[identity profile] mrs-jack-turner.livejournal.com posting in [community profile] m_j_t_fiction
Title: Theirs is a Secret Love
Author: [livejournal.com profile] mrs_jack_turner
Pairing: Clint/Phil, background Benny/Claire (Item 47)
Rating: PG-13
Disclaimer: Nope, not mine.
Summary: After the Chitauri attack, NYC and the Helicarrier are restored to their former glories. Now, there's only one thing left to fix: how well the agents work together. Trust needs to be built between everyone, and what's better than a good, old-fashioned team building retreat in the middle of nowhere with trust exercises that make you look like a fool? Clint can think of about a million things, but unfortunately he doesn't get a say in it, so that's what he's going to have to do.
Warning: Brief mentions of Loki related PTSD nightmares for Clint
Notes: The title comes from a conversation with my betas in which it was determined that there are four pairings we discussed being in the fic that it could refer to. Given that three of these so-called pairings are barely hinted at let alone mentioned in the fic, if anyone manages to guess two or more I will write fic for you, because clearly you are as strange as we are.

To [livejournal.com profile] nerak_rose and [livejournal.com profile] inside_the_veil, thank you so much for your support, comments and encouragement throughout the writing and editing process for this. You are wonderful <3 To [livejournal.com profile] arieltachna, thank you for being great and making sure I didn't make anything British without meaning to.

Written for the [livejournal.com profile] cc_exchange.

Fic on Ao3.

"Come in," Phil responded to the knock on his door which had broken the comfortable silence that previously sheathed his office. His eyes instantly flickered up in the direction of the person who swung it open as soon as the first syllable was out of his mouth, gaze breaking away from where they had been focused on the weekend schedule that still required his confirmation. "Coming in the traditional way?" He asked in surprise as Clint Barton sauntered across the room, the door brushing closed behind him with a discernible click. "To what do I owe the honor?"

"Thought I'd go the official way of things since it's an official thing I want to talk about." Clint perched himself on the seat opposite Phil and picked up the miniature replica of Cap's shield that Phil always kept on his desk. Phil watched as Clint span it like a top on the flat surface of a freshly completed pile of mission reports Phil had yet to file away. Every time it failed and stopped, Clint resorted to rotating it faster and faster, until it succeeded in becoming a blur of blue, white and red. Something Phil had learned long ago was that the best way to get what you wanted out of Clint was to let him say it in his own time. Pressuring the other man into letting out what was on his mind would just trap the thoughts in an airtight cage to which only Clint held the key.

"I was thinking," Clint said after a pause that was starting to feel like eternity, Phil had sat with his hands braced against his keyboard, unmoving ever since Clint had entered, "I don't really see any point in me going on that SHIELD bonding thing. I mean, me and Nat are Avengers now. It's not like you really need us there." The tiny Captain America shield flattened out to rock around on its edges for a couple of revolutions before finally shuddering to a rest.

After the events of the Chitauri invasion, Loki, and Phil's not death, SHIELD had been in dire need of new agents. For the first time in years, they'd taken on a lot of trainees all at the same time, and unfortunately, whilst they were bonding amazingly well with each other, there had been difficulties integrating them smoothly into team work with the older, more experienced agents. Another problem they needed to tackle was that other than a few select people, namely Natasha and Phil, the SHIELD personnel who were present for the Helicarrier attack still didn't have the level of trust in Clint that they had before. A co-worker walking the enemy into their midst and killing off their friends wasn't something that was easy to come to terms with, even if the concerned party had been brainwashed at the time, not without living through it or having someone close experience a phenomenon of the same ilk. People were wary. It was understandable. Still, as much as Clint would never admit to it, Phil knew their attitude was getting to him. There was only so long anyone could put up with being the subject of mistrusting stares and the main topic of whispered conversations. Even people Clint had considered friends were hesitant to give him the benefit of the doubt. So, when Tony had offered Clint space in the newly named Avengers Tower, Clint had jumped at the chance of getting off-base to live with a group of people who had taken him under their wing with a single nod from Natasha.

