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Words May Fail (The Body Remains)

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Anyone who knows Agent Coulson knows three things.

1. He is incapable of saying no when presented with dessert of any kind.
2. He’s got a collection of antique Captain America memorabilia that could make even the most manly of men drop to their knees and cry like a little girl.
3. He’s a bona fide ex-military badass, and can and will end you at any time, for anything.

That isn’t to say that Agent Coulson’s entire personality revolves around those three things, or that those three things somehow make the man, because that’s not true at all. Coulson is also extremely private, so the fact of the matter is, the reason people know about the dessert and the Cap crap and all the rest is because Phil has let it become general knowledge. It’ll take Clint an embarrassing amount of time before he figures out the difference.

Clint learns about the pastry thing the first time he meets the man. Alright, that’s a lie, Clint was bleeding the first time they met, but it counts because it’s in the same general time frame. He’d been bleeding because he’d had the shit beaten out of him, and then on top of everything he’d been shot. It’s only later, drugged to his eyeballs while a gruff, balding doctor roots around in his chest with a pair of glorified pliers, that he’d learn Coulson’s aim is so good he can shoot someone in the meaty part of the shoulder without damaging anything. Actually, it’d be number 5 on the list, but the only person currently employed at SHIELD who’s had the misfortune of being on the opposite side of Coulson’s piece is Clint.

He spends two weeks handcuffed to a bedrail, a solid month at the tender mercies of the rehab team, and then he’s escorted to Coulson’s office by the ex Navy Seal who’d been part of the team who’d snatched him to begin with.

(He’d carried Clint, master marksman and all-around scrappy fighter, into their G-Man van by the back of his shirt not unlike one might carry a screeching, furious kitten. Not a good day. Clint would later learn that his name is Dave, he’s got three kids, a grandbaby, and makes a mean peppercorn steak. Also, the only time Clint ever sees Dave get his ass handed to him is when they’re ankle-deep in New Mexico rain, trying to stop a Swede hopped up on righteous fury from reaching what no one is calling Excalihammer.)

Coulson takes him down to the commissary which is just matter-of-fact insulting, because Coulson taking him for food means he doesn’t see him as a threat. He is so a threat, and the part of him that’s sulking like a kid wants to prove it, wants to swipe a gun or a knife or something and do threatening fucking things with it just to see what will happen.

He’s putting together his plan, a really good one thank you very much, when Coulson slaps a tray down in front of him hard enough to make the cutlery sing. “Food.”

“I’m not hungry,” Clint says. The food they’ve got looks like pretty standard cafeteria fare – there’s just so much of it. They could have fed the carnies for two weeks with this spread, and it smells so good his stomach growls.

“Uh huh,” Coulson says, and pushes him in front.

They’re serving some kind of beef square thing, and though Clint is pretty sure he’s never had beef square thing he takes two helpings of it. There’s mashed potatoes, and green beans, and other stuff that Clint isn’t sure he can identify, but now that there’s food he can’t actually stop himself from asking for a little bit of everything. Coulson doesn’t even mind when Clint commandeers part of his tray for a second plate, but that’s probably because once they’re through the line they stop in front of a counter covered in what must be every dessert in creation. There’s what looks like wedding cake, and every kind of cookie imaginable -- the ones with the chunks of chocolate look like they belong in a magazine they’re so fucking gorgeous. There’s flaky, golden pie, and custard, and a soft-serve machine that blurts out ropes of icy-cold creamy goodness. Clint’s brain goes temporarily offline, and somehow, by the time they finally sit down, they’ve got a third tray.

Coulson talks, but Clint can’t actually pay attention when there’s this much food in front of him. He can’t help it, and he knows he’s probably going to make himself sick, but it doesn’t stop him from eating what must be his body weight in beef square thing and potatoes. It feels a little like the first few weeks with the circus, when he and Charlie hadn’t been able to stop shoving food in their mouths.

At some point, once his stomach begins to feel pleasantly full, he realizes that Coulson hasn’t actually touched his supper. In fact, he’s made his way steadily through four of Clint’s desserts, and is working on a piece of peach cobbler that makes Clint hate him a little. “Sweet tooth?”

“Something like that,” Coulson replies. “Good?”

It’s the best beef square thing he’s ever had. “It’s alright.”

It’ll take Clint another six months to figure out that Coulson’s expression, which looks like an aborted sneeze, is his attempt at not laughing. He does it a lot, especially when Clint says something particularly inspired. Clint must be some kind of masochist, or maybe he took more than years of hunger and pain from the circus, because he goes out of his way to see it.

 

.

Clint joins SHIELD for five reasons.

1. There are people who wouldn’t mind if he were six feet under and that isn’t cool, because one of them is his crazy ex-mentor and the other is his brother. Alright, no, that last bit is kind of a stretch, Charlie doesn’t actually want to kill him; slap him around a little, yeah, especially once he’d found out Clint had followed in Buck’s footsteps and gone the route of petty crime. Trickshot just really wants to kill him, because Clint’s a little shit when he wants to be. Clint’s pretty certain he’s going to kill him first if Coulson has anything to say about it.
2. There’s the matter of the thievery and burglaring on his record. It’s SHIELD or prison, and Clint is far, far too pretty for prison.
3. There’s always food. There’s also a roof over his head, and clean clothes, and a warm bed he doesn’t use as much as he should, but mostly, food. Always. Doesn’t matter where they are, what they’re doing, or who he’s with, they feed him. Clint doesn’t actually realize how much healthier he is now until he looks at himself in the mirror one day and almost doesn’t recognize the person looking back at him.
4. They dig his skills. It’s nice to be appreciated, especially when, four months after they drag him into SHIELD by the shirt collar, Directory Fury strolls in, hands him a (really shitty) bow, and says, “The kids tell me you’re good. Amaze me.”

It’s that last one that shakes the leaves from the trees. Clint’s never been a part of something like this, what with the circus and the thieving and not being such a great human being. He’s pretty sure it’s all a big misunderstanding until they outfit him with a communications thingy, a bow that probably costs as much as a small car, and—

5. Coulson.

They work together alright. Coulson’s a dick, but he’s the kind of dick that Clint flat-out adores. He’s got a mean streak a mile wide and won’t hesitate to put Clint on crap detail if he fucks up, and his snark is so dry that half the time people leave conversations with him wondering if they’ve just been insulted. Clint comes to learn that’s just the way Coulson likes it. He’s an alright guy, and for all that he’s one hundred percent Asshole, there’s something about him that sets Clint at ease right away. His mama always said there were two types of people, and you always knew what side someone fell on by the look of their eyes.

Coulson’s got the kindest eyes Clint’s ever seen.

He’s dedicated himself to teaching Clint the ropes, setting the groundwork with effortless ease that tells Clint he should have been a schoolteacher instead of a G-man. Clint says so, once, and Coulson gets him back by shoving him out of a tree like a mama bird. If ‘shove’ means ‘kick’ and ‘out of a tree’ means ‘into the super secret hideout of a suspected smuggling ring’. Clint hasn’t had so much fun in years. He thinks he hears a smile in Coulson’s sigh when Clint swings back to base crooning Free Bird.

Clint likes the way Coulson handles his shit. He’s tough, tough as nails, but he’s also fair, and considerate to Clint’s stockpile of hard-core issues, like he knows Clint and doesn’t mind what a whack-job he is. He trusts Clint to do what needs doing, and Clint starts to – well, not trust, he’s learned that lesson, Clint doesn’t trust. He’s just less wary, less likely to say no if he hears something he doesn’t like. Coulson, he’s learned, will never ask him to do something he himself wouldn’t do. It makes being asked to work for SHIELD easier to handle, knowing that the boss-man has his back.

Things continue on in that vein, through summer and fall and into a blisteringly cold New York winter. The cafeteria serves all kinds of holiday food, but there aren’t that many people there to enjoy it, just the die-hards and the skeleton crew assigned over the holidays. Dave tries to get him to come home with him for Christmas, but Clint isn’t what anybody would call the holiday type. He spends the days leading up to Christmas at the range, trying out new arrows that the R&D guys gave him (they explode, it’d be awesome if Clint wasn’t also aware that he’s carrying around bombs strapped to his back).

One night, he feels familiar eyes between his shoulder blades as he draws the string back. “Thought you’d be halfway to Boston by now.”

“Boston?” Coulson asks, coming around his left.

Headquarters is near to deserted, but the man can’t dress down to save his life. He tries to imagine Coulson in one of the obnoxious holiday sweaters Sitwell wore all month just to piss everyone off and nearly bursts out laughing.

“Something funny?”

“Always sir,” Clint says, and lets the arrow fly. It explodes merrily. “Boston. You know. Family. Parents. White Christmas, all that bullshit.”

“My parents live in Portland,” Coulson replies, amused, and comes up behind him to adjust the strap digging into Clint’s shoulder blade. Clint pretends that he doesn’t feel a little shiver up his spine at the contact, because that’s a whole thing he is Not Thinking About. “Also, Jewish.”

It brings back a little flash – Lady Matilda, beard thrown daintily over her shoulder while she fried latkes by the hundred and he peeled a million pounds of potatoes. She made him potato soup that first Christmas, and kissed his forehead like his mama used to do.

Coulson studies him as he moves, and it’s just as weird as it’s always been. It isn’t bad, just makes him feel kind of strange, like when Coulson called him an asset and it sounded less like ‘something to guard’ and more like ‘someone to be protected’. He works through the arrows, one after the other, until his quiver is empty and his arms are pleasantly burning.

He lowers the bow, props it on a boot-toe and starts to dismantle it. “Portland isn’t so far away.”

In true Coulson fashion, he totally ignores him. “You aren’t one to miss a meal.”

“Got busy.”

“I can see that,” Coulson says, voice flat and inflectionless, but Clint’s been around him enough now that he can still hear the laugh in it. “Food, Barton.”

“It’s like, one in the morning,” he replies, but Coulson is already walking away, and dammit, his handler knows him too well because Clint calls, “Hey, did you hear what I said?”, and follows him anyway.

The city is pretty dead, just like Clint had expected. Even the last-minute Christmas shopping is mostly winding down. There are a few corner stores open, a Thai place (Clint, or rather Clint’s digestive tract, does not do Asian food), a handful of coffee shops. Instead, Coulson drives them through midtown and down into a parking garage under an apartment building, which is when Clint buys a damn clue.

He’s lived lots of places, that’s the honest truth. His childhood had been in a double-wide, old and worn but neat as a pin. After his mama died and his father was put away he and Charlie had gone to the state orphanage, where they’d shared a bed and a chester drawers filled with threadbare t-shirts and a picture album. Then there’d been the circus and the couch in Lady Matilda’s sitting room, and now most recently it’s been SHIELD. But those were all places that he’s lived, and when Clint steps into Coulson’s place and sees the bookshelves, the cool posters on the walls and the cozy furniture, he recognizes this place as a home. It’s an old, familiar sorrow, a pang low down in Clint’s chest, because he’s old enough now to know things like this aren’t in his cards.

Coulson disappears as soon as he opens the door. Clint can just see him in the kitchen, shedding his jacket and pulling beers out of the fridge, so Clint does what he does and pokes around, mostly because he can’t not. There’s a collection of records on a shelf, and sitting on the lid of an antique wooden turntable is a copy of Ring-a-Ding-Ding!. There’s a huge collection of bluray’s below an impressively-sized television, and photos of his family everywhere, including one of his twin (holy shit) brother, a heavy-set man with the same beautiful blue eyes and a kippa, and what must be their younger sister, a petite woman with a kind face and strawberry blond hair.

But what really gets to Clint, what makes him bite down on his tongue so he won’t laugh, is the ludicrous amount of Captain America memorabilia Coulson has. There’s framed artwork on the walls, and a film reel tin of one of Cap’s first movies. He’s got an ancient-looking pillow on a side chair of Cap’s shield in needlepoint, and even a tiny replica of Cap’s dog, Major Max.

“I’ve got some stuff for omelets,” Coulson says as he comes out of the kitchen. He’s rolled up his sleeves, even, and Clint realizes that – that maybe in the spirit of the holiday or some shit, Coulson is inviting him to relax. In his house. With food and beer and his Cap crap.

Clint accepts the offered beer but he’s a smartass, born and bred, and he blurts, “If you suddenly grow a goatee, I’m out of here.”

Coulson smirks, one corner of his mouth curled up. His beautiful eyes fucking sparkle, it’s gorgeous and Clint Is Not Thinking About This, Clint is steadfastly ignoring It as hard as he fucking can because holy shit, he can see that end game coming from a mile away and it ain’t nothing but heartbreak and getting booted out on his ass.

He turns away, stomach jumping, because there’s a reason Clint doesn’t do this holiday shit, dammit. He doesn’t look at Coulson, but he’s a sniper and his peripheral vision is spectacular. Coulson’s smirk has softened into something as close to real as Clint is ever liable to get, and it just makes shit worse. He nods at the poster over the small dining set to distract them both. “I’ve never seen that one before.”

“Vintage 1942 recruitment poster. I found it in Seattle a few years ago,” Coulson says. He looks so at home, here – not that the guy is awkward or anything, ‘awkward’ and ‘Coulson’ are polar opposites. He’s just. At ease, comfortable, shoulders loose and fingers wrapped almost gently around the neck of his beer. He has long, slender fingers. Artist’s fingers. “Surprised?”

“You don’t seem like the geek type, no offence sir,” he says, and takes a sip of the beer. It’s good, has an earthy tang to it. “Worth anything?”

“Probably. Don’t really care.” Coulson’s lips curve up into one of the first real smiles he’s seen from the man, and That Feeling jackknifes down low between Clint’s legs. It’s Stockholm Syndrome, or comfort born of familiarity, or god knows what, but holy shit it’s the worst kind of disaster imaginable if Clint lets himself go that way, if he does that to himself, and Clint, Clint is not that kind of idiot.

 

.

(He thinks maybe Coulson must be joking about the Cap fetish, because he wouldn’t put it past him, but no, the man really does have a shitload of Captain America stuff, including Boxing Cap, which Clint can remember wanting with all his heart as a kid, and a wheat penny issued by the U.S. Mint in 1945, which has the American flag on one side and Captain America in profile on the other.

Apparently, Coulson’s obsession is common knowledge, because once SHIELD comes back into full swing after the holidays Jasper is like, “Dude, how did you not know this? Phil is the ultimate Captain America fanboy. I’ve seen the man haggle on old Cap figurines whilst bleeding from various bullet-made orifices. You’ve been here how long?”

Long enough, but Clint scowls. “How the fuck should I know, I’m the asset remember?”

Jasper gives him a pitying look, and Clint would punch him in the face if the pity wasn’t kind of deserved.)

 

.

They’re in a little country town that spring for something or other (some kind of drug trafficking thing, mostly Clint just stands around looking threatening), when he comes across the trading card. It’s kind of by accident – they’re shooting, then they’re not shooting, the police come in and the FBI is pretty pissed because SHIELD accidently solved a related case for them, blah blah bureaucracy blah. He leaves the suits to deal with it and finds a Mom’n’Pop diner down the street, where he enjoys one of the most awesome burgers he’s ever had. The mom, Patty on her nametag, is so overjoyed by his enthusiasm that she gives him extra home fries and a milkshake the size of his arm and doesn’t even mention how he’s a little splattered with blood. (Clint hasn’t broken someone’s nose in a long time but fuck if it hadn’t been really, really gratifying.)

She tells him about her grandkids, and how she always suspected something was going on down at the Laurence place. “They never leave a tip,” she says, and Clint’s worked in enough of these places to be pissed off on her behalf. “Always on their cellular phones, and Mr. Laurence came in with brand new Italian leather loafers one day, like he wouldn’t step on a cow patty or three before getting home.” She wipes at the counter with a sigh. “It’s a good thing you boys came in when you did.”

“It’s our job,” Clint replies, and slurps at his milkshake. “We’re glad to have been of help, ma’am.”

It’s the right thing to say. Patty beams at him, pats his arm, and disappears into the back to get him, “The best slice of peach pie you’re ever going to eat sweetheart, just wait and see.”

That’s when he notices it. There’s a corkboard behind the cash register, full of announcements – Beth and Lou Riverson had a baby last week, Connie Mae and Mike are finally getting married – and tucked into the corner, forgotten, is a Captain America trading card.

They’re driving across the Midwest that night when Clint says, “You collect the cards, right sir?”

Coulson glances across at him. Darkness suits him, throws his features into stark relief. Sometimes it’s easy to be taken in by the suit and forget to notice he’s a good-looking guy. Clint, or rather Clint’s traitor cock, has started to notice all the time, but Clint’s certain it’s attached to some other part of his brain, the hindbrain or the idiot brain or something, convinced Coulson would hand out satisfying orgasms if Clint just asked. “1946 set,” Coulson says, and Clint realizes he’d been staring at his mouth. Fuck. “Not the red foil from the eighties.”

“Oh.” He’s pretty sure the card is one of the older ones, but he isn’t sure. He reaches back into the backseat for his vest, rifles through it for a second. “Why not the ones from the eighties?”

“I’ve got the whole set,” Coulson replies, curious now, but moves an arm out of the way for Clint to wriggle over the center consol.”

Clint finally opens the right pocket and tugs out the card. It smells a little like the diner, and there’s a crease in one corner, but.

Coulson actually stops on the side of the road. When he takes the card, it’s reverent and so fucking dorky Clint would laugh, if it didn’t also kind of fill him up with something warm from his toes to his chin.

After a few moments, Coulson says, “I’ve already got this one.”

Disappointment ponies after the warmth. “Oh.”

“Doesn’t mean it’s not worth five grand, though.”

Oh,” Clint says, and laughs out loud. “You’re the Antiques Roadshow of Captain America shit, you know this right?”

“I do know this,” Coulson says, and Clint can tell he’s amused. “Hang onto it. I’ll take you to someone when we get back to New York, get it appraised.”

“Nah.” Clint presses it back. “Just in case you need to make a trade or something.” It’s funny, it’s hilarious, but all Clint feels is warmth, especially when Coulson gives him the Not a Sneeze that isn’t so much laughing at him as laughing with him.

 

.

Clint’s second year at SHIELD is kind of the same as the first, only now that they know he isn’t going to run they give him more freedom. They offer him an apartment outside of SHIELD that he doesn’t want, and a clothing allowance that lets him buy jeans and t-shirts and stuff he hadn’t realized he’d missed until they’d put him in a uniform for sixteen months.

When he starts feeling cooped up, all but clawing at the curtains like a cat in heat, he hits the city, walks around and sees the sights and pretends he’s a tourist. It’s kind of fun, and Coulson only looks surprised the first time he shows up at his place with food. He doesn’t make it a habit – there’s danger down that road, because Coulson is always Sir, even off the clock – but when he wants company, when he’s desperate for it, that door is always open to him. Coulson never seems to mind, which is why it hurts so fucking much when they go on an op in Smolensk and Clint defects.

It’s because of a woman. It’s stupid, Jesus it’s the dumbest shit he’s ever done, but Clint isn’t a fucking contract killer, some mindless drone who puts arrows and bullets into people just because someone tells him to. Well, okay, no, he does that, but only when it’s right, when he knows the people he’s killing are bad people who have done bad things. It doesn’t make it okay, but it makes getting them off the street okay enough that Clint can mostly sleep at night.

It’s the first time Coulson has said, “Take the shot,” in his ear and he hasn’t agreed with it.

She’s beautiful in a way Clint can’t even explain. She’s got the long red hair and enormous green eyes, and that body, but that’s not even what Clint is about. She’s beautiful in that way broken things can be, exhausted like Clint can remember being once. She hasn’t been caught, she’s given up, and she’s going to use Clint to end whatever struggle she’s fighting.

Clint’s swung the bow over his shoulder before he knows what he’s doing. He grew up in the fucking circus, just because nobody remembers that doesn’t mean Clint’s forgotten how to monkey down three hundred feet in under five seconds. He’s on the ground before anyone knows what’s happening, grabbing the woman by the arm and running so fast and so hard across the warehouse that it’s a miracle they don’t go sprawling. Coulson shouts in his ear, “Agent Barton!”, and there are bullets, a lot of them, but then he’s throwing them both out of a window and down into the river below so it doesn’t really matter.

They hole up together twenty miles outside of Smolensk, in a hunter’s shack in the woods. Or at least that’s what Clint thinks it is, prays it is, because there are far too many dead animal carcasses to be otherwise. The woman says, “You should have killed me,” and well, she isn’t wrong.

“Maybe I didn’t feel like it,” he says – gasps – because the woman’s got her belt around his thigh and fuck all if he isn’t bleeding all over the place. He has the passing thought, Smith and Robbins need more practice on the shooting range before he remembers he’s given up SHIELD for this woman’s life, and it doesn’t matter who needs what anymore. “What’s your name?”

“Keep your mouth shut,” she says with a flawless American accent, tightening the tourniquet and digging into her pack. She comes out with a prepackaged needle, and wow, Clint’s really out of it because he doesn’t even mind when she sticks it in his leg.

Some of the pain edges off, right until the woman starts wrapping his thigh in torn strips made from the thick lining of her jacket. He only screams a little – manly screaming, of the recently shot, because Smith and Robbins have shit aim. He refuses to consider that the bullet in his leg belongs to Coulson.

“They’ll be here soon,” she says, and he must have heard wrong only – shit, there’s a chopper somewhere, and he has no idea how the fuck SHIELD found them, Clint ditched all of his equipment around the time he realized he was going to bleed to death.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t buy you more time,” he tells her, and fuck it hurts, holy Christ he’s going to pass out, any minute now he’s going to pass out and that’s good, that’s great even because he doesn’t want to be conscious when Coulson puts a bullet in his brain – and he will, it’s the least he deserves for this shit, he can’t believe he’s –

“Why?” she demands, grabbing his chin and forcing him to look at her. “Why did you do that?”

“Couldn’t shoot you,” he says – he’s checking out here, his ears are full of bees and there are dark spots dancing in his vision. “You’re like me.”

“I’m nothing like you.”

He laughs, rolls his head to the side. “Honey, we’re cut from the same cloth.”

She stands, pack tight across her shoulders. He’d be lying if he said he didn’t expect the boot to the face.

After that, there’s pain – so much of it so quickly that he sobs like a kid, broken and ugly like he’s never done before, and Clint’s broken most of the bones in his body. There are voices he can’t understand and he doesn’t know why, and ants biting his leg, nibbling at the nerves and poisoning his blood. He drifts like that for years it seems, caught in an endless loop of pain that grows steadily worse before getting lost under a haze of thick cotton.

When he finally comes up from it, Coulson is sitting next to him.

“We caught her,” is the first thing he says. He has his fingers laced, resting on a crossed knee. The window behind him is dark, but even so Clint can see the New York skyline. Somehow, that alone makes the fact that he’s handcuffed to the bedrail a little easier to bear. “What you did was very, very stupid.”

“Sorry sir,” Clint says, voice so hoarse it sounds like he’s been chewing on gravel. He wants water, badly, but he doesn’t dare ask for it, not when the man sitting next to him doesn’t even look like the same man he’s gotten to know.

Coulson studies him with that thousand yard stare of his, unflinching. “What you did was stupid,” he reiterates, his beautiful eyes narrowed. “Want to tell me why?”

“Why it was stupid, sir?” Clint asks, because he’s preprogrammed to be a smartass.

“Oh, I know why it was stupid,” Coulson replies calmly. “Everyone knows why it was stupid. Larry the janitor knows why it was stupid.”

Clint leans back into the pillow. His leg is numb and still, somehow, throbbing like a motherfucker. He can hear someone speaking in the hall that sounds a whole hell of a lot like Director Fury, living up to his surname. “Sorry sir,” he says again, and coughs. It makes his throat ache, fills his mouth with the flavor of his own blood.

“You’re really not.”

“No,” he admits. Then, “I didn’t want to kill her.”

“Why? Why her?”

“I don’t know.” He’s angry now, or as angry as he can get when he’s fading this fast. It doesn’t matter, none of it matters anymore. “She wanted to die. SHIELD’s been chasing her for almost a year. She’s good, she’s better than good, no way she would have been caught out in a warehouse, especially not with the junior agents you were dragging with us. She led us there to orchestrate her death.”

“Did she.”

“Yeah. Don’t you fucking trust me?”

“Yes, I do.”

It’s like a knife in the guts, as awesome as it is awful. Clint is so stupid to have gotten this deep, Charlie always said it was one of his biggest faults. He looks away because he can’t not, because Coulson is giving Clint the benefit of the doubt and he doesn’t deserve it. He can’t look at the man, not when he feels this much hot, cloying shame. He tries to lick his lower lip, mouth like the desert. “What now?”

“Now you’re busted back down to probationary agent,” Coulson says. There’s a sound from a machine somewhere, and Coulson arches a brow, and Clint realizes they just heard the sound of his heart kicking in his chest. “You’re confined to base until your next review, which won’t be for another six months. Your bow will be returned to you if and when I feel that you aren’t being an idiot anymore. That isn’t going to be for a while. Do you understand?”

“Yeah. Yes sir,” Clint says. He can feel the suspicion rolling off his handler, but the thing is, though the temptation to get out is there, he’s tired of being tired, of being hungry, of not knowing where he’s going to sleep. He can’t help kicking a gift-horse in the mouth, though – it’s his fucked-up nature – so he asks, “Is she dead?”

Long, strong fingers slide under his head. Clint opens his eyes enough to see a cup with a straw. He takes a long drink, best water he’s ever tasted, and when Coulson helps him lie back down it feels like forgiveness. “‘Probationary agent’ means you don’t get that information anymore,” Coulson says. “Go to sleep.”

 

.

Director Fury is, in fact, furious.

No, scratch that, Fury is so pissed that Clint thinks his other eye is going to spontaneously explode. He glares at Clint when he comes to ask just what the fuck were you thinking Barton, and Clint tries not to glare back; the man’s the director of SHIELD, and fucking up what he has here would be a bad choice in a long, sad history of bad choices.

He keeps his head down and plays Good Little Probie, which is embarrassing on a whole new level of embarrassment. His leg is shot to shit, he’s lost his bow, and Director Fury is going to kill him slowly with the unholy power of his glare. Clint can deal with it, because those things can and will get better in time (except Fury, the man is always trying to kill him with his glare). Coulson’s not talking to him beyond barked commands, and that’s a whole other fishpond.

He hadn’t actually realized how far Coulson had let him in until he doesn’t anymore. His office is always closed, and when Clint tries to email him, he gets terse, two-sentence replies that list his office hours, pertinent information on when he’s going to be off-base, and Clint’s new duties, which basically boils down to ‘sit down and shut up’. It’s mostly copy-pasted, Clint realizes, so he stops emailing because fuck that shit.

There are a lot of hours to fill in the day. He works out as much as possible to get back some of the muscle he’d lost while laid up with his busted leg, but there’s only so many weights any one person can do before it gets old. Everyone’s been informed about his new status and won’t tell him anything, not even when Clint wheedles, then heckles, then sulks loudly. Nothing to do, nothing to shoot, nothing to see and no one to talk to, and Clint’s world narrows down until it’s only him. He’s been here before; nothing new.

He doesn’t know why he does it, is the thing. He’s always been athletic – Sister Lucy at the state home once said he would have made an incredible gymnast, small and strong like he’d been. Could have made something of himself. Could have trained and worked and maybe, if he’d been good enough, he could have gone to the Olympics. But that path hadn’t been open to him, not then, not ever. There’d only been the circus, the world’s biggest jungle gym.

He gathers supplies – a grapple hook he nicks off one of the returning teams (and that they leave their shit just laying around after an op is tantamount to sacrilege, Coulson would hand them their asses if he knew about it), a tac vest from the armory supply (Rosemary likes him but doesn’t even give him a pocket knife to go with it), and a coil of decent rope from down in the garage (Harris tries to call Coulson about it and Clint tells him, “I knows who’s been eating all the peach cobbler in the cafeteria, do you really want to meet your maker today Agent?”).

SHIELD, for being a government-agency-slash-super-secret-spy-base, is fairly unsecure when it comes to basic infrastructure. It’s almost as if everyone was so worried about hackers and online security that they forgot to check out the building – which, in this particular case, once belonged to those assholes, the FBI. The entire building is webbed with service ramps high overhead, ventilation shafts so large a man could crawl through, and maintenance bridges for electrical and wiring.

Clint hasn’t done this in years, and his body is a little bigger now, but even so it’s pretty quick work getting himself up even with his half-healed leg, supplies stashed back in his vest, and cover replaced without anyone being the wiser.

He means to do it just once, a little adventure to blow off some steam – see how far he can get into HQ. Once becomes twice, becomes every day, becomes forgetting to come down.

No one notices, and Clint’s not one for self-pity but damn.

He learns the layout of the base quickly enough; the way the elevators roar when he’s crawling through the vents, the smell of the kitchen down below when he makes his way down the maintenance bridge over the Mess, the sound of arguing and laughing and yelling. He feels a little like a voyeur, so at first he tries to be respectful of people, of their secrets and the PTSD, so much fucking PTSD it’s a wonder that SHIELD functions at all.

It’s not his fault that SHIELD is basically a telenovella.

It starts with Jasper and the cute probie he’s been working with (straight out of college with legs up to her ears), and then to Cute Probie’s new friend in accounting, and before he knows it he’s completely embroiled in the subculture of SHIELD’s risqué office romances.

This is what he learns.

1. Agent Larabey and Agent Murrow are involved in what has to be the sweetest goddamn courtship he’s ever seen. Larabey’s clueless, so Murrow’s making Engagement Chicken this weekend. Dude has no hope in hell of escaping that one.
2. Agent Hudson and Agent Smith have a love/hate thing going. Hudson comes in to work on a Monday with a pulled groin muscle so severe he’s off rotation for a month. Every time Smith sees him she smirks like a cat who got the canary.
3. Agent Sun and Agent Sun are proud parents to a pair of the most beautiful babies Clint’s ever seen. It’s very likely they were conceived on-base, judging by the hilarious amount of kinky public sex their parents get up to.
4. Agent Villarreal and Agent Prohnt spend a good portion of their time pining longingly for one another. Clint would knock their heads together, but he’s pretty sure both of them could snap every bone in his body with the sheer force of their female guile, so he doesn’t try.

Days of Our Super Secret Lives keeps him pretty entertained, so he doesn’t go to Coulson’s office often. There’s only one grate – his office is on the small side, just enough space for a desk and some chairs, a tiny sofa they’ve both slept on more than once. When Coulson is there he’s hunched over his computer, typing away. From up high Clint can see where his hair is thinning, the tension he carries in his shoulders. Mostly, though, his office is dark.

The problem with Clint’s stupid ass is that he gets comfortable, just like he always does. Nobody’s noticed where he is or what he’s doing, so Clint finds a cross-section in the wiring walkway halfway through level eight that’s pretty wide actually, pretty spacious. It’s easy getting a blanket up there, some snacks, a book.

Other people would be claustrophobic. Other people are idiots.

It’s only a matter of time before he starts sleeping there. Sleeping becomes living, and Clint’s a little worried about his state of mind, just not worried enough to come down. He goes to rehab and eats in the cafeteria, shows his face, but no one asks where he’s spending the rest of his time and Clint doesn’t volunteer the information.

Weeks, then months, pass, though Clint’s not really keeping track. Jasper’s got his ugly-ass holiday sweaters on rotation again – this time of year they’re a weird mix of turkeys and pilgrims -- and Agent Gomez has finally grown a pair and asked Agent Pullman on a date.

He comes down for his last appointment with rehab, the bullet wound nothing more than a sensitive, pitted scar now. “You’ve got full range of motion back,” Doc says, putting pressure on his hip and asking him to move his leg out, then in. “And you’re further along in getting the muscle tone back than I thought. Have you been exercising?”

Clint thinks about crawling across the fourth floor vent shaft last week. “Trying to. The PT nurse said that’s okay.”

“Of course it’s okay, just surprised,” Doc says, and chuckles. “Well, maybe not that surprised. You’re done with us, Agent Barton.”

Clint gets his golden ticket (“I’ll email Agent Coulson a copy now,” Doc says, and Clint wants to laugh in his face but decides that wouldn’t go very far in convincing everyone he’s not touched in the head) before swinging by the chow line. He eats his weight in turkey burgers, and Ms. Gladys gives him extra helpings of coleslaw.

When he gets back up to what he is never calling his nest, a SHIELD issue tablet is sitting on top of his neatly folded blanket. There’s a blue post-it stuck to the top.

Answer your emails.

Fuck,” Clint breathes, glancing over his shoulder, to the left around the corner. He instantly recognizes the handwriting, because most people don’t write in longhand anymore, and because there are exactly two people on the good Earth who could possibly know about this and Charlie isn’t here.

The tablet comes awake with a swipe of his finger, and sure enough there’s something like two hundred emails waiting for him. He opens the first one.

from: njfury@shld.mil.gov
to: cfbarton@ shld.mil.gov
date: Tue, Nov 19 at 3:12 PM
subject: I don’t have the time or the energy for your bullshit.

I have sent you two priority emails in the last two days. If you don’t answer them in the next fifteen minutes I’m sending you to Antarctica.

Director Nicholas Fury
Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.)

That was yesterday.

There are, in fact, three priority emails, all flagged with a little mocking red check. One of the emails is from Fury’s terrifying secretary, scheduling a meeting with the Director two days ago.

He doesn’t scramble – Clint is not a scrambler. He does, however, move with quick and efficient purpose, because four of the emails he’d received yesterday had been warnings of varying degree from Jasper, and then finally one from Coulson. He doesn’t read it, because Coulson can go fuck himself.

The waiting room outside of Fury’s office gives him the heebiest of jeebies, always has. Maybe it’s Mrs. Marshall, who at any point in the day looks like she’s planning a homicide. Or maybe it’s the almost surreal stack of magazines on a small side table. Jessica Alba beams up at him from the cover of Health and Clint’s sure he’s stepped into the Twilight Zone. More likely, though, it’s the whole part where Clint feels like he’s in the principal’s office, waiting for his father to come get him. His father never waited to whoop his ass until they left school.

