

His lips twitched. “Sometimes, you'll see them, on the highest points, on the bare tips of tree branches, as high as they can go. And if you just glance? You'd mistake them for a songbird. Until you spot the-” He paused. “The graveyard. The decaying kills. The skeletons.

“Because shrikes will take their prey,” he said, his fingers flexing, “and impale them on the highest point on a tree, or on thorns, or barbed wire. On bare twigs, twigs they use like blades. They take the bodies of their prey, and stab them down, and use the treetops as a larder. Because insects, or small frogs, or lizards, they can eat in a few bites. But their claws aren't strong enough to rip apart larger prey. So they impale the dead and dying, and once its safely pinned, rip it apart with their beaks.”

He fell silent, and Dr. O'Brien let him sit, her own silence not an uncomfortable thing. “Why do they remind you of Agent Romanov?” she asked at last.

“Because it's easy to mistake what she is.” His lips twisted as he threw the ball, caught it, passed it to his other hand. “It's easy to mistake her for a songbird, or write her off as another bird of prey. Another simple killer. But she's not.” He cradled the small rubber sphere in his fingers, rolling it over and over “She took what should've been a defect, what the whole world SEES as a defect, and twists it to her own use. She learns. She fights. She survives.

“She is nothing you want her to be, and she will adapt the world to her use.” He pulled back and threw, too hard, too sharp, the ball ricocheting up and back. “And you underestimate her at your peril.”

He threw, and this time, Dr. O'Brien's hand snapped out and caught the ball in midair. “Do you trust Agent Romanov?”

He studied her. “Yes.”


“Because she will do what needs to be done.”

O'Brien's lashes dipped, covering clear, sharp eyes. “And what is that?”

Clint shrugged. “You'll need to ask her that.”

Dr. O'Brien smiled. “I will.” She turned back to her notes. “I'm going to recommend that you be allowed to use your bows again.”

“Oh, thank God,” Clint said, his shoulders slumping. “Thank you.”

“I'm sure you're getting quite sick of the weapons available on the range.”

“I'm more sick of fucking blunted shafts,” Clint grumbled. “They're hell to balance.”

“But in exchange,” she began, and Clint gave her a look. “Stop whining, you had to know there was a catch,” O'Brien chided.

“I was hoping that there wasn't,” Clint said. He pushed off the couch, coming back to his feet.

“You're too much a cynic for that, Agent Barton.” She handed over his ball, and a prescription page. “Have this filled. I can't check to see if you're taking it, but I can quite easily check if you've picked it up.”

“I don't-”

“It's not a sleeping pill,” she said, coming to her feet. “It's an anti-anxiety medication.”

He folded the page up. “I won't take it.”

“Perhaps not,” she said, with a faint smile. “But sometimes, having it in hand is enough.” She closed the pad with a flick of her hand. “Then, the choice is yours.”

Clint shoved the page into his pocket. “I'm getting real sick of choices,” he said.

She paused. “How did you like having them taken away?” she asked.

“That,” he agreed, “was worse.”

“Try to keep that in mind,” she said, her voice gentle. “And fill the damn prescription, Agent.”

Chapter Text

Thor returned without warning.

No one else appeared to be surprised. Actually, Clint wasn't surprised, either. The groups from Asgard from had become more plentiful in the hallways, always escorted, robed figures and massive warriors in gleaming armor, following in the wake of carefully chosen agents in crisp black suits.

He hadn't spoken to any of them, had kept as far away as possible, but every so often, he caught one looking in his direction, their eyes considering. He wondered if they could see something the humans couldn't, if there was something that drew their eye, some mark or trace left behind. He didn't like thinking about it.

Which meant, he couldn't stop thinking about it. Or staring at his reflection in every mirror he passed, constantly, obsessively checking his eyes for traces of electric blue.

Even now, as Steve shook his massive hand, and Tony gave him a wave, Thor's eyes were on Clint. Clint resisted the urge, the ever present urge, to ask him what he could see.

“Looks like we're putting the band back together,” Fury said, his voice just scraping the edge of sardonic. “Provided there are no objections.”

It took an embarrassingly long time for Clint to realize that everyone, including Fury, was looking at him. He shrugged.

That didn't appear to be the response Fury was looking for. “Well, Agent Barton? He in, or not?”

“My transfer request to HR was denied,” Clint said, holding his relaxed posture through careful effort. He shrugged. “I don't make hiring decisions.”

“You do about this one,” Fury said, as if that made any sense at all. “Can you, or can you not, work with him?”

This was bullshit, they all knew it was bullshit, because this wasn't up to Clint. Nothing was fucking up to Clint, if Fury wanted Thor, Fury was going to get him, and if Thor wanted on the team, well, that was even better. Nothing was in Clint's power to approve or deny, and yet here Fury was, making a damn show of the fact that it was.

Making himself out to be the good guy. And in the process, makingClint's fault if things didn't go the way he wanted them to. Clint's lips tightened, but he knew better than to just get up and leave. He didn't expect that he'd get far.

“Hey,” Clint said, his voice flippant, “they're better off with you, than me.” He turned his attention back to the window, but out of the corner of his eyes, he could still see the wary look that the others exchanged. Thor remained standing, his face set in stony lines.

“Agent Barton,” Steve started, and Clint resisted the urge to throw something at someone.

“Look,” he said, rolling his head in Thor's direction, “I got no quarrel with you. Not like you made out well on this deal, and as far as I can tell? You came down on the right side of the fight. You didn't fuck us over, and you could've. When the chips were down, you did your part.”

Thor stared at him, and Clint could almost see him weighing his words for truth.

Clint quirked a smile at him. “My brother tried to kill me, too.” In the leaden silence that followed that, he turned back to the windows. “It fucking sucks.”

“Aye,” Thor said, his voice heavy. “That it does.”

Fury heaved an audible sigh. “So if that's all set?” He glanced around, and no one had anything to say. “Take a seat, please, we've got information to go over.”

Thor's feet thudded hard on the floor with each step; Clint wondered how a guy that big and that heavy could move as fast and as fluidly as he did. Being able to fly must help. But as he lowered himself into the seat next to Clint, Clint met his eyes. Thor gave him a small, almost invisible nod, and Clint returned it.

“Thank you,” Thor said in an undertone as Fury started talking about something no one in the room cared about. Probably Fury, most of all. Clint gave him a faint shrug. For a moment, they were both silent. Then, Thor said, “How did you know?”

Clint watched Fury's fingers on the tabletop. “That he was going to try to kill you?”

“Aye.” Thor's voice ached, it was soft and leaden and full of sadness.

“He had a couple of goals,” Clint said. He didn't look away from Fury. “That was one of them.” Clint's fingers twitched against his thigh, and he flattened them out, taking the tension from the muscles like he was unstringing a bow. “He didn't make a secret of it.”

Stark was arguing something now, and his voice rose and fell with Fury's, a melody in two stubborn parts. Clint felt the weight of Thor's eyes on him, and glanced in his direction. Thor looked drained, tired, his skin devoid of color, his eyes flat and empty. “He wouldn't bother keeping that a secret,” he said, at last.

Clint watched Thor's hands flex on the arms of the chair, watched the metal strain beneath the grip. For some reason, it didn't invoke anything resembling fear in him. Instead, he looked back at Fury. “He knew you'd come,” he said, not sure why he did it. “He was counting on it.”

Thor nodded. “To take his revenge.”

Clint paused. That voice, he tried not to thank about that voice, that slithering, vibrating rage, the banked madness that infected every word. He hated to remember it, he hated it. Even now, the thought sent panic through him, making his pulse spike. Clint sucked in a breath, and it hissed between his teeth. He tried not to think of snakes, of flat, green eyes with holes in the center.

Tried not to think of poison, dripping through his veins, the necrosis spreading from the inside out.

“He wanted you to know what he'd done,” Clint said, and Thor glanced in his direction. His eyes closed, dark blonde lashes heavy on his cheeks. He nodded. Clint leaned back, turning his attention, at least on the surface, back to what Fury was saying.

“The military isn't happy about how any of this went down,” Fury said, slumping low in his chair. “Which I'm sure you're all aware of.”

Stark let out a snort. “Yeah, bet they weren't ecstatic about finding out you'd been building a little private military force behind their backs. Especially not one with these particular soldiers.” He waved a hand in Steve's direction, in Thor's. “Military brass generally doesn't like being outgunned.”

“You could help me with that, if you wanted to,” Fury said, his voice saccharine.

“I'm out of the weapons business.” Tony leaned a cheek on his fisted hand. “Any particular players?”

There was a beat of pause, and Fury heaved a faint sigh. “Ross.”

Bruce's eyes slid shut, and Tony's eyes flicked up, sharpening with full attention now. “Can you hold him off?”

“For now? Yes.” Fury tapped at the table, sharp and hard, a hammer falling in the tip of one finger. “I'd recommend you remain with Stark for now, Banner.”

Bruce nodded, his shoulders hunching in. “Not my choice,” he said with a tight smile. His fingers worried at the edge of his shirt cuff. “Not a good idea, either, I should-”

“Tower's still getting repaired,” Tony said, frowning, “but we've got better security than most, He's right, we need to keep you out of reach.”

“This isn't-”

Natasha leaned forward. “It's safer for everyone,” she said, her voice crisp. “You know that. Trying anything at Stark's place would be a media nightmare, and hard to cover up. We could put you in a safe house, but...”

“If he comes looking, people are going to get hurt,” Fury concluded. “Not me, not him, but the agents and soldiers that get caught in this little power play of his.” He tipped his head to the side. “Stay at Stark's.”

“If he's saying it, you know it's the right choice.” Tony grinned. “Since he'll do anything possible to avoid saying those words.”

Thor shifted in his chair. “This is of concern to us?” he asked.

“We made a lot of noise and a very big mess,” Fury said, shaking his head. “Now the rats come out of the wreckage, and we're not dealing with that.”

“He and I, well, he and the other guy-” Bruce paused, rubbed his forehead with tense fingers. “It's complicated.”

“He used to date Ross' daughter. Then he threw some tanks around. Then Ross tried build an army of giant green clones using his blood,” Tony said. “Then sections of New York kind of took a hit.”

Thor nodded. “Tis complicated, indeed.”

Clint felt his lips twitch, but he kept his eyes on the window, tracking the slight movement of the clouds in the afternoon breezes. In his peripheral vision, he watched the team shift and talk, watched Stark's fingers fly over his phone's face and Steve's face change with every emotion that crossed his mind. He watched Thor worry the strap of Mjolnir, tracing each of the leather workings, the metal, and knew that sort of comfort, of a familiar weapon close at hand.

Watched Natasha watch him.

He didn't really pay attention to anything else, just let his brain track movement and intent, just watched, letting the voices fall into a pleasant background buzz of nothingness, until Fury stood.

“We got any other business?” he asked, bracing his hands on the table.

Steve leaned over. "Director, Agent Coulson-"

Fury held up a hand. "The situation with Agent Coulson," he said, glaring in Steve's direction, "is complicated. Until some final arrangements can be made, we are not moving forward with a memorial for him.”

The silence was painful. Clint didn't look. Barely breathed. Waited for it to end. Prayed for it to end.

“Yeah, that'd be hard, wouldn't it?” Tony said. He flicked out with one hand, spinning his phone on the table, stopping it with the stab of a finger. “Burying Coulson.”

Fury glanced in his direction, his one eye narrowed. “Burying him is for his family to do, but the situation there is complicated by Agent Coulson's standing with his family.”

Steve frowned. “Was he estranged? Are you unable to-”

“That,” Fury said, and the word was sharp, it cracked through the air, “is not anything any-” His eye cut in Tony's direction. Stark didn't flinch, his own eyes narrowed into slits. “ANY one of you has to be concerned with. Once we are satisfied with the legal side of things, SHIELD will be having a memorial to honor all of our fallen, Agent Coulson included.”

Clint couldn't breathe, couldn't move. His eyes failed him, his gaze going blank as he stared, unseeing, at the sky outside the windows. He blinked, and it took effort, it took an act of will to lower his lids and raise them again, to clear his vision from tears that didn't exist.

“It's not right,” Steve said, and there was that stubbornness, there was the man, lost and found, who refused to give up. His jaw was out at an obstinate angle, his brows lowered. “He deserves-”

“More than he's going to get from this place,” Tony said.

Fury looked at him, and there was something in his expression that Clint wasn't familiar with, and that was disquieting. That was definitely not good. But Fury stood, uncoiling to his full height. “Ain't that the fucking truth?” he said with a tight smile.

“When are we memorializing him?” Tony asked, his voice soft and .

“When we can.” Fury turned away from him. “If that's all, I've got other appointments today. Have a good day, Avengers.” Without another word, another look, he simply walked out. In the silence he left in his wake, the others exchanged a glance.

Tony stared after him for an instant, then set his sunglasses back on his nose and bent his head over his phone, a muscle in his jaw jumping.

Steve sighed, a faint exhale. "Do we have a problem here, Stark?"

Tony didn't even look up from his phone, his eyes invisible behind the lenses of his sunglasses. "Oh, that is a loaded question, Captain, my Captain, there are so many problems here that I do not have any idea where to start."

"Why don't you start by sharing with the rest of the class?" Clint asked, propping one boot on the edge of the table. For a split second, Tony's fingers stilled, but his head never came up and he never shifted his posture.

"No, thanks." His brows dipped, and he flipped a hand in their direction. "Talk amongst yourselves."

Steve leaned forward, his brow creased. "If you have something to say-"

"I do, and I'm not saying it. The moment I know anything? You'll be the first to know. But right now? I just suspect things." He stood up, fast enough to knock his chair aside. "I am full of suspicions, and the good director and I have one hell of a past, so as soon as I know anything?" He gave Steve a tight lipped smile. "I will pencil you right in on that memo. Are we done here? Good? Good." Without giving anyone a chance to say another word, he stalked out of the room. Caught off guard, it took Bruce a second to follow him, giving them a nervous smile.

Steve was on his feet, glaring in Stark's wake, and Natasha stood. "Leave it," she said, her voice soft.

He turned a glare on her, his expression oddly hurt. "How can I leave it? He deserves to be-"

Natasha moved so fast that Steve didn't seem to see her coming. "Leave it," she said, and her voice never rose, her tone never changed, but she stared up at him, her eyes narrowed, her mouth tight.

To his credit, Steve stood his ground. "Agent Romanov-"

"They can't," Clint said, climbing to his feet. Nat looked away, and Steve met his eyes. Clint didn't flinch. "They can't bury him. I promised him that if he died, I would be at his funeral. That of the three of us, if one fell, the other two would-" He shrugged. "Stand as an honor guard."

"And now you won't?" Steve asked, frowning.

"No. That's my final duty, the last one I haven't discharged," Clint said. His lips quirked up. "If they bury him, well, they've got nothing else to hold me with." He spun his chair back into place. "They can't bury him. They're using him as leverage against me."

There was a beat of silence. "For you," Natasha said at last.

"Hard to tell the difference," Clint said, with a faint shrug. "I don't care enough to split that hair."

“You could, if you wanted.” She met his eyes, and hers were shadowed, empty. “You've got the aim.”

“But not the desire.” Shoving his hands in his pockets, he headed for the door.

Halfway there, Steve's voice stopped him. "Was he your friend?"

Clint glanced back, a vicious reply on his tongue, but Steve's face was open, his eyes direct. Clint shrugged. "Yeah."

"Then that's a hell of a way to repay him."

Clint took a breath. “Fuck you.”

Steve braced his hands on the table, his fingers spread, his palms steady. His voice was quiet, almost gentle, when he spoke. “You don't put that on him. That's not his legacy. His legacy is that he fought, and he fought damn hard, and he went down fighting for all of us. To give the rest of us a chance.”

“Do you think it matters at all to me why or how he died?” Clint asked. “He's dead. Who gives a fuck about anything else?” His nails were digging into the skin of his palms and he realized, with a start, that his hands were in fists. “Who cares?”

Steve straightened up. “You do.”

Clint opened his mouth, and he could taste the words on his tongue, thick and hot and biting like bile. And before he could give any of them voice, he met Steve's eyes. And they all died, unsaid.

And he didn't want to look into Steve's eyes any more.

Turning on his heel, he stalked out of the room. And tried to tell himself, with every step he put between them, that he hadn't seen that same empty, resigned, stalwart look in Phil's eyes.


Some days, he just couldn't sit still.

It wasn't like he could out run it. Any of it. But he could stop thinking about it. He could beat himself down until he ached, until the very act of breathing hurt, until every inhale went to nothing more than keeping his heart beating, until he didn't have the breath for thinking, for remembering.

He could run himself into brain death.

Getting his bow back was better, though. Getting his bow back, HIS bow, the bow he'd carried for too many fights, too many falls, feeling the comforting, familiar lines of the grip and the weight of it, that was the best thing he could imagine. He'd managed not to let out a war whoop when one of them had been passed to him, and it was a very close thing, that.

To have his bow, HIS bow, that was all he needed.

Having the space to run with it, that was even better.

SHIELD maintained a variety of training areas, and most of the time, he kept to the range, where he could just take shot after shot. Where he could reinforce the muscle memory that allowed him to shoot straight and true, over and over and over, no mistakes, no hesitation, no thought behind it. Find the target, draw the arrow, hit the damn target.

His job wasn't particularly difficult, really.

But when he needed a workout, when he didn't want to think, when he wanted to burn himself down to the bone, when he wanted to make certain that his aim wouldn't fail him in the field, he booked time in one of the training courses. There were a couple of them, varying terrain and difficulty, laid out so that agents could be trained or drilled for different situations.

Clint liked this one, a natural setting, a tangled mass of brush and rocks, of high cliff like arrangements and hidden hollows. He liked running and jumping and firing on the fly, keeping his brain busy with the shot and his descent at once. And he liked climbing, pushing himself up the sheer rock walls, liked using just his hands, his legs dangling beneath him and his boy strapped across his back.

And he liked shooting until his arms shook with the effort, until his vision was gray at the edges, until he was dizzy with it, with shock and strain and pure exhaustion.

Until his thinking narrowed down to keeping himself on his damn feet. When he couldn't shoot any more, he ran. When he couldn't run any more, he climbed. And when his fingers slipped free halfway up the wall, he wasn't sure he didn't care. It was pure instinct that had him grabbing for purchase, snagging whatever handhold he could get. It was enough, but barely, and his body slammed into the wall.

For an instant, he just hung there, his breathing labored, his arms shaking with the effort he was expanding to hold on. He glanced down, and winced. It was a long way down to the ground, and that was going to hurt like hell.

“Hold on, Hawkeye!”

He jolted, but his instinct was always to hold on, instead of let go, always, he clung until his fingers gave out. But he glanced back, over his shoulder, hoping that he hadn't heard what he thought he'd heard. But it was Steve Rogers sprinting in his direction, no, not Steve Rogers; it was Captain America, in full costume, down to the bright boots. Behind him, keeping up somehow, Tony Stark was right on his heels.

“I'm fine,” Clint gritted out, and no one listened to him. No one ever listened to him.

Rogers bounced, fast and hard, leaping from one rock to another, moving up, faster and faster, hitting the cliff at a force that should've hurt, but he was climbing as soon as he managed to get his fingers on the rough face. It took him only a moment or two, and he was drawing even with Clint. One hand reached out and snagged Clint on the back of belt, taking the weight off of his hands.

It was humiliating, and he was used to that. But he knew better than to let his pride get in the way of his health. Well, at least in front of witnesses. He needed to keep his bows, and that meant keeping himself in one piece, no matter how it stung.

As Steve took the pressure off of his hands, Clint boosted himself up, getting his feet into a stable position. Steve waited until he was capable of supporting himself, and then his hand fell away. “Ready?” he said, and Clint nodded.

Together, side by side, the climbed down. Steve stayed within reach, his movements easy and assured. His gaze never left Clint, not until they were both safely on the ground. Clint staggered, his legs not wanting to bear his weight, and Tony grabbed him by the shoulders, lowering him down to a nearby flat rock. “Hey, hey,” he said. “No falling over now.”

“Thanks,” he said, and it was grudging. After a couple of seconds of sucking in breath, he felt stable enough to glance in Steve's direction. “You've got a hell of a response time.”

Steve flexed his hands at his sides, his bright gloves less cartoonish than they should have been. “So do you.” He smiled, and almost against his will, Clint returned it. “You hurt?”

Clint shook his head. “Just lost my grip for a second.” He stretched, keeping his body limber, and tried to ignore the look that Steve and Tony exchanged over his head. “You book the range?” Clint said, trying to distract them. He sucked in slow, careful breaths, bringing his pulse back under control. His muscles burned with the stain, and he flexed his shoulders, stretching out his arms before they could begin to spasm.

“I like a challenge,” Steve said with a faint smile.

“And I'm just here to run some tests on dear old Dad's design,” Stark said, hooking a thumb at Steve's shield. “For some reason, he won't let me do-”

“I'm not letting you take it, no,” Steve said. Judging by the long suffering look on his face, they'd had this argument a few times. Judging by the pout on Stark's, he hadn't been winning it.

Clint arched an eyebrow. “Yeah?” He crouched down, his fingers tracing the lines of his bow. “It's some special material, isn't it?”

Steve shrugged his arm, slipping the shield down so he gripped the strap in his palm. “Vibranium.” He held it out. Caught off guard, Clint took it.

“Wait, he gets it, but I don't?” Stark said, crossing his arms.

“He's not going to try to MELT IT,” Steve said.

Clint set his bow down, not that he needed both hands to hold the thing. Despite its size, it was remarkably light, the surface perfectly shaped beneath the sensitive pads of his fingers. He tilted it, rubbing his thumb along the edge, frowning. “This is...”

“Odd?” Rogers said with a smile.

“Better used in something that isn't a battering ram for a guy in a spangly blue suit?” Stark said, and Steve rolled his eyes, his smile never faltering.

“Perfect.” Clint closed his eyes, tracing the lines. He leaned in, his ear almost next to the shield as he ran the nail of his index finger against the edge of the shield. Holding it up, he flicked his knuckles against it. “Huh. I've never seen anything like this.”

“It is one of a kind,” Steve said.

“No, it's-” Clint frowned. He gave it a slight toss in the air, catching it with both hands. “I don't understand.”

“You can throw it if you want,” Steve said. Behind him, Stark was wearing an expression of betrayal that bordered on the farcical. For that reason alone, Clint was almost tempted.

“No, thanks. I don't-” He shook his head. “I can't learn it that way.” He glanced up, and around, picking a target. “Do me a favor? You see that?” He pointed at an outcropping of rock. “Can you hit that?” He held out the shield, and Steve took it back.

“Sure.” Steve flipped the shield between his palms. “Then what?”

Clint scooped up his bow. “Then what, what?”

Steve's lips quirked up. “Where should it go from there?”

Clint closed his eyes, thinking. “Back to you.”

“Okay.” Steve nodded. “It's going to be a ricochet, though. Outcropping, then there-” He pointed. “There, and back to my hand.”

Clint nodded. His fingers rattled against the grip of his bow. “Do it?”

He'd seen it, here and there, in the one fight they'd shared. And in the SHIELD security footage, from when Steve had first started pulling himself together. But now he focused, no one shooting at him, no Phil making appreciative noises behind him, it was the first time he could really watch.

Rogers swung, a flick of his arm that had weight behind it, it had power, a lot of it. Fast and hard, the shield flew, and hit, dead center. Clint had only an instant to be impressed, and then Rogers was plucking the shield out of midair. The whole thing had happened exactly the way he'd said it would, and Clint shoved down on an annoying feeling of approval.

His thumb flicked against the triggering mechanism for his quiver that was built into his bow. “Nice,” he said. “Can you do it one more time?”

With a little nod, Rogers stepped, threw, and the shield followed the exact same flight pattern, as precise as if it was scripted. He had the control.

When the shield was back in his hand, Clint reached back, drawing a single arrow free of the quiver. “One more time,” he said, setting the arrow against the bowstring. “On my mark.” Rogers nodded, not questioning it. Clint drew, smooth and controlled, letting his body follow the force of what was to come. “Mark.”

Shield flew, arrow flew, and the two met in midair, the arrow slamming into the surface of the shield, ricocheting fast and hard and out of control. The shield dropped back into Steve's hand, and arrow clattered uselessly to the floor. Clint's eyes narrowed as he considered the path. Reaching back, he pulled another arrow free and set it on the string. He drew and Rogers was getting into place even as Clint said, “Mark.”

There was something about how the force was being absorbed, the second arrow hit the wall with a thud, but not where he wanted it to land. Cursing under his breath, he set his jaw. “Mark.”

The arrow skimmed the top of the shield, using the natural rotation, instead of losing its force, it spiraled out, hard and fast and impacted, dead on, on a outcropping directly to Clint's left, an impossible angle from where he was standing.

He grinned up at the arrow. “Gotcha, you bastard.”

There was a beat of silence, and then Stark spoke. “Have you been tested for the mutant gene?”

Steve's head snapped in his direction, the shield back on his arm. “Jesus, Stark!”

Tony glanced at him over the lenses of his sunglasses. “Let me guess. SHIELD gave you a list of things that are highly impolite to ask in modern society, and you took it to heart.”

His cheeks flushing, Steve jerked back. He looked oddly hurt by that. “Yes, and that was on there, that was on the top of the list. You can't just-”

Clint gave a snort of laughter. “Yes, he can, and yes, I have.” He crossed the range, heading back to a spot where he could do his weapons check. “I'm not. I'm not even a carrier.” He shrugged. “I'm also not an experimental subject, the last member of a dying alien race, or possessing of any arcane amulets.” Wiggling his eyebrows, he gave Tony a snarky grin. “Just human, sorry.”

Tony's face was unreadable. “You're running an enormous amount of calculations, in your head, on the fly, without any prep.” He paced in Clint's wake. “Air resistance, force, materials stress, angles, speed. You're positioning your target, you're calculating your own movement, and everyone else's.”

“I'm really good at guesstimation,” Clint said, flipping his case up on a flat slab.

“Bullshit,” Tony said. Behind him, Steve was standing, his face curious. Tony hooked a thumb in his direction. “He's got the serum giving him a boost for trajectory, force, angles. I've got Jarvis running my numbers. You're... Doing it alone.”

“Not that big of a deal. You seem to think that I'm running calculus problems in my head. I'm not.” Clint broke down his bow, his fingers going through the familiar steps without slowing. “I know how things go. I know how these things go. I don't have a super computer for a brain, I have a lot of practice under my belt.”

He snapped his case shut. “Range is yours, Cap.”

Tony stepped in front of him. “Practice doesn't do this. All the practice in the world doesn't give people this kind of-”

“Listen, Stark? I'm dumb as a bag of bricks, just check my file.” Clint gave him a thin lipped smile. “I'm muscle, and a good pair of eyes, and that's it. Scrape the surface, and you'll just find more of the same, so...” He patted Tony on the shoulder. “Don't look to me for any deep thought. You're gonna be disappointed.”

Tony's hand snapped out, catching his arm. “I've read your file. It's got a lot of disparaging words in it. 'Dumb' isn't one of them.”

“I'll keep that in mind.” Clint stared him down, keeping his face blank. “I've got places to be, so if you don't mind?”

For an instant, Tony's fingers tightened, and Clint's fingers went white knuckled on the handle of his case. Before either one of them could move, Steve was reaching between them. “That's enough,” he said, his voice soft, but firm. “Back off, Stark.”

There was a beat of pause, and then Tony's hand fell away. “What're you hiding, Barton?”

Clint headed for the door. “You calling, Stark? Because you know-” He glanced back, his face open and unconcerned. Tony's eyes narrowed anyway. “That means you've gotta show your hand, too.”

“If I do,” Tony said, his teeth flashing, “it'll be because I'm sure it's a winning one.”

Of that, Clint had no doubt. He triggered the door and slipped out.


“I'm just saying, the paddleball would make less of a mess.”

“There is no mess, there's nothing- I'm dealing with my own trash,” Clint pointed out. He shifted forward, one booted foot giving him the leverage he needed to boost himself up. One hand holding onto the back of the couch, he raised the other and flicked his wrist. The projectile whipped across the room, skipped over the back of a chair, bounced off the wall and floated down to land right in the center of the trash can.

Clint pulled another card from the stack. A joker. His lips twitched, and he bent the thin paperboard, scoring the edge. Hopping down, he paced around the edges of the room. “Besides, the paddleball has Iron Man on it. Why did you think that was a good idea?”

“He has a really impressive merchandising arm to his business,” Dr. O'Brien said, tapping her pen against her lips. Her lipstick was a pale glaze of pink today. It was nice, like the faint blush of a peach. “I thought you might appreciate it.”

“Why?” Clint asked, vaulting over the coffee table, throwing cards with one hand, then the other as he came down on the other side, boots light on the floor.

“You've talked about Mr. Stark before.”

“I've also talked about Zoe Saldana before, and you didn't get me anything with her face on it,” he said. He glared down at the paddleball, an atrocious thing of metallic plastic and a little ball that flashed blue when it bounced. “Really? Did you really think I'd use that?”

“You talk about Mr. Stark more than the others, with the exception of Agent Romanov,” O'Brien said.

Clint made a face. “Well, Natasha is my jailer at the moment, Thor and his Asgardian pals can go to hell, and I barely know anything about Rogers or Banner, at least Stark is interesting.”

Her pen jumped on the page; Clint wondered which of his lies she'd chosen to document, or if she was just recording them in order. “Why is he interesting?”

“About thirty different magazines in the last six months would agree that he's interesting enough to toss on the cover, why don't you ask one of them?”

“I don't get paid to talk to them,” O'Brien pointed out. She had reading glasses on her nose today. Small ones, with thin silver frames. He wondered if she usually had contacts, or if she only wore them when her eyes were tired. Or if they were just for show. “Why are you thinking about Tony Stark?”

“I'm not?” he said, and he cracked open a new pack of cards, dropping the cellophane into the trash can. He hopped backwards and tossed a card there as well.

“If he's interesting, then you are.” She paused, and her eyes closed, a dip of her lashes that held, sheilding her eyes from him. When they rose again, she smiled. “What is Tony Stark's bird?”

"Tony Stark,” he said, after a moment of consideration, “is a killdeer."

Dr. O'Brien didn't look up. Or try to hide her smile as it stretched wide and warm. "Tell me about killdeers."

"Look it up for yourself, you'll never learn if you expect me to do all of your information gathering for you." Clint flicked a card through the lampshade, banking it off the bulb and into the trash.

"According to your file, you excel at it." O'Brien didn't flinch as a card skimmed her shoulder.

"SHIELD agent. It's in the job description."

"But some are better at it than others. There is a difference, after all, between seeing, and comprehending." She looked up, her eyes calm. "Tell me what you comprehend about Tony Stark."


"Because a peregrine falcon would seem to be a more logical choice," she said, leaning her elbow on the arm of her chair and propping her chin on it. The golden line of her pen dipped low over the paper, still for an instant.

"Only if you're not paying attention." Clint tossed three cards in a row, using the second to flip the first, and the third to flip the second. All three cascaded into the trash can. "Killdeer are little birds. Well camouflaged. They nest on the ground, and if they get low, if they curl in tight, you can walk right past them. Because they are ballsy little things. They will hold their ground, almost until it's too late.

"But if a predator finds their nest? The killdeer, especially the males? Do the strangest thing. They fake an injury."

Her head tipped to the side. "Excuse me?" she asked, her lips curling up.

Clint pointed a card at her. "They fake a broken wing."

"How does a bird 'fake' anything?"

"It's an elaborate ruse. And it's so carefully constructed." He shifted, his balance shifting as he bent a card between two fingers. "Basically, when a predator gets too close to the nest, the killdeer will flail around in the dirt. It's a brilliant act. They kick up the dust, stagger, drag one wing behind it. The predator knows the nest isn't going anywhere, and the instinct is to catch and kill the easy lunch, then come back for the eggs.

"So the predator will follow, and the killdeer, it does this thing, flailing and flopping around, hopping, giving all the visible signs of panic, keeping the predator's attention on it. And all the while, it's leading the threat away." He looped a hand in an easy circle, the flipped the card. It banked off the desk and fluttered into the trash can. "In circles. Skipping just out of reach, staying close enough to keep the predator interested, to keep it thinking about how EASY this all is, but in the end?"

He bent a card between his thumb and forefinger and held it bridged there. "In the end, when the predator lunges, the killdeer just takes off. And by then, the predator is so turned around, so frustrated, that it stands almost no chance of finding the nest again." The paperboard flexed in his grip. "The killdeer uses itself as bait, to protect its nest."

"And how does this relate to Mr. Stark?"

"Because he makes an elaborate show of his weaknesses, of his flaws, of his eccentricities. He shoves them in your face, he distracts and defuses, and underneath all of that?" Clint flicked the deck of cards wide with the thumb of his other hand. "He's hiding something, something very important, something that he will protect at all costs."

"And what is that?"

Clint grinned. "Damned if I know." With a twist of his wrist, he sent the cards spiraling through the air, his fingers flicking like wings over their surfaces. "Whatever it is, though, it's important, and he'll twist you in knots if he thinks you're getting anywhere close. But if you make the mistake of thinking he's vulnerable?" The last card floated in a lazy arc into the trash can. "You're going to leave with an empty belly."

O'Brien studied the trash can. "So. Not a falcon?"

"Too obvious," Clint said. "And too one-dimensional." He kicked back. "And before you can ask, I'm still not on a team."

"Why not?" She was writing again, and the smooth, easy loops of her pen were somehow calming. As if she wasn't in any way concerned about anything he had to say. "Didn't they invite you?" Her eyebrows arched. "Children can be so cruel."

"Are you allowed to be snarky with me?"

"It's a survival instinct, Agent Barton, I'm allowed to make it out of this room alive every day. It's in my contract." Her pen didn't slow, didn't pause, smooth and even and never, ever hurried. He listened to the faint, even sound, matching his breathing to it without conscious thought. "How is your team?"

He gave up. "Batshit insane."

"Do you feel they're alone in that?"

"They take the usual SHIELD impulse towards crazy to an entirely new level." He snorted. “New and exciting level. I don't want to talk about them.”

"All right. Are you sure he's not a falcon? Because, the thing is, I like falcons," she mused.

"Let go of the concept, I need you to let it go. You're trying to second guess me, and that's not going to happen, I'm not going to change my mind just because you're trying to anticipate-" He stopped dead. She was smiling, just a little. "I don't have a team."

Dr. O'Brien nodded. "I'll ask again tomorrow."

"You know the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different response, right?"

The pen was placed down on the end table with a faint, and final, click. "This may come as a shock to you, Agent Barton, but the DSM-IV makes the case that the diagnosis of quote insanity unquote is significantly more complicated than that."

Clint nodded. "Good starting point, though, right?"

She smiled. "There are certainly worse places to start."

"I'll try harder next time."


For an instant, he thought a bomb had gone off.

The whole building seemed to shake, the floor rattling beneath his feet hard enough to knock him off balance, knock him to his knees. He fell braced, his hands out, his whole body hunched low. People grabbed for walls, stumbled for doorways, holding onto anything they could, huddling against the support of the building itself, even as it vibrated.

It stopped almost as quickly as it had begun, leaving a silence so total that Clint could hear the faint rustle of papers floating to the ground. Mary, from Legal, was clutching an empty folder to her chest, her shoulders back against the wall, her knees shaking as her paperwork fell like snowflakes around her practical heels. For an instant, there was just the sound of breathing, a few sounds of confusion, and then the alarms kicked in.

Clint was on his feet and moving, grabbing arms and dragging people back to their feet, one and two at a time. "Move," he snapped. "Fire stairs, evac rules, go, go." One man was trying to pick up a scattered pile of folders, and Clint grabbed him by the shoulder. "Leave it," he said. "Go."

The offices were emptying fast; SHIELD personnel were trained and drilled for this, and as people came spilling out into the hall, Clint ran back, pounding a fist on each door he passed. He spotted O'Brien coming in his direction, and breathed a sigh of relief. "The floor wardens are handling it!" she called, her arm around a confused looking young woman. "Go!"

Clint took off running. His phone vibrated against his hip and he fished it out. "What happened?"

There was a single beat of silence. "Minor explosion in the lab," Natasha said. "Wouldn't have been a problem, but-"

"But?" Clint asked, bypassing the main stairs. Too many people, and he knew the access tunnels better than anyone outside of the maintenance staff.

"Banner," she said, and Clint cursed. "Yes," she agreed.

"How bad?"

"Fury's evacuating the building," she said, her voice biting. "How bad do you think it is? Get down here."

He didn't bother to reply, he just saved his breath for running.

It took him a matter of minutes to get down to the emergency level, the building's battle bridge of sort, a nerve center of monitors and emergency personnel, agents dodging in all directions as they organized the evacuation and put failsafe plans into place. It was Hill who cut through the swarms, barking out orders, keeping people moving, darting from emergency to emergency. She caught Clint's eye and pointed, the flick of her arm as good as an order.

Fury and Steve were locked in some discussion that he couldn't hear from here, but the body language was clear; they weren't on the same page right now. Natasha fell into step with Clint, her face pale and tight. “Thor's out of touch, and we don't trust any of the other Asgardians,” she said quietly. Clint nodded; he wouldn't trust them, either.

“Stark?” he asked, even though that was useless, the Iron Man armor was a technological marvel, but it wouldn't hold up, not if the Hulk was on a rampage.

Natasha tipped her chin towards a corner. Stark was snarling at a member of the medical staff, blood at his hairline and beneath his nose. He was struggling up, trying to get up, and Steve caught his shoulder, pinning him down without ever taking his attention off of Fury.

“He was down there,” Natasha said. “Caught the edge of the blast. One of the agents got him out, mostly because he was unconscious at the time.”

“Footage?” Clint asked, and she pointed to a nearby monitor. Clint watched as she pulled up the image, her body solid and warm and familiar at his side.

It happened fast, and there was no way it could've been avoided. An accident, plain and simple. Even on the silent security footage, he saw the machine buck, then buckle, shattering with a force that shook the video feed. Banner, a scant ten feet away, went down hard, and as the video went fuzzy, so did he. Even as the image clarified, he was disappearing, people scrambling up and out of the way, in a barely controlled evacuation. The level guards were on the scene fast, far faster than Clint had anticipated them moving, and he saw the flash of metal as the rifles came up.

Things got worse from there.

“What are they firing?” Clint asked as the guards emptied round after round at the Hulk. Flinching, he let his eyes flicker over the images. “Tranq rounds?”

“A mix,” she said, her mouth tight. “They weren't armed for it when it happened. But they got in enough pure hits, the Hulk should be down by now.”

On the monitor, he watched people scream and scramble out of the way, watched the weapons snap with recoil, watched the Hulk howl and lunge, all muscle and menace, until he crashed into the nearest wall, shaking the whole frame. When they finally fled, when the bomb blast containment doors started to shut, the Hulk didn't move to follow them, didn't attack, didn't do anything.

“He should be. He's not.” Clint adjusted the image, pulling up the live security footage.

"For now," Natasha said, her voice pitched low, "he's contained. The level's shielded, and sealed."

And underground. Clint's eyes darted between the various camera angles, mentally running through the building's schematics in his head. "He's not trying to get out. When he does, he will." For now, Hulk just seemed confused. Visibly tense, jumpy, his head swung around, his body moving in jerky, erratic motions. Huge fists clipped the wall, scraped the floor, and he pounded on contamination doors before heading down the hallway. Every so often, he snarled up at the security cameras, eyes sharp and dark. "He's just looking around. We'll know if he tries to get out." He took a breath. "We'll feel it if he decides he's getting out."

She didn't deny it. "Fury's busy with Stark and Rogers, but he's going to make a decision soon."

Clint stared at the monitors, his eyes narrowed. "They're sending in sweeper teams."

"Yeah." Natasha stayed at his elbow, her arms crossed, her face blank. “They'll gas the floor, first.”

"It's not going to work," he said, leaning a hand against the desk. She was silent, and he glanced at her. "Will it."

"No," she said.

Clint turned on his heel. Behind him, she called his name, and he didn't listen, didn't care, he was running full out. People scattered in front of him, scrambling and running and dodging out of his way, and if there was any attempt to actually stop him, Clint didn't notice it.

Most of the staff had cleared the building already, and he knew the path well. In a matter of minutes, he entered the range weapons room at a dead run. “Fromm!” he yelled. “I need my bow!”

Agent Fromm gaped at him, but it didn't last long. The weapons master had known him for too long to be put off by much. “Get your ass out of here!” he yelled, pointing at the door. “You are not cleared for emergency combat, Barton, and do not try telling me otherwise.”

“Give me my bow, and an arrow,” Clint said. “Fromm-”

“I know you want to help, but you-”

"He's going to kill someone, Fromm." Clint leaned in, grabbing him by the front of his shirt, yanking hard. "He is going to kill someone, or someone is going to kill him! Give me my fucking bow!"

Fromm stared him down. “He's going to kill you,” he said, his voice calm. “Barton-”

“He won't.” Clint took a deep breath. “I know what I'm doing. Please. I don't want anyone else to die.”

A faint vibration went through the floor, and both of them flinched. “I hope you know what you're doing,” Fromm said, but he was heading for the weapons lockers. “I really hope you do.”

“Yeah, me, too.” Clint pulled the tranq load from the gun's dart, weighing it in his palm. “Thank God everything that R&D develops is modular.” The faint thump of the weapon case on the counter brought his head back up. “Not that one,” he said.

Fromm glanced down. “Why not?”

“Because I'm not going to kill anyone and- The- Here.” He tossed the tranq load to Fromm, who caught it and tossed him the passkey. In the weapons locker, Clint retrieved the correct case. “Grab me an arrow.”

“How many?” Fromm asked, already moving.

“One.” Clint took a deep breath as he did a swift check of the bow. “That's all I'm going to have time for.”

“Take a regular quiver.”

Clint shook his head. “No point. It'll just be in the way.” He took the arrow from Fromm, and a moment later, he was slapping the tranq load into place. He gave it a quick spin between his fingers, feeling the weight and how it moved, feeling the shift, the liquid load, the way it swung in the cradle of his palm. He nodded, a quick little dip of his chin. “Thanks, Fromm.” He gave the older agent a quick smirk. “Want me to knock you out so you don't get in-”

“You take a swing at me, Barton, and you will regret it.” Fromm flipped a bulletproof vest onto the counter. “Suit up.”

Clint shook his head. “No, it's a uniform, and it's not going to help me, anyway, not if I've misread this.” He snapped off a quick salute. “We who are about to die salute you.”

“That's not funny!” Fromm yelled after him as he sprinted out the door.


The thing about a building like this was there was always a way through any obstacle.

There were that many redundancies, that many escape routes and that many secret paths that there was no way that all of them could be covered at once. And Clint had spent the majority of his time with SHIELD slipping through the air vents and the maintenance tunnels, disappearing every chance he got. He knew his way through the bowels of the building, even on the lowest levels.

Even with the safety protocols in place.

