Tony's party goes off without a hitch, which, honestly, is kind of a bummer for Clint.
He's heard all kinds of things about world-famous Stark parties, but this one is elegant and simple, calm, quiet but for a bit of raucous laughter and the occasional booming cry from Thor.
He'd been hoping for a little more excitement than that, something, anything...
He's been living in a bubble, a cocoon of muffled sounds and muffled emotions ever since he and the other Avengers found out that Phil was alive.
The only thing that pierces the numbness is fighting.
Natasha puts most of it on him. He never tried to become a part of the group after she released him from Loki's grip, never tried to deal with his grief after learning that his husband had been killed. Instead he withdrew, kept to himself, shored up his walls and retreated back into the cold, hard shell of a merc he'd been so long ago. It got worse when they found out, three months later, that Fury had brought Phil back, that he had used some crazy alien juice to revive him and that something had gone wrong. Tony hacked SHIELD's mainframe, Fury's personal files, and then all there was was a fuzy grey camera feed that showed a wane and sallow Agent Coulson, thin and weak, unconscious in a hospital bed.
Clint wasn't sure if he'd come alive or died all over again.
All he knew was that ever since, he felt like he was suffocating, being swallowed by the icy blue.
Nat was the only thing that anchored him, her and Stark.
Kept him from going off half-cocked, going on another murder-rampage.
In fact, it was the billionaire genius that stopped them all from charging off to liberate Phil from the deceptive hands of SHIELD, pointed out that they didn't yet know Phil's true condition or what moving him could do.
So they waited.
Didn't let on that they knew he was alive, didn't go after him.
It's hard, maybe the hardest thing Clint's ever had to do, and none of the others understand.
Nat tries to. She's the only one who knows that Clint and Phil were married, that they were anything more than handler and agent. She loved Phil too, in her own way, but it's just not the same and she admittedly can't understand the depth of what Clint feels for the man, what they mean to each other.
It's always been more between them than just husbands, just lovers, just friends.
They've saved each other – without Phil Clint's just uneducated circus-trash, a weapon to be used and discarded.
Everything Clint is is because of Phil.
But no one knows that.
They see him sullen and isolated, see him refuse to wear his hearing aids and think he's a dick, but he has been trying.
He goes to Stark's party, tries to mingle and make small talk, accepts the single drink that he clings to all night so no one will press more alcohol into his hand.
That's the last thing he needs.
He's just not very good at it.
They end up sitting around in the common living room; the Avengers, Jane, Darcy, Hill, all of them, pleasantly drunk and relaxed and joking, for the moment living in suspended reality where things aren't so bad. Stark and Cap are keeping up their usual banter, Nat and Bruce are edging closer and closer to what they've been circling and refuse to see, Jane and Darcy bicker good naturedly, and Clint, he's lost, his eyes blank and his mind far away, in a grey and white hospital room at his comatose husband's bedside, where he should be.
The conversation turns and suddenly everyone's yammering about Mjolnir, Thor grinning proudly after placing the hammer on the coffee table. Someone asks for Clint's opinion and he'd dragged unceremoniously from his thoughts, Natasha glaring at him and warning him not to run, so he bluffs and pretends he was paying attention, makes a loud, blustery accusation that it's all a trick.
This leads to a friendly competition – Stark and Rhodey teaming up, Natasha declining demurely, even Bruce giving it a go trying to lift the magical hammer. Thor's a smug little bastard about it and Clint holds his tongue, remembering a dark night and a warm summer rainstorm, how, the very first time he had met the god, Thor hadn't been able to lift it either.
He's amused when Cap actually manages to budge the hammer a fraction of a millimeter, when the smile slides off Thor's face for all of a second before being replaced by joviality and poorly hidden relief.
No one else notices, but Clint sees more than most, doesn't he?
Not enough, but a little more than most.
The next thing he knows, the whole group is clamoring for him to give it a try, and when shaking his head and trying to brush them off good-naturedly doesn't work, he climbs reluctantly to his feet.
It's stupid, why they think he could lift Mjolnir when not even Captain America could do it, and seriously, it sucks. Clint knows he's a human disaster, worse, a piece of shit since Phil was murdered by Thor's brother, brought back to semi-life by his best friend. He knows he's not worthy of anything he has right now, a place on this team, these people.
They don't have to rub it in.
But Clint was raised in the circus – if there's one thing he knows how to do and do well, it's put on a show.
Approaching the hammer with dread and self-disgust sitting heavy in his belly, Clint plasters on a smile and raises his arms, reaches for the handle theatrically.
"Whosoever be he worthy..." he booms, wrapping his fingers around the handle, "Only he shall..."
The hammer comes up off the table so easily he staggers backward and lands on his ass, narrowly avoiding broken toes as he drops the thing as fast as he'd picked it up. The others are on their feet and babbling like it's the second coming but he's scooching backward in a panic, sliding across Stark's shined marble floors as fast as his feet can kick. He's staring at that stupid fucking hammer like it's poisonous, his heart pounding in his chest and all he can think is Loki.
Fuck, he thought it was gone, he thought he was ok.
They took the Tesseract, they snapped Loki's staff, got rid of the magic and destroyed the link that bound him to the mad Godling and all things Asgaurdian.
He's hyperventilating, seeing blue, but then Natasha's kneeling in front of him, all flame colored hair and heat, her fingers tight on his wrist and his chin, coaching him through his breathing exercises. By the time he comes out on the other side the others have shut the hell up but he doesn't look at them, doesn't want to see the looks on their faces. Thor's standing over him though, looming, and when he reaches down one huge hand to help him up, Clint flinches hard and jerks away, snarls under his breath and shows his teeth.
"You have nothing to fear, Eye of the Hawk," the man assures, his voice strangely low and soft. "You are among friends here. There is nothing left of my brother's will in you. It is your own worth that allows you to wield Mjolnir."
Rolling to his knees he hugs his ribs, swallows down the sour taste in his mouth that warns him to either breathe or puke.
"No," he mutters, shaking his head, "No, I'm not. That... that's not right, I'm not... I never have been. Was just a dream..."
It's not possible.
That night, it wasn't real, hadn't really happened.
Lifting his head, pale and cold and wide-eyed, Clint stares at the hammer, extends his arm and lifts his shaking hand towards it. It doesn't sail to him like it does to Thor, hell, for a minute it doesn't move at all, but then, before god and everybody, with a reluctant, grating sound, it creeps slowly across the floor toward him until it slides against the tips of his fingers.
The breath he releases is pained and disbelieving.
"It was real," he whispers into the silent room. "It really happened. She... she was real."
"Clint?" Natasha murmurs uncertainly beside him, reaching out hesitantly to grip his shoulder, and that touch, her slim fingers biting into his flesh are the most real thing he's felt in months.
"I've got one left," he breathes. Turning his head, he meets Nat's eyes, dark with worry. "I've got one left!"
Shoving to his feet, he bolts for the stairs, shouting as he goes.
"Jarvis, I need a Quinjet!"
"Quinjet is prepping Agent Barton," the cultured British voice replies, even as the Avengers burst into noise. "Dock three will be ready for flight in less than seven minutes."
His jump-kit's already packed – he can make that time.
Taking the stairs three at a time, shouts and calls of his name don't slow him down. He hauls ass to his floor, doesn't bother with the elevator, practically breaks the door down in his haste to get through it. His boots and spare tac suit are in his duffel, waiting quietly by the door for the day he can't anymore, nearly everything he needs for the day his patience or his heart breaks and he runs.
The rest is all close by.
Going to his knees in a skid he slides across the carpet, knocking into the bed frame as he dives underneath. There are two cases there; hard, light-weight protective plastic, one long and narrow, the other much larger, its square, blocky shape hiding what's inside. The first he slings over his shoulder by the strap – his first, most favorite bow. It won't work, not twice, but he needs it, needs the comfort and the familiarity. The second he hesitates over, fingers trembling as his breath catches in his chest.
No one knows he plays the cello.
He'd made a joke the first time Clint had told him, some crack about how he'd always been a prodigy with a bow. He'd learned at Carson's, at the knee of the bearded lady, who'd told him that music was nearly all that separated them from the animals and the heathens of the world. Keep music with you and you'd always have something to hold on to.
He wished it were true.
But since Phil's death, his botched resurrection, he hasn't been able to bring himself to play.
It hurts too much, memories of long afternoons sitting in the sun that crept in through Phil's living room window, private concertos that left the older man in quiet tears.
He only prays he's good enough.
Hefting the cello he grabs his bag from the floor and trots to the elevator, jabbing the button that will take him to the docking bays. His mind is racing a hundred miles a minute, but all he can think is that he's got a chance, a real chance.
He can get his husband back.
He's not surprised when the elevator doors open and the Avengers are standing there assembled. Tony's got his armor, Steve his shield, Nat's slid into her catsuit and Thor's cape has magically appeared. Even Bruce is there, sitting quietly on a bench with his eyes closed, no doubt practicing his meditation.
"We're not here to slow you down," Nat says as Clint shoulders through them and she falls into step at his side.
"So we'll let you tell us in the air."
Clint turns a glare on Tony, who's smirking at him from his open helmet, but all of them are looking at him earnestly, willing to help, even after the way he's acted. It strikes him and he falters momentarily, feet stuttering to a stop on the tarmac as he looks around at them all, wondering when he'd earned these friends, when he'd become worthy of them.
Then he remembers.
He can pinpoint that shit down to the hour.
"Fine," he agrees, and it's short and sharp but they fall in behind him like soldiers taking an order and he can work with that. "But I'll say this once and only once."
