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Negotiations and Love Songs

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The first time Clint Barton stumbled into Flint Animal Clinic, Bruce thought, “Oh shit. We’re going to have to call the cops again.” Bruce and Phil had to call the police at least once a month to drag someone out of the lobby – they were either looking for drugs or had parked themselves in the lobby to sleep. This was thanks to the way the neighborhood had grown around the small clinic Phil’s dad had opened forty years ago when the area was mostly residential.

Now it was a mish mash of liquor stores, small shops, and low-rent apartment buildings, with a few of the bungalow-style houses left standing in odd places. It wasn’t necessarily a rough neighborhood now, but no one really wanted to live there.

Bruce and Phil had bought a house about six blocks away from their clinic after they realized that rooming together in undergrad, renting together in graduate school, and interning together pre-practice was a good enough test of their compatibility, and they had passed it as well as anyone could. Actually, Bruce’s exact words to Phil had been, “I can’t seem to live properly when you’re not around,” and Phil had replied with, “That’s odd, because I can’t seem to feel alive when you’re not around.” The house was a bit of a trophy, really, nestled on the edge of the clinic’s shabby neighborhood and the classy, old-money village nearby.

Bruce and Phil had been together for seventeen years. That’s a long time. Phil loved designing new landscaping for the modest fenced-in backyard and postage-stamp sized front lawn, and Bruce puttered inside every weekend, updating the interior and working toward a more environmentally friendly place. He’d put a solar panel in the bathroom ceiling last summer. They spent Sunday mornings on their patio drinking coffee and tea and trading the sections of the newspaper. Sometimes Bruce thought their routines had routines. They took turns at the clinic on Saturdays, and both worked on Sunday afternoons when they opened it up for free appointments for the needy people and their pets in the area.

This wasn’t a Sunday, but the guy who tripped over the rug in the waiting area didn’t look much like a regular customer. His blond hair was tousled and looked like it could use a cut, his green army jacket was loose on his shoulders, and the grey t-shirt he had on underneath was stained darkly at the hem. His jeans were faded and threadbare, and his purple Chuck Taylors looked like they’d seen battle.

Bruce would admit later to cataloging a few stereotypes when he saw Clint the first time, and Clint would smile and shrug before he’d point out that Bruce’s first move had been toward the phone sitting at the end of the black counter top. His fears were unfounded, though, and when Clint stepped toward the counter and opened his jacket to reveal a quivering coal-black kitten with frightened green eyes, Bruce did a double take and looked at Clint a little more carefully.

“I think this guy needs some help,” Clint said in a gravelly voice as he looked down at the kitten cowering against his tattered t-shirt.

Bruce moved around the counter and reached for the kitten; Clint let it go carefully and Bruce felt him watching; he could feel protectiveness radiating from him. Bruce put the kitten on the counter and ran his fingers carefully over its body, pausing when he felt the small break in its right hind leg and getting a pathetic cry from the tiny fur ball.


“Broken leg,” Bruce replied. He kept stroking the kitten’s ears to soothe it, and he called toward the swinging door behind him, “Hey, Natasha!” and then, “What’s his name?”

“Uh, well. It’s not my cat,” Clint replied, looking at the kitten forlornly, like he wished the cat was his.

“You found it?”

“Yeah. Well, there were these assholes down the block messing with him. I just wanted to help.”

Bruce looked closer and saw a bruise blooming Clint’s cheek and he blinked. “Did you get in a fight over this cat?”

Clint’s greenish eyes narrowed and he glanced away. “They were hurting him.”

Just then Natasha, Bruce and Phil’s only employee, a talented vet tech who had come to them a year ago, backed through the door wiping her hands on a towel. She looked at the kitten and then at Clint, and her eyes widened when she saw him.

“Can you gather the setting kit for this little guy?” Bruce asked, and she nodded and left without a word, which was weird. Bruce looked over at Clint, who had shoved his hands in his pockets and backed up toward the door. “Do you want to keep the kitten?” Bruce asked.