Now it had been decided that to help with rebuilding or, in the case of the new agents, creating the trust that was so vital to the running of SHIELD, select groups were being sent off on weekend team building retreats. The first batch had been a huge success, and so it had become a mandatory hoop for all SHIELD employees to jump through. Since Clint and Natasha were still SHIELD agents as well as being Avengers, they weren't exempt, in fact, part of Phil thought that it was best for them to have time away from the superhero influence before they forgot their SHIELD allegiance altogether.

"That's not really an option, Clint. You may be an Avenger, but you're still a SHIELD agent. I know you don't want to go, but we all have to do it." Phil kept his tone neutral and his face impassive. Clint needed Phil not to fail at being objective. After all, Phil would never let anyone else avoid essential training, he was hardly going to let Clint be the one to start.

There was tension in Clint's jaw betraying that he was gritting his teeth to keep back words he knew Phil wouldn't want to hear. Phil wasn't going to be swayed on this point and Clint clearly suspected any further arguments would fall on deaf ears. It didn't mean the other man wasn't still bursting to say what was on his mind.

"What do you thinking they're going to do, Clint? It's a work thing. Just because people aren't back to normal around you yet, doesn't mean they won't be. Hiding out in Stark's tower is not going to help."

At Phil's words, Clint's eyes flashed with anger, but a softer light lay underneath, displaying his hurt and pain that he couldn't escape this easily. It was going to have to be something that he worked through. Even if he didn't want to admit it aloud, Phil knew Clint was aware he couldn't hide from this forever.

"Look," Phil's tone softened as he continued, "you're not always going to be doing missions with the Avengers, you need to work with everyone here as well. Besides," Phil said with a rare smirk that Clint perked up slightly at the sight of, "don't you want to see how the Director's going to handle all of this? You do know he was picked to be in our group this weekend?"

Clint's expression morphed from residual apprehension to pure delight. "You mean that Fury has to do this too? Nat never told me he had to, or that he was with us." He started to get more animated, his hands flailing as he talked with rapid gestures. "This is going to be the best thing ever," Clint said with a grin.

Phil, caught up in Clint's sudden rush of positive emotion, smiled along with him. It was good to see Clint happy, even if it was just because his misfortune was being shared by an unexpected person. The weight dragging Clint's spirit down had lifted at least enough for it to flutter above the ground even if it wasn't soaring at its usual lofty height.

"Do you want to stay over on Thursday?" Phil asked, moving his hands away from his computer and flexing his fingers. Every few weeks Clint would spend the night with Phil rather than go back to the tower with the Avengers. It was how Phil knew just how much things were affecting Clint after the attack. As much as Clint protested the contrary, Phil knew that Clint slept better with him around. The weariness in Clint's eyes eased when Phil was curled up next to him within easy reach. Even if during their time together Clint woke in a cold sweat, clinging to the bed sheets until Phil could talk him down and convince him that he was safe and no longer under Loki's twisted control. It might not appear to be the best of arrangements, but it suited them fine. Their relationship was relatively new despite having danced around each other for years. They certainly weren't ready for the step of living together, especially not when it meant Phil would likely have to move into Avengers Tower. He had enough stress on the job without adding to it and having to put up with Tony Stark in his living room. Clint insisted Phil just didn't want to say something embarrassing to Steve when he was half asleep and unable to control his inner fanboy. "The bus we hired will be leaving early and my place is closer."

"Bus?" Clint asked in wide-eyed disbelief. "We're not just flying?"

"Believe it or not, Clint, not everywhere has the facilities for us to land quinjets. So, yes, we have to take the bus."

"Fine, I'll stay over at yours," Clint said with a soft smile betraying how pleased he was with the turn in events. "If I'm not going to get you alone at all this weekend, we might as well have one night together before having to go through the ordeal of team building." He hopped to his feet and carefully placed the shield back on its stand just how Phil liked it to be displayed. "I'll see you later. I need to goad R&D into trying to compete with Stark's new arrowheads for me. If I'm lucky, then I'll get double the firepower." He rubbed his hands together gleefully. "Just imagine the explosions!"

