Lean On Me

Avengers / Leverage crossover

by: Maven Alysse

Prompt: They knew each other before and Clint turns to Eliot for support after Loki's control.

Friendship fic. Requested by peacefulsands

Lean On Me

Eliot Spencer perched on his stool, glass clenched between his hands, unmindful of the minute cracks developing, eyes glued to the television above the bar. Strange vehicles and stranger creatures sped throughout the streets of New York destroying buildings and sending citizens fleeing. The newscaster trying valiantly to describe the indescribable as building after building fell, demolished before their very eyes.

"Look! It's Iron Man!" The familiar red and gold form flashed across the screen into the midst of a cluster of alien intruders.

At first, he fought alone; a pebble tying to dam a stream.

Then, lightening flared in the clear blue sky; a blonde demigod in medieval armor and red cape, slammed into the beings with a massive hammer, a war cry upon his lips. Eliot recognized him from his friend's description: Thor, a resident of Asgard.

A moment later, an aircraft Spencer knew both by reputation and having the opportunity of flying one once, appeared on site, cutting through the sky crafts like tissue paper; dodging down the streets in graceful arcs, the sky crafts, though smaller, clumsy in comparison.

Eliot and the others in the bar flinched as, when passing Stark Tower, a flare of blue light slammed into the wing of the plane sending it spinning away. He watched, calculating the trajectory and damage the plane would cause as it crashed only to nod in professional appreciation as the pilot sent the plane into an angled dive to skid along the ground and tap gently against a building in a controlled stop.

The news crew stayed with the downed plane. The crowd in the bar gasped in unison as a man in Red, White, and Blue, carrying a familiar shield came down the gangway.

"Oh. My. God. It's Captain America!" Hardison's voice pierced through the excited murmurs of the crowd; Eliot thought he heard Parker ask a question but he kept his gaze on the television set.

Based on the man's gait, the Hitter tagged the man as U.S. Army, with some special forces training, probably the real McCoy; but the bulk of his attention was focused on the two who followed the brightly colored individual off the gangplank.

The woman moved panther smooth, her copper curls shining in the sun; the utilitarian uniform fitted for optimal movement, guns slung low upon her hips along with a few knives. His lips quirked in a private smile at the look of cool professionalism on her face.

The Hitter, however, straightened on his stool with a pensive frown creasing his brow as he caught sight of her partner. 'Hawkeye, what happened to you?' Unless you knew what to look for, the agent appeared composed and moved just as smoothly as Natasha, but Spencer detected a slight limp and the archer's face seemed drawn with pain and exhaustion. Whatever had happened earlier with Loki had taken its toll.

Like the other bar patrons, he couldn't tear his eyes from the horrifying images being projected; unlike the others, he spent the time analyzing the actions of the 'heroes' and pinpointing the weaknesses in the aliens, gratified to see those weaknesses exploited.

Captain America and the two agents cleared the area of trapped civilians, fluidly working together as if they'd trained for this all their lives.

Eliot blinked in shock as the dark haired man who'd ridden into the battle on a small mo-ped during a lull in the fighting faced the large flying leviathan heading in their direction and suddenly transformed into a large green monstrous form, taking out the alien creature with a single punch.

The crowd whooped and hollered, finally seeing the group of individuals band together and truly begin making a dent in the alien force.

Spencer nodded in appreciation as the Captain took charge, sending the team to the spots that would allow them to utilize their specific skills to their best advantage – even the Hulk.

As the cameras allowed, Elliot followed his friend's progress throughout the battle where he rained down arrows from his high perch, being the team's eye-in-the-sky.

Everyone watched on the edge of their seats as the battle continued. Plenty wished they could be there to help, not so silently cheering on the defenders.

The Hulk and Thor took down another Leviathan; while Natasha had boarded a sky craft, using the alien against its comrades. Eliot smirked as he spotted Hawkeye shoot at a figure in a green and gold cloak. Loki caught the arrow, and was blown off his sky craft as the arrow exploded, to land in a crumpled heap on Stark Tower.

Eliot heard Parker, their resident thief and lover of high places, clap excitedly as Hawkeye leaped off the top of the building, twisting and shooting a grappling arrow, to crash through a window in order to avoid being overwhelmed.

