Even when Phil Coulson was doing something ridiculously, embarrassingly, crushingly human, he was still a flawless, seamless black box of a spook. Whether he'd intended it or not, the handle "PC" essentially made him anonymous on the internet, lost in a cascade of technology review sites, blogs about "customizing your box" (what), and the odd tangent into political correctness, which is apparently no longer the politically correct word to use in order to discuss political correctness.
"It turned from categorization to mocking," Pepper explains, because despite the two certified geniuses with a half-dozen doctorates between them, a supercomputer artificial intelligence, an ex-Russian master spy stroke assassin and a living history textbook, she is still the only person who knows what the hell she's talking about. Ever.
"Oh," Clint says, feeling stupid and prickly and frustrated, pressure bottlenecking behind his eyes and feeding the low-grade headache he hasn't reported for the entire six months it's lived inside his skull.
Pepper tilts her head at him, considering, and asks, "Would it be helpful if JARVIS compiled a database or some kind of file of all of Phil's posts? On that forum?"
Clint wants to say "no," because he doesn't like the idea of JARVIS combing through Coulson's hidden life's work. It still feels, sometimes, looking at the stack of pen-and-ink letters from all these online-only friends that Coulson had a fucking secret family, practiced bigamy in another state with 2.5 kids and a blond wife he saw when he was on sales trips — the whole nine God damn yards.
He grits his teeth. "Yeah," he forces himself to say, because he's an adult, and for Coulson to have been a secret bigamist, he would have had to have any family at all. "Yes — that would be good."
Pepper smiles tightly at him. "JARVIS?" she asks no one.
"I'll be ready within the hour, Miss Potts, Mr. Barton," Stark's robot lover says to them.
Fuck this fucking building is so fucking creepy, Clint thinks. He says, "Thank you."
"Anytime, Clint," Pepper says. "And feel free to ask JARVIS for help whenever — if it's within his security parameters, he'll always try to assist."
Later, after JARVIS has interrupted Clint's shower to say that the file is available, Clint says, through the billowing clouds of steam and the sound of rushing water:
"No offense, buddy, but this shit is not right."
JARVIS replies, "Mr. Stark assures me that people become accustomed to it. Mostly."
"Mostly," Clint echoes.
"Mostly," JARVIS repeats.
Clint's going say something else before he realizes he's about to start shit with a fucking computer and decides to slam his head against the shower wall a couple of times instead.
Clint recognizes obsessive behavior for what it is, and finds that reading all of Coulson's old Howling Commandos HQ correspondence (posts? what the fuck do you even call this stuff? there's a 35K plain text file just analyzing a series of four Cap posters released in 1946) — similar to watching a loved one sleep — gets boring as fuck real fast.
It doesn't help that the content is weird, so weird since Steve is either in a fifth-floor walk-up in Brooklyn near Franklin Ave., or two floors below Clint, depending on if you ask Steve or Tony. It's one thing to be uninterested because even though you had a fucked up past as a carney-turned-merc you are not weird enough to want to talk about the various depictions of Captain America's calves. It's another entirely to be creeped the fuck out because Cap and his actual calves are a routine part of your day. Every time Clint opens up the file JARVIS compiled, he has to hold back a reflexive wince and says a couple of "sorry, Steve"s like other people say "Hail Mary."
But he keeps reading through it, skims through all of the endless God damn threads of U.S. history infighting and every nerdgasm about new Cap documentary releases because in the midst of all this boring dreck, sometimes Coulson shows up — sometimes Phil shows up.
JARVIS knows what he's doing, and every thread that gets compiled in the neatly navigable file is heavily trafficked by PC's commenting, but just because he's typing doesn't mean he's there. PC says a lot of stuff about the best places to find Cap memorabilia, makes a lot of politely firm but nonetheless extremely threatening comments about maintaining decorum, and neatly disputes any attempt of Bucky's to argue that Cap was never actually a member of the armed forces.
But sometimes, PC says something like, "deserts are the worst, I hate deserts," or "that you don't recognize the miracle and joy of gas station food is your own loss" or "I thought I told you all to shut up about this already," and Clint can hear Coulson.