Mrs. Marshall directs a look at him that could have probably peeled the hide from his bones if he’d caught the full brunt of it. He’s a professional. He doesn’t cringe. He’s also a smartass, so his tongue’s moving before he can stop himself. “I didn’t mean to miss curfew, Dad mad at me?”

“Good afternoon, Probationary Agent Barton,” Mrs. Marshall says, and damn, Clint should be dead from the look she gives him.

“We ran out of gas, I had to walk two miles to the nearest gas station,” Clint continues, throwing himself into a really nice leather armchair. “Hope I’m not going to get grounded.”

“You’re already grounded,” comes from behind him, and Clint cranes his head around to see Fury in the doorway to his office, looking like he’s going to flay Clint with the knife in his boot and cook him over the heat of his rage. “Now you’re pushing it.”

Fury’s office is hilariously normal. There’s an antique encyclopedia on a bookshelf behind the desk, which Clint suspects is completely hollowed out and holds either an automatic rifle or the skulls of the people who have pissed him off over the years. Regular bureaucratic shit covers his desk – half-empty cup of coffee, photos of his sons when they were little, two computer screens, and a gray folder which has Clint’s name and rank on it.

“I didn’t see your emails,” Clint opens with.

“Uh huh.” Fury’s not wearing the trench. This does not make Clint feel any better, because Clint’s one-hundred-percent certain it’s made from the hides of the agents Fury has ‘relocated’. “Want to tell me what’s going on?”

“Sir?”

“Have you been sneaking off-base, Agent?”

“No,” Clint says immediately, because – “No sir, I’ve been here the whole time.”

“Have you now. Want to tell me where ‘here’ is? Because last I checked – and I did, Agent Barton, I took time out of my incredibly busy schedule to track your sorry ass down – no one’s seen you outside of the cafeteria in the better part of two months.”

“I’ve been around,” Clint says, and now he’s pissed because he has been here, the entire damn time. Just not necessarily where people can see him.

Fury picks up his extension. “He’s here,” he says after a moment, and hangs up. “You’ve missed two check-ins, six mandatory appointments with Dr. Alvarez, and a staggering fourteen probationary agent meetings.” He stabs him with a look. Clint often wonders if Fury lost an eye to rebalance the universe, because he’s pretty sure the man could have probably killed him if there’d been two eyes doing that at him. “Things aren’t looking good for you son, you understand this right?”

The door opens behind him and Clint doesn’t have to turn to know Coulson has just stepped in. He’d recognize that footfall anywhere. He crosses his arms and sprawls lower in his chair. “I’ve been going to the doctor for my checkups.”

“Yeah, Ames CCed me on those emails,” Fury says, opening the file and flicking through the pages. “Says here that you’re healed enough to be put back on normal rotation. Also says you’ve got bruises that suggest you’ve been fairly physical.” Fury looks over the file at him. “You fighting?”

“No,” Clint says, with more force than he probably should, but he doesn’t like how he’s been cornered. Makes him want to mouth off, fight, escape. “I’ve kept my head down like a good little probie. Isn’t that what you wanted?”

“Wanted? Oh no, we are not going to talk about what I wanted, because what I wanted was for the best marksmen I’ve ever met to complete his damn assignment,” Fury snaps. “Instead you put a whole new collection of problems on my plate. Do I look like I want more problems? Do I seem bored to you?”

“No, sir,” Clint says automatically, because he’s still got some semblance of a brain between his ears.

“You’re damn right I’m not, I’ve got enough shit to deal with.” He looks over Clint’s shoulder. “Has he been on base?”

“Technically.”

“Technically?”

“Yes, Boss.”

Fury bores his eyeball into Clint’s soul again. “That right?”

He is not saying he was up in the ceiling. He’d rather peel off his own skin than admit that, though he’s pretty sure both of them already know. “You told me not to leave.”

“That not an answer.”

“That’s the only one you’re going to get,” Clint finally snaps. “This isn’t prison. You don’t fucking own me.”

There’s a beat of silence, two, and then Fury bangs his elbow onto his desk, pinches his nose. “Jesus Christ, I am too old for this shit. Get him out of here.”

Clint is immediately collected, which pisses him off even worse, but he has the good sense not to say so until the door to Fury’s office is closed behind them. “What the fuck was that about?” Clint demands. “Let me go.”

“You’re acting like a child, you do know this,” Coulson says, escorting him out of Marshall’s office and out into the hall.

Clint is furious, and when he’s furious sometimes his brain and his body stop communicating, so he isn’t surprised when he tries to elbow Coulson in the face. Coulson gets an embarrassingly fast hold on him, arm twisted up behind his back, and pushes Clint’s face into the plaster. “Hey!” he snarls, but Coulson just wrenches him off the wall, pulling him down the corridor and all but tossing him into his office.

No sooner is the door closed that Clint swings, because why the hell not, that’s where this is going anyway and he might as well give them the excuse. Coulson ducks, gets him in the ribs, then body-checks him so fast and with such force that Clint doesn’t know what’s actually happened until he’s belly-down on the floor. Coulson gets Clint’s wrist twisted between his shoulder blades and his forearm braced over Clint’s neck, holding him down with his bodyweight. He doesn’t even sound out of breath when he says, “Stop.”

“Fuck you,” Clint snarls, struggling. Dammit, his ribs hurt. “‘Tuesday and Thursday, nine to noon. Probationary Agents assigned to Agent Coulson will be expected to keep up with paperwork and other duties as assigned. All disciplinary actions will be documented by Agent Sitwell and addressed upon Agent Coulson’s return to headquarters.’”

Coulson goes still above him. “That’s what this is about?” He sounds stunned. “Are you kidding me right now?”

It’s kind of like an out of body experience – he can see himself, red-faced and furious like a cornered cat, and Coulson riding him like he’s a damn boogie board. No matter how much he bucks, Coulson doesn’t let up. “Let me go.”

“No,” Coulson says. “Barton, this hasn’t been punishment.”

Fuck you,” Clint snarls. “Let me go.”

“No,” Coulson says again. “I should have spoken to you sooner. I didn’t handle this well. I’m sorry.”

“Fuck you and your sorry, you don’t give a shit,” Clint says, panting against the carpet. He knows Coulson is ex-military nut he doesn’t know how ex-military, and as pissed off as he is at the guy he doesn’t – would never – hurt him, even to get free. Also, Clint’s man enough to admit that he isn’t entirely sure if he can get free, and the thought makes something strange and hot settle down in the base of his spine, connected like a live wire to his dick. “I fucked up and you shut me out, but I don’t need you or anyone, I don’t need any of this, I’m leaving, I’m done. Let me up.”

“That’s not going to happen until you hear what I have to say,” Coulson says calmly. His forearm is digging into Clint’s neck. “I was waiting until you were off of doctor supervision, Barton. I just forgot you have a whole multitude of abandonment issues. That’s my fault.”

Get off of me.”

Coulson doesn’t so much as budge. “You were an idiot in Smolensk and I was pretty angry with you. Not because of what you did, but by the way you did it. At what point in our relationship have you ever thought I wouldn’t listen to you about a mark?”

Clint turns his face a little so his nose isn’t squashed into the carpet, and ignores the first hot rush of shame. “Fuck you.”

“Fuck you,” Coulson replies smartly. “If there was a problem you should have told me. You nearly bled to death before we got to you. That’s not how I operate.”

“You wouldn’t have listened.”

“You don’t believe that. I’ve always listened to you.”

It’s true. It’s true, and it’s awful and Clint feels like a total asshole. “You left.”

“Assignment,” Coulson replies, finally easing up. “You haven’t been told anything?”

“Probationary Agent, remember? I don’t get information anymore.”

Coulson prides himself on being a stone-cold badass, but if he knows it or not, Clint’s worked right down under his skin. He sees the prickle of irritation, the bone-deep weariness, even under the blank mask Coulson’s face is schooled in. “There was an incident. A scientist used himself as a guinea pig, had some unforeseen side effects.”

“Oh.” Clint twists his neck a little. “Can I get up now?”

Coulson eases back off of him and Clint squirms up to sit against the wall. Coulson does the same across from him, leaning into the side of his desk. He looks strained around the edges, tired. His suit is rumpled, but the wrinkles don’t hide that Coulson either has his gun in his pocket, or he’s just as hard as Clint is.

It’s wrong. It’s wrong on so many levels, because Coulson is his supervisor and Clint’s gotten a taste of what it’s like to be frozen out. Doesn’t mean he can stop staring at the way Coulson’s face is still flushed from exertion, or at his eyes, which are so deep and so blue it’s like looking into the ocean. They’ve been headed in this direction for so long -- as long as they’ve known each other it seems like – but it’s never been this personal. Clint decides from one second to the next that he likes personal, that he wants personal all the time. He’s never tried the guy thing, it’s never even really crossed his mind outside of gas-station blows for money, but he knows if Coulson asks him to he’ll lay back right here in the middle of his office and spread his legs.

“We should talk,” Coulson says into the silence, like neither of them can hear the strain in his voice.

He licks his lower lip. “About?”

“A lot of things,” Coulson says. “But mostly about the woman down on level eight.”

Suddenly Clint’s back in Russia, blood and the cloying smell of death in his nose, pain lighting him up from his knee to his hip. Her green eyes seem to fill up her whole face. “She’s here?”

“She’s been less than forthcoming. Director Fury thinks she might have a connection with you.”

“She saved my life.”

“Which is why she’s been given some amenities that other captured enemy combatants don’t usually receive,” Coulson tells him, looking at him like he can see all the way to the bottom of him. “I need to know if you can handle this.”

Clint ignores the question. “When?”

“Tomorrow morning.”

Something hot and tingling licks down his body, settles into the cradle of his hips. “And tonight?”

It’s the first time he’s ever seen Coulson look uncomfortable. “No.”

“You’re lying to yourself,” Clint replies and climbs to his feet. He offers a hand down and Coulson takes it after a beat, letting himself get pulled up. Wrong move, because Clint’s thrown caution to the wind, he’s jumped off the acrobat’s launch without a net, he has nothing left to lose.

Clint’s never kissed another man before. Coulson’s taller than him, just a little. There’s the barest hint of stubble under his lips, no lip gloss, no perfume, just soap and aftershave and dry, warm lips falling open with surprise. Clint’s never kissed another man before but as soon as he does he’s addicted, completely, without mercy, and he wonders if he’s never kissed another man because there’s never been a man worth kissing until now. Coulson has a grip on his arm that’s going to leave a bruise, his body tense, and Clint is fucked, he is so fucked but that doesn’t stop him from licking into Coulson’s mouth, sucking on that full lower lip.

Coulson’s control snaps and he grips him hard, fists his fingers in the short spikes of hair at the back of Clint’s head, and kisses the ever-living hell out of him. Clint’s never been kissed like this, not by anyone, like he’s being devoured, and the noise he makes is probably really embarrassing except Coulson’s taking that too, all of it, all of him, until Clint’s broken open, cleaved right to the heart. Coulson breaks away violently, setting his teeth into Clint’s neck. It makes him thrash, so sensitive he swears he can feel it in every nerve of his body. “Yes,” he chokes out, scared shitless and wanting more. “Yes, God.”

“No,” Coulson mutters, licking abused skin, then biting at his earlobe like he can’t help himself. Clint twitches, full-body, and he wants more, he wants all of it, he wants to pull Coulson down and strip him to the skin and see where all that strength comes from. The twitch becomes a thrust and suddenly they’re fucking one another through their clothes, Jesus Christ that’s Coulson’s dick, and oh God he can never think of the man as ‘Coulson’ again, it implies distance and chain of command and this, what they’re doing, is neither of those things.

Which is, of course, the very second Phil takes three steps back.

His mouth is wet, red, bruised. His eyes are wild. Clint wants to drag him down to the floor and fuck the ever-living hell out of him. Doesn’t matter that he doesn’t know the specifics, he’s a quick learner. He hears someone making a noise, realizes it’s him and grinds his teeth until it stops. “Come back.”

“We can’t.” Phil drags his fingers through his hair, flushed to the collar and glassy-eyed with arousal. It’s the most beautiful thing Clint’s ever seen. Clint’s so hard he’s lightheaded, so turned on he can barely speak. He tries to take a step forward but Phil steps back again, pulling Coulson back on like it’s one of his suits. “You should go.”

“Don’t do this,” Clint says, and Christ almighty he’s not one to shy away from his mistakes, even when this feels nothing like one. “Don’t freeze me out.”

“I shouldn’t have done that,” Phil replies. “I apologize.”

“Don’t,” Clint says, and hears the note of pleading in his voice.

He knows exactly two seconds after it comes out of his mouth that it was the wrong thing to say. Phil goes still, meets his gaze, and there’s nothing of the man who’d just shifted Clint’s entire world view, who’d kissed him like Clint was something precious and valued and so fucking wanted. It’s just Agent Coulson, and Clint, unwillingly shoved back into a box he doesn’t fit in anymore. “You’re expected on level eight at nine tomorrow morning. Agent Angstrum will be waiting to escort you to our prisoner’s cell.”

He knows a dismissal when he hears it. It breaks his fucking heart. “That’s it?”

He nods. “That’s it.”

Clint’s nostrils flare. “You’re wrong.”

“Maybe.”

“This changes everything.”

“I know.” At least Phil gives him the respect of acknowledging it. “I’m sorry.”

“I’m not.” He surprises himself, but he’s not. In fact, for the first time in his life he feels like everything is right, like this is where all the bullshit he’s been through has been leading.

“Agent Barton, please leave.”

“I want this.” Clint says; he needs the man to understand. Phil’s so still he’s nearly part of the wall. “I need you to be okay with that.”

“I’m not,” he replies automatically.

“You’re a fucking liar.”

“This isn’t appropriate, Agent Barton,” Phil says, staring at his mouth. “We can’t do this.”

“Why not?” he asks, because seriously, what the fuck. “Who’s stopping you?”

“Fraternization rules exist for a reason. In this line of work, we can’t take that chance. I shouldn’t have – I’m sorry.” And he is, Clint can tell, as a cold, hard ball settles in his stomach. “I need you to please leave.”

He’s having a hard time swallowing. He wishes he could say that he’s never felt this kind of ache before, the kind that opens up in his guts and pulls and pulls until he’s unraveled. It hurts, in that place deep and undefined and so hungry.

He thought he was lost. Nothing holds a candle to what he feels when he steps out of Phil’s office and closes the door behind him.

He wanders the base for a long time. There’s no pull to go anywhere, no need to do anything. It’s so late it’s almost early, and Clint won’t be able to sleep, not with the way he’s feeling, that burn inside that nothing and no one can reach.

He’d kept himself from breaking into the range since Smolensk, because he respected Phil’s decision to keep him away from the weaponry until he was cleared. It seems like a stupid reason now.

Betty is gorgeous, lean and pretty like a girl in the first flush of womanhood. All the shit R&D had outfitted her with doesn’t take away from how fucking beautiful she is.

There’s an orange post-it stuck to the sight window.

Wait until I sign off.

“Fuck,” Clint barks, slams his palms down on the countertop and drops his head low.

He fights with himself for ten minutes.

In the end, he closes the lid and latches it locked.

 

.

He misses his appointment with the Woman Downstairs, because appointments – and Agent Angstrum – are not Clint’s style.

Clint’s has no problem using the service ways to get down to the cell block on level eleven. Granted, he doesn’t think anyone normal could do it, considering how many acrobatics are involved (and shit, he needs to work on his quads), but someone with the right skillset who really, really wanted to get into SHIELD could manage, no problem.

It takes him three hours to find her, and two minutes to rappel down.

She’s staring at him, face unreadable from between the bars. Maybe she sees something. Maybe it’s the slouch of his shoulders, or the way he winds the rope around his arm. Or maybe it’s none of those things. He’ll never know, because though they’ll be teammates for the better part of three decades, they never, ever talk about this.

“You look like shit.”

“Yeah well, you don’t look much better,” Clint tells her, because she doesn’t. She’s too thin, face waxy and pale, hair up in a messy ponytail. The gray jumpsuit saps all the light from her face, leaves her looking worn and tired. “Didn’t know you were here, or I’d have come and said hello before now.”

The woman studies him, like she’s waiting for him to try something – hurt her, kiss her, kill her. Clint tries his best not to look like a bow-wielding assassin. Slowly, carefully, she sinks down to the ground, sitting on her heels before him from the other side of the bars. “I’m surprised you’re here.”

“You and me both. After that shit I pulled I thought for sure they’d toss me out on my ear.”

“I meant your leg.”

“Oh.” Clint flexes it slowly, feels a small burn in his thigh. “Yeah, I’m fine. Bullet missed the artery, just kind of messy.”

He hears something behind him, and when he glances over his shoulder Agent Furlong actually yelps when he sees Clint is sitting in his top-of-the-line, impenetrable jail. Christ, he can’t help it; he gives the kid a sassy two-finger salute. “Hey, you hungry?”

She stares at him. “What?”

“Hungry. Food? If I take you to the cafeteria will you strangle me with a sausage link?”

Those huge, beautiful eyes of hers bore right down through skin and bone to the center of his soul. It’s terrifying -- and kind of awesome -- because the only other person who can do that is Phil. “Not today,” she finally settles on, and well, that’s something.

Furlong and Angstrum barge in and what follows is a really impressive amount of shouting. While Clint is waiting for them to figure out their shit he pushes the (unlocked, hah) cell door open -- really, it’s hilarious that anyone thought a few bars of iron would hold this chick. There’s even more shouting then, and a call to Director Fury, which Angstrum puts on speakerphone to share the love. Clint swears they’re a step above mall cops, wonders if Fury recruits them from Mall Cop College. ”Just what the fuck is going on down there?” Fury demands.

“We’re going for chow, sir, with your permission.”

“I am way too busy for this shit,” Fury barks. “Angstrum, let him take the woman for food.”

Angstrum’s face twists like he’s just swallowed crushed glass. It’s pretty much worth the price of admission.

The cafeteria is deserted when they get there. It has nothing at all to do with the time of day – in fact, the pre-lunch rush should have been hitting already. Clint’s kind of happy about it, he likes eating and he likes solitude, this is the best of both worlds. The woman doesn’t get anything for herself so Clint gives her the push Phil gave him, loads two trays up with as much as they can reasonably carry.

She’s slender and petite and so fucking guarded across the table from him, just because he’s kind to her, just because they’re sharing a meal together. He sees it, and understands it, and accepts it, because everyone’s got their demons. “Why?” she asks. Quiet as it’d been her voice still echoes in the quiet of the cafeteria, bounces off chairs and tables.

“Why not?”

She stares at him like he’s stupid. “I’m a spy. An assassin.”

“So am I,” Clint says with a shrug. “Well, mostly the last part. I’m no good with the spy stuff, way too much of a hick for that. They put me in the field once and I accidently broke the government of Grenada.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Not many people do,” Clint assures her, and pushes a bowl of spaghetti and meatballs at her. “I’d been sent to kill you. You could have let me bleed out. In fact, you could have let me drown.”

She inclines her head. Her hands are flat on the table, fingernails broken and uneven. That small detail bothers him, almost more than the lank hair, the hooded eyes. He remembers being thin and hungry, remembers fear and handcuffs and not knowing if this was it, if his luck had finally run out. Phil had seen something, and had reached down into the pit and grabbed him tight and pulled him free.

(He owes the man everything, but that’s just like Clint – always wanting more.)

He says, “Director Fury hasn’t killed you, and that means he sees something in you that’s worth saving. All of us here understand atonement.”

“Is that what you think this is? Atonement?”

“Yeah. What’re you atoning for?”

“You have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Not usually, no,” he agrees, and takes a slurp from his iced tea. “Clint.”

“What?”

“That’s my name. Well, Clinton, but that was my mama for you.”

He doesn’t think his gamble’s going to pay off. He’s aware of the agents around them, aware that they’ve probably closed off the entire floor. Not that something like that would stop her, of course; Clint knows her history, he knows she could take them all down without mussing her hair. He watches her eat, picking at first and then with more attention. The spaghetti is fucking amazing, though, so he isn’t sure if it’s because she’s hungry or if it’s all Ms. Gladys. Probably a little bit of both.

She finishes off the bowl, and he gives her one of his. When she finishes that too, Ms. Gladys brings them the country fried steaks she’s serving for supper, with thick country gravy on the side. It’s delicious.

At some point in their second helping of pie, the woman says, “Natasha.”

Well. Awesome. “Natasha,” he repeats, and nods. “Pretty.”

She glares at him. “Really?”

“Sorry.” He holds up his hands. “Deadly? Fierce? Ass kicking?”

That satisfies her, he can tell. There’s some color in her face again at least, which is probably the hilarious amount of sugar they’ve both just eaten. Clint’s going to be hanging off the ceiling before too long. “Feel better?”

“Tell me about Fury.”

“Tall, badass,” he says without missing a beat. “He could cut you with the power of his glare. Very frightening.”

“I’m sure he’d appreciate that, Agent Barton,” comes from behind them.

It’s Coulson, with his steady gate and his suit, but Clint looks at him and all he can see is a pink mouth, flushed cheeks, trembling hands. All he can see is Phil, and how’d he’d look in Clint’s bed.

Natasha tenses up like she’s going to bolt, and Clint hooks a foot around her ankle, steadying her. He’s under the distinct impression she’s thinking about breaking his leg – not to get free, but to teach him a lesson – when Phil walks past the dessert counter, takes a look at the selection. “Anything good?”

“The apple pie is awesome,” Clint says, keeping his eyes on Natasha. The woman is made of steel.

“Gladys made it, of course it is,” Phil strolls over to them like he’s got all the time in the world, takes a seat at the table next to theirs with a plate and fork. His shirt is the palest blue today, and his tie has thin turquoise lines. Clint wants to grab him by it and pull him into his lap. “Angstrum’s put in a complaint against you, Barton.”

“Angstrum is a tool.”

“Well, yeah,” Phil says, and takes a bite of pie.

Clint’s all about body language, but he can’t read a single thing in Natasha’s expression. She might as well be made of a pane of glass. “Are you going to kill me?”

“Kill you?” Phil blinks, fork halfway to his mouth. “We don’t kill people like you.”

“Like me?”

“One of a kind. Unique. Your ledger reads like a summer blockbuster.”

She leans forward, and Clint gets the sudden image of a jungle cat, all lean lines and barely restrained violence. “You don’t know anything about me.”

“I know everything about you, Ms. Romanov,” Phil replies. “That’s why I’ve been authorized to offer you a job.”

He doesn’t think he could have surprised her any more if he’d said he was the President of the United States. She stares at him like he’s grown a second head.

“Yeah,” Clint says, taking a bite of pie. “You get used to it.”

 

.

This is what Clint will learn about Natasha in the first three months he knows her.

1. She’s got mad skills. Literally. Chick it straight up nuts.
2. She’s got a shitty history to rival Clint’s. She doesn’t talk about it, but she’ll say things sometimes and Clint’s entire view of her will shift. It happens enough that he comes to expect the unexpected.
3. She’s a stone cold assassin. Clint thought he was pretty good. Clint has since been schooled.
4. She can be so damn girly. Frankly, he’s waiting for her to bling the handle of her favorite machete any day now. Her bunk at headquarters looks like a spread out of fucking Pottery Barn, and everything smells faintly of lavender.

Director Fury seems to think they have some sort of connection, which may be something he picks up from the long, long talks he and Natasha have several times a week (over coffee and pie, she tells him -- the Director loves his pie), or because Clint is still numero uno on his shit list. Either way, Fury pairs them up and assigns them both permanently to Phil. It’s both awesome and awful for a whole host of reasons, the first of course being that Clint’s never had a partner, because Clint does not work well with people who are not Phil. Still, he likes Natasha, loves how well they get along, and respects her skills, but the fact remains he’s never worked with someone who could and would kill him if the need ever arose. It’s kind of awesome. Mostly, though, it’s scary as shit.

They learn each other, impossible not to when they’re in such close company. Their entire relationship consists of kicking each other’s asses (or, rather, Natasha kicking his ass all over the gym and waiting for him to get off the floor. The first time he’d told her, “Don’t hold back,” she almost took out his knee. He limps away from that fight black and blue and completely exhilarated), and practicing with all kinds of guns and rifles, including some Clint’s never seen before.

Natasha is awesome. She’s strong and tough and weirdly ultra feminine, but then again they don’t call her Black Widow for nothing. She can mop the floor with any of them (he knows, they’ve tried – Jasper is never going to forgive him), and she’s an expert in almost all types of weaponry. She’s charmed by his bow (which he shows off like a six year old bragging about his Schwinn), and pinches his cheek when he fires it from a hundred and fifty yards away and hits the bull’s-eye on the far side of the range.

So, he and Nat work well together. He and Phil, not so much. He can’t actually look at Phil and not remember how pink his mouth looked when he’d finally pulled himself away from fucking Clint against the wall of his office. This is not a good thing, because Phil can’t look at him either for exactly the same reason. Any other time, with any other person, Clint would have pursued the fuck out of that, would have wined and dined and won his prize and handed out satisfying (mind-blowing) orgasms, case closed. The reason he hasn’t is because A, Phil has made it very clear he’s not interested in pursuing anything with him, B, Phil is his boss, and C, Phil is a man, which makes the entire situation even more difficult.

Most of the base has cleared out for Christmas crap, and Clint thought for sure his handler would leave this year to see his folks, but instead he spends most of every day walking around Clint, tapping his elbow to get him to arch it a few centimeters up or down (as if Clint’s aim is anything less than absolutely perfect), or throwing him on the treadmill even though they both know treadmills should be listed in the Geneva convention as cruel and unusual punishment. Phil doesn’t touch Natasha, ever, but he goes out of his way to talk to her, ask her about her style, how she works, what he can do to help her improve. She’s visibly off-balance by his kindness, which is kind of funny because Phil is not a kind man, except in all the ways that count.

Natasha catches on quickly of course; Clint’s surprised the entire world doesn’t realize what’s going on. One late night, after kicking his ass and making him ache with muscles Clint didn’t know he had, she says, “We go to Belarus on Tuesday. Fix this before then.”

“What?” Clint asks from the floor. He’s good at playing stupid. “What are you talking about?”

She graces him with that haughty, female look of irritation Clint’s been on the receiving end from all of his life. Even upside down it has the ability to make him squirm uncomfortably in a way that has nothing to do with the way she’s got her boot on his shoulder. “We’re infiltrating the Russian mob. A moment’s hesitation could cost both our lives. Fix this, or I’ll fix it for you.”

She means it. He’s kind of mortified, and on the tail end of that pretty angry. “Look, I don’t know how things work where you come from, but I can’t just go up to our boss and ask for that.”

Natasha pierces him with that look, and he’s been made before he ever has a chance to defend himself, and hauls him up to his feet. “Things work the same everywhere, Clint. You want him to fuck you – get him to fuck you.”

“It’s not like that,” Clint says, and hates himself for letting this become an issue. If there was a way to control it, to stop it from happening, he would dammit.

“You’ve tried.” It’s not a question, except it is.

“Look, I just need to deal with it, alright?” Clint says, and scrubs his face. “Get it out of my system.”

“And how do you propose to do that?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, figure it out,” Natasha says with a poke to his chest. She flattens her hand over his heart, turning it from a rebuke to something gentler. “Don’t let this become a regret.”

He presses his palm over her hand. “I didn’t think you cared about stuff like this.”

“I don’t,” she says with an irritated huff. “But I recognize some people do. You do.”

“You’re a closet romantic, Tasha,” he answers, and fully expects the way she takes his knees out from under him and sends him, laughing, to the mat.

 

.

That night, full and comfortable and pleasantly warm in his bunk, he unearths his notebook from the bottom of his chester drawers and the fountain-tip pen Lady Matilda gave him when he was sixteen, the nicest thing he owns. The list thing he usually does in his head, but in this circumstance, Clint doesn’t think he can figure this shit out on anything but paper.

And besides, he’s a big believer in writing-it-down-out-of-my-head.

When he’s settled and cozy, his tv on low, he stares down at the creamy yellow page and experiences a moment of euphoric terror he’s only ever had one other time, when Dave had shoved him, screeching, into the G-man van and Phil had turned in his chair to arch a brow at him, like he knew everything there ever would be to know about Clint F. Barton.

He’s here again. Because of Phil.

“I like men,” he says out loud, just to get a feel for it. Seems right, words matching what’s been in his heart for a long time, words he’s never let himself say before now. Words that could have gotten him killed, or shoved over a horse trough, or pushed down to his knees in a back-woods truck stop.

He looks down at the page again, pen poised. He loves this fucking pen, and it seems right that it’s Lady Matilda’s pen, that the words he writes down come from her heart. She’d be proud, he thinks.

1. He doesnt take shit from anyone.

He blows softly on the words, at the curl of his ‘H’, the period at the end. “He doesn’t take shit from anyone,” he says, and feels so fucking safe.

2. He always does whats right even when it sucks.

It makes him laugh, because seriously, what the fuck is that even about. Phil’s hot for him, he knows it, he knows it in the deep, primitive, knowing-it way of knowing. Phil wants in his pants, in his body. He wants his hands on Clint’s skin and his mouth following right after. He wants Clint’s cock, and his ass, and to kiss and kiss until they’re both gasping, panting. Clint knows because all Phil has to do is look at him and they’re both right back there in his office, pressed so close together Clint’s buttons had made an impression in his skin, tongues in each other’s mouths and Phil’s fingers clamped on Clint’s wrists, holding him still, holding him tight.

3. Hes an amazing kisser.

Clint doesn’t want to think about it too much, not when he’s feeling like this – not when this shit still stings. He’s comfortable enough to admit that it’s more than his vanity that’s hurt, and now that he’s on that vein he can’t quite seem to stop. He touches the spot on his neck where the hickey had come up; he’d been bruised for weeks, and every time Phil saw it his entire face shut down.

4. Hes strong, knows what he’s doing.

Clint likes competence and Phil’s got that in spades, which is how he gets away with appearing, for all intents and purposes, like a paper pusher. No one would ever believe that this guy, with his Dolce & Gabana and silk tie and three hundred dollar shoes, is capable of violence, let alone the way he can and will end you with the most exquisite finesse. He’s just as terrifying as Natasha is, but at least Natasha looks like a master assassin. With Phil, that comes after he’s taken out a room of terrorists armed to the teeth with nothing but a tiny Swiss Army knife.

5. I want him to touch me.

He pauses, pen on paper, and thinks about what Natasha had said.

6. I want him to fuck me.

He’s never – never. But he would. He’d let Phil do whatever he wanted. And he wants that, he wants it really, really badly – it’s foreign and strange and insane, but now that he’s thought about it he knows that’s right where they’re headed like a fucking train on a track. Phil can say ‘no’ and ‘rules’ and ‘can’t’ until the cows come home, but they both know that Clint’s going to be an asshole, even if he doesn’t mean to be, and it’s going to push Phil to his breaking point. When that happens, when Phil’s control snaps, they’re going to destroy whatever is in their path.

He’s hard. All the sticky emotions were in the way before, but now that Clint’s cleared it up in his head, now that he realizes there’s no way for this to end but with a solid fucking, it’s obvious how hot he is for his handler. Jesus, how did he go so many years without knowing this about himself?

What would have happened if Phil had pressed Clint down to his knees, that day in his office? And that he would have isn’t up for debate; Clint’s known him for two years, and in that time he’s learned that Phil is the most self-assured man he’s ever met. He knows what he wants and how to get it. It’s almost bizarre thinking about Coulson like this, except Phil is what’s wrapped up safe inside of the suit, and Clint can only imagine the way his eyes would look when he – when he –

And there arises the main problem. Clint’s no slouch in the sex department – in fact, he’s been having it for most of his adult life. He’s just never – that. He’s never done anything with a man; not because he’s a homophobe or anything, he isn’t, but he’d thought he was on Team Vagina. Women are amazing – they smell good, they’re soft in all the right places, they make the most incredible noises. Clint likes women.

But -- and now that he’s gotten his head around it, he can admit it -- he also likes Phil. The amused little tilt to his mouth, the way he can shut Clint down in five seconds flat if he’s being an idiot. His hands are big, big enough to push and shove Clint just the way he wants him. He knows what that mouth can do now. He knows what that body can do, and he’s angry, furious even, because fuck that shit, Clint’s never been one to be meek and nice and wait patiently for someone else to make a move. Phil’s self-assured but Clint’s scrappy – he knows how to take care of himself and get what he wants.

And what he wants is Phil.

SHIELD is pretty empty, pretty quiet. It’s the pre-season dead-zone, the time of year that makes being alone the worst. Clint’s dealt with it before, years of it, but in the before-time he’d had Lady Matilda and Charlie, whatever can be said about him. This, SHIELD, is the loneliness of his childhood, and stings like a cut in a bad spot, reopening at the slightest irritation.

Phil’s still here. Ask the probies and they’ve got all kinds of theories: he’s an android, he’s a mythical creature, he’s a pod person. But they don’t see what Clint sees – the dark circles under his eyes, the lines of stress that fan out from the corners, the downward tilt to his mouth.

He taps a knuckle against the open door, and when those beautiful, beautiful eyes lift, meet his, Clint knows he’s fucking done for. “Hey.”

“Hey,” Phil replies, tilting his head just slightly in that way he had, like a golden retriever, thoughtful. He motioned him in. “It’s late. You should be asleep.”

“We’ve got a few hours,” he replies, and watches Phil’s eyebrow go up when Clint closes the door behind him. “We need to talk.”

Phil goes back to his computer, mouse clicking, but Clint can read his tells – the tick of his cheek, the twitch of his forefinger on the keyboard. “The mission parameters should have been delivered to your quarters at 1900.”

“They were,” Clint says. “But that’s not why I’m here.”

“And why are you here, Agent Barton?”

He gets closer, and closer, and Phil’s watching his every move without saying a single word, and Clint wants with such fierceness it’s a physical ache deep down in his bones. “I want to suck your cock.”

