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The Time to Find a Place to Land

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Phil wakes up in a narrow box. For thirty seconds that feels like an hour, he can't catch his breath. Training kicks in and he clocks his surroundings. It's a white box, thick plastic and not the metal of a mortuary tray or the wood of a coffin. There is light spilling in, which would be the most obvious sign were it not for the note stuck to what is presumably supposed to be a viewing window. You're not dead. Knock when you wake up. Phil would recognise his boss's handwriting anywhere. He knocks on the lid of the box, and counts to ten.

By seven, SHIELD medical technicians are swarming all over him. Phil is essentially naked, and this would bother him under other circumstances, but he is distracted by the place on his chest where a scar ought to be.

It's another sixty four seconds before the Director appears. Phil has been moved onto a bed, has a sheet for modesty, and the technicians are no less eager to prod him with things. He holds still, and lets them slide a needle into his arm, although he can’t imagine what it’s for.

Fury says, “They’re going to need to put you under again for a little bit so we’ll do this fast. Still remember your name?”

Phil doesn’t roll his eyes, although it’s a close-run thing. He knows the procedure. “Phil Coulson.”

“What's the last thing you remember?”

“Telling you to- Sir, did we win?”

“We won. Let them look at you. We'll talk when you wake up.”

Phil wants to say, 'I've just woken up' but sleep draws him under again. His body fights more than usual; the world whites out to the sound of monitors starting to beep.

 

*

The next time he wakes up, no one is there.

Phil looks around and, when it is apparent there is nobody to stop him, he pulls aside the sheet and climbs out of the hospital bed. For a dangerous moment, his legs don’t feel like they’re going to support him, but he holds tight to the edge of the bed until he stabilises.

He holds onto the wall and walks into the bathroom. In the mirror, his own face looks back at him. He holds onto the doorframe and turns around, pushing the hospital gown away from his back. He looks over his shoulder to see the place in the mirror. There’s a suggestion of a mark – a barely visible line of paler skin reaching from his shoulder to meet his spine – but no other signs of trauma.

Fury coughs and Phil spins around, dizzy until his boss catches his arm. Fury says, “Medical orders have never really meant much to you, have they, Coulson?”

“In my defence, sir, no one’s actually given me any orders yet.”

“I would have thought waking up in a white room would be a clue.”

“A good agent makes sure to examine his surroundings.”

“A good agent probably gets stabbed less often than you do.”

“Still pissed about that one, really?”

Fury takes a breath. “You should probably sit down.”

“Okay.” Phil walks back to the edge of the bed, letting Fury keep a hand on him. He’s not going to fall over but his priority right now seems to be whatever the Director is so reluctant to tell him. When he’s sitting down, Phil says, “You told me we won.”

“We did.”

“And they’re all okay? Is Barton-?”

“Romanoff got Barton back, he’s fine.” There’s something he doesn’t say there, a ‘but’ that should have come after ‘fine’ which Phil will work on later.

Phil says, “She punched him in the head?”

“I believe she kicked him in the head, but both parties claim to be a little fuzzy on the decisive blow.”

“So what’s the problem?”

“Well, the aliens got though and destroyed a goodly portion of New York. Stark blasted himself into space for a minute or so but he came back okay. The Council ordered a nuclear strike against us, which I’m still a little pissed about. Not as pissed as they are, but I don’t care about that so much. And you’ve been in a coma for ten months.”

Phil takes a minute or two to absorb that. “Ten months.”

“Give or take.”

“Why do I get the impression that’s not even the thing you’re worried about telling me?”

“Because you’re a smart man.” Fury exhales. “They thought you were dead until yesterday.”

 

*

Clint wouldn’t say he lets Natasha punch him, but he doesn’t put much effort into stopping her. They’re just supposed to be sparring, but she seems to have a point to make. She says, “You could go and see him.”

He rolls on the mat. “Who?”

“Guess.” She waits for him to get onto his feet before sweeping his legs from underneath him. She’s considerate that way.

“If he wants to see me, he can ask.”

“He’s still in medical.”

“I’m sure he can find someone to send a message. Fury, maybe.”

Fury had called them all onto the Helicarrier three days ago, claiming an urgent meeting. Clint and Natasha follow orders but whatever he had said to the others it must have sounded important. Stark and Banner appeared out of the depths of Stark’s labs; Rogers had come back from the touring of America’s heartlands he does when he’s not on a mission; and Thor had left Doctor Foster alone for ten minutes.

Clint had been in New York anyway, rattling around the Helicarrier. They still don’t like him leaving on his own.

Fury had taken one look around them and said, without apology, “Coulson’s alive.”

Clint’s reaction to this news had probably been the most muted, given the company he was keeping.

Into the cacophony of noise and questions and ‘what the fuck, you lying bastard?’ Natasha had asked, “Can we see him?” Which was smart, because apparently they can’t trust a word that comes out of Fury’s mouth. They needed some independent verification.

Fury had said, “He’s unconscious, right now. He only woke up for a minute or two.”

“And?” Stark asked.

“He asked if we won.”

That was so very Phil that Clint could have cried, but he didn’t, because he hadn’t yet and this seemed like an unfortunate time to start. Clint said, “He’s been unconscious this whole time,” and was a little impressed that his voice sounded calm.

Fury nodded and Stark asked, “And the reason you couldn’t, I don’t know, tell us that?”

Fury said, “Because we didn’t know he’d wake up.” They had apparently used some experimental medical tech, loosely based on the stuff that made Rogers a super-soldier, which they had been working on in secret along with the weaponry. Phil would probably appreciate being brought to life with Captain America rays. Even if they hadn’t had any real clue what it was going to do to him. He woke up in the end and Phil tended to consider the outcome the important part.

“So you used his ‘death’,” – Stark vocalised the quote marks – “to, what? Make us play along?”

“That one,” Fury said, “was all his idea.”

That was as much Phil as the other thing, and Clint shouldn’t have been surprised by it. He still was, a little.

Natasha punches Clint again. He’s beginning to wonder if her punching him back into sanity has set a dangerous precedent. He had wondered why she wanted to spar this afternoon. Natasha says, “Everyone else has gone to see him. Tony yelled at him for twenty minutes before Phil could get a word in.”

Clint suspects that it wasn’t so much that Phil couldn’t interrupt as that he was amused by Stark’s concern.

Natasha says, “You know Banner left again? And Thor’s back on Asgard.”

“Yeah. I don’t know how that relates to Coulson.”

Clint locks his legs around Natasha’s neck and drags her down with him. She bounces back to her feet. “At least Steve and him had a moment before he left.”

That, Clint wouldn’t have minded seeing. But Rogers has motorcycled off again, Thor has gone to the other end of his intergalactic commute, and no one is claiming to know where Banner is. They do, of course, but they like to deny it. At least Clint stayed in the country.

Natasha throws a punch, trapping Clint's arm when he moves to block her. “He’d like to see you.”

Clint rocks back away from her, shaking out his arm to get the feeling back. “I’m not the one that went away. He can ask.”

 

*

Phil does ask the next day; he passes the word for him all along the Helicarrier. Clint waits outside the door until Fury walks out.

Fury stops him. “He’s still in recovery.”

“Yes, sir.”

“So none of your shit.”

“No, sir.”

Fury rolls his eye. “Maybe crack a smile, make it look like you’re happy he’s not dead.”

“Yes, sir.”

Fury sighs, and lets Clint walk past him into Phil’s room.

For a minute or two, Phil just looks at him. “Agent Barton.”

“You wanted to see me, sir?”

“Yes.”

“Did you want my report?”

Phil blinks at him, startled. “Which report would that be?”

Clint shrugs. “Sometimes you liked – like – to have me give a verbal report. Sometimes my written ones lack detail. I thought maybe I had missed something.”

Phil watches him with a steady gaze. “Do you want to talk, Clint?”

“You asked for me, sir.”

“Then okay,” Phil says. “Give me your report, Agent Barton.”

Clint clasps his hands together behind his back, feet shoulder-distance apart. “Where should I start?”

Phil rubs his hand over his eyes. “Would you feel better sitting down? Or- okay, stay there if you want. Let’s start with the parts I missed, if you can. The Director won’t say much.”

“You want- from the base evac?” Clint stumbles over the words, still isn’t quite sure what the appropriate casual term is for ‘mindfucked me into obedience.’

Phil says, “It’s- No, I didn’t miss that part. Start from what happened after you won.”

Clint says, “Stark took us out for shawarma?” He thinks Phil laughs at that, but it’s hard to tell without looking at him and Clint is staring at the wall. “Thor took Loki back to Asgard. I was benched for two months. Natasha and I were sent out to various places hot cold and classified. Stark went missing for a month and came back with God knows what changes to the armour. Banner freaked out a little, but not in a lethal destruction way. And there are apparently Doombots now. That’s about all you missed.”

“Captain Rogers?” Phil asks. “Thor?”

“Rogers I don’t know about. Fury’s had him out doing something. Thor got back about a month ago and he stayed with Doctor Foster once we got the situation calmed down.”

“So you haven’t seen much of each other?”

“Hasn’t been a need. Except the Doombot thing. And another radioactive scientist, which I think is a trend someone should be looking into. But the Initiative’s an elite tactical unit or whatever, they don’t call the big guns in unless they need them. Two missions, since the invasion, where Fury wanted them in. We’re still working clean-up on the second one.”

“Clint.”

Clint looks down, meeting Phil’s eyes. “Sir?”

“You’re saying ‘them’ a lot.”

“Sir?”

Phil says, very pleasantly, “Say ‘sir’ in that tone one more time, Agent Barton, I dare you.”

“Wow, dying has not mellowed you at all.”

Phil looks stung by that, like he’s only just noticed that Clint is fucking pissed at him. “Clint.”

Truthfully, Clint hadn’t realised just how pissed off he was until he got into the room. Because what Phil is asking is ‘how are the Avengers?’ What he’s asking is for a status report on the reasons he felt it was okay to rush a God and get himself stabbed and then lie about it. “Sorry, sir,” Clint says. “Maybe push a little harder next time.” He takes Phil’s silence for dismissal, and goes back to his quarters.

 

*

“What the hell did you tell him?” Phil demands.

Fury stares at him. “Did you call me down from the bridge to yell at me?”

“Yes!”

“Well then I’d advise you to think carefully on who signs the paperwork to let you leave this room, and also about the way you have so far given me no context for this racket.”

“Barton,” Phil clarifies. “What did you tell him?”

“I told them all the same thing. I told them you got better.”

Phil ignores that. “Push a little harder he said. That sounded awfully specific.”

“You’re the one who said they needed a push. Right before bleeding all over me and allowing your heart to stop beating.”

“I said-.” Phil calms his breathing. “A) I was dying and B) I didn’t mean him and C) I didn’t tell you to tell them that.” He doesn’t add ‘D) there was no ‘allowing’, it just happened that way.’ Fury knows that, even if he’s pretending he doesn’t. He was there.

Fury says, “They wanted an explanation for the ten months in a coma with no visitors thing.”

“And you couldn’t say ‘highly experimental regeneration technology that was as likely to make me grow a third arm as fix the hole in my chest’?”

“I don’t think that would have cut it.”

“And?”

“And so I explained, very politely, that when a dying man asks you to do something for him, you go right ahead and do it. And until I knew for certain you weren’t dead, I wasn’t going to be the one to fuck over your last request.”

That’s about as close to sentimental as the Director gets. Phil says, “I wanted them to work together.”

“They saved humanity. That’s a literal fact. And I don’t think they would have managed it if you hadn’t got them mad enough to finally see straight ahead.”

“Clint would.” Clint must have gone into that battle with his head just about as turned around as a person’s could be and Phil has read the reports. Clint did his job. “Natasha too. It was the others who-.”

“And it worked. So what’s the problem?”

The problem is that Clint now, ten months on, shouldn’t still look like that.

 

*

Pepper Potts comes to see Phil, with Stark dragging awkwardly behind her. Phil smiles. “Ms Potts.”

Her eyes are suspiciously bright. “Still Pepper, Agent Coulson.” She smiles. “How are you feeling, Phil?”

“Much better, thank you. Still waiting for them to let me out of here, though I don’t actually have anywhere else to go.” Phil had been dead, and for all official purposes he still is. His things are in boxes and the lease on his apartment was ended months ago.

Pepper waves that problem away. “You can come to the Tower, Tony has plenty of room.”

