In Clint Barton's official SHIELD file, there is a supplemental form with a string of letters and numbers indicating a superhuman ability. On it, there are two pieces of information. The first is 'Asset-Reported Ability (unverified)'. The second is 'Combat/Field Applicable Ability Y/N'. 'N' is circled.
There is a further written section that has been carefully redacted by someone with a permanent marker and a steady hand. A determined person with QD or archival skills could extract the following words from the redacted portion:
Could be genuine ability (unlikely). Could be superstitious or fraudulent claim (highly likely - asset comes from carnival folk). Could just be severely mentally unbalanced, suggest full psych work-up.
The initials below are also redacted and fairly illegible, however, careful comparison between the redacted section and handwriting from other reports and intake forms from the same era of SHIELD's archives suggest the author was Former Agent Gary Nevins, deceased.
Phil Coulson looks up when a heavy file thuds onto his desk. It's dog-eared and stained and bristling with those tiny fluorescent post-it markers like a disco porcupine.
He prods it with a fingertip, flicks the manilla cardboard back.
“He needs a steady hand, a watchful eye, and a zero-tolerance attitude to his BS. He's run through three handlers in five months.”
Phil scrutinises Fury's expression. “He's on his last chance,” Phil deduces.
“Last one wasn't on him, that was a screw-up from start to finish. But he's lost faith in us. Another op like Morocco, and we won't see him for the dust. And honestly, I wouldn't blame him,” Fury says. “We need him, Coulson, and I know you can keep him from running.”
Phil sighs, rubs at his temple. “I'll do my best.”
Phil reads Barton's file from beginning to end, and braces himself for an uncouth, insubordinate braggart. At least two of his previous handlers have dwelt with resentment on his inflated sense of his own importance. One filed a flurry of formal complaints to discipline Barton for what he termed 'an automatic and offensive disobedience against the chain of command'. Phil doesn't put much weight on that, though, seeing as the late and unlamented Agent Nevins was well and truly responsible for Morocco going south very quickly.
What he finds instead in Barton is a cool-headed tactical thinker with startling intelligence and the ability to rewrite missions on-the-fly when poor intel or shoddy planning make a mockery of groundwork. Barton's selective disobedience is an asset few handlers can tolerate without wounded pride. Phil is one of the few, which he knows Fury took into account before dumping Barton on his doorstep.
The superhuman ability form with its sparse, prejudicial commentary and absolutely zero actual information piques his interest. He knows it's not Barton's phenomenal aim, which is uncanny but has been tested time and time again and failed to ping any of their testing machinery. It's not Barton's incredibly acute eyesight, which is pivotal to his accuracy but not outside the bounds of recorded human levels. It's not a precognitive ability that allows Barton to predict when things are about to go bad in a big way; that seems to be down to years of experience and a sniper's far sighted view of causality.
It must be something tiny, something innocuous, something incredibly trivial for none of Barton's former handlers to even bother to document it properly, let alone find out a way to exploit it. Phil supposes he could just ask, but Barton is reserved and suspicious and one bad call away from leaving SHIELD behind all together. Phil doesn't think that they're at the point yet where he can casually bring up something Barton probably only reluctantly divulged in the first place, so he lets it slide.
Barton's greetings to Phil have only just started to lose their stiffness when they get shipped out in the middle of the night to Hong Kong. It's a retrieval mission with barely a plan in place and a high body count, but their missing agent gets brought home alive. Phil gives Barton enough rein to let him shine but has backup primed at all times until the job is done, until Barton himself makes the call that they're not needed. Phil keeps his praise understated but sincere, and Barton smiles for the first time since they were introduced. The wary look leaves his eyes briefly, and there's a handful of creases around his eyes and mouth, well-worn folds that suggest that he used to smile a lot. Smiling suits him, Phil decides.
A day after they get back to the States, Phil finds a sheet of copier paper folded into an envelope in his in-tray. Inside, there's a well-travelled penny, dull and smooth with time.