Clint took a deep breath and shook his head. “I can’t keep him. Just wanted to be sure he got some help. Sorry.”

Oftentimes when someone brought in a stray, they’d offer to help with the costs, but Clint was definitely headed out the door instead. This made Bruce sad for some inexplicable reason. “Well, thanks for bringing him in,” Bruce said.

Clint took one last glance at the kitten and just nodded before he turned and left.

Bruce didn’t see Clint for a while, hadn’t learned his name yet, only knew that the guy who brought in the black kitten had compassion etched into his battered face and a soft, textured voice that matched the way he gently held the little guy out to Bruce.

Bruce told Phil about it that night as they enjoyed the almost-fall weather out on their patio and Phil grilled some chicken while Bruce sipped a beer and rested his chin on Phil’s shoulder. “He was nice, you know? Didn’t look like he was in great shape himself, but he was nice. Saved that kitten’s life; there’s no way it would’ve lasted with that leg.”

Phil nodded and said, “Good Samaritan. I’d like to meet him.” 

Bruce didn’t know about Clint’s past, but he knew what he saw in his kind eyes and he recognized the way he walked, like he didn’t want to take up too much space. He was glad to see him again when Clint showed up a few weeks later with a tabby cat bundled in his arms. Just its striped face stuck out from the blanket wrapped around it, and it wasn’t squirming or upset.

“Hey, Doc,” Clint said.

“You have another cat,” Bruce said with a smile. He put down the pen he was using and leaned back from the counter. Clint was wearing the same clothes he’d had on before, but his eyes seemed brighter, and Bruce found himself staring. They were a kaleidoscope of color and seemed to shine.

“It’s not mine. It’s old Patty’s – do you know her?”

Bruce did. Patty was probably in her mid-seventies and she lived about two blocks over, toward Bruce and Phil’s house but still in the clinic neighborhood. She had lived there since Phil was a little kid, and she had been bringing Cedar, the striped cat in Clint’s arms, around since it was a kitten when they first took over the practice. “I do know her,” Bruce answered, and he came around to give Cedar’s head a scratch. “What’s going on?”

Clint grinned down at the cat. “Well, this crazy guy apparently decided to eat a mouse yesterday, and Patty said he’d thrown up twice since. Just wanted to get him checked. Her arthritis is really flaring right now, though, so she grabbed me by the shirt collar when I made the mistake of sitting on her front steps this morning, and said she’d give me a piece of her apple pie if I’d bring Cedar here for a check-up.”

Just then, Phil came through the door. He saw Cedar and grinned. “Patty called earlier to say he’d be in. She said she’d wrangle someone to do it. Did she promise you pie?”

Clint laughed, and Bruce watched in wonder as his face lit up and his eyes crinkled. He hadn’t seen him smile like that before, and it made Bruce’s mouth go dry. He swallowed the feeling he hadn’t had since he’d met Phil years ago as Clint replied, “Yeah. Man, have you guys had her pie? I’d bring a skunk in for her if she offered me her pie.”

Phil came over to pet Cedar, too, and he leaned against Bruce. They had been busy today, hadn’t had lunch together like they usually did, and Bruce had been busy yesterday with house calls. He wrapped his arm around Phil’s waist as he petted the cat, but Phil didn’t seem to mind. He did the same to Bruce and they leaned into each other as they talked to Clint. He didn’t seem to notice.

“I’m Phil Coulson, by the way,” Phil said after a moment.

“Oh,” Bruce said, “Sorry. Actually, I’m Bruce. I don’t know your name,” he said.

“Clint,” the guy said, and he made an aborted attempt to shake hands with an armful of cat and then just laughed.

“I’ll take Cedar,” Phil said. “Patty explained what happened and I think he probably just needs some fluids and observation.” He reached out to Clint and pulled the bundle into his arms.

“Hey, um,” Clint said as Phil left the lobby. “Is that black kitten still around?”

