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At the Heart of It

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Nick's office was dimly lit, no natural light visible through the shielded windows. He rarely even noticed its absence anymore. There was also something else he wished he could leave unnoticed...Coulson. He'd entered the office after a perfunctory knock and stopped in front of Nick's desk, ignoring the chairs placed there. Coulson looked composed, nothing out of place, his arms relaxed by his side. But Nick knew it was classic Coulson dissembling; this mattered to him. Nick fully raised his gaze from his paperwork and gave his begrudging attention to Coulson.

Coulson responded to Nick's unspoken signal and spoke, "Why? I've asked you before, and I'm asking you again. Don't give me the run around. Just tell me why. That's all I want to know and I don't think it's too much to ask. Why go to all that trouble to bring me back? I understand the secrecy, as much as I don't like it. But I don't understand the rationale."

Nick was impressed with how level Coulson kept his voice. No hint of strain or clue as to the true import of what he was asking. Nick had known this was coming for a while and still hadn't decided how to handle it. If it was just him affected... but it wasn't, so he couldn't just say fuck it all and let the chips fall wherever the hell they wanted.

Nick sighed. He was going to have to address this now. Hell, he'd never expected to be able to push it off for this long. Coulson's response to this whole fucking fiasco had surprised and disappointed Nick. Surprised him due to the length of time it took Coulson to demand answers and disappointed Nick because Coulson's questions had never been about anyone other than himself. It was as if everything that came before his resurrection no longer held any meaning to Coulson, or maybe it was just that it never had.

Nick leant back in his chair, tossed his pen onto his desk, and put thoughts to words. "Are you sure you want to know? There are things you've left behind for your new life, maybe they should stay that way." A vision of pained eyes flashed in his thoughts followed by a more recent memory of a relaxed smile. For a moment, Nick wondered why he was keeping this secret, or, rather, for whom? Was it for Coulson or for Nick?

Coulson straightened in response to the questions, tension pulling his body taut. "What is that supposed to mean?" Coulson shook his head. "You know what, I don't care. I'm not here to play games. I've asked you the only question that matters to me and I'd like a direct answer now." Coulson paused and then added, "please."

The tenor of Coulson's response rankled, more a highhanded demand than a request. Nick never reacted well to that type of attitude. The substance of the demand annoyed him as well. Once again, Coulson was acting as though no one else had been affected by what happened when Loki attacked. For all that Nick had referred to Coulson as his good eye, Coulson was remarkably blind at times.

Nick held in a sigh and admitted that wasn't a fair assessment. It had nothing to do with variable instances and everything to do with one man. There were few people Nick trusted more than Coulson, but Nick wasn't sure he could trust Coulson with this, as the past had so aptly demonstrated.

Nick knew all his people. He knew their abilities, their histories, their personalities, their weaknesses. It was his job, part of his daily threat assessment. SHIELD protected the larger world and Nick protected SHIELD. The potential dangers were not just external threats but, oft times and more importantly, internal. The level of information held by his top agents and handlers mandated that Nick know them, know what they thought, what they were doing, feeling, when they might be vulnerable and why.

He'd known Coulson for a long time, there were few people Nick would rather have at his back or in a tight spot. Coulson was also the best handler SHIELD had ever seen, despite his more recent rocky performance. But no matter how skilled he was, there had always been one mess that Nick had to clean up for Coulson time and time again.

Barton.

Everywhere in SHIELD was monitored and Nick had lost track of the surveillance footage he'd modified for Barton... for Clint. There was a short list of people that Nick thought of on a first name basis, even if it was just in the privacy of his head. Phil had been on that list once, but over the years of dealing with Clint, with the fallout from Phil's blindness, he had become "Coulson" even in Nick’s thoughts. Sometimes he missed it, the closeness he used to feel with Phil, that Nick no longer did with Coulson.

Nick knew Coulson had recognized the sea change but he'd never mentioned it, just stood a bit straighter, his face a bit more bland whenever he talked to Nick. He'd always figured that Coulson attributed it to the change within SHIELD's authority structure and the chain of command, but sometimes, he wondered. It was doubts like that which led to the change in the first place. He hated to think that Coulson had known all along, known and done nothing. But it was hard for him to believe that Coulson hadn't known, hard to believe that Clint really was Coulson's only blind spot, when Nick knew damn well how observant Coulson was, how nothing got missed.

Nick didn't remember the first time or the third time or the thirtieth; they all blended together. A collage of despair and heartache, formed from snapshots of tired eyes and shaking hands, of missed targets and anguished questions that he'd never had an answer for. Clint's past had always been a minefield, his psyche riddled with self doubt and his memory edged with horrors. It was why Fury had paid extra close attention to Clint at first. For all of his easy smiles and charming remarks, Clint was the very definition of the walking wounded, bleeding out but determined to soldier on.

It was the determination that first got under Nick's skin, the reason why all those years ago he had modified the first set of video feeds and assigned the rest to Director Review. He released what surveillance footage wouldn't compromise Clint and classified the rest. He'd been doing it for years, but, recently, it was less often, the timing more sporadic, less predictable. He liked to think that Clint was finally moving on. Not healing, Nick was too realistic to believe that would ever happen. But Clint's emotional bleeding had slowed, his wounds somewhat staunched, and Nick would be damned before he let Coulson's callous unconcern rip them open again.

Nick had been quiet too long and Coulson was starting to lose some of his vaunted composure. "I remember seeing you there, watching as I screamed and begged. You owe me an explanation," Coulson said.

Nick raised one eyebrow in response to Coulson's demand, expression cool even as behind the desk his left hand clenched into a fist so hard his knuckles whitened. Nick had to force himself to breathe calmly. What about everything that Coulson owed to Clint? Coulson had walked away without a second thought, never looking back, never checking to see whether he was needed after Loki mindfucked Clint.

"I owe you an explanation? You sure about that?" Nick knew he had failed to keep some of his anger from leaking through his words.

Coulson looked taken aback at the slight sneer that Nick couldn't quite keep out of his voice. "Nick?" he questioned, voice more concerned now, eyes evaluating.

"You think I wanted this? You think I did this for me?" Nick's voice turned arctic, "I would have left you dead." He watched as Coulson took a sharp breath, like a response to a punch in the gut. Nick couldn't help but feel a moment of satisfaction, no matter how petty. "I made a promise." Something Nick rarely did, hell, he could count the number with one finger.

Coulson looked puzzled, "I never asked..."

Nick cut Coulson off before he got any further, "It wasn't to you." The finality in his voice would tell Coulson that was all the information he was going to get. And it was. Nick was done with this conversation. Coulson didn't deserve to know more. Didn't deserve to know how vital his survival was to Clint's well being. Coulson wasn't owed Clint's truths.

Nick looked down at his desk and tapped his tablet a few times. "Dismissed," he said in as disinterested a voice as he could manage. He watched as Coulson stayed still for a moment, considering his options, before he quietly turned and headed to the door. Once there, Coulson paused for a moment, head slightly bent.

"How is he?" Coulson asked, voice soft with a tone Nick didn't recognize.

And Nick had his answer.

Coulson had known all along. Known and continued to mess with Clint's emotions, or known and never cared enough to fix it. For a moment, the anger almost overwhelmed Nick, then, he was caught off guard by a sharp tug of loss. Loss for his friend Phil, who must have truly died at some point when Nick wasn't looking. His eyes hardened, "It was the first and only time he asked me for something, and I don't know why he bothered. He is no longer your concern. Now, get out."

Coulson went, the door quietly shutting after him. Nick dropped his head into his hands and mourned for a friend he now knew no longer existed. He also grieved for his sharp-eyed, broken Hawk who would continue to bleed until the day he had nothing more to give.

A soft chime from his phone broke his reverie and reminded him of an upcoming meeting. He may not be able to save the individuals he wanted to, but he'd be damned if he let the world burn on his watch. Nick got up and walked out the door, once more entering the fray. And if the fleeting thought of his own wounds passed through his mind, he buried it automatically and carried on with the job.

Chapter Text

Phil walked away from Nick's office, his footsteps slow and heavy. It wasn't sadness or anger that weighed him down. It was the maelstrom of his thoughts. He was focused on compiling facts, sorting information, evaluating the past.

Nick's reaction.... Phil paused. After that confrontation maybe he'd better get used to referring to his old friend as Fury, even in his thoughts. Somehow, Phil didn't think he was still on the very short list of people Fury was willing to allow to use his first name in private. To be honest, Phil knew he hadn't been for quite some time. He'd never known just what caused Fury's withdrawal, the distance in their friendship that had seemed to spring up overnight.

It had always bothered Phil. He'd never had many friends, but Nick had been one. They'd bled on and with each other, killed for one another, been there for each other through the emotional shitstorms all soldiers and operatives have to learn to weather and move past. Nick had been the only solid anchor in Phil's life for years, until suddenly, he wasn't.

A brief flash of "Anchors Aweigh" sounded through Phil's mind and a twisted grimace crossed his face. His mind had become a strange place at times, a fact for which he thoroughly blamed Barton. After all, it was Barton's voice Phil heard singing that damn song. Barton had hummed it off and on throughout the Op at Point Loma. It got to the point that Phil had hesitated to put his earpiece in every morning, especially since the only lyric Barton knew was, "Roll out the TNT, anchors aweigh." A fact Phil still found oddly fitting for Barton.

Phil wasn't paying any attention to where he was walking, feet on autopilot while he was caught up in his thoughts and memories. It was the scent that first dragged him back to the present. The slightly rank smell of sweat and gun oil, not quite stale, not quite fresh. He nodded. It was as good a place as any, and he was much less likely to be interrupted here than on the Bus.

Phil entered one of the smaller training rooms and coded the door to privacy status, but he didn't grab ear protection or ammo. He wasn't in the mood for shooting, he was still trying to straighten out his thoughts. Leaning against the wall, he surveyed the area but it was thoughts of Barton again that filled his mind.

Barton and Fury.

Phil reached up to loosen his tie, thoughts of the two of them together always made him feel as if he were strangling. The reason for that phenomenon was one Phil deliberately did not think about. Phil had worked so hard to stay distanced from that relationship, to not let on that he even knew it existed. He was fairly sure that he was the only one who did know, other than the two men involved.

Giving credit where due, Phil was still incredibly impressed with how well they'd managed to keep it hidden when surrounded by people whose job it was to ferret out secrets for a living. He was even certain that Natasha didn't know, a fact which always led Phil to be very secure in Barton's abilities to go undercover. If Barton could hide something like a relationship with Fury on a day in and day out basis, well, then, there was nothing to worry about when it came to Barton pretending to be someone he wasn't when out on a mission. Although, Phil did worry, he always had when it came to Barton.

From the first, there was something about Barton that triggered Phil’s protective instincts. Looking at the man, he was one of the last to seem like he would need any protection. Barton's body was a honed weapon, capable of striking at a moment's notice from far or near, bow in hand or not. Barton was sneaky, underhanded, and believed wholeheartedly that there was no such thing as an unfair advantage. A stance Phil also wholeheartedly agreed with. If it brought his agents home safe, nothing was out of bounds. But, despite Barton's physical prowess, his unequaled skills as a sniper, his "devil may care but I don't" attitude, Phil had always wanted to shelter Barton.

Early on, that desire had pushed Phil to defend Barton when other agents got mouthy. It hadn't taken long before the message was received: fuck with Barton, talk trash about Barton, and see how fast you got the shittiest assignment available. Phil had always believed that the best threats weren't made with words, but examples.

Before Barton had established himself as a reliable asset, Phil had repeatedly put his reputation on the line to back Barton's decisions in the field. On one memorable occasion, Phil even had to promise one favor, to be determined later, to keep Barton's conduct from being officially reported. That night still made Phil wince, and the fact that he owed another handler a favor that big still filled him with trepidation. But Barton had needed Phil’s protection, so Phil had provided it.

Thinking about that favor he still owed left Phil feeling antsy. Finding it hard to stand still, he started moving, circling from the range area over to the training mats. Maybe he would spend some time punching out his frustration. No. He stopped in the middle of reaching for the gloves. He needed to figure this out first. Fury had promised Barton, something Fury rarely, if ever, did. Phil could understand it though. Barton had a way of making you worry about him, of making you want to take care of him.

Phil snorted. Okay, so maybe that was just him. There were plenty of other agents at SHIELD that seemed to have no problem using and then ignoring Barton. Phil had never understood how anyone could work with Barton and walk away not caring about the man.

After all, it had been concern over Barton that had led Phil to discover Barton's relationship with Fury. The first indicators were after an early mission had gone bad. Faulty intel and religious zealotry had led to a number of innocents being killed while Barton and the other agent involved could do nothing but watch. Phil had debriefed Agent Fredricks first, as Phil wanted to take his time with Barton's debrief, to ensure Barton was okay with what had happened. But Fredricks had a bad reaction to the mission in the middle of his debrief, apparently one of the children killed had resembled his sister.