It might not actually so bad, this bonding thing. Sure, it would take a while to drive to where they were being sequestered for the weekend; it was in the middle of nowhere. All of the SHIELD agents were crammed onto the bus with limited leg room and no freedom to move around at will as was always the case on their usual aerial transport. At least it wasn't an alien invasion. That definitely made it more fun than a work day, although too long without an incident might get a little boring.

There had been some grouching at first, especially from Clint because he knew that he was close enough for Fury to hear every word, when they had seen what they had to deal with for the duration of the drive. However, Natasha had just popped her earbuds in twenty minutes into the journey and acted like Clint wasn't there at all unless she had to slap his hand away from the snacks she'd brought along for the trip. How could Clint have known that was an option? Phil probably had had a whole pack of donuts that he was sharing with Jasper, whilst Clint was stuck being hungry and ignored.

The rhythmic motion of the wheels on the asphalt must have lulled Clint to sleep at some point because he woke with a start when they pulled up at their destination. Unlike New York, the whole area was completely calm, without the hubbub of people swarming around on the sidewalks, and instead of vehicles and their angry horns, the air was filled with the sounds of birds and insects and their cacophony of calls. Trees stretched far into the clear, blue afternoon sky and the only building for miles was the one provided for the visitors and employees of the center. A little two storey place with wood-paneled walls, a communal showering facility and bunk beds like Clint hadn't seen since his time in the orphanage. Not that he would have the chance to use them just yet, but he did get his first chance to call top bunk when they threw their bags into their assigned rooms on the way to an induction and safety meeting that had been set up for them.

The lead instructor was a little peppy and touchy feely for Clint's tastes, but then he supposed that was to be expected from a man who dedicated his life to improving the relationships between people who were strangers to him. In truth, he seemed like a decent enough guy. Unless he was going to start making them stand around holding hands and singing Kumbaya.

Their first activity was just getting out on the pond - lake? Clint wasn't too certain on where the difference came in between the two - they could see from their rooms in canoes. He wasn't entirely sure how this was going to work as team building, but he dutifully paired up with some new girl that was pointed in his direction. Everything was just a sea of familiar and unfamiliar faces with a range of facial expressions from joyously delighted to seriously unimpressed. Clint's own feelings lay firmly in the middle. Better to just get on with it. He could see Nat and Phil each paired up with their own new agent; Fury seemingly found a reprieve compared to the rest of them, and was matched with Hill. The woman Clint had been partnered with clambered excitedly into the front of their canoe as Clint sat at the back.

They nudged the boat away from the shore with their oars, slipping gracefully into the still water, casting out an abundance of new ripples and a couple of waves in their wake. It didn't take too long for Clint to work out how to move the paddle effectively so that it sliced through the water in precise movements, moving them along almost effortlessly. Up front, Clint's partner was having a couple of issues that were preventing them from moving along as smoothly as they could. The angle of her oar tore into the water jerkily instead of at an effortless slide.

"Just turn your oar over slightly. Yeah, that's it," Clint said as she adjusted the trajectory the blade and how her paddle bit into the water. Their canoe instantly gained a lot more power in its movement.

Clint steered as they raced off ahead of the others. A lot of the pairs still seemed uncertain of how to move together effectively, hesitant to end up capsizing and looking like fools in front of their colleagues. Unlike Clint who had taken to it, well he'd taken to it like a duck to water, if truth be told. As long as no one ever said it to him aloud, he was happy enough to think it. For SHIELD agents, the others were really letting the team down with their inability to be up to the challenge of canoeing. It was hardly a worthy foe.

"I'm Clint, by the way," Clint said as they continued forwards. There was an advantage in knowing the name of the person he was trusting to not capsize him and get him completely soaked through, and it was that Clint would able to curse their name should he end up submerged.

