sparsenicjade
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AN: Thanks to Spatz for the beta, to luu2shop for sponsoring this story for LLS. This fills the "starvation" prompt on my hc_bingo card.

***


Nat is the one to read Clint in, because Nat is the one who stayed up all night with Fury right before a battle to, oh, save the world. The two of them had used that time to hide as much information as possible about active operatives who were unquestionably SHIELD-loyal, before dumping the rest of it out into the world. It's the reason Clint's still alive. It's also the reason that there wasn't much information to be wiped about May and her team.

Which, as it turns out, is actually Coulson and his team. Nat says, "You have to shut up and let me tell you all of this."

Clint has very few hard and fast rules in his life, but when Nat tells him to do something, straight and without any hesitation, he listens. That's rule number four. She presses her forehead to his and he can't help saying, "You're scaring the shit out of me, Nat."

"A few weeks after New York, Fury enacted a protocol called 'TAHITI' that was level eleven sensitive. It—" her breath catches, " it brought Coulson back to life, but it was nearly a year before all the necessary treatments were concluded. He…he wasn't told exactly what was done. Fury set May on him to make sure there were no adverse side effects, and gave him a team and the Bus to keep him out of sight for the most part."

For several seconds, Clint is blessedly numb. He's felt this kind of numbness before, usually in the split-second after being hit by a bullet or cut by a knife. As such, he's not surprised when what follows is a unique and deadly type of pain. He pushes it aside the way he pushes aside injuries when a mission has to be completed. "So. Uh. A year, huh?"

Her hands come up to grip his arms. "Fury's going to make him director."

Clint laughs. He can't help himself. "Of course he is. Who better to succeed a not-dead man than a not-dead man?"

"Clint." Nat's voice is low, urgent.

"It's fine, Nat. It's…I mean, no, it sucks, but I've had worse."

She digs her fingers in. "I don't believe you."

"Jesus, you believed me when I told you SHIELD wouldn't kill you, and you were second on its list of Most Wanteds."

She doesn't laugh or even smile. "Funny, isn't it?"

*


One of the many reasons Clint has told himself he needs to stop being friends with Natasha Romanova over the years is that she is always fucking right. Oh, he's aware she doesn't know everything. It's just that she never makes decisions about things or pronouncements until she knows enough to be correct.

Fuck knows neither Fury nor Coulson owe him anything. Clint likes to think he was getting to even with Fury before the whole Loki thing. Sure, Fury dragged him out of the cesspit he'd made of his life and gave him purpose and cool arrows and a home, but Clint had outperformed expectations and saved Fury's ass more than a few times and brought him the best freelance assassin in the world.

Then Clint shot him in the chest. Granted, it wasn't the head, Clint had managed that much—and fuck, it had hurt, had drained him for the fights that lay ahead—but Clint knows it set him back in the owing department a bit.

Coulson, though. Well, Clint definitely owed Coulson more than the other way around. If Fury had dragged him in, Coulson had cleaned him up, fed him up, gotten him on his feet and made him the operative he would become. Clint had lost count of the number of times Coulson saved his life and his sanity over the years, and Clint did not lose count of his debts.

So, yes, the owing part of these equations is entirely on his side and there's no reason he should have expected to be told about Coulson's continued existence. No reason except for how Clint maybe got careless enough to think he might be more important than regulations, stupid enough to imagine himself as more than a tool in a large box of them.

He stays at the Tower, because Tony has offered—his direct words had involved getting the band back together and a follow-up album that did not involve insect aliens, but there was an offer under all that—and because there isn't anywhere safer, not now. Also, the Tower has a gym he can go to at any hour, day or night. He shadowboxes and runs and drills himself on acrobatics until he nearly vomits from the exertion, but the bright roil of anger he's doing his best to drum up will not answer the call. Instead he finds his eyes drooping, every muscle in his body straining with the pull of gravity. His surroundings are muted in a way that has nothing to do with his hearing aids.

When he was eight, and still in the group home, he'd climbed up to hide on the roof at dusk as many nights as he could sneak away. The home was in a rural area, and once on the roof, there was nothing for miles but corn and wheat fields, barren in the chill of fall and winter, monotonous in the soft rain of spring and heat of summer. His world reminds him of those winter-starved fields, empty and with the mockery of a type of infinity.

He recognizes the symptoms of depression. It was Coulson who caught it after the first mission where things went terribly wrong and a younger agent was lost. He'd sent Clint to one of SHIELD's doctors, who'd diagnosed depression and PTSD and worked Clint through his own stigmas to actually treat him.

The doc he'd seen retired four years back. He'd done Clint a solid and agreed to once-a-week phone sessions in the year after Loki, but Nick had been the one to secure that favor, because Clint couldn't adjust to any of the others he tried. Nick's out of the picture, though, and there's nobody with clearance anymore, no clearance to be had. There's nobody he can be sure isn't Hydra. Hell, for all he knows, the man he was seeing was. Evidently being Nick Fury's personal friend isn't really assurance enough of that not being that case.

Clint finally makes himself ask Pepper if she knows anyone, because the woman is affianced to Tony, who definitely has a few screws rattling around very loudly.

Pepper says, "Of course, I'll get a list to you."

On her way out of the room—he's caught her at the tail end of breakfast—she stops and says, "And if—well, if you were to want to talk to someone about, ah, about a friend, a mutual friend, I'd be glad to find time for coffee. Or vodka. "

Clint's flash of understanding as to why Natasha respects, likes this woman is sharp. "Maybe both," he says.

She laughs. "Probably." Then, "There's some other stuff we should talk about, but it can wait."

Any other time, Clint knows he'd be climbing the walls with curiosity as to what she's hinting at, but everything's just a little too flat at the moment. He'll pursue it later, over coffee with vodka in it.

*


Hill sends Clint coordinates with the scant message, "Urgent. Go."

Natasha informs him Maria still has her fingers in more pies than just the lemon meringue of Stark Industries. Clint should wonder about that, he should. Instead, he goes because he hasn't been doing much since SHIELD went down in flames roughly three months earlier, and, frankly, his lack of desire to do anything lately has made him bored. Might as well be useful and bored.

The coordinates lead to an underground base, where he's greeted by May, which stops him cold. He's going to kill Maria. Not even with an arrow, because that would be too fucking dignified. He forces himself to breathe. He's already here. Who knows, maybe he won't even have to see Coulson. Hell, maybe Coulson has moved on to another team.

It's been a while since Clint has seen May. Once he gets past his initial shock, he realizes he's missed her. She's leaner than she was and her stance is more fight-ready, at least as much as it can be given that her entire right leg is casted and she's using a crutch with the arm that is not in a sling.

He says, "You look pissed."

