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With Us (Or Without)

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“They’re still letting you walk around unsupervised?” the words came from behind Clint, and they were almost identical to the words Brock Rumlow had said to him when they first met. At the moment the tall, thick shouldered, dark haired man was in civvies, but nobody had made an effort to stop him as he stepped past them in line to sidle up behind Clint. Clint forced himself to not tense up, and forced himself to not just turn around and put the guy onto the not-so-squeaky-clean tiled floor.

 

He hadn’t seen Rumlow since before Loki. He’d been perfectly copasetic with that. The two of them had never been particularly friendly. Clint hadn’t expected the guy to track him down now, and he wondered at the power play. Asshole. Clint had been aware of the STRIKE team agent the moment he’d stepped out of his SHIELD issue sedan across the street and strutted into the Starbucks, but he’d rather be aware of the guy leaving.

 

“Occasionally they even let me shoot people,” Clint agreed. “Columbian roast, medium, black,” the ordered and after getting a slightly disturbed look from the barista, the girl called it out to her fellow barista as Clint handed cash over.

 

“Probably not for long though,” Rumlow spoke close to his left ear, and Clint tilted his head towards him, getting his face closer to him. Rumlow took the warning for what it was and backed off, stepping out of Clint’s personal space. “People aren’t particularly pleased you got off so easy,” he said conversationally, ignoring the young woman who was trying to take his order.

 

“Easy,” Clint repeated flatly.

 

“All I’m saying is watch your back,” the guy’s tone had a smile, but it was sharp in the reflection coming off the silver coffee machine. “I’d hate for you to get hurt after everything you’ve been through.”

 

“Appreciate the support,” Clint said as he accepted his coffee from the other end of the counter, and turned around to meet Rumlow’s eyes. “I’ll be sure to remember it.” He pushed passed him, knocking his shoulder lightly, because the guy wasn’t moving out of his path, but Clint really didn’t care to knock him hard and play down to his game.

 

Well, he almost didn’t care to do it. As he stepped out of the coffee shop he made three little finger gun motions in the directions of the stooges Rumlow had brought with him. They didn’t look pleased that he’d know they were there, scattered through the street and obviously intending to be invisible. Clint looked back at Rumlow, winked, took a drink of his almost too hot coffee, and turned his back on them to go about his day.

 

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When he went to leave for a run later that night, it became clear Akira had won the right to join him when he had leapt from the stairs and onto Clint’s shoulder as he moved to the door.  Clint couldn’t run with him perched there; someone would probably report a pet monkey, or snap a photo of him and put it on the internet, and he wanted to just be another runner in the darkened city streets.  With a pained sigh he dug deep into his closet and, emerging victorious, he clipped the water bottle carrier Natasha had given him years ago around his waist.  The thing had been a gag gift, but Clint never threw out gifts as they were still pretty rare even after all these years. He’d also never used it before.

 

Akira didn’t need to be asked to jump into the bottle shaped pocket, but Clint was surprised when the other two leapt off the floor, latched onto its belt and then squished themselves in beside him.

 

“So this is a group outing now, huh?” he checked, just to be sure, and three tiny sets of eyes looked up at him from the recesses of the bottle holder.  One of them whistled affirmatively.  His life was strange.

 

In an effort to not jostle them too much, he turned his run into an exercise of stealth, because the quieter he ran the smoother he ran, even if it was a pain in the ass.  After an hour he found a secluded spot in central park and let them run up a newly planted tree, apparently absolutely thrilled to be climbing it.  He watched them, the thought that they might not come back to him when he was ready to go never crossed his mind.  He watched them leap from branch to branch, obviously in their element.

 

“Jarvis-” he started.

 

I’ll look into it, Clint.” Jarvis reassured before Clint could get his question out, apparently the AI was a mind reader now.  Clint could live with that.

He was exhausted.  Never let it be said Clint doesn’t pull his weight on team Avengers (so fuck you, half of SHIELD).  Two days of marathon sprinting through San Francisco to complete undertakings that the “Task Master” set up before the assigned time ran out...oh yeah, good times.  Clint hadn’t been allowed to involve SHIELD, or involve Hulk, and he basically wasn’t supposed to let anyone see him sprint through the city streets, and climb landmark buildings, and swim in giant water fountains, lest they know something nefarious was afoot.  He’d shouted family scavenger hunt more times than he’d bothered counting, but he’d completed every challenge within their designated timeframe.  This had really pissed of the Task Master because apparently he’d designed the entire game for people with enhanced stamina, like Steve and Thor, and brains like Tony.  