Turning on the gangplank, he looks at each of them, meets their gazes one at a time.
"Get in my way and I'll kill you."
They blink, some of them pale, some of them flinch, but every one of them believes him.
They don't understand, but they believe him, and every one of them still follows.
"So uh, where we headed Katniss?" Tony asks cautiously as the team straps in and Clint stashes his bow and cello, stepping up into the cockpit and taking the controls as Nat slides into the copilot's seat beside him.
Snorting, Clint flips a couple of switches, nods to the flight crew out the window, and slowly lifts the jet into the air.
It was cold and wet that night – that's what he remembers most. Shivering in a torn cotton jacket that was too small across the shoulders and soaked through by the early spring rain, he'd begged Barney to turn around and go back to the circus, more fearful of what would happen if Trick or Jacques caught them out of bed than of what he and his brother might encounter at the end of the long gravel road they'd been hiking in the dark. He wouldn't listen, just snarled at Clint to shut up and keep walking, wouldn't tell him where they were headed or why, and even though he'd known by then that he couldn't trust his brother, Clint had still followed.
It seemed like they'd been walking for hours when they finally reached the intersection and Barney came to a stop, breath smoking in the air as he panted from the exercise. Clint watched in fearful silence – Barney's plans almost never ended well – and there was nothing out here in the middle of nowhere, not even a street sign to mark the crossroads. Nothing, and yet the dread had settled heavy in the pit of his belly, the wary caution he'd learned years ago sharpening his senses in the dark.
Chest heaving, Barney'd slung the duffel bag he'd been dragging off his shoulder and crouched to jerk open the zipper, the sound harsh and echoing in the eerie quiet. That silence had been broken by Clint's shocked gasp, ripped out of his chest as Barney took his bow from the bag, followed be a quiver of arrows.
"Barney what did you do?" he'd hissed, anger and fear warring in his tone. "You stole from Trick? Barney, he's gonna kill us – we need to go back, right now!"
"Shut up and start shooting," Barney'd snarled, shoving the bow into Clint's arms, making him stumble. "And don't fucking miss."
"I never miss."
When he thinks about it later, he conclude's that it's the hubris that calls her. Didn't know it at the time of course, but he's not as dumb as he pretends. You've gotta be good to summon her up, and you've gotta know it. Confidence, pride, put on a show...
At eleven years old, Clint had already found shelter in the one thing he knew he was good at.
That night anger had sparked in his chest when Barney sneered at him – he knew his brother was jealous, maybe even hated him a little ever since Trick had made him a part of his own act, he just... hadn't realized how much.
Mad, unsettled, disappointed and down on himself, Clint had leased his arrows out of spite more than anything - landed three arrows one after the other in the knots of an old oak tree grown thick and tall at the northern corner of the intersection, targets that he shouldn't have been able to see at all in the dark. Turning to Barney with a scowl, he'd jutted out his jaw, silently demanding acknowledgment, but his brother wasn't even looking, not at him at least.
A chill had run down the length of Clint's spine as thunder rumbled ominously overhead, the rain suddenly even more icy cold as fog rolled in from the trees, thick and ghost white, a blanket coating the earth like snow. Clint remembers feeling his chest tighten, remembers it getting hard to breathe, and then, like a shark gliding through deep water, a black car had rolled slowly up to the intersection and drawn to a smooth stop.
It was old, a classic though he's still not sure what kind, long and sleek and gleaming in the moonlight, silent on the gravel. The headlights nearly blind him until he blinks away the glare, cutting through the dark like a knife, and then there's a man stepping out and stepping around to the rear passenger door.
Clint doesn't remember him – he hadn't been important.
What he does remember, what he's never been able to forget no matter how much he had tried, is the woman he drew neatly from the back seat.
She was short and slender, a pixie, all pale skin and curves poured into the slim black dress she wore. Her hair was thick and blonde and luxurious, makeup heavy around ash grey eyes, lipstick ruby red, and even though he hadn't been able to breathe, had been instinctively more terrified of her than he'd ever been of his father or his brother or his mentor, Clint had still thought she was more beautiful than any woman he'd ever seen.
"Impressive work little archer," she purred as she danced lightly across the road on red, knife-like heels. "You have a gift."
Clint's tongue had been tied – he couldn't have spoken in that moment to save his life.
Ironic, given what had happened next.
"He doesn't deserve it," Barney had snarled, and Clint remembered flinching, turning to look at his brother in horror.
"And you think you do?" she had asked, calm and sweet and cool, venom trickled over ice.
Thunder had boomed and lightning had cracked, and everything that followed was a blur for him. The gist of it was the same as it had always been – Barney wanted what he didn't have, wanted it from Clint, and this time he'd been willing to sell his baby brother's soul to get it.
He remembers that she'd laughed, another cold, sweet sound that had raised the hairs on the back of his neck and made him cower, and decided that she liked Barney's style. Clint had nearly pissed his pants in fear in that moment, but it had turned out that he had been a little too young and innocent for her tastes. Of the two of them, Barney was the more devious, had the blacker heart, and after all, she was the devil.
But it had been Clint's talent that had called to her, no matter how Barney had tried to argue.
Three arrows, three targets, three favors.
The first had gone to save his brother.
She'd laughed at him. Not the good kind of laugh. It was sneering, scoffing, derogatory. She knew Clint with a look, and she knew Barney. Perhaps she even knew their future. Still, she was bound to the terms of her reality, the rules of her reign.
He'd earned three favors and it was her place to grant them.
Natasha glares but Clint ignores her, focuses on the console in front of him as he fights to keep the memories under control.
"I don't give a damn what you believe Stark," he growls. "I expect you to stay out of my way."
"We're here to help Clint," Cap says reassuringly, his voice smooth and soothing. "But you have to admit, it does sound a little..."
"Far-fetched?" Bruce suggests.
"You serious? Flying tin man, soldier out of time, actual god, and the devil is where you draw the line? Hell Rogers, thought you were a Catholic boy."
No one answers.
That's fine, he can deal. He doesn't really give a fuck what they think about him right now. He's used to thinking he's crazy where this is concerned, thinking that it was all some kind of dream. He'd woken up in his bed the next morning, thin straw pallet scratchy beneath his cheek and Barney passed out snoring in the bunk above him like none of it had happened, and he'd remembered.
Remembered all of it.
Barney spent the next six years telling him it hadn't happened, that Clint had dreamed it or imagined it or hallucinated it, and eventually he'd managed to convince him, even though it wasn't hard to believe that Barney would have served him up on a silver platter.
Especially after he turned fifteen and caught his brother and the Swordsman stealing from the circus, getting a knife to the belly and a broken leg for his troubles.
Barney had abandoned him after that and it was probably for the best.
He was angry for a while.
By the time he'd turned eighteen and established himself as a force to be reckoned with, a name to be respected in the merc world that ire had cooled, and when he ran into his brother on a job it was easier than he'd hoped not to kill him.
They've kept in touch over the years, talked, visited.
Eventually Barney got a lot of his shit together, crashed and burned before being dragged out of the ashes by the FBI and a good woman. With a job as an undercover informant and a wife and two kids to care for, he's finally settled down enough for Clint to tolerate his company.
He tries not to think about why his brother chose to do it here.
The property is isolated, remote, the perfect place to hide an FBI rat and the perfect place to land a small, private plane without a flight plan. Clint floats them over the house, a two-story white farm house; old, peeling paint, but well-built, spares a glance for the porch and the rocking chairs and the bicycles piled up in a tangle near the steps, the mutt barking and chasing them along like the jet could be caught.
It's kind of messed up that this place feels a little bit like coming home.
Passing the house, he maneuvers the jet out into the back forty, acres and acres of unfarmed land, fields that have gone to weeds and soy, wild and untamed, a hold-over from former purposes. To the west lies heavy woods, trees thick and dark cutting a line against open, golden plains. He's been out there before, scouting, deer hunting...
That's where he'll find her.
He's careful with the Quinjet, meticulous, delicate in the way he turns it back around to face the house and sets it down gently in the middle of his brother's backyard. It's about control, about giving himself time and a task to focus on, to get his shaking hands still on the console his breath slipping in and out of his lungs easily instead of sawing in and out of his chest like he's been shot. He doesn't quite manage it – he's still panting by the time he touches down and powers off – but it's still a hell of a lot better than what it was.
Nat's watching him with silent concern – she's never been here, doesn't know where they are – and really, he hasn't told any of them why they're here. It's easy enough to figure out but since none of them really believe him, well, it puts a bit of a kink in the plan right?
They're not his plan; they just need to stay out of his way.
This is on him – he has to do it himself.
"You say you have one favor left," Thor rumbles as Clint shucks his restraints and spins out of the cockpit, heads for the gangplank as it lowers slowly to the earth. "What happened to the second?"
Clint's stride falters and his hands fist at his sides, his eyes flicking toward the hammer in the god's hand.
"Doesn't matter," he mutters, turning his back. "Only need one."
Leaving them to follow, he trots down the gangway and across the field to meet his brother, who's waiting patiently for him on the back steps.
Barney's been in a wheelchair for six months.
There was an accident, the details hazy, but it's his back, not his legs.
His physical therapist says he'll be alright, that he just needs to build up the strength in his spine, but it still makes Clint nervous to see him sitting in that thing.
No matter what's he's done, Barney is his big brother, the one who makes things happen.
Clint paid for the surgery.
For a lot of the repairs around the farm.
Laura teaches, and Barney brings in a pretty good federal paycheck, but Clint's terrified that Cooper and Lila will end up living the way he and his brother had.