"Just my face," she tells him, but she smiles in that small way she has and when he comes closer and tucks her into a careful hug, she doesn't rack him with the crutch.

He pulls back. "Guess I'm being called up for duty, huh?"

Her face stays impassive, but her eyes hold a certain level of apology. "Tripp's been on deep cover for three weeks, no way to pull out, and the Director and I both forgot that I'm only one person. We need Ops, Clint, and there's not a whole lot of those types we can trust now."

"Tripp—wait, Antoine Triplett? Wasn't he directly under—"

"Garrett, yes, but he's one of us. I vouch for him."

It's enough for Clint. Besides, she'd believed him when he'd vouched for Nat. It's only fair. "Wasn't he a probie like two years ago?"

May's face is every inch I-know-the-feeling, but she says, "Four. And he's not the only agent in history with a fast rise."

Clint's and hers were both meteoric, so point taken. Since it's pretty clear he's not going to be able to avoid a meeting with Coulson, he ruthlessly squashes anything in himself that looks even vaguely like a freakout and asks, "Gonna take me to him?"

"Gonna kill him and undo all my work?"

"He's the Director of SHIELD, May."

May stares at him for a long moment before saying, "Fuck," but she turns, and starts leading him inside the base.

*


May leaves the two of them alone as soon as she's dropped Clint off. Clint doesn't allow himself the luxury of thought or feeling, just nods. "Director."

Coulson looks like himself. Maybe a little older, maybe a little more tired, but like the man Clint entrusted his life to on more occasions than he could count. The man he'd entrusted Natasha's life to. He responds with a soft, "Clint. I should explain—"

Clint shakes his head, sharp and firm. "No. We're not talking about this."

Coulson's mouth curls in a barely noticeable moue of disappointment. Clint notices. Which is why he immediately cuts off Coulson's, "I know—"

"I think, sir, that I'm right in believing that even if you don't owe me anything, you still owe me the courtesy of respecting my wishes. And if you don't owe me that, you probably owe it to Natasha, and I'm positive she'd be all right with a proxy in this instance."

Coulson stares at Clint for a long space of time and Clint knows he hasn't really gotten out of anything, but he's won this round, because Coulson just nods and says, "I need an ops agent, and I need the best. I requested you."

Clint would puke if he could at how he still reacts with a warm unfurling in his chest at the praise. "Tell me about the mission."

*


There are basically four kinds of missions at the moment: 1) recon missions, 2) missions to destroy Hydra bases, 3) missions to extract SHIELD prisoners from Hydra, and 4) the occasional mission to deal with the threats SHIELD used to handle when not preoccupied from having imploded. This particular mission is a mix of two and three, with the unfortunate requirement that Coulson come, not only because he's been to the base—back when they thought it was SHIELD—but because it's going to take more than just Clint to run this mission, and field agents are thin on the ground. Even the ones that were loyal have mostly split off to the other alphabet soup agencies.

Coulson has planned the mission down to the last nano-second, and May's going to be running things from the base. It doesn't mean nothing will go wrong, but even with everything that has happened, Clint finds himself feeling a pre-mission calm he hasn't experienced in a while.

The final logistics will take another couple of hours, but then they will be off. Clint really does not want to run into any of the people Coulson decided to start his life over with, so instead he focuses on putting together a mission pack. The base is well-stocked. He texts Natasha, "Tell Hill I've got her in my crosshairs," and climbs on a quinjet with Coulson.

*


They leave the base at zero dark thirty. It's just Clint and Coulson. Clint takes the controls on the jet. He's never known the silence between Coulson and himself to be uncomfortable, not even in his early days, when Clint was basically a non-stop asshole to everyone at SHIELD. He supposes there's a first for everything.

There are moments where it's almost as if Coulson forgets. There's the one where he starts to tell a story about some practical joke May had pulled on the rest of their team, but he must see the slight tick in Clint's jaw, because he trails off with, "Well, you know May."

A little bit later, he starts to ask about Stark, but Clint's, "He's Stark," shuts that down. From there, it's silent. Clint wishes he felt victorious, or something other than achy and empty.

*


Once they're running the mission, though, it's almost as if nothing has changed. Coulson takes point because Clint does, in fact, see better from a distance, and is more use as cover. He's already found their point of penetration and he does the work of disarming the security. It's quick, almost done before Clint gets there, and Clint hates that after all these years, Coulson's competency still raises his heart rate just a bit.

They separate because Clint needs to grab the prisoners, and Coulson is much more familiar with the intel they need, making him the better one to retrieve it.

Coulson's voice in his ear, even if it's just an, "All clear," or, "At your three o'clock," or, "Intel uploading," is as grounding as it ever was, and that in and of itself wreaks a bit of havoc with Clint's emotional balance. He sets it aside. There will be time later.

Clint makes it to where their people should be held with just enough resistance to suggest a well-laid trap. That suspicion is confirmed when he arrives at the holding rooms to find all three of the agents dead in very graphic ways. Clint hisses, "Sir, they knew we were coming. Meet me at the rendezvous, I'll set the charges on the way out."

"Too late, agent. I'm nearly—"

Clint is off at a flat sprint when Coulson doesn't finish his sentence, and the sounds of fighting follow. There aren't any shots being fired, but Clint doesn't expect that to last. He suspects Coulson just caught this particular contingent off guard. Or that he's just that fast. It wouldn't be the first time Coulson took out numerous guys with guns with nothing more than his bare hands and enough determination.

Sure enough, though, within seconds, the sounds of guns being fired rings through the comm piece wired into his hearing aids. Clint pushes himself to run faster, although he's already at his top speed. He's almost there when a low grunt comes through his ear-piece – one Clint is all-too-familiar with, even after two years of not hearing it. The panic burrowing its way through him isn't even close to professional, but luckily, he's too busy to deal with it. Clint whips around the corner and takes out everyone who is not Coulson with a rapid shooting sequence.

He looks at Coulson, who's favoring his left side, and says, "We have to move, sir."

They meet reinforcements, despite taking an entirely different route than either had planned. Clint has always been good at memorizing maps easily, being able to translate the knowledge into real space. Coulson tells him, "Get us out of here, agent."

He takes them into the wing of the base that should be non-functioning – but evidently that intel was outdated, because they have to turn right around after taking out a team of six HYDRA agents.

Coulson says, "What if we go up?"

It's a solid plan, so Clint figures out how to make it happen, how to get them to the roof. It involves, among other things, a brief trip through terribly narrow air-ducts, and Coulson breaking them into a sealed stairway, at which point Clint has to half-carry Coulson up the crumbling steps. Coulson detonates the last of the explosives on the door as soon as they're clear.

