sparsenicjade
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AN: Thank you to egelantier for the conceptual beta. This does not have a structure/grammar beta. I apologize, I ran out of time. Written for foxxcub, for her donation to LLS. She requested C/C first time and pining and I'm pretty sure I failed on both accounts. On the upside, it's 6k longer than it needed to be? o.O If you want to request a time stamp for something else, you really do have the right. Used for my "ostracized from society" square for hc_bingo.

***


It wasn't, for the most part, anything obvious. People didn't come up to Clint in the halls and spit on him or sneer at him to his face or even mutter things behind his back where he could hear them. But SHIELD was full of covert operatives and very, very smart people. If they wanted to make a person feel his guilt, they had other, better ways of doing so.

If Clint had blamed them, that would have been one thing. Despite Natasha's words upon bringing him back, though, Clint had checked the casualty lists. Seventy-six employees of SHIELD aboard the helicarrier were dead because of him, countless more injured, some of them with career-ending injuries.

And Phil. Natasha had told him while heading over in the quinjet, grave and concerned, but also, Clint knew, with the ulterior motive of fueling him with pure hatred. He wouldn't have thought he had anymore of the emotion inside of him, but he'd long since known that for Phil anything was possible

Clint didn't let himself think about that, about the seventy-seventh name on the list of the deceased. It would drive him to take matters into his own hands, and really, other people had more right to his punishment than Clint did.

So it was subtle, but pervasive, and if he hadn't needed the others' hatred so much, it might have even felt oppressive. As it was, it was simply deserved.

*


He'd gone to medical after shwarma. He knew he was in bad condition. He was pretty certain he hadn't slept in over seventy-two hours. There was still glass embedded in his skin from his journey through the window; nothing life-threatening, but a few of the wounds probably needed stitching. He had no idea if he'd eaten in the time he was with Loki. He didn't remember doing so, and he remembered everything. Clint forced himself away from the memories, because they made him sick, and he needed to be functional, needed to help out with repairs.

One of the nurses in medical had glanced over him and said, "You'll have to come back, we've got more urgent cases."

Clint had stumbled to his quarters. He'd lived in a studio apartment off-base for years, but he was confined to HQ, so he went to the room where he'd never really settled, where he hadn't even gone for probably over a year. It had a toilet, sink and tiny shower in one corner and a cot in the other. There was a beat-up dresser Clint had moved in to store his clothes and left because it was too ugly to move into a real home. He checked the drawers and was greatly relieved to find he'd left himself a pair of sweats.

Evidently, however, he'd taken all of the bedding when he'd moved, because there wasn't anything on the bed. Too tired to care, Clint forced himself out of the armor, which was agonizing, and let it crumple onto the floor.

He stepped into the shower, where he was relieved to find a bar of soap. He worked on getting what he could of the shards out, almost passing out once or twice but managing to stay upright. He couldn't help biting his lip, trying to swallow the sounds he made when he was cleaning the gashes out. There were some he couldn't reach, but medical would probably slow in a few days and he'd go back.

The water had long gone cold when he finished what he could of the clean up. He just barely got himself into the sweats and onto the cot. Then he passed out.

*


According to SHIELD's computers, it was less than three hours later when Clint awoke screaming, tearing at his chest, trying to rip his own heart from his body. He threw up in the toilet, rinsed his mouth, and made himself go back to sleep. He needed rest if he was to be of any use with repairs.

*


Clint gave up at around five AM, when he took another quick shower to get rid of the sweat from his disturbed sleep and put his armor back on. Other than the sweats, it was all he had, and they weren't exactly appropriate for helping out with rebuilding. He made himself go and find Hill, not only because she would have an assignment for him, but because he'd shot at her. He'd managed to miss—all he remembered was screaming underneath a wall of obedience, of the twisting of his own natural need to please—but that didn't really make it better to his way of thinking.

When he found her, she looked as tired as he felt, the wound on her forehead especially noticeable against the stark paleness of her skin. He said, "Reporting for duty, Agent Hill."

"Barton," she said, her tone unreadable.

He said, softly, "I'm sorry."

She looked at him for a long moment in which Clint prayed she wouldn't tell him he wasn't even cleared to help with clean-up efforts. Finally, she nodded. "Section H-3 needs the most help."

