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Clint’s first memory is of the zoo.

He’s about two and a half, because Barney has a shiny balloon with a bright red 7 on it tied around his wrist and Clint’s perched on his father’s shoulders.  This is Before – before Daddy loses his job, before he starts drinking, before Mommy begins locking herself in the bedroom to sleep all day.  Barney remembers Before better than Clint does, since by age four Clint is intimately familiar with the bite of his father’s belt.  The rest of his childhood memories are a patchwork of nightmares.

Barney hangs over the railing of the tiger enclosure, wide-eyed and open-mouthed.  Clint’s less interested in the cubs gamboling about than he is in Barney’s balloon,  which bobs wildly in the wind, and he bats at it every time it gets within arm’s reach.  “Daddy,” he says, “wanna balloon.”

“We have balloons at home,” Daddy says, shifting Clint’s weight and backing up to stand in the shade on the opposite side of the path.

Clint pouts.  Those balloons are different, they don’t float like Barney’s birthday balloon does.  “Birds?”

“After lunch.”  Daddy raises his voice to be heard over the crowd and calls, “Barney, quit swinging the camera around!”

“Wanna see birds,” Clint says, but doesn’t push it because you don’t argue with Daddy.  He puts his cheek down on the top of his father’s head.  Two exhibits over, there’s a gap in the trees, and he notices something big and golden and fluffy basking in the sun.  “Lion, Daddy.”

Daddy doesn’t look.  “We already saw the lions, buddy.”

“‘Nother lion.”  The first one didn’t have a mane.  “Look.”

“We can’t see the lions from here.” Daddy’s getting That Voice.  Clint tucks his thumb into his mouth, his father’s military-regulation buzzcut stinging his cheek, and watches the lion.  He can see it just fine.

Mommy comes back, rooting through her bag, followed by Barney, who’s grinning and carrying Daddy’s camera.  He reaches up, snags the bottom of his balloon, and bops Clint’s leg with it.  Clint grabs it and pulls.  “Hey!”  Barney yanks the string, Clint’s hands squeal across the foil, and the balloon slips out of his grasp. 

“I swear to god, Barney, I’m going to take that thing away from you,” Mommy says, putting her sunglasses on.  “Where are we going now?”

“Birds,” Clint says.

Barney snorts.  “You are a bird,” he tells Clint.  “Soon you’re gonna sprout feathers and then you’ll be a circus freak.”

Barney,” Mommy sighs.

“You hatched from an egg!  The shell’s in the attic!” Barney yells over his shoulder, already racing towards the next exhibit.

“Here.” Daddy lifts Clint off his shoulders and hands him to Mommy, who balances him on her hip.  “I can’t feel my neck and he needs his diaper changed.”

You could’ve done that,” Mommy says pointedly, then looks over her shoulder and adds, “Go make sure he doesn’t get lost.”

“Wanna balloon,” Clint mumbles, plucking at a shiny button on her blouse as she carries him towards a bathroom.

“We’ll get you a balloon before we leave,” Mommy promises.

“Wanna bird too.”

His parents don’t let him take a bird home, but he does get a round purple balloon from the smiling man at the stand – and, when they stumble upon an air-conditioned gift shop at the end of the day, he spots a small plush hawk on a shelf lined with stuffed animals.  Barney lifts him up so he can reach it and he doesn’t let go once it’s in his hands.  “My bird,” Clint says when Daddy asks what he wants.

“You and your goddamn birds,” Daddy mutters, but he tears off the tag and hands it to the girl at the register.

Clint gets to ride out to the car on Daddy’s shoulders again, balloon under one arm, hawk under the other.  Mommy buckles him into his carseat and asks, “Did you have fun?”

“Gotta bird,” Clint says happily.  It’s not a real bird, but it’s soft and cuddly and its little button eyes gleam.  He doesn’t get brand new toys very often.  This is the best day ever.  He sucks his thumb back into his mouth, presses the hawk against his cheek,  and falls asleep to the breeze from the open window ruffling his hair and Barney complaining about having to write a book report on his birthday. 

Clint’s first memory is also his happiest. 


 

“Ow – ow – ow – ow!  Jesus Christ, is that a knitting needle or something?!”

The nurse heaves an exasperated sigh and glares at him through her apricot-colored bangs.  One of her eyes is blue and the other is brown, which is kind of cool, but also gives Clint the unsettling sensation of being watched by two different people from the same face.  “Agent Barton,” she says, all traces of bedside-manner-patience gone from her tone, “I told you this would not be painless and you still refused the anesthetic.  You could either allow me to administer one, or kindly shut up and stop moving so I don’t stitch your eyeball by mistake.”

Before Clint can devise a witty retort, the door to his little medbay bunk swishes open and he leans around her to see who’s on their way inside.  “Perfect timing,” he says.  “She’s threatening to violate her Hippocratic Oath.”

“And I’m sure you are, as always, completely blameless.”  Coulson taps the screen of his tablet a few times and his eyebrows almost reach his hairline, which is quite a feat considering where his hairline is nowadays.  “Would you like to tell me exactly how you sustained a head injury by way of ‘a big creepy son-of-a-bitch with a face like a mango stone’?" 

“I’d love to, sir,” Clint tells him, “but I don’t remember.”

Coulson’s eyes trace the semi-stitched gash on Clint’s forehead, the surrounding bruise, the blood drying on his Kevlar vest.  “Excuse me,” the nurse says irritably, “but if you don’t mind –”

“I’m sorry.” Coulson smiles apologetically and sinks into the chair next to the bed, laying his tablet across his knees.  “Carry on, please.”

Ignoring the sting of the needle piercing his skin again and again, Clint watches Coulson skim the rest of his partially-completed mission report and minimize the window.  He had tried to get the whole thing done under a pile of heated blankets on the jet before the retrograde amnesia kicked in, but he’d only gotten halfway through the required fields when nausea got the better of him, and then he spent the rest of the ride puking in the hazardous waste bin.  “I think he had a crowbar,” Clint finally says, moving as little as possible so he doesn’t get a very close look at the business end of that needle.

“How cliché.” Coulson’s lips suddenly press together, and then he touches his hand to the left side of his chest, palpating the exit wound of an extraterrestrial scepter plunged into his back.  Clint’s stomach squeezes so tight that if there was anything left in it, he would throw up.

It’s been four months and Coulson isn’t going to die.  He just has to keep telling himself that.

The nurse applies a bandage over the neat line of sutures, steps back, and removes her gloves.  Clint half-listens to her instructions – he’s had stitches loads of times already, the information is nothing that’s not already seared into his brain – and waves vaguely when she heads for the door.  She does not wave back.  “Rude,” he mumbles once she’s gone.

“I think you got on her nerves a bit,” Coulson says.

“I blame the concussion.  My head is killing me.”

“Barton, pretty soon there isn’t going to be anybody left on the medical staff who you haven’t pissed off.”

“They’re always hiring fresh meat.”  The turnover rate for SHIELD doctors is astronomical.  Clint’s not the only agent who doesn’t like being poked and prodded.  “Do I have to stay here?”

Coulson brings up Clint’s medical file on the tablet and taps today’s date.  “They want to hold you overnight to monitor the concussion,” he reads off.  Clint groans out loud, but he doesn’t manage to start complaining about the terrifying night orderly who has a raging fetish for rectal thermometry before Coulson continues, “If, however, you’re willing to let someone else keep an eye on you, I’m sure Nurse Kathy would be all too happy to sign your release papers.”

“Are you offering?” Clint asks, leaning back and draping an arm over his eyes to block out the light.

“Fury and I are leaving in two hours, and we’re both taking tomorrow off.  You’re going to be placed on mandatory medical leave for a few days whether you like it or not.  So if you’d like to come with…” Coulson trails off.  His proposal hangs in the air like a cloud.