Suddenly, Iron Man broke off from his section, streaking toward the edge of town. Horror-stricken, you could hear a pin drop as the image of a nuclear missile streaked across the sky with Iron Man clinging to it like a limpet as he forcibly steered it toward the open portal still spewing the invading force.

Eliot swore softly to himself in multiple languages, knowing that the missile had not been sent with the idea of helping the defenders, but to end the conflict in a quick and decisive way.

The world seemed to hold its breath as Iron Man disappeared into the portal with the nuclear device. For a long moment, nothing happened; then Elliot thought he saw a bright flare light up the portal as the gateway began to shrink in upon itself. At the very last instant, the armored form reappeared and the portal closed; at the same time, all of the aliens and their crafts collapsed to the ground like marionettes with their strings cut.

The cameras followed Iron Man's decent, the darkened form obviously not under its own power. The crowd sighed in relief as Hulk caught the limp figure in mid-air, using the nearest building to slow their velocity, only for those breaths to catch in their throats as it became obvious that something had gone wrong. The worried movements of the team and the slumped shoulders told the tale; a few patrons, both men and women, gave choked sobs at the pitiful sight. The Hulk's enraged roar caused everyone to jump in startlement.

"No freakin' way!" Hardison exclaimed as Iron Man's body gave a jerk and the light of his arc reactor flickered back on. Back slaps and exclamations of delight filled the air.

Eliot frowned in concern. Hawkeye hadn't been spotted since he crash landed through the window. He kept a sharp eye out as the others headed towards Stark Tower, obviously to finish the confrontation with Loki. 'Where are you, Barton?' A knot in his chest loosened as he spotted a glimpse of familiar black and maroon body armor and a nearly empty quiver as the camera panned down the devastated street.

Feeling emboldened by the lack of enemy movement, the camera crew had moved closer to the main area of the confrontation; the newscaster giving a running commentary as they progressed up the street. Ten minutes later, helicopters arrived, one landing on Stark Tower, others landing near the spots where civilians and police had bunkered.

The screen flashed to a pale and harried looking newscaster who began the harrowing re-account of the battle, estimating damages and possible lives lost. Numbers marched across the bottom of the screen for those who needed information on loved ones possibly caught in the confrontation, or for ways to donate time and money for the injured. Those who had been trapped and now slowly making their way back onto the streets were interviewed, while in the background, more government agents appeared to help with the organization and direction of medical assistance.

The customers shook themselves from their stupor, turning to one another to express their shock, amazement, and fear. Some had already pulled out their phones; to call family and friends; to ask if they'd seen the news; to find out how they could help with the aftermath. A loud argument had broken out in one corner of the room between those who felt the defenders were equally to blame for the damages and those who thought the heroes should be given medals and commendations for their efforts – Hardison right in the middle of it, the hacker in a righteous fury.

Parker had already disappeared, probably back upstairs to Nate's apartment to get reassurances from him and Sophie, as well as direction as to what to do next.

The noise was getting to him, and he pulled out his phone to tap out a short message to the others to keep them from worrying overmuch. 'Getting some air.' He slid out of the crowd and out the door, taking to the streets.

Eliot strolled the near-deserted streets, part of him mind keeping an eye on his surroundings, but the rest thinking about his friend.

888

He first met Clint Barton about eighteen years ago in a dusty flyspeck of a town in the Texas panhandle. Eliot, having just turned sixteen and visiting with some relatives, decided to check out the circus that had rolled into town. Clint's archery act impressed him and he hung around until the circus closed in the hopes of talking to the teen. Sitting just outside the tents, he rose as he spotted the archer, catching movement out of the corner of his eye. A group of townies were waiting to jump the performer and Eliot waded into the fray, evening the odds a bit. Both boys ended up bruised but victorious, and a friendship began. Eliot found that the year difference in their ages meant little; circus kids had to grow up fast, and at times, Clint seemed much older than Eliot.

Though Clint moved around a lot, he made a point of sending at least a postcard every now and then to let Eliot know he was fine, and where the circus would end up next in case Eliot could manage to visit again.

He managed it twice over the next two years. Then, Clint dropped off the radar. At that point in time, Eliot had difficulties of his own and ended up doing a two year stint with the Army where he was stationed in Europe. Restless, once his hitch was up, he found himself falling into the Retrieval business. And he was good at it.

