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The Long Dark Night That Follows

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It started with the latest string of missions, all one practically on top of the other. Three missions straight where the bad guys lost and the Avengers kicked ass and the World's Greatest Marksman watched.

The first mission had been over almost as soon as it began, with Tony disabling the remote-controlled hovercraft being used to bombard the eastern seaboard. The rest of the Avengers had all done mostly clean-up work, and Clint hadn't been able to figure out where to hit the hovercraft with an arrow to disable it, by the time Tony had them all shut down. Hawkeye had ended up doing not much at all, but the situation had called for brute strength to smash the hovercraft and a computer genius to shut them down. Clint hadn't expected anyone to call him out for standing around watching -- and other than some ribbing from Natasha and Tony demanding that Clint be the one to fetch them their beer, no one had given him grief for it.

The second mission, fighting mutated beetles in downtown Boston, Clint sent a handful of arrows into each of the tires of the madman controlling the beetles with his mind. Rogers and Thor were battling the madman himself while the others corralled the bugs. Hawkeye kept aiming his arrows only to find, right before he could let one fly, that the problem he'd aimed at was under control. He shot out the tires for practice, and just to have something to do.

The next time he didn't even have tires to shoot out. When the third mission was over and the Avengers had decamped for post-debriefing celebrations, Clint had already made his decision. He'd signed on with S.H.I.E.L.D. because it had been the right thing to do -- at the time. But the Avengers Initiative was clearly well in hand and they'd proven, over and over, that the superheros really didn't need a guy who could see really well and hit things with accuracy.

The World's Greatest Marksman had gone it alone before. He'd done a lot of crap he wasn't proud of and a lot of crap he was proud of and mostly what he'd done was demonstrate to himself that he wasn't the man his childhood had tried so very hard to make him to be. He figured he could trust himself, now, to do what was right and he didn't need the authenticity granted him by a shadowy government agency.

With the debrief over, Clint walked out of S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters and waved to Natasha as she called to him they were headed back to the mansion to drink their weight in beer. He gave her a grin and nodded, then climbed onto his bike and headed out.

He took one left turn, then another, down a long stretch of streets weaving through traffic and flipping off the cops who tried to pull him over for speeding. He ditched them behind a parking garage, then followed a route that he hadn't honestly thought he'd be using. Or maybe he had -- he'd kept it, after all, even when the Avengers had moved into the mansion together and Stark had made helpful comments about upgrading his motorcycle. Clint had seen what Stark had done with Steve's bike and it hadn't taken any thought at all to say yes.

But Clint had a feeling there was more hardware in his bike than he'd been told about, hence leaving the bike on the fifth floor and walking up the ramp to the sixth. He dropped off the edge of the stairs where the security cameras were dead, left his phone and watch and wallet, emptied of cash, scattered under the stairwell and escaped the building undetected. Down the block there was another bike kept locked away, a simple, small-engined bike that made his Stark Motors 2000 look like a spaceship.

Actually, Clint wouldn't be surprised if his bike couldn't reach orbit. Now that he'd thought of it, he really should have asked before ditching it. Clint shrugged to himself, then flipped his jacket over a fence as he headed for where he'd left the other bike parked. Ducking his head, he snagged a brown coat from the back of a chair at a sidewalk cafe, palmed a pair of sunglasses and eased his way through the crowd of pedestrians. Ten minutes later he was on an unmarked, unregistered bike headed west.

He didn't think as he drove, letting his attention focus on the traffic around him and the wind that kept nudging him towards the shoulder. He glared at the vans and SUVs that seemed to think he was invisible, and nodded his gratitude to the trucker who gave him plenty of leeway when he pulled around to pass. It had been a long time since he'd gone for a long ride; this was neither the bike nor the reason he would have chosen for one, but Clint found he was enjoying it regardless. He could feel himself unwinding, almost if not quite relaxing after the long stretch of missions with barely any chance to rest in-between them.

As little as I had to do during, Clint thought to himself, and he had to fight the thoughts away, staring at the back of the truck ahead of him and concentrating on the vibration of the handlebars under his hands.