Phil’s eyes get impossibly wide and Clint realizes with a pang of hot, thick lust that he’s surprised him. Him, Clint Barton, has surprised the Head G-Man. It makes him almost want to laugh, giddy with delight, except anything that comes out of his mouth at this point is probably going to be a groan. He’s so hard he’s lightheaded, so hard it makes stepping around Phil’s desk, getting close, almost painful.

Phil’s staring at Clint’s mouth and Clint wants to open him like a present and gobble him up. Jesus, how did he not know this, how did he miss this for so long. “Barton—”

“I want to,” Clint says, because this isn’t fucking Striptease, this is real life – awkward and self-conscious and Phil staring at him like he’s lost his mind and Clint with a truly embarrassing hard-on. He tries to lower himself to his knees but Phil catches his arm, stops him. “Clint,” he says quietly, firmly. “We’ve already talked about this.”

“No, as I seem to recall, you talked about it,” Clint says, because he’s a stubborn bastard. He only keeps himself from chucking his chin up through sheer willpower. “Rules and regulations and stupid, pointless shit that makes no sense in the long run.”

“Those rules and regulations govern our time here,” Phil answers, and stands too so they’re eye to eye. Phil looks thin and worn, and beneath all of that there’s a fine, razor-edge hint of sadness which strikes Clint right in his guts. Phil squeezes his shoulder tightly. “I appreciate what you’re doing, and I’m flattered. But this, it can’t continue.” His face colors, just a touch, from his collar to his ears. “I’ve apologized for my inappropriate behavior. It was a mistake on my part, one I now see is having a detrimental effect on our relationship. If you can’t continue to work with me, I need to reassign you to someone you’re comfortable with.”

Clint recoils, he can’t help it, because fuck, fuck, he’s been turned down before but never – never been threatened like that, to be kicked out of someone’s life. He takes a step back. “You can’t do that.”

“I can and will,” Phil answers, and there’s the sadness again, pronounced deep in the lines of his face. “I don’t want to. But emotions can’t get in the way of our objective here.”

“Emotions can’t – are you fucking kidding me?” Clint asks, furious and hurt and so goddamn humiliated. “You want me. I saw it, I felt it. That wasn’t some hallucination, that was you, and me, in this office, fucking one another. That was you, kissing me. You’re telling me that didn’t mean anything to you? That you didn’t feel anything?”

Clint thought that the first time Phil said no was as bad as it could hurt. Nothing could prepare him for the way Phil meets his eyes and says, “It was a mistake. I’m not interested in pursuing a relationship with you, not now and not later. You are my subordinate, nothing more. Is that understood?”

He’s cold all over. He’s been here, time and time and time again. Nothing new. “You’re wrong,” Clint hears himself say.

Phil steps away. Turns away. “You’re dismissed. Flight leaves at 0800 tomorrow morning. Be on time.”

Phil’s shoulder’s are tense, his face set, and there’s no talking to him anymore. That’s it. Clint fucked up the one steady relationship in his life, just like that, and now there’s really nothing to lose.

He stops at the door, stares hard at the grain. “By the way,” he says, and glances back just in time to see Phil’s mouth press into a thin line. “That little speech would have been a lot more convincing if your cock wasn’t as hard as mine.”

He isn’t a child anymore, he doesn’t slam the door. It closes behind him with a quiet, smooth click.

 

.

They go to Belarus on Tuesday.

Clint’s a fucking professional. He’s not some goddamn wilting wallflower; Phil doesn’t want him and that hurts, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t an adult. He behaves like the over-qualified, highly trained sniper he is. Everything is Agent Coulson and Agent Romanoff, and he stays off the line like he’s supposed to, and he takes out the target without back-talking or questioning or opening his fucking mouth.

In return they get shot at, and nearly accidently break the Belarusian government (it’s actually kind of embarrassing just how bad Clint is at this spy shit), and find the equivalent of five hundred thousand dollars in crack cocaine. Also, they stop an assassination attempt on the Pope, who’s in town visiting his people. Added bonus, lambs of God, etc etc.

When they get back to the hotel they’re using as a base of operations, Sitwell is on the sofa with a towel over his eyes, muttering, “I can’t deal with this shit, I’m never going on an op with you people ever again.”

They arrive in New York three days later, where Director Fury proceeds to glare for what feels like a full hour. By the end of it Clint wants to go play in traffic. Natasha just smirks, and Fury finally throws up his hands. “Get your reports in by 1800. Dismissed.”

He and Phil don’t say a single word to one another. Clint gets his report in on time, typed out on the computer and everything. He learns that ‘machete’ doesn’t have two ee’s at the end like he’d always assumed, among a host of other embarrassing bullshit. That’s what happens when someone has a sixth-grade education, though, so he isn’t too hard on himself. Life’s too short for that.

By the end of the month they end up in Cincinnati on another drug bust, a city Clint does not particularly like, because it’s in Cincinnati fifteen years ago that Clint walked in on a guy trying to rape Lady Matilda. It was the first time he broke a man’s jaw, and worth every day of the two months he spent in juvie.

Clint does not like Cincinnati, but he deals with it. Additionally, Clint puts an arrow in a guy’s eye for selling heroin to eight year olds on their school playground. Always looking for the positives in life.

They have seven back-to-back ops in as many weeks. Prague, Sydney, the Ivory Coast, then back to the States. Houston, New Orleans, Miami, and then slipping into Cuba, where Clint finds out Natasha can speak fluent Spanish with a hilarious Russian accent. After that it’s down the South American coast and finally breaking up a global slave-trade network. It’s awful, the worst, but Clint’s all about putting arrows into people who deserve it, and he takes extreme pleasure in handing out death to the very bad men who’ve gotten rich on the suffering of thousands of innocent people.

After that it’s back overseas, and their assignments get progressively murkier the more comfortable Fury becomes with Natasha being involved in what they do. Clint’s never been big fan of murk – in fact he outright despises it – but there comes a point where he and Natasha don’t actually have to know the full picture to do their job. SHIELD always lets them know enough, and when Clint’s skirting too close to the line he’s drawn in the sand he says so. Natasha has no such line, but she respects him enough to understand where he’s coming from. It’s one of the fundamental differences between them, but it’s also why they make such a great team. He’s a grounding force that keeps her from slipping too far into the role she’s been asked to play, and she pushes him to do what’s needed for the greater good. Without any effort at all she becomes his best friend, his ally, his partner.

She doesn’t ask about Phil. Doesn’t have to, really, because they’re Mark, Barton and Yes sir, and Target eliminated, sir. It’s cold and calculated and Clint hates every goddamn moment of it, and the worst part is that he has no one to blame but himself.

Natasha lets him get drunk in Seville, and it helps. She kisses him, touches him, and that helps too, right until it doesn’t, right until Clint’s broken fucking heart tells him no. But Natasha – she’s as broken as he is, and she doesn’t know what to do, or how to help, not really. It’s enough, though, that she cares enough to call him an idiot, to hold him through the night even though he smells like the bottom of a bottle.

Then, there’s Budapest.

 

.

Budapest is torture and exploding cars and double agents and shady government organizations shadier than SHIELD, if that’s somehow possible. It’s Patrick Cole and Cliff Benson getting sold out by their informant, and Jasper getting kidnapped, and Clint not-so-accidently ruining Budapest, but that’s what they get. The fall of the Iron Curtain was thirty fucking years ago, these extremist groups have lost their damn minds if they think their crazy shit is going to fly, he will shoot all of these motherfuckers in exactly one heartbeat.

Budapest is freezing. Clint’s been numb for three days, and to be perfectly honest he wishes he was parked on some ice-covered roof somewhere freezing his balls off while he waited for the mark to show up. That was what he was good at, not – not this spy shit, and not sitting in the car of a supply train, and not—

“Agent Barton,” Phil murmurs, but Clint’s ignoring him, he’s really, really ignoring him, because if he looks down at the man in his lap again he’s going to start gibbering like an idiot. His hands are warm for the first time in two days because they’re pressed against the blood pouring out of Phil’s body, hot blood he still needs, because Phil is still alive and blood is a big part of that, of being alive, with the pumping and the beating heart.

Natasha is muttering steadily under her breath, and Clint knows enough Russian to know what she’s saying can’t be repeated in polite company. For some reason it makes him want to laugh, except that this has been a shit day and he’s had just about as much as he can take, and if he starts to laugh now it isn’t going to end pretty for anybody.

Natasha uses her knife to tear the hole in Phil’s coat wider instead of trying to manhandle him out of it. She doesn’t say what they all know – there isn’t a choice, they have to do something because they’re a hundred miles from their extraction point.

Phil, for having been shot, is exceptionally composed. He’s staring up at Clint, but Clint can’t look down, he can’t, he can’t, until he does. “You’re a fucking idiot, sir,” he says, sounding a little like he’s been chewing on glass.

“Easy decision,” Phil replies calmly.

Easy decision to push Clint out of the way, to take a bullet not meant for him. To save Clint’s fucking life, like it meant anything to begin with. “No offence, but it was a really, really stupid decision.” The train rattles under them, rough on his tailbone, but he doesn’t move, doesn’t so much as budge. Natasha opens another syringe of morphine from their emergency pack and injects it, no-nonsense, and Phil doesn’t even notice, which sets the ice crawling up Clint’s arms and neck. She shucks her jacket and starts pulling the lining out with quick, efficient tugs. He can remember her doing it when he was on the other side of the bullet, leg on fire. “What the hell. Taking on those dudes was some serious kamikaze bullshit.”

Phil’s lips quirk into a quick, helpless grin that tells Clint just how well the morphine is working. “Fun.”

“I’ll bet.” Natasha pulls his hand away and blood pumps up out of the wound in steady gushes, with each beat of Phil’s heart.

Natasha catches Phil’s eye. “This is going to hurt.”

“Yeah,” Phil agrees, and well, fuck.

He isn’t expecting the way Phil tenses, the way he breaks out into a cold sweat, the helpless noises he makes as Natasha starts to clean the wound as best as she can, packing it with the cotton from their emergency pack, and when that isn’t nearly enough, her coat lining. It’s messy and awful and there’s blood everywhere, and Clint suddenly gets what Natasha had meant when she said no regrets, because Phil’s life is spilling all over the place, red down to the grain.

Natasha does something and Phil shudders, an awful noise low in his throat that Clint never, ever wants to hear again. Clint’s got words crowded in his throat, a thousand words each waiting to tumble out of his mouth. It’s nothing but the snow-covered gray countryside rolling by, the chain link fences and the endless noise of the train rattling on the tracks. It’s Phil, his beautiful eyes gone glassy and distant, face as white as Clint’s coat sleeve. It’s red, so much red, and Natasha’s steady, sure fingers working with efficient purpose. Clint’s been here, he’s been here so many fucking times, he’s seen what happens when the light goes out of someone’s eyes, he knows the pain that follows. Phil can’t die, not here, not now, in the godforsaken sticks of fucking Russia, on a train that smells like cow shit, and so much left undone and unsaid between them.

SHIELD is waiting for them at their extraction point, and within an hour Phil is in surgery. Fifteen minutes after they find out Phil is going to live, Clint’s vision coats in red.

He and Natasha disappear. No one’s happy about it, Clint finds out later, but too bad for them, they’ve got a mission to complete.

In three days, they retrieve Jasper (two broken ribs, one fractured pinky finger, not bad), dismantle a black-market human organ supply chain (Phil’s moved out of the country once they realize what the fuck, and Jasper’s put under a CAT scan for an all-clear), bust the teeth of the shithead who sold them out, and not-so-accidently ruin Budapest -- or at least Budapest’s shady underground, comprised of government officials and heads of state.

Maria shows up to extract them once they’re done. She looks impressed despite herself (Clint can tell, it’s all about the eyes), and when she asks them for a debrief, Natasha bares her teeth in a way that is at once terrifying and freaking hilarious. Clint’s never seen Hill go that quiet that quick.

Phil’s alive, Maria tells them, but Clint’s just not prepared for what’s keeping him alive – the machines, the tubes down his throat, the needles. People romanticized it sometimes, Clint thinks, especially the young probies. Real life isn’t a fucking daytime soap opera, with the hero stretched out attractively in a hospital smock. Real life was the smell of piss and sweat, the cold, clammy feel of someone’s skin when they’ve nearly bled out. Real life was black bruises at the IV ports, puckered skin around chest tubes, crusted eyes and skin rusted brown with dried blood.

The probies didn’t know what it was like to see someone you care about reduced to a shell. Clint knows. Clint’s lived this, Clint’s seen black stitches and black bruises and white, white skin.

They give Phil transfusions, three of them, and he spends a week in a medically-induced coma. Clint doesn’t budge from his side until he wakes up, and because this is SHIELD and they’re all of them fucked up, they don’t ask him to leave. In thank you, he doesn’t growl when someone comes in check on the cut on his neck, the multicolored bruises on his arms from his bow string.

Phil doesn’t die, but Budapest still sucks.

“We’re off rotation for another six weeks,” Phil tells him apologetically one afternoon when Clint comes by to see him, like Clint is a guest, like Clint didn’t spend a solid week sleeping in the chair beside Phil’s bed, counting the beeps of his heart. Phil’s shoulder and part of his chest are buried under enough bandaging to create a decent Halloween costume, and he’s got huge bruises under his eyes which only makes the near-translucent pallor of his skin that much worse. He’s so beautiful Clint can barely stand it.

“You look like shit,” Clint says, and offers him a bag from a bakery on the upper east side that made angel food donuts.

Phil shares, because he’s a nice guy like that. Clint watches him chew, the slope of his jaw and the rise of his cheekbone and the line of his shoulders under the hospital smock. Phil watches him watch him, he’s the master of the thousand yard stare, but he doesn’t see what Clint sees – blood all over everything and the helpless tears that had caught in Phil’s lashes every time Natasha touched his wound, the way he’d gone distant with shock, blue eyes staring at a spot just over Clint’s shoulder. Clint can’t remember a time when he’d been so scared, and he’d watched his father kill his mama.

“Anything you needed, Agent Barton?” Phil finally asks, and there’s sun coming in from the window, just a little, just enough to highlight the stubble on Phil’s jaw, the gold in his slowly receding hairline. His face does a thing Clint’s never seen before, but if he was a betting man he’d have said it was just this side of sheepish. “There’s not much I can help you with from here, I’m afraid.”

“No,” Clint says. He knows the language of Phil’s fingers, the tick at the corner of his mouth, the crinkles at the corners of his eyes. He’s like a book written in invisible ink, but Clint’s learned how to make those words appear, with blood and sweat and so many goddamn tears. “You get out of here this week,” Clint hears himself say as if from far away. “Friday, Doc said.”

“Something like that,” Phil agrees, and leans back into the pillow behind him. He’s not one for showing weakness, but they’ve been dancing around like this for too long.

Clint helps him out, adjusts the pillow under the arm strapped to his chest. His fingers linger and his eyes are drawn to the joint of Phil’s wrist, the fine smattering of hair. “You don’t get to say.”

“What?”

Clint swallows, and swallows, and tries to make the words come. “You nearly died.”

“I did,” Phil agrees, because he’s an ornery asshole, but there’s something to be said about being blunt. “As I recall, you do that every other week.”

Phil is not getting this. Clint licks his lower lip, mouth dry. “You nearly died. I’m not okay with that.”

“I can say for certain that I’m not okay with that either,” Phil says. He has such kind eyes. It wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for those eyes.

“You don’t get it. We were on that fucking train and you were dying, it was just blood and Natasha and the goddamn countryside rolling by.” He’d held Phil for six hours, arm crooked under his neck and fingers firm on his pulse. He can’t sleep at night, because every time he starts to slip he jerks awake, certain if he falls asleep Phil’s pulse will stop.

“Barton,” Phil says, a measure of compassion, of understanding in his voice, and Clint cannot deal with that, he just can’t.

“No,” he says, shaking with anger or rage, or maybe just shaking. “You don’t get to do that. You don’t get to try and push this into a neat little box you can put away.”

“I don’t want to put you away,” Phil says, and his voice is so kind, so un-Coulson, so devastated. “It’s against regulations. You know that.”

“We are way beyond ‘against regulations’ at this point. ‘Against regulations’ was three months ago when you made me leave your office with my neck still wet from your mouth.” Clint swallows, a dry click in his throat. “I’m not pushing you about this. I’m not trying to give you an ultimatum. But it’s beyond regulations now, and I can’t keep on going like nothing is wrong, like there’s this huge thing unfinished between us.” It kills him, it fucking murders him to say it, but say it he does. “Maybe if I wasn’t your subordinate anymore. If I asked for a transfer—”

“No,” Phil says automatically. He’s got that look about him that Clint’s only seen a few times, but that he recognizes from his own reflection in the mirror. It’s a little bit reckless. It’s a little bit dangerous. “That’s never going to happen,” he adds, pale now even under the pallor of his injury. “I’m sorry I said it to begin with.”

“I want us to mean something.” He doesn’t say how scared he is, how many ways this could backfire, how badly shit could go down if they didn’t work out. He doesn’t say it because Clint’s been living on the acrobat’s ledge his entire life, and sometimes choices had to be made, paths had to be taken, that left sanity and good sense by the wayside. “You felt it.”

“Clint.”

“You did.”

Phil closes his eyes briefly. “It was wrong,” he tells him, struggling, struggling, and Clint doesn’t know what else to do, what else to say to make him understand.

“It wasn’t. It was good, it was so good, you felt – you tasted—” Phil flushes to the roots of his hair, and it’s a good look for him, the best, and Clint says, “Phil. It was the best thing you and I have ever done together, and we shoot bad guys for a living.”

“You’re my subordinate.”

“When we’re at work.”

“We’re always at work.”

“Not always.” Clint looks down at Phil’s fingers, knotted into his blanket. “Doc said you can’t be alone over the weekend, if you’re going to be released on Friday.”

Phil says, after a beat, “No, I can’t.”

“Maybe I can – take you to your place. Make sure there’s food, give you a hand with the dust bunnies.”

They stare at one another like this isn’t a paradigm shift, like Phil’s answer won’t rewrite everything they thought they knew about one another. Clint’s never given anyone this much power over him and he’s scared as shit, even though he recognizes that this is personal growth, right here. Phil would be proud, if Phil wasn’t sitting in a hospital bed across from him looking like he’s about to stroke out.

“Maybe,” Phil finally says; he clears his throat and tries again. “I do need some help.”

“I know.”

“Can’t move much yet.”

“Didn’t ask you to,” Clint says quickly, feeling like his heart is going to come out of his chest. “I’ll make you my famous apple pie.”

Phil slowly relaxes into his pillows. He isn’t smiling, except that he is. “Pretty sure there aren’t eggs in the house, but if there are you’re going to need a hazmat team to remove them.”

“I’ll buy eggs. And milk, and coffee, that coffee you like,” Clint says, though he has no idea which coffee Phil likes, he will buy all the coffee if that’s what it takes. “So. Okay, then.”

“Okay then,” Phil answers, and it’s so warm and private that something shudders clear down to Clint’s toes.

“Friday?”

“Friday.”

“Okay,” Clint says, trying not to grin too much, and escapes before he can say something and make Phil regret ever tossing his lot in with his.

Chapter Text

They’ve spent most of the past several years pretty much joined at the hip, so Clint had known about Work Phil (with the post-its) and Ops Phil (with the costume thing, God he’s such a freak), but Home Phil is a whole other bag of apples. Home Phil has a weakness for fancy grilled cheese sandwiches and socks right out of the dryer. Home Phil loves bad reality TV, and insists on wearing his favorite t-shirt from Iowa State even though it has a hole in the armpit, and owns a collection of action movies that would put most video rental stores to shame. Home Phil can’t sit on his sofa without falling asleep within an hour. Home Phil has photos of his family and a favorite pillow.

“We’ve known each other how long now?”

“Four and a half years,” Clint says, and turns the bacon over to get crispy on the other side. The sun is just setting, and the room has begun to fall into shadow. It’s cozy, Clint’s favorite time of day, made even more favorite by being here. “Though it’s closer to five, counting the six months you stalked me.”

Phil snorts. He shouldn’t look so beautiful, not with his skin so ashen and his arm strapped to his chest, but he’s a study in contradictions, always has been. “I did not stalk you. I don’t stalk.” When Clint glances over the island at him he sees those eyes clear, when they should be blurry from the good drugs they’ve got him on. Clint’s not sure if that says something about how often they end up in Medical’s tender mercies. “You were a misguided kid.”

“Not really a kid at that point, though I’ll grant you misguided.” Clint flips four burgers into the bacon-greased pan. The kitchen immediately fills with the delicious scent of beef and bacon and the splash of beer Clint throws in, the holy trinity of dinner foods.

“In all that time,” Phil continues, totally affronted, “you never told me you could cook.”

“Never came up.” The taste of Phil’s favorite beer is familiar, comforting, something faintly Phil about it. “Most of the women in my life were cooks. Mama worked at a little diner right outside town, and Lady Matilda fed the whole crew every night.”

“Tell me about her,” Phil says, like he hasn’t read the file, like he doesn’t know Clint down to the heart.

He flips the burgers, watches red bubble up in the cracks of the beef. “She was my foster mom.” He glances up into the reflection of the microwave above the stove. Phil’s expression behind him is lost in the dark glass. “Kind of funny. Bearded lady for a mom.”

“I don’t think it’s funny.” Phil watches him right back in the foggy amber glass. “When did she adopt you?”

“Never did officially.” Clint takes the pan off the stove, gets the burgers to rights with a slice of American, some mayo. He sits at the island opposite Phil, pushes a plate at him and swaps Phil’s water for iced tea and two blue pills. He’d done that for Lady Matilda, held her when she shook with pain, when she blanched with fever. Near the end, he can remember watching her tighten the strings of her cello and listening to her lilting voice as she described the beauty of her music, the way it took her out of their circumstances and made her equal with the world. How could he ever explain the devastation of seeing her wither away? “She was sick for a long time,” Clint finally says. “She always said she knew when she’d die, though she never saw fit to pass on that information.”

He takes a bite of his burger, but Phil is quiet, eating, watching, and well. “Carney folk are different,” he continues, chewing. “You get those folks who wanted to do it, who grew up wanting to work with animals, or who inherited the business, but mostly it’s just people who slipped through the cracks. Nobody’s in the system, and if you are it doesn’t matter all that much because you don’t pay taxes. We stuck together because there wasn’t a choice. When she died—” He pauses, waits for the knot in his throat to recede. “She was wonderful. The best. We didn’t have enough between us for a marker in those days, but Joe – he was the owner – planted an orange tree right next to her grave, so she’d always have a spot to look out at the Mississippi and smell the orange blossoms.”

“Why haven’t you ever told me that?” Phil asks quietly.

“Lady Matilda is one of my private things,” Clint says, reasonable and sure-minded, like he’s confident and not fucking terrified of saying the wrong thing.

He can see it when it clicks in Phil’s head. The pink comes creeping up his neck from under his t-shirt. “Is that what I am?”

“Yeah,” Clint says, grinning, and chews on a fry. “Does it freak you out?”

“No.” The light catches him just right and oh, Jesus, he’s beautiful, setting sun on his skin making his eyes so blue they almost glow. “It’s proving difficult, reclassifying you in my head.”

“Babe, you should know by now that I can’t be classified.”

Phil snorts, and it’s the most wonderful sound Clint has ever heard.

They eat in companionable silence, just the stove clicking as it cools and New York City traffic, quiet and dull in the background. Clint realizes he hasn’t felt so at ease in a long, long time. The sun is already gone, and night is creeping in. For now it’s just the two of them, the light on over the stove, the glow from the living room lamp spilling into the corners of the room. “So, I told you about Lady Matilda, and fed you my awesome burger.”

“Oh, is that what this was,” Phil says, and Clint can’t actually believe it, the guy is teasing him, mouth turned up at the corner. It isn’t Work Phil’s pleasant expression, but something wholly comfortable, something private. He fingers at his glass, turns it in its ring of condensation. “You softened me up with delicious food so I’d spill my guts.”

“All’s fair,” Clint replies, delighted. “Come on. Something small, if you’re going to be shy.”

“You know everything about me already.”

“That’s such bullshit. I know what you let people know, G-Man.”

He gets to see Phil grin, and it’s a little bit like winning the lottery. “So tell me, Agent.”

“I know you like Cap crap,” Clint numbers off on his fingers. “Jasper says he’s seen you buy shit while bleeding, you’re sick dude.”

“One time.” Phil rolls his eyes. “Also, it was a graze.”

Two,” Clint says over him, because hah, “I know you’re ex-military.”

“Oh yeah? Is that what you know?”

“Yup,” Clint replies cheerfully. A curl of desire prickles at the base of his spine, radiates upwards and tingles across his scalp. “I don’t see you as the prissy Air Force type. You had boots on the ground – possibly Navy, but I know you’re not a fan of water. And considering you aren’t what anybody would call a jarhead, Marines are out. Army?”

“And you said you weren’t good at this spy shit.”

“I know right?” Clint grins. “You’re charming my socks off.”

“You’re easily charmed then,” and oh Clint is so done for. “I enlisted right out of high school. My parents hated it. Dad didn’t talk to me for years, not until I went to the Gulf.”

“You were in the war?”

“Little bit,” Phil says, but there’s a look in his eyes Clint recognizes, something cold, something deep. “That’s where Fury and I met -- Nick was working with the CID, and they were in Iraq investigating a homicide with some of the newly enlisted kids.”

“Fury recruited you while you were active duty? Can he do that?”

“One of these days you’ll figure out that Fury does whatever he wants.”

Phil’s eyes (God, Jesus, his beautiful blue eyes) get far away, thoughtful. For a man of so few words he was always so careful with them, like they meant everything, like his words were him, the very basis of what made him Phil. Clint’s always known this about him, but seeing it, watching him gather his thoughts, is like being given a gift, like Clint’s slipped under the surface of Agent and protocol and duty to something warm and private and his. “I loved the military,” Phil says, turning his glass again. It’s more melted ice than tea now, amber settling over foggy clear cold. “Not everything, of course. But the bones – the structure – I loved that. Being a single part of a necessary whole.”

“You miss it.”

“Sometimes.” He catches Clint’s eye. “It wasn’t good for me. I’m more suited to this work.”

“Being the Head G-Man, you mean.”

“You do realize I’m not, right?” Phil graces him with something amused and sly and curling around the corners, a look so hilariously fake-innocent Clint can’t help laughing.

“You talk such shit. There are what, four, five people higher up on the food chain than you? And by that I mean one of them is the President. Jasper swears you’ve got clearance that doesn’t exist, don’t—” He stops, because Jesus Christ he never thought of it like this. “How is it you got stuck with me?”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re the Head G-Man. You’re Fury’s one good eye. You disappear on missions of great national importance. You save babies from burning houses and kittens from trees; you’re basically one third of Homeland Security.” He stares at Phil, hates the claws of sudden despair in his throat, despair he has no right in feeling. “Am I that much of a risk that they assigned me to you?”

There are a thousand things Phil could say. Should say. Instead he studies Clint, really studies him with his thousand-yard stare, and gathers up his words. “You didn’t ask why the military was bad for me. Fury recognized my fault as a leader. He was the only one who ever called me out on it.”

“What are you talking about?”

Phil shrugs. “He said I was attracting the wrong kind of attention. You see, the higher-ups get nervous when you have a bad tendency of surrounding yourself with exceptional people.”

When he realizes what Phil’s talking about Clint feels his cheeks burn for the first time in years. He wants to hide under a goddamn rock, but then he’d miss the way Phil’s face gets warm, the way he smiles, crooked and beautiful and like Clint’s never seen him do. It makes his stomach squirm and his ears get hot and sends his heel tap-tap-tapping.

The moments over before it’s even really begun, and Clint gets up to refill their tea just to give his hands something to do.

All he can think is Jesus Christ, he is fucked.

 

.

(The first time they kiss – really kiss, hey-maybe-we-should-give-this-a-try kiss -- it’s not over a candle-lit dinner, or out on a fancy-pants date, or taking a walk down along the water with romantic fucking tea-lights or some shit. It’s the two of them in the basement laundry room of Phil’s building, folding socks and towels and shorts, with a bottle of Gain and Downy and fucking dryer sheets, because Phil is a closet lush who likes his clothes to smell like a spring meadow.

It isn’t that he goes in looking for something more – he’d meant it when he said he was there to help Phil while he was one wing down. He doesn’t know what it is. The light, the smell of the meadow, the way Phil looks under the horrible florescent lights, every crease and crevice in his face thrown in shadow, his eyes so warm they all but glow. Clint’s stomach drops, fists in a clench down deep under his belly button, and his brain sends a pretty fucking clear signal out to every inch of him that says I want to kiss him. It’s so clear, so uninhibited – of course Clint wants to kiss him, this is Phil, kissing is what they should always do.

He feels like a kid again. He wants to slip in close but he doesn’t know what to do with his hands – he wants to lick the line of Phil’s mouth until it opens to him, until it’s his, but isn’t sure if he’s welcome. He’s thrown caution to the wind, he’s tossed out the rules, fuck the rules, he wants this as bad as he’s ever wanted anything.

“Clint?” Phil asks, staring at his mouth, and Clint wonders what he’ll sound like after sex, and that makes him imagine Phil on his knees between Clint’s legs. Makes him imagine himself between Phil’s, and his entire body lights on fire.

“Yeah?”

“This is a mistake.”

“Yeah,” Clint says, because it is, because if this goes wrong they are completely and totally fucked. No one else will work with him, something about kamikaze bullshit, whatever, that’s Phil’s game – and Phil, kamikaze bullshit aside, has a reputation to uphold. “Don’t care.”

“You should,” Phil says, but he doesn’t move when Clint comes around the table. He doesn’t move when Clint’s hands come up to his face and their mouths are just inches apart. “This will change everything. You don’t understand how much.”

“I know,” Clint says, licks his lips. “I want to kiss you. So bad, and I can’t stop. I’m sorry.”

Phil’s expression goes dark, something private and deep and painfully aroused. Clint makes a noise deep in his throat and Phil’s fingers knot in the hair at the nape of his neck, give him a little shake. “Don’t be sorry,” he says, and traces a thumb over the arch of Clint’s jaw. “Don’t ever be sorry for asking for something from me. You got it?”

He’s so hard he’s light-headed. “I can do that.”

Phil’s just a little taller than him, just a little, and he tilts Clint’s chin back so gently, stares down at his mouth. “Is this what you want?”

Fuck. Fuck. “Yeah. I – yeah.”

“You liked it. When I took what I wanted in my office.”

“Yes,” Clint rasps out, because Jesus. “Didn’t know.”

“Neither did I,” Phil tells him, and Clint believes him. It’s something they should have known about one another a long time ago. “I don’t play games, Clint.”

“Could blow up in our faces.”

“Yeah.” Phil’s fingers gentle, tugging lightly, pulling Clint in just like he wants. The kiss, when Clint opens under him, is tender – nothing like when Phil kissed him bruised and hot. He uses his mouth like he uses everything else, with purpose, like he knows exactly what he’s doing, come along Barton don’t hold everything up. Clint’s kissed lots of people but with Phil it’s like the first time all over again, like he’s a fucking teenager kissing the star quarterback behind the stadium, so hot all his hair stands on end and his cock throbs and then tongues get involved and Clint’s done for.

Clint’s slowly getting obsessed with the smell of Phil’s soap, the rasp of stubble against his lips, the Adam’s apple that bobs hard when Phil swallows. When Clint traces it with his tongue, his breath hitches like he can’t help it. “Is this what you want?” Phil asks again, already lost. His eyes are all pupil, his mouth pink from kissing. Clint shudders, traces his thumb over the corner of it, stares as Phil speaks.

“Yes,” Clint murmurs. “This is what I want. The dating, the kissing, the whole thing. Jesus, Phil, I wouldn’t do this for just anyone, I wouldn’t chance getting booted out on my ass for just anyone.”

Phil makes a face, a new face, something gorgeous and wrecked and totally incredible, like twenty years of birthday presents have come all at once. Clint laughs when he sees it, overjoyed. “Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Phil says, and pulls him in.)

 

.

The problem is this: when Work Phil and Home Phil collide, slipping back into Coulson and Barton is nearly impossible.

Phil’s cleared for duty and the change is obvious to anyone with eyeballs, let alone the people they work with. They sit too close to one another in the cafeteria, and Clint spends most of his time outside of the range camped out in Phil’s office, playing Solitaire on his tablet. They aren’t talking about their first op after Phil gets better, the way they’d stared at one another afterward, covered in blood that wasn’t theirs and breathing so hard it was a wonder they didn’t mount one another right there in the middle of HQ. They barely made it back to Phil’s office, and didn’t make it horizontal -- Phil just shoved him against the door, cuffed Clint’s wrists above his head with one big hand, gotten their zippers open, and proceeded to give them both a hand job. At the same time.

(Precisely ten seconds after it was over, mouth bruised from kissing and skin flushed pink from orgasm, Phil pulled Clint’s pants up and threw him out of his office with an expression of confused horror, like he couldn’t believe what he’d just done but he’d do it again if Clint didn’t get the hell out of Dodge.)

That would have probably been the end of it, if Phil hadn’t taken him home for dinner and blown him with such precision and expertise that Clint had nearly screamed the building down. Clint had reciprocated in kind, scared shitless for the first few moments until he got addicted to the flavor, the heat, the weight of Phil’s cock. Nothing on the fucking planet could hold a candle to the way Phil’s face flushed, his mouth fell open, his muscles rippled under his skin as Clint sucked, sloppy and without form, but learning, learning how to make Phil make loud, helpless noises.

Phil’s pressed him down into his sheets, and Clint hasn’t left yet.

The problem is simple. Clint can’t see him in his suit and not remember the way he’d looked when Clint had changed his bandages for him, naked shoulders for miles, the hard line of muscle down his belly he hid under button-downs and ties. He can’t look at neat, tidy hair and not remember it sticking up when he ran his fingers through it, the way Phil had smiled, something so loose and relaxed and beautiful in the curve of his mouth.

