Phil took a deep breath, relaxing for the first time in weeks. They had a cloaked and refueled Quinjet, the Bus, and he’d gotten the itch out of his head for the time being. He took another deep breath, blowing it out hard, willing the last of the tension away. Closing his eyes, he leaned back in the old fashioned office chair that was ridiculously comfortable for its age.
He should go have dinner with his team, watch Dancing with the Stars, and hit the sack early. Thanks to the Quinjet he could skip the stale airline peanuts and crying babies tomorrow to interview the two agents he’d made contact with. If even one turned out to be loyal to SHIELD –
An alarm broke into his thoughts, shattering his peaceful mood. The screen across the room lit up to show a perimeter breach. Getting to his feet, he automatically checked to be sure his weapon was secure as he moved across the room and opened a channel. “May – “
“Already on it.” She said and closed the channel.
“Now what?” Phil glared at the map of the base and the red bullseye throbbing at the breached location.
“How about you start with why you never told me you were alive?”
Wrenching around, Phil had his sidearm out and pointed before he registered who’d spoken. Clint didn’t so much as blink at having a gun pointed at his face. Phil lowered the weapon immediately. “How did you get in here?”
“Trained assassin, that’s kinda what I do. Or used to do anyway. And is that really the first thing you want to say to me?”
The archer was leaning on the wall in the back corner of the office, arms folded across his chest. Phil took a moment to drink in the sight of him. All in black, the color turning his beautiful eyes a deep blue, the bulge of muscle apparent even through the sleeves of the regulation TAC jacket, long fingers, and long legs.
“How about – “ Holstering his gun, Phil smiled and took a step toward him. “I love you and I’ve missed you.”
Clint’s eyebrows went up. “You really think I’m that easy? Or just that stupid? Huh? Do you? Really?”
“No, no, of course not.” He stopped, dropping the hand he’d been reaching out with. “I guess I should explain.”
“I guess you should. Explain to me why you didn’t tell me you were alive. Why you let me mourn – grieve for you – feel guilty thinking it was my fault you were dead.”
“No, Clint, it wasn’t your fault.” He reached again for Clint, hesitating when the mosaic eyes hardened and letting his hand drop to his side again.
“How about why you let me go to your funeral and stand by your family – stand next to your mother – and feel like I’d murdered you. Explain that to me.”
“It wasn’t my decision.”
Phil could see Clint’s fingers were clenched, the knuckles turning white. “Fury made the call to use an experimental procedure to save me. He didn’t tell anyone because it wasn’t certain I would survive it. I was in a coma for months, and then there were – issues. “ He grimaced. “By the time I was myself again, a year had passed and the Director thought –“
“You’re going to put this on Fury?” Clint shook his head. “Because you couldn’t have found a single moment to pick up a phone and call me?”
“I wanted to, but it just seemed better to let everyone think I was still dead. For the job he’d given me, it helped me keep a lower profile.”
The muscles in the other man’s jaw bunched and his scowl deepened. Phil had never had Clint’s anger directed at him and he could see why others had cowered beneath that look. It was like having the Grim Reaper staring you down. Still, he hadn’t gotten this job because he was a cream puff. “Fury knew something was coming. Having me and my team working out of sight – “
“Out of sight?” The snort of laughter didn’t soften the archer’s face. “You were at the Hub when the ice kid went rogue. That’s hardly keeping a low profile.”
“People tend to overlook me.” Phil had counted on his power of looking average and it had worked for the most part. He smiled and shrugged. “There was a rumor of my ghost haunting the Hub or Fury having a Couldon LMD. Can’t imagine how those got started.”
Clint stared at him, speechless, for a moment. Then he huffed out a laugh and shook his head. “This is all one big joke to you, isn’t it?”
“No – I didn’t mean – “
“Just one big life sized adventure fighting Hydra with your own scrappy little team. Just like Captain America and the Howling Commandos. Like a dream come true, isn’t it?”