This is the third time since the battle with the Chitauri that he’s suggested Clint come home with them.  The first had been two and a half months ago, and Coulson had still been off-duty, skin paper-thin and translucent and stretched over his bones like it was too small to cover his skeleton.  Clint refused immediately and told him to get some actual sleep that wasn’t interrupted by someone coming in to take his blood pressure every half-hour.  The second, a month later, Clint had refused again because he was fairly sure Coulson and Fury were going to spend the entire weekend having the sex Coulson had just been cleared for.  And even Fury asked, just two weeks ago.  Clint had been horribly tempted but still said no, and he isn’t even sure why.  He’s desperately in need of some downtime, too.  The thing is, his version of ‘downtime’ isn’t exactly the beer-and-chips-and-crappy-movies affair most people probably envision it as.

He swallows, asks, “Can you turn out the lights?” to buy himself another minute.

He oughtto say no.  He always has this battle with himself.  No, because he shouldn’t intrude on the occasional day alone Fury and Coulson manage to catch.  No, because there are a thousand considerably more adult ways to decompress and separate himself from his problems for a while and he needs to learn a couple of them.  No, because he’s never quite gotten rid of the lingering feeling that there’s something wrong with him.

He’s prepared another rejection and is opening his mouth to voice it and then Coulson – who got up and turned off the light while Clint was thinking – reaches out, gently brushes his hand over Clint’s hair, and smashes his tenuous resolve like it’s made of glass.

I can’t, he thinks, but he’s so tired.  His head throbs nauseatingly in time with his heartbeat.  He’s just spent four days in a sniper nest, barely sheltered from the constant snow and sleet, and then he was hit in the head with a crowbar and he can’t for the life of him connect the two events together.  There’s a whisper of wantitneeditjustholdmeforawhilepleasepleaseplease running beneath his skin.  He hasn’t gotten what Coulson’s offering him in over six months.

“Okay,” Clint breathes.

“All right.” Coulson doesn’t stroke his hair again, because they don’t do that sort of thing outside of the safe little bubble that is Coulson and Fury’s house, but he sounds just relieved enough to make Clint wonder if he was actually worried about him. “I’ll see about getting you out of here.  Wheels up in two hours.”

“Yes, sir,” Clint says automatically, pulling the heavy blanket up under his chin.  He’d been borderline hypothermic when he was admitted, and it was a testament to the quality of SHIELD’s cold-weather gear that he hadn’t needed frostbite treatment.  

Coulson pats his shoulder and leaves with a reminder of “Two hours, Barton, and no longer – you know what Fury’s like when he’s stuck in rush hour traffic.”  Clint watches him go, wondering what other people think when they overhear comments like that.  The fact that Coulson and Fury are in a long-term relationship is basically an open secret, and there are a lot of rumors flying around trying to pinpoint Clint’s involvement, but none of them are even close to the truth.  Clint subtly encourages a few of the more plausible ones.  Nobody needs to know exactly what they give him.

The thought I want my blanket meanders across his mind.  He hushes it for now, folds his arms behind his head, and waits for someone to come by and tell him he can leave.


There’s something depressing about eating Cheerios right out of the box while a spiky-haired cook on television puts the finishing touches on a beautifully-arranged plate of food.  He’s making shrimp.  Clint wants shrimp.  They don’t keep a lot of perishables in the house, though, since more often than not there isn’t anyone around to eat them, so dry cereal it is.  He sticks a Cheerio into his mouth as the twenty minutes runs out and the chefs step back to wait for their appetizers to be judged.  The blonde woman, he thinks, is going to get kicked off first.  Her shrimp is raw.

The ride from the airport to the little house on Long Island’s North Shore was rather less smooth than they’d all been hoping for – traffic on the expressway had been bumper-to-bumper and Clint picked up a few interesting new swear words, courtesy of Fury.  The Director had still been nursing a bad mood when they finally got home around nine, but before he went upstairs to take a shower, he ruffled Clint’s hair in the way Clint associated with Nick instead of his boss.  Phil had gone upstairs as well, face pallid and lined with pain.  Not wanting to get in anyone’s way, for once, Clint changed into pajama pants and Nick’s old Army hoodie and retreated to the couch in the living room to watch Chopped.

Just as he predicted, the blonde gets Chopped first.  Clint folds his legs beneath him to warm up his bare feet and pulls his blanket into his lap, running his fingers along the edge.  When they’d first started doing this several years ago, Nick had asked him if he wanted a blanket, and once Clint got over his embarrassment, he’d described the one he’d had as a kid.  Soft, white fabric printed with grey elephants, trimmed in a silky red material.  A couple of weeks later, Phil unceremoniously handed him that exact blanket, neatly folded and brand new.  Clint had thought there would be a ridiculous story behind it – he’d used years of seeking rare Captain America memorabilia to find someone selling an unused blanket on an obscure, un-Googleable website in the depths of the internet, perhaps – but instead Phil admitted that he’d bought it when his nephew was born, put it in the closet for safekeeping, and promptly forgot about it for the next thirteen years.  It being the same one Clint used to own ended up being merely a coincidence.  Still, he treasures it, even now that this has been going on for a while and he doesn’t practically fall apart at the notion that they care about him enough to give him a blanket.  The blanket was how it started and it’s always the first thing he goes for.  Getting into the right mindset for this (and occasionally he thinks this needs a name, but there’s no single word for it) is sometimes difficult, so he begins slowly.  Just the blanket.  No big deal.

Clint’s tossing another handful of Cheerios into his mouth when an arm comes out of nowhere and takes the box from him.  “Hey!” he protests, turning around in time to see Nick vanish into the kitchen.  “I was eating those!”

“First of all, don’t talk with your mouth full,” Nick says.  A cabinet door slams.  “And second, what’ve I told you about eating out of the box?”

“Not to.” Deprived of his Cheerios, Clint bundles his blanket up and rests his chin on top of it.  Nick and Phil never seem to have any trouble falling into their roles here – though he supposes it’s not really all that different for them, since Phil has a bunch of nieces and nephews and Nick is practically SHIELD’s scary one-eyed Daddy anyway.

Phil comes back downstairs, still slightly paler than usual but looking considerably less fragile.  He pauses when he spots Clint.  “You’re supposed to be staying warm,” he says, picking up the quilt on the back of the armchair and draping it over Clint’s shoulders.  He seats himself on the couch and raises an eyebrow at the television.  “You’re watching Chopped again?”

“I like Chopped.”

“Every time you watch it, you start yelling insults at the chefs.”

“That’s because they’re idiots!” Clint gestures to the man on the screen.  “Look, that guy’s putting cheese on his sea bass.  That’s disgusting.  Who the hell puts cheese on fish?”

Nick’s return is heralded by a bowl of Cheerios landing on the coffee table in front of Clint.  Clint scowls at it for a moment, because he was doing just fine without civilized tools like bowls and spoons, but he’s hungry enough to take it.  Nick plops down on Clint’s other side with his own cereal and glances over at Phil.  “Want any?”

Phil shakes his head.  “I grabbed something from the mess before I got on the jet.”

“Bet that ‘something’ was donuts,” Clint mumbles into his bowl.  Phil gives him that shut up, Barton look and he smiles innocently.  “I’ll make some actual food for dinner tomorrow.”  He can cook better than the two of them put together, thanks to a habit of watching Food Network when he’s bored and the fact that he spent most of his two years in the military on KP duty for being an insubordinate little shit.  Plus, if he does the cooking while he’s here, he feels less guilty for burdening them with his care.  They’ve both told him several times that he doesn’t need to, but he does anyway so he can contribute somehow.  He spoons up some more Cheerios.  Nick and Phil have started talking shop, because they’re both terminally incapable of not bringing their work home, and it sounds like something way above his clearance level, so he burrows into the quilt and lets the words wash over him like water.