"Claire," she offered as she pulled the paddle back in a determined stroke. "We're not doing too badly at this," she laughed as though it came as a surprise. "I've never done this before."

"Me neither," Clint added. "We're doing better than that lot at least." He jerked his head over his shoulder at the floundering agents on the far side of the lake, not that she'd be able to see the gesture.

"Oh, yeah," she crowed. "And I'm supposed to be the new girl. Eat my waves!" Claire laughed, and Clint found himself laughing along with her.

"What they get you for anyway?" He might as well try at some bonding. It was his mission objective after all. If Clint kept thinking about it that way, it made it easier to get through.

"Couple of bank robberies. Nothing that bad. We just drew a bit of attention to ourselves is all."

"We?" Clint hadn't heard of SHIELD pulling in multiple people for recruitment together in such a way. Sure, there were their super secret recruitment drives, but the fact that she was new and had a high clearance level straight off the bat lent itself to the theory that whatever had gone on was more than a simple case of SHIELD looking for new people.

"Benny as well. He's the one who worked out how to get the weapon working in the first place. He's amazing like that. We'd have never managed it otherwise. Don't go thinking I'm not the brains behind it though." She paused as she adjusted her grip on the paddle before sweeping it back. "I came up with the plan, just because he managed to get alien tech working, doesn't mean that I wasn't pulling the strings."

If Clint's blood turned to ice and a small shiver ran through him at the realization that she was talking about Chitauri tech that he'd been responsible for existing on Earth in the first place, then he didn't let it stop him from acting like everything was normal. However, he did take a moment to compose himself before he answered.

"So, you're with Sitwell then?" His voice sounded slightly hesitant to his own ears, but hopefully Claire, not knowing him, wouldn't catch it. Clint knew that Jasper had taken over from Phil when Phil had been resting up. The promotion seemed to have been good for the other man, Clint hadn't seen him so confident before. Now, he walked around with his Level 7 badge like it was a medal of honor. It was kind of adorable. Not that Clint would ever let him know.

"Yeah, he took us out with some pretty wicked moves, even after I shot at him through the wall."

"Don't sweat him," Clint said. "He's a total bunny rabbit when you get used to him." He wanted to say more. That Phil was really the one to fear because Sitwell may lull everyone into a false sense of security and then bring someone down without breaking a sweat, but Phil was the one Jasper had learned everything from and Phil could bring a person down with any item that could be found in a nursery. Bragging about Phil wasn't really something Clint did though. Everyone knew what Phil could do already, so he just kept quiet.

"I don't think anyone in this organization could ever be a rabbit," Claire said, sounding skeptical.

"You've never seen Watership Down have you? Cute little bunnies one minute, rabid beasts the next. Seriously. Sitwell is just like one of those. Just wait. You'll find out soon enough," Clint added. He twisted back around, not having realized just how far they'd separated themselves from the rest of the group. They'd traveled half the length of the pond, lake, whatever, now, most of the rest of the group shrinking towards being mere dots on the horizon. Some, having managed to break away from the pack, were not blurred blobs, but actually almost recognizable. "We should probably turn back."

Claire agreed, and they maneuvered the canoe back around so that they could meet up with the others. A slight breeze was picking up, the cool air raising goose bumps down Clint's bare arms. It didn't take long before they were pointing in the correct direction and moving through the water as effortlessly as they had when paddling out. The group that had earned their water wings and started exploring for themselves was not far away and gaining ground quickly.

"Hey, baby," Claire said as they pulled up at the canoe that held Phil and a guy Clint had never seen before, but who Clint assumed was Benny. "Having fun?"

"Sure," Benny said. However, the look he gave Phil from behind his back made Clint feel he definitely thought that Phil wasn't as fun to canoe with as being partnered with his girlfriend would have been.


"Sir," Clint responded merrily.

