Coulson's mad at him.
Clint knows Coulson's mad at him--hell, a lot of people seem mad at him--but Clint can't bring himself to regret his choices. What the fuck was he supposed to do, just let the overgrown bug devour the entirety of the Jersey shore?
I don't know what you were thinking, says the tablet Natasha shows him.
"The arrow worked, didn't it?" Clint argues, and pretends not to notice how everyone flinches. He's probably speaking terribly loudly. He's not sure.
Natasha taps away at the tablet, and when she holds it up again, it says, Yes, but we would have preferred that it worked after you'd gotten out of range.
Across the room, Director Fury and Coulson are in deep conversation with Dr. Harris. Clint could probably ask what they're talking about, but every now and then, Coulson will glance over, and Clint can't bring himself to interrupt. Coulson's face is stuck in an unhappy frown, a frown line right above the bridge of his nose, and his mouth set in a grim line.
Clint folds his arms across his chest and picks at his hospital gown.
"Whatever," Clint mumbles, casting his eyes downwards and keeping them there. "I saved the day. I'm a fucking hero."
If anyone protests, he doesn't hear them.
Dr. Harris wants Clint off the Avengers.
In fact, Dr. Harris wants Clint out of the field completely.
Clint can't hear the spectacle that follows, but he can see it. There's a lot of gesturing and angry looks. Steve puffs up to his full height, Thor's hand shifts to grip Mjolnir tightly, and even Director Fury looks angry.
Tony pushes his own tablet at Clint. I'll make you implants, it says. The best implants in the world. Get you hearing again. Your hearing loss is caused by nerve damage. I can fix that.
Clint looks dubiously at Tony, who ignores the look completely and throws an arm confidently around Bruce's shoulders.
Natasha pokes Clint in the side and shows him her tablet again.
You're not going anywhere, it says.
Clint wants to be optimistic, but life has taught him there's rarely any point. He wonders if he could join the Cavalry in Administration, or if you'd need to be able to hear to do paperwork.
Two days after Clint returns to the Tower, Tony comes by with his new implants. The tablet he hands Clint as he shows off the small devices, says: I hope we can get these bad boys into your skull by next week, there's some final tweaking I need to do before then and some recovering you need to do first. Apparently they won't let me actually place them while they're still experimental and your brain is all swollen. Something about your life insurance not being as much as mine, whatever, but they'll work, I assure you.
"What are they?" Clint asks. "How do they work?"
Tony's left eye twitches, and Clint's sure his speech is getting worse with each passing day without hearing it, but he's being stubborn about it, dammit.
Tony snags the tablet back and Clint sighs in frustration as Tony's fingers fly across the screen. It takes so long waiting for them to type everything for him!
They work the same way cochlear implants do, except on crack. Mine are better. I built them to bridge the damage that was done to your inner ear. I may also accidentally have taken out several new patents and we'll be looking at mass producing them, but that's besides the point.
Clint just nods then, and wonders how much of his hearing they'll restore.
As Tony leaves his quarters, Coulson enters. He doesn't carry a tablet or a notepad or anything, but he does carry books--and a slightly sour expression on his face.
"American Sign Language?" Clint asks with an arched eyebrow, looking at the book titles.
Coulson's response is to sign something at Clint, because of course Coulson knows sign language. Coulson gives Clint a pointed look.
Clint throws the books across the room. "Get the fuck out," he says.
Coulson's expression gets more sour, but he leaves without protest. Clint breathes heavily and watches as the door closes behind Coulson, before going to where the books landed, in a heap on the floor.
The first word Clint learns to sign, is home.
The fifth day back in the Tower, Thor surprises Clint in the kitchen. He doesn't hear Thor walk in, so when Clint turns around from the fridge, he's startled by Thor's presence. It's only Thor's strength and size that prevents injury, because Clint's got a knife to Thor's throat and a wild look in his eyes before he fully processes the situation.
"Sorry," Clint pants, backing away slowly. "Sorry, sorry, I--I wasn't--"
Thor holds up both hands and shakes his head with a little, sad smile. It makes Clint's blood boil all over again.
The next time Coulson comes by, Clint waits patiently until his meeting with Pepper is done, and then makes sure to slip into the elevator just as the doors are about to close behind him.
Coulson nods at him, but at least he doesn't look so cranky anymore.
Hello, Clint signs. I was P-R-A-C-T-I-C-I-N-G.
Good, Coulson signs back, and then follows it up with something short that Clint doesn't quite get. He thinks he sees the sign for week in there.
Clint scowls. F-U-C-K-Y-O-U.