The comm unit in his ear chirped, and he cupped a palm over it. “Nat?” he whispered.

There was a second of silence, then she whispered back, “Where are you?”

“En route to our problem. Do me a favor? Don't let Hill flood the level with gas. Because the dose they've got planned for him will kill me.”

“You can't get access to that floor, Clint, it's sealed.”

Clint watched as the little device went through its paces. There was a flash of green light and the sound of a bolt sliding back He snagged it, tucking it back into his pocket before he wrenched the door open, just far enough to slip inside. “Yeah, okay.” He ducked through, and the door slid back into place with a final sounding thud.

She swore. “You're in.”

He swung his bow off of his back. “I'm in.” The single arrow swung against his hip like a pendulum, slow and even, keeping time with his silent steps.


His lips curled up. “Northeast corner. Where no one's looking right now.” He passed the camera and waved. “Keep them back. You have to give me this chance, Nat. I only need five minutes."

“If you think I'm going to tell you where he is-”

Clint set his feet on the ground, feeling for the vibration. “I think I can find him without you,” he said. “Nat, don't let them flood the place. Not yet.” Without waiting for a reply, he killed the comm line and took off, as fast as he could without running. It didn't take him long to find what he was looking for. He turned a corner, into a wide, long hall, and just like that, he was no longer alone.

The Hulk was terrifying in closed quarters.

He was hunched forward, shoulders a sharp arc, massive fists hovering just above the ground, head down. Muscles jumped, thick and heavy, beneath his green skin, and his breath came in shuddering gusts. He was still, or as still as something that big, and that alive, could be. He shifted, the movement slow and sustained, feet crunching against the shattered floor.

Clint choked down on his survival instinct, on the part of his brain that desperately, fiercely, wanted to live, and kept walking. It was a struggle, it was an actual fight, to move closer. To force his legs to move, inch by painful inch, towards the sheer mass of the Hulk. He wasn't harboring any illusions about the situation, there was no way the Hulk didn't know he was there, the only question was, did he care?

One more step, one step too far, and the huge head swung in his direction.

Clint stilled. The eyes that pinned him were alien and familiar, all at once, and he could see Banner now, in the features. In the slope of the jaw and the angle of the brow, in the hair, so strangely altered. But there was something, someone there, that he knew.

Hopefully, it was someone who knew him, too.

"We done?" he asked. He held his hands out to the sides, the single arrow held lightly in his palm. Hulk's eyes followed the movement, narrowing just a fraction, watching the easy arc of the arrow as Clint brought it up. He exhaled, long and sharp, a snort of disinterest. But he didn't look away.

"I think we're done," Clint continued. "We're all tired. No one here wants to hurt you. And you don't want to hurt anyone here." He paused. "Do you?"

Hulk shifted, shoulders coming up, thick and hard, to frame his face. His fingers flexed in front of him, a quick run of digits, before folding back into fists. But he didn't attack. He didn't turn away. He just studied Clint, eyes sharp beneath heavy brows.

Clint held up the arrow, in front of him, at eye level. "I will not hurt you," he said. "But I will make you sleep." Hulk drew back, drew up, a menace now, for an instant, but it was gone almost as quickly as it came. Clint didn't move. "You're tired. Time to rest. You did what needed doing. You did what you had to do. You're done." He arched his eyebrows. "Aren't you?"

There was no response, other than the heavy push of his breathing. Clint brought his bow up, his movements slow and controlled. Like a student running a drill, each movement precise and ordered, he nocked the arrow and let the bow hang down in front of him. "I'm Hawkeye," he said. "We've met, but hey, no time to exchange pleasantries." Smooth and graceful, he brought the bow up. "This bow has a name," he said, with a faint smile. "This particular bow, it has a name, it has a purpose. Just like me."

He pulled the string back, to its full draw, and held it. "How good are your ears? Can you hear that? The bowstring? Even when I'm still, it's not. The tension vibrates, it sings." His lips quirked up in a smile. "Are you tired? Will you sleep now? Will you let Bruce back out?"

Hulk stared at him, for a long moment, mouth drawn down in a sharp frown. But he didn't move. Didn't attack. Didn't run.

"Remember that sound, okay? It's a lullaby. Listen for me, for that song. When you are ready to sleep, listen for this song, and know that you can rest." For another second, he held it, his arms aching with the tension, but the Hulk didn't move. He inhaled, pulled the bowstring back against the curve of his lips, a kiss good-bye, a kiss for good luck, and let the arrow fly.

Everything happened so fast that he almost lost track of it. The arrow flew, and found its mark and he dropped his bow. No point in holding onto it, anyway, one arrow, one shot, and he was out of ammunition. One shot, that was all he had, all he could take, and the bow clattered to the ground, the sound lost in the howl of the Hulk's roar.

Then Bruce Banner was stumbling, falling, only momentum carrying him forward, and Clint caught him. His arms shaking, Clint latched on, held on tight, and Bruce's weight carried them both to the floor. Clint hit hard, his shoulder and his hip taking the blow, and he didn't care. He didn't care, because Bruce was slumped, unconscious and still, in the cradle of his arms.

In the silence that followed, he let is head fall back onto the floor with an audible thump. “Oh, thank fucking God,” he said, and his hands were shaking as he reached for Bruce's throat. The pulse he found there was fast and faint, but it slowed, even as his fingers lingered. Clint's head fell forward, his forehead resting against Bruce's, and he held up a hand, giving the all-clear sign.

It took mere seconds for him to hear the release of doors, the bang of metal on metal and the pounding of footsteps, and Clint tensed. “Oh, c'mon, let's not start this over again,” he muttered, but where ever the SHIELD teams were, they held back. It was Iron Man who came around the corner, fast and hard with repulsors roaring, and came to a skipping stop mere feet away.


Clint nodded. “We're good,” he said. “Pulse and respiration are slowing, he's stable.” Tony flipped the visor of his helmet up, and Clint grinned up at him. "Hey," Clint said. "Little help here, Stark?"

"You have balls like a fucking elephant, Barton," Tony said, and he was shaking his head, but he was grinning back. “Goddamn gigantic fucking balls.”

Clint stumbled to his feet, letting Tony take Bruce's weight from him. “You would know.”

“It's an occupational hazard, I guess.”

Chapter Text

"He wasn't going to hurt me," Clint said for what felt like the sixty-second time. He was getting really, really sick of saying it, and he wished he sounded less like a petulant little boy. It was frustrating as all hell, and he could do without the look Nat was giving him.

"You didn't know that," Natasha gritted out, her arms crossed over her chest. She was looming over him, her face set in cold lines, her jaw tight.

"Nat-" he started, and she cut him off with a vicious look at and hiss of a word in Russian. Groaning, Clint slumped lower in his chair, his arms crossed, his legs flung out in front of him. Like being back in the principal's office, really, this was fucking ridiculous. "Jesus, Nat."

"You took an unacceptable risk," Steve said, and he was worried, his whole face was creased with it, his mouth a flat line and his brows drawn up tight.

Natasha was pacing now, and Clint stared at them. "Why do I feel like a teenager caught out past curfew?" he asked, and they exchanged a look. Clint gave a bark of laughter. "Seriously. Mom. Dad. I knew what I was doing."

Steve let out a sigh and Natasha threw her hands in the air and behind them, Fury just sat at his desk, his face blank and still. “You didn't have authorization,” he said, folding his hands in front his mouth, his elbows propped on the desk's edge.

“And I wasn't going to get it, so-” Clint slumped lower in his seat. “I did it. And it was fine.” No one said anything to that, and Clint kicked at the desk. “Is everyone forgetting that? It was fine! I was right!”

“And if you'd been wrong, you'd be dead now,” Steve said, his voice gentle.

“Waaaaaaaaasn't wroooooooooong,” Clint sang, his head back. “Look-”

A knock at the door interrupted him, and he tensed. Mostly because no one else seemed surprised by the new arrival.

“Come in,” Fury, called, and Dr. O'Brien slipped in through the door.

Clint lost it. “Oh, fuck me,” he snapped, rolling to his feet. “You have got to be KIDDING me.”

“Sit down, Agent,” Fury said, rubbing his forehead.

“No, you are FUCKING kidding me,” Clint spat, stalking forward. Steve moved to intercept him, an arm coming around Clint's chest, holding him still. “No, no, this is a goddamn joke! What the fuck do you think we're doing here, what are you trying to-”

Fury slammed a hand down on his desk. “What were you expecting, Agent?” he snarled. “Really. Help me out here. What were you expecting? A medal? You're a walking psyche case, you know this.” He surged to his feet, his hands flat on the surface, his shoulders hunched, his eye narrowed into a tight slit. “How did you see this playing out? You're a mess, you're pushing the edge of what we can turn a blind eye to, you're barely off suicide watch, and you go out to play chicken with the Hulk!”

He stood up, rubbed his hard jaw with one hand. “You didn't think you'd be facing down your psychiatrist at this point? Then you're delusional.”

“I think it's best if we discuss this in my office,” O'Brien said, her voice gentle. Stepping between Clint and Fury, she put her hand on Steve's arm, coaxing it away. “Clint, why don't we-”

Clint stared at her, an unfamiliar feeling clawing at his throat. It took him a second to recognize it as betrayal. He let out a bark of laughter, hard and sharp. “Fuck you,” he said, throwing himself back into the chair.

“Clint-” Natasha said, and O'Brien held up a hand.

“I can have them leave, if you'd prefer,” she said, “but the two of us need to discuss this together, Clint. You know that.”

He shook his head. “Yeah, you try to order Fury out of his own office.”

“If Director Fury wants me to treat you, then he will have to accept my orders in this matter,” she said. “And I do want to continue treating you.”

He smirked up at her. “Have you discussed your masochistic tendencies with anyone else? In a professional capacity?”


He resisted the urge to scream. “I'm not going to-”

“And we need to be certain of your mental state right now,” Fury said, over and around O'Brien, and her lips tightened, thin brackets appearing on the edges of her mouth as her jaw locked. But she kept her face calm, her body relaxed.


“No,” Fury told her, stabbing a finger against the surface of his desk. “No.” He stared Clint down. “You give me one good reason why I shouldn't toss you into solitary right now!”

“Because if I was going to kill myself, I'd fucking kill myself,” Clint yelled, surging to his feet, his hands going to fists at his sides. “But I wouldn't make him do it for me!” In the silence that followed, he sucked in a heavy breath, his whole body shaking. He dropped back into the seat, dropped his head into his hands. “Fuck you all,” he said, the words wrung from him. “I wouldn't do that to him. He doesn't deserve to wake up and know he killed me. Fuck you if you think I would, but I went because I knew he wouldn't hurt me.”

Everyone was still. Dr. O'Brien took a breath, then turned to the others. “I need to ask you to leave. I need to speak with my patient.”

“I don't want to talk to you,” Clint said. “So, why so attached, Doc? Not done with your paper on me?”

“Not done with your defense mechanisms?” she responded, her voice even. “I thought we were beyond that.”

“And I thought you knew I wasn't trying to kill myself,” he said, shrugging. “Guess we were both wrong.”

Her eyes slid closed. Then she crouched down in front of him, not retreating to a chair, not standing over him, and it should've felt like she was babying him, treating him like a child, but her eyes were on level with his, her face calm and open. “It is my professional opinion that you are not suicidal,” she said. “That is what I said when they told me that you were doing this. When they called me and asked me if they needed to intercede, if you could be trusted to do what you were trying to do, I went with my professional opinion, and my personal gut feeling. That you are not suicidal. That you moved with a purpose today, and that purpose was not your own death.

“I stand by that decision.” Her lips curled up, just a bit. “But the thing we have in common, Clint? If either one of us had been wrong, you would've died.” She stood. “Trust was extended to you today. By your boss, your team, and by me.”

Her chin came up. “And now you get to explain what was happening, so we can move forward.”

He glanced at her. “I knew what I was doing.”

“I know that. But you need to explain what you were doing, because we don't,” she said. “We trusted you.” He made a rude noise under his breath, and her head tipped to the side. “We trusted you,” she repeated, each word weighted. “And now you can repay that trust by explaining what happened.”

Clint glanced away from her. Away from Steve and Natasha, who were side by side now, a united front, Steve's worried eyes and Natasha's unhappy mouth. And behind them, Fury, his expression buried behind his folded hands, his eye a single gleaming point of contact. And they waited, silently.

He rubbed a hand over his face. "They can't use a tranq gun on him," Clint said, his voice quiet. "I don't think you get that, you're not seeing that. But that's reality."

"The dosage was calculated precisely to work with-” Fury started, and Clint waved him off.

"But it DOESN'T," he said. "I've watched the tapes. It's not going to work."

Steve studied him, then gave a faint dip of his chin, the smallest hint of a nod. "Okay," he said. "I've watched the tapes, too. Most of us have. What're you seeing that we're not?"

“Yeah, that'd be nice to know,” Tony Stark said, the words coming as he strode through the door without knocking. He leaned against the doorframe, his arms crossed over his chest, his eyes narrowed. “Bruce's awake. He's asking to see you.”

“Do you think that's really a good idea?” Steve asked. “He's been under a lot of stress already today.”

Tony pushed a hand over his head, disordering his hair. “He's not taking our word for it that Barton's fine,” Stark said to Steve. “He's freaking out, and we really don't need that right now.”

“Freaking out is a putting it a little-” Bruce was leaning heavily on Thor's arm, his feet bare, his body hunched into the hospital blues. His lips twitched, a humorless little smile. “Okay. Probably true.”

“Oh. Darn,” Tony said, deadpan. “They followed me.” He strode into the office, ignoring the look of flaming death that Fury aimed at him. “C'mon, Banner, have a seat, I'm exhausted just looking at you.”

Bruce paused, his fingers digging into Thor's shoulder. “You're all right?” he asked Clint, his face shuttered and miserable.

Clint stood and nodded at the chair. “I'm fine. You know that.”

Bruce stared at him for a moment, and his shoulders rose and fell in a shuddering sigh. “Yeah. Yeah.” He fumbled for the chair, and his hand was shaking, and Clint caught his arm. With him on one side, and Thor on the other, they lowered Bruce into the chair. Clint glanced up at Thor, who gave him a nod and a faint smile. “Thanks,” Bruce muttered, crossing his arms over his stomach, huddling into his own body. His face was pale, his skin shallow and damp. He avoided everyone's eyes, and Stark came in behind him, one solid hand coming down on Bruce's shoulder.

“Hail, hail, the gang's all here,” Fury said, his voice sardonic. “Wanna go over what passed for your thought process in this situation, Agent? Cause I'm sure we're all just fucking fascinated.”

Clint shrugged, uncomfortable now. “It's the guns,” Clint said, the words quiet in the silence. “We can't go after him with guns.”

"Guns don't stop him," Natasha said. "They don't hurt him."

"They don't hurt him, but they still hurt," Clint said. Steve and Tony exchanged a look, and Clint huffed out a breath. "Ever been hit with bb gun shot? Or paint ball pellets? They don't hurt you, but they fucking HURT. You won't bleed, you won't be injured, but nobody willingly takes a pellet or a paint load to the chest from close range. It hurts.

"People shoot at him. And it hurts. Even if it doesn't actually do him any harm, it hurts, and he knows what a gun is.” Clint slashed a hand through the air. “People come after him with guns, and people hurt him. The reaction to the gun, to the shape of it, the sound it makes, the way people stand when they aim a rifle, it's a fucking gun! The reaction is instinctive.

“Because there's no way to explain the difference between someone who's trying to kill him, and someone's who's trying to help him, a gun, is a gun. And he's seen too many guns, he's had too many guns used against him for a gun to ever work.” Clint rubbed a hand over his face, all his nerves jangling at once, exhaustion and frustration and panic still lingering, down deep. He kept moving, kept doing anything to keep from showing how his hands were shaking. “It's instinctive. It's a survival instinct. Adrenaline spikes, brain starts pushing all sorts of happy chemicals, because it's been trained that guns mean pain.”

“So the tranqs don't work,” Stark mused. His foot was rattling against the ground, and there was a pattern, something going on with the rhythm that Clint couldn't understand.

“So the tranqs don't work,” Clint agreed. “You need to acknowledge that. That the tranqs will not work when loaded into a gun. A SHIELD agent holding a tranq gun is just another threat that needs to be neutralized.”

“But he doesn't know the bow,” Thor said, his eyes narrowed. “Tis not a weapon used over much in this world.”

“Yeah, I'm kind of a freak of nature over here,” Clint said. “So he's had no experience with a bow, with arrows. They've never been used against him. He might not like it, he might not like me, but his brain hasn't been conditioned to punch first, and ask questions later.”

“It's too risky,” Steve said.

“The same tranq load, the same distance, the same everything,” Clint said, frustrated now. “The only thing that's different is the weapon being used for delivery. Don't do this to him, don't make a hundred SHIELD agents gang up on him, and put both them and him in danger, not when one person with a bow can do the same thing, without sending him into a complete panic or rage and HURTING him.”

“But the one person has to be you.” Bruce was quiet about it, his head down. “Doesn't it.”

Clint paused. “No. It doesn't have to be. Look, it's not a hard shot to take. The person taking it just has to be honest about the fact that they're taking it.”

“The person taking it has to make eye contact with the Hulk and not turn tail and run,” Natasha corrected. “We don't have that many crazy agents, Clint.”

“Are you looking at the same fucking employment files I am?” Clint shot back. “Because we've got a hell of a lot of crazy agents. We just need to find the right kind of crazy.”

“Or just eliminate the middle man and make you do it,” Tony said. He crossed his arms. “I'm in favor of that. Simple solution, right there. Make you carry out your own crazy.”

“And I will. For-” Clint swallowed the rest of the words. “Yeah.” He glanced at Bruce, who didn't look up. “Look, it'll be easier this way. I know you, he knows me, at least a little, now. There's no reason to throw someone else at him. Not right now.”

His bow was in reach, and he reached for it, stroking a hand over the familiar lines. “He won't hurt me.”

“Why?” Bruce asked at last, his head still down, dark hair tipped over his forehead, hands worrying at the edges of his shirt. “Why do you think that, Clint?”

Clint stopped. Exhaled. “Because he stopped.” When Bruce's fingers stilled, Clint glanced at Natasha. “When he was chasing you. On the helicarrier. I watched the footage.” Her lips tightened, but she was good, was his Nat, she didn't flinch, didn't pull away, just studied him, her gaze level. “He stopped.”

“When Thor hit him, yes,” Natasha said.

Clint shook his head. “No. Before that.” He took a deep breath. “He stopped. Because he recognized you.”


Clint glanced around. “He woke up on the carrier confused and angry and hurting, and then there were loud noises and explosions and a moving target, and you had a GUN, Nat. And even though you didn't attack him, he was frustrated and confused and he attacked.

“But when you fell, when you looked up, that was the first time he saw your face, saw your face in direct light, and that's when he stopped.” He paused, his thumb worrying the shaft of the arrow. “Before Thor hit him. He knew who you were. And he knew that you weren't a threat.”

His eyes closing, he let out a breath. “He doesn't attack bystanders. He doesn't hurt people he knows. He doesn't attack people who aren't a threat, they might get hurt, but he doesn't attack someone who's just standing there, terrified. He never went after anyone who wasn't attacking him.”

“We can't trust in that,” Bruce said, his voice quiet.

“Oh, come on.” Clint spread his hands wide. “You all know it. Every person in this room knows it.” He stabbed a finger at Stark. “Your whole plan hinged on him coming, and fighting on our side.” His eyes cut towards Steve. “You talked to him. You gave him damn orders, and you fully expected him to take them, and not punch you into a building.” He twisted around, facing Thor. “You talked to him, the entire time you were fighting him, you talked to him!” To Natasha, “And so did you. Even as you were losing him, you talked to him the whole time.”

He swung back to Bruce. “And you said that he'd catch me. You said that he would catch me, and that implies that he'd recognize me as on your side, and he'd care if I lived or died. Were you lying to me? Were you fucking lying to me?”

“No.” Bruce met his eyes without flinching. His mouth twitched. “But I was always depending on the fact that I knew you wouldn't take the chance that, that the other guy would hurt someone else once we hit the sidewalk.”

Clint huffed out a laugh. “Fuck you,” he said, and Bruce smiled back at him. “He's not our enemy,” Clint said. “He's not. And everyone in this room knows it.”

The room was silent, still, and Clint's shoulders slumped, all his energy, all his strength disappearing in an instant. “He's only an enemy if we make him one,” he said, with a one shoulder shrug. “And I don't think we need to do that. That's all.”

It was Natasha who spoke first. “You know, when you start talking sense,” she said, her voice holding a sardonic bite, “I know I'm screwed.”

He grinned at her. “You and me both.”

“But it is sense,” Stark said.

“I don't think-” Bruce started, and Tony rolled his eyes. Bruce gave him a look, and Tony smirked at him, the two of them going through a range of facial expressions so fast that it might count as silent theater.

Steve shifted his weight. “Good job,” he said, and it took Clint way too long to understand that the comment, and his straight forward gaze was meant for him. Steve was smiling, just a little. Clint shrugged, not sure how to respond.

“Banner, I'd like you to stay the night for observation,” Fury said.

“Hey, I don't think-” Tony said, and this time, Bruce interrupted him.

“I'd prefer that, actually.” His lips twitched. He gave Thor a quick glance. “If you can, would you-”

“I shall stay as well,” Thor said, smiling.

Tony made a face. “Fine,” he groused. He stood. “Let's get you back down to medical, I'm so looking forward to sleeping in a plastic chair.”

“Who asked you to stay?” Bruce asked, smiling.

Tony waved him off. “Now, what we have to do-” he said as they left the office. No one appeared to be listening to him. It didn't appear to bother him in the least.

“Am I dismissed?” Clint asked, because O'Brien had a look on her face, a look that meant that she had things she wanted to discuss and he wasn't up for that right now. He wanted, desperately, to get out of this room, to get away from these people.

Fury nodded, and Clint moved towards the door. He paused behind O'Brien. “Get me cleared for field work, and there's a twenty in it for you,” Clint said to her.

She gave him a look. “You must be joking.”

“Okay, fine, fifty.”

“A little better.” She smiled, just a little. “I want to see you tomorrow. At nine.”

Clint bit back a swear. “Yeah. Okay.” He knew better than to argue, it wasn't going to work out for him anyway. Not with Fury looking like he'd still like to have Clint in a nice padded cell somewhere. “I'm gonna, just-” He hooked a thumb after Bruce and Thor and Tony. “Just check on them.”

He was halfway to the door when Fury's voice stopped him. “Barton.”

Reluctantly, Clint turned around. “Sir?”

Fury was expressionless. “Snag another tranq and go sit with Banner. I need to talk to Stark and Thor.”

Clint stared at him for a second, not sure how to take that. Fury arched an eyebrow. “Have a problem following orders, Barton?”

“No, sir,” he said at last. “I'll send them right up, sir.” He didn't think much on what that order meant, or what the look that Steve and Natasha exchanged meant, or the fact that O'Brien was settling down in the chair, her face smooth and calm. None of it mattered.

He could follow orders. Sometimes.

Stark and Thor could, too, if pressed, and it took some pressing. It was Bruce, pale and drawn against his bedsheets, who ordered them out, the flare of the lights on his glasses hiding his eyes. But he said, go, and they went, leaving Clint to hover just inside the door.

He held up the tranq arrow, his bow over his shoulder. “I'm gonna sit with you until management is through discussing me,” he said, giving Banner a tight smile.

Bruce removed his glasses, and he looked tired, far too tired. “Don't you mean when they're done with discussing us?” he asked, a thread of humor to the words. He waved his hand at the visitor's chair beside the bed. “Sit down. You look like you're on your last legs.”

“I'm not sure I can accept that from you,” Clint said with a faint smile. But he took the seat, adjusting the chair so it wasn't angled straight towards the bed any longer. He wasn't up for eye contact. Not right now. “However bad I look, you look worse.”

“And I'm in medical, what does that tell you?” Bruce asked. He let out a sigh as Clint sat down. “You shouldn't have done that.”

Clint shrugged, his fingers running over and over the lines of his bow. “Yeah, the list of things I shouldn't have done is so long that adding one more thing to it doesn't much matter, you know?” His lips twitched. “And I'm gonna do it again. So, guess you'd better get used to it.”

“Can I see?”

Clint glanced up, and found Bruce's eyes on the bow in his hands. “Oh, yeah. Sure.” He handed it over, and Bruce took it with careful hands. That was nice. It was nice when his bows were treated with respect; after all, his life depending on them.


“What?” Clint's feet shifted against the tile floor.

“Did you-” Bruce's face creased in a frown. “You said, it had a name.”

“Yeah. It does.” Clint crossed his arms over his chest, defensive about it. “Lachesis.”

Bruce's eyes came up, his eyebrows arching. “The Greek fate?” he asked, a smile smoothing the pain from his features.

Clint gave a half shrug. “Yeah. I mean, it's-” He sighed. “They decided. Who lived and who died. How long each person has. What end everyone would come to, right? The fates.” Forcing his arms away from his body, he leaned forward, running the calloused tip of his index finger along the line of the bowstring. “The thread of life.”

Bruce was studying him, and Clint slumped back into his chair. “This is Lachesis. I took this one. Because I wasn't going to kill you, and you weren't going to kill me, but whatever happened today?” His lips curled up, just a little, and the smile felt sad, even to him. “Would be taking the measure of both of us.”

The bow was lowered to the bed, on Bruce's lap. He kept his hands there, on the curve of the grip. “Did we measure up?”

Clint looked at him, out of the side of his eyes, careful now, on unfamiliar ground. “I think I got your measure,” he said at last. “And his.”

Bruce's fingers went white on the grip, and that was fine, if you had to hold onto something with all the strength in your hands, in your arms, all the strength that you could muster, that bow was a good thing to hold onto. That bow had flexed beneath Clint's grip more times than he could remember, and it held, it always held, a focal point that he could always count on.

He inhaled, and his fingers relaxed. He smiled, and held the bow out to Clint. “Thank you.” Clint shrugged again, reaching for his weapon, for his crutch, but Bruce refused to relinquish it. He met Clint's eyes. “Thank you,” he repeated.

“Look,” Clint said, exhaling hard, “maybe, I don't- I don't know you, I don't claim to know about any of this. But maybe- It was always easier for me, to come out, to come back, when someone was waiting for me.” The words stumbled to a halt, and he resisted the urge to kick something, or just get up and stalk out. “Coulson. Used to call me back. And it was-” His throat closed up, and he stopped, humiliation an actual taste in his mouth. “Never mind.”

“It is easier,” Bruce said, his voice quiet. “To know that someone-” His jaw worked, and he slumped back into his pillows. “Isn't afraid of him. Of me.”

Relief washed over him, and Clint bent forward, bracing his elbows on his knees, his bow hanging loose in his fingers. “I can't say I'm not afraid,” he said. “I'm afraid. But I'm-” He glanced up. “As much afraid for him, as I am afraid of him, right now. So I'll do my best. To protect you both. If I can.”

Bruce's breath was shaking, his face in shadows. “Thank you.”

Clint shrugged. Angling the chair, he pushed it closer to the wall so he could keep an eye on the door. “Just, you know, get some sleep, okay? It's gonna be-” Was it a lie? He didn't know anymore. Fuck it, he'd always been a very accomplished liar. “It's gonna be okay.”

Bruce choked on a laugh. “Yeah. Okay.” He leaned back. “You don't have to stay.”

Clint shrugged, bracing one arm on the bedrail, leaning into it. “They're probably still discussing me, might as well give 'em some privacy for that, right? Thor'll come spot me later.”

“You don't have to-”

“We know.” He leaned his head against the wall. “Shut up and go to sleep, Doc.”

There was a small pause. “Thank you.”



Clint didn't look in his direction. “Don't jump. Because I think I'll end up going after you.”

He felt Bruce's hand cover his, the touch tentative, cautious. Clint latched onto it, latched onto that ordinary, commonplace contact. For just a moment, he allowed himself that, the warmth of Bruce's hand in his, and it hurt, not because the grip was too hard or uncomfortable, but because he knew it was going to end.

He sat there, waiting for Bruce to pull away, waiting for him to take his hand back. But when Bruce's breathing smoothed out into soft, even snores, he was still holding Clint's hand.

Clint stayed there, watching the door. It was easier, Clint found, to keep breathing, if he was doing it for someone else.


Sometimes, he would dream about the lake.

Not often, not anymore, but occasionally, when he was worn out and worn through, too tired and stretched too thin, he would find himself back on that shore. He'd find his battered boots on the rocky ground, watching as the water licked against bloodstained rocks, and left ice behind as it retreated. He would stand there and let the cold sink into his skin, into his flesh, down into his bones, until he couldn't feel anything at all.

She was there, again, that wraith that chased him, who stared at him with sad eyes. "Why are you here again?" she asked, and he shrugged.

"I met him here. He saved my life here." The words were exhaled in clouds of water vapor, wisps of condensation that burned his lips. "Here. The first time. Not the last."

"You will die if you do not leave the water's edge."

"Then I'll die."

She sighed; she was often impatient with him. "Why will you not leave?"

He took a breath, another, tried not to exhale, tried to fill his lungs to bursting. "Because he is dead. Because I killed him."

His feet shifted against the edge of the shore, boots rattling the water smooth stones, and it sounded like bones settling. Eyes closing, he let himself fall forward, into the water, and let it close over him.

This time, he was sure, there was no one coming for him. There was no one left to come for him.


“I'm not singing 'Oklahoma.'”

“I didn't ask you to.”

“It was implied. I'm not stupid. I got that implication. I'm from Iowa. Not Oklahoma. I know that for you coastal people, the whole middle of the country is a grand expanse of cornfields and hayseeds, but I am not-” He inhaled, his lungs flexing along with his arms, and he came to stillness for an instant before he released the arrow. “Going to sing 'Oklahoma.'”

Dr. O'Brien tapped her pen against her jaw, her eyebrows arched. “Coastal people?”

“Anyone-” The arrow thudded into the target, and another and another in quick succession. “From the edges of the country. You know. Coastal people.”

“I'm sensing a certain amount of derision here, Agent Barton.” She stood, setting her pad and pen down on the simple chair she'd dragged into the range with her. Without being prompted she picked up the arrows from the nearby table. “Ready?”

Clint rolled his shoulders, shook out the fingers of his draw hand. Inhaling, he nodded.

She shifted a single arrow to her right hand, holding the rest in her left. There was something off about that visual, the stark lines of the ammunition hanging loose between her soft fingers. The drapes of her skirt formed a backdrop for the brilliant tips, silver and black against the red of the fabric. She was bright this morning, a flame in motion, and he liked her shoes, black with licks of red against the soles.

Clint brought his head around, focusing on the target. “Pull,” he said, and she flicked the arrow to him. He snagged it out of midair and with one smooth, fluid motion, he set it to the string, drew, and fired. Without pause, without adjusting, he took the shot. “Pull,” he repeated, and she threw the next one.

Muscle memory and split second decision making pulled him along, the shots flying as fast as he could call for another arrow, as fast as she could throw, as fast as he could set the shaft of the arrow against the still vibrating string. One after another after another, until his arms and his eyes burned, until everything but the bulls-eye washed away in a haze of determination.

“Done,” she said, her voice soft, and Clint sucked in a huge breath, the air rushing through him, making him dizzy. Instinctively, he took a step back from the firing line, his bow dropping to his side.

She moved closer, stepping up beside him to stare down the length of the range. “That's impressive,” she said, and Clint turned away, heading back to the table. He shrugged as he uncapped his water bottle and tipped it to his lips. “Are you uncomfortable with hearing that?”

He took a moment to drink, to use that to avoid the question. But when he was forced to lower the bottle, he met her eyes, defiant. “It's a rare ability,” he said, tossing the empty bottle to the table. “So I hear it a lot. I know, so hearing it again doesn't exactly change-” He stopped, shaking his head. “No. I'm not.”

O'Brien returned to her chair, collecting her pad and pen and settling down, her spine straight and her shoulders back in the simple wooden chair. “Is that why you choose times when the range is empty to practice?”

Clint stretched, one arm over his head, the other holding it in place, putting just the right amount of pressure on his muscles. “Guns mean muffs,” he said, “and muffs mean not being able to hear my string or my target, and that's annoying as all fuck, so most of the time, I hit here early or late as possible and try to isolate myself.” His teeth locked together because, wow, that was not what he'd meant to say. “It's easier to do this alone.” And she must be having a field day with this, really, despite the fact that for once, her pen was still in her fingers. “Look. I'm well aware that I'm a step above a side-show attraction, and I prefer not to deal with that every fucking day, okay? The junior agents will show up to gape no matter what I do.”

“Does it bother you?”

“If it bothered me, I would've stuck with a rifle,” Clint pointed out. “Doing my work with a bow pretty much means I'll be 'that guy.'”

She nodded. “You're avoiding other agents,” she said.

He shifted arms, arching his back. “No fucking way,” he deadpanned. “Really? I am? Wow. It's almost like I turned traitor and killed a bunch of my coworkers. Fun times.”

Her blink was slow, controlled. “You didn't, actually. Even your attack on the main bridge, you didn't-”

“Yes, I did,” he snapped, cutting her off. “Because I brought them on board. I did that. I got them past the protocols, got them on board the carrier, and everyone that died that day, it's because I made it possible, so fuck yes, I'm avoiding my coworkers, because I don't even know what I'm doing here anymore, I don't know why someone hasn't put a knife in my back, I don't know-”

Too late, he choked back the flow of words. Inhaling, he dropped his arms to his sides, fingers open and loose and helpless. “So, while I appreciate the work of Hammerstein, I will not be sing 'Oklahoma' for you,” he said, as if that made sense, as if he could push himself back into something resembling sanity and safety with will alone, and it hurt, everything hurt.

He reached for the bow, and she said, “You sing often, though.”

“Is that in my file?” he asked.

“It's common knowledge.” Her smile was soft, real. “I heard you, once or twice. Singing down in medical. Mostly, I suspect, to annoy the staff. Your voice is very nice.” Clint shrugged, doing his checks on his bow with methodical fingers. “But you don't sing as much now.”

“I don't sing at all,” Clint corrected. Because the words were ash in his mouth, the remains of memories, burned to dust, and he choked on it. Most days, it was all he could do to keep breathing; he had nothing left over, no life, no breath, no hope, nothing to make into song.

“How are you adjusting to your team?” O'Brien asked, and he hated that, hated how he had his defenses up about one topic, braced and ready, and she switched gears so fast that she was hitting him where he had no armor, where she could blindside him.

“I don't have-”

“I was in Fury's office,” she said, cutting him off, her lips curled up in a faint smirk. “So let's skip the lies and go back to distracting and changing the subject. But the lying is getting tiresome.”

Clint sighed, even as he broke his bow down. “You are really bitchy, you know that?”

She hummed in agreement. “How is your team?”

“Crazy,” he said, because that was the default. “Stark and Rogers got into a yelling match about something yesterday, and no, I don't know what, I don't even pay attention to it anymore. They mix like oil and vinegar, it's just a joy to watch.”

“Not oil and water?”

“Nah, if you give 'em a shake, they're perfect together, but it takes a hell of a lot of agitation,” Clint said, and he grinned when she laughed. “Get 'em agitated enough, and boom. Fantastic.”


“Why are they fantastic together? Polar opposites, hot and cold, control and impulse, training and intuition. Perfect compliment to one another, if they can get their heads out of their asses and stop being so stubborn.” He grinned, and it was okay. To think about these people. To talk about these people. To know that even if he was isolated and alone, even if he could hear the whispers in his wake as he walked the halls, as he struggled to keep himself together, to draw his dignity and his pride around him like a cloak, that these people didn't care. That if anything, he was the quiet one, the unassuming one, the unnecessary one.

In SHIELD's ranks, he was in a class by himself, the elite, and the fallen. When it came to the Avengers, he might as well be invisible.

“We've talked about Tony Stark,” she said. She glanced up. “Does Rogers have a bird?”

“Steve Rogers,” he said, running careful fingers over the structure of the arrows, one after another, “is a Harris's Hawk.”

O'Brien grinned, and he wasn't sure why, and he wasn't sure if he cared why. “I know those,” she said. “A bit, at least. From the Southwest, aren't they?”

“Yeah.” Clint checked the tip of one arrow, smoothing the pad of his thumb along the edge, along the flat of it. “Broad and buff and well suited for the desert. Most birds of prey hunt on their own, and the Harris's can. It is an excellent hunter, fast and smart and efficient.

“But what sets the Harris's Hawk apart is that it's a pack hunter. What skill it has, what intelligence, what speed, what grace, is amplified with a group, their strength, their true nature, is best revealed when they're in a group. They hunt with brutal accuracy, and they're able to take down bigger, stronger prey, because they can work together, because they can, because their inclination is to work as a group.

“They are stronger when they are not alone, and that's rare in the bird world, even rarer in the raptor world.” Clint set an arrow aside with more care than was necessary, but his fingers weren't still, weren't stable. “They employ multiple tactics, they alter their behavior depending on prey and group size. And they'll accept hawks from outside of direct family lines. Because it makes sure that everyone eats.”

“That's important,” O'Brien said.

“In the desert? Yes. It is. But they're social, and socialized.” He packed his weapons with easy movements, his hands moving by rote now. “Falconry has existed for hundred, for thousands of years. And about fifty years? Just fifty years ago, people started to focus on working with Harris's hawks, and they took to human control, human cooperation, like almost nothing in the history of falconry. In fifty years, in LESS than fifty years, they've gone from being almost unknown, to being one of the most popular birds to train in the western world. Because in the right hands, they are amazing.”

He paused, his hands on the lid of his case. “Steve Rogers makes the people around him better. I kind of want to hate him for that, because he'll drag you along in his wake, he'll raise you to his level, not out of shame, not out of anger, but out of-” He stopped, eyes narrowing. “Because he puts this trust in you, and you want to live up to it, even if you're not capable of doing that. Even if there's nothing left in you, he'll ask, and somehow, you'll manage to push yourself for one more step, one more shot, one more moment in time. And no matter what, you want to be better when he's around.”

He closed the case with a final sounding click and flicked the latches into place. “Guy still thinks he's leading a military squadron against the bad guys,” he said, and the sarcasm was still there, like a warm, familiar blanket, the disdain. But under that was something he wasn't sure of, and wasn't comfortable with. “Still thinks he's fighting the good fight. And we're long past that.”

“But you follow him,” O'Brien said, and it wasn't a question.

“Yeah,” Clint said.


He considered that. “Maybe,” he said at last, “it's nice to know that I'm working with someone who won't leave me behind when I'm no longer useful, when there's a different objective to secure, when there's a deal to be made.”

“Do you think SHIELD would?”

He gave her a look. “I know SHIELD would,” he said, tired now. “I'm well aware of just who and what Director Fury is, Doc. And I'm not his buddy, I'm not his kid, I'm just a tool, useful for as long as I'm useful, and I fully expect to be discarded when I'm no longer capable of performing. That's reality. That's the spy biz. That's SHIELD. And anyone who doesn't know that he'd lie, cheat, and betray you if he thought it necessary is in for a rude shock when it does happen.” His lips twitched. “Because it will happen. Sooner or later, he will turn on you, he will use you, you will be sacrificed for the greater good.”

“Is that what you thought Agent Coul-”

“No,” he said, too loud, too sharp. “No. Agent Coulson was a rare exception around this place, and he's dead, so it doesn't matter.” He snatched his case from the table and it rattled loud and sharp as he swung it to his side. “He's dead, and what faith I had in SHIELD died with him, because everything ended when he died. This is a different place and a different world, and-”

He stopped, his breathing too loud, too sharp. “You want to know why I don't sing? Because I'll sing at his funeral, when Director Fury allows his funeral to happen, and then that's it. I don't have anything left to sing about, all that's left in me is a funeral dirge. When that's past, I'm done.”

Clint stalked for the door. “What the fuck to I have to sing about?”


The repairs were going well.

Clint jammed his hands in his pockets, taking slow, careful breaths through his mouth. The air still smelled of smoke and stone dust, he wasn't sure if that was his mind, or the actual construction, but he didn't question it. There really wasn't much point.

If he was crazy, it was a pretty strong crazy.

He moved through the crowd, trying not to think, trying not to see, and it was hard, it was hard to be outside right now. Too many people, too much noise, here are the ground level, where he couldn't think and couldn't cope and his pulse was pounding, his breath too thin in his lungs.

He kept going out.

He wasn't sure why, not really, and at first Natasha shadowed him. Hell, she might still be shadowing him, it was Natasha; she was very good at her job, and her job was to keep tabs on him. But she'd pulled back to the point where he didn't see her out of the corner of his eye anymore, didn't catch the flicker of her slim form through the crowd, didn't spot the creamy pale curve of her cheek, the proud angle of her shoulder.

She let him wander, more or less alone.

She still slept against his back, and he didn't complain, didn't even think to complain, because he was so desperately grateful for that, for the way she curled against his spine, warmth and breath and a solid grip. He loved that, most of all. That she held onto him, not for her, Natasha had never been much of a cuddler. She held on for him, so he could feel the strength in her arms, in her hands, and know that he wasn't alone, wasn't going to be left alone. Wasn't going to wake up not knowing where he was, when the nightmares took hold.

The solid, unmistakeable center of his world was Natasha. Holding on tight. No matter what.

He stared at a nearby building, head up, watching the cranes move, watching what he was pretty sure was an Asgardian crew lift new girders into place. Trying to stay out of the way, he was still jostled by a few pedestrians with places to be, and no time for the idiot who was standing on the sidewalk gaping at the construction. He was used to it, no point in taking offense when someone bumped into you in New York; it was too common of an occurrence.

A kid appearing out of the crowd at a full run to fling himself at Clint, that was a little more unusual.

Clint jerked backwards as the kid slammed into his side, too hard, too fast, his arms going around Clint's waist in a death grip. The boy was grinning up at him, wide and bright, showing off a gap in his front teeth. His fingers sank into the fabric of Clint's jacket, pulling hard, as if he was afraid Clint would slip out of his grasp. "It's you!"

Clint stared down at him, confused, as a young woman came running up, her face flushed, her dress fluttering around her legs. "John!" She grabbed his wrist and pulled him away. "Don't run away from me!" Her voice was shaking, and her eyes, when they cut up to Clint's face, were wet. "I'm so sorry," she said. "I am so, so sorry, he's-"

"It's him," the boy said, grinning at her, and back to Clint. "It's you!"

"Sorry?" Clint said, and the woman lifted the boy off of his feet, pulling him away.

"I have never been so embarrassed in my life," she hissed at the boy, but her arms were tight, her face pressed against his short black hair. To Clint, she added, "Really, I'm so sorry, we were-" She swallowed, hard. "We always took the bus through here, and then when the-" She set the boy back on his feet, gripping his hand with firm fingers. "When they came," she said, pulling him close to her side, her free hand stroking his hair. "When the sky fell in, we were on the bus. We were on the bus, and it-"

She was shaking, and Clint held up his hands, trying to look non-threatening, and he was well aware that he wasn't too good at that under the best of circumstances. "Hey, it's okay," he said, wishing that he had something better to say. "It's okay, miss, I'm sorry."