Phil waits for Stark to glare at her and shoot that one down and when he doesn’t do it himself Phil says, “I couldn’t do that.”

Stark stares at the floor. “No, you should, it’s fine. All the rooms, you won’t even see me. I have,” - he takes a long moment to consider something – “space.” That’s not even close to enough of an answer to fill that silence. “It’ll be great. Easy access for all your consultancy.”

This is a monumentally terrible idea, but it comes with the compensatory factor that medical say if he’s going somewhere with other people, he can leave tomorrow. Stark probably doesn’t count as adequate supervision but Phil has always got on well with JARVIS.

The next day, he tells the flight deck he needs to fly to the city, and they make that happen. The first thing Stark says when Phil climbs out of the Quinjet is, “I’m redesigning the landing bay.”

“Okay.”

“I wasn’t really planning for jets, which is an oversight, I guess I was mostly planning for me, or maybe Pepper, but now I find myself needing space for a jet. Jets plural, actually, because you came in one, but obviously we need one here as well.”

Phil waves the pilot away again. “Obviously.”

Stark says, “And we have one. We could do with two here, but that’s what the redesign is about.”

Pepper appears then, stepping past Stark to put her hand on Phil’s arm. “Let’s get you settled. Tony, I’ve got this, why don’t you go and check on the construction?” She leans in to whisper, “Every time I think he’s done, he comes up with something else that needs upgraded.”

She leads Phil down the steps and into an elevator. They descend a few floors and the doors open onto a dimly lit corridor. The light levels rise and the walls say, “Good afternoon, Agent Coulson. May I say that it is good to see you looking so well?”

“Thank you, JARVIS.”

“Your things have been moved into the bedroom at the end of the hallway. The kitchen is fully stocked and, based upon a consultation with Mr Stark, the TiVo has been pre-loaded with a selection of programmes which should match your interests.”

Phil raises one eyebrow.

Pepper says, “I don’t know. With Tony, it could be anything.”

Phil would be willing to make a guess or two, but Stark has been surprising him since he woke up.

She says, “You’re welcome to join us for dinner, but I know you must be tired, so don’t feel like you have to. And JARVIS is here, so if you need anything, he can get me. I’m in the city for a few days, checking in on the office. And you, of course.” She smiles at him again. “You’ve been missed.”

When she goes back upstairs, Phil walks around the suite. Stark has instructed the television to record what looks to be ten months worth of reality television, set up a series recording for So You Think You Can Dance, and added an X-Files marathon which is either intended as a men in black reference or an indication that Stark knows how much Phil admires red-headed sceptics. Phil decides to leave asking to later.

There are two doors in the suite that simply lead to other, unoccupied suites. JARVIS asks, “Would you prefer a different view, sir?”

“No, I’m fine thank you. How many people are living in the Tower?”

“There are a number of workers in the offices and laboratories who choose to make occasional use of the sleeping quarters in the lower levels. There are some human security personnel on a twenty-four hour watch.”

“I meant in the top floors.”

“Mr Stark occupies the penthouse, along with Ms Potts, when they are in New York. There is no one else currently occupying the official living spaces.”

Space, Stark had said. “Show me a plan of the top floors of the building, please?” Phil asks.

Blueprints fly onto the nearest screen. Phil notes the areas that are simply greyed-out, above his clearance level however Stark makes such determinations. But there are rooms upon rooms, there is something which has to be a shooting range stretching from one corner of the building to the other, and a few parts with ominous looking ‘hazardous’ tags over the whole floor.

Phil had noticed the single letter of the sign as he flew towards the building. On his life, he wouldn’t have bet on Stark being the one most on board with the idea of this team. Then, maybe that’s something he should stop betting with.

 

*

Clint goes to visit Phil’s room again. He’s not sure why, exactly, but he’s been circling the hospital wing for an hour or so before he decides he should probably clear out of the ceiling duct and just go in.

The empty bed makes his heart stutter.

One of the nurses – Sandra – catches sight of him. “What did you do to yourself now?”

Clint draws breath. “Agent Coulson check himself out?”

She rolls her eyes. “That was Stark. And Miss Potts, so I suppose I shouldn’t worry too much.”

“He left with Stark?”

Sandra tuts sympathetically. “I don’t think he knew where else to go, poor man. The Director didn’t want him staying here. And it’s no place to live, really, is it?”

“I’ll let you know when they let me leave.”

Technically, Clint has an apartment he could go to. He’s still being paid, so his rent is still being paid. Fury might even let him leave if he asked nicely enough. Clint knows he’s unnerving some of the agents by staying around here. But Clint’s not going to get any more knowledgeable about the Helicarrier – he already knows every inch of it and he’s not going to become any more of a threat to it by staying around. He doesn’t have any secret sinister motives for not trying to leave. He just can’t really picture the part where he goes back to sleeping in his own bed and sits on his couch eating cereal out of the box. He hasn’t felt stood down yet.

Clint leaves the hospital bay and goes to the range. If he’s going to feel permanently like they’re just about to go into battle, he may as well make use of the adrenaline.

 

*

JARVIS says, “A Ms Lewis is here to see you, sir. She claims to be from SHIELD.”

Fury said he was sending someone with more briefing material. Phil says, “Darcy Lewis? From New Mexico?”

There is a moment of silence. “Apparently you still owe her an iPod.”

Phil says, “Let her in.”

Darcy Lewis tiptoes into the suite. “Good, you’re not dead.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Fury said, and I’m quoting here, ‘keep an eye on him, sometimes he does stupid-ass things like getting himself killed’.” She smiles, a little uncertain. “I guess as long as you come back to life again that’s cool.”

“Ms Lewis, did you have something for me?”

“Darcy.” Phil keeps staring. She says, “Fine, we’ll work up to that. The Director wanted me to give you a hand filtering through the paperwork to get you up to speed. And anything else you need, for meetings and all.”

Phil holds up his hand. “Could you give me a moment?” He walks to the other side of the living room and calls Fury. “Did you hire me an assistant?”

“You needed one,” Fury says without apology. “Ten months is a long time.”

“Apparently. Ten months ago she was a poli-sci student crunching numbers for lab credit.”

“She’s a fast learner and volunteers are thin on the ground right now. So until you’re sufficiently informed to be able to do your damn job again…”

“Fine,” Phil says. “Thank you, sir.” Phil goes back to sit opposite Darcy. “Where would you like to start?”

She grins at him and holds out her tablet. “Doombots.”

There have been two incidents that required the intervention of the Avengers since Phil died. Neither of them was a full team response, since Captain Rogers couldn’t be reached for the Radioactive Man incident, and Thor wasn’t on Earth when the Doombots attacked.

Darcy says, “But we’re seeing an increase in weird attacks requiring SHIELD response, and escalation in their threat levels.”

“You think we’re due another big one?”

She shrugs. “Honestly? Yeah. I don’t see the world getting less scary any time soon.”

Phil looks at her. “Why did you join SHIELD, Ms Lewis?”

“Seemed like the thing to do.” She wrinkles her nose. “Okay, yes, fine. I graduated, and toured around with Jane for a bit and then one day I look at my phone and there are aliens invading New York.”

“That would seem like a good reason not to.”

“Well, I like to know what’s going on. If we’re going to be invaded, I don’t want to find out from Twitter.”

“Neither do we, but the world is turning that direction. A billion dollar satellite defence system is nothing to being the kid in the right place when the magic portal opens.”

She stares at him. “That was almost a joke.”

“Almost.”

Darcy coughs. “Cool. Okay, back to Doombots.”

They work through the reports of both incidents. Fury is right – Darcy has clearly been learning fast, and she’s good with the details the reports miss. She has been working on the Helicarrier near Maria’s station, so she comes up with information on who responded first and the different orders that were given. She’s good with nuance, which is not always a quality you find in SHIELD agents.

Darcy’s phone rings. She looks at it. “I actually need to answer this.”

“Go ahead.”

She listens to the other person for a moment. “I can ask him.” She covers the mouthpiece. “Agent Barton needs to know how classified your not being dead is.”

“I- why does he need to know that?”

She consults and then replies, “Apparently he needs to know whether he’s allowed to tell his shrink in their session today. His word, not mine.” Darcy looks at Phil for a while. She puts the phone back to her ear. “Yeah, not sure if he knows. Want me to call Director Fury and check for you? Well, I get that it impacts on the kind of week you’ve been having. That’s why I’m offering to call. Fine, go ahead.” She hangs up. “He says he’s telling her anyway.”

 

*

Clint likes Dr Grace. Honestly, he thinks all the therapists at SHIELD are probably pretty good at their jobs. It's something of a prerequisite when your clients come and tell you stories about aliens and mind-control - you either deal with the unnerving shit people tell you, or you don't last long. Clint spends most of his time not sure what to say back to people who are only asking him how he is today, so he respects the skills of the people who know the best words to say. He would just rather be appreciating them in a non-personal capacity.

She smiles at him and says, “Yes, Clint, I’m aware of that.”

“Okay.”

“How did you react to finding out?”

He narrows his eyes at her. “Is this one of those questions you already know the answer to?”

“I’d like to know what you think about it.”

“Because it sounds like one of the questions where Hill’s already told you I freaked out a little.”

“Clint.”

He folds his hands together on his knees. “I wrote in my book.”

Dr Grace smiles encouragingly. Therapy also comes with homework, which is another downside of the personal involvement part. Clint is supposed to be writing down things that trip him up through the week, so he can talk about them with Dr Grace later. He hasn’t had much to write recently – there aren’t so many ways to write about guilt. He has been writing the bits he can remember, the things he remembers about the people who died. Clint had been pretty sure Dr Grace was going to tell him he shouldn’t be dwelling on the deaths, but mostly she just listens.

She listens when he tells her about Phil. It turns out Clint has more words about that. There are more words for the ways he’s still so angry he can’t see through it and he doesn’t even know why.

Clint says, “You going to tell me I should just be glad he’s alive?”

“Are you?” she asks.

“Of course I’m glad he’s alive.”

“But you’re still angry with him.”

“He had a plan that involved him dying to get the Avengers together.”

“Did it work?”

Clint isn’t sure that’s the point. The point is that Phil shouldn’t have been making those sorts of plans. The point is that he wouldn’t have needed them if Clint hadn’t led an assault on the Helicarrier. And the point is that Clint spent ten months mourning a man who could come up with a plan like that. He says, “It worked for a while.”

 

*

Phil prefers working in bases that aren’t the Helicarrier, but from an operational standpoint it’s still the best they have left. Captain Rogers is apparently back in New York after his brief sojourn chasing rumours of Hydra operatives in California. It’s been a year since the attack on New York, although naturally Phil still feels it as two months.

Clint and Natasha are both on the Helicarrier, and supposed to be at this meeting, but Natasha is the only one who shows up. Rogers is here already, and Phil ensures Stark’s presence by the expedient measure of making him fly in with Phil. Banner is still officially off the radar, though everyone knows where he is, and Thor couldn’t be reached in time.

Phil could send someone to find Clint, but that didn’t work last time. He goes himself, checking the range first and then asking the people working around the main access points if they saw anyone entering the vents. Then he has to explain that no one’s in trouble, because apparently some of the junior agents haven’t realised that it’s been a year since Clint was under Loki’s control and he hasn’t done anything suspect since.

Phil tries Clint’s quarters here mostly as a last resort. He knocks and, when no one answers, overrides the lock.

Clint startles awake on the cot, eyes wide and seeing something that isn’t there.

Phil crosses the few feet of floor without thinking. “Clint. It’s fine, you’re safe, everything’s okay.” He crouches down low on the floor, saying the things he always says.

Clint looks at him and says, “I killed you.”

“No, you didn’t, I’m right here. It wasn’t your fault. It wasn’t you. If anyone’s- he had you as a hostage and we weren’t quick enough to get you back. It wasn’t your fault.”

Clint stares at him like no one’s said this before, which can’t be true but which goes to Phil’s chest anyway. Clint says, “You don’t know that.”

“Yes, I do.”

“He picked me for a reason.”

“Yes,” Phil says patiently, “of course he did.”

Clint jerks away from him. “He touched-.” He reaches out with one hand and Phil watched all this footage, recorded on SHIELD secure servers and encrypted, sent into the sky and locked far away from the lab as it fell. He saw Loki touch the staff to Clint’s chest, saw his eyes change, saw the way Clint’s mouth formed ‘boss’ as he trailed after Loki. “He picked me,” Clint says again. “He knew I would...”