He started to make a name for himself, and also heard the rumors of others in the business to keep an eye out for; one in particular was a man named Merlin. What really caught his attention was that Merlin was an archer. From the description, he had a feeling Hawkeye and Merlin were the same person.

Eliot came across Merlin a year into his new avocation. Climbing a tree outside a compound to scout the place, he nearly fell out at a dry comment spoken in a familiar voice from above him. "I was here first. Go get your own tree."

Clint had grown more somber since they'd last met, and though he professed his happiness in seeing his friend again, Eliot noticed a distinct distance. The younger man had gone through betrayal and now didn't give his trust lightly. Despite the unease, Clint agreed to join forces so that both could achieve their goals.

They worked well together, and ended up partnering on and off over the next three years, before Clint got snatched up by SHIELD.

Eliot considered joining, but found he enjoyed being self-employed more than any supposed securities the agency could provide.

Despite technically being on opposite sides over the last decade, the two managed to help each other as long as it didn't compromise their own particular ops; and they still saw each other on occasion, especially after ops that went pear shaped.

888

And there was no doubt that this particular op had definitely gone pear shaped.

Barton had looked rough – beyond what a regular firefight would leave him. Eliot would know, he'd fought with the younger man long enough to know his tells. Whatever had occurred, it had shaken the archer. His friend had a tendency to bury his troubles; years of neglect led him to believe that no one would care, so unless prodded, he kept to himself.

As a defense mechanism, the Hitter could hardly criticize; he didn't tend to open up to people, either. But there were times when keeping things to yourself wasn't an option, not if you wanted to remain sane.

Usually, Natasha would keep Clint on an even keel, with him reciprocating. But instincts told Eliot that Natasha wouldn't be able to help in this case; that she was too close to the situation.

Passing through a park, Eliot sat on one of the benches, grateful that the area was devoid of people – everyone still glued to the news reports. He settled back, thought a moment about what he wanted to say, then tapped in a number he hadn't used since he'd joined up with Nate's little crew.

# Merlin, saw you on TV. New team looks decent but if you need to talk, I'm here. - C. #

He had no idea how long it would take for Barton to read his message, or even if he would respond, but the offer had been made and all Eliot could do is wait.

Taking a deep breath, he considered returning to the bar or heading back home when his phone buzzed in his pocket, alerting him to a message. Thinking it would be either Nate or Hardison, he blinked at the incoming number.

# Coyote. If I don't end up in the slammer, I'll take you up on that offer. - M. #

A frown tugged on his lips as he read the message, fingers dancing as he replied. # M. Why the slammer? From what I could see, you were on the side of the angels. - C. #

# C. Long, long story. Suffice to say, the devil had his hooks in me, first. Led to severely fucked up situation. - M. #

The frown deepened. # M. I'll keep my eyes and ears open. Offer stands. Next Wednesday. Meet me at the beginning. - C. #

A long moment passed, causing him to wonder if he'd pushed too hard, too fast.

# C. Done. Out. - M. #

Tucking the phone back into his pocket, Eliot made his way back to the bar. He had to let Nate know he'd be out of contact for a while starting the following week.

888

888

Clint Barton stared down at the phone in his lap as he sat amidst genuine super heroes, eating shwarma of all things, and tried to keep his eyes from tearing up.

Eliot Spencer, that damnable man, was one of the few people on Earth that he felt comfortable letting his shields down around.

Reading the text, he felt surprise. Not that Eliot had contacted him; he never doubted that the older man would contact him, but at how quickly he'd done so.

The week had been a chaotic string of events that had swept him further down the rabbit hole. Now that he had a moment to catch his breath, the sheer enormity of everything that had happened was catching up to him.

He tapped in a response, getting a nudge for the 'slammer' comment. He responded with a shrug; despite the fact that he'd suffered under Loki's control and that he'd fought the mage once freed, there was no telling how long Fury would have him 'quarantined' while SHIELD psychiatrists insured his mind was his own. It might not truly be jail, but he'd be incarcerated, nonetheless.

At the next text, he typed in the closest thing he could to a confession, allowing his guilt to wash over him. Natasha leaned subtly against his knee and he took in a slow, careful breath in lieu of a sigh.

