AN: Written for this prompt on avengerkink. Thank you to egelantier for the alpha and concept-beta, and to paper_tzipporah for the structure/grammar/etc., beta. All remaining mistakes are mine and mine alone. Using for the "slaves" square on my hc_bingo. A huge thanks to all the readers on the meme who took this ride with me.
Market Duty was generally assigned to trusted junior agents, or, at the very least, procurement specialists, even if the goods at Market were a bit outside their particular focus. Phil had been sent a few times while climbing the ranks, but once he'd graduated to senior agent he'd been excused from that type of assignment and he'd never felt so relieved to have an aspect of his job taken out of the picture. Phil's family hadn't precisely been abolitionists, but they'd steered clear of owning Birds, and the ones SHIELD requisitioned always made Phil uncomfortable in a way few things could anymore.
Unfortunately, due to a spate of disastrous purchases, Fury had instituted a temporary policy of Market Duty rotation amongst the senior agents. Phil had let his objections be known, but when they were ignored, and he was presented with the choice of either taking his rotation or leaving SHIELD, he acquiesced. He knew that to some extent, the Birds bought by SHIELD had it better than most others. SHIELD at least had policies regarding proper Bird treatment and required they be given food and rest. As a general rule, the Bird population was at the mercy of whoever had enough credit to buy one, and Birds weren't always expensive. Price was dependent on skills and condition.
Phil made himself focus as the auction started. There had been a time when Birds—at that time simply called Detainees—had actually been criminals, to the last. Overpopulated jails and a lack of jobs had somehow worn away at people's resistance to what was slavery in all but name. But those "jailbirds" who went to the block widened to all sorts of persons as the economy failed and ever harsher taxes, laws and penalties were enacted. The "jail" aspect of penal sale fell away, and what was left was simply Birds.
And Phil knew the law stripped Birds of human status, but he could never watch them, skin and bones and scars and faces, and see anything but himself, his friends, his family, but for the grace of fate and fortune.
He made a purchase early on, a still-sturdy-looking Hispanic woman who was supposedly at her first auction, although nothing that came out of an auctioneer's mouth could be believed. He had to wait another few hours for something else of interest to come up, an older Chinese-American male who set off Coulson's radar as useful.
Phil had closed his eyes and ears to misery the better part of the day when his final purchase stepped onto—well, was dragged then thrown onto—the "block." The selling structure was really more of a pillory, but one that locked the Bird's arms behind him, forcing him to display himself without recourse.
It took four built, armed and clothed guards to get this one Bird into position. He was clearly underfed, favoring one leg over another, and bore unhealed whip marks in several places on his body. Nonetheless, he used his teeth, fists, whatever he had to fight, managing to subdue two of his captors for a time, but eventually losing.
Once in the reverse-stock, he settled for a clearly enunciated, "Fuck all of you vultures," and an unambiguous expression of hatred emanating from every pore in his body.
The bidding began immediately. And Phil could see, under the hatred, the defiance, that this man—who couldn't be more than twenty-five—knew exactly to whom he'd be sold. The buyers who were anxious for the fighters, it was well known that they broke Birds, and threw them out, sometimes literally. It wasn't unheard of for the bodies of Birds to just show up with the garbage on collection day.
Fury was going to kill Phil. And yet, for all that, Phil just couldn't let this one go. There had been other fighters, other Birds he'd sat by and let go to their fate, and he would spend nights not sleeping over it, be haunted unto his death by the choice, but this one—he couldn't let this one go. He was too damn effective, even in his weakened state. He was too damn...alive.
Phil raised his hand and then spent the next few minutes quietly, subtly, intimidating the shit out of the other bidders. When the gavel came down, Phil hadn't even outspent his allowance for the day.
He stayed until the end of the auction, as ordered. Then he went to go collect his new Flock.
When Phil went to collect his purchases, Bird 214463-92 had been drugged with a paralytic. He was awake, just incapable of moving. The anger he was bleeding, along with the more-than slight panic he couldn't hide, made Phil's stomach clench. He asked the handlers, "What's his name?"
One of them, the one handling the transfer paperwork, shrugged. "Papers didn't come with one."
Phil took the papers and flipped through them. According to his records, this was the Bird's fourth auction. Phil said, "I want him sedated," partially because it would just be easier in the long run, but partially because it honestly had to be better than a paralytic, and he didn't think he could stand having those eyes on him for the entire ride back.
He paid up, and went about getting the four of them back to HQ.
Phil had all three new Birds taken down to medical for an intake exam. Phil told them, "You might want to keep 214463-92 under," and nobody argued.
Then he went to report to Director Fury. He set the purchase papers on his superior's desk and sat down, not really hopeful that Fury wouldn't notice the whole four-auctions issue, as well as some of the complaints filed in 214463-92's papers, but maybe a little that the Director would trust him enough to let it go.
It was not to be. "Seriously, Phil?"
"You knew my feelings on the subject when you assigned me the duty, sir."
Fury opened his mouth, then shut it. "I should write you up for insubordination."
"If that's what you feel is best, sir."
The response made Fury glare, the way Phil had known it would. Mostly because Fury was the only person Phil reported to anymore, and since Fury wasn't about to fire him over this, being written up was something of an empty threat.
After a moment, Fury smiled, a quick, self-satisfied expression and Phil knew he was completely, one hundred percent, screwed. Fury said, "Effective now, 214463-92 is assigned to one Agent Philip J. Coulson, full-time."
Full-time. That meant non-working hours as well. That meant taking the Bird home. Phil was glad he was so very practiced at appearing unbothered by anything and everything. "Very well, sir."
Fury gave him a look that said he saw right through Phil. He probably did. Then he said, "Get out of my office before I reassign his papers to you and fire your ass."
Phil said, "Yes, sir," but made a point of lingering, just to show he had read that particular bluff.
When Phil made his way back to medical, his newly acquired bird was awake. He was also bound to the medical bed six ways from Sunday, and so reduced to glaring at everyone and making nasty comments every once in a while. One of the doctors looked at Phil like salvation had arrived, and it took everything Phil had not to laugh as he said, "Here to take him off your hands."
Of course, then the Bird was given over to him, and Phil didn't feel anything like laughing. In the back of his mind lurked the sure knowledge that if Phil couldn't reach him, SHIELD would have no choice but to put him down; even worse was the awareness that doing so would be a kindness compared to putting him back on the Market a fifth time.
Phil chose to undo the restraints on the bed himself, partially because it was his responsibility and partially because he wanted the Bird aware that Phil was stronger than he looked. The Bird didn't struggle as much as Phil had expected and Phil wondered if the meds were still wearing off. He came to that conclusion when he pulled the Bird onto his feet and he almost went straight to his knees, holding himself up at the last moment with what was clearly pure unwillingness to appear weak.
Phil nonetheless put a hand to the Bird's elbow to steady him. He'd locked the Bird's arms together at wrist and elbow behind him, which never helped with balance. The Bird snarled, but didn't twist away. He probably couldn't.
It was a long walk to the car. Phil nearly got bitten trying to fasten the Bird's seatbelt. As they were leaving the parking garage, Phil said, "I'm Coulson. What's your name?"
"Birds don't have names." The voice, which had been sharp and angry the last time Phil had heard it, was flat, exhausted, probably trying to sound even.
"Well, I'm not calling you by your number, so you can give me your name, or a name, or I can think up one."
The Bird just shrugged—impressive, really, given his bindings. Coulson flipped through his mental catalogue until he came upon the first bird of prey he could think of and said, "All right, we'll go with Hawk."
"Plan on taming me?" The question had an edge to it, a challenge.
"Taming? No, not really. Training, maybe."
"Oh, I'm plenty trained." The innuendo in the statement was bone-deep, and Coulson looked over, needing to see the threat still present in Hawk's eyes. He wasn't disappointed.
Phil just said, "I can get that consensually, with much less time and bother."
Out of the corner of his eyes, Phil saw Hawk blink at that. He awarded himself a point and kept driving.
Phil's place was on the seventeenth floor of his building, but thankfully, there was an elevator. He suspected he would have had to carry Hawk, otherwise. He let them both into his apartment, which needed cleaning. All the same, Phil loved his place, the first he'd ever bought for himself, SHIELD actually paying enough that he could manage. It had maple wood floors, softened with age, and walls that bore sage and mint green colors, the kitchen all exposed brick and copper fittings.
He didn't have much in the way of knick-knacks, but he had an excellent collection of original Captain America propaganda posters, hung sequentially on the wall between his bedroom and the guest room. The rooms weren't large, but they both had decent closet space, and shared a bathroom that had been redone in the original 1920s style dating back to the building's origins.
He locked the door behind them, toed off his shoes and loosened his tie. He told Hawk, "I'm going to take off the bonds. I have to believe they explained how the tracking mechanism works?"
Hawk just stared at him. Phil bit back a sigh. "For the sake of thoroughness, it's fused to your lower spine, attempting to mess with it will cause paralysis. Going outside its programmed range will end in paralysis and a headache that will make any hangover or migraine you've ever had seem like a fond memory. Brain damage has been known to occur."
The range could be heavily modified for when a Bird became an asset and even disengaged if SHIELD decided to do so was best. Phil kept that knowledge to himself. He'd bring it up if it became important.
Hawk's expression didn't change. Phil figured that would have to be enough. He walked behind the man, and began undoing the restraints.
Phil had prepared for an immediate struggle, but none was forthcoming. Either Hawk was actually subdued—unlikely—or was waiting for when he had a better tactical advantage, which was much more likely. When it was clear he wasn't going to have to take the man down right then and there, Phil said, "Okay, so, dinner."
He vaguely remembered his bi-monthly grocery order coming in earlier that week. He should have enough supplies to make something. He walked to his kitchen and thought for a minute. Hawk was skin and bones, and he'd been sedated for the better part of the day. Something easy on the stomach, then.
"What's your opinion on breakfast for dinner?" Phil asked, not really expecting a response. He glanced back and, sure enough, Hawk was just staring at him, as thought asking Hawk's opinion were the same thing as growing three extra heads. Phil figured that was fair; it probably occurred with the same amount of rarity.
He took off his jacket, rolled back his sleeves and went to work. He didn't particularly like having Hawk at his back, but he also knew that this was at least nominally a test, and one he needed to pass. He grabbed eggs and cheese from his refrigerator, bananas from one of the hanging baskets, peaches from the one above. He checked, but they all seemed to still be fine. They must not have been ripe when they'd arrived. He stuck a couple of pieces of wheat bread in the toaster, scrambled the eggs with the cheese and cut the fruit into slices. He split the food evenly, poured two glasses of water, and set them both at the table.
He looked over at Hawk and said, "The eggs'll get cold if you wait too long."
Hawk couldn't take his eyes off the plate, even as he said, low and angry, "You're not funny."
Phil paused. He was glad he hadn't eaten much yet, since his stomach flipped uncomfortably. He made himself keep his voice unthreatening when he said, "I want you to eat. You're no good to me half-starved. And you can't possibly get away in the condition you're in. Let's call it a win-win."
Phil took another bite, carefully, testing his stomach. He didn't look up again. After a few moments, he heard Hawk cautiously approach the table. He took the plate and, still standing, cradled it to his chest, shoving the first few bites down in record time. Phil said, "Slow down. I'm not taking it from you, but you will puke if you keep that up. There's more if you need more."
Hawk glared, but he took the advice. He made it through about half the plate, which was better than Phil had expected. Hawk looked wistfully at the rest and then looked away, clearly determined not to have been caught wanting something. Softly, Phil said, "I'll make more in the morning. And you can keep the water by your bed. You need to rehydrate."
Hawk clearly didn't believe a word Phil was saying, but he didn't lash out when Phil extended his hand to take the plate, just handed it over. Phil rinsed the dishes and stuck them in the washer. Then he asked, "Would you like a shower?"
Hawk literally hissed at him. Phil took a second to figure out where the response was coming from and when he did, he had to clamp down on the urge to either roll his eyes or sigh. Or both. "Not with me. Just to get yourself cleaned up, maybe enjoy hot water for a bit. I'll show you where the towels are. The door locks from the inside."
"Because a guy like you has no idea how to pick locks."
Phil shrugged. "Your choice. Take the chance, or don't."
Hawk stood perfectly still for the space of five seconds. "Don't have anything to change into. It'd be a waste."
"Medical sent home scrubs in your size for you to sleep in. What you're wearing right now needs to be incinerated, frankly. We'll have to order you some appropriate clothes. For now, though, the scrubs should do."
Hawk was still clearly uncertain that a shower was a good idea. In the end, though, he nodded his head, once, sharply. Phil went to go get him a towel.
When Hawk emerged from the shower, his skin was pink, as though he'd scrubbed just a little too hard, stayed under the hot water a few minutes too long. Phil couldn't blame him, there were times when he'd tried to wash away things that were too far under the skin to be reached.
Phil said, "Your room is the one on the left."
He got up and walked behind Hawk, who entered the room and then stood in it. Phil said, "Light switch is on the right. When we get you clothes the drawers in here are empty, and there's a small closet. The door locks from the inside, if you want."
There were no windows in the room. Phil hadn't really been thinking about keeping his guests prisoner at the time he'd bought the place, but it was turning out to be fairly convenient. Hawk went and touched the cover spread on the bed before defiantly sitting down, his expression daring Phil to say something. Between the standing at dinner, and now, Phil had the niggling suspicion Hawk had been beaten for sitting on the furniture more than a few times.
Phil said, "Tell me if you need anything. Want me to get the light?"
Hawk was silent, so Phil left it on, and went into his room. He closed the door behind him on the off chance that it would dissuade Hawk from thinking he was going to get ravished in the middle of the night. He changed into his pajamas, read a little bit of the book he'd been working his way through for the better part of six months in the scant free time he had, and fell asleep mid-sentence.
He woke to the ping of his motion detectors being triggered. Phil grabbed the tablet next to his bed and pulled up the tracking system in the main area of the apartment. He was hoping against hope Hawk just wanted some more water.
It took him a second to actually find the man. When he did, he frowned. He set the tablet aside and got up silently. He considered the gun holstered under his bed for a moment and then decided against it. If Hawk could beat him in hand-to-hand, he deserved to get as far as he could before the tracker did its work.
Phil slipped without a sound into his great room and managed, at the last second, to grab Hawk's ankle, pulling him free of the air vent he was squeezing himself into. Phil could admit, as escape plans went, it was fairly smart. He was beginning to understand the many problems Hawk had presented his former owners with. The thought almost made him smile, except that once he'd pulled Hawk down—no small feat, the guy could cling to smooth surfaces surprisingly well—he had a full-blown fight on his hands, and even injured, Hawk knew how to evade, feint and find openings.
Phil was good about not leaving openings, though. He was faster than he looked and one of the best in the business at misdirection. Most of all, he was currently healthier and in better shape than Hawk. Phil had him face down on the ground within minutes, arms and legs pinned.
Phil assessed himself. He was going to have some shiny new bruises in the morning, but otherwise, he was fine. Underneath him, Hawk was breathing like a rabbit caught by a python. Phil couldn't help but think of the terror all Hawk's anger had hidden at the auction, the way all his defiance seemed to cover something infinitely worse.
Fuck. Phil closed his eyes and gave himself a moment to consider how to handle the situation. Eventually he said, "I'm going to get up. Raise a finger to me and I will bind everything from your toes to your lips up in rope and leave you like that for the next three days."
Carefully, he got to his feet. Except for his breathing, and the involuntary tremors running through him, Hawk stayed eerily still.
Phil took his time replacing the screen on his vent. He was aware leaving Hawk on the ground like that was mean—not just because the floor was cold, but because it gave Hawk time to imagine all kinds of horrors—but Phil needed a few minutes to collect himself. When the screen was properly screwed on once again, he said, "I want you to stand up and go sit in one of the chairs at the table."
For a second Phil thought Hawk was going to ignore him. Then the other man rose shakily to his feet, throwing a glare at Phil just for good measure, and did as he was told, even if he really only perched at the edge of the chair. Phil said, "I will hear if you move so much as a facial muscle," and walked into the kitchen.
He grabbed several ice packs from the freezer and muscle wraps from the medicine drawer in his kitchen. He had one in every room in the apartment. They'd all come in handy at one point or another. He walked over and set them on the table. Then he said, "Arms up."
Hawk hesitated, but the expression on Phil's face must have convinced him that his arms were going up one way or another, and it would be easiest, at the moment, to just do it himself. Phil pulled the scrubs shirt over Hawk's head, and Hawk stopped breathing. Phil said, "Inhale, then exhale."
He circled around Hawk, looking at where he'd gotten the worst of his blows in. Hawk's ribs were going to be bruised on the right side, his jaw was going to be one gigantic purple-blue contusion by the time he woke up, and the area between his left shoulder and collarbone was going to be sore for days, at least. He bound the first ice pack over Hawk's ribs, and the second between his shoulder and his neck. He left a third on the table. "Put your shirt back on and get that on your jaw."
Hawk blinked, clearly suspicious, but did as told. Phil put on a kettle and dumped several tablespoons of honeybush vanilla herbal blend into a tea infuser. When the kettle began a quiet whistle, he dumped the infuser in. He grabbed two mugs from the cabinet and a carton of cream from the fridge. He set those on the table, went back for the kettle, and then poured them each a cup. He grabbed a spoon and a bottle of ibuprofen and came back to the table to mix a jot of cream into each cup. He tipped out three pills and slid them over to Hawk with the cup. He took two for himself and blew over the surface of his own cup. He said, "Drink," and it was more order than invitation, but he figured he deserved that much.
Hawk hesitated a bit, but after a moment, he used the hand that wasn't keeping an icepack to his jaw to clutch the mug and bring it to his mouth for a sip. Phil, a few sips into his, asked, "Need anything? Honey? Sugar? I might have molasses somewhere around here."
Hawk blinked at him, then shook his head. Phil nodded. "Take the pills."
Hawk was slower to follow that direction, but he did so. Having been obeyed, Phil said, "So, we're going to consider that one a freebie partly because I bruised your ribs, which is punishment enough, really, and partly because you had to try. I would've too, and I find it hard to judge you for doing the exact same thing I would have done."
From the look on Hawk's face, he didn't believe Phil. "At least the others never fucked with my mind."
"Mm, I'm going to reserve judgment on that one. Beside, you haven't heard the 'but.'"
Hawk's expression was a study in "I-told-you-so."
"But next time, I'm restraining you through the nights. The time after that, you'll have 24/7 surveillance on you, most of it done by me, including moving a cot into my room, where you will still be restrained at night. The time after that you will be given a month of every duty usually given to our bots, the ones we don't even make the Birds perform. Are we clear?"
Hawk took another sip. Phil could tell he was thinking, but what, exactly, was a mystery. Hawk asked, "And the time after that?"
Phil smiled the smile that had once actually made a junior agent pee himself. "Your punishment will be left to me."
Hawk didn't say anything to that, but Phil didn't really want an answer. If they got that far and Hawk was still trying to escape, he had bigger problems on his hands. In the meantime, "Finish your tea and get some sleep. Tomorrow's going to be long."
Phil swallowed the last of his own cup, set it in the sink and padded back to his room, leaving Hawk to do as he would, all factors having been lain on the table.
In the morning, Phil peered over at the tablet first thing. According to it, Hawk was in the spare room. Unless he'd figured out how to fool Phil's entire security system in the last four hours, Phil figured the information was probably accurate. He took a shower that was a bit longer than normal, dressed, and went to the kitchen. He simmered his last peach into some oatmeal, along with brown sugar, and added cream when it had cooked down. He peeled an orange and halved it, then poured a glass of water for each of them.
He divided the oatmeal into two bowls, plated the oranges to one side of the bowls and put a glass by each setting. Then he knocked on Hawk's door and called, "Breakfast."
He walked back to the table and started eating. It was a good minute before Hawk peered out of his door. Phil wasn't a doctor, but he'd bet good money the guy hadn't slept much. He swallowed a bite and said, "Eat, then we'll re-ice, you can shower again if you want. The Director knows we are coming in late this morning."
That last was a lie, but Fury would figure it out. If you ignored the part where Phil had kind of totally fucked up his Market Duty (and Phil did ignore that part) this was all Fury's fault, anyway.
Hawk came in close enough to swipe his bowl off the table, and like the night before, hugged it to himself as he ate. Phil said, "You really can sit as you eat. I won't judge."
Hawk glared at him and ignored the offer. Mentally, Phil shrugged. He finished his oatmeal and orange, and went to rinse the dishes. Then he positioned himself on the couch, planning to work until Hawk was finished. When he heard the last of the orange slices being slowly done away with, bite by bite, he looked up, ready to offer help with the re-icing.
He had no question in his mind that Hawk was unaware of what he was doing, and that even if he weren't, Phil wasn't meant to see. But for a moment, he caught the man with his eyes closed, savoring the taste of the orange, and for the first time, Hawk looked...young. Phil had caught him in moments of seeming utterly alone, terrified and a whole bunch of pissed off, but right then, it came back to Phil that the guy couldn't be much older than twenty-five or so. He looked away, waiting for the sound of a shift. When it came, he stood up and asked, "Did you leave the other ice packs in your room?"
A sharp nod was the only response. Phil went to collect them, and on his way to the freezer, he grabbed Hawk's dishes. He put the packs back in the freezer after setting the dishes on the sink. He said, "If you want to shower, before this is probably better."
The only thing that gave Hawk away was the slight flickering of his gaze toward the bathroom. Phil did his best to smile, habit and the feeling in his chest both getting in the way. He said, "Go."
He cleaned up a bit while Hawk was in the bathroom, and when he came out, Phil helped him reapply the bandages and ice, providing some more ibuprofen. Hawk was still wearing the scrubs. They were going to have to work on that today. That, and figuring out Hawk's literacy level, any skills he might have, what he could be trusted to do and all the other things that were hard enough with Birds who weren't wholly traumatized. Phil made a list in his mind.
First thing was first, though. They needed to get back to SHIELD, and see what happened when Hawk was immersed in an environment that wasn't filled only with Phil and himself, but a whole organization with a backbone of Birds at its core. Phil swallowed a sigh and a desire for a snifter of scotch at 8:30 in the morning. It was going to be a long day.
Clint hadn't been born a Bird, but the state had converted him at eight years old, so it felt that way sometimes. He'd been one long enough to know all the tricks, and that was what mattered.
This situation, though, was fucked up. He hadn't really thought he'd manage to escape last night—even if he had, he wasn't wholly sure what he would have done about the tracker—but the point had been to figure out what way Coulson leaned as far as punishment went. There were basically three choices: the ones who preferred deprivation or exposure, those who were into straight up pain, or those who liked a nice, long punishment fucking. There were, of course, the ones who indulged in all three—Clint's last owner, for instance—but it was usually one of them, or, at the very most, two.
Binding was not a punishment. Sure, Clint didn't like it. But it was...a minor deterrent, at best. And the number of Birds Clint had seen just in his two trips through the hallways of SHIELD—whatever the hell that was—told Clint Coulson knew it, which meant Clint was going to have to push in another way. He couldn't just let it ride. Clint knew what happened when he allowed himself to believe an owner cared about him.
Luckily, he was given his chance pretty early in the day. Coulson had given him a tablet and a stylus, the tablet set up to test him on basic reading, writing and arithmetic skills. Clint had done his best over the years to pick up words here and there—he knew his alphabet, he could sound things out given enough time—but owners weren't real keen on Birds having an education. Or, well, they never had been, until now.
When he got the first five questions in a row wrong, Clint figured he was screwed anyway. He threw the tablet across the room. Thing had to cost at least three-quarters as much as he had. It was probably more multi-purpose, too.
Coulson looked up at the sound of the thing flying—the guy had eerily good hearing—watching as it crashed into the wall and fell to the ground. It didn't shatter all that spectacularly, but it was cracked and making a strange whining sound.
"Okay," Coulson said slowly. "You don't like tests."
It was all Clint could do not to scream. He did say, "Fuck you." He followed it up with his nastiest smile, and a "Sir."
Coulson looked as though he was thinking. Finally, he pulled a legal pad out of the drawer right next to him, and grabbed one of the pens from his desk. He scribbled something on the pad and came over to where Clint was sitting cross-legged on the floor. Coulson hadn't said he couldn't sit on the couch but even the thought made his stomach pitch. Managing to sit on the bed long enough for Coulson to walk out last night had left Clint too shaky to pull himself off the floor, where he'd slipped down to, for nearly half-an-hour. He liked to pretend he'd never broken, but he knew better. He knew exactly how weak he was.
Coulson sat down, holding the pad out in front of them. "Read it."
Clint just sat there. He could do this all day. Coulson said, "You're not stupid. So I'm going to assume you're illiterate. We'll start with the letters."
"Are you—" Clint lost it. "What the fuck is wrong with you, seriously?"
Calmly, Coulson asked, "In what sense?"
"I'm a Bird. And you're an owner. Owners punish Birds when they act out, when they refuse to do things. They don't sit around and act like they're naughty children, who can be taught through patience."
Coulson tilted his head. "Do you like pain? Does it make it easier for you to obey?"
Those were two different questions with two entirely different answers. Clint just crossed his arms over his chest.
Coulson nodded after a moment, as if Clint had answered. He said, "What good does it do me to beat you every time I want something from you? If you won't do it because you trust me, or because it appeals to you, or for some reason beyond the fact that not doing it will end with your suffering, then there is really no point to my ownership of you. The best I can do for you in that instance is try and find you an owner with whom you can come to an understanding."
Clint blinked. He was starting to think Coulson really just didn't get it.
"Besides," Coulson said. "This is punishment. Once we know what this line says, you're copying it fifty times."
And while that didn't sound like fun, it wasn't punishment either. Not really. Clint fought the urge to tuck his knees to his chest and rock. When he was sure he had won, he spat out, "I'm not illiterate."
Coulson held out the pad. "Prove it."
It took Clint the better part of ten minutes to sound out, "I will not throw things," and he had to be helped on the "I" and the "th" sound, but he did it. And when he was done copying it, Coulson gave him a heat pack to alleviate the soreness in his hand and went and got them both lunch from the mess. As far as Clint was concerned, all of this could only end badly.
When Coulson went into his bedroom and shut the door behind him that evening, Clint sat with his back against the wall in "his" room, his knees curled slightly up, and considered his bed. It looked soft. Soft and warm and welcoming.
Clint's intellect knew that Coulson hadn't given him the room with the bed in it for him to just stare at it. He really did know that. He could not, for the life of him, convince himself to actually climb into the bed. The edge of a kitchen chair was one thing, if directly ordered, but a bed was...something else. Beds were risky beyond just being furniture.
Clint put his forehead to his knees. He hated admitting it, even to himself, but he kind of missed his cages. Sure, they'd never fit, not with any of his owners, and he'd at times been left in it so long that he'd had no choice but to sit in his own waste, but it was hard to get in trouble inside a cage. There wasn't anything expected of or from a Bird once in one. It made it easy to sleep. If an owner wanted to wake the Bird up, he'd poke through the bars and pinch the Bird or just yell or sometimes, with his last master, Clint had been doused with cold water, or poked with a picana, or both. But there were clear lines, and for the few hours he got to curl up and sleep, he was safe.
There was no safety here. Sure, his door locked from the inside, but he didn't kid himself that Coulson couldn't get in if he wanted. There wasn't enough room to slide under the bed, not even being as underweight as he was. The room had a closet area to hang a few pairs of pants and jackets, but the space wasn't large enough for Clint to fit into sideways. He could tuck himself up enough, but he'd have to cut himself down the middle to really get inside.
He made a face, leaning forward to stroke at the chenille throw on the edge of the bed. It was probably the nicest thing he'd ever felt. It almost tempted him to lean against the bed, but he knew that if he did he'd be back with his first owner, a kid and defenseless and having a fire poker pressed to his freshly belted ass for daring to suppose it was a Bird's place to sit on a chair.
The room was a little cool with just the scrubs on. Coulson had made him pick out some shirts, jeans, pajamas and underwear basics from a website with men's clothing earlier that afternoon, but it would take the items a couple of days to arrive. Quickly, without allowing himself to think about it, he swiped the throw from the bed and wrapped it around himself.
For some reason, the act of huddling into himself gave him the idea. He peered up at the wall. Sure enough, there was the vent he'd disregarded for escape purposes because if he'd gotten the schematics of the building right at all, it would take quite a bit of work to get to a useful vent juncture from there. But just to curl up in for the night, well, it would work just fine for that use. And Clint could put the cover back on and it would be almost like a cage, except he could get out if he had to go to the bathroom.
He just had to hope that if Coulson noticed, he didn't think Clint was doing anything to escape. He gazed at the vent longingly for a moment and decided he was willing to take the risk.
When Clint woke and slid out the vent, intent on putting the throw back where it had been and erasing all evidence of his night time hidey-hole, he discovered Coulson sitting on his bed, already dressed, evidently working. Clint didn't vomit or wet himself from fear, but it was a near thing. He didn't even have the presence of mind to be belligerent, just honest. "I wasn't trying to escape."
"I'd hope not. You didn't seem that bad at it the night before last, but I'd have had to change my assessment if you were trying again by way of staying completely still in a vent for about eight hours."
Clint was still so tired. Those eight hours had been the best sleep he'd had in years, probably since the circus, when sometimes they would put him in his cage while traveling and decide not to bother him. He couldn't really remember what it felt like to be rested. It made it hard to think, and he'd been pushing himself to be on his toes ever since his previous master had given up when Clint had contracted a virus and put him back on the block. He'd been sure he was going to his death; if not from the fever and sickness, then from the people who bought older Birds with attitude problems. They were, as a rule, bad news.
He could barely make himself stand straight, force his shoulders back and promise, "I won't do it again."
Coulson asked, "What is it, exactly?"