The problem is obvious. The people who get recruited into SHIELD aren’t stupid, and Clint’s aware that money is changing hands, that people are waiting for it to happen really loudly and really publically. It’s so very beyond against regulation but Clint can’t stop, even when he knows he’s fucking things up, that Phil could lose his job, that Clint could be booted out on his ass.

“I’m screwing this up,” he says one Saturday night, sprawled on the ground because that’s where Natasha has put him so many times in the last hour that it’s a miracle he still has two brain cells to rub together. “Also, ow.”

“Your form is awful,” Natasha says, and hauls him back to his feet with strength her petite frame shouldn’t have. She glares up at him like the tiny, deadly little spider she is, and shoves him back two feet. “The sex is not doing you any favors, if you’re this distracted.”

“No kidding, I don’t know how people deal with this shit,” he says, getting his hands up again, falling into a fighting stance. He mixes it up, because he relies too much on his right leg sometimes for balance.

He makes three rookie mistakes in a row, and it’s with zero surprise that he ends up staring at the ceiling again. What’s worse, he’s blocked that move before, knows how to slither out of her grip, how to break her hold.

He pants, back aching and left leg throbbing, and groans. “Jesus, woman, have some sympathy.”

With the grace of a ballerina, she settles herself cross-legged beside him and gifts him with a look of such frustrated affection that Clint all but cringes. “Start at the beginning.”

Clint throws his arm over his eyes so he doesn’t have to look at her pity. And he is pitiful, Jesus Christ he’s like the poster child for Am I Gay, Mom?, only with more stubble and less pubescent longing and bad poetry. “Coulson and I, we. You know.”

“And?”

“What do you mean, ‘and’?” Clint demands, lifting an elbow to glare at her from under his arm. “It isn’t enough that I’m having an affair with my boss? My man-boss?”

She hums, something amused and soft and God, he loves her too, she’s one of the best things that’s ever happened to him. “He’s good in bed, isn’t he?”

“Holy shit, yes,” he says, and she surprises him by laughing. “You have no idea. It’s so good with him, everything – I mean, he’s got some experience with this, so at least we’re not like two virgins fumbling in the dark. He knows how to make it good.”

“He seems like the type,” she agrees. He can feel her looking at him like she does, the kind that flays him down to the marrow. Like she can see all the parts that make him tick. “What are you really afraid of, Clint?”

“Losing him,” he says immediately. “I don’t want him to have to choose between SHIELD and me.”

Natasha sets her palm against his pounding heart, leans over to look him square in the eye. “You’re afraid,” she says, and cuts him through to the quick, just like she’s always been able to.

He swallows, sets his hand over hers. “What if all of this bullshit has been for nothing? What if it ends badly? He’ll leave, Natasha, or I’ll have to. We can’t go back to what it was like before. That’s why he pushed me away for as long as he did. It’d ruin everything.”

“No one said you had to,” she says, and uncurls, lying down beside him. They both stare up at the ceiling. Her hair tickles his nose, and it smells of lilacs and vanilla, warm and soft against his cheek. “You love him.”

He opens his mouth – stops.

Дурак,” she murmurs fondly. “There aren’t rules, or guidelines. Ask him out. Dinner, drinks. Talking.”

“Like a date? Fancy pants, reservations, all that bullshit?”

She gets up onto one elbow to grace him with the most spectacular look of haughty female disdain he’s ever seen. It’s gorgeous, he wants to snap a photo and preserve it forever, and he’s already grinning when she says, “It isn’t rocket science.”

 

.

It’s funny how these things work out, because Clint probably would have never even known about Banner if he hadn’t taken Natasha’s advice, grown a pair, and asked Phil out on an actual-facts date to an Italian restaurant on 39th street.

(It’s a new-age hipster restaurant, which Clint did not know before making the reservation. There are kids wearing scarves and hats -- Jesus, so many hats -- and ironic t-shirts, and one guy is wearing his kid sister’s knit Barbie sweater. The hostess won’t seat them unless they ‘blend with the ambiance’. Clint nearly suggests where she could shove her ambiance, but he’d put on slacks for this goddamn date and so a date there’s going to be. Besides, Phil loves costumes way too much not to totally get into it. Clint repurposes his tie into a sassy scarf and stuffs his trousers into his boots, while Phil loses the tie entirely and rolls up the sleeves of his dress shirt. It’s about as ironic as Phil can get, which is in and of itself ironic. They spend the better part of the night smirking at one another and furthering the hipster agenda by leaving a fifty dollar tip in the rubles Clint had stuffed in his wallet.)

The thing is, Clint is a level four agent. And while that’s all well and good (actually, it’s pretty damn amazing considering he’s only been part of SHIELD for four years), he isn’t quite at Phil’s level. Phil’s level being, of course, the Head G-Man. Phil is like a level twenty eight thousand or something, whatever, the highest of the high, he knows shit that only Fury knows. That’s awesome, because Phil is Clint’s person and he owns this bitch.

So, anyway, Clint probably would never have known about ole Brucey until after the fact, except they’re leaving the restaurant and Clint hears a muffled boom from the other part of the city, and suddenly Phil’s phone is going nuts and he slips from Home Phil into BAMF Phil in about three-point-two seconds.

“Those are monsters!” Clint bellows. SHIELD is already there, they’ve got the G-Man vans full to brimming with enough artillery to stop a freight train, so Clint suits himself out like he’s going to kick some ass, which – well, hah.

Phil makes him put on body armor, not because the monsters are going to shoot him but because the monsters are throwing city buses like tin cans. There are two of them and they roar at one another so loudly that Clint feels it reverberate in his head. “Remember how I was away for a while last year after we found Natasha?” Phil asks him, very nicely not mentioning Clint’s emotional breakdown as he helps him secure his vest. “This is the reason.”

“Those are monsters!” Clint says again, because there is not enough What the FUCK in the entire English language to fully convey the fact that two huge-ass green monsters are using 126th street like their own personal boxing ring.

“Yeah,” Phil tells him, and shoves four extra clips into his vest. “The yellow guy is our enemy.”

“There are two monsters, they are both green,” Clint yells, except not, one is kind of yellowish with a face only a mother could love, while the other guy still looks vaguely human, just huge and green and really pissed off.

SHIELD and the entirety of the NYPD try to contain the situation, but it’s a lost cause almost before it starts. Greeny and What Is That can’t be contained, they’re animals who chew up buildings and toss around cars like they’re toys, pound one another into the ground until concrete and pavement come up in chunks. This isn’t like the movies, like watching T-Rex and King Kong battle it out -- this is pure chaos, this is the city disintegrating beneath his feet and the roar of two animals echoing around his heart. The two of them fight for all of twenty minutes, and Clint thinks that if they’d lasted anymore than that the entire city would have been destroyed.

Three hundred civilians dead – old people, young people, kids, babies – and over twice that many are hurt. Entire apartment buildings with families still in them are razed to the ground. Most of the subway under the neighborhood caves in, and there’s an entire subway car crushed like a fucking tin can with people still trapped inside. Harlem has no power, no water, and the gas main has erupted, setting most of it on fire. Fourteen SHIELD agents, twenty eight police officers, and twelve firefighters lose their lives.

There’s a field hospital set up in the middle of Sugar Hill, and dozens of doctors and nurses are tending to the wounded. Ambulances are screaming, people are crying, and the smell of blood and gas and oil is thick in the air. Clint works tirelessly, all night and into the next day. He helps with the subway car crushed down below Harlem – only two survivors out of over fifty. He rescues a child from a ruined store front and feels like a failure, because her mama is dead and Clint knows what that is. At some point the Army rolls in, fuckers, took them long enough, but with their help they’re able to get more survivors out of a grocery store, the remains of the apartment building on the next street over.

He’s sitting in the back of an ambulance, letting a nurse bandage his head, when Phil comes to him. He’s been in Clint’s ear all night, a constant, soothing presence, but when he stops in front of Clint he’s streaked with dirt and sweat and splattered blood, fury radiating off every inch of him. Clint’s never seen anything so gorgeous. “Hey,” he says, and smiles.

Phil exhales like he’s been holding his breath for ages. “They said you fell.”

“Yup.” He closes his eyes and the EMT leaves them alone, that’s great, that’s wonderful even because Clint’s going to do this even if she’s here. “Just a little.”

“You’re a terrible liar,” is Phil’s tart reply, and yeah, well. “Where?”

“Roof of the library. Monsters, Phil, monsters--” but Phil’s not paying him much attention; he’s inspecting the cut on the side of Clint’s face, his temple where the bandage is spotted through with red already. Phil smells like blood, like fighting, like war. His hands are firm and never tremble, and it’s the hottest goddamn thing Clint’s ever seen.

“I can’t tell you much,” he says, gently pressing on the bruise high over Clint’s cheekbone, manipulating it and looking for broken bone.

“Didn’t think so.” Clint looks up at him. “You were out of radio contact for a while.”

“Yeah,” he says, thumb along the corner of Clint’s eye. “Sorry.”

“I got worried.”

“Me too.”

Clint swallows, and it hurts, and he doesn’t know if it’s because his throat is dry or what but when he tries to talk it comes out like a croak. “I didn’t tell you that I like this, what we have. I don’t want to fuck it up, so you have to tell me if I am. That’s what I meant to do with the hipster restaurant, which I didn’t know was a hipster restaurant by the way, sorry again.”

He doesn’t think he’s ever seen that expression on Phil’s face before. It’s something gorgeous and stunned, and it’s right up there with Not a Sneeze, with You Hurt My Head But I Still Find You Amusing, with I Can’t Believe You’re Letting Me This Close. It’s beautiful, and Clint’s whole chest feels hot and tight and full, like there’s just so much inside of him that he can’t contain it all.

And even though his damn walky-talky chirps in that moment and Fury’s voice comes over the comm, Phil ducks down low and kisses him.

 

.

In October, the Tony Stark of Stark Industries fame gets billionaire-knapped, gets rescued, goes off the deep end, builds himself a wearable machine gun (that flies), and declares himself ‘Iron Man’.

To say SHIELD freaks the fuck out is an understatement. Clint’s never seen so many people wring their hands worryingly in his life. Phil thinks it’s hilarious, and when he gets back from LA he declares Stark, “A harmless-yet-brilliant nut job,” only he says it in bureaucracy-eeze, or maybe Phil-eeze, so it sounds a lot nicer but still boils down to the same thing.

When he crawls onto the bed beside Clint, though, he presses his mouth against the back of Clint’s shoulder and confesses, “It’s a reaction to the PTSD.”

It’s so late it’s almost early. Rain is coming in; he can smell it on Phil’s skin, hear distant thunder somewhere to the east. “Yeah,” Clint mumbles, half awake, the light from the bathroom spilling into the room, over the bed. He feels Phil relax in inches before finally slumping against him with an exhausted sigh, sliding an arm over Clint’s side. “How long was Stark in Afghanistan?”

“Almost three months. Another six weeks in Landstuhl after he was rescued.”

“Is it true? About that thing in his chest?”

“Jasper needs to keep his mouth shut,” Phil replies crisply, like he isn’t nosing at Clint’s neck right under his ear.

“Jasper is the king of gossips, how can you not know this.” Clint traces his fingertip around the edge of Phil’s thumbnail, down over the knuckle, until Phil’s fingers curl into his. “It’s like at his factory, right?”

Phil doesn’t say anything for a while, but Clint knows all about Thoughtful Phil so he waits, Phil’s breath tickling the hair at the nape of Clint’s neck, his heartbeat steady against Clint’s back. “They had to take out his sternum and parts of his ribcage to make it fit,” he says finally.

“The doctors?”

“The terrorists,” Phil murmurs, and Clint sucks in a sharp breath. “There was no removing it after he was rescued. The reactor is serving two purposes now – keeping the shrapnel embedded in his chest from reaching his heart, and providing structural support for his rib cage and spine. Even with the best possible outcome, the extensive grafting and reconstruction he would need would greatly reduce his quality of life.” He traces his thumb gently along the back of Clint’s hand. “The surgeons in Landstuhl did their best, but even their worst would have been better than what he had. Whoever implanted the original casing used the bottom of a paint can.”

“Jesus,” Clint mutters, because – Jesus. He wouldn’t wish that on his worst enemy.

“Pretty bad,” Phil agrees, and knits their fingers together.

It gets quiet for a while, until all Clint can hear is the air circulating through the vents, and the distant rumble of the city outside of Phil’s apartment, thunder rolling through the east. Phil is awake though, pensive, and Clint lets him puzzle things out, lets him think because that’s what he needs to do.

“I don’t think he’s dangerous,” Phil finally says. “Disturbed, in pain, yes. Dangerous, no. Neither does Fury, but he’s going to send Natasha undercover for a while to be certain.”

“Well then there you go,” Clint says, and grins in the dark. “What I wouldn’t give to be a fly on the wall in that scenario. Can you imagine? She’s going to hand his ass to him and make him like it.”

Phil shakes behind him; surprised, helpless laughter. “Clint.”

“He’s totally done for, poor bastard doesn’t even know it.”

“Not so sure about that. He’s got a firecracker of an assistant,” Phil says, smiling against Clint’s skin. He presses a kiss to the back of Clint’s neck, right under his ear. “I was surprised you hadn’t left. Thought you’d be back at HQ.”

Clint freezes, stares across the room at the blue curtains, the light from the bathroom turning them gold. “They didn’t need me.”

“I’m glad,” Phil says quietly, and Clint can tell that he is. It opens a well of something warm and deep in his belly, terrifying in its intensity and so fucking good he just wants to roll around in it, wrap himself up in it and forget there was ever a time when he was unwanted.

Phil kisses into the crevice between neck and shoulder, brushes his lips over that spot on Clint’s pulse that makes him shiver, like he has no idea what his easy, comfortable acceptance has done. “Do okay while I was gone?”

“Pined longingly for you,” Clint says with a gusty sigh, forced and light. The knot in his throat hurts when he swallows against it. “Fed your cat.”

“I don’t have a cat.”

Clint blinks. “Fed the cat that keeps coming to the door and scratching until I let her in and give her some kibble I bought,” he amends, and Phil smiles into another kiss to the arch of Clint’s shoulder blade, over the hawk tattooed into his skin. “Made one of your new probie’s cry, sorry about that. Beat my own high score at the range.”

“Impossible,” Phil says, and an unexpected tingle runs down Clint’s spine, curls down low and warm where they’re pressed. He’s suddenly very aware that he’s almost naked, save for his underwear, and Phil is still half dressed.

Other parts of him become aware, too, and he shivers, toes curling into the blankets. “Hey, what’re you doing back there?” he asks, but then Phil’s hand is sliding down his stomach into his underwear and oh, oh. Well then.

He shudders now, curls back until he can slide his mouth over Phil’s, his fingers into the back of his hair. Phil obliges, leaning over Clint’s shoulder so they can make out like kids, and it’s just so damn easy and comfortable, so right. “We didn’t talk about this.”

“Do you need to?” Phil asks against the corner of his mouth, the arch of his throat, as he gently, so gently, strokes Clint’s cock. Anyone else and Clint would have planted a fist in their face, but from Phil he knows it’s totally sincere. It’s actually kind of unexpected, makes him feel a little choked up.

“No.” Clint rolls over onto his back so Phil has no choice but to half-drape over him. He stretches, toes curling, because he loves the way Phil can’t help but watch the muscle in his arms ripple. “You may continue.”

“Oh, may I, my liege?” Phil asks, and Clint grins and slides both hands up into Phil’s hair, messed it up from its usual neatness.

They both get Phil undressed – Clint working on the thousand tiny little buttons, Phil unbuckling his belt and pushing his pants down. He falters, though, when Phil presses him back into the blankets. It’s hot is what it is, brain-searing even, because Phil has a way with his tongue and his hands and his fingertips that make Clint’s body do things he didn’t know it could do. Clint’s never actually had sex like this before now, stretched out on a bed with hours to devote to fucking. This is a bed. This is naked, and Phil’s tongue sliding into his bellybutton which is somehow attached directly to his dick.

He groans, loudly, and Phil laughs above him, the fucker. Clint flicks his forehead, tries to anyway, but Phil catches his hand and sucks on his first two fingers, scrapes them ever-so-lightly with his teeth. “I want to suck you,” he says, kissing the tips of Clint’s fingers. “Is that okay?”

Jesus. It isn’t right, it isn’t right that Phil is between his sprawled legs, staring up at him and waiting for permission to suck his cock. Like Clint’s going to say no, like anyone in the history of ever would say no to that beautiful mouth.

“Wait,” he blurts, and Phil dutifully waits, because he’s a gentleman and Clint’s totally not ever admitting he’s overwhelmed.

He leans over to the bedside drawer, rifles through it. There are books, a bottle of Tylenol, a pair of socks. There’s about a year’s worth of National Geographic, an extra clip for the Colt in the bottom drawer, and one sad, lonely condom.

“Are you kidding me right now,” Clint demands. “What are you?”

“What?”

“No lube?”

He has the delightful experience of seeing Phil’s face flush a hot, brilliant red. “Lube?” he asks, and Clint flicks his eyes down to see Phil’s cock twitch under his underwear.

He moans, falls onto his back because fuck. “I want you to finger me.”

“What?” Phil asks again, staring at him like he’s never met him. Clint has it on good authority he has. “You’ve never had penetrative sex with another man before.”

“Well, no, I – wait, how do you know that?” Clint demands. “Did you read my file?”

“Front to back, numerous times,” Phil says dryly with Work Phil voice, like he can even get away with it when he’s kneeling there with a hard-on tenting his boxer briefs.

“Ha ha, funny,” Clint replies, bucks his hips up, and just like that he’s naked, tossing his underwear to the floor. They’ve never been this naked together – well, they’ve showered together, but that was showering, that was soap and kisses and shampoo. This is Naked Together, this is Hot Sex Together. “I want you to finger me,” he says again, and spreads his legs. Suddenly it isn’t so funny anymore. He wants Phil’s mouth but he really, really wants his fingers – the flash bomb of a memory detonating behind his eyes, the orgasm he’d pulled out of himself that left him weak-kneed and laughing himself to tears. He wants that again, but he wants it with Phil, because if it was good by himself he cannot possibly imagine what it’s like with those blue eyes, such kind, beautiful eyes, looking down at him.

He tries to calm down, because Phil is gob smacked between his legs. It’s a good look for him, but Clint realizes that he’s being kind of selfish (personal growth!) and tries to bring himself back from the edge a little. “Phil,” he says again, licks his lips. “No, I’ve never had penetrative sex with another guy, but I tried it on my own while you were gone, and judging by the fact that I came so hard I nearly passed out —” Phil moans softly, something low and deep and completely involuntary, and Clint’s entire body clenches at the sound of it, “—I loved it, so it’s pretty likely that I’d love your fingers too. Are you okay with that? Do you do that with men?”

“Clint, I can honestly say that what you and I are doing is brand new territory for me,” Phil answers him quietly, his big hands running down Clint’s calves, gently spreading his legs and pulling him in, pulling them close. Clint gets that weird choked up feeling again, wriggles down to where Phil wants him, tangles their feet together. “I’d love to finger you. Are you ready for that?”

“Yeah,” Clint says immediately. He tries to touch his cock, give himself a soothing stroke, but Phil catches his wrist and does it for him, and it’s the hottest thing ever. Phil’s eyes are blown black, and he’s so hard that when Clint reaches down to return the favor, gently runs his fingertips over the hard length under warm cotton, Phil jerks like he’s been electrocuted. “Jesus, babe, yes I want you to. Is that okay?”

“Yeah,” Phil tells him; clears his throat. “Of course it’s okay.”

Clint fucking beams, and they stare at one another like love-struck idiots until he says, “Lube?”

“Right.” Phil clambers out of bed and Clint is pleased to see how shaken he is because he did that, he made Phil Coulson, the man for whom the word ‘badass’ was invented, stumble like an idiot. The light to the bathroom flicks on, and Clint waits until he hears the drawers opening before letting out a loud, stage-worthy moan. Something crashes in the bathroom and when Phil emerges, hair sticking up and cock sticking out and a bottle of lube in hand, he glares at Clint with the ferocity of a thousand dying suns and cracks Clint up.

He’s still laughing when Phil tackles him.

He tries to keep it light, tries not to get too worked up too fast, but it’s impossible. Who could possibly withstand Phil between their legs, sucking cock, mouth red and swollen and eyes narrowed with satisfaction? Clint curls up like a little pill bug and Phil thinks it’s funny, Clint can tell, but he can’t make himself stretch out again, not when Phil gets his fingers wet and pushes first one, then two so, so gently into him, curls them up against his prostate and strokes. Two fingers eventually become three, more than Clint’s taken before, and with the first press of them Clint’s addicted. The stretch burns, a heavy, aching pressure, a fullness that drives him crazy with how good it feels. When he looks down it’s to that mouth around his cock, those beautiful eyes closed with his own pleasure, those hips moving because Phil is so fucking turned on he can’t stop rubbing against the sheets. Clint keens, thighs around Phil’s ears, rocking down into the steady pressure of the fingers inside him, the hot, tight heat around his cock.

Phil sucks until pre-come drips white from the corners of his mouth, until he has to pull back to lick it up, and it’s the hottest fucking thing Clint has ever seen. He can only stand it for two seconds before reaching over into the night stand again and fetching that lone, sad little condom.

Phil stares at it, and him, like he’s being given something he never thought he’d have. Like he’d move the earth if Clint asked him to. “Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Clint says hoarsely, shuddering, toes curling. “Hurry, babe.”

Phil presses his burning face against Clint’s thigh and it’s amazing watching Phil fall apart, feeling him tremble as he rolls the condom on, as he shifts Clint’s legs this way and that. He’s being so careful, so tentative, and that’s great, that’s wonderful even, but it’s better when he holds Clint the way he wants, handfuls of Clint’s hips and ass, and presses his cock in, slow and steady and deep. It’s intense, just shy of painful, and Clint’s cock blurts out precome in time with his heartbeat, racing in his ears. He can hear himself make fractured, broken noises, and Phil stops when he hears it, but he doesn’t ask if Clint’s okay; he just slows down, just waits until Clint can catch his breath before he pushes deeper.

He’s so overwhelmed that he almost misses Phil’s slow pull back. He doesn’t miss the thrust forward though, because it punches the air out of his lungs. He almost screams, would if he had the breath, and his legs curl up over Phil’s hips. Phil pushes one of them high onto his shoulder, bending Clint nearly in half, and oh “—Jesus, I love you so fucking much,” Clint rasps, digging his fingers into Phil’s arm, his thigh, his ass where it’s flexing. “Again.”

“Yeah?” Phil asks, face sheened with sweat, with the effort to keep this slow and smooth. “You like it?”

Phil thrusts forward just right and Clint cries out without meaning to, the sound shaken loose and knocked up out of his throat. He grabs Phil tight, anywhere he can reach, shuddering on the end of his cock because oh fuck, oh fuck yes. “Yeah babe, again.”

“Knew you would,” Phil tells him, drops his head to kiss him and thrust hard, a snap of his hips that makes Clint sob out loud.

They fuck for a long time. Phil is so careful, so gentle, but that he owns Clint’s ass is beyond question. He keeps Clint on the edge of coming for so long that by the time he’s ready he’s nearly sobbing, begging for a hand on his cock because Phil won’t let him, he just needs a touch and –

Phil gasps, “Clint,” into the curl of Clint’s knee and wraps his fingers around Clint’s cock, stroking him just right, and Clint’s done. Orgasm comes from his guts, from low and deep inside, more intense than he’s ever felt. It’s incredible, and it’s only Phil’s mouth on his that keeps him from waking all the neighbors. He comes with such ferocity it hits under his chin, gets in his hair, and Phil groans like he’s dying.

When Phil bottoms out, when they’re pressed skin to skin and Phil is making noises Clint’s never heard another human being make, he wonders how he ever lived so long without this.

 

.

Everybody gets a promotion that spring.

Phil is now level eighty nine million or something, the only people above him are Fury, the President, and God. Naturally, the first thing he does with his sparkly new paycheck is buy them a bigger bed. Clint’s all over that business, and when they have sex now it’s both comfy and amazing.

Clint gets a promotion too, level five, so Fury lets him in on more stuff. For instance, he finds out that Stark is dying, poor bastard, and that Medical is going crazy trying to figure out a way to keep him alive. Natasha is just busy going crazy, and when Clint calls her to tell her he’s been promoted, she feels free to spend the next two hours bitching with such vehemence Clint can’t actually stop laughing. Apparently, Stark is an insufferable asshole who’s still somehow totally endearing, “How is that even possible?” she demands.

Clint pauses midway through making his sandwich, phone squished between neck and ear. “You like assholes?”

“Huh. Maybe I do,” Natasha says, and Clint’s all about this growing-as-a-person stuff, sharing the love, sharing the love. “So I hear you and Phil finally got your act together.”

What,” Clint squeaks, dropping the mustard, and oh, God, he realizes he’s let the cat out of the bag about one second after it’s out of his mouth because Natasha immediately says,

“Wait, did you really?”

“Natasha,” he says desperately.

“It’s about time, you were both getting on my nerves,” she replies primly, and hangs up on him.

While Stark is dying – and Jesus, he’s not even screwing around, he gives away his company and one of his Iron Man suits and most of his stuff -- Bruce Banner is on the loose somewhere in Guatemala. Maria Hill pulls that assignment because Fury either loves her or hates her, poor little lamb. Natasha and Phil are back and forth to LA, mostly forth. In the aftermath of a training accident gone rogue Clint’s hands are hamburger meat (which is what happens when one is being all heroic and shit, that beam would have crushed Probie Legs-Up-To-Her-Ears), and HQ is no fun without his BFFs, so mostly he ends up at the apartment, watching bad movies, petting Not Phil’s Cat, and shamelessly going through Phil’s stuff.

Phil, of course, knows him down to the molecular level, so the first time he opens up a photo album he’s met with a neon orange post-it.

Didn’t anyone ever tell you it isn’t nice to look through other people’s things?

He laughs out loud, and when he turns the pages he finds more of them, in all kinds of colors, with Phil’s neat, tidy little scrawl. They describe his family – his brother’s name is Filbert and his sister’s name is Elizabeth, though she goes by Liz – and their beloved Chesapeake water dog, Sir Maximilian Von Pooch, who was given a sea burial like a proper Navy admiral. He sees Phil and Bert grow up, from identical – and adorable -- blond little rugrats, to leggy kids, to awkward teenagers. There are photos of Phil’s parents, and it’s easy to see that Phil is their son – they all share the same blue eyes, the same long nose, the same Not a Smile.

There are photos of Bert in a hospital bed after some kind of surgery, and the post-it note next to it says, First cancer scare. There are more photos, some of Bert in a wheelchair, then in the hospital again.

“Sorry,” he says, when Phil answers the phone with, “You do know there’s a three hour difference between New York and California, right?” because oops. Then, “I found your photo albums.”

“No, you went looking for the photo albums,” Phil says, but there’s something in his voice, something comfortable and private. It nearly makes Clint squirm, and not in a bad way. “I thought you were resting your hands.”

“I am,” Clint says, because he is dammit, “but they’re nearly healed and I was bored. Tell me about your brother. It said, ‘First cancer scare’. He’s had more?”

There’s a sound, and Clint hears bedsprings. People would mistake it for getting out of bed. Clint knows it’s Phil getting back into bed, after storing his gun back in its holster. “Twice. He’s going through chemo right now actually, though the danger has passed.”

Clint frowns, and Not Phil’s Cat’s tail flicks lightly next to his side. “What is it?”

“Non-Hodgkin lymphoma.”

“Jesus.”

“Yeah.” Phil makes a noise like a sigh, shifts a little. The sound of the blankets rustling makes Clint feel like he’s home again, turning to face him. He shifts a little in bed, does the same, and Not Phil’s Cat curls up in the warm spot behind him. “Apparently I hogged all the good genes in the womb or something, go figure. He’s got a weak heart and early-onset arthritis. He lives here in LA, I just saw him and his wife a few days ago.”

Clint frowns, holds the phone closer to his ear. “Does he have kids?”

“Yeah,” Phil says with a laugh, “six. All girls.”

The conversation just goes downhill from there, because six girls, dude has a weak heart and had cancer three times and he still got it up enough to give his wife six girls. That’s awesome, and Clint says so, and that turns into Phil telling him about the photos like he’s right there with him, like he’s memorized them, and Clint is struck with the thought that he wants this, all the time, forever.

It’s quiet for a little while, and Clint can hear Phil breathing, the way he does when he’s falling asleep. Clint’s has the passing thought that if he could he’d reach right through the phone and pull Phil close, so he’d never leave. So Phil would never have to wake up alone again.

Phil is falling asleep, but it’s alright. Clint’s right there with him.

 

.

He doesn’t think he’s actually going to see Phil for a while, but Fury calls him not a week later and tells him, “Healed up, kid? Great. Pack your shit, you’re going to New Mexico.”

“New Mexico, sir?”

“Did I stutter? The geek squad sensed a disturbance in the force. Coulson will meet you there.”

Phil drives from LA, leaving a path of destruction in his wake (in no particular order, he catches an escaped convict, foils an attempted kidnapping, and beats the shit out of two dudes trying to hold up a gas station), but Clint has to fly, because Fury wants him in New Mexico yesterday. Clint doesn’t like planes he isn’t flying himself, but he handles it alright for the most part, even though he has to sit next to a little girl who spends half the trip staring at him, the other half asking him if he’d like to join her in coloring her Cinderella coloring book.

(When he takes her up on it, she compliments his eye for contrasting hues like she’s an art professor and he’s her loyal student. It’s the cutest damn thing he’s ever seen.)

New Mexico blows. It’s cold and dry and cold, and when the sun goes down, somehow, it’s even colder. Clint can remember coming here once with the circus, and he’d hated it then too, only then it’d been hot and dry and hot, so this is a step up. Also, there’s Phil, who runs the op like he runs everything else: with a staggering amount of competence and skill, and like the huge ass mystical hammer no one can get out of the ground, and which is off signals the geek squad is falling into faints over, is totally normal. Maybe, for a level thirty thousand agent, it is.

A blond dude who could probably crush Clint like a saltine cracker shows up to fetch Excalihammer, which he calls Meow-Mix Clint cannot make this stuff up. Things gets confusing for a while, but in the end a small New Mexico town is only a little worse for wear, Phil is brand new besties with the God of Thunder, Jasper is walking around having random, uncontrollable crying jags, and Clint’s been knocked on his ass.

“You get used to it,” Phil tells him a few nights later when they’re finally home and eating Chinese food cross-legged in bed. They’re also naked, save for Clint’s socks (he has cold feet). Not Phil’s Cat is right in the middle of it like always, mewing loudly when they ignore her for longer than a minute.

“I’m not getting used to anything, that dude is real,” Clint says, shoving a mini eggroll into his mouth. “If the Norse legends are true, with Thor and Loki and the eight-legged horse, does that mean the Egyptian ones are too? Don’t fuck with me, Phil. If I go down to level fourteen, will I find the Stargate?”

Phil’s shaking with suppressed laughter, noodles falling off his chopsticks, and it’s beautiful, beautiful. “No idea, I only have clearance through level thirteen.”

“Liar,” Clint says, grinning. “Thor’s an alright guy,” he adds, takes a pull from the beer they’re sharing.

“He is.” Phil tips his head back for noodles. He chews thoughtfully for a minute, feeds Not Phil’s Cat a bit of chicken that makes her purr. “Well. For a prince.”

“I know, right? What’s that about? Their family drama reads like a tragedy, I kept waiting for Shakespeare to pop out of the Bifrost.” Phil hums with amusement, and when Clint offers him the last bite of egg roll he leans in close and takes it, lips brushing Clint’s fingertips. Clint shivers, full-body. “You’re remarkably cool about all this.”

Phil shrugs, chews. “No use freaking out.”

“Aliens and immortal gods aren’t freaking-out material?”

“I think it’s kind of amazing.”

Clint’s ears perk when ‘I think’ comes out of Phil’s mouth – it happens so rarely that he always gets everyone’s attention when he says it. Even Fury will shut his pie hole for a minute when Phil breaks out the ‘I think’. “Yeah?”

“Mmm.” Phil considers him. “Nine worlds, nine species of intelligent creatures, connected through space and time by a force we can’t understand. That’s pretty amazing.” Phil rubs a thumb through some of the duck sauce Clint’s spilled on his knee. He leans down and licks it, draws his tongue just far enough up Clint’s thigh to make him break out into goose bumps, to make his cock stir.

It sends a shiver right down to his toes, and Clint shoves his carton of food on the nightstand. “Hey, you done? Yeah? Good, come over here and fuck me.”

“I’ve already fucked you,” Phil says, amused, like he isn’t the world’s biggest tease, like he isn’t hard, the length of his cock flushed and long and gorgeous. He takes a long drink of the beer, puts his own carton beside Clint’s, and gets the cat on the floor with the gentle touch he always uses with her. “You’re getting pretty pushy.”

“And don’t you forget it,” Clint says, sprawling backwards into the blankets and striking a sexy vixen pose straight out of the movies, tube socks and all. It’s enough to get Phil laughing again, and that’s Clint’s favorite kind of sex, the fun kind, the amazingly awesome kind, the kind that has them both giggling like a pair of twelve year olds, then moaning, then laughing again when Phil says his leg is cramping or Clint makes an embarrassing noise or the bed groans right along with them.

The next morning, Clint makes pancakes and Phil fries some bacon, and over a second pot of coffee Phil says, “I love you too. I don’t think I said it, before.”

Clint goes still mid bite. Phil tips his chin on his hand, the other curled loosely around his mug. He’s breathtaking. “That was like, three months ago.”

“Yeah,” Phil says. “Sorry.”

Clint thinks a minute. “Well. I love you too, too.”

“I know.”

“Good.” His hands aren’t shaking, they just aren’t, but he’s slopping coffee onto the table so maybe they are a little.

Phil stands, presses a kiss to his temple, warm stubble on Clint’s skin. “You should probably finish moving your stuff in,” he says, and ambles off to the shower.

 

.