He hears Coulson's voice framed around some shitty remark or another, because Coulson boiled down to his essentials was relentless competence wrapped in well-tailored suits, saying something patiently, affectionately mean to someone else on the other end of a secured radio line. That constancy was — and Clint's aware of the utter fucking sadness of this — the best and least horrible kind of love Clint's ever known.
Despite Fury's willingness to give Clint access to weapons and release him into the wild during the Battle of New York, his asshole clenches right the hell up again once it's back to the course of ordinary business — or as ordinary as SHIELD ever gets. Like four seconds after Loki's been dispatched back to Asgard (again: what), Fury had been on Clint just like a fucking man, not taking no for an answer and hauling him into the still-smoldering helicarrier for the most intrusive debriefing of Clint's fucking life.
It had taken a literal two weeks between the various SHIELD interrogators and representatives sent by the White House, DoD, UN, and World Security Council. Exhaustingly, Clint had to learn different fucking stories for each one, since the WSC's security clearance is different from the DoD is different from the UN is different from the White House. Unlike Coulson, Hill and Sitwell are nice enough to make him cheat sheets, and Clint resents this kindness because that's what his life's come to: wishing Coulson was still around to say shit like, "Barton, you can't imagine how unsympathetic I am to your plight."
That's all before medical takes possession of him with the jealous insistence of the particularly crazy. There're standardized post-mission check ins, and Clint knows all these doctors, but even though he's been crazy forever, that had been baseline SHIELD standard batshit — post-Loki, Clint's in an entirely new class.
"Were they this bad when you joined?" Clint asks Natasha.
"Stop whining," she tells him, but then two of the medical orderlies struggle past them with a massive, dusty piece of equipment, wires terminating in electrodes trailing the entire thing, headed directly toward Room B78, where Clint's 2:30 appointment is. She says, "Okay, maybe you can whine for five minutes."
"That machine warrants an hour of whining, minimum," Clint argues.
"Now you're down to four," she says, serene.
Clint whines for four minutes.
He also doesn't point out that she sits there in the demoralizing lobby of medical with him every time he has an appointment, that she waits through all of his forever-long tests, that she loops an arm through his and takes him off base, to dinner.
Because SHIELD only has enough emotional intelligence to be manipulative, not empathetic, Clint's been chipped and collared like a fucking dog. He has a half-mile maximum radius from SHIELD's midtown offices — an offensively ugly 1980s office building with a further 10 sublevels, three of which were the reason it took so long to get the 2nd Ave. subway construction underway — and if he strays beyond the invisible border, he gets three warning shocks directly to select neural clusters before someone hunts him down like an animal. He's so unexcited by this it's worrying.
But midtown is only a wasteland for people not in the know, and Natasha hauls him off to Grand Sichuan, long after the local dribble of eaters has fallen away, and they spread half the menu out over three tables meant for a six-top. They order the starkly white and red dan dan noodles, a massive earthen-colored mound of dong po rou, gan bian long beans, a bowl of mapo tofu, swimming in fiery oil and sichuan peppercorns. They drink maybe a million gallons of shitty brown tea and don't talk about how, when Coulson brought them here, they always got something else in the teapot: a clear, beautiful pale yellow tea that smelled like flowers and was served with a tiny dish of rock sugar.
They go to Dylan's Candy Bar, after, because New York is sparkling dark and Clint can't go to any of the places he would rather be: his apartment, Natasha's apartment, Siberia, back in time.
"Are you okay?" she asks him, inspecting massive tubes of Jelly Belly flavors, examining every type of Twizzler ever made. She only likes the peel-apart kind because she's fucked up in ways that even the Red Room can't explain.
Clint handles a bunch of the weird candy — there's some horrible-looking purple stuff from England that smells like perfume and regret even through the cellophane. "I'm okay," he says, because he is and it's true; there's really not any alternative.
Natasha arches an eyebrow at him. "Dr. Selvig was institutionalized."
"Just for a month. And he checked himself in, and that makes all the difference," Clint says, but he knows what she means, what she's implying.