Clint couldn't talk about being safe, couldn't give that to someone to take away from him, so instead he dug his bare feet into the plush area rug, thinking about how it wouldn't be so bad to sleep on, once he got himself to relax. If he could get himself to relax.
When Clint was silent long enough, Coulson pressed his lips together momentarily, a surprising tell, even if Clint wasn't sure what it was betraying. He said, "Go take a shower. There're some sweats I swiped from the trainee stash in there. We'll talk over breakfast."
Clint wondered if having to wait was part of the punishment. Swordsman had liked to use that tactic. Clint, regaining a little bit of his bravado, bared his teeth. "I'd rather you just get it over with."
"What exactly is it you think I'm planning?" Coulson asked mildly.
Clint felt his jaw tensing up. That had been Carson's trick, making Clint choose his own punishment, coming up with something worse if Clint wasn't "being hard enough on himself." "Not my job to give you ideas of how to torture me. You have to come up with those on your own."
Coulson took a slow breath in, releasing it just as slowly. "I really do just want to eat breakfast and talk with you. That's neither code nor a mind game."
Clint didn't believe him, couldn't believe him, but he also got that he wasn't going to receive an answer. It seemed a waste to shower and wear clean clothes when whatever Coulson planned would probably just dirty him up, but he shrugged and made his way to the bathroom. If nothing else, he could take his sweet time. It might make things worse, but at least he'd feel like he'd held his own, as much as any Bird could.
Clint stepped out of the bathroom to Coulson plating thick slices of French toast covered in blueberries and cream. There was water and a cup of tea already set out at the place Coulson always seemed to set for him. Clint frowned. Coulson didn't turn around to call out, "Eat up, it gets cold quickly."
Clint came and took the plate, taking it as far from Coulson as he could. So far Coulson had shown no inclination to take Clint's food from him—the opposite in fact, always making sure Clint had had enough—but he made foods that Clint couldn't pocket for later, just in case, which made Clint suspect Coulson was just better at playing the long game than his previous owners had been.
Coulson came to sit down with his own plate and set a couple of small bowls of fresh cantaloupe pieces down. He asked, "When I tell you to sit down at the table, it causes...discomfort?"
"I don't like furniture," Clint said.
Coulson just gave him a look that called bullshit on the sentiment. Finally, he asked, "What would make you like furniture more?"
Clint tightened his fingers on the hand holding the plate and forced himself not to throw it. The damned French toast was too good to waste. "What does it matter? Do you need me to like furniture for some reason? It's not like you can't order me to sit down, can't back it up with whatever method you choose."
"True, but I don't think ordering you to lie in a bed every night where you probably won't sleep is going to do either of us any good, and you need rest."
Clint didn't mean to spit, "I rest fine in a cage!" When he realized what he'd said, he corrected, "Vent. I rest fine in vents." He put an emphasis on the last word.
Of course Coulson ignored his correction. "Do you want a cage? I don't know that we have a proper sized one for you to sleep in on hand, but I'm sure R&D can rig something up, and we can get bedding in there until we find a way to acclimate you to a non-enclosed bed. We could probably even figure out a way to have a visible force-field around the bed while you were learning to be comfortable in it."
Clint's head hurt. He put his fork on his plate and held the plate to his chest with one hand while reaching out for the tea. It was hot and probably had caffeine; he was hoping one or the other would help a bit. He set the cup down and asked warily, "Why bother?"
Quietly, Coulson told him, "Because I still see a human being when I look at you, no matter what the law tells me."
The words made Clint's chest hurt, his throat ache in a way he'd long forgotten it could. He shrugged as best he could with the plate still hugged to his chest, and said, "Any cage designed for a dog 50 pounds or over will be able to close."
There was something Clint thought might be bitterness in Coulson's gaze. "I said 'human being,' not 'living creature.'"
Clint wasn't quite sure what that meant, but he was surprised to realize he kind of believed Coulson would do as he said, and get him somewhere safe to sleep. Clint needed to be more careful. There was nothing more dangerous than stupidity on his part.
Phil took Hawk down to R&D and straight to Birch's workspace. She was already in, despite it being fairly early, and Phil suspected from her look of disarray, that she might have spent the night in the lab. He handed her the shot of espresso he'd picked up for her, half as bribery, half because he liked the way she smiled when someone brought her something.
She took it with a grin and said, "Why, Agent Coulson, it's been an age."
Phil smiled, and pretended not to notice that Hawk seemed uncertain of what the hell was going on. He said, "I need some help, Ms. Birch."
Birch grew up the child of a single father who'd been an aeronautics engineer. She'd been converted to a Bird at the age of fifteen when her father had died in an accident. She'd lived in Atlanta, and had been bought by one of the gigantic AgriCorps with its headquarters in rural Georgia. The corporations could be the safest place for Birds, but they could also be the most dangerous, with management that took advantage of vulnerability both through sex and assigning the most dangerous jobs. She'd been sold again at nineteen after being injured almost to the point of death by one of the organizations combines. The corp had patched her up just enough to sell her. SHIELD had needed to do the rest. She still couldn't use her left arm much.
SHIELD picked her up because of the agricultural history on her file, to help in their agricultural analytics and developments department, but discovered quickly enough that she often sneaked two hallways down to R&D, and sometimes fixed things late at night so they worked better in the morning.
She was brilliant at what she did, and, more significantly, she always remembered people were going to have to use whatever she was designing, which was not true of three-fourths of the department. It was why she was always Coulson's first choice within the department. That, and he liked her Southern twang and her almost constant teasing.
She looked over at Hawk and said, "I'm Birch," holding out her hand. That was the other reason Phil liked her; she never noticed differences in anyone because of their status, not unless made to.
Hawk held out his hand hesitantly, but shook. "Hawk."
Birch blinked at that, but didn't say anything. Instead, she asked, "What can I do you for?"
Phil hesitated. He wished Hawk would speak up, but he knew that wasn't going to happen. "We need a...sleeping structure."
Birch tilted her head. "Like a bed?"
Phil held back a wince and made himself just talk. "Like a cage, something Hawk can lie fully lengthwise in, and sit up in. It needs to be fortified to protect him, and lockable from the inside."
He was aware Hawk was looking at the ground, could feel the other man's confusion.
Birch started softly, "Agent—"
"Please," Hawk ground out. Her attention snapped to him. He looked up at her, although Coulson suspected it cost him. Hawk's gaze rolled over Birch carefully, taking in the scars at the corner of her right eye, over the left side of lips. He asked, softly, "Bird?"
Her responsive smile was small, sad. She nodded her head. He said, "I—I can't sleep in a bed. Can't get on one."
After a moment, she said, "Let me think about this."
Hawk gave her what Coulson thought might be his version of a smile. "Thank you, ma'am."
She gave him her full smile. "You're welcome, sir."
Hawk's surprise at the form of address was more obvious than any expression Coulson had seen on him yet.
Hawk fell asleep on the floor of Phil's office later that day. Phil wasn't surprised. The guy looked like the last time he'd slept had been in a former life. One moment, Phil had checked and Hawk had been sitting, cross-legged, working on one of the aptitude tests SHIELD gave all Birds, attempting to assess strengths and weaknesses. The next time Phil looked up Hawk had listed to the side, almost falling completely over, asleep. Phil winced. There was no way Hawk was not going to be sore when he woke up. But between being sore and exhausted, Phil thought the former might be better, so he left him alone.
He was engrossed in a report from one of their satellite teams when the worst sound he had ever heard, despite a tour with the Rangers during Desert Storm and over a decade with SHIELD, issued from his floor. Phil looked up to find Hawk still asleep, making a sound that was partially a whimper, mostly suppression.
Phil reigned in his instinct to wake Hawk. Instead he made himself consider the situation. He might sleep through the nightmare, which would probably be good. On the other hand, depending on what the nightmare was—and Phil suspected Hawk had plenty of material to draw on—it might be far kinder to wake him.
Either way, Phil wasn't getting close to do it. He doubted that would end well for anyone. He tried to go back to his report, but the strangled, hurt sound coming from the man on the floor was distracting in a way no jackhammer or intrusion alarm had ever managed to be. Phil said, "Hawk," in a normal tone of voice, not sharp and definitely not demanding.
Hawk came awake immediately, going into a crouching defensive position so quickly not even Phil was entirely sure how it had happened, and he'd been watching the whole time. Hawk's breathing was uneven, and Phil could tell he was doing his best to make it quiet, unnoticeable. Softly, Phil asked, "Want some water?"
Hawk's head was down and he didn't raise it. Phil could see the fine tremors running through the man, even from across the office. Hawk tucked his hands, which had been up, protecting his head, against his chest, fists balled up.
Phil asked, "Do you know where you are?"
Hawk didn't answer, so Phil kept talking. "SHIELD's offices. You were taking an assessment. You fell asleep. That's all."
"I—I was doing it. Taking the test." Hawk's voice sounded rough, as if the screams he'd been holding back were still there, just inside.
Phil made himself swallow down the sick feeling in his throat, his stomach. It was hard to know how to respond, between the anger Hawk bled when he was aware enough to conjure it up, and the terror that clearly lay underneath, smothering him. Phil tried, "I know. You needed a nap. You've—things have changed a lot for you, recently. That's exhausting."
"I kill people." Hawk said, his tone even, but dull.
"The test, it's trying to figure out what I do. What I'm good for."
"Hawk," Phil said softly. "When you're ready, stand up, go to the mess, get yourself water and some fruit. That's an order."
Phil set himself to only half listening to the other man in his office and pulled up Hawk's ownership history. He noticed what he'd missed the first time. There was a slight discrepancy in the records, one that only happened when the Agency had gotten involved.
Once Hawk had gone to do as told, Phil picked up the phone and put a call into a woman who'd served at the same time he had. She picked up with a, "Sanderson."
"Wow, there's a voice I haven't heard in a while," she said. "What can I do for you, Phil?"
"Sorry I only call for business," he told her, because it was kind of a dick move, but in fairness, she didn't really call him much, either. "Niecie, I purchased a Bird about a week back, and I didn't catch it the first time, but there's a notation that says the previous owner liquidated some of his assets, only the list of assets is rescinded. I only glanced over it at first, I just thought it was an estate sale, but are you guys holding a 'Jonas Teel'? Or someone who might use that name?"
She was quiet for a moment before she said, "We've had a Tinley Jones on our most wanted list for a few years."
Phil looked up the name on SHIELD's intranet while making small talk with Niecie. He just barely managed not to whistle, and that was through years of discipline. The guy was basically a factory for assassins, which he then used to his own advantage. When he felt he'd spent enough time catching up he said, "Well, okay, guess I'm barking up the wrong tree. Thanks anyway."
"Anytime," she told him.
Phil had noticed Hawk slipping out while his phone had still been ringing. He was working on pulling together the facts they had on Jones/Teel to find out what he could when Hawk came back, a tray with two glasses of water and two bowls of strawberries balanced on it. He set the tray down on Phil's desk and held his bowl of strawberries to his chest, like normal.
Phil grabbed a strawberry for himself and took the time to chew it before asking, "Is that what you like? Killing people?"
Hawk stiffened, his voice going somehow tense with anger. "It's what I'm good at."
"Everyone who's good at killing is good at something else. Planning, weapons design, interrogation techniques, something. I didn't ask if you were good at it. I asked if you liked it."
After a long enough pause that Phil was pretty sure he wasn't going to get an answer, Hawk said, "I liked it more than I liked the punishment for not doing it."
Phil's chest hurt a bit at the infinite weariness in the answer. He said, "And I like inoculations more than I'd enjoy polio."
Hawk blinked up at him, then looked away. Phil chewed on another strawberry. He said, "Finish the aptitude test. We'll figure out where to go from there."
Phil spent the rest of the afternoon doing what he should have done in the first place, what he would have done had he not gotten distracted by Hawk's sheer presence, the way he needed so much and was willing to take so little. He read through all of Hawk's records carefully, working out that Hawk had been converted by the state a year after his parents had died. The state rarely kept orphaned children for longer than a year, so that wasn't surprising.
What was surprising was that even at intake, Hawk already had a record of scars, a bone in his foot that showed evidence of a healed fracture, and a hairline fracture in his clavicle. It all added up to only one thing, which was that someone in Hawk's house hadn't liked him very much, probably a parent.
Hawk's first owner had been a local family that owned farms. It wasn't clear what Hawk's duties had been, but he left with scars associated with being bitten by a horse and scratches from several different types of animals, so he'd been doing at least some animal husbandry. There was also evidence that at least one of the men in the family liked young boys.
Coulson went to go get himself coffee after that section, bringing Hawk back a peppermint hot chocolate, like that was somehow going to change the fact that he'd clearly never been allowed to just be a kid. Hawk took the cup with narrowed, suspicious eyes, but proceeded to get whipped cream all over his nose, so Coulson counted it as a win.
He was sold again at eleven. Possibly, Coulson suspected, because that was too old for whoever was enjoying him on the farm. At that point he was bought by a traveling circus. When Coulson had first read that, he'd assumed Hawk had been a roustabout, possibly cared for the animals, since his previous owner had been rural. But no assassin outfit was going to buy a kid—Hawk had only been sixteen at the time of his third purchase—who only knew how to feed horses and lions and pitch a tent.
Phil used SHIELD's database to run a facial recognition search on Hawk in the media from five to ten years prior to the current date. Sure enough, a younger, scrawnier Hawk showed up. He'd been a performer, a prodigy at the bow and arrow, but despite his clear talent, as a Bird, he'd never been a headliner. He was called, somewhat garishly, Bullseye. But then, the headliner was Trickshot and it was a circus, so Phil wasn't entirely sure what he had been expecting.
Hawk was sold off with three broken ribs, one side of his face swollen so badly he could neither speak nor see all that well, and various bruises and contusions over the vast majority of his body.
His final owner before SHIELD had kept Hawk's papers another five years before offloading him back onto the market. Hawk had evidently been near death when he'd been handed over, sick with some kind of stomach flu. The records showed he'd been thrown into a contamination unit while they waited to see if he would die. There was no word on how he'd managed not to, but he was sitting on Phil's floor, so Phil didn't need a record to tell him it had happened. Phil wished he'd been right about his age estimation of twenty-five. He wasn’t sure he could find a twenty-one year old anywhere in the man standing behind Phil's desk.
Phil spent about an hour contemplating all the information, then went and sat down on his floor, his back to his desk. Hawk, who was sitting in the middle of the floor, looked over at him warily.
There was so much to say that Phil wasn't even certain which topic to start with, so he just picked one and went with it. "I like hand-to-hand combat. I'm good at it."
Hawk seemed to be paying attention, so Phil continued. "And it's helpful to my job. But I don't necessarily like hurting people. Sometimes, maybe, when I feel like they deserve it, but even then, no more than I need to get the job done. Being good at something and enjoying it are two separate things."
Phil didn't really expect a response, but after a moment Hawk shrugged. "Doesn't matter what a Bird likes or doesn't like."
"Hawk," Phil said quietly. He put a hand to the back of his neck and pinched at the tight muscles there, then decided he didn't have much to lose at this point. "When I was eight, I had a collection of Captain America comics bigger than anyone in the state of Illinois, a teddy bear that I still slept with every night, and my mom made me apple fritters for breakfast every Sunday because they were my favorite."
Hawk looked confused and like he was doing his very best to hide it. Phil kept talking, "I was a kid, Hawk. You were a commodity. I can't imagine that if I'd been in the same situation as you I'd be any more open than you are, but I'm trying to find some way to make SHIELD work for you.
"Birch, the woman who's designing your sleeping space? We bought her because we thought she'd work well in a sub-group of our environmental sciences outfit, but she proved us wrong, showed us something that worked better for her, and benefited us as much. I can do that with you, but I need you to talk to me, at least a little."
Hawk shook his head. "Birch is smart. I—I can shoot straight, and take a cock any which way, and get a woman off in less than five minutes. That's what you've got to work with."
Phil thought about the pictures he'd seen of a younger Hawk holding a bow, the way he'd seemed calmer, like he'd found something he could lose himself in that didn't hurt. Softly, he asked, "Do you like archery?"
Phil noted the way Hawk visibly pulled into himself. He took a breath. "I swear, I'm not asking to have a weapon against you."
Hawk closed his eyes tightly and nodded, a quick, miniscule movement. Then he opened them, some of the threat and swagger from earlier being forced back into his expression.
Phil quirked his lips. "Okay. Let's see where that gets us."
The cage, when Birch was finished, was not a cage. Clint wasn't actually complaining, because it fulfilled all his needs, but, well, it wasn't a cage. It was more like a very, very tiny bedroom.
The pieces were all separate but easily assembled so Clint could take it pretty much anywhere in a bag that was a little awkward, but fit over his shoulder. Once assembled, the plexi-glass plates that locked into each other were transparent from the inside, opaque from the outside. Clint could climb in and sit with his back comfortably against the "head" of the "bed"—a piece of memory foam that folded down for transport, but fluffed back up and molded itself to Clint's body when lain flat over the bottom of the construct, where it fit perfectly. Length-wise he had just enough room to stretch his arms over his head, extending his toes. Width-wise, he could roll over once, or curl into a fetal position.
It locked from the inside. There wasn't even evidence of a locking mechanism from the outside, nothing to pick. Clint was neither stupid nor naive enough to believe nobody could get to him inside it—someone could always get to a Bird, if he put his mind to it—but it felt like the closest thing to safety he'd had in a long time.
Coulson helped him assemble it, the two of them moving the bed in the room to one side to make room for it. Then he put two of the pillows and the throw from the bed in it and said, "I probably have a reading light, somewhere, if you wanted something you could turn off once inside, so you don't have to crawl inside in the dark."
Clint wasn't afraid of the dark, exactly, but there'd been more than a few times it had been used as an element of punishment or training or discipline—different owners had liked different terms—and if he could have just a little light, it was always preferable.
Clint made the decision, at some point, that even if this was some completely terrible mind-fuck, he was going to enjoy it while it lasted. He had no intention of trusting Coulson, that was just idiocy, but he was going to take what he could get. It had been a long time since he'd had blankets and pillows, clothes that were anything but utilitarian, food that wasn't just leftovers or scraps. He'd have to go back to that eventually, that was a Bird's life, but maybe when he did he'd have built up enough strength to run, or at least die trying. It was a comforting thought.
What was not comforting was Coulson's change in approach to testing Clint's abilities. He'd lain off the written tests and begun taking him to different areas of the base—the sparring mats, the armory, the jet bay—to see what Clint could do, see what Clint reacted to. Luckily, Clint was good at hiding himself. He was usually good at reading others, too, a skill developed out of desperation and the will of the young and stupid to survive. But he couldn't figure out Coulson's agenda, or even what would make him momentarily happy.
It felt like blindness, and Clint could stand a lot of things, but having no idea what direction he was going, or even facing, kept him on edge, terrified. He tried checking it, but eventually it built to the point where Coulson accidentally brushed past Clint one morning, as Clint was coming out of the bathroom and Coulson going in, and Clint reacted instinctively, lashing out, trying to regain his own space. Coulson was quicker than him, out of his way before he could do any damage. Coulson's sharp, "Hawk," brought Clint back to himself and it was all he could do not to throw up all over his feet and the floor.
"Sorry," he said, and meant it, but mostly because the penalty for attacking an owner was death by way of exposure, whipping, or burning. (It had originally just been death, but too many Birds had attacked in the hopes of ending things, so the government had gotten creative.) "S-sorry."
Coulson drew in a breath and asked calmly—he was always so fucking calm—"Want to tell me what just happened there?"
There wasn't anything to say. There wasn't a way to explain the tightrope Clint was walking, higher and more thin than anything the circus had ever bothered with. Finally, he said, "Just tell me what you want."
Coulson ran a hand over his face and said, "I just ground the coffee beans. Go make a couple of cups and sit in the living room. We need to talk."
Clint was pretty sure he couldn't keep down water, let alone coffee, but for once, even without the threat of repercussion, implicit or explicit, it was easiest to just obey.
Clint was pouring the coffee into cups when Coulson padded in, having changed into his nightwear. Coulson said, "Fill the cups halfway."
Clint did, and Coulson came over with a bottle of Jameson Irish in one hand, and the cream in his other. Clint watched as he poured roughly equivalent amounts of each into the coffee and stirred them with a spoon. Coulson asked him, "How long's it been since you've had alcohol?"
In the circus, one of the burlesque dancers, a Bird herself, had sometimes slipped him some of the cheap stuff she would nick in town from time to time. It had always tasted disgusting, and Clint had never understood why she liked it. His previous owner had built up his tolerance for beer, because it was often useful in a situation where Clint had to get close to the mark. "I had a couple of beers about a year back."
Coulson nodded. "Take it easy, then, okay?"
Clint followed Coulson without having to be told to do so. Coulson sat on the ground, his back to the couch. Clint sat there as well, far enough that they weren't touching, wouldn't accidentally touch. He took a sip of the coffee and it burnt all the way down, but not in a way that hurt. It was sort of...comforting, strangely, and sweet, not like the other times he'd tried drinking. He saw what Coulson meant about being careful. It would be easy to gulp.
Coulson sipped at his coffee, clearly thinking about how to start. It was weird. Coulson was weird, but Clint was almost getting used to that, to his strange tendency to seemingly care what Clint thought. After a few sips, Coulson said, "SHIELD wants something of use out of you. It's not actually particularly picky about what that is. It figured out years ago that, for the most part, give Birds something to do that they're good at, treat them with basic dignity and respect, and you obtain ten times what you get out of the average college grad. Birds are generally our best workers, which is why we keep investing in them.
"If they don't work out, we mostly do private sales. I can't remember the last time we sent someone back to the block. Directory Fury isn't really the touchy-feely kind, but he's not exactly Market friendly, which I suspect is part of why we have the policies we do.
"If they do work out, we have a practice of granting them a buy-out contract. A certain number of years of service, and we convert them, no strings attached afterward. Talk to Birch about it, if you'd like. She only has eighteen months left on her contract. Then we're going to negotiate like crazy to get her to stay on, because she's invaluable."
Coulson was quiet for a moment, taking a sip, holding his hands around the cup as if to warm himself. Clint took a sip of his as well, the burn starting to spread, making him feel mellow. He knew it was dangerous to keep going, but it also felt like the only way he could keep himself still, keep himself listening. Coulson nodded, seemingly to nobody and said, "What I want, Hawk, what I really want, is to find you that place. To be reading you a services-release contract eleven months from now. That's genuinely all I desire from this situation."
Clint didn't mean to say, "I don't believe you," it just slipped out, his mouth feeling pliant, loose. It wasn't said as a challenge, just a truth.
Coulson's smile was small, but strangely real, like Clint just saying what was on his mind pleased him. "Of course not, you've no reason to. And until I have a chance to prove it, you won't. We're both just going to have to be patient."
Clint frowned down at his cup, which was almost empty. "Why—no. I don't—I don't believe you would buy me for that."
Coulson tilted his head. "What's so special about you?"
Clint blinked. "I was...was marked as trouble at the Market. Fighter."
Coulson raised an eyebrow. "You don't think SHIELD can use aggressive personalities?"
It was a stupid question, which made Clint wary, because whatever else, Coulson wasn't stupid. "Maybe from the military. Not from Birds."
Coulson sighed. "There's not a good answer to your question. My instincts said you deserved better than the psychopaths who were going to bid on you. It said you'd be worth my while. I don't ignore my instincts. Every time I've done so it's been a poor life choice."
Clint wasn't sure how to react to that. Nobody had ever considered that Clint might have worth. Oh, maybe as a tool, the kind that if a person lost, they could just pick up at the next hardware store. But Coulson had said you'd, meaning Clint would be worth his while. It was a novel and disconcerting thought. "Maybe you just liked the way I looked?"
The strange thing was, Clint didn't think he would mind if that was what it was, if Coulson wanted to take him up on that. Coulson didn't seem like the type who enjoyed hurting his partners. He had a nice build and his eyes were often kind in a way that made Clint's chest ache. If it meant Clint could stay, could be worth it, it would probably be the best trade Clint had ever managed for himself.
Coulson's bark of laughter was amused, but also maybe a little offended. "I don't think with my dick, Hawk. Also, you're practically half my age."
Clint couldn't stop the doubtful expression that took over his face in time. Coulson laughed, "Well, maybe only a little over a decade younger."
Clint shrugged. Most owners did think with their dicks, at least some of the time. And Clint's status as younger than an owner, even criminally so, had never mattered before.
Coulson finished off his coffee. "Go to bed, the whiskey should help. There's something I want show you in the morning, and I'd like you to be rested."
Clint nodded after a moment and said, "Good night...sir," adding the title without any sarcasm or bite for the first time, unsure of how Coulson would react.
Coulson just gave a lazy salute and said, "Don't let the bedbugs bite."
Clint awoke before the beep of his alarm sounded. He stretched out inside his "cage" and closed his eyes, sinking even deeper into the padding. He couldn't remember the last time he'd woken up so warm and comfortable and feeling like he'd actually rested. He lay there, taking it in, until the alarm told him it was time to move.
He showered and dressed, drank the high-end orange juice Coulson liked, the kind that tasted as if they'd squeezed the oranges themselves, right there in the kitchen. He toasted one of the nine-grain bagels Coulson had left out, already cut in halves, covered it in cream cheese and a few of the tomato slices on a plate next to the toaster. Clint figured he'd probably had good food back when his mom was alive, but he couldn't remember it, and privately, he couldn't stop his intense wonder at how fucking delicious everything Coulson offered was. He spent a lot of meals torn between snarfing it all down before it could be taken away, trying to ferret some of it off in case he should be denied food in the future, or taking it slowly, savoring each bite.
When Coulson returned to the kitchen, put together in one of his tailored suits, he asked, "Coffee for the road?"
Clint hugged his plate to himself, even though he knew it was foolish, and nodded once. Unsurprisingly, Coulson added cream to Clint's. Clint had long since figured out that Coulson was doing anything he could to get Clint's weight up. At first Clint had wondered if he had a weight-fetish, but he was starting to realize it was more about his efficacy than his looks. Coulson also sprinkled in some cardamom, which Clint didn't understand at all, but found it tasted very good, so he was hard-pressed to mind.
They were both quiet on the drive in to SHIELD. Coulson played some Lionel Hampton softly, and Clint was uncomfortably aware of how easy it was to be around Coulson, how he sometimes forgot to be on his guard when it was just the two of them.
Once they had arrived, Coulson said, "We're taking a detour before we head up to the office."
Clint followed. He would have followed if Coulson hadn't explained. If there was one fact that was true in a Bird's life, it was that the devil you knew was safer than anything else. You could predict and counter a known danger. Coulson, devil or no, was definitely better than the unknown, at least once inside the fortress of SHIELD's HQ.
They went down to the weapons range where they'd tested him on everything from handguns to sniper rifles the week before. Clint was good with a gun, maybe the best, because he'd known the consequences for not being good, but they always felt like a cheater's weapon. If shooting was an art, guns were paint-by-the-numbers coloring books.
Clint expected they'd created something new, some hybrid technology they needed testers for. He was idly considering how he would rearrange targets to make them more challenging when Coulson said softly, "Hawk."
Clint swiveled around to look at him and saw that in his hands, he was holding out—Clint's breath caught. "Oh."
"We didn't have one on hand last week, when you were showing us what you could do. We had to order one, and that took calling out to people who knew what they were looking at, and then the weapons department wanted to put their special touches on it, so it took a while, but I'd like to see what happens, just you, the weapon and the range."
Clint couldn't help that his hands shook a little as he took the bow, the quiver of arrows Coulson held out shortly after passing over the weapon. It was beautiful, lighter than the one he'd been given at the circus, which had been an extra bought off a defunct circus. Clint had had to patch it together more than once just to have it work. Shooting straight had been a matter of survival, so Clint had, but he'd had to adjust for warped wood and other problems.
The bow fit in his hands as if he'd been measured for its design. He realized SHIELD might measured a plethora of his dimensions at his intake. When he tested the bow, the pull was maybe a fifty pound draw, but nowhere close to the sixty-five or so he'd had to struggle with at the circus. He'd have to adjust to the brilliance of the weapon.
He looked at Coulson, who made a shooing motion. "Go. Show me what you do."
Clint lost time in the draw-release of the bow. It was like meeting up with an old friend, like sinking into a perfect chair after a long day, like a million things Clint had heard about but never experienced. He hadn't allowed himself to think about how much he missed this.
Eventually, he ran out of arrows—and Coulson stopped replacing them, since Clint could tell he'd fired far more than were originally in the quiver—and forced himself to put the bow at his side. He didn't let go, though, he couldn't.
Softly, Coulson asked, "Think you'd be willing to shoot that for us?"
Clint bit his lip. He didn't particularly enjoy killing, the way it made him feel inside, and he couldn't imagine the weapon would change that much.
"Not like before," Coulson said.
Clint looked up and tilted his head in a silent question.
"We'll tell you who the marks are, let you see what they've done, consider your opinions. You're not going to be just the weapon, Hawk."
Clint tightened his fist around the bow and took in the idea that, evidently, he actually had a choice. He wasn't sure what the consequence of saying no would be, but he could say no. Finally, he nodded, just once, sharp and as sure as he had been since the age of seven, as sure as Clint imagined he could ever be.
Phil wasn't sure, but it felt like after the bow and Hawk's agreement to work for SHIELD, plus the cage-bed and his ability to actually get some sleep, things settled a bit. Phil wouldn't have called Hawk calm, but his body language suggested he was slightly less suspicious that one wrong move would end up with him being hung outside by his toes in the sub-zero weather they were experiencing.
Sometimes, evidently, if Phil left him with the weapons R&D team handling his bows, Hawk would speak up, pointing out problems with their theories of design. Phil wasn't sure if that was because Hawk didn't see the scientists as his owners, or if it was because he was actually coming into himself. He suspected the former, but hoped for the latter.
