It starts with Tony bringing Coulson a strawberry sponge cake. Or rather, it starts – as several of their missions have – with Tony being too nosy for his own good. He makes the cake at 2am on a Sunday, leaves the mess in the kitchen for Steve and Bruce the next morning and takes it to Coulson’s apartment in Bed–Stuy, Brooklyn. He slips in the front behind a mom and her twin girls and there’s no further obstacles between him and the apartment on the top corner of the building.
Coulson swings the door open with a smile, wearing only a white bathrobe that doesn’t even cover his knees. The smile vanishes when he sees Tony, his expression dropping so fast and hard it might have been anchored to an anvil. Tony is already peeking over his shoulder to get a first glimpse of the agent’s home. He spots a loft floor with a king bed, bookshelves and a blond head peering drowsily over the pillows to see who’s at the door… and that’s as far as he gets before Coulson grabs him by the lapels and shoves him out into the hall.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Coulson snaps, spinning him round and slamming him against the wall. Tony has never seen Coulson fight hand-to-hand, but there’s strength and experience behind the movement. He clutches the tupperware box protectively to his chest.
“I made you a cake!” Tony protests, sticking his bottom lip out. He holds the evidence up. “It’s your birthday. Isn’t it?”
Coulson sags and steps back, but keeps one hand holding Tony against the wall. Tony clicks that he might actually have done something wrong, even though he checked that Coulson likes spongecake and strawberries, he asked freakin’ Sitwell. He was going to come here and give Coulson the cake and Coulson was going to invite him in for coffee and he was going to learn Oh So Many Things by being inside the man’s home and then he would be in such a good mood from the cake and Tony’s general charm that he would finally agree to move into the tower. Tony had everything planned, and he can’t figure out what he’s missed.
It has something to do with the blond in the bed, Tony decides, and gives a melting smile. “Coulson, man, I don’t care if you’ve got a dude in your bed. Are you serious? Have you met me? You think anything legal is going to shock me? Fuck off, you insult me.”
“Oh, Christ,” Coulson rolls his eyes. “That’s not… stay there,” he orders, and steps back inside, shuts the door and locks it. Tony rolls his shoulders and straightens his collar. Maybe he has been misjudging Coulson all along. Maybe Coulson has, like, a secret psychopathic side where he keeps dismembered corpses in his fridge or something. Huh. That means he’s hiding them right now. Tony crouches to peer into the keyhole, which is pointless because it’s not that sort of keyhole.
He’s still squinting at the lock mechanism when Coulson reopens the door. He raises an eyebrow at Tony, who gives a cheerful wave and straightens up.
“Mr Stark,” says Coulson. “Would you like to come in?”
“Do you wanna, like, blindfold me, spin me round a dozen times?”
Coulson gives that smile that means absolutely nothing and holds out his arm to usher Tony through the doorway.
The only big change that he can see as he steps over the threshold is that the blond is sitting at the kitchen table now, smoking a joint. Tony can see him properly this time; he’s in a khaki T-shirt, and has a squat but handsome face, maybe ten years Coulson’s junior, with a fat scar around the corner of one eye. Damn. So Coulson’s got a badass boyfriend. Tony feels bad for ever doubting his pull factor. And for assuming the thing about body parts in the fridge.
“Hey,” Tony raises a hand to the badass boyfriend.
“Hey,” the badass boyfriend nods at him, blowing out a long plume of smoke. He doesn’t wave – his left hand hangs off the table, out of sight. Tony can smell the smoke cloying in the air. Oh man. Coulson’s gonna be awesome to have around the tower, for sure. Tony’s never asked Bruce whether he’s tried weed to keep the Hulk under wraps.
Coulson clears his throat, and Tony grins at him. “Happy birthday! I made it myself. I’m not even kidding. I have so many hidden talents. Do you want some now? I’ll cut us all a slice.”
He makes a beeline for the kitchen bench, and Coulson jogs to intercept him. “Ah, maybe later.”
He grabs the cake out of Tony’s hands. He crosses the room and puts the box in the fridge, which is massive and silver. He’s still in that ridiculous bathrobe. He actually has really nice legs, and Tony wants pictures. He’ll give them to Pepper with ‘For Your Viewing Pleasure, xoxo’ scrawled across them.
“So,” Coulson leans against the bench and folds his arms. “Why’re you really here?”
“What? A bro can’t bring his bro cake on his birthday?” Tony asks, and when Coulson tips his head he shrugs. “Ok, fine. I wanted to see what was so great about this place that you won’t move into the tower.”
“Are you still going on about that?” Coulson shakes his head. “Stark, I don’t want to live with you. I get enough of you when the world’s in jeopardy.”
“Not possible,” says Tony.
“I like my house,” says Coulson.
Tony glances around, waving his hands. “It’s nice,” he winces. “I guess.”
The badass boyfriend laughs.
Phil goes to sit down as soon as the door closes behind Tony. He can see Clint's ruined hand clenching and unclenching below the lip of the table, like somebody counting rosary beads.
"What do you think?" Phil asks, after a few moments. "About moving into the tower?"
"I'm not... I don't know," Clint ducks his head.
"We'd have more space than in this place."
Clint grins wryly. "Oh, yeah, 'cos I love open spaces."
"More rooms, I mean."
"I know what you meant," Clint says irritably, and takes a drag on the joint. There's been an early autumn chill the last few days and his leg's played up, bad. He couldn't settle last night, shifting and turning constantly, getting up to stretch and pop painkillers. He came back about two and lay down on his stomach, his nose cold on the back of Phil's neck. He must have been outside, on the balcony with his plants, or walking around the block while the streets are dead. He whispered, 'happy birthday, you old fart' and Phil laughed and finally went to sleep.
Phil gets up and cuts a couple of slices of cake. Clint's gazing out the window now, his chin in his hand, the joint hanging from his fingers. He mutters, "Do you want to live with Tony Stark and the spandex quartet?"
"I don't mind where I live," Phil says, cutting little squares from his slice. The cake's not awful. "But Fury and the council would sleep easier if I was keeping an eye on them. And I think Steve wouldn't mind me hanging around to back him up in arguments."
"Oooh, he's ‘Steve’ now, is he?" Clint smirks, his eyes narrowing.
"Cap. Captain Rogers. Stop that," Phil covers his face.
The next day, Natasha storms up and gets right into Tony’s space.
“If you ever,” she snarls, “stick your face into Coulson’s business like that again, I will break your ribcage open, pull your liver out and feed it to the hulk.”
Tony stares at her. When she doesn’t elaborate, he says, “the Hulk’s vegetarian.”
Tony uses all his sneaky digital backdoors to get into the SHIELD employee databases. He finds Coulson – there’s almost eight hundred megs of classified PDF downloads, if he fancied some light reading – and clicks through to the personal information section. He checks ‘emergency contacts’ first, but Coulson only has his sister on record. He goes for ‘declared relationships’, which he didn’t know SHIELD kept a track of, and finds none current. He wanders around for a bit, but Coulson’s employee profile is considerably less interesting than stalking Pepper’s friends on facebook. Finally, curious about whether Coulson has a lovechild squirreled away in Portland, he checks ‘dependents’.
There’s a single name, leading to another SHIELD employee file. And there he is. The badass boyfriend. The record says ‘out of commission’. The ID photo is old, and there’s no scar. All other info is classified above the level of the fake user Tony’s created to get into the database. The only titbit of interest is the title line in the payroll section:
‘Disability Pension: [Type D] [details]’.
Tony could go to Coulson, and maybe he would have, right up until that little scrap of info. He goes to Natasha instead.
“Hey,” he winces. “Just curiously, are you having a good day or a bad day?”
She is fixing herself a hot chocolate in the kitchen on the shared floor. She turns around and folds her arms over her chest. “What did you do?”
“You know when you said you’d, like, eat my liver or whatever?”
Her eyes narrow. She’s stirring two teaspoons of milk into the cocoa powder, over and over until it’s the consistency she wants. “Yes. I do.”
“Well, I kind of, y’know,” he wiggles his hand in a so-so gesture. “Anyway, I know you’re going to be mad, but I want to know who Clint Barton is. I’m not gonna ask Coulson, I swear, I just want to know.”
“No! Jesus, Stark,” the glares she shoots him is poisonous. “This is Coulson’s real life, alright? He’s not part of your dollhouse.”
“I just want to know,” Tony raises his hands. “I won’t tell. I swear. Look, if I was really playing everyone’s favourite dickbag I would have gone to Coulson, or hacked deeper into SHIELD, but I’m didn’t, because I don’t want Coulson to know that I know. I came to you. Doesn’t that say something about my honour?”
Natasha doesn’t even dignify him with an answer. He stops whining before he gets a cup of boiling milk to the face. However, she must recognise that he’s using about forty times more tact than usual, because after their next SHIELD liaison she comes up to him outside the HQ. “Wait up. I want to talk to you.”
“Is it about helping me sneak into Fury’s room so I can wear his eyepatches as banana hammocks?” Tony asks.
“No point, he keeps them under a fingerprint lock,” she deadpans. “It’s about Clint Barton. What do you know so far?”
Tony shrugs, glancing over his shoulder. “Pretty much nothing. Did you change your mind? Like, for real?”
“I told Coulson what you’ve been up to.”
“You snitched on me? Romanov! You mercenary!”
“Yeah, well, he seemed to think it’d be better to sate your curiosity than arouse it further. Drive me back to the tower. Alone.”
In the car, she speaks in a monotone, as if reciting a report on the evil villain, Doctor Wet-Paint-Everywhere.
“Barton was a SHIELD special agent, like me. He wasn’t officer material, but he was very good at what he did. Might even have made the Avenger shortlist. He recruited me,” she’s cleaning her nails with a flick knife, glancing at him. “His orders were to kill me, but he convinced me to come with him instead and got me my first work with the division. About a month later, he was captured during a high-risk mission to drop a top HYDRA collaborator,” her phone buzzes. She thumbs it to silent and returns her attention to Tony. “He was recovered about fourteen months later,” she shrugs. “From what I hear, he wasn’t really… able to hold down a job after that. I haven’t seen him, so I couldn’t tell you more.”
Tony taps his fingers on the steering wheel. This information is dovetailing two scenarios in Tony’s mind, and one of them is not flattering towards Coulson. He waves his hands in front of his face. “Yeah, yeah, okay. So Coulson volunteered to… what? Babysit him?” because the idea that upright, proper Coulson would take advantage—
“No, Jesus,” Natasha rolls her eyes. “They were basically married long before I joined SHIELD. But Coulson doesn’t talk about it. So don’t ask.”
“Why couldn’t he just tell me all this himself?” Tony grouches. “Man, I met this Barton guy and everything, but Coulson couldn’t just let me know? What if I’d said something awful? I might’ve been like, ‘hey, buddy, you get that scar in the war or something? How much fun was that?’”
Natasha just looks at him for a long time.
Tony keeps trying to lie closer to Pepper, hang onto her, and finally she rolls into him. “Seriously, Tony, it’s too hot. Budge over.”
He shifts away, but he can’t sleep, because if he’s not got a grip on her than how’s he supposed to know where she is? What if someone took her away? What if, what if? He can’t get it out of his head.
The square wasn't big, but it was lined all round with old apartments converted into offices, and was empty on that festival day. It was a perfect trap; intel said their target always left via the back door, into the square, and there was a massive parade on the main street that blocked his front exit and would have covered the sound of the arrest. The target was coming that way on his meeting with his HYDRA contact, unaware that in three minutes, the whole square had been silently lined with SHIELD agents. He could never have escaped.
Clint had a spot on the roof, in a little nook where two towers from different centuries clashed together. He had a good view of the ground, but he couldn't see the archway that formed the main entrance to the square. That was stupid. He had Fischer watching the arch and their drivers in the vans outside were extra lookouts, but he should have kept an eye on it himself. It was his team, his plan, his responsibility. He should have been watching.
It was the perfect trap.
The target was bait, not victim. The drivers must have been killed silently, before they could get on their radios. Using some weapon they didn't know HYDRA had, perhaps. By time the shots started, most of the team was dead and it was far too late for Clint to get control of the situation. When the agents burst out of the window in the building next to him, he had nowhere to go but down and seconds to make the decision.
He jumped. Three floors, and he tried to land the way he'd trained, the way he'd done dozens of times off the circus tightrope, off the top of the climbing walls at HQ, but in the end it was just a three storey fall onto solid cobbles and all he could do was protect his head. There was a wet crunch like celery snapping. The pain stunned him worse than anything he'd felt before, worse than the fractured skull from the Swordsman's blows, worse than the fire when he was twelve (but not worse than what was to come, oh no). For a second even the shouts and the cracks of the bullets receded before the wave of pain. Then he came back to himself and tried to stand. He couldn't. His right leg made shapes that legs shouldn't make, so he got on his elbows and crawled towards his bow.
He'd got maybe two feet before the boot struck him in the ribs, twice, and then came down on his neck. There was a rifle butt against his cheek. It pressed so hard he felt his teeth cut the inside of his mouth. The HYDRA agent was yelling, almost hysterical - he was a young guy, as confused and frightened as Clint's men must have been in their last seconds of life. Clint didn't feel afraid, but his mind coiled like a spring, as if it could fling his final thoughts across thousands of miles of ocean: I'm sorry, Phil, I'm sorry. We knew this would happen. I shouldn't have let you get attached. You are—
And then the gun was shoved away from Clint's face, and an officer was berating the young soldier. "No! Leave him! He's not going anywhere," he knelt and gripped Clint's hair, twisting his face up towards the closing circle of enemies. "I know you. Don't I, sniper? You're a key asset," he glanced up at his men. "And the labs need a new one."
‘Don’t ask,’ Natasha had said. Tony shakes his head.
Come on. Natasha knows him. She’s been studying Tony before he even knew her real name. She wouldn’t have told him all that stuff if she didn’t expect him to ask. Obviously.
He decides that being annoying is the best way to get what he wants.
“Coulson, move into the tower.”
“You can have any rooms you want.”
“I’ve talked to the others. They want you around. Steve even said, and I quote, ‘I think Agent Coulson would be good for us’. Do you really want to disappoint Captain America?”
“I’m going to have to, Tony.”
“He walks around in his boxers, sometimes, you know. Steve. It’s a forties thing. Just walking around, in your hot pants, making breakfast. I have footage.”
“Don’t you love me?”
About a week later, there’s a villain who can turn himself into a sort of electric Jell-O and the Avengers do all the heavy lifting before SHIELD arrives to finish things off. Coulson walks over to Tony when he’s got his faceplate up and is telling a cluster of adoring clean-up agents exactly how damn sweet it is to be able to blast all your problems away. They see Coulson approaching and they scatter.
Tony is several generous inches taller than Coulson with the Iron Man boots on. He looks down at him. “Man, you’re cramping my style. Agent Sato was about two minutes from asking me to sign her uniform.”