She laughed, a watery little cough. "We were on the bus," she said, and her chin came up. "And those things were shooting. We were trapped."

"And you lifted me out of the bus," the boy said, from under the shelter of his mother's hand. He grinned at Clint, his eyes big and full of life. "Out the window!"

Clint's stomach bottomed out.

For an instant, he weaved on his feet, light headed and unstable. The roar of blood in his ears was enough to drown out everything else, the noise of horns and car engines, the voices of everyone around him, all of it washed out in blur of white noise.

He snapped back into himself with a force that left him stunned, and he was on the ground, he was sitting on his ass on the filthy sidewalk, a ring of concerned faces over him, around him. “Is he okay?” a big guy in battered construction gear was asking, even as he crouched down. “Hey, buddy, you okay? You just went down, there, like a fu-” He spotted the kid, and cleared his throat. “You dropped like a brick.”

Clint opened his mouth, trying to say something, and there were people staring down at him, hands outstretched, and it was a nightmare for a second, it was fire and screams and the clatter of metal and stone. His fingers scrambled against the pavement, his breath coming in ragged pants.

“He's fine,” the woman was saying, smiling nervously at the bystanders. “Please. Just give him a second?”

The construction guy nodded, jamming a battered hard heat back on his head. “Yeah, yeah, sure, ma'am.” He stood. “Okay, okay, nothing to see here,” he said, and he was big, he was big and rough and if anyone felt like arguing with him, they didn't say so. In a matter of moments, the crowd had broken up, leaving them more or less alone.

The woman was still next to Clint, her hand on his arm. “Are you all right?” she said, her voice quiet.

Clint nodded, avoiding her eyes. “Yeah. Yeah, I'm sorry, I didn't-” He sucked in a breath, slow and steady through his nose, until he felt a little less like puking on her shoes.

She reached out, pressing a gentle hand to his neck, pushing his head down. “You look gray,” she said, her lips twitching. She fumbled at her purse with her free hand. “John, go and get a bottle of water from the taco truck over on the corner.”

Just when he didn't think it was possible to feel worse, there the world was, determined to prove him wrong. “Don't, really, I'm-” He tried to stand and it wasn't happening, his knees felt like liquid, his head spinning. Cursing low and sharp, he dropped his head back down, struggling to breathe. “Please don't.”

“It's fine.” She pressed the bills into the boy's hand, and he was off like a shot, heading for the truck. She glanced back at Clint. “Slow, slow,” she said, patting him on the shoulder, the touch tentative.

His face burning, Clint swallowed his humiliation. “I'm fine.”

“Yeah,” she said, and her hand was shaking as she hiked her purse higher on her shoulder. “Were you, well, were you in it, too?”

Clint considered lying, but it was more effort than he could manage. “Yeah,” he said, scrubbing a shaking hand over his face. “Yeah.”

“It's okay,” she said, and she seemed to mean it. “It's okay. It hits you sometimes, the memories, the fear. It gets to all of us.”

John slipped back through the crowd, a dripping bottle of water in his hand. “Here,” he said, holding it, and the bills, out to his mother. “He wouldn't take the money.”

Clint glanced up, and the vendor gave them a little wave. The woman dipped her head in a respectful nod, even as she cracked the lid off the water. Clint accepted the bottle from the woman, chugging half of it in one long swallow. He wiped his mouth on the back of his wrist.

“He said, if you need to sit down, he's got a chair,” John said, and his mother pulled the boy in, kissing his forehead. John never took his eyes off of Clint, big, dark eyes. Eyes that Clint couldn't bear meeting.

“Do you need to sit down?” she said. She fumbled in her pocket, in her purse, finding a packet of tissues from god knows where, Clint never understood that, how moms seemed to have everything that they could possibly need, somewhere. Somewhere. She took the bottle back from him and poured a little of the water on a tissue. “Here, wipe your face. It helps.”

“Where did you come from?” John asked, grinning, almost bouncing. “Do you live in New York? Are you an Avenger? 'Cause they talked about the Avengers on the tv, I watched all of it, I saw the things, but I kept asking and you weren't-”

The woman was watching Clint's face, and she wrapped an arm around John's shoulder. “Baby, it's not him.”

John's smile slipped. “Yes. It is. I remember.” His brows drawing together, he stared at Clint. “I remember. I know you are.”

“It's not.” She gave Clint an apologetic smile. “He was here, too, so you might remember him, but he's not. He's not the man who saved you.”

It was there, in flashes, in his head, fragments of memory, as if the noise and panic and death had fractured everything, even as he dragged himself back to life. Even as he'd fought, he'd felt that same distance, the same helpless distance that had kept him from doing anything when Loki was-

But he remembered. The boy's hands closing on his arms. So hard, pinpricks of force that shook him awake. If only for an instant, he remembered that face, gray with ash and fear and the reflection of the fires that burned. This child, this boy, this New Yorker.

“It is,” John was saying now, fierce with it, stubborn. “It IS. It was you,” he said to Clint, and there was a pleading note to his voice, begging now, to provide some truth, some reality to a world gone mad. “I know it was.”

Clint buried his face behind the water bottle. “I'm sorry,” he said.

The boy's face crumbled, and his mother touched his arm. “Go watch for our bus,” she said, and when it looked like he would argue, she said something low and soft, in Spanish, and he retreated, his face miserable and sharp. When he was out of earshot, but still in sight, she glanced at Clint. “I'm sorry about that,” she said. “He's... He's doing better than most kids, but he's...” Her teeth worked at her lower lip. “I'm sorry.”

Clint shook his head. “No. I wish I could be the person he was looking for.” The empty plastic crumbled in his hand, he and he pushed himself up. “I really wish I could.”

She was in her purse again. “I know. It's okay, really.” She held out a card, pressed it into Clint's hand. “Look, there's a support group. There's a lot of them, really, this is- It's the website that lists some of them? Most of us, the ones that were here, we go to one or another of them, it's really-” Her lashes dipped, and she stood straight and proud. “There's no shame in it.”

“Yeah, I know.” He gave her a smile that felt too tight on his face. “I know. I've got, I guess, I've got a therapist. About-” He paused, rubbing the back of his neck with stiff fingers. “That.”

Her grin was sweet. “I'm glad.” She held out her hand. “I'm Amalia.”

He took her hand, and her fingers were shaking almost as much as his. Neither of them mentioned that. “Clint. Thanks.”

She paused, her fingers closing on the strap of her purse, her knuckles white as they gripped the leather. “I-” Her eyes slid away, then jerked back. “I'm sorry,” she said, “if this makes you uncomfortable, but-” Her smile was sweet, open and sweet and pure. “Don't be alone.”

Clint nodded. “Yeah.” From a distance, he could see the bus, towering over the cabs and cars and trucks. “Uh, the bus, is that yours?”

Amalia looked, and skittered a step to the side. “Yes. Yes, it is, I have to-” She looked at Clint again. “Are you okay? I can stay, if you need-”

Clint was already shaking his head. “No, no, I'm fine, I'll-” He held up the card. “Thanks. For this. I'll, well, I'll look into it.”

She smiled, and just like that, without the fear in her eyes, without the tightness around her mouth and with color in her cheeks, she was so much younger. “Good,” she said. “I'll pray for you, Clint.”

His lips twitched up. “Thank you.” And she meant it. So did he. “Thanks.” He jammed his hands in his pocket, wedging the card in there, too. “Bus.”

“Yes!” John was waving, but the bus was stuck in traffic, half a block out, so she had plenty of time to join him at the curb, the sky blue skirt swirling around her legs, light and life and bright color where there had only been gray and ash and destruction.

John was still watching him, his face half buried in his mother's side, a little too clingy for a boy his age, but maybe not, considering what he'd been through. His mouth turned up, just a little. “Thank you,” he mouthed, face stubborn, because no matter what his mother said, no matter what Clint said, he knew. He knew, and he had faith. Clint exhaled, hard.

He fumbled in his pocket, finding the bit of stone where he'd expected it. For an instant, his fingers closed around it, squeezing tight. Then he slipped through the crowd until he was right behind her and John. When the boy looked up, his brows drawing in tight in question, Clint pressed a finger to his lips. John's eyes went wide and he nodded, just a bit. Clint held out his hand, curled in a loose fist, palm down, in his direction, and John extended a tentative hand.

Clint dropped the arrowhead into it.

For just an instant, he met the boy's eyes, saw them go wide, saw the joy, the pleasure, that flooded the kid's face. Clint pressed two fingers to his brow and flicked the kid a salute, and a wink, and disappeared into the crowd before John had time to do anything about it.

His path took him past the taco truck, and he paused. He fumbled in his pocket for this wallet. The card Amalia had given him was caught in the flap, and he stared at it. His throat tight, he jammed his wallet under his chin and got his phone out. “Hey,” he said, when the call went through. It's, uh, it's Barton. I-” He grabbed his wallet. “Can we talk? Like, now, right now? Or, no, you've got other patients, so this afternoon? I know, I'm not supposed to be by again, but-”

“I don't have any appointments right now,” Dr. O'Brien said, as it were perfectly normal for him to call. As if he'd done this before. As if it was fine that he did this now, as if there was no reason why she would be surprised or annoyed by the request. “Would you like to speak on the phone, or are you going to come by and sit with me?”

He wrestled some bills out of his wallet with fingers that shook. “I'm just getting a taco. Then I can be up.” He paused. “Do you want one? I can bring you one.” His eyes squeezed shut, and he mentally cursed himself for being this idiotic.

“That would be very nice. Two, please. Hot.”

“Hot?” he asked. “Really?”

“Really, Agent Barton. And a bag of tortilla chips, if they've got it.”

“It's your stomach,” Clint said. He paused. Swallowed. “Thanks, Doc.”

“Thank you for calling me, Clint.”

He ignored that, because he was good at ignoring things he wasn't comfortable with. Instead, he placed his order with the smiling vendor, and dropped a twenty in the tip cup, with a nod of thanks. Folded in the bill, he left the card.

He wasn't the only walking wounded on the streets of New York. But maybe they were all capable of getting better. A little at a time. With a little bit of help.

Chapter Text

Clint stared blankly up. “You're not my waitress.”

That won him a faint smile. “No. I am not. May I join you?”

He swayed in his seat, unsteady and unsure. “I've had- I've had a lot of-” He waved his hands at the empty bottles and glasses that were in front of him, scattered across the battered table. Most of them were empty, but puddles of spilled liquid dotted the wood, pooling in the gashes left from decades of broken glass, knives, and bar fights. “Done some drinking,” he admitted. “So I gotta ask. Are you really here?”

Frigga considered that. “It would appear so.” She gestured at the seat opposite him. “May I join you, Ag-”

“No, don't, don't call me that, I got-” He scrambled for his glass, sloshing alcohol over his wrist. “What are- How did-” He tossed back a swallow of alcohol, and that steadied his tongue enough to choke out, “What the hell are you DOING here?”

She took that as an invitation, and he wasn't sure that it wasn't. She slid into the booth across from him, every movement marked by an effortless sort of grace. “The lady Natasha brought me.” she said, gesturing to the room. Clint followed the flicker of her fingers, and nearly tipped forward onto the table. Grabbing for the edge, he braced himself long enough to stare out into the dimly lit bar. Natasha was seated at a nearby table, between them and the rest of the room, one booted foot up on a rickety chair, a bottle of clear liquor on the wooden table in front of her. What light there was glinted off the smooth waves of her hair, burnishing it with a golden flame. She didn't bother looking up, and Clint was reduced to glaring at her uncaring profile.

“Well, she shouldn't have,” Clint muttered. There was a half full bottle still there on the table, and he made a grab for it. He missed, and had to make another attempt. “You shouldn't be here. It's dangerous.”

Frigga glanced around, a faint smile touching her lips. “I see,” she said, sounding amused. “I don't see this danger, but if that is the case, perhaps it best if I stay with you.”

He glared at her. Okay, so he chose his particular hole in the wall because people minded their own business, because they were out for a drink, or to get drunk, not for a fight or a party. The booze was plentiful and cheap and as long as you took a cab, the staff let you drink it however you wanted. Clint tipped well and was polite; they left him the hell alone, and kept the bottles coming as long as he kept his seat.

“There's-” He waved a hand, bumping a bottle or two. “Drunks.”

“Drunken men hold no fear for me,” she said, her voice full of humor. “I have been in their company for far longer than you could imagine.” She leaned forward, and the fabric of her cowl shifted against her face. In the shadows it cast, she smiled. “I have one great talent, Clint, and that is for protection magics. No one here will see me or hear me, if I do not wish them to.”

“So, what, they just see me talking to myself?” Clint asked, too tired to care, not really. Maybe he was talking to himself. That seemed as likely as the fact that he was sitting in a dive bar in New Jersey talking to an ageless Norse Goddess.

Probably more likely, now that he thought about it.

“It seems it would not be the first time that a man has talked to the air in this place,” Frigga said. “Nor the first time the air has spoken back. What is one more vision from a bottle on such a night?”

Clint muttered something into the mouth of his glass. He wasn't sure what he said, or even if they were actual words. “You shouldn't be here,” he said, too tired to fight it more than that. “It's not a fighting bar. But drunk men turn violent.”

She smiled, just a little, a sad little curl of her lips that echoed in the shadows of her eyes. "Drunken men can be violent in two different ways, Clint," she said, her fingers closing on the neck of the bottle. Her fingers were slim and and graceful, pale as marble and perfectly proportioned. "Some men, when drink has hold of them, turn their violence on the world, on any unlucky enough to be within reach of their fists or their voice." She tipped the mouth of the bottle against the empty glass, smooth and controlled, the two surfaces ghosting against each other. "The other is far more dangerous." She pushed the glass in front of him. "For he has only one target for his violence, and his rage, and that is himself."

Frigga poured herself a glass of the liquor, her eyes hidden behind the sweep of her lashes. "You, Clint, are solidly in the latter category. You are not a threat to anyone other than yourself, but you are a very real danger to your own well-being."

Clint had to make an effort to get his fingers to stop shaking long enough to grip the glass. "Good," he muttered, and the word was too sharp, too percussive, he was trying too hard not to sound drunk, and sounding all the more drunk because of it. Vibrations from the overtight muscles in his hand make the clear liquid tremble in the glass, and he jerked it to his mouth. "Maybe I'm the only one who deserves to get beaten up."

"The thing about violent men in the grip of drink?" she said, raising the glass to eye level and staring into it, "is that their violence seldom falls on those who deserve it.” She took a sip from her glass, her eyelashes sweeping down as her lips parted. “Why do you think you deserve it?”

He choked on a laugh, and a mouthful of liquor. “Lady, we do not have nearly enough time to cover that question.” He took another drink, letting it burn his throat until his eyes stung.

“What drove you to drink today, then?”

He paused. His mouth opened, and closed on a sigh. With a flick of his wrist, he tossed back the remainder of his drink, tossing the empty glass to the table. The hefty tumbler, used to such rough treatment, rolled on its edge and clattered to the tabletop.

“None of your fucking business,” he said, or that's what he meant to say, those were the words in his head, in his throat, on his tongue.

Instead, he said, “I slept through the night.”

Her head tipped to the side, the folds of her cloak shifting with the movement. It was pale as starlight, and heaped in delicate folds like snowdrifts driven by the wind. His fingers twitched with the desire to touch, to brush calloused fingertips against that fabric, to see if it was as soft and light as it seemed. Instead, he curled his fingers into a fist around his glass.

“I slept through the night,” he repeated, the words bitter and harsh in his mouth. “Haven't done that since-” He trailed away, and ducked his head over his drink. “Since before.”

She didn't have to ask what 'before' meant. She had the same before as he did.

“Do your dreams trouble you?” she asked, rolling her glass between her fingers.

He snorted. “Don't yours?” He couldn't taste the alcohol any more. His tongue was numb to it, his head awash in sensation to the point where it was indistinguishable from numbness.

“I dream of a world made cold and empty,” she said, her voice soft, undercut by the click of the glass against the table. “I dream of the nothing that follows war, but for the cry of the ravens on the wing. I dream of eternal winter, a cold so deep it would freeze the very blood in my veins, with no spring to bear the weight of my hopes. I dream of a unending day with no sun. I dream of a cold so consuming that it will take all of us. A cold so horrible that even a Frost Giant would freeze.”

She met his eyes, her fingers cradling her glass, holding on as if that were all she had left to hold onto. “I dream of death, I dream of the death of my sons, my husband, my people. Of my world and every other we know. I dream of being the only one left alive, the only one left to mourn in a dark, frozen world that even death has forgotten.”

A tear slid down the curve of her cheek. “I dream of you.”

Clint's hand was shaking as he raised the glass to his mouth. “I dream of the dead,” he said, his voice flat. “All of them. I dream of the ones who died.” The wash of liquor burned its way across the plane of his tongue, down his throat. He swallowed without tasting it, and was glad. “The ones I killed.” He set the empty glass down and it rattled in a circle before it settled.

Frigga took it without him saying a word. She poured from the bottle, and there was grace to her movements, more grace than that rotgut deserved. Clint watched her hands, watched the slim, pale digits and the perfect ovals of her nails. The glass glowed under the dim lights as he reached for it.

“Many warriors have been haunted by the ghosts of those who have fallen in battle.” She filled her glass as well, and took a long swallow of it. “Those on their own side, as well as those they have defeated.”

“The ones they killed, you mean.” Clint reached for a bottle. It was mostly empty, just an inch or two of alcohol coating bottom, but he raised it to his lips anyway. “Their victims.”

“Is that what fills your dreams? Those who opposed you?”

Clint stared into the depths of his drink, at the gathering shadows in the hollow of the bottle. “I see them all. My people, civilians, friends. Strangers. Aliens. Humans.” He forced his eyes closed, forced them shut, and the memories were there, burned into the darkness behind the lids. “As long as they are dead. That's what ties them together. That they are dead. That I killed them.”

“They haunt you,” Frigga said, and it wasn't a question, but he answered it anyway.

“Yeah. But not in the way you'd think.” He stared at nothing, trying not to see, his eyes failing him, even now, they failed him. “They don't blame me.”

Frigga glanced up, her eyes sharp. “Do they not?”

The laugh that came out of him was ugly and harsh. “They just-” The bottle clattered against the table. “They keep saying it wasn't my fault. That I didn't do anything wrong. That I'm not to blame.” He scrubbed his hands through his hair, his nails digging into his scalp, the heels of his palms squeezed tight against his ears, trying not to hear his own words. “They are there. All of them. All of them. Saying. Saying things, lying, all of them, all of them lying.”

His hands scraped across his skin, his fingers spreading out over his face, clawing at his eyes. “I'm so sick of the fucking lies,” he spat out, and it sounded like a sob to his own ears.

He wished, desperately, that he could cry. But it was with dry eyes that he looked up, looked up to meet her clear gaze. “I slept through the night,” he said, exhausted. “And now I'm afraid to go back to sleep, 'cause I'm afraid it's going to happen again.”

Afraid, so desperately afraid, that even this one comfort, the comfort of the weight of their deaths, had deserted him. Leaving him so alone that he couldn't even begin to face it.

Frigga's eyelashes dipped, and her head dipped with it. She took a deep breath, her shoulders rising with it, and when she straightened up, there was steel in her spine, in her gaze. “I forgive you,” she said.

Clint rocked back against his seat, alcohol and anger making him dizzy. “Fuck you,” he said.

She didn't flinch. Instead, she said, calm and simple and firm, “I forgive you.”

Clint struggled to his feet, and he didn't quite make it, he collapsed back into his seat after a moment, his knees like water and his head spinning. “Fuck you,” he hissed, and the words had force. “What have I done to you to give you any fucking right to forgive me?”

Her lips parted, just enough to let the words out, a thin exhale. “I forgive you. For being the tool with which my child destroyed everything I hold dear.”

He could barely breathe, barely see, his stomach rolled, acid biting into his throat with a horrific searing pain. Like fear. Like vomit. “You have no right.”

Frigga inclined her head. “No. I do not. But you refuse to admit that you bear no blame. To tell you it wasn't your fault, you will not accept that. You will not believe that. I can tell you that you were a pawn, that you had no choice, and you will not listen. You will not believe, because you cannot allow yourself to believe.” She sipped her drink, and he could hear his own breath in his ears, hear the blood pounding in his veins. She lowered her glass to the table. “You desire not reassurances from the dead, but forgiveness. And they cannot offer it, because you cannot forgive yourself.”

She took his glass from his hand, and his fingers hung, nerveless and numb, in mid-air. She held it up. “Loki refuses to acknowledge that he has done anything to require forgiveness,” she said, studying the liquid. Her eyes closed. “And you seek forgiveness for sins that are not yours.”

Clint reached for the bottle. There wasn't much left, so he tossed it back. “Fuck you,” he said, the whisper barely audible.

She smiled, sad and kind. “I forgive you. Sleep, and find no fear in the dark.”

“I'm not afraid of the dark.” The bottle rattled against the table as he tried to set it down. “I'm the thing that hides in the dark. I use it. I enjoy it. I'm-” His face twisted. “I'm the monster that hides in the dark, Frigga. Whether I like it or not.”

Frigga took the bottle from him, drawing it away from his hand. “Humanity has always feared the dark,” she said. “Do you?”

“No.” He paused, the bottle seeming to glow in the dark. “Darkness is safety. Sanctuary. It's a hiding place. It's something I can use, something that allows me to move without being seen, without being caught. I love the darkness. Violence lives in the darkness,” he said, bitterness crawling through him, “and so do I.”

She sipped her drink. “So many lies you tell yourself,” she said, her voice sad. “Violence is done, in the dark, and the light. The sun witnesses just as much cruelty and malice as the moon. But when you move in the darkness, you can use it, you can avoid violence. If you were merely a man of violence, then you would do your deeds beneath the light of midday, where all could see, where you could revel in it.

“But the shadows, the darkness, allows you to avoid some acts of violence. Allows you to do what needs to be done without having to rely upon violence at every turn.” She reached out, her fingers hovering over his cheek, but she didn't touch his skin. “Darkness is rest and protection. It is sleep, it is peace, it is a time to heal and recover and think. It is a time to dream.”

“It is a time for nightmares,” Clint said.

“Those will come, no matter the time,” she said, sounding tired. “Will you not risk the pain, if it means a chance to heal?”

Clint let his hands fall forward into his hands. “I want my nightmares back,” he said.

“Perhaps,” Frigga said, “you will dream tonight. May you be visited by the dreams you deserve, and not the ones you desire.” There was a faint touch to the back of his hair, of fingers, or just the air moving the strands. “I wish this for you.”

There was an almost inaudible rustle, the sound of fabric moving. “I will take my leave of you now, Clint. But know this. You are forgiven. You are absolved. If you seek to punish yourself, you will. But no one will join you in your solitary pursuit.

“It is a waste of a good life, to punish a good man for the sins of another.”

“Hey, are you okay?”

Clint's head came up, and blinked at his waitress. She was a tired looking woman with too big hair and too bright makeup, but a sweet smile and kind eyes. She leaned over. “Hey, are you okay?” she repeated.

“I don't know,” Clint said. He blinked. “I think I'm drunk.”

“Honey, you are so amazingly drunk, it's not even funny,” she said, her lips quirking up. “You want me to call you a cab?”

“I've got him.”

It said something about the staff, or maybe just the size of the tips that Clint left that the waitress didn't move. She did hug her tray to her chest for a second, falling back in the face of Natasha's basilisk stare. But that was just a sign of self-preservation; Clint admired self-preservation. “I don't think-” she started.

“Don't try to think,” Natasha said, and the woman tensed.

“Nah, it's okay,” Clint managed. “Nat, you are a bitch.”

“So are you, Clint.”

The waitress gave Natasha a sideways look. “You sure?” she asked Clint.

“She-” Clint's lips twitched. “She's my partner,” he explained. “An' my ex.”

The waitress nodded, still wary, but relaxing now. “Okay.”

“An' my roommate,” Clint said. He rolled his tongue around his mouth. “An' my guardian angel. Not my lover. Not any more. We sleep together, though.”

“That's- A lot of things,” the waitress said. She looked at Natasha, her lips twitching. “Sounds like a lot of work.”

“The pay's good.” Natasha handed her a bill that was probably obscenely large. “Thanks for not letting him die under the table.”

The bill disappeared with a flick of the woman's fingers. “Any time.” As Natasha got hold of one of Clint's arms, pulling him up and out of the booth, she gave him a wave. “Good night, Clint!”

“Night,” Clint said, one arm over Natasha's shoulders, head lolling on his boneless neck. Everything was spinning, his limbs like lead as he tried to help her drag him to the door. He was pretty sure that he was just making things harder, but Natasha didn't say a word, just let him struggle along, her grip firm.

They made it to the car through some miracle, and he didn't know how long it took, or how she'd accomplished it. He just slumped there, boneless and broken. Natasha propped him against the car as she got the door open. “Do not throw up in here,” she said.

“Uh-huh,” Clint said, his head rolling back and bouncing off the car roof with a loud thump.

Natasha pulled his head back up, her hand firm on the back of his skull. “Do not,” she repeated. “Throw up. In my car.”

“I can hold my booze,” Clint told her, wounded. “I don't have to-” His stomach rolled over, and she sighed as she stepped back, out of the way.

When he was finished throwing up, he struggled back to his feet, and that was nice, she'd positioned him right over a storm drain, no fuss, no muss, Natasha was so smart. He told her so as she dragged him back up, shoved a bottle of water into his hand and forced him to drink half of it in one go.

“I know,” she said. “Rinse your mouth out. Have you eaten anything today?” He thought about that, and she sighed. “Great. You are a pain in my ass, Barton.”

“Sorry,” he said.

A faint sigh ruffled the hair at his temple as she slipped her arms around his waist. “Yeah. I know.” Her lips brushed, feather light, against the skin of his forehead. “It's okay. I forgive you.”

Clint buried his face in her shoulder. “Okay,” he said, and she smelled good. He told her, because that seemed like a nice thing to say.

She sighed again. “Better than you,” she said, but her voice held affection and tolerance. “Get in the car.”

It took him three tries, and he smacked his head real bad at least once, but he got in the car. Natasha had to put his seat belt on for him; he wasn't able to get the buckle to work. “Does Thor know?” he asked.

“What? That his mother has been speaking to you?” Natasha shrugged, but said, “I don't think so.”

Clint nodded. “Nat? Why does she keep talking to me?”

There was only silence while Natasha started the car. “I think,” she said at last, “that you are the only person who can understand her grief.”

He didn't know what that meant. Maybe because he was drunk. Or maybe just because he wasn't smart enough. But he nodded, anyways.

“Drink your water,” Natasha said.

Clint drank, glad for a task that he could accomplish.


"Barton, let me hear your voice."

Clint's eyes snapped open, his pulse thudding in his throat, his head throbbing. For a moment, he couldn't figure out where he was, what he was doing there, he couldn't see, couldn't see anything. The air was stale as it hissed between his teeth, thick and choking. He scrambled out with one hand, with the one that wasn't pinned under him, and felt something solid. Jagged and solid.

He closed his eyes. "Huh," he gritted out. "Guess I chose right.”


He jerked, but the voice wasn't Phil's. He took a breath, and another. “Hawkeye here, I read you.” His fingers slid out, slowly, as slowly as he could manage, trying to find the dimensions of his space. “Go ahead.”

He heard the exhale across the comm unit. “Good to hear you, Hawkeye.” And that was Captain America's firm, commanding voice. “Hold tight, we're on the way.”

“Fast as we're able, which isn't very fast.” Stark sounded strained. “Thor, grab hold here, and- Yeah.” There was the sound of something heavy scraping hard against metal or rock or something worse, and Clint's breath seized in his lungs. He braced himself, but nothing came tumbling down.

“Could you-” Clint coughed, and covered his mouth with his arm, trying to screen for the worst of the dust. He closed his eyes, taking what care he could to protect himself. “Not kill me?”

“Working on it,” Stark said. “This would go faster if you didn't have such a list of demands.”

“It's short, but important,” Clint muttered against his arm, and his skin was damp and cool against his lips.

“Hold tight, Hawkeye,” Natasha said, and he was glad, he was so glad to hear her voice. He'd lost sight of her at the end. “They're almost through.”

“Great! Wonderful! That's just-” Clint gritted his teeth as the stone shifted above him, his breath lodging in his throat.

Light exploded, and he flinched. As dirt and shattered chunks of rock came clattering down around him, he blinked hard, trying to clear his vision. The dark shadow leaning into the space solidified into a battered red and gold figure, and Iron Man leaned in. “How bad?” he asked.

Clint shook his head, already straightening up. “Not bad,” he said, and now that he could see, he could see the blood on his arms and his hands, tiny scrapes and dings. There was blood in his mouth, and his face ached from a split lip and a battered cheek. And there was a throbbing pain in the back of his skull. “Think I just caught my head on a rock, don't remember.”

Iron Man's visor flipped up, and he reached down for Clint, one broad gauntlet catching the light. “We've got medics waiting for you,” he said.

"Don't need it. We get them?" he asked, even as Iron Man's hand closed over his. The armor's grip should've pinched, but it just felt good to have the help. Clint staggered up and out, scrambling over the damaged, twisted rock and metal. He told himself it was under his own power, but it was far more likely that Tony's arm around his waist was what was keeping him moving.

“You got them,” Tony said. “We're clear, Thor.”

Clint glanced up, eyes squinting against the light, to find Thor bracing a huge slab of stone. As Tony dragged him out of range, Thor let it fall back down with a grunt, the muscles in his back and shoulders bulging as he slipped away from the weight. Not even breathing hard, he looked at Clint. “You are well?” he asked.

“Well enough,” Clint said, giving him a thumbs up. He kind of ruined the effect by stumbling over an uneven part of the sidewalk. “I'm good, I'm good.”

“Yeah,” Tony said, and he didn't seem convinced. “C'mon, SHIELD's got their setup on the edge of the park. Luckily, we kept the damage contained for once.”

“Anyone hurt?” Clint asked, forcing his feet forward. Tony hadn't let go of him, his arm still a steady, comforting support at his waist.

“You're the worst,” Tony said. “Gave us a bad minute or two there. Next time, can you not get crushed by a building?”

Clint chuckled. “Fuck you, Stark,” he said, letting his aching head fall forward, just for a second, just letting it slump on his neck. “I was doing my goddamn job, and then, boom, all of a sudden there was a building that was much, much closer to me than it had been five seconds earlier.”

“You gotta learn to dodge these things.”

“You've gotta learn to actually take out the attackers before they start taking out buildings,” Clint shot back. He reached back with his free hand, his fingers brushing at the crown of his head. He flinched, and his fingertips came back red and tacky with drying blood.

Thor pulled his hand away, his grip gentle. “Do not,” he said, frowning. “It looks to have stopped, for now, best you not reopen it.”

Clint shrugged. “It's fine,” he said. “I just need an aspirin and a shower.” He glanced between them. “We figure out what the hell those things were?”

“Richards knows,” Tony said. “Not that he's sharing. I'll beat it out of him later.”

“Fuckin' Richards,” Clint mumbled.

“Oh, I see you know Reed! Wonderful, I was hoping I wasn't going to be alone in that particular joy.”

“Yeah, SHIELD's dealt with a few of his little 'miscalculations' before,” Clint said. “How do you know him?”

“We both went to MIT,” Tony said, as if that was the only answer that he needed to give, and maybe it was.

“Lucky you,” Clint told him, and Tony grinned.

The street was busy, people darting in all directions, and Clint could spot things, chunks of mechanical limbs or bits of bent metal, being collected by agents. They swarmed over the scene, and he was glad that they had things under control, that the street had been cleared, the buildings evacuated with speed and efficiency.

No one had thought the Avengers would be needed again so quickly. Clint wasn't sure he liked the precedent being set here. When the call had come, he hadn't expected to be included. Rogers didn't explain, didn't discuss, he just hooked a thumb over his shoulder at the jet and told Clint to suit up and ship out.

Clint had gone. He wasn't sure why.

“He okay?” Natasha said, jogging up. There was a scrape on her cheekbone and her hair was coated with dust, but she looked fine, other than that.

“I'm right here,” Clint said. “Hello. You can ask me if I'm okay. I'm okay, in case you're curious.”

“You lie,” Natasha said, and she had his bow, he wanted to sob for that, for the simple act of getting his hands on his bow again. She looked at Stark. “Is he okay?”

“Seems as rational as he ever is, but he's bleeding from the head, so we're dragging him to the medics.”

“Won't do any good,” Natasha said. “He's a pain in the ass, and he's intimidating.”

“Damn right,” Clint muttered, and he wanted to hug his bow. He didn't, but he wanted to.

“He needs treatment,” Thor said, and they were talking around him, above him, and that was kind of annoying. Kind of. But his head hurt and he was tired and achy and he hated being out here, hated being exposed.

Nat's fingers slid up the nape of his neck, finding the very edge of his hair, her fingertips rubbing there. “Okay,” she said, and Clint raised one hand, trying to push her arm away. “Stop it, or I'll give you something to whine about,” she told him, making Clint laugh. “Sitwell!”

Clint tensed, any humor in him dying in a heartbeat.

Jasper Sitwell was one of those SHIELD agents that was simultaneously everywhere at once, and invisible at the same time. He did his job, and he was damn good at it, but he didn't make a show of it, he didn't call attention to himself. He did what needed doing, he did it fast, and he did it right.

He'd been one of Phil's best friends in the ranks of SHIELD.

“Agent Romanov?” Sitwell was smart, smart and no body's fool. His eyes locked on Clint, understanding blooming in their depths immediately. He nodded, a faint frown crossing his face. “This way.”

“We just need a place to set him down,” Natasha was saying, and Clint didn't look up, didn't meet their eyes. Tony didn't seem to notice, just kept dragging him forward. “I can get him cleaned up.”

“Oh, we've got better than that,” Sitwell said, sounding inordinately cheerful about it. “This way, please.” He lead the way across the scene, his steps quick and efficient. “Dr. Banner wanted to help, we've got him set up over here.” He grinned at Clint. “You might not want to treat him the way you do with the rest of the medical staff.”

Clint didn't react. Didn't look in his direction. He walked in silence, leaning on Tony, letting Sitwell lead them along.

“Here we go, he's just back there. Agent Barton?” Sitwell paused, only for a second, not giving Clint time to look in his direction. “I'm glad to see you back in the field, Agent.” Clint's head jerked up, and Sitwell smiled at him, warm and real, and then, he was striding off through the crowd again. “Hey! Hey, don't you touch that, what're you thinking? Get an evidence tech before you lose a hand and your clearance!”

Clint watched him go, still, and Tony jostled him. “We okay, Barton?”

Clint glanced at him. “Yeah. Yeah, just get me- I just need a towel or something.”

“We got you covered. Let's let the good Doctor take a look at you.”

As they walked up to the SHIELD ambulance, Banner straightened up, his face creasing in a frown. “How bad?” he asked, moving towards them. There was worry in his face, and he caught Clint's arm. “Here, get him settled down, I'll take a look.”

Clint waved off the words. “It's just a little cut.”

“Head laceration, possible concussion,” Natasha said, as Tony boosted Clint up to sit on the back of the ambulance. Clint, grumbling under his breath, settled down, and Bruce moved up next to him, already reaching for a fresh pair of gloves.

“It's just a little cut,” Clint said, and no one paid any attention to him. But Bruce's hands were gentle when the came down on Clint's head, on his shoulders, brushing over the skin and hair, testing for sore spots. Clint gritted his teeth against the pain, and concentrated on not swearing. From a distance, he heard Natasha talking to the others, her voice low and careful.

When he glanced up again, it was just him and Nat and Bruce.

Bruce pushed his head forward with one careful hand. "Stop moving," he said, and his voice was chiding. Clint grinned at his own knees, at the battered line of his knuckles on his bow. He flexed his hands to watch the fingers roll over the grip.

"I'm fine," he said, and Bruce made a non-committal sound. Clint winced as Bruce's fingers cleaned the dirt from the back of his head, the antiseptic stinging on the wound. "Ow!"

"Is he always this much of a baby?" Bruce asked Natasha.

"Hey, I'm not-"

"Usually, he's much, much worse," Natasha said, her back braced up against the van's door.

He kicked in her general direction, and failed to connect. She didn't even bother dodging, that was how pathetic the attempt was. She just looked at him as if he was a rather amusing pet, and laughed. "I'm injured here!" Clint said, without much heat. Without any heat at all.

"Whose fault is that?" she said, with a sweet smile, and Bruce tried to stifle a chuckle. It was a losing battle.

"Never work with your ex," Clint told Bruce.

"Don't date your coworkers," Natasha said.

"I'll, um, I'll keep that in mind." He nudged Clint's head forward again, his hands big and warm and gentle, the touch not foreign or a threat.

"Why not?" Tony asked, ambling over. "It worked out for me."

"Once," Natasha said. "It worked out once, Stark. All other times, it resulted in a lawsuit."

"I have never been sued by an ex-employee who was also an ex-lover," Tony said. "Pepper would've killed me." He made an expansive gesture with one hand. It was holding a hot dog.

"Where did you get a hot dog?" Bruce asked, sounding stymied by that.

Tony considered the hot dog, overloaded with onions, relish and mustard. "Cart," he said, taking a bite.

"What, the fight was over, and you stopped for a HOT DOG?" Clint asked. He could feel the laughter bubbling up in his throat, and tried to choke it back. "Really?"

“I got you out of the hole first, you could be a little more grateful.” Tony shrugged, and took another bite. "No one died. Everyone's accounted for. Go team." He gave them a fist pump. "I'm hungry. Seemed like a hot dog was in order."

"These are most excellent!" Thor said from Clint's other side, and Clint ignored Bruce's attempts to keep his head still. Thor was cradling half a dozen hot dogs in his arm. "I enjoy this post-fight repast!"

"Where are you getting these?" Natasha said, and she was giving them a look, there was a look on her face, but there was amusement in her voice.

Thor grinned at her. "The kind man but yonder has provided them!" Everyone looked in that direction, and the round little man at the hot dog cart gave them a wide smile and a double thumbs up. "Would you care for one?" Thor asked Natasha.

She opened her mouth, and Thor held a wrapped hot dog in front of her, grinning. After an instant, she shook her head. "Okay," she said, taking it from him.

"Don't bankrupt the poor guy," Bruce said. His fingers pulled back from Clint's head, and Clint kind of missed the warmth. "This isn't bad, Clint, we can get away with a butterfly bandage."

"Great. Woot. That calls for a celebratory hot dog." Clint held out a hand, and Thor, laughing, dropped one into his palm.

"Did you pay for those?" Steve asked, walking up. His cowl was pushed back from his face, and his costume was battered and dusty, but he was giving Tony a look that was half amusement, half consternation.

"Not at all," Tony told him. In the icy silence that followed, he let out a long suffering groan. "I don't carry a wallet in this thing, Cap. You don't carry- You carry your wallet? Tell me you don't carry your wallet." He smirked at Steve. “That's so adorable.”

"I have enough pockets," Steve pointed out. "Well, my belt has pockets. I figured a money clip might come in handy."

"Really. Tell me you're not serious," Tony said, and his mouth sounded full.

"What is in all those pouches?" Clint asked, unwrapping his hot dog. "I mean, what else are you carrying around in those things?"

Steve glanced down. “Stuff,” he said. There was a faint flush to his cheekbones, but he ignored it when Tony burst out laughing.

“Weapons stuff?” Natasha asked, flicking mustard away from the corner of her mouth with her thumb. “Seems practical.”

"A little. I mean, a few.” Tony was still snickering, and Steve gave him a look. “What's your problem, Stark?”

Tony crumbled up his wrapper. “I am still hungry,” he said, with a grin. “I'm still hungry, and Captain America is carrying a money clip in his uniform. Dual problem. Multiple problems.” He shrugged. “I'm gonna just, solve one of those, the only one I have control over and get myself another hot dog.”

“Pay for your food,” Steve told him.

“I told you, I don't have my wallet, it's-” He paused as Natasha reached out and punched at a panel on his side. A thin pocket slid open, and he glanced down. “That's not a wallet,” he said. “That's my black AmEx, it's a hot dog vender, he doesn't have a register.”

“He's a hot dog vender in New York,” Natasha said. “He's got a Square reader. Even the drug dealers take credit cards in this city.”

“Fine, you-”

“What's a Square reader?” Steve asked, curious.

“It's a-” Tony rolled his eyes with a melodramatic sigh. “Fine. Fine, c'mon, and we'll just go and-”

“Get me one with just relish,” Clint said. “Bruce?”

“Uh, onions and mustard?” Bruce said, stripping off his medical gloves. “Two? Please?”

“I'm not your waiter, Barton,” Tony said, but he stalked across the park, Steve close on his heels. Steve gave them a smile and a thumbs up. Thor wandered in their wake, having already chowed through his supply and going back for more.

“How's he looking, Doc?” Natasha asked Bruce, who gave her a smile as he wiped his hands down with an alcohol pad.

“He'll live.” Bruce said.

“See? Told you,” Clint told Natasha.

“It's a miracle,” she deadpanned, and Clint laughed. “Thanks, Bruce.”

Bruce gave them both a shy smile, his eyes darting from one to the other. “Any time,” he said. He settled down on the truck's step beside Clint, Natasha leaning against the door on his other side. Bruce pulled off his glasses and polished the lenses. “Try not to make it necessary so often, okay?”

“Hey, you could've let the medics deal with me,” Clint said, eating the last bite of his hot dog with gusto. Chewing, he gave Bruce an innocent look.

Bruce's lips twitched. “If it was possible for you to hide under a SHIELD van and lick that wound, you never would've let me anywhere near you.”

“What the fuck?” Clint asked, his mouth gaping open. “C'mon, really? Nat, did you hear that?”

“I heard, and I'm shocked,” Natasha said. She paused for a moment. “He figured you out so much faster than the SHIELD medical staff.”

Clint tried his best to keep his face straight. It was a miserable failure, and he leaned towards her. “You know, you could be nicer to me.”

“It would be a wasted effort,” she said, but she was smiling. “You much prefer affectionate abuse.”

“And you prefer to just dish out abuse,” Clint said, jerking to the side to avoid the elbow that invariably slashed in the direction of his ribs. He crashed into Bruce on his other side, and the smile that was on his face didn't feel foreign or odd. “Sorry, Doc,” he said, trying for innocence. “Her fault.”

“What?” Natasha's eyes narrowed, her lips pursed, and Clint scrambled up, dodging around Bruce to sit on the far side. “Don't use him as a human shield, Barton, it's undignified.”

“So am I,” Clint said, and luckily, Bruce was laughing, his face buried in his hands and his cheeks flushed. “What the fuck has dignity ever gotten me? Laid, once or twice, but other than that-”

Bruce was laughing so hard now that he was bent double, and Natasha patted him gently on the back. “Just ignore the crazy man,” she said, one eyebrow arching. But she gave Clint a smile that was a little too kind, a little too real for his peace of mind, and his eyes slid away from hers.