Their reading lessons were going well, too. There wasn't anything wrong with Hawk aside from a serious lack of education and a lifetime of being told he was stupid in one way or another. Phil had thought he might have to set up a system of rewards to get Hawk to work at literacy with any diligence, but as it turned out, Hawk had a drive to improve himself in that area and Phil's quiet statements of how quickly he was coming along caused Hawk to fight a smile, like he was hiding away the fact that being told he was good was something he enjoyed.
Then, just around the time Phil was going to see if maybe he could get Hawk to move his bedding between the cage and the bed, sleeping in the space on the floor between as a step to getting on the bed, Hill got the stomach flu, and, being the same a-type-personality workaholic they all were, came into work with it. In fairness, Phil imagined it didn't help that her wife was on long-term assignment, and their shared apartment was empty.
Hawk was filling out and all, but he was still easily ten or fifteen pounds under even the lowest acceptable weight for his height and build. He had just healed up from the worst of the weals and cuts he'd had from his last beating. Generally, he was not carrying around the strongest immune system in the world. Predictably, he caught it.
Less predictably, Phil was kind of distracted at the time by a mission of one of the teams under his purview that went balls-up pretty much from the moment it started and needed Phil to get into the situation and clean things up; preferably before an agent died. As such, Phil was in the outer regions of Somalia when Hawk first started coming down with the flu.
Phil hadn't wanted Hawk to be transferred to another handler, given that he was just making progress, so they'd moved his "bedroom" to Phil's office before he'd left, and Hawk had agreed to stay on the premises. When Phil returned, he spent the better part of twenty-four hours in debriefings, and when he saw Hawk it was just for a few moments here and there. He noticed the other man looked a little wan, but Phil pretty much figured he hadn't been feeding himself well enough or some other problem Phil'd have to fix up when he had the time. All things being equal, it wasn't an immediate issue.
Then he came back to an office that smelled of vomit and Hawk passed out on the floor next to a wastebasket, giving off so much heat Phil was almost convinced he'd raised the temperature in the room. Phil pinched the bridge of his nose and murmured, "Shit."
He grabbed the wastebasket and took it down the hall to the incinerator. He'd replace it later. Then he went back to his office and knelt next to Hawk. He said levelly, "Hawk."
It didn't get a reaction. Trying it more loudly didn't either. Phil sighed and squeezed one of Hawk's hands, bracing himself for a violent reaction. Instead, Hawk froze up, blinking, clearly unsure what was going on, where he was or how he'd gotten there. Then he caught sight of Phil. He tried to sit up, which ended with him hunched over, clearly struggling not to vomit again.
He didn't quite manage. Phil was going to have to get someone in to clean the carpets. Right now, though, the significant thing was that Hawk was freaking out, mumbling, "sorry, sir," and "please," and "I can work, I can," and, worst of all, "don't sell me, don't, I'll be good, I won't be sick."
Phil kept trying to quiet him, but Hawk didn't even seem to really realize he was there, outside of the panic his presence was causing. Phil had hoped to get him down to medical of his own accord, but after a minute or so of frantic begging, Phil commed medical and said, "My office, now."
Then he waited the two minutes it took them to make it, still trying, futilely, to get Hawk to calm down, rest.
Phil spent the better part of fifteen minutes getting reamed by Dr. Burgan, the head of their infectious disease treatment team. Burgan wasn't a big fan of the fact that SHIELD even bought Birds, and had put three of them through med school by sheer insistence in his ten year tenure. Phil let him yell, because evidently Hawk had been sick for a while already when Phil had returned and he hadn't noticed the fact that the guy was dangerously dehydrated and running a fever well beyond what was safe. The medics had actually had to lower his temperature the old-fashioned way, combining acetaminophen with cool cloths to key body points, then graduating up to ice packs.
Phil had watched from the sidelines, pretending like his heart wasn't beating at twice the speed it normally did. But Phil had never been particularly good at compartmentalizing when it came to the people he was in charge of. He could in the heat of a mission when he had to, but afterward, when he was a man, rather than a senior agent, well, then it bit deep into him, further than any bullet or knife had ever managed.
Worse, Hawk wasn't an agent. He wasn't someone who had the benefit of family and schooling and independence. He was Phil's responsibility, regardless of whether he wanted to be or not, and Phil hadn't even done a proper check in with him upon returning. Phil could make all the excuses he wanted about Hawk not speaking up, but of course he hadn't. It had gotten him sold, at least once. And whatever Hawk was, he wasn't intent on going back on the Market, Phil could read that much. Aside from which, Hawk didn't ask for anything beside a cage to sleep in, and that should have told Phil all he needed to know.
When the doctor seemed to have gotten his concern out of his system, Phil asked, softly, "Is he going to be all right?"
Burgan ran a hand over his face, pausing for a second before he nodded. "Yes. He needs to be on an IV drip for fluids, anti-nausea meds and nutrients for at least another 24 hours, and not to exert himself for another week, minimum, after that. He wasn't in great condition before this thing, I'm guessing he came down with it three or four days ago and has been doing his best to hide it. If he's not careful, he'll get it again, or something worse."
Phil nodded. "I'll take care of it."
Burgan growled, "Do that," and walked off. Phil couldn't help his smile. He knew for a fact the man had one of the best bedside manners in the business. It was just healthy people he couldn't stand.
Phil made his way to where Hawk was sleeping, about eight IVs hanging from the tower beside his bed, each tunneling into him at its own rate. Phil pulled up a chair from the corner of the curtained area and set it next to the bed. He closed the curtains off to outside viewers and stood by the bed for a few minutes. He knew he shouldn't touch Hawk when he wasn't awake, hadn't said or at least indicated that it was allowed.
Hawk looked about thirteen lying there, though, his hair a mess, cheeks still flushed with fever and a worried little pinch of skin over the bridge of his nose. They'd stripped him of his dirty clothes—they'd had to sedate him to get it done—and put him in a hospital gown for easy access. Phil could see scars, Clint's Bird number carved along the line of the right side of his collarbone. Phil reached out and carded his fingers gently through Hawk's hair, softly squeezed one too-sharp wrist.
Hawk didn't even stir. Phil grimaced and sat down. He'd brought work with him, work that needed to be done. For a moment, though, maybe a little more, he just sat there, watching Hawk breathe. Phil came to the realization—one, he thought, he should have had a while back—that he was going to have to be way more clear about what was going on in his mind in relation to Hawk, what was expected, and when he needed the other man to speak up.
He thought, maybe, though, that he would wait a while on that, spend a few days, or a week, or possibly even two, just spoiling the crap out of Hawk. He pulled up his tablet and wrote a note to Jacklyn in weapons development. She was the only person at SHIELD who could get Tony Stark to have a reasonable conversation with her. Phil sighed. He could only hope that one day Hawk would understand the lengths Phil was going to in order to make him learn to trust.
Clint woke to a steady, rhythmic beeping and a conversation being carried out in low tones. He kept his eyes shut, his breathing regulated, trying to remember where he was, what had happened. The talking was interfering with his ability to concentrate. His stomach hurt and his head felt cottony. His mouth tasted completely wrong and everything kind of ached, like he'd been on a roof too long, or was recovering too slowly from a beating.
He added up all the facts and it came to him, slowly, that he'd been sick. He'd been sick everywhere. He tried not to panic, but he could hear the beeping speeding up and the next thing he knew, Coulson was saying, "Hawk," in that calm tone he had, as if everything was fine, as if Clint weren't lying in a bed, using up money on medications, useless to them.
He was confused why they would even bother with the bed and the lines. Sick Birds were sold. If they didn't make it, the owner took a loss on the investment. Unless SHIELD thought they could actually make money off him healthy. All these thoughts were coming at him too quickly, the meds getting in the way of his mental processes, which he needed if he was going to survive, if he was going to keep himself safe.
He started talking, aware he was just mumbling, the dryness in his mouth making the words slur together, but unwilling to stop for a drink or anything. "I'll do it, I'll shoot, I'll be worth it, you won't have to sell me, I'll make you more money working. You—" Clint made himself keep his eyes open, told himself he hadn't believed what Coulson had told him anyway, hadn't believed he'd ever be free, "you don't have to give me a contract—"
A man came rushing in and pushed Coulson aside. Clint was pretty sure his heart was going to stop it was beating so fast, like someone who sprinted as far as they could and just collapsed. The man Coulson had been speaking to was watching with a strange expression on his face, and the new man—a doctor, Clint realized—was pushing something into the IV and Clint didn't know what it was, but drugs and Birds were never a good combination. He appealed to Coulson, "No, please, please," but then his eyes got heavy and he could not keep them open. He whimpered, "Please," and then was dragged down into the black.
When Dr. Burgan had torn Phil a third asshole to match his new second one and stomped off, Stark said, "This is exactly why Stark Industries has a no-Bird policy."
Normally, Phil wasn't one to let Stark get to him, because Stark was mostly just too much intelligence plus too many daddy issues packed into one all-too-human frame, and Phil could handle him. But Hawk's panic had him off his game, so he snapped back, "Because leaving them to their fate is so much kinder."
Stark blinked, quickly, and Phil knew it was more at the fact that he'd even acknowledged Stark's baiting, than the actual response. He fully expected Stark to come up with some long, rambling, but somehow well-articulated response about how not feeding into the Market killed it more quickly. Instead, he glanced at Hawk, whose breathing had still not evened out entirely, and asked, "So, medieval weaponry, huh?"
"It's the one thing I've found that calms him down." If Phil didn't count being locked in a cage, which he didn't.
"Yeah, because having a guy who's a wiz at shooting, no matter what the weapon, isn't something that SHIELD gets their jollies off of at all."
Phil was tired. He couldn't remember the last time he'd caught more than thirty minutes of sleep, nor the last time he'd been horizontal. He'd spent most of the last week trying to make sure nobody on his team was killed, only to return to a charge three-fourths dead and panicked that said state-of-being made him less valuable. He was really, really not in the mood to deal with Stark.
He said, "Believe what you want. Either you'll help, because it will mean something to him, give him something to wake up to, or you won't, because you dislike us enough to be petty. One way or another, I'll find a way to take care of him when he's cognizant. I honestly don't care whether you're enough of an adult to help out with that or not."
Stark tilted his head just slightly. "Huh."
"Stark," Phil warned, because SHIELD policy was not to use any physical combat skills on civilians who hadn't attacked or otherwise caused an altercation, but he was pretty sure the Director would back him up if he accidentally broke Tony Stark's face.
Stark put up both hands, managing to somehow be placating, which wasn't something Phil was used to from the other man. It gave him pause. Stark said, "You...this isn't some government agent thing. You care."
For some reason, the quiet confusion in Stark's tone just made Phil even more pissed. He made himself count to ten. "He's human. He may not have been treated like one, but that doesn't change anything."
"I know," Stark said quietly, more quiet than Phil had ever heard him.
It was Phil's turn to wait, to sit back and hear what Stark had to say. After a moment, Stark said, "Stark Industries doesn't buy Birds now, but, when the policy was first enacted, and Ob—Stane ran the company?"
Stark paused and Phil nodded. Stark said, "When I was a kid I didn't even know. They were convicts then, actual convicts and you bet they were kept as far away from me as possible. Pretty sure even Jarvis the first was in on that.
"But then they were others, wards of the state, students who couldn't pay off debts, all kinds of people, cheap labor, and he bought an—an assistant, to help around the office." Stark sounded far away, almost childlike.
Phil thought about Stark's wife, his CEO, pretty and delicate and alone in the world. "Ms. Potts."
"Mrs. Stark," Stark said, even though Phil well knew they were still having that argument. Then Stark smiled a little ruefully. "Stark-Potts."
"She might go for it if you'd hyphenate too," Phil said mildly.
"I offered." Stark frowned. "She said she'd think about it." Then, as if he realized he'd been steered off course, "They were everywhere in Afghanistan. Birds that had been bought off American markets, their nascent or full-blown hatred used to foment a desire for killing." Stark's laughter was bitter. "They weren't even treated all that much better."
Stark swallowed. "I got back and I bought her papers off the company, had emancipation contracts drawn up. I couldn't stand the thought of—she was more human than anyone I'd ever known, so much more. And I didn't know how to guarantee that others wouldn't be taken advantage of within the company.
"She still has nightmares about—from when she was first hired. I couldn't risk it." Stark was looking away from Phil, as though admitting to giving a second thought to anything might make him somehow less in Phil's estimation.
Gently, Phil said, "So, medieval weaponry?"
Stark's smile took a while, but when it came he said, "I do like a challenge."
The second time Clint woke up—or maybe the third, he had vague memories of sucking on a straw, a cool cloth being applied to his face, but that was probably a hallucination—Coulson was sleeping. He had pulled a chair close enough to the bed to rest his head if he leaned forward, which was evidently what had happened. Everything inside Clint clenched with uncertainty. He needed to get out of this bed.
He had no idea how long he'd been here, or if Coulson had stayed with him, or if he had why he'd done so. The logical reason was to make sure Clint didn't run, except Clint didn't think he could have made it very far, if he'd even managed to get in the vents. Given how he was feeling, that was a big if.
He was feeling better. He glanced over at the IV stand and noticed he still had quite a few things being funneled into him, but whatever they'd given him before it hadn't been bad. Clint turned that thought over in his mind a few times.
His mouth was dry and there was a cup of water at his bedside, a straw sticking out from it. He couldn't be certain it was for him, though, and not Coulson, and he was pretty sure trying to reach it would wake Coulson up. Clint wasn't ready for that. Coulson looked like he needed the rest. His skin was getting that papery appearance that heralded utter and complete exhaustion.
Clint tried to force himself to relax. He'd spent so long making certain he wouldn't do so, wouldn't lose his edge, that it was nearly impossible now. And he could feel the bed underneath him, every cell in his body screaming not allowed, not allowed. But he didn't think he could get out without waking Coulson, either. He wasn't sure what to do. He needed more rest to handle whatever punishment would be doled out for his illness. Coulson had said they wouldn't sell him, Clint remembered, Clint had listened to him say it over and over again, even if he hadn't been able to stop himself from begging. That had been the sickness speaking, though. He wouldn't beg now. He would take whatever he was given, so long as he could stay.
He wondered if maybe Coulson would take away his bedspace or have him beaten, or maybe both. Neither possibility held much appeal, but Clint would heal from a beating and he could always make a small space between the bed and the wall, see if that helped him sleep. The floor had a rug on it and was in a warm room. It wouldn't even make the top ten list of crappy places he'd had to find rest.
His worry, really, was about just how smart Coulson was, how perceptive. Clint couldn't discount the chance that Coulson would find some much more insidious way to punish him. Even if that did happen, though, Clint was pretty sure it was better than being back on the Block. There wouldn't be another out, he knew. Next time he went up, it would be to someone who wanted to kill him, slowly, soul first. Clint didn't know how much fight he'd have left to resist.
Clint looked again at the cup of water at the bedside and decided that it probably wouldn't make whatever punishment was coming that much worse if the cup wasn't meant for him. And at least he wouldn't be thirsty when it started. He did his best to reach over without shifting, so as not to wake Coulson, but it was in vain, because no sooner had Clint's fingers come in contact with the cup did Coulson's eyes flash open.
Clint froze and for a second, it seemed as if Coulson wasn't entirely sure of what was going on. Then he sat up and said, "You're awake." His gaze strayed to Clint's hand, and he intercepted, picking up the cup. Clint had known better than to hope. But then Coulson just raised it, placing it so the straw hit Clint's lips and said, "You need to drink as much as you can. Go slow."
Clint was starting to think he had actually died and some point and just...missed it. In his experience, life didn't work like this, wasn't this easy. The water was cool, but not cold, and Coulson didn't pull away until Clint did, having taken as much as he could manage. He tried to stay sitting, but found himself falling back against the pillows. Coulson stood and came up to him and Clint did his best not to flinch. But all Coulson did was shift him up a little so that he could fluff the pillows and settle Clint more comfortably.
Coulson said while straightening out Clint's covers and seemingly tucking him in, "They won't let me take you home until your fever drops to at least 100. They've been sedating you. You think you can still sleep? If not, we'll figure something out."
Normally, it might have been a problem, especially with a mattress underneath him, but the lingering illness and medications were catching up. Clint wasn't sure he could keep himself awake if his life depended on it. Now that it was evident his life wasn't depending on his wakefulness, at least not for the moment, Clint nodded, his eyes already drooping. He made himself stay away to ask, "When...punishment?"
"What punishment, Hawk?" Coulson asked quietly.
"Made mess," Clint was too tired to think in whole sentences, or enunciate. It was kind of unfair that Coulson was making him, but then, he'd been on the receiving end of a number of unfair things in his life. He was too tired to be mad about it. "Sick."
"There's no punishment for being human, Hawk."
Clint made himself open his eyes, pay attention to the look on Coulson's face. It was placid, like usual, but there was a twist at one edge of his mouth that made Clint wonder what he was really thinking.
"Bird," Clint said, because it seemed like Coulson had forgotten and Clint didn't want to awake to him having remembered.
Coulson gave a little shake of his head, which made no sense, because Clint had just stated a fact. Coulson said, "Sleep, Hawk. It will be okay, you'll see. For what it's worth, I promise you that."
Clint had never met a promise he hadn't seen broken later, but the stupid little boy in him, the one who had dreamed of being bought by a family who just wanted someone to help out with the chores and might let him have a bed and eat at their table, that little boy still wanted to trust so badly. Clint shoved him down and said, "Okay," because it was easier to just agree with owners.
Coulson sighed. "Just rest. We'll talk more when you wake up."
That Clint believed. He let his eyes drop all the way, and gave into the pull of sickness and drug-induced exhaustion.
Clint weaved in and out of consciousness for a few days. He fell into a pattern of having a nightmare, being given sedatives, rising out from under the drugs, eating a little something, and falling back asleep, often to another nightmare but occasionally just into darkness. Eventually, he woke up long enough to get a meal of Jell-o, toast and water down and keep it there. He was feeling a bit more sturdy.
Coulson said, "Give me a few hours and we'll get you out of here."
The way he said it made it clear that it was meant to be reassuring, but so far this place had proven safe both when he'd been poked at intake and over the time he'd been sick, even if he had been kept in a bed. True, Coulson's home had also been safe, but Clint couldn't make himself believe that the past defined the future, at least not when it came to good things. Ironically, experience had taught him better.
Coulson came back in under two hours and wrapped Clint up in so many layers he wasn't entirely positive he could move. Coulson asked, "You think you can make it to the car on your own, or do you need help?"
Clint had no desire to find out what "help" meant in this instance, so he said, "I'll be fine, sir."
"Take it slowly," was all Coulson said.
Clint did, but mostly because he knew anything else would end with him face down on the floor. He was vastly improved, but his legs were weak from the time spent in bed, his entire body feeling the lack of solid foods over the few days he'd been on nothing but IVs, and the world around him wobbled for a few seconds when he got himself to his feet. He took a breath, then another, then made his way slowly behind Coulson, who was clearly measuring his steps so Clint could keep up.
Getting to the car seemed to take forever. He all but fell into the passenger's seat and was asleep before Coulson even started the engine. He startled awake when the car stopped. Coulson said, "Breathe," and Clint did, because somewhere along the line it had become instinct to follow orders, no matter how hard he fought it. When the worst of the disorientation had passed, Coulson said, "We're home."
Clint thought he should argue that they were at Coulson's home, but thoughts of being in his bedspace, of the spot in front of the couch with the plush carpeting and a heating vent so very near, of Coulson's fresh-baked bran raisin muffins and banana-vanilla smoothies made Clint think protesting would be disingenuous. Whatever else Clint tried to be honest, if only to himself. He would get mad at himself for being stupid, for allowing himself to get used to something so clearly temporary later. Right now, he was too tired.
Coulson ushered him inside and into the elevator. Once inside Coulson's apartment, Coulson helped to unwrap the layers he'd carefully placed on Clint. For a moment, Clint wondered if he would go further, take everything, if nakedness was part of the punishment, or if Coulson was just into sickly as part of his sexual preferences.
Coulson, though, stopped at where Clint was wearing sweats. He asked, "Wanna take a bath?"
Clint was torn. On the one hand, he was exhausted and he could crawl back into his bedspace after so, so long. On the other, he'd been sponge bathed a bit in medical, but he was scuzzy from days on end without a real shower and it would feel fantastic to wash away the dried fever sweat and the smell of antiseptics. After a moment, he nodded and began to drag himself toward the bathroom.
Coulson walked ahead of him and began running the water. He said over his shoulder, "You'll have to tell me if the temperature is right."
He made Clint dip in a toe before slipping out of the room and closing the door behind himself. Clint worked at getting out of the sweats and into the tub, which was blissfully hot. He put himself to work scrubbing his hair and body before he lost the fight he was putting up to stay awake.
He almost fell getting out of the tub. He blinked at the sink counter where Coulson had evidently put a pair of Clint's pajamas at some point before running the bath. Clint had to wonder if Coulson had put them there before they'd even returned, had prepared this place for Clint to come back. It was a strange thought, both unnerving and somehow...warming. Clint shied away from it, too tired to think it through.
He dragged himself to his room and crawled inside his bedspace. He locked the door, curled up in the—freshly laundered, which meant Coulson had come back and prepared for Clint at some point—bedding, and couldn't help a hum of contentment. Even if it was only until he woke, even considering that he still felt like someone had wrung him out like a damp dishtowel, life was more perfect than it had been in a long time. He was filing this moment, where he was clean and warm and comfortable, tired and allowed to sleep, into the spot in his mind that nobody could have, the place nobody had ever reached.
Then he closed his eyes. That was all it took to sleep.
Phil had to go into the office, but he had no plans to wake Hawk, so instead he left copious instructions, copied five times and placed around the apartment so as to make them impossible to miss. They read:
Good morning. I want you to eat the banana-granola parfait on the top refrigerator shelf, and drink two glasses of water. Take it slow, if you can't finish, don't worry about it. Rest afterward, and keep warm. Turn the heat up if you need. The remotes to the TV and the stereo system are on top of each, respectively.
When you start to get hungry again, there's red lentil soup in the container on the second shelf. Heat it up and drink more water. Sleep as much as you can.
See you in the evening, C.
When first dealing with Birds, Coulson was often glad for his military background, which made giving basic commands feel less like an abuse of power and more like an assertion of higher rank. This was especially helpful with Hawk, who clearly wanted to assert independence, and just as clearly had been conditioned into not doing so. It was another aspect of Hawk on the list of "things they were going to have to work on." Obedience was a good thing in a sniper, but initiative was too. Hawk had the ability to have a fantastic mix of both, Coulson could tell, it was just a matter of...reverse brainwashing, for lack of a better way to describe the process.
He shoved Hawk out of his mind in order to work through the day, but he left at six-thirty, which was earlier than he had made it out of the building in years. He'd forgotten how much traffic there was at that time, but he multi-tasked by calling one of their consultants on the west coast and catching up on a project he was technically in charge of overseeing. He had long since found that leaving the highly technical stuff to the people they hired and just checking in now and again was much less likely to end in messiness and tears.
He ended the conversation just as he was pulling into his deeded parking space. He took the stairs because he'd been sitting more than half the day and had energy that needed to be released. He missed his sparring sessions. He'd have to resume those sometime soon, and perhaps get Hawk started on basic hand-to-hand.
He unlocked and opened his door as quietly as possible—which was pretty damn quiet, Phil had made sure of it—and walked in to find Hawk curled up on the floor in front of the couch, at least two, possibly three, blankets curled over and around him, the TV on softly and tuned to the Nature Channel. It was a program about lions.
Phil was pretty sure Hawk was three-fourths asleep, so he was silent going to his room to change and making his way into the kitchen to make some dinner. He still wasn't sure how well Hawk's stomach was really doing, so he put together a simple chicken and rice dish, made savory with wild mushrooms and a little bit of cooking wine, but nothing too intense.
When he was finished he set the table, trying to make just enough noise to wake Hawk without startling him. After a moment, Hawk's head appeared over the back of the couch. He was blinking. "When did you—"
He shook his head. Phil said, "About an hour ago. Hungry enough for dinner?"
Hawk's gaze strayed to where the food was on the table and admitted, "More than."
"Come on," Phil said. They each filled their plate, but unlike usual, when Phil sat down, and Hawk remained standing, his plate hugged to his chest, Phil said, "I've got an idea."
He grabbed his keys and went down to the storage unit on the basement floor that came with the apartment. In it, he found the breakfast trays his mom had given him one year in the vague, frankly strange hope that the ability to make someone breakfast in bed would garner him a life partner. Phil wasn't even sure why he'd kept them, but he had.
He pulled them out and carried them back to the apartment, where he scrubbed them with Lysol twice, and then set them on out the floor next to the kitchen table. He grabbed some pillows from the couch and put one by each of the trays.
Then he took his place setting, sat down on one of the pillows and began to eat off his tray. After a moment he looked over at Hawk and made his best mildly-curious face. "Coming?"
Slowly, Hawk took his plate and joined Coulson on the floor, using the second tray to eat off of. A few bites in he broke the silence between them, saying, "Thanks. For, um."
He didn't follow it up though, just shaking his head a bit. Coulson, although he felt basic human decency was nothing to be thanked for, said quietly, "You're welcome."
Phil implemented his plan to start Hawk learning fighting and defensive techniques as soon as Hawk could walk straight and didn't have trouble keeping down Raisin Bran and milk in the mornings. In their hour-long sessions once a day, augmented by creating a lifting and toning routine for Hawk, Phil learned more about the man than he had in the two or so months Hawk had now lived with him.
He wasn't surprised to find that Hawk's strengths lay in deflection and evasion. That had been obvious from their tussle that first night, when he'd pulled Hawk from the vent. Hawk clearly had some training, enough to get him out of rough situations, not enough to allow him to become "uppity." Nor was it shocking that Hawk caught on quickly to just about everything thrown at him, having an ease with his body very few professionally trained soldiers ever managed. What was surprising was just how inventive he could be when on the offensive, how well he mixed things up, changed them instinctually to serve his needs.
It was a little like the ability to fight up close and personal—even if it was clear Hawk had a minor, silent nervous breakdown every time he managed to get a hit in, requiring Phil to take a moment, tell him to get a drink of water—shook something loose inside Hawk, if only unintentionally. Three weeks after they began training, they made it home late, almost morning really, due to a clusterfuck of an op Phil had been consulting on. Late nights weren't unusual, but generally they both kind of just collapsed after them.
Phil was unusually wired after this one, though. It could have been that with Hawk, on top of everything, he had been going on even less sleep than normal, or just that occasionally, Phil hit a wall of stress that caused jitters. Hawk changed into his pajamas when they got home, but watched Phil's almost aimless rounds of the apartment—pretending to straighten, but things weren't really out of place—and asked, "Would you teach me how to make macaroni and cheese?"
Phil blinked at the request and Hawk started to say, "Nevermi—"
"Why mac and cheese?" Phil hadn't actually meant to ask, he'd meant to just say yes, because, for fuck's sake, it was the first time Hawk had really asked for anything. He didn't take it back, though. He wanted to know. Phil had made all sorts of foods since Hawk had arrived, trying to ferret out what he liked and what he ate because after a lifetime of privation regular food was appreciated no matter what. Phil knew Hawk liked foods that he could package away for later, thinking nobody noticed, but that was pure comfort, not taste.
Hawk closed off for a moment, even more than his general defensiveness, and Phil expected to be told where he could shove his curiosity, but Hawk took a breath and said, "It was the one meal in the circus that there was always extra of, like they couldn't figure out the measurements or something. If they were making mac and cheese, Birds got to eat, no questions."
Phil nodded. "All right. Well, there's a version that's four cheeses, or one that's kind of spicy. Preference?"
"Four cheeses," Hawk said.
"We need to make an ingredients run."
There was a 24-hour corner store a few blocks down from Phil's place. They made their way there, and Phil showed Hawk the ingredients they needed, teaching him how to pick onions, types of cheeses, what was the difference between types of breadcrumbs. On the walk back, Phil said, "Potato soup is my go-to comfort food."
Hawk eyed him sideways, like he was curious, but Phil knew he wasn't going to take the extra step and ask, not just yet. The show of curiosity was a step in and of itself. Phil rewarded it with, "When I was in the Rangers, let's just say Army food often leaves a lot to be desired."
Hawk cracked something that might have been a smile, or would be when it grew up. Phil allowed a quirk of his lips in response. "There was this guy in my unit out of North Dakota. He'd wanted to go to culinary school but his family could barely afford socks, let alone a trade school. So he signed up and it turned out he was pretty good at the military thing, too. But whenever he got the chance, he'd take over the mess and make us a meal that was worthy of the name. One year, we're in northern Europe in the dead of winter and it's colder than anything most of us have ever felt, and Chicago's not precisely tropical.
"Jordan, the cook, somehow manages to pull together the ingredients for loaded baked potato soup, and I'm not lying when I say it was the best thing I'd ever tasted in my life. After that," Phil shrugged, "it just became my go-to when I needed something warm and…real, I suppose."
They were back at the apartment by the time he finished the retelling, and he gave Hawk simple orders to collect the bowls and pans they would need. He took him through the process step by step, talking about the options of spices, what ingredients caused what tastes, just talking. He wasn't usually much of a talker, feeling like silence was generally every bit as effective in conveying certain things, but it was helping him calm down, and Hawk seemed to be listening, both of which were important at this moment. It occurred to Phil it might be the fact that Hawk was listening which was calming him, but he filed the thought away for later consideration.
The sun was almost coming up by the time Coulson pulled the final product from the oven. They'd have to be back in a matter of hours. He handed the serving spoon to Hawk and said, "You do the honors."
Hawk took the spoon and served up a spoonful to each plate sitting next to the stove. Phil raised an eyebrow. "That's all you want? You did all that work for that?"
Hawk laughed. It was a short, bitten off sound, and he looked away as he did it, but it was a laugh. He scooped up enough to cover his whole plate, then held the spoon out to Phil. Phil took it.