“You should start selling pre-signed shirts on the carrier,” Coulson suggests.
Tony lets out an exaggerated sigh. Coulson coughs. “I’m reconsidering your offer.”
Tony almost asks ‘What offer?’, but he clicks pretty fast. “When can you start shifting? I can send guys over tomorrow to help.”
“Wait a moment before you say yes,” Coulson cuts him off. “There are several requirements. I want the very top floor, the one with the small deck. I want the deck fitted with eight-foot windbreaks. I want all the cameras removed, as well as any sensors that supply JARVIS with information more complicated than the air conditioning functions. I want the lift access to be only available via swipe card and PIN code, which will be held by only myself and Clint.”
Tony protests. “What, you think Thor’s going to sleep walk into your pad every weekend?”
“It’s not about what I think. It’s about what makes Clint feel secure.”
“JARVIS monitors the tower for safety reasons, come on, you know that. I can’t count the times he’s saved me from passing out drunk in dangerous places. That’s not even a joke, it’s been more than three.”
Coulson simply looks at him. And waits.
“You’re serious?” Tony flings his arms out. “Not even a camera by the lift? What if SHIELD turns on us one day and sends a team of baby Romanovs to slaughter us in our sleep? These are serious considerations.”
“And those were serious requirements. Take them or leave them. I’m perfectly comfortable in my apartment.”
Tony groans and almost facepalms before he remembers that every part of him is covered in metal death except his face. He shrugs. “Fine. Done. I’ll even get it to you in writing if you want.”
“That’d be good. When it’s on my desk, I’ll give you a moving date,” Coulson smiles, again with his what-does-that-mean smile, the one that could be sarcasm or patience or endearment or hunger, Tony never fucking knows.
Phil got the call while he was at the pool. He'd left his bag and clothes in a cubby-hole, and when he surfaced in the middle of his breaststroke he could hear the ring tone going off, tinny and echoing around the tiles. He didn't worry about it, pausing only to note that he should turn it on silent next time. About half an hour later he got out, dried himself, dressed and finally found the voicemail on his phone.
"Hi, Agent Coulson," said a woman's voice, down a crackling satellite link. "This is Dr Nyreem, I'm at base on the Vervain mission. I met you in Minsk last year, under Campion's command? Listen, you're probably going to hear this officially in a couple of days, but I wanted to call straight away, because I know you were friends - and I can't give details over this line, obviously, but - Agent Barton's been found alive. He'll be on a transport home soon. Anyway… I thought you should know. Um, bye."
All the energy seemed to drain out of Phil's blood. His heartbeats were suddenly thick and sluggish, and the smell of chlorine in the air was so thick it seemed to be clogging his chest. He waited until the message ended, saved it and then put the phone in his bag. He felt like he should ring someone, tell someone, tell everyone. Clint is alive. But the Vervain mission - a raid on HYDRA labs - was probably still in clean-up mode and this was sensitive information. He couldn't go blurting it out to the whole division.
Clint is alive.
Clint is alive.
Clint is ALIVE.
Nothing could ever be wrong in the world, not ever again.
7. moving day.
Tony does not get a moving date. He does write up an in-no-way-legally-binding contract on fancy Stark Industries letterhead (okay, no he doesn’t, he explains the whole situation to Pepper, and she indulges him and whips it out in twenty minutes), signs it and mails it to Coulson’s office. Coulson texts him, “Trial period 2 weeks”, and then Tony doesn’t hear anything else from the agent, but he has workman renovate the top floor with windbreaks, picks out furniture that he thinks matches the style Coulson had in the apartment, and mails him the access cards.
Coulson and the badass boyfriend move in sometime on a Sunday morning, in complete secrecy. The agent just turns up at lunch that day to announce that they’re settled in. Bruce and Natasha are eating Steve’s experimental Moroccan tomato bake and Tony is pretending to eat it because he doesn’t do canned tomatoes. Next thing they know Coulson’s standing in the doorway, saying, “Hi, kids.”
Tony jumps. Natasha lowers her newspaper a couple of inches.
“Phil!” Bruce says through a large mouthful. “Whfaf afe fu – forwy –” he swallows. “What are you doing here?”
“I just moved in,” Coulson jabs his thumb over his shoulder. “Is there a cooking roster or something I should put my name on?”
“Not officially, I’m just branching out,” Steve smiles from the kitchen. “Do you want lunch?” He’s at the sink doing his own dishes instead of putting them in Tony’s state-of-the-art industrial-sized washer, because he says it reminds him of the forties, which would be like Tony wistfully lighting his own birthday candles because it reminds him of all the times his dad missed his parties.
“We’re almost done unpacking, do you mind if I take a couple of plates upstairs?”
“Whfo’s wfe?” Bruce asks.
“Oh my God, Banner, chew and swallow,” Tony demands, and Bruce shows him the contents of his mouth. It’s disgusting.
“Me and my partner, Clint,” Coulson answers Bruce without blinking. “You won’t see him around much, he’s a bit of a homebody.”
Bruce’s eyes widen and he looks at Tony, who just says, “Chew,” again.
Bruce swallows and stammers. “I didn’t know you were seeing anyone?”
“He’s a well kept secret, Doc,” Coulson winks over his shoulder. “Are the plates in here, Cap?”
“Next door over, Agent,” Steve nudges with his foot. “Can we come up and see your floor? Meet the fellow?”
“Thanks, uh,” Coulson pulls out a couple of plates and starts doling out spoonfuls of the Morrocon bake. He seems to be ignoring Steve’s question, but finally says, “You know, it’s a mess. Not today.”
Tony notices that he still does not make eye contact with Captain America while standing shoulder-to-shoulder with him. He grins into his smoothie.
“Is Thor around this week?” Coulson asks as he crosses the kitchen.
“Yeah, he’s upstairs with his new sound system,” says Natasha.
“He’s absorbing the last seven decades of Midgardian music,” Bruce sniggers. “I think he’s just got to The Doors.”
“Well,” Coulson says, still loitering in the doorway. “I just thought we could have a, er, house meeting tonight. To sort some things out. Does that work for everyone?”
There’s a round of nods and mumbled agreements. “Good,” Coulson smiles, takes his food and goes.
That night, Coulson lays things out in a tidy, sanitary manner. He tells the Avengers that Clint used to be SHIELD, and now he isn’t, because HYDRA spent fourteen months connecting experimental mind-control devices directly to his spinal chord. Bruce puts his hand over his mouth. When Steve asks again, incredibly gently, why doesn’t Clint come and meet them, Coulson answers as if they were discussing a new seatbelt policy in the quinjets. “It’s too many people, for now,” and nods to himself. “He has to handle new things carefully, one at a time. He’ll be around.”
“Give us some rules,” Natasha says, her arms folded over her chest. “We’ve all seen war, Coulson. We’re not going to get huffy about it.”
“Okay,” Coulson scratches his nose, leaning against the back of the couch. “Don’t get mad if he takes off halfway through a conversation. Don’t walk behind him, even if he knows you’re there,” Tony thinks of a cake snatched out of his hands before he could take it into the old apartment’s kitchen and another piece of the puzzle falls into place. “And, you know, don’t treat him like damaged goods.”
“On Asgard, I think we have an affliction like this, after the most terrible of crises,” says Thor. “We called it inn viðara tillit. It heals with time.”
“I don’t think humans have enough time, Thor,” Coulson answers, and Thor nods, looking chastised.
Bruce is feeling kind of annoyed at Tony. What was he thinking? Yeah, they all thought it would be good to have Coulson around, they talked about it heaps. It's not just because they like the guy, though they do. It's because SHIELD still gets on their case every other month about putting a handler on Tony’s permanent staff. Fury gives excuses – closer ties, public confidence in the initiative, easier communication during emergencies – but they all know it’s not about efficiency or synergy or whatever buzzwords SHIELD has come up with this week. It’s about watching for green in Bruce and ice-blue in Thor, it’s about making sure Captain America doesn’t get caught with a prostitute or throwing anti-Semitic slurs at cops, it’s about spotting the exact moment that Stark Industries ditches the ethical business model and goes back to making fucktons of money.
SHIELD wants to know that someone’s got a leash on the Avengers, and Natasha is barely even on the division’s books anymore. But Coulson is healed from his hole in the heart and back to fulltime: it would be a compromise that everyone would be happy with.
But this thing – it’s not going to work. Bruce is sure of it. He doesn’t even know why Coulson agreed to it.
He first sees Clint coming down the corridor towards the shared kitchen. Bruce has just come in from the deck where he’d been reading Nuclear Physics B. Vitamin D is good for his mood, and what’s good for his mood is good for everybody. There’s a figure with a gait he doesn’t know silhouetted in the hall and it puts him on guard for a second before he realises who it must be.
Clint’s a stout guy, very much in shape despite his agoraphobia, but he leans heavily on a cane. There’s a scowl on his face that never really goes away, as immovable as the scar. His left hand is in the pocket of his hoodie. He stops where the corridor opens out into the spacious lounge. Natasha raises her head from her papers – analyst work she’s doing SHIELD.
“Hi,” she says.
Bruce remembers Tony saying that she knows Clint, from back in his SHIELD days. He doesn’t acknowledge her with any friendly sign. He hovers for a moment, adjusting the cane. Finally he says, “Phil said, uh, there was a gym on this level?”
“Yeah, just back the way you came, on the left,” she starts to put her work aside, “Let me show you—”
“Fuck off,” Clint says without warning.
Bruce actually flinches. He clears his throat, wanting to say something, afraid there’s going to be a situation, but Clint turns and makes a fast pace back along the corridor. Natasha goes back to her work without comment.
“That’s not okay,” Bruce says, when he’s out of earshot. “We live here too.”
“I’m not bothered,” Natasha assures him.
The dinner that Phil cooked is still sitting on the coffee table where he put it.
“You need to eat,” Phil says for the third time this evening, his hand furrowing through Clint’s hair. It’s like straw, like grass, it always has been, thick and rough as a weed, and the scent of it is always calming to Phil, even today when it needs a bit of a wash. But there’s grey in it too, though Clint hasn’t hit forty yet. Clint is reading one of his history books on World World Two. He reads a lot of books about history, and a lot of books about war. His therapist says this is allowable, if he’s choosing to do it, because it helps desensitise him to his own memories. Clint doesn’t answer, so Phil goes to finish some paperwork.
“You need to eat,” Phil says again, coming through the living room half an hour later to get a cup of tea. It is the fourth time he has said it, but that is not a worry. Ten would be a worry.
“It’s gone cold,” Clint says, not looking up from his book.
Phil takes the plate to the microwave, gives it a couple of minutes on high, and then brings it back. He tugs the book out of Clint’s hand, manipulates the bookmark into place one-handed, puts it on the table, gets a pillow and places the plate on it carefully. When he’s sure it’s balanced, he takes Clint’s hands and puts a knife and fork in each one.
“Eat,” he says, and Clint does.
“You’re too good to me,” Clint says huskily, with a sparkle of humour in his voice. “Your toyboy in your penthouse suite with your billionaire superhero friends.”
“You know me too well,” Phil replies. He takes his tea and presses his face to the top of Clint’s hair as he goes, just for a moment, to keep the scent with him.
10. junk food.
They barely see Clint, and when they do he’s a ghost, at the other end of a hall or glimpsed in a room and then gone straight after. Coulson comes to dinner two or three nights out of seven, but his shadow never eats with them. Tony isn’t sure what else he expected, but it’s been three weeks and Coulson is talking about leasing out the apartment, and Tony just thought that – that somehow Coulson was exaggerating? No. But he hoped he might be mistaken, that having the ragtag bunch of superheroes, each uniquely damaged and recovering from their own strange histories, would rehabilitate Coulson’s strange companion.
“How is your buddy doing?” Tony asks Coulson one night, while they’re packing the dishwasher.
“Great,” Coulson says brightly. “Really, better than I could have hoped for. He loves all the space on the balcony.”
Tony nods. “Do you think he’ll come to dinner tomorrow? Cap’s doing some new aubergine recipe with crème fraiche. I predict deliciousness.”
“I don’t think so, Tony,” Coulson says patiently.
“It could be good, man,” Tony pushes. “I mean, I’ve been there, with the Ten Rings and all. We’re not all alone in this kind of shit, I get it.”
Coulson pauses, his sleeves rolled up to his elbows, rinsing a wine glass in the sink. The water runs over the upturned bowl and flows in rivulets off the side of his hand. “I appreciate the thought, Tony, and… look, I’m not trying to diminish what happened to you, but you don’t get it,” he doesn’t sound angry. He sounds tired, and incredibly sad.
There’s silence for a few seconds. Tony doesn’t feel awkward, but he does want to make Coulson feel better, so he says, “You’re pretty awesome, you know? For staying by him. Courageous, or whatever.”
Coulson gives a small huff of laughter. “I’m not really. Maybe if I’d been younger, or sacrificed more, but honestly, it was never a dilemma for me.”
“Give yourself some credit, man,” Tony flicks water at him. “If it were me I’d be like, yeah, I’m an awesome boyfriend for sticking around. Not everybody would.”
"Every day's a gift," Coulson says on cue, like a fortune cookie.
"Oh, come on," Tony groans. "Just let it hang out. Whine a bit. Tell me your woes, White Collar. It'll be good for you!"
"It's the truth!" Coulson splutters.
"I don't believe it."
“It is! It was worse when I thought he was dead,” Coulson counters. “It was so much worse. I remember…” he laughs again, like he can’t believe he’s telling Tony this. “He used to eat all this crap that I refused to touch. Microwave popcorn and candy corn and Pop-Tarts and Snickers. After – I don’t know, it must have been a couple of months after he was taken – it was all official by then that he was dead, and I’d accepted that. But one day I decided I had to clean out the pantry. He always left it in such a mess. And there was all this junk food, just sitting there, and I didn’t want to eat it, but the idea of just throwing it out… it didn’t matter that he was dead, because what if he came back? There was half a bag of these marshmallow things that had sort of melted together, I threw those out, but the rest was stuff he’d want later. Getting rid of it was the hardest thing I had to do.”
Coulson shakes his head and dries off his hands on his trousers. “Every day that I’m not cleaning that pantry out, that’s a day I never thought I’d have.”
11. shopping list.
Less than forty-eight hours after this conversation, Coulson gets put on a mission to the Himalayas. He sticks his head into Pepper’s office, where Tony is trying to nut out the venue for next season’s StarkPad release, to leave them with only the briefest instructions. "Clint's got everything he needs, so don't bother him. I'll see you in a week or so."
"Didn’t you want to leave me your swipe card?" Tony asks. "In case of emergencies?"
"Yeah, you're right, you might need to refill his drip feeder," Coulson gives him a withering look and Pepper giggles. "He's not a potted plant. I go away for missions all the time."