The first pitstop was a quick one; filling up the tank and emptying his bladder, grabbing a package of stale powdered donuts and a sports drink to tuck into the saddlebag. Then he turned south and drove, down the interstate and away from New York City. Away from the Avengers and S.H.I.E.L.D. and everyone who -- well, from everyone. Clint shook his head as he rode down the highway, wondering if he should seek out smaller roads, or stick with the speed of the interstate to get him to his destination faster.

Clint laughed to himself; he had no destination, he was only trying to get away. Had no idea, in fact, where he was headed beyond down, out of New York and someplace that was... not there. He'd been all over the world and he knew he could set himself up anywhere he ended up. He suspected he would simply ride until the whim caught him to stop. Thoughts started creeping in on him again as the sun sank towards the horizon; headlights flickered on and Clint barely blinked, adjusting to his night-vision with ease. World's Greatest Marksman he thought. Maybe I could get a job as a night bus driver.

He poured on the gas and shot ahead, into the growing darkness and farther, farther away. He had enough cash to last him four or five days before he'd have to stop, find work or a con or find pockets to pick. That last had never been his strong suit, he'd always preferred to hustle his way with his smile and his aim. But setting himself up as a sideshow attraction wasn't likely to work, now. Not after he'd been on the front cover of the Times and the Post and half a dozen other papers and magazines.

The world -- or at least this part of it -- loved the Avengers, loved the PR machine that Tony Stark seemed to control like a conductor with an orchestra. Clint's face had been plastered everywhere for weeks after the Avengers' first mission; he'd been surrounded by giggling teenagers on more than one occasion, asking for autographs and phone numbers and making suggestions that Clint was fairly sure he couldn't physically do, even if the ideas had sounded appealing.

The notoriety had faded quickly enough for the Avengers who weren't Captain America, Iron Man, or Thor. Clint had noticed Banner's relief at going unnoticed, had seen little on Natasha's face to tell him what she thought of any of it at all. Though he'd noticed she stayed, and she smiled and laughed a lot more, and he'd noticed the way she'd started spending an awful lot of time with Pepper. Clint wished them well, of course, because a happy Natasha was a Natasha who didn't stalk him and flip him off of roofs just to keep him on his toes.

Well. Not as often.

He was going to miss her, he knew, but it seemed like she'd finally found a place to fit in. Clint thought he'd found it as well. Thought in those first weeks of training and fighting side by side and just hanging out, that he'd found his place. A hero, like the superheros around him, and Clint hadn't really noticed at first as he'd slipped out of the limelight and into support detail.

Then he'd even slipped from there into watching, into not being needed, and into why am I even here at all.

Clint rode for the next hour, eyes on the taillights ahead of him and finally let himself think about it. Let it start to wash over him, now that he was getting away, that he had admitted to himself that they didn't need him, no one had even mentioned it after the missions where he'd done nothing. He'd half-expected Tony to give him shit for it last week, tease him about defending the world from evil tires everywhere, but Iron Man had been distracted by minor damage to his suit and slightly more damage to Steve's elbow. Steve had been fine and Tony had locked them both in the workshop for days, working on the suit -- and other things, which Clint didn't need to think too closely about. But it meant that no one had made any jokes about Hawkeye hanging around and not contributing to the effort.

This final mission, Clint had deliberately watched. He'd lowered his bow -- fingers still on the string, ready to lift his bow in an instant should he find himself needed after all. But he'd watched and the others had everything under control and no one had even called over the radio asking for his input. For all the Avengers had apparently known, Hawkeye hadn't even been there.

So now he wasn't. Clint stuffed down the feeling of disappointment and gripped the handlebars a little tighter. His next stop was two hours later, pulling off at a truck stop with attached restaurant and fifty pumps scattered on three sides. Clint pulled in carefully, avoiding the squalling brats who'd been cooped up on a road trip for too long and the desperate drivers who just wanted to be home already, driving tired and not seeing a man on a bike under the bright lights.