Clint stared across the park, where Steve was listening, his face intent, to what the hot dog vendor was saying. As Thor ate, his eyes sharp, and Tony leaned against the cart, his expression amused, Steve just focused on what the man was showing him, nodding every so often. Clint shook his head. “You know what's weird? Not that Captain America is able to pick up the concept of a credit card swiper that can be attached to a goddamn smart phone, but that he honestly and truly seems interested.”

“He's smart,” Bruce said, leaning back. One booted foot scraped the ground.

“I'm less interested in the fact that he's wants to learn how a Square reader works,” Natasha said, sitting down on the back of the ambulance with them, “and more interested in the fact that he seems to be able to get Stark to do things that he has no intention of doing.” She paused, and slanted a glance in Bruce's direction. “No insult intended, but Stark can be...” Her voice trailed away.

“Impossible?” Bruce filled in, his lips quirking. He pushed a hand through his hair, his dark eyes warm. “I, well, I am aware. Hard to miss.”

“But you're still living with him?” Clint asked.

Bruce rubbed his jaw with one hand, his fingers always in motion, always looking for a place to settle, then once they settled, they were always sliding forward, back, around. Like he was learning the shape of the world, or relearning it, based on what passed beneath his fingers. “Yes.”

“What's that like?”

Bruce considered. “Interesting,” he said at last, and Clint grinned at him. “No, really. It's interesting.”

“How the hell do you put up with him?” Clint asked. “I'd put a fist in his face after about ten minutes.”

“That's because he's just like you, and you hate yourself,” Natasha said.

“I am nothing like him,” Clint said. “First of all, I'm poor. Second of all, I am not-” He waved a hand. “Crazy genius spastic snarky-” He glanced over and found them both staring at him. “Oh, no. No. You two are not allowed to bond. That's a bad idea, that's bad for all of us, fuck that.”

“Luckily, we don't need your permission,” Natasha said, her voice sweet. “Hey, Doc?” When Bruce glanced up at her, she asked, “Do you know what's going on with him and Fury? He's getting nastier around the Director, and I'd kind of like to know why, if it effects the rest of us.”

Bruce frowned. “I don't know,” he said. “I'm sorry. I've noticed it, too. At the meetings-”

“It's not just the meetings,” Clint said. “They've been bitching at each other behind closed doors, haven't they?” he asked Natasha, who nodded. He paused. “We know anything else about Ross' movements?”

“He's still making noise,” Natasha said, crossing her arms. “But he's not making any moves. We think he's trying to gain some support before he tries anything.”

Bruce nodded. “Tony told me,” he said, shifting his weight. “I can't say I'm happy. But I'm not surprised. He's very...” He sucked in a deep breath. “Determined.”

“He's psychotic,” Natasha said, flatly. “And obsessed.”

“What're we going to do about it?” Clint asked. He ignored Bruce's surprised look. “Nat?”

“Wait and see what he tries to pull,” she said. Her eyes flicked towards Bruce. “You can leave. But if you stay, I promised you-”

He waved a hand. “You said what you had to say. I won't hold you to it.”

“She doesn't say anything she doesn't want to say,” Clint said. “If she said it? She meant it.”

Bruce nodded. “Okay,” he said, and there was a note in his voice, maybe resignation, maybe hope. He boosted himself off the step. “I'm going to go grab a can of soda. You guys, you want something?”

“Anything with caffeine,” Clint said. Natasha echoed the sentiment, and Bruce was off across the park, his hands in his pockets, his shoulders drawn up tight. His head swung around with every step he took, watching, seeing, ducking out of the way of anyone in a uniform. “He going to be okay?” Clint asked Natasha.

She shrugged. “Why are you asking me?” she asked. “He likes you more than me.”

Clint chuckled. “I'm likeable.” He toed at the ground, wishing his headache would subside. “Nat? When I was down there? I thought... I thought I heard Phil.” He felt his eyes on him, and he refused to look in her direction. “I wouldn't blame you. If you had. But-”

“I didn't.” Clint nodded, and she continued. “I would've. If I'd had to. God knows we have enough recordings of him. But I didn't.”

Clint closed his eyes. “Okay,” he said. “Okay.” He braced his hands on the metal ledge beneath him. “I just thought-”

“I know.” Her hand came down on his shoulder. “Thank you.”

He glanced up. “For what?”

“For answering Rogers' call. For coming out. For fighting.” She paused. “For jumping when that building came down.”

Something froze in him. “Guess I don't want to die after all,” he said at last.

“Guess not,” she said. She leaned into his side, and together, they watched Steve and Tony argue over a hot dog cart while Thor ate hot dogs, one after another, and Bruce fumbled half a dozen cans of soda in his arms. “That's our team,” she said.

“We're royally fucked, Nat,” he said, and she laughed. He laughed, too, not because he had to. Because, for the first time in a long time, he felt like it.


“I'd like to go back to the paddle ball. I like the paddle ball now. Let's do that.”

“That ship has sailed, Barton. This is today's activity.”

Clint looked up. “Really. Really? 'Today's activity'?” he asked. “What the hell, do you have a little chart with ways to amuse me? Is this grade school? Kindergarten?”

“When your hands are occupied, you feel more relaxed. When you're relaxed, you are more likely to speak honestly,” she explained. “This particular task tests visual acuity, provides a sense of accomplishment and keeps you out of trouble for an hour or so.”

Clint stared at her. “I hate you.”

“Do your jigsaw puzzle, Clint.”

He sighed and went back to sorting what seemed like nine thousand bits of cardboard in varying shades of blue. “Why, exactly, did you choose a puzzle of polar bears, ice, and sky? There's two colors here: blue and white, and it's making me pissed off.”

“There's also black,” she pointed out. “The noses and the eyes.”

“I hate you,” Clint reiterated. He reached for the box.

“Speaking of things you profess to hate every single session, how do you feel about Director Fury this week?” she asked.

“Next question,” Clint said.

“How do you feel about Assistant Director Hill?”

“No,” Clint said, reaching for a furry looking piece.

“You already used your free pass,” she pointed out.

He wasn't sure why that was a rule, but he went with it anyway. “Hill is a company woman,” he said, his fingers working on setting the pieces together. “She'll do what needs doing and she'll do it at Fury's direction. We've run into each other a few times. She's screwed me over a few times.”

“You don't seem angry about that,” Dr. O'Brien said.

“Should I be?”

“Most people would.”

“They wouldn't last long at SHIELD.” Clint sorted through the pieces, looking for a paw. “She's good at her job. She's smart. She's tough. She's a better soldier than I ever was.”

“Will you be comfortable with her leading the Avengers?”

Clint snorted. “She can try.”

“You don't think it'll work?”

“I don't think that anyone can 'lead' the Avengers,” he said. “Captain America's got that job, and I don't envy him. But no. I don't think that Tony or Bruce would trust her.”

“You do?”

He shrugged. “I don't have to trust her. I just have to know how to deal with her.” He set out another half dozen pieces in quick succession. “I don't think everyone can.”

“Do you like them?” Dr. O'Brien asked.

Clint frowned. “Who? The Avengers? Sure.”

“Do you really?”

He took a deep breath, frustration bleeding through. “I don't have to like them. I don't have to like anyone. I just have to follow orders. I have to show up. I have to do my fucking job. I have to-” He stopped, rotated his shoulders. “You don't have to like your coworkers.”

“It makes it easier when you're trusting them with your life,” Dr. O'Brien said, her writing pausing for a moment so she could reach for a puzzle piece. “Or when you don't have to come when they call.” Clint shrugged. “You did. Come when Rogers asked you to.”

“You mean when he said, 'let's go?'” Clint asked, rolling his eyes. “There wasn't much asking being done.”

“You went,” O'Brien said. “Why?”

“My hair appointment wasn't until five, I had time,” Clint said, his voice caustic. “So, any other questions?”

“I don't know what Thor's or Bruce's birds are,” she said.

“What makes you think they have one?”

“Because that is how you're handling this team,” she said. “How you create distance.” She set her pen down and leaned back in her chair. “What is Bruce's bird?”

He stared her down. She didn't blink. Didn't flinch. He hated when he felt a sense of respect for this woman; it made it so much harder to tell her to fuck off. He reached for a piece of sky. “Bruce is a European Magpie.”

She didn't gloat. He appreciated that. “Tell me about magpies.”

“Oh, c'mon, Doc, you know magpies. They're common enough.” He spread the pieces out on the table in front of him. “They're corvids, one of the smallest of the Corvae family, same as crows and ravens and jays. They're small, for that family, but they're smart. Very smart.

“All the corvids are,” Clint said, his fingers sliding over the edge of the puzzle piece. “So, I mean, I could've gone with any of them. Ravens are strong and clever. Crows adapt. Jays are fast and aggressive.

“But magpies... Magpies are quick, and clever. They use tools, they form bonds, they create packs to deal with predators, they're protective and they change tactics to ward off danger. They mix well with humans, unless, well, unless they're harassed. Then they become evasive, secretive. Cautious.” He smiled. “There are superstitions about magpies, old ones. That they're ill omens, they bring bad fortune. I guess because they have an eye for the shiny, for the new, they like interesting things, they'll surround themselves with bits of things, anything metallic or shiny. Anything that fascinates the bird.”

“Dr. Banner doesn't seem like the sort to be after valuables.”

“You've never seen him around Tony's tech,” Clint said, grinning. “Or SHIELD's. He lights up, he gets faster, he gets louder. He likes shiny things, trust me.

“But really? Bruce is a European Magpie because it's one of the few animals, and the only non-mammal in the world, to recognize itself in the mirror.” His lips twitched. “It's shown proof of self-awareness. That's intelligence on a whole other level, something only a couple of species has ever demonstrated.

“Bruce knows who he is. He knows what he is. He doesn't flinch from that. He doesn't like it, he doesn't deal with it well, sometimes. But he knows. He refuses to lie to himself.”

Dr. O'Brien waited for his words to come to a stumbling halt. “What truth does he see?”

Clint took a deep breath. “That he doesn't have to let his circumstances define him. He doesn't have to become a monster, just because that's how the world sees him. He can still-” He paused, inhaled. “Pass me the box. I'm not doing puzzles again.”

“We can play jacks next time.”

Chapter Text

“Thanks to this, well, this and the Hulk thing, I'm SURE it's the Hulk thing, I'm back on double therapy sessions, which is just fucking WONDERFUL,” Clint gritted out, “so can we just drop this? Can we please do that?”

Natasha was silent, still, behind the wheel of the car. She didn't look in his direction, didn't speak, didn't so much as acknowledge what he was saying. She just stared straight ahead, watching the road with narrowed eyes. Some people got reckless when they were mad. Natasha used the turn signal like it was a knife, sharp and precise and vicious.

“C'mon, Nat, I made one goddamn mistake!” he said, telling himself that he absolutely wasn't begging. It was a lie, but he was well used to those by now. “Who's really prepared for a giant squid rolling its way through the center of Manhattan? When did this become our job?”

She let out a faint exhale, almost, but not quite, a sigh. “Shut up, Barton. We'll talk when we get home.”

Clint resented the ache in his stomach, the feeling of guilt, of something like fear. That she was done with him, too, that she was sick of dealing with all of this, sick of dealing with HIM. It wasn't like her small, barely furnished apartment was very much like home, but right now?

It was all he had.

He closed his eyes, leaning his head back on the headrest. He could fake sleep with the best of them, and she'd either be glad to have him shut up, or she'd be pissed at the transparency of the gambit. Either way, he could sit in silence without being obligated to feel bad about it. He wrapped his arms close around his chest, huddling against the door, as he had on a thousand different ops.

If he slept, or just feigned it, he didn't know, but the car door slamming brought his eyes open again. Natasha was leaning against the car, her back to the window. Tired, frustrated, he reached for the door handle. She didn't say a word, she just waited until he was out to lock the doors and head for the elevator. Clint trailed behind her, his feet heavy on the floor.

The building was still and silent, and her apartment was just more of the same. He stood in the darkness, his shoulders against the wall, as she went through the motions with the locks, the alarm system, pacing off the perimeter, slow and careful and precise. Reentering the kitchen, she met his eyes for the first time since they'd left SHIELD.

“Sit down.” Natasha pointed at one of the kitchen chairs, and Clint considered flipping her off, and heading for the shower. But a quick glance at her face made it clear that today was not a day to be messing with her. She was at her limit, or as close as he'd ever seen her get, and that was terrifying. On some level, that was completely terrifying.

He sank into the seat, slumped low, his shoulders hunched forward, his arms crossed over his chest. She flicked on the lights, and the coffee pot, and picked something up from the counter. She walked back to the table, but she didn't take a seat. Instead, she dropped two small black volumes in front of him.

Clint pushed his chair back, pushing himself to his feet. “No.”

Her hand closed on his shoulder. “I'm done with this,” she said, and she didn't look at him, she didn't look anywhere in his direction, but her voice held the smallest vibration, and her grip on his shoulder was brutal. “I'm done with you avoiding the issue.” She shoved, hard, putting him back in his seat.

“I'm not avoiding anything,” Clint snapped at her.

She stared at him, her eyes dark and dull. “'Call it, Coulson,'” she said, her voice soft, and Clint winced. He jerked his gaze away from hers, but not fast enough. “Over the comms. 'Call it, Coulson.'”

Clint resisted the urge to just throw something. “One fucking mistake!”

“One mistake, one mistake one mistake, I heard you!” Natasha bit off. She slapped her hand down on the books. “I heard you over the comms, expecting a dead man to answer you, because you are not dealing with this!”

Clint stared down at the books, and he could taste blood and bile and ash in his mouth. He pinched his lips closed, hard, doing his best to hold himself still. His right hand was shaking, and he couldn't even fight that anymore.

She took a deep breath. “So we are going to deal with this. With what you are avoiding.” Without relinquishing her grip on his shoulder, Nat reached over and flipped one of the volumes open. “My books,” she snapped out. “This is my most recent book.”

“I don't know what you're talking about,” Clint said, his eyes unfocused, staring at some middle space so he didn't see the neat, precise lines of script, every letter perfectly formed, the black ink as smooth as the paper. There were no hesitations, no mistakes, no blotches. Just the smooth, effortless recording of thoughts that had already been carefully considered.

“Bullshit,” Natasha said. Clint tried to stand, and she wrenched him back down. “You know what this is. You saw Coulson fill them.”

“Nat, I can't-”

“No, you WON'T, and this isn't working, this whole denial thing, it's useless, we're done, you're going to die, you're going to die because you won't see that is the last thing he wanted.” She leaned over, her face in his, her eyes huge and liquid, her mouth pinched tight. “Look at this.”

Clint stared at the table, silent, unseeing.

She hissed out a word or two in Russian. “Fine, you want to play dumb? This is Phil Coulson's record on me. He kept them on all of his agents, nothing classified, nothing even secret, just notations, just coded notes to himself, how to handle us, and what we couldn't handle.” She flipped the page, one after another, so many precise pages of script, the words nonsense.

“Yeah, great,” Clint said. “His diary?” He smirked at her, bitterness twisting his face. “Too bad the way to decode them died with him.”

“We don't need to read them.” She stabbed a finger at the pages. “My books. Everyone's books, to be honest, all of them are like this. All of them except-” She flipped open the other book. “Except yours.”

Against his will, Clint's eyes sharpened, catching sight of the page before he could stop himself. And his stomach dropped out.

It was a mess.

Things were scribbled in, crossed out, corrected. One block of text had been rendered to a black mass, the pen digging into the page and ripping at the texture of it as the author attempted to remove every trace of the words. Things were underlined, capitalized randomly. Text went sideways, upside down, notations made on top of notations, obscuring them. Reinforcing them. Negating them.

The page was a riot of mismatched strokes and inks, attempts and failures and more attempts. Words slid in all directions, angled forward and dipping below the line, letters at war with themselves.

Natasha laid the books next to each other. “The same man,” she said, and her voice was shaking. “The same good man wrote both of these.” Her fingers flattened over the pages, overlapping the slim volumes. “He loved you.”

Clint shoved at the table, hard enough to almost overturn it. It scraped against the floor, the legs dragging with the force of it. One of the books slid free, banging on the tile “I'm done,” he said, wrench free of her grip. “Stop it, you don't know what the fuck you're talking about.”

“Yes, I do.” She didn't move, didn't press her advantage, even as Clint stumbled out of his chair, away, away, anywhere that was away. He collided with the wall and huddled there, his fingers sinking into his own biceps. His breath was hollow and harsh to his own ears, but Natasha just stared at him, her eyes dark and sad and full of pity. “He loved you, Clint.”

Clint didn't realize his hands were over his ears, but they were, pressing in with all the force he could muster. “Shut UP,” he said, and it was broken.

She leaned over, collecting the book from the ground. He flinched, but she didn't move in his direction, didn't even look at him. Instead, she cradled the journal in one hand, turning the pages with care, smoothing away the wrinkles. “This is a man in chaos,” she said, and there was a smile on her lips and tears in her voice. “This is a heart laid bare. You twisted him in knots, you turned him upside down and inside out, and he didn't even fight it any more.” Her head dipped. “He had to have looked at this, and known what it meant. He knew what it showed. But he didn't destroy them, he didn't try to make himself do anything but what came naturally.”

She looked up, and there were tears on her cheeks. “He loved you, and this-” She held up the book, held it between them like a relic. “This is what he left for you. Because he couldn't leave you anything else, but he left you this, Clint.”

Clint was laughing now, harsh and hard and thick against his throat. The sound ripped out of him, unforgiving. “So this is, what? I love letter? What the fuck do you think that I'm supposed to make of this?” he snarled. “Is this supposed to make it better?”

Natasha smiled, sad and thin. “Did you ever tell him you loved him?”

Clint swung at her, a useless strike; she was well out of reach, she didn't even need to move, to dodge. She just stared at him, pity and sadness mingling in her eyes. “Did you ever tell him you loved him?”

He swung again, an inarticulate sound forcing its way through him, slipping out like blood from an open wound. This time, Natasha darted in to meet him, to block the flat of his arm, her fist coming up to slam into the inside of his elbow. Knocking him back, she slammed the volume into the center of his chest, pinning it there with one hand.

“Did you tell him you loved him?” she asked, her voice soft.

“Love,” he told her, his smile bitter, “is for children.” The weight of the book was heavy against his breastbone; it was difficult to breathe. “Isn't that what you told me?”

Natasha blinked, a slow, careful sweep of her lashes. “You are a child, Clint. And you love like one.”

“Go fuck yourself,” he said, and she shoved hard against the book, against his breastbone, knocking him back against the wall. She released the book, and it tumbled into his lap. He wanted to knock it away, and couldn't bear to touch it. He stared down at it, with the same consideration that he might've shown a snake about to strike.

She exhaled, slow and pained. “Did you tell him you loved him?”

“I never said it,” he gritted out. “I never said it and he died anyway, but I didn't-” He stopped, too late, far too late, her eyes were huge in her pale face. Clint jerked to his feet, his legs almost going out from under him as he struggled to get himself up and moving. He grabbed for the wall, using it to steady himself, already stumbling for the hall.

“People don't die because you tell them you love them, Clint,” she said. And it was so gentle it nearly broke him.

He fumbled for a grip on the counter, the cabinet, anything he could get a hold of to hold himself steady. “I know that.”

“Do you?” Her footsteps were audible as she came up behind him. It was deliberate, it was her babying him, making sure he knew where she was before her hand came to rest on the plane of his back. “Clint. Loving people doesn't make them-”


There was a beat of silence, then her fingers were sliding across his back, going low to loop around his waist. “No,” she said, her voice sad. “You don't.” Her breath was warm, even through his shirt, her cheek resting against his spine. “He loved you. He never told you, either, did he.” It wasn't a question, but Clint's hands fisted against the wall. Natasha sighed. “He was always so afraid of pushing you into something. He was so careful with you, sometimes, because he never wanted you to feel trapped.”

Her lips pressed against his shoulder blade. “He loved you,” she whispered. “And so do I.”

Clint was sick of fighting, sick of pretending. “You left, too.”

“I know.” His shirt felt damp against his skin, where she leaned her cheek, and he knew she was crying. “I did. I won't apologize for that.”

Clint sucked in a breath, and another. “I never told him,” he said, his voice a raw sob. He felt his body pitch to the side, and grabbed for the counter. It wasn't enough, and Natasha let him fall. Natasha went with him. He huddled in the corner, where the cabinet and the wall met, where he could put his back against the wall, and Natasha crawled into his lap, curling against his chest. Clint buried his face in her hair. “I never told him,” he whispered, his voice broken. “And he's gone anyway.”

“He knew,” she said.

He choked on an ugly laugh. “I couldn't- I didn't want to risk it. It doesn't, you know, go well for me,” he whispered, and he couldn't see her face, and she couldn't see his. It made this easier, somehow. “It just doesn't. I don't think-” He sucked in a breath, and the pain was overwhelming. “God, I am such a coward.”

“If you were,” she said, “so was he.” Her arms slid up to wrap around his neck. “A matched pair, the two of you, always picking your way through mine fields with such care, and missing the tactical warhead.” She held on tight. “I miss him so much.”

Clint latched onto her, his arms pinning her too hard, too close, and he should let her go. He shouldn't do this, shouldn't cling, shouldn't hold on like this. But she was clinging to him, almost as hard, her fingers digging into his neck, her nails leaving pinpricks of pain. He didn't care. And neither did she. She was sobbing against his neck, her breath hot and her tears cold on his skin.

She crawled into his lap, and he curled himself around her, the two of them in a fight to get closer, to draw some comfort from the contact. Her lips were on his neck, on the hollow of his throat, and he buried his face in her hair to hide his lack of tears.

She knew, she always knew, and she never judged him for it.

He whispered something against her hair, and it was not the words. He refused to say them. It seemed wrong. It seemed horrible, like a betrayal, to say the words to her, when he couldn't manage the courage to say them to Phil. To Phil, who'd been nothing but patient with him, nothing but kind, nothing but the solid, stable center of his world.

Her face was wet when she pulled away, her lips as swollen as her eyes. She didn't cry pretty, did Natasha, but she cried honestly. He stroked a thumb under her eye, brushing away the wetness there. He rubbed it between his fingers, smoothing it away. She smiled at him.

And put the book in his hand, folding his fingers around it. “He loved you,” she said, and he nodded.

“Yeah,” he said, tired and worn. He ducked his head, and with his arms still full of Natasha, he let the volume fall open. “Think we can figure this out?”

Natasha pressed a kiss to his jaw. “We knew Phil's work habits better than anyone.” She settled down, curled beside him instead of in his lap. “I bet we can.”

“Fury probably knew him better,” Clint said. His fingers traced along the edges of the book, along the edges of the pages.

“Fury doesn't care about his last words,” Natasha said.

“Fury got his last words,” Clint said.

Natasha was silent. “Only if you don't learn to read this,” she said, and there was a smile in her voice, a soft smile.

“Reading's not my specialty,” he pointed out. He leaned his chin on the top of her hair, and she slotted her head against his shoulder. She fit there, so perfectly that it should've hurt, but somehow it didn't. There was just warmth and comfort in holding her there.

“But Phil Coulson was your specialty,” she whispered, catching his hand in hers and weaving their fingers together.

He took a deep breath, and opened the book. He expected, he braced himself for a stab of pain. But as he stared down at the familiar, beloved handwriting, he found himself smiling, almost against his will. He traced the loop of a letter with one finger, the motion echoing the movement of Phil's pen. Like a ghost, he followed the writing, slow and careful. “Yeah, I guess he was.”

Funny. That didn't hurt to think about, either.


“That's lovely.”

Clint jumped, his hand going instinctively for where his holster should be, but his hip was bare, and he was in SHIELD's main building, and he knew that voice. He let his hand fall back to his side. “Sorry, what?” he said, managing a smile.

Frigga was hovering in the doorway of the waiting room. It was a bit off the beaten path, and Clint had retreated here to hide for a bit. He wondered how Frigga had ended up here. “The song. It was lovely.” Her hands were folded in front of her, her gown swirling around her feet. The fabric glittered in the light, even as she stood motionless. “May I join you?”

“Oh, sure.” Clint gave her a faint smile, and waved her in. “Have a seat. Are you alone?”

“I have learned to slip away from my handlers, from time to time.” She crossed to the seat and lowered herself into it with a faint sigh. “They are very kind people, very well intentioned, but it is a burden, from time to time, to have an escort.” She smiled at Clint. “I am unused to it. And you are the only one here who will speak to me without weighing your words and your priorities first.”

Clint chuckled under his breath. “Glad my big mouth comes in handy.”

She smiled, real now, wide and warm. “It reminds me of home, to have someone speak frankly to me, even here,” she said. “And it does have some advantages. The song was lovely.”

Clint's amusement died away. “What song?”

“The one you were just singing.” Her head tipped to the side. “It was you, was it not?”

He opened his mouth, about to deny that, but... “Was I?” he asked. “I didn't-” His hand rubbed at his throat, feeling it flex beneath his fingertips. He remembered humming the song in his head, but he didn't realize he'd been singing aloud.

“It was lovely,” she repeated. “But sad. What is it from?”

“It's an old folk song,” he said, with a shrug.

“'The water is wide,'” she said, making an attempt at the tune. “'I cannot get o'er.'” She paused. “It is melancholy. Sad.”

Clint folded his arms over his chest. “Yeah, well, it's about lost love, which is what most old folk song are about. So that makes sense.”

Frigga's eyes went dark, sadness seeping into her expression. “You've lost someone.”

“I had a lover.” Clint wasn't sure why he said it. He didn't mean to. But the words were stable. Solid. He rolled them over in his mind, feeling the rightness of them, of being able to say them to this woman. Frigga's gaze was clear and direct. There was sorrow in her face, but no pity. Clint felt himself smile, because Phil always made him smile, because even the thought of Phil could make him smile. Even now. He could remember Phil and smile. “He died.”

Frigga's eyes widened, then went sharp. “Such a loss is impossible to bear, but must be borne. My sympathies on your loss.” Her hands folded together in her lap, the knuckles going white with the force of her grip. “Was it Loki?”

“It was me,” Clint said. He wondered where the calm was coming from, whether is was her that was causing it, was making it seem fine to say these things, to believe these things.

Her eyes closed. “It was my son,” she said. Her chin dipped. “How do you tolerate me? Or Thor?”

Clint shifted his weight, muscles flexing in his legs, in his back as he struggled to hold himself still. “He- My lover, I mean, he liked Thor,” Clint said at last. “So did I. Still do.” The fingers of his right hand rolled against his arm. “It's not Thor's fault. Or yours.”

“Then it is not yours, either.” Frigga looked up. “It is Loki's, and Loki's alone. When you take that sin for him, you absolve him of it, and this, you should not do.” There was a curl that had slipped loose from her upswept hair, a single curl that rested against her cheek, making her skin seem even paler, even more like exquisitely carved marble. “You must not do this,” she said. “Do not let your sense of guilt change what happened. And how it came to pass.”

“I think there's enough guilt to go around,” Clint said. He took a seat. “Don't you?”

“Perhaps.” Her fingers flexed, and there was a tremor to her hands that he hadn't noticed before, almost invisible against the backdrop of her skirt. But she twisted her fingers together, pale and strained, and he knew that the whole thing, this whole thing, was taking a toll on her.

“You look, uh, you look tired,” he said at last.

She glanced up, her eyes full of shadows. “I am,” she said, at last. “My work has not gone as I would've chosen.” Her face went tired and soft, muted and empty. “But when does one's work come easily, if it is work worth doing?”

Clint smiled. “I guess.” He leaned forward, putting his elbows on his knees and putting the full weight on them. “You, uh, got a lot of things to do? Here, I mean?”

“I have a tasks I have undertaken, for the service of your people, and mine own,” she said, her voice soft. “I would see them through to the end, if I can. I seek to find a measure of peace for both our peoples, before the rage of some would lead us again to war.” She took a deep breath, the slim length of her shoulders rising with it. “What task brings you here, Clint?”

He tipped his chin towards the door. “Uh, I've got a therapy appointment in an hour, so I'm hiding. It's-” He folded himself back against the chair, letting his legs slide out in front of him. “It's a thing.” He realized that he'd crossed his arms over his chest, and made an effort to drop them to his sides.

“What is therapy?” she asked, her brows drawing up in a curious little twist.

“I sit in a room, and tell a woman about my mother,” he said, his voice caustic. “This is supposed to make my life better somehow.”

Her lips twitched. “You do not like discussing your mother?”

“Not really.”

“Did she fail you, then?”

Clint paused. “What? No. I mean- What?”

“Mothers,” Frigga said, with a faint smile, “are often only remembered for their failings. The kindness and affection of a mother is taken as expected, as the world should be. It goes unremarked. Unremembered. Only when a mother ceases to live up to that expectation does she became someone of note in a child's life.” She glanced up, and her face was pale, sharp at the edges. “Did your mother fail you?”

“She died,” Clint said. He stood, the tension driving him to move. “My father was a son-of-a-bitch who drank, and hit her, and hit us. And hit her when she tried to get between him and us.” He bit out a laugh, and there was no humor in it. “He drank, and he drove drunk, and she died. He killed himself, too, but he got what had coming to him. She didn't.” Clint took a breath, and another, struggling to relax the tense muscles in his shoulders and back. “You said you knew drunk, violent men. Well, so do I.”

His fingers flexed, and it ached in his bones. “I know just what drunk, violent men can do. So did my mother.”

“She loved you,” Frigga said.

“That's kind of damning with faint praise,” Clint said. He rubbed a hand over his face, the press of bone against bone, as if the muscle and skin wasn't there. “When the only thing you can find to say is that she loved me.” He thrust his hand away. “She was my mother.”

“And what does that mean?” Frigga asked.

Clint shrugged. “Of course she loved me. She was my mother.”

Frigga was staring at the window, her face as blank as a marble mask, a mask that fit so tightly over her features as to be second nature. “It is a lie we are told,” she said, one finger sliding along the embroidery of her skirt. Her nail picked out the fragile threads, her fingers walking along the work. “That mothers must love their children. We are told that it is in their nature, in the nature of the bond. That to be a mother is to love, without reservation, your child.” Her finger tensed, pushing hard against at glittering thread. “When, in truth, whether the mother loves her child has little to do with the child and all to do with the mother.”

Clint shifted in his seat, his skin too tight, his muscles jumping. “You love your kids,” he said at last, head down. “You said you loved Loki.” He gave a bitter little chuckle. “I'm sorry about that.”

Her head came up. “Loki was the abandoned child of our enemy,” she said, the words stark in their bare truth. “He was left to die in the wake of a great battle. It was the pity of Odin, the all-father, which brought him to Asgard, which brought him to my keeping.” Her eyes were wet, but she didn't shed a tear. “And I despised him.”

He was still, as still as he could get, his breathing loud in his ears. Not sure what to say, he said nothing, and that seemed to be the right choice.

“Does it surprise you to hear that? That when Odin carried him home, and laid him in my arms, there was only rage in my breast. Rage and resentment.” She met Clint's eyes, and her lips turned up in a sharp, cutting smile. “Who was he, to carry home the young of our enemy? To lay that burden on me as he turned away, feeling so righteous about the one life he'd saved, when so many others had passed unto death?

“But Odin called me a mother, and handed me a child not of my line, and not of my choosing. An alien babe, helpless and broken and wanting. A child who screamed, day and night, fragile and tiny and desperately needy, and I was expected to care for him. To love him. Because I was a mother.”

She took a deep breath, it shuddered through her with a physical force. Her face pale, her eyes haunted, she leaned forward, her hands in fists upon her lap. “I resented the man who decided for me what course my life would take. I resented that babe, full of need and desperation. I resented his own parents, who left him to die, alone and unremarked. I resented my own heart, when it softened to him.”

Frigga took a deep breath, and another, the sound hissing through the room. Clint didn't flinch from her eyes, and her lips twitched. “I love him. I love him so deeply that I cannot find words to explain it. I love him, and it is too weak a word for how I feel for my child, and at the same time, it is too harsh a word. He is Loki, he is my Loki, he is my child, and he is but a piece of me.”

Her eyes closed. “I wish I did not. I wish I could not. I wish I could cut him from my heart, or cut my heart free of him.”

Clint was silent. He just sat there, eyes on her, refusing to look away.

Frigga's lips went tight. “I would do it. If I could.” Her fingers stroked up her bodice, coming to rest over the pale skin of her throat. “But I can't. Do you judge me for it?”

He swallowed. “No,” he said at last. “We all do what we have to, to survive.”

“We all do what we can to avoid pain,” she said, her smile trembling. “I would take the pain, I would accept it all, if I could believe, if I could believe that he ever truly loved me.”

Her face crumbled. “I bleed for that, to ask him if he ever loved me, if my care, my comfort, meant anything to him. If the centuries of my love so faded to insignificance beside the words of his father that I never mattered at all.” For the first time, the first time since he'd first seen her, Frigga seemed not so much a Goddess capable of commanding a world to her whim, but a woman, fierce and proud and broken, all at once.

“I love him still, and it means so little,” she whispered. Her shaking hands came up to cover her face. “And perhaps he doubted me all along. Perhaps he never believed that I loved him.

“Because if he had, he would not have done what he did.” Her head fell forward into her hands, the thin fingers covering her face, shielding her grief. “If he had any consideration for me at all. He would never have left me wondering why.”

Clint shifted, crossing his arms over his chest, hitching his arms close and tight against his body. “Look,” he said, not sure why he was even attempting, what comfort he thought he could give. “Look, it's not- Some kids are just fucked up. It's not their parents. It's just... That they aren't right.” He met her eyes, a quick flick of his eyes, before he shifted his gaze back to the windows. “All the love in the world can't fix that. All the care and comfort can't-” He shrugged, out of words, tired of trying. “Some wounds, love can't fix.”

Her breath was thin and thready. It shuddered in the air between them. “You count yourself in that.”

He spread his hands. “Pretty sure this wasn't the sort of son my mother'd hoped for.”

“Mothers hope their sons be strong and proud and healthy and safe. Mothers hope their sons will be loved, and will love.” She took a deep breath, and it seemed to steady her. Her face pale, she let her eyes fall closed. “The best mothers pray to the heavens that her son will be loved the way she loved him.”

He hadn't thought this much about his mother in years. There was no pain to the thought, not now, not the way that he'd expect it to. Maybe he should talk to Dr. O'Brien about her; it might distract her from other, less pleasant topics.

“Yeah, well, I wish she hadn't,” Clint said at last, running a hand over his hair. He liked the contact, the tactile reminder of the here and now. The reminder that he was not that child any more. The one his mother had loved. “I wish she'd just left. Before he had a chance to kill her.”

Frigga stood, slowly, so slowly, as if the act took a monumental effort. “Love marks us,” she said, at last. “You carry the mark of your mother. Not her love for you, but the way in which you loved her. Your love forever marks you, it is something you will carry until the end of your days. Not that you are worthy of being loved, because that has little to do with it.

“But that you loved. No matter the cost.”

Clint glanced at her. “Is that supposed to make me feel better?”

Frigga's lips turned up. “I cannot help how you feel, Clint. I can only tell you how I feel.” She inclined her head, graceful and regal. “I love both my sons, no matter if they are deserving of it or not, no matter if they return my affections. Perhaps it was the same with your mother, that she preferred to know that she had done the best she could by you, than face having failed you. No matter what the risks.”

Clint stared at the window, trying to avoid his own reflection. “Frigga?” She paused, he could see the faint ghost of her in the glass. “I'm sorry for your loss.” She was still behind him, and Clint refused to turn around. “I don't claim to understand it. But I'm sorry.”

There was silence, a long silence that should've weighed on him. But when she spoke, he missed it.

“My heart is broken, but even a broken heart can beat. Even a broken heart can heal. Even a broken heart can sustain me.” Her head came up. “I will forever be grateful for your kindness. And I will remember your song, and carry that with me.”

Clint smiled. “Next time,” he said, “show up at the bar before I'm quite that drunk, and I'll teach you some better ones.” He blinked, just one blink, and when his eyes opened, she was beside him. She paused, and he wondered why he was permitting this, even as he leaned forward. Her lips brushed against his forehead, and lingered there.

“Thank you, Clint Barton. By what skill I possess, what gifts I was given, what grace I've earned, I will restore your heart to your keeping.”

He kept his eyes closed as she pulled away, and he heard her footsteps, light and steady, fade away. He took a deep breath, and the air smelled like flowers and something warm and sweet. He tried not to remember that as it faded away.


"I need to put a collar on you."

"We don't have that kind of relationship, Nat," Clint said, never looking up from the steady sweep of his knife against the cutting board. "I mean, I offered-"

"There's not a leash long enough in the world," Natasha said, and he laughed.

Clint shoved the strips of brightly colored pepper to the side with a sweep of his knife before looking up. Natasha was cutting through the shadowy space, her steps assured, and right behind her, Bruce was picking his way through the drop cloth covered furniture, his expression curious. "Hey, Doc. How're you doing today?"

"What?" Bruce's head snapped around. "Oh, fine." His lips twitched, a little too tight and a little too thin, but it was a smile. "Thank you for asking."

"Are you cooking?" Natasha slid onto one of the bare bar stools, not even bothering to brush off the dust. She tipped her head back, sniffing the air. "You are. Great. I'm hungry."

"Who invited you?" Clint asked, even as he halved an onion with a quick snap of his wrist. He'd left most of the lights off, but the row of hanging lamps over the bar were casting enough light to be comfortable.

She sniffed again, her arms folded in front of her. "Onion, garlic, tomato, and peppers," she said, arching one eyebrow. "Tomato sauce, there's no way you didn't make enough to feed a small army." She waited until he finished with the onion he was working on, then reached for the knife. "Give it here. Your knife skills are pathetic."

"You want to do the grunt work, feel free." He pushed the paper bag of vegetables in her direction. "You know where the sink is." Bruce was still hovering a few paces back, and Clint gave him a smile. "You hungry? It's nothing fancy, just pasta and sauce, an' I'm going to fry up some sweet Italian sausage with some stuff." He shifted his weight. "I've got plenty."

Bruce blinked at him. "Are you sure? I mean, I wasn't-"

Clint dipped his head towards the seats at the bar. "Yeah. I don't do well cooking for one." His smile a bit tense, but he held it until Bruce slipped onto a stool. After that, it felt far more natural. "You got any allergies, shit like that? You vegetarian?"

"No, I mean, I try to control my diet, it seems to help with the, well, the mood swings, and the other guy, so-" He shrugged. "It's not a hard and fast thing, I just try not to make a habit of eating meat."

"Gotcha." Clint pulled open a drawer and pulled out a simple paring knife. “We'll keep the sausage on the side, your choice.” He glanced up in time to see the longing sort of expression on Bruce's face. Clint flipped the knife around, catching the blade in between the knuckles of two fingers. “Here, Doc. If you're gonna eat, you gotta work. Make yourself useful.”

It took him a second, but Bruce took the knife. “What do you need me to do?”

Natasha pushed the bag towards him. “Cut some peppers into strips for me?” She tipped her chin back behind the bar. “You can scrub at the sink before the surgery.”

Bruce's lips twitched. “I think I can manage that.”

“Just so you're warned, she has standards,” Clint told him.

“Someone around here has to,” Natasha told him with a sweet smile. She slashed at the back of his fingers when he reached for the bits of mushroom on the cutting board. He managed to snag a single slice, mostly because she let him.

"What is this place?" Bruce asked, his voice curious. "I mean, we're still in the SHIELD building right? Why didn't we take the elevators?"

"I think it was originally supposed to be like, the SHIELD equivalent of an officer's club. Limited access, reserved for the top layers of management. Or for small, secure gatherings." Clint fished a couple of plates off of the shelf under the bar and carried them over to the sink. He tossed Bruce the soap. "Meet and greets that you couldn't have in public. But Fury never used it. I found it when I was going through the duct work."

"Through the-" Bruce gaped at him. "Why would you be in the duct work?"

Clint shrugged. "I like to keep my skills sharp. I've probably been over most of this building, just sticking with the ventilation and access systems."

"And the elevators and general access down here was cut off years ago," Natasha said, making quick work of a pile of mushrooms. "Only way we've found in is either the ventilation system or the fire stairs." Her lips quirked up. "And unlike Clint, I'm not a fan of the ventilation system."

"Ah, me, neither, thank you for taking the stairs," Bruce said, and Natasha smiled. "It seems like a waste, though. It's furnished."

"And the kitchen's small, but it's adequate." Clint shrugged. "Makes a good hiding place, as long as you don't mind the dust."

“Do we have permission to use it?” Bruce asked.

“Permission is only for people who are going to get caught,” Natasha pointed out. “Clint, where's the pasta?”

“Bag, over there,” Clint said. He pointed to the sack from the little Italian grocery. “Linguine. Fresh.” She made a pleased sound and Clint wiped his hand on his apron. “Should be enough for the three of us, even if Banner over eats-”

“Six,” Natasha said, calm about it.

Clint stared at her. “Did you- Did you tell the others where to find us?”

“I did.” She glanced up. “Oh, did I tell everyone where your super secret hideout is?” Her lips twitching, she tried to look sympathetic. It was a miserable failure. “Sorry, you're just gonna have to let the other boys into your secret club.”

“I don't-” Clint gritted his teeth. “I can't feed Rogers and Thor.”

“Sure you can, you never buy less than several pounds of pasta at a time, you do this every time.”

“I like pasta.” He rubbed both hands over his face. “And what would you have done if I wasn't cooking?”

“Called out for pizza.”

“I hate you,” Clint said, and Natasha laughed.

“It's not like I would've used your card to pay for it,” she said.

“Yes, you would've!”

“Okay, I would have.”

Bruce was laughing now, trying to be quiet about it, trying not to call attention to himself, but his eyes were squeezed shut, his shoulders shuddering with the force of it. As they both looked in his direction, he snorted, ducking his head. “Sorry,” he choked out, his voice wavering on the simple word. “Sorry, I just-” He shook his head, giggles sneaking out from between his clenched teeth.

“I think we broke him,” Clint said, and he grinned when Bruce looked up, his eyes dancing.

“He's made of tougher stuff than that,” Nat said, patting Bruce on the shoulder. “I'm going to go check on the rest of our guests.”

“We don't have guests,” Clint yelled at her retreating back. “We have uninvited interlopers!”

“I invited them,” she said.

“Who invited you?” Clint laughed as she flipped him off. “That woman will be the death of me,” he said to Bruce, who was still chopping neatly at the veggies. “Avenge me.”

“No,” Bruce said, grinning down at his hands. He glanced up, eyebrows arching. “I think that's a little too co-dependent, even for us.”

Clint paused. “You don't owe me anything, Doc. Don't worry about it.”