“ – depending on how soon the request goes through,” Phil says, then grimaces, his hand rising to rub at his chest again.  Clint looks away quickly, appetite diminishing.  He’s abruptly seized with the desire to crawl into Phil’s lap, to cling to him until he can silence the part of his brain that invents his nightmares, but it’s already kind of his fault that Phil died for six minutes and he won’t be able to forgive himself if he does any further damage.  Instead, he sets his bowl on the coffee table, lays down, and puts his head in Nick’s lap.  The worst thing he did to Nick was leave him with a bruise the size of a volleyball that didn’t fade for three weeks.  Nick cards his fingers through his hair and Clint tucks his blanket under his cheek, slipping his thumb into his mouth.

The hardest part of this is not thinking about it too much.  He can’t let himself wonder how silly he’d look to an outsider, or what anyone else would think of him if they knew.  Natasha might know, because she figures everything out sooner or later, but she and Clint have a we-don’t-judge-each-other clause in their splendid ninja bromance.  If he doesn’t bring it up, she won’t either.

Nick keeps stroking his hair, falling into a mindless rhythm, and Clint still finds sucking his thumb soothing even though he’s in his thirties, and he’s jetlagged.  So when Phil calls his name, he sounds very far away, and it takes Nick shaking his shoulder before Clint can claw his way back up into consciousness.  “Are you done with this?” Phil asks, holding up Clint’s half-empty bowl.

“Mm-hm.”

“Go brush your teeth, then.”

Clint takes his thumb from his mouth.  “I’ll do it when I go to bed.”

“Clint,” Nick says.  His brooking-no-arguments tone reminds Clint of his father, except when he hears it out of Nick, he doesn’t think that maybe he should make himself extremely scarce for the rest of the day.  He doesn’t even briefly entertain the possibility of having to run across the dead grass in the backyard and make it over the fence before his father’s wrath catches up to him.  He just sighs, throws the quilt off, and sulks upstairs to the bathroom.

Clint likes Phil and Nick’s house.  It’s small, but comfortable and well-kept, and the windows in the back of the house face the Long Island Sound.  The spare bedroom is pretty much all his at this point (except for the couple of storage boxes in the closet, which he’s been afraid to touch ever since Nick implied that one of them might contain hand-drawn Captain America porn) and that means more to him than he thinks they realize.  He doesn’t have to share his bed or even the room with anyone.  After orphanages and military barracks and impersonal bunks on the Helicarrier and even a jail cell once, having his own bedroom in an actual house is something out of a dream.  Actually, this whole thing is what he imagined his childhood was supposed to be like, except it isn’t just as close as he’ll ever get, it’s better.

When he goes back downstairs, teeth freshly brushed, and hops up on the back of the couch to perch there like a large grey-and-plaid bird, he gets an eyeful of the real reason why Nick and Phil kicked him out of the room.  They’re all over each other like a pair of horny teenagers.  What’s left of Clint’s innocence withers like a dying flower.  “Okay, ew,” he says, “this is like watching my parents make out.”

Nick mutters something that almost certainly contains the word ‘fuck’.  Phil props himself up on his elbows and wryly says, “We practically are your parents.”

Clint wrinkles his nose.  “That’s even worse.  Give me my blanket so you don’t get any fluids on it.”

“What do you say?” Phil prompts, because he’s big on manners.

“Please?” Clint says sweetly.

Now that Nick’s not pinning him to the cushions and violating his tonsils, Phil straightens up and tugs Clint’s blanket out from beneath his legs.  Clint takes it from him, presses the corner against his lips.  “Get your ass down here before you fall off and crack your head open,” Nick says.  Rather than point out how extraordinarily unlikely that is, Clint slides down, wedges himself between them, and pops his thumb back into his mouth.   He can be the world’s most adorable cockblock when he wants to.

“Isn’t it past your bedtime?” Phil asks, glancing at the clock on the mantle.

“It’s only eleven-fifteen,” Clint protests.

“And you’re supposed to be in bed at eleven.” Phil stands up and tugs his shirt down.  “Let’s go.”

“I’m not tired,” Clint whines, managing to stretch the word out to about eleven syllables, but Phil looks unimpressed and Nick is obviously not going to be any help, so he heaves himself off the couch and follows Phil up to the spare bedroom.  Nobody uses it when he’s not around, so nothing’s changed since he was last here – his crayons are on the desk, his tub of Legos is in the corner (and he wishes his parents had been able to afford Legos when he was a kid, because they are awesome).  Most importantly, his little stuffed hawk is sitting on the pillow.  It’s the only thing he’s kept from his childhood because it’s the only reminder of his childhood that he’s willing to have around.  He snatches up the hawk as he crawls into bed, clutching it and his blanket to his chest.

Phil turns on the nightlight, tucks him in, and sits on the edge of the mattress.  “Does your head still hurt?”

“Not much.” Clint yawns.  “I’ve had worse headaches.”

“Your vision normal?”

“Yeah.”

“What year is it?”

“1872.”

“Smartass,” Phil says, stroking Clint’s cheek with his thumb.  He frowns.  “You’re a little warm.  You feel okay?”

“I’m fine.” He’s exhausted, despite what he told Phil a few minutes ago, but he just spent half a week in Siberia, getting minimal rest while waiting for the target.  Any human being would be exhausted.  And maybe he hasn’t been sleeping too much lately, because when he does, he tends to wake up in a panic with fingernail marks on his chest.

“All right.” Phil leans down and presses his lips to Clint’s forehead.  “Good night.”

“Night.” Clint yawns, again, despite attempting to suppress it.

Phil smiles and runs his hand over Clint’s hair.  “Are you going to stay awake long enough for Nick to read to you?”

“Yes,” Clint insists, quickly adding, “don’t tell him not to come in!” If Nick doesn’t read to him before he falls asleep, there’s going to be hell to pay.

“Okay, okay,” Phil says, but when he leaves the room, Clint clearly hears him murmur, “Don’t keep him up too long, he’s got a bit of a fever,” to Nick.

“I’m not sick,” Clint says stubbornly when Nick comes in.

“Did I ask?” Nick sits in the spot Phil just vacated and picks up the book on the nightstand, flipping through the pages until he reaches the bookmark.  Clint rolls onto his side, draws his knees up to his chest.  “‘The place where they had met the Fauns was, of course, Dancing Lawn itself, and here Caspian and his friends remained till the night of the great Council.  To sleep under the stars, to drink nothing but well water and to live chiefly on nuts and wild fruit, was a strange experience for Caspian after his bed with silken sheets in a tapestried chamber at the castle, with meals laid out on gold and silver dishes in the anteroom, and attendants ready at his call…’”


The sound of a stair creaking jerks Clint out of a sound sleep in the middle of the night, and he really wishes it hadn’t when he swallows and his throat catches fire.

Great.  Just what he needs.  He untangles himself from his blanket, which has metamorphosed into a noose overnight.  Everything hurts – literally, everything, even his hair – and he’s freezing his ass off.  Wishing he’d brought the quilt from the living room up, he snuggles deeper into the covers, sneezes, sniffles.  His hawk has disappeared.  It’s not on the floor when he peers over the side of the mattress, so he gropes around under the blankets, but his hand comes up empty – and wet.

That’s about the point when he realizes his pajama pants are warm and damp and his bladder is empty.

Clint’s on his feet so fast that his head spins.  Dizzy from a mixture of fever and concussion, he nevertheless starts throwing back the covers.  Most have been spared and he flings those over the footboard, but the bottommost one isn’t so lucky.  It goes into a pile on the floor.  The sheet itself is soaked through in a wide circle and god, he can’t believe he fucking wet the bed.  He hasn’t had that problem since he was twelve.  “Shit,” he hisses, tossing the pillows onto the desk chair.  He can probably clean this up without anyone knowing if he’s quiet enough.  His hawk turns up unharmed beneath a pillow, and he’s just placing it and his blanket on the nightstand for safekeeping when someone knocks on the door.  The blood in his veins turns to ice.