Even now, thoughts of the other man's breakdown made Phil sigh in exhaustion. It had taken Phil hours to calm the young agent down and, then, even longer waiting for a SHIELD psychologist to make it to base and take Fredricks off Phil's hands. SHIELD's policy of 24 hour staffing of the psych department was born of that fiasco. Even better, afterward, Phil was able to get a moratorium on junior agents being assigned to him. Phil chuckled self deprecatingly. Now, half the assigned agents on the Bus were juniors.

Phil had often wondered about that night, though. About Barton, and about what might have happened to their relationship if Phil had managed meet with Barton as planned. Unfortunately, Phil hadn’t been able to seek out Barton until hours after Phil had originally wanted to and, by then, it was too late. Barton had been crashed out sleeping after logging a couple of hours at the archery range.

Phil had been concerned, so he'd decided to pull the surveillance footage from the range. Only, there wasn't any. At least, at first there wasn't, then, suddenly, the footage was available. If he'd checked one minute later, he would never have known about the changes. However, Phil saw the modification happen and knew only one person who had the right to do that, Fury. The action had concerned Phil as it seemed out of character. What had Fury deemed compromising about the footage and why did he care? He wasn't usually involved enough with individual agents to pay any attention to them or their activities, much less take the time to edit surveillance footage on their behalf.

Needing more information, Phil had started looking for patterns. He'd found them. It wasn't every time Barton used the range to train, only after particularly brutal missions or times when Barton seemed twisted up emotionally. It was in those instances that the footage of Barton at the range was modified or classified to director access only. It took a few years before Phil discovered the full explanation.

It was after the complete clusterfuck of a mission in Sarajevo. Phil had known Barton would go to the range the first chance he got. Phil had been right, and he was only a few minutes behind Barton. Phil had wanted to reiterate to Barton that it wasn't his fault the mission had gone south, he'd gone above and beyond, and he was the only reason some of those agents made it home walking and not in a bag.

But, as Phil came around the corner, he saw Fury override the lock and enter the range. Phil had waited, but after 45 minutes it was obvious. Fury and Barton were in a relationship. SHIELD's Director had no reason to be in the training room with an agent for that length of time, but, apparently, Nick did.

Even now, remembering that moment of discovery made pain twist in Phil’s chest and his stomach drop, just as it had back then. Now, like then, Phil forced himself to rein in his emotions. He’d known Barton needed someone and Fury, despite popular opinion and appearances to the contrary, could be gentle when needed. Barton had made his choice and if he wanted to seek emotional and psychological support from Fury, Phil had vowed not to interfere. He was still keeping that vow, no matter how much it pained him at times.

It wasn't always easy. There were missions where Phil slipped up and lost his distance from his agent. He would then have to remind himself not to tread on Fury's territory and to back off. Barton already had someone to help him handle the emotional side of bad missions or even just normal post mission decompression.

Phil stopped his pacing, gazing through the wall as if he could see into Fury's office from the training room. Fury had been seriously pissed off tonight. It had been years since Phil had seen Fury genuinely react with anger, muted though it was. The question Phil needed answered was, "Why?" Ironically, the very question he'd walked into the office to get an answer for. Like most of life, especially in SHIELD, getting an answer to one question rarely provided a complete picture of the situation or led to anything but more questions.

Phil definitely knew better than to confront Fury again for answers tonight. He winced, just imagining how a second confrontation would be resolved. He drummed the back of his heel against the wall in frustration. He knew Nick, no matter how far apart they'd grown over the last years, he knew Nick in a way few others did. There was a very short list of reasons for him to be upset at Phil. It didn't have anything to do with the new team. Honestly, none of them were important enough to matter to Nick. The slight tinge of bitterness in some of the comments had sounded old. So, it probably wasn't the Avengers. That left Phil’s role as handler for Barton as the most likely possibility.

Phil reached up and rubbed at his temples. He felt like he was missing something obvious, the critical fact upon which the entire analysis depended. He needed to work this out, because Barton was the only person Phil could think of who would have the power to get Nick Fury to make a promise, much less one of this magnitude. What exactly had Fury promised and why had Barton asked?

Phil wasn't deluding himself; he knew he was important to Barton. He was the SHIELD representative that brought Barton in and the only handler that had managed to successfully work with Barton on a long-term basis. They were close, they'd had to be in order to pull off many of the missions they'd been assigned. Phil knew he was the first handler to actually listen to Barton and believe in his assessment of his capabilities. If Barton said he could make the shot, Phil trusted the judgment.

A memory flashed in his mind, a glimpse of hard, jaded eyes gone soft with wonder and something else, something more ephemeral that had been gone all too quickly. Phil remembered that moment, the visible impact his words had when he had informed Barton that Phil trusted Barton's judgment. In retrospect, it was easy to see how much that statement had meant to Barton. At the time, Phil had just been speaking the truth, so he hadn't paid much attention to the impact of the words. Maybe he should have.

Phil knew Barton's history. He knew of the lack of concern for a child's health and welfare. He knew of the punishing fists and the vitriolic hatred that was spewed at ears too young to understand. He knew of the men who destroyed a child’s innocence. He knew of the betrayals and the abandonment.

Phil also knew of the child that refused to be ignorant, going to the library despite being embarrassed by his torn and ragged clothes. He knew of the teenager who turned away from evil, who chose the more difficult path, despite the pain and loss it brought. He knew of the man who lived by an uncompromising code, who would do anything he could to make it better, no matter whether "it" was an op or a war torn village or a child in need. Phil knew of the man who wanted the world to be a better place for others than it had ever been for him.

Of course he knew Barton. Knew him, admired him, felt about him in ways a handler should never feel about their asset, especially when that asset was already in a relationship with the agency's director. But, maybe, Phil hadn't known Barton quite as well as he thought if Barton was the key to understanding the "why" of Phil’s resurrection and Fury's anger.

Phil slid down the wall and sat on the stained training mat. He put his elbows on his bent knees and tilted his head forward to rest on his hands. He was tired, beyond tired. All he wanted were answers. Yet all he kept finding were more questions, more puzzles. All the time he'd worked with Barton, the assassination missions, the complex ops, the downtime in safe houses, Phil had thought he knew what was going on in Barton's head. Phil liked to think they had been friends. They'd shared food, blankets, and, on one memorable occasion, clothes. They'd bled on and with each other, held pressure on one another's wounds and demanded that the other injured man live.

"Damn it, just hold on, don't do this to me," Phil could hear Barton's voice in his head, from the mission in Bolivia. Phil had remembered the worry, the frantic concern as Barton tried to stop Phil’s bleeding. But, now, upon reflection, Phil could hear more than that. He could hear the barely concealed panic, the desperation, the pleading. A sense of hopeless loss evident in Barton's eyes and shaking hands as their extraction was delayed, and Barton just couldn't get Phil to stop bleeding. He remembered Barton's unmitigated relief when he had heard the helicopter and the medics had entered their room.

For weeks after that, Barton had ghosted by wherever Phil was, the infirmary, the PT room, his office. Even when he couldn't see Barton, Phil could still feel the steady gaze on him. And then, months after, once Phil was finally at full health, the invitation to dinner Barton had offered so diffidently. Phil had turned Barton down, of course. Sure the invitation was due to guilt or that Barton was just trying to be nice in the wake of Phil's return to work after his near death experience. Phil had been too worn, too burdened by his own feelings to want to sit through dinner with a man he couldn't have.

He'd pulled away from Barton after that, trying to reestablish a proper emotional distance. That was something he'd done a lot of through the years with Barton. Phil would get too close, too friendly, the desire would get too strong, so, he would pull back. Only to repeat the cycle again. Phil had never stopped to think about how his actions would have looked to Barton. Phil suddenly sat up straight. He was almost there, he could feel it, like the tingle he got on his tongue when that last bit of intel fell into place.

Phil just needed to see from Barton's perspective.

Barton, who hid it well, but never expected anyone to actually like him. Barton, who thought of himself as a tool to be used and then put away, but had always desperately wanted to be something more, to mean something more to someone. Barton, who had spent most of his life being taught never to ask for anything for himself.

Barton, who had time and again lowered his walls and let Phil in, telling him of funny anecdotes from the circus, or about some of the early freelance missions that went wrong in the most comical ways. Barton, who always tried to make Phil smile. Barton, who never looked surprised when Phil pulled back, just smiled wryly and kept his distance for a while. Barton, who never asked for anything outside of work, but had asked Phil to dinner.

That was the key: what was important enough to Barton for him to actually ask for it? The answer was the linchpin. It would resolve Phil’s questions, let him finally know why he’d been resurrected. As far as Phil knew, there were only two times Barton had requested something completely personal and unrelated to work: the invitation to dinner Barton had offered to Phil, and Barton’s request that Fury make a promise... a promise to save Phil.

Oh, God, what had he done?

Phil covered his mouth, he felt sick. He could see it now, he could see it all now. How had he been so wrong?

He frantically reviewed his memories, this time searching for something, anything to show him the pattern he was now seeing was wrong. That he hadn't just spent years rejecting the man he loved. But he could find nothing. Oh, God. Barton... Clint. Phil’s gorge rose and he had to take deep breaths to restrain his nausea. The suffering he must have caused Clint.

Clint, who had already been damaged by people who should have loved him. Now, he’d been damaged by someone who did love him. Phil didn’t know which was worse. How many times had Clint smiled while inside he despaired? How many times had Phil rejected Clint's love without even knowing he had done so? How long had Phil been unwittingly tormenting Clint, offering him exactly what he wanted and then yanking it back out of reach? Phil hadn’t even contacted Clint since Fury had brought Phil back, and Clint had to know. Fury would have told him. What must Clint have thought?

Phil could feel anguish twisting through his body. He already knew the answer to that question. Clint would have thought that Phil was just like everyone else, that he'd used Clint until he was no longer needed and then walked away. Phil's actions had simply reaffirmed a truth to Clint, one with which he was already intimately familiar: Clint wasn’t worth staying for.

Phil pushed a hand against his stomach trying to stop the pain. Phil had always wanted to bring hope to Clint, to show him he was worth more than just his skill with a weapon. Phil's breath caught in dismay. He'd done the exact opposite.

Phil didn't even need to imagine what Clint's face would have looked like when a day, a week, a month, had passed, and Phil hadn't bothered to contact Clint. Thoughts of Phil would have made Clint's mouth twist with resignation, too long felt to even be bitter anymore, and his eyes would have been blank, hiding away that small part that still thought life could be different for him. Phil had seen Clint look like that before, every time Phil pushed him away. Phil just hadn’t known what it meant. He almost wished he still didn’t.

There was a lump in Phil's throat that he couldn't seem to swallow past. Clint had been in love with Phil. He'd been the one Clint had wanted all this time. Phil's actions could be nothing but reprehensible, unforgivable. Except, it was Clint.

Clint, who must have already forgiven Phil's countless, thoughtless hurts. The very idea that Clint had done so because he'd never thought he deserved anything more twisted and writhed in Phil's chest. There would be no question of forgiveness in Clint's mind because he wouldn't see Phil’s actions as wrong. Phil drew his knees closer and hunched over, as if he could hide from this truth.

From Clint's perspective, there was only one explanation for Phil's withdrawals from Clint. Clint had done something wrong. Or, worse, he was something wrong, something Phil wanted to get away from. Clint's propensity for self-blame would have made it easy to believe he was at fault. Clint would never have attributed Phil's actions to Phil's mistaken belief that Clint and Nick were in a relationship. Why would he? There had been no way for Clint to know that what had looked like rejection, wasn't.

Phil's chest hurt, a physical ache that settled into his tissues, his bones. How much damage had Phil done over the years? How long had he tormented Clint? How much pain had Phil added to what Clint already carried?

Phil had to know. He had to discover the extent to which he'd hurt Clint. He had to apologize. He had to fix it, he had to find Clint, he had to tell him, he had to....

Stop. He needed to stop.

Phil forced a calm he didn't feel. Getting overwrought wouldn't help. He slowed his thoughts and told himself to focus. Focus on Clint. Focus on a solution. View it like a mission. Phil could do that. He could assess, analyze and evaluate. Apply his well earned skills to this situation. Find a solution.

What's the objective?
Clint. To be loved by, to be forgiven by, to be with, to love openly.

What's the optimum strategy to achieve that objective?
Unknown at this juncture.

Why is designing an optimum strategy currently unfeasible?
Lack of intel.

Where can intel be sourced?
Nick Fury.

The familiar logic chain helped soothe Phil. If he could conceptualize this as a mission, he had a better chance of keeping his emotions at bay. Phil held out little hope that he'd actually be able to retain any level of objectivity when it came to Clint. But, for now, clear thinking was essential, because the first step to a successful execution of this mission was Fury. Fury was the only place, the only person, Phil could approach for information. He dare not approach Clint, not until Phil was sure that his reappearance in Clint's life wasn’t going to cause him more pain. To gain that certainty, Phil needed Fury.

Clint may not have been in love with Fury, but they definitely had a close relationship. Fury was protective of Clint, especially in regards to Phil. There was a high probability that Fury was aware of Clint's feelings and would know his current condition, both in general and in regards to Phil specifically. To gain the necessary intel, he had to confront Fury again and it had to be now. Phil grimaced. He was going to have to beard the lion in his den, which might not be as euphemistic as Phil wished; Fury could be fierce and had definitely been known to roar when pissed off.