Stark cures himself by developing a brand new element in his basement (like you do when you’re a boss), accidently destroys most of LA (though to be fair that wasn’t really him, just a couple of dudes with a vendetta), and starts showing up randomly at HQ. Natasha calls him her ‘annoying bearded shadow’, which is hilarious on a whole other level, because she gets this pinched, sucked-a-lemon expression every single time she hears his voice. Her initial impression is correct – Stark’s a total asshole – but he’s the charming kind of asshole who makes it impossible not to like him.

They’re never really formally introduced (in fact, Stark calls him ‘Legolas’ for the first six months they know each other), but at some point he finds out Stark was involved in installing an AI into his long-range arrows that connects right into the SHIELD mainframe, and it’s instant, beautiful bromance. He sends Stark a bouquet of pink posies, and Stark flicks him the finger by making him a quiver that allows him to change arrow tips with the push of a button.

Clint doesn’t cry. Natasha says, “I’m embarrassed to know you,” as Clint hugs his new quiver to his bosom.

Phil, being Head G-Man, is all over the country for a while. Fury’s got him at the LA office, the Chicago office, the Miami office, because he likes the way Phil handles his shit and wants that at each of the satellite sites. It’s great, awesome even, but it’s way above Clint’s pay-grade, so Fury starts sending him and Natasha out on missions with Jasper. Jasper hates it and lets them know it, because they are way too crazy for him to not freak the fuck out people, his nerves can’t handle this shit. Clint doesn’t like it anymore than Jasper does, but the fact of the matter is he’s got to earn his paycheck somehow, if only to keep Not Phil’s Cat in pâté.

He and Nat are in the south of Spain, hunting down a mark who thinks he can get away with prostituting kidnapped little girls, when they get the call to get their asses back home pronto. Jasper gasps, “Oh thank God,” because the near sub-Saharan heat has been way too much for his delicate constitution. They wrap it up quick after that; Natasha slits the mark open stem to stern, strangles him with his own intestines, and dumps him in the Mediterranean.

(Afterward, she says “That was too good a death for him,” while Clint stares at her in fascinated horror. His henchmen -- and they are henchmen; lying, scheming, baby-raping henchmen -- aren’t nearly so lucky.)

They save twenty six little girls, with fourteen more being located by other teams across the continent, and he and Natasha catch a SHIELD flight back to New York. She spends most of it picking coagulated blood out of her nails with her knife, and Clint remembers why they can’t fly commercial anymore.

When they get to HQ she’s put back on Stark Duty (“Did I do something to offend you?” she demands of Fury, because she’s the only one who can get away with that and make him laugh), and Clint’s sent out to the Toronto office, which he hates because he hates Canada on general principle. When he gets there, it’s cold and miserable and a mousy little thing with a pair of legs to die for and a glare that could strip the skin from his bones demands, “Take him back.”

“What?” because what?, but she just glares at him some more, takes him by the elbow, and physically drags him to the elevators.

He hears Phil before he actually sees him.

Are you mentally deficient, or is this your way of trying to placate Director Fury?”

“Whoa,” Clint says, and then – “Hi, sir,” because Ms. Mousy better check her attitude at the door, she’s standing in front of greatness here, wearing an Armani suit and looking about fifteen seconds from strangling the guy in front of him with his bare hands.

“Agent Barton,” Phil grits. The dude he’s chewing out is wearing a lab coat over a parka. Fucking Canadians. “I’m waiting for your answer, doctor.”

“Sir, we’re doing our best—”

“Your best is clearly not good enough,” Phil snarls, and whoa, whoa, it’s terrifying (and hot) and completely not the way Phil usually handles himself. He tucks a hand into the crook of Phil’s elbow, holds the other out to Doc Deadmeat. “Okay, we’re stepping back. You, figure your shit out and report back in an hour. You, Mousy, get lost, I got this.”

The Canadians get lost, because they have enough self-awareness to realize that Phil isn’t Head G-Man for nothing and he will fuck their shit up. Clint respects their respect, and when he and Phil are finally alone he says, “What’s going on? I didn’t think people could actually turn the color you’ve got going on here babe, it isn’t healthy, it’s the road to a heart attack so try and calm down. Are you alright?”

Phil leans into him for a few moments, shoulders slumping under Clint’s hands. He accepts and returns one, two kisses, strokes the hairs at the nape of Clint’s neck gently, before he pulls Coulson back on like he does a suit jacket. “What have you been told?” Phil raps out, spinning on his heel and stalking away. Clint hurries to catch up, even if the view from behind is pretty spectacular.

“Nothing. Spain – suntan, scumbags, Natasha got to use her new knife, Jasper hates us all. We just got back a few hours ago, they immediately trucked my ass up here.”

“What do you know about Stark’s father?” Phil asks him out of the blue, leading him down another flight of stairs, through another corridor. It’s like a maze, this place – worse even than HQ, and that place used to be the fucking FBI.

“Uh, Howard Stark, right? Genius, rich, helped invent the atom bomb, don’t ask me more than that Phil, I just flew for fifteen hours.”

“Howard Stark was a weapon’s consultant during the second World War,” Phil says, stopping in the middle of the corridor and turning to face him. The anger has faded, replaced with something different, something deeper, and he paces, agitated, and not at all Phil-like. “What you don’t know is that he was involved in the Super Soldier experiment in the forties.”

“Whoa,” Clint says, because – “You mean the stuff that turned Banner into Greeny? Is there another monster here?” he demands.

“No monsters,” Phil says, rubbing his face. He looks tired, worn, like he could collapse into a bunk and sleep for two days. “Captain America.”

“What about him?”

“Captain America,” Phil says again, and sounds like he’s on the verge of some serious emotion. “Howard Stark dedicated most of his life to finding him. And he did. Or well, his team – Tony Stark’s team -- did. Captain America is here.”

It hits Clint all at once and his knees get a little weak, because holy shit, holy shit, people have been looking for Captain America for decades, it’s like the conspiracy theory to end all conspiracy theories, Clint loves his job. “Are you kidding me right now?”

“No. He’s – well,” and he motions for Clint to follow him.

Down the corridor there’s a long wall of windows overlooking the level below. The level below just so happens to contain a blond dude who looks like he belongs on the side of a Greek vase, stretched out on a gurney and attached to every piece of machinery known to medical science. He’s got a small army of doctors and nurses, too, and he’s covered from head to toe in warming blankets.

“What the fuck,” Clint says again, because no way, he thought Phil was taking him to see a fish-eaten skeleton wearing Captain America’s uniform. This is a hoax, there’s no way except of course there is, Clint knows that face, has trained himself to search for it in antique shops and thrift stores. Granted, the poor bastard down there is on a respirator, and his face is white as a sheet and his hair has seen many, many better days, but Jesus. The slope of the nose, the strong jaw, the curve of a brow, no one could duplicate that with any kind of success – it is inherently, intrinsically Steve Rogers, Captain America.

Now he gets why Phil looks like he’s about one more word from having a stroke. “Is it even him?”

“No idea,” Phil says, rubs his face. “We think so. No one even knew where he was – most thought he’d gone down in the Northwestern Passages.”

Of course Clint knows that, James Cameron had gone down there himself, hoping to find evidence of Captain America’s plane. Phil had dragged him to the midnight premiere of the movie. “Where’d they find him?”

“The archipelago’s west of Baffin Bay,” Phil says, and meets his eyes. “The oceanographer here says the wreckage was discovered in pieces, and that ocean currents carried it north. The weight of his shield kept him onboard.”

“Are you kidding me right now?” Clint demands. “Captain America has been – wait, his shield?” He does not squeal like a school girl, but only just. “No, never mind. Captain American has been floating around in the arctic ocean for seventy years?”

“Unbelievable, isn’t it?”

“Kind of, yeah,” Clint replies, staring down at the poor bastard. His lips are blue. “How is he so – seventy years, Phil. I’ve seen what happens to bodies in saltwater in just a few weeks, and let me tell you, they don’t come out looking like Abercrombie and Fitch models.”

It’s the wrong thing to say, and Clint knows it immediately, because Phil’s devastated and in no way, shape or form should Phil ever look like that. Ever. “Cell regeneration, from the super soldier serum. He was never really dead.”

Clint follows the thought to its natural conclusion. It’s like a horror movie, like a What If? about Captain America’s life made by the director of Saw. “Jesus Christ. Was he conscious?”

“They’re not sure,” Phil says, and meets his eyes in the glass’s reflection. “I hope not, for his sake.”

He blows out a sharp breath. “What now? What do you need me to do?”

“We wait for him to stabilize, then get him on a Medevac back to New York. Canada is trying to claim him as theirs, considering he was found on what was technically their seabed, and as a cadaver he doesn’t actually have citizenship anymore.”

“Fucking Canadians,” Clint mutters, following Phil back out the door and down the flight of stairs.

“Since the esteemed Captain is no longer a cadaver, their jurisdiction or lack thereof is a moot point. Fury isn’t rushing it, but he’d like us back in the next few days.”

“Is that enough time?” Clint asks, poking a thumb back behind them. “Kid looks like he’s a step away from kicking the bucket.”

“He was in a frozen block of ice yesterday,” Phil says, and gives him a little smile. “I think he’ll be fine.”

 

.

(Captain America freaks out when he wakes up, despite their good intentions and Agent Smith’s rack. Clint can’t actually blame the poor guy, he’d freak out too if he died and woke up seventy years into the future, where people have been to outer space and carried around computers and built nuclear bombs. He’s a smart guy, sharp as a tack, but he’s also suffering from what has to be the worst PTSD Clint’s ever seen. What’s worse, it’s being handled by the most incompetent assholes on SHIELD’s payroll.

Rogers is okay for the first few weeks after the initial what the fuck, and the whole of SHIELD is just kind of holding their collective breath waiting for the other shoe to drop. When it does it’s almost a relief. By the time Clint and Phil get to the gym there are eight agents groaning on the ground and Captain America standing in the middle of them, hands hanging helplessly at his sides, sobbing his heart out. Clint’s glad, though – everyone had known it was coming, and at least it happened where there were people there to help him. Captain America is a legend but the guy in front of him is just Steve, a twenty-seven year old kid who’s been thrown out of his time and lost everyone he ever loved in the process, and all of that was after fighting in the worst war in modern history. It’d break even the coldest of hearts, and Steve, despite being frozen for the better part of a century, is the warmest human being Clint’s ever met.)

 

.

The first rule about the Avengers Initiative is that no one talks about the Avengers Initiative.

It’s a secret, a super secretive secret, like Clint doesn’t work in what amounts to an organization full of gossiping girls. He knows about it because Phil is really bad at keeping his mouth shut when he’s getting his cock sucked, but Phil only tells him anything to begin with because Fury wants Steve, Natasha and Clint on the project. Technically, they already are, but it’s still secretive, super secretive, so secretive not even the people on the op know about it.

Rumor becomes myth becomes legend, and people are whispering about it like it’s the second coming, so Clint’s not even remotely surprised when Stark rolls in one afternoon carrying a martini and wearing a fifteen thousand dollar suit (the man is like a nerdy James Bond, it’s amazing). Technically, he’s a consultant, or as Phil calls him, The Consultant – upper case letters deeply implied – but Clint knows damn well the man is a super hero. His powers include pissing Phil off with his mere presence, and annoying Natasha until she flushes a brilliant red to match her hair, and making a nuisance of himself without even trying. It’s magnificent. If Stark wasn’t such an ostentatious douchebag who technically still lives on the west coast and is therefore not around nearly as much as he should be for hilarity’s sake, they’d be BFFs.

Steve hates him on sight.

They rub each other the wrong way from the first moment they meet. Stark’s special charm, Steve’s earnestness, the damned martini, who knows the whys and wherefores. All Clint knows is that the shouting escalates to property damage, and by the time Stark is escorted out of SHIELD the majority of a conference room has been destroyed and Captain America has stormed off looking like he’s going to strangle anyone who crosses his path.

It’s the funniest goddamn thing Clint’s ever seen.

“They’re totally hot for each other,” Clint tells Phil, which is A, awesome and completely correct, and B, over the comms while they’re on an op in Helena, which is possibly a little unprofessional.

(Fucking Helena, who knew it was such a hotbed for unrest? Absolutely no one, because it isn’t, because Fury sends them on wild goose chases sometimes just because he thinks it’s funny.)

Phil sighs in his ear. “I told you to stay off the comms.”

“Absolutely no one is coming sir,” Clint says, ensconced all cozy-like on a roof – emphasis on the cozy. The dudes in R&D have really outdone themselves, he wants to bask forever in his brand new cozy coat of coziness, he’s like a wrapped burrito, it’s spectacular. “We’re an hour over time, and either I talk or fall asleep.”

He hears Jasper snickering in the background and grins, slowly turning his scope to the left. Phil’s voice is the height of professionalism, even though he can hear the smile in it clear as day. “You’d better not.”

“Just throw a Pepsi up here once in a while, okay? But seriously, Stark and Cap, I’m calling it now. Tell Jasper he better cut me in, I know he’s the bookie. Do you know he’s got a bet on us sir? Apparently you and I are having some kind of illicit sexual affair.”

“Really?” Phil asks, silky-smooth, and Jasper clicks into the comm immediately.

“Hey, you, shithead. One: I am not the bookie thank you very much, stop spreading lies. Two: it’s up to six grand but I’m still not the bookie. And three: if you think you’re going to sell me out while I’m stuck in a G-Man van with your psycho handler you’ve got another thing coming. I will fuck your shit up, capisce?”

Clint tries really, really hard not to laugh until Phil chuckles softly in his ear, and it’s all good, it’s the best.

No one shows up until three in the morning, and by then Clint is sliding into that ugly place snipers can go, where it’s all about senses and animal instincts. He hates going there, even though he practically lives there, and Phil’s voice is a low-level murmur in his ear, keeping him tethered. Still, by the time it’s all over, bad guy caught and minor disaster averted, he’s glad for the warm hotel room, for Phil gently undressing him, for the blankets they both crawl under.

Phil kisses him, mouth and cheek and chest, right over his heart. “We don’t have to be back in New York until the day after tomorrow. Want to meet my parents?”

“Your parents?” Clint’s eyes blink open in the dark.

“Yeah. Half a day’s drive.”

“You want me to meet your parents. Your Jewish parents, who cried when you told them you were dating a man.”

“Well, technically, my mother cried because I didn’t tell her until after the fact,” Phil corrects, smiling against his neck.

“What about your dad?”

“Dad’s okay,” Phil says, and he sounds so certain, so peaceful about it, that Clint knows he believes it, whether it’s true or not. “It’s a long story. But you don’t have anything to worry about, just be yourself. With less cussing.”

“I don’t fucking cuss, dammit,” Clint mutters, and feels Phil shake against his back.

Portland is actually a fairly nice city. Clean, lots of touristy things, nice mix of nature and suburban sprawl. Clint’s only been there once, the very first year he and Charlie joined the circus. He tries to imagine that little blond kid in Phil’s albums at school, on the playground, at home playing with his brother and sister. He wonders if Phil’s parents ever brought him to see the elephants and clowns.

He doesn’t ask.

Phil’s parents live in a cozy house at the end of a cul-de-sac, surrounded by huge oak trees. Clint’s freaking out a little bit, has been since they started out that morning, and when Phil puts the car in park he blurts, “This isn’t a good idea.”

“What?” Phil looks over at him, studies him from head to toe like a good handler, then snorts, the traitor. “You’re nervous.”

“I’m terrified,” Clint corrects, thumping his head back against the headrest. “They’re going to hate me. Your mother is going to hate me, and your father is going to punch me in the eye for stealing his precious baby away from him.”

“They’re going to like you,” Phil says and reaches across to kiss him.

“You say that until I destroy some priceless family antique,” Clint says, but dutifully climbs out of the car.

So, it turns out that Phil’s parents are crazy people, though honestly Clint had half expected that – Phil fought green monsters and dated ex-carnie assassins, there was only so much Clint could chalk up to bad life choices. Phil’s mother, Joanne, is petite and rotund and terrifying. Even though she hugs and kisses him like he’s family, and Clint finds the way to her heart by her cooking (he eats enough for five and she’s thrilled, feeding him up like consuming chicken salad is an Olympic sport Clint is dead-set on winning), Clint gets the distinct feeling she’s softening him up for the slaughter.

Phil’s dad, Eli, bears a much stronger resemblance to his kids – or rather, the kids look just like their dad. He’s got the same soft blue eyes, the same Not a Sneeze, even the same firm handshake. Clint pretty much adores him on sight because it’s Phil in thirty years only with a ripened sense of suspicion, and that’s just awesome.

“How long have you known Phil?” Eli asks, that night over the tastiest damn pork chops Clint’s ever eaten.

“Six years, give or take,” Clint says. “Feels like longer than that, though.”

“Six years is bad luck,” Joanne says, glaring at her son and whacking him with her red-checked napkin. “Why six years? You couldn’t have done five? Seven? Haven’t I taught you better than that?”

Mom,” Phil groans, and it takes all of Clint’s self control not to crack up laughing.

“Six years, he says,” Joanne repeats, throwing her hands up in the air. “Six years! You burst your appendix when you were six years old.”

“Pretty sure I didn’t do it on purpose, Mom.”

“And then your brother, he was sixteen when he first got sick. My father died on June sixth. And then Lizzie’s divorce – the sixth year of marriage! Six is bad luck, I have always told you this,” she says, and whacks him with her napkin again, and gives him a look of such severe disappointment that Clint almost loses his battle with the laughter.

“How did you meet?” Eli asks, like his wife having conniptions is an everyday thing. Likely, it is.

“He works with me, Dad. We met on the job.”

“Oh that’s right, the government agency you can’t tell us about,” Eli says, looking at his son steadily. To Phil’s credit he doesn’t so much as flinch. Clint wants to hide under the table. “And what do you do, Clint, at the spy base Phil can’t tell us about?”

Clint freezes, fork halfway to his mouth. Joanne smiles at him encouragingly, and he has the passing thought that they’ve tag teamed, Good-Cop-Bad-Cop, and are using his new-person-in-the-family status to get the scuttlebutt. It’s devious. It’s really well played. “Well. Sir, uh,” he puts the fork down, clears his throat, and tries to remember what it says in the SHIELD employee handbook. “Our main mission is to protect the United States against outside threats.”

Eli’s eyes narrow. “I didn’t ask about your mission, son. I asked what you both do.”

“Uh. Fight bad guys? Terrorists, mostly.” He gets a flashback of Natasha killing a dude with his own intestines, and the little girl who started the manhunt to begin with, beautiful and beaten and left for dead. “We fill in the gaps left by Homeland Security. We do good work. Phil does good work.”

Eli pierces him with a look, and Clint realizes Fury has nothing on Mr. Coulson. A lesser man would have broken down sobbing at that look. Clint’s eyes just narrow. “You’re ex-FBI, aren’t you?”

“CIA, actually,” he says. “Have a lot of experience with the Feds, son?”

“Some,” Clint admits, taking another pull of his beer, because this conversation does not have nearly enough booze in it. “To be honest, they were all assholes.”

Eli grins, shark-sharp.

“Tell us about yourself,” Joanne interrupts, shrewd eyes picking up every twitch in his expression. Clint realizes there are no good cops here. “Family?”

What the fuck could he possibly say about his family that didn’t make his life sound like the plot of a fucking soap opera? “My mother died when I was young,” he settles on.

“I’m sorry to hear that. Children?”

“No, but never say never. People have always said I have child-bearing hips.”

Phil flushes to the roots of his hair and Clint grins across the table at him, eyebrow arched. “What do you think, babe? A couple of rugrats underfoot?”

“I think you’re nuts,” Phil says, and Joanne actually pouts. “No kids for us, Mom. We can barely function with a cat.”

And that, unexpectedly, makes her eyes get damp. “Eli, did you hear that? They have a cat.”

“I heard it,” Eli tells her, eyes still zeroed in on him. “Tattoos?”

“One.”

“Rap sheet?”

“I was a stupid kid.”

“Religion?”

“No.”

“But you believe in God.”

“Mostly,” Clint says, and thinks about his father beating his mama with a lamp until her skull caved in. “Mostly I try to do the right thing for people. Help them, when they can’t help themselves.”

Eli goes silent, studying him. Clint can hear the heat kick on.

“Marriage?”

“Yes,” Clint answers, before his brain can catch up with his tongue. He feels himself flush, and doesn’t dare look anywhere but at Eli’s face. “Uh. If – uh.”

Joanne abruptly stands, dabbing at her eyes with her napkin. “Well,” she says with a shuddery sigh. “Well. Phillip dear, help me get the dishes.”

Clint can’t actually look at Phil, but he accepts the kiss pressed to his temple because – well, it’s Phil’s and that’s all right.

Eli takes Clint to his office, where he shows him his impressive gun collection and all of his marksmanship awards. Message received loud and clear. Eli has an entire bookshelf of first-edition spy novels, and several issues of The Strand behind glass, and photos everywhere -- Phil and Filbert when they were kids, Elizabeth as a baby, and what has to be his collection of grandkids, all girls, all beaming at the camera in identical yellow dresses. Stuffed behind it is a picture of Eli with Jimmy Carter.

What really catches Clint’s attention, though, is the huge cello in the corner. It’s made of the most beautiful poplar he’s ever seen, and the purfling along the sides is all custom engraving, with a family crest in the center. It’s obviously well loved, oiled to a sheen, but even if it wasn’t the emotion that claws at the base of Clint’s throat would still be there, still hurting. Lady Matilda had always looked so beautiful when she played, fingers moving so gently on those old strings.

“My grandfather’s,” Eli says from behind him. It’s breathtaking, how much of Phil Clint can see in him, how easy he can read the son in the father. “Do you play?”

He touches a gentle fingertip to the long strings, the gleaming wood. “Not really, just a song or two. I never got a chance to learn much.”

“It’s been a long time since this old thing has made music,” Eli says, and gives Clint a breathtaking version of Not a Sneeze. Clint can see all the years of Phil’s life in that smile, can imagine them in a house just like this, surrounded by the things they loved. “My father was a concert cellist. I’m certain he wouldn’t mind if you played it.”

“Oh no,” Clint says immediately, taking a step back and holding up his hands. “This was your father’s.”

“It was. But you’re family now, son,” Eli tells him, familiar blue eyes crinkled at the corners. “You can’t break it.”

“You don’t know me, I’m the ruin-er of family heirlooms,” Clint says, but Eli insists, and well. Fuck.

He’s lost the moment his fingers touch the strings. The cello comes to life under his hands, and though it feels like it hasn’t been played in a long time, there’s still a beautiful sound in the old wood, earthy and deep under the strings. He isn’t good, not by any means, but there’s something thrilling about having a cello against his shoulder again, old enough now to appreciate the weight of it, the ease with which he can make it sing. He doesn’t even know the name of the song under his fingers, but he remembers every note, the way Lady Matilda always cried when it came, damp against his cheek as she taught him how to hold the bow in his small, stubby fingers.

Eventually the music ends, and when he comes back it’s to Phil and Joanne standing in the doorway, listening. Joanne is looking up at her son, at all the emotions they never talk about right there on Phil’s face.

“Just when I think I know you,” Phil says, like no one can hear the hoarseness in his voice. Clint catches the dishrag lobbed at him. “Come dry.”

Clint stands, and smiles at Eli in thanks, and hops to it.

That night, after they’re both cleaned up and warm and cozy in the guest bed, Phil says, “I’m glad we came.”

“Me too.” Clint is almost surprised by how true that is. “I like your parents.”

“They like you, too.” Phil slides in behind him until they fit like two halves of the same whole. He presses his mouth to Clint’s shoulder, slides a hand around his belly where it fits just right. It’s everything.

“I love you,” Clint says, will always say, because it bears repeating over and over and over. This is beyond personal growth. He’s been remade, the missing pieces found and put back together again. He doesn’t know himself anymore, but he’s strong enough now to recognize that he wants to.

“I love you too,” Phil replies, quiet there in the dark. Then, “I can’t believe you play the cello, that was the hottest thing I’ve ever seen. Want to make out?”

“Yeah,” Clint says, laughing, and slings his arm around Phil’s neck to pull him close.

They leave the next day, weighed down with pie and pork chops and hugs and kisses, and the cello in a beautiful leather case. Eli won’t let them leave without it. “My father would want it to be played, son, by someone who loves it as much as he did,” he says, and Clint thinks he sees a little glassiness in Phil’s eyes, but he doesn’t say so.

 

.

SHIELD, for all that it out-CIA’s the CIA, is still a government agency. Never is that more apparent than Benefits Renewal Time.

Clint has no idea what is so fucking fascinating about dentists and doctors, but SHIELD is gripped by BRT mania for the better part of a month every single year. There are meetings with Life Insurance policy companies, and Do You Want Humana Mr. Smith?, and everyone asking everyone else if they should get different dental insurance, little Susie needs braces this year, or if they should get a better medical plan for their wife, who’s going through some testing for pre-cancerous growths. It’s all over sharing and personal lives and gross, and Clint finds the whole thing hilarious because it’s unshakable proof that the people he works with are all completely bonkers.

As an asset he doesn’t get a choice – Medical takes care of him when he gets sick or injured, and if he’s out of the country he’s stabilized until he can get to Medical – which is why he doesn’t understand the email he’s reading.


subject: FWD: BRT
from: pjcoulson @shld.mil.gov
to: cfbarton@ shld.mil.gov
date: Tue, Oct 11 at 10:04 AM

Don’t be late.
-P

------------------------- 

subject: BRT
from: njfury@shld.mil.gov
to: pjcoulson@ shld.mil.gov
date: Tue, Oct 11 at 10:03 AM

I need you and Barton in my office at noon today to discuss this.

Director Nicholas Fury
Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate (S.H.I.E.L.D.)

“What the hell?” Clint mutters, but he cuts his session short at the range and makes it to Fury’s office a whole five minutes early.

Phil’s waiting for him, calm and cool and collected like always. His suit is a blue so dark it’s nearly black, and underneath it, Clint knows, he’s got scratches down his back and bruises on his ass (Clint’s grabby, sue him).

“I told you we shouldn’t have copied Natasha’s homework,” he says, throwing himself into the chair beside him. He’s sweaty, and a little funky, but it just gives a little something to the atmosphere. Phil wrinkles his nose, and Clint grins.

Fury doesn’t keep them waiting long, at least. That an agent scurries out in tears does not make him feel any better about what the hell is going on here, but Clint is nothing if not obedient. Mostly.

Fury looks at them from across his desk. Surprisingly, he isn’t pissed, at least no more than usual. “Seems we’ve got a little problem, gentleman.”

“Boss?” Phil asks, eyebrow furrowed. “If this is about the A-199—”

“No, no, there was a problem down in the copy room,” Fury says, waving a hand. “This is of a more personal nature.”

Phil’s fingers clench where they’re laced in his lap. All of Clint’s hackles rise, adrenaline picking up in his blood. “Boss?” Phil asks again.

“I know you’re both aware that fraternization, as a rule, is frowned upon at SHIELD,” Fury begins, and the world drops out under Clint’s feet, like jumping off of an acrobat’s launch and knowing you aren’t going to make the other bar. There’s a dull roaring in his ears, and his heart suddenly does it’s level best to come beating up out of his mouth. “It opens up a door to all kinds of problems. Sexual harassment, misuse of power.”

Phil’s gone white to the lips, and Clint’s chest is so tight he feels like something is going to pop. “What are you saying?”

“I’m saying that fraternization breaks all kinds of rules. I don’t like rule breaking. You know why?”

“Because the rules exist for a reason,” Phil says. He doesn’t even sound like himself. “Sir, I—”

“That’s right,” Fury continues over Phil, “the rules exist for a reason. They’re there to protect subordinates from abuse.” And now he zeroes in on Clint, and Clint gets that old feeling, that flayed-open feeling that makes his entire body ache with tension. “Wouldn’t you say, Agent Barton?”

He has to clear his throat before he can speak. “Yes, sir,” he says. This is it, it’s done. They’re done. “I haven’t been mistreated, sir.”

“Didn’t say you had, son,” Fury says, leaning back in his chair and studying them. “Now, this particular rule, the fraternization rule, isn’t one of my favorites. In fact, in our line of work, I think it’s downright destructive. That does not mean that I will let any of my subordinates break the rule. Why, Agent Coulson?”

“Because rules exist for a reason,” Phil says again. He sounds stunned, and it hurts, it hurts and Clint thinks that this is what dying must feel like, broken in inches.

“Because rules exist for a reason,” Fury echoes. He smiles. “Good talk, gentlemen. I’m going to lunch. I’m sure you both have a lot to discuss.”

“What,” Clint says, because Fury’s getting up and strolling out of his office like he doesn’t have their balls in a vice.

When the door clicks shut behind them, Clint says, “What,” and Phil says, “That bastard,” and Clint says, “No, seriously, what just happened,” because they’re made, that’s it. “I’ve got money,” he blurts, suddenly needing Phil to hear this, to know this. “You can’t leave, this place would fall apart in ten seconds without you. And you love the job, and there’s Cap now. It should be me who goes.” Clint scrapes his fingers through his hair. He’s covered in cold sweat. “This doesn’t have to end. I can find something else, but you are SHIELD, it needs to be you who stays.”

Phil stares at him. Then, “Don’t throw yourself on the cross just yet,” he says, exasperated and amused. He cups the back of Clint’s neck, not that Clint is waiting for the boogie man to come out of the closet or anything (though it would not be a surprise), and gives it a gentle shake. “Look at you. Trained assassin and you’re shaking like a leaf.”

“Fury scares the shit out of me,” Clint lies, that isn’t why he can’t get control of his limbs, why he feels like he’s going to cry for the first time in twenty years. “You going to tell me what all that was about now? I don’t speak Cigarette Smoking Man. It sure as hell sounded like we’re fucked.”

“We are,” Phil says, but he’s still smiling, and that’s just wrong.

“We are,” Clint echoes. “And that’s a good thing?”

“Boss man doesn’t want us to break the rules anymore.”

“Yeah, I got that part,” he says, and fuck, he’s losing the battle, his eyes are burning and his throat is burning and fuck. Fuck. “I love you, Phil. This doesn’t have to be over.”

Phil gives him another little shake. His fingertips are warm on the skin below Clint’s ear, the back of his neck where he’d kissed him last night as he came. His eyes are so kind, the thousand things they never say written right there in the blue. “I’ve always thought you’d look good wearing my ring.”

“What?”

“Frankly, I’m getting tired of the probies checking out your ass,” Phil says, like he hasn’t pulled the rug out from under Clint’s feet.

“Probies will always check out my ass, it’s a great ass,” Clint says faintly. “Are you serious?”

And there he is, Home Phil, with the socks and the grilled cheese and the Not My Cat Dammit. And there’s Work Phil, too, with the suit and the radio clipped to his belt, and even Ops Phil, way too excited about stupid costumes. Only this costume is for real, for permanent. End game. “Yeah. Do you need me to say it?”

“No,” Clint says instantly. Then, “I’m not wearing a goddamn wedding dress, you can forget about it.”

“Well I’m not wearing it,” Phil says, and they sit there like a pair of idiots, grinning helplessly at one another, until Fury comes back with his BLT and kicks them out of his office.

They get married on the Friday before Halloween by a Justice of the Peace. Phil’s got his radio in his pocket, and Clint’s boots are dusty, but it doesn’t matter. Natasha serves as their witness, and afterward they go out and eat at a fancy-pants restaurant, no hipsters in sight. Clint and Phil trade benefits paperwork back and forth, and Natasha pretends she isn’t sniffling into her salad like a giant girl because Clint can’t stop brushing his thumb over the simple gold band on Phil’s finger.

That night, Clint spreads Phil out on their bed and croons Like a Virgin, and Phil laughs so hard he can’t breathe, and the cat yowls at them until they shut up, and it’s everything.

 

.

In the spring they both get temporarily reassigned to the JDEM facility in Jersey, where Phil flexes those competent muscles that made all the probies swoon and Clint gets to play babysitter to a cranky astrophysicist who thought that ‘temporary SHIELD security liaison’ meant ‘go for the coffee the nectar of life’. Clint is no one’s gofer, dammit.

They’re there for three days when the Shiny Space Cube of Wonders and Amazements decides to have kittens. Selvig and his team freak out like it’s a bomb about to go off, so Phil orders a base-wide evac like a boss and calls Fury to get his be-patched ass to Jersey.

They’re headed in opposite directions through the science labs the last time he sees Phil. He stops, and Phil does too, and Clint’s pretty sure they’ve won someone the six-grand pot because neither of them actually care all that much that they’re kissing in front of twenty-odd people. Phil grabs him by the back of the neck, gives him a little shake. His ring is warm against Clint’s skin, a brand. His. “Be careful.”

“Always am,” Clint says with a bright grin, like the whole building might not cave in any second, like this is just a drill and not some scary shit going down and he’s headed towards the center of the action. “Love you.”

“Love you,” Phil echoes before he’s gone, six feet of bad-assery in a really hot suit.

Two hours later Loki peels Clint’s brain like an onion, sifts through the layers and watches his life like its primetime television. Clint knows it because he feels every moment of it, the torture of having his brain opened, the way Loki twists it into ecstasy until Clint can feel every touch of Phil’s fingertips on his body, until every pleasure becomes suffering so incredible that he’s stripped down to a child again, cleaved right to the bones and screaming for his mama.

Sixteen hours later Phil dies alone in agony, speared through with a magic scepter wielded by a raging psychopath. Truthfully, anyone who ever knew Phil would probably say that the only way that son-of-a-bitch could die would be by weird-ass magical scepter, and even then it’s pretty doubtful.

Twenty nine hours later, Natasha says, “Clint,” in a tone he’s never heard her use before. Clint’s shaking before she even tells him because he knows, he knows, he let Loki see Home Phil and Pajamas Phil and Not a Sneeze Phil, and in thank you Loki gave him the sense-memory of what it felt like to drive the scepter through Phil’s body, the give of tendon and muscle and bone.