It was nice to see Phil looking relaxed around people from work, even if Benny and Claire weren't aware of just how privileged they were to see Phil this at ease. There wasn't even going to be a suit involved for Phil the whole trip, which practically equated this whole thing to a holiday. Even Clint rarely saw Phil out of a suit; Phil liked the composure they gave him even at the weekend. Not that Phil didn't have his own clothing that weren't suits, but what made Clint particularly happy to see him out of his normal attire today was that Phil was wearing Clint's t-shirt. No, it wasn't purple. Clint did have some variety in his wardrobe.

"Don't even think about it," Phil added when they got closer, scowling slightly. "I might not be in a suit, but if you get me wet, you will be disciplined."

"Promises, promises," Clint muttered to himself. "I thought we were supposed to be having fun and learning to trust each other?" Clint asked as they slowed their approach. All four of them stopped paddling, letting the canoes come to a stop on their own a couple of meters apart. "Do you not trust me?"

The expression on Phil's face told Clint that right now there was no way that Phil believed that Clint wouldn't splash him.

"You wound me!" Clint said, placing his free hand over his heart. "No trust at all."

"I trust you. I trust you to do it despite what I say. Sometimes I just hope you'll listen."

They were putting on quite the show for the other two, who had met neither of them before, but Clint didn't really care. Whereas Clint and Phil behaved with more reserve around the people they normally worked with, with Benny and Claire, Phil seemed to be less guarded. It was either the people or the place, and Clint was inclined to think it was the company. After all, if they had no idea how Clint and Phil normally behaved around one another, then who were they to say what was normal? Who could say that it might be seen as inappropriate?

Clint splashed water at Phil as they passed.

They moved on from water to more water. This time though, they were separated into groups of ten and were told to gather to the side of a narrow, slow flowing river rather than the still, open water of the lake. Clint and Claire had managed the whole trek in the canoes without capsizing a single time, even if there had been a couple of close calls when they got more adventurous with their speed and tried to put off the other people. Natasha hadn't been so lucky with her partner. If Clint had laughed for five minutes at the drowned rat look she was currently sporting, and only received one punch in the arm for it, then he considered himself lucky.

Standing next to the river, they looked at the two ropes were suspended above it, the water trickling along merrily over the sun warmed rocks beneath them. The idea, according to their esteemed leader, was to get everyone across the "bridge" - Clint figured that the instructor must be using the term loosely; after all, it was just two ropes, one suspended vertically above the other - and then to get everyone back over without anyone falling into the water. As much as Clint questioned the usage of the word bridge, at least they shouldn't have any problems in doing it. It was simple. Just a matter of balance, and Clint could do that with his eyes closed. None of this tentative sidewards shuffling like was expected from them. He could probably just hop up onto the top one and take a sedate walk across the thing. No problem at all. Looking at Natasha and the smug look she was supporting, clearly she believed the same.

The first couple of people made it over just fine. Once on the other bank, the agent who led them across helped further by holding the upper rope steady for the rest of the group. It was as simple as Clint thought, and Natasha made it look even easier when it was her turn, gracefully stepping across like she was born to walk on similar obstacles. Newbies to SHIELD that had been placed on their team seemed a little more hesitant and wobbled a bit more on the rope as they attempted their crossing, but when everyone encouraged them to keep going, they were all soon huddled together on the far bank, celebrating.

No problem at all, now they just had to get back over and they were all done. Maybe they could even manage it in record time for the center. That would be nice. Everyone was certainly up for the challenge.

Clint offered to be the last one to cross back over. It didn't bother him to only have someone steadying the rope on one side. The chance of him falling in was so small that he really didn't see any point in not being the one left. He watched as one person after the other got back to where they had started. Everyone was a lot more confident now that they had managed it once. All of them were congratulating each other as soon as they got a foot on dry land, patting each other on the back or hugging. Only Phil was brave enough to get in Nat's personal space when she accomplished it, the soft smile that lit up her face was enough for Clint to know she was more than happy with everyone else's distance being the case. Phil and Clint may be allowed close to her, but the other agents were not yet welcome.

Springing up onto the rope, Clint was halfway across when he heard Phil call his name. Clint looked up questioningly at the man who was holding onto the rope to help keep Clint steady, not that he needed it.