Phil thought of the cold anger directed at him earlier and knew confronting Fury again today risked the occurrence of physical violence. It was a risk Phil had to take. He needed information, and Fury was his only source. Phil would need to explain the rationale for his past actions and attitudes toward Clint. There was also a chance that, if the confrontation went well, Phil and Nick could reclaim a part of their friendship.

Although, Phil wasn’t sure if Nick, if Fury, would care to. Phil had deliberately ignored the vulnerability that he knew was part of Clint, choosing instead to protect his own heart. Fury was not known as a forgiving man, and he especially disliked self serving motivations. In retrospect, Phil’s actions were easily seen as inexcusably selfish.

Even if Clint had been with Fury, Phil should never have treated his friendship with Clint as disposable. Phil never should have pushed Clint away only to get close to him again later. Phil had been trying to protect himself, yes. But what kind of friend would have acted the way he did? What did it say about him, as a person, that he’d always put his own feelings first while claiming to love Clint?

Comprehension flashed through Phil and guilt hit him like a sledgehammer, tearing away any composure he had left. It hadn’t only been the pain from unrequited love Phil had been avoiding. No, he’d also been worried that other people would recognize the depth of his feelings for Clint. Phil hadn’t wanted to appear weak, hadn’t wanted anything to threaten his outward equanimity.

He’d worked hard to establish his image of control, poise, and authority. He’d never wanted the other SHIELD agents to see him as an object of pity or ridicule; simply a foolish middle-aged man pining after an obviously unobtainable love. Clint had meant less to Phil than his reputation.

The realization of the depth of his cowardice ripped at Phil’s guts. Disappointment and self disgust were thick on his tongue. Phil had thought he was a better man than that; he wasn’t. The truth was abhorrent, anathema, but so very evident now. He could not deny it. He wouldn’t deny it. To do so would compound the damage he had done and he would not do that.

Never again. Never again would Clint suffer because of Phil’s pride. He would humble himself in full view of all of SHIELD if it would save Clint even an iota of pain. Phil didn’t care if he destroyed the image he had spent years cultivating. It was now a bitter fruit that he wished he had never eaten.

From now on, Phil was going to be the man he had thought he actually was; a man who relied on his own inner strength, not the opinions of others. Phil might have a chance to mend his relationship with Clint, if Phil became the kind of man who was worthy of Clint’s affections. There was nothing he wouldn’t do to try and make this right, including confronting Fury again. Phil would get on his knees and beg if he had to. Determination filled him, he would pay whatever cost Fury demanded.

Phil stood, his body stiff and sore from holding one position for so long. He hadn’t realized how long he’d been sitting. His thoughts had held him captive and blinded him to all else. Phil checked his phone. Three missed calls. He’d never even heard it ring. None of the calls were from his team, so Phil dismissed them as unimportant. Nothing could pull him away from his current, self-assigned mission, nothing except the people he was directly responsible for. No matter how much Phil would want it to be otherwise, he would’ve had to leave if his team needed him. Phil swallowed hard. The choice might have all but killed him. His thankfulness for May and her steely competence knew no bounds.

Phil pushed his elbows behind his body and placed his palms on his lower back. As he stretched forward, his back gave a loud pop. He continued stretching for a few moments, feeling the give of the training mat under his feet. He tilted his head to the right, then the left, and sighed in satisfaction when he heard the distinctive cracking sound and felt the gases release from his vertebrae. He really was too old to sit on the ground or hold one position for that length of time. One more stretch, then Phil took a moment to adjust his sleeves. He half smiled as he walked to the door. At least he was ready now if his confrontation with Fury turned violent.

The walk back to Fury's office felt long. Phil was wrung out from all his emotions. He felt hollow. The emptiness of the halls and surrounding offices, used mostly by SHIELD’s day staff, seemed fitting. The quiet lent an air of unreality to the environment. Phil felt almost comforted by the sense of disconnect it fostered. There was so much at stake in the coming confrontation. Phil couldn’t fail, but he had to go in without a plan. He hated that.

Yet, he couldn’t determine the best way to play Fury to get the necessary intel. At least, not until Fury reacted to Phil's presence. Until that moment, any attempt at preparation would be ineffectual. Phil was going to have to improvise. He stopped in front of Fury’s door and took a deep breath. On his exhale, he raised his hand and knocked. Time to see the lion and try not to get eaten.

Chapter Text

Nick snapped out a distracted, “enter” when the knock came on his door. He was busy reviewing the notes he'd made from his last meeting, analyzing who'd said what and why, and didn’t bother to look up until he heard his office door open and close again.

Coulson stood just inside the door.

Nick reared back in disbelief, his chair rolling with the force of his surprise. Coulson actually had the balls to come back here? Just a few hours after Nick had all but thrown Coulson out? Nick would have to fix the “all but” this time and kick Coulson’s ass out the damn door, possibly the damn building.

“What the fuck do you think you are doing? Was I somehow unclear? Is ‘get out now’ too hard for you to understand? Maybe all that work on your brain made you stupid.” Nick stood up and loomed over his desk as he shot the words at Coulson.

Coulson visibly winced and shook his head. He held his hands out and open at his sides, a submissive posture to his body that screamed of conciliation. Phil spoke, his words an offering to Nick, “I was wrong. I hurt him, I hurt him so badly, didn’t I.” Despite the phrasing, it wasn’t a question but a statement.

Nick wasn’t sure where Coulson was going with this but there was only one answer, so Nick gave it, “Yes, more than you could ever know.”

He watched as Coulson slumped forward. Having the truth of his words confirmed had drained Coulson of his strength. He looked old and defeated, beaten down in a way Nick hadn’t seen before. Nick felt some of his anger fade. He leant back, assuming a slightly less threatening stance. But he wasn’t letting Coulson off the hook, no way. Time for Nick to dig in the knife and see if he’d need to twist it.

“I have to admit, I’ve never understood why. I never thought you were a cruel man but the way you’ve treated Clint over the years,” Nick sent a hard stare at Coulson. “You near destroyed that boy more times than I could patch him up. Each time was harder than the last.”

Coulson crumpled. There was no other word for it. His legs simply stopped supporting him, a marionette whose strings had been cut. Maybe Nick wouldn’t have to twist too hard.

When Coulson spoke, his voice was choked, weakened, “I thought he was with you. I was trying to keep my distance, but I kept being drawn to Clint. Then, I’d realize it and back away, try and protect myself from the pain of knowing I couldn’t have him.” Coulson's regret hung thick from the words. “I didn’t know,” Coulson struggled to speak. “I truly didn’t know. I thought…,” he broke off with a helpless shrug and just looked at Nick.

Nick was stunned. Coulson had thought Nick and Clint were in a relationship. Yeah, they were close. At one point, Nick had even entertained the idea of trying to win Clint’s affections. But Nick had known it would be a losing battle, and he never fought those. Clint loved Nick; he knew this. But it wasn’t sexual. He thought back on his public interactions with Clint. Nick could see how someone might perceive a dependence on Clint’s part, but there had never been any sexual undertones between them. It would have been a betrayal of the relationship they did have. Where the hell had Coulson gotten this idea?

“Where the hell would you get an idea like that? Our relationship has never been sexual, and there’s never been any indication otherwise. I’ve never acted inappropriately with Clint, in public or in private.” Nick paused, why the hell was he defending his relationship to Coulson? It was none of his damn business anyway.

“You were together, I saw the two of you. You can’t deny that, Nick.”

Coulson was pushing, trying to maneuver Nick into feeling like he had to explain. Nick wondered what game Coulson was playing; why was he trying to get more information about Clint? Nick wasn’t sure, but he wasn’t going to play. Not with Clint as the stakes.

Nick wasn’t Clint’s lover, but Nick was Clint’s respite, his shelter. A place Clint could always go and find comfort. A place he could come undone and know someone would put him back together again. When Nick told Clint, “I’m here for you. Rest, I’ll take care of you. You’re safe.” Nick meant it. It had taken years before Clint had accepted that, had believed the words. Nick wouldn’t betray that now. He had accepted years ago that his role was to give Clint the safety he’d never had. Even if, in recesses of his heart, Nick had grown to want more. How could he not?

Clint was strong, so strong to keep rising past everything that pushed him down. So determined to make the world better, to be better. Nick had never met anyone who tried so damn hard at everything and, when Clint finally decided you were worth his trust, he committed everything. His loyalty. His honor. His vulnerability. It was why Clint so rarely trusted, his life had taught him that making that commitment was a mistake that always ended in betrayal. Yet, somehow, Clint always found the strength to try once more. How could Nick not love a man like that?

It was that thought that pissed Nick off all over again. He had managed just fine to suppress his own desires in order to give Clint what he needed. But Coulson hadn’t done that. Oh, no, not Coulson. He'd put himself first and Clint had suffered. Nick looked down at Coulson, he looked shattered. Nick felt a surge of satisfaction. Coulson should look wrecked, like Clint had so very many times.

Nick moved around from behind his desk and perched on the side of it, facing Coulson. “You say ‘you didn’t know’ like that makes the way you treated him okay?” Nick scoffed.

Maybe Coulson needed to see, see what his selfishness had wrought. Then, he’d damn well leave Clint alone after that, Nick would ensure it. The last thing Clint needed was to be unimportant, an afterthought, which is exactly what he seemed to be to Coulson. Clint needed to finish healing as much as he could. He was still damaged from Loki and from Coulson's abandonment, but Clint was, slowly, finding some contentment with his life. Not happiness, but Nick would settle for a small measure of peace, an absence of pain, for Clint. It was more than he'd ever had.

Nick decided it was time to twist the knife a bit. “You damn well knew how vulnerable Clint was, and as soon as he’d start to make some progress, move past some of the ghosts that haunt him, you’d kick him right back down to the abyss. You don’t get to act all sorry and downtrodden now. It's way too late for apologies and regrets." Nick shot an evaluating look at Coulson. Nick could see that, despite the defeated posture, Coulson’s hands had clenched into fists at Nick’s pronouncement. Coulson didn’t want to believe it was too late. Fine, then, Nick would show Coulson, show him what he had done.

“You don’t believe me, do you? On some level you think you can make this right, find some way to fix it.” Nick shook his head in feigned sympathy. “You can’t and I’ll show you why.” Nick picked up his tablet and began tapping through file directories to open one of the classified video files.

Coulson didn’t wait silently. “It’s never too late, as long as we both breathe, it’s not too late. He needs to know, to understand…”

Nick spoke right over Coulson, the deeper timber of his voice drowning out whatever Coulson was trying to say. “He needs, or you need? You think about that question while you watch this." Nick spun his tablet around and pushed it at Coulson. “Go ahead, play it.”