That's not going to happen, not as long as he has cash stashed all over the world, not as long as he's a superhero pulling in public funding.
Anyway, it's easier than kicking his brother's ass when he tries to steal it from him.
"Hey little brother," Barney greets him, reaching up to slap Clint on the back in a one-armed hug. "How you doing?"
"Shouldn't I be asking you that?" he asks, but Barney just scoffs and waves him off.
"Better every day man," he grins. "Terry's a slave-driver; she's got me up on crutches half the time already."
"Shit, that's great Barn!" he exclaims, forcing himself to smile.
It's hard to remember he's not the only one in the world right now, not the only one with problems.
"Doesn't feel like it by the time I hit the sack," he snorts. "But yeah. Doing real good."
"How's the family?"
"Good, great. Lila and Cooper are good, doing great in school. Who uh, who're your friends?"
"Shit," Clint mutters, taking a step back and glancing over his shoulder.
Tony, Steve, Thor, Nat, and Bruce are all standing there waiting, hands awkwardly occupied and looks of shock and surprise on their faces, looks that only intensify when Clint makes introductions. Natasha's eyes narrow dangerously when she shakes Barney's hand, but the others don't realize the significance of this meeting other than that they hadn't known his brother existed at all. For his part Clint ignores the elephant between them, instead hurries them through the process so they can go inside. It's fall, breezy and cool on the porch, the sun barely up, and there's comfort inside those cracked patio doors.
"Christ, look at you, dancing where you stand," Barney grumbles playfully, always good-natured about Clint's love for his wife and kids. "Anybody would think you aren't happy to see your brother. Fine, go, just hold the door you ass."
Clint grins, can't help it, even in the face of what he's here to do, and pulls the door wide so that Barney can roll inside ahead of him.
"Honey, I'm home!" Clint calls as the Avengers pile in behind him, and he feels the way they all tense up, hesitate. Laura steps around the corner from the kitchen and he hears Tony muttering about a safe house, secret agents, but he only has eyes for his sister-in-law, the glow in her cheeks and the smile on her face and the big, round belly that proceeds her into the room.
"Clint?" she asks tremulously, her eyes lighting up, and then she promptly bursts into tears, sweeping into his arms and burying her face against his chest.
"Hey, hey," he soothes, alarmed and holding her as close as he can. "What..."
"No, no, it's just the hormones," she hiccoughs with laughter, pulling back and laughing as she wipes her eyes, reaches up to cup his face. "It's so good to see you sweetie."
Clint breathes a sigh of relief, curls his arms around her and tucks his face into her hair, breathes her in.
" 'S good to see you too Laura," he chokes.
Fuck, he's been gone too long.
"So how're the kids?" he asks cheekily, once he's cleared his throat and let her go, kept close by the arm she's slung around his waist.
She opens her mouth to reply but before she can there's a bark and delighted shouts and Cooper and Lila come thundering in, Lucky on their heels. It's a moment of commotion and yelps and chaotic happiness, however brief, hugs and licks and cries of Uncle Clint, and he feels a deeper sense of home than he's felt since his husband died.
"Mama, why're you crying?" Lila demands curiously above the din, and the collected adults chuckle while Cooper rolls his eyes.
"Cause she's pregnant, duh," the pre-teen replies, and Barney barks a laugh, grabbing his son around the neck to reel him in and scrub his hand through his hair.
"Careful kid," he warns, "What did I tell you? Just smile and nod."
The chatter dies down eventually and attention turns to the Avengers, who are recognized by Cooper with wide-eyed, silent awe. Steve is staring like he can't believe what's in front of him, Tony's got his thinking cap on like they're all a puzzle to solve, Thor is awkwardly trying to fit his bulk in the little entryway without crushing the toys scattered around his boots, and Lila approaches Nat with a smile on her face and declares her pretty so honestly that the Russian spy actually blushes. Ever the peace-maker, Laura shoos the kids outside to do their chores – mostly fetching in eggs, feeding the chickens, and tossing hay to the three little goats they keep. Bruce and Thor both seem fascinated by the concept of the hobby farm and follow them out, and Steve's not two steps behind, his curiosity getting the better of him, rapidly emptying the house and opening it up to an awkward mix of even bigger feelings.
Barney and Clint share a look and his brother shrugs it off, rolls toward the kitchen with Clint and Laura on his heels. That leaves Stark behind to snoop but Clint trusts Nat to make sure he doesn't break anything, and he's not sure what to say to the redhead anyway. She's been his rock through all of this, and even longer before that, and he's never told her about this part of Barney, about his family.
He wonders if it tastes like betrayal in her mouth the way it does his, if that taste will suffocate her when she finds out that Phil did know.
That they'd even spent last Christmas down here.
In the kitchen, Barney rolls to a stop beside the stove and pivots his chair around, Laura going to his side to cock her hip against the handlebars and place her hand on her husband's shoulder. They watch him with quiet eyes, know him well enough to realize that he wouldn't just show up here at dawn without a good reason, but that reason wells up in his throat and tries to choke him so instead he puts on his biggest, fakest smile and spreads his hands.
"Well?" he demands. "When were you gonna tell me? How far along are you?"
"Five months," Laura smiles back, rubbing her burgeoning belly in big, soft circles. "We wanted to tell you in person."
Clint's smile softens, shrinks to something wistful and melancholy.
"Sorry," he murmurs. "Know I haven't been in touch lately."
Barney and Laura don't scold him, don't deny it either, just allow him a quiet moment of commiseration, of being with two people who know what he's been going through.
"Well, congratulations anyway you guys," he finally says. "When is sprog number three due to make an appearance?"
"Early March," Barney answers with a smile, staring up at his wife adoringly. "Another boy."
"Actually Clint, we wanted to ask you something," Laura says, and he immediately clues in to her sudden hesitance.
"Absolutely not," he declares, shaking his head. "You name that kid Francis and I'll have you both brought up on child cruelty charges."
Barney and Laura both chuckle but it doesn't last and they go somber and serious, Laura folding her hands over her baby bump.
"Actually sweetie, we were wondering how you would feel about us naming him Jareth."
Clint's heart breaks.
Around him time stops and all he can hear is the pounding of his own blood rushing by his ears, and his breath catches in his chest as his knees threaten to give out.
No one in SHIELD knew what the J in Phillip J. Coulson stood for – hell Clint only found out because it was on their marriage license. Laura had fallen for his husband as easily as she had fallen for Clint, doting on the both of them whenever they came to visit and sending care packages in the mail when they couldn't. The two had become fast friends and she and Barney had grieved right alongside Clint when he'd broken the news. It was more for him than Phil, but it was still the damn principle of the thing, and they had liked him.
He didn't know what to do with this.
Barney knows he's falling apart.
The handful of letters and phone calls they've shared since Phil's death were brutally if unintentionally honest, detailed Clint's pain and heartache and how lost and unmoored he felt. He may have hated Barney for a long time, but they were Bartons, brothers. They were stubborn bastards - there wasn't a hell of a lot that they couldn't survive. And once they'd found their person, Phil for Clint and Laura for Barney, the past didn't matter so much. Their person made them better, made them try, and without his husband there weren't many people left that he could turn to.
Nat, who still thought love was for children, and Barney, who understood just a little bit more.
So now he's here, in his brother's kitchen, sobbing as the other two hold him, Natasha and Tony Stark in the other room listening while the rest of the Avengers chase his niece and nephew around the yard. There isn't much to be said or done, it's just one of those things where you grab hold and hang on tight, and eventually you come through it in the end. Clint manages to get himself sorted, nodding at his wife with a smile on his face so brittle it hurts by the time his teammates all crowd into the kitchen. Tony's looking at him weird, still puzzling but when isn't he, so Clint does his best to go with it.
"Well, Cooper and Lila have already had breakfast," Laura says, swiping at her cheeks and summoning up a smile for the group. "But we've got plenty of food and it won't take long to whip up. Why don't you all have a seat and I'll get it going?"
There's a general back and forth about the offer but eventually Laura wins out, getting the Avengers settled around her dining table while Barney conducts the kids through the rest of their morning routine. By the time they've got their coats and shoes and bookbags and Barney's gotten up onto his crutches there's a massive pot of oatmeal bubbling away on the stove, as well as two pans each of french toast bake and scrambled eggs going into the oven. They'll need to stop off at the grocery after this, but for now there will be enough to go around.
"But I don't wanna go!" Lila wails as Barney corrals the kids toward the door. "I wanna stay home with Uncle Clint."
"Nah, you gotta go to school and get smart Lila-Bell," Clint explains, scooping her up and twirling her around. "Sides, we're just gonna stay here and do boring grown-up stuff all day."
"Yuck," she frowns, crossing her little arms.
"Yeah, it is gonna be pretty gross," he nods seriously. "I'll be here when you get home ok? Promise."
For a minute Lila looks like she doesn't believe him, by then she seems to accept the inevitable and nods with grace far beyond her years. Before he can sit her down she frowns, bites her lip and tugs at his sleeve, leans in to speak quietly.
"What 'bout Uncle Phil?" she asks, and Clint freezes, Barney's head snapping up to catch his gaze.
He's the only one close enough to hear the question, and he and Laura had explained to their kids what had happened, but Lila was young, only six.
Death is a difficult concept to grasp.
He doesn't know what to say.
"He's not coming sweetheart," he finally says, and Lila nods like this makes perfect sense - after all, Uncle Clint doesn't always bring Uncle Phil along.