Having Loki inside his head was like immolating for days that felt like separate eternities, turning into astral dust in the heart of a star. The tesseract is one of those things humans probably aren't meant to handle, that Asgardians fear, so what the hell is Earth doing with such an object, and Clint had been subsumed by it, filled up with it, felt himself go glowing blue from inside out — every doubt and independent thought cleared away into placid certainty. It had been easy, the easiest Clint's felt since he was old enough to remember: Barney and him hiding under the bed while their father went batshit downstairs, raving drunk; the cops transferring them over to foster care after telling them, hat in hand, their parents were dead; sleeping in the elephant trailer; Trickshot; Seoul, where he'd been freezing his nuts off in Gangnam before SHIELD had caught up to him and tranqed him into drooling, compliant oblivion.
Clint's used to hard living. It's not the constancy of the grind that got him, but the sudden erasure of the fight, and he'd fallen straight down and out without the equal and opposite force holding him back, making him earn every inch.
Natasha makes a considering noise.
"Selvig was a civilian," he adds. Whatever else Clint is, he hasn't been a civilian in years.
The look she gives him in reply is exquisite with patronizing sympathy. They each know the unsaid, about Clint storming the helicarrier and helping Loki murder his way across the globe — using all of his carefully honed and SHIELD-trained skills to lay down an unimpeded path. Clint had shot two-dozen people that day, on the helicarrier, and he doesn't miss, so Clint had killed two-dozen people that day. Clint's killed and forgotten a multiple or two of that in his life, but two-dozen people on the helicarrier aren't two-dozen people: it's Sonya from weapons R&D and Edison from payroll and Bei from Shut The Fuck Up, Barton, I'm Serious, Shut The Fuck Up, I'm So Sick Of You I Swear To Fuck — also known as the public information office.
Clint's put arrows and bullets through the gullets and guts of a lot of people, for money, because it was either pull the trigger, or get a pauper's grave on the local municipality's dime. And Clint doesn't exactly like SHIELD, but it rubs him the wrong way normal families are supposed to: constantly in his fucking business and always telling him what to do, trying to make him take vitamin D pills. At SHIELD Clint's taken out drug lords in Central America, despots in emerging African nations, at Nick Fury's pleasure, on Phil Coulson's orders — they're his kills but they aren't his fault, they aren't his call. Clint's shoulders were a lot lighter, before, for a little while, at least.
Only now he's carrying all these bricks and bodies again, because even though he can still feel Loki pulling the trigger it was the scarred pads of Clint's fingers on the bowstring, breaking shit. He was slit from stem to sternum but everything that spilled out was other people's secrets — the kind that got everybody fucking dead.
Natasha keeps telling him not to dwell, not to think about the how the bodies hit the ground, but even if Clint isn't looking for it the absence is everywhere. SHIELD's a big fuckall secret agency, but Clint's been there more than a decade. He can see where people have taken on two or three times the responsibility or coverage to make up for the holes, the desks that are still untouched and offices with their doors closed. Clint's not a spook and he's shitty at compartmentalization, and all of his coping mechanisms are off limits or dead or in Brooklyn, getting fat because Clint's neighbors keep fucking giving his dog all of their table scraps.
"Norse demigods weren't covered in SHIELD intake," Natasha says, and she reaches for his hands, claws the crumpled-up Airheads out of his grip.
"The Hulk is?" Clint snaps, and tries to take the Airheads back. "Stop that, I'm buying these."
She raps his knuckles, which sounds like a schoolmarm thing and would be if anybody other than the fucking Black Widow was doing it. When the Black Widow does it, it hurts like a motherfucker. "You have no money."
"I could have money," Clint lies. He has no money. SHIELD took his wallet along with whatever backdoor virginity he had during the first round of excruciating post-Loki debriefings, and in a staggering act of poor planning, all of his ditch-and-run stashes are outside of his max radius. In theory he could go rob petty cash, but Rhonda Hurley runs petty cash and she makes Clint lemon bars and presses papery-skin kisses to his temple every time he stops by to grab some rubles or turn in leftover rand. He also saw her stab some enemy agent in the fucking balls once with a letter opener, so.
"You have no money," Natasha repeats, and takes the Airheads away.
But she does love him, in the complicated way Natasha loves people, so she buys him the Airheads and calls in a pick-up from where they're loitering in front of the California Pizza Kitchen like citybound teenagers. She signs the biometric transfers in the backseat of the SHIELD SUV — unmarked; the marked ones get stares now and are 100 percent for show — and they get the perfunctory sign-off for Clint to venture beyond his radius to Stark Tower, 65th floor.
