For this prompt at Avengerkink: Clint and Phil are having an argument; it's heated and ugly. Then Phil hits Clint. Clint goes down and goes quiet. That Phil hit him isn't shocking. That it took so long was. Clint knew it was too good to think he had lucked out of a relationship like his parents. Phil meanwhile is confused because he expected Clint to strike back and fight him.

Warning: domestic violence (brief) and mentions of past abusive relationships

A/N: So a huge thank you to my beta, dysprositos, for this one. We had to work through some serious stuff to get this where it needed to be. Please be aware that this is a delicate and important subject, and I hope I've treated it with the respect and caution it deserves. PM me if you think anything needs to be handled differently and I'll be happy to discuss it with you.

He thought of a dime-store drinking glass shattering in the stainless steel sink as he rubbed his hand across his bloody lip and leaned his head back against the apartment wall. You know, the kind of glass that breaks at the slightest touch, thin and cheap. That was him: He broke easily, and quick.

He might have believed he was made of thicker glass when he was with Phil, not like his past attempts at finding someone to love. The men in his past had pushed him fast and hard and he shattered early with them, leaving in the middle of the night after only a few dates, nursing a sore jaw or a black eye and sighing at the inevitable conclusion of the attempt.

With Phil, though, it took longer.

A year and a half, almost exactly. That's what had messed him up with Phil. It hadn't happened quickly, so he started to get complacent. When it finally came, he wasn't surprised, really, but he'd allowed himself to hope against it. He was clearly wrong. He was still cheap and fragile, after all, and good at finding angry men.

He wiped his hand across his lip again and then stared at the blood like he was in a trance.

The fights didn't happen often between him and Phil, but when they did, they were loud and they were long. Shouting matches that escalated as two men who had to keep an extraordinarily high level of calm about themselves at work loosened their ties, undid a uniform. They peeled away the fondant-like layer of cool and collected and exposed themselves to each other each night, touching raw nerves, unleashing pent up anger and frustration in a verbal battle of wills.

Clint had described the few shouting matches they had to Natasha as 'epic.''

She'd pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes and said, "Everyone misuses that word, you know."

He'd shrugged and said, "Well, you've never stood in the same room with Phil Coulson screaming at you, have you?"

She conceded the point and added, "I have a hard time imagining it."

Clint had smiled and said, "Well, it doesn't happen very often and it's usually my fault," and they'd gone back to their card game or chess game or whatever in relative silence.

Tonight, Clint had said, "I wanted to hang out tonight," in exasperation as Phil sat at the dining room table doing paperwork at ten o'clock. Phil hadn't looked up, hadn't taken the bait. He rarely did. Clint huffed and threw his coffee cup in the sink with a clang. Phil still didn't look up from his work. He had stripped off his jacket and tie when he got home, so he was in his white shirt with the sleeves rolled up and a mug of tea next to the stack of papers he was working on.

Clint didn't get the argument he was hoping for, so he stormed into the bedroom. He'd asked Phil at breakfast if they could do something together than night – play cards, have sex, watch a ballgame, have sex – anything. Clint had just gotten home from a two-week long mission the day before and needed to be with Phil – the come-down was feeling rough. Phil had shrugged and said, "I'm working on a big report. If I get enough done on it, sure."

He didn't get enough done.

Clint pulled on his sleep pants and a t-shirt and padded back out to the living room and turned on the ball game. He hoped it would lure Phil away from his papers. He might have turned the volume up a little loud just to annoy him a little.

"Clint, could you turn it down, please?"

Clint ignored him.

"Clint. This project is important. It's the CIA project and I've got to get these maps figured out." A pause. "You're not helping."

Clint was tired, and suddenly tonight felt like all the late nights spent working at the table rolled into one. All he wanted was to hang with Phil and ignore work for a couple hours. That's all he wanted, so he ignored Phil's request again as his resentment rose.

"Clint." Phil's voice darkened and Clint knew he was pushing, but he still ignored him.