The hand Coulson reached out was trembling, but he tapped the screen and watched.

~~~~~

Clint looked impossibly young to Phil. He stared at Clint's face, unlined except for the creases by his eyes from squinting into the sun. Phil could see the slight roundness to Clint's jaw, the smooth skin with only a light five o'clock shadow. He'd forgotten how young Clint had been when he joined SHIELD. It was easy to forget. Clint had been so weary, so run down, that most people had been fooled into thinking he was older. Phil had been no exception. Based on Clint's youthful appearance, the video was probably from sometime during the first five years of Clint's tenure with SHIELD.

Clint was in the dedicated archery range. He was standing at the far line, targets as small as possible, shooting his bow so fast his arm blurred. It was obvious from the empty quivers that Clint had been there for quite awhile. He was still in his Tac uniform, grit from the mission clinging to it in places. There was an ugly bruise down the right side of his face. Despite the pain it must be causing him, Clint’s jaw was locked, teeth clenched. His head never moved, not even a twitch, as he continued his routine: nock, draw, release.

Phil could already tell this was going to be bad. The preternatural stillness of Clint’s body wasn’t the same as his sniper mode. No, this was something entirely different. Clint’s stillness heralded the fragility of his control.

Clint’s arm began to minutely tremble, his right leg slightly twitched as he struggled to maintain his focus. His control was cracking. His next shot was slightly off target, not by enough for Phil to see from the video. No, it was Clint’s reaction that told Phil all he needed to know. The sudden tightness around Clint’s eyes, the flexing of his jaw muscle, the way he locked his right knee, the whitening knuckles. Those were all the indicators Phil needed.

Clint’s next 5 shots were visibly off center. Phil had never seen Clint actually miss. Sure, he’d seen Clint unhappy with his placement, but never honestly off target. Phil was rocked to his core. He’d seen Clint make shots while jumping off buildings, while bleeding out and blinded by pain, in high winds with no cover while under enemy fire. What Phil had never seen before today was Clint miss. Phil saw that what had once been a minute tremble in Clint's arms had turned into actual, visible, shaking. But Clint just kept shooting as if he didn’t know how to stop, as if his world would fall apart, as if he would fall apart, if he ceased his ritual movements.

The range door slid open and the Director walked in. And it was the Director, not Nick, who entered the room. He turned, punched the code to lock down the room and walked over to the firing line, command in every line of his body, in every step. The Director stopped just shy of Clint and watched for a moment. Watched the shaking arms, watched the failed shots, watched a man on the verge of breaking.

“That’s enough, Agent Barton. Time to stop shooting.” The statements echoed in the room, firm and controlled. Clint responded by shaking his head ‘no’ and continued his repetition: nock, draw, release, miss. His whole body was shaking now, not just his arms.

“That wasn’t a request, Agent Barton. Stop shooting.” The order was clear and, this time, Clint complied but maintained his stance.

Phil watched as the Director persona fell from Nick, like the coat he had just dropped on the floor. Nick reached out, gently laying a hand on Clint's right arm. The shaking grew more pronounced. “Easy, Clint, you know I’m not going to take it away. It’s just time for you to stop shooting.” Nick pushed lightly down on Clint’s arm, and he lowered both in response. As soon as his arms were down, Clint hung his head forward and stared at the ground.

“Now, none of that Clint, we’ve been over this. Look at me,” Nick requested, voice softer and gentler than Phil had ever heard it.

Clint shook his head in reply.

“Clint, you know you can do it, look at me. Come on, Clint,” Nick encouraged, lightly squeezing where he was still holding Clint’s arm.

Clint raised his head slowly and looked at Nick. Phil’s breath caught. Fear and despair were etched into Clint’s face and filled his eyes. He looked lost, damned.

“Oh, Hawk. It’s alright. You did nothing wrong. In fact, you did everything right. You should be proud of this mission and what you accomplished.”

Phil could tell that Nick didn’t expect the words to be believed, and they weren’t. Clint simply shook his head again, still not answering verbally.

“Come on, Hawk. You know you can talk to me. What’s going on in that head of yours? This mission was successful. No major problems or injuries, opsec was never broken, no one knows SHIELD was even involved. It went as perfectly as it could possibly go. So, what has you all twisted up?” As Nick was speaking, he ran his hand up Clint’s arm and around to the back of his neck. Once Nick’s hand was there, he slowly started to move it, just barely touching Clint’s neck, a motion obviously meant to soothe.

It was a gesture that spoke of an intimate familiarity that made Phil’s gut churn. He had to choke down the resentment that clawed its way into his throat. He’d never had a chance to touch Clint like that, never been able to comfort him as Nick was doing in the video. Whose fault was that, Phil asked himself bitterly. Stop focusing on yourself, that’s what caused this mess in the first place. Pay attention to what’s happening, see what you can learn... what you can utilize.

Phil watched as Clint finally relaxed the control he was trying to maintain over his body. Everything slumped, his bow dangled loosely from his hand, almost hitting the ground, and his shakes became so pronounced Phil was surprised Clint could still stand.

“Easy, Hawk. Come on, come sit with me.“ Nick was repeating his phasing, a well known calming mechanism. “You know I’m too old to be standing around for long, bad for my knees or so the docs keep telling me.” It was a gentle tease, clearly meant to break through and draw a reaction from Clint. It partly failed, as Clint did not respond, but he did let Nick use the hand on the back of Clint’s neck to guide him down to the floor. The two of them sat not quite next to each other. Nick had positioned himself just slightly behind Clint, not forcing him to look at Nick nor increasing Clint’s vulnerability by putting his face in full view.

Phil wondered how many times prior to this Nick had been here. For him to already know what Clint would accept, to know where his boundaries were. To have this much of a routine. For there was a pattern to Nick’s actions, they were familiar and unsurprising to either man.

Now that they were sitting, Nick reached over and stroked his thumb on the back of Clint’s neck, continuing the attempt to provide comfort through touch. “Tell me, Hawk," Nick murmured, leaning in and almost whispering the words in Clint’s ear.

Clint made a wounded noise. Not a cry, but the sound wrenched Phil’s heart. “He did it again,” Clint’s voice was barely audible and he stared at the ground as he answered Nick. “I must have done something wrong. I always do something wrong, screw something up. I’m no good, not worth the time it takes to look at me.” The words, for all their softness, were dispassionate. Stated as though long accepted as fact by the one who uttered them. Stated as though they were simply a repeat of words heard countless times.

Phil had known, of course he had known, had bad Clint's childhood had been. But to hear this, to hear Clint’s voice say those words as if they were truth…that hurt in a way Phil hadn’t believed was possible. In the video, Nick said nothing and Phil could feel the anger bubble inside him. It felt good, he’d been drowning in regret. The anger was refreshing, almost clean. He turned away from the video to look at Nick, but before Phil could even open his mouth to comment, Nick had pointed to the tablet, his lips pulled tight with suppressed emotions.

On the screen, Nick still said nothing. Just waited, thumb still stroking, his head still held close enough for Clint to feel Nick’s breath. Despite Nick’s physical proximity, Clint made no move to get away. Clint hated anyone in his personal space. He tolerated it when necessary on missions, but moved away from everyone the moment he could. But not here, not now. Not with Nick. Again, Phil swallowed down his jealousy. It was inappropriate in light of what he was watching. Phil was glad Nick had been there, been able to give Clint solace, but Phil wished with all his heart it had been him. Phil sitting with Clint, convincing him that all those people had been wrong. Clint was amazing, brilliant and brave, strong and determined, perseverant and generous. He was everything Phil could ever want.

“Someone needs to teach me to do better. I’m not totally hopeless. It’s okay if it hurts, pain’s the only way for someone like me to learn.”

Any anger Phil had felt was swept away by a sick chill. Clint had spoken in the same flat, unemotional tone as earlier, the words said by rote, like a child echoing an oft heard phrase. In that moment, Phil hated for the first time in his life. Truly hated whomever it was who had told Clint those things, made Clint believe they were true. The thought that he might be one of them hit Phil like Loki’s spear. He felt torn asunder, ripped apart, his soul left raw and bleeding. He couldn’t. He just couldn’t.

“Someone like you, Hawk? You mean someone talented and special, like you are? You don’t need pain to learn. You’re already good enough, beyond good enough. Hawk, you’re extraordinary.” Nick was trying but it was obvious his reassurances weren’t believed, as Clint violently shook his head “no”, almost forcing Nick over to his side in an effort to avoid their heads smacking together.

“No. I’m not good enough. I’m never good enough. The only thing special about me is how badly I can screw up and how often I make a mess of everything!” The calmness was gone from Clint’s voice, a rising agitation had taken over. He was no longer quoting someone else’s words, these were Clint’s own words and all the more painful for Phil to hear.

“That’s not true, Hawk,” Nick tried again to get through to Clint, to combat some of the poison that Clint had absorbed from so many others. Nick righted himself and moved back into his position next to and slightly behind Clint. Nick started stroking Clint’s back. Long, soothing strokes, his hand firmly pressing against Clint’s back, letting Clint know he wasn’t alone.

“It is true, it is,” Clint insisted. “It has to be, Coulson,” Clint stuttered over Phil’s name, “Coulson was mad. I got this,” Clint gestured to the bruise on his face. “He said I should be more careful. Why can’t I complete just one mission without making a mess?” Clint’s voice choked, throat tight with emotions or holding back sobs.

Phil didn’t know which it was. Didn’t want to know. He’d done this. This wasn’t fallout from a mission gone wrong. No. This was fallout from Phil’s treatment of Clint. It didn’t matter that he hadn’t meant the words the way Clint had taken them.

Phil remembered the mission, it had been a fairly smooth op, which somehow had made Clint’s injury worse in Phil’s mind. He remembered seeing the mark on Clint’s face, just starting to swell and purple as they clambered onto the jet to head back to SHIELD. Phil had been worried, the bruising had started just an inch below Clint’s temple and all Phil could think when he had looked at it was, “what if?”

What if the hit had been slightly higher? Would he even now be flying in a plane with a body bag, or with a Clint who was in a coma, never to wake up? Both ideas had scared Phil, and he’d snapped at Clint, berated him for not being careful enough. And Phil could see it so clearly now, how his “not careful enough” had been heard and translated as “not good enough” by Clint. Phil felt sick with self-blame.

On the screen, Clint had regained a bit of his composure, enough to keep talking to Nick. “He was cold, distant. It had been good for a while before that. We’d talked and laughed together on the way there. He was nice, he’d even offered me half of the sandwich he brought.” For a moment, Clint’s face was almost luminous, all the doubt and self hatred chased away by the good memory of Phil sharing his food with Clint.

The moment didn’t last; Phil knew it couldn’t because he remembered his behavior on the flight home. He’d been struggling to get control of his fear. He couldn’t look at Clint without seeing the bruise, so he hadn’t. He’d spent the rest of the flight ignoring Clint and talking to the other agent assigned to that mission.

“He wouldn’t even look at me on the way back. I know what a disappointment I am to him. I try, but I’m not good enough. If I was, why wouldn’t he look at me?” The question was rhetorical, as though Clint felt that the point was obvious. Nick replied anyway.

“I don’t know, Hawk. But did you ever think maybe it wasn’t you? Maybe it was him? That his attitude change had nothing to do with you?” Nick was reasonable, but Phil knew none of this was about reason. It was about childhood demons, about people who had done everything in their power to break Clint’s spirit. It was about betrayal and fears rooted so deeply, there was no hope of ever pulling them out. It was about failure. Not Clint’s. Phil’s.

Clint had actually turned to look at Nick in response to his questions, the scornful disbelief on Clint’s face made Phil’s heart lurch. “No, I know it was me,” Clint told Nick. “He smiled at that agent, Sanders, and talked to him on the flight back.” Clint’s expression changed, his face reflecting his sea-sawing emotions. It was hopelessness, now, that was shining from his eyes and evident in his deadened speech.

"I tried, Nick. I tried so hard. But I’m just not good enough for him. He deserves a better agent, a better friend. I don’t know why I even thought I could be one. I have nothing anyone would want other than my aim,” Clint paused and gestured down range, “and even that isn’t worth much.” He tried to get up, but Nick held him down.

“Nick, let me go; you know I need to go practice. Look at how many shots I missed. That’s unacceptable, if I don’t have that, what good am I?”

Nick shook his head in response. “Hawk, how many hours were you shooting before I managed to get here? Three? Four? Continuous shooting. After you'd been out on a mission. You’d pushed yourself too far, that’s why you missed. Your body couldn’t take anymore punishment, your muscles simply couldn’t keep your arms steady anymore. You are human, you do have limits. And that’s alright, Hawk. You don’t have to be perfect.”

Clint interrupted, “Perfect, Jesus, Nick, haven’t you been listening? I’m so far from perfect we’re not even on the same planet. No. I’ve just been fooling myself, thinking that somehow it’ll be different. That somehow I won’t do something to drive Coulson away. That I won’t ruin it this time,” Clint’s eyes went blank and absent. On the video, Nick got a very worried look on his face.

Phil turned to look at Nick, here, in the office. His jaw was clenched, his lips tightened, his shoulders rigid. He noticed Phil’s look. “I hate when this happens. The first time I almost called Psych, but…” His eyes had never moved from the video, and Nick stopped talking as soon as Clint started.

“I’m bad. I’m always bad. I ruin everything. I should never have been born. Everyone’s life would be better without me,” and Clint was gone, lost to the past, reliving memories of an earlier time. Caught within his own mind and trapped by the self-hatred that had been rooted into his very soul.

It was Phil’s actions that had caused that self-hatred to flourish. How many other times had he caused this? Too many. Once would have been too many, but Phil knew, knew with a bone deep surety that his actions, his efforts to pull away and protect himself all those times had led to this very scene being enacted time and time again. No wonder Nick had turned away from Phil. If Phil could get away from himself, he would.

As Clint finished repeating his litany, Nick reached his limit. He used his touch to snap Clint out of his head, center him back in the present. Nick forcefully turned Clint and held his face with both hands so that Clint could do naught but look directly at Nick.

“That is not true. My life would not be better without you. Natasha’s life would not be better without you. Agent Smithson’s daughter would have never known her father without you. All those children in Provo, they’d all be dead now without you.” Nick spoke with the passion of the righteous, as if his fervor could somehow compel Clint to believe him. “The world would not be better without you. We need you, Clint Barton, here, with us. Not just your aim, but you.” Nick’s voice softened now, the hands holding Clint’s face relaxing. “I need you, Hawk, and don’t you ever forget it. I think you're good enough and in this agency, my opinion is the only one that matters. Not your’s. Not Coulson’s. Mine. Understood?”

Clint’s answer was a barely audible, “Yes, sir,” and he looked down to try and hide the tears swimming in his eyes.

“Shh, Hawk, it’s okay. Let it out, it’ll do you good. You know I give two shits about this kind of stuff. Tears are as necessary as laughter in this job. You’ve seen me cry and thought nothing less of me. It’s your turn.” Clint was carefully pulled into Nick’s arms and positioned until Clint’s head rested in the crook of Nick’s neck and shoulder. Nick returned to stroking Clint’s back with one hand while the other rested lightly on the back of Clint’s head, a gentle reassurance that Clint wasn’t alone, that Clint mattered, that Clint was worth Nick’s time.

Phil was startled when the video stopped. He hadn’t even seen Nick reach for the tablet.

“You don’t deserve to watch the rest of that.”

The pointed and sharp words stabbed Phil like they were supposed to, and he nodded in resigned acceptance. “You’re right, I don’t.” Exhaustion hung from Phil, weighing down his limbs. He moved slowly, every action hurt, and he sunk down into one of the office chairs. “In my defense,” Phil started and then stopped. “No, no, there is no defense. But I honestly thought he was sleeping with you and that you were providing post mission support.”

Nick interrupted, “Wait, you mean to tell me that you weren’t even doing your job as his handler for all those years? You just assumed someone else was handling any emotional or psychological fallout from your missions? Jesus Christ, Coulson, how many ways did you fail him?”

Nick moved around his desk and collapsed back into his chair. “You think this was bad? There were times I actually had to let him shoot until he bled before I could get him to stop. I knew you were distant after some of the more brutal missions but I never thought you weren’t actually doing your job. I had no idea that you weren’t even providing basic care as his handler!” Nick’s frustration and fury were glaringly obvious. “No wonder Clint thought he was too much trouble to bother with, it was the truth. At least for you.”

The venom in the statement made Phil recoil. “I was trying not to step on your toes.” Phil ran a hand through his hair and over his face. “I thought he was going to you. I saw you enter the training room with him. It was just after the Sarajevo mission. You were in there for at least 45 minutes, Nick. There was no reason for you to be there for that long, not as the Director of SHIELD. So what else was I supposed to think? The only explanation that was reasonable was that you were together.” Phil tried to explain his thinking.

“What, you’d thought I’d just head down and hit up one of my agents for a quick fuck right after they’d come back from that type of fucked up mission? What kind of man do you think I am? And what kind of man are you if you didn’t call me out on that type of behavior, especially with an agent you were responsible for?” Nick’s disgust with Phil was evident in every bitten off word he uttered.

“No, I didn’t think that! I just thought…hell, Nick. It was you. I knew you could be gentle, that you could be good to Clint, for Clint, and I didn’t want to get in the way.” Phil swallowed hard, his dry throat making it difficult to force the words out.

“You have no idea how difficult it was. I loved Clint, I still love Clint, and I was trying not to mess things up between the two of you. I’d find myself getting close to Clint, too close for friendship, and force myself to back off. I knew how much Clint relied on me as his handler, I knew he cared about me and trusted me, and I knew how vulnerable that made him. I was so scared I would take advantage of that, the temptation to use that....”

Phil dug his nails into his palms in an attempt to steady himself. “It was so hard, Nick. I cared about the two of you so much. Too much to let my feelings get out of control, no matter how much it hurt. Why do you think I agreed to this damn Bus idea of yours? It meant I didn’t have to face temptation on a daily basis, didn’t have to watch someone who’d been my best friend have the man who meant more to me than my own life.” Phil laughed roughly, it felt like glass grinding into his throat.

“Why do you think I went after Loki with that gun? I thought that, maybe, if I did enough damage it might shake his control enough that Clint could fight the rest of the way free. I knew he was trying to. He didn’t kill you. Ten feet away, direct shot, and you walked away. He didn’t kill you and you know he could have. I knew he was in there and it was worth any risk, every risk, if I could save him.” There were tears slipping silently down Phil’s face. He ignored them. “To find out that I caused him this much pain, all these years, I can’t, I can’t…” Phil’s voice broke.

