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my arrow flies straight and true (and I've been loved inside a heart for years)

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"Sorry, Boss. The guy rabbitted," wheezes Phil. Things are beginning to fade around the edges.

"Just stay awake. Eyes on me," Fury orders, but Phil's pretty sure he'll be unable to comply.

"No, I'm clockin' out here."

"Not an option."

"It's okay, Boss. This was never gonna work if they didn't have something to..." But he's too tired to finish. It's okay though, he's worked for Fury for long enough that Phil's pretty sure he's got his point across anyway.

o A o A o A o

Things start to get a little murky after that, Phil's grasp on reality becoming somewhat tenuous. He gathers a series of fleeting impressions, disjointed and distorted by pain and medication — gasping for breath at a sudden spark of awareness hazed over by blinding pain; his own funhouse-mirror reflection in the operating room light above him; the quiet of the recovery room interrupted by the constant beep of machines; the prodding and poking of doctors and nurses; the incongruous perfume of wildflowers barely discernible beneath the antiseptic smell; and invariably, the flash of red hair somewhere nearby.

Phil's aware that time is passing — hours, days, perhaps more — but he has no idea of how much. He has a momentary thought that he could estimate it based on the number of visits by medical personnel. However, his current ability to even count is a little on the rough side, so the chances of him successfully accessing his adding skills aren't good. Phil's hardly awake long enough to complete the thought anyway.

When he comes to again there's a warm pressure across the back of his hand. Seeing Natasha asleep in the chair next to him, her fingers curled around his, is quite a surprise. It's certainly not unusual to find her at Phil's bedside if an op goes wrong, but she'll rarely let her guard down enough to sleep despite being inside a S.H.I.E.L.D. facility.

The fact that Natasha has been around hasn't confirmed anything about the state of the fight with Loki up until now. Phil has suspected it meant some sort of victory, however there's also the possibility that Natasha thinks Phil needs a bodyguard for some reason and she's stubborn enough to get Fury to allow her to be in here while the battle still rages out there. However, finding her asleep pretty much guarantees that any possible war with Loki and his alien allies has been won and Loki's been captured (hopefully with better success this time.) It also indicates a level of exhaustion that worries Phil a bit.

Without thinking, he turns to look at the other side of the bed. The horrible lancing pain that screams through his chest stops him cold, but he's scanned enough of the room to know that, other than Natasha, there's no one else there. Wincing, Phil struggles through the pain and muzziness to try and pin down the niggling sense of wrongness.

His heart stutters when the feeling solidifies and he realizes Natasha is here without Clint.

o A o A o A o

It hadn't been until after the shawarma that Clint finally found out about Coulson. Fury had mentioned it during the team debrief like it was just another moment of the battle, moving on to the next topic as if he wasn't talking about the Avenger's handler. Bruce hadn't known either, but then again Bruce hadn't been on the helicarrier when it happened. Still, he looked nearly as shocked and upset as Clint felt and he hadn't spent years working side by side with Phil Coulson like Clint and Natasha had.

Natasha had refused to look at Clint for the rest of the meeting, slipping away as soon as it ended. He'd been furious with her for quite awhile after that.

"There was nothing to be done about it, and you knowing or not wouldn't have changed anything," Natasha says without hesitation when he can bring himself to confront her.

"Of course it would have changed things!"

"Not for Coulson. We needed you to concentrate on saving the world, not tearing Loki limb from limb. Besides, Coulson would never have wanted you compromised because of him." There's the smallest of hesitations before Natasha adds somewhat grudgingly, "And there was no way I was going to risk losing you again."

She straightens her shoulders, voice back to its usual matter-of-fact inflection. "You would have done the same had our positions been reversed."

It takes quite a while for Clint to admit the truth in her words. The likely possibility that, if he had known what Loki had done, the chances of him being in one piece, let alone alive after the battle, would have been slim to none. He wouldn't have been thinking about what S.H.I.E.L.D. needed, or what his own death might mean to anyone else. He would have been focused entirely on making Loki pay.

o A o A o A o

One of the first actual conversations that Phil fully registers makes him smile.

"Yes, I realize protocol would dictate that a foreign object such as this would not normally be allowed in medical, let alone in the room of an agent who has just suffered such extreme physical trauma –" Hill's words stop abruptly as whoever she's arguing with interjects something that Phil doesn't quite catch.

"While I appreciate your concerns," Hill continues, sounding like she does nothing of the sort, "the situation with Asgard is more than a bit delicate currently and I'm not about to tell our strongest ally that his tribute from one warrior to another cannot be delivered to said warrior because it doesn't meet with your requirements."

This time the response from the medical personnel is clear: "I refuse to authorize this. It came from another planet. Who knows what sort of bacteria or lethal diseases it might carry? I will not let such a dangerous object near my patient!"