"Okay, okay, sheesh!" Tony raises his hands. As Coulson leaves he yells after him, "Keep your mittens pinned to your jersey, sweetie."
It's maybe three days later. Tony's in the lab working on some very delicate circuitry with his favourite teeny-weeny tools, when he gets this jittery feeling like he's being watched. He looks up with a jolt. Clint's standing in the doorway. Creepy. A guy with a limp that bad should not be able to move that quietly, even if he did used to hunt Natasha for a living.
"Hey, dude, what's up?" Tony asks, pulling his magnifying glasses off his head.
Clint flushes a little. He holds out his hand, the same one that's still clutching the cane, and Tony spies a little scrap of paper clenched in his fingers. Clint seems to realise he's being cryptic, and says in a rush, "I'm sorry to interrupt, there's this stuff I don't have and I didn't realise until Phil was gone and if you give me your bank account I'll pay you back right away."
"Of course, of course," Tony jumps up and scuttles over. "I'll sort it out. Leave it to Stark."
He takes the paper. There's three items scribbled on it, including brand names. One of them is - support sticks? For building something? And the other two are bulk chemicals. "It's no problem, I buy shit for the rest of the team all the time," Tony says automatically, squinting at Clint's handwriting. "Phil was so adamant he had everything sorted, too, huh? Tsk, tsk."
Clint squirms and grabs for the paper. "It isn't his fault, it can wait if—”
"I'm kidding, I’m not trying to fob you off," Tony determinedly hangs onto the list. "I'll have it all to you tomorrow, how about it?"
Clint nods, looking less than happy, but then doesn't he always? He limps off without another word. Tony rubs his hand across his eyes, has JARVIS start sourcing supplies for everything on the list and goes back to work.
The stuff is for gardening, he realises as soon as JARVIS starts displaying supply websites - stem supports, insecticide and soil supplements. Tony thinks of the sweetly smoking joint in the apartment and sniggers to himself. He's glimpsed greenery on the top deck when he does fly-bys in the suit, but this is enough for way more than the couple of plants a guy might need to help with leg pain. Tony adds two bags of bone meal fertiliser to the order and has JARVIS put it all on the credit card he usually uses for buying gifts for Pepper and lab supplies for Bruce.
Everything arrives the next afternoon and a couple of boys from reception bring it up the tower. Tony hangs out with them in front of the elevator and rings the phone to the top level. There's no answer, it just goes to a recording of Coulson's voice, but he leaves a message and gives it a couple of minutes before he hears the elevator whirring downwards.
As soon as the doors open, he realises he's made a mistake. Clint is standing there relaxed enough, but when he sees the receptionists his eyes go huge and he flattens himself against the back wall of the lift, his hand wrapping around the cane like it’s a cudgel. Tony turns and tells them to buzz off, "Go on, get," and they head for one of the other lifts, one of them glancing back with a frown.
Tony turns to Clint. "I'm sorry, that was dumb of me. Forgive me?"
The lift doors are closing. For a second, Tony thinks Clint is just going to disappear, but then he hops forward and presses the button to keep them open. He looks down at the pile of stuff. "What is all this?"
"I thought you might need it," Tony says.
"Thanks," Clint whispers, barely even audible. He shuffles out and heaves both the forty-pound fertiliser bags onto his shoulders like they were down pillows, his cane hooked over his elbow. "You can piss off, Tony. I'll come back for the rest."
"What? No, I'll bring it," Tony insists, grabbing the supplements and insecticide bottles. He drops the sticks twice before he can get a good grip on them. Clint looks ready to block him out of the lift, but eventually steps back and lets Tony in beside him. He bumps his hip against the control panel to swipe the card hanging from his belt, and they slide upwards.
The top floor is excruciatingly clean. Tony can see his reflection in the hardwood floors and he’s pretty sure the windows must be a major bird hazard. There’s some art on the walls, abstract impressionism prints that Tony’s dad might have been able to identify and a framed print of that old propaganda poster of the Howling Commandos, Captain America standing tall among them. Tony resists snapping a picture on his phone to show to Steve. There are no photographs anywhere, not of Clint and Coulson, not of Coulson’s family, nothing.
Clint doesn't say anything. He walks slowly and carefully without his arms free to use the cane, and nudges the next door open with his foot. The whole front wall here is taken up with the side of the balcony and it’s – green, nothing but green and splashes of bright colours. It’s unlocked and swings open with another kick, and Tony follows Clint into the forest with his jaw hanging low. There’s rhododendrons in huge clusters like luminous pink ice, and tall silver saplings shifting in the breeze that rustles over the top of the windbreaks. There’s jenga-like stacks of porous boxes sprouting strawberries, red and white, and needled grasses of every organic shade. Clear tarps are stretched as awnings over the edges of the windbreaks and a network of hoses lie around waiting for someone to trip on them. Tucked in the shady corners there are pots of ferns with automatic misters, and a plastic hothouse is hiding the shapes of tomatoes and who knows what other vegetables. Fresh tomatoes. Tony doesn’t do canned. There’s even the suspected Aunt Mary plant at the front where the best sun is, thick-leaved and shameless.
On the very back corner at the curve of the tower, there’s fertiliser, trowels, shelves of chemicals, meters for pH and moisture and temperature. Clint dumps the new bags and jerks his head at Tony, who puts the rest of the supplies wherever he can find room. Tony’s still ogling the jungle that’s sprouted on top of his tower. He can’t figure out how Coulson and Clint managed to get all this up here without anyone noticing. Maybe one of them’s hiding a superpower.
He realises Clint is watching him, the perpetual wrinkle in his brow growing deeper. When Tony grins at him, he just says. “Are you leaving now? Because I have to swipe you out.”
Tony swallows. “Yeah, sure man.”
When Coulson gets back he seems pissed at Tony.
“Stark, how’d you know about the fertiliser?”
“Huh?” Tony raises an eyebrow.
“The fertiliser you bought Clint. It was the exact brand he uses. How’d you know?”
Tony rolls his eyes. “I’m not spying on you. I found some dirt near the elevator the day you two moved in. I specced it in the lab.”
Coulson crosses his arms. “Don’t do that. Don’t you see? He doesn’t like people watching him. Don’t do that.”
It was three days from learning that Clint was alive before Phil stood outside the door of a private hospital ward talking to a thin redhead named Doctor Higgins. She was a civilian doctor who often helped treat SHIELD veterans, and Phil was finding it hard to concentrate on what she was saying. All he wanted to get into the ward, to see for himself, to know for sure that this whole thing wasn't the world's cruelest joke.
"Do you understand, Agent?" Dr Higgins asked gently. "He's still hurting very bad. Don't overstimulate him."
"Yes," Phil said, for what seemed like the tenth time. "Yes, I understand."
She eyed him skeptically but finally stepped up to the door, knocked and opened it for him. Phil slipped through into a sunny, warm room overlooking the park outside.
Clint lay on his side, facing the door. For a second Phil didn't recognise him at all, and the fear that this had been a mistake, that this man was a stranger who'd stolen or borrowed Clint's name, crashed on him so heavy he almost cried out. Then dark blue eyes flicked up to meet his gaze and the face of the man in the bed came into focus. It was Clint, his head shaved to the scalp, cheeks hollow and his folded arms so thin they looked like they belonged to a child. There was a fat, fleshy, pink scar curving around one eye. Phil crossed the room before his legs could give out and settled in the chair beside the bed.
He reached for Clint's hand, the one that wasn't bandaged up into a shapeless mitten, but Clint jerked away and tucked it against his body. Phil froze with his hand poised in the air, unsure of what to say or do. Against his better judgment he lowered his hand to Clint's cheek, but Clint didn't pull away this time. He let Phil brush his knuckles along the curve of his jaw. Phil could feel the warmth of living blood, the scrape of growing stubble, the pulse of Clint's throat as he swallowed. He was real. He was here, beyond all hope.
"I missed you," Phil said quietly. "There were times I thought I'd die."
Clint rasped, "I thought I was dead. So many times."
He glanced away, eyes flicking to something over Phil's shoulder. For a couple of minutes, Phil just looked at him, at the bandages taped to the back of his neck, disappearing under his hospital gown, at the shapes of old bruises on his face and arms and the ring of calloused scarring around one wrist. He didn't want to imagine it, but behind his eyeballs dangled the image of faceless men with guns and needles and batons. Too many to fight. Handcuffs that left bleeding rings, cold concrete floors, pliers and car batteries… he squeezed his eyes closed, trying to drive the thoughts away. It was over. Everything would be alright now.
He tried to think of something easy and harmless to ask. “How was the flight?”
“Horrid,” Clint said, and his voice had a wisp of something that might have been a third cousin to humour. “They made me stay on a stretcher.”
“Flying on your back makes you nauseous,” Phil smiled from long experience. There was a rush of pleasure that he had such knowledge. It had been worthless information for fourteen months, doing nothing but eat away at him whenever it rose to the surface. Now all that space in his brain, taken up with Clint likes jalapeño Doritos, and Clint snores when he sleeps on his back, and Clint won’t kiss me before I’ve shaved was useful once again.
“Can I get you something? Do you want anything to eat?”
“I’m on a special hospital diet.”
Phil had been thinking of bringing them both lunch, but his appetite evaporated. After a long while, Clint spoke again.
"There's papers on the table for you. Could you sign them, please, and drop them off for me."
"Of course, yeah," Phil said, leaning back and reaching for the thick pile of stapled papers on the bedside cabinet. He pulled them over, expecting hospital release forms or something from SHIELD. When he saw the heading, he just stared at it for a very long time. He turned to the next page.
"Where did you get these?" he asked, because he still couldn't process it, like black ink that hadn't yet absorbed into a dress shirt.
"They let me use the printer at the nurse's station," Clint said, still not meeting his eyes.
"Clint, we," it caught in his throat, and he swallowed. "We can leave this to another day, we can wait until you're out of hospital."
"No, I want you to sign it now," Clint said.
The words glared up at Phil from the paper. SUMPREME COURT OF THE STATE OF NEW YORK, it read. ACTION FOR DIVORCE.
Clint's hand worried at a bandage on his neck. He stared at a point near Phil's elbow, his mouth barely opening as he spoke. "I can't be your husband. I can't be anyone's husband. Can you just leave me alone, please."
Please note, I have no personal experience with PTSD and this fic should not be taken as in any way an accurate portrayal of the psychological effects of trauma. I've tried to draw on my experiences with mental illness, but I welcome concrit if you believe anything in this work is offensive or hurtful.
Chapter 2: Good Times Gonna Come
Thank you guys so much for the response! Y'all are sweethearts!
And because I forgot to say this for hours yesterday, a big shout-out to so_shhy for all her help with this fic.
The first time Steve properly meets Clint is the night Thor dies. It was just one of those things, a mission that went sour, a building that came down right on top of the thunder god. Hulk dug him out within an hour, but his skin was grey-blue and he had no heartbeat. Iron man and Nat take Thor, steal an ambulance and scream off through three red lights towards the hospital while Steve and Bruce, the latter in nothing but a blanket, head back to the tower to get Coulson. They thought they knew everything about Thor, but none of them have ever seen him hurt, not really hurt, and maybe Coulson knows something they don’t.
Coulson is on his Bluetooth and gone within five minutes, while Bruce staggers off to a shower and bed with a ruined look on his face. The bad guys – a super-powered anarchist group called Southfire – were aiming for the Hulk when they brought the building down. Steve wants to follow Bruce and tell him it's not his fault, but he's already said it about six times on the way back and once more isn't going to make a difference.
Steve’s barely bruised but the worst is a gash on the side of his wrist, two inches long and still oozing. He’s had a wad of a bystander’s shirt clutched to it since they left the battle. He goes to the little med room on the shared level and finds sterile sutures and pads and antiseptic. He washes and disinfects the cut as best he can, but he can’t stitch it himself with only one hand.
He grits his teeth and tries to get his heart rate down, but it won’t stop racing, and in his frustration he knocks over the dish with the thread he’d just taken out of it’s sterile little plastic. He knows he should just bandage it and leave it until morning, or go and wake Bruce, or hell, get changed and go to the ER, it’s not like professional doctors are going to start calling the press when they see his insurance card. But he knows he won’t. He doesn’t want to bother anyone. He wants to deal with this now, alone if necessary.
“Are you okay?”
Steve doesn’t recognise the voice, so it must be Coulson’s friend Clint. The door opens a few inches and one eye peers in, and then the man is in the room with him, eyeing Steve’s one-handed mess critically.
“You want me to do that?”
“Yes, please,” Steve sighs. “It would be much appreciated.”
Clint picks up the dish and pinchers, throws out the thread and selects a new one from the cupboard.
“Do you want a bit of local?” he shakes a bottle of lidocaine at Steve.
“I’ll tough it out.”
Clint put Steve’s arm on the table in the middle of the room and leans over it. Steve watches his features twitch at the first incision, but after that they settle into an unreadable expression and he stitches up the gash quickly and in silence.
“Did Agent Coulson say anything about Thor on his way out?” Steve asks.
“He was on the phone to Tony. He said the doctors can go ahead and treat him like he was human, his anatomy’s close enough. I hope he pulls through, I don’t think I’ve even had a conversation with the guy yet.”
Steve shakes his head and a smile tugs at his mouth before he can stop it. “Have you had a conversation with anyone?”
“Almost, with Natasha last week,” the tightness around Clint’s eyes softens. He snorts. “‘Agent Coulson’. You can call him Phil now you live with him, can’t you? I only call him Agent Coulson in bed.”
“I definitely shouldn’t steal it, then.”
“No way. He’s aroused enough around you already.”
Steve chuckles. He looks down at the job Clint’s doing. He’s been watching the man’s face up until now, but suddenly he sees Clint's left hand. All the nails are gone, and the fingers shudder as they close around the end of the thread to hold it out of the way. There’s no strength in them, and they don’t bend right. Steve feels his smile fade. Fingernails grow back, he thinks. When he and Bucky were eleven they ran away from home to camp out in a construction site, and built a fire pit, but Bucky dropped a cinderblock on Steve’s thumb from three feet up, and boy did he scream, and Bucky apologized so much he started crying big, fat tears, but the point is that the nail grew back pink and perfect within a few weeks. Steve supposes something’s been done here that they don’t.
“I think that’ll do,” Clint says. He gets up and is off straight away, swinging his leg without his cane and hanging off the wall.
Steve frowns. He manages to get the bandage on fine by himself, and the clip with the little teeth clinging to the gauze is somehow clean and comfortable to look at, like a freshly made bed. Coulson would probably tell him to leave Clint alone, but Steve didn’t even get to thank him. He follows the path of lit halls – most of Stark tower operates on motion sensors, to save power – until he reaches the bathroom on the far side of the building. Through the doorway he can see Clint bent over the toilet, wiping his mouth and spitting into the bowl.