He stilled for a long moment at the offer that popped up on the screen. Could he take him up on the offer? Should he? He met Natasha's eyes seeing the worry and concern lurking in those green depths. The two of them were too close to the problem to exorcise this particular demon together. He knew she would go to one of her connections outside SHEILD for support and she gave a faint smile, urging him to do the same.

He smiled back, a wry crook of the lips, and replied in affirmative, then slid the phone into one of the pockets of his uniform. He'd hold on to the fact, that there were at least a few people who wouldn't judge him for what happened to buoy him through the grueling debriefings yet to come.

888

Though they wanted to keep him longer, by the end of the week SHIELD's psych department gave grudging permission for Clint to leave SHIELD headquarters. No trace of mental coercion could be found. It had taken everything Clint had in him to lower his mental shields and allow the on-staff telepaths to poke around in his head without lashing out at them; though they seemed pleased by the reaction. It appeared that his mind had developed some walls in retaliation to Loki's intervention and it was harder now to penetrate his natural defenses. Free of any control, they had no choice but to let him go.

He'd gone over everything he could remember over and over again; and now felt completely drained, scooped out and emptied. Fury, in particular, had been relentless in his questioning. Luckily for everyone involved, Loki had only asked questions about the helicarrier, those on the Avenger's Initiative, and the facility in Leningrad. The compromised information, though damaging, could eventually be contained, and changes in protocol would be coming down the pipe within days.

Natasha, bless her soul, had remained at the land-based headquarters, keeping him sane as the psychiatrists ripped him apart. But there was a distance between the two partners. Fear, both for and of the other, that would need resolving before they could fall back into synch with one another.

Clint figured a bit of distance would help them regain their perspectives and equilibrium.

Fury called them both in to his office, standing at the windows, his hands clasped behind his back as he stared out at the city being rapidly rebuilt. "Psych department claims you're sane and in full possession of your faculties." He shot a side glace over his shoulder. "As much as you ever had, anyway." He turned to fully face the two. "I need you both with your head in the game and despite, or in spite of, everything SHIELD can provide, it is obvious to me that you need time away in order to rebuild your shields." He sent a piercing look. "One month. Then, I want you both to report back to me, back in fighting trim. Don't make me regret it." He turned his attention back to the view, effectively dismissing them.

888

Now the two cruised down the highway on their way to the airport, Natasha at the wheel.

"Any ideas, Nat?"

As the tension bled from her frame, he realized this was the fist time since the battle that he'd used any of his nicknames for her. He hadn't originally noticed either the formality or that it had disturbed her and he touched her knee in silent apology.

She flashed a grin at him, "Heading to Europe. Got an itch to scratch."

He barked a laugh. That 'itch' could be anything from needing sex to engaging in a nine block running battle or even just spending time at a spa.

Her smile widened, "And you?" Her head tilted knowingly, though she kept her eyes on the road.

"Going back to the beginning."

888

Tascosa , Texas

"Yeah, Nate. … I'm sure. … No, I'm not in any legal trouble. I'm helping out a friend." Eliot Spencer rolled his eyes and suppressed a sigh. "Nate. Don't think I don't know you've got Hardison tracing my phone. … All I gotta say is my friend's a bit touchy. Showin' up unannounced … not a good idea."

Across the kitchen table, Clint Barton tipped his beer bottle in silent salute, a sardonic grin stretching his lips, though Spencer noted it didn't reach his eyes.

"Uh huh. … Goodbye, Nate." He snapped the cell phone shut and momentarily considered throwing it across the room, but deciding against it, not wanting to listen to another of Hardison's lectures, and tucked it back into his pocket.

"We compromised?"

Eliot suppressed a wince at the flat tone but shook his head and rose to his feet, waving a hand for Clint to accompany him. Stepping over to the fully stocked refrigerator, he started taking out ingredients, handing them over with a raised brow.

Clint huffed, but put took the items and placed them on the counter. "What are we making?"

"Stir fry. I'll prepare the meat. You ..." he handed over a bowl and a large knife, "chop the vegetables." Eliot hid a smile at the second huff, but the archer got to work, rinsing the vegetables in the sink.

Eliot keep his eyes on what he was doing, but listened to the steady rhythm the knife made against the wood cutting board. He'd use that as his gauge to his friend's feelings.

"So … not compromised?" The flatness had gone, but Eliot didn't think the lost quality sounded any better.