There's a significant silence after the man finishes that even in Phil's groggy state he recognizes as Hill holding herself back. Phil seriously doubts he will be this man's patient for much longer. "Dangerous object?" Hill finally says, her voice like steel. "You are suggesting that Director Fury and I would risk Agent Coulson by placing something we didn't deem safe in his room?"

"No, I didn't mean –" the hapless doctor tries.

Hill doesn't even pause. "It's a cask of Asgardian Ale. The chances of any bacteria or disease being able to survive in the same room with it, let alone in the same cask, are nil. Have you ever had Asgardian Ale, Doctor?"

There's another silence, this one somehow more timid, and Phil guesses the doctor is finally beginning to understand how this is all going to end.

"I thought not," says Hill with a kind of finality. "And I seriously doubt you ever will. Orderly."

Phil falls asleep to the sound of something sloshing as it is wheeled into his room.

o A o A o A o

"I am afraid my family has done you a great wrong, Clinton," Thor says. "What would you have me do as recompense?"

Clint just stares at Thor, not sure at all how to respond. The idea of Thor somehow owing him because of what Loki has done seems so old fashioned. But then again, maybe not. Clint thinks of his own brother and all the times Barney had done someone else a great wrong. Of the times Clint had wished he could do something to make up for whatever Barney had done. Of the times that others had believed that beating up Clint somehow balanced out Barney's actions, and was therefore justified. Of the sense that Barney believed it as well.

Clint wonders what Loki thinks of Thor trying to pay penance for what Thor sees as Loki's trespasses.

"I will do whatever you ask," Thor says with conviction.

Clint shakes his head. "As noble as that offer is, I can't accept. It's not the way I operate."

"I do not understand, do you not want retribution for what was done to you? Loki forced you to do things not of your will. Made you take up arms against your friends and allies; against innocents. He used you as distraction to help him divide the fighting unit, to keep us from helping each other –"

Clint cuts him off sharply. "Yes, I'm well aware." He's quite familiar with the list of his crimes while under Loki's control. He doesn't need Thor reciting it or, god forbid, adding to it.

"And are you not angry?"

"Yes, Thor, I'm still fucking pissed." Clint doesn't want to be having this conversation, but Thor is like a dog with a bone.

"Yet, you will not give me a task."


"I ask too much." Thor heaves a sigh, "When the Son of Coul is well enough, I will tell him I cannot be on the Avengers."

"Wait, what?" Clint asks, startled. "Why not?"

The confusion is evident on Thor's face. "If our families are at war, I cannot expect you to fight by my side. I must not remain."

"At war? I'm not at war with anyone. Just because I'm still fucked off with Loki doesn't mean we can't be teammates."

"But you would have me do nothing to compensate for Loki holding you in thrall?" Thor asks cautiously. "Though, as the eldest, it falls on my shoulders to pay my family's debts."

Clint decides to try a new tact. "He's adopted, right?"

"That make a difference on Midgard?"

"You don't owe me anything for what Loki did," Clint hedges, counting on Thor taking that as a yes. He's also betting that Thor's apparent desire to honor Midgardian cultural rules when he visits will help Clint win this round.

"You are sure that is how it works here?"


Thor's grin is infectious. "Come!" he says, clapping Clint on the shoulder. "We shall toast our comradeship!"

And Clint's certainly not going to argue with that.

o A o A o A o

Phil's been trying to sleep for the past few hours, but he hasn't been able to get comfortable since they've started to wean him off the heaviest of the pain killers. Not only that, with the lessening of the drugs his brain is ramping back up to its usual speed and he's wanting answers. What he's gleaned isn't much. The visits from Natasha and Hill indicate a probable victory and if Hill's delivering gifts, there must not be too much aftermath. That gift also tells him that Thor's alive and in contact with S.H.I.E.L.D.. What he doesn't know is just about everything else; whether Loki managed to open the wormhole; the extent of any damage; how the rest of the team fared; and most importantly what happened with Clint and why he's seen no sign of him.

Not surprisingly, despite his exhaustion, slumber continues to evade him.

"Should we even go in?" a vaguely familiar voice whispers. "He looks like he's sleeping."

"Of course we should. I'm sure all he does is sleep," is the cocksure response.

It takes Phil longer than he feels it should to identify the owners of the voices. He allows himself a little leeway since it never occurred to him that he could possibly exist in a universe where Tony Stark would visit him in the medbay. Not sure if he has enough stamina to deal with Stark, even with the mitigating presence of Dr. Banner, Phil decides to continue to feign sleep.

The approaching footsteps falter. "Jesus Christ," Stark says, "Look at all the tubes, how can he possibly need that many fucking tubes?"

"He nearly died, Tony," Banner replies and Phil really wants to learn how he manages to sound both apologetic and scolding at the same time. "That's why he needs to rest. We can show it to him later."