And then Phil was standing from the table, bitching about the volume, and then they were yelling again. Claims from both of them about overwork, too much time on the range, too much paperwork, no time just staying home and 'why do you let Fury push you around' and 'how do I 'let' him push me around?'

"He's Nick-fucking-Fury, Clint. Director of the planet's premier defense organization. I signed up so he could push me around. So did you."

"Well, it wouldn't kill him to get his paperwork at nine instead of eight tomorrow, god damn it."

"So we can watch a game together? I think it would, you idiot. This project is important."

Clint went still as the sound of that familiar word echoed in his memory and he stood up, moving closer to Phil. "Fuck you, Phil. You're so wound up; you can't relax for more than an hour at a time. How do you think that makes me feel around here?"

"Fine. I'll just work at the office tomorrow night."

"Not what I meant, Phil."

"Then be more clear, Clint," and Phil's voice was rising. "I told you when we started this that we'd still have to plan our dates, that work piles up and Fury counts on me to be prompt. I told you that late nights would be normal."

"Yeah, you did. I don't have to like it, though."

"You're acting like a child, Clint," Phil growled. "A fucking insolent child."

Clint didn't need this. This wasn't part of the bargain, being made to feel stupid. He stepped into Phil's space. "Shut the fuck up, Phil. I'm not a kid, and I'm not an idiot."

Phil stepped closer, too. "Yeah? You're acting like both, and you act like that a lot around here. It's exhausting."

"You're an automaton who occasionally takes a break for sex. Screw that. This isn't a relationship."

"No? What do you know? You act like a kid or an idiot and you make childish demands. You're so immature; you barely count as an adult sometimes. What do you know about relationships?"

Clint snapped, "I know you suck at them, Phil. That much is clear." As soon as the words were out of Clint's mouth, he knew it was a mistake. Phil's past troubles holding a relationship together were part of what had held Phil back from trying with Clint for so many years.

And then Phil stepped back. Out of Clint's space, abruptly. He pulled his arm back, and Clint didn't even register what was happening until Phil's fist was slamming into his mouth and pain shot through his teeth. He staggered back against the dining room wall and knew the shouting match was over. He wiped his mouth and looked at his hand, ignoring Phil, who was breathing hard in front of him, looking like he was waiting for Clint to hit him back.

Clint just looked at the blood, and then down at his feet, and then he looked around the room, taking it all in, chest heaving. Like he'd just woken from a bad dream. The anger and fight that had been coursing through his system moments before deflated as soon as he tasted the blood on his lip and he felt his body shift to a defensive stance, waiting.

"Clint," Phil said through a heavy breath. "Clint—"

But Clint just stared at his bloody hand, resigned.

He pushed himself away from the wall and stood waiting for another blow, because they always hit again. His head was ducked and he waiting, breathing through his nose. When another blow didn't come, he finally looked at Phil. He had dropped his fists and was standing there looking like he was the one who got sucker punched, like it was his world that had just shattered again.

But that wasn't right. It was Clint's world that had crumbled to pieces and he should have known it was coming. He should have known.

Clint shook his head to clear it and stepped around Phil. If he wasn't going to get another hit in, then maybe they could just get to the part where he'd let Clint leave. Like the others did. His mother never got to leave, but the men Clint had been with before let him go, let him know that he wasn't worth chasing after, that the hits would just keep coming if he stayed.

So Clint hedged around Phil (who watched him, unmoving) and walked silently out of their apartment, dazed, without really thinking of where he was. He didn't care where he was, because it was clear he couldn't be with Phil, and he really didn't know what to do with that idea yet.

Phil had hit him. Phil called him an idiot and hit him. Clint let his feet carry him down the hall and onto the elevator, out of the building to his bike, and before he really registered where he was going, he was knocking on Natasha's door. She opened it, dressed in her own blue sleep pants and pale red t-shirt and blinking at him, confused.

"Clint? What happened?" she said, opening the door for him.