Steve backs away before he’s spotted. He jogs back to his own rooms, changes and gets straight into the shower, trying to get the smell of vomit out of his nose. He doesn’t hear the others get back in at four in the morning, and sleeps through his phone, but he wakes up an hour later to find a voicemail from Coulson: the doctors cracked Thor’s chest open and massaged his heart until it started beating again. He’s already awake and answering questions pretty lucidly, with his big lug smile on his face. It’s superhuman, but none of them should be surprised by now.
Steve reports the med bay part of his encounter to Bruce, Natasha and Pepper the next morning around brunch. Bruce seems put out. “That’s more words than I’ve got from Clint the whole time he's been here,” he says.
“Cap’s got a smile to launch helicarriers,” Natasha drawls, and Pepper flutters one hand in front of her face, his voice taking on a butchered Southern lilt. “Oh, Mr America! How ca-an we resist!”
Phil is trying to convince Clint to have a bath. It’s not that he stinks, it’s that he’s been out in the garden all day while Phil was at work and there’s a faint dusting of sweat-salt on his neck, dirt under his nails, dust from the breeze on his face, all the faint traces of activity that will irritate him – and Phil – all night if he doesn’t wash.
“Come on, Clint, I’m tired, please. Just get undressed. I’ve run a bath. Please.”
Clint’s curled up on the bed, his bad leg extended, his scuffed shoes on top of the covers. Phil sits down beside him and starts to undo his laces. He’s got shoes and socks on the floor and then he starts to undo Clint’s belt, which is fine, it’s almost always fine, it’s been months since this was the thing that set Clint off, but this time he jerks away and curls into himself, toes clenching, hyperventilating.
“Hey, hey,” Phil climbs onto the bed beside him. “You okay?”
“Go away,” Clint whispers. “Just go away.”
“You need to have a bath,” Phil says.
Clint makes wordless complaints and wraps his arms around his chest and begins to shake, and Phil pulls him into his lap and cards his fingers through his hair, over and over, and it seems like the clenched muscles and furrowed brow will never stop but Phil doesn’t think about time anymore. He thinks only of now, about what he’s learned to do and what works and what doesn’t, and he keeps going until one of his legs goes to sleep and his back’s hurting so bad the muscles have started to shudder. And finally Clint’s face relaxes a little and one hand emerges and catches hold of Phil’s, tangling their fingers together.
“Sorry,” Clint whispers.
“You’ve got nothing to apologise for,” Phil replies, which has been pretty much his tagline for the past few years. It comes to his tongue so automatically that it barely even means anything in his ears, it’s a nonsense phrase, an abracadabra to magic away the hurt.
The bath’s gone cold. He empties it and manages to herd Clint into the shower instead.
Steve had a plan to do something delicate with asparagus and caramelised shallots. Tony was really looking forward to it, but there had been an Avengers callout halfway through that turned out to be a false alarm, and by the time they get back the asparagus is tough as rubber and the shallots have turned to cold tar. There is nothing for it but to order in Vietnamese. Tony collects requests and then, once the rest of the team have scattered to shower and get changed, he rings the top floor to see if Coulson wants takeaways too. He raises his eyebrows at Coulson's order.
“That’s a lot of Canh Chua, Phil, old buddy,” Tony scribbles on the inside of his arm. He is almost at his elbow and he still has Bruce to go, as the good doctor had scurried off to his room as soon as they returned to the tower.
“Yeah, well, I’m eating for two,” Coulson replies.
“Haha, it's funny because you don't have a uterus. Okay, I’ll drop it off by the lift on the communal floor.”
“Just curiously, who’ll be eating in the kitchen?”
“Probably just me, Pepper and Cap, I think,” Tony sniffs and starts to worry he's getting sick. It was cold outside. He hates when they have to assemble in the cold. And for a false alarm. This city doesn't deserve heroes as awesome as them.
“Actually, keep our food on the bench,” Coulson says after a pause, apparently to consult his shadow and with only the tiniest hint of a tremor in his voice. “We’ll come join you.”
Tony gapes and presses his fist to his mouth to keep from whooping. He grins at Pepper, doing a little booty-dance until she shakes her head and mouths 'What?'. He clears his throat. “Sounds good. See you both soon.”
Tony punches the air and Pepper glances up from her laptop again. “Stop treating them like your lab rats. Makes it look like you’re branching Stark Industries into personal therapy.”
“Not a big enough cohort yet for clinical trials,” Tony muses. He grins to himself and dials the restaurant.
Tony has barely finished the mass ‘DINNER’ text when he looks up to see Steve and Natasha arriving together. He sucks a bean into his mouth. “Hey Romanov. I thought you were going to have a quiet night?”
“You plan on a rowdy dinner?” she frowns at him, heading straight for the pile of cartons and pottles on the bench. “Which one’s mine?”
“That one. No, next one. Oh, guys, I was going to send yours down,” he calls as Bruce and Thor appeared in the doorway.
“I thought I’d come eat here,” says Bruce.
“Yes, if we cannot taste Captain Rodgers’ latest delicacy together, we can at least enjoy the company!” booms Thor.
Tony winces at the sight over Thor’s shoulder. Coulson is in the hallway, dressed down in a grey henley and with Clint just behind him. He ditches his noodle soup on the bench and squeezes between Bruce and Thor. "Sorry," he hisses at Coulson. "Sorry, really, I didn't think everyone would be here."
The agent looks back over his shoulder at Clint. Neither of them say anything, and Tony doesn’t see Clint give any response, but Coulson catches Tony’s eye and nods. “It’ll be fine.”
It is. Pepper and Bruce stay at the table talking politics, but the other six drape themselves over the couches and bean bags in the connected lounge, watching the Knicks lose while Natasha shouts brutal things about the ref’s eyes and sexual potency. Thor takes up a whole sofa to himself and cheers on the Hornets just to get on her nerves. Clint perches on the arm of Coulson’s la-Z-boy, his bad leg folded under his thigh, and doesn’t say a word until Thor asks him for the rest of his Canh Chua.
“It’s hot,” Clint cautions. He’s only made his way through half of it, but Tony knows that Thor is much more observant than one might expect, and must have noticed that Clint hadn’t touched it for a while.
“Yes, it is one thing I absolutely love about this world!” Thor bellows cheerfully. “On Asgard, the ‘spiciness’ so many of your cultures love is quite unknown. We have only mild peppercorns to imbue this flavour.”
“Only way to Thor’s heart is through his stomach,” Steve grins, tipping his head back to look at Clint.
Clint hands the food to Coulson, who levers himself out of the chair to pass it to Thor. He slurps the remains up in a few seconds. Coulson squeezes Clint’s thigh as he sits down again, and a few minutes later they get up and try to slip off quietly, but nobody fools Natasha.
“Night, boys,” she calls, and there’s a sudden chorus of farewells. Coulson raises his hand, and Clint even pauses in the doorway to wait for them to finish, only leaving once everyone’s attention is back on the game.
It’s been a really, really long day at HQ. Phil dumps his briefcase on the barstool in the kitchen and drops down onto the couch for a moment, staring at the ceiling. He’s so tired these days. He feels like he’s on constant lookout for symptoms of something serious: prostate cancer or heart disease or rheumatoid arthritis, there’s no end to the list at his age. He can’t afford that. He has responsibilities.
After he’s had a breather he goes out onto the deck. Clint’s in the greenhouse picking cherry tomatoes. He smiles at Phil, toothy and squinting against the evening sun. Phil hasn’t seen a smile like that for days. The cancer and the heart disease and the arthritis slide away like the end of season snow.
“Are they ripe?” Phil frowns, hand moving automatically to rub Clint’s shoulder.
“Yeah, man, they’re perfect,” Clint says, waving his hand at the plastic bowl he’s filling up. “I’ve got a pasta salad in the fridge, I’ll just cut these up and we can eat.”
Phil blinks at him. “You cooked?”
“I can cook,” Clint says defensively, and then grins again. He leans in to kiss Phil, quick and distracted by the promise of ripe tomatoes.
It turns out to be way, way more pasta salad than they can eat, but that’s fine, that means there’ll be lunch and dinner tomorrow.
Tony invites Coulson into the lab on a Saturday.
“Check this out,” he grins, fidgeting around one of the few benches that isn’t cluttered with half-thought ideas come to life. “Check it, Coulson, how good am I?”
He slides back and flings his arms out like a magician. Coulson steps up slowly to inspect the gorgeous, perfect, signature-Stark work. Tony slides a screwdriver under his singlet and scratches the spot below his right shoulder that always gets sore when he’s been hunched over a bench too long.
“Well? What do you think?” he demands.
Coulson lifts the bow up and runs his finger down the string, as if to tune it. “Not bad for your first prototype.” There’s a tightness around his eyes and his smile’s not wide. “This is for Clint?”
“I thought I told you not to spy.”
“I didn’t!” Tony protests. Wasn't Coulson looking at the bow? Wouldn’t that be worth the surprise even if he had spied? “One of the SHIELD boys on that raid last week started talking about Clint. He remembered him from back in the day, and said that with a bow, he was the closest to superhuman that he’d ever seen. I laughed my ass off, because c’mon, what century are we living in, but then I got to thinking,” Tony gesticulates broadly, as if conducting a symphony with his screwdriver, “I love the tech-tipped arrow thing this guy mentioned. I could build a range down here in the lab,” he spreads his arms to sketch the dimensions in the air, “and do all sorts of fun stuff – paint and fireworks and arrows that split in the air – wouldn’t that be cool? And, like, desensitisation in a safe environment, isn’t that a thing? Isn’t that good for him?”
Coulson lays the weapon back down on the table. He says softly, “Clint can’t shoot anymore.”
“I’ll make it safe, honest, totally safe,” Tony insists. He’s been buzzing to show them the bow for days now. It’s been such a challenge working how to make something like this, both primitive and advanced, practical but a gift too.
“No, Tony,” Coulson pinches the bridge of his nose, “I mean he wants to – more than anything – but he can’t draw a bowstring. His left hand has nerve damage, he can’t hold tension in those fingers, and even if he could he can’t put pressure on the pads without—” he sucks in a breath, “—fingernails. Please don’t tell him you did this,” Coulson looks down sharply, and there’s regret in his voice as he touches Tony’s beautiful bow, who Tony's already thinking of as a ‘her’, with a name like ‘Babe’, which is probably sexist and Pepper would give him the look but he can’t help what his brain wants to call things. Coulson clears his throat. “In fact, I’d feel better if you destroyed it.”
Tony doesn’t know what to say. It’s his Babe. He’s spent weeks on her. There must be something he can do, if Clint wants to shoot as much as Coulson says. He’s Tony Fucking Stark. He doesn’t just destroy stuff. Not anymore.
Bruce comes downstairs because he can hear the music from two floors up, and he’s been trying to read. He finds the communal floor is party central, with five empty beer bottles (five! The hedonists!) already scattered about the kitchen. To Bruce’s surprise, there’s no sign of Tony.
Thor and Coulson are standing in the middle of the lounge, as a growling singer blares out of the massive speakers. They are – Bruce stops and pushes his glasses up his nose – dancing together, quite badly. Natasha and Clint are on different couches, and Clint is almost sliding off as he positively howls in laughter. It is a guttural, blissful noise, interlaced with hitches of breath. It is the first time Bruce has ever heard Clint laugh. In fact, he’s pretty sure it's the first time he’s seen him smile.
“No, no, Son of Coul!” Thor scolds, gripping Coulson’s arms and shifting him to a different spot on the floor. “Unlock your joints. This is a dance of dynamic freedom, not rigid orthodoxy!”
Coulson tries to shake his limbs out a bit, gets back into position with his hands in Thor’s, and Clint buries his face in his knees and shakes with laughter. Natasha has an unrestrained grin on her face. She winds thick a strand of hair around one finger as she watches Coulson tripping over Thor’s leading foot. She waves at Bruce and beckons him closer.
“Thor’s been reviewing the Midgardian eighties music scene again,” she explains. “Apparently the rhythm of several Tom Waits songs match traditional Asgardian ballads.”
Bruce shakes his head and can’t help laughing too, as Coulson tries to direct Thor into what he thinks is the right step of the dance and Thor immediately chastises him and twists him in the opposite direction. Coulson complains that Thor showed him differently a minute ago and Thor explains that that was for the fourth verse, this time they're doing the climactic bridge of resolution, in which unmarried Asgardians traditionally show their favour or displeasure with their partners.
“Yes, come on, Phil, put some effort in. Pretend it’s your wedding,” Bruce laughs.
Every joint in Coulson’s body tenses up, and Clint’s smile fades. Bruce looks at Natasha quizzically, but she’s got a wrinkle of confusion in her brow same as him. She sips at her beer for a suspiciously long time. Then everyone keeps going just as before, but there’s a crust of ice over the mood now. Bruce slinks out as soon as he can, cursing silently. How is it that he’s the only one who hasn’t managed to get the hang of interacting with Clint? He doesn’t know how they do it.
Bruce is doing a new test with the irradiation of yeast cultures, but it involves growing dozens and dozens of tubes from different colonies, pouring sterilised goo for them to eat and spreading the growths on plates. It’s simple, boring work, and it’ll take hours every couple of days this week. Bruce knows how typical that is of science, but he’s just been invited to write a review on gamma radiation, the first paper he’ll author since the accident, and it’s all he wants to think about right now. When he sees Clint sitting by the glass wall in the shared living room, just sitting and watching the city, he thinks maybe he’s just going to have to make friends his own way.
He’s careful to approach Clint from the side, not from behind, and once Clint’s noticed him and hasn’t got up as bolted as he often does, Bruce speaks. “Hey, do you get bored?”
Clint raises an eyebrow. It tugs his scar up a little.
“I’ve got this really repetitive science thing I have to do, it takes hours on my own,” Bruce says, tucking his hands under his arms. “I thought… I don’t know, something new, if you wanted to help.”
For a very long time, Clint just looks at him. Bruce ducks his head, thinking what a stupid idea this was, he’s just going to have to suck it up and accept that he and Clint are not going to be friends. And then Clint says, “Sure, whatever,” and gets to his feet.
It’s the third day in a row that Phil’s got home after dark, but it’s the first time Clint’s been awake when he walks out of the lift. He’s fidgety and worrying at the collar of his jersey, and Phil thinks for a moment that he’s going downhill, but he finally realises there’s a smile tugging on his mouth.
“I did something really stupid,” he says, in a tone like a kid bringing his mother a handful of worms.
“Stupid like you tried to make baklava or stupid like you switched all my DVDs into the wrong boxes?” Phil raises and eyebrow. He shrugs off his jacket and folds it over one of the bar stools.
“The second one,” says Clint, and holds out his hand. “Come on, come look.”
Phil’s brow wrinkles at the extended hand, fingers wiggling in impatience, then he takes hold of it and lets himself be dragged outside into the garden. There’s a candy-coloured glow on the front of the balcony, which rather ruins the serenity. Clint tugs him closer to the glow, to show him strings of bulbs hanging in two clusters right against the glass wall, an array of straight lines stretching almost from the floor to the top of the windbreaks.