Clint stretched his legs a bit before settling the gas pump in the tank, barely glancing up as another biker pulled in opposite him. He froze when the rider turned out to be Steve. Clint stared, but Steve simply kept his eyes turned away, refilling his own bike despite the fact Clint knew the one he was riding had a six gallon tank and a reserve as well, tucked underneath. A Stark Motors 5000, Clint thought, because of course Tony kept the coolest toys for himself and his -- whatever.

Clint opened his mouth to ask what the fuck was going on, when Steve said, under his breath, "If you're being forced, just nod."

Clint blinked again. "Forced? To do what?"

Steve looked at him then, expression grave and concerned. "Tony said he didn't detect any signs of mind control. We found no evidence you'd been contacted with blackmail, but Black Widow said there might have been something in the jacket you abandoned. The lining was ripped at the pocket. She said you used to keep a second set of papers and ID in there."

Clint stared for a long moment, jumping when the gas pump beeped at him, and he grabbed at the nozzle. Then he stared at Steve again, who was looking openly at him, now. "I'm sorry, can you run this by me again? Blackmail? Mind control? What are you talking about?"

Steve frowned. "There was no request for time off; Coulson says you didn't put in for vacation even though you always have before. Er, he says you don't usually use the right forms, but you've always told him." Steve glanced upward, past the edge of the gas station's overhang; reflexively, Clint did the same. Up in the sky he could see the tiny, bright streak. A streak of light that he recognized.

"Iron Man is up there?"

"He says there's still no sign you're being followed." Steve looked at him, still worried. "Can you tell me what happened?"

Clint dropped his face into his hand. "I'm not being forced. God, seriously? Are you--" He stopped as a thought occurred to him and he looked up at Steve. "Please tell me the entire team isn't following us."

Steve shifted uncomfortably. "Technically, Dr. Banner and Thor are ahead of us about five miles. Natasha and Coulson are...pulling up right now." Steve nodded, and Clint turned to see an unmarked black van pull into the truck stop. Steve cleared his throat. "Tony wants to know if it will cause a problem if he comes down."