"No. Nate's just being a mother hen, wants to keep track of all his chicks. But he trusts my judgment. They'll let us be so long as he knows we're safe."

A brief laugh caught his attention, and he spied the blue-gray eyes lit in humor. "Chicks? You? How'd that happen?"

Eliot shook his head in mock dismay. "Damned if I know. Somehow, he got it in his head that since we're so much younger than he is ..." he trailed off, sensing a change in mood.

Barton nodded, his stokes coming more heavily on the chopping block, sadness, and another, darker emotion, creeping in to his tone. "Like it doesn't matter how capable you are, they still feel it's their job to protect you." He snorted, a harsh, angry sound. "Even if protecting you is the last thing they should be worrying about, or even trying to do."

"I saw what news footage was available." Cautiously, knowing he traversed landmines, Eliot continued. "And I spoke with a few … associates. Got some basic intel on what Loki had been up to." Barton tensed, the blade pausing, but he didn't move away or speak. Taking it as a good, or at least neutral, sign, Eliot took a breath. "Heard tell that some … acquaintances were looked up. A few took a job and didn't make it back." He ignored the intake of breath beside him. "'Course, these guys were plenty vicious, but relatively stupid. Getting them out of the business only makes it better for the rest of us."

Clint stopped chopping, though his grip remained tight on the knife handle. Eliot saw a tilt of the head and a hint of confusion shine in blue-gray eyes. Knowing that if he continued to push, he'd trigger Clint's fight or flight response, Eliot poured oil in the wok and pointedly glanced over at the vegetables. "Looks like we've got enough. Pour them on in and I'll finish the rest."

Shaking his head as if just awakening, Clint blinked a moment, then lifted the cutting board and scraped the vegetables into the wok.

"Looks great Clint. Why don't you set the table? This should only take a few more minutes."

He watched with worried eyes as Barton nodded mechanically and did as requested, his movements not as fluid as usual as he thought.

888

The two men sat across from one another, and though he spent more time moving the food about on his plate, Eliot was glad that Clint at least ate some of it.

Finished, Eliot cleared the plates, set another beer by Clint's elbow, and settled into his chair, prepared to wait as long as Clint needed him to. Heaven knows they'd been in this position before – even had the roles reversed a time or two. He'd shown his hand, now it was up to Barton to give what he could.

"Do you remember that op in Sicily? The one where Carcillon had his pet psycher hypnotize you?" Barton's voice drifted quietly on the air.

Spencer shuddered at the memory. "If felt like being wrapped in warm cotton. I knew I shouldn't agree to what the guy wanted me to do, but couldn't find a way to care enough to stop." He shot a look at Barton, seeing the lines of tension around his eyes. "Is that what happened to you?"

A sigh escaped the other man. "More or less. It all happened in an instant. Only, instead of warm cotton, it was like being encased in blue tinted ice. I could see and hear everything, but like I was under water, and I could barely move." He shuddered and Eliot saw goosebumps appear on the archer's arms before the man drew them closer to himself.

Eliot latched on to one of the comments. "So, you could move a bit?"

A thoughtful pause, and Clint nodded. "Yeah. A bit. I couldn't disregard or disobey a direct order, but I … skirted the edges when I could."

"Like hiring people not quite up to the challenge?" the Hitter asked knowingly.

Another measured nod. "And only taking out one engine at a time instead of all of them at once."

"What else?"

Clint looked up, an odd look in his eyes. "I shot Fury in the chest and missed Hill entirely."

"Body armor?"

A nod.

Eliot had a hard time believing that Loki didn't know about Barton's exceptional aim. "How did you explain not killing Fury?"

"Told him I was disoriented and not at my best with a gun." A tiny smirk graced the corner of his mouth that Spencer echoed. The Hitter may have personal issues with guns, but those issues didn't extend toward bows. The pure artistry required to be truly great appealed to him.

Eliot took in the still tense posture and fingers unconsciously tapping a rhythm along the side of the beer bottle, knowing he was getting closer to the main crux of the problem. He leveled a stare at his friend. "Tell me."

A breath, then another. "Loki told me to kill Natasha if I came across her." Gray-blue eyes closed, pained.

Eliot cursed, "How did you stop yourself?"