Keep this safe is scrawled on the inside of the paper in Barton's messy hand. Phil recognises it from his mission report.
Phil doesn't know why he does it, but the penny finds its way into his top drawer, to keep company with his eraser and his paper clips. He frowns a little over Barton's cryptic note, but more pressing things take over his morning, and by late afternoon, he's forgotten all about it.
Phil and Barton work well together. So well that Phil knows there's a buzz through the halls about them. After Hong Kong, there's an insane op in Belarus. That gets both of them a commendation. Then there's Caracus, Sao Paulo and Madrid. They get the job done every time. The strut comes back into Barton's walk, and that rusty smile curves on his face more often than not. Phil makes sure to return it, always, unless Barton is actually in trouble for something, which he is, occasionally. Peppering the new recruits with Nerf darts in the mess isn't actually a bad thing – they should be learning to keep on their toes – but he practices his stern frown anyway and confines Barton to base for two days.
“That's it?” Barton asks, disbelievingly.
“If you've got any more sins to confess, SHIELD does have a multifaith chapel and an assortment of religious advisers on the ninth floor,” Phil says smoothly. It's not a lie. If Barton actually went there, he'd probably find them all sitting around, cheating each other shamelessly at cards and swearing about it, but that's what Phil's always liked about the Cloth and Crucifix Division. They're just the right level of worldly to meet with the Director's approval.
“You don't care?” Barton asks carefully.
“Oh, I care,” Phil says. “See this?” he asks, holding up a thick wad of forms. “This is what I have to fill out, in triplicate, because of your behaviour. Incident report. Discipline report. Security breach action and revision report. Medical insurance claim, for that kid who slipped on spilled soda in the panic and broke her wrist, I need to sign off on that,” Phil says, holding them up in turn and slapping them down in front of Barton. “Plus, I need to deal with every grumpy bastard who walks through that door, whining because the lower level mess is closed for cleaning and repair, and how they have to go upstairs and queue, and how they hate the upper level mess, and how the pie there isn't anywhere near as nice, and that they've lost ten minutes of their day going up there. This,” Phil says, gathering the forms up and shaking them, “is my afternoon, and probably my mid to late evening, too, since I need to finish filling out requisition forms for Uganda today.”
Barton actually looks guilty. Phil isn't sure what to expect when Barton opens his mouth, but it isn't, “Can I help?”
He thinks it's a measure of age and experience that he doesn't gawp. He just weeds out the Security Breach Action and Revision Report and points to a large blank page. “What you did, how you did it, and over the page, what we need to put in place so you can't do it again, ” Phil says, handing Barton a pen. “Legible, please, or I'll make you rewrite it. I'm not spending my evening deciphering hieroglyphs or chicken scratch.”
“Sir,” Barton affirms. He takes a thick book from Phil's bookshelf to use as a desk, then goes and sits in the far corner with his back against the wall and his knees up, and begins to write.
Phil just watches him for a minute or two, and then bends to his own paperwork. By the time eight o'clock rolls around, Barton has filled out the form in question in neat, tiny printing, plus three of the requisition forms for Uganda. Every time he's finished one, he's laid it neatly on Phil's desk, and Phil has handed him something else, without a word except for necessary instructions. Phil carefully reads through all of Barton's forms, all of his own forms, then signs the lot, one after the other.
“Do you like Indian?” Phil asks.
Barton is so still for a moment that Phil doesn't even think he's breathing; it's like the opposite of a startle response. Phil guesses that's a good anti-reflex to have if your job is pointing high powered weaponry at targets a mile away, and even your heartbeats can make the difference between a clean shoot and a miss.
“Yeah,” Barton answers eventually. He looks suspicious, like he's unsure of Phil's motives.
“I feel like Indian. There's a good place six blocks from here. I'm buying.”
