“I know, I know, you hate this, but we're almost done,” Clint murmurs to the falcon chick wriggling in his lap. He sprays more solution onto the bird's wings. “You'll be grateful someday when your feathers are all shiny and free of mites.”
The falcon squawks.
“Whatever. I'm right.” Clint checks the band he put on the bird’s foot earlier to make sure it won't interfere with movements and then places the chick back into the nest box. He glances up at the male falcon, who has taken up a perch on the highest point of the bridge to keep a close eye on Clint. At least the parents aren't swooping down on him anymore, having learned over the past few weeks that Clint's visits to the nest don't pose an actual threat.
Clint reaches for the third chick. “Come here, little guy, let me take a look at you.” He cradles the little falcon in his palms. It has always been the smallest of the three, but it's now noticeably smaller than its siblings. Clint knows the chick is in trouble when it doesn't protest being handled. It makes him irrationally angry that the parents would neglect one of their offspring. Survival of the fittest is a bunch of bullshit that Clint isn't willing to put up with unless he absolutely has to.
“You're probably hungry, hmm? How about some delicious chopped mouse?” Clint pulls a container out of a pocket on his climbing harness. He always carries treats in case the chicks are too unruly. Or starving, in this case. The falcon eagerly swallows the bits of mouse Clint holds out to him. “That's yummy, right?” The chick almost nicks his finger in its eagerness.
When Clint has run out of mouse, the chick lets out a tiny screech. “I know, I wish I had more for you. Now let's take a look at your wings.”
Clint carefully unfolds one wing and sighs. The feathers are crawling with mites. Is that the reason the parents started to neglect this chick? Or is it just random, no reason at all, simply nature being wily? He sighs and sprays solution on one wing. The chick wiggles a little, which Clint takes as a good sign. At least it hasn't given up yet. He moves on to the other wing. As he stretches it, the falcon lets out a pitiful cry.
“Ah, shit,” Clint mutters. The wing is in a sorry state. Aside from the mites, there's something wrong with the bone. The parents' neglect makes more sense now. A chick that won't be able to fly is doomed, after all. Or rather, would have been doomed if it had been borne somewhere else. “We'll get you all fixed up, you'll see. We'll take a little ride and see Bruce and he'll make it better.”
Clint places the bird into the padded pouch he carries for the express purpose of transporting injured chicks. The parents watch, but don't intervene, which tells him enough about the chances the little falcon would have out here. At least the other two chicks look plump and healthy.
As he walks back to the side of the pylon where he left his climbing gear, Clint takes in the view. The Hudson Valley stretches out in the distance, dark tree tops and early morning light reflecting off the river. To the south, even the tallest buildings of Manhattan seem small. This—being able to stand on top of a bridge shortly after sunrise—is one of the reasons Clint loves his job.
Before starting his descent, Clint double-checks the primary and secondary ropes, and makes sure that the pouch with the chick is fastened tightly to his belt. He splashes some sanitizer on his fingers before pulling on his climbing gloves (no need to get mouse gut all over them), and then he's off. Some of the other bridges on his route have built-in ladders, but the George Washington Bridge doesn't, which is why Clint loves it. He gets to make his own way down the steel latticework of the tall pylon. Free-climbing on New York's bridges isn't exactly everyone's cup of tea, which is precisely why Clint got settled with the task of checking on birds' nests in the first place.
He's two-thirds of the way down when he spots the guy. There are a few people on the bridge at all times, usually long-distance runners or commuters on bikes. But this guy is in a suit, and that draws Clint's attention. The guy stops and turns to look out over the river, then hooks one leg over the railing and climbs over it.
Oh, fuck. No. Clint's been out on the bridge for years now, and he knows that people jump off it with frightening regularity, but he's never witnessed it. Doesn't ever want to witness that.
He pushes off the pylon and lets the rope take his weight so he can zip down the rest of the way. He unhooks himself from the rope and starts walking, never losing sight of the guy who's holding on to the railing with one hand while staring down at the water. At least he's hesitant about this, which is good. Clint makes sure to walk as silently as possible so the guy won't see him coming. He has no idea what he's going to say—sure, he's had shitty times in his life, but never so bad that he wanted to jump off a bridge.
When he's only a few feet away, Clint says the first thing that comes to his mind. “Well, at least you picked a classic.”
The guy starts and his head whips around. He has a kind face and absolutely doesn't look like someone who has decided that it's all over. “What?”