 

The Task Master certainly didn’t have Tony’s brains seeing as he’d mistaken Clint for Steve and only realized half way through the second task that he’d taken the wrong Avenger hostage.  Apparently all blondes look alike.

 

Steve and Tony hadn’t been very impressed with being captured and then having to watch Clint struggle through tasks meant for one of them.  Clint hadn’t been impressed that everyone seemed to think he wouldn’t be able to get through the tasks to keep his teammates alive.

 

But it was over now, Clint had kept Taskguy distracted until Steve’s sedative burned out of his system enough that he’d turned the tables on the guy.  The last thing Clint had heard as he’d departed the jet that had couriered them back to New York City, was the extremely well shackled villain of the week bemoaning the need for an updated contact prescription.

 

Point was, Clint was exhausted, and he had bypassed medical completely because he had no interest in letting them poke and prod and scan him just to tell him that all he needed was rest.

 

If Phil had been here… well, Phil wasn’t here anymore, and Clint was exhausted enough to allow that thought to escape the tightly locked box in the back of his mind.  The hurt that always threatened to overwhelm him began fighting for attention as he nearly fell through the door into his apartment.  He stopped two steps beyond the threshold, and took a moment to adjust to what he was seeing.

 

Akira, Gob, and Lia began whistling and clicking with enthusiastic joy from their branches in the tree that now sat beside Clint’s couch.  Well, beside and over his couch actually.

 

“Hey, guys,” he’d never really understood how good it felt to have someone so enthusiastic to see him come home, but he was beginning to really understand the appeal as his entire body seemed to relax.  Three trills that almost sounded like a rehearsed song erupted as the pygmies began jumping and climbing from branch to branch.  Clearly showing off.

 

So, he had a tree in his living room.  An actual tree.  He hadn’t expected it to be quite so...large.  Albeit the trunk probably only had a five inch diameter, and after a meter from its base it split into two trunks that seemed to wrap around each other in no specific formation, for about eight feet, before branches spread up and out.  It must be about thirteen feet tall, and was more wide spread than round, pressed slightly into the wall and partly in the sun from the window beside his couch.

 

Clint stumbled on stiff legs to the waiting cushions; glad he’d changed into loose jeans and a t-shirt before leaving HQ, and he collapsed into the softness to stare up into dark green foliage.

 

“There is a tree in my apartment,” he announced.

 

“Yes,” Jarvis agree from his pocket. “A genetically modified Ficus Benjamina, also known as a weeping fig.  I found it being cultivated in the back room of a privately run horticultural center; a business that takes pride in experimenting with tree shaping.  I took the liberty of paying for it with your allotted SHIELD expense accounts, and had it delivered yesterday.  It is a low maintenance tree, safe for marmosets, and this one will not grow larger so long as it remains in this pot or one of equivalent size.”  JARVIS sounded really proud of himself.  Clint had no idea how he’d managed to find this in the back room of a privately run center.

 

“Simone and Zeke oversaw the delivery process while Gobnait, Aurelia, and Akira hid in your bedroom.”

 

So the tree wouldn’t get bigger, and the only space it took up was the empty air above his couch, which was pretty substantial considering the high loft.

 

It was kind of nice.

 

“Thanks, J, it’s perfect,” he decided just as Gob dropped from the branch above him directly onto his chest.  She was so light it barely aggravated the sore muscles from when he’d had to climb one of the Golden Gate Bridge’s towers.  Twice.

 

Fuck you, Task Master.  And fuck you, Steve and Tony, for looking surprised that he could handle it.  Okay, they hadn’t really been surprised, maybe just a bit more impressed than Clint felt was warranted considering the missions he’d pulled off in the past.  The ones they knew nothing about, but still…he bet they wouldn’t have doubted Natasha like that.

 

Akira and Lia plunked down as well, the three of them pressed tightly side-by-side on his chest and Clint made the monumental effort to lift a hand and rub their backs once, before the last of his energy reserves depleted.

 

Yeah, he wasn’t going to be taking them to a zoo.  Ever.

 

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“Akira came to get me this time,” Simone said when Clint opened his eyes to find her setting three large bottles of Gatorade on the coffee table, beside a bowl of what looked like pasta, and a bottle of painkillers.

 

The warm squirmy unfamiliar feeling was back in his gut, and he sat up long enough to dutifully eat and drink without complaint.