They have collapsible glider tech on them. Clint doesn't trust Coulson to be able to use it correctly, though, not with the bullet wound he's nursing. Technically, the gliders are supposed to be able to take up to five hundred pounds, so Clint straps Coulson to his back, responding with nothing more than a glare when Coulson starts to object.

They nearly make it to the ground before Clint's evasive abilities with the extra weight aren't quite enough, and a shot catches one of the panels that folds out from Clint's chest to his arm, held at a ninety-degree angle. Clint shouts, "Hold on, sir!"

Clint tucks as they land, to take most of the impact. He gives himself a moment to breathe through the pain, which at first feels like it is everywhere, but with some concentration, localizes to his right arm and his ribs. He pulls Coulson to his feet, with a barked, "Run! Northeast, I'll tell you when to turn."

Clint is at his heels, providing cover fire, despite the agony every shot inflicts. At least two of his ribs are broken from the crash, and he thinks his right arm, which he used to break the fall, might be, too.

They make it to the woods, and Coulson looks over at Clint. "Can you get us into the trees?"

Clints nods and makes it happen. Coulson's climbing well for a guy who's been shot, but Clint's not taking anything in their ascent for granted. It takes longer than he'd prefer, but once they're up there, they have some breathing room.

Once they're well hidden, the two of them supported by the uppermost branches Clint could find that would take their weight, Clint rips out the lining of his 'uniform's' halter. Pulling out a few antibiotic swipes from the small first aid kit in one of the uniform pockets, Clint holds a small flashlight in his teeth, and cleans and dresses Coulson's bullet wound as best he can. The bullet is still in there, which is a problem, but not one he can address just now. Coulson doesn’t make a sound, not even when Clint is tying things off. It’s necessary, but Clint appreciates the effort it takes all the same.

He nearly passes out pulling his arm through the sleeve to put his halter back on, but he clings to consciousness fiercely. The sun has finally set and it's chillier at night than during the day. Not enough to be dangerous, but enough that when they're not moving, the sweat soaking both of them is going to cause some serious shivering, which is going to hurt like hell. Clint decides to worry about that problem when he finds them some shelter. He's got to start thinking in terms of long-term survival, rather than immediate.

Clint has six protein bars and two MREs. Coulson will have the same. He will also have the twenty four ounces of water Clint has. Clint will need to find a source for that. They have the tools to start a fire, but Clint’s not willing to risk being seen, not unless he absolutely has to. Neither of them are going to sleep well, and he's got no idea about the terrain of this forest. Clint can tough his way through a fair amount of pain, but sooner or later, it's going to start clouding his thinking. Most of all, he needs to see to Coulson's wounds if the Director is to have any shot at making it out of this alive.

Clint rubs at his face with his left hand. Right, so, shitty situation with shitty options. He can’t even summon the energy to feel surprised.

*


Getting Coulson down from the tree sucks. There’s no other word for it. Clint goes slowly, his right arm and ribs screaming bloody murder, just far enough below him that should he fall, Clint might be able to cushion the fall with his own body. Maybe. Luckily, Coulson is Coulson, so he is careful and slow and manages to get to the ground without any major mishaps. Clint, on the other hand, has almost no ability to put weight on his right arm, which is a problem when needing to not fall a few hundred feet to the ground. Again.

They’ve been moving for about an hour—Clint is starting to consider whether he might have to carry Coulson some of the way—when he spots the cave. He wishes there were more than two of them. Coulson must sense his hesitation, because he murmurs, “I’ll provide cover, Cli—agent; go see if it’s clear.”

It doesn’t take Clint long to determine that the cave is uninhabited. He returns to the mouth and helps Coulson inside. Coulson’s moving slowly, and breathing way more heavily than Clint is particularly comfortable with.

He checks to make sure the emergency signal he’d triggered through his comm actually sent, and does his best to get a coded message to May, who will figure out an extraction plan. He doesn’t kid himself, though. It could easily take four or five days, maybe more, and Clint has got to keep Coulson alive. Even if—even if he wasn’t Coulson, even if Clint could maybe handle Coulson’s death being his fault again, if if if—Coulson would still be the director of SHIELD, and fuck knows SHIELD’s got enough problems without a second director dead within six months. Actually dead, this time.

One problem at a time, though. He turns to Coulson. “We have to get the bullet out.”

“Yeah,” Coulson agrees. Clint senses he means to sit down, but what actually happens is a sort of a sloppy, uncontrolled descent to the floor. It’s not like him, not at all. Clint’s stomach pitches and for a moment he hovers on the edge of a flashback. He doesn't want to count the number of times he's promised himself will be the last time he sees Coulson shot or beaten or otherwise less-than-whole. He makes himself inhale, lets it go.

He digs out a penknife, some tweezers, what alcoholic wipes they have left, one of which he uses to sterilize the knife and the tweezers as best he can, the syringe of antibiotics, and the suturing kit. He starts to strip one of the morphine pens, but Coulson shakes his head. It’s both jolting and comforting to read the not until we’re desperate and we need both of us alert that doesn’t get said, but is evident in every line of Coulson’s face that isn’t pure pain. He puts the drugs back.

Coulson takes out one of his knives and bites down on the sheath before nodding at Clint. Clint places himself so that if Coulson falls backward, he will fall at least partially into Clint, enough for Clint to catch him. Clint puts the mini-flashlight from his pack between his teeth and takes his first in-depth look at the wound.

Fuck. The bullet's not in a particularly dangerous place, really, the thick muscle of the right pectoral a better option than many, but it’s in deep, still bleeding, and there’s already angry red forming around the edges of the wound. Clint says, “All right, breathe in.”

Coulson takes a slow breath. Clint counts, “One, two, three, and out,” no sooner has he given that last direction does he make a small cut on either side of the wound and open it up as best he can with two fingers, one on either side. Coulson’s breath stutters and Clint says, “In.”

When Coulson’s managed it, Clint tells him, “Out,” and goes in with the tweezers. It’s not quick. The bullet is hard to see, lodged in muscle and generally complicated to extract, especially with sub-par medical tools. His right hand wants to shake with the pain radiating down from his arm just from holding the edges of the wound open. He talks to Coulson, doing his best to tell him what’s happening. The low whimpers that are making it past where Coulson has his teeth still clenched against the leather tell him Coulson’s not hearing a damn thing, but Clint can’t stop his murmurs of, “Almost there, sorry, sorry, there’s a little—I have to cut, yeah, okay, okay.”

When he finally manages to get the bullet free of the flesh, he says, “Just the stitches, almost done.”

And that part is quick. By the time Clint took SHIELD’s mandatory field medicine classes, he’d been darning his own socks and sewing his own buttons since before conscious memory, and he’d had to learn not a few things about sewing skin up on the fly in his years of lone-wolfing it as a merc. Clint ties off the stitches, pushes the antibiotics in where he was taught, and uses the second-to-last wipe to clean up as much as he can.

