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The Promise of Maybe

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The building is burning and Clint can’t see for the smoke stinging his eyes and choking his lungs. He tries to push himself up on his knees, but his injured arm gives under his weight and he falls back to the floor with a short gasp of pain. He can feel Amalthea beside him, her sharp beak frantically pecking and tugging at his shoulder. He can feel her panic resonate with his own. They’re trapped, too low to the ground, can’t see, can’t move, they’re going to die here if he doesn’t move.

“Come on, Clint!” she shrieks, battering him with her wings. “Get up, come on!” On any other occasion the sight of her hopping about on taloned feet would be enough to make him laugh.

He tries again, manages to crawl a few feet towards where he thinks the door is, before he falls again, coughing and choking on the thick smoke filling the air. He can feel the heat from the fire as it spreads out from the store room. Sweat drips into his eyes and burns almost as badly as the smoke. Amalthea crawls under his arm, pressing her feathered body as close to him as she can get. Clint holds her tight, burying his nose in her feathers.

“Sorry, Thea,” he whispers, his voice little more than a rasp in his throat. The daemon doesn’t reply, just nuzzles closer. All they can hear is the crackle of spreading flames, and there’s nothing to see but smoke curling above them. He hopes there’s enough evidence left for SHIELD to find these fuckers again, once the fire’s contained. He hopes they pass out soon. Asphyxia sucks but it beats burning to death.

“Phil! I found them!”

Clint blinks his eyes open and sees a dark figure emerge from the haze, four legged with its head dipped low to avoid the smoke. It draws nearer and he recognizes Wilhelmina’s furry muzzle. Amalthea gives a soft cheep as the wolf sniffs at them.

Agent Coulson is close behind his daemon, dressed in his usual, impeccable suit with a firefighter’s mask over his face and an oxygen tank strapped to his back. He drops to his knees at Clint’s side and pulls a secondary mask out from under his jacket, strapping it over Clint’s face. The archer sucks in a breath of cool, clean air, his head spinning with the sudden euphoria of it. He keeps his breathing slow and shallow, he’s been inhaling smoke long enough to feel like someone has closed a vice around his lungs. Bruised ribs don’t help the situation at all.

“Can you stand?” Coulson asks. He turns Clint onto his back and checks his injuries while Wilhelmina nuzzles Amalthea. The hawk fluffs her feathers and runs her beak through the wolf’s ruff.

“Probably not,” Clint admits. He’s got four broken toes on one foot, a bullet hole in the other, a dislocated shoulder, in addition to the collection of bruised ribs, abrasions, burns, and cuts. He’s had worse, but he’s not usually fighting oxygen depravation at the same time. Amalthea isn’t in any better condition, barely able to keep herself upright.

“Okay.” And this is why Clint likes working with Coulson best. There’s no trace of panic or worry in his tone at all, just cool professional calm. Nothing fazes this guy. “Mina, can you get Amalthea?”

The wolf studies the hawk with calm grey eyes. Amalthea fluffs her feathers, gold eyes wide with fear. “I don’t know if I can hold on to your fur,” she admits.

There’s a sharp crack of snapping wood and a crash that shakes the floor. Clint flinches and Amalthea keens. There’s no time. Coulson bites out a curse and tugs Clint into a sitting position. “Mina!” he snaps.

“She’s too big to fit in my mouth,” the wolf replies. “I’ll need a sling.”

Coulson gives a short nod and strips off his jacket, laying it flat on the concrete. Clint can’t see his expression through the mask but his voice is soft and genuinely regretful when he says: “I’m sorry about this.” Clint has half a moment to wonder what he’s apologizing for before the agent’s hands close around Amalthea.

Amalthea gives a short shriek and Clint’s nerves are alight with electricity. Like every nerve has exploded with sensation. He gasps and chokes, damaged lungs protesting. His entire body is tingling, burning, his chest aches as though Coulson had just reached into his ribcage and grabbed his heart. It’s a bastard mix of pain, panic, Do Not Want and a faint, distant thrum of not again.