“Say what you want about my withholding information. But don’t ever question my commitment to SHIELD. Too many of my friends died – are still dying.”
“Mine, too. As a matter of fact – “ Clint reached up and tugged down the neck of his black t-shirt. An ugly, still healing scar crawled across the line of muscle that connected neck to shoulder. “A couple of inches over and we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
“My god.” Before he could top himself, Phil reached out only to have his hand slapped away before he could touch Clint’s damaged skin. The blow stung.
“At least you’d have known I was really dead – not pretending.”
“I – you’re an Avenger now. You weren’t an active SHIELD agent any longer I had no reason to believe you were in any danger.”
“It was a special mission.”
A mission that was probably only to put Clint – Hawkeye – in a vulnerable position. It hadn’t occurred to him that Hydra had probably still considered him a SHIELD agent despite his activity with the Avengers. “I never thought you were in danger, Clint. I would have warned you – “
“But you didn’t.” Clint’s arms had crossed over his chest again, strong fingers gripping his biceps in an effort to keep calm. “Nat did – even though she was in danger. She was with Pierce at the Triskelion, did you know that? She had a fucking bomb on her chest – but she still managed to warn me. She saved my life.”
Phil had heard about Natasha’s action first hand from Nick. She’d risked setting off the device, taking a bite from her own weapon to knock herself out so Pierce couldn’t use her against her own teammates. “Clint I’m sorry, I thought you were safe at the Tower.”
“The Tower? Oh, ‘cos it’s not full of SHIELD agents, right? Or I suppose I should say it was, anyway.” A slight smile broke the grim features. “Jarvis is not someone to screw with.”
“Clint, I didn’t – “
“And after the shit hit the fan – you never checked on me. Did you?”
“I thought – “
“– you’d be – “
“Did you?” Clint barked as he shoved himself off the wall and into Phil’s space.
“No.” He looked away, unable to meet Clint’s eyes. “I – no.”
“No. You didn’t.” Clint leaned back against the wall. Still as a stone once once more.
There was a long moment of silence. Phil had known Clint was alive, Nick had told him, though he’d neglected to say he had been injured. He’d nearly picked up the phone a million times to call Clint. In the end, he hadn’t. Shame filled him.
“Tony.” Clint said finally.
“Not Natasha?” He blinked in surprise.
“She kinda had her hands full. Lucky for me, I have a friend who owns an international company with its own private jets.”
“It was wheels up maybe two minutes after they hauled me on board. Probably would have been less if they hadn’t had to pull up the stairs and shut the door. They patched me up and tucked me in with some top secret stuff and I slept all the way home. Tony was on the runway and had me in his car and gone before the pilot shut the engines down. It was slicker than some SHIELD extractions I’ve been a part of.”
“How did he get you through customs?” Phil tried to wrap his mind around Tony Stark sticking his neck out for anyone.
“Tony Stark doesn’t have to go through customs if he doesn’t want to. All that time you were telling me he was an arrogant asshole – “ Clint shook his head. “You were wrong. He’s a better man than you are.”
“Remember when the Mandarin blew up his house? When everyone thought he was dead? He got a message to Pepper. Tony made sure she knew he was okay and hiding.”
“Which is probably why Killian got his hands on her. Stark is selfish – “
“Pepper got herself caught. Killian was after her, not Tony. He thought he could force her to be his girlfriend.” Amusement lit his eyes for a moment. “Boy did he make a mistake.”
Phil knew that look. He’d seen it every time Natasha had proven how un-delicate, un-fainting un-fair flower-like she was. He realized the report Fury had been given on Killian and AIM was most likely incomplete if not outright falsified.
Clint pulled something out of a pocket on his vest and held it out to him. Phil’s eyes widened when he saw it was a silver ring. He didn’t need to see the engraving inside; he knew it by heart. “Clint, no – “
“This was a promise.” He held it up, turning it to catch the light. “A promise you broke.”