"Yeah, maybe you're right." And Tony Stark agreeing so readily almost startles Phil into opening his eyes. "I'll put it here were he can see it."

"Can't we just bring it back with us when we –" Banner starts.

"No!" Stark's voice is sharp, almost pained. Phil hears him take a steadying breath. "You might not recall, but for those of us that are aren't quite superhuman, having things stuck in our chests leaves rather a lasting impression. It needs to stay here where he can see it."

There's an edge to his words that Phil recognizes. He's heard it before when he's debriefed agents after missions that have gone bad.

Banner must hear it too, because there's a slight pause before he carefully answers, "I do remember, Tony. I just figured he wouldn't need it here, or for that matter, be able to reach it."

"Yes, well, none of us expected he'd need it back on the helicarrier either and we were wrong about that weren't we?" Stark snaps before relenting. "Good point, though, about the mobility. JARVIS, remind me to construct a DUME2 and get it over to Agent Coulson's room by tomorrow."

The tinny response coming from whatever mobile device Stark is carrying is unmistakably JARVIS. "Very good, sir."

"Get me a piece of paper," Stark's commanding drawl would sound fine to anyone else, but Phil can tell Stark is anything but.

"Paper?" asks Banner. "How big."

"Paper sized. Honestly, Bruce." There's a rustling of what Phil assumes is the demanded paper. "We have to leave a note so he knows it's not some lame S.H.I.E.L.D. vest, but from us — well me mostly."

"Hey!" protests Banner.

"Okay, you did help with the Kevlar polymer a bit, I guess."

At Banner's snort, Phil has to consciously refrain from smiling.

"The point is," continues Stark, "He needs to know — really know — that we'll always have his back. He needs more than just platitudes. He needs visible proof, something tangible so he knows the Avengers, his team, are watching out for him, that we'll protect him, that –"

"Okay, Tony, okay," Banner says, placating, then adds with a smile Phil can hear, "You better be careful what you write, though, or Agent Coulson might just figure out you actually care."

"Oh, shut it, you," Stark responds good-naturedly.

An unexpected fondness for the two men washes over Phil. He's relieved to know that the Avengers not only consider themselves a team, but are also actively on the lookout out for any threats. It gives him a feeling of safety he hadn't been aware was absent since just after Loki showed up. The realization that he's agreeing with Stark has Phil wondering wryly if hell has frozen over as sleep finally claims him.

o A o A o A o

For some reason Clint and Bruce have developed a habit of jogging together in the morning. Clint's not exactly sure how it started, it's not like it was planned or anything. Yet somehow, come 6 a.m. every day, Clint finds himself meeting up with Bruce and heading out. It's not as if one of them is running with the other, neither of them is in charge and there's no competition. By silent agreement they take turns picking their route and run side by side.

The strangest thing for Clint is how much he's come to rely on Bruce's quiet company in such a short time. Clint, who, given the choice, has always preferred to train alone. Sure he spars with Natasha — you can't hone your fighting skills without a partner to test them on — and it's not like he hasn't spent many hours in the always crowded S.H.I.E.L.D. gym or jogging with his entire unit across sandy beaches or over rolling hills. However for the past few years, he's done what he can to minimize that, spending most of his strength and agility workouts in solitude.

It's become such an expected part of Clint's routine that when Bruce doesn't show the one morning, Clint asks JARVIS where he is.

"Dr Banner and Mr Stark are in Mr Stark's lab," JARVIS tells him.

"At this hour?" Clint asks in surprise. He's never thought of Tony as a morning person.

"They've been working straight through since yesterday."

And that's the first time Clint's ever heard a computer sound disapproving.

"Huh. Thanks." Clint ends up picking a path through a neighborhood that Bruce had introduced him to the other day and finds himself wishing Bruce was there. Oh my god, Barton, he thinks, are you really pining like some schoolboy? Shaking his head, he picks up his pace.

Silly or not, he's exceedingly glad to see Bruce as usual the next morning.

They've only been jogging for a few minutes when Bruce says, "Sorry I wasn't around yesterday. Tony can get kind of intense when he's focused on an idea."

Clint shrugs. "It's not like we're going steady or anything."

Laughing, Bruce counters with, "That's only because I don't have a letterman's jacket for you to wear."

"That's what you get for putting it on when you were already feeling testy." Clint's brain catches up with his mouth and he winces. "Er, sorry," he mumbles.

"Don't worry about it," Bruce says with a wry smile. Amusement slipping away, he adds, "I think I might get how you're feeling. You know, about the Loki-possessing-you incident." Bruce is quiet for a beat, and then he says, "I suspect there are several parallels to my relationship with 'the other guy'."

Clint grunts in acknowledgement.