 

“Huh,” Tony said from where he looked at the tree.  His Ironman suit was standing off to the side of Clint’s door, blocking the coat rack on the wall and waiting to be stepped back into at a moments notice.  “Nice tree.”  Clint looked back up at the green leaves spread out over his head from where he lay stretched out on the couch.  He hadn’t moved since the day before, with the exception of washroom breaks, two hot showers, and to open the door for the blue bearded grocery guy.  Simone had put the groceries away for him, making him feel pitiful and grateful. She’d also shoved some muscle relaxant into his hand and a bottle of orange sports drink to wash it down with. Clint still didn’t know how to react to her heavier presence in his life, and he fluctuated between adoring her, and fearing her continued presence.

 

Tony now sat in her armchair. Clint was still waiting for Simone and Zeke to reclaim it.

 

“So where is this monkey I’ve heard about?”

 

It’s a pygmy marmoset, Sir,” JARVIS politely chimed in from Clint’s coffee table.  Tony eyed the phone for a moment, like maybe he hadn’t expected JARVIS to be in it, but he rolled his eyes after a moment and gave Clint a ‘what can you do’ glance. At east, that’s how Clint interpreted it.

 

Aurelia poked her golden-brown little head out of the wall cave and chirped.  Clint blinked over at her and waited.  She was the only one that popped out though, and she scampered across the rope, climbed up the bookshelf and then leapt clear across the room to snag a tree branch and start dropping down closer to them.

 

“Fun fact, pygmy marmosets can jump fifteen feet,” Tony sounded distracted as he watched her chitter and chirp at him from a branch, twisting her head this way and that.

 

Clint didn’t know why Tony knew that, but his marmosets could actually jump about twenty-five feet, though Lia had made it twenty-seven feet that time he’d practiced with them in the cover of darkness on the roof.

 

Lia made no attempt to get closer to Tony, and Tony made no attempt to call her down.  He did make Clint dinner.  Literally. He honest to god actually stood in Clint’s kitchen and cooked up a broccoli beef stir-fry while giving live commentary on how he could build Lia a mini IronMan suit.  Or IronMonkey suit?

 

“No,” Clint said from the couch, sucking down the second bottle of Gatorade Tony had basically shoved in his hand as he’d wandered through the living room between stirring the cooking food.

 

“I could install a built-in living floor for your tree, add proper irrigation and fertilization systems-”

 

“No,” Clint said again, because he didn’t need the tree to be any bigger than it was, and then he rolled his eyes when Aurelia started staring at him, clearly unimpressed with his denying them a larger jungle gym.  “But if you really need to improve something around here, I could use a trap door from the apartment above this one.  It’s empty,” he tagged on.  He actually had seven empty apartments in the building, either from before he’d purchased it with complete legality (Phil had helped with the paperwork), or after he and Natasha had politely informed the secret mafia, who had been planning some hostile takeover of the neighbourhood, that it would be in their best interests to leave instead.

 

The mafia guys had laughed at Clint and his jeans and t-shirt, arrows clipped to his pants because his back-quiver’s strap had broken the week before due to an unplanned fall from a fire escape.  Then they’d basically all run away when Natasha had stepped up behind him and casually name dropped ‘Natalia Romanova.’

 

Clint was glad she had insisted that she would join him in his meeting; he had the impression things would have been a lot shittier if he’d been stubborn and gone it alone.

 

Point being, Tony was here now because he felt like he needed to do something to make up for Clint helping him and Steve in their time of need.  He wouldn’t be able to relax about it until he’d done something for Clint in return.  Clint got that, though he thought Tony’s need sparked from years of people expecting him to do things for them because he was super-rich and should help without question.  Clint’s need to balance the score sheet came from needing to not be in debt.  Debt, he’d learned growing up, could hurt.  He watched as Tony brightened with the requested work and decided not to let it bother him, as neither of them needed to dwell on their issues.  Tony looked ready to run upstairs and begin measuring and breaking holes into his floors immediately.  This wasn’t ideal, as Clint currently wanted his dinner not to burn more than he wanted a trap floor.

 

“There’s a freshly boiled egg on the counter,” he spoke up, drawing the genius’s attention  “If you peel it I bet Lia would come and eat it from your hand,” Clint said, throwing an aching arm over his eyes and not watching Stark’s floor plans get derailed by intent egg peeling.  Lia landed half on Clint’s arm and half on his face as she dropped from the tree, chittering quietly at him in what he assumed was slight annoyance at being used as a distraction, but it didn’t stop her from bouncing onto the kitchen island and nibbling the egg held carefully out by Tony.  Clint lifted his arm to see Tony smiling softly as she wrapped her tail over his wrist and put a paw on his thumb, presumably for balance.