Because out of all the incredibly damaged people Clint's met in his life, Tony's the most damaged and desperate for people to like him, the 65th floor is Clint's. It has an Olympic regulation archery stroke shooting range, a massive balcony with an infinity jacuzzi, three bedrooms, two full bathrooms, an entertainment suite, a chef's kitchen and either an office or an incredibly post-modern bondage dungeon.
("Is this a bondage dungeon?" Clint had asked.
Tony had said, "Why? Do you want it to be? This is a judgment free zone, Katniss. If you're into that, then I'm into it for you — not with you, necessarily, but for you — but no, seriously, if you want a full bondage dungeon I'm going to need some specs because there are a lot of super specific types and I could guess, but it would be more efficient if you narrowed the field." After some wordless staring, Tony had added, "I mean, if you want, I can go ahead and add a touch-activated stoplight system. That seems pretty universal."
Clint had said, "You know what? Nevermind.")
Most of this is wasted on Clint, for whom the social status of "white trash" was aspirational much of his life. What he does like is the view — the breathless height at 65 stories up, with New York milling around in dots of light, little rivers moving in geometric flows, the glow of Grand Central, the dystopian wonderland of Times Square from above and at a distance. Clint doesn't curl up in any of the cleverly architectural corners that block the wind that roars this high up; he sits on the railings and lets it buffet him, whip him, a physical blow across his shoulders, the flat muscles of his thighs.
But Natasha follows him up to 65 tonight, instead of hopping off at 64 — where Tony has installed for her a special shoe closet, because Tony's understanding of women is apparently based entirely on movies and transactional relationships — and trails him to the balcony so the railing's out of the question tonight. Natasha lets him get away with a lot, but that would still get called in, and the last thing he needs is SHIELD psych putting him on suicide watch. Again.
"Tomorrow's the big day," she says to him, leaning into his side.
Clint shrugs. "Could go either way."
"You're clear," Natasha tells him, with that certainty of hers that grounds him, makes Clint feel anchored in her surety. "This is just a formality."
Clint's white knuckling the brushed chrome of the railing; he's gritting his teeth. "Yeah, because they really cash in favors and fly Professor Xavier out for formalities."
"You're important. They want to be sure," she replies, like that's that, and nothing more.
Clint stays up until 4 a.m. reading Coulson's fucking forum posts instead of sleeping, so when he rolls up to SHIELD four hours later, his mood is somewhere between "poisonous" and "murder."
Professor Xavier, who is waiting for him in the canteen, just smiles and offers him a cup of coffee.
"Agent Barton," he says.
"Ugh," Clint tells him, and takes the coffee. It's government coffee, so it's fucking terrible and leaves a sour taste in his mouth, but the addiction ritual is instantly soothing, and the pounding in Clint's head abates. Normally, he'd chalk it up to caffeine, but today, he narrows his eyes at Xavier. "Are you doing that?"
The professor's smile goes playful. "You're welcome."
"It is so creepy when you do that," Clint tells him, because he'd be thinking it anyway, and Xavier reads peoples' minds constantly, unendingly, just all the damn time. Clint's had the uncomfortable opportunity to interact with the guy twice before, and it was always terrible: Clint instantly thinking of a laundry list of his deepest and most embarrassing secrets, and Xavier smiling at him with that all-knowing twinkle. Awful.
All around them, the other people milling around the SHIELD mess are either giving the table the most inconspicuous berth ever or Xavier's doing some freaksome mind control shit and disguising them. Neither option is comforting, but at least nobody's staring.
Xavier just leans back in his wheelchair, considering. "How are you doing, Agent Barton?" he asks.
Clint stares at him, genuinely blank for a beat, because the huge everything-ness of the question is hard to take. Medical asks him if he's been taking care of his stitches and his bruised ribs and tries to bully him into further CAT scans. Psyche operates strictly on a cognitive behavior level, parsing out discrete elements of his daily life, as any attempts to talk about the more nebulous, vast topic of "feelings" at SHIELD is less than useless. Security wants to know the details of how he broke in, what the plans were, to prevent anybody else ever infiltrating the helicarrier. Ops doesn't talk to Clint at all, on pain of death. Natasha doesn't waste her breath on what she already knows.