“What happened to being confined to base for two days?” Barton asks, like he thinks there's a catch.
“You merited yourself dinner in a non-hostile environment by saving me hours of paperwork,” Phil says, standing and buttoning his jacket. “The pie up there really isn't as good.”
Barton uncurls himself from the floor, slides Phil's book back on the shelf where it came from. “Don't I need a pass?”
“You're leaving base under my supervision, for the well-being and morale of the SHIELD personnel currently waiting in very long lines in the upper-level mess. If anyone asks, I'll tell them you're showing contrition and sensitivity regarding the consequences of your earlier actions by making yourself scarce.”
Phil doesn't even bother to hide his mild smirk. The twinkle in Barton's eyes when he replies, “Understood, sir,” suggests he approves completely.
Phil leaves his stack of forms with a sleepy-eyed clerk who's trying very hard to suppress a yawn. His chronic long hours are catching; she doesn't leave until after he does, these days. He'd tell her to be more sensible, but it's useful having her there on days like today. Maybe he'll negotiate with HR to give her a bonus, instead.
They pass through security without a hassle and walk the six blocks in a comfortable silence, Barton a half-pace behind Phil, like a silent, deadly shadow.
When the food arrives, Barton eats at the careful, consciously-regulated pace of a man whose first instinct is to shovel one forkful after another into his mouth until the plate is empty or taken from him by force. Phil's read Barton's file and knows that one of the major benefits that going straight offered him was three square meals a day, and a salary generous enough to eat out if cafeteria food began to pall. Phil's gone without food a time or dozen on missions, and once or twice in his student days when the ramen ran out before his paycheck came in, but never for long enough to transform his whole attitude to food into that barely-restrained terror that it will disappear on him if he doesn't devour it before it stops steaming. He doesn't comment, just nudges the naan a little closer. Barton takes a piece with a grateful smile and uses it to wipe up every smear of sauce.
“You're bored with the downtime,” Phil observes once he's neatly wiped the grease from his mouth with a paper napkin.
“Isn't everyone?” Barton asks.
“There's boredom, and there's the kind of boredom that leads someone to sniper-attack a group of new recruits from the vents,” Phil says. “How do you feel about teaching?”
“Like algebra?” Barton says, his nose screwing up comically.
“Like accuracy. There are plenty of agents who could use some fine-tuning in their marksmanship. Field assets are one thing, but that clerk you saw this evening, the one I gave those forms to? She's had weapons-training. So have the janitors and the cafeteria staff. Everyone who signs on learns how to defend themselves, but a lot of those people aren't comfortable with a firearm beyond the basic point-and-shoot at the paper target. A lot of them barely qualify. Most have to retake certification at least half a dozen times in their career because they just can't shoot straight consistently.”
Barton looks dubious. “I'm not really a people person.”
“You don't have to be. Are you going to make fun of them if they miss?” Phil asks.
“No,” Barton says, looking a bit put out that Phil even has to ask.
“Then that's okay. Being blunt and honest is fine, if it teaches people skills that might keep them alive. There's no point lying to someone and telling them they're doing great if they're not. I'm not expecting you to make snipers of these people. But if you can get some of them to actually hit the paper rather than the floor, then you might save someone's life.”
Barton's mouth is still downturned and tight, but Phil can see he's weighing up the possibilities in his mind.
“Think it through,” Phil says gently. “Try it, and if it doesn't work out, we'll find you something else to do.”
“Okay,” Barton says, and Phil rewards him with a smile.
When the check turns up, Barton tugs out a battered wallet and pokes through a fistful of loose change. It's like he's doing sums in his head, calculating what he can afford, and once again, Phil's back in that uncomfortable place where he's reminded that not so long ago, Barton really had to make every cent stretch as far as he could.
“I've got it,” Phil says, pulling out his company card.
“Gotta leave a tip,” Barton mumbles, apparently considering each coin individually.
“I've got it covered, it's fine,” Phil reassures him.