Clint's face twisted in self-loathing. "I didn't. Regardless of personal feelings, I couldn't disobey a direct order. She found me on one of the catwalks and I did my damnedest to kill her."

Eliot had seen the two spar in the past, and though they pulled anything lethal, the sheer ferocity between the two of them frequently took his breath away. They were both pretty evenly matched, but if Romanoff held back in the hopes of saving her partner and Barton had gone all out … he narrowed his eyes. "How'd she win?"

A bleak smile crossed the agent's face. "Loki didn't pay attention to the fact that humans need to eat and sleep if you want them to remain at optimal productivity."

Spencer pursed his lips in displeasure, the callowness Loki had for his own men bothered the Hitter on a professional level: never mind the legalities or moralities; to show such contempt for the very people you depended upon for success … he shook his head. A thought brought his head up sharply, "Did he … ? he trailed off, uncertain how to complete the sentence.

A slow shake of the head was his answer. "No. He might have if things weren't going at such a hectic rate." Clint tilted his head to the left, blue-gray eyes no longer seeing the small kitchen they sat in. "Those he spoke with – the Chitauri – left him wrung out after each communication." He glanced up, "He'd fall into some sort of meditative state and would shift or flinch as if reacting to a physical presence."

"Maybe a type of astral projection?" Eliot mused.

"Could be. Whatever it was, it seemed pretty draining. Loki pushed himself nearly as hard as he did the rest of us." A long blink and his expression changed to one of mild surprise, "He hated the one he spoke to, but seemed fearful , for lack of a better word. Worried." The archer shook his head, returning to the here and now.

"Anyway. If Loki hadn't been so … harried, he probably would have. There just wasn't the time."

Eliot didn't remark on the clear relief evident in that statement, choosing instead to feel grateful that his friend hadn't suffered additional violations.

888

"I think … I think Coulson's dead."

That morning, Eliot had teased his friend into walking one of the riding trails that riddled the area. Later, he might get Clint up on a horse, but after a statement like that, he felt glad to have both feet firmly on the ground. "How? I thought he'd have remained on the flight deck with Fury?" That was the standard protocol, even Eliot knew that.

Clint sighed. "Things were crazy on the helicarrier. Cap and Stark were trying to get the engine I blew, up and running. Nat had gone after me. The Hulk had disappeared at some point, and Loki managed to trick Thor into the container he'd been held in." He paused, absently chewing on the inside of his cheek. "Someone needed to make sure the experimental armory stayed secure and security had their hands full with the mercenaries I'd hired." A guilt-filled look flashed his way before returning to the trail they traversed. "So, Coulson went. Seems he went off-script, though, and instead of staying put, he grabbed a honkin' big gun and went after Loki himself when the alarms on his cell went off." A half-wry, half-proud smile twitched his lips. "I saw the security tapes afterward, he confronted Loki, all on his own. Told him that he'd be stopped because he lacked conviction." The smile disappeared. "Loki used one of his tricks to disappear and then reappear behind him. He ran Coulson through with his scepter. Then he sent Thor plummeting from the helicarrier." Another half smile. "Coulson manged to shoot Loki with an energy blast that sent him flying."

Clint viciously kicked a stone in his path, sending it careening into the bushes. "So, he's bleeding out doing what should be my job; while Natasha is busy kicking my ass instead of helping elsewhere," his voice bit harshly in self-recriminations. "I'm not too sure what exactly happened next. The cameras went dark. But Natasha said that she heard Fury say over the comms that Coulson was down, and that the medics called it a few minutes later."

He wrapped his arms around himself as if cold, despite the warmth of an April Texan sun. "After the battle and before I returned to headquarters, Stark told me how Fury tossed some of Coulson's Captain America cards at them – covered in his blood."

"Why'd he do that?" Eliot blinked in shock.

"It got them to focus on something other then their animosity, I suppose." A weary sigh. "Nat told me that they had spent most of the time bickering, until that point."

Mind awhirl, he narrowed his eyes in thought. "He showed them to all of you?"

"No. Just Rogers and Stark." Clint slowed, staring at him. "Nat was with me while I leveled out. Both Thor and Banner were MIA."

Slowly doling out his thoughts, Eliot continued. "So, the two alphas who wouldn't play well with each other were suddenly shamed into working together to avenge a man who had respected them both?" He looked sharply at Barton. "Did Natasha know about the cards?"