That, at least, draws a laugh out of Coulson. Just a short, little chuckle that makes the crow's feet by his eyes more prominent and his shoulders shake a little.
For the first time since the battle, Clint really misses his hearing.
Coulson pulls out his phone and fiddles with it for a second, before showing the screen to Clint.
You should pick a sign for your name, it says. Read up on it. The elevator stops and the doors slide open, and Coulson gives Clint a smile as he gets out. Clint doesn't really know how to respond, so he just watches Coulson leave.
Clint likes Steve best.
"Hey," Steve says as he enters the living room, without really checking to see if Clint's actually watching him. He never checks. He also doesn't give Clint those vaguely pitying looks that almost everyone else seems to give him, to a greater or lesser extent. Even Natasha sometimes gets this look on her face, soft around the edges, like suddenly Clint's someone she needs to protect. More than usual, that is.
Not Steve, though. Steve just looks at Clint the same way he always has, and talks to Clint like he always has. The only thing he does is make sure Clint can see his face. It took him maybe half a day to figure out that Clint can read his lips. It's been part of the standard SHIELD surveillance training for Specialists for as long as Clint can remember.
Steve took it and ran with it, but he doesn't mouth with slight exaggeration at Clint, or gesture wildly in a vain attempt to get his point across. He just makes sure Clint has a clear line of sight to his face and talks to him like normal, and if Clint doesn't quite catch everything, it somehow doesn't matter, because the bottom line is--Steve doesn't treat Clint any differently.
Clint kind of loves that.
Clint watches Steve over the top of his book, as Steve joins him on the couch, slumping down on the opposite end with a visible sigh. "Hey," Clint says back, quietly. At least he hopes it's quietly. Maybe it wasn't loud enough? It's hard to tell, all he's got to go on is the hum in his chest. He knows his vocal chords work, but fuck if he knows how much to push to get the right volume.
Steve puts his head back for a moment, before running a hand briefly across his face. "Everything's," he says, and it takes Clint a moment to process the second word as politics. Steve goes on, "I'm so sick of the politics. That's not what I signed up for."
"War is politics, Captain," Clint says, sneaking in another paragraph as he does so, before turning his eyes back on Steve.
"War is bullshit," Steve says.
The next thing Steve says, Clint doesn't catch. Subject change, maybe? Clint frowns. "What?"
"Have you been practicing your sign language?" Steve asks.
Clint puts the book down in his lap long enough to sign Yes, Grandpa at Steve.
The barest hint of a frown is visible on Steve's face for a moment, before he laughs. Clint can feel the faint vibrations through the couch.
"JARVIS," Steve explains, and it would make sense that JARVIS would be able to translate Clint's sign language. Clint resists the urge to stick his tongue out at Steve.
Hello, my name is S-T-E-V-E, Steve signs carefully.
Clint quirks an eyebrow. "Nice," he says, "but I'm hoping that won't be necessary, Cap."
Steve shrugs. "It's a useful skill," he says.
Clint desperately wants to argue with that, but he can't.
Natasha gets sent on a mission without Clint.
He knows they have very good reasons for keeping him grounded, so he doesn't sulk about it. Absolutely not.
Natasha's hand landing on his shoulder might have startled him, if he hadn't seen her coming by her reflection in the window pane.
"Be safe," Clint says, instead of telling her to Go away, like he really wants to.
She sits down on the windowsill next to him and tips his head so he's facing her, and he doesn't resist. She's got a smile on her lips and something soft in her eyes as she leans forward and kisses the tip of his nose.
"I'm always safe."
"Liar," Clint says back. "Who's your long range?"
Natasha's mouth moves in a way Clint can't make sense of.
Natasha pulls out a pen and a small notepad to quickly scribble on it: Ward.
Clint frowns. "Who the fuck is Ward?"
Natasha shrugs and scribbles again, having apparently lost faith in Clint's lip-reading skills. Don't know. Hill said he'd do though.
Clint gives her a dubious look. "He'd do? That's promising."
Natasha's only response is to smack him fondly upside the head. She scribbles something more on the notepad, tears it out, and presses it into Clint's hand as she stands up.
Go to speech therapy. Your volume is all over the place.
Clint goes to speech therapy, because Natasha told him to.
He lasts one session--well, half a session--before he rolls his eyes so hard they nearly fall out of his head, and he goes back to the Tower.
Tony, who's just finishing a glass of one of the gross vegetable smoothies Pepper makes him drink, raises an eyebrow when Clint shuffles into the kitchen and digs out a beer. He looks like he's about to say something, but pinches his lips tightly shut when Clint gives him a murderous look.