Clint dropped his face back into his hands.

~~~

Tony actually landed several yards away, in the dark field behind the truck stop -- landing and putting his armor away without anyone seeing Iron Man arrive. When he'd walked in to the truck stop's restaurant he couldn't help but be Tony Stark, loud and brash and making the waitress blush and drop her tray. Steve had apologized and helped her clean it up while glaring at Tony, who'd tried to explain he hadn't really done anything.

Clint had dug in his heels against sitting at the large table in the front of the restaurant, surrounded by Avengers and being grilled. So Tony and Steve were near the front, gradually drawing more and more whispers of Isn't that and Get a picture! Clint had negotiated his way into a booth with Natasha where he tried to pretend that Coulson and Banner and Thor weren't spread out around them, within earshot.

He noted that all of them were still looking around, like they expected the threat to make itself known now that they'd caught up with him. Clint toyed with his coffee cup and sighed, knowing that in five more seconds Natasha would start making him talk.

She'd already started kicking his ankle under the table. Clint kicked back, but missed more times than he connected.

"So here's my theory," she suddenly said, leaning forward. "Obviously Rogers and S.H.I.E.L.D. decided you'd been coerced, but we haven't actually found any sign of that. And since I know you -- too well -- I think that there are two possibilities." She stopped and gave him a look that told him he wasn't going to be very happy with either of her theories.

Letting her talk was a damn sight better than trying to explain to her that he'd left on his own, and why.

Natasha held up her hand, ticking off a finger. "One, that you decided on the spur of the moment to take a road trip. Which, if that's the case, you get to choose between having your road trip with all of us." She paused, wrinkling her nose a little. "I don't actually recommend that, because I've seen how Thor gets about those cheap roadside motels, and you can never get him off the Magic Fingers bed."

Clint opened his mouth, but didn't say anything as she looked at him. Instead he nodded for her to continue.

"Your other choice is to take your road trip with just me -- and probably Coulson, because he said something about being responsible for you and Fury'll have his ass if you get lost in Pennsylvania. Or Kentucky. One of those woody states with hillbillies." She waved a hand when Clint tried to clarify what state she probably meant, and she glared at him again. "My second theory is that you are leaving for good, which would almost be explained by the fact you tried very hard to get out of town without anybody noticing or being able to track you. However, I know that if that were the case, I'd be forced to kick your ass, right here in front of all these nice people, and then Coulson would make you pay for the damages then all of us would have to drag you back to New York and explain in very small words how stupid that is."

She paused and, when he didn't answer, she inclined her head to him meaningfully.

The smart thing to do would be tell her theory one, option two. Clint knew that, could tell that she was expecting that one in exactly the same way he knew she already knew what the truth was. He tried to say it, but found that he couldn't. It wouldn't change anything, he told himself. Going back, or taking off for a few days or a week with her and Coulson as babysitters wouldn't change how things were.

He opened his mouth again when a thick binder was tossed onto the table in front of him. It looked a lot like an extremely classified S.H.I.E.L.D. binder of mission reports. Only it wasn't, exactly. The top cover had fallen open and he could see the top page wasn't a report cover, but what looked like page three of a mission report. Which, still classified, but what the hell was it doing on a table in a truck stop restaurant?

Clint looked up at Coulson, who was standing there, regarding him very blandly. "What is this?"

"That's the file I give to McGuire every few weeks," Coulson said. "Report analyses. While the three of us are on your road trip, you will be reading that." He nodded at Natasha, and Clint wanted to say something about not even pretending they weren't all listening in to what he'd asked to be a private conversation.

"I wanted to try the Magic Fingers," Thor said, frowning at Bruce.

"There's a motel up the road," Bruce was telling him. "Feel free to stay the night. I'm going back since it looks like we're not needed." He glanced over at Clint, and Clint couldn't tell if the other man was annoyed at being dragged out on a wild goose chase or relieved that it wasn't anything serious. Clint just shrugged an apology at him, and turned back to Coulson as the other two Avengers left.

He could hear a small commotion at the front of the restaurant, but he knew that tone of Steve's, and knew it had everything to do with Tony being Tony, and not someone about to shout that giant space walruses were attacking. Clint ignored them.

"Why am I reading old mission reports?"

Coulson stared down at him, but instead of replying, he pulled out a radio. "We're clear. Stand down and report back to base."

Clint blinked at him. "Who the hell was that?"

"Support troops. We had no idea what we were dealing with." Coulson just continued to stare at him, expression stern and blank all at the same time. Clint could tell just how pissed the other man was even if he didn't understand why Coulson would be.

Well, other than dragging out the Avengers and a S.H.I.E.L.D. team for no good reason whatsoever, of course. Clint ducked his head. "I should have left a note?" he offered.

Natasha and Coulson both glared at him with identical expressions of duh. Clint wondered if he was going to get billed for this, or if Fury had even thought of that as a deterrent. Maybe he should keep his mouth shut in case someone thought it was a brilliant idea.

He had to shift over quickly when Coulson suddenly slid into the booth beside him. Clint opened his mouth and Natasha kicked his ankle again as the waitress walked up, eyeing them doubtfully. "Did any of you want to place an order?" she asked, her hands trembling and she kept looking around as though expecting ninjas or robots to come crashing through the windows.

"Yes, please," Coulson said, smoothly, glancing down the menu too quickly for anyone to be able to read what was there. "Meatloaf plate and coffee, thank you." He gave Natasha a nod, and the waitress took her order as well, a burger and salad which Clint numbly echoed when the waitress looked at him. He regained enough thought-process to ask for a milkshake, because no place in the world made better milkshakes than truck stops along the highway.

Then he looked back down at the binder on the table, and Coulson tapped it. "Read."

"I don't see why--" Clint began. Coulson just eyed him, and Clint decided that discretion was possibly the better part of valor. He did notice that Steve was manhandling Tony out of the restaurant, and that the flashes of camera phones had subsided. He thought about going to move his bike, but he somehow suspected that Natasha would accuse him of trying to escape.

Not that the thought wasn't occurring to him, over and over. Just as he glanced up, thinking screw it, he needed some time before he dealt with any of this, he saw Steve pushing Clint's bike away from the pumps and parking it along the side of the restaurant. Tony was leaning against Steve's bike, looking annoyed and smug at the same time.

Feeling distinctly trapped, Clint flipped open the binder and began reading.