“Clint, no. He picked you- he had been watching the project since it started. He was whispering to Doctor Selvig for months before we picked up on it.” Clint is watching him, disbelieving. Phil says, “He picked you because he wanted a sniper, he wanted someone at SHIELD, it wasn’t- it wasn’t your fault.”

Clint ducks away from him, heading out of the room and away before Phil can react. Phil could probably have handled that better. He goes to find Maria.

“Coulson?” she asks.

“Who debriefed my team?”

“I’m sorry?”

“After the attack. Who was it?”

“I really don’t know what you’re asking me.”

“In his debriefing notes, Doctor Selvig mentions that he believed Loki was observing him before he was physically present. In his interrogation, Loki agreed that he had been observing the entire facility, including and especially Doctor Selvig and Agent Barton. So why did Agent Barton not know that?”

“Are you blaming me for this?” she asks.

“No.”

“Good. Because I’m sympathetic to the situation, but I’m not being held responsible for- in the ten months you were out, Fury wouldn’t put someone else in charge. Between the attack on Project Pegasus and on the Helicarrier, and then in the city itself, we lost more agents than we could spare. We can’t replace them, because no one wants to sign up and be killed by aliens who verifiably exist. We need to investigate the possibility that more of them are coming, but our only expert in the field is still traumatised by having his head messed with and won’t come back into the country. And every time we nearly get a minute to look at those things, there’s another attack. We have been…” she exhales. “We’ve been barely treading water here.”

Phil takes that in. He says, “Okay. I’ll deal with Barton, I’ll deal with the Avengers. I should let you get back to work.”

She touches his arm. “We should talk properly,” she says. “When it’s not so…” She gestures around her at the people scurrying past in the Helicarrier corridor.

“We will,” he says. “When it’s calmer.” He heads back to his office where the rest are still waiting.

Natasha says, “Did you find Clint?”

“He was in his quarters, I don’t know where he is now.”

Darcy says, “Do you want to wait for him, or should we start?”

“Right now, I need you to draw up a to-do list.”

“For me or for you?”

“My list, but some of them are going to add items to your list.”

She holds her stylus over the tablet. “Shoot.”

“New policy: any SHIELD agent with personnel management responsibility is replaced within six weeks of their death or resignation, no exceptions. Death in this instance is taken to mean legal death, whether or not the agent in question is actually dead.”

Stark interrupts, “That’s kind of cold-.”

Phil keeps talking. “Darcy to prepare notes on media coverage of Avengers incidents, and review with me when you’re done. Review classified information on Chitauri invasion and discuss with members of Avengers to compare against original debrief. Organise meeting with Doctor Foster to see if we can’t persuade her into a lab in New York – we need someone on the inter-dimensional alert systems, and it isn’t fair to keep chasing Doctor Selvig. Meet with Captain Rogers regarding possible recruitment drive.” Phil turns to look at the man. “I’m sorry, I know you don’t like the publicity but we need agents.” He looks back at Darcy. “I want you in on that meeting. Next, meet with Indira Ghosh at the FBI to see if she still wants a career change, or if she can recommend anyone who does. You’re in that one too. We need to up your security clearance at least one level. Meet with Stark regarding lab space for Doctor Foster and the pace of upgrades on the Helicarrier. Find Banner.” Phil takes a breath. “And we also need to find some coffee.”

Darcy smiles. “I think we should stick the last thing first.”

“Good. Captain Rogers?”

He has one hand raised tentatively. “Really, Steve would be better. And I’ll do anything I can to help. As long as there’s no chorus line.”

Stark says, “Chorus lines can be effective in the right circumstances, let me tell you.” He nods at Phil. “I’m going to hunt Barton down. See if I can’t get him to come stay in the Tower. He shouldn’t be sleeping here.”

Natasha says, “You won’t find him.”

“I might if you help.”

She rolls her eyes. “Fine.”

Stark heads for the door. “Coulson, are you going to be ready to go by the time we find him?”

Phil considers the average time it takes to find Clint if he doesn’t want to be found. “I’ll be ready.”

 

*

Clint had wanted to get out of the Helicarrier. This is what happens to people who wish for things. You get abducted by bored geniuses who have clearly taken too much of a shine to Phil and think this will get them in his good books. It won’t.

Stark points into the room with a kind of aborted wave. “Bedroom, lounge, kitchen. Bathroom. Range access through there.”

Clint stares at him. “Why do you have a range?”

“Why not? I shoot things. And I don’t run out of ammunition. Well, I do, but it’s indicative of a larger problem and- anyway. If you need anything, ask JARVIS. I have things to do.”

He disappears into the elevator before Clint can ask, “JARVIS?”

“Sir.”

Talking ceilings don’t really help Clint’s apparently fragile psyche. He’s read the briefing packs on Stark. Advanced AI. “You’re the computer.”

“The artificial intelligence, yes.”

Clint is pretty sure he was just sassed by the computer, but that’s kind of cool. “Sorry,” he says. “Which way was the range again?”

The second door on the left lights up. “Straight through here.”

Clint touches the door, which unlocks slowly, displaying a sign on the screen beside which says Access: Barton. He’ll have to talk to Stark later about security codes. He opens the door and whistles. “Stark get a lot of use out of something like this?”

“Mr Stark has not used this range. He usually prefers to do his testing in the field.” The computer voice is snippy again. Phil told Clint once that Stark built a jerry-rigged particle accelerator in his basement. Clint can imagine that Stark wouldn’t have much use for the safety protocols in a range like this.

His bow is locked in the weapons cabinet – although again it opens at his touch – along with a variety of arrowheads and shafts. There is a set at the bottom that Clint doesn’t recognise. The label reads:

Barton -

Experimental protocols 1-6. Narrow focus explosives. Do not test on the outside walls: targets supplied. Feedback to tstark@stark.com / come upstairs.

- Tony

 

A few hours later, Clint writes an email.

From: cb-090@shield.int

Aim best on 1. Explosions best on 4. Out of targets.
- Barton

Clint goes to the kitchen and makes himself a sandwich. When he finishes, JARVIS says, “Mr Stark would like me to let you know that there will be new targets tomorrow. He would also like me to stress that you should take a break from shooting things as he is unsure whether the enhanced explosives or the reinforced walls would win out in a fight.”

Clint looks up at the ceiling. “Thanks.”

 

*

Phil is taking a walk on the roof when Banner steps out of the doorway. Banner nods at him. “Agent Coulson.”

“Dr Banner. I understood you were out of the country.” Phil has been told that Banner visited when he first woke up, but he doesn’t remember it. The last he remembers of seeing Banner – not the other guy – was on the monitors in a Helicarrier lab. He doesn’t look much different.

“I was, I-.” Banner agrees, twisting his hands together. “For the past few months. I’m not very good at being comfortable. Old habits.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Tony can be a little… ten floors of labs. Scientist’s dream.”

“Should I be asking why you came back or why you left in the first place?”

Banner takes his glasses off to rub them. “I had been here for most of the other eight months. I found myself… missing it, I suppose. New habits.”

There is a commotion at the foot of the stairs. “No, I don’t care if they’re having a private conversation.” Stark opens the door. “Bruce.” He smiles, open and fond and as natural as Phil has seen him with anyone who isn’t Pepper.

“Tony,” Banner replies, wry. “You hear me come in?”

“I have people to hear you come in. Well, JARVIS. Are you coming down to the lab, I have a thing to show you. Some things. Ten or twenty. And Barton’s been sending me thoughts about explosions, so there’s that.”

“Give me ten minutes. I need to unpack.”

“You never have anything to unpack, every time you come back you have the same bag with three changes of clothes and a watch. Wait, so you are unpacking?”

“I heard people were looking for me,” Banner says. “They keep finding me. I think it’s probably easier if I stay here for a while. Unless you’ve given my room to Agent Barton.”

Stark exhales. “No. Another room for him. I have room. I have all the rooms.”

“Good,” Banner says. Then: “Ten minutes. Your lab, yes?”

Stark nods, and Banner heads back downstairs. Stark grins. “Don’t hold dinner. Stuff to do, things to explode, physics to redefine. God, I missed Bruce.”

 

*

Clint goes exploring in the building. If Stark asks, Clint will tell him that he was testing the security protocols. There are parts of the building it is way too easy to reach by unconventional means. The doors all lock and there are some slightly worrying baby robots watching out for the labs, but Clint has other ways of getting from place to place.

He ducks through an open window and goes very still. “Doctor Banner.”

Banner manages not to look startled. “Agent Barton.”

“Sorry, I didn’t realise anyone was in here.” He makes to head back out of the window.

Banner stops him. “Would you prefer the door?”

“Not really.”

“Would you mind if I said I preferred the door? We’re quite high up.”

“I have a line.” Clint’s rooms are higher up than these ones.

“So I see but it would still-.”

He is interrupted by JARVIS saying, “Agent Barton, Agent Coulson has been looking for you. Your position could not be verified.”

Clint makes a fist. “Mind telling him he shouldn’t be trying to verify my position?” JARVIS either chooses not to respond to this, or Phil asks him not to give an answer. Clint asks, mostly rhetorically, “What do you think are the chances JARVIS didn’t tell him where I am? Not that I’m totally sure myself. Other than ‘lab’ but that doesn’t mean much in here.”

“Computer lab,” Banner says. “Mine. I don’t know if they have names or numbers beyond that. Are you and Agent Coulson arguing?”

“No.”

“You’re just hiding from him.”

Clint inclines his head. “He thinks I’m mad at him.”

“I’m not sure jumping out windows to avoid him is going to change his mind.”

“No, I mean I am mad at him. I just don’t want to talk about it.” Clint also doesn’t want to talk about why he doesn’t want to talk about it, but here they are.

Banner nods. “Okay.”

“You’re not going to tell me it’s a little low to get pissed at someone for dying? Because that’s the popular opinion.”

Banner smiles. “Far be it from me to encourage getting angry as a coping method, but…”

“What?”

He says, “If you’re going to keep feeling bad about what you did, or get angry at Coulson for what he did, if it's him or you…”

“What?” Clint demands.

“We don’t know each other very well yet, but from what I know of the two of you? I think when it comes down to it, you’re going to find him easier to forgive. So he’s a better target than you.”

Clint guesses Banner would probably know something about that.

 

*

Phil is supposed to be easing back into work. He has been told that he has to allow himself an adjustment period. He’s had ten months vanish and the world went on without him. Apparently this is something Phil needs to allow himself to absorb. The problem with this is that Phil’s sense of scale runs to seventy years and Steve Rogers. Compared to that, he doesn’t have much to complain about.

He has been trying to resume normal working hours, so far as that applies to SHIELD agents. When he’s not on active assignment, Phil spends most of his time in offices, in various bases and on the Helicarrier. The last few years before Loki’s attack, he just had a lot of special assignments.

Darcy sits at a desk on the other side of the office. “Boss?”

“Hmm?”

“Steve’s here soon, you still want me in?”

“Did I tell you I wanted you in?” he asks.

“Yes.”

“Then I want you in.”

“Even if I have no idea why?”

Phil bends the laptop screen down to look at her. “We’re discussing recruitment strategy.”

“Yes.”

“Darcy, you signed up with us at the precise point we became the last line of defence against the unthinkable, after two attacks which killed or seriously injured hundreds of our active personnel. If anyone can offer an insight into what we need to do to get back to full complement, surely that’s you?”

She looks at him, lips parted. “Maybe I think defending my planet’s a pretty good reason?”

“Darcy-.”

“I mean, getting to bitch out Captain America for not filling in his reports properly is also a perk.”

“Darcy-.”

“Plus I’m easily bored, and this job is not boring. Terrifying. But not boring.”

There is a knock on the door. “Hello? Agent Coulson?”

Darcy calls back, “Door’s open, Steve.” She loud-whispers to Phil, “Also a perk: he wants to be called Steve. Seriously, what’s not to like about my job? Except for the terror.” She smiles at him, and turns to smile wider at Captain Rogers. “Hi.”

“Hello, Darcy. How are you?”

“My boss doubts my dedication to planetary defence.” She makes an exaggerated pouting face.

Rogers laughs. “I’m sure that’s not true.” He drags a chair across to face Phil. “Sir. You wanted to speak to me.”

“Yes. We need a recruiting drive. This is SHIELD, so we can’t exactly just place an ad. But we’re not a secret any more either.”