He lay the knife down. “No. I think-” He paused, his brow creasing as he thought about it. “It's more- I'm so unused to having anyone I could depend on. So it doesn't bother me.” He glanced up, his mouth curling up on one side, self-mockery in his face. “It's kind of a relief.”

Clint wiped his hands on a bar towel. “You're a practical sort, aren't you, Dr. Banner?”

His smile stretched, became real, even as Clint watched. “I think I'm in good company there.”

“I'm a lot of things.” Clint tossed the paring knife with a flick of his wrist and caught it. “Practical ain't on the list, Doc.”

“Don't you think so?” Bruce asked.

“I try not to think.”

“How's that working out for you?”

“Well, I'm in therapy,” Clint mused, and Bruce started to laugh. Clint grinned, pleased with himself. There was something primal, something real about Bruce's laughter.

“Okay, next time I'm choosing the restaurant, because, wow. No.”

“No one invited you, Stark!” Clint said, without even looking up from the cutting board. “Feel free to choose another restaurant now!”

“No, this one smells good.” Tony wandered in, hands in his pockets, chin up, shoulders back, all but strutting his way around the shadowy lounge. “Nice place you've got here, Barton. Fire the cleaning crew, but other than that, this is workable.”

“Stop thinking that everything you survey is your little kingdom,” Clint shot back, grinning despite himself.

“I don't know, I think I could do great things with this.” Tony wandered around the back of the bar. “Needs more booze.”

“This is a workplace,” Steve said, from the door. The words should've been disapproving, but they missed their mark, and there was a faint smile on his face, as if he found Stark's antics amusing.

“Workplaces are even better with some classic libations,” Tony told him, waving one hand in Steve's general direction. Steve rolled his eyes, but his smile only got bigger.

“Sorry,” he said to Clint. “Are we interrupting?”

“We're always interrupting, because he needs interrupting,” Natasha said, nudging him towards the bar. “When's dinner?”

“When the sauce is ready.” Clint reached under the bar. “Make a salad,” he said, tossing her a bowl. She caught it one handed, and held it out to Steve, who took it from her. “Where's Thor?”

“Arguing with Fury,” Tony said, tapping a light fixture. A faint shower of dust came floating down, and his nose wrinkled. “I wanted to stay and watch, but Cap thought it lacked dignity to stand there with popcorn.”

“Less the popcorn, more the chortling,” Steve said. He set the bowl down on the bar. “Can I help?”

“Nat, hook the man up with some salad stuff, I got sauce to check on,” Clint said. Natasha rolled her eyes, but she steered Steve towards the sink. By the time Clint returned from the kitchen, licking a spot of sauce from the back of his wrist, Nat had an apron on the man and he was chopping away, a faint, pleased smile on his face. Tony was at the bar, leaning forward, staring at the salad bowl with an expression of vague interest, a swizzle stick clamped in his teeth.

“Done?” Clint asked Bruce, who nodded. “Thanks, Doc, pasta primavera it is. Do you like pasta?” Clint asked Steve.

Steve smiled at him. “I'll eat anything.”

“He will,” Tony said, all loose limbs and sardonic drawl. His fingers were tapping away at his phone, his eyes slanted down. But his lips twitched, the tip of the swizzle stick bouncing with the movement. “I kept thinking that I'd find something he wouldn't eat. But I suspect it's impossible.”

Steve gave him that faintly amused look he seemed to reserve for Tony. “I wasn't raised to be picky about food,” he said, his lips twitching. He glanced back at Clint. “Most things, I like well enough, but I can eat just about anything. No allergies or anything like that.”

“Is it weird?” Clint asked. “To suddenly have, I don't know, so many more choices?”

Steve considered that. “A little,” he said at last. “But choices are just that. Choices. I mean, I could eat eggs and navy bean soup every day, if I wanted to. But I don't have to. That's-” He paused, and Clint got the idea that Steve was really thinking about that. “It's nice,” Steve said at last. “Overwhelming, sometimes. But I like it.”

“He does,” Tony said, smirking. “I've tried everything, and he hasn't flinched yet. Bagels and lox, pad thai, empanadas, callaloo, kung pao chicken, fattoush, bibimbop, saag paneer, knishes, moussaka, pizza, spaetzle, pelmeni-”

“Has he just been force feeding you?” Natasha asked Steve, who grinned at her.

“I'm hungry a lot. And it's better than toast and fried eggs,” Steve said, his voice almost apologetic. “Which is pretty much the limit of what I can make on my own.”

“Excuse me, this is a bad thing?” Tony asked. “I'm buying the man a meal. Actually, a lot of meals. How is that bad?”

“It's bad if you're doing it to torment him,” Bruce said, his lips twitching.

“I wouldn't-”

“You keep trying to make me eat spicy things,” Bruce told him with a look that said he was not impressed.

“How can you not like spicy things?” Tony asked, spreading his hands. “It's- That doesn't make any sense. That is something we need to deal with, it's a learning experience, a growth experience, Bruce, there's-”

“I'm not eating hot peppers, Tony.”

Clint bit back a smile. “So, what's your favorite? New food, I mean?” he asked Steve, who paused in the act of pushing the chopped carrots into the bowl, a faint frown going over his features.

“Burritos,” he said at last.

“Really?” Natasha said, slipping onto a stool and folding her arms on the bar. “Burritos?”

Steve shrugged. “They're good. They're warm and filling and portable, and made to order, so you can get them just like you want them. And I like spicy food.” He grinned. “They're not fancy, but they're good.”

“We eat from street trucks. A lot,” Tony said. There was a note of dismay in his voice. Like he couldn't believe that this was his life.

“This is a problem you've brought on yourself, so what're you whining to us about it?” Clint asked him, and Tony flapped a hand in his direction, his expression full of disdain.

“Have you tried tamales?” Bruce asked Steve, as Steve tossed cucumbers and tomatoes in the bowl with the chopped romaine hearts.

“Yeah, that's good. And, uh, arepas?” Steve asked, to Bruce's nod. “Those are good. Like, I guess, like corn bread? But better.” He set the salad bowl on the counter. “A lot better.”

“You're not eating the right corn bread,” Clint told him. “I know a soul food place down-” There was a loud bang, and he jumped. “Thor.”

“I'll get him,” Tony said, rolling to his feet without looking up from his phone. “What, you think he's in the stairs? 'Cause I took the elevator. I'm not walking down stairs, and I can hack this blight on the urban landscape.”

Another bang, and a crack of something almost like lightning. “He's in the stairwell,” Natasha said with a faint smile and an even fainter sigh. “I'll come with you.”

“Could you encourage him not to bring the building down on us?” Clint called after them. “For fuck's sake, I don't need that kind of trouble.”

“Chill, Barton,” Stark said back over his shoulder. He glanced around as they walked out. “So, no one uses this place?” he was asking Natasha as they left. “Interesting.”

“I use this place,” Clint groused. “I'm not no one, this is-” He gave up. “Pasta it is!”

“You need help?” Steve asked.

“Nah, I got it.” Clint gave them both a look. “Why is everyone down here, by the way? Don't you people have places to be? Important stuff to do?”

Bruce glanced at Steve. Steve glanced at Bruce. “Not really,” Bruce said, with a half-hearted shrug. “Most of the time, I just feel, well, out of place.” He gave a snort, almost a laugh. “What am I doing here? What am I doing in the middle of a city? It's all I can do to stay still sometimes, and yes, I would like very much to have something important to do, and there's nothing!” He stopped, blinking as if the rush of words had caught him as off guard as it had Steve and Clint. He flushed, ducking his head back down. “Ah, sorry. About that.”

Steve's lips twitched. “I think we have something in common, Doc.” There was something kind and calm in his face, in his voice. His hands were solid, large and stable, when he leaned them against the bar, bracing his weight. “I think we all have something in common.”

Clint froze, hands tightening on the brown paper of the grocery sack. In the silence that followed, he looked up to find them both looking at him. He managed a smile. “Bet Stark would take offense at being lumped in there.”

“Tony,” Bruce said after a moment, “might need a purpose more than the rest of us.” He stood. “Need some help with the pasta?”

Clint gave up, and grabbed the bag. “Yeah. C'mon. I'll show you where we keep the pots.”

Bruce fell into step behind him. “We?”

He kept walking. “I was never any good at cooking for one, Doc.” Without thinking about it, he glanced back at the bar, where Steve had found the bowls and was setting out the dishware, a towel over his shoulder, looking for all the world like a proper bartender. He closed his eyes, almost able to see Phil on the other side, tie loose, shirt sleeves rolled up to his elbows, jacket thrown over another barstool.

Phil would've liked these people. The real people behind the files.


Clint's eyes snapped open. “Yeah, sorry. Let's go deal with my sauce before it scorches.”


“Why don't you ever ask me about Loki?”

Dr. O'Brien smiled. “Because you don't answer direct questions, Clint. You use them like blunt weapons against the asker.” She shifted her weight on the balls of her feet, today's obscenely expensive shoes discarded beside her desk. “It's a bad habit that wins you no friends.”

“Shut up.” Clint winced as she shifted her weight again.

“You're doing that deliberately,” she said, without even glancing in his direction. “You're doing that to put me off balance, and it won't work.”

“I don't have to, your balance is lousy enough without my help.” That won him a sharp look, lips pursed, nostrils flared, and Clint smirked back at her. “No, don't let me distract you.” He waved a hand at the board. “Take your best shot.”

She paused, the dart rolling between her fingers. “What do I get if I hit the bullseye?” she asked.

Clint gave her stance and her aim a disdainful look. “If you hit the damn board, I'll answer a direct question,” he smirked.

“Oh. Really.” She leaned back, shifted her weight, brought her arms in tight against her body and tossed the dart. It thunked against the board a bare inch or so from the center.

Clint considered it. “You cheat.”

“You want to answer a question, or you never would've made the bet.” She stepped over her shoes, sinking into her chair. “I just gave you an out.”

“If you say things like that,” Clint said, yanking the dart from the board, “it defeats the purpose of giving me an out.”

“Oops,” she said, arching an eyebrow. She settled back, reaching for her pad. “Why did you bring up Loki?”

“You're really going to waste your question on something that stupid?” Clint scooped up the darts. “These things are crap. Unbalanced. Poorly made.”

“I'll let you pay for them next time,” she said. “Clearly not the right question.” She leaned her elbow on the desk, her chin on her knuckles. “Do you want to talk about Loki?”

“You're pussyfooting around the hard ones again.” Clint tossed a dart straight up, letting it roll through the air before he reached out to snag it. “No wonder everyone avoids the psyche department.”

“Mostly it's because we're notoriously cheap,” O'Brien said. She tilted her chin into her hand, letting her index finger stroke across her lips. “Tell me about being under Loki's control.”

The tension went out of his shoulders, relief rolling over him with the force of a cresting wave. “Have you ever fallen down a staircase?” he asked. Another dart up, and caught, weighing his options. “A big one, steep, not the inside ones, like... Like a set of cement stairs outside?”


“Do you remember that moment, when you're hanging, right before you fall? Where time slows down and you think, you really think, that you might be able to stop yourself? Like you can grab something, or swing your weight backwards, or something. Anything. Because your brain refuses to give in to the inevitability of the fact that you're about to eat cement in the most painful way possible?”


The third dart fell into his hand, and he flung it, hard. It hit the center of the dart board with a crack. “That was what it was like. The whole fucking time. Like hanging at the tipping point, knowing that I was falling, knowing there wasn't a fucking thing I could do about it, and still screaming my way through every.” The next dart wasn't controlled, but it hit, close enough, not nearly close enough. “Fucking.” Two more, thudding in rapid succession. “Second.”

His hands were trembling, and he hid it by shaking out his arms. “I hate him, and I hate myself more for not being able to get free of him.”

O'Brien was writing, and it was soothing. Normal. "What is Loki?"

He was still, for a long, long time, he was still, or as still as he got, now. Where the vibration in his fingers and his shoulders, the jumping, twitching muscles of his legs and the way his throat worked might not have been visible to anyone else, but he could feel it all. Feel it as his body tried to shake itself apart, or escape or just do something, anything, to stop the feeling of helplessness.

But he was still, as he said, "I thought he was a cuckoo. But I was wrong. I was watching the wrong thing. The wrong..." The words trailed away, and he swallowed. "The wrong nest."

Dr. O'Brien was silent, and he focused on the sound of her pen, loose and languid and full of grace. He set his breathing to the upsweeps and downward strokes, because the pattern was one he could understand. “Not a cuckoo?”

"No. I was wrong. See, cuckoos deposit their eggs in other nests. They hide their young amongst another bird's eggs, and disappear. But that's wrong. That's... The foster parent, for lack of you, you know, any other term, raises the chick, either through ignorance or intimidation. It'll raise the cuckoo's chick as its own, feed and nurture it and raise it in their nest, even if the cuckoo kills its young. But the blood tells, and the cuckoo is still a cuckoo, and still repeats the pattern, leaving its eggs behind in turn. Not because it was raised to the behavior. But because it is its nature."

Clint scrubbed a hand over his face, exhaling in a gust against his palm. "That's wrong. The whole thing is... Wrong."

The pen stopped, the dot of a period tapped in as an afterthought. "So, what is right?"

"Loki is a coot."

Her hand came up, two fingers pressing against her lips, trying to hide a smile. Clint smiled back, and that felt okay. Somehow. It felt fine to smile. "I don't know coots," O'Brien admitted, back under control. "Though it was a word my Gram used about my Grandfather."

“It's a good word, isn't it? It has a certain force to it.” He was pacing off the distance now, his movements slow and precise, taking in the angles, learning the obstacles. Distracting himself. “But coots are little birds. The are mistaken for ducks sometimes. Little fat chicken looking birds, a marsh hen, that's what their family is called, a lot, fat little-” He stopped, shook his head.

"Lots of birds depend on the water. But there's a difference between birds that live on the water. And those that live on the shore."

"Most water birds have webbed feet, like ducks do? Ducks, geese, swans, gulls, they all have webbed feet." Clint held up his hand, fingers spread, tracing arcs between the knuckles of his fingers. "Stretched skin between the toes, that help the bird swim. Little flippers. Necessary if it's a bottom feeder, or needs to dive, to push itself against its natural buoyancy and force itself down, under the surface." The words were spilling out now, fast and hard, as if he needed to get them out before he thought better of it. "And most shore birds, like sandpipers and dowidgers and cranes, don't. They just have toes." He wiggled his fingers. "No webbing."

He studied his hand. "It depends on where they belong. Shore birds feed and nest on land, they need to move fast on the sand, on the rocks. They need the grip and the ability to dig into the sand, to find their food. But they can't swim well. And water birds need the ability to swim, to move fast, to dive in the water, but when they're on the shore, they're awkward and not able to move as quickly."

His fingers closed in a fist. "Coots are neither. And both. They're Rallidae.”


“It's a type of bird, a family of birds. Rails, coots, and gallinules. And one of the marks of the rallidae is its feet. There's this, well, this flap of skin around each toe, like the toe spreads thin on the edges. So it can swim, and it can walk, but the feet aren't those of a water bird or a shore bird." He paused. "It doesn't belong in either place. But it can survive in both, if it has to." He shrugged. “But it's not a water bird. Or a shore bird. It's a bastard, halfway between.”

Clint paused. “Born in one world. Raised in another. Never fully part of either.”

He took a deep breath, letting it flow through him. The target was huge in his eye. "And coots kill their own."

The pen was still, the light glinting across the metal beneath the grip of her fingers. “Do they.”

“Coots will-” He swallowed. “Coots will have a brood, a very large one. Six to eight eggs. And the earliest, the strongest, those survive. Those, they keep. And they kill the rest.” His throat worked. “They kill their own chicks. The mothers do. Attack them.” His fingers were flicking, hard and fast, against the solid metal body of the dart, hard enough to hurt. “The ones that escape... Are left to starve.”

His arm came up, smooth and precise, muscle memory and focus, and the dart impacted precisely in the center of the bullseye. “They kill their own. And what's worse? They'll have a second brood. And kill those, too.”

He let the heel of his boot scrape against the carpet as he turned, as he shifted his weight. He gathered the darts in his palm, settling them together, letting the points roll against his skin. “Loki is a coot. His parents left him to die, and he turned on them.” Faster than his own eye could track, he threw, the darts hitting above and below the first one, then to the left and right, the gleaming bodies touching, flush together.

Flexing his fingers, he turned back to her. “So. Nothing to say to that?”

She set her pen down. He was watching her face, but he saw that, in the periphery of his vision. The finality of the gesture wasn't lost on him, but he didn't react. He just waited.

There was a knock on the door, perfunctory and sharp, and then the door opened. Maria Hill didn't wait to be invited in, she didn't even pause to wait for that invitation. She just strode in, her face tight and mouth a sharp, hard line.

“I'm sorry,” she said, and Barton's stomach bottomed out, the sensation of falling so intense that he swayed in his chair. Confused, thrown, he stared at Hill. She looked tired, frustrated, a muscle twitching in her clenched jaw. “I need you to come with me, Agent.”

Dr. O'Brien reached out, resting her hand on top of Clint's forearm. “What is this all about?” she asked.

“I'm sorry,” Maria repeated. “Clint.”

Clint stood up, the movement jerky and uneven. “Ma'am?”

Her eyes closed. “We can't raise Director Fury right now,” she said, her voice low. “We weren't expecting this move quite so early, but Ross has never been particularly adept at working the political landscape.”

“Ross?” Clint lunged for the door, his pulse pounding in his ears. “Where is he? Where's Bruce? Fuck, we can't let him-”

Hill's hand closed on his bicep, gentle and firm all at once. She waited until Clint's head swung towards her, his eyes finding hers, before she spoke. “Clint. General Ross isn't here for Banner.” Clint's shoulders slumped, his breathing stuttering in his throat. Maria gave him a little shake, catching his attention. “He's here for you.”

Clint stared at her, trying to make sense of the words. No matter what he did, he couldn't manage it.

The pounding of feet registered in the back of his mind, the slow, steady thump of footfalls that echoed in his head. He looked up to find a stern faced man in a crisp Army uniform standing behind Hill, his lips twisted in a snarl. “Clint Barton,” he said, his voice low and rumbling, “you are charged with aiding and abetting an enemy of the United States, and participating in a terrorist attack on American citizens.”

His lips stretched in a smile. “You're coming with us, son.”

Chapter Text

The handcuffs were heavy.

He was surprised by that on some level. That they weighed his hands down as much as they did. That the muscles of his arms seemed to pull against them, pull hard, even if there was no where to go, no escape, no way out. His hands hung down in front of him, and he was surprised by that, surprised that they hadn't put the heavy manacles behind his back.

Then they hit the main corridor of SHIELD, and he understood. This was show. This was a warning. This was shame and pain and punishment, this was him being used as a symbol.

His hands hung low in front of him, but Clint kept his head up. Because fuck them, that's why.

He walked, surrounded by what seemed like an entire military detachment. A man, disarmed and broken, in a sea of fatigues, of guns, of blank faces. SHIELD agents were everywhere, lining the walls, standing on the landing above them as they crossed the main lobby. Field agents with angry faces and clenched fists, office workers holding coffee cups and hugging file folders. Faces he recognized, faces he was happy to see, every day, he was so happy to see them, in the halls, or in the cafeteria, on the range, in the gym.

Jessica, who'd had her second child, a girl, just a month before. Robert, never Rob, certainly never Bobby, who could be relied upon to make sure that accounting dealt with expense forms in a timely manner. Beryl, the former temp who'd kept her post, and been so proud that she'd brought three dozen cupcakes in her first day. Her cheeks were pink and flushed as she'd grinned at everyone, and she'd saved Clint a chocolate cupcake with chocolate frosting. Mr. Edusei, who remembered everyone's birthday and sent cards through inter office mail. Sharia, who'd accidentally crossed Natasha and come to Clint with a peace offering to pass along, dark eyes huge and wide mouth pinched tight.

He was happy to see them, because each one was one more person he hadn't killed.

The handcuffs were so heavy, he was surprised that he could walk. He kept his chin up, his shoulders back, a burden to bear that he could handle, could take for a little while longer, it wasn't that long of a walk, across this lobby, and the world was silent except for the sound of military boots pounding along the tile.

Just a few more yards, and this would be done. The humiliation could be borne until he crossed the door, until he left this building. He looked neither left nor right now, and he would not look back. Not when it was all over. Not when the doors closed behind them.


The military personnel pulled up, surrounding him in an instant, forcing him back, and the click of guns was so loud, so much louder than that one voice.

“Keep moving,” Ross said, and before they could, the word came again.


This time, Clint twisted around, catching sight of a tousled mop of salt and pepper curls, smudged glasses glowing in the overhead lights. “Whoa, whoa! It's okay,” he heard himself say. “It's okay, Doc, don't-”

But Bruce Banner forced his way between them and the door. Eyes narrowed, jaw at an obstinate angle, he spread his arms. “What is going on here?” he said, and one of the men stepped forward, his hand out, ready to push Banner aside. Bruce caught the barrel of his gun with one hand. “Trust me,” he said, as the world froze around him. “You really, really don't want to do that.”

“Step aside,” the officer said.

“No.” Banner's breathing was loud in the huge space, labored, uneven. “You're not taking him,” he said, and despite the calm, low way he spoke, there was something buried in those words. Something horrible, something terrifying and full of rage.

“Doc,” Clint said, ignoring the way one of the guards tried to manhandle him back. “Doc. Hey. It's okay. It's fine.” He forced his way forward, meeting Bruce's eyes, keeping his voice low and calming. “It's okay. It's fine. It is okay.”

Bruce's eyes swung around to him. “What part of this is OKAY?” he roared. “In what world is this OKAY?”

Clint reached out and caught Bruce's fist in his palms, closing his fingers around the twitching hand. “My world,” he said. “Don't do this. Don't. Fury'll-”

“Fury left you to swing,” Bruce said, and there was green in his eyes, there was rage and something broken down deep in their depths. His hand seemed to expand in between Clint's fingers, and the manacles rattled as Clint struggled to hold on. “Where is he? Where are any of them? Did they just let him take you? They know what he'll do! They know, and they deserted you anyway!”

“This doesn't concern you, Banner,” Ross said, and he was an idiot. Clint had known he was an idiot, but this was beyond belief, that he would look at this situation and not know that Clint's grip was the only thing keeping him from ending up as a pink smear on the walls. Ross's hand closed and Clint's shoulder and he gave Clint a yank. Clint didn't let go, and Bruce didn't move. “Step aside.”

Bruce choked on a laugh. “You're not taking him,” he said, and he sounded like himself again, a little more, a little more together, a little more controlled. “I'm not letting you make a scapegoat out of him, not letting you toss him in a windowless cell for the next forty or fifty years.” He sucked in a breath, hard and fast, and Clint could almost hear his heart pounding. “He didn't ask for any of this.”

“But I did it,” Clint said, and the words were cleansing. Some acknowledgment. Something. He had to have something left to give. “Bruce. I did it.”

“No,” Bruce said, and his hand closed on Clint's shoulder, pulling him forward. “Loki did it. Loki did it and he used you to get it done. Now, get behind me.”

“That's a terrible idea,” Clint said, and there were guns everywhere, guns and soldiers and people. “Bruce, don't do this, okay, we're going to be fine.”

Someone, some IDIOT behind him adjusted the magazine in his weapon, the click of metal on metal just as loud as a shot in the silence, and Bruce's eyes went wide, went sharp, went green. Clint didn't think, didn't reason, didn't have any idea what he was doing, he just moved. His manacled hands went over Bruce's head, around his neck, and Clint slammed into him, body to body, his arms gripping hard.

“Don't,” he said, his hands latching onto Bruce's shirt, holding on tight, eyes squeezed shut. “Not for me. Don't. Don't. Please.”

There was an aching moment of silence, and then Bruce's hand came up to rest between Clint's shoulder blades. “It's okay,” he said, and his voice was shaky, unsteady, but it was Bruce's voice. “It's okay, but he is not taking you.”

Clint took a deep breath. “Bruce-”

“Banner, this is none of your concern,” Ross snarled, each word picked out with a nasty sort of sarcasm. Clint could hear him moving, his boots loud on the stone. “You will stand aside, and you will do it now.”

Bruce ducked out of Clint's grip, angling Clint behind him. “Go to hell.”

“Excuse me.”

Clint was only peripherally aware of the movement in the lobby, of personnel being cleared, of the flow of agents, of black suited forms outside the doors, visible through the glass. People were going in all directions, controlled chaos, and through the middle of it, not slowed by anyone else, Captain America was stalking in their direction. He wasn't in costume, but somehow, he didn't need it. Steve moved with purpose, he always moved with purpose, with force. Now, he came through the lobby with his shoulders back, his head up, and Clint knew what it was like to see a man march off to war.

Steve Rogers was marching to war.

“Excuse me.” Steve towered over most of them, way over Ross. Even in one of his ridiculous plaid shirts, he was a force to be reckoned with, his shoulders impossibly wide, his face set in stern lines. He should've looked silly, almost stupid, holding the shield, but he didn't. He stepped in front of Ross, his body falling into a parade rest posture. “May I see your paperwork?”

General Ross wasn't paying attention to him, snapping at one of the uniformed soldiers. “We need-”

“I'm standing as Agent Barton's commanding officer,” Steve said, his voice calm. He was impossible to ignore, and he knew it. He held out a hand, palm flat, waiting. “I need to see your paperwork.” Ross switched his glare in Steve's direction, and Steve gave him a polite smile. After a moment of silence from Ross, he continued, “Warrant, legal documentation? Because if you do not have the clearance, and the authorization to remove him from this building, then this is a kidnapping.”

“He committed a crime,” the General gritted out.

“And there are official channels to deal with that,” Steve said, not backing down, not an inch. “I would suggest you deal with them. And when we receive a warrant, he will surrender himself.” His hand shifted on his shield, and it caught the light, a sharp, hard gleam that rolled across the surface. “He's not resisting. He's not running. But he will not be alone. He will be accompanied by the appropriate parties. At the very least, I will be accompanying him.”

“Cap-” Clint started, but no one was listening to him.

“You have no jurisdiction here,” Ross said, getting up in Steve's face, snarling and furious. Steve didn't move, didn't push back, didn't give ground. He just stood, an immovable object blocking Ross' advance, blocking his access to Clint and Bruce both.

When he spoke, it was with simple, implacable conviction. “Neither do you.”

Ross jammed a finger into Steve's breastbone with a lot of force. Steve didn't even seem to notice. “Listen, son, you think you-”

“Don't you know, Ross, that it's in bad form to poke an American icon?”

Next to him, Bruce relaxed, and Clint bit back a curse. “Like this wasn't enough of a circus, already,” he mumbled to himself. Bruce laughed, and Clint gave him a sideways look. “I blame you, you know that, don't you?”

Bruce didn't let go of his arm. “I'm fine with that.”

“Hey, Pep? Yeah, do me a favor?” Tony asked, phone cradled against his cheek. He was ambling down the stairs, his free hand in his pants pocket, his jacket open, his tie loose. “Yeah, go down to legal. Rattle the cages, and take 'em off their leashes.” His lips curled up in a smile, but his eyes were sparking, his expression one of unmitigated violence. “And start looking for some talent with a background in international law, hostage situations, and Stockholm Syndrome. We're going to war.” He paused. “Hell, call up Richards and see if he can't put us in touch with a couple of magic users. Yeah, I know, but we have to- Okay, good point, call Sue. Better idea, that's why you're in charge. Thank you, Ms. Potts!”

He tossed his phone in the air, caught it, and started running his fingers across the surface. “And where shall I send my eighty person legal staff?” he asked, his voice saccharine. “Because they're bored. And you know what they fucking LOVE? They love the chance to rip apart existing law and build it from the ground up. I think we can keep the US government busy for the next couple of decades.”

“I think the US Government can outlast you,” Ross gritted out.

“I am stunningly rich, very, very stubborn, and I don't like you,” Tony explained. “And I can pretty much promise?” He wandered by, not even looking up as the military staff gave way in front of him, his movement forward not rushed, but inexorable. Like an iceberg, he simply split the ranks. As he passed by the General he reached out and patted the man on the chest. “I've got more friends in high places than you do.” He glanced up, teeth flashing. “Wanna play connections? And just a hint here?” He leaned in, those brown eyes snapping with fierce, unrestrained rage. “If I were you, I'd decline.”

The soldiers were casting sideways glances at each other, weapons shifting in steady hands. Ross might not have realized that he was outflanked and outgunned, but they appeared to be making the connection. A few were just staring, mouths agape, at Steve, at Tony, and that was either very good or very bad. Clint shifted his weight, and Bruce's hand was tight on his arm, holding him in place. “Don't,” Bruce said, his voice very soft. “Just stay here. We-”

There was a roar of air, and the remaining SHIELD agents ducked and scrambled for the walls. The soldiers braced themselves, weapons up, spreading out, flanking Ross, who had his pistol out and leveled. In front of him, Tony rolled his eyes, and Steve just sighed.

Thor crashed through the ranks like a bowling ball.

His booted feet hit the marble floor with enough force to crack it, to send everyone stumbling. For an instant, there was stillness, and Clint felt, he actually FELT, the roll of static electricity over his skin. He felt the manacles, heavy against his wrists, catch the electricity that was shifting in the air, and he shuddered.

Thor pulled himself up to his full height. It was a long way up. “Tis true, then,” he said, the words holding all the regal force the Asgardian possessed. “You have fallen so low as to lay the crimes of another on my shield brother.”

“He is responsible for his actions.” Ross was agitated now, furious and frustrated. “And he will be held accountable for them.”

Thor shook his head. “Twas I who set the events in motion. I who brought him here. If there is blame to be borne, it will be by me. You will not take a man to task for sins that are not of his making.”

“Well, you took the criminal back with you, didn't you?” Ross spat out.

“Because you could not have hoped to hold him,” Thor said, the words measured with care. “Asgard will answer for the crimes of Loki. I will answer for the crimes of my brother. But we will not stand for the injustice of one of his victims being blamed for his actions.”

Thor reached around him, and for an instant, Clint had to fight against the panic that threatened to swamp him. But Thor's hands just closed on the heavy manacles, and gave a quick tug. The chain between them came apart with a crack like a rifle shot, and that was all Thor had to do. Or say. He simply released Clint's hands, and stepped back, his arms crossed over his chest, his weapon hanging from his hip.

Because for this, for this he didn't even need Mjolnir. Just his own seething presence.

Bruce was next to Clint, still tense, still breathing hard, but he didn't move, didn't flinch. Steve was in front of him, his broad shoulders all but blocking Clint's view, and Thor was behind him, radiating anger. Tony stepped up next to him, one hand in his pants pocket, his jacket open, his tie loose. He tipped his head forward.

“Look around you, General Ross,” he said, his voice gentle. Almost mocking. “You're out of friends. You didn't check the lay of the land before you crossed the border and that? That is a stunning mistake in terms of military intelligence.” He gave them a look over the top of his sunglasses. “Take your boys and head on home, and we'll just call this a simple paperwork error.”

“Stark, you-”

“Sir, you need to step back from this situation,” Steve said, his voice quiet and calm. The shield gleamed against his side; he never raised it, never made a show of it, but it was there, and it was unmistakeable. “Before this gets out of control.”

Thor chuckled. “If there is control here, it is not his.”

Ross was red, his face twisted, and he stabbed a finger in Clint's direction. “He's a war criminal.”

“He's an Avenger,” Steve said, as if that was all that needed to be say.

“And here's the thing?” Tony added, his grin wide and cutting. “You come after one of us? You better be damn ready to deal with all of us. Because we will come for you. Every. Fucking. One of us.”

“You think you can fight the entire US Government, Stark?” Ross asked. “The entire military?”

Tony shrugged. “I've done it before.” The words didn't carry his usual edge. “This time'll be easier. After all, now I've got backup.”


“Try me,” Tony snapped, taking one step forward, and Steve's hand pressed back on his chest, gently keeping him from moving forward. “I'll-”

“Not your call to make,” a familiar voice said, and just like that, Nick Fury came ambling through the crowd. His hands were in his pockets, his stride loose and easy. His expression was only vaguely amused. Maria was right on his heels, and behind her, an armed phalanx of SHIELD agents.

“You,” Ross snarled, turning on him.

“Me,” Fury agreed, spreading his hands wide at his sides. “That was a cute little trick, there, General, having me summoned down to Washington while you did your little end run. Cute. Not effective. But cute.”

“Listen to me,” Ross started, and that was as far as he got before Fury cut him off.

“No, you listen to me,” Fury said. “You come into my house, attack my people, and use my protocols to do it? I take that real personal.” His head tipped to the side, his dark eye sharp. “You had your chance. You had your chance at Barton and Romanov, and you fucked up both times. The military used the wrong tactics every time, with Stark, with Banner, and we were smart enough and quick enough to get to Rogers and Thor before your boys could get their heads out of their asses far enough to figure out what the fuck was going on.

“Now, you're looking at a shift in power, and you and yours don't like it much, do you? Well, tough.” Fury stabbed a finger in his direction. “Did you learn something today? Did you learn that once again, you managed to misread the situation? To misread these people?

“Divide and conquer is not going to work here. Frontal assaults are out. And you're not bright enough to go for a proper end run.” Fury's teeth flashed, wide and bright and brutal. “Agent Hill? Escort the gentlemen out of my building.”

“With pleasure, sir.” Maria stepped forward. “If you will follow me, please?” She gestured towards the door.

Ross was staring at Fury, his expression twisted and his face flushed a dangerous sort of red. “This isn't the end of this, Fury,” he said, the words gritted out from between clenched teeth. “I will be back.”

Nick leaned in, almost nose to nose with Ross. “I'm looking forward to it, General.” He stepped back. “Good day, gentlemen.” He gave them a faint smile, folding his hands behind his back. “Oh, and if I were you? I would be very, very careful about starting your transports. No one seems to be quite sure where Agent Romanov is, and she's very good with her hands.”

He glanced around the lobby. “Damn, what are all of you doing? What am I paying you for?” He waved a hand at the assembled agents. “Get your asses back to work, the show's over.” He waited until everyone started moving out of the lobby, then his eye cut in Clint's direction. “Thor, Barton, get Banner out of here. Rogers, Stark, if you wouldn't mind providing Agent Hill some backup? I have something to check on.”

If anyone was inclined to argue, they resisted the urge. Clint gripped Bruce's arm, his arm around the other man's back. “Come on,” he said to Thor, ignoring the remains of the manacles around his wrists. “The meeting room.” Thor nodded, and the two of them moved together, Bruce stumbling along between them. Now that the crisis had passed, he seemed shaky and unstable, his feet dragging on the ground, his head hanging down. He was trembling in Clint's grasp, and Clint hustled them into the elevator.

He wasn't sure what he was doing, wasn't sure how he was doing it. The whole thing had taken on a dreamlike tone, a sensation of not being quite real. His whole world kept shifting on its axis, sharp turns that should've knocked him to his knees, but somehow, he was still standing. Still moving. Still dragging Bruce along with him as he went.

Clint wasn't surprised to find Natasha waiting for him in the conference room. She glared at him. “It's about damn time,” she snapped, even as she took Bruce's weight from him. “Thor, can you get him into a chair?”

“Aye,” Thor said, lifting Bruce almost off his feet. “Come, my friend, we must sit and breathe deep, all trouble has passed for now.”

“Where the hell were you?” Clint asked Natasha, and she slanted a cutting look in his direction, even as she snagged his wrist. “You missed the show.”

“Who do you think got them all down there?” she said, as if that explained everything. Even as she spoke, she was working at getting the remains of the manacles off of his wrists, her fingers moving fast. “Your shrink is having kittens by the way, as soon as this is done, would you please call the woman?”

“How did you-”

This time, her look was just disgusted. “Clint, it's SHIELD. Half the building knew Ross was here before the front doors opened, and the other half learned about it within ten minutes of him setting foot inside. Why the hell do you think that every one from the facilities staff to the weapons masters to the field agents to the accountants were out in those halls?”

One of the cuffs slipped off of his wrist, and he shook out his hand, pathetically grateful to be free of it. “To see me arrested?”

Her hand moved so fast he couldn't even track it, her fingers latching onto his jaw. Her grip hard enough to bruise, she forced his head up. “No one,” she hissed at him, “not one single person in those halls, wanted to see you go down, Barton. Especially not like that.” She held his gaze for another second, and then went to work on the other cuff, wrenching it off without anything approaching care.

He winced. “Nat-”

“You're one of us,” Natasha said, shaking her head. “You need to stop seeing enemies where they don't exist. There's only one person who wants you punished for this, and that's you.” She pushed away from him, her brows still a sharp line over her eyes. “Thor, how's Banner doing?”

Thor glanced in their direction. “He has been better, but he is still with us.”

“Doc, you okay?” Clint crouched down in front of Bruce's chair, eyes flicking over his downturned face. “Bruce?”

“Yeah, just-” Bruce was taking quick, hard breaths, his teeth gritted. “Sorry. Know it's over. But-” He wrapped his arms around his body, and then released the grip almost immediately. “It's-” The word trailed away in a staggered, hiccuping gasp.

“Okay.” Clint reached out, grabbed Bruce's hands and rubbed them, hard, his hands, and his arms and his shoulders. “Okay, just stay with us, okay?” Without looking away, he told Natasha, “Get Tony.” She slipped away immediately, and Clint turned his focus back to Bruce, his hands still working, still rubbing, trying to provide some sort of tactile connection.

“I'm fine,” Bruce said, his eyes closed, his head sagging forward, and Clint rubbed his shoulders, his arms, keeping his hands moving.

“Okay,” Clint repeated. He was breathing too fast, too hard, himself, but it was okay. Everything was okay. “Just so you know? The Army might think we're dating.”

Bruce choked on a laugh, and it came out as a giggle, high and hysterical. “Well, damn, there goes my chance of enlisting.”

“Nah, they repealed 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,'” Clint pointed out, and Bruce's back rose and fell as he breathed, thick and deep and uneven. “And SHIELD doesn't give a good goddamn who you're sleeping with as long as everyone's consenting, legal, and playing the right side of the fence.” Bruce gave another chuckle, and Clint grinned. “Better?”

“Yeah.” Bruce glanced up, his eyes still a little panicked. “Better.” He reached up and gripped Clint's wrist with one shaking hand. “You okay? Did he-”

“I'm fine,” Clint said. “It's okay.” He sucked in a breath. “Thanks. For- That.”

Bruce nodded. “Next time,” he gritted out, “do not leave. Don't.”

Clint stood. “Better that I get him out of there,” he said.

“No,” Thor said, the word a sharp blow. “It is not. You make decisions on your own that affect us all.”

“Big guy's got a point,” Tony said, coming in, just a step behind Natasha, and Steve was with him, side by side and in step. “You're an idiot, Barton.”

“I didn't ask for your help,” Clint said

“But you should have,” Steve said. “Next time, you call-”

“Call who? Why?” Clint said, rubbing a hand over his face. He stalked across the room, frustrated and too keyed up to sit down.

“Because that's what you do when you have a team,” Fury said, entering the room. He shut the door behind him. “Hill's clearing the perimeter. Good reaction time.”

“What the fuck was that, sir?” Clint gritted out.

For an instant, he didn't think Fury was going to acknowledge the question, let alone answer it. “Crisis is done, Barton. The world's safe, for now. What brought you together? It's done, it's over. Unless you find something new to hold you together, this'll never work.” He tucked his hands in his pockets. “Either you're a team, or you're not.” His head tipped to the side, his eyebrows arching. “Guess you are.”

Clint sucked in a breath. “They might be. I'm not.”

Fury looked at him. “Bullshit,” he said at last. He turned on his heel. “Avengers, let's-”

“I couldn't stop, I couldn't stop any of it,” Clint ground out. “At what point are going to pay attention to the fact that 'magic made me do it' is not going to hold water? Not anywhere. Not with the public, not with the polititions, not with the courts, not with fucking anyone! Just- Enough!” He was screaming now, the words just pouring out of him, faster and faster and he couldn't stop them, couldn't control them anymore. “I couldn't stop myself and I don't belong here and can we just fucking stop pretending already?”

There was a beat of a pause, and Fury's shoulders rose and fell in a sigh. “Bull. Shit,” he repeated. He turned around, one eyebrow arched. “I was standing as far from you as I am now. Twenty feet? Thirty? Not even. And you. The greatest marksman I've ever seen, ever heard of, the greatest shot SHIELD has ever had... Missed killing me.”

He spread his hands wide. “How do you figure that happened, Agent Barton? How do you take the shot and... Miss? At that distance? You don't miss. You never miss.” He stopped. “You hit. What you intend. To hit. Every goddamn time.”

Slowly, each step deliberate, final, he crossed the room. “You know me. You know I wear a vest any time there might be trouble. I was exposed. Stationary. I was twenty goddamn feet away from you. Would you care to explain why you took the body shot, which you KNEW would not do the job?”

Clint's vision was swimming, white at the edges, his brain stuck somewhere in that moment, the grip of his pistol in his hand, his arm moving against his will, the scream of his conscious self drowned out by the retort of the shot. “Pistol's not my weapon,” Clint heard himself say in the here and now.

“Bullshit,” Fury said, and it was a bark of a word. “A first year junior could've made that shot, could've taken the headshot, could've put me down like a rabid dog. You are trained, you are effective, you do not leave a target alive. Pop, pop, double shot. You. Take. The. Head. Shot.”

He was in front of Clint now, staring him down. “So even with someone pulling your damn strings, Barton, you took the shot that wouldn't do the job, and you walked away without making sure the job was done. Because something in you was still fighting, still struggling, some part of you was still a SHIELD agent, some part of you was still Clint Barton. And that part of you was resisting with all the force you could muster.”

Fury jammed a finger against Clint's breastbone, knocking him back a step. “I knew, I knew the moment that shot hit me, square in the chest, right where it was assured to do minimal damage, when you walked off without even bothering to try to put one in my skull, I knew you were still in there somewhere. Fighting.” His finger hit again, and it was right where Loki's blade had hit, had dug in, had cut his heart free. “Both you and Selvig. Leaving yourself an out. Sabotaging yourself the entire time he dragged you along.”

Clint couldn't move, could barely breathe, and Fury shook his head. “You were a dead man walking by the time you got to the helicarrier, Barton, the tapes tell that tale, easy enough. You were fighting yourself so hard that you were bleeding out inside. And still. STILL,” he bit out, “you took a shot that we could fix. How do you explain that? You've been all over every inch of that ship. You know how to bring it down. And still, all you managed to do was jam up one engine, and then sabotage another while we were fixing the mess you made of the first one.”

“Still nearly brought it down,” Clint said, his voice raw.

Fury gave a snort. “Please, we've dealt with way worse than you, Barton, and we're still in the sky. Don't give yourself that much credit, I can assure you, SHIELD doesn't. And that leaves us with a problem.

“We can let them put you in jail, we can do it ourselves, but what damn good does that do?” Fury seethed. “You want to be punished? You want to do your time? Then you put on the damn suit, and you go out there and you keep this from happening again. You keep it from ever happening again. That's your penance, that's your redemption, but I'm not wasting you as a political gesture.