Clint might have been illiterate—although, under Coulson's tutelage that was changing—and a Bird, but that didn't make him completely uninformed. He knew who Tony Stark was. Granted, this was mostly because Stark's change of heart after being held captive in Afghanistan had pissed Clint's former owner off something fierce. Clint had been "brought up" as an assassin on Stark weaponry, since it was the premiere type.
Of course, there'd been plenty already on the market, so Clint hadn't had to switch over all that quickly. He hadn't cared when he had needed to. A gun was a gun was a gun.
When Coulson took Clint down to the range, introduced Stark and asked the man, "You come up with anything?" Stark lifted an eyebrow in silent condescension and Clint fought the instinct to step in front of Coulson, speak up for him.
There was a name for beginning to sympathize with one's captors. It wasn't talked about much anymore, because Birds were just supposed to, no questions asked, but Clint had heard about it once, when an abolitionist tightrope walker had been hired by the circus out of desperation. She hadn't lasted long, but she'd talked to Clint like he was human and stolen food for him, so Clint had listened to her. He knew what he was feeling was wrong, a symptom of being mistreated for so long, but he also wasn't sure how to feel any other way.
Stark said, "I had to do some catching up for this sort of apparatus. You realize there are easier ways of getting a shot, right?"
Clint waited for Coulson to respond for a while before realizing Stark was speaking to him. He was confused. What was easier to a guy who'd grown up inventing weapons than a gun? Clint didn't agree, but that wasn't the point. Stark didn't need him to. Clint, feeling the panic of his reaction to Coulson pressing in on him, answered by way of mild argument. "Your company has made over three hundred species of guns since its inception, even discounting progressive models. The last run of Stark Industries' weapon division churned out seven million ballistic weapons. If there's something easier, maybe you should have invented it while you were still in the business."
Stark blinked. "I was referring to guns. You're right, I'm not in that business anymore, so if that's what you want, you're gonna have to find some other genius who's really no match for me, sorry."
Clint just stared for a moment, and Coulson said, "Stark, show him."
"Yeah, yeah. Bossy," Stark said, but he went over to a case sitting on one of the armory tables in the range and pulled out a series of pieces that weren't particularly identifiable until Stark assembled them. Then Clint found himself clasping his hands behind his back so he wouldn't reach out, take the object Stark was holding.
Stark rolled his eyes. "You might as well try it out. Nobody else I can think of would be interested, and you're the only expert I know, so until you tell me what you think, it's of no use."
Clint took a breath and forced his hand not to shake as he reached out to take the bow. It was beautiful. It was all sleek lines and a grip that fit somehow perfectly to his hand. In fact, it was as if Stark had had all his measurements, which made Clint suspect SHIELD had turned them over. What was more, the string had settings for different amounts of force needed, the use of arrows with varying circumference ratios.
Clint fiddled around with it for a moment or two, picking the setting that most closely mimicked a classic recurve and heading to where he usually picked up his arrows.
Stark said, "Ah ah ah," and opened up a second case.
If Clint had been any less well-versed at hiding his reactions, he would have cried. The variety of arrows on offer was frankly mindblowing, many of them formed out of a transparent material which meant they would be even more impossible to see coming. Clint took a bit to work his way through them, figuring out the types of heads, the alterations to the fletching, the weight of each of the arrows.
Once again, he chose one closest to a traditional arrow and loaded ten into his quiver. Then he programmed the range to run its most complicated targeting exercise.
He drew when it started and twelve seconds later, he was finished. Three seconds better than his previous record. He thought he could get it down once he was more used to the equipment.
He reprogrammed the bow for greater distance and went to try arrows that had explosive capabilities, making them more heavy. When he finished the run in thirteen seconds, Stark said, "What you really need is a better challenge."
Clint managed not to hug the bow to himself. He didn't manage to keep his grin hidden safely away.
Four months into having been bought by SHIELD, Clint had some seriously bitching toys to play with, regular meals and was starting to feel an ease with Coulson that was utterly, completely terrifying. He was trying not to allow himself to get used to it. It was hard though, when he'd stopped feeling hungry every hour of the day and had managed to start sleeping between the bed and his sleep-space. Coulson and a few others had trained him to defend himself and do it well. SHIELD had entrusted him with missions, letting him in on all the details, or at least all the ones that mattered to him. They had made the reach of his implant clear to him and had changed it immediately if he felt it necessary to move locations.
Four months and sixteen days in, Coulson looked over his desk at Clint and asked, "What are your feelings on stim traders?"
Stim traders were a bit like the cocaine kingpins of the eighties and nineties, but their products were used almost wholly on Birds. There was not actually much that was illegal to do to a Bird but using stims on one fell into that category. Different types caused different reactions, but they were almost all fatal, and usually in a way that caused agony or insanity first.
Clint looked up from the I Can Read book he was working his way through. He'd advanced from the 2-5 year old category up to the 6 – 9 year old, and while the stories weren't exactly fascinating, they were at least getting more complex. He had to admit to liking Amelia Bedelia. He blinked. "They're criminals?"
Coulson raised his eyebrow at Clint the way he did whenever he was calling bullshit on Clint's evasion techniques. "That's it?"
Clint pushed away the uncomfortable way he felt a little heated whenever Coulson got all competent-and-oh-so-professional-SHEILD-senior-agent; which was, really, most of the time. He shrugged. "Why does it matter?"
Coulson went back to his work and spoke like his next words weren’t momentous. "Because I want to assign you to take out the organizational structure of one of the larger conglomerates, but I'm pretty sure I need you actually on board to get the job done the way I want it done."
Clint took his time answering. "That's…a significant assignment for someone you aren't entirely sure you can trust."
Coulson looked up. "It would be if I were assigning it to someone I didn't trust."
Clint shied away from the significance of that. It felt dangerous, even moreso than Clint's slow descent into a wary sort of comfort. "How would the op work?"
"You'd be spending a lot of time on rooftops," Coulson admitted.
"And if I get caught?" Clint asked.
Coulson's eyes narrowed. "You're SHIELD property."
Clint put on his best get-real expression. "Because that wouldn't cause an international incident."
"We have ways, Clint. We don't just abandon our agents."
It was all Clint could do to keep himself where he was seated, not try and punch Coulson. He wouldn't manage, he knew—for all the lessons in hand to hand, he was nowhere near as proficient as the other man just yet—but the satisfaction of trying, for a few minutes, might be worth it. Clint was pissed, but he wasn't actively stupid, so he settled for saying, "I'm not an agent, sir."
Clint had worked long and hard on making "sir" a byword for "fuck you and the horse you rode in on" when he wanted to. Coulson clearly appreciated the implication if the look on his face was any indication.
"So far as I'm concerned, you are," Coulson said, like that was all that mattered.
"And your boss?" Clint bit out.
"Left you to my discretion. So I suppose he deserves what he gets, wouldn't you say?"
Clint stared for a moment. "You're batshit."
Coulson said, "Perhaps, but it makes life interesting." Then, "Stim trade ring. You in?"
The problem was, Clint really, really was in. Way, way too deep.
The first three assignments within the overall plan went decently well. It wasn't that Clint hadn't run into problems, or that Coulson hadn't had to change tactics at the last moment, but they'd worked smoothly as a team, and Coulson always taught Clint to make some kind of comfort food afterward. Clint was now in possession of four recipes he could competently make given the right ingredients. It was strangely empowering.
Clint knew not to count on it continuing, but he had made the decision to take the moment for himself. Even if SHIELD sold him when he'd helped them to eradicate this stim ring, he'd be well-fed, well-rested, literate, and have better hand-to-hand combat skills. Not to mention, no average owner was going to use the kinds of implants SHIELD did. He'd be well poised to actually escape by that point.
Then, because this was Clint's life, and he should have known, he should have fucking known, then the stim traders got smart. The op was set to be a long-term one, spread out and planned so that it would seem like the ring had an infiltrator, which would set them on each other. Clint had to use guns and once or twice would have to get in close, but it kept SHIELD off the radar.
Except that evidently stim traders, at least these ones, talked to each other more than anyone had counted on, because when Clint went to handle the fourth target, he instead found himself in a well-laid trap. He had a moment to consider that he was writing up the gigantic, gaping hole in intel, which was supposed to be SHIELD's area of expertise, and complaining about Dryerson, the agent who was feeding them their info. His competency needed questioning. They were onto him already, though, so he had just enough time to say, "Calling it, sir," before the first bullet hit his thigh, and another goon was on him, grinding his boot into the wound. Clint didn't scream—he'd been well-trained out of that—but he couldn't help losing consciousness, no matter how hard he tried to hold on.
When Clint woke up, his shoes were missing, his feet resting against a cement ground that felt dangerously cold given that he'd been stripped of all outer-wear, left with just his pants and undershirt. He was lashed to the chair with a truly impressive amount of rope, some of it—quite purposely, Clint was sure—wrapped directly over the bullet wound. He looked down to find the wound already forming a yellow crust on the outside. He had been unconscious too long. Also, he wouldn't be surprised if the bullet was cased in some kind of stim-variant. Either that, or the boot that had been ground into the wound was filthy. Maybe both.
He was thirsty, but he was pretty sure that was mostly just from blood loss. As Clint saw it, he had two problems: 1) he needed to get himself out of this situation, because no matter what Coulson said, there was no way SHIELD was going to lay claim to a caught Bird, and 2) figure out where the range on his implant was so he didn't accidentally lobotomize himself. They'd evidently cast it pretty wide, since they most likely didn't know where he was being held and he wasn't currently paralyzed, but he wasn't stupid enough to believe they'd disarmed it.
Both of these objectives were, admittedly, not going to be easy, but Clint decided he'd been through worse. At least he was mostly fully-clothed, and only had one serious injury. He could roll with that.
He became a little more pessimistic when he couldn't manage to get either of his hands far enough through the ropes to dislocate a thumb and work them free. Trying with his good leg had garnered nothing, and attempting with his bad leg had ended with him vomiting bile on himself because he didn't have the range to lean over.
His captors sent in a guy at some point. The guy considered Clint and said, "Bird, right?"
Clint just glared. The guy shrugged. "I mean, I figure it's possible you've got no loyalty to your owners. This would be a lot easier if you just gave me what I wanted."
And it would be, Clint knew, it really would. He considered the offer, because really, why should he protect SHIELD? But when he opened his mouth to spill what he knew, he found himself incapable of speaking. It was as if he could feel the softness of his bedding, taste home-cooked meals and hear the easy silence in those hours when he worked at reading silly, fun books and Coulson actually worked. In the end, he agreed. "It would."
He said no more. The guy nodded, and slowly beat Clint into a broken, winded mess, asking questions at times when he figured Clint might give them up. Clint didn't want to be hurt or die or any of the options facing him just then, but trusting stim traders to do well by him was just fucking moronic. Either SHIELD would come for him or they wouldn't. Clint was coughing blood by the time the interrogator left, woozy from all the blood loss in his leg and willing to admit he didn't have much of a chance of escape. He supposed this way at least he didn't have to live through the inevitable moment when Coulson decided he wasn’t worth it anymore. The thought was more comforting than Clint wanted it to be. But he wasn't an idiot. It was moments like this when a person had to take any comfort available to him. Clint closed his eyes, and held onto the thought with all the emotional strength he could muster.
The one thing that seriously worried Clint was that if the traders decided he definitely was not going to talk and they still wanted to have some fun with him, they could obviously slip him a little bit of stim and watch him go batshit insane until he did crap like tearing out his own eyes. He hoped pretty seriously they didn't have a flair for the dramatic and would just go the bullet-to-the-brain route when they figured out he was useless for their purposes. Clint was aware the odds of him getting what he wanted were and always had been stacked against him.
His thought processes were getting a little fuzzy, and the temperature in the room seemed to be dropping. His leg hurt like blazing, hellish agony, so he was pretty sure the previous two issues were infection-related. He didn't look down at his leg. He didn't want to see the angry red lines spidering out from it, the way he had last time he'd glanced. He was fairly confident he'd bleed out before any infection progressed too much, so, small favors.
When the interrogator returned there was another man with him, muscle, if Clint had to guess. Turned out he was right, which he found out fairly quickly. They didn't even move him out of the chair, just tipped him until he was on his back, the bars of the chair digging into bruises. They didn't waste time with preliminaries, forcing his jaw open and placing a soaked sponge between his teeth, covering his face—nose—with a wet cloth.
Clint started counting. He'd never experienced this before, exactly, but he'd had hands around his throat, severely broken ribs, other things that made breathing hard if not impossible. He told himself this was no different. (It was different.) And when he almost begged after the sixth round, almost spilled everything he knew, he asked himself if he wanted his last act in life to be betraying the one person in all of it who'd shown him any decency. He was kind of disappointed to find the answer was no. He went back to counting.
It took less than two seconds to realize something had gone seriously wrong on Hawk's end of the mission, given that he called it and then lost radio connection. It took another sixty-three hours to find him. Phil had a strike team assembled and a plan laid out less than two hours later, and they went in hot.
If he was honest with himself, Phil didn't expect to find Hawk alive. So despite the fact that when he found him, Hawk was unconscious, burning with fever, attempting to curl up against his bindings in a way that suggested broken ribs and possible internal injuries, and smelled of rotting flesh, the fact that he was still alive was enough to make Phil smile for a second, before he commed to get a team in there so they could evac Hawk as quickly as possible to the nearest SHIELD-equipped medical facility.
In the meantime, Phil went to work carefully cutting the bindings in places likely to actually free Hawk, and less likely than others to cut him. When the first configuration of rope snapped free from Hawk's chest, he startled into consciousness, his expression terrified. Phil made himself speak calmly, in low tones. "It's all right, I'm getting you free."
The confusion that stole over Hawk's features made Phil a little sick to his stomach, but not nearly so much as the words that came out of Hawk's mouth, his voice cracked and torn. "Di'n't t'll."
Phil nodded. It was nothing they didn't know. After two days when there had been no evidence that the traders knew anything of their existence, after Dryerson was able to be recalled unscathed—if seconds away from being fired—it was pretty clear Hawk hadn't spilled anything. "Okay."
Hawk blinked several times, like he was struggling to stay focused. "M'ke—m-make 't quick?"
Phil frowned, still working on getting the ropes free from Hawk's legs without making the bullet wound worse than it already was. It was where the putrefaction smell was originating, and Phil wasn't one hundred percent sure they would be able to save the leg. SHIELD had pretty advanced prosthetic technology, but not having to amputate was always preferable. That said, if the sepsis hadn't spread far enough that Hawk wouldn't be able to survive period, Phil would thank every available deity no matter what the surgeons had to do. Absently, he asked, "What do you need me to make quick?"
Hawk coughed and bright red blood joined the brown already staining his chin. There was a mewling sound that made Phil wince in sympathy. Where the fuck was the evac team? Hawk said, "N-n't sell. Br'ken. Br'ken B'rd."
Phil looked up at that, trying to follow the logic. Of course they weren't fucking selling Hawk, he'd proven loyalty where none could really be expected. He was about to say so when Hawk's eyes slipped shut and he murmured, "Head sh't?"
Phil was deeply glad for all his years of field and trauma training, because he was pretty sure he would have been vomiting otherwise. He wanted to make it clear to Hawk that nobody was doing anything to him which wasn't piecing him carefully back together and seeing him through rehabilitation, but Hawk wasn't in a place to really hear his words and probably wouldn't believe them in any case.
He worked Hawk's hands free just as the evac team appeared. Phil glared at them all, but didn't waste time with lecturing. Realistically, he knew there were complications to getting a properly equipped team in the building. When they'd gotten Hawk on the stretcher and dosed him with enough morphine to get him to the medical facility, Phil quietly, too quietly to be heard, said, "Ask me again in a few days."
Clint had vague memories of waking up a few times, the smell of antiseptic strong, the pain a muted roar, his brain too hazy to really make sense of anything. He was pretty sure someone had fed him ice chips, the sense memory of cold and clean sliding over his tongue too real to be a hallucination. There had been voices sometimes, quiet and distant. Mostly, though, he'd slept, under the influence of drugs meant to heal rather than harm.
When he truly woke up, the fluorescent glow of the lights too bright and the whine of the machines too loud and everything a dull ache, he reached out to rub at the worst of it, in the leg which had been hit by the bullet and found…nothing. It took him a second to understand. Once he did, though, his heart rate sped up and the machine which had just been beeping rhythmically in the background began beeping very insistently. Clint knew he should breathe, make himself calm down, make himself think—thinking was the only way he'd be able to get himself through this—but it was impossible, nothing in his body would listen to reason.
Someone was yelling, short staccato bursts of sound Clint couldn't make sense of. Then someone's hands were on his shoulders and his brain froze between the instinct to fight back and the sensible course of cowering. He ended up compromising by biting his attacker and twisting free, stumbling out of the hospital bed, whereupon he immediately crashed to one knee, his balance thrown by the lack of two legs and the drugs still coursing through his system. The impact on the stump was agonizing, and somewhere in the back of his mind he realized he'd screamed, but he barely even recognized it, too panicked to care.
He made crawled desperately toward the floor vents—if he could just get himself inside, he'd be safe, at least until they dragged him out—and was grabbed around the waist, lifted as thought he weighed nothing, and firmly set back onto the bed with a sharp, "Hawk, stop!"
The voice finally registered as familiar and Clint fisted his hands in the sheets trying to ground himself, make sense of things. Coulson. "Coulson."
Then, because Coulson had been decent to him, and Clint hadn't talked, hadn't spilled one tiny secret, he marshaled his thoughts and forced himself to be coherent, "You ever heard the stories about what happens to Birds without a limb?" His voice was ragged, almost stolen by his uneven breaths, but he managed the question.
Clint was aware, intellectually, not all of the stories he'd heard could be true. But enough probably were. Clint didn't want to take the chance. He was exhausted. He'd tried, he had, he'd fought and he'd submitted and he'd done everything he could to keep himself alive, sane. But all things, he knew, had to come to an end. "Just—just release the monitor on the morphine. No mess, no fuss."
Coulson grabbed his chin and made Clint look at him. His fingers didn't dig in, which was strange. Clint probably could have wrenched himself away. Coulson said, "I need you to listen to me and actually process what I'm saying."
Clint swallowed. Coulson must have taken it as agreement, because he said, "Nothing is happening to you, at least not the kind of thing you're clearly imagining."
Clint started to let his eyes close because it was apparent he wasn't going to get his way so he'd figure out what to do when he had to cross that bridge. He'd always come up with something before.
"Hawk," Coulson said, an order, but a gentle one. Clint bit back a sigh and opened his eyes obediently.
"Your leg is going to hurt like nothing you've ever felt," Coulson told him, tone even, expression honest. "And there will always be phantom pains."
This wasn't helping. Coulson seemed to notice, because he continued, "But, between Stark robotic technology and SHIELD's medical R&D department, you're going to be fitted with something that will allow you to do everything you did before. It's going to take time to learn how, and it's never going to feel exactly the same, nor will it probably look anything like a human limb. Assuming you agree, however, we're going to get you fitted, start with rehab therapy, and offer you an early contract for service above and beyond."
Clint thought about that, and thought about it some more and then just gave in and asked, "What?"
Coulson's smile wasn't mocking, but he did efficiently arrange Clint back on the bed—Clint was now aware enough to be discomfited by having to lay atop it—checking the lines of IV Clint had gotten tangled. Amazingly, none of them had ripped out, although his hand hurt where the lines had been pulled. "Sleep on it. You don't have to go back to field missions, even if you want the prosthetic. There're plenty of in-house positions. But you're not making that decision at least until you've healed enough to even be fitted and possibly not until you've had some experience with the new leg."
"I don't understand," Clint told him, sleepily.
Coulson caressed Clint's forehead with his thumb, carded a hand through Clint's hair. Clint had the vague notion he should be rolling away from it but he couldn't think why. It felt so good. Coulson said, "I know. We're gonna have to work on that, too."
It took about a week after the second surgery—the first simply to remove the infection, the second so he would heal well, be able to support a prosthesis—for Hawk to start being incapable of sleeping in the hospital bed. Phil had hoped the exhaustion which made it possible would hold out a little longer, just so Hawk could have the support of a medical staff, but Phil wasn’t going to keep Hawk somewhere he couldn’t rest, so he informed the head surgeon and Fury he was signing Hawk out AMA.
The head surgeon took the news pretty well, accepting it with a nod and a, “He needs to sleep.”
Fury was less sanguine, but then, Fury wasn’t a particularly easygoing person. Phil nodded where he was supposed to at the lecture and took Hawk home. He had feeding and wound care instructions which he planned to follow meticulously. Before bringing Hawk home, Phil moved the couch in the main room to the wall and the coffee table to the side. He took Hawk’s bedspace apart and reassembled it without the roof in the main area. Phil knew he still liked to be hemmed in on the sides, but he was capable of sleeping without being secured inside. This way, Phil would be able to get to him easily to help out. Phil suspected Hawk would think he’d made the decision for other reasons, but they’d cross that bridge when they came to it.
Hawk grumbled about the wheelchair the doctors insisted on, but when Phil said, "Or you could just stay here," he shut up and let them help him into the chair. He evidently couldn't resist an, "I could use crutches, you know?" when Phil and he were out of the doctor's earshot. Phil patted him on the shoulder and kept quiet.
Once in Phil's apartment and settled into the impromptu sleep space, Hawk seemed to melt right into the bedding and fall asleep without even having closed his eyes. Phil, who'd been working when not watching over Hawk, took the couch and started in on some paperwork, but before he knew it he was being awakened by whimpers.
He blinked at the clock on the DVD player, which informed him a little over two hours had passed. He got up, poured a glass of water, and woke Hawk up from a distance by calling out his name. Phil was glad when it worked. He didn't like having to get near Hawk physically when he was having nightmares and he was worried as to what any struggling might do to Hawk during the healing process.
Hawk woke with a start and then the stillness that Phil was used to but had yet to stop hating. Phil said, "You're at my place," and Hawk, after a moment, exhaled.
"Here," Phil said, and came close enough to offer the water. Hawk pushed himself into a sitting position, leaning back against the "headboard" and took the glass. Phil asked, "Food?"
Hawk looked torn. The doctors had told them the pain meds were going to continue causing nausea until Hawk was fully off them. Then the pain would cause it for a while. Phil said, "I'll figure something out."
Phil decided on cream of wheat and weak spearmint tea. Hawk managed to get most of it down, clutching the bowl like always, looking miserable during his last few bites until Phil said, "Stop. I'll make more later."
Then, predictably, Hawk slept again, this time for the better part of thirteen hours. Phil slept a bit too, waking up to an alarm set for when he needed to dose Hawk with painkillers. The docs had recommended keeping him on an IV, so at the moment he just needed to shoot the proper amount into the lines. He wasn't looking forward to when he had to actually wake Hawk to get him to swallow pills.
The first week passed with Hawk sleeping pretty much whenever he wasn't eating or seeing to bodily functions, and Phil running back and forth between SHIELD and the apartment to take care of responsibilities on all fronts. By the seventh day, Hawk was up to watching television or working on his reading. Soon after that they removed the IV and Phil was right about the medication schedule sucking. Hawk startled from sleep already in the throes of full-blown terror every single time.
Sometimes, when Phil was home and it was clear Hawk was in pain but it was too early for more meds, Phil would sit next to him and read from whatever Hawk wanted to listen to. Hawk liked books about big cats, pretty much anything and everything Judy Blume had ever written for young adults, and Bill Bryson's travel books. Phil didn't think about how much he enjoyed the solid heat of Hawk at his side, how those times when it was just the two of them, reading or watching television or each doing their own things were some of the most comfortable he had known in years, if not ever.
He certainly didn't think about the low, inappropriate churning in his belly when Hawk fell asleep with his head on Phil's shoulder, or allowed Phil to casually rub some of the worst of the tension from his arms and back. Mostly, he thought about what was ahead, and how much it would take to get Hawk back to fully functional, and how they were damn well going to manage it.
Despite having been allowed the use of crutches since they'd gotten him off the pain pills, by the time the fitting for the prosthetic came around, Clint was going out of his fucking mind with boredom. He'd always wondered what it would feel like having nothing to do, being essentially catered to all the time. In the end, though, he decided it felt like a case of be careful what you wish for.
He ignored the part where he thought that if Coulson had been able to be home more, with his surprising moments of humor and gentle smiles and willingness to read the stupid books Clint always picked out, well, it might not have been so bad after all. He'd progressed to where he could sit on the couch without panicking, especially if Coulson would sit across from or next to him. To his eternal embarrassment, he'd fallen asleep with his head pillowed on Coulson's knee more than once in the past month. He pretended to himself that the embarrassment was all about seeming weak, and not at all about how badly he wanted to wrap himself up in Coulson, have more—more touching, more exploring, more everything. It was weird to recognize he'd begun to want that, when he'd never wanted it before from anyone, but he'd finally realized that he didn't enjoy watching the play of Coulson's muscles just because the other man's strength made him feel safe.
The night before the appointment for the fitting—and the scheduling of the months and months of physiotherapy to follow—Coulson called to say something had come up and he'd be later than seven, which was when he managed to leave the office if nothing was going on. Realistically, there were a lot of nights Coulson didn't even manage to make it home, calling every few hours to make sure Clint had eaten and was resting and just to see what he was up to. Clint wanted to be annoyed by the attention, he really did.
This particular night, though, Coulson turned up a little before nine carrying a kennel. Clint looked at it, tried to process what it meant, and then looked up at Coulson. "Did you get a pet?"
He didn't mean the question to sound so challenging, but it was nice not to feel an onslaught of fear of retribution. He couldn't remember the last time that had been true, or how he'd managed to get there again, but he savored the lack of emotion for just a moment.
For a second, something flashed over Coulson's face, and although Clint had gotten pretty good at reading him it took him a bit to recognize uncertainty. That wasn't a usual one. Clint was surprised to find himself wanting to rewind. "Hey, you've done all right at feeding me. It should be okay."
And that, that responding emotion in Coulson's eyes was anger, pure and simple. He only let people he knew he could trust see it, and as a result Clint had only been witness once or twice. It still made his stomach lurch, that much he couldn't help. But all Coulson said, low and sure, was, "You are not a pet."
Oh. Clint shrugged. "Bird." Then, "Hawk."
Coulson ran a hand over his face and came further into the apartment. He set the carrier down and said, "You like lions. And tigers."
For a moment, Clint's mind filled with the way the big cats in the circus had been the only things not to really demand anything of him, the way when his cage was put in their car it was warmer than the other ones, the way, sometimes, after a feeding, one of them might stroll to the edge of the cage, butt its head against the bars, like an expression of affection and thanks, the only type Clint ever got. He shrugged.
Coulson opened the door to the carrier, and out tumbled a toyger kitten, all wide eyes and pissiness at having been caged. Coulson said, "She doesn't have a name. She was pretty new to the shelter. Someone found her and her litter in a box at a train station."
"Kasi," Clint said instinctively, ducking his head when he realized what he'd done.
Clint bit his lip, but then decided Coulson had brought him a damn cat, the least he could do was share a bit. "That was what they called my favorite cat at the circus. Lioness. I guess it means 'shining,' in Sanskrit, but who knows, the circus always said things like that because people like to hear about places they've never seen."
"It does," Coulson told him.
Clint looked over and Coulson shrugged. "I know a few words, here and there."
Clint called bullshit on that, since 'shining' wasn't exactly a practical word, but he didn't pursue it. Kasi was currently checking out her new surroundings, trying to climb the side of Clint's bedspace and falling down repeatedly. Clint smiled. "She's persistent."
"You're gonna need it pretty soon. Kasi and I are going to be your cheerleading team for physio."
Clint reached out and ran a finger over Kasi's head. She tilted her head and then decided she liked that and ambled over to him to demand more. Clint obeyed. Softly, he said, "Clint."
Coulson said, "Sorry?"
"Clint, that's—that's my name."
"Phil," Coulson said. "Nice to meet you."
Clint didn't look at him as he said, "I kind of like Hawk, though. It's—" something you gave to me, something more fitting, "comfortable."
Coulson nodded. "We'll stick with it, then."
Clint buried his hand in Kasi's fur and nodded in appreciation. Coulson's hand joined him in petting the cat and Clint firmly tamped down on any shivers that passed through his body at the contact.
Clint's new leg could hold more weight than his original one ever could and the knee joint could go any way he so chose. It was chrome-plated and bionic in appearance because, as Stark had so tactfully pointed out, prosthetics never looked truly real anyway, so why not go for something cool?
Clint didn't feel cool. He felt off-balance. The fitting made it so the prosthetic was easily attached and removed and any irritation to the skin was minimal. None of that made it feel right.
Clint hated the physio, the slowness of it more than the pain. Pain he was used to. Not trusting his body was something new, and Clint had thought the gamut of bad experiences he'd lived through had pretty much covered everything. Evidently not, though, because three weeks in he was still having trouble walking on the damn thing, despite the fact that it was created to run, jump, do the fucking pole vault if he so desired.
He hated that at the end of every session, every day, even the days when he didn't have physio, his leg—the one he didn't have—hurt so badly it made him bite his cheek against the sensation. And there was nothing to do for it, there was nothing there to massage or stretch. It made sleeping hard. Between the nightmares, which he was used to but still couldn't always sleep through, and the pain, both real and phantom, a full night's sleep was pretty much impossible.
It meant he was often up, trying to read or do something productive, when Coulson came home. The first few times, Coulson had seemed a little surprised, but he was getting used to it by now. Sometimes he'd text and Clint would pull a snack together so the two of them could sit on the couch and watch TV or read or whatever until Coulson dragged himself to bed.
Clint woke up one night at around three from a nightmare he had to spend several minutes shaking off. He sat up in the bed he was just now beginning to be able to sleep in at all, locked the prosthetic in place and grabbed a crutch, because his steadiness without one was questionable at best. He made his way into the main area, where Coulson was sitting on the couch, zoned out on TV, still wearing his suit.