Clint made his way there. He noticed how others working on the section shied away from him, left the hardest jobs for him to accomplish without help. He noted that sometimes others brought snacks up or water, and that he was clearly not welcome to partake. When he reached the point of dizziness from lack of food—two relief crews later—he ran to the commissary, grabbed a sandwich, forced it down, and went back to work.

*


One of the wounds was infected, one of them with glass still inside. Clint couldn't reach it. He'd gone back to medical, but one look at how many beds were occupied told him they had better things to be doing. He thought about asking permission to go off-base, find a clinic somewhere and just get it taken care of so he could be more help.

He realized, though, as soon as he had the thought, that his assets were frozen, which meant he had no money to pay any outside doctors. He considered the situation and decided he could wait a few more days. He'd had worse injuries by quite a bit, and he was still here.

The thought almost made him double over. He'd stopped trying to sleep. If he didn't wake to the words, you have heart and the need to get rid of the fucking useless organ, it was to Phil's smile, the one he only shared with Clint. Clint knew, he'd done his research. Phil smiled at other people, just not like that, not his Clint-smile. Clint was never exactly sure when it had happened, but that smile had become his anchor point, his moral and physical compass, always bringing him back to where he needed to be, where he was wanted.

Now it just reminded him he didn't have a place like that anymore.

*


Hill wouldn't let Clint take twenty-four hour rotations, and no matter what he tried, she always found out. He wasn't surprised; he'd believed for some time now that she was actually omniscient. In the hours when he wasn't allowed to haul and wield and do whatever he could to be useful, he found himself resting in the vents above Phil's office. It hadn't been converted yet, and while it was the worst place in the world to be in some ways, it was also the only place where the pain was pure enough to drown out the self-hatred. It was the closest thing he could get to peace.

*


Seven days after the Chitauri invasion, Clint was released from SHIELD custody with a warning not to leave the city. Fury, who issued the warning, looked like he was all-but rolling his eye. They both knew that if Clint wanted to run, he'd have run by now. Fury said, "Go home, Barton."

Clint tried, he really did. He got two steps into his apartment, and the last memory he had of the place—Phil having come over to run him through what he'd missed while on mission in Iran, and debrief him about New Mexico—made it impossible for him to breathe. Clint remembered thinking that when they got back, the next time he could get Phil over, he'd make them both coffee and maybe pancakes, or something he could cook without burning and say, "I know there's that stupid fraternization policy, but I'd like you to stay. The night."

He'd promised himself he'd go through with it, that he'd take the chance. He wasn't brave with his feelings, hadn't been in a long time, but he had planned to be, because the alternative—watching Phil, being near him every day, close enough to touch, allowed to touch, but not to have—was going to drive him slowly crazy. Now, though, standing in the space that had been his, that Clint had so carefully put together as a safe haven, the thought of lying in his bed—where he'd wanted Phil to be—of sitting on his couch where they'd spent hours unwinding, putting work aside for a glimpse of life, made Clint nauseated.

He made himself drink a little bit of water from the tap. He'd been so, so thirsty lately. He really needed to go to medical, he thought idly, knowing he couldn't bear to try again, be turned away a third time. If he hadn't deserved it he would have managed to fuel himself on anger, to force the issue, but as it was, he couldn't see taking resources away from all the SHIELD employees still in critical condition.

He left the apartment, locking up behind him. Then he went into Manhattan, where there was more to fix even than at SHIELD, and no Hill to tell him he couldn't do so every hour of the day and night.

*


Clint lost track of days. The palpable blame emanating from the recovery crews at SHIELD wasn't present amongst the Manhattan teams, but there wasn't any camaraderie to be had, either. If Clint was honest, that was mostly his fault. He felt more comfortable with the censure of those who knew what he'd done.

He'd been offered coffee at times, donuts and water and an apple or two, things that could be eaten quickly. At first he'd taken the coffee and the water, not hungry, but still thirsty, so thirsty. When he'd begun throwing liquids up, he'd stopped even with those.