A slow shake of the head. "No," the archer murmured. "It's what made me wonder if Coulson's truly dead. Fury wouldn't have a problem using subterfuge in order to get people to do what he wants."

"Have you been told, officially, that Coulson is dead?"

Clint slumped against the base of a tree, staring up through the limbs at the sky. "They refused to tell me the number of dead caused by the attack; they say that it wasn't my fault, so there's no reason to torture myself with the knowledge." He sent a baleful look. Eliot understood, sometimes not knowing was worse than knowing. Another sigh. "Except for the ones I saw, personally, I don't know who was injured or killed." His head cocked in thought. "Nat hasn't mentioned anything, either. So, either she doesn't know for sure, or she's been told not to mention it to me."

Perching on a tree stump, Eliot leaned his elbows on his knees, letting his hands dangle. "Would she keep it from you?"

Blue-gray eyes flicked to him and away again. "If she thought it would hurt more to know?" He shrugged. "I don't know. It's part of why we're taking some time apart."

"Well, if it means anything, paramedics aren't allowed to call time of death. Even if the patient's brains are splattered halfway across the room, only a licensed medical doctor can call time of death. And despite any issues going on, the helicarrier is one of the most sophisticated aircrafts ever built – its medbay second to none. If there was even the slightest chance of saving Coulson, do you think Fury would let it pass him by?"

888

Two and a half weeks later, the nightmares came less frequently, for which Clint thanked whichever benevolent spirits were listening. Dreams where he'd been the one to run Coulson through; where he'd shot a bullet through Fury's good eye; where Hill lay riddled with bullets beneath the collapsed base. Where Natasha stared blankly up at him as his hands finally loosed themselves from around her throat, her stomach and torso slashed to ribbons and her pale skin stained crimson.

Eliot knew from bitter experience how not to wake him from a nightmare. The older man never entered the room. But night after night, Clint found the screams within his subconscious falling silent to the strains of a guitar. For what seemed like hours, Eliot played just outside his door, warding his sleep. Except for a grateful nod each morning at breakfast, and an equally serious nod in acknowledgment, neither man mentioned the odd routine that kept Clint's sanity, until Clint finally managed to sleep the night through.

888

"Do you think you can still work for SHIELD?" Eliot brushed a lock of hair out of his face as he tightened the girth on the saddle of a bay mare.

"It's not as if I have much choice anymore in the matter," Clint shrugged. "I've worked with people I've distrusted before."

"Yeah, but this is different."

Patting the neck of the black mare he was borrowing and settling into the saddle, Clint sighed. "Yeah. It is. I don't know, Eliot. I won't until I can talk to Fury and try to get some straight answers from him."

888

Natasha Rominoff showed up two days later, despite not being told where the small ranch was located.

Eliot folded her into an embrace, feeling her arms wrap around him in urn. They leaned back enough to look into each other's face and Eliot nodded at the peace he found in her green eyes. "Clint;s in the kitchen making lunch"

"How's he doing?" the uncharacteristically uncertain question made him pause to re-evaluate her, wondering at the cause of the uncertainty.

After a moment, he gave her a soft smile and kissed her forehead. "Why don't you go see for yourself?"

A beat, then she stepped away and sashayed into the kitchen.

Eliot shook his head, surprised again by some of the similarities Natasha and Parker carried. Both supremely confident in their chosen fields, fearless, almost to the point of recklessness, fiercely loyal to those who held their hearts, but uncertain in their own true interactions. His friendship with Natasha had allowed him to accept Parker and her twenty pounds of crazy in a ten pound bag personality without causing the young .thief to feel even more out of place.

Giving the partners time alone, Eliot wandered into the living room and turned on the radio.

888

Clint felt her enter the kitchen and he turned toward her before she could say a word. For the briefest of moments, they hesitated at opposite sides of the room, assessing the other through long established mental checklists. By some unspoken signal, they met in the center, arms wrapped loosely around the shoulders, foreheads touching as they stared into each other's eyes.

Clint felt a slow smile spread across his face, echoed by Natasha, and knew that they'd be okay.

Releasing one another, Natasha hopped up onto a nearby counter as Clint returned to the stove, stirring something savory smelling in a pot. "What are you making?"