 

Tony seemed more settled after that.  Clint felt better, and winked when the other two poked their heads quietly from the cave.  He silently promised to get them an egg later if they didn’t feel like coming out now.  They disappeared and he closed his eyes to wait for dinner.

SHIELD hadn’t been a wholly safe place for Clint when he’d initially signed up, because let’s face it, he sometimes had trouble with authority, and following other peoples rules, or expectations, or standard polite small talk. He’d grown up in a world that spun on a slightly different axel from the majority of people in SHIELD, and he wasn’t just talking about the shitty childhood and abuse he’d suffered through from a young age, because that was fucked up and awful, but he wasn’t the only person who went through that crap. Especially not in a place like SHIELD, and he did not judge people by an imaginary scale of shitty experiences they endured and survived. No, Clint had been awkward when he’d joined because he hadn’t understood the nuance of small talk, or what was proper versus improper topics of conversation, or how people outside of the carny or assassin-for-hire world generally lived. He hadn’t known when to stop pushing buttons, because in his world you didn’t stop testing limits, pressing peoples boiling points and stepping over boundaries.

 

That had made it difficult at first when he joined up, or, more specifically, when Coulson and Fury had tag-teamed him in a job in Canada, and dragged him back with an offer that he really hadn’t been all that interested in refusing at the time.   SHIELD promised security, support, a chance to do better, to be good, to be a part of something that didn’t force him to live every day alone.

 

So when he joined and realized he didn’t quite fit the mould, it had taken a while to learn to curb some of his antics, to temper his need to make friends with people just to prove he could, to adapt to the organizations mannerisms and methodologies, and to try and blend in. He’d succeeded. After a while people began joining him at the cafeteria during lunch, or asking for pointers on the range, or inviting him to join in the celebration of a birthday for someone he barely knew. But he’d never forgotten the wary, or angry, or distrustful looks he’d been gifted when he’d joined, and he’d never stopped watching his own back unless Coulson or Nat were with him.

 

All that tension, all that strain to blend in and ‘be normal’ while also needing to be extra ordinary with his field skills, all that fight for the acceptance he’d earned through years of hard work and loyalty…it had flown to shit after Loki. Rumlow’s little visit had made that point, though that was more the guy rubbing it in his face than setting a current precedent.

 

Clint had been avoiding headquarters so he didn’t have to deal with people, but Medical demanded he return for a check up or they’d pull his field status, so here he was, walking the cheerful hallways of SHIELD’s New York high-rise.

 

“-Can’t believe he’s allowed to just walk around-”

“-does security know he’s here?-”

“-if he hadn’t caved to Loki’s fucking demands Marianne would still be alive-”

“-he almost killed everyone on the carrier-”

“-evil god or not that guy is dangerous-”

 

Clint had excellent eyesight, but his hearing never used to be this great and he’d put money on some of them thinking their words wouldn’t reach him. Most weren’t trying to hide their comments from him. They glared, knocked their shoulders into his as they passed, looked away in disgust when he neared. In fear. It made him sick inside, because he deserved it, deserved it all-

 

“Hey, Clint” Agent Morse gave him a huge smile as she sidled up next to him in the hallway, deftly forcing a group of glowering agents to walk around her and Clint as they moved through the hall.

 

“Agent Morse,” he greeted, looking straight ahead.

 

“What, you go and save Stark and Rogers ass all over San Fran and now you’re too good to call me Bobby?” She nudged her shoulder into his as they moved, gentle and friendly, and he relaxed a bit at the familiarity. He’d always liked Bobby, she was a firecracker and badass and typically had no patience for peoples bullshit. He hadn’t seen her since before Loki, he hadn’t been sure she’d want to keep their familiarity from before. Not many had.

 

“Last time we spoke I distinctly remember you telling me to shove my arrows in a pretty explicit place,” he gave her a little look, “I figured I’d play it safe.”

 

“Yeah, well don’t. It doesn’t suit you,” she said with her usual straight forwardness.

 

“Thought you were in Madagascar,” he commented, and smirked when she side-eyed him, because he wasn’t cleared to know that.

 

“Called back early,” she didn’t bother to deny it, and stopped them outside medical. “Got a new assignment coming down the line. You back in the field with us, or sticking to your new team?”