Coulson turns his head ever-so-slightly to the side and spits out the knife sheath. He manages a shaky, “Th-thanks.”

Clint just nods, wrapping the wound. He looks over at the water canteen next to Coulson. “Drink.”

“How much have we got?”

Clint shakes his head. “I’ll find more. You’ve lost more blood than I’m comfortable with. Drink.”

Coulson drinks. “I think I need to rest, a little.” He sounds apologetic. Clint just settles the softest part of his pack where Coulson can lay his head, unfolds the shock blanket and places it over Coulson.

“I’ve got first watch,” Clint says, and goes to the mouth of the cave. He needs air.

*


Clint debates the issue, but in the end makes an informed decision to repurpose his halter for an arm sling. It gets chilly at night, which is not going to be fun without a shirt, but he's more worried about infection setting in if he doesn't somehow bind the arm than he is about freezing to death in a somewhat tropical setting. He sets snares in the places he'd try if he were going to attempt to penetrate the cave. He takes every vessel he can find or concoct and sets out to find water. He does, but it's easily a couple of miles away, over fairly rough terrain. He gets what he can and hikes back, checking to see that Coulson is still sleeping.

He is. He's also running a fever. Clint wakes him up just enough to get him to drink some, and then lets him fall back into sleep. He needs the rest.

Clint considers the food situation. He can hunt, maybe. He's drawn the bow with a torn muscles before and even a displaced shoulder, but not a broken arm. He can try, in any case. Raw animal meat isn't his preferred meal, especially given the possibility of food poisoning but he's survived on it once or twice. But he hasn't seen much game. A few birds here and there, that was it – and the water had been almost completely free of fish. Strange as fuck. Either there'd been some kind of environmental disaster the forest was still recovering from, or Hydra had done something unnatural to the area.

Fucking Hydra. What had the forest ever done to them? Then again, Clint muses, as a security measure for making sure infiltration near and around the compound is next to impossible, it's a pretty good tactic. He's more relieved than he wants to admit that there are at least some fish still in the stream, since he doesn't want to have to worry about them having poisoned the water.

So, food is a problem. But even if May doesn't get his signal, she'll start working to retrieve them after a second missed check-in, which will be happening sometime in the next hour according to Clint's equipment. It likely will take, at the very least, four to five days to raise someone competent and trustworthy, and get them here with enough ammunition and a way to actually leave; which means Clint has to plan adequate food to feed two people for four to five days with a food supply meant to sustain one person for two days. Two injured people.

Times like these make Clint perversely glad he spent the first twenty-four or so years of his life consistently hungry. It's like riding a bicycle. But Clint knows very well he can last weeks, even ill or injured, on minimal food.

Clint has one directive at this point. Keep Phil – keep the director alive. And screw anybody who thinks he might fail.

*


Clint makes it almost thirty-six hours of keeping watch, waking Coulson every six or so to get some water in him, make him take some food. The first few times Coulson keeps trying to talk to him, at first just, "Report, agent," which is easy enough to lie in response to, but as he gets less aware he says things like, "Where's Natasha?" and that's harder, especially when it's asked with such concern, such genuine worry.

Clint gives Coulson the second and last shot of antibiotics at the twenty-four hour mark. When Clint cannot stay awake any longer, he checks all the traps he's set, sets a few more, and puts himself between the mouth of the cave and Coulson. It's the best he can do. If he doesn't sleep, he's going to be of absolutely no use.

He trusts his very precise inner alarm clock to wake him in four hours, and it does. It hurts to breathe, his head is a mixture of cotton and thumping agony, he wants to tear his right arm clean off, and he's considering eating his own limbs, but he's awake.

Coulson is tossing, mumbling inarticulately and Clint, for a moment, wants desperately to leave him to it. It's only fair, in a way, given how many nightmares Clint has suffered through, sharp and terrifying, seeing his own arrow strike through Phi—Coulson's heart, seeing him bleed out with Clint's name on his tongue.

The burn of desired revenge fades the way it always has when it comes to Ph—Couls—oh, fuck it, Phil, even back when Clint had been more wariness and protective edges than a feral cat in a room full of rabid dogs. He scoots to where Phil is, tries to check his temperature with the back of his hand. It's high enough to worry Clint, but there's little to be done.

None of his communication devices have pinged while he was asleep. It doesn't mean the problem isn't being worked on. But if the solution requires Clint to get himself and Phil somewhere, that…might be an issue. For the moment, it's not one he can fix, so he shoves it aside and concentrates on the immediate things he can do something about.

He lifts Phil's head into his lap and says, "Hey. C'mon. Is this any way for the director of SHIELD to behave?"

He thinks it's more the sound of his words than what he's saying, but Phil's eyes do open up, bleary and unfocused. "Clint?"

"Got it in one."

Phil tries to swallow, can barely manage with how dry his mouth is. Clint levers him up a little, gets him to take a few sips. He feeds Phil in tiny bites until Phil starts looking slightly green around the edges. He makes him drink a bit more, then resettles him. "That's it. You're good."

"Don't—shouldn't—"

"What? What's wrong?"

"Dangerous. 'm danger—shouldn't be here."

Clint frowns. Even delirious, Phil has never gotten protective about Clint being on a mission with him. He's always respected Clint's talents and choices. "What, now that you're director you wanna bench me?"

He tries to say it jokingly, figure out where this is coming from. Phil's eyes, which were drooping, widen. "May—she—I said—"

"Okay," Clint says, because whatever's going on in Phil's head, it's freaking Phil out, which in turn is using up energy he can't afford. "Okay. I promise, whatever it is, we'll talk about it when we're back at the base."

Phil looks like he has something to say to that, or maybe like he just wants to finish up the previous thought, but after a few seconds, his body takes over, pulling him into its own exhaustion and attempts to heal itself up.

*


At the sixty-four hour mark, Clint is running out of food for Phil. Leaving the cave seems like a terrible idea, given that Phil is no longer lucid even just a tiny bit when Clint makes him eat and drink something, but at the same time, Phil needs food.

Clint's fairly aware that he's moving slowly, relative to when he's eaten and had rest and isn't nursing a few broken bones alongside some impressive bruises. Everything is too fucking loud, the mods that Stark made to his hearing aids causing him to hear every little snap, crackle, squeak of the forest despite being turned down nearly all the way.

After almost two hours of vegetation harvesting he sees a bird, and it takes him long enough to load and draw that the bird almost gets away. Almost. He dry-heaves, then grays out, after the shot, and is just glad there don't seem to be any predators in the area. Small favors.