Clint’s always been an idealist. He doesn’t know where it comes from, because people like Clint don’t get that fairytale, the house and the kids and the dog, the white picket fence. People like Clint live hand to mouth and carve an existence out of the dark corners of the world, wrapping themselves in the shadows that cling like spider webs to the soul. That never goes away, in good times or bad. He’d been so stupid for deluding himself, for letting himself believe that maybe it wasn’t true, that maybe he’d get to have that happily ever after, his way and on his terms.

Rattle those bones, Lady Matilda used to say. The devil always collects.

Chapter Text

When Clint was little, Waverly was a tiny hick town smack-dab in the middle of Iowa, where the cows outnumbered the people and the amber waves of grain birthed two types of folks: good ole boys with chips on their shoulders and bad drinking habits, and evangelicals who went around clutching their Bibles like the tears from the sweet baby Jesus would pour right out of the paper if they didn’t spread the Holy Gospel.

Waverly was high school football and prom queens, harvest time and homecoming and the tiny general store that sold everything. It was neighbors knowing neighbors, and cowboy boots caked with mud, and old, beat-up Ford trucks with old, beat up hound dogs riding in back. It was the little white church on the hill with a gleaming steeple and paned glass windows that was the apple of the community’s eye.

Waverly didn’t have crime. It had kids throwing eggs at houses on Halloween, and old ladies stealing things from the store they swore they’d bought, and neighborly disputes usually settled with a good old fashioned cook-off. What it didn’t have, until Clint’s father snapped, was homicide.

He’d have liked to say he doesn’t remember much, that being so little had meant he didn’t understand, but Clint was born knowing. Standing there, wet between his legs with the soft fuzz of his old bear tickling under his chin, he knew that his mama was dead, her beautiful blond hair streaked with a red so dark it was nearly black.

They’d stared at one another, father and son, for what felt like hours. The lamp had shattered when his father beat his mama’s head in, and all he held were the metal innards, glittering with broken glass. A thousand Clint’s had stared back at him, shaggy blond hair and piss running down his leg and the teddy bear, old and threadbare and pressed against his cheek.

If Charlie hadn’t picked him up, hadn’t gone crashing out the back door and into the corn field, his father would have killed them, too. He knows because Clint watched his father chase them over Charlie’s shoulder, had screamed and screamed until Charlie shoved the bear into his mouth, muffling his sobs.

Charlie wasn’t okay, not even after their father was put away. He fought the other boys at the orphanage, and stole food all the time even though they got breakfast and dinner every day. He shouted profanities at the nuns, and when a couple came to talk to Clint about coming home with them, Charlie broke every single window on the third floor. It was cold that winter, and the snow drifts piled up under the windowsills, even after the nuns boarded them up.

The night they ran away, Charlie had crouched down in front of him, took him by the shoulders, and said, “We’re starting a new life. We’re leaving all this shit behind. You trust me?”

“I trust you,” he remembers saying, though he’d had no idea the life Charlie had chosen for them, couldn’t have ever imagined the road his brother would put them on. Didn’t matter, not then and not now. Charlie had saved him, and Clint would spend the rest of his life trying to save him back.

That was the night they took their mama’s name, the night Charlie became Barney and they both became Barton, and they slipped away from Waverly’s reach. That was the night they became criminals, the night they became thieves. That was the night Charlie led them into hell without looking back.

Clint thought, once, that he could balance out his father’s poison by being a good person, by growing up to be someone who helped other people. He tried, God knew he’d tried as hard as he fucking could to be that person, but life had a way of throwing curve balls sometimes. Instead of becoming someone who helped and who made the lives of other people a little better, Clint had grown up to be a killer, a weapon SHIELD used like a gun. He killed people because they deserved it, and Loki had used that same fierce validation to make him slaughter people he worked with, people he’d cared about, people he loved.

Clint used to wonder if he’d turn out just like his father, on the wrong side of the law, on the wrong side of God.

He doesn’t wonder anymore.

 

.

It’s raining, coming in sideways like the storm overhead has got a fucking vendetta against umbrellas. Water pings off the glass, the eaves outside of the window. Nature’s grand band.

Alvarez is a picture, all dolled up like she’s going to some fancy party tonight. She’s in the blurry shadow of his periphery, but fuck Clint is too good at his job, because he reads disappointment in her frame, impatience in the slight movement of her crossed legs, the barest touch of frustration as she writes on her pad. Clint’s convinced she’s making herself a grocery list.

Her office is on one of the swankier floors of HQ. Fury likes to baby his doctors, so there’s a ficus in a corner, some modern art on the walls, a squishy rug under his feet. It’s nicer than some of the places Clint’s lived, by a wider margin than he’s comfortable admitting. He tries to imagine Alvarez in her high heels and done hair ducked down behind a dumpster, waiting for unsold bread, and fails.

He doesn’t know why he keeps coming. He doesn’t know what’s keeping him here.

Tap-tap-tap goes the end of her pen. Thunder booms and someone’s squeaky mail cart rolls by out in the hall. Clint’s been to this show so many fucking times – faces changed, titles, but it’s always the same. Makes him feel like a little kid again, waiting for the social worker to come back from Charlie’s interview and ask him the exact same questions, like she could catch him in a lie. They were always too good for that.

“Clint,” Alvarez says, calm and gentle like she’s talking to a spooked cat. It’s unnerving, but then again that’s probably exactly what she’s going for. “You’ve come to my office six times. Every time you come, we sit here. I stare at you, and you stare out the window. I talk, and you look at your shoes. And after our mandatory session you leave, hands in your pockets.”

“Nothing to talk about.”

“I have it on good authority that you have a reputation for not shutting up.”

There was a time, not so long ago, that he’d have made some smart ass remark, but that was Before. Before Loki, and the Avengers, and the aliens; before the world had been thrown into chaos. Before Clint learned what it was to die and still keep breathing.

She studies him like he’s fucking fascinating, like she can’t get enough of the puzzle he represents. He wants to do her bodily harm. “What do you remember after the battle with the Chitauri?”

He remembers aching arms, and being so dehydrated he was having heart palpitations, and the headache that only got steadily worse. He remembers the look on Natasha’s face when she took his hand and told him Phil had died, but he knew, he knew already because he felt the spear go through Phil’s back, breaking bone and puncturing his lung. Phil soft, surprised moan of pain echoes in his head whenever he closes his eyes.

Clint remembers. But he isn’t going to tell her that.

He hates the rain. Always has. If he thinks hard enough he can almost feel the squish of rainwater in too-small shoes, the cold that nibbled at his feet and his fingertips and his nose, the smell of the wool sweater Charlie stole for him. “You were there.”

“Yes, I was.” Alvarez tips her head. “But that’s not what I asked.”

He knows what she’s trying to do, what she thinks she should do. Her only fucking purpose is to declare him sane of body and mind and get him back to work, another cog in the SHIELD machine, cranking out damaged agents repaired and shiny-new. He knows she doesn’t actually care, not really. It’s career suicide, especially when Loki takes control of him again.

“Do you still feel him?” Alvarez is asking, calm and measured like he’s going to flip out on her. Maybe he is. “The first time we spoke, you said he was still there.”

Loki’s still at HQ, deep down where no one can get to him, where he can’t escape. Clint hates himself for being able to feel him, his presence, like a rotten seed deep inside his head. “I don’t know what you want me to say,” he says, his own reflection staring back at him.

“I don’t know how to treat you,” she tells him, and he hates the way she sounds, like she’s talking to a spooked, cowering animal. He hates it because she isn’t wrong, because the man looking back at him in the glass looks like a corpse, death written in long strokes over the heavy marks under his eyes. “You were kidnapped, and tortured. You were thrown into a battle you weren’t prepared for, with people who can barely function on a good day. What do I treat first? How do I treat? How could you ever take me seriously, when I’m exactly what you think I am – a woman who’s most exciting moments of her life is when she takes her daughter to her ballet recitals?”

He studies the scurrying people far down below, the bounce of yellow rain slickers and black umbrellas, the wash of color they leave over his eyes, like an after-image, like the jumping film in an old sixteen millimeter. “What’s your daughter’s name?”

“Sophie,” she says, and he knows she’s lying. He sees what she sees. He isn’t fucking blind. “She’s six.”

Clint remembers being six and hiding under the Grand Avenue underpass, huddled against his brother. Alvarez’s little girl wouldn’t ever know what the cramping pain of hunger felt like, wouldn’t know what it was to have terror trapped numb under her ribs. She would never understand the bone-deep cold of rain in the middle of winter, or what it felt like to know that no one cared if she lived or died.

“Will you give me Phil today?”

She goes quiet. He can hear the rain hitting the glass, the squeak of leather when she shifts her weight. “Clint—”

“It’s a simple question. You said I couldn’t see him, that they’re doing an autopsy. You said it would be a few weeks, and then I could bury him. It’s been a few weeks. It’s been three fucking weeks, Alvarez.”

“Clint,” she says again, soothing, like he’ll snap any moment. Maybe he is. Maybe he will. “It’s not my call. I’m going to do my best to find out those answers for you, but you need to understand that with all the agents who lost their lives—”

“I don’t care about those people,” Clint says, and he isn’t sure if it’s a lie. “He wanted the Taharah, for his mother’s sake.”

“I know,” she murmurs. “I know that, Clint. I’ll do my best, alright?”

He takes it for what it is, another hollow promise at the mouth of the pit.

 

.

He has three shadows.

Clint doesn’t know who they are, or what they want, but they’re with him when he wakes up screaming, when Natasha helps him out of bed and runs a washcloth over his face, when she makes him eat. He doesn’t know what to think of them, these shadows that creep after him like specters in the dark. They never say anything to him outright; never call him out on this, his whole new brand of crazy, like he’d thrown out some flypaper on a hot summer night to see what stuck. They don’t do anything except follow him, from the moment he opens his eyes until the moment he closes them again.

The others are there, the fucking ragtag bunch Phil had believed in so much. Bruce isn’t a prisoner, but it’s pretty much implied that he isn’t allowed to leave HQ. As a consolation prize they’ve given him a gorgeous lab with all the bells and whistles, a pretty assistant, and an endless supply of the good coffee, because Fury babies his scientists as much as he babies his doctors. It’s nice, for a gilded cage.

Watching him work, Bruce doesn’t look like the monster who Clint personally witnessed dismantle Harlem. Doesn’t look like the thing they fought with, roaring and furious and leaping twenty stories in one jump. He’s just Banner – with the glasses and the permanent downward curve to his body and the way he holds himself, like he’d rather just disappear, nothing to see here people, move right along. His gaze is deep, like looking into the ocean.

He never makes Clint talk. Sometimes he pretends Clint isn’t there, which makes it easier for the both of them. When Tony shows up to work on the Tesseract, Clint watches them shout science at each other until Bruce is pinching the bridge of his nose and Tony is beaming like a cat who got the canary. Tony never seems to worry too much that the Hulk is going to make a visit, and something about that makes Bruce’s shoulder’s loosen, makes a smile quirk on his face.

Steve isn’t confined, but he might as well be. He’s around because he wants to be – or maybe because he doesn’t have anywhere to go. When Clint looks at him he sees the ninety year old man looking back, with all the weight of missed time on top of him. Sometimes it’s like those first weeks after they found him in the ice, raw with terror and grief and the worst kind of loss, like he’d left a piece of himself behind in the dark.

They don’t talk much, because Steve’s not much of a talker, and because Clint’s got poison running in his veins. He’s low-hanging fruit, rotten and bruised.

He doesn’t know what’s keeping them all together. He doesn’t know why Steve asked about Bruce’s stitches or why Natasha cupped Stark’s cheek out of the blue, shut him up mid-sentence and made him turn so white he looked like an afterimage of himself. Why Thor doesn’t seem to understand that Clint can’t deal with his guilt right now, that there’s not enough forgiveness in him for himself, let alone for whatever trans-planet honor code Loki broke on Asgard’s behalf.

Clint doesn’t know what’s keeping them together, because they’re souls scattered like pebbles on a cold winter beach, frothing white foam and gray mist clinging to the horizon, threatening to blanket the world.

 

.

When he dreams, there isn’t any light. There’s only the press of the coffin on his chest, the thick, acrid flavor of his own terror. There isn’t any light, but Lady Matilda is there, holding his hand.

There isn’t any light, but she’s warm all along Clint’s side, and she whispers, it is the secret of the world that all things subsist and do not die.

 

.

The apartment hasn’t been touched.

He never thought he’d be grateful for something like that, but he is. He is. It wasn’t on purpose, he knows – SHIELD policy to come in and do their cleaning thing, strip the place bare – but too many people are dead. Not enough hands on deck, not for something like this, not when the city is in ruin, not when there are aliens dead in the street, and certainly, not for a man like Phil.

It seems like the world should have been tilted off its axis, like things should be subtly wrong, because the man who had built this life, who had pieced together this home, is gone. There are empty coffee cups in the sink, and the laundry basket is still half-full right inside the bedroom door. The fridge has milk, and three beer bottles sit on the coffee table. It’s like they’ve just stepped out, like their lives have been put on hold. It’s like Clint can sit down right there on the sofa and close his eyes, and when he opens them Phil will be coming in through the door, toeing off his shoes and loosening his tie.

Clint’s shadows are in the hall. They speak to Natasha, low voices and dark eyes. Whatever she tells them must be enough, because they let her close the door. She looks at it for a long time, fingers wrapped tightly around the knob, and Clint realizes she’s never been here. He had never gotten a chance to invite her here, to the home Phil had made for them. The home they had made together. It seems so sad that she never got to see Phil like that, in his socks and laughing.

“Clint,” she murmurs. She’s never been one for emotion, and he must be overwhelming her. He wants to tell her he’s sorry, but he doesn’t know where to pull the words from. He has so much to be sorry for. He doesn’t know where to start.

“You say that a lot,” Clint says against Phil’s neck. They’re covered in mud, and Phil’s suit is totally done for, but nothing else matters except this, here, right now.

Phil’s hand drifts from Clint’s shoulder down to his back, lower still to the line where Clint’s armor and belt meet. He brushes a thumb lightly along that line of bared skin, and Clint’s knees turn into water. “Mmm?”

“That you’re sorry. But you aren’t, you’re the head G-Man.”

“Mmm.” Their hands tighten where they’re laced, resting between them on Phil’s chest. “You stink. It probably says something about me that I like it.”

“You’re changing the subject,” Clint says with a laugh, but tips his head back for Phil to kiss the edge of his jaw. He sets his teeth there just to get Clint to groan, and when he does, reflex at this point, Phil smiles into his skin.

It’s wrong. It’s all so wrong. He shouldn’t still be breathing, and that he is just proves God is a vengeful fucking bastard, that he wants Clint to suffer for every minute of this life he’s got left.

It’s justified. Phil died because Clint was too weak to fight. He deserves this pain. He deserves it all.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do with his stuff,” he says. “I don’t know what to do.”

Natasha comes close, careful not to touch. He can barely see her. It’s like she’s under water. “We’ll deal with this. But not now.”

The bed is unmade, and Phil’s Iowa State t-shirt is folded haphazardly on the bedspread. It smells like them, the two of them, Phil’s aftershave and Clint’s soap, their favorite laundry detergent.

“Oh shit,” Clint says, laughing out loud. Phil’s glaring at him from the bathroom door, pointing at the hickey on his neck that Clint accidentally gave him last night. “That’s hot, babe.”

“I’ve got a meeting with Fury in an hour and a half,” Phil snaps, pointing even more furiously at his really impressive bruise, as if to draw emphasis to how huge and purple it is. “What were you thinking?”

“That I want everyone on the entire planet to know you were mewling my name like a little kitten last night?” Clint asks, and cracks up, ducking the t-shirt thrown at his head. “It isn’t so bad!”

“Like hell it isn’t!” Phil says, glaring with all the wounded vanity of a teenage girl. He prowls around the bed, and Clint remembers – oh, yeah, ex-military – and he jumps over the mattress, laughing when he’s tackled in less than two seconds.

There are boxes in the closet, shoved up on the top shelf. Some hold old shoes; some have tax forms and receipts, all in Phil’s neat penmanship, succinct and to the point.

“There are papers,” Phil says into his hair. The Bachelorette is simpering off on another TV-land sunset, and Clint totally thinks she should have gone with Simon though he’s never admitting it, because that would mean admitting he kind of loves this fucking show.

“Mmm?” Clint mumbles, from under Phil’s chin where he’s tucked in close. Phil’s legs are longer, propped up on the coffee table beside his, bare toes wriggling.

“Papers. When we got married, the benefits paperwork. Some other stuff. The life insurance, our will. It’s in that old briefcase in the closet.”

It’s the last conversation Clint wants to have. He swallows – just the thought, just the idea that he’d ever lose this, is enough to send his brain running in a circle screaming. He tightens his fingers on the side of Phil’s shirt, where his arm is slung over Phil’s belly. “What brought this up?”

“The Bachelorette’s wouldn’t know love if it slapped them upside the head,” Phil says, brushes his hand through Clint’s hair. “Love is about the practicalities in life as much as it is anything else. I just want you to know that it’s there.”

Clint closes his eyes. “You’re such an asshole.”

“Yeah,” Phil murmurs, and presses a kiss to his temple. “Sorry.”

Clint vaguely recognizes the old briefcase, more for the bullet hole than the case itself. It was one of the first missions they went on together, Clint so green it was pure fucking luck he didn’t give away their position in the first five minutes, and Phil so patient, with that ability to teach someone something over and over until they knew it, and understood it, and shone like a new penny.

He opens the briefcase and inside is their marriage license, and insurance paperwork, and social security cards. Their will, last updated a few months ago, is beneath.

And in an old envelope, gently tucked into the bottom corner, is Clint’s real birth certificate. His real social security card. His real name, in black ink that would never go away, but cherished, and kept safe.

He thinks about what it would feel like to wear that name again, the horror of his own past. Running again, when Phil had sacrificed so much pulling him up out of the dark. Thinks about how hard it would be to say something out loud that’s been a truth for as long as he’s been alive, and how difficult it would be to set ‘Barton’ aside. How easy, too.

Natasha kneels down beside him, the brush of her hair against his cheek all the warning he gets before she presses against his side. Nothing like a hug, that’s not her style, but as close as she could get. As either of them could get.

There’s nothing to say, not really. There’s only her warmth, and the smell of her hair, and Phil’s t-shirt, pressed against Clint’s chest, like he’d come back and put it on, like he’d cook them dinner and fall asleep on the sofa and laugh out loud when Clint trips over the damned cat.

Before they leave he folds Phil’s favorite suit into a bag. Maybe tomorrow they’d let Clint see him. They can’t keep him forever. They have to bury him, and Clint wants everything ready when they say he can.

 

.

They don’t let him see Phil. Not the next day. Or the next. Or the next. He asks. Every day, he asks.

He thinks about breaking in. He can do it – crawl through the service walkways, the vents. He thinks about what he’ll see. About how he’ll steal Phil away from this place.

He wonders if there is enough of Phil left to steal.

They took him and hid him away because it’s protocol, it’s what SHIELD does with agents killed in unusual circumstances, but Clint knows. He knows. Phil was his spouse but SHIELD doesn’t give a fuck, because though Loki may have used him, it was Clint’s hands that murdered those people. He murdered Phil. Clint had done that, Clint, and this is his punishment.

“I’m sorry too,” Eli says, his voice tinny and distant but even so, even so Clint can hear the pain. Pain he’s put there. “Will you come to the memorial service?”

Mourners. An empty coffin, and a rabbi, and all the promises Clint couldn’t keep.

“I’m sorry, Eli. You should tell Joanne, he didn’t suffer. It was quick.”

“Oh, son,” Eli says. He’s crying, Clint can hear it. Clint has made Phil’s father cry. “He loved you so much. Our home will always be open to you.”

 

.

The next time he sees Alvarez, he’s in her office for fifteen minutes before he gets to his feet, and takes the antique paperweight sitting on her desk, and hurls it through her fifteenth-floor plate glass window.

She screams, and his shadows come in so quick Clint knows they were standing right outside. They cuff him because Clint doesn’t make it easy, not even here, not even now. He expects a cell, Furlong and Angstrum finally getting some of their own back, but they drag him to Fury’s office instead.

Fury isn’t there. Clint waits, and looks at the encyclopedia, and the pictures of calm landscapes on the walls, and the empty gun holster hanging from an antique coat rack. There’s a Persian rug under the desk, and a pen holder with bics and sharpies and yellow pencils. The photo of Fury’s son is in an old wooden picture frame.

Behind him, one of his shadow’s shifts his weight – his shoe squeaks, no good. Dry leather, sole coming loose. He should get it fixed, but then again he’s the muscle, he’s base security. What the fuck does it matter if his shoe squeaks? He isn’t trying to sneak up on someone, he’s six and a half feet of mountain. Dave could have taught him a thing or two, but Dave had died saving twenty two people from a burning office building.

The door opens, and Clint doesn’t have to look to see what Fury is seeing, to know what he knows.

Clint stares at the novelty Captain America calendar on his desk. Cap’s got a fist on his hip, proclaiming You can always count on America to do the right thing! under the date. He wonders what Steve would do if he saw it, if he’d laugh or get quiet, pinched. If his face would look old like it does sometimes when he thinks no one’s looking.

Fury sits at his desk, and the chair’s wheels squeak too. The turtleneck hides the scars Clint knows he has on his neck, his chest, his shoulder, scars he doesn’t want anyone to see or know about, scars that took his eye.

“You’re a good kid,” Fury begins, though they both know that’s not true. “Whatever’s going on in your head, I know you didn’t want to hurt Miranda.”

Clint wasn’t his father; he didn’t go around intimidating women just because he could. He didn’t hurt people who couldn’t protect themselves. Except he did, he had, he watched Agent Sun die and didn’t think about her babies once. “It was like Iowa.”

“How’s that?”

“Gets hot there, real hot. Not like the south, where it’s sticky and humid. Just dry, baking sunshine, and the wheat just loves it, you should see the way it grows. My brother and I hid in a drainage pipe for two days, and it was so hot the pavement sizzled and the buzzards flew in lazy circles overhead waiting for something to give in.” He doesn’t look at Fury, or the desk, or the calendar. He stares at the calm, cool scene on the wall, babbling brook kind of shit. “It was hot like that in her office. Dark, and hot, and like the walls were falling in.”

“Why didn’t you get up and leave?”

“Don’t know. I thought I could handle it. Alvarez treats me like I’m that kid again,” Clint tells him, because why not, what the fuck is even stopping him? “Like I don’t know shit about my own goddamn self, like I need someone to explain it to me. Any minute she was going to break out the finger puppets and ask me where the bad man touched me, and look, I get it, but I can’t stand it. I can’t stand what she’s doing to me.”

Fury’s face is unreadable. “Okay.”

“‘Okay’? That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

“You can’t let me back on duty.”

“There’s no way in hell I’m putting you in with the general population right now,” Fury agrees, only it sounds like he’s talking about something else.

Clint knows that Fury’s got some shady shit in his past, that he’s the grand puppeteer, pulling strings Clint would never know about. Doesn’t make it easier to bear, knowing how far out of his league he is. Fury looks at him, and his face is guarded, but the look in his eye is like stone. Clint couldn’t get a read on him even if he tried. “Sitwell has agreed to take you and Natasha on for the time being, as liaison between the Avengers Initiative and SHIELD.”

“No.”

“Not asking you, son.” Fury folds his hands together over his stomach, leans back in his chair.

Something bubbles up from deep, deep, deep, and Clint snarls, “You don’t own me.”

“You’ve said that before. You were wrong then too,” Fury says, with just enough compassion that Clint can’t actually speak the anger he’s got in his throat. “You’re a good agent who got dealt a shit hand, and you’re going to work through this before it kills you. You got me?”

“Did he die alone?”

Fury’s face shuts down. “Barton.”

“You want me to be a good little agent, you want me to follow the rules, I will. I’ll play that game.” He feels like he’s outside of his body, looking down, watching himself. He’s shaking. The chain holding his cuffs together is singing like church bells. “The tape’s gone. All of it. No one would tell me anything, so I went to look. Someone got there first. Stark, maybe.”

There’s quiet, and Dalton’s shoes squeak, and outside Mrs. Marshall is on the phone with someone. He can hear New York from Fury’s window, the hustle of the city. But here, right here and right now, it’s just Clint’s heartbeat in his ears, and his hands palm-up in his lap, and Fury looking at him like he’s never seen him before. “He took a chance on me,” Clint says, and his eyes are burning; he can’t, not here, but he is. He is. “It was probably the first thing he ever did that he hadn’t planned. He was everything good about me, and if he died alone I need to know that.”

Fury’s chair squeaks and the door opens and his shadow breathes out, once, twice, and Clint stares at Captain America on Fury’s desk and thinks Steve would hate it, dancing monkey on a wire.

 

.

He and Charlie drove across the Midwest one bitterly cold winter when the circus left Detroit without them, in a car that had been nothing but an old, musty rust bucket, stolen out of a junk yard.

The car had rattled, and there were springs popping up out of the seat, but Charlie got it to run with a little elbow grease and a prayer, so that was something. Cheaper than trying to get a bus ticket for the two of them to Columbus, anyway, and safer than begging a ride from a trucker who didn’t give a fuck that they were kids.

It’d needed water every few hours, that car, and the only station the radio got was golden oldies. Sitting in that old bucket, wrapped in a blanket and laughing when Charlie used the steering wheel like a guitar, was the happiest Clint would ever be, until he met a man with a gun and a smirk who changed everything Clint thought he was.

Upstate New York is beautiful this time of year. Weather’s just finally starting to edge into the dip of fall, bright orange leaves and cold wind blowing under his sweater, and before long it’d be boots and mittens and kids playing in the snow. A woman with a voice like whiskey is belting something on the radio, and Clint thinks about his mama, and her big, honey-warm voice just like that, singing in the kitchen.

Natasha doesn’t ask him if he’s sure, and that’s a kindness, Clint knows. Anybody else, and this wouldn’t be happening. Anybody else and he’d already be in a hospital. She trusts him, always has, even when she had no reason to. That’s something.

They drive most of the morning, not because it takes a particularly long time to get there, but because the city’s been half destroyed. There are construction crews everywhere, and people with picket signs screaming at armed police. The bodies are gone, human and alien alike, but the space whales are still there, purple, iridescent blood staining concrete, with a smell so foul Clint’s eyes water.

There are memorials and candlelit vigils on every corner. Teddy bears and flowers and photos of people who died, who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

He takes 78, to 476, to 81, has to turn around when he takes the wrong fucking exit, but finally, finally they’ve left the city, and the trees line the road thick and dark and green, and there are big rigs and station wagons with luggage strapped on top. Easy to forget how expansive New York really is, that it’s more than just the city. There are huge fucking swaths of it, especially north of Albany, that’s still untamed wilderness, forest and mountain and wildlife.

This is the life he lived, nose pressed to the glass as the country rolled by outside his window. Lady Matilda knit him a new sweater, the first year he learned how to drive.

They get to Fort Drum at two. Nat still hasn’t said a word, not even when they stop for gas and a coke, not even when his shadows stop behind them but don’t get out of the car. She’s studying him out of the corner of her eye. Maybe she knows. Clint can’t care about that, not now.

They turn off 81 and hit a random collection of highways, taking them past Potsdam and Brasher Falls, and into the tiny little town of Malone. It’s exactly what a small town should look like, Clint thinks. Old, turn-of-the-century architecture, corner store, the city park fenced in with gleaming white wood. Reminds him of home, only instead of flat farmland and waving wheat there’s a river, and mountains thrust up to the south. It’s poor country, sure enough, but the prison had brought a lot of jobs to the area when it was built.

The old car hisses when he turns the ignition off, a low, deep rumble in the engine as it settles. There’s a police officer at the gate, and a barbed wire fence.

“I’m not going to ask if you’re sure,” Natasha says.

“Okay.” Clint glances at her. “Thanks for coming with me.”

She gives him a Look. It’s packed with so much condescension he almost wants to laugh. Almost.

Clint’s got a badge. They both do. They never really use them, because Phil always thought that people who used their badges were dicks, and also because Natasha rarely uses the front door. Still, having them works out all right in this case.

They don’t ask him for his weapons, because this isn’t maximum security. The young officer at the desk, Sergeant Michelson, recognizes them, Clint can tell, but he doesn’t say a word about it because folks out in the sticks tended to be consummate professionals. He gives them forms to sign, and does request their IDs. Clint doesn’t mind, though it’s obvious the young officer does.

Natasha catches his elbow before he can follow the officer in. “This isn’t about tying up loose ends.”

But it is. It is, and they both know it, and the sunlight coming in through a smudged window lights her hair on fire, and she’s beautiful, so beautiful. “It’s okay,” he says, because she’s so fucking young sometimes and he forgets. “I’ll be out in a little while.”

She doesn’t like this, he can tell, but she’s been his partner for four years. When she lets him go it’s with a promise for answers in her eyes, and Clint doesn’t know how to tell her there aren’t any, not here.

The place is nice, for a prison, and Clint’s glad. It’s clean, if not particularly new, and there isn’t an air of barely restrained menace like in maximum security. The inmates are in dark gray uniforms, and they’re gathered together at tables and benches. Some of them are writing in notebooks, textbooks propped up in front of them. Some have I’m-In-Training guide puppies slumped asleep or playing at their sides. There’s a woman giving a demonstration in one of the rooms they pass, on proper mechanical safety by manufacturer standards.

The visitor’s room is empty this time of day. It’s nicer than the prison part – clean, remodeled, like the State of New York gave a shit about these people and their loved ones. Clint never thought he’d be so happy to see a goddamn vase of flowers sitting on a small table by the phones, but he is. He is.

And even that doesn’t hold a candle to what he feels when he sees the man sitting at a table near the windows.

He’s old, is the first thing Clint thinks. It’s been near on fifteen years, and the crags in his face are deeper, the lines on his forehead longer, and his cheeks are sunken in. His thinning hair is shot with gray. For a second, just one second, the part of Clint’s mind that would never leave that little farmhouse in Iowa screams with terror, because that face belongs to the man who beat his mama to death.

Except when Charlie looks up, when he catches sight of Clint standing there, boots fused to the linoleum, the joy that crosses his face is so good that Clint forgets about anything but his brother.

He doesn’t know what he says, or what Charlie says, only that they’ve got their arms wrapped around each other and Clint can smell the detergent the prison uses, the familiar earthiness of his brother’s hair. “Jesus,” Charlie’s muttering, over and over, hugging him so hard Clint’s bones creak. Charlie pulls back, face wet and eyes red with every goddamn thing they never said, and cups Clint’s face. “Jesus,” he rasps, and reels him back in, and fuck, fuck, Clint’s fingers fist in the back of Charlie’s shirt and he holds him back just as hard.

It seems to take a long time before Charlie can let go, and even longer before Clint can. They haven’t seen each other in nearly two decades, but just like that it’s the same as it always was, Charlie pulling him over to the table, holding his wrist with an iron grip like Clint is an illusion that’d blow away in the wind if he let go. “I can’t believe you’re here,” Charlie says. His voice has changed, gotten deeper with age, but it’s still so familiar. So fucking familiar. “I can’t believe you’re here, Clint. How the fuck did you find me?”

“Feds,” Clint says, his own voice like gravel. He holds Charlie’s wrist right back, just as hard. “I work for the Feds. I looked for you. Never thought to look for you under Mama’s name.”

“Took her name permanently,” Charlie says, and tears run down his face unchecked. “Changed it years ago, before this mess. Jesus, Clint, look at you, Christ. You’re a man now. When the fuck did you grow up to be a man?”

“Last year,” Clint says, and Charlie laughs out loud. “I missed you so fucking much, you have no idea how much.”

“Pretty good idea,” and Christ, how could Clint have ever thought his brother was like their father? His eyes glow, there’s so much happiness in them, and when he smiles the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes fan out, multiply, like he’s spent a whole lot of time smiling. “I never thought I’d see you again. But look at you – look at you, you bastard, you’re a cop.” He beams because it’s Charlie, it’s his stubborn goddamn brother behind bars and so fucking proud Clint turned into the type of man who put him there. “I’m glad. I’m so fucking glad, baby.”

“I missed you like fuck,” Clint replies, and Charlie’s grip on his wrist tightens. He looks at Clint like he’ll spend the rest of his life thinking about Clint’s face. “I looked for you. Never thought to look for you under her name.” Clint scrapes the heel of his hand over his eyes. “Christ. Sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry. You want some coffee? They’ve got decent coffee.”

“Yeah. Yeah, I’d like that.”

Clint follows him to the small table where there’s a carafe, some cups. He can’t help it. He was always drawn to his brother like a moth to the flame. “Can’t believe you became a Fed,” Charlie says, so much pride in his face as he pours Clint a cup, gets one for himself. “Not a day went by that I didn’t think about you, about what you’d done with yourself. Some days, I thought I’d wake up and see you getting off that white bus in chains. It killed me, baby, thinking that you’d end up in a place like this.”

Charlie leads them to the double doors near the back. There are picnic tables, a playground for the kids. It’s nice, and an ugly, heavy weight inside of him eases. “I almost did,” Clint tells him.

“No shit?” He sits at one of the picnic tables, taps out a cigarette from the pack in his pocket. When he offers one to Clint, he accepts, even though it’s been a decade since he picked one up. “You were with Trickshot, weren’t you?”

“Yeah, for a little bit.” He accepts the light when his brother offers it. “Got on the Fed’s radar with the bow.”

“Of course you did,” Charlie says, smiling. “You were so good with that thing. Light on your feet.”

“Yeah, well.” The first puff from the cigarette is so good, like a beer after a year in the desert. “Got on their radar, and they picked me up. It’s a decent life.”

“I’m glad. Can’t tell you what a relief it is, after all this time.”

Charlie can’t seem to stop looking at him, drinking him in, so it hurts, it hurts what Clint has to say, but it doesn’t stop him from meeting his brother’s eyes head-on. “What happened, Charlie? You never came back for me. You left me there and you never came back.”