"Remember to lean forward."

"What do you think I'm doing?" Clint grouched and leaned forward a bit more just to make a show of that he was. As he went to take the next sidestep, he saw a flash of movement out of the corner of his eye, and felt his arms yanked upwards as the upper rope moved so that he went from leaning forward, to standing straight, to leaning backward in a jerky ark. Before he knew what was happening, he'd lost his grip, hands torn away from the rope, and tumbled into the river.

He sat up, bracing himself on his arms and struggling for a moment to find decent purchase on the shifting surface beneath his hands. Stones and sediment were swirling with the flow of the water and his scrambled movements. Clint spluttered a little as he spat half of the river out of his mouth, looking over in shock at the bank where Natasha stood at Phil's shoulder. Even through his poker face, Clint knew that he was amused by seeing Clint land on his ass in the freezing water. Completely drenched from head to toe, wet clothes clinging to his skin, Clint couldn't believe that it had happened. Natasha was laughing about it, which he supposed was fair play given his own reaction to her misfortune. Phil's hand was still resting casually, far too innocently on the upper rope.

"I told you to lean forward."

"You're joking, right? There's no way I'm doing that!" Clint grouched under his breath to Phil as the instructor finished giving them the details of what their latest trial was.

The sky was just starting to darken and the air had become chill. Everyone who had managed to get themselves wet had been given the chance to change their clothing. Clint was definitely grateful for the opportunity as wet denim was not comfortable to be in, let alone traipse around the woods wearing. They'd also had a break for some food, before being dragged straight back out for one last session before being left to their own devices for the night.

"We have to, it's part of the program," Phil said with a smile. He looked far too happy about the whole thing. Clint wouldn't have been surprised if Phil had known this was going to happen, maybe he'd even suggested that they undertake the ridiculous task.

"You realize you're going to be doing it too? You should not look this happy."

"Oh, I know. I'm just thinking how we aren't the only ones doing it. You really need to remember that this isn't about humiliating each other, but learning to trust-"

"Yeah, yeah. I get the message. Love and trust and acceptance and suddenly we'll all work so much better together. It's not like I don't trust you. I just don't want to do it." Clint knew he was being rather petulant, but it was just such a stupid idea. He was starting to think that all of these people just liked to get a laugh out of random things they'd made up, because there was no way anyone just thought this up as a good idea of a trust exercise.

"If you do it, I'll let you be the one without the blindfold when Nick's wearing his," Phil whispered to him as he leaned in close. "I know you want to. I just have to trust you won't lead me astray whilst you're too busy laughing, which, by the way isn't the point." Phil moved back, looking around to see if anyone was close enough by to hear them. "I really shouldn't be encouraging you," he said, discreetly bumping shoulders with Clint.

Clint considered the proposal for a moment. He supposed getting to see a blindfolded Fury being led around by Jasper and made to hug a tree might actually be worth the feeling of humiliation bubbling uncomfortably in his stomach. It wasn't the worst thing he'd done after all; it was just a bit of fun. Nat probably wasn't too fond of the idea either, but then she was probably going to cheat and mark the tree some way so she knew exactly which one it was without having to go around and feel up a bunch more.

"Okay, fine. I suppose that's a good compromise," Clint agreed reluctantly, even though the thought of Fury hugging a tree and actually getting to witness it would remain secreted away in a very happy part of his brain forever. Then again, it would be worth it for Jasper alone, who was probably going to be so into making sure his new recruits were watching that he'd probably take it far too seriously and treat Fury like he couldn't walk anywhere without his express guidance. Thinking about it, people were going to be far too busy making sure their superior or fellow agent wasn't going to land flat on their face in the undergrowth and not looking at the other blindfolded people stumbling around.

People had taken up blindfolds all around them, and since Fury was leading Jasper around first, that meant Clint was the first of their pair to be taken to his tree. Phil slipped the blindfold over Clint's eyes, tying it securely and skillfully so that complete darkness surrounded him. Clint could smell the trees and dirt. After a few seconds everything seemed sharper, at least it felt that way to Clint, but it probably just came down to the fact he was paying more attention to any little snap of a twig or shuffling footstep.