It takes him another hour to find the damn thing and bring it back. Since he hasn't seen or heard any indication that they're still being pursued in at least twelve hours, he decides to brave a fire. He's a little worried about Phil's immune system not being able to fight off any further bacteria. The fire's kind of mesmerizing and the bird ends up slightly more crisp than Clint had planned. He eats the burnt skin and carefully feeds Phil the bits and pieces of meat he can strip from the animal. Afterward, he cracks the bones and sucks out the marrow. It isn't much, but it's dense in nutrients, which he needs, and Coulson is in no shape to be doing the work of getting to them.

A few hours later, he gives Phil some of the greens he found. There weren't any berries or even anything more than edible—if not particularly tasty—leaves, but it's more than nothing. Phil is panicky again, and keeps trying to sit all the way up, to pat Clint down in a sort-of half-assed, out-of-his-mind, check-up way. Aside from being a waste of energy Phil doesn't have, it's wreaking havoc on Clint's ability to keep what little emotional distance he has left.

When Clint starts seeing double, somewhere around the eightieth hour, he chews a few of the greens himself. He's not sure he trusts himself to go foraging again and make it back in a timely fashion, so he wants to preserve what there is for Phil.

He's gone longer than this without food. Granted, he was being held in captivity and was in a coma for three days after they recovered him, but he survived. Besides, he doesn't want to find out what May will do if he brings himself back and not Phil. He might as well starve, really. He ignores the nausea that has nothing to do with hunger at the thought of failing. It's just an extreme aversion to failure in general.

His head hurts, though. His head hurts, and his stomach aches like a bruise, and he's tired. He wants a sandwich, a big one, with at least two kinds of meat and as much cheese as he can fit in his mouth. Yeah.

*


Clint loses track of time, which causes him to panic until he forcefully quashes the reaction. He doesn't have the energy. Phil's made it through what food Clint had found, and he needs to go out again.

He risks leaving himself signs this time, cutting small signals into trees. Even so, he can tell from the movement of the sun it takes him a dangerously long time to gather the plants and make it to the water source. He fails completely at finding any game. He suspects there probably is some, but he's had to turn his hearing aids off, because the counterpoint of rustling leaves and wind is causing him to dip into paranoia about his surroundings. As such, he's falling back on his sight, which isn't really an issue, he's done it for most of his life, but the hunger and pain are causing everything to be a bit fuzzy around the edges. He's very possibly missing things in the periphery, even if he is doing his best.

Clint's best has not been good enough on a consistent and regular basis throughout his life. It still never manages to suck less.

Phil wakes up enough for Clint to say, "Hey, hey there."

"Clint," Phil says, solemn and focused in the way only people who are mostly delirious can be. Clint thinks about turning his hearing aids back on, but decides he can focus enough to lip read, for the few words Phil has managed here and there.

Clint gives him water and tells him, "May's got this. Showers and beds for both of us pretty soon."

"You—" Phil's eyes droop and Clint thinks he's fallen unconscious again until he opens them and says, "you don' look good."

"Well," Clint philosophizes, "not all of us can be GQ motherfuckers after days of roughing it in the woods."

The effort's for naught, because Phil doesn't manage to stay awake through the sentence.

*


Clint almost shoots Nat. Luckily, she's better than him even when he's at his best, so she's got his gun before it can go off. She says something, but the very last dregs of adrenaline he's been pushing to make himself stay on guard are rushing out of him now that she's here.

He eyes the guy behind her and mumbles, "Bitchin'," but doesn't stay conscious long enough to ask how the wings work.

*


Clint wakes up on the jet. He sits up sharply, gasping, "Phil."

Wings Dude—Clint forces himself to concentrate: Sam Wilson, codename Falcon, helped take down the 'carriers—says, "We've got him as stabilized as we can until we get back to the base. Pretty sure he's gonna be fine, he just needs a little non-field treatment." After a pause. "You did good, man. He wouldn't have had a prayer without you cleaning him up and keeping him hydrated."

The words filter into Clint's mind slowly, too slowly, he's agitated by the time he understands, if grateful someone turned his hearing aids back on. He makes himself nod. Wilson was in a pararescue unit, he remembers now. He knows what he's talking about.

The worst of his fear assuaged, the fact that they've been found and are headed somewhere safe hits Clint, and the adrenaline and distraction that have kept him running fade entirely. He's in a lot more pain than he thought. It's not just his ribs and his arm, either. "Ouch."

"Yeah, sorry," Wilson says with compassion, "you're pretty banged up, but I'm afraid to give you any painkillers with how under-nourished you are. You're already on some antibiotics, because the arm was starting to show signs of infection." He nods to the IV Clint's hooked to. "Give the nutrients and drugs a little longer to do their work. You were—I mean, don't tell Nat, but I wasn't certain we weren't too late."

Clint shakes his head, finding it hilarious that Wilson thinks he can hide something from Nat, but too exhausted to express anything more than absolutely necessary information. "Gone longer without."

"Maybe," Wilson doesn't argue with him, "but you were injured and exhausted on top of it and you came really, really close to having a number of vital organs shut down. We're gonna need to have a real doctor look at you."

Clint blinks. He's gotten better about doctors since he joined SHIELD, but they're still not his favorite. "Okay, but you have to promise not to tell Phil."

Wilson's expression is the international facial equivalent of, 'yeah, okay, that's gonna work out,' but he says, "Sure, you got it."

*


Clint sort of-kind of remembers being transferred from the jet into some kind of medical facility. He thinks he asks someone where the hell he is at some point, but if he gets an answer, he can't recall it any of the two or three times he wakes up mostly just to reassure himself he's not dead. When he gathers enough lucidity to hold onto a state of waking, May is sitting by his bed, broken leg propped up, arm out of the cast, reading Popular Science.

She's paying enough attention to him that she notices him waking—and that's May all over, eyes in the back of her head—and leans over enough to hold out the water cup with a straw in it to him. Once he's feeling less like a burnt cotton ball, he asks, "Phil?"

It's then that he realizes he hasn't got his hearing aids in. He can't hear the monitor spike, but he knows it must, because his heart rate goes wild and May grabs his chin and forces him to look to the side table, where they're sitting.

She signs, "Your ears were irritated from them being in so long. They want you to wait another twenty-four hours before you put them back in."

Clint makes himself breathe, dizzy now that he's coming down from the panic. With one arm immobilized, it's easier to just ask aloud again, "Phil?"

He's been grateful before that May's favorite uncle is hearing-impaired, but he's feeling an endless ocean of relief that she can communicate with him at this moment. Somewhere, beyond the fog of exhaustion and drugs, it occurs to him that Nat probably wasn't going to allow anyone who couldn't to be there when he woke up. He'll have to do something nice for her when he's back on his feet again.

May's fingers move fluidly. "It's possible whatever that crap he's got in him is going to drive him crazy at some point, but for the moment, it's decidedly helpful when it comes to the healing process."