“No,” Rogers agrees. “What can I do?”

“We have some opportunities to talk to groups of possible candidates. I think you could be a good speaker.”

He flushes, “I’m really not- well, I never really liked that part. I was, at least I think I was, a better soldier than an advertisement.”

“I’m not asking you to be a billboard, Captain,” Phil says. “I wouldn’t dream of it. But I don’t know if you realise what it could mean to have someone who-.”

“You should talk to them,” Rogers says out of the blue. “You’re a hero, you fought in the attack - you should talk to them.”

Phil smiles. “I don’t think I would be the best candidate, given what happened. I’m not going to force you, obviously, but I wish you would consider it.”

“I can’t even…” Rogers looks at the desk. “You know I can’t even get Agent Barton to talk to me?”

Phil hasn’t seen much of them together – Rogers still has his apartment and he doesn’t spend much time in the Tower. Phil lives in the same building as Clint and still doesn’t see him often. He can imagine where the problem could be. Phil asks, “How did you try?”

“Just- talking? ‘Hello, how have you been doing?’ Should I have done something else?”

“Agent Barton doesn’t have much small-talk,” Phil says. “You might go better if you give him something to do.”

Rogers’ smile is grateful. “I’ll try that. And if you- if you really want me to do one of these talks, then of course I’ll do my best.”

When he leaves, Darcy says, “He makes me want to stand straighter. Even when I’m sitting down. That’s normal, right?”

“You’re fine,” Phil says.

 

*

Rogers takes him aside to ask him, like he thinks Clint might say no. Clint considers doing that, briefly, though no reason he can come up with would pass inspection.

Rogers asks, “You think you could show me how the jet flies?”

“That’s not something-.”

“Not the whole thing!” Rogers explains. “I know that’s not something you can just pick up. But maybe a few emergency procedures, just so I know what’s happening if-.”

Clint has already lost this battle. He says, “I just meant, Stark designed the planes, he’s probably got a better idea how they work.”

“I don’t need…” Rogers says. “Tony tends to explain things at a pretty high level. I just want to know how to keep it from crashing. You know - if you’re shooting something out of the hatch and Tony’s in the armour.”

Clint says, “That doesn’t happen very often. And Natasha knows enough to keep her steady. She just likes manning the guns.” He knows it’s stupid, but Clint likes being the only one who knows how to fly the jet. Stark can do it obviously, but he doesn’t fly in the jet when they’re heading out to a fight, and none of the others have taken that particular field test. It’s one tick in the ‘keeping Clint around’ column but Rogers is making that face.

Rogers says, “The last time I steered something like this, I had to crash it into the ocean. So it would be nice-.”

“To know how not to do that.” Clint fills in. That makes sense. It doesn’t make sense to resent Rogers wanting to know how to do something Clint does. It’s not like he’s asking to learn how to shoot.

Clint gets why a person might want to tilt right into the thing that’s scaring them. He says, “Sure, Cap. Just let me know when.”

 

*

Phil is monitoring communication on the jet. If it wasn’t him, it would be someone else, so he can be glad it’s him. He doesn’t have to feel guilty.

On the radio, Clint coughs. There has been a note of uncertainty in his voice for all of the time it has taken to get clearance and get the jet into the air. “Okay, so a lot of this stuff looks after itself unless we’re in trouble.”

“It doesn’t-?” Steve sounds no less nervous.

“Not that it won’t… it’ll try, if we do get into trouble. But if it could handle a combat situation by itself we wouldn’t need me, so don’t tell Stark.”

Steve laughs. “I won’t.”

Behind Phil, Tony says, “They realise they’re on radio, right? With headsets on?”

Phil doesn’t turn around. “Didn’t your mother ever teach you eavesdroppers hear no good of themselves?”

Tony doesn’t take a breath. “Didn’t yours?”

On radio, Clint says, “Okay, we’re level now and that’s all just ocean. Nothing to run into, I swear. So I’m gonna hit the auto – that’s this switch here – and you’re gonna swap seats with me.”

“You really think that’s a-?” Steve argues.

“You’re fine, Cap. Easy, there we go. Hand on the stick. I’m gonna take her off auto, and you just keep her level.”

On the screens in front of him, Phil sees the jet take an immediate bounce. Steve laughs breathlessly. “I told you I crashed one of these, right?”

“You’re fine,” Clint says again. “Just relax a little. You don’t need to hold on so tight. These things can turn on a hair - they don’t need too firm a hand. We’d be better off if we were going faster, honestly; they’re a little skittish when we’re going like this. Again, don’t tell Stark.”

“Why not?” Steve asks.

Clint snorts. “I’m not going to be the one to tell him that his jet’s not perfect.”

Phil holds his hand up to prevent whatever Stark is going to say.

Clint says, “Just be gen- I can’t believe I’m actually going to say this, this is every bad cliché of flying things. Hold it like-.”

Steve interrupts, “If you’re going to say ‘like a woman’, I don’t have much experience in that regard.”

Clint says, “Well, okay, like a guy then, whatever you’re into.”

Steve laughs, and Clint laughs too, and Phil turns around from the screens to make sure Stark is staying away. “You interrupt them right now I swear to God I’ll shoot you.”

Tony shakes his head slowly. “I’m not going to say a word.”

Steve asks curiously, “Mind me asking what you’re into?”

“Me?” Clint answers like he’s thought about this before. “Dangerous women and competent men.”

“Huh,” Steve says. “I’m mostly the other way around. Not that the women weren’t-.”

“My standards of dangerous run to Natasha,” Clint points out.

“Yes,” Steve says. “I can see how that would change things.”

Clint says, “I’m also going to point out right now that we’ve been flying straight for a while and no one’s crashed. Want to try for a turn?”

“You’ll take over if I-?” Steve asks.

“Trust me,” Clint says, and pauses before he finishes the sentence. Then: “It’s fine. I know what I’m doing. We’re fine.”

“Okay,” Steve says, easy as that.

On the screen, Phil watches the course of the jet turn, slow and steady, back towards base.

 

*

Rogers moves into the Tower, which is apparently a surprise to both Stark and Rogers, and no one else. Clint isn’t surprised anyway. Rogers wants to be where his people are, and he’s decided that means them. Clint isn’t sure he’s thought this through, but he doesn’t make those kinds of calls.

Since this means that there are now more of them in the Tower than not, Phil has taken to holding meetings there instead of the Helicarrier. He’s still carrying aches from their miracle cure; Clint can see him wincing when the muscles pull. So while he doesn’t say that he’d rather not keep flying back and forth to the Helicarrier when his operatives are here, it makes sense. Natasha’s the only one who has to drive in, and she wouldn’t complain.

Phil sits at the chair at the head of the conference table and spins in his chair to point behind him. Clint remembers when Phil used to check in from Malibu to tell them disgruntled stories about the weird shit Stark had pulled now. Today, Phil nods sharply at Stark and picks up the tablet. A huge screen lights up on the wall. Phil says, “Advanced Idea Mechanics.”

Stark makes a face. Banner looks at him sympathetically. Clint says, “Good. More mad scientists.”

Clint ducks, surprised, when Stark tosses a ball of paper at his head. Stark says, “As card-carrying members of the mad scientist community, Bruce and I resent that.”

Phil sighs. “If I could have your attention back on the screen?”

They turn, obediently, and Clint tries to pay the requisite amount of attention. Phil’s briefings have been strange of late. They’re a lot more detailed than they need to be. Clint doesn’t know if that’s because Rogers insisted on more sharing, or because Phil’s trying to make up for the stuff that was missed before, but it’s not necessary. Honestly, Clint would rather that he didn’t.

Phil is looking at him. “Agent Barton.”

“Sir.”

“You understand what we’re asking you to do?”

Clint rolls his eyes. “Watch somebody. Wait for you to tell me to shoot him.”

“It’s a little more complicated than that.”

“For you, sure. I really don’t need to know the other stuff. You know me, sir, give me a high point and tell me who you want me to hit. I’m practically point and click.”

“Clint.”

“What?”

Phil sighs and tears the corner from the top page of his notes. He scribbles something onto it. He leans across the table holding the paper out and Clint takes it reflexively. Phil says, “Memorise that.”

It’s an address and three strings of numbers. Clint stares at them until they’re locked in his head and passes the paper back. “Okay.”

“Got them? Won’t forget?”

“Yes, sir, done. I won’t forget.”

“Good. That’s the first New York safe house and the security codes to my offices.”

Clint steps back. “Then that was a really fucking stupid thing to give me, sir.”

“Why? What are you planning on doing with them?”

“I’m not planning on doing anything. I wasn’t planning on doing anything the first time and it still happened.”

“And your solution to this is to not come into contact with any sensitive material? Because I can’t get a lot of use from a strategist who won’t look at the lay of the land because he’s too scared to hurt somebody. What I need is my asset.”

“That work out well for you before?”

Phil sighs. “You didn’t get onto the Helicarrier because you know why SHIELD’s monitoring transmissions in Anning Corp. That didn’t have anything to do with intel.”

“I didn’t just- I didn’t just shoot things. He asked me questions. Ask Natasha what kind of intel I gave him.” Clint doesn’t look at her.

Phil says, “And I’m sorry for that, for both of you, but here and now that isn’t going to change anything.”

“You think that’s all I told him?” Clint asks.

“I’m sorry?”

“I mean, he was interested in Natasha, I think because maybe he didn’t get why we hadn’t just killed each other already, so he asked about her a lot. But that wasn’t all of it. He wanted to know everything. You want to know what I told him about SHIELD? What I said about all of you?”

“Clint.”

“I said the thing is, they’re sentimental. Too many directives and not enough oversight, easy to get them turned around. I said they want to think of themselves as the good guys, so they’re going to try and talk. I told him Stark’s a preening diva and Rogers hates his guts and the one time they were in the same room nearly ended in a punch-up. I told him you’ll know they’re taking you seriously when they bring Banner in because ninety percent of SHIELD still tells scary stories about the monster that tore up Harlem, and the other ten percent thinks he should be strapped to a dissection table somewhere. So if they actually bring these people together, that’s how you know they’re scared as shit. That’s what I told him.”

Into the moment of silence Bruce says, deadpan, “Well, you didn’t know me very well back then.” Clint turns and Bruce is smiling. Bruce says, “Would you say the same now?”

Clint rolls his shoulders. “No.” He tries to imagine what he would tell Loki now, if that happened. That’s a new horror, the things he could tell someone now if they forced their way into his head. He knows more now.

“So that’s okay then,” Bruce says.

“No,” Clint says again. Because now he could say ‘I can tell you how to walk right into Stark Tower without being stopped’. He could tell them where Rogers buys coffee, where Banner heads when he’s worried he’s freaking out. It would be worse now. And now he knows how to break into Phil’s safe house.

Phil says, “We’re better prepared now. If something happened-”

“If something happened now, you better be prepared to shoot me on sight.”

 

*

The first thing Jane Foster says when she steps onto the Helicarrier is, “Are you guys trying to buy me off with lab space?”

Phil asks, “Would it work?”

“I’m a research scientist.” Her nose wrinkles. “An astrophysicist specialising in things at the other end of wormholes. Of course it would work.”

“Excellent.”

“I have three labs now.” She still sounds a little shellshocked. “Although the one in the new Eastern Facility is apparently still being built. And I’m not to worry that the last one fell through the ground.”

“Who told you that?”

“Darcy.”

Phil nods. “You shouldn’t worry about it. Have you been to the Tower yet?”

She smiles wide. “You have to remember, a few years ago I was still scheduling in time on the university’s supercomputer. Tony Stark just gave me one.”

“Well, we value your input.”

Jane says, “You also value my boyfriend. And you don’t like having to get clearance for new people.”

“Dr Foster-.”

“No, it’s fine. Supercomputer. And Stark says he- he has about thirty seconds of readings taken from a different galaxy. He flew there, through a wormhole. So I’m not objecting to staying in New York for a while to look at that.”

Darcy finds them still on deck. “Hi boss. Jane!” She wraps her arms around Jane and squeezes. “How are you? How’s Erik?”

Phil waves them away to catch up. He’s waiting for Thor anyway. Thor descends with slightly less calm than the jet. He greets Phil exuberantly and then looks around. Phil says, “Doctor Foster is with Darcy.”

“Ah. Then I should give them some time. I have offered to fly Darcy to visit Jane on her travels but she is dedicated to maintaining her post here.”