"What's the progress on the implant?" Clint asks, and doesn't give a shit about how he sounds.
Tony rubs his neck a little and puts his empty glass in the sink, then holds up three fingers.
"I can read lips," Clint grits out.
"Three days," Tony says. "If they say you're okay for surgery."
"Urgh," Clint complains, and leaves without looking at Tony again.
When Natasha returns to the Tower the following day, Coulson in tow, Clint hugs her.
He can feel her stiffening in his embrace, because they're not really hugging people, but he has a terrifying need for a hug, and she's the safer choice.
There's a faint hum under her skin, and Clint realizes she's talking. Pulling away, she looks into his eyes.
"You okay?" she asks.
"I'm bored," Clint says, because everything else he could possibly say at the moment would be giving away too much.
Natasha and Coulson exchange a look that Clint can't decipher, before Coulson jerks his head sideways, in a Come with me motion.
Clint's really not supposed to be on the range, but Coulson still makes JARVIS unlock the door for them. Clint practically purrs as he picks up his bow, petting it lovingly--but when he looks around for his arrows, he can't find them.
Coulson pulls out his phone and types out a quick message to show Clint: You get one arrow for each complete sentence you understand.
Coulson just looks stubbornly at him.
"You're the worst," Clint complains.
Coulson's response is to sign something that's way too fast for Clint to follow. Coulson just looks expectantly at him.
"Too fast," Clint grumbles.
Coulson repeats the movements, slower this time, and this time Clint definitely sees the sign for... food, maybe?
"Just one more time," he says, because he's close to getting it now and his curiosity is getting the better of him.
When they leave the range, Clint's feeling better. He gently bumps his arm into Coulson's, and smiles gratefully at him.
"Thanks," he says.
Coulson quirks an eyebrow at him.
Thank you, Clint signs.
You're welcome, Coulson signs back.
Three days later, after his checkup with Dr. Harris, Tony and Bruce pull Clint aside to talk to him about preparation for his surgery, as well as a lecture on his new implants that takes over an hour. There's a PowerPoint presentation and everything, and they both grate on his nerves, the way they over-enunciate words and point at the crowded PowerPoint slides. Clint's like 90% sure they're just reciting the PowerPoint slides, word by word. He'd check to be 100% sure, but can't be assed to pay complete attention.
At the end of it, Bruce puts a hand on Clint's shoulder and says, with a small smile, "We want you on this team, Clint."
It's so understated and so unexpected, it takes Clint several moments to process what Bruce said. When he does, suddenly there's a sizeable lump in Clint's throat and something forcing the breath out of his lungs.
Behind Bruce, Tony is saying something--Clint's not sure what, he's busy blinking fog from his eyes--and Bruce rolls his eyes and turns away.
As they're leaving, Tony slips a post-in into Clint's hand.
Talk to you tomorrow.
"Clever," Clint says.
Tony's grin is blinding.
Coulson finds him on the rooftop balcony that night.
Why are you here? Clint signs.
Came to check on you, Coulson signs. Big day tomorrow. Can't sleep?
Clint nods, and confirms by signing back, Can't sleep.
You're a quick learner, Coulson signs, looking vaguely impressed.
Have to be, Clint signs, and shrugs a little instead of jumping up and down in pride like he really wants to. He's been studying a lot, and he's happy he's managed to impress Coulson. Where did you learn? Why?
Useful skill, Coulson signs back.
Clint narrows his eyes. "Have you been talking to Cap?"
"Maybe," Coulson says, with a hint of a smile on his face, before his shoulders shake in that little chuckle Clint misses. He wonders if he'll be able to hear Coulson's laugh again when he gets his implants in. Then Coulson signs, My sister was deaf.
Clint notes the past tense and doesn't comment on it. "Tony's implant better work," Clint says with a sigh.
Coulson just smirks. Clint doesn't catch everything he's signing, but he gets the gist of it: He's reassuring Clint that Tony's implant will work. He had help.
Help? Clint's eyebrows climb up in surprise.
Coulson nods, and frowns a little, like this shouldn't be news to Clint. Then there's a long line of signs Clint can't really process. "What?"
Coulson purses his lips and considers for a moment. "Stark called in consultants," he eventually says. "A lot of consultants."
And this is absolutely, definitely news to Clint.
Coulson blinks. "Because you're important."
Clint chuckles a little. "That's almost a compliment. Guess you're not mad at me anymore?"
Coulson stares at him for a long time, and Clint's starting to wonder if he signed something wrong. "What?" he asks, defensively.
Coulson sighs; it's a deep, heaving sigh that Clint can't hear, but he can definitely see.
