A/N: So this is it. I appreciate all the support, follows, favorites, and notes everyone has left. Just in time for real life to kick back in after summer break, I am calling this finished. Thanks to dysprositos for outstanding beta-ing and general encouragement.
Clint woke feeling heavy; his shoulder ached dully and his back was stiff from two nights in a row on a couch, but he felt rested, and he had woken up feeling safe two days in a row. Safe was unique and good. He liked Phil's apartment for a lot of reasons, but one of them was the sight lines. Phil had decorated it with agents in mind, it seemed. Lying on the couch he could see both the entry door and the large dining table between the door and the hallway back to the bedroom.
He glanced at the table and saw Phil sitting there, wearing his jeans and a green sweater over a white button down, hunched over a file with a pen in his mouth. His laptop was next to the file, and there were a lot of other files strewn across the table. There was a cup of something sitting in front of the laptop, and there was classical music playing softly from his iPod on the kitchen counter. Clint just watched him work for a minute, soaking in the familiar scene, enjoying Phil focusing on something other than him for a minute.
"Creepy staring-thing, Barton," Phil said through the pen in his mouth without looking up, and then he stole a glance at Clint and gave him a small smile.
Clint stretched on the couch and sat up, rubbing his hand through his hair. "Does m-medical know you're studying this hard?"
"Just double checking some other people's work, really," Phil said, leaning back in his chair. "How are you feeling?"
Clint shrugged. "R-rested. Achy. H-hungry. Take your pick." He stood and headed for the bathroom, not sure if he really wanted to open a conversation with Phil right now. He was grateful for being able to say the things he said last night, but now. . . now he wasn't really sure it was a good idea to hang around and open the door for more. As he stood in the bathroom brushing his teeth, he realized that Phil had to be at least a little pissed at what he'd said. A little. Maybe a lot. Shit.
He suddenly needed to leave. He half stumbled out of the bathroom. He couldn't ask Phil what he thought about their conversation. Phil would try to be nice about it – that was Phil – but he'd be hiding his thoughts, and Clint couldn't take that right now. Hiding was something he did. Not Phil.
He grabbed his coat and stood by the door.
Phil looked startled. "You're leaving?"
"Yeah, I've g-got an appointment pretty soon. I need to g-get back. If you want me t-to send s-someone over to pick you up later and b-bring you in to work, I can do that."
Phil put the pen down and crossed his arms. "Maybe you could come get me after your appointment?"
Clint ran his hand through his hair. He knew Phil was trying to corner him, get him to come back. Get him to talk. He sighed inwardly. Maybe after a little breathing room, he'd be ready to talk. Phil was usually smarter about the whole communication thing anyway. He should follow his lead as usual. It had worked for them before. Clint would get annoyed, upset, or angry and then would disappear for a while. Phil would wait patiently for a given amount of time and then come looking for Clint or . . . yeah. This was all pretty familiar, actually.
"Okay, I'll c-come b-back after my appointment. I'll t-text you when I'm on m-my way," he said as he opened the door to leave.
Phil simply said, "I'll see you later, then," and Clint nodded and closed the door behind him.
Clint didn't actually have an appointment for another hour, so he took a little time and took the long way back to the SHIELD headquarters. He turned his music up, put on some speed and drove for a while.
When he arrived at headquarters he headed for his therapy appointment. His arm was feeling better, stronger, and the therapist pushed him hard for it and made him compensate for the arm by kicking the shit out of the rest of his body so that by the end of the session he was soaking wet with sweat and his other muscles were shaking with exhaustion. He took a shower and decided that food was what he really needed. He needed it more than a guilt-ridden conversation where he tried to backpedal over comparing Phil and SHIELD to Loki. He sighed and went to find someone who could go get Phil.
Out of convenience he checked the mess hall first, and he was rewarded with Bruce just picking up a takeout order.
"You're r-resorting to SHIELD f-fare, doc. That can't be good."
Bruce looked up and grinned, "All nighter in the lab forced my hand."