"Next time," she says sagely as Clint lowers her to the floor, and once again, only Barney hears him when he answers.
"Yeah baby, maybe next time."
Laura Barton is a smart woman.
She's not blinded to her husband's flaws.
She knows his history; with the circus, with the law, with his brother.
She knew it when she met him, knew it when she married him, and she's never regretted that decision.
Perhaps he hasn't always been the best of men, but when he'd approached her for the very first time, asked her out, she'd made certain he knew exactly what she expected of him.
He's never once disappointed her.
He's been a wonderful husband, and despite his fears, an exemplary father to their two children.
She loves him, and she loves his brother just as much, if only in a different way. The same hurt that shows in Barney in safe, quiet moments shows in Clint nearly all the time if you know where to look, and after years of loving two Barton men, she knows where to look.
She and Barney had been hopefully optimistic when Clint started talking about Senior Agent Phillip J Coulson. Skeptical, concerned, but hopeful. They'd never seen him as happy as he'd been the last few years, and then he'd come to them with a ring on his finger and a light in his eyes and a new uncle for their children to be spoiled by and for a while everything was perfect. Phil was a great man, grounded Clint the way she grounded Barney, and they'd become good friends with that in common. As cautious as he was around her husband, he quickly came to care for her, loved Cooper and Lila in his own quiet, reserved sort of way, and when Clint had come to the farm all those months ago, broken and sobbing and alone, it was all she could do to try to hold him together.
She and Barney had done their best to help him mourn, gave him a quiet, secluded place to hide away when he needed one. They'd had a careful talk with their children about death, far too soon for her own comfort, and even had a little ceremony to try to help them with the loss of the uncle they'd only so recently gained. Clint hadn't come, couldn't come, but he'd thanked Laura for it with tears in his eyes. When she and her husband found out they were expecting for a third time, that they would soon be adding another little boy to the family, they'd both known they wanted to name their son Jareth.
It was a lot to ask, a lot to offer. They hadn't been sure how Clint would take it. Ultimately it would be his decision of course, but they hadn't really seen him since Phil's death. They kept in touch as best they could, tried to keep track of him, but it was difficult when the man clearly didn't want to be crowded. Now he shows up on their doorstep, unannounced, after months of silence with all the Avengers in tow, and she has no idea what to say to him.
There's something strange, some spark in him that wasn't there before, that shouldn't be there, and it scares her.
So she does what she does best, turns on the mom and sits them all down to her scarred dining table, the one that Barney built so many years ago, when the FBI had settled them all the way out here in an old, run-down, gorgeous farm house. They've all tucked into eggs and french toast, oatmeal and fresh fruit by the time Clint comes wandering back in, blank faced and pale. He stands dumbly at the head of the table until she coaxes him into a chair with a light hand on his shoulder, knows he won't eat. She brings him a mug of coffee instead, brushes her hand through his hair, lets him take her hand and press a kiss to her knuckles.
She doesn't mind mothering him sometimes – makes sense, given how much Barney still tries to be a father-figure to him.
It looks strange from the outside but she doesn't care – those two need as much family, as much caring as they can get, and that's what she'll give them, to all the best of her ability.
Breakfast is tense and nearly silent, and she knows she's being assessed, measured.
She's not concerned.
They can think what they like of her – the genius and the doctor, the supersoldier and the spy, the god from another world.
They're welcome here, in her home, but Clint's her priority.
The superheroes will have to wait.
She sits beside him, next to Natasha, the woman she's heard so much about but never met. She doesn't speak much, just tries to moderate her brother-in-law's caffeine intake and holds his hand when he reaches out. She's had her own breakfast – she takes peppermint tea and dry toast around five, when the baby's woken her up and she's over the early morning sickness – so all she needs to do is focus and keep from stressing until her husband gets home from dropping the kids off at the bus stop down the road. The anxiety tends to give her heartburn, and the unexpected visit, the unknown reasons behind Clint's sudden appearance are making her nervous.
Then the baby kicks and a calm, easy peace washes over her.
This is Barney, and Clint, and apparently they've got Earth's Mightiest Heroes on their side too.
Whatever this is, they can weather it.
Clint catches the smile tickling at the edges of her mouth and cocks an eyebrow, a feat considering his face is smooshed where he's resting his cheek on his fist, his elbow propped up on the table. He looks terribly young, terribly melancholy, so she grabs his hand and presses it against the curve of her growing belly, holds his palm fast beneath her own until she feels the kick and knows he feels it too. His face lights up in a way she hasn’t seen it do since Phil died, bright and happy if only for half a second.
"Hi baby," he breathes, stunned, awe-filled, thumb brushing over her thin maternity sweater. "Starting to run out of room in there?"
"He's a Barton," she says with a watery smile, touching his cheek. "A fighter. Ready to take on the world."
"Takes after his uncle too then," Clint replies, and his voice is thick and tight and tired. "Jareth..."
"Thought your name was Francis?" Stark says, and Laura blinks, his words too loud and too big and too bright in the moment.
Clint jerks, sits back in his chair, jaw ticking just like her husband's does as the light dies. She holds him tight by the wrist, doesn't let him pull away because he's trying to, he always does.
"It's fine," he promises, his voice hoarse, and she knows he's lying but he sounds like he believes it and that scares her. Cupping her jaw in his hand, he puts the other on her belly, looks her in the eye. "It's fine. Laura, whatever happens... just... thanks. For this. I think he'd... I think he'd like it."
"Whatever happens?" she repeated, "Clint, what are you..."
She doesn't get to finish her sentence.
Her husband comes in the door, interrupting the question and unknowingly snapping the thin wire of tension ringing through them all. He's moving well on his crutches, still stiff, still jerky, but so much better than he was, and the relief still hits her hard every time she sees him get up out of that wheelchair.
He reads the room in an instant – he's always been good at that – his eyes and his stance going wary and concerned. He gets himself inside, closes the door, crosses the room and goes to his brother, and that act, the simple fact that he went to Clint before he went to her, told her that he too knew something was wrong.
"All right kid," he said, low and gruff and with all his fondness and all his history buried deep, unheard. "Spill."
For a moment Clint's silent, doesn't move, doesn't blink, doesn't breathe, then he swallows, licks his lips, and speaks in a voice that's cracked and angry and afraid.
"Do you remember the crossroads?"
Her husband goes shock white.
"Clint I told you that..."
"Don't fucking lie to me!" Clint shouts and Laura starts when he shoves up to his feet, jarring the table and making the plateware rattle. "For once in your god-damn life stand up and own that shit!"
It's not the first time they've fought.
It won't be the last.
But it is the first time she's seen her husband look so frightened, so sick down to his very core.
She doesn't know what Clint's talking about, doesn't know what happened between them, but she can see the emotion, the investment, the fear and the guilt and the pleading in them both and knows that even though their hands are fisted at their sides, deep down they both want things to be ok. It's always been like that, beneath the hurt and the bruises and the blood, every horrible thing between them.
Barney only wants to take care of Clint, and Clint only wants his brother to care about him.
Even now they're still leaning towards each other.
Getting carefully to her feet, she runs her hand down the length of Clint's arm, unafraid.
There will be violence between them, always has been, always will be, and maybe it's unhealthy and maybe it's not a great way of coping, but it works for them, and if throwing a couple punches brings them back together, if it's the only thing that brings them back together than she can bear it.
Lord knows they can.
"Take it outside boys," she says quietly, and they both blink, both have the good sense to duck their heads and look sheepish. Leaning up on her tiptoes, she kisses Clint's cheek. "Go easy on him," she requests. "He promised me a new workroom before he got himself hurt."
Both men chuff, make a quiet scoffing sound that she chooses to interpret as an affirmative, even if they're still glaring at each other.
Stepping up to her husband's side, she hugs him lightly before leaning back, cupping his cheek in her hand and staring at him with all their love in her eyes.
"Whatever it was," she says quietly, "Tell him the truth. You'll both survive it, and so will we."
For a moment she thinks Barney will deny it, or question it, or make some small motion, some noise of disbelief and it nearly breaks her heart, but then he nods and sets his crutches aside, shuffles through the kitchen and out the back door holding on to the counters as he goes, Clint tight on his heels.
"Should they really..."
"Yes," she interrupts, firm and determined and sure.
She doesn't even know which of the Avengers asks.
For the next half hour she busies herself clearing the table and washing up the dishes, very determinedly not looking out the back windows toward the barn, not flinching when a muffled shout makes its way up to the house. Natasha helps which surprises her, though it probably shouldn't. More than anything she feels like the other woman is studying her, trying to find the answers to someone else's puzzle in the way she moves, the way she lives and breathes inside this space that's hers.
It feels wrong, and unfair, but she understands it.
Clint has a way of endearing himself to certain people, and once he has you there's no letting him go.
From everything he's said, everything she's seen, Natasha Romanov is one of those people, and she cannot resent anyone standing in Clint's corner.
She bears the scrutiny, manages the company, men too large for her home and a woman too different from her, but she gets them settled in front of her son's gaming system, is surprised again when Natasha picks up her knitting needles and takes up where she left off on a tiny pair of blue booties. She doesn't mind, but in the quiet, in the calm, she suddenly has space to worry.
It doesn't last.
Clint and Barney come back inside, her husband's arm slung around his brother's shoulders as he leans on him, and she doesn't say a word about the way they're both still grimacing, on their way back to normal but not all the way there just yet. She doesn't say anything about the bruises either, not on Barney's jaw or under Clint's shirt where he's favoring his lower ribs, or on the backs of both their knuckles. She just sits them down, breaks out the frozen peas, and trusts that whatever it was, they've gotten it out of the way.