"Um," Clint says.

"Still sleeping it off, but he's going to be fine." Then, after a second, "I'm glad it was you, out there. I know—I know you're pissed, and believe me, I get it, but I trusted you to be a professional and you were and we're not down another director. I owe you one."

Clint shakes his head. "In the job description."

May considers him, her gaze even but searching. "I don't think it is, Clint. Not given all the details."

He narrows his eyes. "Then why send me?"

"Because," she says, her motions confident, without a second of hesitation, "you've always been a better person than you believe yourself to be."

*


Nat spends a few hours filling him in on Steve having found the Winter Soldier and how that, er, rehab is going. Wilson has gone back to DC to help on that front. Nat says, "Stark is wooing Cap by way of his superior security and ability to guard Barnes from the eight or so agencies who want him dead."

Clint tilts his head. "Wooing him for what?"

"Hill has been working her wiles on Stark to fund the Avengers as a separate initiative, answerable only to ourselves."

"Hill only has wiles when undercover. The rest of the time she has sharp teeth."

Nat shrugs. "I think she considers working for Stark a type of undercover."

Clint takes a second to really watch her hands move, the cadence, the level of stiffness. She's hard to read, but he knows her. "You like the idea."

She purses her lips. "I like—I like the idea of not being bound by anything more than my own choices."

Clint nods. "You deserve that."

She looks at him. "You do too."

"Nat—"

"I like the idea that he wouldn't be your boss," she signs quickly, as though worried he'll interrupt. "I like the idea that if you did something for him, it would be because you chose to."

He doesn't ask who the 'he' is. Hospital bed or no, Nat will break something, probably his other arm. Instead he just says, "I'll give it some thought, promise."

She stays where she is, despite the fact that it's obvious Clint is fading. He forces his eyes to stay open. "What?"

She raises her hands, but after a second drops them, shaking her head. She brings them back up to order, "Sleep. I'll get you out of here when you wake up. That Skye kid makes a pretty good breakfast burrito."

Clint is entirely sure his nutrients are back to where they need to be, or at least close, but that doesn't help the fact that mentally and emotionally, food sounds almost better than more sleep. Almost. He smiles tiredly at Nat and closes his eyes.

*


His hospital room smells of broth when Clint next wakes, he can hear the steady beeps and hisses of the equipment, and Phil is sitting in the chair next to his bed. It's like so many times before, jolting in its familiarity. Phil looks up from the tablet he's poking at and says, "Good mor—evening, actually."

Clint reaches for the water at the bedside and then asks, "Is there soup? It smells like soup."

"Wilson made a huge thing of beef broth before he left. It involved real beef. Simmons watched like it was a science lesson." Phil stands. "I'll go get you some."

Clint starts to point out that someone with less things to do than the director of a shadowy intelligence agency slowly rebuilding itself from ashes and dust could probably go get Clint a bowl, but Phil's out of the room before he can actually put that thought into words. And he's back before Clint can really organize his defense against Phil talking about anything serious with him. Because: no.

He did his job. That's it.

Phil brings back a tray with a steaming bowl, a warmed roll of Italian bread with a curl of butter melting in it, a water glass, and a cup of chocolate pudding. It looks delicious, but Clint's willing to bet he'll make it through half of it at best. He's danced this tango before.

As soon as he takes his first bite Phil starts talking, which is just an asshole maneuver. He says, "At first, I didn't know it had been a year. Nick—he told me I'd only died for eight seconds, not that I'd been dead, done deal, for days."

Clint is all set to derail this conversation as soon as he can open his mouth without spitting, but that opening admittedly surprises him enough to stop his automatic rejection of anything Phil might have to say. Instead, he takes another spoonful of soup, and listens.

"I—I didn't know this until later, but Nick implanted memories of a little recovery jaunt to Tahiti, and when I 'got back' you weren't there." Phil actually makes the damn finger quotes, which Clint is pretty sure he'd find hilarious any other time. "I thought, I mean, last I'd known you'd been compromised—"

"Loki's puppet," Clint grinds out, because he might not be in therapy anymore, but if there was one thing his therapist insisted upon during their phone calls it was that Clint verbalize his perception of things. Clint might hate it, but he knows the guy was right about him needing to say it, to not allow it power in the burgeoning of silence.

Phil closes his eyes for a moment. "But Nick told me you were fine, just on a mission. You and Natasha and I…I figured I just wasn't as important to you as I thought. Nick had classified me being alive as a Level Eight, but both of you have that clearance, so I assumed you knew."

Clint raises an eyebrow, because Phil never assumes anything, and it tells Clint a lot about how off-his-game the man had been. Then again, death and biomechanical brain fuckery, or whatever the hell Fury had done, that's enough to throw even superhumans, like, say, Barnes. He swallows. "Coulson—"

"I know," Phil says. "In retrospect, it was stupid, but hindsight is twenty-twenty, and it's not like you haven't walked away from people before. And it—" Phil's breathing isn't quite right.

"No," Clint says low and fierce. Because even if their feelings aren't similar, if that isn't what this means, Clint will never walk away from Phil if there's any possible way to stay, never. He can bullshit himself about making sure Phil survived being his job all he wants—and he will go back to that as soon as he can, thanks—but Clint's sometimes self-aware enough to spot his own lies, even if he's not willing to acknowledge them.

"Yeah, I got that with how you starved yourself for me, Clint. Which, we're going to return to in a minute, but let me just—let me just finish."

Clint gestures for him to go on. Phil nods. "By the time I put the pieces together, I was already worrying about what the hell Nick had done. I can't explain it, but he put something alien inside me, something I'd told him he was not to do under any circumstances. He put May on the team in case someone needed to—"

Clint shakes his head firmly, because if Phil finishes that thought, Clint's going to vomit. Phil says, "It was too much of a risk. I was too much of a risk to be around. I still am."

"I think it will come as no surprise that my only response to that is to respectfully tell you to go fuck yourself, sir."

"Well, the respectfully's a bit of a surprise."

Clint chokes out a laugh and immediately regrets it. They're dialing back the drugs and his ribs are all too willing to remind him of it. "You're not too dangerous for a couple of doe-eyed scientists, a rebel hacker, May and Garrett's protégé," Clint doesn't miss Phil's wince on that last, and it's a struggle not to apologize. "But me, me and Nat—"

"You," Phil interrupts.

"Huh?"

"If Natasha knew, you would know."

For a second Clint cannot remember how to breathe, let alone speak. "Coulson—"

"I care about my team. I'd die for them. I haven't been in love with them for over a decade, Clint. Only one person has that honor, and yes, if keeping him away from me will keep him safe then you bet everything that is important or holy or dear to you that I will do so, regardless of the consequences for me."