“Christmas lights,” says Phil uncertainly. Hey, they’re sort of pretty, but nothing to get worked up about.
“Wait, wait,” Clint is kneeling down, pulling Phil with him. “You can’t see it yet. Lie down, here, with your head pointing towards the wall.”
There’s dirt on the tiles, and the dewy dampness from the misters, which Clint has at least turned off for now. Phil sighs, shifts a pot of pulmonarias out of the way and lies on his back beside Clint, with their feet pointing towards the door. He looks up at the lines of Christmas lights.
But they’re not just lines anymore. From this angle the strings of lights are contracted down, and the stretched, meaningless shapes have suddenly become the recognisable shape of words.
“It’s backwards, because we’re looking at it from the wrong angle,” Clint says, waving his hand above their faces. “But from the bottom of the tower, when you’re approaching at night, you should just be able to make it out.”
“Caw caw?” Phil reads.
“Yeah. Like a bird. Get it? Hawkeye, right?” Clint elbows him. He lets out a bark of laughter. “I had to work out the angles with a tape measure and shit so I got too lazy to do more than three letters. And it’ll be most visible when you’re flying above the tower for landing, so it’ll totally fuck with Tony and Thor.”
Phil wants to laugh with him, but he’s lost his breath. He’s captivated by the lights. He doesn’t ask, Is this for me, when I’m coming home late?, and he doesn’t say, You’re perfect, but he thinks he doesn’t have to.
The Southfire group attacks a hydroelectric dam that week, leaving a quarter of the New York grid in darkness. The Avengers get there before any serious damage has been done, and the power's back on within a few hours, but it’s a tough battle. Tony gets the crap beaten out of him by a woman with some kind of telekinetic electricity powers, Steve and Natasha hold three supers back on their own and ache all over for it, and Hulk shows unprecedented patience and spends an hour holding a turbine in place until maintenance crews can put in supports to keep it from falling and taking half the generators with it. Even Thor spends so much time underwater, prying loose the explosives planted at the bottom of the dam, that he’s just a sodden, shaking mess by the time he, Natasha and Steve reassemble to pursue Southfire into the forest above the plant. On top of that, it’s just started to rain.
The weather doesn’t seem to ruin the anarchists’ mood at all, given the speed they’re running at. Natasha thinks her eyes are playing tricks on her for a moment, but after a couple of blinks to get the water out of her eyes she’s sure of it. There’s a bubble of dry air around their quarry. She remembers a pale man who Steve sucker punched right across the control room, a wind-conjuring mutant. He yelled for his brother on the radio before they hauled him away and locked him in a cupboard until SHIELD or the NYPD could officially arrest him. That particular terrorist hasn’t escaped the dam, but maybe his brother is here with similar powers. Except it’s not the air he’s messing with, it’s the water, catching the rain above the Southfire group’s head and building it into a thicker and thicker barrier, but why make a barrier—
“Stop! Stop!” Natasha yells, throwing out her arm to signal to Steve and Thor. They slow and she shouts at them to drop just as a pale, heavyset man in the centre of the anarchists turns and gestures with both hands.
Steve goes flat on the pine needles beside Natasha, but Thor only manages to get his arm up in front of his face before the floating pool of water becomes thousands of tiny ice shards flying right towards them. Natasha hears Thor cry out and he staggers back and trips, falling ass-over-head in a way that would be comic if there wasn’t so much blood.
The water mutant bellows at them. "Monsters! You'll pay! Release my brother or I'll make you suffer!"
"You can't get away," Steve rises a little, his voice rising above the patter of the rain. "Surrender and no one has to get hurt today!"
"You - Captain America - you're a global sickness, you creeping worm, you filth-"
The other Southfire anarchists grab the water-mutant and haul him away up the hill, where Natasha can see the lights of getaway vehicles.
“Come on, we can still follow them!” Steve cries, leaping to his feet, but Natasha shakes her head.
“Not in the rain,” she says. “It’s getting heavier.”
Steve gives a frustrated mumble, but then he looks back towards Thor and changes his mind. The Thunder God is swearing profusely about his enemies’ ancestors, so at least he’s not badly hurt. He’ll heal fast, anyway.
Coulson had come with them to coordinate SHIELD support and feed them info from the outside, and he’s the one who comes to find them. His tie is undone and he’s swaying on his feet a little as he leads them to a news chopper that’s offering them a ride home. Bruce is wearing a jacket tied round his waist and an odd set of mismatched pieces of NYPD uniforms on his top half, donated by grateful cops. With the exception of Tony in his suit they’re all soaked from the rain now and desperate to leave the mess to the professionals.
The journalist shoving a microphone at them seems drunk on their success, but Natasha thinks he’s being too cheerful. All but the wind-maker escaped arrest, and there's little hope that SHIELD or the FBI will catch up with them in the near future. They're only giving these people more fuel, and probably more recruits - the video of Steve punching the pale mutant halfway across the room is already viral (within two days it has been recut with several other famous Captain America clips and overlaid with dialogue from Fight Club, and someone else has used it in a song of autotuned quotes from V for Vendetta). No matter their professed distance from SHIELD and the US government, some people will always see the Avengers as pandering tools of The Man.
It's not a surprise - they've got Steve the ultimate symbol of nationalism, Tony the massive corporate businessman, and Monarchist Thor of an alien, aristocratic civilisation. It's easy to win friends when people know what Loki was doing; it's harder when it's a power outage they're preventing, when they win before there are any real victims. It just looks like they're ruining the fun.
Back at the tower, they stumble into the communal floor and the most delicious smell fills Natasha’s nose. There’s a massive pot of minestrone bubbling on the stove, six sets of spare clothes draped over the back of the couch with a stack of thick blankets, three huge bottles of sports tonic in the fridge, a first aid kit on the table, and even a bowl of real-chocolate cocoa sitting in a smaller pot by the sink, waiting to be heated up as soon as they want it. There’s no one around; it’s just all sitting there, like the porridge in the house of the three bears.
Natasha’s worry evaporates. The team fall into dry outfits and wrap up in the blankets, heedless of nudity after all these months of working together – not just Bruce, but every time someone’s injured in the field it seems to end with the paramedics cutting their clothes off. Only Coulson ducks around the corner to get changed in privacy, returning in sweats and thick woollen socks. Natasha smirks, wanting to make a jibe about how he just missed Steve in his Jockey Y-fronts, but her stomach’s rumbling so much she decides to leave it until after they’ve tucked into the soup. Bruce is calling for someone to pour him a bowl, as he's occupied with sticking butterfly stitches over the dozens of cuts that litter Thor's face and arms. Thor doesn't seem to be hurting, and asks for two bowls.
Pepper arrives within minutes to see if they’re alright.
“Did you do all this?” Tony asks. “You’re so precious.”
“It wasn’t me,” she frowns, glancing between the pot and Thor downing an entire bottle of Gatorade by himself.
Bruce is working late on his review. He’s kind of stuck. He wanted to have it finished by now, but they had the incident at the power plant yesterday and he’s feeling all hulked out, so to speak. The screen is starting to blur in front of his eyes. He hears the door, and thinks it’s probably Tony wanting to talk geek.
It’s not Tony. It’s Coulson, with his tie missing and two beers dangling from his fingers. He comes up to the desk like he owns the place and holds a bottle out to Bruce.
“Oh, naw, it’s late…” Bruce starts to say.
“Okay. Both for me, then,” Coulson pulls over the spare wheelie chair and drops into it the wrong way round, resting his arms on the backrest. He cracks the top off the first bottle, and there’s that sweet hiss and a little wisp of vapour.
Bruce caves, since Coulson doesn’t look like he’s leaving. “I changed my mind.”
Coulson grins and hands him the open beer. They tap the necks together and sip in silence for a while.
“How’s your paper coming?”
Bruce winces. “It’s okay. I’m a bit out of practise with the lingo. What are we celebrating?”
“I wanted to thank you for giving Clint those jobs around the lab,” Coulson shrugs, and takes a long swig.
“It’s no problem.”
They talk gossip for a while about Jane Foster, who’s going to be in New York next month, and how nervous and excited Thor is getting about it, and then it’s gossip about SHIELD, and then it’s just banter about television and how much decent coffee costs these days. Coulson's unusually chatty: Bruce kind of gets the impression that this isn’t his first drink of the night. After maybe an hour, he notices that he’s started fiddling with something around his neck.
“We’re not just celebrating me outsourcing my lab work, are we?” Bruce asks.
Coulson lets out a huff. He tugs a chain out from beneath his collar, looped through a golden band that he rolls between his fingers, catching the light. “It’s my anniversary next week,” he says.
Bruce swallows the last mouthful of beer quickly. “You and Clint…?”
He had no idea. “Who proposed?” he blurts out, because people going gooey about wedding stuff makes him uncomfortable even under ordinary circumstances.
“Clint,” Coulson grins. “Sort of. We hadn’t even had a good thing going that long, and I think it was almost a joke that got out of hand, but I suppose we both realised that neither of us wanted it to be a joke. So we went to the town hall in sneakers and sunglasses and got a couple of Swiss tourists to be our witnesses.”
“That’s tooth-rottingly, sweet,” Bruce shakes his head. “Man, now I have to resist telling Tony. This is gonna be hard.”
“It was sickeningly perfect,” Coulson grins, finishing the dregs of his beer. “It’d send you into a sugar coma.”
“Lifetime Movie at eight,” Bruce croons. “A feelgood for the whole family.”
“Yeah. And when he came back he made us get divorced,” Coulson rasps.
Bruce's throat closes up. He swallows until he can say, "Why?"
Coulson peers at Bruce through the ring like a kid playing with his mom’s jewellery. “I thought he blamed me for not finding him sooner. I thought… I thought I should just do whatever he needed to feel better, so I signed the papers and filed them and everything. He took off as soon as his first pension check was in his hand. I lost him all over again.”
Bruce watches the agent's hand tighten into a fist around the wedding band. When he doesn’t continue, Bruce asks, “But you got back together, I mean, you are together, aren’t you? He must have wanted that.”
"Yeah," Coulson scratches behind his ear. “Eventually I made him come live with me. But he didn’t seem to care either way. Like he was a ghost. A shell. A Bose-Einstein condensate.”
For a moment it seemed like Coulson had forgotten that Bruce was still in the room, but this last statement is meant for him. Bruce supplies, “A gas cooled to near absolute zero. Quantum effects become much more tangible,” after another moment he adds, “Do you think he'd ever want to renew his vows?”
"I live in hope,” Coulson says, but his voice is resigned and empty. He tucks the ring back into his shirt. “I’m sorry, Doc, I didn’t mean to unload all this. I really did just come here to thank you. Don't tell the others, will you?”
"Course not," Bruce says distantly. He knows how to keep secrets.
Phil got a call at home from a doctor named Swann. She said she was Clint's therapist.
"Has he been to see you recently?" she asked.
"I haven't seen him since he was discharged from hospital. I think that was six weeks ago," Phil replied. He knew it had been exactly six weeks and two days, though he'd tried not to count them. His voice echoed around the high ceilings of his apartment. The air was chilly but he didn't want to waste power turning on the heaters. He'd rather sit in the cold.
"Listen, I can't discuss our sessions, obviously," Dr Swann said, "But Clint's missed two appointments in the last ten days and now he's not answering his phone. I want to go round to his home, but I think maybe it would do him more good if you made the visit. Would that be difficult?"
Phil ran his hand through his hair. "No, of course not, no. Can you give me the address?"
"You don't have his address?"
"He doesn't answer my calls," Phil murmured.
"Oh, I see – oh," there was a pause. "I shouldn't, but – look, he put you down as his emergency contact, so I don't think it's bending the rules."
She gave him the address, which was in Queens. As soon as she'd hung up, Phil grabbed his keys and was out the door. It was a brilliantly clear night, but the city was too bright to see the stars well. The drive was long despite the quiet traffic. Twice he thought he'd got lost along the way, but then turned to retrace his steps and found he was in the right street after all.
The flat was the bottom storey of a cramped terrace house, the buildings lined up together with shared walls all along the block. There were no lights on that Phil could see, and no matter how hard he knocked he couldn't get an answer. His heart was starting to race now. He didn't want to be the one to discover a body, he couldn't, he was sure it would break him. He looked around but no one else was in sight, not even neighbours peeping through the blinds to see what the commotion is. He went back to the car, found some tools and picked the lock.
He had to shove the door open, kicking wads of junk mail and a box of recycling out of the way. He found the light switch, but the bulb was blown, or maybe there was no bulb at all, it was too dark to see. As his eyes adjusted he found he was standing in a cold kitchen with an overflowing garbage bin and piles of dishes in the sink. When he opened the fridge to let some light into the room he saw it was totally empty, not even scraps of butter or dregs of milk. Dust lay on the table, on the scum-dried mugs, on the handle of the fridge, and a basil plant on the windowsill was so withered that Phil only identified it by the supermarket label on the pot.
At the far side of the kitchen there was another hall leading into the back of the house. In the distance, Phil saw the L of a soft glow from a cracked-open door. He hurried towards it in a daze, feeling like he was wading through mud, telling himself over and over that if there was death in this house he'd have smelled it by now.
The room was tiny, enough for a single bed and a bookshelf with a lamp on top, that was it. Clint lay on his stomach, one arm hanging off and brushing the pages of a novel that had fallen on the carpet. The mattress was bare, the pillow thin and pushed aside, a single blanket tangled around him to the waist. His eyes were closed and his breathing shallow but steady. He'd put on weight while he was in hospital, but it didn't look like he'd kept gaining it; his ribs stuck out so far that if you lit him up you could grill steaks on them.
"Clint?" Phil whispered, kneeling by the bed. He touched Clint's bare shoulder. His skin was salty with dry sweat, his hair oily and unwashed for what looked like days. Clint's eyes flicked open, met Phil's gaze, but he didn't move.
"Clint, are you sick?" Phil asked.
Clint blinked at him. "Sir?" his voice was so faint Phil had to lean in to make it out. "What are you doing here?"
"Dr Swann called me," Phil whispered. "She was worried about you."
Clint turned his face away towards the wall. Phil let his hand slide to the back of his neck, to the knots of scars there where cold machinery had been excised. He fiddled with the downy hair at the base of Clint's skull, already grown thick since his rescue. After a couple more questions went unanswered he stood and made Clint sit up on the bed, holding his arms to make Clint look him in the eye.
"I'm going to take you back to my house," said Phil, and then corrected himself quickly. They'd lived in the apartment for a year, on and off depending on SHIELD duty, before Clint's disappearance. "Our house. I want you to stay with me for a while, yeah? So I can look after you."
"Okay," said Clint, without a trace of emotion. He sounded like something inanimate, the rustle of leaves, or stones under a river.