For the rest of the day Clint works at the dining table, putting pencil to paper and getting more and more frustrated, running his hands through his hair and crushing the looseleaf into ragged balls of scrap, every one tossed into the trash can across the room without even a glance. Barney offers to help, so does Tony, but he shakes his head and says he has to do it himself. None of them know what he's doing or why, except perhaps for his brother, but none of them ask.
Later that night, when Clint and his friends have taken her mini-van and gone, leaving the jet in the backyard, Barney puts their children to bed and takes her to their's. He holds her close in the dark, curled up beneath her chin, and breathes his sins into the small space between them, his hands pressed protective against her belly and his tears hot against her throat. He tells her of a cold black night when they were young, empty roads and a black car, and the worst thing he's ever done, and her heart aches for him, for them both.
"You were boys," she whispers, "Children. You made a mistake."
Tipping his chin up to face her, she presses a kiss to his forehead.
"But sweetheart, you've been trying to make up for it ever since."
Barney chokes, sobs, and all she can do is let him hold on.
'Devil's Backbone' belongs to The Civil Wars. Check it out!
"Damn it!" Clint snarls, kicking the dashboard of Laura's van so hard the plastic over the glove box cracks. Tearing the topsheet of paper off his notebook, he crumples it up small and tight and pitches it against the windshield.
Natasha flicks him a glance from the driver's seat before turning back to the road, worry written in all the lines of her face. He's been doing this all day, ever since he'd come in from his fight with Barney and bummed a steno pad off his sister-in-law. Scribbling non stop, shaving thin, sharp points onto his pencil with a knife, page after page of paper smashed under his fist when things just don't come out right, pitched into the trash can with unerring accuracy.
He still hasn't gotten it quite right and a glance out the passenger window tells him he hasn't got much time left.
Darkness has well and truly fallen, and the storm is slowly rolling in.
"Maybe if you'd let us help..." Tony begins tentatively, only to shut right up again when Clint turns and glares over his shoulder. He, Steve, Bruce, and Thor are all crammed together in the back of the van, and they've all offered to help several times, Tony pointing out more than once that he is a genius.
Apparently not all that smart though, because he keeps asking even though Clint's said no every time, his frustration building with every ask and answer.
He's explained to them that it's something he has to do himself.
It's just not quite right yet.
"Clint," Natasha says softly beside him, her hands tight around the wheel, and he knows she's trying to placate him, her voice pitched low and soothing. "We've been looping around here for hours. We're almost out of gas."
"Keep going," he growls, his voice hoarse through clenched teeth.
He's almost got it.
The rain's almost there.
By the time thunder rumbles and the first drops hit the glass he's got it. It's hurt, it's nearly broken him, his throat is tight and his chest is aching, but he's finished it.
Just in time too, because the van is coughing and jerking as the gasoline finally runs out, rolling to a stop in the thick of the woods, in between all the trees, to the dead middle of a crossroads. A chill rolls down Clint's spine and very suddenly he does not want to get out of that car, does not want to set his boots to the earth and walk the roads he's walked before. He doesn't know if it's the same crossroads, in the same place, but he suspects there's some dark magic working, can feel it crackling in the air and lifting the hair on the back of his neck. The others can feel it too, have gone still and silent, eyes suddenly searching the darkness around them like they understand it's no coincidence they've ended here.
It had been a gamble, a guess to climb into the car after the sun had fallen and drive until they couldn't drive anymore. Clint hadn't been sure if it would work, could only go with his gut and that dark, cold feeling, the memory of walking as far as his little legs could carry him with no idea where he was being led. Staring out into the dark at the place where two roads met, he thinks it was a good bet.
The others don't know what's going on. He still hasn't told them. A part of him thinks of it like a jinx, like if he says it out loud it will turn to a lie.
They know he's here to cash in a favor, but only Nat knows that he's married.
Only Nat knows what he's lost.
She knows, she has to know by now, but...
She probably doesn't believe.
He knows Stark doesn't.
Nat probably thinks he's grieving, desperate in his pain and grasping at straws.
The rest probably just think he's nuts.
Funny thing is he really doesn't give a damn one way or the other.
He reads over his writing once, twice, three times, memorizing the piece he's painstakingly worked over from first note to last, making certain he can still see it when he closes his eyes. Placing it carefully on the dash, he takes a breath and steps out into the rain, instantly soaked and chilled through. It should kill the music, slip and slide down the strings, but none of this is right or normal and Clint has to believe that whatever shadow, whatever magic makes this work will carry the song through the downpour.
He's got the trunk open and his case out before any of the Avengers follow him. They're all watching from the corner of their eye, pretending to search the trees for threats but nervous in their curiosity. Clint rounds the car, sits his ass on the bumper and opens the case at his feet, pulls out his bow and rosen block and sets himself up to play for the first time since his husband died.
"Wait, is that a..."
"Stark," Clint snarls, his head dipped as he waxes the horsehair strings. "If you don’t want to die tonight you won't speak another word until this is over. That goes for all of you."
He doesn't explain himself.
Doesn't tell them that he's not the only threat out here.
He'll explain later, when there's time and when he's actually got the time and the attention to do it.
For now he'll let his earlier warning carry his words through, and he'll trust Natasha to know that something's wrong, to know that he would never say such things so idlely.
True to form and true to their trust, she sidles up next to Stark and waits, ready to stamp on his foot or put him into a sleeper hold if she has to, but Clint doesn't so much as nod in her direction.
This is the most important performance he's ever given in his life, and it has to be perfect.
Rolling his shoulders, his muscles and his bow warm and limber despite the rain, the chill, the ominous thunder overhead in the dark, the only light that of a near full moon, Clint positions the peg of his cello between his feet, takes the neck in his hand, and places the bow to the strings.
It takes him two tries to start, to blow out a long breath and convince his hands to stop shaking, but as soon as that first long, somber note echoes up into the night the music comes pouring out of him like blood from a wound, like pain from a broken heart.
Throat tight, voice low and hoarse and powerful, he begins to sing.
Oh lord, oh lord, what have I done?
I've fallen in love with a man on the run.
Oh lord, oh lord, I'm begging you please,
Don't take that sinner from me
Oh, don't take that sinner from me.
Oh lord, oh lord, what do I do?
I've fallen for someone who's nothing like you.
He's raised on the edge of the devil's backbone,
Oh I just wanna take him home.
Oh, I just wanna take him home.
As the cello moans Clint hums his pain into the chill air, sways with the rhythm as he pulls the bow back and forth across the strings, the instrument an extension of his body just as his recurve is. He puts his whole body into it, the entirety of his emotion making the cello wail, and he can hardly sing around the sob locked up in his throat but he pushes on.
Oh lord, oh lord, he's somewhere between,
A hangman's knot and three mouths to feed.
There wasn't a wrong or a right he could choose.
He did what he had to do.
Oh, he did what he had to do.
Tears are streaming down his face, hot on his skin as he squeezes his eyes tight shut, unable to bear the sight of the empty crossroads, unable to contemplate the idea that she might not come. He aches with it, shakes with at he saws at the strings, wants to scream and fall to his knees fearing that he might not be good enough. The last time he came to a crossroads in the night he challenged with his bow, with three arrows strung from the string, but she won't fall for that twice. It's perfection that draws her out, hubris and daring and confidence, and somewhere deep down beneath the fear Clint knows how good he is.
She still owes him one favor – he only needs to find her to ask for it.
He'll finish this, and it'll be perfect, and he'll get his husband back.
Give me the burden, give me the blame.
I'll shoulder the load and I'll swallow the shame.
Give me the burden, give me the blame,
How many, how many Hail Mary's is it gonna take?
Breathing hard, Clint lets the tears roll, slowly lifts his head and opens his eyes. All his guilt burns in his veins, the aching and the loss and the shame scalding him in the cool night air as the fog curls around his feet and the base of the cello, slowly rising up out of the swamp. Behind him the Avengers tense and across the way a long black car slowly creeps toward the crossroads, the shark in deep waters, the wolf in the night, and Clint's voice cracks as he chokes out the final verse, the last note of the cello hanging in the air like a plea.
Don't care if he's guilty, don't care if he's not.
He's good and he's bad and he's all that I've got.
Oh lord, oh lord, I'm begging you please,
Don't take that sinner from me,
Oh, don't take that sinner from me.
She steps out of the car and it's like no time has passed at all – she's still young and blonde and beautiful, silent death wrapped in black silk – and Clint is all of eleven years old again, terrified and wanting.
"Bravo cellist," she purrs as she steps delicately across the road. "Your song is one of the most beautiful I've heard. Such love, such pain. You've certainly made my trip worth..."
She stumbles to a stop, her eyes go wide, her face even paler than before. Her mouth works, lipstick blood red, and Clint can't breathe, can't breathe around the fear and the nerves and the hope.
"You," she breathes, staring at him, staring through him.
"You," she breathes, staring at him, staring through him.
"Me," Clint nods, the single word an admission hanging heavily in the air, and the ethereal blonde who's come to a stop in the dead center of the crossroads narrows her eyes.
"You," she hisses again, and even though it looks like she's about to stamp her foot like a child, Clint feels a shiver roll down his spine.
Then suddenly, as soon as it comes, the anger goes.
She straightens up, her face goes smooth, and everything drains away, leaving nothing behind but cool calculation.
Clint doesn't feel any better.
"The archer," she hums, her eyes flashing in the dark. "The little boy who would be worthy."