"I get how everyone telling you it's not your fault doesn't really help any. What does it matter who they think is to blame? You know you weren't in control, but that doesn't change what you did."

They run in silence for a bit before Bruce glances over at Clint. "I'll assume you'll let me know if you ever want to talk about it."

Clint doesn't. Not yet. That doesn't mean he's not incredibly grateful for Bruce's offer and understanding.

o A o A o A o

Stark's DUME2 shows up with a note that says it's basically a step up from one of those reach-extender, plastic grabber things. It also hands him a datapad that turns out to be from Fury.

Phil does an actual double take when he notices the date. He'd guessed it had been some time since Loki's attack, but hadn't wagered it was nearly that long. He's got a lot to catch up on.

The datapad is locked out of the network, but Phil's pretty sure he can get Hill to fix that with enough wheedling, especially if her note about the Avengers' logo — the one that's clearly replicated from a late-night, back-of-the-napkin sketch they made a few weeks ago — is any indication. There's not nearly as much info on the device as Phil would wish, but the low-clearance overview of the battle against Loki and the Chitauri supplies him with some much-needed answers.

When he finally discovers that not only is Clint alive, he's apparently very much Clint once again, the relief is so great that Phil has to close his eyes against the threat of tears.

He opens them as Fury strides into the room. "Ah, good to see you truly awake."

Phil just nods in way of greeting — talking is still frustratingly difficult, so he avoids it when he can.

"You gave us quite the scare, Agent Coulson. I thought I'd lost you," Fury says gruffly. "I know you were just doing your job, but in the future could you try and refrain from going up against a god by yourself, no matter how big a gun you are carrying?"

Phil attempts to look contrite, but Fury's stern expression tells him he failed.

"I sent the datapad over because I know you, and you'll never relax without access to the information. But I want you to use it sparingly, and take plenty of time to rest and recover," Fury says. "And that's an order, agent. If you can manage that, I'll let Maria hook you up to the network in a few days. However, if your use of it interferes with your recovery at all, don't think I won't take it away."

Phil nods his understanding and agreement.

Fury seems to hesitate for a moment. "There's something you should probably know. I told the team –" He's interrupted by the beep of his phone. "Damn, I've got to take care of this." He turns to go. "You'll let me know if there's anything I can do for you."

"Boss," Phil croaks, stopping Fury. "Barton..." His voice scrapes raw over his throat. "What..." A painful cough. "How..."

"Agent Romanoff brought him back to us. He's ... He'll be okay," Fury says, his voice uncharacteristically gentle. "I'll make sure Maria gets you all the relevant files." Fury's phone beeps again. "Yeah, yeah, keep your shirt on. I'll be back soon to check on how you're doing. Get some rest."

Phil nods again, however as soon as Fury is gone, he picks up the datapad. He has every intention of resting; after he's finished reading all the reports.

o A o A o A o

Natasha floors Clint with a roundhouse kick, a sure sign that their relationship is almost back to normal.

"This is what happens when you let your mind wander," she chastises.

Clint just groans pitifully in response and stays splayed on the mat. After a minute Natasha gracefully folds herself down beside him, a tiny frown line marring her otherwise placid features.

"You realize you're doing no one any favors by avoiding him."

"Just because I haven't been down to medbay doesn't fucking mean I'm avoiding him," Clint replies, knowing she won't buy it for a second. As expected, Natasha gives him her trademark bitch-please face. Yet that doesn't stop Clint from futilely insisting, "Well, it doesn't."

"All you've managed so far is to confuse the rest of the team, cause Coulson to think you blame him for something and annoy Fury."

"Well, that's some good then," he says, throwing her a cocky grin. "Wait, why would Coulson think he's done something?"

Natasha raises an eyebrow and Clint sighs. "Because he's Coulson, fuck. Well it's not my fault if he's going to be an idiot and assume I'd blame him just because things went to shit. He should know me better than that. Sometimes stuff goes wrong that not even he can fix."

Scowling at Natasha's bark of laughter, Clint asks, "What's so funny?"

"Pot, kettle," she says.

"It's completely different, Loki never would have been able –"

"Don't." Natasha stops him with a fierce look. "I thought we had this conversation already. It wasn't your fault."

"There was no god damn conversation, Nat. You talked. I was still a bit out of it." Clint holds up a hand to forestall any response. "I get what you're saying, I do. Doesn't mean I have to agree. To borrow your phrase, I've got red in my ledger; too much to make excuses.

"Coulson wouldn't have had to face Loki alone if Tony and Steve hadn't been fixing the engine that I fucking blew up, and if Fury and Hill weren't trying to keep the helicarrier from crashing into a populated area after I sabotaged the computers, and if you weren't fighting me instead of being there to watch his back. Literally."

"Clint, none of what you did was done by your own choice," Natasha says. "Everyone knows that. No one blames you for any of it."