He didn't say anything else that night, not a word, no matter what questions Phil asked him. He sat on the bed and watched Phil pack him a bag. It wasn't big; the only personal belongings in the house were a few clothes and a stack of paperback novels, mostly crime and thrillers from book clearances. Phil had to dress him like a child, easing his arms into a cotton hoodie and tying up his shoelaces for him.
Phil stopped at an all-night McDonald's on the way back, and did not miss how Clint hunched down in the seat and turned his face away from the bright lights of the drive-thru window. He made Clint eat a cheeseburger and a few fries. When they finally reached the apartment, he put Clint to bed fully clothed in the big queen on the loft floor.
It was almost one and Phil had work at eight, but he felt absolutely no pull of sleep. He lay on the couch in a spare blanket, staring at the broken shadows the blinds cast across the bed, and willed for some magic, some alchemy to heal the pieces.
Chapter 3: Shoot All the Blue Jays
Thank you everyone for reading, the response to this has been a wonderful surprise. Fingers crossed the final chapter is satisfying.
Clint got back from a Nairobi mission at just before midnight, flicking on all the lights in Coulson’s helicarrier quarters, a single room with a kitchenette and an en suite. He thumped around taking off his boots, slamming up the toilet lid, then coming back and microwaving something. Phil rolled over, pressing the pillow over his head.
“Hey!” Clint called from across the room. “Have you been asleep long?”
“Are you drunk?” Phil called through the pillow. The room was filling with the smell of buttered popcorn.
“Sorry! I thought you’d still be up!” Clint replied, and why was he yelling, Phil was less than six feet away.
“Go fall in a snakepit, Barton,” Phil groaned, rolling onto his back. “Some of us have work in the morning.”
When he next looked over, Clint had stripped right down to boxers, socks and dog tags, kicking his clothes into a pile by the door where Phil was bound to trip on them in the morning. Phil sighed and tried to tell himself that that sight wasn't worth being woken up for. It wasn't. He had a meeting at eight. It definitely wasn't.
Clint grinned at him over his shoulder, poured the popcorn into a bowl and bounded across to sit on top of the blankets, straddling Phil's hips. He was heavy. "So," he said, putting the popcorn down on the duvet. "Guess what I heard on the plane on the way home."
"Are you getting fake butter shit on my bedspread?" Phil raised an eyebrow.
"No, it's clean, look. Do you want some?" Clint stuffed a handful of popcorn in his mouth.
"I do not want any of your foul snacks," Phil said coldly.
Clint gave an exaggerated wince. "Anyway. On the plane, Agent Frankenfurter—”
"Jared. The tall guy. Australian."
"His name's Dimmock."
"Yeah, that one, he's creepy pale with the big black hair. Stop interrupting," Clint wriggled and blood went to Phil's crotch.
"Barton, I am an old man who needs his sleep!" Phil complained, covering his eyes with both hands. "Concentrate on the story. What did Agent Dimmock say?"
Clint plucked another huge handful of popcorn out of the bowl and popped the kernels into his mouth one by one. "Well, you know that it's our two year anniversary coming up? Of our first date?"
Phil was peering between his fingers. "No? Did we... have a first date?"
"First... thing, whatever," Clint rolled his eyes. "Well, Dimmock's girlfriend works in accounting, and he says HR is changing the rules for the widow's compensation. For de facto relationships it's two years at the moment, but they're going to make it five years for fellow agents, I guess because they're sick of paying out extra to people who are already on their payroll. Which means if I die tragically tomorrow, you don't get a cent," Clint downed the last of his handful and leaned over Phil. "Unless we get married."
Phil raised an eyebrow. "That's your punch line."
"Yeah, man!" Clint made an ambiguous gesture with his hands. "We just sign a bit of paper, and then in the inevitable event of our tragic demise, the survivor rakes in the big bucks. Are you with me?"
At the time, Phil really couldn't guess what was going through Clint's head. He saw the value of money in ways Phil didn't, and maybe part of him really did like the idea of that security. Clint was not, after all, a child of wealth and privilege like Phil. He had spent time on the street. He knew what it was like to go without meals, without shoes, because this week his brother owed a guy or because he had no brother at all, no anything. Or maybe he half meant it as a joke, maybe he never thought Phil would say yes.
"Yes," said Phil.
"Yes," Phil pushed himself up onto his elbows. "I'm not getting any younger. Marry me."
A grin spread slowly across Clint's face. "Awesome."
"Can we go to bed now?"
Clint leaned in to kiss him, and Phil's hand snapped up to press against his chest and stop him getting any closer. He could feel Clint's heart racing beneath flushed skin. He tilted his head. "Finish your popcorn and brush your teeth, please. You smell like a movie theatre."
"Yes, sir," Clint beamed.
That summer was the HYDRA mission that went so wrong. Two months later, the official SHIELD investigation laid out the incident in stilted, clinical terms. In its closing chapter it concluded that "the blame for the tragic loss of eight experienced operatives lies partly on false intel, partly on poor choice of drop zone by the team's handler Edward Ravensbourne, and partly on team leader Agent Clint ("Hawkeye") Barton for failing to spot key signs of an ambush. Since Ravensbourne has already resigned and accepts all responsibility for the events, and Barton is presumed deceased in an accompanying report, this investigation recommends no disciplinary action. Recommendations for the training and preparation of operatives in future have already been outlined in chapter 6 (pages 95 - 129)."
Phil didn't want any kind of widow's compensation, but he looked up the rules anyway. It turned out that SHIELD only paid pensions to spouses who required significant financial support, which cut him right out. Also, the admissibility for de facto partnerships was only two years, and had never been otherwise.
"You're such a liar, Barton," Phil laughed, and then found he couldn't get up from his desk, his stomach heaving. Clint's body had never been found. Clint, with his machine gun laugh and irritating, round-about ways of showing affection. Clint, with his stupid fears that Phil only kept him around for sex and to repel flirtatious interns. Clint had died alone, his body weighted down in a lake somewhere, or dissolved in lye, or buried where the foxes and stray dogs would dig him up and eat everything that wasn't rotten. Phil couldn't, wouldn't, couldn't believe that Clint wasn't on the other side of his office door, or waiting at home with his feet on the table no matter how many times Phil told him it was revolting. He couldn't. He couldn't. He couldn't be gone.
For a few minutes he sat with his eyes closed and his fingers pressed to his temples, until the phone rang and he had to clear his throat and get back to work.
Steve calls the top floor, and Coulson answers.
“Um, hi,” Steve says, his throat suddenly dry. He looks at Natasha, who gives him a disdainful look and makes a circling motion with her hands. Steve swallows. “’Tasha and I are going to the library. We were wondering if Clint would like to come?”
There is silence for so long that Steve wonders if the line has gone dead. Then Coulson says, “Oh, okay, I’ll ask him.”
There’s nothing for a long while. Steve finds himself tapping his foot on the floor at a rapid staccato. Natasha rolls her eyes at him. Finally, Coulson returns. “He’ll be down to the shared floor in five minutes, is that okay?”
Steve grins. “Yeah. See you soon.”
They talked about driving, but Steve still hasn’t got his license and Natasha hates New York traffic, so they take the bus rather than take Clint underground onto the subway. Steve learns later that it is the first time Clint has been in public without Coulson in – months? Maybe a year? Coulson isn’t sure, when they talk about it afterwards. He's very shaky at first, and Steve sits on the aisle seat, hemming him against the window. Natasha is right behind him, making dry observations about the city as they pass through it. Clint keeps his left hand hidden and fiddles with his phone, but does not text Coulson. By the time they finally reach the stop closest to the library, his shaking is too low to be visible.
Coulson meets them as soon as they get back to the tower. He’s clearly been clutching his phone as tightly as his partner was, but he relaxes as soon as they walk through the lift doors with Clint lugging two bags of books and Steve chatting amicably about the state of the traffic.
When Clint’s gone to take the books upstairs, that’s when Coulson leans in towards Steve with his arms crossed and asks, “Did you get those out on your card?”
“Yes?” Steve frowns.
“Just a warning. He has a habit of redacting books,” Coulson whispers. Steve’s head whips around so fast his neck clicks. He stares at Coulson, who nods and elaborates, “He rips out pages and blacks out lines that upset him. Maybe not with library books. I’ll try and discourage him.”
“Thank you,” says Steve, feeling the blood rush to his cheeks.
Phil and Cap have to convince Tony to go to the doctor.
“It’s a head cold,” Tony keeps insisting, in a muddled-drowsy voice. “It’s fine.”
“It could be influenza,” Cap says, his voice heavy as a military marshal. He grew up with stories of the Spanish Flu.
“I had my shot this year,” Tony says.
“Tony, what if it’s something serious?” Phil says soothingly, thinking of palladium poisoning and chemical weaponry and who knows what Tony Stark gets up to when he’s not under the watchful eye of an Avenger. He probably rolls around in puddles of radium.
Between the two of them, they bully and coax Tony into agreeing to see his GP. (It later turns out to be an early strain of next year’s flu. Both Bruce and Phil come down with it within a couple of days, and probably Natasha too, though she locks herself away on claims of quarantine and won’t let anyone see her for a while). At the time, it is triumph enough to get Tony to do what they want.
“I sure am glad to have you on my side, Agent Coulson,” Cap says. “We make a good team.”
“Damn straight we do,” Phil agrees. “And it’s Phil, please, I promise I’ll answer to it.”
“Phil it is.”
Cap raises his hand for a high five, a gesture he’s only just stopped staring at every time Natasha and Bruce do it, and Phil happily provides. His palm tingles afterwards, because Steve hasn’t quite got the hang of pulling his strength during the slap yet. He just high-fived Captain America. He feels like the ten-year-old Phil inside him just liquidated from the joy.
When he looks over and sees Clint watching from the doorway, he doesn’t think anything of it.
Tony is in the Stark Innovation building a few miles from the tower with Coulson when they get the call that there’s been some kind of accident on the plaza. They drop everything and drive back with Happy swearing profusely at other cars and crossing into the opposite lane three times to get around slow taxis. They end up ahead of Tony’s bodyguards in the other Lexus, and traffic’s clogged up a whole block around the plaza, so they get out and bolt for it. Coulson plays the shield against Tony’s fans, and puts his hand on the camera lenses when the press realises who’s just arrived.
There’s a police cordon around a spot on the plaza, yellow tape like a May Day ribbon marking out a wide circle, and an ambulance, and the place where the drama happened is clearly separate from the nearby buildings.
“Oh, God,” Tony says, and looks back at Coulson. He can see Coulson come to the same conclusion as him, but then Coulson’s face goes blank and they both elbow their way through to the cops.
“Officer, hey, yo,” Tony claps his hands until someone looks at him. “What happened? Did someone fall? Tell me, come on!”
“No sir. No one’s seriously hurt,” the cop rumbles, and Tony can feel Coulson sag against him in relief and pull himself together just as quickly. The cop asks, “You’re Tony Stark?”
“No duh,” Tony says, spreading his arms with a flourish. “What happened?”
“We need access to the whole building, sir,” the officer says, a couple of buddies come up beside him. “Looks like a potted plant fell from one of the top floors, and we need to secure everything and make sure nothing else comes down.”
Tony feels his whole brain switch into high-adaptation damage control. “Oh my God, that’s terrible, guys. I’ll get my people onto it straight away. I bet I know where it’s come from, we’ve been fixing up one of the walls up there and we had to stack a bunch of greenery to keep it away from the construction site,” he’s already dialling his cell through to maintenance services and texting Pepper on his other phone, still rambling to the officers to keep them distracted. “I’m so sorry, guys, really, this is just terrible. It won’t happen again, I’ll make one-hundred-and-ten-percent sure, don’t worry.”
He can see from the corner of his eye that Coulson’s already gone.
It was just chance that Natasha was in the ICU when Coulson woke up. One of the men in the ward was an agent who'd had his mind stolen by Loki's sceptre, and though the psychologists thought he'd mostly recovered from the brainwashing, Fury had sent Natasha down to the city hospital to form her own opinion. As she was leaving, the buzzer at the nurses' station rang.
The nurse on call, an older woman with "Georgia" on her name badge, put on her best smile. "That's Agent Coulson's room," she sighed. "Anyone who can find the energy to reach the call button that fresh out of surgery is going to be a troublesome patient."
Until that moment, Natasha didn't know Coulson had survived his confrontation with Loki. She hadn't asked about him since the attack on the helicarrier or considered visiting the hospital until her orders from Fury. She'd had other responsibilities, of course, and a part of her didn't revel in the idea of seeing her handler right before he died on the operating table. She thought of it as preserving his dignity, so that she wouldn't remember him in his worst hour. That's what she told herself.
"Is he stable?" she asked the nurse, hurrying up behind her.
"For now," Georgia said, opening the door to the tiny ward. She didn't look too happy about letting Natasha in, but she must have decided not to face off against a high-ranking assassin because she didn't tell her to wait outside.
Coulson was white as chalk, strapped to a ventilator and filled with tubes all over his body. He looked thin and vulnerable without his suit, and Natasha was struck again with the sense that she shouldn't be witnessing this. At the same time she couldn't look away. The nurse hurried over without hesitation.
"Mr Coulson," she said, touching his shoulder as he groped at the nightstand, unable to raise his head high enough to see it. "Don't worry, sir, you're in the hospital. You need to relax."
Coulson tried to speak, his gaze roaming across her face and the ceiling, but Natasha could only hear incomprehensible croaks. Eventually he seemed to figure out that there was an oxygen mask over his face and he fumbled at the straps.
"Mr Coulson," Georgia gently took hold of his wrist. "You need to calm down. You're going to hurt yourself."
Coulson made a desperate noise but finally relaxed, head lolling to the side. His laboured breathing slowly became steady again, and his eyes drifted closed. Georgia tided up his splayed limbs and checked all his tubes were in place and then left him to sleep. Natasha followed her out, but the scene niggled at her. Coulson had wanted something, desperately, had reached for it and found it missing - or was it just post-anaesthesia panic? He must be completely lost, and he didn't yet know that Loki had been defeated.
"Could you call me if he wakes up again?" she asked the nurse. She scribbled down her number and handed it over.
Barely a couple of hours had passed before she got a text from the ICU. When she arrived time this time Coulson seemed more lucid, and the nurses let her see him alone. He pulled his mask down before Natasha could stop him.
"I need," he rasped and took a heaving breath, "my phone."
"That's up to your doctors," Natasha said. "Let me put your mask back on."
"I have to check on him."
"I don't think Fury wants you ringing out, sir. He still has to find a tactful way to tell Stark, Rodgers and Thor that you're not dead."
"He let them think...?" Coulson's brow contracted. "Oh, God. Please," he gripped her hand, his fingers much tighter than she expected. "Please. Let me make one call."
"I can call for you," Natasha resisted the urge to pull away. She entwined her fingers with his and squeezed reassuringly. "Tell me the message."