He shrugged and walked into her apartment. "I'm not sure. Phil hit me." His voice sounded weird in his ears, detached and empty, kind of like how he was feeling at the moment. He made his way to her couch and sunk down into it as she went to her kitchen for a towel and some ice. She brought it back to him, and he pressed it to his swelling lip as she sat down next to him and put her hand on his back, starting to rub small circles there.

He closed his eyes. He could stay here. He knew she wouldn't hurt him. He knew she'd watch out for him. He leaned back on the couch and mumbled, "Phil hit me," and felt her lean into his shoulder and place her hand over his heart, as if she could hold the pieces for him until he could put himself back together. He would let her, he thought. Just for a while.

Phil was beyond angry. He had important work to do, and Clint was acting like a kid who didn't get the lollipop he wanted. Phil didn't have time for this shit tonight. Fury was counting on this report being ready to give to the CIA team that was converging on the office tomorrow morning. But Phil was having trouble reconciling the maps he had strewn around the table, knew it was going to take a miracle to get this done on time. Clint should be able to see that this was important.

He didn't. And Phil lost his temper.

Phil saw Clint stagger back under his blow, and he was surprised that he caught him off guard like that. He hadn't expected to land the punch, not with Clint.

Phil braced himself for Clint's own fists as Clint ran his hand across his lips, as he leaned his head back against the wall for a moment and then shifted his weight forward, ducking his head and staring back at Phil through a veiled glance. He reminded Phil of a caged animal, one who had been beaten into sub—oh, shit. Phil knew with a sudden dread that Clint wasn't going to hit back. He wasn't going to engage Phil in the fight, and just as the light had gone out of his eyes, his body had changed, too.

This was a Clint that, thanks to a few late night conversations, sharing past stories, Phil had wondered about but had never met.

This Clint cowered. Phil dropped his own fists as he watched this transformation and he felt his heart slamming into his ribcage with fear and dread. This wasn't his Clint. Christ, he'd just hit his Clint. And now someone else had stepped in, someone who had clearly been hit before, someone waiting for another blow. Phil just stood there with his hands at his side, lost for what to do now. "Clint," he said, trying to catch his own breath. "Clint-"

But there was no response.

After a moment, Clint shoved his way around Phil and walked away, leaving Phil standing in his living room listening to the drone of the baseball announcer in the background and staring at his fist. He held it up and it seemed like it was detached, apart from him. Phil felt his knees weaken. The realization of what he'd done slammed into him as Clint slammed the door of the apartment behind him.

"Oh, fuck. Fuck," Phil said as he staggered to the arm of the couch and sat, staring at his blood-flecked fist in horror and wondering who the hell he was right now. Fuck. He'd hit Clint. He'd seen red when Clint told him he sucked at relationships, and then he'd hit him.

He remembered the room going silent, remembered being so angry he didn't even know what to do, and then the moment his fist connected with Clint's mouth he saw his anger explode in a white-hot flame. After he pulled back, after he realized in surprise that Clint wasn't going to hit him back, wasn't going to do anything except fold in on himself, after the blood started to well on Clint's face, Phil saw the transformation of his lover.

Phil had never hit a lover in his life. He'd never been hit.

Clint had, and Phil saw it as soon as he came back to himself enough to see Clint leaning against the wall. But Clint just took it, accepted it, and as Phil stood there ready to dodge Clint's fists, he saw something happen to Clint's face. It was like a light went out in his eyes. Phil had watched in horror as Clint's normally dancing eyes went still and his face went slack, as if the plug had been pulled. Even when Phil had seen his lover fight before, like when they were shouting at each other seconds ago, those eyes would smolder, seethe, narrow in rage.

But now, now there was nothing there.

Phil didn't want to lose him, though. That was all he could think of as he sat on his couch. Clint was annoying when he lost his patience, and that annoyance did manifest in aggravatingly childish behavior, but everyone has bad moments.