“Yes, and he’s doing fine. Would you like to see him?” Bruce asked.

“Sure, if you have time, I mean. I guess you’re kinda, you know, running a business?” he said with a crooked grin.

“I have another appointment in about half an hour, but I’ll go get him. We’ve temporarily named him Oliver.”

“I like it,” Clint said as Bruce headed back to the kennel to get the kitten. He brought it back to the lobby and a smile blossomed as he saw the little black kitten. Bruce set it down on the floor and Clint laughed as it limped around and mewed.

He knelt down and started talking softly. “Hey, kitty, lookin’ good,” he said, looking back at Bruce with a gleam in his eye that made him seem more energetic than the last time Bruce had seen him. He reached a finger out and said to Bruce, “He’s okay?”

Bruce didn’t answer right away, but reached down to pick up the kitten. He set the kitten in Clint’s hands with a smile. “He’s fine. He gets around pretty well and should be out of the cast in a week or two.”

Clint held the kitten close, looked around and found a chair, and sat down, all while stroking the kitten’s head and ears gently. He held the cat like it was Simba from the Lion King, and turned it around to get a better look. “You do look kinda stupid in that yellow cast, kitty,” he said, and then he pulled the cat close and nuzzled its neck. “God, you’re cute, though,” he said, more quietly.

Bruce watched silently as Clint cuddled and petted and talked to the kitten, explaining how glad he was that Bruce was able to fix the kitten up, what a lucky cat it was to be here, and other things that made Bruce warm down to his toes. Clint was a natural with the cat.

“Do you want some coffee?” Bruce asked.

“Uh,” Clint said, and looked up at Bruce like he’d forgotten someone else was around before ducking his head back down to the kitten, “Sure, I guess. Thanks.”

Bruce nodded and asked, “Do you take anything in it?”

“Oh. No, thanks. Black is good.”

Bruce headed back to the kitchen and fixed two cups. He headed back to the lobby and Clint still had the kitten on his lap and it was laying on its back letting Clint rub its belly. Bruce handed him a cup and the kitten pawed at the handle.

“No, kitty,” Clint admonished. “You’re spazzy enough, thanks.” He looked at Bruce and grinned. “He’s adorable.”

“Yeah. He’s recovering well. Now if we could only find him a home.”

Clint didn’t say anything, just nodded and sipped his coffee.

As Bruce watched, he tried to figure out how old Clint might be. He looked so tired, and his hand shook just a little as he held his cup, so Bruce figured he wasn’t getting the best look at him. He’d guess early thirties, though, with just enough lines around his eyes to keep him from being youthful, and clearly enough experience to keep him from being young. He seemed gentle, but then Bruce remembered the flash of anger and bruised face when he brought the kitten in.

Clint probably wasn’t someone to mess with. That was okay. Bruce liked Phil because he was gentle and kind but he could switch on tough and badass in a second when he was threatened. Clint seemed like he might be similar. Huh. Bruce let that settle in his brain a little as he watched Clint play with Oliver.

It was a few weeks later when Bruce and Phil were sitting up front together, shoulders touching and soft music playing from the computer speakers, working on the books during a slow moment, when the front door rattled. They looked up and stood at the same time when they saw Clint, this time carrying a small beagle wrapped in his green jacket; it wasn’t a puppy, but it wasn’t full-grown either. Its eyes were closed and its body was limp.

“I think it’s bad,” Clint said, and Bruce looked more closely and saw blood leaking from the dog’s mouth. “It got hit by a car. Fuckers didn’t even stop,” Clint added, his voice gravelly and fierce, his eyes cold with rage.

Phil glanced at Bruce and then back at Clint and said, “Follow me,” before heading back through the door that would take them to the surgery room. Bruce stopped to gather some supplies and grabbed his phone to call Natasha back from her lunch break early. They were going to need her.