 

“Little of both, we’ll see who gets sick of me first,” he smirked, and went to push through the door. A hand on his forearm stopped him, and he tensed reactively. She retracted the light grip smoothly, and quicker than she might have before. She was eying him now, her concern obvious. From most he might feel aggravated by it, but they had history. It wasn’t all great history, but it was enough to warrant the right to care.

 

“You’re not alone here, Clint, and I’m glad you’re okay.” She smiled, dipped her head, and began to retrace the steps they’d taken to get here. He was thankful she didn’t tag on some platitude about how people would get over him being responsible for so many deaths and, arguably, the invasion in general. He was thankful to know she was one person he hadn’t lost in this sea of ill content that surrounded him whenever he stepped into SHIELD.

 

He took a breath and pushed into medical like he was their by choice, and called upon the learned skills that made it possible to at least get through whatever fresh medical hell they were going to demand he go through. Another day, another dollar, another donut. He kind of wished he could have brought one of the marmosets with him.

 

Natasha came by five days later, finally back in the city at the same time as him.  It felt like he hadn’t seen her in a year.

 

She knocked on his door instead of just appearing in his apartment like usual, and he forced himself to not show his near-overwhelming relief that she was okay as he let her in before closing and locking the door.  By the time he made it back to collapse on his couch she was lightly perched on the edge of Simone’s armchair, elbows braced on her knees, and had successfully engaged in a stare-down with Akira.  Akira, sitting in complete stillness on the center of the coffee table, watched her back.

 

“Nice tree,” she commented.

 

“JARVIS,” he explained.

 

“Nice trap door,” she did not look up at the nearly invisible square indentation that outlined the door Tony had promised to not tell anyone about, and finished installing the day before.  If opened, a rope would fall to the empty space where Clint usually stood to practice his archery.  The shooting distance was short, but it was for stance and endurance practice more than anything.  He was contemplating knocking out the wall to the empty apartment next door though, just so he could have more distance if he wanted.  What was the point in owning the building if you couldn’t knock down walls when you wanted to?

 

“Tony,” he explained.

 

“You look good,” which meant he looked a hell of a lot better than she expected.  She knew how much Phil had meant to him, how much he’d meant to both of them.  She’d needed to disappear into work to deal with her grief, but Clint had always been terrible at letting grief go.  He was doing better than he expected himself. Not great, but manageable.

 

“Feel good,” he said, almost surprised to realise it was true.

 

“Name?”

 

“What, you couldn’t get it out of him?” He gave Akira and impressed smirk.

 

“He’s unusually stoic,” she raised an eyebrow, still not breaking their staring contest.

 

“Akira,” Clint offered, and shuffled about enough to put the small cup with the crickets on the counter.

 

“Hmm,” she said thoughtfully.  “You should probably get Simone a new armchair if you’re going to keep hers.”  Yeah, he really should.  “Minnesota?” she asked after another long moment, clearly aware she was already correct about where Akira came from, and Clint chuckled, as impressed as always.

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Are the three of them the only creatures to survive the explosion?” Akira twitched and Nat made a slightly amused sound.  “Of course I know there’s three of you,” she admonished him, and he started chittering at her, his stillness broken.  Lia trilled where she’d been still as a statue in the tree, and Clint’d bet Gob was upstairs, probably hiding under his pillow, or in his purple sneaker.

 

“Yeah.  I couldn’t just leave them there, locked up like that.”  He didn’t need to explain, not to her, but he did anyway.  Sometimes she liked to be spoken to as though she didn’t already know all the answers.  He felt like this was one of those times.

 

“They are highly intelligent.”

 

“Yeah.” He’d figured that out pretty quickly.  He was just thrilled they were evolved beyond throwing their shit, because that would have caused all sorts of problems.  An amused trill erupted from his room upstairs.

 

“Have you done any examinations to see what’s been done to them?”

 

“No tests,” he made it clear there wouldn’t be any tests if he had anything to say about it, and her shoulders finally relaxed the final fraction.  She smiled warmly at him.

 

“Good.”  She leaned back and Akira leapt up into the tree, joining Lia where they pressed together and chittered, and bopped, and basically just made a lot of noise.  “I like the tree,” she decided.

 

Clint smiled.

 

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Natasha stayed at his place for four days, helping him with long stretching routines to get his muscles back into their usual relaxed form.  She made Clint go with her to buy a new chair for Simone.  Then made him go with her to SHIELD to help with the paperwork she’d amassed on all the missions she’d been doing.