Barton ignores him, and selects a single penny with what seems like extreme care. Tugging a stub of a pencil from his pocket, he scrawls a few words on a clean napkin, then lays the chosen penny on it like a precious jewel.
“Okay,” Barton says, apparently satisfied. He takes the last piece of naan bread to gnaw on, and slides from his seat towards the exit.
Hope this helps the message says, and with a jolt, Phil remembers the penny in his drawer at work, remembers the scathing word superstition in Barton's file. He pays for the meal in a kind of daze, leaves a generous tip on the table beside Clint's offering, and slips from the restaurant half expecting Barton to have left without him.
Barton is leaning against the wall outside, staring up at the mist-like rain swirling in the streetlight. On seeing Phil, he straightens and falls into step half a pace behind, like before.
“What was that all about?” Phil dares to ask.
“She needed it,” Barton says. “The waitress.”
Phil thinks of the fistful of coins, far too many, past the point where someone else would have emptied their wallet onto a counter or into a jar or into the impatient hand of a minimum wage clerk at a 7-Eleven. He thinks of the deliberation with which Barton chose that coin, wrote that note.
“Why that penny?” he asks.
“That was the one that was right for her,” Barton says, and his face sets into lines so closed-off and stony that Phil doesn't push, doesn't question, the whole way back to base.
Barton's one-on-ones start slowly and gradually, but become a quiet and legendary success. The regular trainers soon learn to send him the people who lack mostly confidence, or who are frightened of the weapon itself.
“It's the noise, isn't it?” Barton asks gently of a nervous archivist as he slides the standard issue Smith & Wesson M&P from his trembling hands.
The man (barely more than a boy, really) twitches, nods, his face flooding with colour.
“That's okay, that's good, we can work with that. The noise is intimidating, that's one of the reasons guns are effective. But it's also one of the reasons I like a bow. The sound can be distracting. That's why I turn my hearing aids off when I'm using a handgun.” Barton smiles brilliantly, cheekily, and the timid kid can't help but mirror it.
In the observation booth, Phil swears quietly to himself. For months, he's been trying to work out why Barton does that. Whenever he'd tried to ask, Barton changed the subject.
“Unfortunately, they won't let you qualify on a bow. Trust me, I've tried. So let's try you on this, instead,” Barton says, holding out a smaller gun with a silencer attached. “The balance is a bit different to what you're used to, because it's got the extra weight in front, but maybe it'll be a soft enough sound that you'll flinch less and your shots'll fly truer.”
Barton deftly handles the kid until he's hitting somewhere in the centre six inches five times out of ten. The tension eases from his frame bit by bit until by the end of the session, Barton's conned him into signing up for the impromptu archery club he's started.
“Here, for luck,” Barton says, taking a penny from his pocket and folding it into the kid's hand. “Practice with that,” he says, nodding at the smaller gun, “and you'll qualify next week, no problems.”
The kid leaves, cheeks pink with pleasure, his step just that little bit more confident.
“That was kind,” Phil says, watching Barton break down the guns and clean them with deft, practised movements.
“I didn't do it for you,” Barton snaps back, his mouth folding down at the corners.
Phil doesn't rise to the bait. “I know you didn't. I've been watching your coaching sessions for a while,” he says, nodding at the surveillance camera in the corner. “You're a gifted teacher.”
Barton snorts. “I think outside the box, is all. And I listen to what people say, and what they don't say. Just 'cause one gun is standard issue doesn't mean it suits everybody. Same with technique.”
“I agree,” Phil says. “You're getting a promotion.”
Barton stops, looks Phil straight in the face, startled. “Why?”
“You've earned it. Director Fury's already signed off on it.”
“What does that mean?” Barton says.
“In reality? Not a great deal. You'll get a pay rise, and go up a clearance level. Your missions will be more tailored to your particular skill set. You'll be allowed to live off-base and commute to work.”