He considered going to one of the make-shift clinics that had been set up throughout the city. They wouldn't ask him for money, but he would be using resources that the others, who were still streaming in daily, civilians who'd done nothing to deserve this, needed. Phil's voice was in his head an undue amount, scolding him about being careless with one of SHIELD's best assets. He'd always snarked back when Phil had actually said such things, but now he wanted to hear it too much to do anything other than listen. In an attempt to appease Phil—he knew it was fucked up, that Phil was dead, he understood, but the thought brought him to his knees, and he needed to stay standing—he went back to SHIELD to take another shower, to try and just clean out the worst of it. He couldn't see or reach where the pain was concentrated, but dousing it with hot water hurt enough that he grayed out for a bit. He decided it would have to do.

Natasha tracked him down two or so days after that, Clint wasn't really sure. He was helping clear debris from an area of midtown so that civil engineers could get in and see what needed to be done in order to rebuild. She pulled him bodily from his task and asked, "Where the fuck have you been?"

It was hard to think past Phil's voice admonishing him for his behavior—both destroying millions of dollars of SHIELD technology and killing a crap ton of colleagues and not going to medical, which was confusing—and the minute to minute directions of, "move stone out of way, go back for another stone." It was probably because of this that his immediate response was, "Couldn't go back to the apartment, Tash."

She frowned at him for a long second and then moved toward him. He startled back by instinct, nobody having come near him in weeks, the ever present unspoken threat of others having forced him into keeping his guard up. She held up her hands and softened her expression. "Shh, detka, just me."

Clint counted, steadying his breaths, making them rhythmic. She could read him, had always been able to, would know when it was safe to try again. This time, when her hand rested against his forehead, he stayed still. She swore softly. "Come on."

"Medical's busy," he told her.

He didn't follow the string of incredibly inventive things she was going to do to SHIELD's medical staff. Instead, he said, "Kinda my fault, Tash."

"Shut up before I have to knock you out and carry you back to the Tower to keep from killing you," she said mildly.

Clint shut up and followed her. It should have felt like a role reversal, but really, it just felt like a foregone conclusion.

*


Clint stumbled over the vestibule at the Tower and nearly went to his knees. He righted himself just in time, but Natasha was looking at him. "Coulson would have kicked your ass for not going to medical," she told him flatly.

"Went," he said, and then, realizing it had been a misstep—why wouldn't his brain work with him—"and Coulson's not around to kick anyone's ass."

If his intention had been to make her back off or upset her, then the joke was on him because the wave of missing, longing, aloneness that swept over him made him even more sick to his stomach than he had been the moment before. Almost as if she was across the wide lobby rather than standing right next to him, he heard her voice from a distance. "Clint."

He forced himself to snap out of it. "Sorry, I didn't mean—"

She shook her head. "Let's…let's have Dr. Banner look at you. We can go from there."

*


Dr. Banner was in a lab, surrounded by things that evidently made him happy. Clint felt something that wasn't grief or guilt, and while he couldn't exactly identify it, the sensation was positive. Banner looked over at them and said, "Oh. You resurfaced."

Clint ran a hand over his face. "Wasn't underground."

Banner opened his mouth, but Natasha waved her hand in an abortive gesture. "He never went to medical, doc. I thought you could check him out."

Clint didn't bother reasserting either that he had gone to medical or that they had been busy. Natasha had selective listening skills.

"You never—" Banner stopped. He had a weird expression on his face as he asked, "Are you still in your fighting uniform?"

Any response Clint might have had to that was just going to lead to yelling, so he asked, "Can we just do this? There's still a lot of city to repair."

Banner's eyes narrowed for a moment and Clint could feel Natasha watching him, but Banner nodded and said, "Sure," so Clint took it as a victory.

Banner gestured at Clint's top and said, "You need to take that off. From the way you're moving, some of the damage has got to be underneath."

Clint didn't bother agreeing, just pulled the chest armor away, doing his best to breathe through the pain of doing so. He turned so Banner could see where the worst of it was and the sight was greeted by a sharp intake of breath on Banner's part, some fluid, incensed cursing on Natasha's.

"Okay," Banner said with an oddly calm voice. "I'm going to need you to lay down for this."

Natasha started toward the door. Clint asked, "Tasha?"

She twirled back. "You said you went to medical."

"They were busy," he repeated.

She inclined her head. "Now they're going to be busier."