Clint laid the dog on the surgery table and backed himself against the wall. Natasha was there in less than two minutes, took one look at Clint, Phil, and Bruce standing in the surgery room, and said, “Where do you want me?”

Bruce, conceding that Phil was the better trauma surgeon, ushered Clint back out to the waiting room and said, “You can stay if you want – “ but he cut himself off at the sight of Clint, whose face had gone white and who looked like he was going to throw up. He steered him to a chair and eased him down.

“Hey, Clint, hey,” he said, keeping his hands on Clint’s knees. “Are you going to be sick?”

Clint shook his head and took a deep, shaky breath. “No. No. I’m okay, sorry.”

“Want some water?”

“Yeah. Please.”

Bruce nodded and went behind the counter where they kept a mini fridge stocked with bottled water and juice. He grabbed one of each.

Clint had curled himself down to his knees and was muttering into his jeans. Bruce caught a few words, ‘stop,’ ‘not here,’ and ‘fuck them,’ before he knelt down and put his hand on Clint’s shoulder. Clint flinched violently back into the chair, rattling the plastic back against the waiting room wall. His eyes were wild and darted from Bruce to the front door.

“Hey, it’s okay,” Bruce said, pulling his hand back slowly. “You’re safe here,” he added. Whatever this was, Bruce worried that he was going to handle it wrong. Taking care of animals instead of people had been a very conscious choice on Bruce’s part, and aside from Phil, Natasha and a couple others, people generally just pissed him off. Yet here he was, out of his depth. “Clint,” he said. “You’re going to be okay.”

Clint stood suddenly, knocking Bruce off balance and onto the floor. “I’m –“ he looked down at Bruce, sprawled on the tile, and looked confused. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he whispered, and then he moved and was out the front door before Bruce could find his feet.

Bruce scrambled to the doorway and watched Clint rush down the sidewalk, arms curled around his middle, head down and shaking back and forth. It looked from a distance that he was still talking to himself. Bruce felt like he didn’t know the guy well enough to go after him, but he had a sudden feeling that the dog and cat Clint had brought in weren’t the only ones who needed to be rescued.

He closed the door and picked the bottles of water and juice up off the floor, put them back in the fridge, and sat down at the counter in case other clients showed up. There were a few of Phil’s appointments he was going to have to take.

“I think he needs help,” Bruce said later, as he and Phil sat on the front step drinking water and taking a break from keeping an eye on the beagle in recovery.

“Who?” Phil asked.

“Clint. The guy who brought the dog in this afternoon. I think he’s in a rough spot.” Bruce explained what happened that afternoon and Phil nodded.

“It sounds like PTSD to me, too. My uncle had it bad after Vietnam. Never really got it to go away. He couldn’t hold a job down after the war. A couple guys from my unit still have it pretty bad.”

Bruce had never considered the military – he had a temper and what seemed like an inbred problem with authority figures, so it didn’t seem like a good fit – but Phil had done four years in between grad school and opening the practice. He’d told some horrific and amazing stories and still got together with one of his best friends from his Ranger days when Nick was in town. Bruce nodded. “Yeah. We should offer some help if he comes back. He seems like a good guy.”

“I’ll bet he’s military,” Phil said, and Bruce shrugged. They headed back in to check on the dog.

Two days later, Clint showed up again, but this time he was empty-handed. Bruce and Phil found him sitting on the cement front steps to the place as they walked blearily up to the clinic in the morning. The day was crisp, one of the first days of fall when the mornings were promising fall but the afternoons were still stuck in summer. Clint had his knees pulled up to his chest, and he unfolded himself and stood as Bruce and Phil approached. He was wearing the same clothes from before, and the dark circles under his eyes suggested he hadn’t slept much. He ran his hand nervously through his hair and looked at Bruce.


“Morning, Clint. How’re you doing?”

Clint shrugged and looked warily over at Phil. “Okay, I guess. I, uh, was wondering if that beagle made it through surgery.”