Phil hadn’t known that. He says, “She should take a vacation. We’ve just been busy.”

“Still,” Thor says. “It is important to make time for our loved ones when we can. Or what do we fight for?”

There isn’t a lot Phil can say in the face of such sincerity. He nods. “Of course.” In Phil’s personal worldview, he can’t seem to make time for seeing his loved ones in between trying to make the world safe for them. But he should have realised Darcy needed some time.

Thor is looking around the deck of the Helicarrier. He frowns. “I will never feel secure on this ship.”

Phil says, “We fixed the engine.”

“I know. It reminds me of things I would rather forget.”

“We didn’t actually replace the cage,” Phil says. Stark refused.

Thor says, “I was referring to your injury.”

“Oh. Well. I’m fine.”

“True,” Thor says. He slaps Phil on the shoulder. “And if the one injured does not fear the place, then why should I?”

Phil isn’t afraid of the place. It doesn’t even give him bad memories, because the place where that happened doesn’t exist any more. Tony remodelled the whole area when he was refusing to build another prison for Bruce. Phil doesn’t know what his motivations had been but it helps that there is no evidence in the Helicarrier of what went on that day. By the time Phil woke up, it was as if nothing had happened there at all.

 

*

Clint gets back from his recon mission on Tuesday night.

On Wednesday morning, there is no coffee in his rooms and he gets into the elevator on autopilot. Tony’ll have coffee.

There’s no one in the kitchen in the penthouse, but there is coffee in the pot. Clint finds a clean mug, fills it, and drains half before he feels anywhere close to awake.

He turns around when he hears the footsteps. “Pepper?”

“In DC,” Stark says. “So I have no one to protect me from- fucking hell, Clint.”

“What?”

“Did you look at yourself in the mirror this morning?”

“I haven’t done anything this morning except come up here to steal your coffee.” Clint looks at himself in the brushed-metal door of the cabinet. “What?”

“You look like someone dropped a building on you.”

Clint turns his head to examine the other side of his face. He’s a little bruised. “Something like that.”

“Should I ask why?”

“Not had enough practice jumping out of the way lately?” Clint suggests. “Anyway. Thanks for the coffee.”

Clint heads back to his rooms, and he’s been down there for maybe an hour when he starts to hear the ominous banging. Tony hadn’t looked like he was in the middle of construction work before, but he may be physically incapable of just letting the building be. Clint turns on some music and ignores the crashing. JARVIS will let him know if this is a crisis in disguise.

Tony calls down for him in the evening. “I’ve remodelled the gym.”

“Which gym?”

“The big gym. Not the Steve and Thor making fun of the rest of us gym.”

“Okay. Why?” Clint follows Tony upstairs.

Tony opens the door. “There. Jumping off things stuff. Stop trying to get yourself crushed.”

Clint looks in and raises his eyebrows. It seems Tony spent his afternoon attaching rings to the ceiling, dragging a pommel horse into the free space by the window, and creating a climbing wall. Because it’s Tony, it’s all probably Olympic grade equipment. Clint says, “You get that I could just practice climbing up the building, right?”

Tony looks him in the eyes. “Stop trying to fall off things. Or at least fall better.”

“Okay, okay.” Feeling like he should show willing, Clint bounces up onto the horse and then takes a leap onto the rings. It’s been a while since he did this. He swings back and forth, building up the momentum to make another jump.

It was something he did more before he started with SHIELD. Once he was signed on with them, he did a lot more hiding out on the tops of buildings for days at a time. And now he’s back to diving off things and hoping someone’s brought a net. He turns in the air and makes a one-handed grab for the next ring. Clint laughs, and when he looks down, Tony is smirking at him.

There is another sound, and they both turn to look at the doorway. Natasha rolls her eyes at them.

Tony says, “Did you move in without me noticing?”

She says, “Yes.” It was just before Clint left on assignment, and he’s not surprised Tony hadn’t spotted her yet.

“Oh,” Tony says. “Good, fine. Just need to work on Thor then.”

“Thor’s been sleeping over when Jane’s here on the computer,” Natasha says. “Which has been most of the time, lately.”

“Even better,” Tony says. “Okay. Clint, have a go around and let me know what else you need.”

Tony leaves and Natasha watches Clint for a minute or two before climbing onto the horse. She tumbles into a handstand and walks up and down twice. She leaps for him.

Clint catches her, of course he does, and she only stays there for a second before making a jump for a swaying ring. She’s a lot better at this than he is, and Clint has to chase her to keep up.

Eventually they drop down onto the crash mat in a tangle of limbs. Clint laughs again, and she turns to look at him through the wave of her hair and he’s gone, all of a sudden, into a memory that didn’t happen. A promise Loki made that Clint didn’t care about at the time.

Natasha pulls away from him sharply; she knows to give him the space between his body and hers. “Clint.”

“I’m fine, I’m fine. I’m here.”

“Okay,” she says. “Me too.”

Clint inches forward so they are touching again, crouched on the mat with their knees brushed together. “Sorry.”

She shrugs that off. She’s still keeping a count that Clint doesn’t, seeing a debt he never did. She’s saved him a hundred thousand times since then, and sometimes he had saved her too. She closes her eyes, and Clint closes his too and tries to match her breathing. They don’t talk.

 

*

Clint and Steve go out flying again, because Steve’s still not happy with the jet. Honestly, Clint thinks maybe Tony would have been the best person to take him, because for all Steve says he doesn’t understand the technical stuff, he asks a lot of questions.

When they’re done, they fly back to the Tower. Steve wants to go bother Tony for a bit, so Clint follows him down there. Tony is showing Phil and Bruce something on the computer.

Steve says, “Tony, about the jet-.”

“What? Is this about the manoeuvring at low speeds thing?”

Clint looks at Steve, who shakes his head. “You told me not to tell him that.”

Clint glares at Phil instead, who has to have been the one listening in. Phil looks wounded, but doesn’t deny it.

Tony says, “No one told me anything, I heard a rumour, and frankly I’m hurt that it took you this long to come to me with it.”

“It wasn’t about-.” Steve says.

“Well, why not?” Tony demands. He turns to look at Clint. “I thought we were past this?”

Clint rubs his hand over his head. “It’s not about-. Tony, I told you something about those arrows and you locked yourself in the lab for three days.”

“And?”

“I told you I fell off a building and you built a new gym. Why would I tell you that the jet-? I didn’t need you to run yourself into the ground fixing something that wasn’t broken.”

Tony’s expression is complicated. “I rely on you to tell me this stuff. If I can make something work better, I should be doing that. Or one of you guys gets killed. I’d rather- just tell me.” He turns to Steve. “What is it about the jet?”

Steve’s voice is gentle. “We had a thought about the way we get passengers out, and doing it from one jet to another. You want to take a look?”

“Absolutely.” He bounces off his seat. “Bruce?”

Bruce looks up. “You know I know nothing about engineering?”

“That’s not true,” Tony says. “You’ve been working beside me for months, something must have rubbed off. And besides,” he grins, “you know lots of things about how much oxygen people need to live.”

Bruce sighs and stands up. “You know that, you just choose to ignore it.”

The four of them start to head back upstairs to look at the jet. Clint glances at Phil, who has turned back to stare at the computer screen. Clint feels like he should ask Phil to come with them, but he can’t find the words.

 

*

Phil goes for a walk in the city. He’s trying to get back into the habit of being part of the world, which is a point where SHIELD doesn’t help. SHIELD is its own world. In the city he walks past places where buildings used to be, and only knows the reason from field reports. He passes stores selling Avengers merchandise. Phil walks until it starts raining and then he turns to head back.

Phil takes the elevator to the top level and walks into the lounge. JARVIS says Clint and Natasha are here.

Clint is lying in a ball on the couch, with Natasha curled behind him. Her arm is draped over his side, low on his hip. The television is on, although as it’s showing a performance of a Swan Lake, Phil assumes Natasha chose the channel.

Tony comes in from the kitchen. “Uh.” He looks at Phil. “Are they okay?”

“Clint’s not a big fan of the weather.” Phil has known this almost as long as he’s known Clint, although he’s never investigated why too thoroughly. It had never stopped Clint from doing his job. He had never complained until he got down from the nest, when he would head somewhere dry and then grouse until Phil or Natasha agreed to go and bring him something warm to drink.

Tony crosses the room to get Clint’s attention, trying not to block Natasha’s view of the screen. He says, “Clint?”

“I never liked being stuck indoors,” Clint says.

“Sorry?”

“You were going to ask why, right?”

“Not so much, no. But- you know, if it’s just the weather? There are a lot of places it’s not raining. I’ve got a jet and I know all the hotels. We can go anywhere you want, I’ll find somewhere sunny.”

“It’s okay,” Clint says. He turns his head to face Tony, smiling though he still looks grey. “Some days you’ve just gotta let it rain.” Natasha’s arm tightens around him.

Phil can see Tony not getting it, not understanding why you wouldn’t just take the plane and go. And Phil has maybe never liked Tony more than when he sees him nod and say, “Okay. Let me know if you need anything.” Tony nods again, takes his coffee with him, and goes back down the lab.

Phil goes to the kitchen and makes a pot of tea. He sets it on the table in front of the two of them, along with two cups. Clint doesn’t look up; Natasha nods at him.

Phil drags a chair near the huge window, turns so he can keep the couch in the corner of his eye, and sits down to watch the rain fall.

 

*

Clint had spat out curses when they got the call that morning.

Phil had looked at him with an expression Clint couldn’t work out. “I remember when you used to get excited about aliens.”

Clint had remembered that too. It felt like decades ago, although it’s no longer than that phone call from Fury about a hammer falling in the desert. Phil had brushed his hand over Clint’s shoulder on the way to the jet and Clint still hadn’t known what the problem was.

He’s situated on the top of a building now and he’s still wondering, in between preventing his teammates from being impaled on alien carving knives.

Apparently the bad guys have short-range teleportation capabilities as well as the aforementioned knives. The air goes visibly weird when they're about to swoosh into it, so Clint's eye in the sky deal is more than usually relevant. Tony seems okay and while it's easy enough to hit Hulk with a blade, it's hard to damage him with it. For everyone else, Clint is doing his best job of watching the spaces behind them, and calling out a lot. He hasn't talked this much in months.

It doesn't give him time to watch any one part of the battlefield for any length of time, which is undoubtedly something he'll be beating himself up over later. Clint looks down at the spot where Coulson is set up and shouts, “Coulson, behind you.”

Coulson turns just about in time to shoot the alien, three feet away from him. Except then the air blurs right behind him; Clint calls it but Coulson doesn’t move, even when the alien appears at his back. Clint is shooting even as he drops from the roof, needing to get to the ground in a hurry. Phil is still not moving and Clint couldn't possibly have missed him getting hit. He's not always good enough but he's better than this.

When he gets down to the ground, Phil's eyes are unfocussed and he doesn't react to Clint dropping down beside him. He startles away at the hand Clint lays on his shoulder. “Sir?”

Clint pulls his hand away. God, his list of SHIELD therapists would be having a field day with this. Unable to recognise the fucking obvious signs of someone having a flashback.

The aliens, however, do seem to have noticed. They’re congregating on this spot and there isn’t enough cover to keep Phil in it and give Clint a decent angle to shoot from.

“Iron Man? I need a lift.”

“Kinda busy right now, Hawkeye.”

Now, Tony!”

They're in the air in seconds and back up at Clint's nest not long after that.

Clint lets go of Coulson as soon as he's able, taking a step back to look at him. “Now what? Sir? I really need you to...”

This isn't helping.

Tony, hovering only a few feet off the rooftop, says, “Barton, come on, we both know how to- tell him where he is, tell him he's fine. Don’t touch him until you’re sure he knows where he is.” It's maybe the first time either of them has acknowledged that they both go places in their head sometimes. Tony's voice changes. “What does he do when it's you?”

That makes things easier and unexpectedly harder. Phil wouldn't have needed to be told, or at least he never had before. Clint had missed this, but he knows all the words. He says, “It's Tuesday. I don't know the date because my times mostly start at T-minus, but it's May twenty-thirteen and it's Tuesday. And you're fine. It's just you and me, and Tony, I guess, but he's still up in the air. It's Tuesday and you're safe, I swear. You told me you were. You've got your gun and I have my bow so nothing's getting past us today.”

Phil blinks. “Stark, get back into the fight.”

Tony protests weakly, “I should-.”