“Like you do,” Barton says.
“Like I do,” Phil agrees with a nod.
“Will you still be my handler?” Barton asks.
“Of course,” Phil says, and immediately, the tension in Barton's shoulders eases. “I think we work well together. Don't you?”
“I do,” Barton says instantly. “Thank you.”
“Like I said, you earned it,” Phil says. “But I've been told by Director Fury to tell you that if you try and turn your archery club into a dedicated SHIELD archery division that refuses to use guns, he will end you.”
Barton barks a laugh, then snaps the latches on the gun cases shut, stows them away in the locker. “That'd be awesome,” he says with relish, like he's envisioning a phalanx of archers in SHIELD combat suits.
“You should talk to R&D tomorrow, see if they can design you some hearing aids that mute gunfire. Not all together, of course, but enough that it isn't a distraction,” Phil continues.
Barton tenses up again. “I can do my job,” he says. “I hit what I aim at.”
“That isn't in doubt,” Phil says. “But when you turn off your hearing aids on a mission, you turn off the built-in comms. It's my job as your handler to help you in any situation, not just the ones where you use your bow. I can't have your back if you can't hear me.”
“Right,” Barton says, but he still looks unhappy.
“It's not a personal failure, Clint,” Phil says gently. “It's a factor we have to accommodate, that's all.”
Barton nods, scrubs a hand through his hair. “Living off-base, huh?” he asks. “Guess I'd better start packing now, if I want to get it done by the time I find a place.”
It's a weak joke; apart from his weapons, Barton owns a cheap guitar, half a dozen pieces of civilian clothing, a broken-in pair of non-regulation combat boots and a battered old rucksack full of odds and ends. Phil smiles warmly anyway, and claps Barton on the shoulder.
The next morning, there's a penny folded into the middle of an origami balloon in Phil's in-tray.
You listen even when I'm not talking is written inside.
Phil carefully refolds the balloon with the penny inside, then presses it flat so that he can tuck it neatly into his wallet, behind his driver's license. When he slides his wallet back into his pocket, it feels right.
Barton finds himself an enormous, worse-for-wear apartment in the top floor of a converted warehouse. It's got exposed Victorian brickwork walls and terrible plumbing. The week he moves in, he's full of smiles, so much so that he mildly terrifies some of the greener recruits. Mainly for that reason, Phil visits to bring him a house warming gift. It's a rather gaudy brass doorstop sculpture of Artemis with drawn bow and hounds. Barton adores it on sight and immediately puts in pride-of-place in the centre of the tea chest he's using as a coffee table. The furniture is sparse and mainly, Phil suspects, the result of dumpster diving, but it's obvious that Barton is as proud of his new place as if he'd built it himself, and that's infectious enough that Phil warms to it very quickly.
There's a neat line of pennies across every windowsill. He cranes his head, but he can't tell without reaching up and feeling whether Barton's put them across the top of door frames, too.
“Lucky?” he speculates aloud.
“Nah, they keep the bugs out,” Barton says dismissively, then starts talking about something else entirely.
“Tell me about the pennies, Clint,” Phil says softly.
They're curled together into a ball of limbs, close as lovers. Clint's ear brushes Phil's lips with every breath, and they might just die here tonight, like this, miles from home, miles from Clint's apartment and Phil's desk drawer with its old jam jar that's been filling steadily with the pennies that Clint leaves for him, sometimes for an obvious reason, a thank you, other times for no apparent reason at all. They might die tonight, so Phil gives in and calls him Clint and thinks of him as Clint, rather than Barton, or Agent, or asset.
“Won't believe me,” Clint sighs, sleepy and stupid with drugs and concussion. There are people searching for him, but they're searching far away. They don't know about Phil, don't know that Clint is anything other than a mercenary with sticky fingers and his nose in the cartel's business, where it doesn't belong. They broke his fingers on one hand, and Phil daren't try to set them, even though he knows it means more pain for Clint in the future and a longer rehabilitation.