 

They did the paperwork in the cafeteria, and she kept shooting spitballs at the agents that had been giving Clint the dirtiest looks since Loki.  When they tried to figure out who to blame she gave them a cold look until they scurried away.  Clint hadn’t felt this relaxed on SHIELD property for what felt like a very long time.

 

He began to feel his ground stabilize more firmly beneath his feet, the tightness in his chest eased, and he breathed deeper in relief.

 

He was at the tower for a standard team meeting, feeling pretty fantastic for once.  Sparring with Steve that morning had gone well.  Clint still held back, of course, but Steve, now more aware of Clint’s stamina and strength since he’d basically climbed the entirety of San Francisco, twice, to save his and Starks ass, was putting more effort into their training sessions.  It felt good.

 

He’d felt so good he’d even agreed to drink one of the protein shakes Tony swore by, slipping an apple slice from the fruit tray into his upper cargo pants pocket, and snagging one for himself.

 

Marmosets needed a healthy protein and carb diet, but he’d noticed his first week that they ate a lot for such tiny little things.  He figured it was a by-product of experimentation, so he’d just accepted it.  He’d started bringing all three of them with him to the tower the week before, when the team had begun getting more insistent that he show his face more often, though only Lia ever climbed out of his pocket to say hello to Steve, Bruce and Tony. Bruce eyed her suspiciously every time she made an appearance, but Steve and Tony had been kind of hilarious to watch as they thought they were being subtle about getting her to like one of them more than the other.

 

He snagged a seat at the glass oval conference table, put the half empty cup of green sludge down with a click, felt Lia begin to climb out of his pocket to check out the space. She apparently wasn’t interested in moving beyond his thigh.  He took a cursory glance out the floor-to-ceiling windows to make sure there were no snipers in sight, no lasers, no threat.  All clear.  He relaxed further as a large part of the windows darkened, transforming into a screen that showed Fury and Hill looking back at them.

 

“Director Fury, Deputy-Director Hill,” Steve greeted, easy and pleasant, and Clint considered kicking his boots up on the table.  He imagined Gob and Akira tumbling out of the pocket if he did that and refrained.

 

“What, are we starting already?”  Tony asked, stepping into the room and decked out in an oil-covered, button-up silk shirt and expensive suit pants that would not be seeing any more formal functions.  “I thought we were waiting for Coulson?”

 

For a moment Clint didn’t hear the question, caught up on checking that Lia was staying out of the video’s sight lines, but it only ever took a second for Phil’s name to register.  Clint’s body went still automatically, and he flicked his gaze to the screen, to see Fury and Hill looking right at him.  Fury looked irritated, Hill looked like she was trying very hard to remain impassive.  Hill’s look told him everything he needed to know.

 

Clint swallowed slowly, throat feeling dry, and kept his glance neutral, because the three Avengers in the room with him didn’t seem to realize that anything was out of sorts.

 

His marmosets had stilled when he had, but Lia had turned to watch him before becoming a little statue.  

 

Clint flicked his eyes to Tony, who was grabbing a chair and flopping into it with the energy levels of someone really needing ten hours of uninterrupted sleep.  Steve and Bruce were looking over at Clint now, Steve curious and Bruce…Bruce seemed like he was putting together some puzzle that had been sitting on his table for a while.

 

“Yeah?” Clint asked and Natasha would be very proud of how light and easy, how natural, he managed to keep his tone.  “How long have you known about Coulson?” he directed at Tony, who was always easiest to get answers from when he was tired or didn’t care to pay attention to the emotions in a room.

 

“What, like a month ago now?”  He looked at Bruce for confirmation, and Bruce nodded.  Slowly.

 

“Barton,” Fury started, but stopped when Clint looked back to him, forcing a smile on his lips that he knew looked completely casual and harmless.  The picture perfect posture of ease.

 

“Huh.  I bet Nat was pretty happy to see him,” he said, and took a drink from the smoothie.  He couldn’t taste it anymore.

 

“How should I know?  She wasn’t on that mission.  You were still in medical from that snake bite, remember?”  Tony said, but he was looking puzzled now.

 

“Hard to forget,” Clint agreed and put his glass on the table.  He remembered that when he’d met back up with the team after recovering, they’d been a bit tense.  He’d put it down to his injury.

 

“Barton,” Fury started up again.

 

“So is he here yet?”  Clint looked around the room, trying to figure out exactly which seat Phil was slated to take.  There were six empty ones left.