Clint shakes his head. "They should, Nat. Especially Coulson. I'm the reason he's in medbay."

Clint can't quite meet her eyes, but he knows her well enough to pick out the mix of exasperation and sadness in her voice. "Tell me how I can help."

o A o A o A o

Phil's reading through files on the datapad, trying to catch up on what he's missed. He doesn't consider it a breach of his promise to Fury. This isn't work, Phil just needs to know, to really understand, the nuances of how it all broke apart and how it came back together. Know what to do next time so it won't come down to such drastic measures.

It's also vital that he learn all he can about what happened to Clint. To figure out the details of how they failed him and how they could have helped him earlier. What they need to do now to get him through this.

Phil looks over when he hears a hesitant throat clearing near the door and is mildly surprised to find that such a timid sound came from Captain Rogers. Rogers straightens into parade rest as soon as Phil's eyes land on him, the motion seemingly automatic. Phil has to bite back his equally automatic response of At ease, soldier. Neither of them are in the military anymore, and Phil certainly isn't Rogers' superior. He settles on "What can I do for you, Captain?"

"I was hoping you might feel up to a short visit, sir. I need some advice," Rogers replies. "I know you're still recovering, and I wouldn't bother you with this, but nothing we've tried so far has worked and you know him best."

There's really only one person Rogers can be talking about, which means there's no question of Phil's compliance. It takes a moment for Phil to realize that Rogers is waiting for an answer. "Of course," Phil says. "What's up?"

"It's Agent Barton," Rogers says as expected, and Phil braces for he's not sure what. "He's spending excessive hours in the tower shooting range, sometimes late into the night. He rarely eats with the rest of the team and Tony found him perched on this tiny ledge above the Iron Man landing platform yesterday."

In other words, Phil thinks, breathing an internal sigh of relief, he's acting exactly like he always does when an op goes bad.

The problem is, though Phil always manages to bring Clint around, he can't translate what he does into any discernible advice. What he wants to say is Bring him here and I'll do whatever it takes to help him through this. Instead he says, "Agent Barton sometimes has a rather unique way of coping. It doesn't sound like his actions are out of line with previous behavior. Is Agent Romanoff worried?"

Rogers visibly relaxes. "It can be a little hard to tell with her."

Phil allows a small smile to escape. "I wouldn't be too concerned. Agent Barton has never let S.H.I.E.L.D. down."

"Oh, I'm not worried about that," Rogers says matter-of-factly. "His skills, current capability and loyalty to S.H.I.E.L.D. were never in question. But we're his teammates, his friends, more than that, his family. We want to help him however we can."

It's been a long time since Clint has had any family, and even when he did they weren't the kind that watched out for him the way Rogers and the rest of the Avengers are. Phil has never felt so grateful for Fury's insane pet project.

"Give him a little time, Captain. He'll get there," Phil says.

Nodding, Rogers stands. "Thank you for your time, Agent Coulson, now I'd best let you get some rest. Oh, wait, I almost forgot." He holds out something to Phil.

It turns out to be a near-mint set of Captain America trading cards, all signed. There beautiful, but they're not Phil's set, there are a few creases and dinged corners missing.

"Er, thanks," Phil says in confusion.

Rogers is blushing. "I had to get you new cards," he explains. "You kind of bled on yours."

Phil sighs inwardly. He most certainly did not. He takes better care of his collectibles than that, but Fury always has had a flair for the dramatic. His opinion about Fury's methods aside, Phil's incredibly touched that Rogers took the trouble. "That's very kind of you, Captain. Thanks."

"I'm just glad you're still here to get them," Rogers says with such feeling it surprises Phil.

He really is going to have to corner Fury and find out exactly what he told the team.

o A o A o A o

Clint's rummaging around the kitchen trying to find something to eat when Tony walks in. He's barefoot, wearing jeans and a t-shirt, and looks like he hasn't slept in at least 30 hours — though Clint suspects it's probably more — and he still looks like he just stepped out of GQ.

He has no idea what Tony does to keep in shape other than lug the Iron Man armor around when there's a need. He's never seen him in the tower gym, or even wandering about looking like he's just exercised in some manner. Yet he definitely does something. Tony may not be Clint's type, but Clint's got eyes and there is no denying the man is fit.

Fit or not, when he's been awake this long, Tony's what's-acceptable filter becomes pretty much non-existent. Clint's just about to take the safer path and make his escape when Tony speaks.

"How's everything going these days, Legolas?"

Cursing himself for not having moved faster, Clint puts on his best game face, and replies, "Peachy keen."

"Uhuh," Tony says doubtfully. "And how's that lie working for you? Anyone buying it other than yourself?"