Clint asked, "Peanut butter and bananas?"
Coulson told him, in a serious tone, "You have the best ideas."
Clint smirked and made his way to the kitchen. Coulson joined him, the two of them setting up an assembly line of bread to be toasted, bananas to be cut and peanut butter to be spread. While Clint was spreading, Coulson said, "I'm going to make an offer and you are free to refuse it."
Clint appreciated that Coulson was careful with him, but it also made his hair stand on edge when it happened, since Coulson was usually right about the things on which he needed to proceed with caution. Clint said, "All right."
"I mean it, Hawk. If you aren't comfortable, you say no."
"I'll do my best." It was all Clint had to give him. The nice thing about Coulson was he also seemed to know when Clint really was trying, and never asked for more.
"I talked with your physiotherapist the other day. She says there are massage techniques that would help with the worst of the pain, but they're not particularly easy for you to do by yourself. It's possible, mind you, and she could teach you, but—I asked her to show me. Just so I would have the knowledge."
To a certain extent, it was believable. Coulson liked knowledge, useful and useless alike. But there was something familiar in Coulson's offhanded way of saying the words. After poking at where the familiarity came from for a few moments, Clint realized it sounded like him, how he was when he was uncertain of something. "Massage."
"It will hurt until it helps," Coulson told him. "And my hands will have to be…on you."
Clint got it. He wasn't dumb. He knew where he was hurt, what Coulson would have to do. He'd also figured out a while back that Coulson might like men—the thing with Captain America was a little too mature to be just a childhood infatuation—but he wasn't into Clint. And he could see how even if Coulson had been, Clint's new lack of symmetry wasn't exactly the most enticing thing. Clint wouldn't make someone touch him. He wouldn't be that person, not if he had the choice. Coulson was giving him the choice. "I can take care of it."
Coulson was quiet for a moment. Then he said, "I know you can. You've taken care of yourself your whole life. I'm asking if you wouldn't mind me helping."
Clint ached with the desire to say yes, to let himself feel something he wanted from someone he wanted for the first time in his fucking life, but, "That's…it's going to be uncomfortable for you, sir."
Because there was no way in hell he was going to be able to have Coulson touch him like that and not have it be physically evident that Clint wanted more. Coulson turned to him, slowly. Softly, he said, "Hawk. That's—"
Stiffly, Clint told him, "I'd kind of prefer if you didn't say anything. Please."
"If you were a free man, I'd skip right to the kissing at this moment, but since you're not, since I technically own you, or at least work for the organization that does, I can't actually grant your request not to say anything."
Clint knew there had been more to that sentence than the beginning part, but he'd kind of gotten stuck at, "You'd kiss me?"
Coulson could be competent or kind or scary as crap, sometimes all three at once. He could also evidently smolder, hotter than fucking coals. "Like you have never, ever been kissed before."
Clint didn't think it was the time to bring up he hadn't actually been kissed before. Instead, brilliantly, he said. "Oh. That would be…nice."
Coulson's smile was dangerous, but not, Clint knew, to Clint. "It would be more than nice."
Clint couldn't breathe, didn't even want to. He said, "You—you should help me. With my leg."
Coulson's smile softened just the tiniest bit, and there was something like pride in his expression. "You're right. I should."
Phil had, deep down, been a little worried about having to put his hands on Hawk, knowing Hawk was as interested in more as he was and also knowing that doing anything, even engaging in the slightest persuasion on his part, would be taking advantage of Hawk. Doing so would make Phil no better than any of Hawk's previous owners, who had at least been open about their abuse of power.
It wasn't that Phil didn't believe Hawk when he expressed his interest. He completely believed Hawk was under the impression he wanted Phil. But Phil was also seemingly the first person to care about Hawk in his entire, miserable life. Phil didn't have to know a lot about psychology to know whatever Hawk was feeling, it was not the kind of consensual lust that full-grown adults could actively pursue with each other and no guilt on the part of either participant.
He was glad to realize, though, that the massages often hurt enough physically that Hawk was probably wholly incapable of being aroused and Phil was just plain turned off by the thought of causing Hawk that much pain. It was something of a relief, because there was very little else Hawk did that failed to make Phil think of touching him in some way, having him. Phil wasn't certain when the attraction had begun. He could think of moments, watching Hawk practice on the range, seeing his tiny smiles when he read something amusing, but he couldn't for the life of him pinpoint when it had become ever-present. It was, though, and he was going to have to deal with that.
Finally, Phil decided to take advantage of his power in a completely different way. He told Fury, "I'm putting in an R-74."
R-74's were orders to have a Bird psychologically evaluated and then seen by a mental professional for a course of therapy. They weren't rare, but SHIELD didn't automatically require them either, because for every Bird who came in seriously damaged or mentally traumatized to a level of needing it, there were four or five who had been owned by research labs or corporations which basically treated them like army employees: three meals a day and a place to sleep in exchange for work. There were also the ones newly up for sale, or those who had been bought as companions for elders or other legitimate jobs.
Phil might have hated the system, but he recognized that it didn't always end up in abuse and waste. It was just hard to give a fuck about the times it didn't completely screw a person up when he saw people like Birch and Hawk.
Fury said, "About fucking time," and preemptively approved the cost.
Hawk said, "You want me to go a head doctor?"
"I've gone to one," Phil told him. "Two different periods of my life, actually."
Hawk frowned. "I don't—I don't like talking about…"
"Yourself? What has happened?" Phil offered.
"Both," Hawk admitted. "Any of it."
"So it's better inside, where it gives you nightmares three out of every four nights and means you still get nervous about sitting on furniture you haven't encountered before?"
Hawk bared his teeth. "I said I was sorry about the nightmares. I said you could gag me."
"Both of those statements, just so we're clear, are exactly why I want you to see a psychologist."
Hawk blinked at that, thinking. Finally, he said, slowly and deliberately, "Outside of you, there's never been anyone I've told something to, showed weakness to, who didn't use it against me."
Phil's stomach hurt, but all he said was, "Aside from the fact that I think that means it's time for you to try again, in a safe environment, the minute, the second whoever you start seeing even seems like he or she might be using information to harm you, rather than help you heal, you come to me, and I will watch while I let you take that person apart with your hands."
Hawk thought about that for several minutes before he asked, "How will I know?" He looked pointedly at his leg. "Healing sometimes hurts more than anything else."
"Because you're smart enough to know the difference," Phil said, not doubting the sentiment even just the tiniest bit.
Hawk looked like he wanted to argue, but Phil said, "Trust me. Trust me in this," and Hawk said, "Okay. Fine."
Dr. Vignaud was six three, with the creamy copper and faded sun coloring Clint associated with the Louisiana Bayou. He'd only been there once or twice. New Orleans was a town where it was unusually easy to carry out a contract. He'd wanted to stay longer. The warmth settled into his bones, and even the mugginess of it didn't bother him. And there was almost always music playing.
The doctor's accent reminded him a little of that music, of the sticky air up on rooftops. When Clint stumbled over his last name he said, "Dr. V, or Leo."
"Leo," Clint said, trying it out, thinking of Lisette, the other tigress in the circuit. She'd been the smartest of all the cats.
"Short for Leonid," the doctor said. "My mother, of blessed memory, was something of a traditionalist."
"That's a nice thing to remember," Clint said, because he had promised Coulson he'd try this, and so he was going to. He could start off nice, if nothing else. All the same, noticing the scar below Leo's right earlobe, he couldn't help but ask, "Bird?"
Leo touched the spot, but not self-consciously, more just aware. "Corporate-owned for about twelve years. SHIELD-owned for three. Free for almost four."
Clint bit the inside of his cheek. He'd known Coulson wasn't lying, but it was weird hearing it stated like that, as though Birds went free every day. Leo said, "Want to have a seat?"
Clint looked at the options in the room, two arm chairs and a couch. His stomach rebelled in response to all three. "I'll stand."
"Floor work better for you?"
Clint laughed. It felt like someone hitting him where he was already bruised. "Treated a few fucked up Birds?"
Leo's smile was kind. "Among others."
Clint shrugged and seated himself with his back to one of the chairs, his good leg drawn up, the prosthetic out in front of him. He still had trouble maneuvering it into other positions. Leo sat with his back propped against his desk, long legs straight out in front of him. He let silence fall until Clint, already nervous, asked, "Am I supposed to, um, talk about the bad stuff?"
"We could start with that, if that was what you wanted," Leo told him.
"But that's not where we're supposed to start?" If Clint was going to do this, he figured he might as well do it right the first time. That wasn't his general pattern in life, but it would be nice to try this once.
"There really isn't a set pattern to this. If you're asking about my regular methods, usually I spend the first couple of sessions just finding out what's going on in a patient's life. Why now is when they're coming to see me. So basically, I just want to see what's foremost in your mind right now. Is that something you can talk about?"
Clint fought the urge to put his head to his knee, close out the room so he could think of something smart to say, something that would make him sound good, like an asset SHIELD would want. He wasn't that guy, though, so he said the first thing that came to mind. "I'm pretty sure I'm gonna get sold again."
"Okay," Leo said, and it was weird, but it was nice the doctor didn't disagree with him, just asked, "What makes you think that?"
"All the Birds SHIELD offers contracts to are really smart. It's taken me three weeks to get a fourth of the way into Rats of Nimh, and the only math I can do is instinctual. The physiotherapists aren't thrilled with my progress, and it's not entirely clear I'll be able to move as quietly as I need to with the prosthesis in order to do my job.
"I believe Coulson when he says he'll go to bat for me, which is the first time I've believed anyone in a long time, so I guess that's good. And all the stuff he's done, keeps doing, it's really the nicest thing anyone's ever done for me, but I don't think there's a good argument for keeping me."
Leo asked, "Have you ever thought that?"
Clint tried to understand, but ended up asking, "What?"
"Have you ever thought there was a good argument for keeping you in an instance where you wanted to be kept?"
Clint considered the question. He could, in truth, only remember two instances where he'd wanted to be kept, the current situation being one. His mom didn't really count, he guessed, since she'd died, which wasn't exactly like selling him. The circus had kind of been that way, since it was better than what had come before or after. Still, "Not really."
Leo nodded. "Okay. That might be a good place to start. You game?"
Clint couldn't imagine how something like that would ever change, but he said, "Sure, I guess."
Coulson didn't usually leave Clint alone with Stark, for whatever reason, so it was a bit of a surprise when he went to go deal with a phone call right in the middle of one of Clint's tune-ups. Stark, who usually spent his time needling Coulson—who almost never gave him much of any reaction, let alone the reaction he seemed to want—asked, "So what about getting better is freaking you out?"
Clint had to force himself not to flinch away. It wasn't generally a good plan to move when Stark was recalibrating. "What are you talking about?"
"The tech's good. All I've been doing for months is updating it. The neural hook-ups are functioning fine. The only thing that's not working, so far as I can tell, is you. Which I'm guessing means you've got some shit going on up there, since the docs seem to think that should be the earliest thing to come back online."
Clint looked at Stark—Stark didn't own him, even if he was free, he didn't, and Coulson wouldn't let Stark fuck with him, Clint didn't think—and asked, "What reason could I possibly have for not wanting to be more useful?"
"If I knew, I wouldn't be asking. Other people are kind of a mystery to me. Machines, there's nobody in the world who gets them better. People are completely incomprehensible." Stark frowned as he continued to fiddle.
Clint found Stark's blithe awareness of his humanity both discomfiting and strangely calming. "I don't want to be sold, Stark."
"Yeah, that I believe." Stark pressed something that made the prosthetic hum for a moment, and then made a satisfied sound himself.
"Being useless means being sold," Clint stated, because, honestly, he was uneducated, but one plus one equaled two.
"Except by your rubric, as I understand it, you've been useless for the better part of a year now, and nobody's sold you. Nobody's even talked about selling you."
Stark had a point, but thinking about it made Clint uneasy. "They've spent way more money on fixing me than they ever did on buying me. It only makes sense to see if I actually start to work again."
Stark gave him an unimpressed look, but then, Stark was often unimpressed. "Now you're just being obtuse. And I don’t think you are. Agent's never interested in the dumb ones."
There were too many things in that series of statements for Clint to catch onto. "What? Who's Agent?"
Stark waved his fingers airily. "Coulson. Little nickname I have for him. He shunts the stupid ones off to Sitwell. Who also manages to lose them, usually."
Clint screwed up his forehead. "What is stupid about thinking they want me to function properly again?"
Stark hauled himself up on the med table next to Clint. "Nobody spends the kind of money on the kind of experimental tech you're sporting on the sixty or so percent chance it'll return a good investment. Nope, whatever you did that landed you in this position? This is compensation. So the real question I think for you is, how long can you not function the way you think you should, and still be treated like a person?"
"That—that is crazy," Clint said. Because it was. He wasn't going to gamble everything he had on some sort of teenage rebellion.
"Yeah, people think my ideas are a lot," Stark agreed. "But I own more patents than any other inventor in the world, so maybe there's something to the crazy."
"You don't get it." Clint tried to keep the anger he was bleeding out of his voice. "This isn't some stupid game. If I'm sold like this? It'll be to the labs or someone who likes their toys already broken. I'm not—"
"No it won't be," Stark said, like he knew everything. He said most things that way. "And I think you know that, too. I think, somewhere inside of you that you don't like acknowledging because you're fucking terrified that will be the moment you're betrayed again, I think you know that if you're on crutches for the rest of your natural life Coulson will find a way to make it work. Maybe he'll contract you out to someone like me, or one of the other companies that only provisionally takes Birds on the terms that they have buy-out contracts. But admitting that would mean trusting someone, and I don't think you're willing to do that. So the only other option you have is to push until the world proves something to you one way or another."
Clint's chest hurt for a moment until he forced himself to take a breath. "You don't—"
"I don't get it?" Stark finished for him. "Nah, I got nothing, since all that's really happened to me is a dad who loved a dead icon more than he could ever be bothered to care about his son, a father figure who sold me to people who wanted to torture me into making them weapons so they could kill me, and a wife who was repeatedly raped by said father figure until she nearly killed herself. My trust issues are negligible, really."
"That was an asshole assumption," Clint admitted. "Sorry."
"Look, I don't care if you want to push. I know how this ends, because I'm on the outside of it, and because for all the shit we give each other, I know Coulson and what he believes. So do it your way. Just try and be honest about it. It makes you less of a dick."
Clint just looked at Stark, who smiled after a moment. "Yeah, yeah, rich coming from me, I know."
Clint brought Kasi to a therapy session—Leo encouraged it, she calmed Clint down—and told Leo about the conversation with Stark. Leo didn't interrupt. When Clint was finished he asked, "What are you hoping I'll say?"
Clint thought for a moment. "I've learned to stop hoping with you. It's a pointless exercise." Then, after a beat, "That's not a…that thing where part of something is used to represent all of it."
"Yeah. Coulson used it a few days ago. I asked what it meant." Clint felt absurdly pleased with himself for kind of sort of managing to use it in a sentence.
"If you say so," Leo told him easily. Clint resisted the urge to sigh, knowing it would be taken as an admission.
Leo switched tactics. He did that a lot. "Is Stark right?"
Clint rubbed at his face. "I don't know."
"I take it you don't want him to be."
Clint was slow to answer. "I want him to be right about Coulson. I want him to be right that there's still rebellion left in me. I don't know. The whole thing feels wrong, but all the pieces of it feel right, I guess. I don't know how to explain it."
Leo let that float between them for a bit. "You sound tired."
Clint made a dismissive motion with his hand. Leo asked, "Do you feel tired?"
"It's just the leg," Clint told him. "Whatever Stark thinks, I'm still adjusting to…being damaged. More damaged."
Leo leaned back against his desk. They were still sitting on the floor. Clint had thought about trying the couch, since he'd been doing okay with furniture most of the time lately, but the sessions were stressful enough without adding more for the sake of pushing himself. Finally, Leo asked, "Is that how you see it?"
"How else is there to see it?" Clint snapped in response. "I have a fucking stump."
Leo raised an eyebrow. "Battle-scarred? Wounded but recovering? Functionally different? Just off the top of my head."
"Birds aren't battle-scarred, Birds are just broken or devalued."
"Birds aren't anything, Hawk. You know that. They're a fiction created by a government that needed scapegoats and cheap labor. Nothing real applies to the concept. The only thing that's real is who you are, and how you handle this. And if you want to mope about it, then you're allowed. You got screwed in life, no question. But it seems like a waste, if you ask me.
"You've got tech very few people have access to which allows you the kind of recovery very few people who lose limbs will ever manage. You have talents that are few and far between and which SHIELD needs. And if SHIELD needs it, a billion or so people going about their everyday life do as well. It's your choice, but I'm not going to pretend like I don't think there are better and worse options. There are."
Clint translated all that into, "Stop feeling sorry for myself, huh?"
"It's not that simple." Leo shook his head. "I think it might not be the worst idea for you to spend some time feeling sorry for yourself about your past, or at least, being compassionate to yourself about it. I've found the second often comes from allowing the first for a bit. But getting caught in it? Especially this part? Other people have harmed you enough. You don't need to help them, and I think you know it."
"Fuck if I know what I know anymore," Clint said.
Leo smiled a bit. "So find one thing, one thing to concentrate on. And concentrate on it. Don't think about anything else."
"Got a good place to start?"
"That's your job, finding that."
"I could use some advice, doc."
Leo rolled his eyes. "Fine. Go find the answer to why your foremost descriptor of yourself is damaged. And when you figure it out well enough to verbalize it, let me know."
Phil knew he shouldn't have been as happy as he was by getting sucker-punched and told to go to hell, but it was kind of the first major sign of progress he'd seen from Hawk in a while. Hawk was currently standing back, murmuring fuck over and over again and possibly on his way to hyperventilating, but for a moment, there had been actual anger, an instinctual return to asserting himself.
He straightened up, wincing—Hawk was good with his fists—and went over, gently herding Hawk into the nearest chair, the plush one in the den, and pushing his head between his knees. "Breathe."
Phil could tell he was trying. After a few seconds, Phil asked, "Would the floor be better?"
Hawk gave a jerky nod, and Phil guided him down to the floor, still making him curl up. It was a little awkward with the prosthetic. Hawk was getting better at things like running and walking, but folding himself into shapes was still a serious challenge. Phil took his hand away when he realized he was making small circles against Hawk's back. Phil wasn't certain he'd want to be touched. Hawk, though, leaned a little toward him, a gesture so small he probably didn't even know he'd done it. Phil resumed the motions. Hawk's breaths began to slow and normalize. Phil said, "That's it, good."
When he could speak again, Hawk's first word was, "S—sorry."
"I don't want you to be. I want you to be proud of yourself."
"For punching the one person in the world who's done nothing but support me? If I were to be a person, the way everyone here seems to think I should be, I don't think that's the person I'd want to be."
Phil was surprised. Hawk hadn't said one word about what was happening in therapy, and Phil hadn't asked. It wasn't any of his business. But here he was, telling Phil more than he probably realized. Phil made himself concentrate, aware that this conversation was important. "I want you to be proud of yourself for getting angry and allowing yourself to act on that anger and not just to get a reaction out of me. You did that for you, because you wanted to. That's…that's significant, Hawk."
Hawk rubbed a hand over his face. "I don't even remember what I was angry about. It hasn't been ten minutes, and I don't remember."
Phil didn't really, either. He thought they'd been discussing alternative jobs during Hawk's recovery, but he couldn't recall saying anything that would have sparked that type of response. Then again, he was acutely aware Hawk's anger could have been set off more by association than anything actually happening in the moment. "Doesn't matter. That’s the first time you've argued with me, really argued, instead of just defying. And it's been a while since you even did that. It'll get easier. You'll start to argue with words instead of actions, or possibly by making my life a living hell through practical jokes or paperwork or annoying other handlers, or whatever, but your reactions will smooth out. You just have to give yourself time. Nobody else has, I get that, but that doesn't mean you don't deserve it. It just means that some people aren't very human."
Hawk sighed, burrowing his face into Kasi, who had climbed her way up atop his knees. When he reemerged he said, "I used to, y'know, back when I was just a weapon, or an act, or a convenient hole who could also milk the fucking cows, I used to just think far enough ahead to get through the day or the hour or whatever. Everything else was a waste.
"Sometimes, if shit went really wrong, I'd have to have a plan, or else I was going to get killed, but that was the extent of what I allowed myself to think about. Then, all of a sudden, I'm on the block again, I've been sicker than death and I know, I just know what happens to sales like me. Only…only you buy me. And for a while, I got by doing that same thing, one foot in front of another, all that."
Hawk shuddered slightly. "But I can't—it's impossible to keep doing that and be…complete, I guess. Be someone who makes his own decisions, who likes and dislikes things, all the shit I trained out of myself, I got rid of to keep me safe. But every time I try and answer one of Leo's questions, figure out who I want to be, what I want from life, whatever, I just, it's like the only thing I can feel is terror, that's the only emotion I have left."
Phil said, "Or maybe you're just overwhelmed."
Hawk looked over at him, blinking. Phil shrugged. "You've been going to Leo three times a week and physio five times a week for over two months now. That's a lot for someone who doesn't have a lifetime of reasons for PTSD. I think you just need a vacation. Some time to actually digest."
"A vacation," Hawk repeated, blankly.
Phil hadn't considered that it would be a foreign concept, but he probably should have. "I'll think up something feasible."
Hawk frowned. "Okay. I guess."
Phil took in how tired Hawk looked. "C'mon, let's get you to bed."
He helped Hawk up. Hawk made his way to the bathroom, where he changed and brushed his teeth. He moved into his bedroom, taking the prosthesis off for the night, his relief at having the weight removed evident in every line of his body. Phil worked on the muscles, like he did every night. When Hawk got ready to lower himself to his spot between the bed and the wall, Phil asked, "Think you could manage the bed tonight?"
Hawk's expression was doubtful, but in the end he said, "Maybe if you stayed until I slept."
Phil hadn't expected that answer, but now that he thought about it, all of the times Hawk had gotten himself to actually use and stay on the furniture, Phil had been there. Softly, he said, "I can stay."
He climbed onto the bed fully clothed and sat with his back against the headboard. Hawk took a few deep breaths and got in on the other side, covering himself with the spread. Kasi jumped up, looking confused, but then found a spot by Hawk's head that suited her just fine and curled up. Clint brought his arm up above the spread and laid one hand over Phil's thigh. "Do you—is that okay?"
Phil just reached down and squeezed his fingers. "Sleep, Hawk."
It wasn't long before his breathing evened out.
Two days later, Natasha reappeared after a two-year stint of going in deep to dismantle a multinational crime syndicate. She looked a bit worse for the wear, but nothing a few days reacquainting herself with her apartment and Hill wouldn't take care of. Phil had never been so happy to see her in his life. He smiled. "I thought Hill was out of the building unusually early last evening."
Natasha smiled as well, but her, "I told you to keep an eye on her," was reproachful.
"Tasha, have you ever met anyone beside yourself who could convince Hill to do anything but exactly what she intended in the first place?"
Although Phil was normally Natasha's handler, this job had been given to Hill because it was the only way the two women would have any contact while Natasha was in place, and it had started out as a six month placement before they even had any intel. She said, "I take your point."
He let it lie for a few seconds, then asked softly, "How are you?"
Natasha did him the courtesy of actually thinking about her answer. "Reorienting, I suppose. Rumor has it you've taken on a Bird."
"Or Maria catching me up on everything." Natasha shrugged.
"That bother you?" he asked.
A muscle in her jaw ticked. "It shouldn't."
Phil got up and walked around his desk, joining her on his couch. She'd been his last assignment as a junior agent, nine years prior. He'd been sent to kill her. SHIELD's records had indicated she was in her twenties and had documented all of her kills. What he'd found was a fourteen year old girl who'd all but led him straight to herself.
Russia didn't have Birds, not in the way America did. They sold children without parents as a way of eradicating the need for orphanages and family services programs. It turned Phil's stomach, but then so did America's way of eliminating its penal corrections facilities.
Natasha couldn't remember being sold and there were no records SHIELD had been able to find documenting her sale. Phil estimated it occurring earlier than two, presuming she wasn't put on the market at birth. Single mothers who couldn't afford a child often made that choice.
Fury'd been pissed when Phil had brought her back, but Phil had just looked at him and said, "If SHIELD's in the business of killing kids, now, I think I'll find myself another organization to work for."
Fury's response had been to promote him to a senior agent—Phil was relatively certain that had already been coming—and gave Natasha to Phil as an asset, with the clear message that she had best work out. Phil hadn't taken her home, but he'd made sure she had a set of rooms on base, space to herself, and interaction with a few people who were smart enough to know she was a threat and confident enough not to be frightened by that.
She was currently one of their best undercover agents, if not the absolute best. Phil said, "Shouldn't is an empty word in regard to emotion, which you know."
She glared a bit but didn't argue. He told her, "I want you to meet him."
She raised an eyebrow. Phil suddenly had an idea. "Are you and Maria going to your Hiltonhead place any time soon?"
"We have a long weekend coming up. What has that—" She paused. "You want me to take your Bird on my weekend getaway to spend time with my wife? Whom I haven't seen for longer than a day at a time in two years?"
"You have an extra room at that place, I've stayed in it, Tash. During your honeymoon, if you remember."
"Extenuating circumstances," she pointed out, and well, yeah, there'd been imminent death involved, but that didn't really change much.
"He won't bother you guys. He needs some time away. He needs time away from me as much as anything else, but he's not ready to be on his own, I don't think."
Natasha tilted her head. "You care for him."
Phil nodded, sharp and concise. "I would take him somewhere, otherwise. But I'm concerned about codependency on my part, and all kinds of things on his. Please, Tash."
She sighed. "I'd say you owe me one, but I'm only a liar professionally."
He leaned over and kissed her forehead. "I owe you one. And I'm glad to have you back."
She didn't pull away from the contact, making a sound low in her throat at the admission. The two of them sat on the couch silently for a little while before she got up soundlessly and left.
Until Natasha Romanoff unlocked Phil's door with the key she evidently had, Clint hadn't been able to really think of her as an actual person. Phil had mentioned her several times, and Hill had a tattoo of a spider on her left hand ring finger that was supposedly a stand-in for a wedding ring, but mostly she'd just seemed like a child's tale, told to awe, amaze and frighten, in turns.
When she walked into the apartment in nothing but jeans, an old Sleater-Kinney t-shirt that Clint suspected was Hill's, and tennis shoes that had been through the wars, he understood why he'd thought that for so long. She was a fucking eleven on the charts of physical beauty, and he could feel the danger pouring off of her. He knew it was intentional. She was a spy, and he'd been forced to play at being one more than once. Spies needed to know exactly what signals they were giving off.
Coulson ignored it, asking, "Water? Tea? Something harder?"
"Gin and tonic," she said. Then, keeping her eyes on Clint, "You must be Hawk."
He considered his options of redress and settled on a cautious, "Widow."
Her gaze was cool for a moment longer and then something loosened in her stance and she said, "I prefer Natasha, really."
"Honor to meet you, Natasha," he said softly. "I've heard a lot."
"I've heard practically nothing, but I've been incredibly busy playing at being a fixer in Macau, so I suppose that's only to be expected."
Clint had gotten to his feet when he'd heard the lock turning. He didn't like walking in front of people he didn't know, but he made himself anyway. He knew that it actually didn't look that different. The synthetic flex base of the prosthetic clearly wasn't a foot, but under jeans the prosthetic wasn't visible and although he hadn't managed to regain huge amounts of speed yet, his gait was basically even at this point.
He went into the kitchen and poured himself some orange juice. Coulson asked, "Want a mixer?" but Clint shook his head. He might be willing to make himself show weakness in front of this woman Coulson trusted, but he wasn't going to actually chemically inhibit his defenses.
"So," she said casually, taking a drink from the glass Coulson handed her. "Coulson says he doesn't think you've ever taken a vacation."
Clint's glance darted to Coulson, who shrugged and said, "All evidence suggests."
Clint said, "Not really high on people's lists of Things To Do With Birds."
Natasha took another sip. "I was seventeen or so the first time I did. At least we think. It's not all that clear how old I am. Maria took me."
There were so many questions that information brought up, Clint made himself take several drinks of the juice before speaking. He settled on, "You were with SHIELD at seventeen."
"Fourteen. Again, we think. Coulson decided killing kids, even if the kid in question was more programmed killer than child, wasn't in his job description."
"Bird?" Clint asked.
"Not exactly. There isn't a word in English for what they call us in Russia. It's a created term, a type of noun that means superfluous."
"Coulson wasn't your handler, then? When you took the vacation?"
"He was, which was probably why he didn't take me. Nobody expected me to corrupt Maria, I suspect not even Maria. In fairness, it took me the better part of a year and a half to completely overcome her moral objections, and I was well-trained in the craft." Natasha smiled, all cat-with-the-cream.
Clint looked over at Coulson, who wasn't pretending not to watch. Coulson met his gaze evenly. He said, "I'm not pawning you off. I'm giving you space."
Clint asked, "Are they my handlers while I'm with them?"
"No," Natasha said, her tone not brooking any argument. Coulson had said no in unison with her, though, so evidently the adamant nature of her statement hadn't been necessary.
Coulson shook his head. "The only reason I'm not sending you alone is because I don't want you in a situation where you need help and it's not readily available. Your contract states that you have the professional leeway to decide on a course of action which leaves you unsupervised. If you would honestly prefer that, I'll figure out a way to make it happen. But believe me when I say you'll be left to your own devices in this instance."
"Unless you interrupt. Then SHIELD's losing an asset, and it's not going to be me." Natasha said this calmly while she poured herself a Coke with lime.
Clint laughed. He didn't know if he liked Natasha, but he understood her to some extent. He wanted to think that someday he could be as comfortable in his own skin as she seemed to have fought her way into being. After a moment he asked, "What should I pack?"