Clint takes another step closer. He gestures to the bridge. “Classic option for suicide. More people jump off this bridge than any other in the city.”
The guy cringes at the word 'suicide'. Good. Clint figures that if you're serious, the word isn't going to put you off. There's an opening here, small as it might be. The guy looks back out over the water, his mouth a tight line, as if he's steeling himself for something. “You can just fuck off,” he tells Clint.
“No.” Clint moves close enough that he can reach out and grab the guy if he has to.
“Who the fuck are you? Who gave you the right—” The falcon chick squawks and settles into a steady loud screeching. The guy looks at Clint, then at the pouch. “What do you have in there?” He's clearly still pissed off, but there's something else in his voice, too. Something authoritative.
“I'll let you see if you come over on this side.” Clint takes a step back from the railing. It's a gamble, but maybe...
The guy hesitates.
Come on. You don't really want to do this. Clint takes a closer look at him. Definitely an expensive suit—not that he's an expert, but Natasha has drilled some fashion sense into him over the years. He's older than Clint, but it's hard to tell how much. Could be five years; could be ten. There are lines at the corners of his eyes, and he looks exhausted. Nevertheless, he doesn't look desolate. Clint has seen enough people in his life who were on the down and out. He's seen that look in the mirror. Not recently, but he remembers it well enough.
Finally, the guy straightens and climbs over the railing. “So?”
Clint's hands shake with relief as he unzips the pouch. “This little guy.” The chick looks up at both of them.
“What is that?”
“It's a two-week old falcon.” Clint runs a fingertip over the downy head. “I work for the Parks department. There's a nest up there—” He gestures to the top of the pylon. “This one has trouble with his wing, so I'm taking it to our vet.”
The guy's expression goes soft. “Will he be okay?”
“Yeah, I think so. He's a fighter.”
The guy nods.
Unsure of what else to say, Clint holds out his hand. “I'm Clint, by the way.”
The guy doesn't reciprocate, and Clint feels stupid standing there with his outstretched hand, but he's always been stubborn, so he doesn't back down.
It pays off. “Phil.”
Clint shakes his hand. Out of habit he says, “Nice to meet you.”
Phil's eyes dart away, back to the water.
Purely on instinct, Clint holds on when Phil pulls out of the handshake. As long as he has a hold on Phil's hand, he can't jump. That earns Clint an annoyed look, which he ignores.
“Phil,” he starts softly. He folds his other hand on top of the fingers already resting in his palm. “Look. I know it's not my place. But. Isn't there one thing, just one thing that maybe...maybe it might be worth living for?”
Phil looks startled at the question, but he doesn't move. Doesn't answer, either. Clint's willing to wait as long as it takes. He cradles Phil's hand in his.
Eventually, Phil's shoulders slump and his other hand goes to his face, swiping across it. “Maybe there is,” he whispers.
Clint is utterly, utterly relieved. He has no idea how to respond. He tries to imagine what it would be like to come out here with the decision in the back of your mind that everything has come to an ending point, that there won't be a tomorrow, or a next year. That you drew a line and decided your future ends here. And then to decide to step back from that, to scratch out that line. To have an unknown number of days flood back into your life. He squeezes Phil's hand and holds it a little tighter because if that were him, he sure as hell would need something to hang on to in that moment.
Phil takes a deep breath and straightens. When he pulls his hand back this time, Clint lets go. Even though Clint is fairly certain that Phil wouldn't jump if they went their separate ways, he isn't entirely willing to take that chance. “I could use your help. Getting the chick to the vet, that is.”
“What would you need me to do?” Phil asks without hesitation.
“You could hold the little guy while we drive to Central Park. My truck's parked just off the bridge.” Clint is pretty sure that Phil knows that his help isn't really needed because it isn't as if Clint needs to master uneven terrain to get to the park. But he doesn't let on.
He nods. “Sure. I can do that.”
When they get stuck on FDR Drive in rush hour traffic, Clint texts Bruce to let him know that they're on the way with a new patient for him. Bruce texts him back in less than a minute with this week's code for the Central Park Zoo staff parking lot.
Clint keeps sneaking glances at Phil, who looks deep in thought and also a little pale. “I have a soda if you want.”
Phil's eyes are slow to come into focus. “That would be great, actually.”
Clint fumbles for his bag in the backseat and hands a bottle of coke to Phil.