Phil smiled in the gentle way that made him so much better at people than Bruce, and nodded. “He did. We found his caretaker and he went home last night. We’ll check in on him, but he should be okay with some rest, thanks to you.”

Clint’s shoulders relaxed visibly and he stepped down onto to the sidewalk, angling around Bruce and Phil and heading away. “Oh, great. That’s great. Thanks for letting me know.” He was walking backwards, but then he stopped and shoved his hands in his pockets. “Uh, sorry, by the way,” he said, looking at Bruce.

Bruce nodded. “It’s okay. It wasn’t anything.” He didn’t need Clint to explain anything, and he didn’t want to put any more stress on him. The guy looked like he might break if he were pushed too hard in any direction.

They stood quietly for a beat, and then Phil looked between the two of them and called out to Clint, “Hey. Have you had any coffee this morning?” and Bruce smiled.

Clint bit his lip and looked back and forth between Phil and Bruce. “No.”

“You want a cup? We always drink a cup before we start the day here,” Phil offered.

“I have tea, too,” Bruce added. “If you’d rather.”

Clint looked down the street like he might have somewhere to be, but then he nodded. “Sure. Thanks.”

They all went inside, and Bruce turned on the lights and the computer as Phil headed into the back to start the coffee and check on the small kennel.

“You want a tour?” Bruce asked, as Clint stood nervously looking at the shelves that stood against the wall of pet food and pet manuals.

Clint nodded and followed Bruce through the door. “It’s actually a big place,” Bruce said as he led Clint down a narrow hallway. “Phil’s dad bought this house fifty years ago when he and his wife first got married. Ten years later the family had grown too much, and he wanted to open his own vet practice, so he killed two birds with one stone and moved the family and opened the practice here.”

“And you guys took it over?” Clint asked as Bruce showed him what used to be a bedroom and was now one of their two examining rooms. Bruce loved its homey feel, with wood floors, photos of the community and of animals peppering the room and the hallway. There were two bedrooms that had been converted, and then the hallway opened to the right into what had clearly been a kitchen and was now a small break room/washing area. “Don’t go looking for snacks in the fridge, though,” Bruce said as Clint admired the room. “Animal supplies only.” The cupboards held food, medicine, and other supplies. The kitchen led to what used to be a living room, but was now their emergency room.

Bruce opened the door from the kitchen, and looked back at Clint. He was standing stock-still and as soon as Bruce gestured for him to follow, he crossed his arms tightly across his chest and shook his head hard. “No,” was all he said, and Bruce recalled his breakdown the other day and put two and two together. The long, metal table and the rolling carts and monitors must be. . . Christ. Bruce didn’t want to think about why a room like that would set a guy off, so he just nodded and closed the door.

“We can go out back the other way, okay?” he said, and pointed to a side door off the hallway.

“Okay,” Clint replied, and he slowly followed Bruce through the side door.

Bruce led him down a couple more cement steps into what should be the side yard of the house, but had been converted to another room, long and narrow. It was their kennel. The cages weren’t full; only one of them had animals – the cat that Clint had brought in, actually – but there were ten of them, and they were big. When Phil and Bruce had the kennel built they decided that having ten cages built for dogs of at least fifty pounds was the best way to go. That way the cats they had would have plenty of room, and even the big dogs would be comfortable.

Bruce thought Clint would like to visit Oliver, but as soon as he turned to show Clint the room, he realized his mistake.

Clint stood frozen on the second step, staring at the cages. His jaw had dropped a little and his breath was coming in short bursts. Bruce said his name and Clint tore his gaze from the cages and looked at Bruce with panic-stricken eyes. He clambered backward, up the steps, turned and raced back to the hallway and out into the waiting room. He almost knocked Phil, who had been looking for them with a tray of coffee cups, off his feet when he burst through the door.

As it was, the tray clattered to the ground and Clint stumbled, going to his knees and then pulling himself up and flinging the front door open. He threw himself out onto the landing and stumbled again on the front steps.