Another soft knock, and then – “Clint?” It’s Phil.  Clint stares at the door in sheer, paralyzing horror and doesn’t reply.  “Are you okay?”

Clint shakes his head, forcing his faltering brain to restart.  “I’m fine,” he says.  His voice scrapes out of his sore throat.

“I’m coming in, all right?”

No, Clint thinks.  If there was time, he would climb back into bed, cover up all the evidence, and pretend nothing was wrong until Phil went away.  He got good at that while he was in the orphanage.  But Phil’s already opening the door, and the first thing he’ll notice when he comes in is the way Clint’s pants are clinging to his legs and the dark stain on the sheet and he’s going to flip out.

The first thing he notices about Phil, though, is that he’s wearing the shirt Nick usually sleeps in.  It’s backwards and Clint honestly doesn’t want to think about why that is.

Phil’s gaze flickers from Clint to the wet blanket on the floor to the bed.  Clint’s stomach clenches and he tries, desperately, to come up with something offhand to say – something to convince Phil that it’s no big deal, he can go back to bed and let Clint handle this – but when he opens his mouth, what comes out is “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to, I’m sorry –”

“Clint –” Phil sets his glass of water on top of the dresser and crosses the room quickly.  “What have we said about apologizing for things you can’t help?”

“Don’t,” Clint mumbles, staring at the floor.  He feels queasy and he’s not sure if sickness or shame is causing it.

“Hey.  Look at me.” Hands cup the sides of his face, gently tilt his head up.  Phil looks concerned.  No anger, no disgust is present in his expression.  “Breathe.  It’s okay, it happens.  I know you didn’t mean to.  Seriously, I need you to breathe.”  There’s genuine alarm edging his tone now, and with good reason.  Clint’s had breakdowns before, when they’ve hit unexpected roadblocks and unintentionally triggered him – he’s cried, he’s had panic attacks, he had a full-blown dissociative episode once.  He sucks in a stuttering breath, sating his aching lungs, exhales slowly, and tries to keep up a reasonable rhythm.  Phil nods.  “Good.  It’s okay.  Tell me you know that.”

“I know,” Clint says, swallowing painfully.  “You’re not mad?”

“I’m not mad,” Phil confirms.  He drops one hand and presses the other to Clint’s forehead, avoiding the sutures.  “You’re burning up.  Nick?”

“Putting clothes on,” Nick calls from the other room.

“Sorry,” Clint says quietly.  “I didn’t want to wake you up.”

“I was already awake, and Nick woke up when I got up to go downstairs.  It wasn’t your fault.” Phil grabs the blanket on the floor, drops it on the bed, and leans over to start stripping the mattress.  Clint doesn’t miss the way he winces when he stretches too far.

Nick comes padding in a moment later, rubbing a hand over his head.  “What – oh.”  He glances at the bed and beckons Clint over.  “Come on, let’s get you cleaned up.”

Clint hesitates, takes his hawk off the nightstand, then walks to Nick, who winds an arm around his shoulders and leads him out.  “I’m tired,” Clint murmurs, leaning into him.

“I know.” Nick turns on the bathroom light and rummages through the medicine cabinet.  After popping a thermometer into Clint’s mouth (presumably to stall any objections, because he’s sneaky like that), he starts peeling off Clint’s pajamas.

Clint drifts for a little while, hazy with fever.  He thinks about birds and balloons and barely notices Nick wiping him down with a damp washcloth, which might be awkward if Nick hadn’t actually bathed him before.  Eventually, he plucks the thermometer from Clint’s mouth and glares at the little numbers on the display.  “I’ll get something for you to wear,” he says, tossing it into the sink.  Clint picks it up as soon as he’s gone – 103.2 degrees Fahrenheit.  No wonder he’s cold… although Nick leaving him here with nothing but a towel to cuddle into isn’t exactly helping.  He didn’t even get to keep the hoodie, since the bottom was wet.

When Nick returns, he’s carrying a pair of sweatpants and a long-sleeved shirt.  There are no underwear to be seen and that alerts Clint to what Nick is planning.  “No.”

Nick raises his eyebrow.  “What?” he says, opening the cabinet under the sink.

“I don’t want to wear a diaper.”

“Well, you don’t call the shots, kid.” Nick straightens up and gives Clint the Look – the one that says if you aren’t okay with this, you know how to stop it, because he and Phil had insisted on coming up with a safeword despite the fact that this is one-hundred-percent nonsexual.  They’d justified it by pointing out that if he had a safeword, Clint could gripe and protest and get on their nerves all he wanted and they would know whatever they were doing wasn’t making him legitimately uneasy.  He’s never used it.  He doesn’t plan to now, either, he’s just in the mood to whine.  “You’ve already had one accident and I don’t have another mattress cover.  Deal with it.”

A lot of the things Clint’s still a little ashamed of wanting are understandable.  He can explain the blanket, the thumbsucking, the desire to reclaim some of the childhood he feels he was cheated out of.  He can’t explain the diapers.  Once in a while he brainstorms some fluff about comfort and security, but it never accurately describes why he covets them.  His best guess is that they take him as far back as he’s willing to go.  Neither Nick nor Phil have ever requested any clarification, though – they were already pretty well established in a routine when he finally admitted that he wanted diapers, and he got them, no questions asked.

Clint lets Nick diaper and dress him without another word, focusing on not falling over.  He’s swaying on his feet when Nick hands him a cup of water and some Motrin.  “Take those,” Nick instructs, a bit unnecessarily since Clint already has the pills in his mouth.  “All right, back to bed.”

His bed has been remade with fresh sheets and Phil is seated on it.  Clint tells himself that he was just waiting for them, that he does not look winded.  “Better?” Phil asks as Clint sleepily tips himself onto the mattress.

“Mmm,” Clint tells the pillow, tucking his hawk beneath his chin.  He hasn’t let go of it since he picked it up.  He’s still cold, but now he’s laying down and dry and too used to the extra padding of the diaper to be bothered by it. 

Phil drapes the covers over him again and rests his hand on Clint’s back.  “If you’re good,” he says quietly, “we’re going to go to bed.  Just yell if you need us, okay?”

“Okay,” Clint murmurs.

He thinks it’s okay until they reach the door, and then panic grips him by the throat.  “Don’t!” he says.  They both stop short and turn around.  “Don’t.  Don’t go.”

Nick and Phil glance at each other.  “I’ve got this,” Nick says.  Phil nods and gives Clint one last look before vanishing.  Nick makes his way back in, sits down, and Clint promptly worms around him until he can rest his head on his thigh.  “You want me to read some more?”

“Yes,” Clint says, sticking his thumb into his mouth.  He can’t breathe through his nose, meaning he can’t close his lips and will probably drool all over the place, but his dignity’s already sleeping with the fishes.  Might as well sink it even deeper.  Nick opens Prince Caspian again and picks up where they left off.

Clint kind of wants Phil.  He wants him here so he knows he’s alive.  But instead of asking for him, he twists his free hand into his blanket, closes his eyes, and allows Nick’s low voice to lull him back to sleep.


According to the clock on the dresser, it’s a little after eight a.m. when Clint gives up on getting any more rest.  He’d fallen asleep halfway through chapter nine and the dreams that followed were better classified as nightmares, even if they weren’t as bad as his usual fare.  Waking up screaming through a sore throat would not have been a pleasant experience.  Still, he feels like he hasn’t slept at all.  He rolls off the bed, sets his hawk on the pillow, and stumbles towards the stairs. 

His sweatpants belong to Nick and they swallow his feet, so he trips twice on the way down and again when he reaches the kitchen.  Then he trips over his blanket, which is dragging on the floor, at which point Nick says, “Sit down before you break your neck."

So Clint sits in his lap.  He was asking for it.