Clint feels a bubble of nausea well up in his stomach, feels the Avengers behind him flinch, and he fights not to fall into the memories, a flashback of the night that he'd spilled his most painful hurts to the devil who'd offered him relief.
"What do you want?"
Heart suddenly pounding in his chest, Clint licks dry lips and carefully places his cello back into its case, latching it closed before he straightens up. His fingers are freezing but his hands don't shake, and very slowly, very carefully he steps away from the car and walks out into the center of the crossroads to meet her. The rain is still coming down in sheets and he's instantly soaked through to the bone, his shaggy, unkempt hair hanging in his eyes and a chill tickling the nape of his neck as thunder rumbles overhead. Taking a deep breath, he squares his feet, fists his hands at his sides, and sends up a prayer.
"Somebody took something that belongs to me," he says, cold blue memories of a black and white security frame flashing behind his eyes, grainy footage all he's allowed of his husband's death.
The devil – and a small part of him knows that's who she really is, has always known – takes a slinky step forward on her knife-thin heels, circling him like a shark.
"Is that right?" she purrs, and it's simpering and snide and condescending, a snicker barely kept back behind her pearly teeth, but Clint nods once, stiff and serious.
"I want him back."
His words crack hard and sharp in the chill air, a bark, a growl, and it's enough that the prancing blonde stops her predatory circle, practically totters on her stilettos. Once more her eyes flash, icy indifference that make Clint feel the desperate need to swallow, and nervous tell he refuses to give her. Slowly, deathly slowly, she looks him up and down as though she can see right through him, all his sins and all his secrets and she probably can.
He doesn't care.
"And why should I help you?" she asks, no real curiosity, just a demand, boredom. It makes ice pool in Clint's stomach, makes him want to shout and hurl obscenities, to go on his knees and beg.
"You know he was causing quite a stir over in limbo the other day," she says casually, planting one hand on her hip and lifting the other to examine her blood-red fingernails, everything right in her world as Clint's suddenly narrows down to one thin, fragile wire of hope. "Bitching about paperwork or some stupid thing. Causing all kinds of chaos..."
Lifting her head, she stares at him from beneath her eyelashes, a wicked smirk on her face that promises an eternity of punishment and hellfire.
"I like him."
The fear leaves.
Floods out of him like it never was, like she's any other psycho blonde he's ever fended off as his hackles rise and hatred shoots through his body like Thor's lightning.
"He's mine," Clint snarls between clenched teeth, suddenly leaning forward on the balls of his feet, ready to fight for what's his. "You owe me."
"Three shots, three favors – I remember," she says cooly, as though Clint hasn't just threatened her, as though it were yesterday and not some twenty five years ago. "Do you?"
Fuck, yes, he remembers ok?
Clint squeezes his eyes shut, swallows hard, tries not to shiver but he's so cold. As his bravado fails him and the memories begin to come the terror rushes back in, quick and heavy and overwhelming, and he hears himself make a strange, thready, whining sound as he tries to suck in air. From the corner of his eye he sees Natasha start forward before catching herself, her jaw hard and her eyes flashing as she gets a taste of the same impotency that is choking him, the complete and total understanding that there is nothing they can do in the face of this, in the face of her.
Life and death, good and evil, angels and demons and impossible choices – these are the constants in the world, the things they cannot sway or change or destroy.
No, standing here in front of her, watching her watch him like so much trash beneath her feet, Clint knows there is only bargaining left.
"Why are you even here?" she asks, in a tone of utter boredom, of baffled exasperation. "What can I possibly give you that will make any difference at all?"
"I want my..."
"Your third favor, yes, you said that," she snaps with a huff. "Whatever the hell for? The other two didn't work out so well did they?"
Clint bites his lip, hard enough to draw blood in order to keep a sneer off his face, his words in his mouth, but she just smirks, like she knows everything in his head and in his heart.
"Wasting the first one on that miserable brother of yours," she tsks, taking up her slow, predatory circling again. "I mean really, he did try to kill you. Tried to steal your god-given talent, tried to sell your very soul to me, all for his own gain."
Pausing in front in front of him, she bares sharp, delicate little teeth, pearl-white in the dark.
"I would have let him burn."
"Yeah, well..." Clint mutters hoarsely, sensing the Avengers shift their weight uncomfortably behind him as she continues her deadly stalking. "That's one difference between you and me..."
Making a soft little sarcastic sound, she sends him a nasty look before continuing, determined to crush him beneath the weight of everything that's ever sucked about his life.
"And what did you ask for then little archer?" she simpers with a sneer, reaching out and dragging sharp, blood-red nails across his shoulders, making him shiver.
Stopping in front of him she steps forward, crowding him until he takes two stumbling steps back, sucks in a breath as images of another night flash before his eyes and she opens her mouth to spit sulky, heartbroken words at him in the voice of a boy who's been lost far longer than he can remember.
" 'M not worthless. 'M not! I just... I wanna matter. They always said nobody... just wanna be worth something."
Clint swallows hard, clamps down on the pain and the anger and the humiliation built up by a dozen foster homes, his father and his brother and his mentor, all of the people in his life who cast him aside, who walked away. Sure it's been years and sure things are different now, but some wounds never heal completely. He'll always carry the scars of his childhood, always doubt who he is and what he means to people somewhere deep down, always here those voices in his nightmares trying to remind him what he is.
"The little boy who would be worthy," she purrs, and Clint flinches like she's slapped him across the face. "Well I granted your wish archer! I followed the rules, fulfilled the favor, and what good did it do? Didn't change anything. You still whimpered and whined your way through life, constantly the victim, never standing up and owning what you are. Never strong enough to just believe, even though you'd seen and heard it with your own eyes and ears!"
Narrowing her eyes, she shakes her head as if in disgust, and Clint’s never felt so small, not even all those years ago as a little boy who’d only wanted to matter to someone, to know deep down that he had some kind of intrinsic value that couldn’t be taken from him through magic or malice or betrayal.
“No,” she says quietly, and Clint’s gaze snaps up to meet hers because her voice has gone soft and silky and she almost sounds disappointed. “No, it took an act of a god himself, a silly little alien artifact to convince you. To make you understand. Pity. That man you claim, the one over in limbo? He believes. He knows the very best and worst of you and he still believes, a mere mortal who’s never even met me, who thinks he’s invincible because he went up against a god of his own and lost. You mortals ever confuse me.”
A moment of heavy silence passes, full of fear and hurt and heart-pounding, breath-stealing anxiety before Clint swallows down the rock in his throat and finds his words, speaks in a small, determined voice.
“Oh fine,” she huffs, snapping back to that spoiled, ethereally childish vision that puts a shudder down his spine. “But consider my debt discharged archer.”
Chuckling, she tilts her head, looks him up and down.
“Or should I say bowman?”
Turning on her heel, she’s stepping into her car before Clint can even blink, sliding into the dark interior like she hadn’t had to cross the road to reach it. As her shadow-man closes the door silently behind her, Clint suddenly stumbles forward, his feet working where his body won’t as he lurches after her.
“Hey wait!” he cries, but the driver is already behind the wheel and turning, the car sliding away and disappearing into the misty fog before he can even take three steps. “Wait!”
But she’s gone.
Gone like in Clint’s memories, gone like she never was, and he’s in his knees in the middle of a blackened crossroads sucking in air like he’s forgotten how to breathe. The Avengers are all around him, making noise, barking questions but he can’t hear them, not really. Nat’s hands are on his shoulders and she guides him up, leads him over to the van and sits him down on the bumper so she can press his head down between his knees. Eventually his head stops spinning, his heart eases off his ribs enough that he can sit up again, but nothing can crush the aching fear, the overwhelming hope that he’s done it, that he's found a way to atone for his sins and to climb up out of the hell he’s been living in.
“That was the devil,” Tony breathes beside him, and Clint glances up to find him staring off into the dark, his face ghostly pale. “That was the actual… and you’re…”
Blinking, he turns to look down at Clint and he sees the man’s eyes darken, with pain and with guilt and with realization.
“You’re Coulson’s cellist.”
“I do not understand,” Thor booms, relieving Clint of the task of responding. “Who is this devil with whom we spoke? What favor has she granted out friend Hawk?”
“I’ll uh… I’ll fill you in in the car,” Steve says quietly, and Clint sees Natasha nod subtlety, relaxes just a fraction. Steve can tell both stories, and unlike Tony he’ll manage to do it with some tact and very little shouting. “But Clint…”
“Jesus, Merida, we didn’t know,” Tony chokes. “You didn’t…”
Clint’s shoulders slumping as he rakes his fingers through his hair. He’s exhausted and drained and still riding an emotional rollercoaster, sure his hands are shaking, and he can’t find the energy to do this right now. The rest of them seem to recognize it and it’s Steve who very carefully picks up Clint’s cello, Bruce who leads him back to the car. Nat looks skeptical but Clint just gestures for her to start the thing, and it coughs a little but eventually roars to life, the little orange needle swinging up toward F where before it had been decidedly below the E. Clint remembers that night in the rain, exhausted and fearful and terrified of walking back with his brother in the dark, and remembers somehow finding the strength to take off at a dead sprint and not stop until he’d collapsed outside of Buck’s trailer at the edge of the circus grounds.
He doesn’t know how it works, doesn’t want to know how it works, just presses the side of his face against the chilly glass of the window and breathes as Nat turns the van around, tries desperately not to puke.
“What now?” Bruce asks quietly from the backseat, only just loud enough to be heard over Steve murmuring to Bruce and Tony in the back.