“Go. Now. Barton, eyes on the field.”

Tony flies off and Clint turns to get his bow back where it should be. Behind him, he can hear Phil breathing, too fast, in and out.

 

*

Phil goes straight to Maria. “I compromised an active mission.”

“I’m sorry?” Her tone is incredulous. “Run that by me again. You compromised a mission.”

“I froze in the field.”

She nods at the chair in front of her desk. “Tell me.”

Phil recounts what happened as accurately as he can. There is a short gap in the middle that he fills in with Clint and Tony’s reactions afterwards. He knows what must have happened.

She listens to him talk. When he finishes, she touches her hair. “You want out of the field?”

“I can’t risk the lives of our agents.”

“Permanently?”

“I- no. But maybe the boss was right.” Maria looks at him. Phil says, “He thinks I rushed back.”

“We asked you to rush back.”

“No one-.”

“You woke up and we were still in crisis mode. You rushed back because we needed you back.”

“Are you trying to say I should suck it up and stay in the field?” he asks.

“No! No. I’m saying it’s not your fault. We should have made sure you were taking things slow.”

Phil exhales. “I’m not good with slow.” He has cultivated an impression of patience, but it’s mostly a lie. He can manage when he has things to do; he had waited a long time for the Avengers Initiative to be ready to set going. But he’s not good at sitting back and letting time do its work.

Maria says, “It’s your call.”

They trust him to make the right one and this is too important to be selfish about. He says, “I should talk to one of our- I think they cleared me too soon.”

She watches him across the desk. “Okay then. You want me to let the boss know?”

Phil says, “No, I’ll tell him myself.”

 

*

“What are you writing?” Bruce asks.

Clint says, “Therapy journal,” and realises after he’s said it that his voice has jumped into daring Bruce to make something of it. He hasn’t written it out here before, but Thor was in the lounge watching baseball, and Tony and Bruce were reviewing some lab-test or another. Clint had been in the mood for the particular background noise of other people.

Bruce says, “Ah. You know, I’ve never actually done that in an official capacity.”

“Therapy?”

“Yeah.”

Tony looks up, distracted by conversation he’s not a part of. “I did, when I was a kid. You know, I can get you something to type on that’d be better than that.”

Tony doesn’t come out and say that Clint looks awkward with a pen in his hand, which is pretty discreet for him. Words don’t all the time do what Clint wants them to, but he’s not sure that a computer would help. He submits his field reports electronically, sure, but this is one of those things where he doesn’t want any possible security break between what he writes and what gets saved. Even JARVIS. “It’s fine,” he says. “Why’d they make you see a shrink?”

Tony looks over. “Hmm? Oh, I stopped talking English for two months.”

“Don’t believe you,” Clint says reflexively. Tony doesn’t stop talking for anything.

Bruce says, “Stopped talking English? What language were you speaking?” That’s actually a lot easier to believe.

“I made up my own.” Tony shrugs. “In my defence, I was twelve, and it didn’t actually affect how many other people understood most of what I was saying.”

“Why would you-?” Steve asks, having found where they are hiding.

“I’m sure I had a reason,” Tony says.

Clint strikes out a line in his book. “You write your book in nonsense-speak too?”

“Some. I also drew a few excellent circuit boards. I think I started Dummy out in one of those journals.”

Clint shakes his head. Then Phil and Natasha get in, and he goes back to writing.

Thor says, “You write this book too?”

Clint looks up and realises he’s talking to Phil, who has thrown himself down in front of the desk and started writing. It does look an awful lot like Clint’s book. Phil growls, distracted, “Why ‘Captain America did it for eighty-four times longer’ is not an adequate reason to ignore the psychological implications of being legally dead for ten months. Reasons twenty-one through forty, to be discussed at my next session.”

Steve looks up but doesn’t say anything. He still doesn’t properly understand what it is that he means to people like Phil.

Thor says, “I do not understand the purpose of these doctors.”

Clint says, “It’s so you have someone to talk to,” and hears the sudden quiet of six people surprised that he spoke. If he hadn’t, Phil would have tried – none of the others would have understood the question – and Phil doesn’t seem to be in the right kind of mood to make it clear.

“You could speak to us,” Thor says, brow furrowed. “We would be honoured to listen.”

Clint runs his hands through his hair. “I know you would. It’s about…” He tries to think of a way to explain. “Someone who can stand back from it. Like- like if you wanted to talk about Loki, okay?”

Thor’s expression is the one to darken, though Clint can see Phil move in the corner of his eye. Thor says, “I would not speak to you of Loki.”

“I know. But, I mean, if you wanted to, that would make sense. He’s your brother, and maybe you want to talk about that. Except you can’t talk about him with me, or with Phil, because we’re not going to come at that as calm as we should. That’s where it’s good to have someone else. Someone who’s just there to listen to you, and not judge.”

Thor hmms. “I see.”

“So it’s fine. It’s just kind of exhausting.” Clint rolls his head on his neck. “But psych evals are mandatory, and I need to pass. If for no other reason than if they bench me again, one of you guys will get yourselves shot. Also I won’t get paid.”

“Do all your people need to pass such tests?”

“Well, Nat and me anyway. Phil. Anyone on a SHIELD payroll.” He looks at Tony. “They tried to get you, right? And I know they wanted Steve in, but they’ve less leverage there.”

Steve bounces his hands on the table. “That’s not fair.”

“What isn’t?”

He looks at Clint. “If I was a SHIELD agent, a proper one, they’d give me the same tests?”

“Well, yeah, but don’t stress about it, I’m pretty sure Fury thinks you’re the only sane one we’ve got in here. They’re not going to push the issue, make you bolt again.”

“No,” Steve says. “I mean- they shouldn’t let us miss evaluations they ask you to do.”

“Yeah? You really want to be field certified on firearms again? You think Tony’s gonna let them test him on flying the jet?”

Tony scoffs in the background but Steve makes his resolved face. “Okay, new rule. Everyone follows the same regs, SHIELD payroll or not. Tell Fury we all went through a… a difficult experience and we should all be checked.”

Tony says, “Only you, Rogers, could make government mandated therapy a group bonding activity.”

“Tony.”

“No, fine.” Tony shrugs. “I could use a piece of paper that says SHIELD think I’m stable enough to handle firearms. It’ll be useful later. But no pilot tests. Someone wants to test how well I fly they can just watch a feed from the armour.”

Steve sighs but accepts that.

Clint curls his arm around his notebook and carefully records what just happened.

 

*

Phil had meant what he said. He’s clearly not fit to be in the field right now, and he has to make his peace with that. It’s easier to say than do. Fury had accepted his reasoning, and so now Phil has to go to more therapy sessions, and wait to be passed fit in another psych eval. It’s a minor consolation that they’re going to check all of the Avengers too, after Steve’s insistence, but Phil is the only one who has recently endangered a mission.

Fury comes into his office to see him. “How are you feeling?”

“Fine. But I felt fine before.”

Fury sits. “And they passed you through before, and we all agreed. It wasn’t your fault – wasn’t your decision.”

“I still should have known. I’m the one who-.”

“You’re the one who actually remembers that you haven’t had as long to deal with this as the rest of us,” Fury fills in.

“I really was fine,” Phil says. He had thought he was fine. They hadn’t run tests on his reactions to things appearing out of nowhere behind him, so he thought he was fine.

Fury says, “There are always reactions we can’t predict. We’ve got human soldiers, these things happen.”

“And when they do, we pull people out of the field to see about making it not happen again. I can’t be a liability, sir.”

“You aren’t ever that,” Fury says, staring Phil out. “So don’t even think it. You know, Rogers called me today.”

“Yes, sir?”

“He thinks I’m keeping you out of the field.”

“I didn’t tell him that,” Phil says.

“I know that. He said the Avengers didn’t want to work with any other handler. He said you were part of the team.” Fury says, “Mostly I thought you would appreciate that part.”

Phil does. He doesn’t feel like it, all the time. He feels like he missed that part. He woke up and Fury had smeared his blood all over his set of trading cards and the team had worked but not for long enough and he must not have done it right. So now he has to do it all over again and this way is harder.

Fury says, “You pushed for this as much I did.”

“I did.”

“You ever plan on telling them that?”

“You tried that, as far as I remember,” Phil says. “It didn’t end well then, I don’t see it going better now.”

 

*

Clint doesn’t even know how they started this argument. He has been trying to get past the way he is still, close to eight months since Phil woke up, mad at him for dying. He knows this isn’t fair. But he can’t seem to get over the tied memories of Fury telling them that they had been mourning for a man that was still alive, and that Phil had planned his ‘death’ to be the thing that made the team work.

So that’s the argument they’re having, here in the middle of the lounge with the whole team here, both of them exhausted by the fight but not able to stop.

“That was your best damn plan?” Clint asks. “The first thing you thought of, really?

Something in Phil seems to snap. “No. It was the plan that was left. I don’t know where you get the idea that I tried dying first, Clint, I really don’t. Do you remember why they scrapped the Initiative first time around? It was because we tried to get the six of you together and they saw what happened. We tried and- you and Natasha disappeared on assignment for six months. Banner threatened to flatten a town any time we got near him and Thor smashed the bridge between his world and ours. We put Stark and Rogers into the same room and it nearly ended in a punch up. By the time you were- it was pretty much just me and Fury who still thought the Initiative had a hope in hell of succeeding so don’t tell me I- it was never the first plan. I tried everything else first.”

Clint can hear the dead silence of the others. He says, “Sir. Phil.”

Phil rubs his eyes with his hand. “It wasn’t a plan at all. It isn’t as though-.” He looks at Clint, staring right into his eyes. “I’m getting so tired of apologising for being stabbed in the back.”

“Sir.”

“It wasn’t a plan. I don’t know how many times I can say that. I went in because there was no one else. You know that, I know you weren’t around but you’ve read the report. I went in to try and get Thor clear because everyone else was busy.”

“It didn’t need to be you.”

“Who else? Clint, you throw yourself off buildings and Tony strapped himself to a nuclear missile and you all- death is part of our jobs. I don’t know why you expect less from me.”

Clint can’t speak fast enough to deny that. “I don’t! I-.”

“And then I was stabbed, which hurt okay? Really hurt. So I was dying, not a plan, I promise, and in pain and scared out of my mind, truthfully. And I couldn’t chase Loki when I hit him, and Thor was falling and you were still gone. We were losing. So when Fury asked I- I thought it might matter, that I was going to be dead in a minute or so. And that was a better thought to go out on. That at least it might get the job done.”

Clint stares at him. “I didn’t need a push. You point, I go. You had called me back from assignment, I would have stolen a plane and been on the Helicarrier the same day.”

“I know that.”

Clint takes an unsteady step towards Phil. He says, a laugh breaking through the crack in his voice. “You know that. So what you’re saying is, instead of you, I should be blaming these fuckers for being harder to wrangle than I am?”

“I’m not sure you listened to the ‘not a plan’ part.”

“Yeah.” He sways towards Phil. “Christ, we’re a mess. Not just you and me, I mean as a group. Team.”

Phil smiles at him. He whispers, like a secret loud enough for all six of them to hear. “See? It worked.”

“Fuck.” He touches Phil’s side, looks at the shadows under his eyes. “You look like I feel.”

Phil raises his eyebrow. “You look like hell.”

“Feel it too,” Clint says. “But better than yesterday.”

“Well,” Phil says. “That’s something.”

That’s all there is. It’s enough. Clint looks around the room, at his team, where they are still standing half-frozen. Clint coughs. “Can we order some pizza or something?”

Steve reacts first. “I think that’s a great idea. Tony?”

“Pizza,” Tony says slowly, “Sure. Good. JARVIS, can you-?”

“I’ll order the usual, shall, I sir?” JARVIS asks. He goes and does that. Thor is saying something about anchovies although for the life of him Clint can’t say if he’s for or against. Bruce moves from the couch onto the chair and raises his eyebrow at Clint. Clint takes a breath and uses the hand he still has resting on Phil’s side to push him towards the couch. They sit down together, sides touching, and Clint doesn’t move away.

 

*

Phil took a bad roll in the gym yesterday and he’s pulled something in his shoulder. Steve is being very apologetic, although during their sparring he hadn’t been pulling punches so much as stopping his hand before it might get anywhere near Phil. It had just been a bad fall, and sometimes Phil still gets an ache in his chest, like the muscles there weren’t quite mended right.