Clint shrugged. "You taking that back to the Tower or what?"
"I was just going to find a quiet spot, really. A couple of SHIELD scientists are expecting me back this afternoon."
"Can I ask you a f-favor?" Clint said. Bruce nodded and Clint added, "Can you t-take it back to Phil's apartment and let him k-keep you company while you eat and then g-give him a ride back here?"
"Is he expecting you?" Bruce said.
Clint nodded. "I've g-got some things to d-do that c-came up."
"Okay, sure. I'll go get him," Bruce said.
"Thanks," Clint called as Bruce left. Avoidance of issues accomplished.
He was tired, so he headed back to his quarters and laid down for a while. He didn't sleep, though, and after a bit he headed down to the gym to see who was there. Natasha and Steve were sparring, so he settled onto a bench with a bottle of water and heckled them while they fought. When they were done, Natasha emerged from the showers and convinced Clint to go to a strategy meeting with her. He was cleared for it, and had been told that if he was feeling up to it he could come, so he joined her. It was good, getting his brain focused on something else for a while, and when the meeting was over he was practically humming with contentment about his day.
Of course, he'd been avoiding Phil, and Phil was around by now, so after the meeting Clint headed for someplace out of the way but good for him. He stopped by his quarters and picked up a book he'd been working on and a bottle of water, and he went to the roof. No one was supposed to be able to get to the roof for security reasons, but Phil had long ago given Clint clearance for sanity ones. Phil knew best how Clint decompressed, and after having to choose between an official reprimand and clearance enough times, he'd just given Clint free run of it. He wrote it off as Clint was able to perform security from there if necessary, and Fury understood.
Clint wandered the edges for a while, and then settled into a corner with his book, enjoying the silence and the fresh air. An hour later he heard footsteps approaching.
"I figure you're avoiding me," Phil said, standing above him and crossing his arms. He looked tired, but not really angry.
Clint looked up and shrugged. "Maybe a b-bit."
Phil sat down next to him and pulled his knees up to his chest. "Why?"
Clint mirrored him and said, "Why? R-really?"
"I thought we had a good conversation last night, Clint. I thought we figured some things out. Then you ran out and hid all day."
"I f-figured you'd had t-time to get mad about what I s-said," Clint said softly.
"Mad? Why the hell would I be mad, Clint?"
"B-because I c-compared you to Loki."
"You did? Hmmf. I missed that part," Phil said, a little smug. Clint just stared at him, not sure where he was going with this. Phil said, "I heard you tell me that Loki conjured feelings that reminded you of how I made you feel, how SHIELD made you feel. You were comparing feelings, Clint, not me and Loki."
Clint felt something unlock in his chest and he looked up at the sky. "You're not mad at me?" he asked.
Phil leaned over and put his arm around Clint. "No." He paused. "It makes sense," he said. "But I hope you'll realize that the feelings he stirred up and my feelings aren't the same, though." He looked over at Clint.
Clint thought for a moment. Phil's pride in him was what changed everything for Clint after he'd been brought into SHIELD. Clint had worked for people before, and he had always just been a punk, or a weapon, or a punching bag or some combination of all of that. When he got to SHIELD and they treated him like he had something good to offer, it was incredible. They acted like he was giving it to them. And when he realized later that Phil was personally proud of Clint and thought of him as a real person, a colleague and friend, it filled Clint with a purpose and drive he'd never felt before.
That was it. He took a deep breath and felt relief wash through his body like a wave. He shuddered and then leaned into Phil's arm and put his head on Phil's shoulder. He was silent for a while, and then he sat up and looked into Phil's eyes.
"You're amazing, you know," Clint said. Phil chuckled. "No, really. You are. Loki made me proud of what I was doing, made me feel special; that's true. But you made me feel proud of who I was, and I'd never been proud of who I was. You did that. Loki didn't do that. He could have cared less who I was. You put who I was before any mission or order since the day you guys found me." He paused as he realized something else. "You were proud of me. Loki was proud of what I did. There's a difference, and I know which one means more."