Just…tonight Clint's bad moment had run full force into Phil's bad night.

Not that it was any excuse.

Phil wrapped his arms around his middle and leaned over, trying to get his breathing under control. After a minute, he stood, locked his hands behind his head and went to the kitchen. He didn't know what to do. Clint was gone – he had heard his bike engine roar to life after he left – and even though Phil had a few ideas of where he went, he needed some time to clear his head. He needed to give Clint some time.

He poured himself a generous helping of scotch and stood in the kitchen staring at the dining room table where he'd been working fifteen minutes earlier. His mind drifted and replayed the scene in his head, and all he could see was his fist connecting with Clint's mouth and the light going out in his eyes. Phil saw it over and over, and after a while, he didn't know how long he'd been standing in his own kitchen. But he knew Clint had been gone long enough to make it to Natasha's apartment, if that's really where he was going.

Phil had to do something, but he didn't know what to do. He had surely lost him. But he didn't want to lose him.

His brain got itself stuck on that loop for a few minutes, and then he shook his head and stared at the table in front of him. The project for Fury. He wanted to shove the papers into the trash can and say 'fuck Fury,' but he couldn't. He looked at the clock. It was almost eleven. The meeting was supposed to be at eight. Phil closed his eyes and tried to calm himself down. He picked up his phone from its dock and dialed a number, putting the phone to his ear.

He took a deep breath when he heard Nick Fury's deep voice answer, "Fury."

"It's Coulson," Phil said shortly. "I need to call in a favor."

"What's going on, Coulson?" Fury asked, sounding calm but curious. The unspoken 'you've never called me to call in a favor before' stretched across the phone lines.

"Sir, I need you to try and push the meeting with the CIA team until at least tomorrow afternoon." Phil didn't offer an explanation, didn't confess his monstrous action from an hour ago. He just asked.

"You want me to move a meeting that has been set up for a month with a branch of the government that has previously shown no willingness to work with us?" was the reply.

"Yes, sir."

"Why?" Fury growled. "It's eleven fucking o'clock, Coulson. Why are you doing this now?"

Phil liked to think that his friendship with Nick Fury translated that into 'what's wrong?' He sighed. "I have to take care of something important, sir. The maps are giving me trouble as well, so I'm going to need the morning to finish up. Pushing it another day would be even better, really."

There was a long pause on the line, and then a huffed sigh. "Fine. I'll push it. I expect that report to be the tightest piece of shit you've ever pulled together for me, though. Got it?"

"Yes, sir. It will be." A sliver of the tension wrapping Phil into a knot released. "Thank you, sir."

Fury paused again. "I hope I'll get an explanation, Phil. I won't demand it, but I hope I get it."

Phil closed his eyes. "I'll try, Nick. No guarantees, but I'll try."

There was a click as Fury left it at that. Phil clenched the phone tightly and took a shaking breath before he dialed again, waiting with his eyes on his feet. There was no answer, so he put the phone back and pulled his car keys and wallet from the foyer table.

Fifteen minutes later, he was knocking on Natasha Romanov's apartment door.

She opened the door only a crack and leveled him with her gaze.

"Natasha, is he here?" Phil said, ashamed at how weak his voice sounded.

She didn't answer, but she nodded.

"Can I come in, please? I need – I need to see him." Phil was begging and he knew it, and he knew it lowered him in her eyes. But he also figured that hitting Clint lowered him further than he could hope to recover from anyway, so he had nothing left to lose.

"You hit him," she said simply.

"Yes," he replied, holding her gaze.

"I'm not going to hurt you," she stated.

"I'm grateful," he answered, and he really, really was.

"You do realize that you're the only person in the world that I would let near him after they hurt him like you did?" She whispered fiercely.

He involuntarily took a step back and his breath caught in his throat. All he could say was, "Yes."

She opened the door for him and he stepped inside. He followed her to her kitchen, where there was an open bottle of vodka, about one-fourth empty. He stared at it.