Clint didn't want that, not when he could have pushed the issue, could have taken care of it himself. More than that, though, he didn't want her to leave. She couldn't fill the spaces in him where Phil had resided, but he'd missed her more than he'd allowed himself to remember, to think about. Even with her angry at him, it was better than the cold silence, persistent anger that had filled his world over the past ten days. Deserved or not, Clint needed relief from it, if only for a bit. "I—stay?"

Natasha cocked a hip and asked, "You realize at some point we're going to make you sleep and then I'll be free to do as I wish, right?"

Clint didn't answer. It was a rhetorical question. Natasha sighed and came to sit by him, close enough for him to hold her hand.

*


Once Dr. Banner had administered general anesthesia, the simple lack of pain after so many days with it was enough to put Clint to sleep. He woke up in an unfamiliar bed, wearing sweats that weren't his. When he levered himself up to his feet, the world tilted and he had to close his eyes to make it stop. There was a clock on the nightstand. Clint glanced at it. He'd slept for four hours. It was the most he'd managed in a long time.

He was pretty certain he was still in the Tower. He didn't have the slightest clue how to get back to the entrance, though. He'd paid enough attention to retrace his steps from Banner's labs to the door, but he wasn't in Banner's labs and he couldn't remember how he'd gotten to this room. Staying in it, though, wasn't going to get anything accomplished. There was still years worth of work to be done in the city, and he needed to help.

He checked his email on his phone, reading one from Hill over and over again. It informed him of the times and dates he was to report to medical and psych to begin evaluations for future field clearance. Clint couldn't imagine what the hell he could say to people whose co-workers he'd killed that would garner him a passing grade on the evals. He responded to tell her he would be there.

He left the room and took a right, as it seemed as good a direction as any. Phil had always had an unerring sense of direction, and a symbiotic relationship with maps of all sorts. Tt was one of the things that made him a fantastic handler. It was almost impossible to get lost with Phil in your ear.

Clint wasn't sure when he had stopped walking, but he found himself supporting his weight with one hand against a wall. He gritted his teeth against the recurrent feeling of loss. It wasn't the first time Clint had lost someone who meant the world to him. He'd survive this time, just as he had the last. He just needed to distract himself while he got through it.

*


Natasha caught Clint just as he had found his way to an exit. He frowned. "Have you been tracking me?"

"JARVIS has."

Clint blinked. Natasha clarified, "Stark's AI."

"That's…creepy."

"You get used to it," she told him. "It was that or having a watch rotation. I thought you'd prefer the less invasive option."

Something about her reliance on the tech was off, though. Clint figured it out after a second. "Have you been staying here?"

Carefully, for Natasha, she said, "We all have. Well, minus you, and only because we couldn't get to you at first. SHIELD had you on lockdown from the outside as well. I was keeping track, but then you disappeared the second they set you free."

He said softly, "I kinda broke New York."

"Clint—"

"I know, Tash. Monsters and magic and—"

"And none of us at your side," she hissed.

He blinked. "Tash?"

She swallowed, pulling into herself visibly. "He took you away. Where we couldn't get to you, couldn't—couldn't be behind you."

Clint frowned. "The job—"

"No," she shook her head sharply. "No. SHIELD means having resources, people to back you up. That was the bargain, for both of us. And there was no way to come through on that for you. But that doesn't make this your fault, any more than it makes it mine or—or Coulson's."

Clint tightened his jaw. Natasha's expression was soft with shared grief, and she murmured, "detka. Don't run, not again. I need you here."

Clint closed his eyes. It was tempting to run, even if just to SHIELD, where everyone's quiet, burning resentment meant he could give hating himself a rest. But that was the easy way out, really, and Natasha was asking him not to take it. After a long moment he nodded. "Okay. Okay, but I need to help."

Natasha's smile was small and just this side of tremulous. "We all do."

*


Natasha went out with Clint to help with the rebuilding crews. Rogers joined them. She let Clint work himself until he practically couldn't walk and then the three of them headed back to the Tower, Rogers surreptitiously holding Clint up at times. Clint swallowed and said, "Thanks, Cap."

Being near Steve made it impossible not to think about Phil. Clint tried not to blame Rogers for that, especially when the guy had been nothing but stand-up, given that he'd trusted Clint on the basis of Natasha's word. Such actions were usually the kind of thing that made Clint consider a person innocent of being a scumbucket until proven guilty. So far, Rogers hadn't presented any evidence that he was worthy of conviction.