~~~~~

Nick watched impassively as Phil struggled for control. He wanted to hate Phil. Nick wanted to abandon himself to the anger he felt but he couldn’t. Because none of this was about him. It was about Clint. About Nick’s Hawk, who’d been surviving with a broken heart for too long already. Nick was just tired. Tired and heartsore. All the unnecessary pain, years of it for Clint, who’d already had more pain than any ten people should have.

At this moment, Nick could almost understand Phil’s choices. Nick knew without a doubt that he could sabotage any chance Phil could possibly have with Clint. There was a small, bitter place inside Nick that wanted to do just that. To give into the temptation to keep to himself as much of Clint as Nick could. To punish Phil for the damage he'd done.

But that wasn't who Nick was.

Nick had spent most of his life fighting to protect. To protect freedom, protect his comrades, protect the world. He believed in selflessness and sacrifice. Mostly, right now, he believed in doing what was best for Clint. The man Nick had known all those years ago, the Phil who was here in Nick's office, broken and raw and hiding nothing; that man could be good for Clint. Might finally help Clint move beyond his past and all those lessons he'd had beaten into him. Might finally let Nick’s Hawk believe in his own self worth.

"So what's your plan?" Nick asked, ignoring Phil's breakdown. He'd meant what he'd said in the video. Tears meant crap in this business. They were a necessary emotional release and nothing to be shamed for.

Phil's eyes were rimmed with red, his tie askew. Nick could see the crescent marks that Phil's nails had dug into the palms of his hands. "Plan?" Phil gave a half laugh. "You think I have a plan? I tried, but I have nothing. I was just going to show up and beg. Beg for forgiveness. Beg for a chance. Beg to be allowed to love him. That's all the plan I have."

Nick sighed. "Knowing Clint that would probably work, he's likely to think there's nothing to forgive." He watched Phil wince at the bald, harsh truth of the statement.

Phil’s reply was gratifyingly swift, "But I know there is and I will spend the rest of my life making it up to him, every minute of every day that I live."

"You damn well better. If you ever, ever, again make that man think he's not good enough I will bury you in the deepest, darkest pit I can find and laugh while you suffocate. Am. I. Clear?" Nick paused for emphasis and put every ounce of threat and promise he could into those last three words.

"Crystal. But the threats aren't needed, I'd cut off my own limbs before I'd hurt him again." Phil's visage was all earnestness and his voice rang with certainty. No confusion present, no doubts, just sheer, unadulterated determination. He looked like the man Nick remembered from their early years at SHIELD.

"In that case, I'll make sure the rest of the Avengers have a reason to be outside the tower tomorrow." Nick stood up and moved back around his desk, he placed his fists on its surface and leaned forward. Nick wanted to make sure this message was perfectly understood. "You get one shot, that's it. Don't blow it. Don't make me regret this, or what happened during your resurrection will feel like a fucking massage by the time I'm done with you." Nick leaned back and observed Phil's response.

Phil paled, but just nodded, determination still evident. "I don't intend to fail, Nick."

"See that you don't. And now, see yourself on out of my office for the goddamn second time. Some of us have work to do." Nick pointed to the door and raised a brow.

Phil got up with alacrity, displaying the most energy he had yet during their meetings. Nick huffed. It was amazing what a little hope could do. But, as Phil had done earlier today, he paused at the door.

"You never did answer my question," Phil visibly gathered himself and asked, "How is he?"

Nick could see Phil's face, a wavering reflection off the metal sheen of the door. It was distorted but Nick could still tell that Phil both desired and dreaded the answer. For once, Nick had some good news to tell someone. It was an odd feeling. "He's okay. Not good, but he's managed to find some contentment living and working with the other Avengers. I think he likes living at the tower. I wouldn't say he trusts them, but he's let them in, at least a little."

Nick debated with himself, then continued, "He misses you. He hasn't said anything, other than to ask for your health and welfare status, but, every so often, he gets a far away look in his eyes and his lips quirk up in that damn half smile of his. The smile never lasts, though. It's as if he'd remembered something happy, but then realized it was gone. He misses you and he hurts, Phil. And I can't fix that." The implicit, "but you can" hung heavy in the room.

In response, Phil was silent, shoulders hunched, still facing the doorway. Nick also stayed silent and let the weight of the responsibility settle on Phil. After a few moments, Phil straightened, took a deep breath and squared his shoulders, girding for a battle he had to win.

"Thank you, Nick," was all Phil said, and then he quietly left.

Chapter Text

Clint stretched and bounced in place, working off the last of the energy from his run. Grabbing his bandana, he wiped the sweat from his face. He needed to shower before breakfast, and he was fairly sure that it was his turn to cook. They always tried to have a Sunday breakfast together, it was the morning most of them were around. Clint checked his watch, he needed to move if he wasn't going to be late. He crumpled the bandana in his hand and headed away from the elevator.

Clint didn't hear any noises as he made his way through the hall and into his apartment. Maybe everyone was still sleeping, that would give him some extra time. As he got ready for his shower, Clint thought about how busy his life had gotten. He stepped into the shower and enjoyed the feel of the hot water on his overworked muscles, the pounding of the spray on his back. He snapped open the lid of his shampoo and thought about the changes in his life.

He was busy, but not so busy he didn't still have time for himself. He'd never understood people who complained about there not being enough hours in the day. What did those people do all day? He understood work, and there not being enough time to finish all of it, but if there was, what the hell would you do the next morning? He scrubbed his hair and leaned back to rinse the lather out.

Tony. Clint understood how the day was never long enough for Tony, but he was a special case. Tony's mind was constantly inventing, calculating, fixing. He was flooded with more ideas and concepts that he'd ever have time to create. Clint listened to Tony, listened to him talk under his breath about all the projects he'd thought of, all while his hands were busy putting together the last one he'd chosen to work on.

Clint grabbed the soap and started washing, the motions so familiar they didn't interrupt his thoughts at all. Tony fascinated Clint. Tony was mercurial, but steady. You could count on him to be absorbed in his work, until something, some inner sense would cause him to suddenly stop. His hands would still mid motion and his eyes would fix sharply on whomever it was in the lab with him. Then, he'd wait. Not for long, though. Clint smiled as he stepped back into the water to rinse off.

He'd played the 'who'll break first and talk' game with Tony many times now, and Clint almost always won. He shut off the water and reached for his towel. The bathroom was foggy with steam and smelled faintly of mint from his shampoo. Clint didn't like the times he lost to Tony. Not because Clint broke first, but because of why. Clint was glad his reflection was just a blur in the mirror. He didn't need to see in his own eyes what he saw in Tony's on those nights.

The nights when Tony looked haunted, when his sharp gaze turned inward during the silence. On those nights, Clint made sure he lost their game. He wouldn't stay silent and let Tony dwell in the dark places in his head. Clint shook his head, scattering drops of water and dried off quickly. He wanted out of here, away from the mirror. He knew where his thoughts were going, and seeing his reflection wasn't something he wanted to do.

Clint padded to the bedroom, his damp feet leaving faint footprints on the wood floor. Clint knew all too well what it was like to get stuck in your own head. He wouldn't leave Tony alone there, lost in his thoughts and memories. Nick had never left Clint alone, after all. Clint tossed his towel on the bed and stood in the sunlight streaming through his window. He had used some of Nick's words with Tony. Told Tony that the blood hadn't stained his soul, that he wasn't dirty. He was a good man who saved lives.

Clint didn't know if Tony believed the words, God knew most of the time Clint still didn't, but he hoped that they brought Tony some measure of peace. That knowing someone thought he was worthwhile helped Tony the way it helped Clint. Clint stayed in the sunlight for a moment longer, allowing it to warm his skin, wishing it was that easy to chase the chill from his soul.

As Clint opened his closet, he was struck by a peculiar thought. Clint patterned his attempts at friendship after Nick's. The man viewed as the bane of the WSC and the scourge of bad guys everywhere. The bad ass who took no shit from anyone and demanded respect simply by standing in a person's sight. That was the man Clint had learned friendship from. Thoughts of Nick made Clint smile and feel lighter inside. He opened the built in drawers and grabbed clothes for the day. The smell of the cedar in the closet was soothing. The scent of wood always made Clint feel, not free, but looser, as though some of the tightness that lived in his chest was gone. Nick did that for Clint too.

Clint never would have thought all those years ago that Nick would turn out to be the best friend Clint had ever had and, for a long time, the only true, constant friend Clint had. When Clint had first met Nick, it was as Director Fury. Clint found the Director off-putting and somewhat ominous. His long, dark coat, his threatening stare, the glacial violence that lurked beneath his skin. Clint was long practiced at recognizing a predator, at recognizing someone who could hurt him. Director Fury was both.

Clint slowly pulled his clothes on, struggling a bit to get his jeans up his still damp legs. Director Fury was a menacing figure, even now. But Nick, Clint paused to smile fondly while shrugging on his shirt, Nick was comfort. He was the home Clint had never had before. Clint finished buttoning his shirt and moved back into his bedroom, carrying his socks with him.

Clint sat on the edge of his bed and grabbed the towel to ensure his feet were dry. Damp legs in jeans were one thing, but damp feet in socks and shoes was just asking for a problem. As he leaned down to pull his socks on his now dry feet, he remembered the first time he'd been approached by Nick, and not the Director of SHIELD. Clint had been confused, unsure what was happening, and fearing the worst. He'd never told Nick that Clint had been afraid of what Nick wanted when he had walked in the room with his coat missing. It was only the absence of the usual violence in Nick's movements that had reassured Clint enough for him to hold his position. He shook his head at his folly. He'd almost lost the best friend he could ever have in that moment. Clint was grateful, to this day, that he'd waited.