~~~

The first several sections were straight-forward enough and it didn't take long for Clint to feel uneasy. He kept reading -- kept flipping pages over, sometimes all he had to do was skim to remember what the mission had been. Certain pages, if he tried to skim too quickly, earned him a hard glare from Coulson. Clint scowled back at him, but ate his burger one-handed and continued to read.

They were pages taken from mission reports of all kinds and from every manner of mission. The only common thread in them was Hawkeye. Every single page mentioned him -- what he'd done in varying degrees of detail. After each such page was a typed analysis of the situation, highlighting what would have gone wrong had he not been there.

After twenty such pairs of pages, Clint looked up at Coulson, confused. Coulson set aside his fork of mashed potatoes and explained. "McGuire keeps trying to abscond with you, assign you to his team. I give him that to read, send along a copy to the Director's office and Darnell's office -- he's McGuire's immediate supervisor," Coulson added, as Clint simply continued looking at him in confusion.

"But I don't mind working with McGuire," Clint pointed out. "I'm the best, and he--"

"He heads up the Wet Works teams, yes, Barton, I am aware of what he does." Coulson quickly smoothed his expression as the waitress came up. She'd grown only slightly less nervous as she'd waited on them, and no amount of charming smiles from Clint seemed to help. Any further explanation was halted, however, as she took away their empty plates and Coulson handed over a credit card, black and blank, which Clint knew for a fact meant Coulson had just charged their meal to S.H.I.E.L.D.

He didn't want to know if he was going to get the bill for dinner from Fury. Again, not mentioning it in case it sounded like a good idea.

"We'll put your bike in the back of the van," Coulson said, standing up. Natasha gave him a bright smile as she stood as well, both of them looming over him and blocking his exits.

"We're not really going on a road trip, are we?" Clint asked, unable to shake the sense of doom that had settled during their meal. The hamburger felt like a heavy lump in his stomach.

The other two were just looking at him, then Natasha said, "That's up to you. I'd like to see the Grand Canyon, myself. Or we could go down south and see some alligators."

Really, Clint thought, there was no good answer, here. He picked up the binder and followed Coulson out to the van.

After helping Clint shove the bike into the van, Coulson drove while Natasha sat shotgun and Clint sat wedged in-between the driver's seat and the front wheel of his bike. He kept it from swaying too much by ramming his knee against the tire, and read the binder propped up on his lap. When they stopped, Clint stayed where he was until Natasha called his name, then he looked up in surprise to find they'd stopped at a motel. A quick look at the sky told him they’d kept driving south; maybe Natasha had won the vote and they were really going to Florida.

He didn't ask, just stood there quietly -- meekly and obediently because he could when he had to -- as Coulson got them two rooms. But they were both armed and Clint had a feeling neither would hesitate to shoot if he ran for it. He followed Coulson into one of the rooms and sat down on one of the beds and kept reading.

The first half of the binder wasn't all that surprising, really, and he kept meaning to stop and skip ahead once he'd figured out what was going on. But somehow he kept reading, and when he flipped the divider to begin the second section he read the first two pages and stopped. He looked up at Coulson, who was lounging on the other bed watching the television with the sound turned down.

"What is this?" Clint asked.

Coulson didn't even glance over. "I presume you're referring to the analyses of the missions you did not take part in."

"Yeah. So how is telling McGuire about those going to convince him not to snag me for a job?"

Coulson looked over at him and for a moment stared at Clint with a direct, unwavering gaze. Clint felt himself flinch and stifled it. Hell, he'd worked with Coulson often enough not to be taken surprise by him anymore -- except clearly, here was Coulson taking him by surprise. He hadn't even known McGuire kept requesting him; Clint had worked with the Wet Works team half a dozen times over the last couple of years and he'd always succeeded with the jobs given to him. McGuire had never had any complaints, and asking to be reassigned from the Avengers Initiative to McGuire had, actually, been one of Clint's options.

He'd gone for the lone wolf bike ride instead, and look how well that had ended up.