"He wouldn't drink any," she said softly.

"He doesn't really like to drink," Phil replied, still staring at the bottle.

"Sometimes he does," she said, and then she paused and added, "But he didn't want to drink tonight."

He nodded.

She gestured to the guest bedroom halfway down the hall. "He's in his bedroom."

It wasn't really Clint's, but when he wasn't at his SHIELD quarters and he wasn't at Phil's place, he was here. It had been about even until he and Phil had started sleeping together. Now he stayed at Phil's more often, but he still kept a duffel bag of clothes and toiletries here. Phil stepped toward the bedroom, but Natasha caught his arm. She was in sleep pants and a t-shirt, but she still looked lethal.

"You get one chance, Phil," she said, her eyes gentler than he expected.

He just took a breath and set his shoulders. He knew she was serious, and he knew he had to get this right. He went down the hallway and pushed the door to the bedroom open after a light knock.

The room was pale green with light blue accents, and the bed was a queen sized bed with a gorgeous antique cherry headboard and blue bedding. Clint was sprawled on his back on the bed with one arm thrown over his face and the other tucked behind his head. His breathing was rough, though, telling Phil he was awake. Phil stepped into the room and pulled the door almost closed behind him.

"Clint," he said softly, unsure of what reaction he was going to get. Clint's breath hitched and he rolled over onto his stomach and put his head onto crossed arms. He didn't answer.

Phil figured it wasn't a dismissal, though, so he took a deep breath. "I'm sorry," he said, a little louder than before. "I'll always be sorry for hitting you, Clint, and I don't know what to do about it." He felt his chest tightening as he talked about the moment, and he could feel his throat constrict a little, too.

Clint said something but his voice was muffled and Phil couldn't make it out. "What?" he asked, as gently as he could.

Clint shifted on the bed so his voice was clearer. "It always starts somewhere," he said, and the words cut into Phil's gut like a jagged knife.

He was silent for a while because he really didn't know what to say. "I don't know what to do," he said again, his voice sounding desperate even to him.

"Then why are you here?" Clint said, rolling onto his back again, arm still over his eyes.

Phil could see Clint's swollen lip, though, and the blood crusting over the cut. He took a step forward. "I can't—I don't want to lose you," he said, only able to muster a little more than a whisper. "I need you, Clint."

"Bullshit, Phil. You don't need anyone," Clint snarled, and he sat up, his glazed eyes piercing into Phil like an electric shock. "Except maybe Fury, to give yo—shit," he suddenly exclaimed, and he stood from the bed. "Leave me alone, Phil," he said, his voice quiet again, timid, exhausted, and he didn't meet Phil's gaze.

"Tell me if I can come back," Phil said, stepping toward Clint hoping to draw his eye. "Tell me that if I leave tonight, I can come back tomorrow night and try again. I won't come back unless you tell me I can, Clint. But I need you to tell me I can. I want you in control of all of this, okay? You're in control. But you have to know that I do need you. I've never needed anyone the way I need you. I built my life so that I wouldn't need anyone, Clint. I worked hard not to need anyone. Sometimes, maybe that feeling comes back for a bit, but I hate it when it does. I –" he broke off as his thoughts crystallized before him.

Things slipped into place suddenly, like a curtain being pulled open to let bright light into the room. Phil drew a sharp breath and stepped back, away from Clint, who was finally looking at him, finally meeting his eyes, holding him in place.

"What, Phil? You what?" Clint demanded.

"You make me feel out of control sometimes," Phil said plainly. "You usually push me to a place I'm grateful for - you push me to unwind, to be the man I want to be. But then you push too hard, and…you want me to be someone I'm not, and it makes me scared. And angry. And I don't know how to deal with it at all, Clint. I yell at you because you push me to a place that scares the crap out of me, outside all of my control. Tonight you pushed me so hard that I reacted from that place."

"So it's my fault you hit me?" Clint said, his eyes wide in desperation, in sadness. "I pushed you, so you hit back?"