“Trade the van for the Quinjet,” Clint replies hoarsely, his voice finally giving out from the cold and the rain and the sheer heartache, the power of the words he’s sung out into the night. “Then we’ve got a stop to make.”
The van falls silent and no one speaks. They all know what he means but none of them are sure, don’t know what it means or what might be waiting for them. It’s silent all the way back to the farm house, where Barney and Laura meet them at the door, his brother’s face tear-streaked and Laura as pale as milk. He hugs his brother tightly and gets just as good as he gives, holds Laura close and presses his hands to her belly, then sneaks upstairs to kiss Lila’s forehead and whisper promises to her in the dark.
Ten minutes later he’s strapping into the pilot’s seat, running slowly and carefully through his pre-flight check and punching in the coordinates Tony left for him without a solitary word. Taking a long, slow breath, he puts steady hands on the controls and leaves Georgia behind him once more.
The flight to North Carolina lasts a lifetime and yet still ends far too soon. His life, his hopes, his husband wait at the end of that flight, and as much as Clint needs and wants to be there now, now, now, a part of him can't bear for it to come to an end. It's a yes or a no waiting for him, his favor either granted or not, and that part of him is scared, thinks that if he never faces this he'll never have to know the horrifying pain of losing Phil a second time.
The bigger part of him knows that he has yet to really get Phil back again, and that his pilgrimage to his husband's bedside is long overdue already.
Fury or no, secret status or no, he should have gone to him the day he learned the man was still breathing.
It will take Clint a long time to forgive himself for that, but he knows that not going now, not manning up and facing reality in this one, most important moment, is something he will never let himself forget.
So he flies, and he brings Stark's jet down gently on the landing pad of the secret SHIELD facility without acknowledging the agent on the other end of the radio refusing him clearance. By the time the gangway is down he's freed himself from the cockpit and has his bow in his hands, feels more himself in his tactical leathers with his string and fletching beneath his fingers than he has in a very long time. There's an armed team flooding out the doors to meet them but every man among them quails in the face of the fully assembled Avengers, in the face of legendary SHIELD Agent Clint Barton, who only months ago led the most successful attack against the organization in its history. He knows he must look like hell personified, thunderous murder written on his face, but he still manages to smirk when every agent gathered pauses, hesitates.
Phil Coulson would be disappointed.
With Captain America and The Black Widow flanking him, the agents melt from his path like snow from fire, baring him across the tarmac toward the doors the lead deep inside the facility, and he can feel something tugging at his heart, the knot in the pit of his belly. His husband is in there, so close now after all this time, alive after having been killed and he's not waiting any longer. He steps away from the doors, reaching out for the gleaming, push-bar handles, and then suddenly he's stumbling back as they burst open, his vision swamped with black.
Nick Fury comes billowing up out of the stairwell in a swirl of angry leather, radiating bitter frustration. His eye glints, brow furrowed, and all around them agents quail from the palpable energy coming of of him in sharp, angry waves. Clint's breath actually catches at the sight – he's never seen Fury lose his cool like this, not even when he'd strung a pair of the Director's red silk boxers up the SHIELD flagpole. It's burning in him, but very, very suddenly the fire in Clint's own belly blazes higher, an all-consuming sun of rage and hatred and betrayal.
This man knows exactly what he and Phil mean to each other, what they are to each other even if he doesn't know it's legal, and yet he's never offered Clint so much as a folded flag, his sincerest condolences on behalf of SHIELD for his loss. That he's brought Phil back to life without consulting him, Phil's next of kin, that he's kept his life a secret is enough to make Clint want to drop him off this roof – and that's not even taking into account what he'd done to Phil's cards, Phil's memory...
Clint's going to murder the bastard.
"You do not have authorization to be here Agent!" Fury snarls, teeth flashing. "You and the rest of the Avengers will..."
His sentence drops off into silence because very abruptly and entirely on instinct, Clint has an arrow in his hand, the three-bladed broadhead mere inches from the man's face and he swears to god, he actually sees him pale.
"Shut up," he says, cold and deadly calm, and people remember. "You shut your lying mouth cause I'm only gonna say this once. You take me to my husband, right now Director, or I'll be the last thing you ever see."
And well everybody shuts up after that.
They know, of course they know who he's talking about because who else would Strike Team Delta and the rest of the Avengers be here for, but none of them can believe it. Clint knows what it looks like, has always known – a man like Agent Coulson with the likes of him – but he doesn't care. He doesn't care that somehow he seems to have actually put the fear of god into Nick Fury, doesn't care what he must sound like, so determined and so terribly serious. He doesn't care that the agents around them, men and women trained to face down the impossible, to brave the villains at the end of the world have shrunk back in the face of his ire.
All that matters is that they get the fuck out of his way.
With a hard swallow that knots his throat and a single, solemn nod, Fury steps to the side and gestures Clint through the doorway, as shaky as he's ever seen him, and he's more than grateful to have Natasha and the rest at his back. He thinks his knees might give, and he trusts one of them will catch him if they do, will drag him these final steps and get him where he needs to be.
"Would've happened soon enough," Fury growls, more to himself than anyone else as he leads them down the stairwell into the bowels of the facility. "All he's asked about since he woke up anyway."
"How long?" Clint demands, striding after him, arrow still nocked.
"Couple hours maybe, haven't been timing the damn thing. Too busy trying to keep him in the damned bed."
A couple hours, maybe.
It fits, it...
By the time Fury draws up before a pair of glass-and-steel hospital doors Clint is fucking shaking, and his heart is trying to claw its way up out of his chest through his throat. He couldn't speak if he wanted to, and the fear, Christ, the fear has glued him to the floor. Even Fury's words, that one small reassurance that he has woken up isn't enough to assuage it, and Clint knows in his very core that he won't truly believe until he sees it, until he lays his own eyes on his husband's very real, very living self.
He's never wanted... never needed anything so badly in his life.
"Go," Natasha murmurs in his ear, her small hands slipping his bow from numb fingers. "He's waiting for you."
Anyone else, anyone else and Clint would have broken them, would've snapped their wrists for touching him or his bow, and then probably would've turned around and run, else fallen to his knees in a violent panic attack. But this was Nat, the only one who'd known about the pair of gold rings Phil wore on a chain around his neck outside of missions, who'd known about the one tattooed on Clint's left third finger in invisible ink. Nat, who had loved Phil too in her own way, who had lost him right alongside Clint while worrying that she might lose him as well.
She wouldn't send him in alone to face that.
He doesn't remember walking through the doors. Doesn't remember walking toward the single hospital bed shrouded by thick, pale blue curtains. His heart hammers in his ears, so much faster than the strong, steady beep of the other, of Phil's heart thumping away for the monitors.
Very suddenly, very harshly Clint can breathe again, and he practically ends up choking on the sharp breath he sucks into his chest. It comes out like a whimper, like a desperate whine, a squeak of his boots on the tile, and behind the curtain he hears the familiar rustle of stiff, starchy hospital sheets.
"If you're here to do another cognition check you can piss off," an irritable voice growls, low and hoarse and pained. "I haven't forgotten the date in the last twenty minutes, or how to spell, or what I fucking asked you for the last twelve times you were in here."
And oh hell, that's... that's Phil, that's...
That's him hurt, and angry, and not quite his cool, contained self but that's his husband and...
And suddenly he can't get in there fast enough.
"Phil?" he warbles, small and young and wounded as his voice cracks over the words. "Phil?"
He doesn't even have time to recognize the still silence before he's stumbling forward and ripping back the curtain, nearly tearing it from the rod.
And that's as far as he gets.
That's as far as he gets, because there's Phil, his husband who is supposed to be dead, lying pale and waxy and weak against the sheets, hooked up to every damn machine and wire known to man.
His husband, who's staring back at him with wide, wet blue eyes, stunned speechless for the first time, just like Clint.
It's a moment or maybe an eternity that they stay there, just staring at each other, pleading with their gods that this is real, and Clint isn't sure who reaches for who first, but he doesn't think it matters. The next thing he knows he's doubled over Phil's bed, clutching at the sheets around him and sobbing for all he's worth, as close as he can get but careful, so damn careful it hurts. He wants to crush himself against his husband, to crawl into his bed and press their bodies together and hold on as tight as he can, but he knows the damage, has read the files and seen the pictures, counted every fucking stitch. He knows what's underneath Phil's flimsy hospital gown, knows... knows where he's been.
This is enough.
The barest, lightest touch where Clint's arms form a protective cage above him, Phil's hands fisted weakly in his hair and at his waist, pressed cheek to cheek, tears burning hot against his skin.
He's got him back, and it's enough.
Epilogue will post tonight - stay tuned!
Chapter 8: Epilogue
Final chapter posted earlier today - read that one first!
Phil is exhausted, that much is clear, and for the longest time they just... just stay there, holding, touching, hanging on. Phil dozes and Clint watches, waits, breathes it in until he thinks yes, he can believe in this. This is real, and they are both here, safe and together again. He knows exactly the kind of difficult months they have ahead of them - the physical therapy and the intimacy issues and the guilt and the shouting matches – but they've been through all that before.
It won't be easy, and it won't be avoidable, but those are the easiest of things to overcome. After what they've both been through now, what they've both survived... he isn't afraid of putting in the work.
Eventually Phil wakes up from his nap and a nurse comes in to check on him. Clint watches with a critical eye as they go through all the motions, testing his reactions and responses, shining a pen light in his eyes, asking him all the usual questions. Phil is slightly more agreeable now with Clint holding his hand throughout, for which the hospital staff are very obviously grateful. They raise the back of his bed so he's in half a sitting position and leave them alone again, only to return moments later with a bounty of hospital luxury kept to appease the most difficult of patients.