Bruce had caught up and he grabbed Clint’s elbow before he went down hard on the pavement, and eased him to the step. Clint pulled his knees up to his forehead and rocked back and forth, and Bruce looked up as Phil came out the door and stood watching, a crease of worry across his forehead.

Clint was pulling on his hair and muttering, ‘stop, stop, stop, stop,’ and ‘Barton, Sergeant. Barton, Sergeant.”

Bruce knelt down next to him and said, “Clint, hey. Clint,” but got no response.

“What the hell happened?”

Bruce spun on his heel and saw Natasha coming up the walk. She was frowning, and she dropped her backpack that she always carried onto the grass beside the step. She knelt down and put her hand on Clint’s shoulder as he continued to rock back and forth and mutter. She looked at Bruce expectantly.

“I was giving him a tour of the office and when he saw the kennel he . . .” Bruce trailed off, unsure of what to call what was going on here.

“Can you get some water and a wet washcloth, Phil?” she asked, and Phil nodded and disappeared back inside.

Natasha turned back to Clint and rubbed her hand up and down his arm. “Sergeant Barton.” she said in a stern voice. “Clint, you’re on American soil and you’re safe. You’re Sergeant Clint Barton and you were discharged honorably on September 12th, 2011. Clint, you’re safe.”

Clint stopped rocking and the white knuckled pulling stopped as well and Phil appeared with a wet cloth that Natasha took and placed gently on the back of Clint’s neck. He was still muttering his name and rank, but his breathing slowed down and finally he looked up at Natasha with a look of such confusion that Bruce wanted to go hit someone.

Clint unfurled and clenched his arms around his chest. “Clint Barton, Sergeant,” he said, holding Natasha’s gaze like it was a lifeline, “Clint Barton.” He pulled in a deep breath and Natasha nodded, reaching out with the cloth again and touching Clint’s hand. He pursed his lips and breathed through his nose and nodded.

“Back with us?” she said quietly.

He nodded. “Sorry,” he said.

No one answered, and Phil leaned over and handed him an open bottle of water. Clint looked up and tried to smile, but he mostly failed and just grabbed the bottle with a shaky hand and said “Thanks,” before tipping it up and gulping. When he’d drained half the bottle, he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and stood, looking down the street. “I’m sorry,” he repeated. “I appreciate the help.”

Bruce stood, too. “Can you come in and sit down for a bit? Maybe get that coffee?”

Clint looked at Bruce and then behind him at Phil and the clinic. “Maybe later,” he said with a shrug, and started walking away. Natasha jogged up to him and they stood, him with his head down and nodding as she seemed to give him instructions. She pulled at his elbow to get him to look at her and then he nodded again and turned and left.

Natasha watched him go, and then walked back to Bruce and Phil. She scooped her backpack up and pointed to the clinic, clearly not wanting to have a conversation on the step. When they got inside, she threw her bag down behind the counter and leaned against the wall.

“I’ve known him for a while,” she said without preamble. “He’s a retired Staff Sergeant, Army, and was a sniper in Afghanistan.”

“So it is PTSD,” Bruce said. “It seems bad.”

She nodded. “It is. We tried to get him some help, but the VA isn’t in awesome shape right now to handle their caseload and he probably hadn’t gotten more than a few sessions with a professional when I knew him. I haven’t seen him in a while.”

“What did you tell him when he was leaving?” Phil asked, and Bruce could see his brain filing the new information and trying to puzzle it out. Bruce had joked that Phil should’ve been a psychiatrist sometimes, and Phil loved a problem to solve. If it was a problem where he could help a person? Even better.

Natasha cocked her head and stayed silent.

“If you hadn’t seen him in a while, what did you tell him?” Phil repeated.

When she just glared, Bruce stepped over to Phil and put a hand on his elbow. “Natasha. We might want to help, too.”

She sighed. “I told him to get his ass back to the VA and see if he could have better luck getting a therapy appointment this time. He clearly needs it. I told him I’d help if he wouldn’t disappear on me again.”