Nick had entered the training room openhanded and openhearted, and offered Clint something he hadn't known was possible. Safety. To this day, Clint still didn't understand why. Why, of his own free will, Nick chose Clint's company and offered Nick's own in return. Nick was Clint's rock, his foundation, the one point of stability that was always there. Clint got up from the bed and moved back into his living room. Checking the clock again, he saw he still had time for a cup of coffee before he headed up to the communal kitchen. Tony had the good coffee there but, sometimes, Clint wanted the harsh, acidic coffee that came from freeze-dried crystals. Today was one of those times. Maybe it was all the memories.

As Clint moved toward his small kitchen, he continued to think of Nick. It was Nick that dragged Clint back from the abyss when his emotions and his memories threatened to swallow him. When all Clint could do to escape the past was to submerge in the routine of nock, draw, release. Over, and over. Until his arms shook, his fingers bled, and tears that he never wanted to shed blurred his vision. Nock, draw, release, until the ghosts had been banished for another night, hidden beneath the rhythm of his bow.

It was the nights when that didn't work, that Nick was there. When even the steady, routine, movements of his bow failed Clint, and his shaking arms missed target after target. The nights he simply couldn't do it anymore. Those nights, Nick would slowly push Clint's arm down, stopping him from shooting. But Nick had never tried to take Clint's bow away, somehow knowing that, for Clint, his bow felt like his last connection to sanity.

Clint busied himself in the kitchen, setting the kettle to heat and grabbing a mug. Even now, Clint acknowledged as he moved about the kitchen, even now, he got deeply unsettled when his bow was taken from him. It was different when Clint put it down himself. Someone taking it from him, Clint suppressed a shudder. It was good that Nick had divined that, or that first night would have ended differently.

Instead, Nick had gently pulled Clint back, until he was almost leaning on Nick's body, until Nick's slow, even breaths softly brushed against Clint's neck. Nick had just stayed still and waited. Waited for Clint's arms to stop shaking and his body to start. Nick's arms had slowly wrapped around Clint, cradling him. Nick had spoken, then, his tone gentle and quiet, his words those of reassurance.

The sudden shrieking whistle of the tea kettle jolted Clint. He moved from where he'd been leaning on the counter over to the stove. The bright, happy, yellow of the kettle seemed dissonant in light of Clint's recent thoughts. He grabbed his mug and spooned the coffee into it. After pouring the water, Clint set the kettle back down and just looked at it. Looked at the bright color, at the lack of chips or dents, and wondered what the hell it was doing in his kitchen. Clint snorted. If Nick had heard that thought, he’d kick Clint’s ass.

To combat thoughts like the one Clint just had, Nick had repeated many times what he told Clint that first night. Nick told Clint that he was a good man, a worthy man, an honorable man. Clint saved lives, he deserved happiness, and, most importantly, Clint was good enough. Clint stirred his coffee absently. It had been, and still was, hard to believe.

Clint looked around his room, his apartment, and felt like pinching himself. Checking to see if it was all real. Nick had done this for him. Believed in Clint and given him a place on the Avengers. All those years ago, Nick had told Clint he didn't have to earn his place anymore, not ever, not with Nick, not with SHIELD.

Clint had a home here with the other Avengers. But Nick was Clint's first home and the only home Clint knew he could never lose. The bitter, almost burnt scent of his coffee wafted in the air, reminding Clint that he was holding it. The coffee scalded Clint's tongue as he took his first sip. Damn it, he hated that. He paced over to the overstuffed armchair haloed by the sun and sunk down into it, simultaneously sinking back into his thoughts.

Nick patched Clint's metaphorical wounds, but Nick sure as hell never let Clint avoid medical if he had actual physical wounds. No, the wounds Nick treated were somehow worse than any knife slice or bullet wound Clint had received. Nick staunched the emotions and sanity bleeding out of Clint, bandaged over the deepest hurts that never truly healed. Nick did it because he wanted to, because he thought Clint deserving of it.

Clint still didn't believe that he deserved Nick, but Clint did believe that Nick helped for no other reason than because he wanted to, there were no ulterior motives. Whether the turmoil was from a mission, Clint's past or from Coulson, Nick never faltered. He believed in Clint.

The coffee cup was getting too warm, so Clint set it down on the end table, taking a moment to admire the grain in the dark red wood. It was usually hidden, but with the morning sun gleaming in through the windows, he could see the beauty, the way the pattern twisted and fooled the eye. Clint laughed softly. Natasha would kill him if she knew his end table reminded Clint of her!

Natasha was another reason to be grateful to Nick. Clint had wholeheartedly believed, with no doubts, that Natasha could be saved. He had turned to Nick, for once daring to hope that someone would believe in Clint, without any evidence but his word. And Nick had. He had trusted Clint, let him make the call. Nick had overruled the on-site agents, including Coulson, and backed Clint's play. It was a sacrosanct moment, a memory that Clint held close and used to fight the shadows in his soul and mind when they threatened to overwhelm him. Nick had trusted Clint.

Coulson had not.

It had been a bitter pill for Clint to swallow that night. More bitter than the cheap, freeze-dried coffee he was drinking now. Clint had thought he'd proven himself to Coulson, that Clint had a small measure of Coulson's trust... hadn't Coulson said he trusted Clint? But Coulson hadn't even listened, hadn't wanted to listen when Clint tried to explain why the kill order should be rescinded.

Thoughts of Coulson made Clint agitated. He got up, checked the clock and decided to go start breakfast. It was still a bit early, but maybe someone would show up in the kitchen and help pull Clint out of his head. As the door shut behind him, Clint left the more pleasant thoughts of Nick and Natasha behind him as well.

Coulson. So much in Clint's life came back to Coulson. Coulson was the one who had brought Clint to SHIELD. Coulson was the first handler, the first agent, to believe Clint when he said he could make what seemed to be an impossible shot. The first person to listen to Clint's ideas and input and give weight to them. The first to change pre-mission specs based solely on Clint's words.

Falling in love with Coulson had been inevitable, as inevitable as pain and as hurtful.

Clint had wished for years: first, to be somehow worthy of Coulson, then, for Coulson to love Clint back, and finally, now, to stop loving Coulson. None of those wishes had come true. Clint had even tried to fall in love with Nick, but he was family to Clint. He loved Nick with all he was, had ever been, could ever be, but Clint couldn't be in love with Nick. No, that place in Clint's heart had been taken by Coulson. Taken and abandoned by Coulson time and time again.

Clint reached the kitchen and started pulling out the ingredients for omelets. Spinach, feta, and tomato sounded good, with bacon on the side. As his hands got busy with food prep, his thoughts went back to Coulson. After all these years, Clint still didn't understand Coulson. He would be Clint's friend, then back away as if Clint were poisonous or diseased. Clint had firmly believed it was his fault, still did to some extent. He was toxic, spoiled, and when Coulson got too close he could somehow sense the unworthiness of Clint's soul, the rancid heart at the core of him.

The ugly thoughts turned Clint's stomach. He wished he didn't see himself that way, he tried not to. The smell of the bacon he'd taken out of the refrigerator made him gag. Maybe a meat free breakfast would be a better way to go. Bruce would like that, he didn't often get to eat at a meat free table, not with this crowd. Clint tossed the bacon back in the fridge.

It had taken years, years of Nick repeating to Clint that it wasn't his fault, that there wasn't anything wrong with Clint, for him to lend any credence to that idea. But even if it was Coulson's fault, Clint still couldn't stop loving Coulson. Clint had wanted to. Maybe if Coulson had stayed cold and distant, but he never had.

As soon as Clint would start to get a handle on his feelings, Coulson would thaw out, become the man, the friend, Clint had fallen in love with. It was a vicious back n' forth that ripped Clint open, left him exposed and vulnerable to the nightmares that haunted him. There were times he almost hated Coulson, but that feeling only made Clint hate himself more.

Clint's self hatred was deeply rooted, he knew this, and, when things with Coulson got bad, it grew. Fertilized by all the memories Clint wished he could forget and all the regrets for things he couldn't change. Those were the nights Nick most often came to Clint. Came to stop him from hurting himself, from punishing himself for his sins and the sins of others. Came to pull Clint from the abyss of his own mind and keep him from permanently breaking.

Clint realized he was standing still, tomato half chopped in front of him, knife paused in mid motion. He gave his body a quick shake and got back to food prep. He wished it were that easy to shake off his thoughts. He really hoped one of the others would make it to the kitchen soon. The usual homey feel of the room was missing this morning and none of the normal, everyday signs of the rest of the Avengers were helping Clint to feel less alone.

The box of tea on the counter, the colored pencil that must have rolled off the table onto the floor, the sweater hanging half off a chair, the slight smear of grease on the cupboard, these usually made Clint feel calm, feel a sense of belonging. It was missing this morning. With no one to keep him from his thoughts, Clint was lost back to reflection as he continued the routine motions of making breakfast.

Losing Coulson, Clint had thought it was going to destroy him. It almost did. Coulson's choice to just walk away, to go live a life as though Clint had never existed had been fodder for all Clint's doubt, fears, and demons. They'd fed on Coulson's abandonment, insidious and unstoppable. It was proof of Clint's worthlessness, proof that his soul was too stained to ever let him be good enough, clean enough, for Coulson.

Clint put down the knife and grabbed the edge of the counter. He hung his head and tried to focus on breathing. God, he wished, he wished he could be good enough for Coulson to love. Clint would do anything for Coulson, anything for just the chance to be with him, to be worthy of him. Just one chance.

Breathe. Focus. Inhale, hold, exhale. Inhale, hold, exhale. Don't think about Coulson. Think about Nick. Think about that moment with Natasha, the moment Nick had placed his trust in Clint. Clint took one more deep breath and straightened. He forced himself to focus on the tower, on the Avengers. Clint picked the knife back up and went back to fixing breakfast for them. It was the Avengers that had saved Clint after Coulson had left.

Living in the tower had forced Clint outside of his own head. He'd seen the way Steve would look lost and alone, the way Tony's lips would twist in bitter self mockery, the way Bruce tried to make himself as small a target as possible, the way Natasha smiled brightly at them but her eyes stayed empty. They were all damaged, all wounded, but, somehow, all of them being together helped. They could focus less on themselves, and, the more they tried to help one another, the better they all got. None of them were whole and healthy, not by a long shot, but they were limping along, providing a shoulder to one another and never letting any one of them sink under the weight of their own thoughts. It was another type of home for Clint, not like Nick, but not entirely dissimilar either.

Clint could hear distant sounds from down the hall, still muffled but recognizable as people moving about. He felt relief swamp him. He wouldn't be alone in the kitchen for much longer, trapped in thoughts of Coulson, in thoughts of the past. Sometimes, Clint thought Coulson's choice to walk away was one of the better events in Clint's life.

With Coulson just gone, completely out of Clint's life, there were no sudden shifts from friends to not, from respect given to none to be found. Clint was on an even keel for the first time. Not having Coulson near was a constant ache, but it wasn't the sharp, slicing pain of Coulson's recurring rejection. Coulson was gone, but Clint wasn't alone. Clint had Nick. Clint had Natasha. He had all the other Avengers, their respect and the beginnings of their friendship. Clint no longer had the highs of happiness he'd experienced with Coulson in his life, but Clint no longer had the lows either.

Tony appeared in the doorway, pajama bottoms hanging loosely from his hips, hair still mussed from sleep. Steve came next, well groomed and ready to face the day. Then, Bruce and Natasha, both halfway between the two extremes represented by Tony and Steve. As they all filed into the kitchen, Clint thought that, for the first time in his life, he might be content.

Chapter Text

It was early afternoon on Sunday. Phil had spent the morning doing useless chores. Moving from one activity to the next whenever his thoughts became overwhelming and completing absolutely none of the chores he had started. By the time noon arrived, and it was time for him to get ready, Phil was sure time had never moved this slowly before.

He’d showered, and debated using a different soap and shampoo, unsure whether Clint would associate the known scents with positive or negative memories. Phil had decided to go with familiarity. He’d used great care in picking his clothes. He wanted to look good, but not like he’d tried too hard. He’d chosen a steel blue sweater that he’d been told complemented his eyes, and a pair of worn, dark blue jeans that were just a bit snug.

Phil recognized his attempts to gain some power over a situation in which he had none. Just like in an op, he was focusing on the details he could control. It was what he knew how to do, it was how he lived his life. And, he was fairly sure, it was going to be of absolutely no help at all in the coming confrontation. He winced, better to think of it as a discussion, it was less intimidating then.

Phil checked his watch, again. Finally, it was time to leave. Leave and go talk to Clint. Phil paused to look in the mirror that hung near his front door. It was habit. Usually, he used it to make any last minute adjustments to his tie, to center his belt, or check the shine on his shoes. Today, he looked past the carefully chosen clothes.

His face was too pale with faint purple shadows under his eyes. The light in the room cast a shadow across the right side of his face, a ghostly mockery of the bruise that had adorned Clint's face in the video yesterday. Phil hadn't slept well last night and it showed. His hopes, fears, and regrets had all been churning together, a bitter mixture that had made his stomach clench and acid creep into his throat anytime he’d laid down.