Coulson had insisted on purchasing and packing swimming drawers for Clint, but he had no intention of using them. The beach wasn't all that busy given that it was late fall, not quite the summer season nor the time when people were fleeing northern climes just yet, but Clint didn't care. He could walk the sand and feel the water flow over his foot just fine without giving the rest of the inhabitants something to stare at.
This plan lasted all of four hours into the trip. Hill had piloted a SHIELD-owned personal plane onto a private landing space on the island, where a car with a driver was waiting to take them to the villa. The villa was pale yellow and white both inside and out, with the occasional trim of eggshell blue here and there. It had more windows than walls, but just enough walls to protect the inhabitant's privacy. Clint's favorite windows were the bay windows in the sitting room up front, almost a sun room, really, which looked out over the water.
His room was small but clean and sported a window of its own which could be opened to allow the breeze inside. The bathroom a few feet down the hall was all his, since the master bedroom had an en-suite. The kitchen was also small, but with an open plan that made it seem larger. There was a porch off the side of the house from where the ocean could also be viewed. It had a heated spa in the back corner, where there were lights. There wasn't much personal about any of the house, but Clint was fairly certain it was a SHIELD property, used by upper management or maybe just when they needed an operative to recover.
Natasha and Hill pretty much dropped their bags in the room they were sharing, pulled on bathing suits and made their way out to the water with towels to lie on when they were ready to dry off under the sun. Clint debated, but he was pretty sure they'd report it to Coulson if he stayed in his room the whole time, so he rolled up the cuff of the jean leg covering flesh, and made his way to the shoreline, far enough away from the women that he wouldn't be in their space.
It was nice, actually, nicer than he'd really allowed himself to expect. The sun was warm and there was a whole sky's worth of breathing room. The water was cold on his foot, the sand warm underneath it. There were seagulls making lazy rounds, diving occasionally. It was, if nothing else, far away from everything he'd become familiar with, far enough to feel like he might actually be able to unwind for a bit.
He walked to the convenience store he'd scouted out on the drive in. It was a bit further than he'd gotten used to walking on the prosthesis, but he was getting used to bigger distances. He made some food and ate dinner on the porch, once making sure the women weren't out there. He put the leftovers away with a note that said, "free for all." He was still working on his writing skills.
He holed up in his room then, considering whether he could sleep on the bed or if that was just asking to wake everyone in the house up. He decided on the latter and set up some of the bedding on the floor between the window and the bed. He was finishing up when there was a knock on his door. Clint frowned. "Come in?"
Hill opened the door and took in the scene. After a moment she said, "Put on your swimming shorts, we're going down to the shore and finishing up at the hot tub. Not an invitation."
And then she was gone. Clint spent a minute debating if disobeying would get back to Coulson, or worse, someone else at SHIELD who wasn't as lenient. He decided probably and was going to shut his door, give himself some last moments of privacy, when Natasha appeared in it, miles of perfect, creamy skin surrounding her midnight-blue bikini. She said, "It's an invitation, she just doesn't like rejection. If you want to stay here, you're not going to get reported."
Clint swallowed, trying to find a smile in himself. Natasha sighed and came in. "Mind if I sit?"
Clint made an "as you wish" gesture at the bed, the one he couldn't find it in himself to sleep on. She sat down. "We would like for you to join us, however."
Clint crossed his arms over his chest. He knew he shouldn't, that this woman would read into it, could use it to dig into places he didn't want if she so chose. "Why?"
"Because night will be easier for you," she said simply.
He tilted his head. "Easier."
"Learning to walk on that leg is not all that is necessary for you to actually be comfortable with it."
"It's really none of your business or concern, what I am comfortable with."
"You are right," she acknowledged. "But what would it hurt, coming out in the moonlight with us? We know about the prosthetic. And it could be fun. Stranger things have happened."
He gave her a slanted, suspicious look. She took it in and said, "You can hide it away. You can. But you will always know it is there. And you don't know this yet, can't know it yet, really, but you are the only person who matters in this instance. For that alone, it is probably worth trying to have some comfort with it."
Clint hesitated. "And if I curled up in bed—"
"On the floor," she interrupted.
He ignored her, "Right now, nothing would get back to Coulson, or go on my record?"
"No. No. Hawk. This time really is for you."
He closed his eyes. "I'll—I'll meet you out there."
He heard her stand. "Hope to see you soon."
Clint stood on the front steps for a long time before advancing down the beach. His long-distance sight, which had always been his best quality, allowed him to watch the two women, who evidently found some safety in the dark of the night as well. Their affection was easier to read. He took several deep breaths and stepped into the sand.
It was still odd, the way wind caressed skin on one leg, but hit metal and machine on the other, where Clint couldn't feel it, had no idea of the ambient temperature, or anything. The splash of water over one foot, with nothing there to greet it on the other side was even more shocking, despite having experienced it earlier in the day.
"Ever body-surfed?" Hill shouted from a few feet over, up to her waist in the water.
"No," Clint said, shaking his head. Tony had sworn up and down that the leg was completely waterproof, but trying it out made him a little nervous. Judging by the look on Hill's face, he was about to test the assertion.
Hill smiled. "A SHIELD employee can never have too many skills.
Clint was starting to feel like he'd gone six or seven rounds with Captain America—he'd maybe taken to reading Coulson's comics now and then, liking all the pictures—when Natasha and Hill dragged him back to the porch, where the spa was uncovered, heated and ready to go. Slipping in was among the purest bliss he'd ever experienced. He muttered, "Holy fuck."
Hill laughed. He'd heard her do it numerous times over the past few hours, but it caught him off guard, all the same. Natasha must have caught his flinch, because she flicked water his way. Hill, for her part, said, "Don't worry, it took her two years to believe I had a sense of humor. And when she tried to tell other people, they thought it was some kind of long con she was playing."
"Two years," Clint said, trying to keep the question out of the statement.
Natasha hesitated a beat, then answered, "She was probably the only person besides Coulson to try and befriend me."
Hill was looking away, over the back of the tub, as she said, "You seemed like you needed it."
Natasha asked Clint, perfectly seriously, "Is it any surprise I fell in love?"
"What made her different?" Clint asked Hill, aware he was treading dangerously.
Natasha looked interested in the answer. Hill brought her attention back to them. After a long moment she answered, "I've never been good with people. It's not just in SHIELD. Back in high school, even in the Marines, people just weren't my strong suit. I caught Nat this one day, back when she was fourteen and the only thing she was loyal to even just a little was Coulson, caught her tucked into an out-of-the-way alcove, playing chess with herself. I suppose she just reminded me of myself, of how much worse things could have been."
Clint wondered if Coulson had seen something similar when he'd bought Clint. He wasn't sure how he felt at the thought. He dragged in a breath and said, "Well, um, thanks for teaching me to bodysurf. I'm going to head in—"
"If it won't freak you out," Natasha said, "you can take off the prosthesis and I'll massage the muscles before you go in. It'll feel even better under the water, and trust me, I'm not going to take advantage of you right in front of my wife."
Clint was torn. The massages really were the best things to keep him from waking in pain, either midway through the night or in the morning. On the other hand, he'd never allowed anyone but Coulson to help him out with that. He wasn't even sure how it would feel.
"Let her help," Hill said softly. "Not an order, just, a wise suggestion."
Clint slipped his fingers below the water and released the clasps to the prosthesis which kept it in the fittings. He set the tech-limb on the side of the pool, trying to remind himself that it was just a mark of hard work, of doing his best, the way Coulson was always telling him, the way Leo had suggested he might want to try redefining it in his mind. He didn't believe it, but he supposed it really was better than seeing it as something that made him useless or wrong or trash.
Natasha moved toward him and said, "I'm going to put my hands on you now, all right?"
Clint anchored himself as best he could in the low-gravity pull of the water and nodded. "Yes. Thank you."
At the end of the long weekend, Hawk came back with lightly browned skin and an easier gait. Phil came through it with the sense that he was completely fucked when it came to Hawk. His agent—Phil refused to think of the other man as his Bird, it was bad enough that he was considering fraternization—sat down on the couch in Phil's living room and said, "I need to start retraining in combat and climbing and all the other stuff I need as a sniper. I'm probably no good at infiltration anymore, unless we can find a way to completely mask the prosthesis, it's too identifiable. But shooting is my strength anyway, and I can still make that happen."
"I know," Phil told him. Phil had known that all along. "What convinced you?"
Hawk made a face for a moment, then asked, "Between you and me?"
Phil shrugged. "Most things are."
"Nat and Mar—Hill," Hawk started.
"You can call her Maria. I've known her since we recruited her. If she doesn't mind, I don't." Phil was far more impressed Natasha had let him shorten her name. It said something.
"Maria, they wouldn't let me wear jeans. I mean, they—it wasn't like an order, or anything. But they withheld after-dinner pie. And wouldn't teach me tricks for building sandcastles."
Hawk colored. Phil wasn't going to make fun, though. He was glad the two women had found a way to cajole Hawk rather than forcing the issue. Phil said, "Withholding pie is criminal."
"I told them, but they're very strong-willed."
"You noticed," Phil said mildly.
Hawk's smile was brief, quiet, but real. "On Saturday there were more kids than usual, and that was hard because, I—I guess I thought they'd be scared. But this one little girl ran over to me. She was, she had those things that help people hear?"
"Cochlear implants?" Phil tried.
Hawk nodded. "Yeah, those. Anyway, her dad was right behind her, apologizing, but she was asking if my leg was like her ears and looking at me like I was the coolest thing she'd ever seen."
Softly, Phil asked, "What did you tell her? About your leg?"
Hawk shifted the way he did when he was feeling uncomfortable but safe enough to show it. Phil hated to admit it, but he liked when it happened, the reminder that Hawk trusted him. After a moment Hawk said, "I told her that technological ears were cooler than a leg, but that yeah, they were pretty much the same."
"She taught me how to make turrets for my sand castle," Hawk said it dryly, like a joke, but Phil knew better.
"Her dad, he thanked me." Hawk looked up at Phil, clearly confused. "Like, I don't know, like saying something nice was a big deal."
"Maybe it was. It's been for you before. It's been for me, and I don't have years of mental and physical abuse in my past. Kids are mean, especially to other kids who are different. Maybe having an adult tell her that difference was what made her cool was something she'll take with her."
"Think—um, you think he would have done it if he'd known I was a Bird? Think he'd have even let her close to me?"
Phil said, with quiet intensity, "If he had any human decency in him at all, yes."
Hawk curled both legs up into himself, something Phil couldn't remember him doing since the surgery, not without needing to maneuver the prosthesis. Hawk admitted, "I'm not even sure I know what that is, anymore. Things have gotten so unclear."
Phil sympathized. "Hand-to-hand is pretty straightforward."
Hawk smiled. "Yeah. Shooting, too. Sometimes it's nice to have a job that’s an excuse to avoid complications."
Phil shared the smile with Hawk, ignoring the warm curl of want in his chest. "Get out of here. Go do something useful."
Hawk unfolded himself, some of his old grace returning with a very different look to it, and gave Phil a half-assed salute before disappearing. Phil muttered, "Focus," and made himself go back to what he'd been working on when Hawk came home.
Hawk returned to the apartment looking wrung out. Phil had only just gotten home himself, having had a problem with one of his teams arise at the last minute. Luckily, it had been relatively easy to sort. Phil asked, "Have you eaten?"
"Um," Hawk said and blinked.
"If you have to think about it, that's an answer in and of itself. Go take a shower and then soak in the bath. The last thing you need is to injure something else."
Hawk began stripping his shirt off, asking from inside of it, "Do you find it at all weird that the more I figure out I'm allowed to say no to you, the more opportunities you give me?"
"Is that rhetorical?" Phil asked, already rifling through take-out menus. "Noodles or burgers?"
"Mm, burgers, and I don't know what rhetorical means."
"It means you already know the answer. Guacamole and peppers on yours?"
"That is a rhetorical question," Hawk said, toeing off his shoes.
Phil rolled his eyes and ignored the fact that he wished Hawk would take off his pants; half for Phil's viewing pleasure, half because it would mean he was starting to feel comfortable with the way the leg looked. "Shower."
"If I said no?"
"There are quarters in SHIELD where nobody will bother you about smelling like rancid socks, feel free to decide to occupy one any day now."
Hawk's split second pause was so slight Phil almost missed it, but he didn’t. "Hawk?"
"I just—I'd really be given quarters of my own, if I asked?"
Phil put down the menu he'd been lazily perusing. "I should have told you that. I thought I had. I'm sorry. Do you want—"
"No," Hawk cut him off. "No, I don't think I do. It's just, it's nice to know that I could." Then, "I guess that's kind of stupid."
"It's not. And, for what it's worth, I think, at some point, you should try it. Just to see how it feels, to know if you like it or not."
Hawk chewed on his cheek for a moment, rocking a little. "Maybe. Maybe when I can sleep in a bed without needing you near."
"We can work on that. You can talk with Leo about it." Phil didn't really want to give up those nights, but he would, he would because it was what was right. Phil had done a lot of wrong things in his lifetime, but he wasn't going to involve Hawk in his mistakes, not if he could help it.
"Yeah." Hawk scratched at his neck. "Not until tomorrow, though. I—tonight I'd like you to stay."
Quietly, Phil told him, "I missed you, too."
Hawk closed his eyes for a moment before nodding. He turned to head to the bathroom. "I like those criss-crossy fry-things."
"You know they're called waffle fries," Phil stated.
"My description is better."
Clint tried sleeping in his bed a couple of weeks after getting back from Hiltonhead. He was exhausted from the day—an hour of physio, an hour of therapy, countless hours of hand-to-hand and shooting drills—and figured if he just took his shoes off and laid down he'd pass out and be none the wiser for it. The plan worked for about four hours, maybe a little more. Then he woke up screaming, scrambled from the bed and vomited until long past dry-heaving into the trash bin by his nightstand.
When the worst of it passed, he was aware Coulson had come in at some point and was rubbing slow circles into his back, murmuring soothing, nonsense words. Coulson took the bin from him and propped him up against the wall. "Stay there, I'll be right back."
Clint wasn't going anywhere. The wall was the only thing keeping him upright. Every muscle in his body was a quivering mass of uselessness and the prosthetic was across the room, where he kept it for what was usually easy access. Coulson returned with a bowl and a glass of water. He held the glass to Clint's lips and said, "Rinse and spit," placing the bowl in front of him.
Clint did so a few times, and then took some cautious sips of the water. Coulson said, "Good, that's good."
When Clint had gotten enough of the water down, Coulson set it aside and said, "C'mon, let's get you in the bath."
He supported Cint's side, acting as a makeshift crutch. When he set him down on the toilet he asked, "Do you want me to leave, or—"
Clint shook his head before he could even really think about it. "I—if you—"
"Okay," Coulson said, not making him finish, which was perhaps the greatest mercy he'd ever shown Clint in a long string of them. "Okay."
Coulson helped him strip, and Clint hated that this was the first time Coulson was touching him like this, but it was nice to actually want the contact, to feel safe leaning into it. Coulson pulled Clint's t-shirt over his head and Clint had so many memories of his clothes being taken from him by force, or coercion, and this wasn't like any of them. Coulson said, "Arms up," and ran a knuckle along Clint's side as he brought the shirt up. He paused and stroked Clint's hair.
He took his time, interspersing the work of getting Clint naked with soft, quick caresses, kind brushes of skin. He ran the bath water and checked the temperature, and his grip was gentle as he helped Clint to lower himself in. Clint was recovered enough that he probably could have done all of this on his own, but the thought of being left with nothing but the residual fear made his stomach turn over, despite having nothing in it.
Clint managed to wash himself, more of a rinse than anything, just to clean off the sweat and the smell of vomit. Coulson pulled him out and wrapped him in a towel. He said, "I can change the sheets, and we can sleep in your room, or you can come sleep in mine."
"I can change my sheets in the morning," Clint mumbled. Then, coming out of his daze just slightly, "I—I'm just gonna pull out the sleeping space pad, put it between the bed and the wall."
"Mm, no, pulling rank," Coulson said, steering them toward his room. "I am a senior agent, you know."
"We're just going to sleep. I don't plan on taking advantage of you. For one thing, we forgot to have you brush your teeth. Your virtue is safe."
"That's not—" Clint hadn't even thought of that, which was interesting and something he'd return to, probably with Leo, but not the point currently. "I'm not taking up half your bed and making it harder for you to sleep, too."
"Yeah, you are. It's my bed, I can put who I want in it. At least in this instance." With that, Coulson dumped Clint onto the bed.
Clint blinked up at him. Coulson fussed at him until he was under the covers. "You need sleep."
Coulson climbed in on the other side and turned off the light. He reached out and squeezed Clint's shoulder. "Sleep. Everything else can be put off until tomorrow, or the next day."
Clint wasn't sure that was wise, but he was too tired to argue, and with Coulson mere inches away it was easy to drift off and stay under.
Leo gave Clint muscle relaxants, with the suggestion that he try taking a mild dosage and seeing if it could calm him enough to keep him under through the night. It didn't, and Leo wasn't wild about the idea of prescribing sleeping pills. Neither was Clint, so they gave up on that approach.
Having Kasi in bed with him—instead of in her self-proclaimed nest aboard the dryer—helped a little, her warmth evidently translating itself as a type of safety. But most mornings he woke up tired and feeling like all he'd done in his sleep was go seven or eight rounds with someone considerably bigger. He figured it was the best he was going to manage and reminded himself that before SHIELD he'd spent most of his life sleep-deprived, starved and often beaten, or worse. Feeling a little drowsy wasn't really a big deal.
He supposed he could go back to sleeping on the floor. It didn't really hurt anyone. Leo asked him, "Then what concerns you about it?"
Clint thought about the question for nearly a week before answering, "It feels like accepting I'm broken."
"People sleep on the floor, sometimes," Leo had said.
"People do," Clint had agreed. "Birds sleep there because they've been conditioned to. It's not comparing apples to apples."
"People," Leo responded calmly, "avoid walking under ladders because they believe it brings bad luck, they avoid airplanes because there's an infinitesimal chance of crashing. They have their own fears and worries."
"But not ones carved into them by owners."
Leo gestured with his hand, a way of agreeing to a certain extent. "People have scars, Hawk. Just because they still hurt, just because some days, they take pain pills for them, that doesn't make them broken by their past injuries."
"Not if they don't let it handicap them."
"And sleeping on the floor is such a big deal?" Leo raised an eyebrow.
"Every time I do it, I'm reminded that they've won. They've made me into the trained hawk, returning to the mews even after the jesses have been removed. I can't—I don't want to give them that, I don't want to."
Leo nodded slowly. "Well, then, for the moment, let's give it some time. Time is sometimes very helpful."
Clint took that advice, clinging to the belief he would get used to the mattress beneath him, the space between himself and the floor, the right to be there. He woke up every morning and told himself, "You'll sleep well tonight."
When Natasha took Clint apart on the mat a few weeks after he'd gone to sleeping with Kasi, she held him down and asked, "When was the last time you slept, Hawk?"
"Last night," he told her, honestly.
"No," she said, "slept, not closed your eyes, not laid down, not dozed off and on, slept?"
Clint knew better than to fight with Natasha when she was three-fourths or more right, so he just shrugged. She didn't let up on her hold. "Nightmares?"
He nodded. Letting her believe that was easier than talking about the real issue. Of course, this was Natasha, who was probably the best agent in the world at interrogation, so she just smacked him lightly on the side of the head and said, "Don't lie to me, Pigeon."
He glared. She'd come up with a variety of derogatory bird names for him that she used at times like this. "Turns out I don't sleep well in beds on my own."
He bucked underneath her hands. "Yeah, so can you just—"
She stood and hauled him up. "I couldn't sleep with someone for the longest time. Poor Maria, I would kick her out after sex pretty much every time. Progress was when I asked her to sleep on the couch."
She was pushing him toward the door and he asked, "Where are we going?"
"To get cleaned up and take a nap," she said casually.
"Unless you're set for a mission, which I happen to know you're not until physio clears you, and they want to wait another two weeks for reassessment—"
"That's private infor—"
"I'm a spy," she waved her free hand. "Anyway, my point is, you don't have to be anywhere, so showering and napping it is."
"Don't you have to be somewhere?" he asked.
"Not really," she said.
He tried, "Specialists are lower on the SHIELD hierarchy than agents, I could call Coulson—"
"Oh, please do. I'd love to see you try and convince him to side with you on this. And also, this isn't an order from someone who owns you by proxy; it's a friend being pushy for good reason." The asshole was left unvoiced, but Clint received the message all the same.
Before he knew it, he was in her quarters, which she maintained despite Maria and her having an off-base home. The two of them were at the base overnight all too often, so it only made sense. Clint blinked upon being shoved in the door: the studio apartment he was standing in was clean and organized, like he would have expected. It was also full of warm fall tones, a couch that looked worn but perfect to sink into, a bed covered in quilts that were fraying at the edges, and a kitchen with battered pots and pans hanging over the oven. Quietly, he said, "I like this."
She smiled, a little bit of pride in the expression. Then she said, "C'mon, the shower has great water pressure," and showed him to the bathroom, leaving a towel and a robe for him. He took his time, not just because the water felt good, but because he wasn't certain sleeping with Natasha was going to work the way it did with Coulson and he didn't want to know if it was just one person, if he was completely screwed in the instance where Coulson decided he could do better.
Finally, though, he made himself come out. Natasha pointed to a glass of water on the table, and slipped into the bathroom to take her turn. She was out within minutes, wearing a cami and boxers. Clint had emptied his glass. She asked, "You sleep with the prosthesis on or off?"
"Off," Clint admitted, "but—"
She just bullied him to the bed and gestured for him to do the releasing work. He hesitated. It was nothing she hadn't seen before and he knew, intellectually, it was nothing to be ashamed of, or find ugly, but he was working on the emotional knowledge aspect of that realization. She said softly, "It's all right."
He released the mechanism and pulled himself under the covers as quickly as he could. She climbed in after him, wrapping herself over him. She said, "Sleep, baby bird."
Clint huffed at that endearment at the same time as being calmed by it. She was warm around him and smelled like the rain-spearmint of her shampoo. He took a deep breath and before he knew it, he was asleep.
Phil read the report a couple of times, not so much because he hadn't understood it the first, as that he was giving himself some space to process what it said. Then, when he was ready to talk about it, he went and searched out Hawk. Phil found him pretty easily, since he was on the range, playing with a whole cadre of Stark's newest toys. Phil took a second to watch the two men discuss the pros and cons of the new inventions. Stark might be a gigantic pain in his ass most days, but Hawk and he got along like a house on fire. In his presence, Hawk was witty and happy and bright.
Phil took a breath and said, "Afternoon, gentlemen."
Hawk looked between himself and Stark. "I don't see any of those in here."
Phil gave him the look that meant he would be rolling his eyes if he did that sort of thing. Hawk clearly recognized it, because he laughed. Phil did his best not to acknowledge how that sound could still make him melt, just a little. Something in his expression must have given him away, though, or maybe Hawk had just gotten that good at reading his every cue, because he said to Stark, "Hey, can we have a minute?"
Stark waved a hand lazily, "Take ten, I wanna go talk with Birch's team about some specs."
When he was gone, Hawk collapsed his bow and put it away with the same care he always did. He said, "Something's on your mind."
"You've been cleared for active duty." Phil said it smartly, efficiently, the way he would for any other agent. He hoped, in any case.
Every muscle in Hawk's body stilled. "What? I mean, not what what, just—" He took a breath. "When was I even tested?"
"I suspect when Director Fury realized you'd breached level three security by scuttling around the air vents," Phil said dryly. "You're not always told. Sometimes it's pure observation. He probably figured if you could maneuver your way through aluminum silently with a leg made largely of combined alloy metals, you were decently safe to go in the field, and set the testers on you."
Hawk scratched behind his ear. "That breach thing was a mistake. I was trying to figure out the quickest way from the range to Natasha's quarters, just in case something came up."
"You're not in trouble. Some of the guys in security got a stern talking to, but no harm was done."
"Okay," Hawk said softly.
Phil bit back a sigh and went over to an observing bench to sit. "Join me?"
Hawk did, sitting close enough that their knees were touching. Phil asked, "Do you want to go back in the field?"
"I talked with Leo about it. A lot. About what I would do if I didn't, about what I liked and didn't like, all this shit I'd never even considered. It just was. People told me to do it and I did, and evidently I was so damn well trained it never occurred to me I might have a choice at some point." Hawk kicked his feet in slow circles.
"You were converted very young," Phil responded gently.
"Yeah, Leo says it's no good getting mad at myself for these sorts of things. I'm working on it."
Hawk made a face that Phil couldn't read. "I think I do want to go out there. I think I like helping people, even if the skill I have that can do that is letting loose an arrow or pulling a trigger. But I also haven't really known much else. "
He shifted a little more toward Phil. "I liked the animals on the farm, mostly, but I didn't really like all the other stuff with the harvest. I liked shooting at the circus, and the animals," Hawk smiled a little, clearly at himself, "but I didn't like being in front of people every night and never having a real home.
"I didn't like being someone else's gun, never really knowing what I was doing, never allowed to use the weapon I'm best with, but I do like knowing exactly what my mission is and the way you listen if I need to change things." Hawk massaged his predominant shooting hand.
"I'm no good for a desk job. My reading level's not up to it and I think I'd go crazy anyway. And I haven't got the skills for the sciences. I definitely couldn't do what Natasha does, but I think, maybe, in a few years, I could do what you and Maria do. I'm just not really sure I want to."
He hesitated. "I…I like roofs, and being able to see things, and the feel of a bow in my hands. So, I guess, I mean, maybe there's some dream job out there for me that I don't know about, and I'm missing it, or something. But I don't really care, honestly. I like where I am, what I'm doing and that's enough."
Phil listened to every word and assessed it. Finally he said, "Maybe with more pets, though."
Hawk laughed, and Phil knew it was the laugh he had for when he was laughing at himself before anyone else could. "Yeah, well, animals are honest and if they like you, it's pretty unconditional."
"There's a lot for animals to like in you," Phil said.
Hawk looked over. "From anyone else, that would be a veiled insult about Birds."
Phil kept his gaze. "I'm not anyone else. And there are other exceptions to that rule."
"You're the one I care about," Hawk said, and looked away. Phil closed his eyes for a moment so he wouldn't kiss the patch of skin stretching from earlobe to shoulder, bite at the outer ridge of the ear, start something he had no right to finish.
Instead he asked, "You'll come by and sign off on the reinstatement papers?"
Hawk nodded, still looking away. "Yeah. Course."
Phil stood. "I'll see you then."
About five weeks after Hawk returned to active duty, two things happened. The first was that Hawk began sleeping full nights through on his bed, alone except for the company of Kasi. He'd been slowly cutting down on impromptu naps with Natasha, or on Phil's couch, which was evidently close enough to Phil to keep Hawk under. Establishing himself in the field again was, so far as Phil could tell, the last push Hawk needed to help his slowly rebuilding-confidence, to take an important stride in the step-by-small-step process of recreating himself as an agent, a skilled specialist, rather than a Bird.
The second was that they morphed into the most effective pairing Phil had ever been part of. They were so effective, in fact, that Fury called Phil in three weeks after their assignments had begun again and asked, "How unethical would it be to lock Hawk into a contractor role post-buyout?"
Phil didn't bother to answer. Fury just changed tactics. "Well, then can you seduce him into staying by then?"
"Nick," Phil said.
"Kidding," Fury said.
"No you weren't."
Fury paused a second, then shrugged. "Not completely, but I do have rights as your friend to point out that the two of you act like teenagers at a school dance all the fucking time."
"The friend card, huh?" Phil raised an eyebrow.
"Sit down," Fury said, gesturing at the chair on the other side of his desk.
Phil did, but only because Fury was a friend, had been for a long time. It wasn't an order, and he knew it. "Even if he weren't a Bird, Nick, even if we'd brought him in as a free-agent, I would still be his handler. I'm pretty sure we have a sexual harassment policy for that sort of thing somewhere in the handbook."
"We have a handbook?" Fury asked dryly. "Has anyone beside you read it?"
"This isn't funny," Phil said, feeling exasperated. Fury was the last person he needed this from.
"No," Fury agreed, "it isn't. I've got a senior agent and a top-level specialist both being dumbasses because my senior agent thinks he knows better than everyone else. It's fucking with my specialist, and that's going to screw with my best team, which will epically piss me the fuck off, to be clear."
"Well, you either let him go free and give him unemployment, so he can have his own place and I can pursue the relationship without being like every other asshole owner he's ever had, or you deal with it. Those are your options."
Fury was silent for a long moment, and when he spoke, his Director tone was completely gone, which happened only very rarely. "Phil, I love you like a brother, and we both know it, but sometimes you're a pompous, self-important dick."
Phil just tilted his head, waiting. Fury followed the sentiment up with, "You're so worried about what you might be doing, how you feel, that you're leaving him to think you don't want him because there's something wrong with him. Maybe that you think the leg is ugly, or disgusts you, or maybe that he's been used by too many others. Whatever, I don't know, and I can't. But I know my agents, I know people, and I know that man looks at you with uncertainty, like he wonders what's wrong with him, why he's not enough."
Phil opened his mouth but then made himself stop and think about what Fury was saying. Finally, he said, "It might not be the worst idea to actually speak with him, instead of just—anyway, I'll…listen to him."
Fury's body language didn't change a bit, still strong and foreboding, as it always was. But the corners of his eyes softened, and he said, "You need to trust yourself more. Off the field. It's always been your biggest failing."
"Better than a lack of depth perception," Phil threw out casually, because he was one of the only people allowed to joke about it.
Fury rolled his eye and said, "Go, before I fire you."
Phil took his sweet time getting out.