Phil nodded and they were all quiet, and Bruce went to get cleaning supplies for the spilled coffee. As he was mopping up the mess, Phil suddenly snapped his fingers.

“I know who can help,” he said, and when Bruce looked up he was grinning maniacally.

“Who?” Bruce asked.

“Sam. We’ll get Sam to fit him in this week and see if he can assess what he needs.”

“Sam Wilson?” Natasha asked. She had become enough of a permanent fixture to become a friend, she was actually dating Phil’s best friend, and she knew Sam from his occasional drop-ins at the clinic and a few nights out.

“He works with vets,” Bruce explained. “He’s not part of the VA system, but one of his specialties is his work with vets and trauma victims. He’d be perfect,” he added, nodding his approval. Sam was funny and easygoing, and he ate dinner with Bruce and Phil at least once every couple of weeks. He was a psychiatrist and had also done a tour in Iraq before he went to grad school. It was a good idea. He’d probably be willing to fit Clint in after hours, even.

Natasha sighed heavily. “Clint probably doesn’t have any money. He won’t be able to pay.”

Phil and Bruce just stared, waiting for more information.

“He wasn’t having any luck holding down a job last time I heard,” she said.

They didn’t see him for a few days, but Bruce found himself thinking about Clint whenever things slowed down. He had his own coping strategies for his own issues – he avoided alpha male types like the plague and stayed away from competitive situations when he could. Clint, though, had clearly been triggered by the cages and the surgery room, and that scared Bruce.

“You’re thinking about him again,” Phil said, slipping a cup of tea into Bruce’s hands and rubbing his shoulder.

Bruce sighed and nodded. “Cages set him off, Phil.”

Phil sat down next to him on the steps to the small patio off the back of their house and ran his hand up and down his back. “He might’ve been a POW.”

“Cages, though. Aren’t there rules?” Even as Bruce formed the words he could feel the naivety of his question, and Phil didn’t even answer, just raised an eyebrow and sipped his coffee. Bruce tried a different tact. “Well, it seems like his situation is severe. Why isn’t the VA involved?”

“Wait lists, funding, self-reporting issues, transportation – lots of reasons. You know, vets account for twelve percent of the homeless population.”

Bruce thought about the people he passed every time he made a house call, thought about the poverty that even those in homes with jobs were facing around here. He thought about his own experience trying to make it on his own after his own life went to hell for a while. Phil had been there for him, and he’d had a clear goal of becoming a veterinarian. He had support. It didn’t look like Clint had much support.

They watched the squirrels play chase in the tiny backyard for a few minutes.

“I spoke with Sam this afternoon,” Phil said, leaning back in his chair. “He thinks he could at least help figure out what Clint needs and get him pointed in the right direction, and he said he’d do it for pizza from Giordino’s and that beer, and I quote, ‘from that one abbey in Belgium.’”

Bruce laughed. “I’m not exactly sure how he drinks it with pizza, but okay.” Sam and Bruce were beer snobs. Phil had spent enough time in and around the military that he was fine with Budweiser. It was an artificial argument he and Bruce enjoyed on occasion.

“Maybe Natasha can find Clint for us.”

“Phil, how are we going to convince Clint to talk with Sam? We hardly know him.”

Phil was quiet for a minute, and then he stood, ready to go in and get dressed for the day. “Sometimes, just being offered help without having to go ask for it is what someone needs.”

Bruce wanted to see Clint again.

There was something incredibly compelling about him, and Bruce wanted to see him and invite him around for dinner or coffee and just talk to him. It wasn’t all about him needing help. It was also the gleam in his eye when he looked at the kitten, the fierceness in his jaw when he explained what happened to the dog, the softness of his gaze when he finally settled after his panic attack.

He reminded Bruce of someone who hated how little control they had over themselves, who wished they were different, who knew who they wanted to be but didn’t know how to get there. He really reminded Bruce of himself before he and Phil settled down together.