“I didn't bother with breakfast,” Phil says with a shrug as he uncaps the soda. He keeps one hand folded around the pouch as he drinks.
“So, what do you do?”
“I'm a cop. Homicide.”
Not what Clint expected. Based on the suit, he thought hedge fund or consulting or some other job where you make money because you help rich people get richer. “Ever done anything else?”
Phil shakes his head. “My father was a cop, too. He insisted that I go to college, but I went to the police academy right after.”
Clint hums in acknowledgment. He wonders how Phil ended up in Homicide, and if that has anything to do with why he ended up at the bridge.
“What about you? You climb bridges and look at birds?”
Phil sounds curious in an earnest way, lacking the mocking tone that Clint often gets even from people in the Parks department. “Yeah. Kinda. During nesting season, anyway. I make sure the birds in the parks are taken care of. Have shelter, aren't disturbed too much by people, that kind of thing. The bridges are technically under the MTA's supervision, but it's not like they have anyone who knows about birds, so the Parks department lends me out to them for the season.”
Traffic finally starts moving again.
“That sounds like a nice job,” Phil says like he means it.
“I like it.” Clint glances at Phil, who has a little more color in his cheeks now that he's finished the coke. “I have an energy bar, too.”
“I'm good.” He holds up the empty bottle. “That should keep me going for a while.”
Clint holds back a comment about how soda isn't exactly a substitute for breakfast. “You grew up in the city?”
“No, I'm from Chicago. I came here for college and never left. Did you grow up here?”
Clint takes the exit for 71st Street. “Nah. Iowa.” He waits for some sort of remark about corn-fed farm boys, but it doesn't come. Clint's grateful for that because he hates corn, and while he's fucked a farm boy or two, he's certainly never been one.
“So, are there falcon nests on all the New York bridges?”
Phil looks interested enough, and it's a safe topic that Clint can talk about for hours, so he loses himself in the history of various falcon nests and a description of this year's nesting season until they pull up at the zoo.
Bruce greets Clint with a warm smile and a hug. Clint's grateful that Bruce has a tendency to give the kinds of hugs that straight men usually shy away from, namely the full-body holding-you-tight kind. He clings and closes his eyes for a moment because holy shit, he talked someone down from the literal ledge and the significance of that hits him all at once.
When Bruce lets go, he raises his eyebrows at Clint, a silent Are you alright? and Clint nods. He'll tell Bruce the whole story later.
Bruce steps around Clint and introduces himself to Phil, who still dutifully holds the pouch. “Bruce Banner. I'm the vet for the zoo.”
“Clint mentioned that. Phil Coulson.” A polite smile crosses his face.
“And I assume this is the falcon in need?” Bruce asks as he unzips the top of the pouch.
Clint nods. “Probably two weeks old. There are problems with his right wing. He's underfed and has mites. The parents already abandoned him.”
“How do you know that?” Phil asks.
“Experience,” Clint replies.
Bruce rests his hand on Clint's shoulder. “Let me take a look and see what I can do.”
Clint hangs back as they enter the exam room and watches Bruce check out the falcon while Phil asks a lot of questions. Clint wonders if the habit of asking questions is due to Phil's job. He probably talks to people all the time with the goal of extracting information. Or maybe not. Clint has no idea what it means to work in Homicide aside from what he's seen on TV. At least the questions Phil asks seem to derive from a genuine desire to understand, and Bruce patiently answers them. Clint knows that he'd prefer to work in silence, but he seems to appreciate the unobtrusive way in which Phil poses his questions.
“I can't say with certainty that he'll ever fly,” Bruce observes once he's done. “It's too early to tell. But if he doesn't, then he'll stay here.”
It's a weight off Clint's shoulders. “Thanks. I appreciate it.”
Phil strokes the falcon with careful touches and smiles. It's a nice smile.
Bruce looks at Phil and then at Clint. He curls his fingers around Clint's arm and says in a low voice, “Call me later?”
Clint nods. He'll tell Nat about all this, of course, but Bruce will let Clint ramble at him in a way that she has no patience for. “Tonight?”
“You and Bruce seem close,” Phil observes as they cross the staff parking lot.
Clint tries to parse if Phil is asking whether they're dating or not. It wouldn't be the first time for someone to make that assumption, after all. “Bruce is a good friend. But he's straight. And married.”
“Ah, I see. Is that a good or a bad thing?”