His brother’s eyes are wet again, swimming blue, and when he grips Clint’s arm it’s hard, so hard. The cigarette shakes in his hand so bad he has to put it down in the ash tray. “I tried to build a life for us, the right way. Tried to join the Army first, but they declined me. Fucking goddamned asthma. When that didn’t pan out I got a little apartment, a job at an office working a mailroom, and saved my goddamned pennies for months, because I wanted enough to get you some new fucking clothes, get you in school where you should have been all along. When I tried to find the circus after you all left Philly, Carson said you and Matilda were his, that he’d sell you both to me for ten thousand dollars.”

“Fuck,” Clint says, and he believes it because he saw it, all the fucking time. Not with the people who didn’t matter to Carson, the work hands or the booth people, but the star attractions. The acrobat sisters. Tiboldt, who did a show with a white tiger named Manse. Sometimes he even let Clint pet it, if Manse was in a good mood. “Fuck, Charlie.”

“I was making shit money,” Charlie says, words tripping over each other, like he’d been waiting for so long to say it and it isn’t coming out fast enough. Like, if he didn’t say it just right, Clint would walk out of his life like he’d walked out of Clint’s. “I didn’t know what to do, Clint. I was just a kid, a fucking nineteen year old kid, and the only way I knew how to make money fast was selling.”

Clint knows why Charlie’s here, but it hurts to hear. Their lives had been built on a tower of grief, rotten to the core. “What did you sell?”

“I had a whole fucking pharmacy.” Charlie rubs a palm over his eyes again. “I made four grand in two months, got hooked on it, the life and the drugs. I tracked the circus across the country – I’d been with them for too long, I knew the route. Called that bastard every fucking week. He threatened to kill you before I got there, that if I so much as sniffed around without having the money he’d put a knife in your throat. By the time I came with the money, Matilda had died and Trickshot had taken you.”

It hurts to hear, it hurts like acid in his throat. “You said it yourself, Charlie. You were a kid. You did what you could. I never blamed you, not for one day.”

Charlie’s got tears running down his face, but he still looks away, takes a drag from his cigarette. “After that, I did what I’d been raised to do. I stole shit, and hurt people, and sold a lot of drugs. Never stopped looking for you.” He shakes his head. “I got in with the wrong kind, but it didn’t matter. Why would it?”

“I’m so fucking sorry,” Clint says, a knot in his throat. “Charlie, I’m sorry.”

“Bad blood, baby,” he murmurs, and grips his hand, touching a thumb to Clint’s ring. “You meet a woman, have some kids?”

“No.” Fuck. Fuck. He smiles for the first time in weeks, and feels like his chest is going to break right open. “Queer as the day is long.”

“No shit?” Charlie laughs out-loud, watery and awful, but sincere. “Well damn, kid. Who’s the lucky man?”

Clint’s hand spasms around his brother’s. “He’s how I found you. You wanna talk Feds, he was the head G-man. He was sarcastic, a real smart-ass. You’d have loved him.”

It’s starting to rain, humid and damp. Clint watches the concrete get wet in patches, watches the pebbles on the playground go a dark, ocean-shore brown, shining like wet pennies. Clint smokes his cigarette, and looks at the guards at their stations. They’re carrying rifles.

When he glances over at his brother, he catches Charlie studying him, familiar gray eyes Clint sees everyday in the mirror. “You remember the night he killed Mama?”

“I think about it every day.”

He closes his eyes, listens to the rain get heavier. It sings against the ground, on the metal roof over them. “I think there’re turning points in life. You know what I’m saying? I wonder all the time about how different our lives would’ve been if she’d lived. If she’d taken us and run.”

Charlie shakes his head. “Can’t think of it like that. She was scared shitless. Had me at fourteen, and Susan at sixteen, though course you wouldn’t remember, she died before she was ever really born. When you came along it was a fucking surprise, I’ll tell you that, because Mama didn’t think she could have more after Susan. By then he was knee-deep in the bottle, and Mama’s parents had died when she was a kid. She thought staying with him was her only option.”

“She didn’t, Charlie. She didn’t run; she died instead, and he got put away and died too.”

“So, what? You think if she’d taken us and run that we would’ve walked a different path?”

He looks across at his brother. “Wouldn’t we have?”

“Fair question.” Charlie looks up at the roof, too, and takes a drag from his cigarette. It’s almost down to the butt. “You’d have probably still ended up a Fed, or in the Army, or some shit like that. I’d probably have still gone into social work,” he says, and when Clint glances over in surprise, he smiles. “Haven’t been sitting here with my thumb up my ass, kid. I’ve got a master’s in social work.” He takes a sip from his cup, thinks a minute. “You still would have met your G-man, and I’d probably be some rich douchebag living in a condo on the beach or some shit, but guess what? We wouldn’t be us; we’d be a couple of entitled assholes. Though I gotta tell you, we would have bought Mama a house like she’d only ever dreamed of.”

He’s got a knot in his throat. “Hell yeah we would’ve.”

“And she’d have had grandkids, and a goddamn luxury car, and even when she got old and sick and frail we’d be there, we’d have been there until the fucking end.” He closes his eyes. “That’s what I think about when I think about Mama. I think about it with Matilda, too, and you. Fuck, Clint, I would have given you everything you ever needed, but I can’t. Not anymore.”

Clint doesn’t want to know, but he asks anyway. “How many more years?”

Charlie laughs softly, shakes his head. “I’m never getting out, but it’s alright. I do good work in here. I help the kids coming in, rehabilitate guys who come from lives like ours. I petitioned for the puppy program, got a lot of companies interested in us as a workforce.” He studies him for a minute. “What was his name? The man who gave you that ring?”

He doesn’t pretend to misunderstand. Charlie always saw right through him. “Phil. His name was Phil.”

“Tell me about him.”

He swallows, and swallows, but the knot in his throat doesn’t go down no matter how hard he tries. “I never bought into all that stupid lovey-dovey shit, you know that, but with Phil – it was different. He had a good soul.” He takes a drag from his cigarette again. His hands are shaking. “It was easy. Never even thought about men like that, and then he came along and rewrote everything about me.”

He ducks his head, because it can’t, he can’t, even if it’s with the only person who could ever fucking understand. He puts out the cigarette, and lets Charlie catch his wrist again, and it’s quiet but for pounding rain, someone playing music far away. The humidity dampens Charlie’s hair; it’s thinning in places, unnatural. Like it’s falling out. “I bought a car like the one we had.”

He’d loved it from the moment he saw it, from the moment he sat behind the wheel and Charlie smiled at him out of his memory with every one of his fifteen years written like scars on his face. Loved it when Phil didn’t roll his eyes, or chastise him for paying actual money for something so shitty, and when they drove out of the city and all the stars in the night sky lit up like fireworks it was okay, too, that Phil was there, that he saw Clint so low and brought him right back up with nothing more than the little curve of his mouth. “You remember? That beat up old Pontiac?”

“Holy shit,” Charlie says, smiling, his eyes so far away. “I’d forgotten about that. Damn, I drove us for two days, could barely see over the steering wheel. It was cold as hell, and you kept making me stop so you could piss.”

“Played nothing but oldies. You remember?”

Charlie smiles, leans back in his chair. “Yeah, I remember,” and he taps his knee. His voice, when it comes, sounds as good as anything on the radio, heavy and deep and clear. It was one thing Mama had given him that no one could ever take away. “There’s somethin happenin here. What it is ain’t exactly here. There’s a man with a gun over there, telling me I’ve got to beware.

Clint swallows, and swallows, and then he offers, “I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound, everybody look what’s going down.” Charlie doesn’t even mention how Clint’s voice is cracked and broken and trembling, for all that he got Mama’s voice, too. “Jesus, I love you so much.”

“Yeah well, tough shit, because I love you about a thousand times more,” his brother replies, eyes closed, but his grip on Clint’s wrist doesn’t loosen, and when Clint looks over, there’s something like peace written there in his face.

 

.

The next time he has an appointment with Alvarez, Jameson cuffs him to the chair.

Clint doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to explain what happens inside of him when the handcuff latches around his wrist, only that he goes so cold and still that he wonders if he’s having a heart attack. Jameson doesn’t look sorry, too professional for that, but he does crouch down and look at him in the eye. “Breathe,” he says, and Clint sucks in a sharp, sudden breath, heart roaring in his ears.

“I’m going to be outside,” Jameson tells him calmly, like Clint isn’t fucking falling apart in front of him. “When you’re done here, Dr. Alvarez is going to come get me.”

Clint stares at him, and he doesn’t know what to say, so he doesn’t say anything, and then he’s alone with Alvarez.

She’s quiet, and Clint knows he scared her the last time. He would never hurt her, because she’s a civilian, and a woman, and a mom. He would never hurt her, but the cold band of metal around his wrist says otherwise.

Her window is new, new sill and glass. It swings open now, letting in the cool, damp breeze. He can hear tires over water down below. When he pulls on the cuff it hurts, real, metal biting against his skin. The chain is loud in the quiet, clinking against the wood of the chair arm.

“You must wonder why,” he says.

He doesn’t look at her, but he can feel her eyes anyway. “What’s that?”

“Why they’re keeping me around.”

She’s quiet, so he takes that as a yes. There are starlings flying in a flock through the high-rises, trying to get out from under the rain. “Is that what you’re thinking about?” she asks.

“I think about a lot,” he says. “I was down in Legal today.”

He isn’t a bad guy, Samuels, built like a tree and as blond as sunlight. He’s got an office just like Alvarez’s, with a mahogany bookcase, and leather chairs soft as butter and just as easy to sink into. His desk nearly spans the width of the room, and there’s a shiny Apple computer on top, gleaming white plastic that probably cost what Clint made in a month.

He thinks about Phil’s office -- his beat up, rusted government desk, and his old chair, and the sofa with the spring popping out in the middle. Like he was a paper pusher. Like he was just another rung on the cooperate ladder.

“Phil had life insurance,” he says, licks his lower lip. “But the law can’t get its shit together. I’m not his spouse, at least not as far as they’re concerned, so Samuels – he’s the lawyer – he has to pay it out to Phil’s parents. It’s good, it’s a good thing, I want them to be okay, because they’re good, kind people. I don’t want them to want for anything.”

“But?”

The chain is loud again, and it hurts. The starlings swoop in under the branches of a tree, screeching at one another. He can hear them even over the rain and the tires and the traffic. “He was mine. Under the law, he was mine, and Samuels doesn’t give a shit. He doesn’t want to fight it, because he said we wouldn’t win, that I knew what I was getting into when I walked into that courthouse to marry Phil.” The air is cool on his neck, and he closes his eyes to the breeze, lets it brush his hair back. “You think I’m some goddamned queer hick, that all I’ve got in me is violence. You’ve got every right to be scared of me.”

“Clint,” she says faintly.

She doesn’t try to touch, never that, but she’s close, too close, close enough to see how bad he’s shaking. “This is it, Alvarez, this is as good as it’s going to get for me. Do us both a favor and sign the fucking discharge forms.”

“I can’t do that,” she says softly. She’s a shitty psychiatrist, and they’ve both stopped expecting her to have some fucking words of wisdom or some shit, but she tries anyway. “I know that what you’re living with seems insurmountable, that there will never be anything else but this pain. But that’s why I’m here. That’s why Director Fury gave you to me. Clint,” she murmurs, and takes his hand. Her grip is hard, hard as iron, and when he looks up there’s something in her face he doesn’t understand. “You’ve got to hang on for just a little longer. I’ll help you, I promise.”

 

.

Steve’s leaning against the wall across from Alvarez’s door, waiting for him, when he comes out.

The man is incapable of looking anything other than completely fucking wholesome, even in jeans and a button down. Clint’s okay sometimes when he knows to expect him, but not so much when Steve takes him by surprise like this. Looking at him, at that familiar profile Clint knows better than his own face, is a yawning agony so deep that he feels like he’ll never claw out, that he’ll be right there, entrenched, where no one will ever find him.

Clint doesn’t say anything– can’t, not without embarrassing himself – but Steve just takes it in stride. “They’re waiting for us downstairs,” he says, motioning over his shoulder. “Your new friend joining us?”

Clint glances over his shoulder. Jameson looks right back at him, calm brown eyes. “Don’t think we’ve got enough clearance, Agent Barton,” he says. “If Captain Rogers agrees, we’ll leave you in his care.”

“Sure,” Steve says readily. “Thanks.”

Steve doesn’t fill the silence with pointless bullshit. He wonders what Steve was like before all of this happened to him, before he became more than a kid from Brooklyn – wonders if the height and the strength took something away from him. Being called to this work usually did. People are staring at them as they walk past, but Clint is under no delusions they’re trying to catch a look at him. Steve gets tense, shoulders hardening and face set in lean, blank lines.

The elevator dings. There’s a gum wrapper in the left corner, and someone’s left their greasy fingerprints on the glass mirror behind them, and Steve’s got his arms crossed, like he’s guarding himself the only way he knows how.

“You didn’t ask for this shit life, but it’s the one you got,” Clint says, and feels Steve’s eyes bore into his neck. He’s got his jaw set, that fucking heroic jaw that Clint thought he could recognize on posters and trading cards, but which he now realizes was just a pale imitation of the real thing. “Most people don’t get to ever be in your position.”

“What are you talking about?”

“People need what you represent.”

Steve’s face changes, something softening in the furl of his eyebrow. He’s studying him, too smart by half. “Agent Coulson said that the world needs old fashioned heroes.”

Clint works his jaw until the pain overshadows everything else. He doesn’t know why he’s saying this now, what’s driving him to fucking say this, only that Alvarez makes him raw in a way he hates, like all his nerves have been sheared open. “You know what it says in our will?”

He slams his fist against the ‘stop’ button, and the elevator comes to a grinding halt. He can’t look at Steve, he can’t, except he fucking can, and something in his face makes Steve tense like he’s fighting to take a step back. Or maybe a step forward. “It says that the executer of his estate is to give the entire collection to the Smithsonian, because they’ve called him, every year since 1993, asking if he’d sell it to them.”

Steve stares at him, all those years pulling at his face. Clint hates that he sees it, hates he’s spreading his grief, but Steve doesn’t say anything, not for a lifetime, not until, “‘Our will’?”

And Clint doesn’t know why he’s hiding it, why he hasn’t said anything – why it’s such a goddamn secret. So he looks at Steve, so young and so old, with eyes that can’t hide a single thing, and wonders if this changes everything. Phil would have loved tossing out all of the hetero-normative bullshit that colored Steve’s world in the forties, would have taken great pleasure in showing Steve how different the world was now, how much better, but also how much worse.

But that was then, and this is post-Chitauri, post-alien-fucking-invasion, and Clint’s so tired. “Make yourself a list.”

“What?”

“All the shit that’s thrown you for a loop. All the shit that makes you think, ‘just when I know about this place’. You carry that list around with you, because kid, there’s more of it to come.”

Team’s all assembled when they get to the conference room. Clint hasn’t seen them all in one place since the world flushed blue again. So much of his fucking life has been lived in the dark that standing beside these shining people makes him feel like what he is – two-bit trailer trash with a sixth grade education and a knack for killing people.

They’re talking, but Clint isn’t paying much attention. Stark’s hands are waving, a prerequisite flail one must master before becoming a mad scientist, and Bruce’s got his nose pinched between thumb and forefinger, and Steve’s gets a look on his face like he’s seriously considering doing Tony untold physical damage. No jury would convict him. Thor’s arguing with them, his big, booming voice sounding like something out of a Shakespearean tragedy, and Natasha – no longer the girl he threw himself into a river with but the woman who commanded all she surveyed – is watching, chin in her hand like she’s enjoying the show.

Clint thinks about Phil, the glee he must have felt when he’d finally gotten to see the whole gang together. What he would have said, looking at them here and now, like this, and how proud he would be to see this mishmash of bizarre personalities finally coming together.

And then he realizes they’ve stopped talking, and they’re all staring at Stark like he’s just announced he’s going into the priesthood.

Stark looks around at all of them and rolls his eyes. “Oh come on, like you all didn’t see this coming. I hate SHIELD HQ, it’s like they designed this place out of a Spies-R-Us catalog.” He comes around the table, and when he ducks under the scaffolding leading up to the ceiling the fucking bourbon doesn’t even slosh in his glass. He’s got this expression of total fucking earnestness, Jesus, now he gets it, why Natasha didn’t disappear him and save them all the headache. “I’m extending the invitation to come live at my sweet, sweet pad. It’s not much right now, but once it’s done it’ll have all the bells and whistles, and you know me, bells and whistles pretty much equal robot butlers and controlled explosions. You all up for it?”

Clint knows what this is. He knows that this is a kindness, that Fury fed right into Stark’s weird mish-mash of ego and insecurity by suggesting this. He knows that, for some of them, it’s Stark or the fucking street. It doesn’t make it easier to swallow.

He looks at Stark and doesn’t see the Iron Man, or the billionaire, or the smartass. He sees the arc reactor, the man who was tortured in a hole, the man who stopped killing people because he saw what his guns were doing and decided to do something about it. “You’ve got a pair on you,” he hears himself say.

Tony beams, bounces on his heels. The cut above his eye is almost healed, and the bruises on his face have run the whole spectrum of the rainbow only to settle into an ugly yellow-green. “Spread the word, I’m a badass.”

“You’re not thinking this through,” Bruce says, and pulls his glasses off to get a good look at him.

“I resent that remark. I am always thinking, thank you very much, of the five people plus Swede-cum-alien prince here, which of us is a certified genius and – and—” he says, because Bruce raises his hand, “builder of awesome flying armor?”

“I haven’t been here that long,” Steve says, long-suffering sigh deeply implied, “but even I know you can’t just go around asking random people to move in with you.”

“Well, like it or not Capn’ Crunch, we have history. Plus, we fought together, we’re bro’s.” He gets five separate blank looks, and all but throws his hands in the air. “Is this about your collective existential angst? My family built the atomic bomb. Also, we ran a weapon’s manufacturing company for like, five decades.” Stark shifts uncomfortably. “Not that I’m trying to belittle your pain, because that’s sacred. I’m just saying -- I get it.” It’s with kindness, like he does get it. Like he understands. “Also, we’re all on suicide watch, save Ms. Romanoff and her enviable stable constitution, so we’re solving two problems with one tower-sized stone,” he adds, because this dude also wouldn’t know tact if it smacked him upside the head.

Clint gets it, now. He sees Fury’s endgame, and he appreciates the thought that went into it, the lives that were given up for it. Phil must have known, must have pieced it all together and put in their names for the Initiative a long time ago. Long before the Initiative even had a name.

Natasha touches his forearm, but he can’t look at her, he can’t, because Phil loved him so much, so much that he never stopped pulling him up out of the dark, that he never stopped saving him, long after Clint thought he’d been saved.

 

.

“No,” Natasha says.

Natasha’s beautiful, even under the blinding florescent lights of the cafeteria, even with dust on her shirt and dirt smeared on her cheek. She hasn’t had time to fix her hair, and the curls are wild around her face, even caught up in a headband. Her hands are dry, cracked. The calluses stand out in stark relief.

There’s a plate of food sitting in front of him. The marinara sauce is so bright under the lighting it almost hurts his eyes. It looks like fake food. It might be.

Jasper’s there, too. He looks tired, like all he wants is a shower and a bed and his wife, in that order. “I’m not going to tell either of you what to do, you’re grown-ass people. But you’re operating without all of the information, and while you usually both excel at that – Budapest thanks you – there’s some shit you need to know before you just ‘no’ at me.”

Natasha arches a brow, like she’s allowing this peon to have his say before she sends him to the gallows. It’s beautiful, is what it is. “Tony Stark is trying to collect us like a little boy collects marbles.”

“Kinda,” Jasper concedes, and adds, “Fuck a duck,” because it’s Jasper, and that’s how he rolls. “Look, here’s the deal, and don’t either of you squeal and say it was me who told you. The World Security Council has been riding Fury’s ass about giving you up.”

Natasha says something in Russian that doesn’t take a genius to figure out translates to, ‘no shit’.

“This is more than the run-of-the-mill bullshit they like to engage in. This is beyond corporate espionage, alright? They’ve got moles,” Jasper says. “Lots of them. Fury doesn’t know who, or how, but they’re here, and they’ve been giving reports back to their puppet masters since Stark diverted the bomb. They want you all gone, which is partly why you both have some great new shadows, courtesy of the Director.”

Clint glances up, across the way to the table in front of them. Ward and Jameson look right back at him. “What do they want?”

“To bury you in a hole so deep you’ll never say a goddamned thing about what you did and what you saw,” Jasper replies. “For the moment they’re doing this via surveillance bullshit, but Nick thinks it won’t be much longer before they step up their game. I’m not talking a prison cell, kids, I’m talking Guantanamo Bay levels here.” Jasper leans in, catches their eyes. “Stark’s invitation was innocent. Don’t know why he decided to make the Tower your new playground, but that’s Stark for you; the man’s got enough fucking heart to fill a baseball stadium, which makes the rest of his personality a goddamned crying shame. Phil—” and Jasper pauses, just for a moment, because Phil was his friend too and Clint knows all about open wounds. “Phil would already have you over there unpacking your shit and eating a sandwich, but he was always a lot better at this than me.”

Natasha pushes her tray forward, out of the way. “They’ve been following me.”

“Yeah.” Jasper pulls his glasses off, rubs his eyes. “Your tail has a tail; we’ve been keeping track of all of you. Banner’s already got the lab packed up, and Steve’s place has twenty-four-hour surveillance, until Stark can convince him to move into the playhouse. The only person we’re going to keep on-site will be Thor, but to be honest we don’t really worry about the millennia-old war god. It’s just you flesh-bags we’ve got to keep tabs on.”

Natasha says, “The WSC should be dismantled,” with a little gleam in her eye that would make normal people want to hide under the table.

“Working on it.” Jasper pushes his glasses back on, finishes his cooling coffee with one gulp. “Alright kids, Daddy’s got to go to work, you both be good and don’t slaughter anyone. That means you, Natasha.”

They watch him leave, shoulders in a permanent slump under the line of his jacket, until it’s just the two of them, an island in the middle of the mess hall. It’s funny the way life works out sometimes, because almost four years ago it was Natasha who’d sat across from him, so thin she was gaunt under her gray jumpsuit, her face pulled into a long, exhausted line. They’ve traded places, and Clint doesn’t know what to do with that, how to handle that, only that he understands why she said yes to begin with.

He knows she knows, because she’s Natasha and smarter than all of them combined, so when she reaches out, he lets her take his hand. “Eat,” she says.

The pasta looks fucking disgusting, but he picks up his fork anyway. “You know him better than I do.”

“Unfortunately.” Once she’s sure he’s going to eat, she lets go. She pushes her own pasta around her plate, thoughtful. “You read the reports.”

He’d edited the reports, because something about Stark brought the Russian out in her. “He’s kind of a dick.”

The look she gives him tells him all he needs to know about the magnitude of that understatement. “They know who we are. We’re not safe here, not long-term.”

He hears what she doesn’t say. That as much as she loved SHIELD, she would walk away in a heartbeat if it wasn’t safe, for either of them. “What do we do?”

She sets her fork down with a clatter, all pretense of eating gone. “We don’t have a choice.”

And because it needs saying, he tells her, “They might not let me leave.”

Her eyes narrow into thin little slits.

 

.

Stark Tower is what it is. Clint thinks that, if he’d been in his right mind, if he’d been juggling with all his oranges, he’d have been impressed. Wowed, even, because while Tony was a pretentious dick with all the shit that went with it, he didn’t sit on his money bags with his manacle; he actually got down in the dirt, grease up to his elbows, and worked.

But Clint isn’t in his right mind, and he knows it, so he doesn’t know what to think about the Tower, or the suit Tony wears to come get him in the lobby that probably cost what Clint made in a year, or the way Tony stares at the cello case like he’s just seen a ghost. He doesn’t know what to think of the AI overhead, or the way Stark’s pretty girlfriend looks down at his scuffed and dusty boots marking up the polished marble floor and her face tells him exactly what she’s thinking, or the way Stark says, “Don’t worry, I’ll send some minions down for your stuff,” and Clint doesn’t know how to say that the shit he’s carrying is all there is.

All he does know is that he doesn’t belong here, and the only person who doesn’t seem to get that is Stark. The girlfriend looks at him and sees him for what he is, and she isn’t scared, but she isn’t comfortable, either. He has no way to reassure her, because everything she’s thinking is true.

“—and we’re still in the middle of construction, so it’s not done,” Stark is saying, as they stop in front of a door. He takes the cello case, grabs Clint’s hand, and slaps it on the surface. The door comes to life, reading his fingerprints. “But here it is. Sorry about the mess, but at least it’s a SHIELD-free space, no bugs, no cameras, so that’s something right? Right.”

“I’ve got a chip,” Clint says, staring as a thousand lines of computer code zip by on the surface of the door. It pings lightly, Welcome, Agent Barton, and the lock disengages. “Three, actually, that I know about. One is in my shoulder, one is in my belly somewhere, and one is embedded below my hip, where I took some fire. SHIELD knows where I am at any given point. Always.” He glances up. “The only way Banner got off the grid is by picking his out with a knife.”

They both stare at him, and the woman, Pepper, gives Tony The Look, a thousand words in one glance that spell nothing good. She’s got sense, Pepper.

The room is fucking ridiculous. It isn’t even a room – it’s a suite, and Clint feels like he just stepped onto the set of Pretty Woman. One of the walls is all windows, with more of the computer code skimming over the surface. There’s a huge bathroom with a claw tub that could probably fit five people, and a closet that swings out and moves because apparently some people had so many clothes that they needed battery-operated closets. In the center of all that is a California King and a flat screen TV that takes up the entire wall across from the bed.

Clint says, “You’re kidding me, right?”

“What?” Tony says, waves a hand. “Look, I said it wasn’t done.”

“That’s not what he means,” Pepper says. She seems kind enough, and sincere; she sees what is, which is a nice change of pace. “Agent Romanoff came to see things last night. The door by the bed leads directly to her suite. You both have a private staircase and elevator that goes up to the roof and down through to the bottom floor of Tony’s apartments, which is three floors below this one, and which contains the kitchen and the living space. The gym is one floor below Iron Man’s landing platform.”

“Don’t sell it to me,” Clint snaps before he can stop himself. Tony’s face twists, and Clint says, “Sorry. Sorry,” because fuck. He sets the cat carrier down, sighs. “I don’t want to seem ungrateful, Tony, but man, you don’t get it.”

“Don’t get what?” Tony asks, waving a hand. “I want you to be comfortable here.”

“This isn’t a fucking TV show, where the wacky billionaire genius gathers all the damaged, dramatic characters and they go out on fucking adventures together. This is real life,” Clint says, can’t not say, because Tony’s a dreamer, and while he appreciates that he needs this dude to get it before he ruins all their lives. “Banner is SHIELD’s prisoner, whether Fury says so or not. Thor is a centuries-old god who’s rewritten everything we ever thought about heaven or hell. Steve’s a mess—you really can’t even understand how screwed up that kid is, he’s one bad fall away from a nervous breakdown. Natasha was brainwashed for the first fifteen years of her life, and spent the next fifteen killing most of the people in Russia. And me, we won’t even go into all the ways I am fucked up, because it’s a goddamn Lifetime movie event.”

Tony stares at him like he’s never seen him before, and it’s like he’s just kicked a puppy. “Look. It’s nice, what you’re doing. Everyone knew you’d step up when you were needed, and you did, you did that. But Stark, listen to me when I say this: it isn’t a good idea. You don’t know what you’re taking on.”

“Maybe,” Tony says, and the beard is so weird because it hides the kindness Clint can hear clear as day in his voice. “You’re in the mood for a little surgery, right? Going off the grid? Okay, then.”

Clint suddenly gets why Phil and Natasha always said this dude could get right under your skin. “It’s like you didn’t hear a fucking word I just said.”

“Oh, I heard it,” Tony replies. He sets the cello case down by the bed, and when he looks up, when he catches Clint’s eye, there’s something there Clint can’t read. “I have selective listening skills, ask anybody.”

“He does, it’s true,” Pepper agrees, and smiles when Tony throws her a wounded look.

“Look, Loxley, here’s the thing: I’m a filthy rich genius inventor who moonlights as a super hero. And let me tell you, I love being a super hero – seriously, scale of one to ten, easily a fifteen, maybe a twenty. Saving people, kicking ass, that’s my thing.” He’s so sincere that it almost hurts, and when he smiles now it’s broad and just this side of lovable, and fuck. “If having you here instead of self-destructing in that hellhole of a government building helps, then yeah, I’m going to do it, because we fought together. We’re bros.”

When all Clint can do is stare, he beams and claps his hands together. “Awesome. Also, the cat, totally uncalled for. Cats hate me, I’m the anti-cat chairperson of the anti-cat league.”

“She’ll eat your hair if you let her.”

“Great! Just what I wanted to hear.” But Tony’s smiling like maybe it is, like he digs it. “Welcome to the not-so-super-secret headquarters of the Avengers, stupidest name for the most awesome group of superheroes ever. Now go put your shit down, unleash the hell creature, and take a piss. We’re leaving for Steve’s hovel in ten minutes.”

 

.

Phil is warm against him, holding him. They dance together in the living room like they never did when Phil was alive, swaying in the dark. He smells like graveyard dirt, and under Clint’s hand Phil’s blood is pumping, running down his back. But he’s holding Clint, their fingers tangled together on his chest, and Phil’s mouth is soft next to Clint’s ear. It isn’t scary; Phil could never be scary, not even here, where Clint’s mind has turned on him.

Phil’s skin is translucent from blood loss, his mouth smeared with red. His eyes are so beautiful, so blue, so kind, and when he brushes his thumb gently down the side of Clint’s cheek, Clint wishes he’d died instead.

Phil holds him, and they dance together to Sinatra, and he murmurs, “Clint.”

Clint is shaking so hard it rattles under his skin, but he just holds Phil closer, closer. He smells like his favorite aftershave, like the soap they always bought. Like blood. “I couldn’t find you, babe. They took you.”

“Clint,” Phil says, and presses warm, soft kisses against Clint’s neck, his ear, his cheek. “Clint.”

There’s a light on somewhere; it hurts his eyes. Natasha is sitting on the bed beside him, and Clint sucks in air, sour in his lungs.

It takes him a minute, a minute longer than it should, to remember where he is: Stark’s place. He can’t remember the last time someone got the slip on him, not like this. Natasha brushes her fingers gently over his face where it’s wet, where his skin is so cold. “You were screaming,” she murmurs.

He crumples and Natasha grabs him by the sides of his head, pulls him close until their foreheads are pressed together. “Don’t do that,” she says, squeezing tightly, stroking her fingers through his hair.

“My whole life,” Clint says around the knot in his throat, helpless. “My whole life, Tasha.”

Natasha strokes her fingers again through the strands by his temples, down to cup one cheek. She smells like rain, like ozone, but her clothes are dry. “You were calling for Phil.”

There can’t be this much pain in someone, it’s too much, it’s too much. “It was my fault. I killed him.”

“Clint,” Natasha says, catching him by the back of his neck and holding him still. Grief wells up in a hard ball in Clint’s throat, in the backs of his eyes, but it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter because Natasha has his hand in hers, pressing it against her chest where her heart is beating, steady and sure.

She stretches out next to him, pulls him close, and he lets her. It’s easier, when they share a pillow, when her hair is against his temple and her breath tickles his skin. It’s easier, and so much harder too. “I promised I’d take care of him,” Clint chokes out. “I promised, I gave him a ring and I promised to take care of him, and then he died because of what I did, of what I caused. And after he died I couldn’t even give him the burial he wanted. I did that. I did that. He was the only person who ever loved me when he didn’t have any reason to, and he died because of me.”

“Дурак,” he hears her say, but he can’t do anything about it, he can’t, because he’s crying like he hasn’t since he was a kid, silent and from a place deep, deep inside his bones. “I don’t know what to do. What do I do? How do I just get up tomorrow and keep going? What the fuck am I going on for?”

She doesn’t have the answers any more than he does, but she shushes him, and holds him close, and he pretends he can’t feel her trembling. They lay there for a long time together, listening to the rain sing against his window, until all there is in the whole world is grief, painting him in long, gray strokes, and he wishes, from deep down inside, that his old heart would finally give in.

 

.

The common area is empty, and Clint’s fucking grateful.

New York is spread out like a jewel, too early for morning, too late for even the most die-hard partier. It’s as quiet as New York ever gets, which is to say not very. Before long the streets will be full of cars, buses, and taxis, people going on about their lives as if the city isn’t in a state of near ruin.

The room is quiet, aside from the quiet hiss of the coffee maker, the rumble of the huge, state-of-the-art fridge as it makes ice. Thunder rolls in the distance, echoes across the river and over the city. The floor-to-ceiling windows are streaked with rain, and lightning cracks in the distance, haloing the Baxter building for a fraction of a moment. It reflects off the tile and marble, off of Stark’s landing platform.

Clint can see why Stark did this, why he made this room so central to the living space, because he and Stark are cut from the same cloth, the both of them starving for the same things. All Clint knows is that Howard Stark must have been one hell of an asshole, because Tony’s earnest and heartfelt sincerity is one of the saddest goddamned examples of neglect that Clint’s ever seen.

“Hey,” someone says.

Clint tenses, can’t help it, but it doesn’t stop Bruce from coming in, nervous hands and fucking loafers; all he needs are the elbow patches on his blazer and he’d have the whole scruffy, absent-minded professor look down. No one would think he moonlights as the Hulk, except Clint can see all those years of hurt, branded on him like steel and fire.

Behind him, one of the glass windows unlocks and raises slowly, with a mechanical hiss. The sound of rain hitting pavement and stone is a lot louder, and Bruce says, “Sorry. I’m not good with enclosed spaces.”

He’s quiet, pouring a cup of the coffee Clint put on to brew. When he gets the creamer from the fridge, he lights the kitchen up with arc-reactor-blue, spilling across the tile floor.