Instead of waiting for Clint to scrape together an answer, Xavier says, "Holding up better than I would have expected, I see."
"Could you at least pretend you are not reading my mind?" Clint pleads.
"What would be the point?" Xavier replies, cheerful. "Agent Barton, I think a long way to go — "
"Thanks," Clint snaps.
" — but that insofar as your brush with Loki stands, you are without his influence," Xavier goes on. "I'll make my recommendations, and I imagine SHIELD will take the appropriate actions afterward."
Clint's come back from being in the shitter before with SHIELD. The year after he'd broke three different sets of direct orders from Soleymani, Sitwell, and worst of all, fucking Coulson to get Natasha, had been a hellish grind of keeping his mouth shut and eating it, whatever they dished out. He'd been pulled off of international ops and gotten some pretty tracking jewelry from one of the Level 4 agents, because intentional or otherwise another major component of his punishment was months of complete communications blackout from his previous primary handler. Clint sits in high places unmoving, in total silence, for infinite hours as his preferred day job, so the fucking emotional ruin of suddenly getting Coulson's secretary when he called had come as an unwanted fucking surprise — a gash that went untreated and turned necrotic over the course of weeks, months, entire seasons, until he'd crawled his way back up the chain of command. He still remembers the way his knees had almost gone out from under him, the relief a physical thing, when Coulson had summoned Clint to his office.
"You've been surprisingly well-behaved," Coulson had said, leaning back against his desk, long legs stretched out in front of him, shoes gleaming. He'd been wearing a tie so darkly blue it looked black in the overhead lights, and Clint had stared at it instead of Coulson's face as he'd mumbled something to the affirmative. Coulson had motioned for Clint's right hand, saying, "Don't do this to me again, Barton," before he'd stroked a thumb over the seam of the bracelet and the metal halves fell apart.
It had felt crushingly intimate, so close with so little skin touching, but Clint had felt his mouth go dry and his eyes well up, his throat close as he nodded, because he didn't have words, and if he tried to say anything, it'd embarrass them both. But Coulson had known that, the way he knew everything, because he'd kept Clint's wrist tight in his own for about two minutes longer than he needed to, just running his thumb down the line of blue veins under pale skin, white from being kept indoors for months.
"I'm sorry you felt like you couldn't talk to me about this," Coulson had said, and he'd sounded so fucking tired that Clint had looked up — at Coulson's worn expression and red eyes, capillaries burst.
Clint had blurted out, "You look like shit, sir."
Coulson had just given Clint's hand one last squeeze before saying, "I don't sleep that well when I can't lean on my best assets for cover in the field."
And that had been the worst of it, the worst fucking part of his punishment: watching Coulson and filling in all the blanks, the shitty missions with second-tier sniper cover, the long weeks on assignment while worrying about bullshit back at home, worrying about Clint at headquarters. In the years they'd worked together Clint's stolen Coulson's coffee, broken into his office, changed his fucking ringtone to "Get Low" before Coulson had a senate committee meeting on intelligence spending, and otherwise generally pissed him off to astronomical levels — but Clint hadn't ever seen that look on Coulson's face before: exhausted, spent.
"I'll be good," Clint had promised, and he'd meant it, the way he'd meant it when he told Natasha, "I'll get you out — watch, I can do it, I promise." "I swear — I'll be good."
Clint's remembering the way that a smile folded away the tired wrinkles at the corners of Coulson's mouth, of his eyes, when Clint realizes he's taking this fucking trip down memory lane with Xavier still staring at him and he goes from gut-punched to fucking furious faster than one of Stark's experimental cars.
"Are you doing that?" he snarls.
Xavier's expression is pitying. "You wandered there all on your own, Agent Barton."
Clint feels abruptly, completely nauseated. "How much did you see?" he croaks.
"All of it," Xavier says, but he says it nicely. Clint's distress must be going off like a siren. "But Agent Barton — I've seen secrets far, far worse than an undisclosed admiration."
Clint closes his eyes. He asks, "Can I leave now?" and it hurts to get the words out of his throat.
Xavier's barely said "yes" before Clint's shoving away from the table and bolting out of the mess.