Coulson was still watching him, and Clint just waited. He could out-wait anybody...sometimes. When it mattered. He'd never actually managed to out-wait Coulson but there was a first time for everything, and at least he wasn't backing down this time without a fight.

"I don't get it," Clint finally admitted.

"Keep reading," was all Coulson said, and he turned his attention back to the television. It was showing what looked like a re-run of Rebelde, which told Clint more than he wanted to know about Coulson's taste in programming -- or maybe it was all the motel's ancient TV could pick up.

Clint just kept reading the binder. Half an hour later and almost two-thirds of the way through, he stopped again. He pushed the binder aside, letting it fall onto the bed beside his legs. He wanted to ask a million questions, but he wasn't exactly sure he wanted the answers. Coulson's answers, anyway, because he had a feeling he knew what any of the others would say if he had gone to any of them and expressed his concerns.

Steve would have told him that of course he was a valuable member of the team. Banner and Thor would say similar things though Thor would no doubt offer to drink him under the table to prove it. Natasha wouldn't say much at all, but offer to kick his ass for him until he stopped being so stupid.

Or until she got tired of kicking him, and Clint didn't know which would likely happen first. Tony would - well, Clint would expect he'd just laugh and offer Clint a job driving the team around at night, or suggest he apprentice to JARVIS. Surely somewhere in Stark Industries there was a job for a man with good eyesight, Clint knew. But he also knew there was no way he'd ever humiliate himself by asking, for real.

Nothing they could have said would be anything he could believe, though, which was why he hadn't bothered. He didn't want platitudes or fake praise, or offers to help in ways that didn't really help. He'd fully expected that the team wouldn't care if he decided to take off and go it alone -- and maybe it was only because they'd thought there was a new plot to take over the world or something that had made them interfere in the first place. If he'd left a note saying he was going solo, maybe by now he would actually be on his way, safely and alone.

Only none of that explained Coulson's binder. He glanced down at it again, then looked over at Coulson. The other man was staring at the television, watching an episode of El Chavo del Ocho.

"So these are all things that went wrong because there wasn't a marksman on the team," Clint finally said. The last half of the binder was full of mission reports where someone had gone through and meticulously pointed out every single point at which the mission would have changed -- gone better or more smoothly or succeeded where in reality it had failed. All if one person with a bow and arrow had been in a certain place at a certain time.

"There's no guarantee a marksman would have made that much of a difference," Clint pointed out.

"There is a summary of risk analysis at the end," Coulson said. "Every mission has its own individual chance of success or failure, but taken as a whole, on average every single mission has a significantly greater chance to succeed with fewer lives lost if you had been there."

Coulson turned to look at him as he spoke, face still impassive.

"Why would you do this?" Clint demanded, smacking his hand on top of the binder. "Why would you care if I work with McGuire, anyhow? Do you two have a bet going or something and you don't want to let him win the pool?"

Coulson just stood up and walked over, picking up the binder. Clint glared at him, decided he didn't like craning his neck up and settled his glare on the far wall. "Because I've seen you when you get back from those missions," Coulson said, quietly. Unexpectedly.

"It's what I'm good at," Clint snapped. "I never miss, so what better use of a sniper than long-range assassination?"

"I've seen you when you return from those missions," Coulson said again, his voice soft. He sat down on the bed, half-facing Clint, holding the binder between them. "We've both killed before, and neither of us would hesitate to do so again if the situation warranted. But I've seen you after you've killed someone." There he stopped, and Clint watched, fascinated despite himself, as Coulson groped for words. Finally he shrugged. "And I'll do whatever is necessary to prevent it." He held up the binder.

Which didn't make any sense to Clint. He shook his head. "So...you show McGuire I'm too valuable to the Avengers?"

"To risk on a job that any good sniper could accomplish. Yes," Coulson nodded. "He doesn't need the best. We do."

At that, Clint looked away. "Clearly you don't," he found himself saying, knowing it was childish even as he said it out loud. But he caught sight of the binder in Coulson's hands. There had been dozens of missions where Coulson had argued that very fact -- thoroughly and with details and stats to back his claims up that had Hawkeye been on a mission things would have gone better.