“Try me,” Phil murmurs. “They're lucky, right?”
“Some are,” Clint says, eventually. “Some aren't. It's energy, different energy, from time, and people. Some of them glow so bright, different colours, hard to look at, y'know? All different. And not just pennies, in other places, it's different. But pennies, at home, yes,” Clint says.
“The first one you gave me, you said, keep it safe,” Phil prompts, when Clint seems to be drifting.
“You keep it safe, it keeps you safe,” Clint says. “You trusted me.”
“I did,” Phil says. “I do. The ones on the windowsills, around your doors.”
“I don't like roaches,” Clint says with a frown. “Slept in a lot of bad places. Lot of bugs, lot of rodents. Had enough of those. Keeps peeping toms away, too.”
Phil huffs a laugh against Clint's neck, silent and restrained. “And the ones you give to other people?”
“Don't even know if it's real,” Clint says wistfully. “But if it is, and it helps, it'd be wrong just to keep it to myself, right?”
“Right,” Phil agrees.
Clint lapses into unconsciousness just before dawn, and the extraction team pulls them out of there two hours later. Phil stays and watches as the medics straighten and splint Clint's shattered bones, as he sweats and swears under his breath, pale as milk. Phil gives in and pets Clint's hair when they've finished, and Clint turns into him, rests his forehead against Phil's neck and breathes, one shuddering breath after another.
Clint's benched for the long weeks it takes his hand to mend and for him to hit his rehabilitation targets. He keeps up his coaching, mentors his archery class, and doesn't cause any trouble. Not enough to drive Phil crazy, anyway.
Clint leaves two more coins for Phil's growing collection; an Israeli agora with scalloped, wavy edges and a triple cluster of wheat in the centre, and an Australian one cent piece with a tiny possum on it. Both are obsolete coins, long since replaced or made redundant by inflation in their countries of origin. The agora is aluminium, scratched across the face and weighs so little that it feels fake. The copper one cent is almost smooth in places, as though Clint has kept it and touched it often, worn the metal down just by handling it.
Different places, different coins says Clint's note.
Phil holds each in the palm of his hand, closes his eyes, and tries to feel something, but the metal stays inert, imparts nothing. Clint would have collected these coins, kept them safe, for a reason. They are mute to him, but not to Clint, never to Clint.
Some of them glow so bright, different colours, Clint had said.
Phil wonders how they look to him, what Clint sees when he looks into a fountain, how the loose change he's handed at a store speaks to him.
Budapest happens, and Clint comes home in disgrace, in leg irons, and with a whole lot of baggage.
Fortunately, Natasha Romanov will be quite an asset if Clint's dare pays off, so Phil's rep doesn't suffer, even though his desk groans with the weight of paperwork. Phil swears half the forms have been created specially for Nick Fury to express his displeasure.
“Hi,” Clint says softly, from the doorway. He's missing the restraints, but has gained a monitoring bracelet which has probably restricted his access to the low-clearance areas of the base. Phil doesn't know how that's going to work, what with Clint living off-base, but he suspects the paperwork for it is in the pile somewhere. “I just-”
Phil holds up a finger, doesn't even look, and Clint subsides, shuffles his feet.
“Is that all-?” he tries again.
“Yes,” Phil bites out.
“No, Agent. That wouldn't be appropriate,” Phil says, and for all that he's angry, he instantly regrets it.
“Understood, sir,” Clint says, and disappears.
Phil works away at the Leaning Tower of Bureaucracy joylessly until quarter to nine, when Clint appears again with a bag full of take-out that smells divine.
“You're restricted to base,” Phil says with a frown.
“I got Devon from the range to take me,” Clint says, placidly. Clint helped Devon get recertified after a gunshot to the shoulder damaged the nerves responsible for controlling sensation in his left arm. He'll never be a field agent like he'd hoped, but his razor-sharp mind got him into the counter-terrorism task force, and he thinks Clint hung the moon.