Steve is still apologising over breakfast, while Phil bolts his mug of coffee and tries to have a conversation with Pepper about SHIELD’s energy requirements without alerting Tony to that fact.

Pepper finishes on, “-I think we should be looking at contracts, yes, and that would make sense, but we’d need to have some idea what you wanted to use them for.” She smiles. “Not that we don’t trust you. We don’t always trust your bosses.”

“I think if you didn’t know what we were planning, you would find out soon enough,” Phil says. “We don’t seem to be able to build a system that Tony can’t hack into.”

Attention caught by his name, Tony looks around from the baiting conversation he’s having with Natasha over the undercover mission she’s heading into today. “Damn right you can’t. What?”

Phil looks at his watch. “And on that note, I need to get to work.” He’s checking in on the new lab facilities out of the city.

JARVIS asks, “Should I call you a car, sir?”

“I’ll drive, thank you.”

Phil stands up, lifting his tie and jacket from the back of his chair. He reaches awkwardly, trying to get his tie round his neck, and winces when the angle stretches the ache in his shoulder again.

Clint coughs. “Don’t pull something. I’ll get it.” He unfolds from his chair, turning around to face Phil with the kind of focus that once upon a time he only gave to things he was shooting. He grips the ends of the tie, twitching them into place; Phil notes how slowly he’s moving, careful of setting off the kinds of memories that Phil might dredge up with someone so close to his chest. “Full Windsor or half?” Clint asks.

“Half’s fine,” Phil manages.

“Cool.” Clint nods, and his hands start to move.

Phil registers Tony moving out of the corner of his eye.

Clint pauses. “What?”

Tony says, “I just wanted to get a closer look. I wasn’t aware you knew one knot that wasn’t designed for rappelling down buildings or incapacitating bad-guys, let alone two. I thought I should make sure you were-.” He cuts himself off with a snap. “Shit.”

“Still me?” Clint answers lightly. He gives it a second, grins, and that turns into a snort of laughter. He leans his forehead against Phil’s, still giggling. Phil knows the others are concerned but Phil remembers when Clint was so easily amused. He remembers the years before that too, when their new archer had just signed up and couldn’t get along with anyone. Clint says, through his laughter, “Believe it or not, augmenting my skill with ties wasn’t actually a major priority with Loki. He mostly-.” He waves down his body. “Whoosh. There’s a man who might not know how to knot a tie. I actually knew before. Which is mostly a Phil thing, honestly.”

Natasha says, “Well, there was also that time in-.”

“Sofia, sure,” Clint says, “but that was still Phil’s fault.”

“I don’t see-,” Phil says.

“Oh, it definitely was, sir,” Clint says, and he hasn’t lost the grin yet.

Tony says, “Clint, seriously, I should have-.”

Clint interrupts. “You give Bruce shit about wanton property destruction, you’re never done finding new ways to make Steve go buggy, honestly I was feeling left out. It’s fine. And now I’m giving Tony Stark a lecture about not taking things so seriously. My life has gotten seriously weird.” He looks at Phil. “On the note of mocking the life or death shit, if I leave you to drive yourself to the lab, you’re going to take three hours to get there rather than pull your shoulder turning left. I’ll drive you.”

“Clint.”

“Just don’t fall asleep on me, I know what you’re like.” Clint turns a cheerful smile on Tony. “If it makes you feel better, I’m borrowing one of your cars.”

 

*

Dr Grace thinks Clint has turned a corner. She doesn’t actually say this, but she makes noises about ‘encouraging signs’ and ‘healthier coping mechanisms’. Then she spends a lot of time trying to make him understand that this doesn’t mean he’s fixed. She doesn’t need to do that.

Clint still wakes up shivering maybe one night in ten, more if they’ve fought something magical or alien in the past week. He had a fairly healthy freak-out about a TV hypnotist last month, and he still has to make an effort to read all of the classified information in his briefing notes. It’s not going to suddenly be fixed, the same way Natasha isn’t going to suddenly stop keeping score of their body count, and Bruce isn’t going to stop asking ‘what did I do?’ when they dig him naked out of the rubble. Clint has fallen in with some messed-up people and he doesn’t exactly stand out as the stable one.

But it’s better today than yesterday, and they’re coming up on a year since Phil turned out to be less dead than he was reported. Clint will drink to that.

Phil finds him sitting on the edge of the roof. When Clint turns to look at him, Phil’s eyes betray a nervousness and maybe that’s something that won’t ever go away either. Clint says, “Hey.”

“Hi. Mind if I sit?”

“Go ahead.”

Phil sits down beside him. “It’s a good view.”

“Yeah.” Right after the attack, it was mostly destroyed buildings and police officers trying to get control of the situation. There are still a lot of construction sites out there, but it’s better than it was.

“Any particular reason you’re up here?” Phil asks.

“Maybe I like the view. Any particular reason you came looking for me?”

“No,” Phil says.

Clint tips back and looks up at the sky. You can’t really see the stars from the city. He says, “I still like the view from up high. Doesn’t mean I don’t like the team too.”

“I know.”

“So what, you were just wandering up on the roof too?”

“No, I came to see where you were,” Phil answers, unrepentant.

“Why?”

“I like knowing.”

Clint turns to look at Phil’s face. He moves slowly, resting one hand on Phil’s good shoulder and leaning in. He says, “I’m giving you time to leave here.” Clint won’t try and stop him or change his mind.

“And I appreciate that,” Phil says. “But I’m not planning on going anywhere.”

Things have a habit of not going according to their plans. Clint silences that voice in his head, slides his hand to the back of Phil’s neck, and kisses him.

 

*

“You know,” Clint says, “I think we’re getting better at this.”

Phil rolls them around so he’s the one with his back to the wall, without dislodging Clint’s hand from his dick. “Hand-jobs or sneaking around?”

“Hand-jobs, please sir, my sneaking has always been exemplary.”

Phil raises an eyebrow. “Whereas you’ve been told your hand-jobs have room for improvement?”

One of Clint’s shoulders lifts. “Whatever isn’t going to convince you to stop me from jerking you off, sir.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it.” Phil’s spine curves, pressing his shoulders into the wall and his hips against Clint.

They haven’t done anything more complicated than this yet. And they’re not actually sneaking. Phil would just prefer to delay this particular conversation with the team for as long as he can. It’s been three days so far, and that’s only because Natasha’s in Tokyo and Clint persuaded JARVIS to be on their side.

Clint unbuttons his fly and gets his hand around both of them. He leans in for a kiss and ends up groaning into Phil’s mouth. They grind against each other like teenagers in a hurry. Clint says, “Okay, okay,” and slides down to his knees. He presses a bite to the crease of Phil’s thigh and works his way along, ending with his mouth pressed to the head of Phil’s cock. “Okay,” he says again.

Phil doesn’t know if that’s a question or something he’s supposed to be agreeing with. He says, “Okay,” and runs his fingers through the short ends of Clint’s hair.

Clint hums back at him and takes a breath before opening his mouth wider and swallowing Phil down.

From out of the ceiling, JARVIS sounds unusually hesitant. “Mr Stark is looking for you.”

“Is it an emergency?” Phil gasps. “Something that requires our immediate attention?”

“No.”

“Then he can wait.”

Clint pulls off to laugh for a moment before going back to the serious business of trying to get Phil’s knees to give out.

After, Phil has to return the favour and it’s not until they’re both cleaned up that he remembers Tony was looking for them. He prods Clint into the elevator and they go upstairs.

Tony smirks at them. “Hi.”

“Hello?” Phil tries. Tony clearly thinks he knows something, but Phil is prepared to brazen it out.

“Natasha’s back.”

Phil turns to look at the corner of the room, where she is watching them coolly. She doesn’t look bruised anywhere obvious.

“Natasha thinks I abuse my powers,” Tony says. “She thinks I should respect people’s boundaries more and I shouldn’t just get JARVIS to find them when I want. She says that people – responsible people I presume, because she didn’t mean me – think that I only call them when it’s serious.”

“JARVIS said it wasn’t serious,” Phil says.

“Yeah, but then she basically implied that you would feel obliged to come and check out whatever it was anyway. Unless you were extremely occupied.”

Natasha says, “I would like to point out that this is all lies.” She looks at them a little harder then. Phil can practically see the moment she realises.

Phil folds his arms. He spares a glance at Clint, who shrugs. It was going to happen anyway. Phil asks, “Tony, did you actually need something, or were you just trying to see if I was having sex with Clint?”

Tony coughs. “I did need something. Now I’m distracted.”

“I’m very distracting,” Clint agrees. “Anyone want anything from the kitchen?” No one answers, so he goes himself.

Phil follows him, enjoying the temporary moment of shock before the questions start. “You’re okay with this?”

“I am if you are,” Clint says.

“Okay then.” Phil starts a count. He gets to twenty before Thor walks into the kitchen to congratulate them, followed immediately by Steve. Natasha doesn’t say anything at all, but she smiles at Phil, so he assumes she approves.

Bruce says, “I’m very happy for the two of you. But if you want to stop Tony redesigning both of your floors, I would talk to him now.”

Clint picks up his soda. “Fine, I’ll deal with it. But you’re talking to Fury.”

That’s probably a fair division of labour.

 

*

Clint has been quiet all week and Phil assumes he’s having second thoughts about the new public status of their relationship. He keeps looking across at Phil and away again, although then he walks over and collapses dramatically on the couch with his arm over Phil’s shoulder. Phil considers this a mixed message, but he has never claimed to understand everything Clint does.

Steve looks between the two of them and Phil is caught in the uncomfortable realisation that if he has to stare Captain America down to keep Clint mostly relaxed beside him, then he’s willing to do that. Steve says, “Sorry, Phil, I think Darcy needs you.”

Darcy is working in Phil’s office here, while they wait for an approval to come in on the undercover op they’ve been drawing up. “What makes you think-?”

“Um. She’s started throwing things across the room?”

“Paperwork or electronic equipment?” There’s a crash from down the hallway that answers that question. Phil turns to Clint, “I should deal with this.” Clint nods at him, still looking as though he has something else on his mind.

Dealing with it takes up most of the rest of the day, including a flight to the Helicarrier and back again, so by the time Phil gets back to the Tower he’s had Clint’s strange behaviour on the backburner for hours.

He gets to his room, and Clint is sitting on the edge of the bed. “Hi,” Phil says. He goes to turn on the lights but thinks better of it. Clint is sometimes more forthcoming if he can persuade himself he’s not being watched. There’s sufficient light spilling through the doorway that Phil can stand against the wall and see enough of Clint to know that his hands are folded on his lap.

Clint says, “I’m going to ask you something, and it’s cool if you’re not okay with it. It’s cool if you tell me to go sleep somewhere else tonight, or just- okay?”

“Clint, is everything-?”

“I’m fine. It’s just- I was talking to Dr Grace the other day and she- not that I talk about you, or not the you and me parts, or at least not in detail but she said-.”

“Clint.”

Phil can see the flash of Clint’s teeth in a sharp smile. “Pretty sure you should sit down, because I’m about to bring up Loki in our bedroom, sorry.”

“Clint,” he says again and Clint must be able to see Phil better because he stands up suddenly.

“No,” Clint says, “it’s okay, not like that, hey.”

Phil lets Clint pull him down to sit beside him on the bed. “Like what?” Phil asks. “Anything you want to ask me, you should ask.”

He can feel Clint’s shoulder warm against his in the dark. Clint says, “We’ve never really talked about what it was like.”

“What was?”

“When he had me. We talked about what I did, and what it was like after, but you never asked-.”

“I was waiting for you.”

Clint smiles, softer this time. “I know. And I really didn’t want to tell you. But I think if I ask you this thing, you’re going to get the wrong idea.”

“What are you going to ask me?”

Clint puts one inch between himself and Phil. He looks at the wall. “I’m pretty sure if I tell you I’d like you to set me down on the bed and tell me what to do, you’re going to get the wrong idea.”

Phil looks at the spot on the bedroom wall that’s captivating Clint’s attention. “Well, then, you should tell me the right idea.” He’s close enough to hear the choked startled noise in Clint’s throat.

Clint says, “I wasn’t- I wasn’t gone, you know. I don’t know if that would be better but it wasn’t like-.” He exhales a huff that might be intended as a laugh. “He didn’t want a body. He wanted Selvig to build the machine and he wanted me for- my arm, I guess, and because I see things. So he couldn’t just wipe us away; he needed the stuff that was still us. He only had to twist a little.”