“You are one in a million, one in a billion. You've got the rare combination of skill, training and borderline insanity that allows you to step out against that kind of nightmare and actually make a difference. You can turn the tide of a battle, and that is what you WILL do.”

Clint stared at him. “So, what?” he asked at last. “I'm an Avenger, all of a sudden?”

There was silence, and finally, Steve spoke, his voice soft and firm, “You always have been. You're the only one who didn't know that.”

“Nice of you to finally catch up to the rest of the team,” Stark said. He was leaning against the wall next to Bruce's chair, his arms crossed over his chest. “I thought you were in therapy. Shouldn't you be, you know, over this by now?”

Bruce groaned and Steve's head swung around. “For God's sake, Tony,” he said, somewhere between aghast and resigned.

“You are such an asshole, Stark,” Natasha said, rolling her eyes.

“Yeah, pretty much,” Tony said with a shrug. His lips curled up, and he gave Clint a look. “So. Done playing at being a lone wolf? It's boring.”

“You would know,” Natasha said.

“Tell me I didn't pay a severance package for you, you are a nightmare that will not end, why are you still here?” Tony asked her.

“I was here first, and dealing with you entitles me to hazard pay,” Natasha said.

“They're really the best of friends, aren't they?” Bruce said, and just like that, Clint lost it.

He absolutely lost it.

The laughter caught him off-guard, he had no defense against it, no way to fend it off, it was just outburst, loud and sharp and undignified. He was laughing. He was laughing so hard that he wobbled on his feet, so hard that his knees actually gave out under him, his legs going limp.

Hands caught him, steadied him, and he couldn't stop laughing, couldn't even slow down, couldn't get himself under control. He just rocked, back and forth, breath sobbing out of him almost as fast as he could suck it in, and he hurt. The whole thing HURT, his chest and his stomach and his very bones, it all ached.

And he could not stop laughing.

It took him a seeming eternity to get himself under control again. And when he did, he found himself seated in a chair, with Natasha crouched in front of him, a faint, warm smile on her face. And behind her, at various levels, were the others. He didn't have the energy left to feel humiliated, to feel ashamed, and for some reason, it didn't feel like he should be.

“Welcome back, Agent Barton,” Fury said. With that, he turned on his heel and headed for the door. “I've got to go deal with the infestation of minor generals that seem to think they have some say in how I run my agency, so I will leave this in your capable hands. Go get a drink or something.” With that, he was out the door and gone. As if that was all that needed saying. As if that decided things.

Clint took a deep breath, and it shuddered through him, it made him shudder. “I'm broken,” he said, the words coming out in a rush. “You have to know that.”

Bruce was seated on the edge of the table. “I, uh, I think we all are.” He looked up, eyes gentle beneath the weight of his brows. “Maybe, well, maybe it's helpful to know that broken means... Broken means it can be fixed. Broken isn't ruined. It just needs to be fixed.”

“We're getting pretty good at that,” Tony pointed out. His phone was actually away, Clint was a bit shocked at that, on some level. “Fixing things. People might take a little longer.”

“Or might take more help,” Natasha said, cupping Clint's jaw in her hands. He leaned into her touch, his eyes closing for just a second, drawing comfort from the contact. “It's not-” She sucked in a breath. “Asking for help, it's necessary sometimes.”

“It is how a warrior lives,” Thor said. “None of us can fight so well on our own, as we can together.” He crossed his arms over his chest, grinning down at Clint. “So it should be for fixing things, as well.”

Clint pulled away from Natasha. “Why?” he asked Steve, who didn't bother pretending he didn't understand.

“Because when we needed you, you came,” Steve said. There was honesty to the words, no attempt at praise or prevarication. Just the reality of the situation. “You were injured. You were barely shaking yourself free of something horrific, something that should've laid you low. But when we needed you, when we called, you got up. And you put on the suit, and grabbed your weapon, and you did what needed doing.

“More than that, you volunteered.” Steve's eyes were clear, there was grief in them, sadness, but it didn't hold him back, didn't cripple him. “You set out to do what you could. And you fought your way back.” He smiled. “That matters. That's the only thing that matters.”

Clint stared at him. Something like numbness was still there, beneath his breastbone. It hadn't gone away. But it seemed lessened. Diminished. Like a fading bruise, still aching, still interfering with how he moved and how he held himself and how he could fight.

But fading.

Or maybe, healing.

He sucked in a breath. “So, that's it?”

“That's it,” Bruce said.

Clint nodded, mostly because he couldn't figure out any other reaction. “Okay.”

“Okay?” Steve asked.


“Want a burger or something?” Tony asked. When everyone looked at him with varying expressions, he shrugged. “What? You cheat death and the US Government, you get a cheeseburger. I think it's a rule or something.” He paused. “Worked for me.”

There was a moment of silence, and Clint stood up. “You are an idiot.” Stark opened his mouth, and Clint cut him off. “And you're right. Where's the nearest White Castle?”

“No,” Natasha said.

Tony grinned. “Eighth Ave.”

“A castle?” Thor asked, eyebrows arching. “Is this a feast worthy of such a place?”

“No,” Natasha said.

“Wait, what are we-” Steve started.

“Sliders,” Bruce explained. “Tiny little hamburgers, sold by the sack.”

“Drunk people food,” Natasha said, full of disdain, and Clint grinned.

“A very good point. Tony, where's the nearest liquor store?”

“In the back seat of my limo. Let's go.”


“So then I ate 26 mini hamburgers,” Clint said.

There was a long pause. “I'm guessing that means you are not following the SHIELD medical nutrition guide that I gave you.” Clint gave her a thumbs up, and Dr. O'Brien sighed. “We can work on that.”

“You can work on that. I'm not eating dry multigrain toast for the rest of my life.”

“You can't eat 26 mini hamburgers, either.”

“Excuse me, I think I just proved that I COULD.” Clint knew that the feeling of pride in that accomplishment was entirely misplaced; he wasn't sure he cared. 'Thor still beat me. And, well, Steve, but only because he insisted upon finishing all the leftovers.” He shifted his weight, trying to find a comfortable position. “Then, food coma for the rest of the day.”

“I see,” O'Brien said, as if she actually did. Maybe she did. The woman was occasionally tricky. “How's your team?”

Clint paused, letting the thought sink in. Letting it settle, find a point at which he could be comfortable with it. It didn't take nearly as much time as he thought it would. He sucked in a breath. “They're crazy.”

“Once again, I'm not entirely certain that you're capable of making that diagnosis.” The smooth, repeating movements of her pen had a rhythm that he knew now. He tipped his head in her direction, watching the upswings and downsweeps, watching the pen, and her hand. She glanced up. “I'm certainly not comfortable accepting it from you.”

“I don't need validation from 'the man,'” he said, putting finger quotes around his words. “I'm comfortable with my choice of words.”

“Are you comfortable with your team?”

The rhythm of the conversation was so seamless, so easy that he almost didn't see the pit yawning open at his feet. He pulled back at the last moment, his mouth snapping shut. He sat up, shifting his feet off of the couch and onto the floor. “You're tricky,” he said, settling himself into place.

“I'm an open book, Clint,” she said, a faint curve to her lips. “And you're avoiding the question.”

“I'm fine with my team,” he said. He paused. “Huh. That's weird. I think I actually am.”

“You don't have to come to a decision now,” she said. She looked up and met his eyes. “You're fine with them. But are you comfortable?”

“I'm not a 'team' person,” Clint said. He considered lying back down. He'd only done it to annoy her; Phil had hated boots on the upholstery. Dr. O'Brien either didn't care, or hid it better. Clint scrubbed a hand over his face. “Teams are... Yeah. Not a team person.”


He huffed out a sigh. “Teams- I hate being dependent on other people.”

“Do you hate being dependent on other people?” she asked. “Or do you hate other people being dependent on you?”

Clint froze. “Now that you bring it up, both of those situations fucking suck,” he gritted out. “Look, I don't-”

“Yes, you do.”

He flicked a hand in her direction, and because that seemed woefully inadequate, he did it again. And he was flapping his hands in the air, great, fantastic. “Yes, I do,” he admitted. “If they can put up with me, I can put up with them.” The thought didn't bring up the sensation of panic he was expecting. Or even frustration. He caught his hand twitching against his side, and stilled it again. “It's not bad.”

“What do you mean?”

“Look,” he snapped out, frustration getting the better of him. “Look, I don't- I woke up, after, well, AFTER, and it was like, I was alone. I was alone, there was this distance that had never been there before, there was nothing, nothing, I couldn't bridge the gap, everyone I knew was gone or-” He stopped, swallowed. “Or I didn't know how they'd think about me. Anymore. After.” His hand would not be still, and he would've given everything he owned to have his bow at hand right now. He forced his fingers closed, forced them into a fist. “Is this how it's always going to be? Is it always going to be before and after?” His fingernails bit into his palm, the small spark of pain centering, soothing. He forced his fingers to relax, then squeezed them again. Control. He could control this. “Is he-” His teeth scraped as he cursed his weakness. “Is Loki always going to be fucking up my life like this?”

Dr. O'Brien leaned her elbows on the arms of her chair, steepling her hands in front of her. “What happened to you,” she said, her voice level, “what was done to you, was a violation of your fundamental rights as a person. You lost agency over your actions, you lost control of your body and your mind. That was taken from you against your will. That will always be there. That will always be a moment that shapes your life. What we have to do is move you beyond that. To set the groundwork for you to move beyond that.

“You survived something horrible,” she said, her voice gentle. “The act of trusting anyone, anyone at all at this point, is a leap of faith that must be commended. Trust is not easily extended in the best of times. Asking you to take on a team at this point in your recovery...” She paused. “I wasn't sure it was healthy for you. To force that on you.

“Despite that, Director Fury seemed to think that left to your own devices, you would choose them. And they would choose you.”

“Director Fury needs to stay out of my files,” Clint said, avoiding her eyes by rubbing the bridge of his nose with stiff fingers.

“Clint, there's a reason why my notes on you are handwritten only, and I have special arrangements to secure them.” She smiled. “I do not brook interference with my patients.”

Clint chuckled. “You know what? I believe you. Don't know why. But I do.” He surged to his feet, unable to maintain the stillness anymore. “Fine. There was before. I knew who I was, I knew my job, I knew my friends, I knew my life. I knew what I could do and what I couldn't. I could-” He swallowed. “I could see a future. And it wasn't this. This is-” He ran a hand over his hair, feeling the scrub of the strands against his palm, soothing the ache in his bones. “Different.”

“Different how?”

“Just- Different.” He stared at the windows, tried to pick out the smallest detail he could, at the furthest distance. “Different. Stark gave me a new phone. I think he's got a tracker in it or something. But he said Steve needed more people to text. In news that shocks no one, I haven't gotten a single text from Rogers, but Tony seems to go on spates of time where he feels the need to tell us which taco truck they're hanging out at. And he sends pictures. Steve and taco. Like, do I need this? What the hell?”

Her eyebrows were arched, just the tiniest bit. “Do you need it?”

“Of course I don't fucking need a picture of Steve eating a taco!” But he could feel the grin on his face. “Or the GPS notification of where they are. Or Natasha's review of the rice. Or Thor dragging me and Banner halfway across the city to find the damn taco truck, I mean, I have a job. Or I had a job. Now I just have a bunch of, I don't know, super heroes who seem desperately lonely and in need of human contact or something.” He paused. “Don't draw any conclusions from that.”

“I wouldn't dream of it,” she agreed, but she was smirking, that was definitely a smirk, goddamn it, she was writing and smirking. Clint sighed. O'Brien looked up. “You don't bring up Thor often.”

Clint nodded. “He's hard. He's not-” His shoulders rose and fell in a quick shrug. “He's not Loki. I know that. Intellectually. I know that. But he's- Too close to Loki for me to really be comfortable with him.”

“Do you blame him?”

He stopped, tried to think about that, turning the concept around in his mind, trying to make it fit. “No,” he said at last. “That would be easier.”

“Easier than what?”

“Than having to accept that there must be something redeemable about Loki.” The words were still. Quiet. Aching. “After all that fucker did. To me. To-” He stopped, his throat closing up. “What he did. He's- Steve said I was broken, but not ruined. Loki's ruined. He's a monster. I don't want him to be anything than a monster, than a thing that I can hate, because I don't want to think about him as anything else. I don't want to think of him at all. But Thor... Loves him.

He glanced up. “How can he still love him?”

“Many are loved that don't deserve it,” O'Brien said, with a faint smile. “Do you think he's wrong?”

“Yes. No.” Clint took a deep breath. “I don't know. I think he's crazy for doing it. Loki's just going to fuck him over again.”

“He must think it worth the risk. Or perhaps he just can't stop. It's not always easy, to stop loving someone, even if they hurt us.” She was still, only her hand moving, her pen silver today, with a visible fountain pen style nub. “I would let you bring it up, but...” She smiled. “Does Thor have a bird?”

Clint smiled back. “Yeah. Yeah, he does. It was hard. I kept getting him tangled up in Loki. I can't separate them. Not all the way. They're mirrors. Reflections of each other. Broken mirrors or just warped ones. But Loki's bird and Thor's bird, they're not dissimilar.” He glanced up. “But Thor is a cormorant.”

She was smiling. “Tell me about cormorants, Clint.”

"Cormorants are ancient birds,” he said, relaxing. This, he understood. This, he could find words to explain. “The oldest modern birds had the same structure as cormorants, even if they weren't really cormorants, you know? Not really the same thing. But when you look at the most ancient birds, they have that form, the way the wings and neck and body fit together. They're old. Very old.

"There are certain parts of Norway, way to the North, where cormorants are considered a sign of good fortune. Where having one come to roost where you live conveys blessings. There are old myths, about an island where drowned fishermen come to live, that the living cannot find. And these men can make the trip home only as cormorants. They're far travelers, and swift fishers.

"More than that, they're fierce hunters, smart and fast. They hunt fish, eels and snakes, and they are fearless.” Clint shifted forward, pacing now, because it felt good to move. “They dive for prey, they've been known to go forty-five to fifty meters down, and that's what makes them unique. Most sea birds, most shore birds, have a certain amount of, well, waterproofing that keeps the water from permeating the feathers. That's where we get the phrase, like water off of a duck's back, meaning, you know, it just rolls off. The oils in a duck's feathers keep the water from getting through.

"Cormorants, they don't have that. In order to dive the way they do, in order to hunt the prey they do, they sacrifice buoyancy. Which means, when they go down under the water, they have to swim back up. They have to fight the entire way back to the surface, or they will sink and drown. So when you see a cormorant in the water, they ride low, almost their entire body under the water, just the serpentine neck showing over the waves. And they have to swim hard to keep themselves afloat.

"They're always fighting to keep their heads above water, always swimming, but they hold their heads up like they're proud of themselves, anyway.” His strides were steady now. Controlled. He could still control it. He could still control himself.

"You'll see them, afterward. When they get free of the water, when they can barely fly, when they fight their way up into the air. You'll see them, lined up, their wings held out to the sides, spread wide, drying in the sun and the wind. Readjusting to being out of the water. And most of the time, as soon as they're dry, they go right back in."

He paused. "Loki is a coot. Halfway between worlds, able to function in both but not, not accepting either. Thor is different. Thor is a cormorant. Thor belongs in the one world, but he returns, again and again and again, to one that always runs the risk of killing him. He shouldn't. He should stay in Asgard. Earth is different. Earth, well, Earth will drown him. He's stronger than us, he's better in a lot of ways, but when you take the whole of a world as your responsibility?"

Clint rubbed a hand over his face. "He swims hard, always swimming hard, pushing hard, because this is a world that will kill him if he's not careful. And despite that.. Or maybe because of it, he keeps coming back. As soon as his wings will support him. He's back."

He stopped. “That's my team. A Harris's hawk, a killdeer, a shrike, a magpie, and a cormorant.” He glanced up. “Not your usual flock.”

“It appears to be working.” The page turned again, drawn along by the weight of the pen, by the weight of the words. “What is the last bird in your flock? What's your bird?”

Clint shrugged. “I don't have one. I'm just the birdwatcher.”

“An uninterested observer in their midst.”

“No body watches birds because they're uninterested.”

“But you don't count yourself as part of the flock you've created.”

“What, exactly, do you-” He paused, exhaled hard. “What is the point of this?” Clint asked.

The pen stopped. For an instant, it hovered in the air, then, she closed the notebook, and set the book and pen aside. “The point to what?” she asked, folding her hands in her lap, her head tipped to the side.

Clint waved a hand at the room. “This. You. Therapy. What's the point, what am I supposed to accomplish here?” His hand fell down. “What do you want from me?”

O'Brien was silent, her eyes hooded, her face expressionless. She sighed, and it was more a gesture than a sound. “I want you to work towards your recovery.”

“What does that mean?” Clint asked. “Really, how the fuck does that mean? How do you know if I've recovered, Doc?”

She looked at him with level eyes. “I can't tell you how to recover. Some people recover by letting go of things that aren't healthy for them. They let go of grief, or rage, or guilt. They find ways to cope with what happened, without being consumed by it. Some recover by coming to terms with their attack, and their survival. Some will seek to forgive their attacker, some will be happiest simply understanding how the attack affected them.

“There is no one recovery from a traumatic experience. There is no right way to exercise your control over your life. Part of recovery, part of reclaiming control over your life, your body, your mind, is to accept that no one else has the right to tell you how to achieve recovery. Every single person will do it in their own way, in the way that allows them to function, to live, and to thrive.”

She stopped, took a breath, calm and controlled. “What I want, as your therapist, is to feel that you are finding the path that will allow you to do these things. That I am giving you the coping mechanisms to deal with a world, with a life that is changed now, that will continue changing.”

Her lips curled up in a smile. “What I want for you as a person, is that you will get to the point where you will no longer need me as your therapist.”

Leaning back in her chair, she said, “So the question is, Clint, what do you want from me?”

Clint slid the pad of his thumb against the ragged edge of a fingernail. He stared at some fixed point, letting his vision white out, letting it go soft and translucent. “Closure,” he said, and he blinked his eyes back into focus. “I don't- I can't take waiting for the other shoe to drop.'

“Closure on what?”

He tested the words in his head. Waited for the agony that didn't come. Waited for something to tell him that it was wrong to say them. That he shouldn't. Or couldn't.

“Phil Coulson.”

She nodded. “Agent Coulson was your handler.”

Clint gave a snort. “Yeah. He was.” He stared at her, trying to figure out what she'd already learned from him. Their files were entwined by this point, medical proxies and life insurance beneficiaries and Phil listed as Clin'ts next-of-kin. “Do you know?”

“I'd prefer you explain your relationship to Agent Coulson, Clint.”

His lips curled up. “That's a yes.” His heel was twitching, and he tried to still his leg with a force of will. “It's in my file?”

“The contents of your file would indicate a certain relationship between the two of you,” she agreed, her voice smooth. “I'd still prefer you explain your relationship with Agent Coulson to me.”


“Because your file shows how SHIELD views your relationship,” she said. Her eyes came up, clear and sharp. “I want to know how you view your relationship. It is a different thing.” Her head tipped to the side, and she never looked away, never let him look away. “What was your relationship with Phil Coulson?”

Clint grinned. He grinned, wide and bright and real. It felt unnatural on his face, just for a second, so he kept doing it. “Phil Coulson was my latest kept man,” he said.

Dr. O'Brien just barely got her mouth covered before the giggle made it past her defenses.

Clint stabbed a finger in her direction. “Got you.”

“I don't know what you mean.” Under control again, she leaned back in her chair, her dark eyes dancing. “I was under the impression that Agent Phil Coulson was gainfully employed here at SHIELD.”

“Well, yeah, that's SHIELD's interpretation, I thought you were looking for mine.”

“I'm beginning to suspect that your interpretation is skewed.” She smiled down at her pad. “Tell me about your kept man.”

Clint wove his fingers together at the nape of his neck, leaning back. “He was kind. That's... I don't think that came out. Because he was very controlled. A little anal retentive, you know, he had that reputation. But he was-” He smiled. “Phil was kind. And funny. He had this dry, cutting sense of humor, but it wasn't cruel, it wasn't-”

He took a deep breath, letting his chest expand with it. “He was reliable. He was steady, and he made you feel steady, too. He was very smart, and not just about things. He knew people, he watched and he listened and he liked people. He was a good teacher. Patient, he never talked down to anyone, even if they deserved it, and a lot of people deserved it.” His fingers were twitching, even locked together, even hidden behind his head. “He was loyal. Very loyal. To people and SHIELD and to his principles. He was the best field agent I've ever met. The best man I ever met.”

“But mostly, most importantly, he was kind.” Clint looked up. “And he's dead.”

“He died in the attack on the helicarrier,” O'Brien said, and it wasn't a question. “Loki killed him.” Clint shrugged. “Clint. I need you to say those words.”

“I know-”

“I've made very few requests of you since we started working together,” O'Brien said. “I need this from you.” She leaned forward. “Phil Coulson was killed by Loki.”

Clint realized he was rubbing at his breastbone, trying without success to sooth the ache beneath it. “It doesn't change anything,” he said. “Saying that. Doesn't change anything.”

“So it should not matter if you say it,” she said.

His mouth opened. But his breath was stuck in his throat, choking him. His eyes closed. “He's dead,” he said instead. “He's dead, and I haven't-” His lips twisted. “I haven't cried.”

“This bothers you?”

“Fuck yes, wouldn't it bother you?” he snapped.

“Everyone grieves in their own way,” she said. “The fact that you have not cried does not mean you don't grieve the loss. You might cry later. You might not. That does not mean that how you are grieving is wrong.”

Clint rubbed his eyes with stiff fingers. “It feels like it's wrong,” he said, too tired to pretend.

The pad was set aside again. “Tell me something about Agent Coulson.”

Startled into looking at her, he managed, “What?”

O'Brien smiled. “Tell me your favorite thing about Agent Coulson.”

Clint thought about that. Stopped long enough to think. To consider. “First thing in the morning,” he said at last. “Right when he just woke up. Not, like, panic and chaos and bad guys are coming waking up. Just... Sleep kinda late Sunday morning waking up, y' know? He woke up slowly some mornings. And when he'd finally pry his head off the pillow, every hair on his head would be going in the wrong direction.” His smile was slow this time. Growing. “He was always so perfectly groomed, but in the morning? His hair would just go-” He spread his fingers over his head. “I'd laugh. Every time. Which was fine, as long as I gave him coffee before I snickered.”

“Tell me something else,” she said, smiling back.

“When he was really tired, he snored,” Clint said. “When he was just waking up, or just falling asleep, he'd rub the top of his foot against the arch of mine. He liked expensive coffee beans, but he'd drink two day old burnt instant from a gas station machine, if that was all that was around. He had a sweet tooth. He opened every piece of junk mail he ever got, just to be sure it wasn't something important. He broke six phones last year. One of them got shot. He wrote in the margins of his books, but only in pencil, so it could be erased. He would watch the same movie every night, if he felt like it. He never cried at movies, but he did at books, and he never bothered to hide it. He liked dogs and cats, but couldn't take the risk of owning one. He'd pitch electronics the first moment they started to malfunction, but he'd glue a broken cup back together with the sort of precision a jeweler would envy.”

The rush of words left him exhausted, and he came to a stuttering halt. “When we were alone, when we were at home, and I was cooking, he'd lean against my side, and slip his hand around the small of my back, and tuck his fingers into the back pocket of my jeans.” He stopped. “I miss that. Most of all. Sometimes, I'll be at the stove, I'll be trying to cook, and I realize I'm waiting for it.” He gave a little half shrug. “I keep ruining shit. Waiting. When he's not coming.”

He looked up. “I need to let him go.”

“And how do you think you can achieve that?”

He sucked in a breath. “Nat and my team have some ideas.”


“Thank you all for coming.”

Clint refused to look around, because he wasn't sure he could take that. He just... Wasn't. But Nat was up in front, facing the crowd, the wind making her hair dance. It was cool, the way late afternoons could be this high up, as the day faded into night, but she didn't seem to notice. She was used to far colder climes than the roof of SHIELD New York.

And there was a roaring fire just to her side.

Natasha waited until something approaching silence fell. “Thank you all for coming,” she repeated. “Most of our fallen comrades and friends have had their memorials, their funerals.” She paused, her mouth going tight. “But we have not yet had a chance to honor Agent Phil Coulson.”

SHIELD hadn't sanctioned this, either. None of them had asked permission. The news had passed via word of mouth, quiet memos slipped into in-boxes and emails with cryptic phrasing. Clint didn't doubt that Fury knew exactly what they were doing here. Fury knew everything that happened in this building.

He hadn't stopped it. That was as close to tacit approval as they were likely to get.

Natasha waved a hand at the basin that had been set up, at the Northeast corner of the roof. Set up by Thor, of all people. Where the fire was coming from, or what was fueling it, Clint wasn't sure, but it was beautiful. Beautiful and clean and bright. In lieu of a body, in lieu of anything physical, this was the best they could come up with, to cosign their memories, their stories, and all that went with it, to the flames. “We've asked you to bring something that reminds you of Agent Coulson. If you would like to step forward, make your offering, and speak some final words to, or about, Agent Coulson, please do.”

There was silence, and she turned to cauldron. She spoke, just a few words, just in Russian. From a pocket of her chic black jacket, she drew a small religious medal. Brushing her lips over it, she tossed it into the flames, and stepped back. “Good-bye, sir,” she said.

Steve stood, and in the silence that descended, walked forward. Natasha stepped aside, and Steve marched forward to take her place. He pivoted on his heel, perfect parade posture, and stood at attention. “Thank you, Agent Coulson,” he said, his voice carrying over the stillness of the crowd. “And good-bye.”

He reached out, tossing something into the fire. Clint saw the Captain America cards, bloodstained and wrinkled, descend into the flames, and had to smile. Steve drew himself up, saluted, and stepped away. He might not have been wearing a uniform, military or Captain America or otherwise, but this was an act of respect, from one man who'd served, to another.

As a nervous looking Junior agent stepped forward, Steve returned to his place, his shoulders still tight, his face unhappy. Clint glanced at him. “Thank you,” he said in an undertone. When Steve met his eyes, he managed a lopsided smile. “Coulson was a Ranger. Before SHIELD. He would've...” Clint tipped his chin at the fire. “He would've liked that.”

Steve took a deep breath. “It wasn't much,” he said, and there was a raw note in his voice. Raw and sad, and Clint wondered how he was still standing. How he could bury this many people, no, not even get the chance to bury this many people. The world had mourned without him, buried his friends and his loved ones and now he was alone in his grief.

Clint looked at him. “It's everything,” he said, and Steve nodded, a little of the stress disappearing from his eyes, from his face. Like he'd passed some test. He reached out and clasped Clint's shoulder with a firm hand. The grip lingered, a brace and a comfort, and Clint didn't object.

He just leaned into it. Let the tiniest amount of his weight settle against the strength of Steve's arm.

Tony moved forward, his eyes meeting Natasha's, then sliding away. There was a strange set to his shoulders, his posture defensive, his gait too aggressive. Clint's eyes narrowed, but Tony turned around to face he crowd and just like that, he was Tony Stark again. Smooth and polished and suave. He pulled his jacket back, and reached into an interior pocket.

Clint glanced at Bruce, who shook his head. Something was chewing on Tony, but Clint was too tired to care. Maybe he just hated funerals, too.

“Years ago,” Tony said, head up, jaw at a stubborn angle, “Phil Coulson was where I needed him to be, the right place at the right time. He was with Pepper when she needed backup, and I had-” He shook his head. “I had none to give. After that, of course, he was a constant thorn in my side, and a constant annoyance when ever he could be.” He paused. “I think he was proud of that.”

To general laughter, Tony held up a small cream colored card. “I still have his business card. No idea why. I've got the info memorized.” He studied it. “Seemed like the sort of thing I should hang onto. Just in case.”

For a long moment, he stared down at the card, his eyes hooded. “Good-bye, Agent.” With a flick of his wrist, he sent the card into the flames, and walked back to where the Avengers were standing, not even waiting to watch the card descend into the flames. As soon as the next person stepped up, he leaned back against the wall surrounding the roof, one shoulder propped against the stone. “This is bullshit,” he gritted out, his face set and unhappy.

Steve nodded at him. “Yes, it is. Thank you for doing it, anyway.” Tony shrugged, but the line of his shoulders subsided, the muscles losing their tension.

Up front, an older woman with her hair in a precise bun and a pair of cat's eye glasses on a chain around her neck was holding a paper coffee cup. “Phil Coulson,” she said, her lips curling in a smile, “could always be counted on to wash the coffee pot. And if he drank the last cup, he'd make more.” Around the roof, people chuckled, laughed. Little bursts of sound, too loud, too sharp, and that was fine. She grinned, and held up the cup. “So I salute Phil Coulson with whole, dark roast, organic shade grown Kona coffee beans.”

She tossed them in the flames, and dusted her hands off, the gesture crisp and efficient. “Good bye, Phil. May you always have a fresh pot waiting for you, no matter what the hour.”

To general laughter, she stepped down, and Sitwell came forward, taking her place. He smiled at Natasha, who smiled back, and nodded in Clint's direction. On some level, Clint wondered if he knew. Or suspected. Sitwell wasn't anyone's fool, and more than most, he'd known Phil Coulson well.

Clint had never asked Phil to keep their relationship secret. Phil had never asked it of him, either, but somehow, they just didn't talk about it. But in an organization like SHIELD, people had to have suspected. People who knew either one of them well would've picked up on the signs at some point over the past few years. Clint shifted his weight, and Jasper looked at him. Gave him a smile.

Sitwell took a deep breath. “So,” he said. “Agent Coulson had the worst eating habits of any man I've ever met.” There was a laugh from the audience, and Sitwell grinned. “You know I'm right,” he yelled, over the general din. “Shut up!” He waited for everyone to calm down, for silence to fall.

He was grinning now, his cheeks round and flushed in the wind. “Phil Coulson,” he started again. “Had the worst eating habits of any man I ever met. Of any person I ever met. He ate out of gas stations and greasy spoons, he survived off of coffee that could've taken the tarnish off of silver and fries that drowned in their own grease. Cardboard pizza and frozen burritos. He ate it all, without flinching, without a second thought. He just ate what he could get his hands on.

“That's not to mean that he didn't didn't appreciate a good meal, he did. He liked a good meal, and he liked good food. But he didn't need it, he didn't need anything more than the most basic nutritional components.”

“There was nutrition in that stuff?” someone yelled, to general catcalls.

“He survived off of it,” Sitwell said. “There had to be something to that junk. Of course, he also liked MREs. Not tolerated. Not stomached. He liked them. The-” His breath hiccuped, and he paused, taking a deep breath. “The damn bastard LIKED MREs, and that was just unnatural.”

He held up a paper bag. “I memorialize Phil Coulson, friend, coworker, and man with horrible, horrible taste, with one last package of tiny chocolate doughnuts.” He opened the bag and pulled out the snack. “I went to six gas stations until I found a package of expired ones. I think he would've appreciated that.” He split the package open, and in silence, he pitched them, one at a time, into the flames. He crumpled the package up and jammed it back in the bag. “Good-bye, Phil.”

As he stepped down, he was pulling his glasses off, and rubbing at his eyes with the heel of one hand. The gesture was childlike and simple, and it was enough. No one was going to judge him for his tears, but no one was going to judge him for trying to hide them, either.

He was replaced up front by a tall man, thin and almost gangly, with kind brown eyes and short cropped hair. “Phil Coulson got me home in time to see my daughter born,” he said, his voice shaking. “I'll never stop being grateful for that.” His hand was trembling, almost as much as his voice, as he raised up the photo. “This is my girl. Marjorie. I love her more than life itself. I'll make sure to tell her about you; I'll make sure she remembers. Thank you, sir. And good-bye, Agent Coulson.”

A tiny woman with a precise black bob that just brushed the line of her jaw moved forward. She had a stack of folders in her arms, and she was crying silently, tears sliding down the curves of her cheeks, her eyes red rimmed and swollen. She paused beside the fire, her mouth opening and closing on a sob. Her eyes closed, and she said something soft and gentle, the words barely audible. For an instant, she folded in around her folders, her shoulders hunching and her face hidden behind the veil of her hair.

They waited, silent and accepting, until she pulled herself together. Her head came up. “Phil Coulson saved my life,” she said, her voice barely audible. She looked up, her body shaking with a little giggle. “I guess a lot of people can say that. Most of the people here can say that.” There was laughter and a few clapping hands, and she grinned, tears still streaming down her cheeks. “I tried to say thank you, when he was alive, and he just-” She swallowed, her head bobbing down. When it came up again, her eyes were closed. “When I tried to say thank you, he just looked at me with that little half smile and said, 'don't let it happen again.'”

Clint started to laugh, and somewhere behind him he heard Sitwell say, “Oh, for God's sake, Phil,” and the woman was giggling, high and warm.

“And I didn't,” she said. Her grin died back, smoothed out into a warm smile. “And I won't. Because he's not here any more to get me out of it.” She took a deep breath. “Or to fix my paperwork.” She held it up, and with a quick, sharp movement, she sent the folders into the flames. “Good-bye, Agent Coulson. Thank you for my life.”

There was an older woman waiting for her, tall and broad shouldered and steady, who pulled her into a hug and let her sob, her whole body shuddering with the force of it. Steel gray curls bent over straight black hair, and the two of them moved away, smiling and crying in tandem.

Clint watched her go, and used the moment to let his eyes slide over the crowd. At the people. So many people. Gathering silently, in defiance of a lot of things, in defiance of SHIELD itself, in some small way. But they gathered. In suits and uniform, in black mourning and with bright spots of colors in their ties and shoes. There were so many people. Waiting their turn.

The parade of agents, of support personnel, men and women, seemed to go on forever. Clint watched every one of them step up, trying to memorize their faces, their words. The way they smiled and laughed and cried. The ones who had a long story to tell, and the ones who whispered something that only the flames could hear. They brought icons and religious symbols and offerings and memories. Flowers and pictures and paper and post-it notes and a silk tie. They brought tears and words.

And every one of them said, “Thank you.” Thank you, and good-bye. To Coulson. Or Agent Coulson. Or Phil. Or sir. But they said, each and every one of them, thank you. And good-bye.

The sun was going down by the time they stopped. By the time that the last agent stepped away, the wind had grown cold, and Clint was glad of his position between Steve and Bruce, both of them blocking him in on the sides, providing him something resembling shelter. They hadn't moved the entire time, and Clint realized, with a start, that Steve's hand was still on his shoulder.

Awkwardly, he reached up and touched it, and Steve looked at him. Clint took a deep breath and nodded his head towards the front of the crowd, where Thor was speaking in a soft, melodic language none of them could speak, but all of them could recognize as ancient. “My turn,” he said, and Steve nodded. With one last squeeze of his fingers, he let Clint go.

Before he could move, a sudden hush feel over the crowd. Behind him, Stark muttered something that sounded like “I cannot believe the fucking balls,” but Clint wasn't really paying attention.

The crowd parted, and Maria Hill walked through, her stride brisk and purposeful, her slim shoulders back and her chin up. Between her palms was a flag, folded in a neat triangle. She stepped up, meeting Natasha's eyes. Nat nodded, just a dip of her chin, and Maria paused, turning to the crowd.

“This was the flag that flew on the helicarrier on the day that Loki attacked,” she said, the words brisk and businesslike. She met Clint's eyes. “The day that we lost Phil Coulson.”

Clint took a deep breath, and it burned, the cold air on his throat, in his lungs. It hurt, it ached, and he was waiting, waiting for that crushing sensation of guilt, of pain. Waited for the sorrow to drag him back down. But he drew a second breath. A third. A forth. And it hurt. It hurt like a broken bone that was just learning to bear weight again.

But the agony was gone. The suffocating, enveloping despair that had dogged him since that day refused to surface. Refused to drag him down again.

Instead, there was just the soft, aching sorrow. And Bruce's shoulder leaned against his. Steve's hand back on his other shoulder. Nat's eyes, full of life and loss and love, holding his gaze. Thor, standing against the wind behind them, and Tony bristling on his behalf.

“SHIELD has decided that it's fitting that this flag, no longer fit for public display, be burned out of respect for all of those that fell that day,” Maria said. “It is a symbol for us, for every one of us that lost friends, comrades, people with trusted. People we liked. People we loved.”

She paused, her mouth tight. “There is pressure that we use this. That we use this, and all that it entails, as a political symbol. That it go to a museum. Or to the government.” Her eyes closed, the sweep of her dark lashes damp against her cheeks, the only sign of weakness that she'd ever allow herself. “The decision was made that this one flag, this one moment in time is ours. That we, as an agency, should show our respect to those who have passed, to those who died in the struggle, to those who opposed a force they could not hope to stop.”

The wind whistled over the roof, and there was silence otherwise. If there were tears now, they were silent. They were silent, and communal, and cleansing.

Maria held up the flag one more time. “We honor Phil Coulson. Not as a symbol. But as a man who did what needed doing. Who did what no one else could do.”

The first clap made him jump. Clint's head jerked around, and he couldn't see who was doing it, but someone was clapping. Someone, and then someone else. Another. And another. Hands coming together. A handful of them at first, then more and more. Bruce was clapping next to him, slow and steady, and Thor behind him, giant palms making a massive amount of noise.

And Clint was grinning as he joined in.

Maria waited until the sound died down. Then she turned to the fire. “Thank you, Phil,” she said, and the flag disappeared into the flames, throwing up sparks, up towards the darkening sky.

Clint passed her, as she headed into the crowd, and he headed up. She met his eyes, just for a second, and gave him a nod. He returned it. She frustrated him sometimes, with her unrelenting stubbornness about toeing the company line. But he'd learned to respect her for it, for her singularity of purpose, for her dedication to the cause at the exclusion of everything else.

Phil had always said, with that wry, world weary tone to his voice, that there was no point in resenting a tiger for her stripes. It didn't change the tiger, and if you annoyed it enough, you'd end up in its belly.

Pausing beside the flames, Clint stared out at the skyline. The heat felt nice, felt cleansing, and he just savored it as the sunset washed over him, hues gold and red. Taking a risk, he glanced back at the crowd, and they were waiting patiently. His team to the side, Maria nearby, the Agents and SHIELD people spread out, so many faces, so many bodies, waiting. Waiting for him to speak.

He took a deep breath, and pulled a folded piece of paper from his pocket. For an instant, he just looked down at it, at the muddled brown spots that marked the yellowed page. He took a deep breath, and tossed it on the fire. “Phil requested,” he said, his voice steady, amazingly steady, “that if anything happened to him, especially in the line of duty, that we sing the traditional ballad-”

There was a wave of howls and yells, and Clint held up a hand. “Would you deny a man his dying wish?” he yelled, his voice rising above the din. “Would you-” Wads of paper and a couple of pens were flung at him, and he ducked, a laugh bubbling in his throat. “Hey, hey, hey!”

He waited until the SHIELD contingent calmed down, and Natasha was whispering to Steve and Bruce and Thor. She caught Clint's eye and smiled. He smiled back.

“As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted,” Clint said, and there were boos again, and he flipped them all off, both hands raised above his head. “Phil Coulson requested that we sing the traditional ballad, to honor the loss of a comrade, a coworker, a friend. I ask that you join in, if you know the words, and if you don't, hum, clap, stamp your feet, just make some noise.”

He grinned, and the roof fell silent. So many of them were smiling now, smiling and crying and touching hands, gripping shoulders, laughing under their breath. Heads were ducked, arms crossed, people leaned on each other and . Grinning, Clint took a deep breath.

“Oh,” he started, low and soft and as sweet as he could manage, “The night that Paddy Murphy died, is a night I'll never forget. All of the boys got loaded drunk, and they ain't been sober yet. As long as the bottle was passed around, every man was feeling gay, O'Leary came with his bagpipes, the music for to play!”

“That's how they showed their respect for Paddy Murphy!” The voices came from all over, loud and sharp and pitchy, and it didn't matter, it really didn't matter. Clint lead them along, even as he stepped down, even as he joined the crowd again. Even as he joined his team again, and Natasha was there waiting, her voice high and bright. “That's how they showed their honor and their pride!”

Natasha wrapped an arm around his waist, and he grinned down at her, at the tears in her eyes, at her flushed cheeks. “They said it was a sin and shame, and they winked at one another,” he sang, and she was laughing up at him, laughing and crying all at once. “But every drink in the place was full the night Pat Murphy died!”

Clint leaned his forehead against hers, and she pressed a hand over his breastbone, not pushing him away, but supporting him.

“A drinking song?”

Clint glanced over at Maria, who was trying to look disapproving. But he knew her 'I don't think you're living up to your potential' face, and her 'this is beneath you' face, and her 'you bring shame to your uniform' face, and this wasn't any one of those. As he watched, the hard line of her lips softened. Clint shrugged. “A drinking song slash funeral dirge,” he said, the words almost lost under the singing. “Phil wasn't really the funeral dirge kind of guy. Lacked style.”

“Did he really tell you to sing this?” Hill asked, one eyebrow arched.

Clint scratched his cheek, considering. “I believe his exact words were, 'if you get up and sing a goddamn drinking song at my funeral, Barton, I'll haunt you forever.'” He paused, held up a pair of crossed fingers. “Here's hoping, huh?”

Hill's lips twitched. “You are a piece of work, Barton, you know that?”

“Shut up and sing, Maria.” He grinned at her, and she grinned back, and they both sang, “'They went up to the graveyard, so holy and sublime, found out when they got there, they'd left the corpse behind!”

Clint glanced back, and Tony was smiling, and Steve was laughing, Natasha's head was on Clint's shoulder, and Bruce was clapping along, a little off beat, but his cheeks were flushed and his eyes were bright. And Thor, Thor of all people, had picked up the song and was belting out the chorus.

Clint smiled. Let his eyes close. “Good-bye, Phil.” he said, to himself, but Natasha's fingers tightened on his arm, her cheek rubbing against his shoulder. “I love you.”

He let out a breath, and sang along with the chorus, and let it go.


He was sick of dreaming about the lake.

He was so sick of it. He was sick of standing here, standing still and straight until his legs went numb, until his back ached and his head ached and he could almost forget why he was here. Why he was standing here, waiting for the cold to numb his skin, to seep into his heart and stop it.

But still, no matter how long he waited, he dreamed of the lake.

“Why are you here?”

He didn't even look in her direction. “I can't leave.”

“Why?” The wraith was frustrated with him tonight. She had moods, just as the lake itself did. She could be kind and soothing, coaxing and placating. She could be sharp and harsh. But always, her questions were the same.

“Where do I have to go?” he asked.

There was fog tonight, thick and creeping, over the water, over the land, over his booted feet. It lapped at his legs, tendrils curling around his legs, and he imagined that he could feel a pull, that the fog itself was pulling him towards the water. Towards the hidden surface of the lake, buried beneath the fog banks.

He could walk into the fog. And disappear into the water.