He leaned in kissed Phil, long and slow. His chest filled with warmth as Phil leaned into the kiss, pressing his tongue into Clint's mouth and reaching around with his hands and pulling Clint closer. After a moment, Clint pulled back and then leaned his forehead against Phil's and ran his hands through Phil's hair. "Thanks," he said gently, and Phil nodded.
"I love you," Phil said. "I always will."
Clint just grinned and pulled him into another kiss. Finally, they pulled apart and Clint said, "Can we leave work early today, Boss?"
Phil gave a put-upon sigh and said, "I suppose. Just this once."
They made their way back to Phil's apartment and Clint managed to let them both get in the door before he pressed Phil against the wall and kissed him hard and aggressive. He tugged on Phil's hair and then pulled his suit jacket off of his shoulders, tossing it on the couch. Phil pulled Clint's jacket off and tossed it to the floor. "Mine can get dirty but yours can't," Clint murmured through a kiss.
"You can get me as dirty as you want, but no, not the jacket," Phil replied.
"As dirty as I want, huh?" Clint said, undoing Phil's tie as he ran kisses down his neck.
"Mmmhmm," Phil replied, pulling Clint's t-shirt off and then tugging both of them down the hall to the bedroom.
They savored each other. They made love slowly, deliberately that night, feeling every bit of the other in a desperate attempt to make sure they were still whole, and when they finished, they lay sated on the bed, wrapped in each other's arms. It wasn't late, but they both fell asleep and Clint felt like he was home again as he slipped into his slumber.
A few hours later, Clint woke up to Phil's screams.
Clint felt panic wrap itself around his heart and he sat up, watching in horror as Phil twisted in the sheets, sweaty, trembling, and yelling "No! Don't choose! Clint, don't choose!"
He would have just sat there in shock, but he realized that Phil was close to hyperventilating and was going to fall out of bed if Clint didn't help. So he leaned in and pulled the sheets off, and then wrapped Phil in his arms, tightly. He spoke as calmly as he could. "Phil, you're s-safe. You're safe and I'm here. We're in your apartment and you're safe and I'm safe and p-please calm down, Phil. You're safe." He pulled Phil closer, into the space between his legs, so that he could wrap Phil in his own body entirely, cocooning him in an embrace.
After a few minutes Phil quieted, now just mumbling, "Don't choose, Clint, please. Don't choose." His hair was sweaty and he was trembling, but he wasn't hyperventilating anymore. Clint rubbed his hands up and down Phil's arms, wiped his face with the sheet, and watched as Phil clenched his eyes shut, still not really aware of what was going on. "Shhhh," Clint whispered, still rubbing Phil's arms, "Go back to sleep, Phil. I'll w-watch over you. You're safe." And he watched as Phil sunk back into sleep with trembling hands and the words, "don't choose, Clint," fading on his lips.
Clint held him all night. He held him and felt his weight on his chest as if Loki had stabbed him instead of Phil. He watched Phil sleep and stayed awake, and whenever Phil started to stir restlessly, Clint ran his hand down Phil's cheek and whispered, "You're safe. No one is choosing anything, shhh," and Phil would settle and cling to Clint a little more as Clint tried to puzzle out what choice could have Phil so terrified. He had no idea, though, and so he just watched and reassured and told himself over and over that Phil loved him, that Phil saw him as a man to respect, and that Phil would not really be afraid of Clint again.
The hours were long, but finally Phil stirred in wakefulness, and Clint rolled him off of his chest and onto a pillow, brushing his hand through Phil's hair. He tried to smile reassuringly as Phil opened his eyes and was instantly awake in true Phil fashion. "Morning," he said, gently. Phil grinned up at him and Clint felt the chill of watching him trapped in nightmare melt a little bit, and Phil leaned up and kissed Clint slowly.