“He twisted a lot,” Phil says.

“He- not as much as you think.” Clint talks over Phil’s attempt to deny this. “He just gave me a different set of orders. He made me his soldier.” Clint’s breath shakes and he says, “But I was still there. It wasn’t like I went away and he pushed me and my bow into the right shape. He gave me orders and I followed them because in my head they were the right orders, because he was giving them. And I’d been following-.”

“Fury’s orders,” Phil says. “Or my orders.”

“Yeah.”

“I’m still not seeing the-.”

“I trust you,” Clint says, and there are worlds of answers in that. “He did that and I can’t- He made it so I don’t always trust the orders I get. I keep thinking I could be missing something, I don’t know if they’re right or if someone’s telling me-. But I trust you. And I’d really like you to do this, but it’s fine if you can’t.”

“You just want me to- just tell you what to do?”

Clint shrugs. “You’re not going to ask me to do anything I won’t want, anything that would- so yeah.”

“I need you to tell me if I do something wrong, if there’s anything that you don’t want.”

“Stop lights?” Clint asks. “You weren’t planning on gagging me anyway, right? I don’t- no restraints? And don’t whisper. Please.”

Phil takes a breath, tries to stop imagining reasons for that to be on the list. “Okay. Can I ask you something as well?”

“What?”

“Don’t close your eyes.”

Clint swallows. “Okay.”

Phil says, “Did you want to start now? To try, anyway.”

“If you’re- yeah. Yeah, I’d like that.” He’s been thinking about this all week, Phil realises, worrying I was going to say no. Worried what else I might say.

“Okay,” Phil says. “Stay there.”

Clint rests his hands on his thighs and nods. Phil gets up to close the door, and turns the lamp on just enough to see by. He strips out of his suit and his shirt, hanging them up in the wardrobe before he turns back to Clint. “Now you.”

Clint stands, unbuttoning his jeans and kicking them off, before reaching for his shirt.

“Slow,” Phil says. “Please.”

Clint pulls the t-shirt off slowly, dropping it on the floor beside him. He hooks his fingers in the waistband of his underwear but stops when Phil calls his name.

“Wait,” Phil says. He steps forward to stand in front of Clint. Phil sets his hand over Clint’s heart. He keeps his voice pitched normally. “Look at me, please.”

Clint shivers and meets his eyes.

“Clint?”

“Green,” he murmurs back.

“Okay. Step backwards until you hit the bed.” Clint does this, and Phil follows him, keeping his hand touching and holding the eye contact. “Now lie back there please.”

Clint hops onto the bed and scoots backwards until he’s lying down, propped up on his elbows to keep looking at Phil. His eyes are grey-blue and focussed.

Phil climbs onto the bed and covers Clint’s cock through the cotton of his underwear. Clint jolts at the contact and Phil says, “Stay there.”

“Staying.”

“Good.” Phil inches back down the bed to replace his hand with his mouth. The sensation is muted by the fabric but he can still taste Clint, feel the way he moves. He can feel Clint looking at the top of his head. Phil says, “Lift your hips,” and slides the underwear down Clint’s legs. At the touch of Phil’s mouth on him, Clint’s hips snap up but Phil is ready for that and moves with him.

“Sorry, sorry.” Clint pats at Phil’s shoulder. “Staying here.”

“It’s okay,” Phil says. He sits back on his heels. “Reach into the drawers beside the bed. Find the bottle?” Clint locates the lube and holds it out. “Can you open yourself up for me?”

“I- yeah.” Clint opens the bottle one-handed and slicks up his fingers. He shifts on the bed and Phil moves to sit between his legs. He puts his hands on the backs of Clint’s thighs and pushes them aside. Clint presses in with one finger. “Phil.”

“Still right here. Keep looking at me.”

Clint keeps his eyes on Phil when he adds the second finger and the third. He inches forward on the bed. Phil rubs circles on Clint’s skin, pushing his fingers along the soft skin behind his knees and the bones of his feet. “Phil.”

“Reach back into the drawer and pass me a condom. Please.”

Clint reaches for the drawer without looking, still pressing inside himself with his other hand. He tosses the condom packet at Phil with his usual impeccable aim.

Phil catches it and tries not to fumble putting it on. It’s difficult, with the way Clint is watching him, muscles twitching with his conflicting desires to come and to wait for Phil. Phil takes hold of Clint’s wrist, between one finger and thumb. “Stop that now.” Clint pulls his hands away and Phil moves closer. “Still-.”

Clint says, “Still green, please…”

When Phil slides in, Clint’s eyes shutter closed for a second before he realises. They are open again a moment later, still stormy and wide-open and looking right at Phil. “Clint.”

“Yeah, yes, here,” he says back, nonsensical, reaching his hands back to press against Phil’s shoulders. “Here.”

 

*

When Clint wakes up, Phil is already awake and looking at the ceiling. Asking, “Are you okay?” seems like a reasonable enough thing to do.

“Are you?” Phil answers, so maybe it wasn’t.

“I’m fine. Better than fine. Sticky though.”

Phil makes a face. “God, me too. I should go and have a shower, I’m meeting with the Director this afternoon.”

“Mmm.” Clint isn’t going to suggest playing hooky, because Phil would never agree, but he’s feeling pleasantly boneless and not in favour of doing any moving himself.

Phil detangles himself from Clint’s legs, making yet more faces at the way they’re stuck to each other. He leans across the pillow and kisses Clint. “You understand that you can tell me anything, don’t you?”

It is too early in the morning for this, and Clint says so. He needs a little time to put himself back together after last night, but yeah, he knows that. Phil proved that. Clint says, “Go get showered.”

Phil walks into the bathroom but leaves the door open. Clint can hear the water running for him to brush his teeth.

Clint calls, not entirely sure if he wants Phil to hear this or not, “I never told him about you.” The water stops running. “Selvig- Nat says Selvig made a failsafe in the machine and I didn’t do anything like that.”

They tried to convince him afterwards that he hadn’t shot Fury in the head, that he barely grazed Hill and he’s a better shot than either of those things. Clint is pretty sure that at those moments, he was following Loki’s best orders, and Loki wanted out of there, he wanted chaos, more than he wanted any one person dead. Clint won’t look at those actions and call them his way of fighting back.

Clint says, “He asked what would happen and I said they’d go to panic stations, call in the guys they didn’t want. He asked all about the Avengers but I said SHIELD, I never said you and he didn’t ask.”

Phil stands in the doorway of the bathroom. “Thank you for that.”

“You shouldn’t be thanking me, that was probably what got you killed, he didn’t make plans to deal with you.” Clint smiles. “But I bet he was surprised as hell when you came at him with that gun.”

“He was even more surprised when I shot him,” Phil says. He walks back across the room and leans over the bed. He tastes of toothpaste now and Clint’s more aware than ever of his own morning breath but Phil doesn’t seem to care.

When they break away for air, Clint says, “Go get showered. You have work to do.”

 

*

They’re having a sort of team dinner where no one actually calls it that (except possibly Steve) but everyone turns up on the top floor and someone cooks for however many of the six or twelve of them currently living in are around.

Afterwards, Tony and Steve are having an argument about a film Steve hasn’t seen. Tony says, “No, no I am not buying that excuse, you were definitely around for this one. It came out last year!”

“I think I might have been busy,” Steve says. “Maybe saving people.” He’s definitely doing this deliberately; Clint can see the smile at the corner of his mouth.

Phil raises his hand. “I haven’t seen it either.”

“Well yeah,” Clint says, “You were dead.”

Phil screws up his nose and answers, “I was mostly dead.”

Tony cackles. “Oh, God, does this make Clint Buttercup?”

It says something about the things that have changed the last few months that Clint is only a little surprised when this ends up with ten of them sprawled out in the lounge watching The Princess Bride.

He’s slightly more surprised when they get to the part where Westley and Buttercup roll down the hill and he realises he’s being stared at. Westley says ‘Death cannot stop true love’ and Clint rolls his eyes. “If I kiss him, will you all go back to watching the movie?”

“Only if you put your back into it,” Tony answers. “Maybe swoon a little.”

Phil snorts and Clint turns to glare at him. “You are supposed to be on my side. It would serve you right if I left you and married Humperdinck.”

Steve looks up from his position at the foot of the chair. “She’s not really going to marry Humperdinck though, is she?”

They all know better than to answer that. Tony, who is willing to embarrass, ignore, and otherwise drive Steve to distraction in every other way, is very serious about not spoiling him for popular culture. Clint’s half-convinced that the reason Iron Man defeated the Wrecking Crew mostly single-handed last week was because he was pissed off at Thunderball for ruining Harry Potter for Steve.

Bruce says, delicately, “Let’s watch the film and see.”

Clint waits until they are definitely all watching the screen again before going in for the kiss. He doesn’t swoon, but he maybe sees a few spots when it’s over. Darcy throws popcorn at his head, which is her way of being supportive. Natasha stares at the side of his head until he gets freaked out and turns around and she laughs, which is hers.

The credits have literally just started to roll when Phil’s phone rings, immediately followed by Darcy’s, and then JARVIS says, “I believe you should look at the television.”

He flicks over to a security feed of downtown, where someone appears to be opening a giant sucking hole in the ground, for reasons that are not yet clear to Clint. At the moment it’s mostly swallowing empty cars, but people can’t be far behind.

Thor growls, “Must these villains always attack when we are at rest?”

“In fairness,” Steve says, already halfway to the door, “he waited until the movie was over. That’s better than we normally manage.”

Clint grins. “It’s practically considerate. Okay, who’s in the jet?”

“Me,” Natasha answers. Steve and Bruce too.

Tony and Thor plan to fly themselves. Tony says, “I’ll keep pace with you guys unless it looks like we need a more immediate reaction.”

Clint looks at Phil. “Want in the field?”

“Cleared again yesterday. But I’m going to drive in with Darcy, we need to coordinate with the first responders and the office. You six are to go in hot.”

“Going, sir.”

They’re in the jet and flying within five minutes. Clint calls in to let everybody know that he’s in the city’s airspace and will be looking for somewhere to land.

Conveniently, there’s a building with enough room to land and a decent sightline down to the field. This means Thor has to grab Natasha and fly her down, while Tony takes Steve, and Clint gets to stay where he is for once. Bruce sighs deeply and jumps off; Clint knows what’s going to happen but he watches anyway to just to make sure he transforms okay.

Things are now flying around the hole in some sort of a whirlwind; Thor is shooting lightning at it to see what happens. Mostly the hole gets pissed and starts sending things flying out instead, like cars and angry concrete-coloured monsters.

Darcy’s voice comes over the comms. “This is Lewis, we’re live on radios, NYPD are corralling civilians and press. They’ve also requested that we keep building destruction to a minimum today, so they clearly don’t know Iron Man at all. Agent Coulson will be calling the shots on this one, patching him through now.”

Phil’s voice comes over the radio, “Captain America, how are we doing?”

“Everyone’s in position, doing our best to limit the damage while we work out what we’re dealing with.”

“Iron Man? Work on that.”

Tony calls back, “Yes, sir, Dread Pirate Roberts.”

Phil sighs and in the background an agent who is unmiked but clearly close to Phil’s comm says, “Coulson, you know your team is fucking weird, right?”

There’s a burst of laughter over the radios, Tony as loud as anyone else. Phil says, “Yes, agent, thank you, it’s been brought to my attention.”

A minute or two later, Phil says, “Hawkeye, we think if you can get a shot on the unit connecting the device to his arm, we can take him down. Is that possible?”

Clint eyes up the angles. He smiles, and hopes that comes through to Phil. “For you, sir? Anything’s possible.” He draws his bow, keeps his eyes fixed on the dime-sized target, and says, “Tell me when.”

Phil counts to three. “Go.”

“Going, sir.” He lets fly, watching the arrow until it hits. The others rush in to take care of the rest; Clint covers them. The hole starts closing up, slowly, though the things that came out of it are still moving. A moment later, the SHIELD agents are coming in on clean-up. He can see Phil coordinating, taking a moment to fire at something, and going back to giving orders. Clint says, “Nice shooting, sir.”

In his ear, Phil echoes, “Nice shooting.”

“I try.”

“Well, that’s all anyone can ask of us,” Phil says, and Clint can definitely hear him smile. Maybe because he knows that other people have a habit of asking far more than that. Or maybe because that’s the part they ask of each other, and that part they’re starting to get right.