"Spaghetti with meat sauce, garlic bread, and salad."

"From scratch?" came the hopeful tone.

In mock affront, he frowned at her. "Of course," and grinned at her smile. "Planning on staying?"

"If Eliot allows."

"Of course," Elliot responded as he entered the kitchen and pulled bowls out of the cupboard. "As if I'd turn you away," he gave a haughty sniff, dissolving into a grin at the pleased smiles.

888

"Whats troubling you?" Natasha sat curled in an armchair with her feet curled beneath her, her chin propped up on the arm to focus on her partner.

Clint lay sprawled on the rug in front of the hearth, lazily staring into the flames. At the question, he rolled onto his back in order to meet her gaze, albeit upside down. "What do you mean?"

"Your tense."

Clint frowned and twisted until he could face her properly/

Eliot, sitting in a matching armchair, looked up from his book and slid his reading glasses up his nose. "She's right. And it's gotten worse over the last two days."

Shifting so he sat cross-legged, the archer leaned his elbows on his knees. "Nerves, I guess." At the questioning glances he added, "Fury and the psych department cleared me. But I did a lot of damage and good people died from my actions and intel. I don't know who might hold grudges, is all."

"And you hate walking into a situation blind," Eliot surmised.

"We're to report to Fury in two days," Clint shrugged, leaving it at that.

Natasha reached down to take his hand. "Those who matter will not blame you. As for those who would..."

Clint had to smile at her fierce expression as he clasped her hand in turn, conveying his thanks for her support.

"No use worryin' over something you can't control," Eliot added. The Hitter gave them both a calculating look. "One last thing to discuss then..." At their questioning look he leaned forward, elbows on knees, hands clasped. "Coulson."

"He's dead," Natasha stated flatly.

"Is he?" Clint countered. "No one would tell me what happened to him during debrief. I … saw the security tape where Loki stabbed him, but the cameras went dark when Fury arrived."

"Did you see the body?" Eliot turned to face Natasha.

Crimson colored curls danced as she shook her head, brow furrowed. "No. And there's been no discussion of a memorial for him, either. Unlike the others."

"Is that usual? I mean, due to his higher level?" Eliot asked.

Both agents could only shrug, "I don't know," Natasha admitted. "We've not been in a similar situation." She turned to Clint. "You're better at reading Fury than I am. What do you think?"

Clint remained quiet for a long moment; all that could be heard in the room was the cracking of flames. "I think that Fury only gives as much as he needs to in order to get the job done. Rogers and Stark needed a jumpstart. Coulson's situation provided it. We haven't been officially told one way or another, which leads me to believe..."

Natasha finished the statement, "... that Fury's hedging his bets."

Eliot leaned back in thought. "So, Coulson may be alive, but in serious enough condition that Fury doesn't want to say he's alive in case he doesn't make it."

"It's been a month," Natasha cautioned.

The partners glanced at one another. Clint nodded. "Whichever way the wind blows, we'll find out for certain at that meeting." Taking a breath, Clint uncurled, returning to his previous sprawl; the tension had gone, leaving behind anticipation.

Natasha cast a fond smile at her partner before shifting to face Eliot. "Thank you."

"Anytime. Sometimes an outsider's view is needed." Eliot re-situated his glasses and opened his book.

The three spent the rest of the evening in quiet companionship.

888

Grabbing his bag with one hand, Clint clasped forearms with Eliot in a warrior's handshake, stepping in for a brief hug. "Thanks," he murmured.

"You'd do the same," came the quiet response.

Clint nodded and stepped back, sliding his sunglasses on, while Natasha got her own hug.

She laughed at whatever Eliot said, nodding and joined Clint on the porch of the house.

"I'm only a call away," Eliot reminded. "Keep in touch."

"The same goes for you," Clint added, and the two agents got into the rental car Natasha had arrived in.

Eliot watched the car fade away in the distance and sighed. He pulled his phone out as he re-entered the house. "Hey, Nate. … Yeah, I'm good. … Gotta close the house up and I'll be back by tomorrow." He glanced out the window. "Yeah. They're good. Got 'em back on an even keel again. I'll see you tomorrow." He flipped the phone closed, a soft smile on his face as he got ready to go home.

Began: 2/18/2013

Finished: 3/8/2013