Clint really doesn't want to deal with this. "Very funny –"

"It is funny," Tony interrupts. "As a matter of fact it's fuckin' hilarious that you think you aren't the main topic of conversation around here. That your adolescent behavior is not having an effect on the entire team."

Bristling at the implication, Clint tries to defend himself. "My behavior is not -"

"Your behavior most certainly is. And trust me, I would know. Pepper informs me I am the reigning king of adolescent antics."

Clint wisely keeps his lips sealed this time.

"Steve's worried about morale, Bruce is sympathetic, and Thor just wants to hit the appropriate thing with his hammer to make it all better and is confused that you won't tell him which thing that is. I'm sure Natasha is feeling some emotion about the whole debacle, but frankly she terrifies me, so I try not to dwell on what she might be thinking."

The edge of Clint's mouth twitches up in amusement.

"Anyway, the point is that Steve thinks we should have a big group talk with you, and Bruce thinks we should give you space. Personally, I think you should just get the fuck over it. Deal with the fact that you messed up and move on."

"Wow, Stark," Clint says, at his most sarcastic, "you sure know how to give a pep talk."

"I don't give pep talks, Barton, that's Steve's job," Tony snaps. "I know everyone else is trying to pretend all that damage you did wasn't done by you. But as far as I can tell, it was your hand on the bowstring and your deadly aim that caused so much grief."

Clint just blinks at him, stunned.

"I gotta say, I was not your biggest fan when I nearly got shredded by the engine three trying to keep the helicarrier from dropping out of the sky. I didn't give a fuck that Loki was controlling your reins 'cause they were your arrows and I would have been just as dead."

"Harsh," Clint manages in the midst of the roil of emotions crashing through him. Tony's not saying anything that Clint hasn't thought himself, but having someone finally agree with him is not at all satisfying. It's actually rather unpleasant.

"Reality's a cruel mistress, Barton. Luckily you have me."

Clint gives an unbelieving snort. "What, to tell me what a prick I am?"

"To share firsthand knowledge of how to move past dick-ish actions and their aftermath. It'll be a breeze. You've already done the first steps which involve copious alcohol and epic bouts of moping."

"Hey," Clint starts to protest, but Tony just raises an eyebrow.

"You're seriously going to argue the point? Do you really want me to bring JARVIS into this discussion?" At Clint's scowl he continues, "Uhuh, I thought not. Now, I'll admit that lately you seem to be mostly getting along with the gang here in the tower, so props for that. However, this thing where you hide out from Coulson has got to stop."

"I'm not –"

"Oh, please. I'm barely aware of stuff like that in my own relationships and even I noticed. And while I find it endlessly amusing that two of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s most badass agents are acting like a pair of love-struck teens, we're all getting more than a bit tired of passing notes back and forth between the two of you. Ergo, you are going to see him."

"Tony, I don't think –"

"I find most people don't, but thankfully I'm here to do it for you."

Giving up, Clint huffs a laugh.

"Seriously, Barton, you really need to go visit Coulson for everyone's sake. Both of you are obsessing over what Loki did and what you could have done differently, and while I'm never one to decry a good obsession, it may actually be time — and I can't believe I'm the one saying this — to let this one go."

Clint's at a complete loss as to what to say. "Um, I'll think about it, okay?" he finally tries.

However, Tony shakes his head. "Not good enough. I'll give you 24 hours and them I'm putting on the armor and dragging your sorry ass over there."

There's a slim chance that Tony's bluffing, but Clint rather doubts it. At least he can put off the visit until tomorrow.

"Clint." Tony stops him as he turns to leave. "I may have not been your biggest fan during the first half of the battle, but you've proven who you really are since then. What's done is done; stop beating yourself up. The best you can do is move forward and make what reparations you can."

"Yeah, okay."

"And Clint? You don't have to do it alone anymore."

o A o A o A o

When Phil wakes and notices that a cello has joined the ranks of the bizarre offerings in his room, he doesn't need to see the note to know it was from Pepper. He has DUME2 bring him the neatly written missive anyway. Life is short is all it says.

There's a quiet knock on the doorjamb, and Phil looks over to find Pepper smiling at him.

"I was hoping that if I went to lunch you'd be awake when I came back," she says. "You feeling well enough for a visitor?"

Phil beckons her towards him then adds with a still rough voice, "Thanks for the cello."

Of all Phil's friends and colleagues, Pepper's the only one who would be so overt about his personal relationships. Not that there isn't plenty of scuttlebutt, but no one else would actually talk to Phil about it.

There's a whole section of S.H.I.E.L.D. that believes Phil is asexual and that his 'cellist' is a rumor to make him seem more normal. Or else she's a cover story for some op. Another portion is sure she's actually a relative that gossipmongers with too much time on their hands have turned into a sordid affair. Still another group is absolutely positive that 'cellist' is a high-level code word.