"You're so--" Coulson says, before his teeth clenches and he looks like he's angry again.
"What?" Clint demands again.
Coulson's hands start moving, far too fast for Clint to follow. "Hey, whoa, slow down."
Coulson stops signing and takes a deep breath before looking directly at Clint, and there's something in his eyes that Clint can't even begin to name.
"You," Coulson says, with clear annoyance, "have no idea how much you matter to--" and then his mouth does something funny, like Coulson stutters a little. Clint can't follow it.
"To the team?" Clint asks.
Coulson's entire body seems to--twitch, and then Coulson steps forward, all the way into Clint's personal space, and presses his lips to Clint's.
The kiss is brief, and Clint's brain doesn't even register it happening before Coulson's pushing away again, breaking the kiss, and backing up several more steps. They stand there, just breathing, for a few moments while Clint tries to get his brain working again. Coulson's looking warily at him from across the balcony.
"You owe me an explanation," Clint finally gets out.
Coulson considers for a long time.
"Tomorrow?" he asks, and Clint nods. They both know there will be a lot of words involved, and right now a lot of words is a complicated matter.
"Tomorrow," Clint agrees.
When they turn on his implants, there's a brief moment Clint's ears hurt so much he feels like he's having knitting needles shoved directly into his brain. It's like he's back in the battle and having his sonic arrow go off right next to his right ear. It feels like his entire head is about to explode!
It only lasts for a split second, barely long enough for Clint to have time to wince, and then the pain is gone.
There's a whooshing sort of sound somewhere in the room, and it takes Clint a moment to realize he's hearing his own breathing; he's hearing his breath, in and out, labored from the brief pain spike.
"Agent Barton?" Dr. Harris asks carefully. "Can you hear me?"
He sounds a little odd, a little muffled, but Clint can definitely hear him. "Yeah," he says, and his own voice sounds downright alien to his own ears. "I can hear you. You sound kinda--underwater?"
The tension bleeds out from the entire room, and everyone starts talking at once. The Avengers plus one Agent Coulson makes a lot of noise, implants or not. Congratulations and expressions of relief reach Clint in a jumbled symphony of familiar voices, and Tony's demanding praise, almost shouting, "Who's the best, huh? Didn't I say I'd do it?"
When they settle down, Dr. Harris tells Clint with a smile, "We'll make some adjustments, but these are really remarkable, I must say. If everything goes to plan, we should have your hearing back in normal range."
"Of course everything will go to plan," Tony scoffs. "They're my implants."
Everyone starts talking again, and Clint leans his head back against the pillow and just enjoys the noise.
In the corner, Coulson is smiling happily at him.
Later, when Coulson's the only person left in the room with Clint, he approaches the bed and carefully takes Clint's hand, tangling their fingers together.
"Hey," he says.
"Hey," Clint says back, using his free hand to sign Hello at the same time.
"You keeping with that, then?" Coulson asks, and Clint doesn't think he's imagining the pleased tone in his voice.
Clint smirks. "I hear it's a useful skill. Plus, I am still deaf, you know."
Coulson swallows and his smile fades.
"Clint," he says, slowly and carefully, which in Clint's experience means that he needs to listen extra carefully. "We all understand that the job you do--the job that you all do--comes with certain... risks. But," and Coulson pauses to catch Clint's gaze, "please do not think, even for a second, that you are expendable."
Clint frowns a little; he's not used to Coulson talking about him like this.
"The only reason I was ever mad at you," Coulson explains, "is because of how--ready you seemed to be to just throw everything aside. You need to understand, you matter so much." He hesitates. "To the team, and--to me."
Clint's fingers squeeze Coulson's then, almost on instinct, and Clint smiles. Coulson smiles back, and he leans in for a kiss. This time it's slow, lingering, and Clint feels like he's got butterflies in his stomach.
"So I've been thinking about name signs," Clint says when they break apart, Coulson sitting down on the edge of the bed.
"Yeah," Clint nods. "So it's supposed to be an initial and something that describes me or is important to me, right? What do you think of this?" Clint lets go of Phil's hand so he can demonstrate.
"Bird?" Phil asks, and Clint nods. Phil considers. "Not bad. I would have thought you'd gone with the sign for arrow or something."
"Well, I'm still considering," Clint says with a shrug, before nudging Coulson's arm. "Do you have a name sign?"
Coulson nods. "My sister gave it to me when we were kids." He demonstrates for Clint, who doesn't know the second sign, but immediately catches the P to start with.
"Phil?" he asks.
Coulson nods and kisses Clint again. "Phil."