“You should not stay here,” she whispered. “I can show you the way. I can lead you out.” Her hand was as pale as the fog, her fingers reaching for him. “If you would but come.”

“Go,” he said. The fog hid the rocks, and he kicked it away, looking for the bloodstains. “You don't belong here.”

“Neither do you,” she said. Her hand did not waver. “Please.”

He closed his eyes. One step. One. That would be all it would take. He was tired of waiting.

The sound was so faint at first that he was certain he was imagining it. So familiar that he heard it in his dreams. It echoed, ethereal and thin and coming from all directions at once. The surface of the lake muffled it, accelerated it, hid it, revealed it, and he was swaying on his feet.

He sucked in a breath. “It can't be.” His voice broke on the words, what was left of his heart breaking along with it.

“He is not dead.”

He turned on her, rage overwhelming sense. “You're lying.” She didn't move. Didn't so much as blink, and he repeated the words, on a scream this time. “You're lying!”

One hand stretched out to him. One hand. Fingers reaching for him.

“Can you take that chance?” she whispered, and he lunged, his feet skidding on the rocks, wet rocks that shifted beneath his boots, water and blood and mud splashing up as he moved.

His fingers caught hers, and there was nothing.

His eyes snapped open, and he had a moment of knowing, a moment of agonizing pain, of bright florescent lights and the steady beep of machines. He had a moment of recognition, of knowing the machines that hissed and beeped and clicked around him, of knowing the smell of blood and bile that even antiseptic couldn't cover, of knowing the stark white of the ceiling that hung over him.

He had a moment to remember where he was, and what brought him here, and then, she leaned into his line of sight, the wraith that had haunted him. She smiled, the golden brown hair around her face catching the light and casting a glow around her features, a halo that made him flinch.

Her voice was soft, when she spoke, and he had to struggle to understand, to recognize the sounds as words at all. He had to watch her lips form the words, as if in slow motion.

“Welcome back, Son of Coul.”

Then there was only darkness again.

Chapter Text

It was a safe bet that one of the Avengers was going to take a swing at Nick Fury. The good money had always been on Tony Stark, and for once, he didn't disappoint.

There was no warning, no lead up, just a meeting that started with Tony plowing through the door and launching himself at Nick, arm already up and fist swinging. Steve, faster than the rest of them, primed for action and probably expecting this all along, caught him mid-rush. His arm going around Tony's chest, Steve brought him to a sudden and violent stop. Tony didn't seem to notice, struggling hard enough to make Steve adjust his hold, and his footing.

“Fury you FUCKER!” Tony screamed, and he was furious, he radiated it, his whole body a whiplash of uncontrolled violence. He swung, and it was stupid, he was nowhere near Fury, he was too far away and too removed, and he didn't seem to care, because he swung again. This time, Steve caught his wrist, wrenching it back, pulling Tony back and bracing his feet.

“Do we have a problem here, Stark?” Fury asked, his voice calm, one eyebrow arched. He waved away the intervention of the agents who'd rushed into the room in Tony's wake. He waited until the door shut behind them before he continued. “You wanna control yourself?”

Tony laughed, a harsh bark of laughter. “You think you got me out, but let me tell you, you son-of-a-bitch, once I'm in a system, you'll have to nuke it down to the mainframe to get me out. I knew you were up to something. I knew you lied, you-” He twisted in Steve's grip. “Get off of me, or I'll make you regret it, Rogers!”

“You'll regret it if I do.” Steve pulled him back, a step, and it shouldn't have been so hard, but it was, and his face was tense.

Fury's face was shuttered, cold. His eye narrowed, he pushed himself to his feet, and braced his palms on the table. “What have you been into, Stark, that you have no right to be fucking around with?”

Tony's grin was feral, all sharp teeth and sharper edges, and Clint glanced at Natasha, who gave him a minute shake of her head. She didn't know what was going on, either.

“Energy usage, staff access, shift schedules, duty rosters,” Tony said, his voice like silk. His grin stretched, sharp and vicious. “Medical files.”

"Barton, out. Now." Fury didn't yell, but he was moving around the table, fast. His legs chewing up the distance between him and Tony. Steve backtracked, dragging Tony with him. "Stark, shut your mouth, right now."

"Fuck you, Nick." Tony was spitting mad, his whole body almost vibrating, his teeth bared, the muscles of his arms and shoulders standing out in stark relief as he shoved himself forward against Steve's arm. Steve wrenched him back, and Tony's feet skidded on the floor, the sound a high pitched shriek that made Clint wince. "You've been lying about everything, you son-of-a-bitch, and you need to-"

"Barton, OUT!" Fury roared, and Clint froze in the act of getting up, some warning bell going off in the back of his head. Thor was on his feet and Natasha was behind Clint, her hand on his bicep, and Bruce was pushed back into the corner of the room, his arms crossed over his chest, his eyes jumping to each of them, flicking like the wings of a bird taking flight. His chair still spun, he'd gotten up so fast, leaving it abandoned and off-kilter.

"He needs to know," Tony was yelling back, and Steve almost lifted him off his feet, wrenching him back from the table, and Tony didn't seem to notice. "Coulson's alive."

Clint felt his body sway on his feet, as if his world had just shifted on its axis, and he wasn't capable of following. His vision went gray on the edges, pale and washed out and he couldn't understand. The words didn't make sense. He grabbed for the edge of the table, and it was solid under his fingers, solid and real and hard in his grip.

Fury rocked back on his heels, a faint sigh taking the tension out of his body, and he reached up to rub his forehead. "Shit, Stark."

Steve dropped Tony, his whole body jerking backwards,, his face leeched of color. "What?"

Tony's chest was heaving, his hands in white knuckled fists at his sides. Now that he was free, he made no move to continue his attack. "Phil Coulson's alive. And he woke up this morning. Didn't he, Nick." It wasn't a question. It was a statement of fact.

Bruce started laughing, faint and thin at the edges. "Wow," he choked out. "Wow, I gotta- I gotta say, I wasn't expecting that one." He turned away from the table, and his breathing was ragged, his shoulders rising hard and fast. There was an instant of stillness, and then his hand came up, slamming hard into the wall. The bang almost echoed in the sudden silence. Thor, without even taking his eyes off of Fury, reached back and caught Bruce's shoulder, his huge hand closing over Bruce's arm without flinching. For an instant, it seemed like Bruce was going to shake him off, and then, with a faint sigh, he leaned into the touch.

There was a strained, empty silence, hard breathing hissing through the air. For a long moment, no one moved, no one spoke.

Clint was almost surprised when it was Natasha that took a swing at Fury. She moved so fast, so hard that she got past Steve. Or maybe Steve didn't even try to stop her. But her fist connected with Fury's jaw, and Fury didn't make any attempt to dodge it, or block. He took the blow without flinching, and when the echo of the impact was fading, he turned his head back. “Feel better, Agent?”

“Don't fool yourself,” Natasha breathed. “I'm standing between you and Barton for a reason.” She gave a faint huff of laughter, and there was no humor in it. “It's really starting to make sense as to why you wouldn't let him carry a gun.”

Nothing made sense. On some level, he understood the words, but he couldn't accept them. Couldn't make them make sense inside his head. Clint could feel his muscles jumping, hard and sharp, and he wrenched his hands away from the table. It took effort to step back, to pull away from everything, and it was even more of an effort not to wrap his arms around his body and collapse into himself, collapse down to his very bones, to let himself fall to dust.

Breathing was the hardest thing he'd ever attempted.

“Explain this,” Thor breathed, and there was a crackle in the words, a sizzle that carried over to the air. “I saw him- I saw this thing!” It was a roar, it was rage and frustration. “I saw him taken, I saw him fall!” He took a step forward, just one, just a single step, and the whole room was on alert, braced, on the knife edge of chaos or battle or something far worse.

"Is he alive."

Everyone stopped, went still, and one by one, each face turned in Clint's direction. His right hand was twitching against his thigh, hard and fast, his fingers flicking in a way that he couldn't control and didn't even try to, not now. He stared at the tabletop, his wide vision the only thing that allowed him to see them move, to see them turn, eyes agonized and sad and angry, all turned in his direction. He swallowed, and it hurt, there was physical pain involved with choking the words out. "Is Phil Coulson alive." The whisper was raw, agonized. Barely words, and all a cry of pain. He looked up, and knew that it was all over his face, the grief and the sorrow and the hatred. “Is Stark right? Is Coulson alive?”

Fury stared resolutely at the far wall. "Yes."

Clint stared at him. He was completely at sea. Lost. He cast about for something, anything to hold on to, and felt Natasha's fingers close on his shoulder. Just like that, he understood where he was. And what needed to be done. "Where."

"Quarantine level." Nick sighed, just a faint exhalation. "Let's go."


He had no memory of getting to the elevator.

He looked up and he was there, Natasha holding his arm in a death grip, Rogers steadying his other shoulder. Clint cast about, looking for memory, for anything that could explain how he'd ended up pinned in the corner of a SHIELD elevator with these people, with this knowledge, and there was nothing. He choked on a laugh, high and sharp and hysterical, catching on his throat, on his lips.

“This isn't a good idea,” Stark said, propped against the far wall, his arms crossed over his chest.

“It's a little late to be thinking about how your ham-handed tactics effect everyone else,” Fury said, his voice tinged with ice. “Maybe consider that first, next time.”

“You are-” Tony started, taking a single step forward, all aggression and hair trigger temper, and then Steve's hand came to rest in the middle of his chest, holding him back.

“Stop it,” Steve said, his voice brooking no argument. His head swung between Tony and Fury. “Both of you. Stop it.” Without waiting to see if he was going to be obeyed, or if either of them were going to take offense at being ordered about, his head snapped towards Clint. “Can you do this?” he asked, his voice taking on something approaching kindness. Still brusque. Still his field voice, but with something else. Something filled with sympathy and understanding.

Clint opened his mouth. Closed it. “If he's alive,” Clint said at last, his throat raw on the words, “I can do it.” He sucked in a breath, and it hurt, it hurt in a way that he'd forgotten anything could hurt. “If Coulson's alive than I can do-” He paused, looked up. “I can do it.”

If Coulson was alive, he could do anything.

“This is a bad idea,” Natasha said, still and cold. Her face could've been carved from marble, beautiful and unchanging, her eyes hidden behind the dark sweep of her lashes. She switched to Russian, a rudeness that she usually avoided. Just a few words. A few words that Clint had learned. “I love you. This is bad,” she said, the words careful. The things she'd taught Clint, languid, soft words whispered in the midst of damp sheets and tangled blankets and shouted through blood red lips when bullets pinged metal and tore through wood and flesh without mercy. Just a few words.

The only words the two of them had needed to share.

“I'll live,” he replied, his accent horrific, enough to make her lips quirk. He paused. “Where can a guy get a drink in this shithole?” he asked.

Thor stared at hm, and Natasha choked on a laugh, a sudden burst of actual humor, caught behind one hand. “Two things you know how to do in Russian,” she said, giving him a sideways look from beneath her lashes. “Fatalistically declare your continued good health, and look for alcohol in a location you've insulted.”

“Sounds like I'm set,” Clint said.

She shrugged one shoulder. “You'll get by.” But she was smiling now, just a little, and something like life was back in her face. She reached out, her hand finding his without looking. She wove her fingers through his, and he clung.

“Look, I just thought you should know,” Tony said, and he wasn't looking at them. His arms crossed over his chest, he just stared at the numbers as the elevator descended. “I didn't think-”

Natasha turned on him, her rage a thin, cold wave that swept over the whole group. "He was our handler," she said, each word precise, carefully formed, and her accent was there, the faintest hint of the Russian vowels. It was a terrifying sign of emotion from her, of slippage, of control slipping through her fingers. "He was our handler for years, and he died alone because we were fighting each other." She cut a look through them. "He died, and there was nothing we could do about it, and we have mourned him and all but buried him and now we are told that we're serving an organization that used our grief to its own advantage."

Her shoulders rose and fell, the faintest twitch of a breath. "We killed our own handler. How do you think that feels?"

"Here, 'we' is read as, 'Clint,'" Clint pointed out, bracing his shoulders against the wall of the elevator, his arms crossed tightly over his chest. "I killed him."

"Loki killed him," Thor said, and his voice was tired. "I was there. I bore witness to it. It was his act. No other."

Clint's lips twitched. "And he wouldn't have gotten this far if I hadn't lead him along by his ear," he said, and his voice sounded drained, tired, even to his own ears.

Thor took a deep breath. “He did it because I was watching,” he said. “Because I told him this world was under my protection.” For an instant, his head swung down, hung low on his shoulders. For an instant, he seemed exhausted, beaten. “Who the Son of Coul was meant nothing to him. Meant less than nothing. He was a man who opposed Loki's rule, and he was there, before me.

“Loki killed him to remind me-” His head came up, his eyes dull and shadowed. “To remind me that I am powerless. That I could do nothing to save even this one man, let alone an entire world.”

“Is that supposed to make us feel better?” Natasha asked him. “He was-” Her jaw locked. “He IS a good man, a man far better than your monster of a brother, and telling us that he was killed to prove a point? Is that supposed to make us feel better?”

Thor's lips twisted, anger sweeping over his face, a flush rising in his cheeks, and Natasha stared him down, her hands fisted at her sides. Just as quickly as the storm came, it was gone, and Thor released a harsh breath. “No,” he said at last. “Not better. I seek only to relieve your guilt.”

Before Natasha could say anything, Clint heard his own voice. “Thank you.” He looked up, he met Thor's eyes without flinching. 'Thank you. For trying. And for-” He swallowed. “For still fighting him.”

The elevator came to a stop. “Can we just do this?” Clint asked.

For a long moment, Fury studied him, his eye narrowed, his gaze level. “This way,” Fury said at last, and they followed him in silence.

Quarantine was ugly. It had never been intended to be a comfortable place, or a place that got visitors. Stark and white and empty, the rooms had all the appeal of a white cube, metal and glass and plastic and anything that could be used to control and contain, but still be scrubbed clean. No soft edges, no color, just the blank whiteness to ward off the unknown.

Clint had been stuck down here a few times. He hated it. Hated the stifling feeling of being pinned beneath an overturned glass, a bug being observed before ending up on a specimen tray. Hated the smell of chemical cleanser and the way the medical staff buried themselves in protective gear.

Hated knowing the reason he was stuck here was because they had no idea what had happened.

Fury held up his actual id for the last few guards; that alone was terrifying.

A slim, older man with a ruff of white hair and a pair of round framed glasses perched low on his nose glanced up as they walked in. For an instant, his eyes went wide, then his face relaxed. The medical chart in his hands was closed with careful precision before he reached up to adjust his glasses. “Director.”

“Dr. Willis, we're here to see the patient.”

There was no question of which patient. Or why. Willis just nodded, tucked the chart under his arm and headed up the corridor, his soft soled shoes silent on the slick tile. His shoulders were stooped, his steps slow. Not age, or it shouldn't have been. Clint watched him move and wondered just how tired the man is.

The last door required a keycard, and Willis swiped his, opening the door for them. For an instant, Clint's feet seemed to be fused to the ground, caught and held by his own weight. Natasha didn't look in his direction, her fingers digging into the muscle of his arm as she dragged him forward. It was her determination, not her strength, that stirred him. That kept him moving forward. Beneath the cover of the movement, she leaned in, her lips barely moving as she whispered, “Hold it together, Barton. Do not fall apart. Not yet. Not now. Not here.”

Clint's head jerked, fast and unsteady. It was a nod, he was pretty sure it was a nod, but he no longer understood what was happening.

Because Phil Coulson was still and quiet on the bed in front of him.

Still and quiet, but not dead. As Clint stood there, swaying on his feet, dizziness swamping him, he could see the rise and fall of Phil's chest, beneath the thin hospital blanket. He could see the minute flickers of eyelashes against cheeks, the flex of his cheeks and the bobbing of his throat. Even under the oxygen mask that covered the lower half of Phil's face, it was clear; Phil was alive.

Clint locked his knees to keep himself off the floor, and just like that, Thor had an arm around his waist. He didn't say a word, he didn't even look in Clint's direction, he just wrenched Clint back into a standing position, his grip firm and impersonal. Despite that, it was comforting, it was a relief, to not have to think about his legs, about his arms, about anything but the body on the bed.

Dr. Willis was speaking in a low voice to the staffer who had been sitting beside the bed. The man slipped from the room, and Willis glanced at them, his expression making it clear that he wasn't comfortable with the situation. He glanced in Fury's direction, and Fury nodded, his face blank. "He's been surfacing for a minute or two, quick moments of awareness before he slips under again. He should be shaking off the last of the anesthesia now."

"Anesthesia?" It was left up to Steve to ask, Steve who was still straight and steady, dealing with the situation so the rest of them didn't have to. Keeping Clint upright and stable without even seeming to notice it with his words even as Thor did it with his grip.

"Well, perhaps that's the wrong word.” Willis crossed his arms over his chest, his chin up. “He's been in a coma since it happened. But the brain activity was normal, we weren't overly concerned. The first sign of consciousness we were able to register was yesterday. He woke up briefly, but we had to do a last check. The Asgardians put him back under. A- I don't know, I spell of some sort.”

Thor rocked on his heels. “Asgardians?”

Fury held up a hand. “Perhaps,” he said, his voice wry, “we should start at the beginning, Doctor.”

That won him a less than pleased look, but no objection. “Agent Coulson has been here since we evacuated him off of the Helicarrier in the wake of the initial attack. After the first round of surgeries.

“The initial damage was bad," the surgeon explained. He pulled his glasses off his nose and studied the lenses in the light. He fished a handkerchief from his pocket and started cleaning them. "We lost him three times on the operating table. But we were able to repair the damage. The initial thrust of the blade missed both the spinal column and the heart, but the internal damage was extensive." He took a breath, and peered down at his glasses. "We thought that we'd taken care of the issue, even if he had a long, hard recovery in front of him.

"Then his left lung collapsed."

Bruce was peering at the medical chart from the end of the bed, his face pinched. "What?" He flipped through the pages, and there seemed to be a lot of them.

"We couldn't figure it out," Willis said, still staring at his glasses. He tilted them in the light, and went back to polishing them, his fingers flicking in a rhythmic pattern. "Nor could we determine the cause of the fractured ribs. Or the damage to the liver. The heart attack. The ruptured bowel."

"The weapon," Thor said, his eyes falling closed.

"Yes. We had no experience with wounds caused by magical means. And it was almost as if the physical damage was spreading. Like a virus.” His fingers were white knuckled on the frames of the glasses, his lips pinched tight. “Like the blade was still there, constantly inflicting damage."

Clint's vision was white at the edges, pale and crystalline. He jolted when Natasha's fingers closed on his wrist, holding on tight. Her fingernails sank into his skin, and the pain was enough to clear his head. He released the breath he hadn't been aware that he had been holding, and tried to focus.

"We were treating the symptoms, but there was no way for us to isolate the actual cause, and as the days went by, our attempts to repair him surgically were less and less successful." Willis slid his glasses back onto his nose. “And the damage was becoming progressively more severe. The attack began functioning on the cellular level. Creating cancerous lesions. Tumors. Organ failure.”

“SHIELD knows a few magic users,” Fury said, as if that was a sentence that made any sort of sense. “Couldn't get a bead on any one of them, in the wake of the attack on New York. Like every single one of them was in the wind, no reason, no explanation, just empty apartments and calls that went unanswered.”

Tony snorted, sharp and hard. He was leaning against the wall, his arms crossed tight over his chest. “Yeah, well, no surprise there, the whole larger world of heroes you promised me all failed to show.”

“They had their reasons,” Steve said, rubbing a hand over his mouth. “So what changed?”

“The Asgardians offered to take a look,” Fury said.

“I know nothing of this,” Thor cut in, his face twisted in unhappiness.

“The team of, what would you call 'em, healers? Didn't want it known, in case there was nothing they could do,” Fury said. “We agreed. They've been working on him ever since.”

“The last of the physical injuries was beaten back a few weeks ago,” Willis said. “No reoccurances. Despite that, he didn't wake up.”

He glanced over. “Until now. Looks like they finally got through the last of the problems, because he woke, briefly, this morning, just for a moment or two, but actual consciousness. They agreed to reinforce his sleep, long enough for us to run final scans and checks, but as of now...”

Bruce was still flipping through the chart, his own glasses sitting low on his nose. “He's fine.”

“One hundred percent. Everything healed, everything fixed. He's still got a nice chunk of recovery in front of him, but nothing nearly like he would've had to face if they hadn't managed to repair the damage to his spine, or his spleen. Or his frontal lobe.” Willis tucked his hands in his pockets. “Judging by his readings, he should be waking up soon,” he said with a faint smile. “And I'm sure he'll be happy to find he has visitors, it has been quite quiet down here.”

“Not our choice,” Tony said, and Steve sucked in a breath. Before either one of them could say anything, Bruce leaned over the bed, his glasses catching the light.

“He's coming around,” he said, and the panic caught Clint off guard.

He didn't even realize he was retreating until his back hit the wall, until he found himself pressed back in the corner. His breath was coming, hard and fast now, his hands shaking. He couldn't think, couldn't concentrate, and his pulse thundered in his ears. One hurdle that he'd never thought he'd have to face, one judgment he thought he'd get to skip.

He'd been relieved, on some level, that he'd never had to face Phil, and see the fear, the hatred, the disdain in his face. He'd been spared that, at least. Phil was gone, he'd been gone before Clint had woken up, before Loki's claws were extracted from his brain, and he'd never had to know.

And wasn't this just his fucking life? To get the thing he wanted most, and still be waiting, waiting for it all to collapse around him, watch something good turn around and rip his heart out.

Natasha looked at him, her eyes sharp, and Clint shook his head. Folding his arms across his chest, he huddled against the wall, controlling his breathing with a force of will, keeping his face still and blank. He was light-headed, dizzy. He didn't think he could manage to push away from the wall. He had nothing left, nothing to keep him upright.

On the bed, Coulson's eyes flickered open, and he blinked up at the ceiling, a faint frown creasing his brow. "Hey," Fury said, leaning over the edge of the bed. "You gonna stay with us this time?"

Phil's eyes cut in his direction, and they were already clearing, already sharpening as his mind cleared out the mental cobwebs enough to process what was happening. He blinked, hard and fast, and his head moved in an almost invisible nod. Fury grinned down at him, wide and bright. "Good." He leaned back, and Phil's eyes traced over the different faces, studying each of the people that were moving in, taking up positions around his bed.

In some disconnected part of his brain, Clint wondered what he thought of finding Steve Rogers leaning over him, smiling that calm and easy smile of his.

His head was jerking around, a bit frantic now, his face twisting with some unknown emotion. Fury caught his shoulder, pushing him back down against his pillows, and he subsided, his eyes going flat and empty. “Hey, hey,” Fury said. “Slow breaths, slow and careful.”

Natasha leaned over the bed. “Do you remember what happened?” Phil's head turned in her direction, and she repeated. “Do you remember what happened, sir?”

His eyes narrowed, he nodded, just a minute drop of his chin.

“It's okay,” Natasha said, slow and careful, each word clear. “We got him back. He's here, we got him back, he's fine.” Phil's hand fumbled out, grabbing her wrist, and she covered his fingers with her own. “He's back with us, are you-”

He was struggling up, pushing himself away from the pillows, and Fury and Steve both grabbed for him, holding him down, but he was fighting now, fighting his way up despite their solid, strong grip on his shoulders and arms.

Natasha's eyes snapped to Clint's. “Get over here,” she hissed. Clint stared at her, not sure what to say, not sure he could handle this, and Natasha's eyes narrowed. “This is not about you. NOW, Barton,” she snapped, and his body was moving, without any input from his brain.

He knew as soon as Phil spotted him, because he stopped fighting. His face went slack, relief flooding his features, and behind the oxygen mask, a slow, wide grin was blooming. Clint stumbled forward, one foot in front of the other, more falling than walking, and then Phil's hand was latching onto his, the grip painful, his fingers locked on Clint's palm.

It took him a second, it took him an eternity, but cautious and uncertain, Clint squeezed Phil's hand. “Hey, sir,” he said, and it was raw and shaky. Terrified, horrified, he stared down into Phil's pale face. “Where the hell have you been?”

Phil's eyebrows arched, just a little, just a little bit of 'you're really going to try that?' and Clint felt himself smile. Something impacted with the back of his knees, and he knew, without even looking around, that a chair had been maneuvered into place for him. His knees buckled, folded, and he slumped into it. His head was spinning, his pulse too fast and too thready; he was grateful to sit down before he fell down.

Clint's head fell forward, coming to rest on their joined hands. His eyes closed, he concentrated on breathing, on sucking in one slow, painful breath after another.

Phil's grip was strong, almost painful, his fingers locked on Clint's, his breathing steady, the beat of the heart monitor so precise that it could've been a ticking clock. Clint's head was spinning, his brain reduced to the smallest thing, the tiniest detail. Without thinking about it, his thumb rubbed against the back of Phil's hand, and there was a faint, extended exhale, from one or both of them.

He knew the moment that Phil lapsed back into unconsciousness. His grip got tighter, instead of going slack, as if he was afraid that Clint's hand would slip free of his while he wasn't awake to stop him. As if he was holding on for dear life.

Clint knew the grip was bruising, knew he'd be too sore to properly hold his bow at this rate. He didn't care.

Willis leaned over his shoulder and made some minor adjustments, checking on the iv, or the sensors, Clint didn't know and didn't care. He didn't bother getting out of the way, and Willis didn't suggest that he should. Finally, he stepped back. “He'll sleep for a while longer,” he said, stripping off his gloves. “If you'll excuse me.” Without waiting to be dismissed, he retreated, soft footsteps leading up to the sound of the door opening, and then closing with a firm click.

There was a beat of silence. “You want to explain this?” Steve asked, his voice quiet. Expressionless.

Numb, Clint didn't raise his head, didn't move away from Phil's bedside. He just stayed there, curled around Phil's hand, the only point of contact he had in the world any more. The only reality he could understand anymore was the pressure of Phil's hand in his, and the slow, steady beat of Phil's pulse beneath his fingers. He didn't dare move, barely breathed, afraid that he'd open his eyes and be back in an empty bed, alone.

He kept his eyes closed and concentrated on remembering. On the image of Phil's eyes, full of warmth and tears, full of something like joy. The same eyes he'd always known, no poison in them, nothing cutting or sharp or painful. There had been no rejection in his face, in his grip, only the usual welcome, the usual relief, when Clint came stumbling home from a mission gone wrong.

And his fingers had clung to Clint's with a desperation that Clint could understand.

Fury's boots shifted on the ground. “You heard the doctor. We lost him so many times it was almost a daily occurrence. Until the Asgardian delegation showed up and started working, it was a slow, downward progression. Only so many times you can patch something before you're patching patches. Only so many times a body can be fixed before there's not enough left to stitch back together.”

“So you thought you'd, what, let things stand as they were?” Bruce asked. He sounded tired. Resigned. He was still holding Phil's file in his hand, clutched in white-knuckled fingers.

“Until we had an actual change to his status, yes.”

“You had a new status!” Tony ground out. “He. Wasn't. DEAD.”

There was a long pause. “He wasn't really alive, either,” Fury said at last. He had faced them down, his eye narrowed. “Let's make something clear, lady and gentlemen. I don't explain myself to you. Not now. Not ever.”

“Yeah.” Clint looked up. Slowly. Controlling himself. Controlling every single move, every muscle. “Actually, sir? This time?” He looked at Fury, over Phil's hand, over Phil's bed. “This time, you do explain yourself.”

Fury studied him, his face expressionless. “I had the world in the balance, Agent. A man on an operating table, with no promises. And a very slim chance of any sort of recovery. And you? I had no assurances on you, either. Nothing to lay my money down on. Nothing but a man who'd been turned, and we had no idea how to turn him back. You said one word, one word, and you were cuffed to a bed in the brig.” He stepped forward, up against the far side of Phil's bed, bracing his hands on the bed rails. “I used a man I trust, I used a friend, and I would do it again. Because it was the best option on the table.” His face twisted, just for a second, in some undefinable emotion, but there was emotion there, harsh and real. “It was the only option on the table.”

Thor let out a sound like a growl, and Steve rubbed his eyes with one stiff hand. “Jesus, you are a piece of work,” Tony said, quiet about it. Almost resigned.

Fury didn't even look in his direction. “To get you in line? I would've done worse.”

“How long have you known?” Steve asked Tony.

“Known? About ten minutes before I came looking for the rest of you. Suspected?” Tony gave them a tight smile. “Since the beginning. None of it added up. None of it-” His jaw clenched. “I know you, Nick. And I know what you're capable of.”

“Oh, you have no idea what I'm capable of,” Fury said, his voice silken.

“None of it added up,” Tony said. “And JARVIS was still in your system. Still watching. Nothing was happening the way it should've.” He was breathing hard, his shoulders rising and falling with the force of it. “I should've known, I did know. I knew what you could do. And you fucked us over.”

Fury's eye closed. “Phil was dying. Whether you choose to believe that, or not, it doesn't much matter. He was dying.” His fingers were tight on the bed rail. “I watched him die. A half dozen times. A dozen. I was here. Watching him suffer. Watching his body fall apart from the inside.”

His head swung around, a snake's sleek and smooth gesture. “If he recovered, then, he recovered. But if he died down here? There was nothing any of us could do about it. Nothing.” One dark eye pinned Clint in place. “Truth time, Agent. A month ago, when you were walking around on the roof like you were waiting for the wind to knock you off, if you'd been told he was alive, if you'd been brought down here to watch him die again? And again. And again.” He shook his head. “Could you have handled that? Could you have made any attempt to deal with what happened to you, if you'd been down here, watching him die in agony?”

Clint didn't say anything, but his stomach rolled over. Nausea swamped him in an instant, and he struggled to breathe, to keep himself together.

Fury leaned forward. “I made the choice. I stand by it.”

Clint sucked in a breath. “And, of course, if he'd died, none of us would've had to know you lied.”

Fury's lips curled up. “There's that, too.” He looked around, meeting each pair of eyes. “This is a reality check, kids. I will do what needs to be done to get the job done. I protect my agents. I protect my people. But I have a greater responsibility the job that needs doing.”

He straightened up. “Think on that. Make your choices. Decide. If you will work with SHIELD. If you will work under SHIELD. Because I will do this again. Without a qualm. Without a second thought. If this is what it takes? I will use any one of you.”

Clint straightened up. “Sir.” When Fury looked at him, Clint took a breath. “Did you do anything possible to keep him alive?”

Fury's eyebrows arched. “A team of surgeons worked non-stop on him for weeks, Agent Barton. Considering that few people had any idea that he was alive? It would've been much easier and much cheaper, and some would say, much kinder, just to let him pass.” He gave Clint a tight smile. “I fought for him.”

Clint nodded. The decision wasn't as hard as it should've been. It was almost natural. “I've got a employment contract. I expect a fucking raise, if I stay with this unit.” Gently, he disengaged his hand from Phil's. “Nat? Can you stay with him? I need-” He was holding himself together. Somehow. But he had to get out, before he lost his grip. “I need to talk to her.”

Fury nodded, slowly. “Dismissed, Agent.”


She seemed to know that something was wrong as soon as he walked through the door. She was on her feet in an instant, her skirts swirling around her feet, her long sleeves trailing around her hips as her hands came up. “Clint?” she asked, her voice soft. Almost coaxing. “What has happened?”

He stood by the door, swaying on his feet. It took him a couple of tries, an infinity of silence, as he struggled to force the words out of his mouth, as dry as a desert. “It was you.”

Frigga frowned, her brows drawing together. “Clint?” As if she was afraid to startle him, she didn't move, didn't step away from her chair. But her voice still cajoled him, a faint lilt like a lullaby beneath the words. “What has happened?”

It took all the effort he could manage to swallow. “It was you,” he said, because they were the only words he had left. He wrapped his arms around his chest, his fingers clawing at his sides, holding himself together physically. It did nothing to ease the chaos the roared inside of him, but he could, maybe, still the shaking. “Coulson. It was you.”

Her eyes went wide, then her face softened. “As I told you,” she said, her lips curling in a smile, “I have but one great talent. And that is for protection magics. The holding back of evil, of death, of malice and pain.” She sank back into her chair. “But he was-”

Clint was no longer listening.

He took one step, and another, his feet sliding against the tile, his body jerking forward, stumbling, staggering, and falling. Her arms came out, pale hands huge in his eyes, and he just fell into her grasp, his knees going out, his whole body collapsing, falling to ruin.

He didn't recognize the sounds he was making, thick and uneven and animalistic, gasps and chokes as he struggled to draw breath. Everything was flooding out of him, too fast, too hard, for him to suck in breath, and he was sobbing.

Sobbing was too gentle a word for it, he was howling, his whole body rocking with the force of it, tears rolling out of him. Everything was gone, every concept of control, every safeguard, every mask stripped away. He was laid bare, he was stripped to the skin, beneath the skin. His bones exposed, the very core of him opened wide, he sobbed like child.

And let her hold him through the storm.

She held him until it passed. She was curled over him, around him, her arms spread wide against his back, one hand stroking the curve of his spine, her head bent to rest against his. A soft, alien song was on her lips, words he didn't understand, but couldn't help but recognize. He sucked in a breath, and felt her do the same, her hands going tight for an instant, and it was soothing, comforting. When he shifted within her arms, she pulled back, just a little, just enough for him to sit up, sit back. He did, slowly, his arms shaking as he pushed away.

His whole body was shaking, and she only let him go so far, her hand on the curve of his hunched shoulder, cradling the back of his head. Clint sucked in a breath, his face burning, humiliation a hot ball in the pit of his stomach. “Sorry,” he managed, the word horrible and inadequate and he wanted to get up and stalk out.

“For what?” she asked, and her voice was sharp. “For grieving your loss? Or being relieved that your grief was misplaced?” She slipped from her chair, going to her knees in front of him, until the were eye to eye, both on their knees, both laid low. “You honor him by weeping for him, and you honor me by sharing your grief.” Gently, she wiped the knuckles of her hand against his hot, swollen skin, and the touch was so delicate, so tender that it was painful.

This, he had little experience with.

“Sorry about your skirt,” he said, trying not to look at the crumpled fabric, the clear impressions left by his grasping hands, at the wet spots where he'd- He scrubbed a hand over his face, trying to get rid of the last of his tears, but his skin was sticky with them.

“It is just a skirt,” she said, as she rose, graceful and lithe as ever. “And I have done worse to my clothing, to lesser benefit. And to benefit those for which I have much less regard.” Her palm stroked over his head, the touch so affectionate that it brought a lump to his throat. “Come, sit down.”

He let her tug him to his feet, let her set him in the chair, with the same brisk efficiency she must've shown her own children. A moment later, she was forcing a glass into his hand, filled with water from the pitcher on the table. “Drink. Or your stomach and your head will make you regret it.”

He managed a weak little laugh. “So, what, crying is like drinking?”

“Yes. Both are better done in moderation, and both are healthier if not done alone.” She was still stroking his hair, and he should stop her, he should move away or tell her to stop. Instead, he just brought the glass to his lips, pathetically grateful to have something to occupy his mouth and hands. Both, it seemed, were determined to make a fool of him.

Frigga pulled another chair around and took a seat. “You did not cry for him. Why?”

Clint shrugged. “What good do tears do?” he asked, tired now. Exhausted. He set the glass aside. “Doesn't change anything.”

“They can help you grieve.”

He stared at her. “Except he wasn't dead.” Clint took a breath. “Holy FUCK. He wasn't dead. He wasn't-” He slumped back in the chair, holding onto the glass like a lifeline. “He wasn't... He wasn't dead.” He looked at Frigga. “He wasn't fucking dead.”

Her lips were hidden behind the tips of her fingers, but her eyes were laughing. “No,” she said, her voice warm. “He was not.” She lowered her hand to her lap. “You must believe me, no one told me he was your love.”

“Would it have mattered?” Clint asked, rubbing a hand over his face, again and again, trying to steady himself through repetition. “Really? Someone loved him. Someone out there... Had to love him.”

“Yes. But he would not-” She sighed. “Even after he was healed, even after the last of the magic had been chased out, the traces drawn from his system like the poison they were, he would not wake. I chased him, in the space between life and death, and found him unwilling to budge.”

Frigga met his eyes. “The Son of Coul merely kept repeating, that he was dead.”

Clint frowned. “He thought he was dead?”

“No. He thought another was dead. He grieved his loss. He could not, I think, bear to face it. He waited for death, but we would not let him die.” She sighed. “And nothing we did made any difference.” She glanced up. “You must believe me,” she repeated. “I did not know he was the one you mourned. But when you told me- I suspected. The weight of your grief seemed connected somehow. I could not free one without freeing the other.” She folded her hands in her lap, her face tired. “I carried the memory of your song to him. I told him, the singer was not dead.”

Clint choked on a laugh and a mouthful of water. “No fucking way.” He pressed the heel of his hand to the bridge of his nose, trying to drive out the ache that was already forming there. “The Water Is Wide.”

“And it was. He lingered by a lake. He said, it was where you met. Where you saved his life. He would not leave it now, not until your song called him home.”

None of it made sense, but at the same time, as he looked at her, it made perfect sense. “Thank you.”

Her smile was sweet, and her eyes were bright. “I must return home. But if I could-” She stood, reached for his hands. Taking them, she pulled him up to stand in front of her. He stood where she put him, too tired, too exhausted, too worn to the bone to even try to hide his face. “One last gift, if I can,” she said, and slowly, so slowly, she reached out. He saw her hand coming and didn't flinch, didn't even think to flinch. Her palm settled over his breastbone, resting there, her fingers pale against his shirt.

When he didn't pull away, didn't object, her eyes slid closed. “One heart returned, for one stolen. One heart healed, for one broken. One heart lightened, for one weighted by grief.” She leaned in, her breath warm through his t-shirt. “What was taken with a blade, may be returned with a kiss. May it be freely given, but never again be taken by force, guile or fear. May it never be clouded, but always bear you true.”

Her lips pressed down, right over the point where the spear had dug in, had gouged against his skin, against his soul. “May your heart always be your own. And may you ever be able trust in what it reveals to you.”

She leaned back, smiling up at him. “This gift I give you, with what grace I bear, with what protection I can provide.” She reached up, her hand curving against the line of his jaw, against his cheek. “To the one who has been marked by love. To the one we are indebted to. To the one who I would call friend.”

Her hand fell way. “If I never again see you, Clint Barton, I will forever count you as one.”

Clint reached up, his hand ghosting over his chest. It felt warm inside, and to the touch. Warmth, not heat, there was no pain to it, just... Something comforting. He glanced up. “Thank you.”

She smiled. “It is little enough, but all I have to offer.”

For an instant, he just stood there, not sure what to do. When he leaned in, his lips brushing against her cheek, he didn't really think about it. But when he stepped back, she was grinning, her eyes full of tears, her cheeks flushed. “Thank you,” she said. And when she moved forward, skirts fluttering and sleeves catching on the air, he opened his arms and caught her.

The hug was somehow familiar, her arms and her grip and the soft scent of her hair, the brush of her lips against his cheek. “Thank you,” Clint said, ignoring the wet, raw sound of his voice. His arms tightened, and he should stop, he needed to stop before he hurt her, but he couldn't seem to manage it. She didn't protest, or try to pull away, her arms just tightened as well.

When he finally let go, finally stepped away, her cheeks were wet, but she was smiling, her eyes dancing even as she cried. “Take care of your heart.” Her hands slipped down his arms, catching his fingers and squeezing.

“Thank you,” Clint said. “For giving him back.”

“Repayment,” she said, reaching up to stroke at the wet skin of his cheek with her thumb. Her fingers curled against his jaw, and he had a moment where he really thought that she would scrub at his face with a handkerchief. Instead, she smiled. “You gave Loki back.”

“I just didn't kill him. It's not the same thing.”

“And I did nothing more than show the Son of Coul his way. You brought him back. It was your song he followed.” She reached up, pulling the cowl of her cloak over her head. “You do not belong here. I have much experience with the care of a lover who sleeps. You should be there, when he wakes. That, after all, is a kindness only you can provide.”

Clint shoved his hands in his pockets, trying to still the way they were shaking. “What if-” He stopped, and she looked in his direction. Clint's head fell forward, his eyes squeezing shut. “What if he doesn't want to see me?” he said, his voice low.

Her hand cupped his chin, nudging his head up. “For days, I could not force him back to himself. I pleaded. I begged. I ordered and tormented. He would not move. He would not-” She paused, and in the shadows of her hood, her eyes flickered. “He could not bear a world without you. Perhaps, in time, his grief would've given way to acceptance. He is strong. But if you are not there when he wakes...”

She turned to go, her fingers falling from his face. “You have no cruelty in you, no malice. Especially not towards him. Be brave. You have the heart for bravery. I have seen it.”

Clint watched her go, and realized his hand was pressed to his chest. He took a deep breath.

It didn't hurt.


Clint curled against the wall, his head back, eyes closed, as he listened to the steady, comforting beat of the heart monitor. His right hand rested over his breastbone, his index finger tapping out a staccato rhythm.

There was a faint sigh. "Two choices," Phil said, and his voice was still rough, still raw, but just as calm and assured as it ever was. "You can either come in here and join me, or I'll have to drag myself down there to join you. And it's cold down there."

Clint didn't say anything, didn't move, just ducked his head down against his chest.

“You don't have to stay,” Phil said after a moment. “I'd- Understand. If you didn't want to. But please-” He paused, and Clint listened to the sound of his breathing. “Will you please let me- I keep thinking that maybe you aren't there.” His voice broke. “That perhaps I imagined you.”

He was on his feet almost before Phil could finish the words. His id worked on the door lock, and he slipped inside, shutting the door behind him. Phil was sitting up in bed, wreathed in pale light. His eyes were dark and shadowed, but his face relaxed when Clint stepped into view. Most of the medical equipment was gone, and Phil was clear-eyed and almost normal looking. “Were you going to sit in the hall all night?” he asked, his voice gentle.

Clint shrugged, even as he drank in the sight of Phil, whole and healthy and real. Too thin, the weeks of inactivity had carved away what extra weight he'd carried, but clear eyed and smiling. “No access through the vents here,” he said, leaning back against the door, and the smile on Phil's face died.


“Do you know what I did?” Clint asked, cutting him off. “I need to know, if that's-” He swallowed. “I can't, I have to know. Do you know what I did?” His arms crossed over his chest, he stared at the floor. “I just need to know that you won't find something out, and-” The words trailed away, too little, too late.

“Look at me.”

Clint turned his head in Phil's direction, and Phil's eyes were dark and sad. “I know everything that happened,” he said. Clint flinched, and Phil's hands fisted on the blankets. “I was running the op looking for Loki,” he said. “Clint. I know everything that happened. And I hate that it happened to you, and I hate even more that I couldn't stop it, couldn't get to you before he-” His voice broke. He stopped, a single beat of silence, and when he spoke again, he'd regained his composure. But that fracture was there, that heartbreaking crack of his smooth delivery. “I hate myself for that,” he said. “I don't blame you if you do, too.”