Nick, to his credit, just wraps an arm around him and keeps eating like his personal bubble isn’t being breached.  Phil wanders over and Clint watches foggily as he feels Clint’s forehead, brow furrowed.  “I’m going to get you some more Motrin.  Are you still dry?”

“Yeah,” Clint mumbles, burying his face in Nick’s shoulder. 

He doesn’t move until Phil comes back and coaxes another two chalky pills into him.  “Do you want breakfast?” Phil asks, moving out of sight.  Clint hears a spoon clink against a pot.  “There’s oatmeal.”

“Not hungry.”

“You need to eat something,” Nick says.

“I don’t wanna.”

“Tough.”

And here Clint had thought Nick was the nice parent, because Phil was the one who was all into being polite and not letting Clint stay up long enough for anything good to come on television.  Obviously, he’s been cruelly misled.  He reluctantly takes the bowl Phil hands him and makes a face at the pale sludge within.  He actually likes oatmeal, though, and both Nick and Phil know it, so he can’t get away with the this-is-disgusting defense.

There’s also honey stirred into it, he discovers when he puts a spoonful in his mouth, and he decides maybe he can eat a little bit.

He manages about half of the bowl before his stomach goes ‘nope’ and he wisely stops, setting it down on the table and putting his head on Nick’s shoulder.  “Eat,” Nick says, turning the page of the newspaper.

“Nick, leave it,” Phil says softly.  He sets his tablet aside and gets up, coming around the table to stroke Clint’s hair.  “Do you feel nauseous?”

“No,” Clint murmurs.  “I’m just not hungry.”

Phil nods.  “Maybe later.”  He takes the bowl away, much to Clint’s relief.  Clint officially reassigns him to the ‘nice parent’ role.  Nick is mean, comfortable lap or no comfortable lap.

“I can’t feel my legs,” Nick says, fifteen minutes later.

Good.”

“Brat.  Go watch television or something.” 

Clint’s about to say he’ll keep his butt planted on Nick’s thighs for as long as he pleases when he sees Phil start rubbing his chest again, and then he makes a beeline for the living room.  He wishes Phil would stop, but it’s not like he can say hey, can you quit poking at that scar on your chest where Loki ran you through after I implemented that whole fucked-up plan to storm the Helicarrier and freed him from the Hulkquarium?  It’s just that I kind of freak out a little every time you do.  We cool?

He curls up on the couch and strokes the corner of his blanket against his cheek until the panic ebbs.

Eventually, Clint digs the remote from between the cushions and channel surfs until he lands on the Twilight movie.  He’s never seen it, but Tony has some very strong opinions regarding the vampire lore and apparently it traumatized Steve, so it must be worth watching.

Rolling his eyes this hard, he finds, is pretty painful with the concussion.  He occasionally shouts abuse at the screen until Phil tells him to be quiet because Nick’s on the phone, and then he’s reduced to whispering Christ, girl, you are stupider than a drunk lemming.  This Bella chick may actually disprove the theory of natural selection.  He feels better.  Not great, since his throat’s still killing him and the inside of his skull is being used as a punching bag by a very angry leprechaun, but better.  Twilight eats up a few hours, and then the sequel film comes on because somehow this ridiculous plotline extends for four entire books, and by the time that ends, it’s twelve-thirty.  He sits up and rests his chin on the back of the couch.  “Are we having lunch?”

“There’s soup,” Nick calls from the kitchen.  They’ve been in there for four solid hours, only leaving to get dressed, leading Clint to believe they’re using the table as some kind of mobile command unit again.  Workaholics, the both of them.

“It’s not chicken noodle, right?”  There was a period of about three weeks when all he and Barney had to eat was cold canned chicken noodle soup, since his brother had been nicking it from a local food pantry.  Clint can’t even stand the smell anymore without gagging.

“Tomato.”

“I want some.”

“Give us a minute,” Phil says.  Clint sighs and tugs at a loose thread on the frayed edge of his blanket.  At least when Phil says ‘a minute’, he means exactly that, unlike Nick, whose version of ‘a minute’ can last anywhere from fifteen seconds to three weeks.

They both come into the living room for lunch, to his surprise, and Clint is handed a bowl of soup and some water before Phil sits on one side and Nick on the other.  That’s something they do a lot, sandwiching Clint between them.  He likes it.  It makes him feel wanted.  “Be careful, it’s hot,” Phil says as Clint sticks his spoon into the bowl.

Really?  Now why would soup be hot?”

“You’re being snide.  I suppose you’re feeling better.”

The soup is actually really good, and maybe Clint’s a little loud about slurping it off his spoon, but Phil doesn’t scold him for once.  He gets away with a lot when he’s sick.  Soon his spoon is scraping the bottom of the bowl and he’s draining the last of his water.  “Want any more?” Nick asks.

Clint shakes his head and yawns, rubbing his eyes.  “No… I’m tired.”

“It’s about time for you to take a nap, anyway.” Phil takes his empty bowl and stacks it atop his own.

“Yeah, sure,” Clint says, gathering his blanket and standing up.  “You just want me to go upstairs so you can be alone and rip each others’ clothes off.  You need adult supervision.”

“Let us know if you see any adults.”

Clint pokes his tongue out at the back of Phil’s head (he’s a fully-functioning adult when he wants to be, thank you very much) and goes upstairs, only stopping and turning around when something occurs to him.  “If I hear any moaning,” he says, “I’m coming down there with a squirt bottle.”

“Why didn’t we adopt your sister’s yappy Pomeranian instead?” he hears Nick ask Phil.

“It’s not housebroken.”

“Neither is he.”

“That is cold,” Clint says.  Shaking his head, he closes himself in his room.  Usually he whines when they want him to sleep during the day, and then they think he’s cranky and insist he rest for a while, but right now his head is aching again and his bed is giving off some serious snuggle vibes.  He crawls in, buries himself in blankets.  Little kids don’t know how good they have it.  Some days, he’d give damn near anything to catch a nap midday.

He doesn’t sleep well or for very long, and by the time Phil calls, “Clint?” up the stairs, he’s been lying on his bed listlessly for almost an hour, watching the raindrops race down the window.  “It’s three o’clock.  You need to get up or you won’t be able to sleep tonight.”

“All right.” Clint occasionally thinks Phil has children hidden away somewhere.  He is way too good at being parental for a guy who’s never reproduced.  Yawning, Clint drags himself out of bed, collects his blanket, his crayons, and a pad of paper, and pads into the hall.  His bladder is starting to feel unpleasantly heavy.  He glances at the bathroom – he can just take the diaper off, if he wants, but he’s already got it on, so….

He goes downstairs instead.  Nick and Phil are sitting shoulder-to-shoulder on the couch, Phil holding a book, Nick watching the news with that blank, deadpan, I-cannot-with-your-fuckery expression he generally reserves for the World Security Council and Tony Stark.  Clint sits down at their feet, sets the paper on the coffee table, and opens his crayons.  He shrugs when Phil asks him how his nap was.  Could’ve been better, could’ve been worse.  Nowadays, he counts any sleep that doesn’t end in screaming or vomiting as ‘okay’.

At first, he just scribbles – streaks of green and gold and black – but eventually they merge into a man with dark hair and a horned helmet and eyes like chips of ice.  Even a crappy crayon doodle of Loki is enough to make his stomach turn.  Clint frowns at it for a minute, then takes up the black crayon again and starts drawing a tall, faceless figure in a suit.

“Clint,” Phil says, while Clint’s wrapping some tentacles around Loki, “what is that?”

“It’s Slender Man.  Don’t tell me you don’t know who the Slender Man is.”

“I’m vaguely familiar with the story.”

“You should play the games,” Clint tells him, turning the box around to sharpen his crayon.  “At night, with all the lights off and the volume on your headphones turned up.  You’ll scare yourself shitless.”