"You ready?" Phil asked him.

Clint nodded.

He felt Phil's hand reach for his, warm fingers curling around it in a secure hold. Shifting his fingers in Phil's grasp, Clint gripped onto Phil's tightly as he took the first few uneasy steps forward. His other arm came up automatically to aid with his balance even with Phil keeping him relatively steady. Still, Phil led him confidently as he moved, and Clint found himself focusing on the familiar sound of Phil's breathing to keep him grounded. After a few paces, Phil turned him to the right, then after they continued on for a while, left and another couple of steps before going right again. Phil guided Clint with touches and murmured warnings when Clint needed to avoid things that Phil couldn't maneuver him around, but instead had to step over like raised tree roots and loose stones.

Every now and again, Phil would stop him completely and then spin him around a couple of times, telling Clint he wasn't going to make it easy on him. Anyone could remember the turns taken and paces walked. After the second time Phil did that, Clint stopped trying to keep track of the course he'd been following, instead just relaxing and letting Phil lead him. Eventually, not that it could have been much longer than five minutes, time seemed to be moving as strangely as they were, Phil pulled him to a final stop.

"Okay, arms out in front of you. That's it. This is your tree."

"Funny," Clint told him as he gingerly stretched his arms out, fingers connecting with the rough bark. He tried to map out some sort of pattern or at least attempt to guess on what sort of tree it was. "I'm not going to hug the thing though." He paused. "Are the others hugging their trees?"

He waited for a moment with his fingers caressing the bark and finding a place where a branch had recently been cut off, the smooth flat wood of the stump that had been left feeling dramatically different underneath his fingertips.

"I can't see many people from where we are. I don't think you really have to hug the tree if you don't want to, as long as you can find it again."

"Good," Clint said and focused on seeking out more distinct markers on the tree. He carefully guided himself around it, stumbling a little when the toe of his boot scrapped just a little too low and collided with a raised root. "Let me know if Tasha hugs her tree though. She'll probably just be slipping something on it to track herself back, but Tony'll get a kick out of it. Maybe even get a picture."

"If I take a picture of her hugging the tree, I'll have to get one of you too," Phil informed him. "You can take one of me if it makes you feel any better, but just remember that as entertaining as Tony will find Natasha doing something like hugging, he'll have twenty more jokes about you and bird names than usual."

"I don't like you sometimes," Clint sighed, making one more pass around the tree. "Okay, I think I've got it. I'm not going to get anything else out of this." He held his arms out in the direction where he thought he'd left Phil, and sure enough, Phil's comforting hands wrapped around his own in seconds. Phil's thumb idly stroked the sensitive skin of Clint's inner wrist. "Take me back so I can find her again."

"I'm not even going to ask how you decided the tree was a girl," Phil just said, leading Clint back via a different route than the one that had gotten them there. The longer they walked, the more Clint started to hear clear voices again. People were laughing and joking about their trees which was just such a bizarre concept because they were trees in a forest. That was all.

They stopped and Phil carefully undid Clint's blindfold, urging him to keep his eyes closed for a little bit and gradually letting the light back in instead of just opening them straight away. Clint blinked a few times before opening his eyes fully. Phil was a little blurred around the edges at first, but he soon came back into proper focus.

"Going to find your tree then?"

Clint looked around the area of forest that had been blocked off for this little game, he couldn't see all of the trees, but he felt like he had enough of the sense of direction to start walking towards the right section. It took him a couple of seconds to walk far enough in to spot the one he knew was his and Phil just shook his head in disbelief as Clint got it correct first time without even having to get close enough to touch it again.

"Perhaps we should send you out to find needles in haystacks," Phil joked as Clint gloated about being right.

"Nah, I'd get bored and you'd be down the best marksman in the world."

"We would. Guess we'll just have to keep you on the Avengers then."

"Come on, sir, time to find you a tree!"

