Water Under the Bridge
Clint returns to SHIELD headquarters from Afghanistan. Again. He's getting tired of flights on military transports halfway around the world. He's tired of sand and grit in his eyes and mouth, fouling his weapons, scouring his skin raw. The missions should be under the aegis of the DoD, not SHIELD, but when weapons are found that have technology that isn't standard military issue, somebody has to go in on the QT and investigate. Stark is never quiet, Thor stands out like a sore thumb, Steve is just way too American and far too valuable. Banner is too volatile, and Fury seems to want to keep him as some sort of super-secret weapon. Natasha? It is Afghanistan. So, Clint draws the short straw and leaves New York, returning with too much to report, and not enough answers.
The first thing he does is shower, to rehydrate and soothe his weary body. He finally gets the sand out of his hair. He doesn't have many clothes in his locker; jeans, a white cotton sweater, a gray woven scarf that Natasha had given him to keep the sand out of his mouth, but that he had left behind because it looked too fragile for the rough climate. He winds it around his throat, unaware of the dramatic effect. He doesn't shave off his beard entirely, keeping a goatee and mustache in case he has to make another trip to A-stan. He can't do anything about the shadows under his eyes or the weary draw of his mouth. He knows Phil Coulson will see all of that, and more.
He's right. Coulson looks up and his expression is sharply concerned as he takes in his sorry condition. Phil doesn't ask him how it went. He asks how he is ... which warms Clint to the heart.
"Glad to be hone," Clint says and drops into the chair opposite Phil's desk. "Anything new here?"
"You don't want to know," Phil gives him a small smile. "Suffice to say that we are still all intact."
"So, pretty normal." He sets his hands on the arms of the chair and wonders if he has the strength to get to his feet.
"Wait." Phil gestures to him to stay. He takes an envelope out of his desk drawer. "This came for you yesterday."
"Personal mail?" He doesn't know anybody. He certainly hasn't told anybody where he can be reached.
"Natasha stopped by your apartment to check your supplies and found this under the door."
"You let Natasha in my apartment?" He doesn't know if he should be annoyed, alarmed or touched.
"Does Natasha need to be let in anywhere?" Phil's lips twist into a wry smile that Clint answers with a shrug. He takes the envelope. It's cheap drugstore stationery; the kind that seals with a strip of self-adhesive. Phil hands him a slightly lethal-looking letter opener.
Clint slides it across the top of the envelope and return it Phil. He takes out the sheet of flimsy, lined paper and reads it. The looping, childish script takes him back ten years. He feels a faint pressure beneath his breastbone. He folds the paper and puts it carefully back in the envelope. Clint knows Coulson's sharp concern has softened; he can feel it like a weight. He pushes himself up from the chair. "I need some air," he says. He's angry because his voice is shaking.
"Take this." Phil holds out his coat. It's knee length, dark, incredibly soft cashmere. Clint runs a finger along the sleeve. The contrast between it and the rough clothing he's been wearing for the last two weeks is almost painful.
"You will. You're exhausted and undernourished. It's cold out there. I don't need a sick agent bogging down the team." Clint hears instead, I love you. Don't be a jackass. He takes the coat.
He leaves the compound and walks five blocks. It might as well be five hundred miles. He's standing beneath an overpass, and the recent rains have turned the gutters into a small tributary flowing towards the East River. Bits of paper, tin cans and cigarette butts litter the cracked gravel of what used to be a pier and a landing. Somebody with more ambition than money had erected a sign that said, "Big Top Landing: A New Riverside Community." Clint guessed that bubble had burst with the Wall Street debacle, but they had remembered that this was where the circus tent had been erected for five days every summer. If he closes his eyes, Clint can almost smell the scent of straw and manure, hear the raw call of the barker outside, see the beans of the spotlights crossing the night skies like light sabers.
Ladies and Gentleman ...The Carson Carnival of Traveling Wonders has scoured the globe to bring you the wonders of the world: daring tightrope walkers, astonishing acrobats, comedians and clowns, the thrill of the World's greatest marksmen -- the Barton brothers, and Angel DeFiore -- the Queen of the Night -- who will dance above you like a star in the midnight sky ...
Clint takes the letter out of his pocket. He reads it again and his fingers clench tight around it. He takes a breath, shakes off the vivid flashback.