Then, as quickly as it began, it’s over. Coulson deposits the daemon on his spread jacket and Clint is coherent enough to notice that the agent’s hands are shaking as he twists the fabric into a sling, deftly avoiding any more contact with Amalthea. Wilhelmina gives a soft whine, but doesn’t say a word as she takes the sling in her jaws, as careful as a mother with a new pup.

Coulson levers Clint up and over his shoulders in a fireman’s carry. Clint focuses on breathing, in the fresh flow of oxygen coming from the tank currently digging into his side, putting painful pressure on bruised ribs. He can feel Amalthea, her fear sharp and brittle in his mind, but also relieved as Coulson and Wilhelmina carry them out of the building.

Clint doesn’t pay much attention to the flurry of activity around them. He’s distantly aware of the newly arrived emergency crews, flashing lights and sirens blaring. Coulson deposits him on a gurney and EMTs move deftly around him. Wilhelmina places Amalthea beside him and an EMT’s lemur daemon unties the sling and checks the hawk over for injuries while Clint cuddles her close to his side, stroking her ruffled feathers.

Coulson has lost his mask and stands over Clint with a strange expression on his face. His eyes are dark and his mouth is drawn in a tight line. His face is pale and he has that tell-tale crease between his eyes that he gets when he’s upset and trying not to show it.

Clint takes the expression in with a quick glance before he has to look away. He doesn’t know what to say, what to think. He’s in too much pain, too relieved to be alive to think clearly. He trusts Coulson, to a degree. His trusts Coulson to do his job and help Clint do his. He trusts Coulson in the field to do everything in his power to keep them safe. Trusting Coulson as a partner, as a coworker, as his handler, well that’s just fine. Trusting him with Amalthea? That is something else entirely. Clint closes his eyes and curls his hand around his daemon. He can’t deal with this now.

Coulson, proving once again that his mutant power is telepathy, gives Clint’s uninjured shoulder a soft pat. “I’m sorry,” he says, quietly enough that Clint isn’t even sure he heard him before he turns and strides away, Wilhelmina trotting at his side with her tail tucked between her legs and her head low.

***

Coulson and Wilhelmina visit them only once in the hospital, and they are all business. Archer and daemon aren’t sure if they should be relieved or not. Clint and Amalthea relay the events that lead to the warehouse fire into a recorder while Coulson takes his own notes on a legal pad. Wilhelmina sits with her muzzle on the bed, watching Amalthea intently while the hawk perches on Clint’s shoulder, occasionally preening his hair.

At the end of the interview Coulson pockets the recorder and holds the pad tight in one hand while the other is buried in his daemon’s ruff, fingers clenched tight around grey fur. His face is completely inscrutable, but Wilhelmina has her ears pinned back and her tail hung low between her legs, pressed close to the agent’s side.

“Agent Sitwell will be by later with the proper forms if you wish to make a formal complaint,” Coulson says, his voice completely devoid of emotion. “Or if you wish to transfer to another handler.”

Clint flinches and Amalthea gives a soft peep of alarm. He’d been trying not to think about that. He doesn’t know what to say, and so he doesn’t say anything. Coulson waits for a long, awkward moment before giving a curt nod and turning to the door. Wilhelmina glances back at them with a soft whine before following after him.

Amalthea flutters down to settle on Clint’s lap, looking up at him with sharp gold eyes. “We’re not going to do that, are we?”

Clint strokes his fingers over her head and sighs. “I don’t know,” he admits. It’s all tangled up in his head. His entire being rebelling against the unwelcome touch, the invasion of his very self, and at the same time . . . it was necessary. And . . . maybe someday, under different circumstances, maybe they would have welcomed the contact. But right now? When it had been forced on them, even for life-saving purposes, he doesn’t know what to do.

“Because that would be a dick move. They saved our lives,” Amalthea states. Her puffed feathers betray her agitation.

“I know.” He drops his head back against the pillow and closes his eyes.