"Good morning," Phil said, pulling away from the kiss. Clint felt him look him over in assessment mode, and a frown pulled at his face. "Did you sleep?"
Clint shrugged. "A little. You had n-nightmares."
Phil sat up, pulling the sheets around him a little tighter and his eyes darkening with concern. "Enough to keep you up most of the night?"
Clint nodded, "I wanted to m-make sure you were okay." Clint felt himself stuttering again. He thought he'd shaken it yesterday, Phil's confidence in him assuring him enough that the hesitant stutter had disappeared for the afternoon. He wanted that confidence back. He looked away from Phil, afraid that Phil would see the weakness creeping back into his eyes.
"Clint," Phil said, leaning into him and pulling Clint's eyes back with his voice. "What happened?"
Clint pulled his knees up to his chest and wrapped his arms around them. "You were d-dreaming of me – in a bad way. You k-kept yelling at me not to choose, you were screaming in desperation about it, like something I did was going to hurt you again. . . . . I'm s-sorry for whatever I did. I must have done something. S-something awful."
Phil was quiet, and then he got up out of bed and pulled on his underwear. He went to the bathroom for a few minutes and Clint just sat on the bed, rocking back and forth, his head on his knees. He heard Phil come back out and he looked up. Phil had washed his face and smoothed his hair down and found a t-shirt – god, he looked good to Clint. He just wanted to pull Phil back into bed and fuck him, to ignore whatever else was going on and lose himself in Phil's body, to feel reassured in the easiest way. But he didn't. He held himself even tighter and tried to stop rocking nervously.
Phil sat down on the edge of the bed and started talking. Clint could hear him trying to sound calm, trying to slip into Agent Agent voice, as Tony would say.
"I have a recurring dream. You and Loki are standing on a pedestal and Natasha and I are standing below you on a stage or something. We can't move at all, can't look at each other or talk to each other or anything. Loki turns to you and asks you to choose which one you love the most and promises to kill the other one, letting the one you love the most live. I have to watch as you lean over and answer him, and then he disappears and reappears behind me, running his staff through my chest."
Clint looks up at Phil and reaches for him. Phil looks surprised, but leans back into Clint and holds his hand. Clint pulls him closer and wraps his arms around Phil's chest, pulling his back against his own body and holding tight. He can feel Phil trembling a little against his chest, and he can feel his own heartbeat against Phil's back. He takes a deep breath and smiles a little, even though Phil can't see it.
"Loki's a trickster," Clint says, his mouth against Phil's ear. He can feel Phil stiffen a little bit when he hears that. "Loki loves to mess with mortals, you know that, Phil. Even if that scene happened, and I don't remember everything about when I was with him, including that, but even if it happened, how do you know what I said?"
Phil shrugged. "I guess I don't."
"I do," Clint said, and Phil pulled away from him, turning around so he could see Clint clearly.
"You said you don't remember that happening," Phil said.
Clint shrugged. "No, I don't remember it. But if it did happen, there's only one answer I could have given."
"What?" Phil asked, quietly.
"I can't." Phil looked confused, so Clint explained. "You said he asked me to choose. I can't choose. There's no way, Phil. You know what Natasha is to me. You know what you are to me. There is no choice available there. Loki chose, not me. I don't care how mindfucked I was, Phil. I could not have made that choice. And you know it. Deep down you know it."
Phil stared at Clint for a long time, and then he nodded. "Yeah, I know it." And he leaned back into Clint and let him hold him, and after a while they both fell asleep again.
Clint woke first, and he smiled as he watched Phil's face, slack and relaxed in sleep, with no hint of restlessness. He stood and went into the bathroom, washing his face, brushing his teeth, getting the morning started. He padded quietly out to the kitchen and started a pot of coffee and rustled through the refrigerator for some eggs and cheese and began cooking. He'd have breakfast ready; he'd have the newspaper on the table, the news on in the background, juice in the glasses. He'd set up for a normal day so that they could get start to get used to it again, could start to feel together again, could start to feel safe again, when Phil woke.