The question takes Clint by surprise, and he looks at Phil, and he wonders. “I'd say for him that's definitely a good thing. Bruce is...” He pauses, trying to find the right words. “He used to have really bad anger management issues, and I think the way he finally got over that is by channeling all his energy into kindness.”
“I wish more people were able to do that. The world would be a better place.”
Phil probably has seen his share of what happens when people cannot control their anger. “It would be. Anyway, that's why Bruce is, well, the way he is.” Which is, one of the most gracious and patient people Clint has ever met, and he's grateful that Bruce stumbled into his life a few years ago. “I can see why you thought—well, let's just say when I first met him, I didn't think he was straight, either.”
They've reached the Parks Department truck Clint uses, but Phil doesn't seem in a hurry to leave. “It sounds like there's a story there.”
Clint scratches the back of his neck. “Pretty embarrassing story, but fine. Bruce, being the nice guy that he is, agreed to play wingman for a friend who had a crush on one of Bruce's colleagues at the zoo. So Bruce figures out that his colleague usually hangs out at this bar on Saturdays, and he agrees to introduce the two and then hang around to...I don't know, make sure they hit it off, or whatever. Point being: I see Bruce at the bar around midnight, and think, fuck, how has no one hit that yet?”
Phil's smile is definitely knowing.
“So I'm my most charming self, and Bruce is very charming right back, and I buy him a drink, and we chat for a while, and I think that I have this in the bag.”
Phil's smile widens.
“It's all going really well, and I figure I'll have a little taste of what's to come, so I kiss him. And at first, he kisses back, and it's a nice kiss, but then he pulls back and he says, in this really sheepish way that's so typical for Bruce, 'Uh, I'm straight, actually.'”
Phil bursts out laughing, the kind of full-on laughter that's pure joy, and it hits Clint straight in the gut. He watches the way Phil's eyes crinkle and oh god. He swallows.
Perhaps Phil mistakes Clint's reaction for annoyance. “Sorry, I didn't mean to—” Phil coughs as he stifles his laughter. “I've hit on too many straight men in my life, so I understand.”
Well, that clears away any remaining doubt. “It's fucking annoying. Bruce was really apologetic, of course, and he told me the whole story about his friend, who was nowhere to be seen at this point, and then we ended up talking about birds for most of the night.”
Clint shrugs. “Uh. Yeah. Ornithology is Bruce's area of specialization.”
“So the night wasn't entirely a loss.”
“Nah. In the long run, I probably gained more than if I'd fucked him.” Phil doesn't take offense at Clint being blunt, which is good, because he hates having to censor himself. It takes him a moment to realize that he's just thought of Phil as someone who will spend more time around Clint, when it's entirely possible that he'll never see him again. The thought stings. “Listen,” he starts. “If you—if you give me your number, I'll text you an update on the falcon.”
Phil gives Clint a look that plainly says he's seen right through that thinnest of excuses, but he accepts Clint's phone anyway. He taps away for a minute before handing it back. “Here you go.”
“Thanks.” He types out Falcon update coming soon! and hits send. “Sent you a text so you have my number, too.”
Phil smiles and nods. “I should go. I'm late for work.”
It's such a simple sentence—such a throwaway remark, usually—but it means so much to Clint in that moment because Phil's going to go to work and not jump off a bridge. “Can I—” It comes out strangled. He clears his throat and tries again. “Can I drop you off anywhere?”
“No, that's fine. The F is just a few blocks from here.”
“You work downtown?”
Phil nods. “Second Precinct. Lower East Side.”
That's pretty close to where Clint lives. “Uhh, well, have a good day at work?”
“You too.” With a wave, Phil walks away.
Clint sits in his car for a while, feeling shaky and confused and overwhelmed by everything that's happened this morning. It's not even 10am yet and he thinks he could easily crawl into bed and sleep for twelve hours.
Eventually, he texts Nat. I'm completely and utterly fucked.
A few agonizing minutes go by before she responds. Do tell
I met someone. It's complicated. Why do I always do this to myself??
Because you're you. Lunch tomorrow?
Lunch tomorrow is perfect because he can talk things over with Bruce and then give Nat the condensed version. 1pm? Kimchi Taco is at 52nd+6th tmrrw
Yes. (Never forget that ILU)
She always adds that phrase to the last text she sends him. It often doesn't even register anymore, but today, Clint sees the words, really sees them, and whispers, “Love you, too, Nat.”