“It . . .” Amalthea hesitates, flutters her wings and shifts on her talons. “It wasn’t . . . awful. I mean, it was bad, but not like the last time.”

Clint shudders and swallows the sudden surge of bile in his mouth. The last time, when Duquesne had grabbed Amalthea and shaken her like a terrier with a rat. While Clint, hampered  by two broken legs, couldn’t do anything but scream and plead with his former mentor to let her go. He had thought they were going to die with the agony of it.

“. . . Clint?” Amalthea rubs her beak against his stomach to get his attention. He sighs and cradles her close, running calloused fingers through her feathers.

“Later,” he says. “We’ll worry about it later.”

***

When they are finally released from the hospital, the first thing they do is track Coulson and Wilhelmina down in their office. The wolf daemon is laying on the floor beside Coulson’s desk while the agent slogs through his inbox. Her head comes up and her ears perk when they come through the door. Coulson glances up at them, but keeps his face blank.

Amalthea launches herself off Clint’s shoulder and soars across the room to perch deliberately on the wolf’s back. Wilhelmina’s tongue lolls out of her mouth in a lupine grin as the hawk makes herself comfortable. Coulson’s expression doesn’t change, but Clint can see his shoulders relax with relief.

“I don’t want another handler,” Clint states, flopping down on Coulson’s couch with measured ease. He meets Coulson’s eyes and tries to keep his face calm. “And filing a complaint when you saved our lives would be a shitty thing to do.”

“But--?” Coulson prompts, leaning back in his chair.

“But . . . I’d really rather that not happen again any time soon.”

Coulson nods. “Of course.”

Clint looks away from Coulson to their daemons. Wilhelmina has settled back on the floor, her head resting on her paws. Amalthea looks perfectly at ease, nestled in the wolf’s thick grey fur, but her gold eyes are sharp and worried when they meet Clint’s. She gives him a pointed look and flutters her wings. “Go on,” she says.

Coulson raises an eyebrow, glancing from the hawk to Clint. The archer scowls at his daemon and looks back up at the older man with a faint blush of remembered shame and anger staining his cheeks.

“I . . . we . . . ah,” he falters and looks back to the daemons. “That . . . wasn’t the first time someone grabbed Amalthea.”

 Wilhelmina’s head snaps up and her hackles rise. Amalthea fluffs her feathers and gives a sharp keen of protest at the sudden motion. The wolf stills, but her hackles stay up. Clint hears Coulson draw in a sharp breath and sees a flash of horror cross his face before the agent tucks it away behind his inscrutable mask.

“It wasn’t the same at all,” Amalthea says. “It was a lot worse then, but we just want you to know.”

“It’s . . . we trust you. With a lot of things,” Clint says, willing Coulson to understand. “But that . . . that was . . .” He trails off, the words drying up on his tongue.

“Too much, too soon,” Coulson finishes. His expression is considering as he looks from Clint to their daemons and back again.

“Yeah.” Clint leans back against the cushions and waits. Amalthea returns to her perch on his shoulder, running her beak through his hair. He strokes her side, the smooth slide of feathers under his fingers soothing his nerves.

Wilhelmina sits up and exchanges a look with her human. “We can’t promise it won’t happen again,” she says quietly. “If it’s the only way to save your life, we’ll do it.”

Clint tenses. Amalthea’s feathers fluff up under his hand.

“Only as a last resort and only with your consent. Provided you’re capable of giving it.” Coulson says. “We can’t promise any more than that.”

Clint and Amalthea exchange glances. His is uneasy, her’s resigned. “Okay,” he says reluctantly.

“If it helps, the same goes for us,” the wolf says, consoling.

It does help, a little. Clint settles back on the couch with a short nod, Amalthea nestled against his neck, and closes his eyes. Coulson goes back to his paperwork and Wilhelmina settles on the floor at his feet. Clint listens to the soft scratch of pen over paper and thinks about the man across from him who was nothing like the men who’d come before. He thinks that maybe, just maybe, Coulson is a man worth trusting with more than just their life.