When they returned, Banner checked on his stitches and the progress of the antibiotics. Natasha and he bullied Clint into eating a little something, and she made him lie down on the couch.

Clint woke, as was normal, with his hands on his chest, doing their best to rip his heart straight from his body.

*


He hadn't been wearing a shirt when he'd laid down to rest, so by the time Natasha—who evidently was still spying on Clint by way of JARVIS—got back to the common floor from wherever she'd been, Clint had managed to create a few new deep scratches right over his heart.

Too wrapped up in the nightmare to be clear about who was grabbing his hands, Clint fought Natasha. He barely felt the various impacts, had no idea how long it was before she had him pinned beneath her, whining and terrified and desperate. Later, he would ask JARVIS, who would hesitantly admit she'd had to stay in that position, trying to talk him up from his own mind, for nearly six minutes.

When she finally managed, Clint looked up at her, at the bruise blossoming on her jaw, the disarray of her hair, the blood at the left corner of her mouth. He said, "You shouldn't've saved me. You should've put me down."

She asked, her gaze cold, "But then how would we have defeated Loki?"

*


None of the others, even Stark, who was always in his lab and didn't even really know Clint that well, would let Clint go to SHIELD for his first round of evaluations alone. Natasha accompanied him on that trip, walking down the corridors by his side, promising death in her casual glances to anyone who so much as had the nerve to glance sideways at Clint. He wrapped his hand around her wrist and squeezed for a moment. It didn't calm her.

The first battery of tests was all physical. The nurse helping out was the one who'd informed him he'd have to wait when he'd tried to get aid after the Chitauri battle. When he was ordered to take off his shirt, he didn't miss the flash of mild pleasure in her eyes upon seeing how bandaged up he remained. Nobody was talking to him anyway, just sliding needles in, taking measurements, that sort of thing, so Clint asked, "What is it, precisely, that you hate me over?"

The nurse startled at the attention as much as the question. Clint shrugged slightly. "Might make you feel better to actually yell at me about it."

Clint didn't mention that it might make him feel better as well. He didn't think that would help. Clint could feel the doctor keeping an eye on the whole thing, even as he went about performing the necessary tests. After a while, when Clint figured the nurse probably wasn't going to take him up on the offer, she said, "My fiancÚ was on the helicarrier. Flight engineer. He was killed in the first blast, so far as the reports can say."

Clint held her gaze. "I'm sorry."

"Save it," she sneered. "It doesn't change anything, it doesn't help anything."

"I know," Clint told her. He did. The words didn't make him feel better, they didn't make Phil any less dead.

In the fraught silence that followed, the doctor said, "Nurse Delacroix, would you be so kind as to go find a replacement and take a break?"

She was out of the door before the doctor even finished. Clint said, "You needn't have bothered. The next one will just be," Clint almost laughed, "avenging someone else."

"Perhaps, but the next might also be more professional about his or her feelings on the matter," the doctor said lightly, and kept at his task.

*


The second time back, one of the pilots purposely slammed into Clint in a move that would have made Clint laugh with the high-schoolishness of it all except for that, with his back still healing, he was too busy trying to get rid of the black spots swimming in front of his eyes. Before he had even fully straightened up, he noticed that Stark—who'd somehow been drafted into accompanying Clint on this trip in—was ripping the guy a new one so precisely and sharply that Clint was shaken, and it was Clint of whom Stark was being protective.

The words, "would be a smoldering crater filled with alien fecal matter," and "reason you're paid to push buttons rather than engage in any activity requiring higher-level intelligence," filtered past Clint's hearing. Strangely, the fact that Stark—who really was far more honest than nice when it came to others—seemed to genuinely believe Clint didn't deserve this kind of behavior made Clint begin to wonder if maybe he'd gotten a little lost in his own guilt.

Clint pulled Stark off the pilot—who was pretty close to peeing himself, if the look on his face was any indication—and went to start his psych eval. Phil would say to actually talk to the professionals. Clint was at least going to consider it.

*


Thor returned to Earth by way of magic and Dr. Jane Foster and a lot of words Clint didn't understand on a Monday. Tony told him, "That is etymologically incorrect."