“No, Clint, please.” HIs chest began to ache in a way that had nothing to do with his old injury. “We can work this out. We can – “
“No.” He shook his head, lips drawn down into a frown. “No, we can’t.” Clint tossed the ring in the air and Phil caught it out of reflex. “We can’t fix a lie. You can’t fix a lie.”
“I never lied.” Phil bit back the rest of what he was going to say as the mosaic eyes went dark with fury.
“A lie by omission is still a lie. You taught me that, remember?”
“I remember.” He said softly. He’d made Clint run laps until he dropped after discovering the archer had left something out of a report on a mission that had ended successfully – but during which Clint’s position had been dangerously exposed – because he didn’t want to lie.
Phil swallowed hard. He also remembered that night being the first time they’d gone beyond a kiss or two. He’d massaged Clint’s aching muscles and one thing had led to a very mutually satisfying another.
There was a slight softening in Clint’s eyes and Phil knew he was remembering that same wonderful night. He jumped to take advantage of that moment of weakness. “Clint, I love you. I’ll do whatever it takes to earn your forgiveness. For however long it takes. We’re secure here now, we’re not running from place to place. SHIELD isn’t on the wanted list any longer. We can be together, now. I’ll beg for forgiveness every day.”
He met Clint’s eyes with his own trying to show he was being sincere, putting the love he had for the other man out there naked and bare. “For however long it takes – however much time you need.”
“As much time as I need?” Clint ducked his head, breaking the connection. “Funny thing about time. All those clichés about how it helps you heal? They’re true.” He looked back up and shrugged. “Guess that’s why they’re clichés.”
“It can – and it will.” He held the ring out to Clint. “We can fix this.“
“I wanted to die. I really did. But I had someone who wouldn’t let me.” Clint pointedly ignored the ring and Phil’s outstretched hand.
“Natasha.” If anyone would keep Clint from self-harm, it would be her.
“Someone who’d lost someone, too. Lost more than me. He lost everyone he loved – everyone.”
A cold child crawled along Phil’s skin and he lowered his hand. He?
“Every day we talked, sometimes we just sat and cried together. Life sucked. And then it got better. Just a little better. And a little better. Until – I wanted to live again.” Clint smiled. “We both did.”
The sudden smile, the first since Clint had shown up in his office out of the blue, the first Phil had seen since the last night at Pegasus, dazzled him. The smile made Clint into another person, someone who went from ordinary to beautiful in the brief moment before it vanished.
“I’m glad we never got married, that you wanted to wait until it was legal.” Clint said.
“Only so we could get married in my family’s church – it wasn’t because I didn’t love you, Clint. That’s why I gave you this.” He held up the ring again. “It was a promise.”
“It makes things less complicated. No real ties to cut. I don’t have to feel like I’ve been cheating on you the last few months.”
“You – you’ve met someone else?” The ache in his chest intensified and the chill spread over his body.
“He’s nothing like you. Steve doesn’t have secrets and layers and locked closets and dark corners. He’s open and honest, and I know exactly – exactly – where I stand with him.
“He puts me first. You – “ Clint speared him with a glare. “You put SHIELD first. Always. You were a company man, Fury’s right hand, probably going to be director one day.”
“You know I had to.” He didn’t try to lie, they both knew it was the truth. “You understood.”
“I did.” Clint nodded slightly. “I’d never been first with anyone, so second best with you was better than anything I’d ever had. More than I thought I deserved.”
Phil felt a twinge of guilt. He’d known that Clint accepted being second in line for his time because of how little he felt he was worth. He’d done everything he could in the time they did spend together to try to show Clint how much he was loved.
He’d worked on Clint’s self-esteem from the first moment he was assigned as his handler, but he’d never managed to convince Clint he deserved to be more than second best. Surely he hadn’t done that on purpose? “I always told you that you were worth more than you thought.”