Phil had expected to have a restless night, but he'd thought he'd have nightmares. He wished he had. Instead, when he was able to sleep, his rest was filled with good memories. Memories of being with Clint, of the two of them sharing a dinner, of wandering around the city together, of hanging out and watching bad TV. Memories of warm glances, shared laughter, and casual touches. Memories of happiness and ease gracing Clint's face, of friendship and affection directed toward Phil, of the restrained hope that Clint sometimes couldn't quite hide.

No, the nightmares came when Phil awoke. When his eyes were open, but all he could see were visions from the video. Reality was the nightmare; the images of Clint's despair even more horrific against the canvas of Phil’s dreams. More painful than the images though, were Clint's words. They spoke of desolation, of self hatred, of a proud man brought low. Brought low by Phil.

Of everything Clint had said, it was the question, "...why wouldn't he look at me?" that echoed in Phil's mind. Not because of the substance, but because of the resigned acceptance. The sense of hopeless certainty that Clint hadn't been good enough for Phil. Phil could feel the acid creeping back up his throat. He felt hollow, old and weary. He looked it to. The image in his mirror was all too clear.

Phil looked and saw his guilt made manifest. His eyes were squinted, his lips tightened, his posture hunched. No matter how much he straightened his clothes, he looked rumpled and disarrayed. He'd shaved but his face still looked shadowed, dirty. He wanted to look confident, reassuring, loving. Instead, the mirror reflected his inner turmoil.

Phil knew he had to work past this. Not forgive himself, Phil wasn't sure if he'd ever be able to do that. But, he had to stop focusing on the past, it wouldn't help him with Clint. Phil was sure that his shame would be misread by Clint, translated as pity or something else even more damaging.

Phil had to fix this somehow. Had to let Clint know that Phil had been wrong, so wrong. Had to find a way to maybe bring back that look of wonder and that ephemeral glimpse of what must have been unreserved joy that Clint had once gifted Phil with so many years ago. Phil didn't deserve it, but he'd spend the rest of his days trying to be worthy of it, to be worthy of Clint.

The first step to being worthy of Clint was for Phil to pull himself together. To lock away his self-flagellation and bitterness, his own need to wallow in his mistakes. This wasn't about getting Clint to forgive Phil. It wasn't about Clint accepting Phil back into Clint's life. No, Phil reminded. This was about Phil absolving Clint of blame that should never have been his. This was about Phil telling Clint the truth, freeing Clint from some of the demons that haunted him. This wasn't about Phil getting what he wanted, it was about trying to bring Clint some measure of relief, some peace.

Phil straightened his posture and adjusted the sleeves on his sweater. He grabbed his keys off the hook next to the mirror, stuck his trembling hands in his pockets, and went to go fix this. That was what he did, Phil fixed things, made things right, and this would be no different. It was the most critical mission he'd ever been on. Phil would succeed. There was no other acceptable outcome.

Phil vowed that by the mission's completion, Clint would know how important he was, how special he was, how valued he was. Clint would know that he had always, always, been good enough. He would know that Phil loved Clint for who he was, as he was, because Clint was and had always been the most honorable, most deserving man Phil had ever known. Phil walked out the door, fresh determination coloring his features and bringing firmness to his step.

Phil drove up and stopped at the valet stand in front of Avengers tower. The drive from his apartment had gone quickly, or at least seemed to. Phil had been on auto-pilot, spending every minute focusing on Clint. Trying to decide what to say and how to say it. Trying to develop a plan. But just like yesterday, he couldn't seem to do so. He was rattled. He always worked better with a plan, with logistics and schedules, with alternative methods and redundancies. Not today. Today, he was going to have to improvise, let his heart lead and hope that, this time, he'd get it right.

After handing his keys over, Phil tucked the claim ticket into his wallet. He entered the gleaming building and walked to the elevators. He looked composed on the outside, just a man out to visit a friend on a weekend. It was a facade, a distorted reflection of the truth. Inside he was tangled mess of confusion, hope, determination and fear. In contrast, the lobby he walked through was peaceful, a perfect oasis of calm against the noise and bustle of the city. The metal shone, the marble floors glimmered, the wood was buffed to a soft glow. Everything spoke of refinement and grace. It was an understated elegance designed to subconsciously soothe visitors.

Were the personal floors the same, Phil wondered. Or were they more relaxed, more casual comfort than the warm but still artificial welcome of the tower's public spaces? It was hard to imagine Clint being comfortable in this type of artful elegance. During missions, Clint could operate in any setting and seem perfectly suited to the surroundings. But long term, away from the job? This type of calculated design didn't seem to fit Clint’s personality.

Clint's spaces, whether his permanent room at SHIELD’s headquarters or his bunk on the helicarrrier, were always full of casual disorder. Not quite messy, but relaxed. Welcoming in an honest, straightforward manner that perfectly suited Clint. Then again, Clint had learned to make do with whatever he was given, whether or not it appealed to his sensibilities. Clint was too appreciative to ever complain.

The soft chime of the elevator drew Phil's attention and he entered the lift. Once inside, he input the code Nick had sent and, as Nick had also directed in the message, pressed the button for the 88th floor. In an attempt to steady his nerves, Phil took a deep breath. The elevator car smelled like a mixture of leather and freshly laid carpet, with a faint hint of perfume lingering in the air. Phil tried to focus on the scent and not his nerves. His hands were trembling again, and he tucked them into his pockets just as the doors slid open. As Phil stepped out into the foyer, he was greeted by Clint’s voice.

Chapter Text

Ahh, Sunday. One of Clint's favorite days. He was relaxing in the den just off the kitchen. He had settled into the corner of the supremely comfortable couch that faced the windows, enjoying the cool of the soft leather against his skin. A book was held open but forgotten in his hand as he watched a peregrine wheel across the sky, freely soaring in the open area around the top of the tower. Clint was captivated, absorbed in the unburdened grace of the raptor's flight.

The room was quiet, the rest of the team forced to interrupt their day off for work. Against the quiet, Clint heard the soft hum of the elevator in motion. It was probably one of the team coming back for something they forgot. A fairly common occurrence. Clint smirked. They'd all got called to SHIELD's New York headquarters by Nick, something about incomplete paperwork. For once, Clint was glad he'd been diligent in completing his. Although, he was surprised that Steve had been included in the group Nick wanted. Steve was usually on top of that type of stuff.

The elevator doors slid open and Clint called out, "Who forgot what this time?" His humor was evident in his voice. He'd been in a good mood since breakfast. The meal had been full of laughter and gentle teasing, full of the warmth of friendship, and it had been exactly the cure Clint had needed for his earlier thoughts.

"Well, there's more than one way I could reply to that question, but the simplest is that I've forgotten how to be a good friend."

Clint stilled at the response. That was Coulson's voice. Clint forced himself to look over the back of the couch. Coulson was standing in the entry, hands in his pockets and rocking back on his heels. He looked good. His long sleeve sweater was a pale navy blue, and Clint knew it would set off Coulson's eyes. His dark blue jeans clung to his lean thighs and when he rocked backward, the jeans pulled tight across his hips. Clint swallowed past his dry throat and asked, "What?"

Not the most intelligent of questions, but Coulson's appearance was a complete surprise. Clint felt knocked off center. He hadn't seen Coulson in person since New Mexico, over a year ago. It was as if Clint's very thoughts this morning had summoned Coulson here. Clint closed his eyes, counted to ten, and reopened them.

Yup , Coulson was still there. Still waiting patiently for Clint. He had no idea what to do. He took a deep breath. Start with the basics, be friendly, act like this was just any day from over a year ago. He exhaled as he stood, firmly affixed a welcoming smile onto his face, and walked over to greet Coulson.

"Hey, Coulson, what brings you by the tower?" It was genial, friendly, and completely fake sounding, but it was all Clint had right now. Coulson still hadn't moved. As Clint got closer he could see he'd been right, the shirt did bring out the blue of Coulson’s eyes, but it also highlighted the bruised look of them. In the shadows of the entryway, the paleness of Coulson’s face was obvious.

Clint looked closer, cataloging details. Coulson’s hands were slightly trembling. The rocking movement seemed more involuntary than deliberate. There was a small patch of hair by his right ear that Coulson had missed with his razor. His hair was ruffled as though he'd run his hands through it. Any pretense of casual friendliness disappeared as Clint realized something was wrong. Seriously wrong.

At that moment, it didn’t matter that Coulson had walked away from Clint and left him behind. It would never matter, not when Coulson needed help. Clint reached out for Coulson, "What happened?" He asked urgently. "Coulson, what's wrong?" His hand tightened on Coulson's arm, and Clint couldn’t help but note the softness of the sweater clinging to the corded muscles it covered.

Coulson blanched in response to Clint’s concern, which simply worried Clint more. Coulson’s usual imperturbable calm had been shattered. “Coulson,” Clint urged again, “talk to me. What’s wrong?”

Coulson gave a helpless shrug, “Everything. I don’t even know where to start, Clint.”

And just like that, Clint was lost again. The sound of his first name on Coulson’s lips, spoken with caring. That was all it took for Clint to be sucked right back in, for his love to drown any sense of self preservation. Clint had always been hopeless when it came to Coulson. The time apart hadn’t changed that. Clint doubted that anything could.

“Could we, maybe, sit down?” Coulson tentatively asked.

Coulson’s hesitancy was disconcerting. He was always self-assured. This was more evidence for Clint that something was wrong and that Coulson needed help. Clint tried to push down the rush of pleasure that rose in him at the thought that Coulson had come to Clint for help, but it was impossible. Clint always had so little control of his emotions around Coulson. It was ridiculous and had been slightly humiliating on more than one past occasion. Clint felt a movement under his hand and realized he was still holding Coulson’s arm. Coulson, whom Clint still had yet to invite in.

“Umm, yeah, we can sit down. Come on in. I was just hanging out in the den. We can sit there, or would the kitchen table be better?” Clint offered Coulson the choice.

“The den is fine,” Coulson responded, but he didn’t start to move until Clint lifted his hand from Coulson’s arm.

Clint had held on to Coulson for a beat too long. Clint couldn’t help it. He hadn’t had a chance to touch Coulson in so long, and Clint had felt the warmth of Coulson’s skin rising through his sweater. Clint hadn’t wanted to let go. He thought he heard a sigh as he released Coulson’s arm. As Clint moved toward the den, he gave a quick glance back. Was that a flash of longing that flickered across Coulson’s face? No, as so many times before, Clint was imagining signs of affection. Why did he have to want Coulson this badly?

Clint dropped back into his seat on the couch, but canted sideways so he could look at Coulson instead of out the windows. Coulson sat next to Clint. Coulson bent his right leg sideways at the knee and rested it in front of him, turning to face Clint. He sat closer than Clint had expected. Clint could smell the faint scent of Coulson’s shampoo or deodorant. Clint had never been sure which, but the scent was still as soothing as ever.

Clint tried to keep his eyes on Coulson’s face but the way he was sitting had pulled his jeans taut and Clint couldn’t resist the quick look down. He fought not to swallow visibly, trying to hide his reaction. Coulson in casual dress had always undone Clint, and, after a year without Coulson’s presence, Clint was powerless not to react. Maybe Coulson hadn’t noticed.

As Clint’s eyes met Coulson’s, Clint knew that had been wishful thinking. Coulson had noticed, but instead of discomfort, Coulson looked almost relieved and, possibly, slightly smug. Clint’s head started to hurt. He had no idea what was happening here.

“I've forgotten how to be a good friend,” Coulson’s words echoed in Clint’s mind. He felt a sense of relief; that’s what this was about. Coulson thought he’d done something wrong and his sense of honor had sent him to Clint for the obligatory apology. But that didn’t explain why Coulson looked so disheveled and tired. Still, Clint thought he had a handle on the situation now. He could do this.

“Coulson, you know you don’t have anything to apologize for, right? I understand that sometimes people move on, it doesn’t mean they stop being your friend.” Clint was almost positive he’d read that in a magazine, but it seemed to fit.

The slightly smug look Coulson had been sporting slid off his face, replaced by something Clint couldn’t read. Coulson wasn’t impassive, it was just that Clint had never seen this expression on Coulson’s face before. Clint thought he’d seen every look Coulson had. Clint was a connoisseur when it came to Coulson’s face.

Clint had spent years studying it, memorizing the lines and wrinkles, the soft brush of Coulson’s eyelashes against his skin, the indefinable grey blue of his eyes, his narrow lips, the slightly crooked nose. Clint had seen Coulson happy, sad, angry, resentful, caring, seriously pissed off, and everything in between. But Clint had never seen Coulson look like this.

Coulson twisted his hands together in his lap and responded, “Yes. I mean, no, I mean,” he broke off in obvious frustration. He looked directly at Clint and asked, “Do you think you could call me ‘Phil’? It might make this a little easier.”

Holy shit, Coulson was dying.

It was the only thought Clint had. Coulson looked disheveled, exhausted, hurt. Coulson was stuttering and wanted Clint to call him "Phil". What the hell else could it be? Nick had assured Clint that Coulson had been having no physical side effects from whatever it was Nick had done to keep Coulson alive. But something had obviously changed. Clint swallowed hard. He’d never been able to imagine life without Coulson in it, Clint still couldn’t.