Bruce is one of the kindest people Clint’s ever met, warm down to the marrow. Without being asked, he comes over to Clint with two mugs, stopping only to put a splash of whiskey into each. “Couldn’t sleep?”

“Should be asking the same about you.”

“Eh, I don’t sleep.” Bruce is still but for the almost nervous twitch of his hands, always moving, like he’s working even when he isn’t. Like he’s playing a piano in his head. He has a smattering of hair on each knuckle, calluses on the joints of his thumbs, a chemical burn on is palm. “Few hours a night at most. The other guy doesn’t do well with inactivity.”

He can almost hear the music from a club, can almost smell bread already baking for morning. In a few hours the ferry will begin gliding across the water, the George Washington Bridge would fill up with cars, and still it will keep raining because Thor’s crying for all of them, for their pain and his own inability to stop it. “What are you doing here?”

“Jarvis, our sentient over-lord, told me you were in here.” Bruce glances up with a cringe, like he expects the Ceiling Cat to shoot lasers at him or some shit. “He casually suggested that I take a break, only he said it in that sassy English accent of his, so I left the conversation feeling like a stupid American who doesn’t know when to take a rest.”

He can just see Bruce in his periphery. He looks different in the near dark, and his glasses throw strange shadows on his face. “Stark accidently hit the ‘bitch’ button when he built Jarvis,” he offers.

“There’s no ‘accidentally’ about it, but I’ve got a theory that it might just be prolonged exposure to Tony’s unique brand of brilliance.”

“You are correct, sir,” Jarvis says from overhead, and Bruce ducks his head to hide his smile.

They settle, the two of them, into a companionable silence. The rain is steady, as steady as it’s been for weeks now, but the cool wind feels good where it’s blowing in, pulling at Clint’s hair. The room is almost completely dark, save for the dim light over the range, the lit screen from the front of the fridge. He can see Bruce’s age in this light, the wrinkles that fan out from his eyes and mouth. “It was because of you.”

“So much is.”

Clint pauses, thinking. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to tell you,” he says. “I won’t insult you with all that ‘it was meant to be’ horseshit, alright?”

“Alright.” Bruce draws out the word, because he doesn’t understand.

“When Loki attacked and the aliens came to earth, we would have been wiped out. Not saying that it was worth it, the accident and the Hulk, your life getting fucked, only that – it’s good, that it was you, that you’re good people. You were the key that unlocked everything. You were the reason for the Avengers. You should be proud of that, Doc.”

“This sounds a whole lot like a ‘hey, thanks for everything’ pep talk,” Bruce says calmly. “I should know, I’ve got those down to an art form. You planning on going somewhere?”

“Do you miss it? India?”

He hums, taking a sip from his cup. “India is one of those places that – have you ever been?” At Clint’s headshake, he sighs. “You have to live in India to understand India. There is poverty, such extreme and unshakable poverty that the word ‘poverty’ doesn’t come close in explaining the degradation and human suffering I saw every single day. I never felt more human than I was there with those people, when I was using my mind to help them. I didn’t feel so broken.”

He’s too fucking smart by half, and he’s got Clint with a look, piercing and strong and like he’d save Clint all this pain if he could. He stares out at the skyline, at the sun slowly creeping up over the horizon, setting all the metal ablaze with light. “We’re all broken people,” he says.

“That’s why I’m a genius inventor, say the word and I can robo-cop you new limbs,” Tony says from behind them.

Stark’s standing haloed in the light from the hall. The glow from his reactor is a beautiful, unearthly blue, but when he steps in he’s just Tony, smeared with some kind of oil and looking like he’s offended nobody asked him to join the party. “Hey Loxley, didn’t expect to see you here -- remind me to get some gliding panels into your new costume design. Oh, didn’t I tell you? Costume redesign, you’re a fucking superhero now, you can’t go around with your military gear anymore, I am going to trick you out.” He claps his hands with glee, a ball of energy. “Brucey, baby, break is over. Where’s my coffee?”

“It’s five in the morning, Tony,” Bruce says with an exasperated sigh, and thunder rolls across the city but Tony just waltz’s in, puts lights on as he goes. Glaring. Bright.

“Science waits for no man,” Stark says. For Clint’s benefit, he adds, “We’ve gotten as far as we could with the device that’s going to send Man Meat and the hotdog home, now the practical tests. No idea why Fury’s making us come to him, it isn’t like Reed Richards is going to pop into the Tower and steal the Tesseract.” His face darkens. “No. Seriously. I’ve Reed-Richards-proofed this place. I hate that smarmy string-bean bastard.”

Bruce is outright grinning. He looks ten years younger. “What, there about thirty percent fewer windows on that side of the Tower?”

“The Baxter building is a crime against both modern architecture and eyeballs, and for your information, it’s thirty-six percent. Is that my coffee? Did you give him my coffee?” He swans over and takes Clint’s mug, downs half of it in one pull. “Oh yeah, that’s the stuff, I forgive you. Alright, let’s go; you too, Loxley, I’ll get that tracker taken care of while we wait for the peons to get up, vamonos.”

Stark’s lab is the fucking candy land of science labs. Everything – everything – is touch activated and automated, from the hologram trashcan in the top corner of the room to the table-tops that turn into computer screens. Tony’s powering it all with a battery he reverse engineered in a cave with a safety pin and some good old fashioned elbow grease. Clint’s convinced he’s got the cure for cancer in a box of scraps somewhere. What it didn’t have last time Clint was here was state-of-the-art, sentient robot arms, who zip around Stark like he’s their dad and they’re his proud kids.

Clint’s barefoot, eyes gritty with grief, but that doesn’t seem to stop one of the robot arms, which comes whirring up to him. He’s pretty sure that robots aren’t supposed to chirp, except this one does, and it sounds a whole hell of a lot like an excited kid coming to say hello. He takes a step back and it follows him, whirring and twittering and Tony says, “Hah, he likes you, that’s unexpected,” from the tabletop where he and Bruce have their heads together over some kind of device, a cylinder with two huge handles on each side. It looks like a kid’s toy, except he’s pretty sure that it costs more than he ever wants to know. “First rule with Dummy – never drink anything he gives you.”

“Dummy? You named your robot kid ‘Dummy’?”

“Well, it’s DUM-E, there’s a whole story there, just don’t drink anything he gives you – seriously, there cannot be enough emphasis on that – and he likes spray bottles, so expect to be spritzed with water at least once before you leave.”

Clint glances back to the robot, cheerful little guy that he is, and hesitantly pets the top of it. The robot croons.

He wanders the lab, because nobody told him not to. It smells like eau de Stark -- coffee, engine grease, and that bizarre tang of coconut unique to him -- mixed in with city pollution and the smell of rain. There are projects spread out across every available surface. Half of an Iron Man suit hangs from a really complicated pulley system, wires and shit hanging everywhere. It’s kind of eerie seeing the helmet like that, empty, a shell, and Clint realizes how big a deal it is that he’s here. How much Stark trusts him, when he has no reason to, when Clint didn’t do jack shit to earn that trust.

It’s surreal, like this can’t be fucking real life. Like any minute now he’s going to close his eyes and wake up at home, or in a motel somewhere, or in Lady Matilda’s trailer. He keeps expecting it, waits for it, because superheroes are comic books and action figures, children’s toys and games. Superheroes aren’t assassins, or narcissistic billionaires, or rage monsters or fucked-up kids thrown out of their time. They aren’t even alien princes with shitty families and shittier little brothers.

Clint rubs his face, exhausted. There’s a headache building behind his eyes, setting up shop where he hurts all the time, but worse, bigger, deeper. When he closes his eyes he sees stars, streaks of color like the big arms of the Milky Way he used to be able to see at night in Iowa. The stars are different but no less beautiful, Yggdrasil’s glory written in all of space and time. It makes him feel tiny and insignificant under the great vastness of space.

He wonders if he’ll ever close his eyes again and be alone, or if this will be there always, tethered like a hook into the back of his brain. Thunder rolls, and lightning cracks, and rain pours, pounds down into a city half flooded. The glass is cold under his hand.

Something touches his elbow. He startles, nearly takes Tony’s arm out of its socket, but Stark’s too quick for that, thank Christ. “Alright, Jumpy,” he says, with that funny look on his face. “Come on.”

Stark’s got some medical equipment set up in the lab. Clint’s read those reports, he’s seen those videos – he knows that when Stark upgrades his arc reactor, it’s more than replacing the batteries on a remote control. It freaks him out a little, but he climbs up into the dentist’s chair from his nightmares, glares when Stark gives him a little shove. “What are you going to do?”

“Don’t worry,” Bruce says from his left. He’s got fucking latex gloves on, and Clint’s heart kicks up into the roof of his mouth. “No matter what Tony claims, the human body isn’t a machine.”

“You’re not a doc, Doc,” Clint says, and flinches like a scared rabbit when Stark says, “Alright, Jarvis,” and fucking lasers go over Clint’s body. They tingle, set his hair on end, but then Stark’s wriggling his fingers and lifting some sort of complicated net off of Clint’s body and – fuck. There’s his skeleton, in fucking 3D.

There’s an awkward pause.

“Jesus, Barton, how many times have you broken your bones?” Stark blurts, and the blood runs right out of Clint’s body, settles somewhere down in his toes.

Bruce quietly says, “Tony,” but Stark doesn’t get it, he was neglected too but it was in a whole different way. “Seriously, I’ve never seen—do you have pins?” and just like that he’s thirteen years old and screaming because Trickshot’s got his wrist twisted so high and hard between his shoulder blades that his arm snaps, breaks right under the elbow, but Trickshot just keeps pulling, and pulling, until Clint’s world goes black.

That was the first time someone from child protective services came and asked questions, and the last time Clint believed that the system fucking worked.

He stares at his skeleton until he can’t anymore, and then he focuses upwards, on the pulley system holding the Iron Man suit crisscrossing the ceiling. “I wasn’t always in SHIELD’s bosom.”

“They’ve got you tagged like you’re their prized beagle.” Stark circles a finger through three tiny specks on his skeleton, and when he looks back over at Clint his eyes are hard, fierce. Angry. “I am so going to enjoy this.”

“Gonna hurt?”

“Yeah.”

Clint thinks for a minute. “Okay.”

“Attaboy,” Bruce says.

It takes an hour and a half to get the trackers out, and even with the local anesthetic Stark just so happened to have on hand, it stings like fuck. When he’s done Clint has three stitches under his clavicle, two next to the old gunshot wound in his thigh, and six in his stomach, above and to the right of his bellybutton.

When Bruce is done, when the tiny, red-slick bugs are crushed into tinier, broken parts, Clint’s covered in cold sweat. Stark hands him back his shirt. “Are you ex-military?”

Clint levels himself up. The pain isn’t that bad, a twinge compared to the shit he’s dealt with in the past. Evidence is right there, on the body scan. “Probably something you should have asked before you opened Avengerland,” he says, slowly buttoning his shirt back up. He presses a hand very lightly on the stitches in his belly. They tug, and pinch, but Bruce did a good job because they don’t burn like stitches sometimes can. “We done?”

He doesn’t have to look to know Stark and Bruce are exchanging a look over his head. He doesn’t wait for them to respond, but at the door, he stops and says, “Thanks.”

 

.

It’s raining again, like it has on and off for weeks. The city is half-flooded on a good day, but now gutters are overflowing, little rivers flowing downhill. It’s hell trying to drive through it, especially when listening to Tony complain like it’s an Olympic sport. Central Park has never looked more beautiful, lush and green.

Clint looks at his own hazy reflection in the car window, head aching. It’s like everything that made him Clint Barton got erased, and whatever he’s left with is a bad photocopy, blurry and covered in inky specks. It isn’t right, he isn’t right, and he’s got enough sense left to recognize that.

Thor’s waiting for them at HQ. Literally. Even in jeans and flannel nobody could miss him, standing in the lobby like an unmovable stone while the mere mortals flow around him like water.

“Friends,” he says, or more accurately booms, because the man is nothing if not a god. People forget that, just about as often as they forget that Clint was in the circus, that Natasha was a child assassin, that Tony was tortured in a hole. “Your arrival is most prompt; Director Fury waits for us down below.”

“Great, super,” Tony says, like he isn’t keeping an eagle eye on the container Steve’s carrying. Clint had watched him pack it like the device was the crown fucking jewels. “Let’s get this show on the road.”

Clint knows what they look like. Impossible not to. He can’t begrudge the other agents when they stare at them, because it’s a little bit like a moving wall of muscle. Steve up front, followed close behind by Stark and Bruce, heads together and muttering science at one another. Natasha follows, hand not-so-innocently resting on the butt of her gun. Thor is beside him, filling up the whole world with those emotions, all those emotions he’d never say. Somewhere above, deep in the distance, a roll of thunder breaks.

“Brother Clint,” he rumbles. “It is my wish that we speak, before my return to Asgard. I have much to apologize for.”

Clint stares, hard, at Natasha’s back, at the curl of her red hair. “Nothing to say. Nothing to apologize for.” He forces himself to look up. “I know about asshole brothers, Thor. I don’t blame you.”

Clint realizes that maybe he should have said that before now, because something in Thor’s expression just breaks, and that is the very last thing he wants, he knows how emotional Thor can get. “The Son of Coul died valiantly.”

He doesn’t want to hear this. He doesn’t want to know this. “Thor.”

“Your beloved was strong and brave against undefeatable odds. It was my great honor to have done battle with him,” Thor says, as if he’s desperate let this be said. “Loki will have much to answer for upon our return to Asgard, but it will be known that chief among his crimes was the slaying of such a great and worthy warrior. You have my word.”

There’s really nothing he can say to that, so Clint doesn’t say anything at all.

The Tesseract is down deep, deeper than Clint’s clearance ever worked, deeper than Phil ever took him. He knows the FBI had some serious Mulder-and-Scully bullshit going on, and that SHIELD slipped right in with the secret levels, but this is fucking ridiculous, even for them.

There are six agents waiting for them, and Clint has to tighten his jaw and bite the inside of his cheek until he tastes blood because they frisk them, it’s not enough that Clint has given these assholes everything, everything – his life and his sanity and his goddamned partner – but now this. They touch him and he wants to lash out, punch these motherfuckers in the fucking face, and it’s only Natasha grabbing his forearm, squeezing hard, that keeps him from doing just that.

Fury’s waiting for them in the lab, just like Thor said.

And when he sees the Tesseract, blue and beautiful, and Clint thinks maybe the assholes who frisked them had a point.

The headache pounding between his ears suddenly and viciously gets worse, sending sharp, stabbing pains through his temples. He hears himself cry out, feels Thor at his side, gripping his elbow hard, but the pain keeps coming because the void is nothing, it is everything, it is the space between planets and stars and the black velvet of the universe. It is the fabric of life and the unending abyss, the hole to which all things succumbed. It is silence, a vacuum in which everything is nothing, and nothing is all.

He is a god, and once he thought he could not die. He was wrong.

“No,” Clint says, from deep, deep inside where Loki is screaming. “No, please.”

Stark is in front of him, dark brown eyes and oh, Jesus, the beard doesn’t hide anything now, because his mouth is twisted up with horror. Clint can see him talking, can hear Fury shouting, but he’s falling. He falls for all eternity, for the blink of an eye. He dies over and over and over, lungs crushed and body torn to pieces and eyes ripped from his head. He is rent apart, skin peeled and organs spilled from destroyed muscle and sinew. He is naught but nerves, and then bone, white-parchment fingers and bloodied joints. He is made whole again. He screams until he is nothing and everything too, until every molecule is remade and he is reborn, only to die again.

This fades, too, until it is nothing. He dies, and he lives, and Yggdrasil looms ever-present, her long branches extending out into the cosmos.

He doesn’t want to hurt anyone again.

Please, don’t let him hurt anyone.

 

.

He doesn’t know where he is, and he doesn’t recognize the people talking to him, and he doesn’t understand a word they’re saying. He begs them, because there is pain.

He’s lived with it his whole life, endured it more times than any one person should have to, but this, this is something different, this is being torn apart. He forgets there was ever anything but the ecstasy of stars and horizons and the scattering of pink and white and yellow, the arms of his mother-maker stretching out into the dark and spreading her light. He forgets the taste of food, the coolness of water on his tongue. He forgets that he ever spoke, or laughed, or breathed. He forgets his name.

The Chitauri pluck him from the stars. There is little they could do to hurt him; he is the father of Suffering and Torment, he who has borne it into being. Were he capable, that others should feel its touch on their skin would be enough to make him weep.

They twist him, and it is an easy thing to do he knows, for the void has made it so. They fill him with lie-smith and mischief-maker and world-builder, pouring into him as if he were an empty bowl and they the pitcher. He learns of Laufeyson and Kin Slayer and False King. The Chitauri fill him until he is choking, until the words burn and Suffering is brought to the fore, dragging its inky-black talons across his flesh, until the fear coalesces and Torment brings his knees out from under him.

The Chitauri release him back to the stars, and he is Loki and Vengeful and God. He is nothing. He is everything. He is afraid. He is long lost.

 

.

The thrall weeps.

His heart has long since been burned from him, kept as sacrifice to Yggdrasil’s glory, and yet there is a part that wishes his pain would not spread, like a virus, to those he touched. For all that he has spent a lifetime killing others of his species, the thrall is, in all of this, innocent.

They are coming for him.

 

.

The thrall bleeds.

He shakes, unable to contain that which Yggdrasil asks of him. He is mortal, an infant, a speck of dust in the great bounty of time. Loki is a god and could not withstand the burn of the Tesseract, its force like an exploding star. He too is held captive by its grip, a dog leashed to Master.

He is so scared. Master would rend him limb from limb for this disgrace, for this failure, for allowing the humans to live when it would be so simple to snuff them out.

The thrall bleeds, and Loki does as well. They will die here, together.

 

.

It is Brother who touches him, who brings his hands under water and washes the blood from his skin. Loki says the words the Chitauri have told him to speak, and it comes from a well deep inside that they themselves planted, before Yggdrasil wound her roots around him. Loki’s lips move but he does not know what he says.

It is Brother who holds him, so gently, and Brother who murmurs, “Tell me, Loki. Tell me what is coming.”

Loki is powerless, and words fall from his lips in a tumble. He grips Brother tight and begs him, begs, because he does not know what it is to be stripped of everything, he doesn’t understand the agony of space, the ecstasy of seeing all, knowing all, and being reduced to flesh and bone once more.

“Tell me,” Brother says in the mother-tongue, pressing their entwined fingers against his chest plate. “Let me help you. There is no foe powerful enough to take you from me again.”

“Master is coming,” Loki chokes out. “He will burn everything, he will burn it all.”

“Who is he? Who is this creature you would call Master?”

“He who slew the lord of the Chitauri, who took them as his own,” he tells Brother desperately. There are voices, alarmed, but he can’t understand them. Brother is the be all and end all, the center of the Gordian knot that encapsulates Loki’s world. “He who wears the red skull.”

“Thank you,” Thor murmurs, and presses a kiss to his forehead, gentle, gentle. His whiskers tickle the thrall’s skin, but his touch is hard, and warm, and so comforting. “I will care for you, Loki; you need not keep this man in your reach. I will let no harm come to you, so long as there is air in my body and a weapon in my hand.”

“It will not be enough,” he says from bloodless lips.

Your brother is not alone, a voice whispers from the dark.

A man in a wheelchair touches his temples and sends Loki’s hold skittering from Clint’s veins, the talons in the back of his brain loosened with a rush of blue he feels down to his toes.

 

.

He doesn’t know where he is.

The bald man is there, Clint can feel him, can hear him whispering in the dark. The bald man is there, but Clint’s dying. It doesn’t matter.

The world is shifting all around him. His thoughts are like marbles rattling in a tin can, bouncing off one another until it’s all Clint can do to stay conscious, to push away from the maw opening under him. When he opens his eyes he can see Loki’s stars, spiraling arms reaching out into the heavens.

“You did good, son,” someone tells him.

It’s a lie, but it doesn’t matter anymore.

 

.

He’s four years old, curled up on the old wooden chairs in the kitchen. Charlie’s licking crumbs from his fingers, and Mama’s scolding the big old hound dog at her knee for begging, and Clint’s feet are swing-swing-swinging. She’s making cupcakes for Charlie’s school, and Clint gets to help her frost them, because he’s the best froster-er ever. Professor is there, too, smiling at him. He accepts the cupcake shyly offered, and when he takes a big bite he gets frosting on his nose.

He’s seven years old, and it’s been so long since he was warm and safe. Clint’s hungry, powerful hungry, but he doesn’t know if it’s his belly that’s aching or something else, something in the roots of his heart. There’s books all down below them, rows and rows and aisles and aisles, fiction books and dinosaur books and cooking books, too, and Professor smiles and says, “Do you like to cook?”, and Clint hears himself say yes, yes, he loves to cook, because cooking means making lots of different foods into one single food, enough to feed his mouth and his soul.

He’s twelve years old, and he’s covered in butterfly stitches. When he doesn’t make the mark, when his arrow falls short, Buck digs his pen knife in deep. If Charlie knew he’d be so mad, but Clint isn’t allowed to tell him. If he does, Buck says, Charlie’ll have an accident. Clint fires arrow after arrow, and his muscles burn and his joints ache and he can smell his own sweat, and his own blood, and the ice-cold fear that settles like a rock in his gut. He can’t look away, not even with Professor there, watching him.

He’s nineteen years old, and he’s tired like he has no right to be. There’s an ache in his bones he can’t name, and weariness somewhere inside him that he can’t describe. Clint’s nineteen years old, and it’s the first time he’s killed a man. Professor is standing over Sam Mulligan’s body, but he isn’t touching, or even looking, at him. He’s looking at Clint. Sam liked raping homeless little girls, but that wasn’t why Buck wanted him dead. Buck wanted Sam dead because he was getting too loud, because he was going to lead the police straight to their fucking hidey-hole. Buck wanted him dead, so Clint killed him, but not because Sam was getting too loud.

He’s twenty five years old, and his leg is on fire, and Phil’s crouched down over him, so close Clint can see his own reflection in those G-man sunglasses.

“I’ve got you,” Phil says, and brushes Clint’s hair back from his forehead.

 

.

He opens his eyes.

Morning sunshine, coming in through an open window. There’s rich antique paneling on the walls, and books, so many books it would take someone years to read them all. A glass pitcher of water, dewy with condensation, is on a table in front of the window. The curtains are moving gently in a cool breeze. He can hear birds outside, and little voices laughing and screaming.

He doesn’t know where he is. He should be worried about that, he knows he should be worried about that, but when he niggles at that spot in his brain, like a tongue worrying a sore tooth, he just finds something warm and comfortable and safe. It’s been a long, long time since he felt like this -- like a shower after a six-week mission, like that moment just before falling asleep when he’s been up for three days.

Stretched out beside him, on top of the covers but soft and comfortable with sleep, is Phil. He’s so beautiful in the morning, when the world hasn’t had a chance to sit on his eyebrows, drag that line between them into a furl. He’s on his side, like he always is when Clint is too, so Clint can kiss the curve of a shoulder, gently run his fingers through soft, thinning hair.

Phil’s eyes slit open, glassy and distant but so beautiful, soft and blue and home.

“Hi,” Clint says softly.

Phil’s mouth curves, just the tiniest bit, at one corner. When Clint brushes his thumb there, the curve deepens. “Okay?” Phil asks, rough, like he’s been chewing on gravel, like it is when he’s so tired he can’t even think about moving. Clint’s eyes are so full, but he can’t stop looking. He can’t stop looking. He nods, and Phil relaxes again into the pillow they’re sharing.

He can hear kids playing outside. The stars are gone, and the sun feels warm on his skin, where it’s falling over the bed. He thinks maybe he’s died. It’s okay.

He startles when fingertips touch his cheek, but he turns to look anyway because this is Phil, this is his fucking beautiful husband, and Clint doesn’t know what he did to deserve this. He’s grateful. He’s so grateful.

“Clint,” Phil murmurs, and Clint blinks the sunshine away. “Do you know where you are?”

He doesn’t. He doesn’t, but – “I’m with you,” Clint says, like knives digging into his chest. “You forgive me?”

Phil’s eyes clench shut, and Clint shudders, curls up on his side to face him head-on. “It’s okay. If you don’t, if you – I can prove it to you again. I can prove I’m worth it, if you let me.”

“Jesus,” Phil says, and Clint knows what comes next, he knows about blood and the sound of a man trying to breathe around a sucking chest wound. He knows about death bubbling between a man’s lips.

Clint watches the wet gather at the corner of Phil’s lashes, watches it trace a line down his temple towards his ear. Clint’s trembling, but he presses a kiss to that line anyway.

He doesn’t pull away, not even when Phil pulls up his shirt, not even when he presses Clint’s hand against his skin, scarred flesh, raised and warm. “You’re in upstate New York. I’m here, and alive, and so are you – against all odds, we’re here. Do you understand me?”

Something trembles through Clint, like the first stab of fear, but it’s distant and quiet and uncomfortable, and he pushes it away from this warm and comfortable place. “There’s a headstone. In Portland. It’s gray, like the suit, that suit you loved. I couldn’t go. I tried, but they wouldn’t give me your body. I begged, and begged. You wanted the Taharah, and I couldn’t give it to you. I’m sorry.”

“Jesus,” Phil says again, and his fingers tighten over Clint’s hand, over his palm where it’s pressed against thick, knotted tissue, half-healed and raw and new. Clint knows he has something inside – a pacemaker, or something like it – and Clint’s brain shies away from that too, from the horror of what he’s done. Phil squeezes, hard, presses their tangled fingers close over the pound of his heart. “Clint. I’m here.”

He understands now, he understands what’s happening: whatever piece of his sanity he’d been hanging onto is gone. He starts to shake like his joints are going to come loose, even though Phil’s holding him tight, so fucking tight. He doesn’t know what’s happening. He doesn’t understand, because Phil’s here. “I watched Loki kill you. He killed you, and he let me feel it. I watched you die. I’m sorry I wasn’t strong enough,” Clint whispers, choking on each fucking word.

Phil grips his hand, hard, and cups his face, hard, forcing Clint to look at him. “Listen. Listen to me, now. We’re in upstate New York. You’re alive, and I’m alive too.”

“I felt you die,” Clint sobs, gripping Phil’s wrist. “He made me feel it and I didn’t care, I was his and I didn’t care.”

“I’m here, I’m alive,” Phil says, words tumbling over each other like he’s trying to get it all out as fast as he can. Like if he doesn’t say them just right Clint would disappear like smoke. “You can make chocolate pancakes from scratch. You loved my Ole Miss sweatshirt into an early retirement. You accidently adopted a cat who eats hair.” Phil’s fingers tighten, squeezing his hand, and Clint can’t look away. He can’t look away. “I'm here, and so are you. Listen to me. Listen now. Fury intercepted a message coming into HQ about fifteen minutes before the explosion on the Hellicarrier. The WSC were sending their agents in to kill us. Do you understand me? They sent hitmen to kill Hill, Fury, and me. I don’t know if they knew about you, that you were coming, but the moment your squadron attacked, so did they. Afterward Fury couldn’t keep me on the Hellicarrier, not with the shape I was in – he called on a friend of his, brought me here to heal.” His chest is shaking under Clint’s fist, and oh, God, he can feel it, the shudder of his beautiful heart. “It wasn’t safe for you to know, and I’m going to spend the rest of my life regretting every fucking second of this grief you’ve lived with, but it wasn’t safe. Do you understand? It wasn’t safe. If they ever for a second suspected you knew I was still alive, they would have tortured you in a hole in the ground until you didn’t even know your own name.”

A part of him can’t accept what’s happening. He doesn’t understand, because Clint’s a goddamned hick with a sixth grade education, but even he can’t ignore what’s right in front of his eyes. It’s Phil, tired and too thin and up on one elbow, even though Clint can see what it costs him. It’s Phil, looking down at him, his expression breaking right in front of Clint’s eyes. Clint’s never seen Phil’s face contorted with grief, the way it makes him look so old, and so young.

He’s breathing really fast, and Clint realizes he’s going to have a panic attack, he’s going to fucking lose his shit right here and there’s nothing he can do. He quakes like his bones are going to break right open, like he’s going to crumble into dust.

A part of him can’t accept what’s happening, but a bigger part is screaming and jibbering like a little kid because Phil is solid under his hand, and no one could ever hope to recreate those eyes, those beautiful blue eyes like twin windows down into Phil’s soul. He doesn’t understand, he doesn’t know what’s happening, but Phil is here. Phil is here, and he can barely understand himself when he says, “Missed you babe,” but Phil grabs hold of him, hard, and kisses him, hard, and Clint realizes that Phil is crying, that he’s made the strongest man he’s ever known cry.

When Phil kisses him, it’s full of warmth and the sweetest pleasure of home.

Chapter Text

Phil never thought he’d be here again.

It was a little surreal, all things considered, when he came in to find the desk and the computer exactly as he’d left it. His files are in a neat, tidy pile, four-month-old paperwork that no longer matters in the grand scheme of things just sitting there, waiting for him to pick it up again.

His office is the same, but he isn’t. When he sits in his old chair, his muscles pull in different ways than before. It doesn’t hurt anymore, but there’s a tell-tale twinge he knows he’ll carry for the rest of his life. He wouldn’t go so far as to say that he likes it, but it reminds him he’s alive, that he made it through the worst months of his life relatively intact. That the people he loves are here, too.

“Smells musty,” Clint says, and when Phil glances over his shoulder at him, his knit-together heart gives a painful twinge. He’s still so pale and thin, like an echo of the man he was before all of this, but even so Phil can see how much easier he is in his own skin. In quiet moments, Phil thinks that Charles did more than heal the gouges Loki made in Clint’s mind.

“Everything went okay?”

“Thor and his asshole brother are officially off-planet,” Clint says, shifting his weight like he’s nervous, like he isn’t sure he’s welcome. That’s not going to work, that isn’t how this works.

When he offers his hand Clint pauses, almost imperceptible, almost as if he’s waiting to see if the hand will pull away, before coming around to sit on his desk. The echoes of grief are still there, and sometimes, when it’s just the two of them in bed, Clint touches him for hours, as if he’s trying to convince himself that Phil is alive. It breaks Phil’s goddamned ruined heart every single time, makes the rage he’s been just barely keeping in check bubble up to the surface.

He lets Clint touch him all he wants, and he touches back, because Clint’s beautiful face goes slack with simple pleasure and surprise each and every time. Phil doesn’t know what’s going to happen when Clint finally acknowledges the precipice he’s been standing on, but he does know he’s going to be here to see it, that he’s going to do everything in his power to help Clint come back. Baby steps.

So he touches, because he can, and kisses Clint, because he can, and takes his hand, fingers tangled tightly, because nothing and no one will ever tell him not to again.

“They wanted to give your office to someone else,” Clint says. He’s so beautiful that Phil almost can’t stand it, and he squeezes the fingers laced through his. “I didn’t let them.”

“You should have.” Phil looks up at him. “Paperwork went through.”

“Yeah?” The smile that breaks out on Clint’s face is stunning, lopsided though it is. Phil wants to trace it with his fingers, and then his mouth.

That Director Fury hadn’t been pleased was a vast understatement. That Nick understood, and supported, his decision made all the difference. “Not sure how I feel,” he says honestly. “I’ve been a soldier my entire life.”

“You gave enough,” Clint replies. “Besides, Stark says being a consultant is the best idea he ever had. You get to make your own hours, and live in a high-rise mansion with three arcades and a movie theater – it’s disgusting, seriously, Stark’s like fucking Dr. Evil, I’m surprised I haven’t come across a gold-encrusted poodle wandering around yet – and when Fury calls on you for your expert opinion you’ll get to charge through the nose. You think we’ll be able to take a vacation somewhere? Preferably warm? Sandy beach, hot babes in bikinis?”

“You want to take a vacation? You?” Phil can’t help it – he laughs. Clint looks so delighted by the sound that Phil can’t help tugging him down from his perch to kiss him. “You hate the water.”

“I hate the ocean, because there are creatures living in it. Large, ugly monsters from the deep depths of hell,” Clint corrects, and doesn’t help him stand, he just doesn’t, except that he kind of does.

Phil’s only got an inch on him, if that, but it’s just enough to look down into those piercing eyes of his, even now filled with so much kindness. He cups that so-loved face and gives in to the temptation to kiss him again.

“Ah-hem,” someone says from the doorway.

Stark’s got his sunglasses shoved up into his hair, and even with the ninja beard he’s wearing the biggest shit-eating grin Phil has ever seen. Steve’s gone pink over his shoulder, and even Natasha is smiling, a little twitch of her mouth that promises teasing, so much teasing, is coming their way.

“Alright, lovebirds, dinner,” Stark says, waving for them to follow. Phil glances back at his desk, where he spent so many pointless hours, where he spent the best years of his life. The desk brought him to this place, and he realizes that after all this time maybe there’s a home for him too, with these crazy people, with Clint.

“No shawarma,” Phil says. He doesn’t let go of Clint’s hand, not until they’re in the hall, and even then he lets their fingers brush with every step.

“Shawarma is delicious, I have no idea why you’re all so anti-shawarma,” Stark says, with a flick of his hand like the imperious little shit he can be. “Also, it wasn’t your turn Agent, clearly you misread the sign on the fridge, everyone knows this week it’s--”

“The Week of Bruce,” Bruce says, to a loud chorus of groans. He beams.

It’s Indian food, no surprise, and because Stark can’t do anything by halves he buys the place out for the night. The waitresses bring them platter after platter of bhatooras and rogan josh and malai kofta; Stark’s got the sleeves of his sweater pushed up, laughing, because Steve is not a fan of palak paneer but he’s trying to be polite about it. Natasha’s kicked her heels off, rolling her eyes when Tony starts acting too much like an asshole and bringing him to heel as only Natasha can. Bruce is in his element, chatting up one of the beautiful waitresses with a confidence he hasn’t had in all the time Phil’s known him.

Beside him, quiet and watchful, is Clint. His eyes catch Phil’s immediately, and he smiles, bright with mischief, because as smart as these people are, they haven’t caught on to the game of footsie being played under the table.