Clint's still fighting off dizziness at this rush of information, of the opportunity to grab everything he's always wanted at a point long past when he knew he could never have it. "And me? The consequences for me?"

Phil sighs. "Yeah, well. I might not have realized the feeling was reciprocated."

Clint can't help it: his jaw drops open. Phil glowers. "You are a highly trained assassin. Not exactly open book material."

Clint really wants to make fun of him, but Phil evidently has plenty of ammunition to return fire in this case. Also, more important is, "And now?"

Phil runs a hand over his face, then fixes Clint with a look of intent. "Now I'm going to feed you until you gain back the muscle mass you managed to lose, yell at you for a few days over the completely dumbass plan to starve yourself, and figure out a new strategy going forward."

"I feel like I should get in on that. The strategy thing."

"You should sleep some more, first," Phil tells him.

Before he can stop himself, Clint asks, "Stay?"

"Even if the base is attacked and the others have to re-enact the Alamo."

"That's a little dramatic, sir," Clint says around a yawn. Phil's smile is the last thing he sees before drifting off.

*


Medical—which consists of a whole two SHIELD doctors whom Phil was able to determine loyalty on—lets Clint go as soon as he begins staying awake for longer than an hour at a time. Clint suspects it's self-preservation on their part. One of them is a neurologist, the other a gastroenterologist. They're not used to patching up the kind of problems Clint and Phil came in with, let alone dealing with specialists who are total dickfaces about staying in bed as soon as their eyes open. Really, it's a sign of their commitment that they haven't fled the base.

Clint is fairly certain he has enough energy for a stop by the kitchen before he goes back to the quarters he'd been assigned to collapse. He arrives to find the kitchen somewhat hopping, with one of Phil's team, the science-girl, Simmons, serving up—

"Are those cinnamon swirl pancakes?" Clint feels faint at just the thought. "What the hell time is it?"

Nat pulls him into a chair. "Time for you to eat. And they're banana cinnamon swirl. Simmons is a breakfast magician. I plan to keep her."

Simmons looks momentarily terrified by this pronouncement, but brings him a plate. Just then, a girl who looks about nineteen at best, traipses into the galley.

She comes to a sudden stop. Slowly, she says, "You're Hawkeye."

"You're Skye," he responds. She blinks a little, but Natasha was the one who gave him the intel on Coulson. Clint seriously doubts she left anything out, let alone the 0-8-4 running tech on the team. He holds out a hand. "Clint. They called me in—"

"Because May's busted up and Tripp's still playing spy and AC needed backup he could trust," she finishes, but she doesn't sound bored or irritated, just intrigued. Then again, over the past few months, aside from having her life view turned around, she's also found out her supervising agent was a Nazi and nearly lost one of her team's non-combatants.

"Yeah, that," Clint says, and concentrates on cutting his pancakes. He's maybe not completely over Phil having gone out and making himself a new team, even with the reason for it having been explained. And, like all things Phil, being completely understandable.

She cocks her hip. "Is the new guy gonna share stories about AC in his glory days, when junior agents used to have bets on whether he could turn water to ice with the power of his glare?"

Clint mouths AC taking a second to catch on. "You have to stop listening to May."

"Give me someone else to listen to."

Clint laughs and starts considering payback. He eats while he's doing it, making it through a grand total of two pancakes—they're silver dollar-sized—before he just looks regretfully at the remaining pile. Simmons pats his shoulder and tells him, "I'll make them again when you've found your stomach."

"You're a good agent, Simmons. A true friend. I will keep you from the clutches of the Russian Menace." Clint tries his best to look serious, rather than exhausted.

"And you're going to pass out on the table," Nat predicts.

"Nope," Clint says. "No, I got this."

He makes it to the door of the kitchen before he wobbles, and Nat's there to catch him. He sighs. She says, "C'mon," but they only make it a few short steps before Clint hears Phil asking, "Can I have this dance?" and feels himself being transferred.

Clint mumbles, "R'lly wan'a shower."

Phil, bless him, doesn't argue. "Quick one."

"Mm." Clint focuses on putting one foot in front of another and somehow they end up at his quarters, with him seated on the bed. Phil says, "Good arm up," and wrestles Clint out of his scrubs. The shower isn't large enough for both of them, so Phil heats the water and then hustles Clint inside. The cascade of heat wakes Clint up just enough to shampoo his hair and run a bar of soap over the easily reachable parts of his body.

He stumbles out to the towel Phil is holding up. Clint goes to grab it with his free hand, but Phil says, "I got this."

Clint can't remember a time when he's been manhandled in a way that was about care rather than abuse. Phil has stitched wounds for him, waited by his hospital bed, and allowed Clint to sleep in his office. Nat hugs him now and then. It's not that he doesn't have positive physical contact, but he's not used to being taken care of. He's too tired and too raw to stop the, "Loved you."

Phil doesn't stop in his ministrations, not even when Clint's brain processes what he's done and Clint stiffens. Phil tells him, "I'm gonna have to work on that past tense issue," then kisses his neck and says, "Sleep."

Phil guides him to the bed and under the covers, then crawls in himself on the other side and asks, "Big spoon or little?"

"Little." Nat likes being big, he's gotten used to being the cuddlee, likes it best if he's being perfectly honest. Plus, with his arm, it's a lot easier.

Despite his show of resistance when he'd first arrived at the base, Clint's too used to following Phil's orders to do much of anything else. No measly two years can change that.

*


Phil spends the next three days alternating between running SHIELD and feeding Clint. Clint is pretty sure Phil breaks protocol to have Skye do a grocery run. He asks Skye about it, but she just says, "I'm an Agent of SHIELD. I go where the director tells me."

His boyfriend's team is filled with little shits. He tries not to reflect too much about what this might mean about Strike Team Delta.

Phil makes French Toast for breakfast, croque monsieurs for lunch, and three-cheese tortellini for dinner in the first day Clint's up for eating solids for all three meals. Clint tells him, "You really don't have to."

Phil smiles a little. "Okay."

Clint repeats the sentiment: "I'm all right."

Phil, upon finding him rummaging in the kitchen at one, doesn't say a word, just makes him hot cocoa and gingerbread cookies.

Phil asks, "You stopped feeling like you need to hoard, yet?"

Clint glares. Phil so rarely uses the things he knows about Clint—or, well, so rarely did? Clint guesses they're kind of starting over again—that sometimes Clint forgets he knows them. Like the fact that Clint kept food in his quarters, in each of his packs, and usually in his pockets for almost three full years after joining SHIELD, too many years of going without having drilled the precaution into him. And yes, okay, it sometimes comes back when he's missed a few meals. He'll get it under control.