Clint reached out and laid his hand on Coulson’s…on Phil’s knee. “Anything you need, Phil. You know that,” Clint said softly. He patted Phil’s knee once and left his hand resting there. The touch was meant to convey comfort to Phil, if Clint felt better being connected to Phil, well, that was secondary.

Phil looked entirely nonplussed. His hands stopped their restless twisting and he tilted his head slightly to the side. Clint had seen Phil make that motion in the past, when he was trying to work out a particularly puzzling detail. He wasn’t sure why Phil looked that way now. He couldn’t be surprised that Clint would be willing to help. Clint had always been willing to support Phil, just because they hadn’t seen each other recently didn’t mean that Clint was going to abandon Phil, not when he needed Clint. Maybe Phil needed to hear that.

“Phil, you aren’t alone. You don’t have to go through this alone. I’m sorry,” Clint paused to clear his throat, “I’m sorry if you ever thought I’d abandon you. I’m always here when you need me. Always.” Clint was certain that his statements would reassure Phil. Which was why Phil’s reaction made no sense.

Phil stared at Clint blankly for a moment, then, reached up and covered his own face with his hands. He gasped “Oh, God,” repeated it, and then slowly started rocking his upper body in an almost unnoticeable motion. “Clint…” Phil tried to speak, but couldn’t get out anymore than Clint’s name.

Phil was making noises behind his hands but Clint wasn’t sure what they were. Was Phil laughing? Crying? Both? Whatever Phil was doing, Clint needed it to stop. Phil was very obviously not okay, and Clint needed to know why before he could help.

Clint scooted closer to Phil and then, daringly, wrapped his arms around Phil and tugged him close to Clint’s body. It was awkward, Phil’s leg was caught between them on the couch. But Clint ignored the awkwardness and took another leaf out of the Nick Fury handbook of friendship. Clint stroked Phil’s back in an attempt to calm him and made gentle shushing noises in his ear. “It’s alright, Phil, whatever it is, we’ll get through it together.”

Clint’s words just made Phil start to shake. Phil kept his hands over his face but he did lean into Clint’s embrace. Clint counted that as a win. “Shush now, you’re alright,” Clint continued to try and soothe Phil. “It’ll be okay, Phil.” Clint would make it okay, he had no idea how but damn it he’d find a way. This was Coulson. Phil. There was nothing Clint wouldn’t do for Phil.

He felt Phil take a deep breath, hold it for a moment and then exhale all in a rush. Phil made a strangled hiccupping noise as he tried to gain control. Clint still wasn’t sure whether Phil had been laughing or crying, or some strange amalgam. Two, three, four more deep breaths seemed to do the trick, and Clint felt Phil slump forward, resting his weight against Clint.

Clint tried not to take advantage of Phil’s obvious vulnerability, but it was a battle lost before the battlefield was even in sight. Clint scooted even closer and leaned his head forward, resting it side by side with Phil’s. Every breath Clint took was full of Phil’s scent, it was heady. Clint felt almost drunk. He’d always wanted to have Phil in his arms.

But not like this, Clint admitted, never like this. Not with Phil so obviously off his game and upset. After a few more moments of stroking Phil’s back and breathing in his scent, Clint knew he had to pull back. Phil’s breathing had calmed and he’d moved his hands away from his face to rest them on Clint’s arms. It was time. Clint leaned back and attempted to pull away from Phil. Clint had managed to slide his arms around toward the front of Phil’s shoulders when Clint felt Phil’s hands tighten spasmodically, as if he wanted to hold on but was trying to let go.

Maybe Phil wanted to be here, in Clint’s arms. If so, Clint would stay here forever. But Clint couldn’t let his own desires cloud his thinking. He never wanted to take more than Phil wanted to give. He continued to move his arms back until Phil’s hands were resting in Clint’s. As Clint moved away, Phil let his head hang, facing down to the cushion where their legs were touching.

“Hey Phil, can you look at me?” Clint gently asked.

Phil slowly lifted his head. His eyes were slightly red, but otherwise he seemed composed. Phil moved his right hand away from Clint’s, and Clint had to fight to keep his hand still and not clutch at Phil’s. But Phil surprised Clint. Phil didn’t move his hand away, simply laid it gently on Clint’s left cheek.

“You are the most amazing, the most perfect man, I have ever known,” Phil said softly, so softly, as if he were saying something holy. Phil was staring into Clint’s eyes and there was no way Clint could doubt Phil’s sincerity. The room was silent, their breathing the only sound. It felt right that it should be that quiet. There was no room for any other noise, the sound of the words Phil said filled Clint’s head, reverberated through his mind.

Phil continued, “I’ve treated you abysmally, horrifically, and I can understand if you can’t forgive me….”

Clint made a protesting noise, interrupting Phil. Phil just moved his hand to lay one finger against Clint’s lips, telling him without words to wait, to listen. Clint was trying to listen, but Phil was touching Clint's lips. It was all Clint could do to keep his tongue from reaching out and tasting Phil’s skin.

“You need to know, Clint,” Phil went on, his voice more serious than Clint had ever heard it, “you need to know that it was never you….”

At those words any thought other than ‘get away, get away now’ fled. Clint stiffened and tried to pull away. He’d thought, he’d actually believed, that Phil was telling Clint that he mattered. He should have known better. He did know better.

Phil quickly reached and grabbed Clint. Phil’s hands felt like steel bands around Clint’s arms. Clint tugged futilely. He knew he could get away if he truly tried but even now he couldn’t hurt Phil. He still didn’t know what was wrong with Phil, and Clint was loath to do anything that might make Phil’s condition worse.

Clint settled back down, but kept his posture stiff, avoiding as much contact with Phil’s body as possible. Clint kept his head turned away, staring out the windows and wishing he could be like the peregrine he’d seen earlier and just soar away.

Phil gave Clint a small shake, trying to get his attention. Clint wouldn’t turn his head to look at Phil, but Clint did tilt it slightly to indicate he was listening. It was better to get this over with.

“You didn’t let me finish, Clint. Not that I blame you. My past behavior has given you no reason to expect anything but acceptance followed by rejection, followed by more of the same. I’m sorry about that, more sorry than I will ever be able to convey. But it isn’t what I’m most sorry about.” Phil paused.

Out of the corner of Clint’s eye he could see the tip of Phil’s tongue dart out to wet his lips. It was a nervous tell that Clint had only seen a few times, when a situation was of deathly importance to Phil. Clint relaxed slightly and angled his body a bit more toward Phil.

At Clint's motion, Phil relaxed his grip, but didn’t release Clint’s arms. Phil’s tongue came out to touch his lips again before he spoke. “What I’m most sorry for is ever making you think that you weren’t good enough for me.”

Clint froze, then shook his head. There was no way he’d heard that right. But, Phil kept speaking.

“You have always been amazing to me. You try so hard, Clint, and, this is the part I need you to really hear, so please listen and believe me. You succeed. You always succeed. Beyond any expectation I could ever have. Not just as a sniper, or an agent, or a friend, but as a man. I am honored to know you and I’m so, so, sorry I ever made you think differently.” Phil released his hold on Clint’s arms and slid off the couch and down to the floor. Phil moved until he was on his knees between Clint and the window.

“Please look at me, Clint. I am not lying. I am not trying to console you. I am not saying this out of pity or guilt or some sense of obligation. I am not telling you this because I’m dying.” Phil paused. “I’m not, by the way,” he added as an aside. Then, gave his head a slight shake and reached up to lay both of his hands on Clint's face, cradling him.

Phil continued speaking, “I am telling you that you are good enough, that you, in fact, far surpass 'good enough' and I am telling you this solely because it is the truth. You are exceptional in every way I can think of. Your perseverance, your empathy, your loyalty. Your humor, your strength, your kindness. Your tenacity, your honor, your courage. Clint, everything about you is worthy and deserving.”

Phil meant every word he said, each was heartfelt and rang with truth. It was absolution. Clint could feel years of blame and doubt and countless hurts healing as the words soaked into his soul. The cessation of all that pain, the relief, made Clint’s eyes brim with tears.

“Oh, no, no, Clint,” Phil murmured and gently stroked his fingers across Clint’s cheekbones. “No need for tears. I meant every word. There’s no trick. There’s no walking away. I’m here, Clint, and I’m going to tell you how amazing, how wonderful you are every day. I’m not leaving you again.”

It was a promise, and Clint knew Phil would try to keep it. But staying with Clint wouldn’t be fair to Phil. Phil didn’t understand how truly messed up Clint was. No matter how pretty the words, no matter how true, Clint’s demons would never go away. They’d lived in him for far too long. Clint placed his hands over Phil’s and just let Phil’s warmth soak into him. Clint had everything he’d ever wanted right here. But now that he did, Clint knew he couldn’t let himself have it. Clint had to do what was best for Phil.

“Phil, I appreciate everything you’ve said. But it isn’t that simple. I may believe you now, but the truth you are telling won’t stay. I’m damaged, and some of it can’t be repaired. There are times,” Clint shut his eyes and felt a few of the earlier tears escape and slip down his face and onto their joined hands. “There are times when it all gets to be too much for me and I break. I fall back into the thoughts of the boy I was, the memories of my life before SHIELD,” he paused and opened his eyes, "before you. It’s an ugly place I go to, Phil, and it should never touch you.” Clint fell silent.

Clint expected Phil to pull away, to acknowledge the truth in Clint’s words. Instead, Phil leaned forward and touched his lips to Clint’s. They shared air for a minute, an hour; Clint had no idea. The moment seemed timeless.

Phil’s lips gently brushed Clint’s as Phil spoke, the words forming on Clint’s skin, breathed into his mouth, “I love you, Clint. Now. Forever. There is nowhere you will go that I won’t follow.”

It was grace, a benediction. Clint was helpless before it. He rested his forehead against Phil’s and breathed back, “Together.”

“Together,” Phil affirmed, then turned the gentle meeting of their lips into a kiss.

It was perfect, everything Clint had ever hoped for and dreamed of. Soft and tender, loving. Clint felt cherished beyond all measure. The kiss ended, but Phil didn’t pull away. Clint could feel the joy inside him bursting to get out. He couldn’t have held back the huge, blinding grin even if he had wanted.

Phil’s responding smile was tremulous but he beheld Clint’s joy as if it were the most breathtaking sight Phil had ever seen. Clint felt a bit silly asking after that, however, it was probably best to be certain, “You know I love you too, right?”

At his question, Phil’s smile turned mirthful, but he answered seriously, “Yes. You’ve always shown me your love. I was just too blind to see it.” He paused and got a sly look, “That was partly because I thought you were having sex with Nick.”

Clint’s mouth dropped open, “You thought I was…why would you think that? Wait, you know what, don’t tell me. I might be scarred for life.” Clint laughed, grabbed at Phil, and rolled them to lie in the patch of sun warming the floor. Once there, they tussled for a moment each trying to end up on top. Neither did.

Instead, Clint ended up behind Phil. So Clint propped his head up on his right hand, leaned his chin onto Phil’s shoulder and draped an arm across Phil’s waist. Clint’s heart skipped a beat as he heard Phil sigh and then snuggle back into Clint’s body. As they settled into one another, a shadow darted across their patch of sun.

Clint glanced out the window, “Hey, it’s my peregrine. I was watching him when you arrived.”

Phil turned, sliding his left shoulder down to the floor, but staying snug against Clint’s body. Phil looked questioningly at Clint.

“He looked peaceful, flying alone in the sky, unburdened. Watching him let me forget myself for awhile,” Clint answered honestly.

“Still want that?” Phil checked.

“No, I have you.” Clint leaned down and placed a chaste kiss on Phil’s lips. “There is nothing that could ever make me want to forget myself now.”

“Good. That’s how I intend keep it. I’m going to love you so well that, one day, you’ll rejoice in being Clint Barton,” Phil promised.

“You’ve done that, Phil. You did that today. I am happier than I have ever been, and I wouldn’t trade my life for anybody’s or anything, not even a pair of wings. I am where I always wanted to be.” Clint smirked then continued, “Okay, not quite where I always wanted to be. This floor is a bit hard.”

Phil arched an eyebrow in response, a smile playing at the corners of his lips. “Is that an invitation to continue this elsewhere?”

Clint’s smirk softened to a genuine smile. “Yeah, it is.” Clint slid back and then rolled to his knees next to Phil. Clint reached out a hand and Phil took it immediately. Clint gently pulled Phil to his feet, enjoying the warmth of his hands and the weight of his body. Pausing for a moment, Clint felt hesitant about taking the first step towards his room. Phil must have sensed it.

Phil moved one step closer until their bodies were touching, his breath hot against Clint’s skin. “I meant it when I said I’d follow you. And following you to your bedroom is about the best plan I’ve ever heard.”

Clint felt a rush of pleasure wash through him at the words. He caught sight of the raptor as he turned toward his room, Phil’s hand held tightly. But the beauty and freedom of its continuing aerial dance was ignored as Clint pulled Phil from the den and contemplated exactly how well he would follow Clint’s lead in the bedroom. He couldn’t wait to find out.