“But you never made me believe it. A part of me always thought I was less without you. Because you didn’t give me all of yourself.”
“I couldn’t – “
“Wouldn’t.” Clint pushed away from the wall again. “Any SHIELD business the Avengers need to know, goes through Hill. She’s the only one willing to talk to you – but only if she has to.”
“Wait.” He turned as Clint went around him, following him across the office.
“SHIELD will still be bankrolled by Tony. You can thank Pepper for that – well, I wouldn’t, actually – you hurt her nearly as bad as you hurt me. And, man does she hold a grudge. We need SHIELD. For now. At least until Hydra’s been wiped out. After that? Maybe not.” Opening the door, Clint stepped out into the hallway.
“Clint, wait!” Phil grabbed the door before it shut. “Please, just give me five minutes to explain!”
“You’ve had two years. Even spotting you the coma and recovery time – at least a year and a half to pick up a phone.” Clint walked away.
Melinda was waiting at the end of the hallway, an arrow in her hand, and she fell into step with him. “I assume you still recover these.”
“Yep.” He plucked it from her fingers and gave it a twirl before pressing his thumb over the coded control on the shaft. The arrow collapsed until it was only fletching and arrowhead.
She arched an eyebrow as he tucked it into his jacket pocket. “You got your bow in your pocket, too?”
Clint winked. “Nah, I’m just happy to see you.”
“Next time, try knocking. Those monitors are expensive.”
“Won’t be a next time.”
They walked in quiet companionship through the building and outside to where Clint’s bike was parked. “Somebody rode my bike?”
“I could have let you walk back.” She shrugged. “Now where’s the blind spot on the roof?”
“ Come on, May, I can’t give you everything, then you wouldn’t appreciate it.” He threw a leg over the bike and settled comfortably on the leather seat. Pulling his sunglasses out of a pocket, he slipped them on. “I seem to remember you telling me that back in the day.”
Melinda rested a fingertip on the back of his hand before he could start the bike. “You’re not mad at me?”
“No.” He met her gaze over the top of the black lenses. “You were following orders.”
“So was Coulson.”
“Not the same thing.”
“You know the others didn’t survive the procedure. They went crazy.” She looked over her shoulder for a moment before meeting Clint’s gaze again. “I’ve got an order to put him down if it comes to that.”
“Banner says Phil’s lasted longer than any of the others. Don’t ask me how he got the reports.”
“I wasn’t going to.”
“He’s working on stabilizing it. I think. It was science so – “ He made a gesture of things passing over his head.
“Science.” She made a face. “Give me something I can beat the crap out of any day.”
“Me, too, sister. Me, too.”
“So.” Melinda smiled. “When he takes off all that red, white, and blue – is he really that built?”
“Oh, May – “ He gave her another wink and a lascivious grin. “Better.”
“He is, isn’t he?” Clint pressed his thumb to the starter and the bike roared to life. He noticed the curious look on Melinda’s face and grinned. “Wouldn’t start for you?”
“No. Not until I’d pushed it a half a mile. Then it started on its own. Stark Tech, I’m guessing.”
“It started? Jarvis must like you.”
“Agent May has gentle hands.” The AI’s cultured voice came from a speaker between the handlebars.
“Stark Tech.” She shook her head. “One of these days he’s going to create something he can’t control.”
“Nah.” He reached out and squeezed her shoulder. “Keep your eyes open and your head down. Stay safe.”
Melinda smiled slightly and patted his hand. “Why start now?” She stepped back as Clint put the bike in gear and sped off.
She turned and caught Phil watching from the darkness of the vehicle bay. He looked broken and defeated.
“Say it.” He said as she walked toward him.
“No. I told you I wouldn’t.”
“Say it!” He said harshly.
“Fine. One time and one time only. You should have told him. I told you this would happen.” She kept walking.
Phil stood watching long after Clint’s bike had vanished in the distance.