When Phil said, "I think we should probably talk. About us," Hawk cocked his hip to one side the way he sometimes did when he was thinking about something—it made Phil want to grab both hips, maneuver them as he pleased—and said, "I kind of want Leo there, in that case."
The request surprised Phil, but when he thought about it, it was a really good idea. "You want to set up a separate appointment, or want me to come to one of your regular ones?"
Hawk had gone down to two sessions a week, and Phil knew he was thinking about cutting even further to one a week. Phil let him make those assessments, with the hope that he actually discussed them with Leo. It wasn't any of his business, and there was no question Hawk was doing better in pretty much every area of his life, so Phil figured the two of them knew what they were doing.
Hawk asked, "You free for a couple of hours Thursday morning? Leo'll let me extend the session if I say I need to."
"I'll clear my calendar," Phil told him, because the one thing he wasn't going to do was let Hawk think he was anything less than a priority. It was Tuesday evening, now, but Phil was a fucking professional. He could clear two hours of his schedule and shunt things off to other agents, making sure they were still accomplished.
"I want to talk, Hawk," Phil said, putting a mere fourth of his determination into his tone.
Hawk said, "That's…I guess that's good, then."
Phil never used Leo when he was made to attend sessions in the aftermaths of team loss or capture incidents. His therapist had a different specialty and a different approach. Leo and Hawk making themselves comfortable on the floor first thing was a bit throwing. Phil caught on quickly enough and joined them. He looked over at Hawk, who just shrugged. "By the time I was actually relaxed about sitting on the furniture, it had become a thing."
Leo told him, "You are welcome to a chair, if it will be easier."
Phil didn't want to be above Hawk. That was the last thing he wanted. "No, thank you."
Silence sat between them, not comfortable, but not tense, either, just…full of the unsaid. Phil decided he had made this move, had begun this, he would facilitate its progress. "You're the first person I've ever wanted to come home to every night. I've had other relationships, even been in love, but it was never like this, not before."
Hawk opened his mouth, but Phil said, "Give me two more seconds. The thing is, for me perhaps the central thing, is that I'm part of the organization that owns you. And so long as that is true, I don't think you can meaningfully give your consent to be in a relationship with me, even if that's what you want."
Hawk waited a beat after Phil had finished. Then he said, "Yeah, okay, fuck you, Coulson."
Mildly, Leo inserted, "Why don't you explain that sentiment, Hawk."
"First off, we both know I only have roughly eighteen months left on my contract and that it's more an independent contractor commitment than Bird. They took thirty-six months off for 'sacrifices in the line of duty' which is a nice-ass way of saying 'sorry you got your leg cut off on our watch,' but I'll take it. It's been another eighteen since, and six years is the longest SHIELD contracts for. Your ownership is something you hide behind."
Phil opened his mouth to argue, but Hawk said, "Nope, now I'm not finished. Secondly, you talk a good game about how I should make my own decisions, but when I do, when I say I want something, then you have to decide whether I really want that or not, whether it's good for me to want it, whether you approve or not."
"Okay," Phil said softly, mostly to give himself time to think.
Hawk breathed a little heavily and then said, "Huh, still not done. Because if that's some kind of excuse you use, something you tell yourself until the eighteen months is up and you have to come up with some other reason why you don't want an ex-Bird who's been used by so many people he lost count years ago and isn't quite symmetrical anymore, then it's fucking cruel and you should just say, because you're not usually cruel and I don't—I don't want that from you. "
Phil rubbed at the tightness in his neck and told Leo, "I'm going in reverse order. That's allowed, right?"
"Anyway you want to approach it," Leo agreed. "I'm just here to make sure the wires don't get tangled."
"One," Phil held up a finger, "there is nothing that was done to you that I care about, except in the way where I want to kill every last person who touched you without your permission. Two, you are beautiful. You are beautiful in the field, with the prosthesis on, and you are beautiful when you climb in bed at night and remove it, because when I look at you I don't see a summation of flesh and blood parts. I see you, the survivor, warrior, funny you, and even if I didn't want to touch every inch of you on a purely base, physical level, I would still want you at every other level."
Phil took a calming breath. "Three, no matter the dressing a Bird contract is still a Bird contract and while you may feel that you are free, should you leave tomorrow, SHIELD would still have the right to activate your implant. And until that is not true, until you can walk out of my door and have the chance never to come back, I will never know how to believe that you want me and not the comfort and kindness I have provided. This is not just about you. For the longest time, maybe it was, because you needed it to be, but not now, not anymore. I need to feel secure in the relationship, too."
Phil collected his thoughts for a moment and said, "Four, I'm sorry you feel I've been minimizing your decisions. That's…less a Bird thing than an agent-under-my-supervision thing. You can ask Tasha."
Hawk swallowed convulsively. "I kind of think you're an idiot and you don't understand anything right now, but that maybe I should move out for the last of the eighteen months."
"If that's what you want," Phil agreed, ignoring the way his insides felt like they were being slowly dissected and pulled from him.
"There's no want about it," Hawk sneered. "There's the way you clearly need to let me fly and see if I return to the mews."
"Clint," Phil said, because he couldn't call him Hawk just then, not when he was using it as a weapon against both of them. "You asked, that first night, if I meant to tame you."
"You said perhaps train," Hawk finished.
Phil nodded. "I was wrong. All I wanted—all I want—is for you to find your own flight path, your own hunting grounds, whatever, the metaphor doesn't matter. What matters is whether, once you've found your place, yourself, you want me to be part of that. It will not be you returning, it will be us meeting somewhere in the middle."
"I hate how much I want to make out with you right now," Hawk spat.
Phil rubbed a hand over his face. "I assure you, the feeling is entirely mutual."
Natasha and Maria helped Clint to decorate his new studio apartment at HQ. It was really nothing more than a kitchen with a counter for eating at, a corner with a bed, and a bathroom with a standing shower, but it was his, and the thought was novel. Other than the room Coulson had given him, he'd never really had a space that fully belonged to him.
They installed curtain rods around the bed and hung wine-red curtains that would enclose Clint when he so chose, hiding the light and allowing him the feeling of being surrounded; every once in a while he still needed that.
They took him shopping at thrift stores, where he built a small but serviceable collection of dishes and flatware, pots and pans, cups and glasses, as well as a nightstand and a lamp to go on top of it. He picked out a couple of books for himself. As a "housewarming" gift to him—Clint hadn't even known that was a thing—the women had framed a small print of a lion cub peeking out from dense leaves. He put it up on the most prominent wall, where both he and any guests would see it easily.
Clint had worried about Kasi having to change surroundings, but Coulson wouldn't hear of him leaving her behind. His gift had been a litterbox that looked like a cabinet and doubled as shelving space in the bathroom. It was probably the most bizarrely multi-purpose object Clint had ever seen.
The first night he stayed in the place, he found himself insanely lonely and glad Tony's gift had been one of the Stark Tablets set for release in six months. Clint could get movies and music and pretty much any kind of entertainment he wanted on it. He searched for back episodes of any and all cooking competition shows he could get his hands on. He liked the sound of the chopping, the talk about foods he'd never heard of. Mostly, he just needed the noise, because the silence made him want to give up, to crawl back to Coulson's and admit he couldn't be by himself.
For the first few months, Clint took more jobs than he really should have. It ended when he wrenched his shoulder in a quick dash to get down from a nest with a better escape route than anything around, but not a particularly good one. Coulson bullied him into going to medical, mostly by threatening to report him to Fury and looking disapprovingly at him, and said, "We're not doing this anymore."
Clint did his best to look guileless. "Working?"
Coulson responded with his unimpressed expression. "You've taken twice the number of missions of any other sniper. If you need something to do in your clearly ample spare time, get a hobby."
Clint went to Natasha for advice, willing to bet she'd be as confused by it as him, and that he would feel vindicated. As it turned out, however, she said, "I picked up dance again, when I got to that point. I stayed away from classic ballet and ballroom, because I wasn't ready to deal with the memories, but jazz and hiphop, or whatever they were offering at the studio nearby."
"I don't dance," Clint said. "I'm not sure I even have rhythm."
She rolled her eyes. "Duckling, besides arrows and Phil, what's your favorite thing in the universe?"
He glared. She just waited. He ventured, "Kasi."
"Animals," she rejoined.
"I can't get another pet. There's barely room for me and her."
"No, but you can help the ones that are waiting to be adopted," Natasha said.
Clint blinked. Softly he told her, "It—it can be hard for me, seeing animals in cages."
"Of course it can," she told him, her voice a mixture of sympathy and hardness. "But you're not the type to ignore something just because it hurts, not if you can make it better."
"Sure about that?" he challenged.
She didn't skip a beat. "Yes."
Clint made friends at the shelter pretty quickly, which was strange and startling and nice. They knew about his Bird status—he was required to report it on his volunteer intake form—but none of them appeared to care all that much, which was evidently pretty common amongst animal activists. It made a weird sort of sense. He told Natasha, when they were both lying on the mat, recovering from a sparring session, "I don't think I've ever had just…friends."
She said, "Don't be a dick, Budgie."
He laughed, even though he knew it would just encourage her. "Christ, where do you even come up with these things?"
"My endless thirst for knowledge," she deadpanned. "In any case, what are Maria and I?"
"Coworkers," Clint said first. Then, noting the suspicious blankness on her face, the kind he worked for when hurt, he gave in and admitted, "Sisters."
She blinked at that. He shrugged. She thought for a few minutes and asked, "It's different?"
"It's, I can't—casual, I guess. Yeah, different."
"Do you like it?"
He nudged her with his toe. "Not as much as this."
Clint smiled. "Yeah."
Gemma was the office admin who basically ran everything at the shelter, from the phones to supply ordering to keeping track of adoption papers. Jake was the one full-time employee who handled the care and feeding of the animals. Everything else was done by volunteers.
Jake was tall and good-looking in a wiry, geekish sort of way. He wore glasses that appeared as though they'd been borrowed from the forties and never given back, shirts with funny sayings on them, and had a smile that was literally impossible not to return. He'd been born in Montana, which Clint couldn't have even found on a map, and had four siblings. He had a degree from Columbia, something that made Clint certain Jake was way too smart to be hanging out with him. But for whatever reason, Jake didn't seem to mind that Clint's level of literacy was somewhere around a ninth-grade level and probably always would be, and that Clint hadn't even gone to middle school.
In the moments when they weren't cleaning out cages, or giving the animals baths or walks or any of the million tasks that needed doing at any time, Jake taught Clint how to play checkers, and Clint explained what he could of how to plot dart trajectories to hit the bull's-eye. Clint wasn't sure how it happened—he'd been certain that his attraction to Coulson was wholly emotional, that he couldn't even be attracted on a physical level anymore—but one day when a bath for the St. Bernard mix they had went horribly wrong, resulting in both Clint and Jake being soaked, one moment both of them were laughing, and the next Jake was pressing into him, his lips curved against Clint's playfully.
Clint had two thoughts. The first was that it felt nice, which was a surprise. It felt fun and sweet and like it might be enjoyable to reciprocate. The second was meaner, that Coulson deserved this for not believing him, not having the confidence that Clint could make up his own mind. The second wasn't fair to Jake, which was why he pulled back.
Jake flushed. "Sorry, man, I should've—I read the signals wrong, huh?"
Clint asked, "Signals?"
Jake tilted his head, frowning a bit. "I thought we'd been flirting."
Clint considered this information. "Maybe we—I've never flirted."
"I didn't mean—"
Jake waved a hand. "I'm not mad, just, well, that's a reaction I've never gotten before."
Softly, Clint told him, "I don't think it would be fair to you. To do that. I'm kind of—" messed up, emotionally invested elsewhere, not my own person, "not good for anything real, at the moment."
Jake's eyes widened. "Anything real?"
"Um, serious?" Clint needed a new vocabulary, evidently. He'd have to talk to Leo about it.
Jake grinned. "No, I just—I mean, you're good-looking as hell, way out of my league, and funny and nice and I figured, even if it was only a little fooling around, well, it'd be a good time."
The idea was foreign to Clint. He'd been something to use, and he'd fallen in love with Coulson, but never had there been anything in between. It felt a little bit like cheating. It felt a lot like an opportunity, a chance to learn things he'd never known.
Carefully, Jake said, "You don't have to say yes. I get that—there's no pressure. I'm not going to act like a dick if you say no."
Clint pushed back his fears, the part of himself that didn’t know how to be anything other than a used item. He didn't want to go to Coulson like that, didn't want to still be owned by people who'd long transferred his contract when he won this argument, won Coulson for himself. Curiously, he asked, "The leg doesn't bother you?"
Jake looked surprised. "Does it bother you?"
Clint's instinct was to deny all weakness. It was something Leo and he had been working on: the line between honesty and baring one's neck. He took a breath and said, "Yes, little bit. Still working on getting used to it."
"Okay, well, that's your own issue, just to be clear."
Clint leaned in and tried out a kiss again, less frenzied and more exploratory. Heidi the newly-cleaned St. Bernard attempted to get in on the action, which ended with them both laughing, their foreheads pressed together. It was different, but in a good way. Clint thought he might like seeing where it went.
Clint told Natasha after the third time he and Jake ended up making out in the shelter bathroom for the entirety of Jake's lunch break. It was all they'd really been doing, that and a bit of rubbing up against each other, but nothing beyond that. Natasha and he were in the canteen when he said, "There might be this thing, between me and the shelter guy."
She looked up from her salad and then said, "Good."
"I kind of expected you to defend Coulson's honor," Clint told her.
"I could beat you up. If that's your thing," she offered.
"No, I just—"
She put a hand up. "You know Perla down in IS?"
Clint flipped through his mental catalogue of SHIELD personnel. "The girl from Guadalara? Great dimples, algorithms savant?"
"Yup. We were a thing for about a year before I finally made a move on Maria. Not a…not in love. Maria calls it 'friends with benefits,' which I suppose is as good an expression as any."
Clint had heard the expression often, but it had always seemed like something people did, not Birds. His definition of himself was becoming increasingly unclear. Leo was encouraged by this. Clint was discomfited by it, but then, he'd been going out of his mind when he started noticing his desire to touch Coulson, so he suspected discomfort was a necessary part in the process of putting himself back together.
When Clint didn't respond, she asked, "You like it, right? I mean, it's fun?"
Clint nodded. "It's…new. Sex or anything like it being, um—"
She raised an eyebrow.. "Consensual? Not about an ulterior motive? Not painful?"
Clint made a face. "All of the above and a few more things, I guess."
"Enjoy it, Hawk," she said softly. "It's well-deserved."
Clint held her gaze. She wasn't smiling, just looking at him with something that might be her version of fondness, Clint couldn't always read her expressions. Whatever it was, it wasn't disapproval. He was working on the whole making-decisions-for-himself thing, but it didn't hurt, having someone at his back. He reached out and squeezed her hand quickly, and then went back to eating, allowing her to pretend like she hadn't offered the support and him to play at not needing it.
After Phil had ground Jasper into the mats for two weeks straight during sparring, he received an email. The email announced the formation of a SHIELD intramural baseball team and had a note from Fury at the top, "Be there."
Phil considered ignoring the command. Fury was one of the only people who knew Phil had gone to University of Chicago on a baseball scholarship, because Fury was the kind of asshole who knew everything about everyone. Meaning Fury had orchestrated this purely for Phil, and, well, Jasper, who was evidently tired of getting his ass kicked.
In the end, he obeyed like a good little soldier because ever since Hawk had started walking around with more relaxed posture due to some punk kid named Jake at the animal shelter—Maria was better for information than most people thought—smacking shit around with a stick sounded like a pretty good idea. It had been a long time since he'd played, especially with any seriousness, but he was still in peak physical condition and there were some things the muscles just didn't forget.
Haddie Young, one of Woo's field operatives, had evidently attended Rice on a softball scholarship, and adapted to the differences between games quickly. By the third game, Phil and Haddie weren't allowed to play on the same team. It was good, though, an hour or two where his mind could go quiet, underneath his concentration on the game. It made him not want to kill certain civilians whose only crimes were finding Hawk hot. At least, it lessened his desire to kill. Maiming was not entirely out of the question.
He knew he didn't have the right to feel possessive, to the heated thrum of jealousy that ran along his nerves nearly every waking moment, but unlike so much in his life, he seemed incapable of controlling it. The worst were nights when he actually went home, to silence and an empty second bedroom. He had accidentally cooked for two three times in the first month of being on his own.
At the two-month juncture, he called up a friend from his Ranger days and said, "Coffee?" which had always been code between them for, "Casual sex?"
The guy apologized and said, "Married. Two years."
"Oh, hey, well, congratulations," Phil said.
Going to an Aviary—nice name for a business that catered in Birds performing sexual acts—wasn't even a thought, and the only person Phil knew who might have a beat on a legitimate escort service was Tony Stark. Phil would literally die of jealousy and sexual frustration before he went to Stark for this problem.
Eventually, he came to the conclusion that his options were to look pathetic or completely lose his mind and decided that, long-term, the former was preferable. Phil went and rang Hawk's doorbell. Hawk answered a moment later and blinked at Phil. "Did I forget to fill out a form?"
"No, uh. Can I play with Kasi, for a bit?"
Hawk's expression softened. "Yeah, of course, come on in."
Kasi was as pleased to see Phil as he was to see her, which Phil figured was something. Phil knew he should also be grateful that his working relationship with Hawk continued to be easy, the two of them as good a team as ever. That last was hard, though, when it just made him want Hawk all the more.
Phil sat on the floor and cuddled with Kasi, letting her climb all over him and teasing her with laser lights until the buzzing in his mind quieted a bit. Hawk, who was sitting on his couch, watching a program about the history of weapons, said, "You know you can come any time, right?"
Phil hadn't known. "Wouldn't want to intrude."
Softly, Hawk said, "Don't know how you'd manage that, sir."
It settled Phil, just a little. Jake might be touching where Phil wanted to caress and lick and hold, but he didn't have this part of Hawk, these quiet moments, this welcome into Hawk's inner sanctum. Phil gave Kasi one more full-body scratch and stood. "Night, Hawk."
Hawk smiled. "See you tomorrow."
Natasha came into Phil's office by way of the vents, and Phil said, "You two are officially no longer allowed contact of any sort."
"Okay," she said, and sat down on his desk.
He looked at her then, because Hawk pulled little stunts like this occasionally, pushing boundaries, seeing what would happen, delighting in not being taken to task. Natasha, though, could figure out the boundaries without having them shown to her, so this was unusual. He asked, "Everything all right?"
"He's doing this for you, you realize?" She sounded determined and uncertain all at once. Phil had learned how to listen to her a long time ago.
"I have, once or twice in my time, been known to stir up a little jealousy in others for fun. I get it, Tash."
He started to go back to work, but she pushed the requisitions list he was filling out aside. "No, you don't."
Her tone was low and almost upset, and he asked, "Tash?"
"I won’t say he doesn't like that you've been showing him more attention. It would be a lie, and a stupid one at that. But that was a surprise to him, which you'd know if you thought about for all of ten seconds."
Phil tilted his head. "Tell me about it anyway."
"You can't believe someone will be jealous about you fooling around with someone else if you don’t think that person is actually, truly interested in the first place." She sounded like she was talking to someone mentally challenged.
Phil felt like he had the right to be just a bit confused, though, because, "I went to a therapy session with him. I explained—"
"Wanna imagine how many times Hawk's had something good actually happen in his life?" Natasha asked with an edge to the question. "You can talk all you want, sir, he won't believe a thing until probably, I don't know, a few years from now when he wakes up and realizes that this is his life and he has you, and he can keep you."
Phil acknowledged Natasha's point with a roll of his hand. "If it's not to make me jealous, then what is it?"
Natasha shifted minutely, a physical tell meaning she wasn't sure she should answer. "I should make you figure it out on your own."
Phil just waited. She would come to her own conclusion of what to do. She sighed. "It's to be whole for you."
Phil frowned. "He is whole."
"No," Natasha shook her head. "He's healing. He's patching up the wear and tear. But, see, for you, sex is either a pleasant pastime or an act of emotional giving. For Hawk—"
"It’s always been force and powerlessness and probably pain," Phil finished, seeing the big picture, embarrassed he'd had to be essentially led to it by his hand.
"I—It can't be fun," she said quietly. "If Maria did it, I wouldn't know what to do with myself. But you forced the issue of him taking this time to figure himself out. You used your power imbalance, no matter how well-intended. Don't be hypocritical about it, not now that he's trying so hard to do what you supposedly wanted."
"I'm trying," he told her, and it was the truth, he was. He just missed Hawk, and, if he was completely honest with himself, he worried that Hawk might find out, in his explorations, that Phil wasn't what he wanted, wasn't who fit with the person he had decided to be. Phil would respect that, but he thought it might eat at him until there was nothing left but a shell of competence and professionalism.
Natasha cut into his musings with a, "Stop worrying. You're borrowing trouble."
"It's always nice when I get to give it back," Phil quipped. He hoped, in this instance, he had the chance.
Around the fifth month or so into when Clint and Jake had started fooling around, long after they'd progressed to handjobs after the shelter closed, friendly coffees at the café next door, and the occasional blowjob, Jake came around one day acting nervous, like he didn't fit into his skin. Clint asked, "Everything okay?"
Jake gave a half-hearted smile. "I asked Gemma to cover things for an hour or so, wanna go get coffee?"
"Sure," Clint agreed.
Once they'd ordered and settled at a table, Jake said, "The thing is, I kind of…met someone."
It took Clint a second, but then he laughed. "I'm sorry, I just, all this nervousness to tell me we can't get each other off anymore?"
Jake shrugged, but his body language had relaxed. "People sometimes take these things badly."
"I told you upfront that I—"
"Yeah, but you never talk about him. I thought it was just posturing."
Clint blinked. "Huh. Well, I'll show you mine if you'll show me yours."
Jake grinned. "Mine's a neuroscience professor at NYU."
"Impressive," Clint acknowledged, "but mine's a government agent who saves the world every three days or so."
"If I didn't know you, I'd think you were still covering, just so we're clear," Jake said. Then, "So if you've got a thing for him, why aren't you…I mean, you can't tell me he isn't interested. Nobody that dumb would be able to function at a high-level capacity."
Clint thought about all the possible answers to that, the ones he worried about, that maybe Coulson was just sorry for him, trying to let him down easy once he was free, to straight-up lies, but in the end he settled on, "The government agency he works for bought me. He's waiting for my contract to be up."
Jake's eyes widened a bit. "Wow."
Clint was surprised at how easy it was to talk about it. Maybe it was that all those sessions with Leo had brought Clint to a point where saying what he needed to about himself was easier in general. Or maybe, he thought, he just wasn't ashamed of who he was anymore, the cards life had dealt him. He said, "I tried to convince him, but…I actually think he was right. It's sort of sucked, not having him around as much, not having what I want from him, but at the same time—" Clint shook his head, unsure of how to explain.
Jake asked, "It's given you a chance to figure out what you want?"
Clint gestured appreciatively with one hand. "That. Exactly."
"Was I part of that?"
Clint made a face. "Would you be pissed if you were?"
Jake tilted his head, thinking. "Kind of flattered, actually, I think."
Clint smiled. "In that case, thank you. For…everything, really."
Jake returned the smile. "So, are you going to shut up and let me rhapsodize about my boy, or what?"
Clint took a sip, and shut up.
Fury called Clint into his office which had never happened before, not without Coulson. Clint reported promptly and stayed standing. "Sir?"
Fury looked at Clint for a moment and then said, "Sit, Specialist."
Clint took a seat, his stomach dipping in perilous ways. He hadn't felt on edge all the time in months, but it wasn't an unfamiliar sensation. "Have I—Agent Coulson hasn't told me of anything I've done wrong."
Fury's expression was unreadable. "You've done nothing. I wanted to speak about bringing you onto SHIELD as a fifth level agent on a three year exclusivity contract."
Clint's mind stuttered. It took several moments for him to understand, and even then all he could say was, "You want…me."
"You had to know this was going to happen. We would have had you stand down long ago if we had any doubts regarding your abilities."
Clint had lost track of time, only letting himself live one day at a time, afraid he would go crazy if he did otherwise. It was something of a shock to the system to realize he was close enough that Fury was talking to him about his future, about making the choice of whether he wanted to stay with SHIELD or go elsewhere. The idea of having that choice wasn't something he'd really allowed himself to think about. He said, slowly, "Can I read the contract?"
"We suggest you do. Also that you seek independent counsel in reviewing it. We have contact information for lawyers who cater specifically to transitioning Birds."
Clint hadn't thought about that. He hadn't thought about a lot of things. It worried him that he might not know how to live in the world as his own person. He'd never actually done it. Even so, he wanted to give himself a chance to think about the choice, to deal with the novelty of it. He nodded toward Fury and said, "Thank you, sir. For the opportunity. Opportunities."
"One way or another, it's been a pleasure, Specialist." Fury pushed the contract across the table. Clint took it, stood up, left the office and, as soon as he could, made his way into the vents to give himself space to think.
Two hours later, Clint dropped out of the vents over his room, stored the contract there, and made his way to Natasha's apartment. It was a Friday. If she wasn't on a mission, she'd be at home. Clint really hoped she hadn't shipped out. He would meet with Leo on Wednesday, but in addition to Leo's professional third-person opinion, he needed the thoughts of someone who would understand, to some extent, where he was at. He knocked on the apartment door, and Maria opened it in boxers and a cami. She said, "This had better be good."
"Fury offered me a contract."
She stood back and let him inside. "Nat, your brain twin is here."
Natasha appeared in a robe. "Cock-blocking now, Canary-bird?"
"Why'd you stay with SHIELD?"
Natasha looked at Maria, who walked across the room, kissed Natasha quickly and said, "I'll be in the study."
"C'mon," Natasha said to him, and made her way into the kitchen.
Clint followed her. "Sorry about…I know you guys don't always get a lot of time together."
"I'll forgive you this once," she told him. "Oolong or Darjeeling?"
"Oolong," Clint said, recently educated in the world of tea choices by Natasha. He watched as she heated the water and set the proper amount in strainers.
She brought her cup and his to the table and sat down. "When did Fury tell you?"
"Couple of hours ago. I've been thinking about it."
"Good word for it," Clint agreed. "I can't help thinking if I have the option to say no, maybe I should."
"Okay," she said easily. "I figure you know it's not easy for a recently bought-out Bird, so we'll both assume you have some idea of what saying no means."
"I think Jake and Gemma would help me find a job, get on my feet."
She arched one eyebrow, unimpressed. "Because clearly, Maria, Phil and I would just drop you if you no longer worked with us."
"I don't have a lot of history to go on, in the instance of understanding friendships." He leaned into her a little, wishing he knew if he was allowed to touch.
She solved his problem for him, scooting closer until their knees were pressing against each other. Clint couldn't feel it against the mechanical joint, but the feel of her against his flesh-and-bone leg was comforting. He asked again, "Why'd you say yes?"
She twisted her mouth up a bit and then said, "Maybe a bit out of fear."
Clint could understand that. Still, "But not all. Not you."
Natasha breathed in, releasing the breath slowly. "The night after Fury told me—I holed up in my quarters nearly twenty-four hours—Maria and I were lying on grass up on top of quadrant four at HQ, stargazing. And she asked what I wanted to do, what I would do if I could have any job in the world."
After a moment, Clint prompted, "And?"
Natasha smiled, a soft, fond little expression. "I said I'd be a professional dancer. And she said, 'then let's make that happen,' and I—I guess I felt like someone who would fight for all my ridiculous dreams was someone I wanted to be standing by, saving the world with."
Clint tucked his legs up and wrapped his arms around them. She asked, "What would you want to do, Clint, if you could do anything in the world?"
Clint rested his chin atop his knees. "Rescue a horse and have somewhere to ride it. Cook dinner with Coulson once a week. Have new bows to play with when Stark thinks up something cool." He kept thinking. "I…don't really have exciting dreams, I guess."
Natasha shook her head, smiling. "You know what I want to do more than anything in the world? What, if Maria asked me again, my answer would be?"
"Sometimes, on a morning after a mission, when one of us is a little banged up but not too bad, we'll stay in bed late reading the New York Times online, getting up only to grab coffee and a bagel from the kitchen and bring it back. We might even fall asleep again, curled up. Those moments. They wouldn't mean anything without the missions, but in the big picture?" Natasha shrugged, her eyes a little bright.
"You think I should stay with SHIELD," Clint said, not so much a statement as a question of sorts.
"No, Hawk. I think you should make your own decision about that. But I think it should be about what you want and not what you think you should want. You've had enough of other people determining your destiny. Don't let this be one more instance when it happens, especially when it's your first chance to do otherwise."
Clint considered her words and stood up. He leaned over to kiss her head. "Thanks for the tea, Tash, and the advice. Tell Maria sorry."
"Somehow, I think she'll find it in herself to forgive you."
Phil received notification Hawk had signed a five year agent contract through HR. He read the email twice, stood up and went to go get coffee. If by chance, on the way to get coffee, he happened to pass by the range—which was two floors and nine corridors out of the way—that was just happy coincidence. He wanted to congratulate Hawk, after all, on his promotion.
Hawk wasn't shooting when Phil walked in, instead retrieving arrows. Phil paused for a second, not sure what to say. He was hurt by Hawk's decision not to even tell him he'd decided to stay with SHIELD—Fury had informed him Hawk was taking some time to think it over, since all Phil had known was that they'd offered a contract—but aware he probably didn't have the right to be. He was about to speak up, say something about how he was glad to hear Hawk was staying on, when Hawk, without turning around, said, "I slept above your office last night."
Phil said, "Comfortable," for lack of any other response.
Hawk laughed a little. "I had this whole plan. I was going to pop in once you got there, going to tell you about how I was staying, but not if you were just going to throw out your status as handler as another reason why we couldn't get together."
"Okay." Phil paused. "What happened to the plan, exactly?"