Clint stared at him. “What the hell is wrong with you,” he said, a spike of rage shaking him to the core. “Don't-” He shook his head. “I couldn't-” His lips a tight line, he leaned forward, his hands locked together. “I don't. I don't hate you, I could never hate you.”

Phil's eyes flicked over his face, and just like that he heaved a sigh, all the tension going out of his body. The sudden way his face, his body, went slack was enough to make Clint wanted to put his fist through a wall. “Did you really think-” he started, and Phil's hands came up, scraping over his face.

Clint surged to his feet, looming over the bed. “Did you really fucking think I BLAMED you?” he asked, wanting to be angry, but not managing it. He wished he could. He wished he could scream, or yell, or break something. Instead, he just wanted to cry.

“I left you,” Phil said, his voice shaking, and too late, Clint heard the frustration, the rage that was banked low in the words. “I left you, and I knew that Fury was going to kill you, I knew it, I couldn't-” His whole body shuddered, and his breathing was rapid, uneven. “I left you. I left you! And I knew-”

Clint moved without thinking, grabbing Phil's wrists and prying his hands down. Phil stared up at him, his eyes wet and his face resigned. “It wasn't your fault,” Clint said. “It wasn't, Coulson. You know that. Nat came after me. I know you had to do your job, I'm glad you did your job, I need you-” He smiled, just a little, but he smiled. “I need to know that you will do your job. Even if your job is stopping me.”

Phil studied him, his eyes flicking over Clint's face, looking for something. Clint swallowed. “Can I-”

He didn't even get a chance to finish the sentence, and Phil was shifting to the side, making room for him, opening the space and his arms, and Clint crawled into them without a second's pause. Phil's arms closed around him, his hug almost painful, and Clint choked on a sound close to a sob. “I thought you were dead,” he whispered.

“I'm sorry. I'm so sorry,” he said, his fingers digging in, catching on Clint's shirt, bruising the skin beneath. Clint didn't care, he just pressed closer. Clint buried his face in Phil's neck, and Phil flinched back. “Oh, God, don't, I must smell horrible,” he said, trying to pull back and not managing it.

“You don't,” Clint said, even if he sorta did. Antiseptic and alcohol prep and sweat. But under that, it was still the smell of Phil's skin, sleep warm and familiar. He squeezed his eyes closed and curled close, and Phil's arms shifted around him, holding on tight. “God, you feel good.”

Phil's lips lingered on his hair, at his temple, his legs tangling with Clint's. “Thought I'd lost you,” he whispered against Clint's skin, the words secret and full of fear. “When the base collapsed. When I found out that Loki had taken you. When you reached the helicarrier. I died, every time, I thought you were gone, I thought I'd never see you again.” There were tears in his voice, and it hurt just to hear him say it. It was an agony, hearing those words from him, so broken and hollow, and Clint just clung.

“I'm fine,” he said, and that was inadequate, that was empty and worthless. “Phil. I'm fine.”

“I woke up. I woke up, and they were all there, everyone, and not you. And I thought-” Phil's voice trailed away, his whole body shuddering. “Oh, God, I thought you were dead.”

Nausea churned in his stomach, thick and unpleasant. “I- I couldn't think,” he admitted. “I thought you'd wake up and hate me, and I couldn't bear to see that.”

Phil's arms tightened. “I just wanted you back.” He said. His breathing was raw and uneven, but he never let Clint pull away.

Clint closed his eyes. He took a deep breath, and even as he did, he felt the sweep of Phil's hand along the length of his spine. “I read your- I mean-” He cursed himself under his breath. “Nat got me your- Your diaries.”

Phil's hand went still, his hand settling on the small of Clint's back. “You've seen them before,” he said, his voice unconcerned.

“Nat thinks-” He was being a coward, and he hated it. But the panic was there, the stupid little voice, the childish, immature voice that was screaming in the back of his head that his life was fine, that he was safe, that he had Phil back, that there was no reason to fuck this up. That every time he opened his goddamn mouth, he ruined his life, and no one wanted to hear him, no one wanted to hear this, he didn't have to-


He sucked in a fierce breath. “I just- I thought, I thought I'd never get to-” He stopped, met Phil's eyes. “I love you.”

He was watching, watching so closely, and he had the best eyes in SHIELD. Even this close. Even this close, he could see Phil's pupils dilate, see the way his face flushed, his lips parted. And when he spoke, there was an uneven note to his voice. “Clint, it's okay, you don't have to-”

Clint rolled over him, gentle, gentle, so gentle, but he put Phil on his back, straddling his hips and leaning down over him. “I love you,” he repeated, and it felt good. It felt good, to feel his cheeks flush, and watch Phil's face go red beneath him. “I love you.” He grinned, and the laugh was building up in his chest, a bubble of joy that he didn't want to stifle. “I love-”

Phil grabbed him by the head and yanked him down, too hard, too fast, and the kiss was hard and harsh and messy, too much aggression on both their parts. Too much teeth with hands that gripped to hard, their bodies tangled together.

“This is a bad idea,” he breathed against Phil's lips. Phil's mouth tasted like spearmint, and he couldn't seem to tear himself away. “This is- This is a really bad idea.”

“Uh-huh,” Phil said, and his hands were under Clint's shirt, stripping it up with his usual efficiency. Clint fumbled at the fabric, getting in the way and slowing things down and when Phil did manage to get it off of Clint's arms, Clint refused to stop kissing him long enough to get it over his head. Phil shoved at his shoulders, a frustrated sound building in his chest until he managed to get Clint's shirt off, tossing it to the side. “Why is it so hard to get you naked?” he asked sounding adorably frustrated.

Clint burst out laughing, his face flushed, his body moving with an old fluid grace, a grace he thought he'd long since lost. “Yeah, well, I'm trying,” he said, even as Phil's fingers slid beneath the waistband of his pants. He sucked in a breath his whole body arching. “You're-” He gave up on words, fumbling under Phil's hospital johnny, and just like that, his brain was back where it should've been. He shoved out of Phil's grip. “Wait, stop, we-” He swallowed. “Jesus, we can't do this, you're- You're injured, this is-”

“This is fine,” Phil breathed against his throat. “I've read my file. Asked my doctor. I'm healed. Just-” He groaned, and the sound was raw and thick. “I think I've suffered long enough, thank you.”

Just like that, Clint was on his back, and that was a shock that was pure pleasure, that hint of the old Phil, the one who knew what he wanted, what needed, and gave it to him, the one who could meet him

“I love you,” Phil whispered against the curve of his ear, and Clint's whole body jerked, dizziness swamping him. Laughing, Phil repeated it. “I love you.”

“Stop,” Clint said, his head back, back arched, and Phil's lips slid down the curve of his throat, lingering on the line of Clint's collarbone. “God, I can't, Phil-”

“I love you,” Phil said, the words exhaled over Clint's breastbone, over the curve of his chest, and his lips pressed down against the skin. Right over Clint's heart.

For a second, they both stilled. “Are you sure?” Clint asked.

Phil's eyes flicked up to meet Clint's, his lips curving in an amused smile. “I never thought I'd have this, never thought I'd have you,” he whispered. “Not ever again. I love you, always, and I want you.” He pushed himself up, and his face was flushed, his eyes dark with need. “Are you sure?”

Clint dragged him down. “I love you. Yes.”

And then he stopped thinking entirely.


The sound of the door lock disengaging was enough to send him rolling free of the bed. It was instinct, Clint was out of the bed and on the floor, scrambling out of sight almost before he was fully awake.

He was buck ass naked and he had not meant to fall asleep and shit, shit, SHIT, this was not a good thing, this was a very bad thing, they'd had sex in medical, Phil was going to kill him, he was absolutely going to kill him when the damn doctor came in and where had he left his pants?

The door had just started to open when Clint reached out with a flick of his arm, snagging his pants off the floor and dragging them back out of sight. He knew, immediately, that he would not have time to get the damn cargo pants back on, but at least they wouldn't be in the middle of the goddamn floor. Naked, regretting that, Clint just stayed still as the newcomer stepped inside.

Not doctor shoes.

“Hey, Phil.” Fury's boots crossed the floor, steady and easily.

“Morning, Director.” Above him, Phil shifted on the bed, pushing himself up against the pillows.

“Can I join you?”

“Is one of those coffees for me?”

“I considered double fisting, Phil, but it's a little bit of a dick move. Even for me.” Phil shifted on the bed above Clint's head, and Clint knew he was accepting the cup. Fury took a seat in the chair beside the bed. “How're you feeling?”

“Considering what my file has to say? Remarkably good.” A pause as Phil sipped his coffee. “I didn't even know some of those bones could break.”

“It was the spleen that got me. It was just insult to injury, your spleen rupturing. Have you spoken to your family?”

“Yesterday. Your cover stories are horrible, sir.”

“I had other things to think about, and your mother is just, well, I hear she's very difficult to deal with, that's all. Besides, cover stories are your job, and you were lying down on it. Exposure to alien tech was about the best reason we could come up with to keep you under wraps. Luckily, they already knew you worked in New York, and with your family history, well, they accepted it.”

“I have a feeling I'm going to hear about it later.”

“I'll set up a video chat this afternoon, if you want.”

“It might help, thank you.”

Another pause, and Clint focused on staying still. “You got plans for when you get outta here, Phil?”

There was a long moment of silence. “Are you asking me if I'm going to remain with SHIELD?”

“More or less.” Fury's feet shifted against the floor, his legs sprawled out and his feet crossed at the ankle.

There was a long beat of silence, then a faint sigh. “You upheld your half of the bargain. You brought him back, you kept him alive, and you protected him.”

“He's got a team. They've been doing pretty well by him, but most of it, he's done himself. Barton's stubborn. And he doesn't like to lose. He's in therapy. Been keeping up with it better than we thought he would.”

“I read his file.” Under the bed, Clint made a face, but Phil sounded warm. Approving. “I'm proud of him. How'd you convince him?”

“Threats, guilt, and I gave Romanov your favorite taser.”

“I wondered what had happened to that.”

“I need a call here, Phil. You back with us?”

“Any reason you need a decision this moment?”

“Well, if you're sticking around, I've gotta find a way to tell everyone.”

“You didn't plan for this, did you, sir?”

“What're the chances you'd be fatally injured in the line of duty, that I'd have to use your death to motivate the general SHIELD population, that we'd be able to resurrect you, and that I'd have to undo that web? I mean, really. You're back, you have opinions on my contingency plans, so I'm gonna leave it up to you to tell everyone that you're back on the job.”

“I'll draft a strongly worded memo.”

Clint had to bite the inside of his lip hard enough to draw blood to keep from laughing out loud. He would, too, the bastard, and no one would be overly surprised. Phil could get away with it.

“Sounds good. Rogers burned your cards.”

“I heard.” Wry, Phil added, “I also heard that they were rather bloodstained when that happened. That's a bit over the top, don't you think, sir?”

“I have a flare for the dramatic.”

“Yes. Well. They're gone.”

“You're gonna make me pay for that later, aren't you?”

“Yes, sir.” But a moment later, he said, “They're just paper. I'll find more. You can pay for them.”

“Bet Rogers will sign them for you.”

“Yes, well-” Phil cleared his throat, and Clint could almost see the flush on his cheeks. “He probably would.”

“Well, then, I can let credit go to the source here.” A soft thump. “Replacements.”

“I don't want replacements. I want to find-” Phil's voice died. “These are... Are these...”

“Artist proofs of those cards of yours? Yep. One of five sets, I guess. One is still in the Treasury files. One set's in the Smithsonian. Another's in the national archives. The fourth belongs to the artists who did the work. The fifth set was apparently in the private collection of one Howard Stark. His son dropped them off this morning. Said that they should go to you.”

Under the bed, safely out of sight, Clint's eyebrows scraped his hairline. Internally, he let out a slow curse. That was a hell of a gift.

“My God,” Phil said, apparently arriving at the same conclusion. Shock colored his voice, and a dawning note of pleasure. “They must be worth-”

“Don't think a dollar value can be assigned to them,” Fury said. “Despite that, Stark all but threw them at me and said that I should give them to you when I had the chance. Wasn't really interested in handing them over himself, said he had other things to do.” He gave a faint chuckle. “I'm guessing that's his way of saying he's sorry.”

Clint smiled. Stark probably wasn't good at apologies, but he was pretty damn outstanding at grand gestures.

“I can't keep these.”

“You can argue that with Stark. Good luck with that.” Fury climbed to his feet. “We okay?”

“Sir, you used my death to manipulate people, you lied to my family, you lied to Barton about the fact that I was, in fact, still alive, and you let my friends and coworkers have a wake for me.”

“So... We're fine, right?”

Clint knew what the answer would be before Phil said the words. “Yes, sir.”

“Okay. Want a copy of the wake? I got the whole thing on video for you.”

Clint resisted the urge to slam his head into the floor. Repeatedly. That was a humiliation he absolutely did not need.

“Sir, that is by far the most appalling thing you've ever said to me,” Phil said.

“Phil, after all the years we've known each other, you know that's not even close to being true.”

“Probably not, but it's in at least the top ten.”

“I'll give you that.” Fury's feet headed for the door. “So, draft a memo or something, and we'll see just how big of a stir you can create around here.”

“Director?” Fury's footsteps paused at Phil's word. “You owe me, Nick.”

“Yeah. I know. But tell you what, I'll start by deleting the security footage from in last night.”

There was a moment of horrible stillness as Clint's stomach bottomed out.

“What?” Phil said, his voice faint.

“You're in goddamn quarantine, Phil, did you really not think about the fact that there are security cameras down here? Jesus. Two of my best agents, my fine ass.” He let out a snort. “Clint, get your ass up to your psych appointment before Dr. O'Brien calls me again. I got better things to do today than be chewed out by a disapproving therapist, it's just embarrassing.”

With that, he left the room. The door shut behind him, and Clint didn't move off the floor. He could just lie here forever. No need to move.


He sighed. “Yeah?”

“How did this happen?”

Giving up, Clint rolled out from under the bed, getting to his feet. “We're idiots.”

Phil scrubbed his hands over his face. “We had sex. At SHIELD. In medical.”

“Yeah, in retrospect, that was incredibly stupid,” Clint said. “Have you seen my underwear?”

Phil pinched the bridge of his nose with firm fingers. “Far too often, and not often enough,” he said, and Clint grinned.

“Have you seen them recently?”

Phil fumbled around under the covers and retrieved them. “How the hell did we let ourselves do that?”

“Phil, I think if you come back from the dead,” Clint said, stepping into his shorts, “you get at least 48 hours where you are not responsible for your bad decision making.”

“I haven't heard that one,' Phil said, and Clint smiled down at him.

“Well, how often do you come back from the dead, sir? Not like you needed to know about it before.” Clint leaned over and kissed his lips. “I've gotta go. Therapy.”

“I know.” Phil smiled up at him. “I'm proud of you.”

“Yeah, well, I'm hoping there'll be a yo-yo today.”





“I know.”

“Just out of curiosity, can I ask-”

“No,” Dr. O'Brien said, her chin resting on one fisted hand. “There is no precedent for this.” She paused, her lips pursed. “I checked. Everywhere. Nothing in my training or my personal history has prepared me for this particular tangle.”

Clint nodded. “Yeah.”

O'Brien waved a hand in the air. “So there's that.” She leaned back in her chair, one finger pressed to her lips. “It certainly will cause me to rethink the goals of our time together.”

“You hate me, don't you?” Clint asked.

“You do pose a very unique challenge,” she said, her face creasing in a smile. “But it is a challenge that I enjoy.” One eyebrow arched. “However, if you'd like to choose to present less of a challenge, that would be much appreciated.”

“I'll try.” Clint rolled a ball between his hands. “I'm not good at that, though.”

“I've noticed.” The end of her pen bounced against the notepad. She hadn't bothered to take the cap off today. “You're making incredible progress.”

“I am?”

“You are.”

Clint nodded. “So. Does my boyfriend coming back from the dead count as a 'setback?'”

“It could be defined as such, yes.” She took a deep breath. “So.”

Clint nodded. “You'd tell me if I'd gone fucking nuts, right? Like, if this is a psychotic break, and Phil's dead and I'm talking to the walls like a looney tune, you'd- You'd tell me, right?”



“Phil Coulson is alive.”

“Well, that's a fucking relief.” Clint let out a little chuckle. “Doc? I think I'm going to need to keep seeing you for a while.”

“I'll put it in your schedule.” She folded her hands on her desk, the gold barrel of her pen threaded between her fingers. “How are you feeling, Clint?”

He took a deep breath, held it, and released it. “I'm... Okay,” he said at last. He looked at her. “Is that bad?”

“That's not bad at all,” she said. “Why do you think it should be bad?”

“I guess- I mean, I think that it should be harder.” He tossed the ball, but it was a half-hearted effort. It didn't feel like a necessity the way it had at the beginning. Now it was just something to do to keep his hands busy. “I don't know why it's not.”

“It wasn't bad?”

“It was fucking horrible, thanks for bringing that up.” Clint snagged the ball from midair. “But it wasn't-” He glanced in her direction, a flicker of his eyes. Her shoes were practical ones today. Black leather. Scuffed on the heels. “I thought that it would-”

She waited, still and quiet. “That it would?” she prompted.

“Would break me,” he breathed.

“It didn't.”

“No. It didn't.” He run a hand over his hair, breathing out, letting his muscles flex with the pressure of it. “I wanted it to.”


“I don't know.” He rubbed the back of his neck, trying to focus on the sensation His skin felt like it was crawling. He sucked in a breath. “I don't know.” He let his head fall back. “I put myself together. Without him. I was- Alone. Without him. And I accepted that. I didn't know how, but I just- Survived.” He sucked in a breath. “And then he was back, and it should be weird, because I don't feel like the person I was, I'm not-” This was stupid. He stopped, his lips clamping shut.

“This new person you've become. Do you not want him to be there?”

“No,” Clint said, the word tumbling over hers. “No. No, God, no, I do. I just-” He paused, shook his head. “But if I broke, I could start over.” He took a breath. “Know what? Never mind.”

There was a pause, and then the faint click of her pen cap coming off. “What is Phil's bird?”

Clint's eyes slid shut. “You're going to read things into this.”

“Yes. Yes, I will, Clint, because that is rather my job.” Two quick taps, her pen tip barely brushing across the paper. “What is Phil Coulson's bird?”

He gave up. “Phil Coulson is a rock dove.”

The pen paused. “Rock dove.” She let out a little hum. “Isn't that a-”

“Pigeon? Yep.” Clint stood. “See. Judging. I know you're judging.”

“You always manage to surprise me,” she admitted.

“You're judging,” Clint repeated. “Because you don't know anything about pigeons. You're a city dweller, and you see them everywhere. You don't even look anymore. You pass by them, they're just there. Part of the landscape, part of the city, and you don't think about them. Just an other pigeon.

“But here's the thing. If you look at them? They're beautiful. They each have their own coloration, pattern. The iridescence of the feathers on their breast, on their throat, are just gorgeous. But you don't look. That's your fault, not theirs.”

His lips quirked up. “See, pigeons were cliff dwellers. They built their nests in sheer rock faces and they use the winds that result from cliffs. And when humans started building cities, building skyscrapers, when other birds were dying out, were being pushed out by humanity, the pigeons adapted. They became part of the human landscape, they used what humans made to their advantage.

“They're smart, and they're tough, and they're adaptable. You know why pigeons survive? Because they are enormously brave. Next time you walk towards a pigeon and it walks away from, the next time you come within six inches or so of kicking one, think about the incredible courage, the incredible control it takes that bird to stay on the ground. You are a thousand times bigger than it. But taking off from a dead stop, on the ground, takes an enormous amount of energy. It's a waste the pigeon can't really afford. So it stays. It holds its ground, and despite its wings, it holds its ground until there is no choice, and then it moves only as far as it has to.”

Clint gave a little laugh. “Think about that. Think about how... Much... They have to do to survive. To thrive. Humans are a threat, but they use that threat. They react, but they adapt.

“Have you ever seen a flock of pigeons mobbing a hawk? It's amazing. It's a bird that eats pigeons. They are a food source. But together, they will attack with a crazy ferocity. They will defend themselves, and they do it fearlessly. And more than that, they'll set on the same sign post, the same lightpole as a red tail. Because it knows its more maneuverable, faster off the perch than a red tail. They are not afraid. Even though they should be. They know. They calculate.”

He looked at O'Brien, and grinned. “People look at Phil, and they don't see him. Just another guy in a black suit. Just another agent. Just another face in a crowd. They don't see him. And he uses that, he adapts to it, and when he nails them, right in the back of the head? That average face in a basic black suit? Almost no one ever sees it coming.

“But really? He is strong, and fierce, and smart. And if you don't see that, that is you with your expectations, and he will make you regret them.”

O'Brien was smiling. “Pigeon?”

“Listen, you know why pigeons survive?” Clint asked. “Most birds will only eat what they've eaten before, or what they see another of their species eat. Pigeons? Pigeons will try anything.” He grinned. “And so will Phil. At least once.”

“Clint?” He glanced at her, and she leaned back. “Why do you always look at my shoes?”

His eyebrows shot up. For a moment he just stared at her. Then, slowly, he smiled. “It's something Phil told me, actually. He said, he always said that you could tell a lot about a person from their shoes. Where they were coming from. Where they were going. What they considered important. You could understand what they wanted from a meeting, if you looked at their shoes.”

O'Brien was smiling. “Oh, he did, did he?”

Clint grinned. “Yeah. And it's a good way to avoid eye contact. Most people take that as, well, being submissive, if you look down.” He tucked his hands in his pockets. “And people who think you're uncomfortable, think you're nervous? They get a little more confident. And confident people make stupid ass, shitty mistakes.”

She leaned forward. “Is that so.”

“It is so, Doc.” His lips twitched. “So, I gotta put off my next session. SHIELD's got me scheduled for intensive field reaccessment for the next two weeks. Off-site.”

O'Brien's eyebrows arched. “So I've heard. Not with the psych staff, though.”

“No, just a supervisory agent. Level seven clearance.”

She struggled to keep her face straight. “Is that so? And where will Phil be?”

“I think he said that he had a leave of absence to deal with physical therapy. For the next two weeks.” Clint gave her an innocent look. “I wish him the best of luck, I'm sure he'll work hard.” He tucked his hands in his pockets. “I'm sure Director Fury will forward you my paperwork.”

“I'm certain he will.” She smiled at him. “Take my number. Just in case you need it, during your field reaccessment.”

“Thanks. But I think I'm going to be okay.”


Phil's nightmares were silent.

He just went still and stiff, his breathing speeding up and his grip tightening until it was painful. That was usually what woke Clint up, the pressure of hands and arms and legs. Almost before Clint's eyes had a chance to open, he could feel the machine gun stutter of Phil's breath against the nape of his neck, and know what was happening.

He caught Phil's hand and rubbed it between his palms. “Talk to me, Coulson,” he said, his voice low and gentle, and that was all it took. He felt Phil spasm against his back, his whole body twitching hard, his breath stopping, and then coming out in a rush. Clint didn't say anything, didn't move, just kept rubbing Phil's hand, slow and firm, his fingers moving in predictable patterns until Phil's grip loosened.

“Sorry,” Phil said.

“Okay,” Clint said, because Phil didn't respond well to 'don't be,' or 'you shouldn't be,' or 'there's no need.' “Okay,” he repeated, bringing Phil's hand to his mouth and pressing a kiss against the palm, letting his lips linger on the skin. “Shower or bath?”

“I don't-”

“Shower or bath?” Clint repeated, as if bored, and Phil sighed.


“Okay.” Clint pulled away from him, slowly, and turned around to smile down at Phil. Phil's face was pale, his skin damp with sweat. “C'mon,” he said, rolling to the edge of the bed. “We should've gotten cleaned up when we came back from our jog.” It was a combination of a walk and a jog, Clint setting the pace for what Phil's still recovering body could stand. They'd made it back to the cottage and collapsed into bed, falling into the blankets and into each others' arms with a sort of desperate need.

Clint didn't question it. Neither, it appeared, did Phil.

Now, he reached out and caught Phil's hand, pulling him up. “Shower,” he said. “It's getting late, and you need to eat.” Grumbling, Phil allowed himself to be coaxed from the warm sheets and steered towards the bathroom. Clint watched him the whole way, watched the way he grabbed for the door frame and used it to support his weight as he slipped inside.

Clint stripped the sheets off the bed, snagging a couple of damp towels and starting a load of laundry. He remade the bed before he headed into the bathroom. Phil was already in the shower, leaning against the tiled wall. As Clint stepped inside the bathroom, Phil pushed himself upright, his arms shaking a little. Still, he reached for the soap as if nothing was wrong.

“I can take a damn shower without a babysitter, Barton,” Phil groused.

“Not babysitting,” Clint said, boosting himself up to sit on the edge of the sink. “This is purely selfish. I just like to take any and all opportunities to enjoy your fine, naked ass.”

Phil rolled his eyes, but there was a flush to his cheeks. “Get out, Clint,” he said, smiling.

“Nah. I like it here.”

“This is not a peep show, get in or get out.”

“Well, when you put it that way...” Clint stripped his shirt over his head, tossing it in the general direction of the hamper and kicking off his shorts before he stepped into the shower. “Hi!”

Phil gave him a look, dumped shampoo in his palm. “Hold still,” he said, slipping his hands through Clint's hair. His hands were strong, his touch familiar and comforting, and Clint grinned as Phil worked the shampoo into suds. He didn't question Phil's need to do it, he just stood still and let Phil do it.

When they were both clean and dry, Clint found a clean pair of shorts and a t-shirt, leaving Phil to get dressed as he headed for the kitchen. It was getting late, and he was getting hungry.

The SHIELD safe house as a charmingly battered little cottage, the kind regularly rented by tourists and families on a beach vacation. The furniture wasn't fancy, but every piece was comfortable. The small rooms were well lit by wide windows and the woodwork neatly painted. The master bedroom was just off the kitchen slash dining room, and in the afternoon, the warmth of the late day sun made their bed a warm little heap of soft linens and blankets.

Getting bed rest had not been a problem. Getting out of bed had been a little more difficult.

Clint yawned, stretching as he padded across the kitchen, his bare feet quiet on the polished wood. The kitchen was pretty nice, the appliances a few years old but serviceable. In the way of the best of SHIELD bolt holes, they'd arrived to find the cabinets, fridge and freezer fully stocked, a neat accounting of what was there tucked into their briefing folders.

He'd been cooking all week, falling back into the rhythm of something approaching normal. It had been nice, simple comfort foods, some of Phil's favorites and some of his own. Neither of them had wanted to stray far from their temporary home, and so they did their eating in the kitchen, or outside on the screened in porch. It had turned out to be a good place to catch the morning sunlight or the late afternoon breezes.

“You hungry?” he called from the kitchen, leaning one palm on the fridge. He studied the menu that SHIELD medical had provided him with, chewing on his lower lip. They'd eaten breakfast and most of lunch, but it had been hours since then. He wasn't sure that ten ounces of low fat, low sodium vegetable broth, half a grilled chicken breast, half a cup of brown rice and a small green salad was going to do the trick tonight.

“No,” Phil called back.

“Uh-huh.” Clint flipped the menu closed. What SHIELD medical didn't know wouldn't hurt them, and Phil was still too thin, the lines of his ribs, collarbones and his shoulder blades visible beneath his skin. Sometimes, when Phil slept, Clint just traced the lines of those bones, relearning the contours of his body.

Memorizing him by touch.

“Screw it, you're still way too skinny,” he said. “I'm ordering Chinese.”

“I don't want Chinese.”

“No one caaaaaares what you want,” Clint sing-songed. “You're geeeeeeetting Chineeeeese and you're eeeeeating it.” He grinned as he flipped through the neat rows of information pinned to the bulletin board beside the door. Emergency contacts, medical info, drug info, directions to the local grocery store and pharmacy and a couple of restaurants. The Chinese menu had some items pre-circled, apparently the last occupants had a regular order. “You want some tea or some juice?”

“I want some coffee.”

“Well, I want a pony, looks like we're both going to have to learn to live with disappointment.” He flipped the battered tin lid off of the kettle and filled it at the sink. “Tea it is.” He made a lot of noise putting it on the stove, enough that Phil would be able to hear from the other room.

“If you give me herbal tea, Barton, I will throw it in your face.”

Clint was grinning as he pulled a couple of mugs from the cabinet. “Oh, totally calling your bluff, sir.”

“I don't bluff, Agent.”

“You bluff better than anyone I've ever met. Your bluffs are works of art. Your bluffs are sweet poetry, and sexy, sexy beasts.” Clint tossed teabags into the mugs from a dozen feet away, striding back to the bedroom door. He leaned against the doorframe, arms crossed over his chest. “You should not be up.”

“Uh-huh.” Phil was propped up against the pillows, his legs still covered by the blankets, his damp hair slightly disordered, his reading glasses sitting crooked on his nose. His laptop was open on his lap, and he scowled down at it. “Not up.”

“You're up,” Clint said, wandering across the room to tap Phil on top of the head with the menu. “What're you eating?”

Phil swatted at his hand, way too slow, mostly because he wasn't really trying. “Uh, whatever.” Clint reached over to ruffle his hair, and this time, he caught Clint's hand, dragging it down to press a kiss in the curve of the palm. “Stop being annoying.”

“Phil, you ask the impossible of me.” Clint threw himself onto the bed, making it bounce, messing the blankets and wiggling around with far more force than was necessary, putting his head on Phil's knees. Phil heaved a heavy sigh, but he moved his laptop to the side, letting Clint settle down in his lap. Clint grinned up at him. “Impossible, Phil.”

“Every day, Clint,” Phil said, a ghost of a smile hovering around his lips. “Your own fault, for being so good at accomplishing the impossible.” His fingers smoothed Clint's hair. “You need a haircut. And a shave.”

“You need to eat,” Clint said, holding up the menu. “Pick. Or I'll pick for you.”

“Is that supposed to be a threat?” Phil's fingertips slid against Clint's skin, over his forehead and his temple, tracing the curve of his ear. “If so, it's pathetic.”

“I'm tired and hungry; it's the best I could do under the circumstances.” Clint angled his head against Phil's hand, letting Phil's palm settle against his cheek. It was warm and familiar and it made Phil chuckle. “Wanna go down to the beach tonight?”

Phil arched an eyebrow. “Are you going to make me hike through the sand again?”

“Just building up strength and stamina,” Clint said, grinning. “C'mon, there's a reward at the end.”

“I swear to God if I end up with sand in my shorts again...”

“That is pretty much assured, sorry.” Clint opened the menu. “Wanna just go with what the last crew ordered?”

“Sure. Live dangerously.”

Clint surged up, slipping a hand behind Phil's neck and dragging him down for kiss that was entirely too gentle, and entirely too sweet. When they broke apart, Clint's was breathing hard and Phil's face was flushed and his glasses were even more askew. Clint grinned up at him. “You're adorable in glasses.”

Phil put a hand on his shoulder and gave him a shove. “Get off,” he said, trying to hide his smile. “I have work to do.”

“Actually, you don't.” Clint rolled over onto his stomach, folding his arms under his chin. “You're still supposed to be napping.”

“I am sick of napping.” Phil made a face. He reached up and slipped his glasses off, rubbing his other hand over his face. “It feels like all I've done is sleep.”

“Maybe,” Clint said, reaching out with one hand and unplugging the laptop with a flick of his fingers, ignoring Phil's grab for the cord. “Not supposed to be working.”

“I have a battery, and you're not being cute right now,” Phil said. He reached for the cord, because his battery was almost dead, and Clint knew it. Clint held it out of reach without much difficulty. He frowned, his brows drawing up tight. “Clint...”

“I love you,” Clint said, grinning up at him.

“You know, that's not a get out of jail free card, Barton.”

“It kinda is,” Clint said, unconcerned.

Phil paused, and sighed. “Yeah, it is.” He ignored Clint's laughter, putting a foot in Clint's ribs and shoving him off the side of the bed. “Go order dinner,” he said, going back to his computer. But he was hiding a smile, and Clint scrambled up off the floor.

“Sir, yes, sir!” he said, managing a crisp salute, and ducked as a pillow went flying in his direction. “What? It's hot, sir. It is hot when you make me do dirty, dirty things in the line of-” He ducked out of the door before the next pillow, or possibly a coffee cup could make contact. “Hot!” he yelled back into the bedroom.

He knew Phil was laughing, even if he was trying to hide it. His ears were pretty good.

By the time he was finished with placing the order, the battered kettle was singing at him, and he swung it off the gas. He filled the cups and wandered back to the bedroom. “We got fifteen minutes before the mu shu gets here. Wanna fuck?”

Phil's lips twitched up hard, and then he wiped the smile off his features. “Tempting,” Phil said, the words full of sarcasm. “But I'll pass.”

“Your loss.” Clint ambled over and held out the coffee cup. “Here, have some dried leaves and twigs and shit floating in hot water.” When Phil gave first him, then the cup, then him, a disdainful look. “Hey, you could've gotten a like, fourteen minute fuck. You chose tea. Don't see how that's my problem.”

Phil was holding it together through grace of long practice, but he was reduced now to hiding his grin behind the coffee cup, which means he was reduced to actually drinking the damn stuff. “You're a class act, Barton.”

Clint spread his arms out, wiggling his eyebrows. “Baby, I'm so fucking classy, I'm gonna put on pants before I open the door for the delivery guy. It's the goddamn Ritz in here,” he said, and Phil choked on his tea. Pleased with himself, Clint threw himself into the battered rocking chair beside the bed.

Phil's computer beeped at him, and Phil shut it with one hand. “Is there a reason you're over there?” he asked. The question bordered on the petulant, and Clint gave a little hum of consideration as he sipped his tea.

“Savoring my tea.” Clint stuck his pinkie out. “Again, I'd bring up the fucking, but-”

“As God is my witness, I do not know why I am dating you,” Phil said,

Clint put his feet up on the edge of the bed. “Cause I'm a sexy bitch?”


“Cause no one else will put up with the abomination that is your insistence on putting raisins in gingerbread?” Clint asked, wiggling his toes.

“You've just described Hermits, for the ninetieth time, that is-”

“Cause I don't judge you for sleeping in socks?”

“Excuse me, at least I don't put ice cold feet on your legs in the middle of the night,” Phil groused.

“I need my blood focused in other places when you're in bed with me,” Clint said. He grinned. “Is it because I do the absolute best phone sex over the com lines?”

“I need you to stop doing that, I think Natasha is recording you,” Phil said. He put his cup on the bedside table and reached out to rub a hand over Clint's ankle.

“She is. Says she's going to start a podcast.” Clint choked on a laugh as Phil grabbed his ankle and dragged him, and the chair, forward. “Is it because-” he started, and Phil grabbed him by the front of the shirt and dragged him forward. Laughing, Clint gave him the angle that he needed, rolling out of the chair, his legs acting as a pivot point as he fell into the bed and onto Phil.

“It's because I love you,” Phil said, eyes laughing.

“That was going to be my next guess,” Clint said, tangling his legs with Phil's and allowing his head to be dragged down for a kiss. It was long and slow and sweet, and when he pulled away, he said, “But just so you know, the raisin thing? Makes it really hard.”

“Shut up, Barton.”

“Really hard, sir,” Clint said, nuzzling Phil's throat. His hips arched into Phil's. “Really, really hard.”

“Seriously, you can stop talking at any point now,” Phil said.

“You know, if you'd just accepted the fifteen minute sex option-” Clint managed before a pillow was smacked in his face. Laughing, he batted it away, fumbling for a weapon of his own. “No, hey, wait, bad touch, bad touch, no, that is-”

The Chinese food was late. He still didn't manage pants. Luckily, the delivery guy barely raised an eyebrow at Clint's ripped t-shirt and boxers. Clint grinned and tipped him forty bucks, so that probably helped.

“You're covered in feathers,” Phil said, when Clint ambled back in. He was sipping cold tea, his eyebrows arched and his t-shirt a rumpled mess. Clint researched up and swept a hand through his hair, sending down in all directions. “I think we owe SHIELD a couple of pillows.”

“Fucking worth it,” Clint said, handing over the bag. “Plates?”

“This from the man who just answered the door in his underwear?”

“I'm a fucking big tipper, so it's fine,” Clint said. He grabbed his tea and settled down on the bed, cross-legged and slumped against the remains of the pillows. “What'd we get?”

Phil gave him a look. “You ordered.”

“I've got a short attention span.” Clint took one of the familiar white and red boxes. “Hey, cashew chicken!” he said, prying open the flaps. “Good choice. I make excellent choices.” He grabbed a crab rangoon from the box and slumped back into the pillows. He took the chopsticks that Phil offered him. He'd been hungrier than he'd thought, and he dug in with more speed than dignity.

Phil's phone beeped, and Clint gave it a dark look. “Don't you dare,” he said to Phil. “Don't. Fury can get by for a week without you.”

“Of course he can,” Phil said. “I just don't think he sees any reason to bother.” He took a bite of his lo mein before reaching for it. He flicked through the info with his thumb, and his lips quirked up. “Looks like you're going to be recertified for duty.”

“Huh,” Clint said, not really interested. He had food. And Phil.

Phil tossed the phone back onto the nightstand. “You okay with that?”

Clint shrugged and reached for the bag. “Yeah, it's fine,” he said. “Fuck, yeah, fried rice.” For an instant, he just ate in silence, thinking. Thinking about SHIELD. And the Avengers. His weird little flock of birds, so dissimilar and so familiar. He frowned down at the rice, wondering. “Phil?”

“Yeah?” he said, shoveling another bite of chicken into his mouth, the box held just under his chin. Apparently, he'd been hungrier than he'd been willing to let on about.

“If you had to pick a bird I reminded you of, what would it be?

Phil's chopsticks paused in midair, sharp eyes coming up. “A bird?”

Shrugging, Clint dug into the rice, his chopsticks sifting everything around. “Is there a bird I remind you of?”

Phil chuckled, and Clint worked hard to hide a flinch. He ducked his head over his food, feeling stupid. It was a childish game, after all, the sort of thing he did because he was bored, but it wasn't like anyone else did it.

“That's pretty easy, actually,” Phil said, and Clint's head snapped up. He blinked at Phil, who was still smiling around his lo mein.

Clint opened his mouth to ask, and shut it again around his chopsticks. “What?” he asked, his mouth full.

Phil's eyes glinted. “Cooper's Hawk.”

Clint stared at him. “A chicken hawk,” he said, unimpressed. Okay, a little disappointed.

Phil's eyebrows arched. “Swift Hawk, hayseed.”

“Little beige brown runt of bird,” Clint grumbled. Which wasn't fair, at all, Cooper's were beautiful, if not particularly flashy. He swallowed his resentment with a bite of broccoli.

“Hunters,” Phil said. “Brilliant, disciplined hunters. Hunters that take their prey from high spots, from cover. Hunters that rely on surprise, on skill, on speed.” He reached out, his fingers sliding against the plane of Clint's shoulder, against a scar that ran from his spine down towards his hip. “They hunt from cover, with exceptional eyes. Eyes that make their prey stand out, any flicker of movement clear.”

“But they do anything and everything necessary to bring down their target. They focus on the movement to the detriment of everything else. And that means that they don't always protect themselves.”

Clint's lips twitched. “Most Cooper's Hawks found dead show the marks of collision injuries,” he agreed. “The chest and wings. Broken, and healed.”

“If they're lucky.” Phil reached out and tapped on Clint's breastbone. “You pick your goal, pick your target. And once you choose a target, you make it. You don't fail. No matter what the cost to yourself.” His hand flattened out, the palm warm against Clint's chest. Clint reached up, covering it with his own fingers. “Fast. Smart. Good at disappearing, and even better at using cover. Using the environment, using height.

“And not nearly careful enough with yourself.”

Clint grinned, a flush of pleasure sitting low in his stomach, like arousal, like comfort. “Okay,” he said. He reached out, catching Phil by the back of his neck and dragging him in for a kiss. “Chicken hawk?” he whispered against Phil's lips.

“Pigeon?” Phil whispered back.

“Shut up, it works.” For a while, they ate in silence, trading boxes and positions, passing cups and napkins back and forth until both of them were full, and the boxes were mostly empty, littering the nightstand and the floor. Clint fell into the curve of Phil's shoulder, resting his head there with a sated sigh. Phil's lips brushed against his head.

“So, you're okay with the Avengers Initiative?”

“Am I okay with it?” Clint grinned. “Do you know what's on my phone right now? Thirty two text messages from Stark, and almost as many from Thor, because Thor and Steve have learned to use their phone's cameras and now, I get pictures of squirrels.”

“In his defense-” Phil started, and Clint cut him off.

“No. No, do not defend Thor, there is no defending Thor, I don't- I don't want to hear it.”

Phil ignored him. “It's just, if you're not familiar with gray squirrels, they are amazing little creatures.”

Clint spread his hands. “Really. Really, Phil?”

“Really, really, Clint.” Phil was smiling now, eyes dancing over a relaxed smile. “If that's the worst thing he's sending you, you should be grateful.”

Clint paused. “When you put it that way...” He shook his head. “Phil-” He grabbed his phone from the nightstand and unlocked it before holding it up.

Phil's lips twitched. “Clint.”

“Yes, Phil?”

“Why is the wallpaper of your phone a picture of Steve Rogers eating a taco?”

Clint considered it. “Surrounded by little pink hearts. I think we need to pay attention to the hearts. These seem to be important.”


“Because Stark goes into my phone and changes my background, and now he's decided that Steve and tacos are a true love match, so he's utilizing software usually used by twelve year olds to 'decorate' their pictures.”

Phil's lips tightened into a flat line, his head nodding slowly. “You're saying that Tony Stark accesses your phone to upload pictures of Captain America with tacos and hearts?”

“I think he has a crush,” Clint said.

“I see how you might draw that conclusion.'

“Look, I'm just saying, I think I'm stuck with the team.”

“You okay with that?”

“What would you say if I said no?”

Phil studied him. “Get you out,” he said at last. The words were simple, and precise, and Clint grinned.

“Yeah. I know.” He reached up and caught Phil's hand. “I'm fine. I'm fine with the team, I'm fine with the concept, I'm even fine with Fury.”

“You're sure.” Phil's thumb swept across the back of Clint's hand.

Clint grinned at him. “I'm sure. They're- They're good. I can work with them. All of them.” When Phil arched an eyebrow in his direction, he sighed. “I've worked with worse, Phil. C'mon. It's not like I have to live with these lunatics.”

Phil grinned as he leaned in, slow, so slow, teasing with the concept of the kiss until Clint gave up on waiting for him and just surged up to catch his lips. “I suppose that's true,” he said, when they broke apart. His lips twitched. “Oh, God, though, can you imagine?”

“No. I can't.” Clint grinned back. “Luckily, Agent Coulson? That is never going to happen.”