By the time Clint has changed out of his leathers and into the cozy sweats they've brought him there's a second bed made up right next to Phil's, complete with a pile of extra blankets and fluffy pillows. Dinner has been set out on the rolling table and there's a care kit on the floor next to Clint's chair – a bag filled with all the essentials for a long hospital stay; pens, crossword books, abandoned paperbacks and candy bars. They've even left a decrepit laptop and a stack of DVD's behind, saving them both from reruns of The View and The Price is Right.
"Man, they really rolled out the welcome wagon," he marvels, sliding his feet into the soft-soled house shoes that have appeared beside the bed. "What did you do?"
"Loki had you," Phil whispers, his eyes half-closed and his voice still rough as sandpaper. "And they wouldn't tell me..."
His words hit Clint like a truck as the full weight of time comes to rest on his shoulders. For him it's been months, nearly a year, but for Phil it's like it was yesterday. Clint has come to grips with what happened, has mostly healed, both mentally and physically. For Phil...
For Phil he was killed yesterday, Clint was lost yesterday, and he's only just woken up.
"Hey," Clint murmurs, stepping up to the side of the bed and stroking Phil's cheek. "I'm here. I'm here, I'm ok. Natasha got me back."
"I'll have to thank her," Phil sighs, turning his face into Clint's palm.
"She'll be in here soon enough," he replies, climbing carefully into the bed that has been wheeled up to Phil's, side by side. "And the rest of them. I'll try to keep Stark quiet though."
Phil's lips curve in the bare bones of a smile and Clint leans in close, kisses him right on the corner of the mouth. It's short and sweet, the first kiss they've shared in... in too long, and he wants more but he'll wait. He'll wait as long as he needs to, to make sure, to be certain.
The next hour is quiet. They share lunch – broth and bright green jello for Phil, chicken and slightly rubbery vegetables for Clint – and he does his best to get him up to speed on what he's missed as gently as possible. He tells him about Loki and about Thor, about how Nat had clobbered him upside the head and how the Avengers, led by his childhood hero Captain America, had saved New York together. He tells him about how they'd come together in Phil's very own name, how they'd all moved into the Tower and become a family, how they've been saving the world ever since.
Most of that is the easy part, teasing him about Stark and about Steve, watching him blush, watching him smile, watching the pride shine in his eyes when Clint tells of the Avengers' exploits.
The rest is hard.
The rest he tells Phil in a low, quiet murmur, the dishes pushed away, Clint curled up as close to his good side as he can possibly get without tugging on any of the tubes and wires. He tells him about his own death, tells him about shawarma and Fury's lie, tells him about his cards. He tells him about the not-knowing, the months of grief, tells him shame-facedly about his own struggles to continue on after the devastating loss no one knew to acknowledge. He tells him about how they learned of his resurrection, his residence at the secret SHIELD facility, and how they'd hesitated to liberate him because of his medical status.
Phil gets a little sweaty and shaky discussing his health, his resurrection, and the conversation stops for a bit while he collects himself, Clint murmuring 'I love you's' and reassurances in his ear. Phil tells him in a small, terrified voice what he knows about his being brought back to life, his suspicions about Project TAHITI and the alien DNA SHIELD had used, the horrifying consequences. The fear that brings on is overwhelming, makes Clint cling even harder, but he thinks, he hopes that his deal with the devil, his favor will override fate.
That's another long story, one Clint tells later in the dark, when the Avengers have come and gone again, their visit brief but no less heartfelt for it. The nurses have done their final checks and turned the lights down for the night, and Clint and Phil are tangled together beneath the blankets as close as they can get. Clint speaks in halting whispers, tells the whole story all the way through except for several pauses. Phil lets him tell it, doesn't interrupt but to ask a question or two, and never once doubts the story. When it's done, when he's finally gotten all the truth up out of his chest like shards of glass, Phil lets out a long, careful breath, staring up at the ceiling.
"I don't... remember it quite right," he says quietly, his fingers laced through Clint's. "I think I remember being somewhere... big. Open. There was... a lot of white light."
"She said you were causing a stir," Clint murmurs. "Complaining about paperwork."
"I don't think I... experienced it that way," he struggles to explain. "It was like I wasn't there, in my own body..."
"Hind-brain took over for you?" Clint asks teasingly, turning onto his side toward his husband and running his fingertips lightly up Phil's forearm. "Makes sense you were doing paperwork, running on instinct like that."
Grimacing with pain, Phil tries to turn, but Clint stops him with a gentle hand on his shoulder, instead sitting up to prop him on his pillows and turn the lights up just enough to cast shadows around the room.
"You got me back," Phil whines, suddenly clutching at Clint's t-shirt as tears begin to stream silently down his face. "You got me back and I couldn't..."
"No, hey, no," Clint murmurs, letting Phil crawl into his lap because it would be riskier to try to hold him back. "You are the only reason I am here right now Phil. Fuck, if you even knew..."
Tipping his face up, Clint presses a long, lingering kiss to his lips, pours as much of his love and his faith and his trust and his faith into it as he can. Phil whines and scrabbles at Clint's chest, clearly needs to know, to feel him beneath him. When they finally break apart Clint slips his arms around his husband's waist, holds him close in a loose, light hug, leans his forehead against Phil's good shoulder.
"I love you so much," he whimpers, tears stinging at his eyes. "Of course I got you back; I couldn't..."
Pulling back, Clint meets Phil's eyes, lets himself be as boldly honest as he can.
"Things don't matter as much without you," he admits. "You're my husband Phil, you're my everything. Living without you, when you were dead and then when you were... when you were gone... nothing was the same. Of course I got you back."
"I'm so sorry Clint," Phil chokes, pressing their foreheads together. "I promised I'd always come for you and I..."
"You did. You did come for me Phil, you got yourself killed coming for me. No one's ever cared that much, I've never been worth..."
They both stop, pause, caught by the words, then they're bursting into half-hysterical giggling that has a nurse poking her head through the curtains and glaring at them in warning, but neither of them can help the relief, the sudden release of tension. Clint gets Phil settled back against the pillows again and spoons up against his side, turning the lights back down to encase them in the quiet dark.
"So, Mjolnir huh?" Phil asks heavily, his voice thick with fondness and exhaustion.
"Yeah," Clint replies quietly, finally allowing himself the small swell of pride that affords. "Was pretty trippy. Stark is pissed but Thor seems weirdly happy about it."
"Thor's always weirdly happy."
"Touche. You'll like them Phil, all of them. Even Tony is less of a pill than he used to be."
"Mm. Yes, well, as enticing as the prospect of moving in with Stark is, when this is all over, when I'm back on my feet I want a vacation. Three weeks minimum, somewhere sunny."
"Anywhere sunny, or are you talking the tropics? Cause I maybe kinda promised Lila we'd both be back to visit."
"You told your niece I was coming back? Clint, she...
"She's fine Phil. She's six, nothing's permanent. She'll be happy to see us. To see you. You're her uncle too ya' know."
"Don't regret it?" he asks, knowing damn good and well Phil doesn't but hoping to earn himself one last smile before the man drops off to sleep.
"Nah," Phil sighs, shifting just a bit to get a little closer. "I always knew."
"That you were worth it."
And well, there's nothing Clint can really say to that. Everyone's told him by now, his friends and his husband, a god and the devil – maybe it's time he starts believing it. Phil's already drifted off but Clint presses a kiss to his cheek anyway and snuggles close, lets himself relax with his husband in his arms.
The next day Natasha brings them their wedding rings from Clint's bedside table. They slip them on each other's fingers and don't take them off, and when Clint can finally be pried away from Phil's side he goes straight to the range, trains himself to shoot while still wearing the band of gold. He's done hiding it, done keeping it quiet, and should anything like this happen again, god forbid, everyone will know.
The months that follow are hard for both of them as Phil struggles through his physical recovery, each of them battling their own emotional and mental battles. No one can explain why Phil suddenly woke from his coma, or how he recovers so much more quickly than expected. No one can understand why he escapes the side-effects and mental degradation of TAHITI. Clint has suspicions, as does Phil, but neither he and Phil nor the Avengers speak of that night in the Georgia darkness, the crossroads meeting where Clint played his heart out for his husband's very soul.
Eventually the day comes when the doctors declare Phil one hundred percent and everything's finally back to normal. The celebration Stark throws him is everything Clint has dreamed a Stark party to be. Their own private party is more intimate, cake and champagne for two on Clint's high-rise balcony, and a night of slow, sweet kisses under the stars. They take their vacation, two weeks with Barney and Laura, Cooper and Lila and little baby Jareth. They relax and work the farm and spend time with family, invite the rest of the Avengers down for two days to get to know the family a little better, to get to know Clint and Phil the couple outside of SHIELD and battles for the world.
When those two weeks are up, they fly to Aruba, and spend three more in the sand and sun and surf, windboarding and dancing and dining on beachside patios sipping fruity, brightly colored cocktails. They live like newlyweds on the honeymoon they never had, loving each other like it's their last chance, and when it's over they go back to New York and do what they do best.
Clint trains with Mjolnir and Phil quietly fanboy's over Steve, until the day Captain America lends him the SHIELD. With his husband watching from the sidelines Clint decimates Stark's latest obstacle course with the vibranium red, white, and blue, then gets dragged off to the bedroom to be shown exactly how much the show had been appreciated.
Nick Fury replaces each and every one of Phil's vintage trading cards, and doesn't let Clint into his blindspot for months to come.