Thor was unapologetic.

Clint tried slipping off into the city again, back to the comfort of fixing what he'd broken, but Thor intercepted him. It was kind of annoying that Thor was evidently smarter than he seemed. He said, "Allow me to treat you to a meal, my brother-in-arms."

Clint said, "I was actually just—"

"Among my people, it is a grave insult to refuse offers of food or hospitality," Thor informed him, casually, like he couldn't pound Clint into dust.

"Right," Clint said. "Uh, have a preference of restaurants?"

They ended up at a Shake Shack, where, after the third time Thor ordered, the staff started looking a bit nervous about supplies. Clint chewed at his burger slowly, reminding his body how to handle real food. Natasha'd been pushing the issue of something more solid than protein bars or the odd energy shake here and there, but nausea was still a significant problem.

Thor commented on the progress being made with the rebuilding efforts and how good it was to be back amongst Midgardians. Other patrons edged away from them. When Clint was starting to think Thor had just decided he needed bonding time with one of his teammates, the Asgardian said, "I would apologize to you, Clint Barton, for the actions of my brother."

Clint shrugged, not wanting this, not wanting to talk about it. "He's adopted."

"Perhaps," Thor tilted his head in acknowledgment. "But he is the product of my house, my line, and he has harmed you."

Clint's chest felt tight. He didn't know how to handle this. Say it was all right? It was not, and Clint was not certain he could get a lie of that magnitude to cross his lips. Luckily, Thor spoke again. "Loki's magic has always been powerful, but I did not consider that with implements to augment it he might go so far as to enslave others."

Clint looked up at Thor, blinking. Thor frowned, slightly. "What was your condition, if not an enslavement of the mind? One impossible to break?"

Clint shook his head, once. "It was my hand on the bow, my strategies, my—"

"Subservience of his will. Obeisance to his magic. You are not the first he has tricked, has overcome, has turned against their own inner truth. If I am honest with myself, I doubt you will be the last." Thor sounded immeasurably sad at the admission.

In Clint's mind, Natasha murmured, monsters and magic and nothing we were ever trained for. He swallowed. "I—I don't really think you're the one who should be saying sorry, but, um, I accept your apology."

Thor watched Clint for a moment and then grinned, heading back for a fourth order.

*


Without actually realizing what he was doing, Clint began coming home a bit earlier from helping with clean-up or being evaluated, or whatever he had to do on any given day. At first it was just eight or nine in the evening, rather than eleven or midnight. He would drop onto the couch with anyone who was there, usually at least Thor and Rogers, sometimes Banner or Nat or even both. Stark they usually had to drag out of his lab if they wanted to. Clint wasn't sure, but he thought Stark was putting up less resistance as time went on.

Then there was the evening where the crew Clint was working with split up around seven to get dinner and disperse to other areas and Clint just found himself back at the tower. Rogers was making chicken and dumplings and he said, "There's enough to feed an army, if you want in. Literally, I learned from the mess cooks."

Clint almost didn't recognize the feeling of a smile blooming over his face. "Uh, yeah, that sounds…wow. I can't remember the last time I had a home-cooked meal."

It was a lie, he could, but he pushed the memory away, because it made Phil's laughter, his insistence that everything needed more garlic, too damn present in Clint's mind. Clint was starting to consider the possibility that he might not be entirely guilty for Phil's death, but that didn't make him any less dead.

Rogers grinned. "Yeah, I managed to cajole Tony up from the lab with the promise of food not from a blender."

"Well done, Cap."

Banner wandered in a moment later and said, "Hey, you're back early."

Clint shrugged. "I was hungry."

Banner paused minutely while reaching for plates from the cabinet, but all he said was, "Great."

Clint said, "I'm gonna go grab a shower."

He let the hot water pound away the worst of the stress on his muscles that engaging in manual labor day-in-and-day-out was causing, then pulled on some sweats and didn't allow himself to hide in his room, as was tempting now that he was there. When he got back to the eating area, Natasha was at the table, teaching Thor the art of making napkin swans. He was enthralled. Clint sat down to watch, figuring there were no useless skills.

*


Two weeks later, Clint woke to the ringing of his cell phone rather than his own screams, which was novel. The frequency of the nightmares was lessening with his slow, crawling progress toward believing he truly could not have stopped himself from being Loki's instrument, but they still came and came with a vengeance.