That night, they all piled into the common area, surprisingly tired but happy to all crash like contented cats on the uncomfortable chairs dotted around the large, cold room. Not that Clint was sure if all of the chairs were as uncomfortable as his, because he couldn’t bring himself to move once he'd sat down, but none of them looked like they'd make his sore back any happier. He had some nice stone shaped bruises to go along with the taste of humiliation.

Jasper set up a poker tournament. Only a couple of the more senior agents took part, most of the table was made up by the new recruits, all missing the amused smiles on the faces of the people who knew better. It didn't take long for the majority to learn their mistake and retreat to where the wiser members of the group sat making small talk. Clint, not in the mood for his ass being handed to him, was content to half watch the game and half join in any conversations that caught his attention.

Natasha disappeared for a few minutes, returning with something concealed behind her back. There was a slight spring in her step, even though her face didn't betray her pleasure. Clint watched her approach, until she draped herself over the back of his chair and shoulder, one arm hooked around his neck as she leaned in closer and the other dangled a bottle of vodka loosely from the loop of her fingers in front of him. Her breath tickled against the back of his neck as she exhaled, "Fancy making things more interesting?"

"Did you raid Tony's bar before you left this morning?" Clint tilted his head so that he could look at her properly. The light from the ceiling fixture created a halo of gold in her red hair. "Because I'm not entirely sure that was included in his 'mi casa es su casa' policy."

"Please," she said twisting open the cap with a grating click as the two parts separated, "like Stark would know good vodka if it poured itself for him." Standing up straight, Natasha threw back her head and took a swig directly from the bottle. "And this is good stuff."

Clint held out his hand, and Natasha handed it over without hesitation. He took his own mouthful, a pleasurable burn as he swallowed, just taking Nat's word for it being decent. It all just tasted the same to him.

"Did someone say vodka?" It was Claire and she looked delighted at the prospect of alcohol. Clint couldn't blame her. He offered it to her at Natasha's nod of acquiescence.

"I've got more if you want to be civilized and drink out of a glass," Natasha said with a shrug. "We just don't normally bother."

"No, don't worry. This is fine." Claire followed their lead and took her own drink straight from the bottle. "Thanks."

Soon enough, word got around about Natasha's alcohol stash and people all gravitated towards them, in the corner they'd set themselves up in. When they ran out of the first bottle, Clint held the fort as Natasha nipped back to their room, or wherever she had squirreled away the rest of her stash, to return with more. A couple of rounds later, there was a drunken suggestion (that may have misguidedly come from Clint) that they should play Pictionary. Since it would clearly be the best thing ever to do and there could be teams and the senior agents would totally kick the asses of the junior agents and everything would just be wonderful. Even though Natasha started looking at him like he was crazy after his suggestion, especially when the call was taken up for them to actually play, she still passed the alcohol between them.

Two hours later, Clint was feeling rather pleasantly buzzed as he lounged across two chairs with his head in Natasha’s lap, her fingers playing with his hair like he was a pampered pet. Occasionally shouting out random answers to both his team and the other when he thought he knew. The more sober residents in the room looked to be pleased that it was Pictionary and not charades that was being played. At least random squiggles on a board that could be either a mouse or house or a car were easier to decipher than having drunken agents falling over themselves and giggling as they tried to act something out.

Clint rolled over to tell Phil something, Nat's hand slipping from where it lay as he did, but as he moved, he realized that the other man must have gone to bed. Squinting slightly, Clint took in the room; there were definitely fewer people than there had been earlier. Perhaps it had something to do with the severely questionable drawings that were happening. In fact, their group size had dramatically decreased with a lot of people deciding to call it a night. It was probably a good time to go to bed and he told Natasha as much, and being the bestest best friend ever, she entertained his whim and dragged him through to the room they were sharing with a few others. If the people in Clint's room stayed up gossiping a couple more hours into the early morning like children at their first sleep over, then that was something they kept to themselves.

Part 2

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Mrs Jack Turner's Fiction

February 2013


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