“Yes, that sounds fun,” Phil says dryly.  Nick snorts.

“Pedestrians,” Clint mutters.  Some people just don’t know the value of a good, non-fatal scare.  He tears the paper out of the pad, sets it aside, and removes a brown crayon from the box.  He’s gotten to the point where he can’t put off attending to his bladder any longer.  Just off the kitchen, they have a conveniently located half-bath that nobody ever uses (that’s where the previous owner of the house apparently stabbed her mother thirty-eight times), but once he gets there, it’ll probably be too late anyway.  He leans back against Nick’s legs, drawing the giant, scarred oak tree he and Barney used to climb, and tells himself to just get on with it already.  It’s more difficult in practice than in theory – no matter how many cracks Nick makes, he is toilet-trained.  Finally, though, his bladder catches on and empties.

Wetting himself while he’s diapered isn’t even uncomfortable anymore.  There is something so wrong with him.

Setting his book aside, Phil picks up the picture of Loki and the Slender Man and scrutinizes it.  “I’m horribly tempted to put this on the refrigerator.”

“Do it,” Clint says, looking over his shoulder.  “It’s a masterpiece.  I –”

Phil’s fingers touch his chest.  He exhales slowly and makes a pained little sound and Clint just loses it.

Stop doing that!

Phil stills, hand dropping away, eyes wide.  Clint glares at him.  His fingers tremble, spilling broken bits of crayon on the floor.

“Clint,” Phil starts, after a long, tense moment where nobody moves and nobody speaks and Clint’s heart tries to jackhammer its way out of his ribcage, “Clint, it’s okay.  I’m okay.” He holds out his arms.  “Come here.”

Clint shivers.  He shouldn’t – he doesn’t deserve Phil’s comfort, not after what he did to him, but he’s wanted this since yesterday in the medbay and before he can consciously decide not to, he scrambles up and flings himself into Phil’s lap.  Phil’s arms close around him.  “You can’t leave me,” Clint says, in a funny, pleading voice that doesn’t sound like it belongs to him at all.  He buries his face in Phil’s neck and shakes so hard his teeth rattle.

It’s not a logical request – all three of them have high-stress, high-risk jobs that will probably end with ‘KIA’ stamped on the death certificate, but he needs Phil to lie to him right now.  And that’s exactly what Phil does, rocking him back and forth and murmuring, “Shh, it’s okay.  I’m not going to leave you, baby, I promise.”  The couch creaks, then Nick curls his arms around them both, and for a while they just sit there like that.  Like a messed-up, makeshift little family.

When Clint stops quivering like a leaf in the wind, Phil takes Clint’s hand and presses it against his chest.  His shirt is thin and Clint can feel the ridges of scar tissue beneath his fingers, a mountain range jutting from Phil’s skin – and, below that, the steady thump-thump of Phil’s heart against his palm.  “You didn’t do this,” Phil says firmly.  “Loki did.  There’s nothing you could’ve done about it.  It was my choice to go in there, and maybe it wasn’t one of my better ideas – don’t give me that look, Nick – but you are absolutely not to blame.  And I’m fine.  I’m not going to drop dead because my chest twinges once in a while.”

Clint takes a deep breath and pushes his nose into Phil’s collarbone.  “I’m going to put you in a bubble,” he mumbles.

“Please don’t.  Stark would never let me hear the end of it.” 

He gets to stay there, huddled in Phil’s lap, his legs draped over Nick’s, for another ten minutes.  Then Phil runs his fingers over Clint’s scalp and says, “You okay to get up soon?  I don’t mind, but you’re not exactly Tinkerbell.”

“Are you calling me fat?”

“Muscle outweighs fat, firstly, and you also need to be changed.”

Clint flushes brilliantly.  He’d forgotten all about that while he was having his little emotional breakdown.  He clambers off Phil’s lap and stands up, but Nick sticks his leg out before he can go anywhere.  “Don’t walk on the crayons,” he says, picking up his tablet, “or you’ll grind them into Phil’s carpet.”

My carpet?”

“I wanted the green one.”

“God,” Clint says, “don’t be domestic.  It’s terrifying.”

Phil rolls his eyes, steps around the coffee table, and nudges Clint towards the stairs.  “It didn’t go with anything,” he tells Nick as they head up to the bathroom.  Before they go in, though, he pauses and puts his hand on Clint’s arm.  “Are you okay with me doing this?”

Clint nods.  Since he doesn’t actually wear the diapers all that often, he’s still kind of uncomfortable with having them changed by anyone besides himself.  But Phil is quick and efficient and puts him into his boxers and the sweatpants without saying a word besides “How’s your head?”  He doesn’t even look grossed out.  Phil Coulson is the world’s only taser-wielding saint.

“Just aches a little,” Clint murmurs, settling his forehead against Phil’s shoulder as the other man ties the drawstring on his pants.  “Will you read to me?”

“Sure.” Phil pats his hip and turns on the faucet to wash his hands.  “Go grab a book and I’ll meet you downstairs.”

Clint has a small row of books on top of his desk.  Most of them Phil and Nick already had, for some reason or another, and those few that Clint bought himself were ones he’d heard were interesting but had never gotten to read as a kid.  His parents weren’t going to read to him, and he wasn’t any good at doing it for himself.  It came as a relief when he joined SHIELD, bombed the written aptitude test, and spent two hours listening to one of their psychologists inform him that he was dyslexic, not stupid, and he needed to quit beating himself up.  He flips through the titles until he finds the one he wants.  Nick took over bedtime-story duty after Clint made Phil read him Charlotte’s Web four times in a row, and Clint pretty much has the story memorized, but he likes hearing it anyway.

Phil just gives him a look like he knew Clint was going to pick that book when Clint comes down to the living room, picks up his blanket off the floor, and snuggles into the narrow space between him and Nick.  “Don’t worry about him,” Phil says when he glances at Nick, who’s absorbed in something wordy on his tablet, “he’s in his own world.”

“I know you’re talking about me,” Nick mumbles, tapping his thumb against his lower lip.

“See?” Phil opens the book as Clint curls up against his side with his blanket clutched to his chest.  “And I swear to god, Clint, if you ask me why all the farm animals speak perfect English, I will kill you.  ‘Chapter One – Before Breakfast…’”

Clint falls asleep four chapters in.  He’s alone on the couch when he wakes, but his blanket and the armchair quilt are spread over him and there’s a pillow under his head.  He takes his thumb from his mouth with a wet pop and sits up.  “What time is it?” he says, loud enough for anyone on the first floor to hear.

“A little after six,” Phil calls, and then he appears in the doorway to the kitchen.

“Oh.” Clint takes his crayons and slides them back into the box.  “Guess I’m not making dinner.”

“It’s all right.  We’re just going to order pizza, unless you can make a meal out of hot dogs and canned plums.”

“Ew.  Get some with pineapple.”

“Pineapple does not go on pizza!” Nick yells from upstairs.  He feels very strongly about certain toppings.  There’s apparently a story behind that, but his lips are sealed and the only other person with the details is Hill, who values her job more than anything Clint can try to bribe her with.  Phil rolls his eyes again, gives Clint a thumbs-up, and heads back into the kitchen.  Clint grabs his crayons and paper and follows him.

Despite Nick’s grumbling, Clint gets pineapple on his pizza.  He’s spoiled and he knows it.

The pizza doesn’t sit well – it tastes delicious, because the Italian place in town is run by gods, but he only gets most of the way through one slice and suddenly his stomach begins churning like a cement mixer.  He drops the crust on the plate and pushes it away.  “I don’t want any more,” Clint mumbles when Nick looks at him.

“You okay?”

Clint shrugs.  He’s getting really nauseated really fast, and a minute later he’s on his knees in front of the toilet in the murder bathroom.  Phil rubs his back and makes soothing noises as Clint heaves his dinner.  Seriously, the man deserves a medal or something for putting up with all this.  Nick cares about him too, but he’s a little more hands-off.  Phil would probably do the ‘attachment parenting’ thing if he had an actual kid.  “Feel better?” he asks, once Clint stops retching and sits back on his heels, panting.