Not to mention a hundred pages showing all of the things he had done. All the facts in black and white, numbers and dates and details lined up until it was impossible to disbelieve them. He swallowed, feeling the lump in his throat and something in his chest, squeezing tightly. He'd known -- wanted so badly to believe that he'd done some good here and there, that he'd made a difference. And here was Coulson showing him that not only had he made a difference, but that someone had noticed.

"Why did you do this?" Clint asked, hand splayed on the top of the binder. His fingers were close enough to Coulson's that all he had to do was exhale and they would touch. "Why would you go to so much trouble?"

The reports spanned the last three years. The first page of Coulson's analysis was dated over two years ago, which meant none of this had been for him. Coulson had started fighting McGuire for Clint that long ago, and Clint had never had any idea.

"What does it matter if I go kill someone?" Clint swallowed again, because he knew, but he'd never talked about it, knowing that what he'd done was necessary and there was no point in getting worked up over it. It wasn't like he was the only one to kill in the name of freedom and safety and good guys everywhere -- and if Clint had also done the same when he'd been on the other side, well, he'd thought the chance to earn his forgiveness was implicit when Fury signed him on and told him to hit the training range.

But Coulson was staring at him again, and Clint had a feeling that he'd missed something. Then Coulson said, "Because I don't like the look in your eyes when you come home."

Which didn't make any sense at all, though when Coulson grabbed his shirt and pulled him forward, Clint realised it did. It didn't take him long to kiss back, and when Coulson -- Phil reached one hand up to cup his face and leaned back, Clint knew he was blushing.

"You could have just asked me to dinner," Clint said, tapping the binder lightly.

"You've never shown an inclination to--" Coulson faltered. "To say yes," he finished, his steady, official tone wavering and giving way to something decidedly more fragile.

"Yeah, well... Girls are easier. And you might not have noticed, but I have some trouble with male authority figures. I don't trust them." He stopped there, no sure what Phil had ever learned about Clint's past, and not willing to dredge up all his old ghosts right then. Every man he'd ever known had betrayed him, from his father and brother to his mentors. He wasn't consciously expecting Fury or Captain Rogers to do so, but Clint knew himself well enough that he probably was.

Phil was looking at him, like he understood. Maybe he had read Clint's files. Clint didn't know, didn't feel like asking. He'd had a hell of a day and the emotional roller coaster didn't seem to be letting up. He did look at Phil, though, steadily as he could to let the man know that, if nothing else, he wasn't going to punch the guy in the jaw.

Phil just nodded easily, and, Clint noted, didn't let go of Clint's shirt. "So will it be all right if I kiss you again?"

At that, Clint had to smirk. "I think Natasha will be sorely disappointed if you don't. She's still listening in at the adjoining door."

There was a muffled thump against the door, and Natasha yelled, "No, I'm not!"

Clint just grinned, and when Phil pulled him close again, he went with it. A cheap motel on the outskirts of Baltimore wasn't where he thought he'd be when he'd woken up that morning. Being kissed and pushed backwards onto a bed was closer to his usual aspirations, though he wouldn't have predicted his partner would be Phil Coulson.

He honestly had no idea what was going to happen tomorrow. He had no idea if, as a traitorous voice in the back of his mind suggested, this was a clever ploy to convince him to stay. Would Coulson sacrifice his virtue for him? Clint didn't know. Didn't really think he mattered that much to Fury, or if Phil had his own agenda he needed Clint around for.

Was besting McGuire worth seducing Clint? For all he knew, maybe it was.

But his bike was still outside, and there was no reason to think he couldn't up and leave again, someday, if he needed to. For now he let himself be pressed back against the mattress and slowly undressed by someone who apparently thought he was important enough...for something, even if Clint didn't really know what that something was.

It didn't matter whether or not Clint ever had such inclinations. It didn't matter if Clint had or had not kissed a man or wanted to have sex with one, because the look in Phil's eyes and the touch of his hands was making that tight feeling in his chest and the leaden feeling in his stomach start to fade away. And when Phil leaned down on top of him, and his mouth touched Clint's, Clint thought that having someone want him like this, touch him and want him and tell him he mattered, was enough to make him say yes, every single time.