 

“Agent Coulson is on his way to the conference room now,” JARVIS informed him when nobody else spoke up.

 

“Hmm,” Clint said, and slowly rose from his seat.  Lia, quick as lightening, slipped from his knee back into his pocket where the three of them remained still and silent.  They were a warm little ball of heat over the side of his thigh.

 

“Barton, you will stand down and -”

 

“J, can you mute please?” he asked and Fury’s orders were instantly cut off.  “Thanks, buddy, that’s a lot better,” he said with a smile and started for the door.

 

“Clint -”

 

“Not now, Rogers,” Clint snapped, as the door to the conference room opened and, low and behold, in walked Phil Coulson.  He looked harried, and a bit stressed, and then he saw Clint marching towards him.

 

“Clint -” Clint grabbed, twisted, used the advantage of surprise and the knowledge that Coulson probably didn’t want to fight right now, and pressed the man’s chest solidly into the wall.  Clint was gentle with the final move, because he’d watched the security vids of Phil’s death about thirty times, was more than aware of the hole that had been forced through him, and even in his thickening sense of betrayal he could never hurt him.

 

“When I was eight, I had a foster brother in Iowa,” he said softly into Coulson’s ear.

 

“Sister, and she was unregistered.  You saved her,” Phil said just as softly.

 

Clint’s gut churned.

 

“An umbrella -” he started pointedly.

 

“- is classy as fuck,” Coulson finished, and swallowed.

 

“Where do I go when Nat’s hurt?”

 

“Medical.”

 

“Where do I go when I’m hurt?”

 

“Into Natasha’s secret weapons’ lock up, two doors down from bolt hole seven.”

 

“Barton,” Steve started, clearly trying to sound stern and soft.  Clint had long admired that tone. “Just let him go and-”

 

“Take a step in our direction, Rogers, and we are going to have real problems,” Clint warned.  Steve stayed where he was.

 

“Seven,” he asked Phil.

 

“Nine,” Phil answered.  Phil was warm under his hands, his flesh malleable enough that it must be human and not robotic. Clint stepped back, satisfied that this really was Phil Coulson.  Unless he was being mind controlled, which Clint doubted.  He could put facts together, even with the rage and…and hurt that was making him feel physically ill.  He controlled it because he would not puke in front of these people.  He refused.

 

“Nice to see you’re not dead, Sir,” he said, calm as he could, and Phil turned around, equally as calm.  Clearly, he was holding onto his masks for all he was worth.

 

“Life Model Decoy,” he explained, like it was obvious.  Clint hadn’t been cleared to know they were functional yet, so no, it wasn’t obvious.  Phil grimaced a little when Clint said nothing back.  “Today’s meeting was to inform you -”

 

“That you weren’t actually stabbed through the chest by Loki?” Clint asked, tone flat.  “I thought it was to strategize deployment methods in conjunction with the new SHIELD teams being set up cross-continent, to get the Avengers and support to them sooner in times of crisis.  Funny how quickly things turn sideways.”

 

“Clint -”

 

“One minute,” Clint continued right over Coulson’s soft tone, “you’re under the impression that you’re responsible for the death of a man you called brother, and the next you find out that the few people you were supposed to be able to trust at work, and your new teammates, knew he was actually alive all along while you were still twisting in the wind.”

 

“Clint -” Coulson tried again, but Clint wasn’t interested in what he had to say.  What could he possibly say?  Clint looked at the screen, where Fury and Hill were watching their interaction with undivided attention.

 

“Let me guess, orders?” He put another few steps between himself and the rest of the people in the room.

 

“You were compromised -” Fury began, JARVIS helpfully unmuting him.  His tone brooked no apology.  Hill clearly disagreed with this opinion, Clint had seen it in her eyes just before he put Coulson into the wall, but she still hadn’t told him. She had never even hinted that Phil might not actually be the ash that he had sifted through his fingers to be carried away in the wind over the Helicarrier’s bow.  He wondered if her tale of Fury sticking his neck out for Clint with the Council was to soften him up for this eventual meeting.  Pre-damage control.

 

“Does Natasha know?”

 

“She found out last night.  She’s broken mission protocol to come here.  Intelligence puts her arrival six hours from now,” Coulson said, and Clint barked out a sharp laugh, unable to hold it in, and he shook his head in disbelief.