“Yeah,” Clint says.  He actually does now that his stomach is empty.  He flushes the toilet and gets to his feet shakily, grabbing a piece of tissue to wipe his mouth.  Phil hands him a cup of water.  “Guess the pizza was a bad idea.”

“You’re still sick,” Phil points out.  “It was probably a little too heavy for your stomach right now.  Do you want anything else?”

Clint takes a hesitant sip of the water.  “Maybe later.”

Phil turns out the light once Clint confirms he isn’t going to throw up again.  Back in the kitchen, Nick is putting the remaining slices of pizza in a container.  “We might as well take this with us tomorrow,” he says, sticking it in the fridge.  “It’ll just go bad if we leave it here.”

That’s an unwelcome reminder that Nick and Phil have to return to work tomorrow.  Clint’s on Day One of a mandatory three-day medical leave (SHIELD doesn’t screw around with head injuries), and they’d probably let him stay here if he asked, but it wouldn’t be the same without them.  He sulks into the living room and reclaims his spot on the couch, burying his face in his blanket.  It’s not that he wants to be a kid permanently, or anything like that – honestly, the vast majority of the time, he thinks being an independent adult is fabulous.  One day just doesn’t feel like enough for this, though.  He can’t really relax and disconnect from all the fucked-up stuff in his adult life in twenty-four hours or so.  A week, sometime, would be nice, if Nick and Phil are willing to deal with his crap for that long.

A finger pokes him in the head, pulling him from his Deep Thoughts.  “Stay awake,” Nick says, taking a seat.

Clint sits up and leans against his side.  “I am awake.  And bored.  Wanna play cards?”

“You cheat at cards.”

“Prove it.”

Nick rolls his eyes.  “We all know.”

“It’s only cheating if you get caught.”

“Pain in the ass,” Nick mutters, but he opens the drawer under the coffee table and pulls out a deck of cards anyway.

Phil joins them and Nick decides to play five-card stud, which is the biggest mistake he could possibly make because Clint has many fond memories of playing that game under the trapeze net with his brother and a few of the other roustabouts.  If they were betting with real money, Clint would’ve sucked both their wallets dry in about twenty minutes.  As it is, Nick swears in three different languages and gives up after an hour.  “I think that’s enough,” Phil says, sending Nick an amused look as he gathers the cards.  “Do you want to try eating again?”

On cue, Clint’s stomach grumbles.  “Not pizza.”

“We have some soup left.”

“Okay.” Phil gets up to heat the soup and Clint rests his head against Nick’s arm, twisting his blanket around in his fingers.  “Do you have to go back tomorrow?” he asks quietly.

“Yeah,” Nick says.  He brushes a hand over Clint’s hair.  “Sorry, kid.”

Clint pouts until Phil returns with the soup.  “Take it slow,” Phil instructs, handing him the bowl and spoon and setting a glass of water on the table.  Clint does, even though his stomach is clamoring for food now, because he really hates throwing up and there was more than enough of that with the concussion. 

The soup stays down, much to Clint’s relief.  The rest of the evening passes quietly.  He sweet-talks Phil into reading the rest of Charlotte’s Web, draws him a picture of Steve in an ice cube to thank him (Phil does not look like he appreciates the sentiment), and watches the news with Nick until the planet’s stupidity tires him out.  “I think it’s time for you to go to bed,” Nick says after the third time he has to shake Clint awake. 

“I’m not tired,” Clint mumbles, “I’m just bored.”

“It’s nearly eleven.  Up.”

“I should’ve given you a bath,” Phil muses, slipping a bookmark into his book.  “Pick up your crayons, please.”

Clint puts his crayons back into their box, from the worn-down purple ones to the nearly untouched blue ones.  “I showered before I got on the jet,” he says, “and I’ll shower tomorrow morning.”

“All right, then.  Let’s go.”

Crayons, paper, Charlotte’s Web, and blanket cradled in his arms, Clint goes upstairs with Phil and puts his things away before leaving to brush his teeth and relieve himself.  “What time are we going tomorrow?” he calls from the bathroom.

“I figure we’ll leave around eight,” Phil says.  “We don’t have to be in early.”  He turns down the covers and then pulls them back up once Clint’s in bed.  “Do you want one of us to wake you?”

“Nah, I’ll be up,” Clint yawns.  His internal clock is pretty good; he doesn’t even set an alarm most of the time.

Phil sits down on the mattress.  It’s a routine, by now – Phil tucks him in, Nick reads, and Clint gets to feel safe and loved.  “Your fever’s down,” Phil says, touching Clint’s forehead.  “Go to sleep.  And if you have another accident, try not to panic, okay?  Come get us and we’ll help you clean up.”

“I won’t do it again.” Clint sinks into the blankets until he can’t see Phil anymore, embarrassed.

“Just in case.  Good night.”

Clint feels Phil ruffle his hair, and then the extra weight on the bed disappears and the room is quiet.  He stays hidden under the covers, rubbing the pad of his thumb over one of his hawk’s soft wings, until the mattress dips again.  “You alive down there?”

“Uh huh.”

Nick reads through twenty pages of Prince Caspian – twice as many as it usually takes for Clint to doze off – before he pauses and fixes Clint with a look.  “I think we’ll stop there.”

“I’m not that tired,” Clint complains.

“Well, I am.” Placing the book back on the nightstand, Nick stands up and turns out the light. 

“You’re the mean parent.  I hope you’re proud of yourself.” 

“Sure am.  Good night.”


It’s not a good night.

Loki twists Clint’s arm in his ice-cold grasp, scepter raised, face like a Halloween mask.  “You have heart,” he purrs.  He touches the curved blade to Clint’s sternum, and Clint has half a second to think shit shit what the fuck is this before Loki draws his soul out like poison from a wound.

Clint wakes up screaming.  He thrashes, tangled in a web of sheets, claws frantically at his front of his shirt with blunt nails until someone grabs his wrists and yanks them away from his chest.  “Hey!” He barely registers Nick’s voice.  “Clint!”

“Get him out,” Clint half-sobs, struggling against the hands restraining him, “get him out!”

“Clint –” Nick breaks off, swears, then lets go of Clint’s arms and just bodily lifts him out of bed, sets him on his feet.  Clint sways but doesn’t get the chance to topple over because Nick’s already hauling him across the room to stand in front of the dresser.  “Look.”  He holds Clint’s head still, forcing him to look at his reflection in the wobbly mirror.  “You’re okay.  Loki’s not here, he cannot hurt you.  You’re you.”

Still half-asleep, Clint gasps for air, a phantom hand clutching his wrist, Loki’s words bouncing off the inside of his skull, but – his eyes are normal.  Just plain blue, no unnatural hues or weird glow.

“I’m not knocking you in the head,” Nick says, “so relax.

Clint takes that a bit literally and goes limp in his grasp.  It’s not entirely his fault, because his knees buckle without his consent.  Phil grabs his other arm – he must’ve showed up during the initial freakout – and the two of them hold him upright.  Nick’s breath ruffles Clint’s hair when he sighs.  “You’re okay,” he says again, quieter now.  One of his arms slides around Clint’s chest, the other around his waist.  He backs up until he reaches the bed and sits, pulling Clint down into his lap.  “You’re good.  I’ve got you.”

Fuck,” Clint breathes.  He’s soaked in cold sweat, shivering uncontrollably, and he must’ve bitten his lip very hard at some point because it’s dripping blood onto his shirt.  He seizes his blanket and runs the silky trim between his fingers to calm himself.  “I’m –”

“No,” Phil interrupts, because he has this pesky ability to read minds.  “You don’t need to be sorry.  God, Clint.”  He sinks down next to Nick and starts to stroke Clint’s back.