Phil just shrugs. "I'm not stopping you from hoarding. You don’t get to stop me from spoiling you. Especially since I'm completely sure there were a few days where you didn't eat at all to make sure there was something for me."

"I would have done the same for Nick." It's true, too. Sure, the impetus would have been slightly different, but he would have done it.

"I know," Phil says, and doesn't sound put off. If anything, his tone is relieved.

Clint tracks him as he makes his way across the kitchen and into Clint's space. Phil presses into him, careful about it, giving Clint more than enough time to react. Phil says, "But you did it for me."

"Phil—"

Phil kisses him, competent and solid and knowledgeable, somehow even better than Clint has dreamed about all these years. Clint leans into the kiss, gives himself over, loses himself in the press of their bodies. Phil is the one to pull away. "You were skin and bones when Nick found you, Clint. Fuck, the bullet he put in you to slow you down nearly killed you, your immune system was so weakened."

"I was there," Clint reminds him, really wanting to get back to the kissing, but also listening, aware.

"You acted like it was nothing and it—it took me a while to figure out that you didn't realize it was something. That you'd gone so damn long with hunger as a norm you didn't even know you weren't supposed to feel that way. I mean, you—somewhere in your mind you had a vague idea, but it didn't match up with your experience of the world."

"Hey," Clint says, because Phil is agitated. Beneath the stillness of his body, his muscles are quivering under the skin, under Clint's hands.

"And I made myself a promise that you’d never, ever think that was normal again."

Clint nods. "I didn't. I don't, I mean. I learned."

"And then I disappeared on you and when I came back, the first thing I did was take food from you."

"C'mon." Clint touches their foreheads together. "It wasn't like that, you know it wasn't like that."

"The way you know you're safe and food's available, but there're four or five protein bars hidden in just about every pack you carry, and several spots around the base."

After a moment, Clint laughs and dips in for another kiss. Phil murmurs, "The hot chocolate's gonna get cold."

"I know a guy who'll warm it up for me."

"That so?"

*


Clint's post-coital when Phil rolls over and fixes him with a much more piercing look than either of them should be capable of at that moment. Clint frowns. "Don't think I did it correctly."

Phil seems perplexed for a moment, but then laughs. "No—it's just, that's just me."

"Suddenly, I feel a great swelling of compassion for all of your exes and the inferiority complex you no doubt left them with."

"Well, they largely were inferior to you, so feel free to spread that compassion around."

"Smooth," Clint gives him. "You do know how to sweet talk a boy."

Phil grins and sinks his teeth into the skin stretched over Clint's ribs, just hard enough to sting and Clint gasps, arching up into it. He's not interested, not really—they've just finished, and he's in his forties, recovering from severe malnutrition and injuries, thanks—but his brain sure as hell wants him to be gearing up for another round.

Phil just rests his chin where he's bitten and says, "Stark's going to privatize the Avengers."

"Nat mentioned something about that. You seem calmer about it than I would have predicted."

Phil rolls onto his back with a sigh. "Not that it feels good to admit it, but can you think of a safer way to isolate and keep you guys free of possible corrupting influences?"

Clint turns it over in his mind. "You didn't say that to Stark, did you?"

"What do you take me for?"

Clint laughs. "Yeah, well, I have to tell you: you came back a little mouthier than when you—left."

Phil, of course, because he's Phil Coulson, hears the slight beat, the caught breath. He moves into Clint's side. "Hey."

Clint closes his eyes. "It's—It'll be fine. Right now, it's…fresh."

Phil repeats, "Hey," and Clint opens his eyes. Phil nods. "Yes. So don't take this the wrong way, but I think you should go with Stark."

Clint raises an eyebrow. "Nat said something along those lines."

"Putting aside that we all know better than to ignore Natasha," Phil says with a faint smile, "if you have to save my life again, I'd prefer it be because I'm your significant other than the head of the organization you work for."

"Phil—"

"I know, Clint." And the tone of his voice tells Clint he does. "But I didn't like the power dynamic being there when I was your handler and I like it less now and it all fits together."

Clint breathes in slowly. "And if I said no? Stayed?"

Phil sits up so quickly it makes Clint's head spin. "This isn't an ultimatum, Clint. Jesus."

Clint sits up too, nowhere near as quickly, and wraps his arms around his knees. "Kinda needed to hear you say it."

"Okay," Phil says, no censure to it, which tells Clint exactly how well Phil knows Clint's damage, even if there's been some added over the past couple of years. They'll figure it out.

Softly, Phil asks, "Do you want to stay? I know SHIELD's been…formative for you."

Clint huffs, amused. "Understatement."

"Which is why I'm asking."

Clint runs a hand over his face. "The whole HYDRA thing kinda put a damper on the sense of it being on the side of the angels, you know?"

Phil makes a noise in the back of his throat. "I have some idea."

"But—but if you needed me—"

"I do need you. Just not only for your professional strengths."

"I meant—"

"Yeah," Phil agrees.

"If you did, I would stay."

Phil doesn't brush the words aside, doesn't thank him, doesn't dismiss the offer. Instead, after a pause he leans in for a momentary kiss, sweet and light. "That's why I won't ask."

*


Nat and Melinda are in the kitchen, feeding a kid Clint has seen the personnel files on, but never met. Clint says, "Agent Triplett, glad to see you back in one piece."

Triplett stands and extends a hand. "Agent Barton, an honor. Thank you for—everything you covered in my absence."

Clint shakes the hand. "Clint."

"Tripp, then."

Clint peers over Tripp's shoulder. "Did you make that tomatoes and cheese thing you make?"

Nat rolls her eyes. "It's a galette."

"It's delicious," Tripp says appreciatively.

"Thank you," Nat says, like he's the only person in the world who ever shows gratitude.

Clint goes and begins to try and serve himself up some, but Melinda intervenes, seeing as how she, at this point, has both arms functional. Clint takes his plate to the counter and offers Phil the second fork he picked up.

When Clint's done trying to express his undying admiration and need for Nat with his eyes after his first bite—to her amusement—he says, "Guess I'm not really an agent anymore, either."

Nat's eyes widen slightly. "We're gonna make Stark happy, aren't we?"

"On the list of things we've done wrong in this life, it's not that high," Clint says. And it's not just Stark, really. Banner, with the way he's never condescended to Clint or acted like he might be too stupid to understand a concept; Thor with his stupid jokes and easy camaraderie; and Cap, Clint thinks, in the secret place inside where he's every bit as much a fanboy as Phil. Even setting the core team aside, there's Pepper, and her offer of coffee and vodka and a professional he can trust. He still thinks that's probably a good idea.

"Don't talk with your mouth full," Phil tells him, slapping him slightly with a fork.

Nat watches the two of them for a moment and then shrugs. "Yeah, you probably have a point."


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Skin by egelantier, photo by microbophile