The thing is, Phil really was just dating a cellist. Pepper can attest to that since Phil introduced them when they were all at a fundraiser just over a month ago. Phil's cellist has since moved to Oregon to join the Portland Cello Project, but before that they were seeing each other for several months. She's smart and talented and wickedly funny. She can have Phil laughing within ten minutes if she's really trying and never fails to make him forget about his job for at least a little while. They almost always have a good time when they're together.

Phil was definitely sorry to see her go, but not heartbroken by any means. It's not as if he was in love with her. Sure, Phil cares for her a great deal and they are still the best of friends despite the distance; however, they'd both known the relationship was more of the friends-with-benefits kind rather than a love match.

As wonderful as Phil's cellist is and as well as they get on, she'll never have his heart, because it's no longer Phil's to give. He handed his heart over to another so long ago he sometimes forgets what it felt like when Clint Barton didn't possess it.

Not that Clint (or anyone else) is aware of that.

And that's why Phil dates when he gets the chance, to keep from doing anything monumentally stupid like declaring his love in words or actions. As long as folk think that Phil's involved with someone, his behavior with Barton will be cast in a handler-agent light. At worst, some might assume he's being unprofessional and letting their longtime work association color their interactions, or cause him to give more weight or leeway to Barton's quirks.

Phil's spent decades making sure his true emotions are invisible to those around him, which is why he truly doesn't understand when, towards the end of her visit, Pepper says, "You need to tell him, Phil."

He raises a querying eyebrow.

Pepper sighs. "For a group of people that deal with intelligence, you're all worryingly clueless about emotional matters."

Phil's incredulous look gets a snort. "Yes, even you." Her smile fades a bit, her expression turning serious. "You need to tell Clint the cellist doesn't matter, that none of them matter but him."

Phil freezes for a telling moment before his instincts kick in and he opens his mouth to deflect.

Pepper stops him with a weary, "Don't, Phil. Just don't. I've known for ages. You not nearly as secretive as you think you are."

Part of Phil is still wondering if he can at least instill some doubt, and the rest of him is panicking that Pepper isn't the only one who suspects.

Pepper must see it in his expression, "Don't worry, I don't think anyone else has figured it out yet, though it won't take Bruce long to catch on. That man doesn't miss much."

Her sigh this time sounds almost defeated. "I'm not sure why I even brought it up. If both of you nearly dying isn't enough to convince you to talk to him, obviously my saying something won't have any useful effect."

Smiling at him a little sadly, Pepper gives his hand a squeeze. "You do know that you deserve to be happy, don't you?"

Phil has no idea how to answer her.

o A o A o A o

Clint prowls around the medbay making sure to stay out of Phil's line of sight and wonders if he can convince Tony that he visited Phil without actually visiting Phil. He discards the idea as useless. Though it might buy him some time, the chances of Tony making him pay for the deception — most likely in the most uncomfortable way possible — are extremely high. Clint takes a deep breath, braces himself, and walks into Phil's room.

All his preparation is for naught when it turns out Phil's asleep. It's a good thing, too, because despite everything, Clint's still not ready to see Phil looking so pale and weak and utterly unlike his Agent Coulson persona. Phil seems so vulnerable, Clint has to resist the powerful urge to gather him up and take him somewhere safer. Some place without so many people and unguarded exits.

He suddenly understands where Natasha's been disappearing to so frequently and curses himself for letting his emotions get in the way of making sure Phil was all right. Stopping Clint from protecting Phil, which should have been Clint's number one priority given the role he played in making it so that Phil needed to rely on others for his protection in the first place.

Clint's muttered swearing causes Phil to start awake. He bites off a pained grunt, eyes darting around the room in such a panicked way that Clint's by his bedside, a steadying hand on Phil's shoulder before he's even processed the need for it.

"Careful, Coulson, or you're going to hurt yourself. You're in S.H.I.E.L.D.'s medbay, you're safe, everything's fine. I won't let any harm come to you." Clint realizes he's starting to babble and clamps his lips shut.

Phil's eyes snap to his. "Clint?" Surprise colors his voice; his fingers tentative as they reach for him and then pull back. "You're really here?"

Clint's heart beats double time as he tries to process what's happening. Phil Coulson, S.H.I.E.L.D.'s most unflappable agent, is openly gazing at Clint as if he can't be real or as if he'll disappear at any moment. Clint's logged many hours cataloguing Phil's almost invisible tells and categorizing them into helpful clues as to what Phil might be thinking. To be able to easily read the mix of relief and doubt in Phil's words and actions is extremely disconcerting.

"Yeah. Yeah, I am," Clint says, flustered and unsure. "Um, sorry I didn't come by sooner. I should have. Not that I think you'd have wanted to see me or anything, but I should have been here anyway to make sure you were okay and everything was secure and stuff." Mortified, Clint clenches his teeth in an effort to silence himself.