The number on the cell screen was private, so Clint usually wouldn't have picked up, but it was also 2:47 on a Saturday morning, and sometimes, in Clint's life, that meant someone might die if he didn’t. "Who is this?"

"Clint," his name was said like a talisman, like a breath of relief.

Clint dropped the phone. And then picked it back up. "What did I kill so we could eat in Yemen?"

The answer was immediate: "A caracal."

"What's your favorite television show?"

"Reality or scripted?"

"Scripted," Clint decided, because Phil's preferences in that area were even less well known than the former.

"All-time, MASH, currently running, Parks and Rec."

"What was my favorite thing about the circus?" Clint asked, hardly daring to breathe.

"Besides shooting, which I'm going to assume you find too obvious, the tigress, Noelani."

Clint bit back the wounded sound that wanted to crawl up from his stomach. "Where are you? What—?"

"SHIELD medical facility hidden outside Stowe, Vermont, little over six hours from where you are." A beat, and then, with a smile Clint could hear, "Up for a drive?"

Slowly, Clint asked, "I'm guessing, since you're calling me from a burner phone in the middle of the night that this break out isn't exactly sanctioned?"

"It might cause more problems before it fixes them, yes. I'll understand if—"

"Six hours," Clint said. "Be dressed and ready to go."

*


Clint left a note for Natasha and one for Stark, but the latter was just because he borrowed the fastest car he could find with room for a passenger to sit comfortably. He played music loudly the whole way there to drown out his own thoughts. He was more than half-worried he'd imagined the phone call, his need for Phil to be alive having developed into full-blown hallucinations.

When he arrived at the address Phil had given him, though, the man walked out of the door, and slipped into the car. His movements were slower than Clint remembered, more cautious. The moment Phil was safely inside, Clint couldn't help himself, he had his hands on the other man, testing to see that he was physically there.

"Clint," Phil said softly.

Clint shook his head. "Are we going to be followed?"

Phil nodded. "Probably in a few hours, when the sleeping agent starts wearing off the staff. Unless someone calls in earlier, then we might have less of a headstart."

"JARVIS?" Clint ventured.

"Agent Barton. May I be of assistance?"

Clint grinned. Stark's AI was so polite. It took Clint off-guard every time. "Know the best way to return to the Tower without being easy to follow?"

"The map will appear on the console momentarily, sir."

"You're a treasure, JARVIS," Phil murmured.

Clint blinked at him. He wasn't aware Phil was on a first name basis with Stark's robo-butler. Even more surprising was when JARVIS said, "It is good to hear your voice again, Agent Coulson. I had not expected to have the pleasure."

Phil cracked a small smile. "Take us back, JARVIS."

The map appeared, complete with mileage and color coding.

*


Phil slept for the first two hours of the drive. Clint wanted to hear him talk, but just having him there in the flesh was enough, and Clint needed to figure out what the hell was going to say, in any case. He knew he should have considered the situation on the drive up, but he'd been too busy convincing himself he was crazy.

Then, of course, Phil woke up and the second thing Clint said, after asking if the temperature was all right, was, "I should have made you stay. That last night, in New Mexico, on the fucking base, I should have thrown caution to the wind and kissed you until you couldn't go anywhere."

There was a couple of seconds of silence in which Clint couldn't breathe, not for anything. Phil broke the spell by saying softly, "You have no idea how many times I've thought the same thing since that night."

Clint's grip tightened on the steering wheel. "If I wasn't ninety nine percent certain we really needed to get back to the safety of the Tower, I'd be pulling over right now."

For the first time since he'd gotten in the car, Phil used his Handler Voice. "Drive faster."

*


Stark was in the auto bay when they got back, as was Rogers, Natasha, Ms. Potts, and Banner. Clint exited the car and said, "I left a note. And she's in perfect condition, Stark."

"JARVIS was telling tales out of school," Ms. Potts said, but her focus, like everyone else's, was on Phil.

After a long, pregnant silence, Natasha broke from her stillness to move to Phil, pull him to her in a hug. Clint could see she was assessing his physical condition even as they embraced, but it was a hug, nonetheless. Phil was saying, "I'm sorry, Nat."