"Bad news?" Phil steps out from the shadows. He's wearing an old field coat over his impeccable suit.
"People die all the time," Clint says. He doesn't look at Coulson.
"No. Just ... somebody I knew a long time ago." He points at the sign. "Do you remember when the circus used to set up here?"
Phil shakes his head. "No. I was probably at school in England. I was never much for carnivals and circuses. I hate clowns."
Clint has to smile. "Yeah. I get that." He scuffles the sole of his shoe over the gravel. "When I was seventeen, I nearly died. I made an enemy -- somebody older, bigger, meaner. I thought he was somebody I could trust, but he nearly killed me. Beat me bloody and left me to die."
Phil looks appalled, but he doesn't say anything. letting Clint gather his thoughts. "Once I got out of the hospital I left Carson's, went on to a couple other circus gigs, but I'd lost my taste for it. Shooting at targets to make people think I was doing something great when I was feeling kind of murderous didn't strike me as being very healthy.
"So, who did die?"
"Carson. He was old, senile. Once he started failing, the carnival fell apart. It's not unusual people drift away all the time, move on. I lost touch with most of the folk." He looks up and his eyes are blurry. "Carson paid for my medical bills. I never thanked him enough. I was angry."
"You were hurt," Phil says reasonably, gently.
Clint knows he is right, but the guilt still haunts him. "His daughter wrote this. She ... she was one of the performers, an aerialist. She was called 'Angel DeFiore, the Queen of the Night.' Her real name was Angie Carson. She was the star. I was just a side attraction. One night, there was a failure and she ... she fell. She was my friend. She knew me, she understood me."
"Did she die?"
"No, but she's not the same. She's got some challenges. That she went through the effort to find me ... it's a big thing for her."
"Clint, we can do something to make it easier for her, if that's what you're thinking about. It doesn't have to be a big deal."
Despite the warmth of Phil's coat, Clint is starting to feel the cold. "Yeah?"
"I promise. Let's go. You're starting to shiver."
"Okay, then I'm starting to shiver."
"We could change coats," he suggests, shrugging out of Phil's cashmere and holding it out to him. They make the trade, each warmed by the body heat of the other. It's a small, intimate feeling that makes Clint smile. "There's a coffee shop around the corner."
They walk quickly across the gravel, their shoulders brushing, steps matching. If his hands weren't tucked inside the field jacket, he'd put his arm around Phil's shoulder, pull him close, but it's a short walk and their relationship is too tentative and new.
It's Phil who stops while they're still hidden by the stone piers of the overpass and pulls Clint closer. "You can tell me anything," he said. His grey-blue eyes are bright. "Anything, anytime."
Clint dips his head slightly. They are almost the same height, an inch or so difference in Clint's favor. "Thanks," he says, a bare whisper of breath across Phil's lips, and then he's pulled close and is being kissed hard and thoroughly.
When they break breathlessly apart, Clint feels like his fractured self is healing. He can't help the pleased smirk on his lips. "So, maybe you missed me?"
"I was busy." Phil's voice is mild, but he's smiling back. "Maybe I thought of you once or twice or a thousand times a day."
"Me, too. And look, I came back in one piece. That's a first."
"I intend to make a thorough review of the situation after we get coffee."
"I always am." Phil's voice is a purr in his throat and Clint shivers. Of course, Phil notices. "Let's get out of the cold before you shake apart."
"It's not the cold."
"We'll pretend that it is." Phil is the one to put his arm around Clint's shoulder. They walk towards the coffee shop. Clint pauses and looks back for a second. The sun is filtering through the haze, turning it into the stuff of dreams. For an instant he can hear the calliope and the call of the barker, and if he closes his eyes for an instant he can see Angel DeFiore dancing on the high wire.
He shakes the vision and looks at the letter again. He opens his hand. The wind catches it and carries it towards the river. He lets it go. It's the past, all water under the bridge. He turns to Coulson. "I really, really need that cup of coffee."
"We can start with that."
What Clint really wants is a good night's sleep, curled up under soft covers with Coulson's arm draped heavily around his waist. He nods and slides his arm around Coulson's body. They stay in that almost-embrace for a few seconds, then walk briskly towards the promised warmth of the coffee shop.