"I chickened out."
It was strangely heartening. Hawk was the bravest person Phil had ever met, hands down, in a lifetime filled with Nick Fury and Natasha Romanoff and other strangely courageous people. After the last eighteen months of exploration, Phil had almost expected Hawk to be able to take on anything. Somehow the fact that he still had soft spots inside himself made it easier for Phil to ask, "What are you doing a week from Thursday, in the evening?"
"Assuming we don't get a mission?" Hawk asked, turning to look at Phil. "Nothing I know of. Nat and Maria are throwing me a dinner party Wednesday night, but I'm guessing you're invited to that."
It was a party celebrating Hawk's release from his contract, since it would end as soon as the clock struck twelve-oh-one AM on Wednesday. "I'm bringing dessert."
Clint nodded. "What did you need me to do on Thursday?"
Phil shook his head slightly. "I was hoping you'd agree to go on a date."
Hawk's facial expression was heartbreakingly open, at least to someone who knew how to read him. "A date?"
"Traditionally when two people who might have similar interests have a meal or coffee or—"
"You think I need to be wined and dined?" Hawk looked as if he had no idea what to think of that.
Softly, Phil told him, "It's more that I think you should be."
Hawk rubbed at his neck. "Do I need to dress up? I don't think I have anything dressy."
"You can come in sweats if you feel like it. I can adapt my plans to your comfort."
After a long pause, Hawk smiled. "That sounds fun. What time?"
"I'll swing by your quarters at seven."
Hawk's smile widened. "A date."
Phil found himself grinning back. He walked by Hawk, close enough to pass his fingers over the knuckles of the hand hanging at Hawk's side, and then made his way out. It was time for coffee.
When Phil knocked on Hawk's door, he answered practically before Phil could get his hand down. Hawk was wearing black jeans and a blue button-down. Both items had Natasha's handwriting all over them. Phil almost gave in and kissed him breathless right then and there but he was determined to do this right. Hawk deserved it.
Phil held up the candied pineapple he'd brought. Hawk wasn't a fan of being drunk—understandably, given how out of his own control most of his life had been—nor was he much into chocolate, outside of Mounds bars, but he loved candied fruits of pretty much every variety. "Evening."
Hawk immediately looked vaguely terrified. "I didn't get anything."
"Gifts aren't necessarily meant to be reciprocated," Phil said gently, and handed the package over to him. Hawk stuck it on the key shelf next to his door. Phil asked, "Ready?"
Hawk stepped outside the door, keying the locking mechanism. "Where're we going?"
Phil smiled. "Trust me?"
"More than I really should," Hawk said, his tone a little resigned.
Phil just said, "Then trust me," and took them down to his car. The ride to where they needed to go was about an hour. Phil let Hawk fuss with the radio.
Halfway there, Hawk said, "It's kind of weird that it doesn't feel any different, you know?"
"Being free?" Phil guessed.
"It's like…when I was first converted, it was all I wanted, ever. Being free meant being away and I didn't even care if I was hungry or cold because half the time I was anyway, and it just, it seemed like it would be better to be that way on my own, without the—without being hurt."
Phil resisted both the urge to hunt down the asshole who'd first bought Hawk and remove all limbs and appendages with his bare hands, and to reach out and squeeze Hawk's arm. He felt like this might not be the most appropriate time for contact.
Hawk leaned on the car door, his head tilted against the glass of the window. "But then I—I don't know. I never wanted to be owned. But it was what I was used to. I think I forgot I ever really knew anything else. And then I was being sold again and I thought, I guess I thought if I could go out on my own terms, or something even close to them, I'd be as close to free as I'd ever really get.
"Only, you bought me," Hawk said quietly, sounding a little lost. "And SHIELD gave me back the world—a job, and friends, hobbies, a life—and even though I know it's not, I really know all the ways it matters, my Proof of Buyout feels like just another sheet of paper."
"I'm not sure there's any one way you're supposed to feel," Phil said.
"It just seems like something I should be more elated at." He paused. "Mostly, I just wanted to go on tonight's date with you, which wasn't going to happen without the paper."
"Maybe freedom, like relationships, is nothing more than a collection of moments, good and bad."
"I think that's all I want," Hawk said.
Then it's what I'm going to give you, Phil promised silently.
The ranch Coulson pulled up to was evidently owned by a college buddy of his. Coulson told the woman, Sigourney, "I really appreciate this."
Sigourney rolled her eyes and told Clint, "This man here set me up with my husband and the father of my four children. A few hours of free riding is the least I can do."
Clint nodded, interested in the way he was in all things about Coulson's past, but too distracted by what was behind the stable doors to be paying too much attention. Sigourney must have noticed, because she laughed, "C'mon, let's get you guys saddled up."
Clint was rusty at saddling horses, but his muscles remembered most of it, both from the farm and the circus. Sigourney gave him a gorgeous chestnut Hanoverian named Astor, which, she informed him, meant Hawk in old English. Clint fell in love at first sight.
Once he was in the saddle, it took him a while to adjust. He'd ridden some in the circus, for the purposes of entertaining the crowds, but it was not nearly as familiar to him as the care of the horse. Astor seemed to take his inexperience in stride, showing off his skills as a riding horse. Clint said to Coulson, "I didn't know you rode."
"I don't much. But Sigourney and her husband have me up here whenever they can tear me away and over the years I've learned a thing or two. I just thought you might enjoy."
Clint didn't bother hiding his smile, wide and happy. They rode for two hours, Coulson telling him stories from college and his Ranger years, most of them starting with something like this: "Have I ever told you about the time a squadron leader of an attached unit decided to have a wet t-shirt contest in Bavaria right in the middle of winter with no available women?"
Clint spent a lot of time saying, "No," and then shaking with laughter when Coulson told him the stories. Eventually, though, it was getting too dark to ride and they had to turn back. They both helped unsaddle, brush down and feed the horses. Coulson hugged Sigourney and she lectured him about staying away so long.
She hugged Clint, whispering in his ear, "You're good for him," and then she was off, leading Clint to wonder what made her think that.
Coulson asked, "How does chicken pot pie and apple cobbler sound?"
"Like a cruel tease, given how hungry I am."
Coulson grinned. "There's a greasy spoon a town over. You're going to love it."
Phil walked Hawk back to his quarters when they made it back to HQ somewhere around midnight. Hawk leaned against his doorframe and said, "So, wanna go out with me again?"
"Always," Phil responded immediately. "I take it you want to plan our next excursion?"
"I do," Hawk agreed, bouncing on his feet a little. He said, "Well, um, good night?"
Phil closed the distance between them and pressed a lazy, gentle good night kiss to Hawk's mouth. "Sweet dreams."
He made himself walk away before he could follow it up. He was three-quarters down the hallway when he heard Hawk say, just loudly enough to reach him, "Phil?"
He turned back. Hawk was standing just outside his doorway, an unbearably lonely figure in the long stretch of black metal. Phil made his way back. "Yes?"
"Would you stay?" He asked softly. "Just to sleep, not—not for anything else." He looked to the side, away from Phil. "It's been so long. I've waited so long."
Phil was done not giving Hawk the things he wanted. Maybe it was wrong, maybe Hawk wasn't quite where he needed to be to know precisely what was real and what was conditioning, Phil couldn't say. But he'd done his part. He'd left Hawk to his own devices, let him go out and find his feet and turning him down now would not only rob both of them of what they mutually wanted, but it would make Hawk correct. It would mean Phil was simply substituting his judgment in for Hawk's about what was good for the other man. He didn't have that right, didn't even want that right. "Yes."
Hawk didn't give Phil the chance to change his mind, pulling him inside. He said, "I've got an extra toothbrush."
They stripped down to their boxers, Hawk putting his clothes away, Phil folding his and setting them on the sofa. Brushing their teeth together was so achingly familiar Phil found himself wanting the moment to last forever, even if the two of them weren't so much as touching. Hawk led their way to the bed and mumbled, "Sorry it's not as big."
Phil kind of liked it, actually, more reason to wrap himself tightly around Hawk. Kasi curled herself up next to Hawk's head, which she'd clearly established as her spot, and mewled approvingly. Phil laughed a little. "Glad you approve."
"This was what I missed the most," Hawk whispered, but it was loud enough Phil knew he was meant to hear.
"I missed it, too," Phil told him. Then, because he thought Hawk might need to hear it, "I missed you."
"What did you miss the most, though?"
Phil thought. It was hard to differentiate, the last eighteen months running into one large memory of partial emptiness, right where Hawk was supposed to be. Finally, he decided, "Your smile, the real one you get when something genuinely delights you, taking you by surprise."
"My smile?" Hawk seemed underwhelmed by this, or perhaps just worried that somehow it wasn't enough, that Phil was lying to him, unwilling to say what his favorite really was. Phil didn't kid himself that Hawk's trust issues had disappeared completely.
"It took me forever to get one out of you. Over six months, actually, until you were willing to do anything but quirk up one side of your mouth."
"You're one to talk, Agent Stoic," Hawk said dryly.
"But my reticence is professional, yours was personal. The first time I saw the real thing, I think that was probably when I knew I was completely fucked in regard to you."
Hawk laughed a little at that. "I'm pretty sure I always was, from the second you caught me escaping and fed me instead of all the other things I'd imagined you doing."
"No, that was just you being unused to kindness. If that's still why I'm here, I'd prefer you find someone you actually love for themselves, because I don't really want to be the only one in love in this relationship, even if it means giving you up."
Hawk's grip tightened. "I'm not allowed to love you for your kindness?"
"Not just for that, no," Phil said softly, swallowing and closing his eyes. The room was dark, but he knew Hawk could see in the dark, like a damn cat. He hoped Hawk wasn't looking. This wasn't something he wanted anyone else, even Hawk, especially Hawk, to see.
"Just at first," Hawk told him. "Then it was the way you made me laugh, even if I didn't let myself laugh out loud until later, the way you could kick pretty much anyone's ass in a suit and come away barely ruffled, your patience when teaching me to read, the way you move whenever you're doing a task, contained and elegant, the curve of your—"
Phil kissed him, reminding him, "Just to sleep."
Hawk kissed back. "You asked."
"Want my list?" Phil asked.
"Is it as long?"
"Longer. Much, much longer," Phil told him.
"Can I get one a day?" The question was hesitant.
Phil infused his smile into his tone. "I like that idea."
"Mm," Hawk agreed.
"Sleep tight, babe."
Hawk nuzzled Phil's neck. "Do I get to have pet names for you, too?"
Phil knew a trick question when he heard one. "Within limits."
"Dammit," Hawk grumbled. Phil fell asleep still smiling.
Clint found the first item on the list in a note wrapped around the shaft of an arrow he was inspecting. He was careful to check all of his equipment on a regular basis, as well as before a mission, to avoid any unnecessary equipment failure. Clint frowned at the piece of paper encircling the shaft and plucked it off. He noticed the handwriting inside immediately; he would know Coulson's handwriting anywhere. The note read, "Because you like caramel, but not toffee."
Clint re-read the words, certain he'd sounded them out wrong, even if that hadn't happened in over a year. But no matter how many times he went back to the first letters, it always came out the same. He went to Coulson's office and walked in, stating, "This is a stupid reason. And not real. If you didn't want to say, you could have just—"
Coulson raised his head from whatever he was working on and said, "You don't get to judge my reasons."
That brought Clint up short, because put like that, he was being kind of an asshole, instead of the other way around. But he waved the piece of paper in the air, "What kind of a reason is this?"
"It's a reason that signifies to me how distinctive you are. I don't know anybody who likes caramel and not toffee, or vice versa. They don't taste all that different. And yet you drown your ice cream in caramel sauce but won't go near a Skor bar. It's odd and I love it." Coulson said this last as though he were explaining how to fill out a form, as though it were just a fact.
Clint blinked. "I…I guess that's acceptable."
"Glad you approve," Coulson told him, clearly sarcastic. "Go away."
Clint stuck around for a few more minutes, just to annoy him—just to be near him—but then obeyed, going back to his weapons check.
The next day, when he left his room in the morning, there was an envelope hanging from the upper frame of the door. Clint nearly walked into it. He yanked it down and opened it up to read, "Your kindness toward animals and creatures you see as being unable to defend themselves. In anybody else, compassion would have been long gone after what you've lived through."
Clint went back into his room and tucked it alongside the other note inside the empty nesting doll he had, a strange gift from Natasha that somehow, being from her to him, made sense to both of them.
The third note appeared in his pocket—and he knew it hadn't been there when he'd put the pants on that morning, which, as a stealth agent, was disconcerting. On the other hand, the pocket was a cargo pocket next to his mechanical leg, so that, at least, made him feel slightly better. Also, Coulson was kind of an entity to himself, which Clint thought might be a factor in all of this.
The third note said, "Your favorite color is purple, and you've been ashamed about a million things—none of them shameful—but that you've never flinched from admitting."
Clint thought about that one for the better part of the day and then sought Coulson out. "Is it about me liking purple, or about me knowing it's nothing to be ashamed of?"
Coulson fixed him with a fondly amused look and asked, "Why do you think it's one or the other?"
Clint sighed. "You're better at this game than I am."
Coulson snapped into seriousness. "This isn't a game, and neither one of us is better than the other."
Clint could feel his shoulders hunch up. He forced them down. "I just meant that my reasons were all obvious things. The stuff anyone would notice."
"Give me an example." Coulson sounded doubtful.
Clint said the first thing that came to mind, "I like your cooking. I mean—"
"My cooking, or the things I cook?" Coulson asked.
Clint opened his mouth to say that the two were the same, but then he thought about it. "The way almost everything you cook has a story and you'll tell me that story. The way you cook because it…it's part of taking care of me."
"So," Coulson summed up, "because it lets you into my life, lets you know you're trusted and makes you feel loved?"
Clint understood. "More complicated than I thought."
The next morning a post-it note appeared on Clint's coffee cup when he walked away for two minutes. It said, "Because, despite everything, you still find wonder and enjoyment in simple pleasures."
Coulson loved doughnuts of all shapes, sizes and ethnical origins, but there was nothing he loved so much as a cinnamon cake doughnut from Mike's. Clint brought half a dozen to Coulson's door on the eve of their first date planned by Clint. Coulson took one out of the box while leading Clint into the apartment and said, "We're sharing, right? Either that, or you're fattening me up for the slaughter."
"I'll let you decide," Clint said, and did his best to ignore how much the apartment still felt like home.
Clint watched as Coulson put the remaining five doughnuts in a Ziploc. He told him, "We are going to dinner, you know?"
"I'm man enough," Coulson informed him.
Clint raised an unimpressed eyebrow. "We'll see."
For dinner, Clint had decided on a Sri Lankan place Coulson had introduced him to almost two years earlier, one they both loved. They shared an appetizer sampler, then ate their weight in Kotthu Roti and mutton curry.
They made their way to the theater district. Clint had bought tickets for an Off-Broadway production of Sarah Ruhl's "Clean House," because Coulson liked plays that were funny and moving and Clint had scoured all the reviews online of the different options and decided upon this one. In the dark of the theater, just before the stage lights came up, Coulson kissed the corner of Clint's mouth and whispered, "Because you are everything I've ever wanted."
Clint spent the first half-hour of the play unable to understand English, let alone follow the plot. After he regained his bearings, he got his revenge by placing his hand on Coulson's thigh. Coulson didn't even twitch, the bastard.
At intermission, though, he said, "I'd like it if we went back to my place after this and ate doughnuts."
Clint grinned. "I'd like that, too."
If he lived to be three billion years old, he would never remember how he sat through the second half the play. Clint hesitantly curled his hand around Coulson's as they fought their way through the post-theater crush of midtown, and Coulson squeezed, not letting go even once they were in a cab, or to let Clint pay. It wasn't until they were back in the apartment that Coulson let go, and then it was only to pull Clint closer to him by Clint's hips.
Clint's lips found his immediately, by instinct, and when Coulson opened up, he moaned. Coulson pushed back a little, until Clint's back was against the wall, and something in the back of Clint's mind tried to remind him that he shouldn't like this position, it didn't allow him easy escape, but he couldn't be bothered to care. Coulson was warm and solid and just fucking right against him, and all he could think was, finally.
Coulson pulled back long enough to say, "Fuck, Hawk, the things I want to do to you."
"Anything," Clint breathed, and he meant it. He trusted Coulson not to choose things that would awaken demons, not to poke at wounds that would never heal quite right.
"Tell me something you want," Coulson ordered, his voice ragged. "One thing, I don't care. I just want to hear you say it."
A million possibilities crossed Clint's mind. What he settled on was, "I want to touch every inch of you, with my hands, with my mouth, with both, just keep touching."
Coulson was already unbuttoning his shirt. Clint's hands went to the buttons on Coulson's jeans, only pausing long enough for Coulson to nod before opening them up, helping to get the man out of his clothes as quickly as humanly possible.
No sooner was he completely naked than Coulson began stripping Clint and despite his still uneasy relationship with his body, it made Clint feel gorgeous, desirable. Especially when his last strip of clothing was off and Coulson stood back, his eyes wide, with an expression Clint didn’t recognize, but he thought it was the look of someone getting something he'd always wanted and never believed he could have.
Clint hated to break the mood, to take anything away, but he asked, "Can—can we do this on a bed? I've never, I mean, before, yeah, but that wasn't, that was just when I was a thing and I'd—"
Coulson kissed the words off his tongue, their cocks brushing, nearly bringing Clint out of his skin. Coulson pulled back just enough to touch their foreheads together and say, "We can do this however you want, wherever you want for the rest of our lives."
Clint shivered at the intensity of the promise, the feeling of utter truth it carried with it. He realized he was digging his fingers into Coulson's arms, more than hard enough to hurt, but Coulson hadn't moved, hadn't flinched. Clint loosened his grip and said, "Sorry, I didn't mean to."
"If wearing a t-shirt into the office wouldn't cause half the organization to think they'd lost their minds, I'd wear one until the bruises faded. And then I'd get you to make new ones."
If Coulson kept this up, Clint was going to come without being touched, which would be both disappointing and embarrassing. He started pushing Coulson backward, toward the bedroom. It took a while to get there, since both of them had to stop every few steps to kiss some patch of skin on the other, run a finger over previously unexplored territory.
When they managed to get there, Clint pushed Coulson onto the bed and laughed as he scrambled to get atop him. Coulson didn't throw him off, didn't act threatened, just looked up at Clint and laughed a little in response. Clint laid down over him, burying his face in Coulson's neck to ask, "D'you mind if I keep the leg on? It's easier to move."
Coulson forced him up, forced Clint to meet his gaze. "I'm going to say this as many times as I have to. I do not now, nor will I ever, care about what you do with your body so long as it doesn't hurt you. Your body was the last thing I began noticing about you. And while I never stopped being able to after I did, it was…your body was sexy and delicious because you were. And that will always be true. Whatever scars or imperfections you see yourself as having, I'm blind to them, or they just make you better for me."
Clint had so many things to say to that, too many, so in the end he just leaned down and kissed Coulson until he was breathless and pleading into the kiss, and then he worked his way to Coulson's neck, biting into his shoulder, licking at the soft skin on the inside of his elbow, sucking on his index finger.
Coulson sometimes said something, quiet, sweet things, and low-spoken filthy ones. Mostly, though, he touched Clint anywhere he could make contact and seemed to work on continuing to breathe. When Clint rose up from where he'd been exploring the arch of Coulson's feet and swallowed his cock in one fluid, hungry motion, Coulson swore and nearly came off the bed. He would have, if Clint hadn't taken the precaution of pinning Coulson's hips down before he began sucking the man off.
He took it slow after the introductory volley, a challenge, really, until Coulson actually made a broken, pleading noise. Clint pulled off and asked, "Do you want to finish now, or later?"
Coulson didn't answer, instead panting, "I want you in me. Now."
It was an order, and Coulson seemed to realize it, apology writ large across his face. Clint surged up to kiss it from his features, to let Coulson taste some of his wonder. He dragged himself away and asked, "Stuff?"
Clint laughed and Coulson smiled, hazy and eager all at once. "I've been hopeful."
Clint grabbed the supplies and set them down next to him before hooking his hands under Coulson's knees and pushing back until he could easily begin prep—with his tongue. Coulson didn't even bother to keep quiet at that point, swearing in languages Clint wasn't sure really existed. Clint took his time. He'd waited so long, been so good, just for this, this moment where he got to draw Coulson out of his skin, his armor, and see him plain, be the only person who truly got to see him.
By the time Clint hooked Coulson's knees over his shoulders and pushed in slowly, determined to feel all of it, let this be a memory he could keep safe, Coulson's muttering had become incoherent. Clint, pressed into the hilt, whispered, "I love you."
The fog in Coulson's eyes cleared and he blinked up at Clint. Clint repeated, "I love you."
"Not half as much as I do," Coulson mumbled, the words thick and a little slurred, his breath hitching as Clint pulled out and pushed in, working the correct angle.
"Oh," Clint said, his own voice high and reedy, "is this a competition?"
Clint gripped Coulson's cock tightly in his fist and pulled in time with each stroke. Coulson arched off the bed and came, taut with it. Clint rode him through it, holding on, because he was getting to see Coulson. He wanted to return the favor.
When Coulson smiled sweetly up at him and said, "Hey," Clint couldn't have held on any longer if his life had depended on it. So he didn't.
Clint woke up to the brush of lips against the back of his neck and a murmured, "Love you."
For a moment, Clint breathed in, just living in the feeling of security surrounding him. Then he squirmed in Coulson's grip so they could be facing. Coulson bit at Clint's bottom lip and said, "Tell me what you're thinking right now."
"What I'm thinking?" Clint repeated.
"Whatever it is. Silly or mundane or mean or anything. Just what's on your mind."
Of course, now that Coulson had asked, there wasn't a single thing on Clint's mind other than what to say. Coulson said, "Hey," and passed his thumb over Clint's cheek. "The first thing I thought when I woke up this morning was, 'my bed's never going to feel right for one ever again.' And then I admitted that it hadn't in a long time."
The admission eased Clint's mind. He knew it should be obvious, the two of them still in bed together, Coulson having waited, having given him space even when he didn't want it, having never required anything in return, not even that Clint come to him when all was said and done. He doubted it was something he'd ever be able to take for granted, to know so certainly that hearing it wouldn't help calm him. He said, "That I want to wash you."
"Yeah?" Coulson asked.
Clint closed his eyes for a moment, pulling his thoughts together. "When you first brought me home, the best part was doors that closed. I thought it was an illusion then, a promise of safety without any weight behind it. But being able to shower alone instead of with someone who desired servicing or a Flock, because water's a more precious commodity than most Birds, the first time I did that it was…I kind of thought I could die, then, and it wouldn't be so bad, having had that one moment to myself, hot water and shampoo that smelled clean and a room full of heat and steam that was mine and nobody else's."
Coulson said, "You don't have to share that."
"I want to," Clint insisted. "I haven't in so long, not with anyone. I want you in that space. Just you and me."
Coulson smiled, something like awe in the slight curl of his lips. "C'mere."
He tugged them out of bed and down the hall to the bathroom. Clint locked the door, despite nobody else being in the apartment. They brushed their teeth as the water heated, and then Clint stepped in, pulling Coulson in after him.
They took their time. They washed each other's hair, stood in each other's space under the spray, rocking against each other into an easy morning release, and then washed up from that. Clint mumbled, "I want a doughnut."
"Seconded," Coulson agreed.
They didn't rush toweling each other off, though. Clint pulled on his training clothes, watching as Coulson buttoned his shirt, tied his tie, put his immaculate professional self together. It was almost as good as watching it all come off.
Clint made them coffee and they ate at the table, Clint leaning back in his chair, his feet propped on Coulson's lap. Coulson chewed thoughtfully at his doughnut, washing it down with coffee and asked, "I should wait before I pretend I'm not begging you to move back in with me, shouldn't I?"
"Probably," Clint agreed. "I don't know. I'd have to ask Leo. I'm evidently not objective about the things I want."
"Do you want it?"
Clint resisted the automatic urge to say yes. The place was familiar in a good way, a soothing way, but his rooms had become so as well. They were something he had created, something he could look at and see himself in.
After a moment, Coulson said, "It's all right if the answer is no."
Carefully, Clint shook his head. "The answer is that I want to live with you. I miss that. I have since I left and even if it's changed, it's not…desperate the way it first was, it's still there."
"But?" Coulson prompted.
Clint took a breath and made himself be the person he'd learned to be, the person Coulson had evidently known was in him all along, even when Clint hadn't. "I want some place that's ours. Not—not just yours."
Coulson blinked slowly, and Clint very nearly lost his nerve, nearly admitted that between Coulson's apartment and being apart, he'd take the first any day. Then Coulson said, "Yes. We should have that."
It was Clint's turn to feel taken aback. "We should?"
Coulson's eyes crinkled, warm and bright and all Clint's. "We definitely should."
When Fury walked into their house—a little three bedroom attached brick in the Flatlands—Hawk muttered, "I'm ninety-nine percent sure that a housewarming party isn't supposed to include terrifying bosses."
Phil said, "Unfortunate that we invited him, then," but he gave Hawk's shoulder a fortifying squeeze.
Phil went over to greet Fury and, looking at the gift box in Nick's hands, said, "You realize Stark put in every security device known to mankind and some unknown before we moved in, correct?"
Fury didn't even bother to look annoyed, just said, "Ha. Ha. It's from your registry. I don't have time to come up with gift ideas for you people."
Phil considered the size of the box. "The ice cream maker?"
That Fury did conjure a glare up for. "I'd better get some motherfucking rum raisin out of this deal, Agent. Or your ass is fired."
"I'm pretty sure the etiquette of housewarmings, sir, requires that you—"
"Stop before I have to punch you and ruin the rugs."
Phil just gave him his most beatific and shit-eating grin. Fury didn't scowl or even roll his eye, but he said, "Careful, or I'll make the case that you've had more success with Bird recruitment than any other agent, and put you in charge."
Phil looked over at where Hawk was assembling the gorgeous, complicated wind chime Birch had constructed out of arrow parts, Birch talking at him a mile a minute. He said, "We're friends because you've always known where the line was, Nick."
Fury reached out and put a hand on Phil's shoulder, squeezing infinitesimally. "I'm glad sending him home with you worked out."
Phil raised an eyebrow at that. "You didn't know it would?"
Fury smiled enigmatically and went to go get a root beer float. In his wake, Pepper came to stand by Phil's side. She said mildly, "I let the children out to play."
Phil looked over, and sure enough, Stark, Birch and Hawk were in the small plot of grass off the back side of the house, evidently planning something, if the wild gesticulating happening was anything to go by. He asked, "Tree house?"
Pepper squinted. "Either that, or a carousel."
Phil laughed, but the truth was, if Hawk said he wanted a carousel in a tree in their back yard, Phil was going to force Stark and Birch to find a way to make it happen. He could barely wait a month for Hawk's birthday, when he was taking him to the shelter and having him pick out a rescue dog of his own choice. He said, "Thank you for your gift. It was too generous."
Pepper's face lit up. "He loved it. You should have seen him when he first spotted it."
Phil had sent Hawk to find them a new bedset, something that was theirs. He'd specified, "Wood, not metal, please," and left everything else to Hawk. In turn, Hawk had asked Pepper and Natasha to accompany him, since he enjoyed both their interior decorative approaches. When he'd come back later that day he'd been skittish, and Phil had had to ply him with loaded baked potato soup and an after-dinner brandy to get him to admit Pepper had insisted on buying the frame as a housewarming gift.
"It was…I wasn't going to get it," he'd said, and there'd been a wistful sadness to the statement that made Phil glad Pepper had simply taken charge. Hawk continued, "It's really too much. Too much money and too much, um, I can't explain. I think you might hate it."
Phil understood how Hawk might have thought that when he first saw the piece. It was a king-sized frame made from redwood trunks that had been smoothed and treated, but not changed from their natural form. Four of them rose up, posters that bowed into a canopy, accompanied by forest-thick leaves of green silk. It was grandiose, yes, but it also made the bed a sanctuary, a place of escape. Phil looked at it and thought of how long it had taken just to get Hawk to sleep on one and said, "It's perfect. It's better than anything I would have chosen."
Hawk had rewarded him by christening the bed, pulling Phil down onto the decadent mattress they'd splurged on to make full use of it.
Phil made small talk with Pepper for a bit longer before wandering over to claim some of the cracked pepper water crackers and brie, and going to find Hawk, who had since evidently returned inside and was hiding out somewhere. He discovered him in their study, folded up in the nest they'd created for him between bookshelves, on a window seat they'd had installed. Kasi was perched on his knees. Natasha was folded up across from him, Maria sitting on the desk a bit to the side.
Phil sat in the space beside Maria and asked, "Am I not invited?"
Hawk screwed up his face. "I'm not a very good host. And I like all the people out there."
Phil had finally gotten to meet Jake and his professor boyfriend, Boyd. The fact that while introducing them, Hawk had kept a possessive arm around Phil's shoulders had helped take some of the bite out of his jealousy. Gemma had come as well, charming pretty much everyone with her Buddy Holly glasses, deep brunette ringlets and a manner that reminded Phil of something out of a childhood book, perhaps Anne of Avonlea. Last he'd checked, Jasper and she were going through a frightening amount of coffee and had taken over the kitchen table to discuss board games.
"They're all too taken by your apple crumble to even notice we're missing," Phil told him.
Hawk grinned. "The currants were a good addition."
Natasha made a face. "The spanakopita was better. Did you put feta in it?"
Phil nodded. "Feta makes everything tasty."
The four of them sat in comfortable silence for a while, Maria sipping at her glass of mulled wine, Natasha occasionally poking Hawk with her feet. Maria broke the lull by saying, "The house really is nice. You—be happy here."
Hawk looked at Phil and said, after a moment, the expression in his eyes warm and confident. "Anywhere."