"No, no," Coulson could only just manage to shake his head, his voice barely a whisper. "It has to be," he sucked in air, "my voice."
Natasha gritted her teeth, but the desperation in his eyes was palpable. She promised him she'd try, and went to find the keys to the patient lockers. Most of Coulson's clothes were gone, too stained with blood to be anything but a biohazard, but she found a cellphone with a low battery and eight missed calls from the same number. Weird. Why hadn't Fury contacted his family? She didn't know much about Coulson's personal life. He didn't keep photos on his desk or in his wallet, didn't talk about PTA meetings or family holidays, didn't wear a wedding ring. But somebody had clearly noticed his absence. Yet if they were so worried, she would have expected them to be in the hospital keeping vigil. Maybe there was a restriction on civilians in the SHIELD-occupied wards - but if that was the case, someone should have checked her ID on the way in.
She took the phone back to the ICU and handed it over. Coulson could only just thumb in the number and set the phone ringing, and then it slipped out of his hand when he tried to put it to his ear. Natasha kept her expression blank and held it against his face for him. It was picked up within a few rings, and the panicked voice at the other was so loud she could just make out the words. "Phil - Phil, where are you - I saw the news - I thought –”
It was a man, and Natasha assumed Coulson's brother at first, though she knew they weren't that close. Then she remembered that Coulson had a housemate - Barton, the guy who'd first brought her into SHIELD's fold. She hadn't kept track of him once he came back from the dead, but Coulson mentioned him once in a blue moon.
"I'm alright," Coulson in the bed croaked. "I'm fine. Just... just a bit of smoke inhalation. Nothing serious."
Natasha frowned at him. Nothing serious? He'd arrived with a two-by-six-inch hole in his chest. His heart had only been kept beating by the surgeon's constant attentions. Did he seriously think his roommate wasn't going to find out?
"Listen, you know that it was...? Yes, Loki... the one from New Mexico, yeah..." Coulson paused to heave at the air for a moment, his eyes closed in concentration. "We think... some of Loki's forces are still hiding out on Earth, in the polar regions, so the... the Director is sending me to Siberia. Could be more than a fortnight before I'm home. Hang on."
Coulson cleared his throat, and Natasha got up and poured him a glass of water from the jug. She couldn't find a straw, so she had to hold his head up for him to drink, his hair thin and soft against her palm. He coughed and she put the phone back to his ear. "I know, I know... I'm sorry, Clint, believe me, I wish I could come home now... listen, I need to know you'll be okay while I'm gone. You can go next door and ask Susan to get you groceries, alright? Pay her from my account, same as usual. Just stay busy, don't worry about me. I'll call when I can. I have to go," his voice was barely audible now, slowing down as it took up the last of his energy. "I love you. Bye."
Natasha heard the beep of the call ending. She switched off the screen and put the phone on the bedside table. She didn't fully understand what she'd just witnessed, but she thought it would only take a few pieces more to fit it together.
Coulson had turned his head away, his brow wrinkling as he closed his eyes. "Do I have a morphine drip?"
"Yes, sir," Natasha nodded stiffly and pushed the self-medication remote into his hand. She ground out, "You really think you can keep up a lie like that?"
His eyes still closed, Coulson drew in a long breath. "I'll tell him," he said with enormous effort. "When I'm better. I can't... let him worry. That would be worse."
"Why? It's just cruel, putting it off."
"Never thought you'd be lobbying for the truth, Agent Romanov," he whispered. Natasha scowled, and Coulson placed a shivering hand on top of hers. "He can't know how bad I am. In a..." another pained breath, "...couple of weeks, I'll be well enough to... to look after him again, and I never need to scare him with this," he blinked at the ceiling as if his vision was playing tricks on him. "You have to take things one day at a time, Natasha. Roll with the punches," he began to cough, deep, fluid-tinged coughs, his face contorted with pain.
Natasha shook her head. She helped him put the ventilation mask back on, tucked him in and tried to take the phone with its dying battery, but with a sudden strength he clenched his hand around it and wouldn't let go.
Phil finds Steve and Thor inside his home on the top floor, trying to talk to Clint. There’s no way they could have got in unless he let them in, so he can’t have been too upset a short while ago. But now he’s in the corner of the kitchen against the cupboards, a ball of shuddering muscles and straw-coloured hair with scatters of grey.
“Back up, guys, let me handle it,” Phil tells them briskly, and they go around to the living area and watch from there. Phil kneels and grips Clint’s good hand, which is the only visible one. “What happened?” he asks.
There’s no answer. He needs time and coaxing and maybe sleep and more coaxing and some food. But Phil doesn’t have time. Tony is going to try and talk the police out of investigating the origin of the fallen potted plant, but there’s a good chance that not even Tony will be able to dissuade them, and in that case this room and the balcony with be crawling with cops inside of fifteen minutes.
“Clint,” Phil says. “You have to stand up and come downstairs. We’ll go to – to Natasha’s room, okay? She’ll look after you until you can come back.”
Clint moans into his arm and shakes his head. The idea of people inside his home, inside his space, messing with his garden, will wreck him. It could ruin everything. But they don’t have a choice right now.
Phil waves Steve over. “Help me get him on his feet,” he instructs. Steve comes over and is far more gentle than Phil in grabbing Clint under the arms and hauling him up. Phil keeps up his litany the whole time. “Clint, you gotta come with us. You can tell me what happened and we can talk about it, but you have to come downstairs.”
Clint leans into Phil, and he’s heavy and unresponsive as a bag of rocks. Steve towers over them, a silent pillar keeping them both upright. If it wasn’t for him, Phil’s not even sure he could stay standing, because Clint’s exercise routine these days is as precise as his near-obsessive tidiness and he spends hours in the gym putting on muscle he doesn’t need.
The phone on the wall starts ringing, and Thor ambles over and plucks it up with one huge hand to answer it. Phil will never get over the sight of Thor answering a phone, but now’s not the time to laugh at it. Thor lowers it after a moment. “Stark says there are city officers entering the lifts now.”
“Okay, Cap, take him, take him,” Phil manoeuvres Clint until Steve’s got one arm around his waist and one of Clint’s around his shoulders. “I have to deal with something. Get him into your room or Natasha’s room, doesn’t matter.”
“Natasha,” Clint mumbles.
Steve nods, his expression steady and soldier-like. Phil doesn’t wait to see them off, just speed-walks to the balcony door and slides it open, making his way through the garden to the sunniest part at the front. There’s a rising anger in his gut, the rage that he has to waste time hiding a goddamn herbal painkiller rather than help Steve get Clint downstairs, but they’re looking at a misdemeanour and up to a year in jail if the cops see it. He wonders if they’d overlook it if he shook Clint’s X-rays in their faces – “Do you know how a leg heals when nobody treats it for fourteen months? Do you want to see where the surgeons had to rebreak it twice over, you fucking pigs?” – but that’s not going to help anybody. The police are just doing their job.
He notices, through his growing fear and fury, that the Christmas lights guiding him home have been torn down and shoved behind a stack of empty pots.
He heaves the illegal plant up onto his hip and goes into the bedroom, clears away a space in the cupboard and puts it on the carpet, spilling dirt across Clint’s sneakers. He’s pretty sure they’re not interested in searching the place, and besides, they need a warrant for anything that’s not an emergency. They just want to ensure the balcony isn’t creating a risk to the public.
“I do not understand, Phillip Coulson,” Thor says. “What is going on?”
Phil isn’t sure which part of this whole disaster he’s talking about, so he doesn’t answer. He takes him into the lift and when they reach the communal floor he presses his swipe card into Thor’s big palm. “The cops want to see the garden, Thor,” he says pleasantly. “You can show them around, right?”
He makes his way to Natasha’s floor. Clint’s curled up on her bed, under her duvet, with Cap hovering in the doorway. Phil tells him to go. He kicks his shoes off and crawls onto the bed beside Clint, sitting up against the headboard.
“Are you going to tell me what happened?”
Clint scrunches the blankets against his face. “I threw a fern over the wall.”
“I don’t know.”
“Clint,” Phil feels his features contract without his control. “It almost hit a tourist and his kids. You could have killed someone.”
“I’m sorry,” Clint mumbles. “I’m sorry. Fuck. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
For once, the magic incantation, you’ve got nothing to be sorry about, doesn’t rise at once into his throat. “It’s not enough to be sorry,” he says, his voice grating. “You can’t ever do anything like this again.”
“I said I’m sorry,” Clint repeats, like a stuck record.
“It’s not enough,” Phil echoes. The rage at the police and the plant and the fear he’d felt when he saw that yellow tape around the plaza are all mixing together now. “What were you thinking?”
“I wasn’t thinking,” Clint turns his head down against the pillow. “I just did it. I was angry and I just did it.”
“What were you angry about?”
“It’s my fault. I saw you and Cap and it’s my fault.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You like Cap so much. If it wasn’t for me, if I’d never come back, you could have anyone, you could have a guy like him, someone proper.”
The rage is building up in Phil, and oh God, that yellow tape, that shattered pot and black soil spread across the white concrete of the plaza. “Why would you even think that?” he says, louder and harsher than he means to. “What the hell, Clint? What do you think I’m here for? I don’t want some imaginary guy, I don’t want Cap, I’m here with you and I’m not changing my mind. You have to deal with that. God, sometimes it’s like you think I’m only paid to be here,” he squeezes his eyes shut, pressing thumb and forefinger to his closed lids. He wants to shut up but his mouth keeps going like someone dark and slithery inside him is making a puppet of his tongue. “If you’re not happy staying with me, we’ll find you somewhere else, because I can’t do this unless you want it too.”
Clint just whispers, “I’m sorry.”
It’s been a week since the broken pot on the plaza. Clint hasn’t left the top floor, and Phil’s been working long hours but he hasn’t let anyone else up. Their home feels violated, infected with the stench of strangers, strange hands who moved the plants around and touched the door handles and left black scuffs on the wooden floors.
Clint seems drowsy and blinks a lot. He’s not eating. Phil’s already sick with worry, expecting more episodes and panic attacks, and he’s exhausted by the scant hours of sleep he gets when Clint isn’t wandering around with insomnia or waking thrashing from nightmares. It takes him this long to spot the signs of withdrawal.
He only catches it when Clint comes back to the dinner table and Phil asks, offhand because he hasn’t been keeping track, “Did you take your meds tonight?”
“Yeah, just now,” Clint gestures back towards the bathroom.
Phil frowns. He realises he hasn’t seen Clint takes his pills all week, that Clint keeps leaving the room to pop the blister packs and swallow them down.
“Clint,” he raises his head. “Have you been skipping your medication?”
Clint denies it, and then within about three seconds he breaks down and admits that he has. It turns into an almost-fight, without raised voices or smashed plates, but as close to a fight as the two of them ever get.
“Why?” Phil keeps asking, “Christ almighty, why?” and Clint doesn’t have a real answer: ‘It just didn’t feel right anymore,’ – ‘I think I can do without,’ – ‘I’ll feel better.’
When Phil gets up and goes to find the tiny handful of meds and a glass of water, he spots a library book sitting facedown on the floor of the bathroom. He picks it up and sees thick black lines of Sharpie all across the open page. He takes it back in and puts it on the table.
“You said you wouldn’t do this,” he hisses. “I told you, I will buy you a copy of anything you like, but you can’t do this to Steve’s books.”
Clint hunches in on himself and doesn’t answer. Both his hands are in his pockets.
“Take your pills,” Phil says, placing them on the table beside Clint’s plate.
He refuses, and soon storms off onto the balcony. Phil could follow him, but backing him into a corner in his garden, the one place he feels safe, is not the way to go about this. He heads to bed instead.
He undresses with aching limbs. He feels about a hundred and ten years old. He thinks he looks it too, when he catches his reflection as he goes to brush his teeth. For a moment he sees a stranger with thinning hair and haggard skin stretched over a skeleton, and he can’t breathe. He presses one hand to the mirror to hold himself up, a sob rising in his throat, and he thinks the worst thing he can ever think, the thing he thought in the hospital after he signed the divorce papers, the thing he never normally lets rise into his subconscious. I want him back. I want the real Clint back.
Steve finds Tony in the lab, but even without a genius brain and unbeatable knowledge of mechanics, Steve can tells he’s just messing around with wires.
“How’d it go at court today?” Steve asks, folding his arms and leaning against the doorway.
Tony is propped back in his chair with one of his feet up on the bench. “I convinced them it was an accident. They’re fining me a couple thousand for health and safety violations. No biggie.”
“That sounds like the best it could have gone,” Steve shrugs.
“Maybe on the legal side,” Tony looks down at the gadget in his hand and then over his shoulder at Steve. “Did you see Coulson today?”
Steve sighs and scratches his nose. “Yeah, he went straight upstairs. Neither of them came down for dinner.”
“Maybe we should break in and bring the party to them,” Tony asks, glancing back at his work.
“I’m serious,” Tony says, twisting two unattached cables together. “Coulson keeps saying he’s doing okay, but he’s so used to doing this on his own I don’t think he knows what ‘okay’ means anymore. Barton’s not an Avenger, but neither is Pepper, and if she was in trouble I damn well hope the rest of you would come running when I called.”
Steve dips his head. “You know we would. But this isn’t something that needs my shield or Thor’s hammer or your suit. We can’t force Clint to socialise. What are we supposed to do?”
Tony’s fidgeting hands fall still at last. “I don’t know yet.”
Steve rings the top floor on Saturday morning. His voice is clear and direct. “Hi, Phil. We’re going to the library today, does Clint want to come?”
“Ah,” Coulson says at once. “I don’t know if that’s a good idea… it’s not the best day for it…”
“Can I ask him?” Steve pushes. “If he says no, it’s okay.”
There’s the rattle of the phone being put down on a bench, and after a while it scratches and is picked up again. It’s Clint this time. His voice is quiet and stretched. “Hey, Cap. Thanks, but I’m going to stay in today.”
“Are you sure?” Steve wheedles. He misses when phones had long chords you could fiddle with while you were talking. “Come on, it’s such a nice day out there.”
After a pause, Clint replies, “Yeah. Yeah, okay.”
It’s even better weather than Steve expected, not a cloud in the sky or worse than a brisk breeze to creepy over their collars. It’s still winter, but it’s one of those reminders of how pretty winter can be. Natasha and Steve are about to call down to the lobby to get a Stark Industries driver, but Clint insists the bus will be fine.
At the library, Steve takes two ruined volumes to the desk and apologises for them, promising to pay for them both and that it won’t happen again. They’re just a couple of reprint paperbacks, nothing that can’t be replaced, and when he gives the woman his big blues eyes and the sad little curl at the corners of his mouth she sighs and rings it up on her till. “Do you want to keep the wrecked books?” she asks, eying them on the bench like they’re poisoned.