Close to ten minutes elapse before Clint’s violent trembling fades, before he can lift his face from Nick’s shoulder without expecting to see Loki smirking at him from a corner.  He licks the blood from his throbbing lip and whispers, “I’m all right.”

“Sure,” Nick says, sounding thoroughly unconvinced.  He stands up and takes Clint with him.  “Come on.  I think you’re gonna stay with us for the rest of the night.”

Clint’s too tired to put in the effort to argue, especially considering that he wants to be with them right now.  “My hawk –”

“I’ve got it,” Phil soothes.  “I’ll be there in a minute, okay?” 

Nick leads him into the other bedroom and sits him down.  “Arms up,” he says, tugging Clint’s sweat-damp shirt off.  Clint keeps rubbing the edge of his blanket, eyes unfocused, so exhausted that his train of thought can’t make it out of the station, and lets Nick pull a clean t-shirt over his head.  “Hey.” He tips Clint’s chin up, remaining eye searching his face.  “You still with me?”

“Yeah… I’m just tired.”

The door creaks.  Phil closes it gently, walks over, and Clint holds out his hands until Phil gives him his hawk.  “Thanks,” he says quietly, settling it into his lap atop his blanket.

“You’re welcome.” Phil leans down and dabs at Clint’s lip with a wet washcloth.  After a few moments, during which Clint zones out entirely, he’s brought back down to earth by “Do you have nightmares like that often?”

“Yeah,” Clint mutters.  He doesn’t want to talk about it, and thankfully no one asks, but Phil looks troubled when Clint glances up from his hawk.  “They’re not always that bad.” 

“That explains why you haven’t been sleeping well.” Phil finishes sponging the blood off Clint’s face and goes to return the washcloth to the bathroom, not giving Clint the chance to ask how the hell he knows that.  He’s worse than Natasha.  Nick pats the center of the mattress and Clint slips under the covers, keeping a tight hold on his blanket and hawk.  When Phil returns, he gets in on Clint’s other side.  It’s kind of a tight fit, and Clint’s a lot closer to Phil than is strictly necessary, but they all manage.  “Try to get some sleep,” Phil says, drawing the heavy comforter up over himself.  “We do need to wake up early.”

“I don’t want you to go.” He means it to be kind of whiny, but it comes out in a miserable, plaintive tone that gets way too close to how he actually feels.

“Me either, to be honest.” Phil’s fingertips brush lightly against Clint’s cheek, soft as butterfly wings.  “Once we’ve finished cleaning up from the Manhattan incident, we all ought to put in for a long vacation.”

“I took a vacation last year,” Nick says, voice muffled in the pillow. “Stark caused three international incidents in as many weeks.”

“He has Dr. Banner with him now.  He seems to be doing a decent job of tempering Stark’s… temper.”

“That’s what you think,” Clint mumbles.  He puts his thumb in his mouth.  Phil strokes his hair and murmurs barely-audible reassurances, and one of Nick’s hands is resting on his side, reminding Clint that he’s still there.  It’s like having parents who’ll comfort him after a nightmare instead of ones who ignore him until he cries himself to sleep – or worse.

For years, even decades, Clint had secretly craved some sort of time machine.  Sometimes he felt so off-kilter and overwhelmed that he wished he could slip back into the only memory he had of being cared for.  He’d hated himself for it, because normal, functioning adults weren’t a tad obsessed with being little again, but he couldn’t stop.  He wanted to be two years old and not yet terrified of his father’s rage, unburdened by responsibility and delighted with a simple balloon. 

He doesn’t want that anymore, because he’s pretty damn sure Phil and Nick love him more than his parents ever did.

Nick is snoring slightly, fingers warm against Clint’s ribs.  Clint cuddles a little bit closer to Phil and rests his head on his chest, then lifts it again when Phil twitches.  “It’s okay,” Phil whispers, “doesn’t hurt.  You’re fine,” so Clint puts his head back down. 

Phil’s heartbeat is drum-steady and lulling.  Hoping that there won’t be too many awkward erections in the morning, Clint closes his eyes, tucks his hawk into the crook of his elbow, and lets himself fall asleep.


Getting out of the kid-mindset is much easier than getting into it.  Clint wakes up at seven-thirty, alone in the big bed, with a headache, and his first thought is time to go to the motherfucking bank like an adult.  Which makes no sense, actually, but it gets him up.  He fetches jeans, boxers, and a shirt with no undesirable substances on it from his duffel and commandeers the bathroom.

He kind of looks like crap, he decides upon seeing himself in the mirror.  There are bruises under his eyes and around the bandage on his forehead, the folds of his blanket left squiggly imprints on his cheek, and he’s in need of a shave.  He’s still tired, too.  Only one of those things is immediately fixable.  He takes a spare razor and some Advil from the cabinet, swallows the latter dry, and hops into the shower.  The spray is lukewarm at best.

“You used all the hot water,” Clint complains when he passes Nick on the stairs ten minutes later.

“Get up earlier next time,” Nick replies. 

There’s half a pot of coffee left in the kitchen, which Clint pounces on like a cat with a canary.  He figures it’s safe, since his stomach is calm and he feels pretty good except for a scratchy throat, so he pours himself a mug and drinks it black.  Milk and sugar are for wimps.

“Are you ready?” Phil bustles in and searches through the wreckage on the kitchen table.  “Have you seen my tablet?”

Clint lifts one shoulder in a shrug.  “I didn’t bring much, and I think it’s on the couch.” 

“Thanks.  Go through the stuff in the dryer and grab anything of yours.” Phil snatches up the rest of the coffee – Clint’s surprised he even bothers putting it in a mug before slamming it back – and leaves the room.  He’s typically a little frazzled when he’s transitioning into work mode, turning back into Coulson.

On his way out, Clint spots his drawing of Loki and the Slender Man, stuck to the fridge door with a magnet shaped like a cocktail umbrella.

The only things in the dryer that belong to Clint are a pair of boxers and his pajama pants.  Everything else he either borrowed or didn’t wear.  He takes them up to his room and shoves them into his bag, starts to zip it up, and stops.  His plush hawk and blanket are still on Nick and Phil’s bed.  The hawk always stays here in its place of honor on the pillow, because it’s old and fragile and he’s already had to reattach a wing once, so he’s not going to drag it around and risk ruining or losing it.  But his blanket… that he folds up small and pushes to the bottom of his bag.  It’s not like Nick or Phil will care that he brought it with him, if they even notice.  Maybe it’ll help him sleep a little better.  He runs his fingers over his hawk’s fluffy wings one more time before shouldering his duffel and going downstairs.

Coulson’s waiting by the front door with his own bag.  Clint jams his feet into his boots and waits for Fury to finish making sure everything’s locked up.  “Done?” Coulson asks when Fury comes in, pulling on his jacket.

“We’re good to go,” Fury confirms.

Clint shoves open the door, heads out into the cool morning air, and tosses his duffel into the trunk of the SHIELD car they borrowed (no need to pay for long-term parking at the airport).  He gets the backseat to himself.  Fury and Coulson slide into the front, and Coulson’s just buckled his seatbelt when he suddenly twists around in his seat.  “What are we doing with you?”

“I’ll get a cab from the airport,” Clint says.  “I’m going to go bother Tony and Bruce, see how long it takes before they want to set me on fire… or feed me to Tony’s man-eating security robot.  Which he is totally not building,” he hastily adds.  Coulson nods and turns back around, but Clint’s fairly certain he’s making a mental note to investigate that.  He’ll have to warn Tony.  Shaking his head and muttering something about fools, Fury starts up the engine.  Clint grins, opens the window, and leans against the door, the wind rumpling his hair as the car rolls smoothly down the driveway.  He feels like he’s made of light. 

Screw time machines.  He has everything he needs.