"I would have. I did." Is Phil's quiet response. "Want to see you, I mean."

"Oh, I ... Um, sorry."

"No, it's fine. It's not like you're required to check in. It's just..." Phil looks away.

"It's just what?"

"It's just that usually if Natasha's here when I wake in medbay, so are you. Unless you can't be." Phil shrugs. "I was a little worried."

"But Nat told you what happened, right?"

"Not exactly. I was still mostly out of it at first. They had me pretty doped up. By the time I could keep my eyes open for more than a minute at a stretch she was on assignment. Don't ask me where –"

"Poland," Clint remarks absently. She'd brought him a quality bottle of vodka.

"Hmmm, I guessed it was the Mroczek case, but couldn't confirm. Fury's lowered my clearance level to 'reduce my stress' while I'm recovering."

Clint snorts. "That seems to be working out oh so well."

Phil's lips quirk up into a wry smile. "Anyway, I read her report while she was away." He nods towards the datapad on the side table. The amusement leaves his face. "That was how I found out you were still alive."

Clint's stomach drops. "Christ, Coulson, I didn't even think. After Fury told us Loki had killed you, I spent a few days in the bottom of a bottle. Then they told us the experimental surgery and treatment had worked and you weren't actually dead, at least not yet. You still weren't stable though, and I knew it was my fault you'd been hurt so badly. Not only did I fail to protect you, I actually put you in danger. So I found another bottle to crawl into and stayed the fuck away from you." He barely refrains from slapping a hand over his mouth to stop the flow of words.

Clint has never had so much trouble keeping his mouth shut. If he's not careful he's going to end up explaining how much he loves Phil and what a nightmare it was to believe he'd never see him again. Clint has got to get a grip before he embarrasses them both. He chances a look over at Phil and is surprised to see his stunned expression.

"I'm sorry, can we back up to the part where Fury said that Loki had killed me?"

"Frankly, I'd rather not," Clint says. "Those sixty-three and a half hours after he did rather sucked."

"Sixty-three and a half?"

"Sixty-three hours and twenty-six minutes to be exact. I rounded up."

"For nearly three days, you all thought I was dead?" Phil asks, incredulous.

"Longer for most of the team. I was unconscious when Fury announced it on the helicarrier." Clint's finding it hard to parse that Phil doesn't know all of this. Phil always knows. It's his job to know. "Bruce and I didn't find out until the middle of the team debrief."


"Fury didn't tell you all of this?"

"It must have slipped his mind," Phil says dryly.

Clint recognizes the look in Phil's eyes, and it doesn't bode well for Fury. "Or maybe it's above your security clearance," he says. As he'd hoped, this startles a laugh out of Phil, his smile turning genuine.


Clint hasn't felt this relaxed and happy since just before the tesseract started to misbehave and Phil got that worried pinch between his eyebrows. Standing here bantering with Phil — who's alive and safe and smiling — grounds him in a way that nothing else can.

"It's really good to see you, Clint," Phil says softly.

And Clint has to fist his hands at his sides to keep from reaching out to cup Phil's cheek and press a kiss to his forehead. He glances around the room for distraction, notices the cello and feels a familiar sinking sensation. "Oh, is she here? Of course she's here. Only I wouldn't have thought Fury would let her in."

"Who?" Phil follows Clint's gaze. "Pepper? Why wouldn't Fury let her in?"

"Pepper? No, your cellist." Clint can't even bring himself to say her name.

"Oh, no. She's touring in California, I think. That cello's from Pepper." Phil pauses for a moment, seeming to steel himself. "Also, she's not my cellist. Clint, I need to tell you something."

Clint freezes, his heart in is throat, and answers the only way he can, "Anything."

o A o A o A o

Phil yawns as he pours himself a cup of coffee, black, two sugars. Exactly a year ago Phil didn't die, despite Loki's best efforts, and Natasha didn't kill Clint. Phil's never been so grateful for life's little quirks of fate. Strong arms wrap around him from behind.

"Why are you up? No one should be up at this hour on a Sunday. Come back to bed," Clint mumbles into Phil's neck.

Phil would like nothing more than to do just that. The pleasant ache from last night's rather aerobic sex is starting to fade, and Phil would much rather spend the morning teasing Clint to the brink of orgasm and seeing how long he can keep him on the knife's edge before he tips over — their record's three and a quarter hours, but Phil's sure they can make it to four. However, now is not the time.

"You know we have to be ready for that press conference in just over an hour." Phil turns in Clint's arms and captures his mouth in a lingering kiss. "How about a quickie in the shower now, and the promise of we-didn't-die-a-year-ago celebration sex tonight?"

"Deal," Clint readily agrees, kissing Phil thoroughly before towing him towards the bathroom.