"No!" Phil exclaimed. This wasn't right. He wasn't saying it clearly. "I'm not explaining right! It's not your fault, Clint. It's never someone's fault they get hit by someone else. You have to hold on to that. It's not your fault I hit you. But you pushed me to a place where I didn't recognize myself anymore, where I didn't know how to react, so I lashed out. I hit you because I didn't know how to be in that place and it scared me and I thought -," he broke off.

"You thought what," Clint whispered.

"I thought you'd hit me back," Phil replied, his voice shaking. "You always fight back, Clint. You never take shit from anyone at work, I've never see—" his voice broke. "I thought you'd fight me."

He realized suddenly that he had backed himself against the wall of the bedroom and was too loud. He drew a ragged breath and added, "I'm sorry I hit you. I'm begging for another chance. You don't have to do anything you don't want to do, though. Ever. We agreed a year and a half ago that we can be professional about this. I won't do anything to harm your career, Clint, even if you never want to look at me outside of work again. I promise." It seemed like the most important promise he'd ever given anyone.

Clint had never heard an apology for being hit before.

He remembered late nights, before they agreed to give the relationship a shot, where Phil explained to Clint that he'd never had a real relationship that worked, that they all fell apart on him because of balance and secrecy. Phil's past relationships weren't violent, but they weren't open and honest, either, and Clint spent hours trying to convince Phil to give it a shot anyway, that it would be worth it, that their relationship would be different (he'd been trying to convince himself, too).

They'd both hoped for something different, but here they were, teetering on the brink of that awful cliff. That cliff where you question and walk the line between commitment and fear, and fear was winning. But Phil was asking for forgiveness, asking for another chance.

'No one's ever asked me for another chance, Phil," he found himself whispering as he stepped back to the bed and sat down on the edge. Phil stayed where he was, pushed against the wall, looking at Clint like he held all the chips. It was Clint's play.

"You don't have to give it to me," Phil said, his voice wrecked. "Please, though. Understand that you'll call all the shots as long as you need. All of them."

Clint believed him. Even if Phil had hit him, he had never lied. He wasn't blaming Clint and he was giving the reigns to him entirely. He decided to test that.

"I want to stay here at Nat's tonight," he said, looking back up at Phil, trying to pull some confidence back into his own voice.

Phil nodded. "Okay."

"I think we should meet for breakfast tomorrow," Clint added. "Talk through some things." He took a deep breath and put his head in his hands as exhaustion swept through him. "I'm too tired to deal with anything tonight."

Phil pushed himself away from the wall and stood up straight. "Okay. Tomorrow. Do you want to meet at the diner?"

Neutral territory, Clint thought. "Yeah. Before work?"

Phil shook his head. "I'll go in late. How about eight-thirty? We could both probably use the sleep."

They agreed, and Clint watched as Phil opened the door to the bedroom and cast a glance back at him. "I'm sorry," he said quietly.

Clint nodded. "Okay."

Phil closed the door and Clint heard him say goodnight to Natasha. She came in a few minutes later with some tea.

"We're going to try and work it out," he said, sipping the tea and casting a sideways glance at her. He didn't figure she'd have much use for second chances, but she shouldn't be surprised that Clint would hand one over to Phil.

"I already warned him," she replied, leaning into his shoulder again.

He didn't answer. They sat with their tea and then Clint curled up under the blankets and let her rub his back until he fell asleep.

The next morning, Clint made his way to the diner around eight. He wanted to be there first, so he got their usual table and ordered a carafe of coffee and some bagels and orange juice.

The waitress brought the coffee and juice and set the glass down in front of Clint with a smile. He thanked her and then took a drink of the juice. When he set the glass down on the table, he looked at it carefully.

Maybe he wasn't a dime store glass anymore; he thought as he waited for Phil to come apologize again. Maybe he was sturdier now. Maybe he could explain to Phil the way he wanted that no one should be in control of their relationship. No one should call all the shots. Being in control was something both men fought for on the outside, to show the rest of the world, and maybe they needed to stop fighting for it at home.