“I'm busy,” Phil grumbles.
“You haven't eaten since the plane. MREs consumed at your desk don't count,” Clint says, lining up cartons of food and plastic sporks along the edge of Phil's desk.
“They're convenient,” Phil says, but his traitorous stomach rumbles.
“Please eat,” Clint says, and Phil tells himself that it's because Clint looks so tired that he reaches for the nearest container.
“You could have trusted me,” Phil says, when all of the butter chicken and most of the daal has disappeared.
“I know,” Clint says with a grimace.
“I would have backed your play.”
“I know you would.”
“I didn't want to get you into trouble,” Clint says, and though it doesn't fix things, it does make Phil feel a little less miserable. He'll take loyalty over mistrust, any day.
When Agent Romanov is cleared to become an asset and Clint gives her a necklace made of half a dozen pennies strung together with delicate loops of silver wire, Phil tells himself he's not jealous, that it's fine.
If Phil and Clint were legendary, Phil, Clint and Natasha become infamous.
On paper, they're Strike Team Delta, a precision weapon for SHIELD to aim at the toughest assignments with the highest risk of failure.
In the real world, Phil still has paperwork. Clint still helps gun-shy staff certify. Natasha breezes through SHIELD halls like she's always been there, and begins a terrifying gym-buddy friendship with Melinda May.
Phil's eighty-five percent sure that Clint and Natasha have some kind of friends-with-benefits arrangement going on. Because Natasha entered at a clearance level appropriate for her existing skills, there's not a power imbalance, so Phil tells himself it's none of his business. It doesn't seem to have affected their efficiency, or compromised them in the field. They dive into danger on a daily basis, and always bring each other home. Natasha has a collection of quiet, affectionate smiles reserved for Clint that nobody else gets to see, except Phil.
“You love him,” Phil says, once. They're in the bare-bones belly of a troop carrier. Clint is sleeping off three days spent awake with his head nestled in Natasha's lap, her fingernails scratching gently through his short hair.
“Love is for children,” Natasha says, without taking her eyes off Clint's slack face. “I owe him a great deal.”
“That's all?” Phil asks.
“That's all,” Natasha says, but her hand cradles Clint's head carefully when they hit turbulence, keeping him safe and steady until the plane levels out again.
Phil slides his hand into his pocket to touch the worn one cent that he's taken to carrying with him everywhere. It's skin-warm and familiar and comforting in a way that somehow doesn't feel weak to crave.
When everything stops for Phil – breath, heartbeat, life – he doesn't have his Captain America cards in his pocket. They're safely tucked away in Mylar sheaths in his locker, awaiting the signature of the man they depict.
What he does have in his pocket is a worn foreign coin of little-to-no value. When the medics pronounce and lift his body into a bag for transportation to the morgue, the coin slips from his pocket and rolls down a crack in the walkway. Eventually, its momentum takes it to a gap to the outside, where the seal that closed after the Hulk cage fell is imperfect; just imperfect enough for it to fit through unhindered.
The coin falls and falls and falls for what seems like ages, until it lands in the vastness of the sea and is swallowed up forever.
“I like your Nerd Cave,” Clint says. He's sitting at Phil's desk in his office on the Bus, laying out pennies one by one with such concentration that he doesn't even look up.
“Thanks,” Phil says. “You shouldn't be here. You shouldn't know about me.”
“You were all over Youtube, talking down a human bomb,” Clint says, with a snort.
“Tech division pulled all of those videos,” Phil says, with certainty.
“Yeah, well, not quickly enough for JARVIS,” Clint replies. “Where did you keep all of this stuff? Your office back at SHIELD was completely devoid of personality and geek factor.”
“My apartment. When I... died, it all went into storage,” Phil says with a grimace. “I missed seeing it, so I got some of it out.”