“Sure,” Steve smiles, and sweeps them into his Official Merchandise Iron Man tote bag.
They’re at the upstairs lending desk because the ground floor one was busy, and Clint doesn’t need a crowd right now. Natasha is still down there in the foreign language section, looking for novels in her native tongue. She reads them aloud to keep herself from getting rusty – Steve sometimes sits in the lounge while she’s at it. It’s adorable, beautiful, and he knows modern women don't need those epithets, but Natasha happens to own them on top of everything else she is. She lets him listen as long as he promises not to tell Tony, because Tony might get JARVIS to record it for blackmail purposes.
Clint is a few shelves away, milling between GEN EUROPEAN HISTORY and EAST EUROPEAN HISTORY. A student with bright blue braids is darting back and forth looking for something, her satchel clutched to her chest, and Steve can see Clint keeping an eye on her, ready to limp into a different aisle if she decides she needs something nearby him. Steve smiles to himself, not because it’s funny, but it kind of is, right?
He glances over at the escalator. There’s a big guy with unusually pale skin coming up in a bulky coat.
It takes Steve about half a second of confusion to recognise him as the Southfire anarchist who attacked the power plant and sliced Thor to ribbons, the one whose brother Steve helped arrest.
“Get down! GET DOWN!”
It’s Steve’s voice yelling, but he’s already running, charging towards the man with his head dropped low like a football lineman. He’s lost the tote bag somewhere behind him. The mutant steps off the escalator with his feet spread and pulls a bottle of water out of his coat. Steve skids low and tackles him at his knees.
As the anarchist is knocked off his feet, the bottle goes flying, but then it bursts like a fragmentation shell and the air is full of ice shards like daggers. Steve gets up running and bolts for the nearest shelves, as ice rips through the books around him. He sees Clint and the blue-haired student crouched behind the catalogue computer a few aisles over. He’s heading into a dead-end window overlooking the street below, but he glances over his shoulder and the man is coming up behind him with several more litres of water that will turn into knives in his back if he doesn’t keep running. There’s nowhere else to go, and he’s got to draw the guy away from the civilians inside the library, into an open space.
He hits the window with the curve of his shoulder and feels glass rip down one thigh as he plunges through it. He tries to twist and land on his feet, but ends up tumbling down onto a sedan. The roof dents in, and the air fills with the screams of pedestrians. Grunting, Steve rolls onto his back just as the Southfire guy follows him out the window.
His opponent lands with feet and knees straddling Steve and grabs a hold of his neck. Steve tries to land a punch and the water turns to ice around his wrist and pulls his hand down on the battered roof of the car, freezing to the metal and pinning Steve’s hand there like a manacle. He goes at the guy with a knee to the groin and a second punch, but all three remaining limbs are suddenly restrained as well. Steve strains and hears the ice creak and spider web with cracks, but the villain is already raising his hand with his fingers wrapped around a long, deadly icicle.
“Patriotism is dead,” he grins.
Which is when something spears him through the back of his head, emerging through his right eye, dragging him forward and burying its bloodied tip a few inches beside Steve’s ear.
The ice liquidates and Steve drags himself out from under the twitching body of the anarchist. He recognises the back half of the object that impaled the man. It’s Clint’s cane, with the top screwed off to reveal a long, steel tip that converted it into a spear. Steve looks up at the broken window a storey above him and sees Clint standing there, his eyes wide and his breathing heavy.
“Stay there!” Steve hollers. “Don’t move!”
Clint turns and bolts. Steve curses bad enough to make Tony proud and clambers off the car, bruises making themselves known all over his back. He meets Natasha coming out of the doors, brandishing a librarian’s roller-step over her shoulder, and he yells an explanation at her and tells her to go check for more assailants.
He sees Clint stumbling down the escalator, hanging onto the railing and half-dragging his bad leg. Steve catches him as he reaches the bottom. Clint pulls away at first, sitting down on the floor and massaging his leg. His face is white and his expression steady. Maybe he's okay, Steve thinks, and he crouches down to keep their conversation private.
"Clint? Sorry, buddy, I'm so sorry. Thank you for that."
Clint nods stiffly, his nostrils flaring. Steve thinks he's going to say something and leans in further, and both Clint's hands are suddenly clutching at Steve's jacket.
“Can you get me home, Cap,” he rasps. "Please."
His gaze is flicking everywhere, a panicked animal, and Steve thinks of soldiers he knew, who should never have been sent back into battle even though their bodies weren't hurt. One minute they'd be fine and the next they were living in their memories, going out of their minds with the horrors only they could see.
“We're going right now,” Steve promises, in a low hiss. He gets a good grip on Clint and hauls him along, glancing around at the terrified library patrons peering around shelves and from under desk.
Natasha is outside waiting for them. “I think it was just the one,” she tells Steve. Clint makes a retching noise and starts shuddering so hard that Steve almost loses his grip.
“We gotta get him out of here,” says Steve, thinking of police sirens and crowds and questions and news cameras. This was supposed to be a peaceful trip to the library. This was supposed to help Clint feel safe away from the tower. Jesus, they’ve fucked this up bad.
“I’m on it,” says Natasha, stepping out in front of a passing taxi with her hand raised. The guy screeches to a halt and swears at her. She goes up to his door and jerks it open. She snaps, “You can take us to Stark Tower right now, or I can drag you out and drive your cab there myself. Capiche?”
He nods with wide eyes and Steve bundles Clint into the backseat. Natasha gets into the front beside the gaping driver and tells him to floor it. There’s a sign on the door that says, there is $400 fine for soiling this taxi. Steve rubs Clint’s back and rolls down the window, ready to help him lean out if he’s going to throw up. It’s not the fine he’s worried about, it’s the fuss the driver might make if they have to sort out a cleaning bill. They don’t need more hostile people yelling in Clint’s vicinity.
They make it to the tower without incident. Natasha’s already been on the phone to the lobby. There’s no one in their way, no clusters of R&D techs smoking outside the entrance, no suits waiting around on the ground floor, and one of the receptionists is holding the door of the elevator open for them. They reach the communal floor without anyone else trying to get into the lift with them, and there’s Coulson snapping his phone shut and striding towards them as if this a SHIELD operation that he’s just got under his control.
“We’re all okay,” Natasha says in a whip-crack reporting voice. “Just shaken up.”
“It was Southfire,” Steve gasps as he transfers Clint into Coulson’s arms. “Maybe just one rogue guy. He attacked us right there in the library. Clint saved my life, he put his cane through the back of the guy’s head. Didn’t even scratch me, either.”
“He never misses,” Coulson says quickly, and then all his attention is on Clint, holding his head still to look into his eyes. “Hey, it’s alright. It’s alright. Come on, let’s go have a shower. Come on.”
Clint straightens up a little, his eyes closed as he sucks in deep breaths in regular, even gulps. When he’s stopped hyperventilating, he whispers, “He would have killed Cap.”
“I know, I know, and you did good,” Coulson pulls him to his chest. His eyes dart around to meet Steve’s gaze, then Natasha’s, not in anger but still defensive, as if he doesn’t trust them not to do something cruel like laugh. “Let’s just go upstairs.”
Bruce misses the excitement because he is in the lab all day with his headphones on. He checks his phone later to find a missed call from Steve. Apparently Steve and Tony are calling a house meeting tonight. Bruce has skipped dinner – Doritos and soda keep him going for hours when science is happening – and he hurries down to the communal kitchen to find the Avengers and Pepper already there. The voicemail had been brief, but Steve fills him in on everything that happened at the library.
“So why’re we all here?” Bruce asks, tucking his hands under his arms. “You’re all okay, aren’t you?”
Natasha answers him. “Being around us is a danger to Clint. We should have seen that from the beginning.”
Tony finishes for her, in a low voice without any of his usual bite. “Cap thinks it will be safer if they move back into Coulson’s Bed-Stuy apartment.”
“I’m not the only one who thinks that,” Steve says irritably.
“I want them to stay, but I agree,” Natasha nods.
Thor rumbles. “Today was an uncommon tragedy. I do not see where this urgency has come from.”
“It’s not about whether today could happen again,” Natasha insists. “We talk about violence and battles every day, over dinner, in the gym. We practice on each other and make jokes about killing people. That’s the only way for us to deal with it, but it’s not compatible with Clint. He needs to get away from that.”
“Hold up, we don’t know that,” Bruce interrupts. “Have you talked to Coulson about this?”
“You didn’t see his face when he skewered the guy,” Steve counters.
Thor cuts in, huge arms folded. “And I do not see how you can claim that a man who keeps a spear hidden within his walking stick is unprepared for war.”
“Look, Thor, you don’t know anything about human war,” Steve snaps back. “Things don’t work the same on your planet.”
Bruce jumps in the back Thor up. “I don’t care what planet we’re on, I’m not going to go around making decisions for other people. You don’t have the right just because you lead us on missions.”
“I’m not making a decision for them, I’m just going to suggest it. Coulson will see I’m right.”
“Bullshit! You’re kicking them out of the house, and it’s not even your house—”
“Excuse me, Bruce, but you didn’t even like having Clint around in the first place—”
Tony’s sitting on a barstool not looking at anyone, rolling a mug of coffee between his hands even though it’s way too late for coffee. “I’m with Cap and the Widow,” he says, and everyone else goes quiet. “Being around us is gonna fuck the guy up. We don’t fuck up our friends. We don’t do that,” he leans forward over his knees, pinching the bridge of his nose. “I brought them here. I pushed for this, I thought I knew what I was doing, but this experiment has failed. God, and I,” he shakes his head, “I built Clint a bow and arrows and Coulson told me to destroy it, but I imagined I could… fucking, I don’t know, fix a man I knew nothing about. Because committing massive acts of violence was how I got over my trauma. I’m an idiot.”
He raises his head. “That’s three out of five of us. We win.”
“Don’t I get a vote?” Pepper asks, and then rubs her arms like a sudden chill has come over her. “I’m on Steve’s side, anyway.”
“We shouldn’t be voting, we should all be in agreement,” Bruce gripes, determined to have the last word.
“Then I’m dictator and I’m making the decision. I’ll talk to Coulson tomorrow,” Tony puts the mug to his mouth, sniffs it and then drains the dregs.
Right then Coulson arrives in the doorway, and everybody goes tense and guilty-looking except for Natasha the spy. Coulson raises an eyebrow at them. “What did I walk in on?”
“Orgy plans. You’re not invited,” Tony says.
“I’m hurt,” Coulson pouts, and then his expression shifts to serious. “Has Clint been through here?”
There’s a chorus of ‘no’ and shaking of heads. Coulson frowns to himself. “I left him having a nap and he’s gone wandering. Ever since the cops were in our place I think he’s been climbing around in the service ducts when he wants alone-time. Does JARVIS monitor those?”
“Probably? Shit. I’ll come help you look,” Tony hops off his stool.
Bruce hurries after them, “I’ll come too.”
“I’m sure it’s fine, there’s no rush,” Coulson says mildly, but Bruce is glancing at the air vents in the corners of the room and wondering how well sounds carries in them.
"Agen- Phil," Steve calls. He stands up like he's going to join the party but pulls back before he can take a step.
"You alright, Cap?" Coulson asks.
"I'm really sorry about this afternoon," Steve says miserably.
"It's okay. What matters is that you're safe," Coulson says.
"I mean, I'm sorry about bringing Clint into it," Steve insists.
"That's what I meant," Coulson smiles mildly, the one Tony whines is his 'means-nothing' smile. "He's just glad you're okay. He's had worse reactions over smaller things, Cap."
They split up and pick a floor to check. Bruce goes to the lab level, but Clint’s not hanging out with the cell cultures or in any of the scanner rooms. He tries Tony’s lab next, hears the sound of activity and knows he’s found their quarry. He comes around the corner and sees Clint standing on the open floor where Tony tests thrusters.
He’s firing a bow and arrow. There’s a new Iron Man suit built from the waist-up hanging at the edge of the testing floor, and Clint’s got a fancy-looking bow in his hands, the sort of thing you see at the Olympics, and is shooting from a quiver that’s clipped to his belt. Bruce’s breath catches and he just stands and watches for a couple of minutes. Clint moves in smooth, small shifts, as if it’s effortless. But the speed of the arrows and the noise they make when they hit the suit tell Bruce that he himself could barely pull the string back, let alone make the shafts fly so straight. They’re tipped with tiny cylinders that look blunt but must have teeth, because they cling to the smooth metal, bursting open and spraying little supernovas of paint.
Clint’s been aware of him since Bruce opened the door, and when the quiver’s empty he lowers the bow and half turns towards him.
“Tony made me this,” he says, like that isn’t obvious. Bruce remembers Tony mentioning it not half an hour ago. He doesn’t know why he chose this particular gift, except it’s clear that Clint knows how to use it from his life before. Clint weighs the bow in one hand. “I found it in the experimental weapons cabinet. He never told me.”
“Were you listening in, just now? In the kitchen?” Bruce asks, parking himself on the nearest stool.
“Yeah,” Clint shrugs.
“How do you feel about it?” Bruce fiddles with his cuffs. “About going back to the apartment?”
Clint comes up to the bench beside Bruce. There’s a bunch more arrows wrapped in plastic, with different tips. Tony must have really been having fun with them. Clint flexes his left hand, and Bruce frowns as he realises there’s a sort-of glove around, the thinnest steel plates he’s ever seen. It covers Clint’s palm and the inside and tips of his first two fingers, with just a filigree of metal strands across the back of his hand. It’s recognisably a more delicate, open version of an Iron Man glove, with the addition of leathery petals over the pads of Clint’s fingers, for grip.
“Tony made me this too, to fix my hand,” Clint opens and closes his hand where Bruce can see the glove. “It was a bit klutzy at first, but I’m getting used to it already.”
“That’s pretty cool,” says Bruce.
A nervous smile twitches at the corner of his mouth and he looks at Bruce through his eyelashes. “I don’t want to leave, Doc. I like it here. Phil likes it here.”
Bruce remembers how shit he is at counselling people, but he manages to say, “No one’s going to make you do anything.”
Clint flexes the glove again. “There isn’t really a future,” he says distantly. “I try to find things to do and I try to smile for Phil but most of the time there’s just the same shit every day forever. Just staying alive and nothing else. But now I can help you guys,” he shakes his head when Bruce starts to protest. “Not like that, Phil would never let me on the front line even if my leg wasn’t as bad as it is. But I mean, like, I can stitch you up when you get home, if you need it. I can back you up if there’s no one else,” he scratches around the collar of his T-shirt. “I can be useful.”
Bruce puts his hand over his mouth and thinks of hot minestrone soup and fresh clothes, of how dead Steve should have been today. He nods. “I think we’d like that.”
“Cool,” Clint shrugs. He hefts the bow again. “Do you wanna learn how to shoot this thing?”
“Sure,” laughs Bruce.
“Come on,” Clint beckons Bruce over. “I’ll show you.”