He looked up as Phil came in wearing his suit for the day and sat down, tentative, clearly nervous.

"Hi," he said gently, hoping to put Phil at ease.

"Good morning," Phil replied.

Clint reached over and grabbed the coffee cup near Phil's elbow and filled it from the carafe, shoving the cup in front of him and leaning forward.

He remembered late nights, before they were together, where they sat in this diner and decompressed after missions, or met after they hadn't seen each other in a while and pancakes at any hour seemed like a good idea. Now he took a deep breath and spoke.

"I need to tell you about my parents," he said quietly, staring at his coffee cup.

"What?" Phil asked, leaning back in the booth.

"They fought, and my dad hit my mom all the damned time. It was my first look at a relationship. She took it and said she took it to protect me and Barney." He looked up at Phil, who narrowed his eyes at Clint. Clint pushed on. "They were what I thought was normal for a long time. Even a few of the foster homes we stayed at had people in abusive relationships. Later, when I started trying to find a relationship –" He broke off and clenched his eyes shut. He'd told Phil he'd always had crappy relationships, but he'd never gone into detail.

"Clint," Phil said, his eyes full of sadness.

"Look," Clint said. "I'm not saying I thought it was normal. I knew it wasn't how it should be, but after being in three or four of my own relationships that ended when I got hit, I figured it was the way it always would be." He stopped and offered a tired grin. "Then I met you."

"Shit," Phil said, and Clint looked up and saw the dark circles under his eyes, noticed the way his hair was a little unkempt, and he realized Phil probably hadn't slept much last night.

"No, Phil. You keep surprising me, see? I've known you for six years and you've never pushed me, threatened me, or even made me feel stupid. I had even stopped being grateful for our relationship, you know?"

"What do you mean?" Phil asked.

"We've been together a year and a half. We've been friends even longer. For a long time I was just grateful that someone like you would value me enough to want to be around me, to want to be with me. I got –" His voice broke. He looked away and took a deep breath. "I got used to it. Of course you valued me. Of course you wanted to be with me. Even when we hollered at each other, we always made up. I didn't think twice about making up because I knew it's what you wanted, too. But you made me feel stupid last night, and then you hit me. Those two things? That's what I expect. That's what I'd stopped guarding against." He stopped as his voice got ragged again and he took a sip of his coffee.

"I'm sorry," Phil said again. "You deserve to get used to it, Clint. You shouldn't be grateful that someone values you. It's just how it should be. I respect you more than anyone I've ever met. Last night should never have happened."

"Look," Clint said. "There's nothing to do about last night. It's got to be over. And yes, I need some space and I think we need to back up a little bit and think about why we fight the way we do, even before last night. I'm going to stay with Nat for a while. But I was being selfish last night, and I know I get like that sometimes. We both have things to work on. I want to work on them if you still do. I think we should."

They sat in silence for a minute, each sipping their drink.

Finally, Phil said, "I made a list," and he had a sheepish grin on his face as he pulled a crumpled piece of paper out of his pants pocket.

"A list?" Clint asked, and then he smiled. "You're good at lists."

Phil nodded and said, "Things to work on. You know. A list. I won't read it to you, though." He sighed. "I just mean that yes, I want to work on them."

Clint nodded. "Okay. Maybe after you finish this project you're working on we can go out."

"That sounds good," Phil said. "It should be done by tomorrow."

"Good. Call me tomorrow afternoon? We'll figure things out then. You can read me your list."

Phil smiled. "Okay." He stood and nodded toward the door. "I need to get in to work, though. Thanks for the coffee."

Clint said goodbye and watched Phil leave. He took another sip of his coffee. He hadn't broken. He had been pushed off the counter, had hit the floor, but he hadn't shattered. He had righted himself on his own terms, and he had Phil, who didn't think he was cheap or deserved to break.

It was a start.