 

“You gotta be fucking kidding me, Phil.” He felt like something was breaking inside all over again.  “She found out last night, and now you guys are bringing me into the loop for control countermeasures.”  Because there was no doubt in his mind that he’d be Nat’s first stop once she was Stateside, and she’d tell him everything she knew because they had promised that to each other years ago.  And when it became clear SHIELD wouldn’t be able to keep him in the dark anymore, they’d wanted to make the reveal appear to be on their terms.  Idiots.  Someone at the tower would have said something eventually, especially since they’d grown more insistent that he come by more often.

 

“Agent Barton, you understand that -” Fury started and Clint cut him off for the third time, something that had probably not happened to the man since his time in basic.  There was a vein throbbing above his eyepatch.

 

“I understand.” Clint said, and watched as Coulson’s shoulders stiffened and an air of resigned regret began to press around his mouth.  The thing was, Clint did understand.  He’d been compromised astronomically, and he’d given too many SHIELD secrets to Loki.  At this point Phil’s living status must still be classified. They were playing it safe, and he didn’t blame them for that.  He couldn’t, because he knew the nature of the game and had accepted it long ago.

 

But clearly he hadn’t been compromised enough to send on missions, and he hadn’t been compromised enough to join the Avengers, or be let loose amongst the civilian population.  His head understood, but his heart?  Natasha had once accused him of being led too easily with his heart.  

 

“Brothers,” he huffed out, almost too soft for anyone to hear, but Phil heard, and he closed his eyes, the first full allowance of remorse.  Too late.

 

“Barton -” Fury started and JARVIS muted him, dropping the room into a chilly silence.

 

“You probably shouldn’t have kept Natasha out of this particular loop,” he informed them in general, “and I think it’s best if we had some time apart,” Clint told Phil, losing his ability to meet the man’s eyes.  He wanted to drag him into a hug, wanted to watch him breathing, wanted to check his pulse.  They were beyond that now - weren’t they? Because Phil had made a promise to Clint that he wouldn’t leave him behind unless he had no other option.  Phil understood how Clint felt about promises.  Or at least Clint thought he had. “No more surveillance, of any kind, in my building.  If I find more bugs after this, we’ll have real problems.”

 

Phil nodded.  Clint turned to leave, because if he stayed much longer he’d say some truly regrettable things, and while that was not usually something he tried to avoid, he was too upset to risk it.

 

“Clint, we didn’t realize you were in the dark on this,” Bruce said softly as Clint went to leave.

 

“Yeah, I get it.  I do.  Call if there’s an emergency, but give me some space,” he ordered rather than asked.

 

He felt Phil - he felt Coulson’s eyes on him until the conference doors slid shut.  He heard the muted sounds of Tony’s raised voice almost immediately after.

 

“Listen, J,” he said softly in the relative safety of the elevator.  “I need to ask you a favour.  It’s nothing personal, because you’re the best, but I’d like a little privacy.  Do you think, for a few weeks, you could vacate my phone?“

 

“Of course I can, Clint.  I never meant to intrude,” the AI said solemnly over the elevator speakers.

 

“You haven’t, not even a little bit,” Clint insisted, because it was true and because he didn’t want hurt whatever feelings the AI might have.  He considered him a friend, if that was possible.  “If you need me, or want to talk or something, you could just…call?”  Wooooow.  He was kind of pathetic.

 

“I am pleased to hear that.  I regret that I did not think to inform yourself or Agent Romanov of Agent Coulson’s return. I fear that consideration did not process for me.”

 

“Awww, J.  It’s not your fault.  Don’t worry about it, okay?”

 

Of course, Clint,” he agreed.  Clint wished it could be that simple for himself.  “I have removed all programming from your phone, it is now a standard mobile device.”

 

“Great.  Next time I’m in the tower, you re-upload, okay?”

 

Of course,” and Clint figured he imagined the relief in JARVIS' tone.

 

“See you around, J,” he stepped from the elevator, nodded at the desk security guard, and was on the streets.  He decided walking home, the way he was feeling, would not be pleasant to his ride-alongs, so he stuck his arm out and a taxi immediately pulled up beside him. He slipped into the back.

 

“Brooklyn,” he ordered vaguely, and slumped back in the seat, distracted with jumbled thoughts. He felt exhaustion seep into his bones, like it had when he’d been sitting with the Avengers in that shwarma joint after the new York battle.  A few minutes later he heard a light hissing and opened his eyes to find the driver watching him closely in the rear-view mirror; too closely.

 

Aw Futz.

 

He made to cause some damage, but the gas was already dragging him under.

 

Potent.

 

Dark.

 

Nothing.