"You should be," she told him, but she sounded too tired to actually be mad.

Stark, Rogers and Banner had broken their gazes away, now looking at Clint. Clint shrugged, uncomfortable with the regard. "He called. I couldn't just leave him there."

"Of course not," Rogers said, as though Clint were the slow kid.

"His floor's below yours," Stark said.

"Floor?" Clint asked. Then, "Mine?"

Stark's expression clearly wanted to know if Clint was mentally incapacitated. Stark wanted to know that a lot, though, so Clint wasn't bothered. Stark said, "The one you've been living on? It's not really finished yet, but it's not just some bed I've shunted you into."

"Um." Clint closed his eyes. One thing at a time. "Why does Phil have a floor if he was dead?"

"Because I, as a general rule and guiding principle, don't believe a fucking word that comes out of Fury's mouth," Stark explained.

Clint opened his eyes. "But you assembled over his death."

"I assembled because Loki was a medieval doucherocket with a band of ugly ass fuckers wanting to screw with my planet and my property," Stark said. "I just don't like it when people try to kill my—"

"Friends?" Rogers suggested after a beat. Banner laughed quietly. Stark gestured with his middle finger.

Clint glanced over at where Ms. Potts was holding Phil's hand, speaking softly to him. Clint was just working himself into a decent bout of jealousy when Phil looked over at him and shared an expression Clint knew was theirs and theirs alone.

JARVIS said, "We have visitors."

Ms. Potts' smile was practically carnivorous as she said, "I'll handle that. Why don't the rest of you show Phil to his quarters?"

*


Phil's quarters, like Clint's, weren't personalized yet, but there was nice groundwork. Clint would have made different decisions, but then, Clint knew Phil. The thought was calming now, rather than the open wound it had been for so many months. Rogers, Stark, Banner and Natasha filed out shortly after showing Phil up, Stark clapping a hand to their shoulders, Roger's squeezing those same shoulders gently. Banner's touch was light, and to the middle of the spine. Natasha hugged them both before she left.

After the door had closed, Phil said, "You've landed yourself quite a team."

Clint hadn't been paying as much attention as he should have been to their ever-present, almost invisible support, but now that it was so obvious, he agreed, "Yeah. Yeah, I really have."

Phil was already sitting on the sofa. He'd kind of sunken into it as soon as they'd gotten onto the floor. Clint asked, "Wanna stay there?"

Phil rubbed a hand over his face. "Not sure how much choice I have."

Clint walked over and gently brought Phil to his feet. "C'mon, let's get you to bed."

*


Phil pulled Clint into the bed after him. Clint said, "No, I—my nightmares are pretty violent. Maybe when you're not injured."

Phil just kept holding on. "You're going to have to fight me to get free. Pick your poison."

Clint knew that with Phil weakened, he could get free without causing too much damage. But there would be damage. And Clint just couldn't make himself perpetrate any further crimes against Phil. He buckled, settling into the bed facing Phil.

Phil said, "Jesus, Clint. You're a mess."

"Says the man who just came back from the dead," Clint pointed out, but he wasn't arguing.

Phil dropped his hold on Clint to put a hand to Clint's face, to lean in and brush his lips with a kiss. Clint wanted to fold Phil to him, tighten his grip so the man couldn't go anywhere. Instead, he kissed back, equally light, like a question and a promise all in one. Clint murmured, "You need sleep."

"Yes," Phil agreed. "As do you."

Clint tried to stay awake, he did, but the pull of Phil, safe and whole and his, right there, and Clint's own exhaustion, were too much to hold out against.

*


Clint woke shaking and screaming, but his hands were warm in Phil's, who was saying, "You're all right. You're here with me."

Clint panted in the aftermath, squeezing Phil's hands probably too hard. He gasped, "Took my heart. He took—"

Phil kissed him, still sweet, but forceful and commanding this time, as well. "No. No, Clint. He stole it, for a bit. But it's right where it should be. We're right where we should be."

Clint pulled one hand free and pressed his palm lightly over where Phil's heart was beating. Phil did the same to Clint's chest with his free hand. He said, "See? It's there."

Clint just counted the beats of Phil's heart. When he got to infinity, he'd believe.


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Skin by egelantier, photo by microbophile