Clint actually looks up from his task when Phil hesitates. “You died,” Clint states, and it is a statement, not a question.
“Eight seconds, but it feels like it was...”
“Longer,” Clint says, definitively. “A lot longer.”
“Yeah,” Phil says. “It was longer. And no one believes me when I say that.”
“I do,” Clint says. “These are new. They're yours, but they're new.”
The jam jar is empty, every coin that was in it laid out in lines across Phil's desk. They're old and dull, scuffed and scratched and dented at the edges. The dates on them range back in time to the nineteen-sixties, some of them.
“They've got no energy,” Clint says softly. “No colours. It's like I'm the first person to ever touch them.”
“That's impossible,” Phil says.
Clint shrugs. “I fell off a tightrope once, when I was fifteen and stupid. No net. I should have broken my neck, or at least my legs, but I walked away with nothing more than a bunch of really amazing Technicolor bruises.”
Clint starts gathering the pennies up again, one at a time, dropping them into the jar.
“I had a Flying Eagle cent strung on a cord around my neck at the time. Don't look at me like that,” Clint says with a grin. “I found it in the dirt when we were pitching the Big Top, and it was beat to hell before I drilled a hole in it. I had no idea how much it was worth. I just liked the design, and the fact that it glowed like a sun from over a hundred years of people handling it. It still rates as one of the brightest coins I've ever seen.
“I took a tumble with it, and suddenly, it was blank. Clean slate,” Clint says, his mouth turning down at the corners, unhappy and regretful. “I think that hurt more than the bruises. Still does.”
“I wasn't holding these,” Phil says, watching as the coins plink, one by one, into their glass container. “They were in my desk, miles away.”
“Doesn't matter. They were still yours, and you needed what they had to offer. Everything they had to offer. And they gave it, willingly,” Clint says, giving the jar a swirl, letting the coins shuffle and settle.
“I lost the possum,” Phil confesses. “It was in my pocket when it happened, and it wasn't in my personal effects when they gave me my stuff back.”
Clint doesn't look disappointed or concerned, he just smiles. “It's okay, I'll find you a new one.”
“What do I do with those?” Phil asks, pointing at the jar.
“Well, it's up to you, really. If you're sentimental about keeping them, well, they won't do any harm. Just handle them now and again, and they'll start building up energy again. Or,” Clint says, placing the jar in Phil's hands, “you could start spending them. Sending them out into the world to pick up a bunch of energy from lots of different people. And when they've recharged, maybe they'll come back to you.”
Clint wraps his hands around Phil's, gives a little squeeze, so they're both cradling the jar of pennies between them. Clint's hands are warm and dry and rough, and Phil can smell the copper of the pennies, strong and metallic, like blood.
“That,” Phil says, and to his own ears he sounds a little breathless. “I'll do that.”
Clint's answering smile is warm and approving, and Phil echoes it. “I'd better get going,” Clint says, eventually. “I think your ducklings will be back soon, and, like you said, I'm not supposed to be here.”
“You know, now,” Phil says. “You're not supposed to, but you do, and I can't promise anything, but maybe, when I'm here, I'll try and visit. We could have dinner.”
“Yes,” Clint says. “I'd like that.”
“Indian?” Phil asks.
“Absolutely. Take care,” Clint says, and tugs Phil into a brief, firm hug that's so sure and steady Phil can't help but lean into it.
Clint slips out of the Bus like a shadow, almost like he was never there, but he leaves behind him a single penny in the centre of Phil's desk. Unlike the old ones, this one is the salmon-silver of new copper and so shiny Phil can see the fingerprints he leaves when he picks it up. It doesn't just look new, it was minted in the current calender year.
For the future says Clint's note beneath it.
Phil slips the penny into his inside pocket. The weight is tiny and the shape is indistinguishable through the fabric, but the knowledge that it's there is a comfort in itself.
When he reaches for his first piece of paperwork, he realises he's smiling.