"Did you know," a conversational voice says from just behind Clint's left shoulder, "that you are ten times more likely to die in a plane crash than in a train crash?"
It's a pleasant voice, light and unassuming, but Clint would have appreciated it a lot more if it hadn't been imparting this kind of news when he's about to get on a damn plane.
He whirls around, mouth already open to give the asshole a piece of his mind—and consequently ends up looking like an absolute idiot when he can do nothing but gape at the guy behind him.
The man is—well. He is freaking gorgeous. Clint knows himself enough to realise that what he finds beautiful is not necessarily what other people might appreciate, but for long moments he cannot. Fucking. Speak. Because he is captured in a pair of stunning, breathtakingly lovely blue eyes slightly crinkled in the corners, and Clint finds himself thinking muzzily, 'I'm fucked, aren't I.'
"Is that true?" he demands when the man just stands there, smiling this faint, faintly worrying smile at him while his eyebrows twitch in expectation.
The man shrugs. "Probably. I have no idea."
Clint side-eyes him even worse when the man leans in and says, conspiratorially, "All the same, I think you really should not get on that plane."
Both of Clint's eyebrows try to crawl into his hairline. His first instinct is to tell the guy to fuck off in no uncertain terms, but—but the man is still smiling. It's so perfectly innocuous and normal that Clint finds himself deflating.
"Look, man. Thanks for the concern, but no, thanks. I'm getting on that plane."
No response. Just that mild, sweet smile.
Clint tries again, hating that he feels compelled to fill the silence.
"My best friend is getting married tomorrow. She'll skin me alive if I miss it."
More smiling. Gosh, this guy really is quite astonishingly attractive. Clint's fingers clutch at the strap of his carry-on case, making sure it's still there. The early nineteenth century Matryoshka had cost him nearly an arm, maybe half a leg; and besides, it's Natasha's wedding present. He is not letting it out of his sight.
The man sighs pleasantly. "I wish you'd reconsider," he says, sounding almost forlorn.
"Well, I won't," Clint says, as politely as he can, trying out a small smile of his own. The man blinks, eyes darting down and then up again. He looks surprised; Clint wonders at it, but seriously, it's none of his business. "Have a nice flight," Clint adds, and walks past the man's broad shoulders encased in a very nicely tailored suit jacket.
Too bad he's clearly a weirdo. Clint wouldn't have minded getting to know him better.
There is still nearly an hour before his flight, so Clint potters around the airport, stopping by the bookstore to buy a magazine (GQ, because his earlier encounter lingers in his mind still), and get a bar of chocolate and a bottle of water. He wastes another twenty minutes trying on awful sunglasses and laughing with the girl at the checkout counter at the souvenir shop, where Greetings from Washington! postcards and magnets take up almost every available surface. He buys the gaudiest pair on display, tells her to take care, and turns to walk right into a thuggish-looking man with arms the size of small piglets. The man glares at him, light glinting off the polished cueball of his head.
"Sorry," Clint mumbles, shying away and rounding him quickly. The guy turns to watch him go; there is something about him that Clint doesn't like, but it's nothing more than a feeling, so he makes himself keep walking away and around the nearest corner. It's considerably more deserted than his previous location, and Clint's heart beats quickly in his chest as he walks down to his flight gate. He checks over his shoulder every half-minute or so, but the man doesn't follow.
"See?" he mutters to himself, embarrassed at his own skittishness. "It's nothing. Chill the fuck out, Barton."
He makes it to his gate with no further mishaps, walking over to the wide wall of windows looking out onto the runway. He smiles a little. Now, this kind of view will never get old – the sky before him, open and compelling. Clint loves flying. Loves losing himself in the blue, rising above the clouds. He is looking forward to it, chances of the plane crashing be damned.
"Passengers for Commercial Flight FS364 to New York, please make your way to gate 36, boarding will begin in a few moments."
Clint nods to himself, heaving his bag onto his shoulder again. Behind him, there is a faint 'oomph'. Mortified, Clint whirls around, mouth open to issue all the apologies in the world—before it snaps shut again without making a sound.
"You again?" he demands.
His recent acquaintance smiles that smile again. "Me again," he agrees, rubbing his arm. Clint feels instantly contrite.
"I'm really sorry—but you have a terrible habit of lurking behind people, did you know that?"
"Didn't mean to startle you," the man says. His smile deepens a little, projecting sheepishness, and Clint damn near sways closer. This is ridiculous.
"You come to tell me not to get on the plane again?" he challenges.
The man wrinkles his crooked nose. Holy shit, Clint wants to kiss that little bump right at the bridge, where it must have been broken a time or two and never set properly. He swallows tightly, looking away.
"Would you listen?" the man asks, resigned. He is carrying a small holdall, the overnight kind.
"No," Clint answers, grinning to soften the rejection.
"Didn't think so," he man says sadly. He holds out his right hand. "Phil Coulson."
"Clint Barton," Clint replies, taking it. It's warm, and strong, and lightly calloused, and Clint wants. "Not taking your own advice, I see," he says to distract himself, nodding at the bag.
Phil smiles ruefully. "That, I'm afraid, is inevitable."
Clint eyes him curiously. Phil Coulson looks like every middle-aged businessman Clint has ever seen, generic and unremarkable in his dark suit and dark tie and white pinstriped shirt. His receding hair is neatly combed, his shoes shined. The fact that Clint finds older men in suits to be generally hotter than the sun works in Phil's favor; he is 100% Clint's type, and the only tragedy, weirdness aside, is that the mild, polite vibe his whole being sends out makes it difficult to imagine this man pressing Clint down into a bed and holding him there and taking what he wants, like Clint's wet dreams involve a lot of the time.
There's still no way Clint would kick him out of bed, though, let's be honest.
"So, going to New York?" Clint asks lamely, fighting the urge to hit himself on the forehead. Smooth, Barton.
Phil looks surprised; his eyes dart to the monitor near the gate, where the flight number and destination are outlined in big white digits.
"New York. Yes," Phil replies.
"On business?" Clint doesn't know why he's pushing. There is something about this man, though, that makes Clint want to keep him talking.
"Business," Phil echoes, nodding. Clint gives up.
"Well. Enjoy your trip," he says, smiling at Phil. Phil nods at him again. Clint finds himself feeling vaguely disappointed, though he can't put his finger on why exactly. It's just...been a while since Clint wanted to chat someone up, and the failure stings.
"Hmm," Phil says. Clint tries not to stare at him as the small line snakes closer to the gate, watching curiously as Phil shows what looks like an ID to the lady at the desk and it makes her eyes widen. She taps at her computer and holds out a ticket, which Phil calmly accepts. Moments later, he is through security and walking into the tunnel.
There are maybe nine people on the entire plane, himself and Phil included. Clint takes his assigned seat, tucking his bag into the seat next to him and making sure it's strapped down so it won't go flying if there's turbulence – probably unnecessary for the couple of hours it will take them to get to New York, but better safe than sorry. Clint flops down into his seat, leaning his head back and letting out a deep sigh of contentment. Almost home.
"So when is the wedding?" Phil asks from the row behind Clint's seat. Clint jumps a little, because he was not expecting that – he hadn't even seen Phil walk past him, and how odd is that? The entire plane is empty, but Phil Coulson had decided to sit directly behind him. Clint doesn't really know what to do with that.
"Uh, tomorrow at eleven." He turns around to look at Phil, who is leaning forward, eyebrows raised.
"Early start," Phil remarks. Clint shrugs, grinning.
"Yeah, well. They're not really the pomp-and-circumstance kinda people. We're going to the City Hall, then there's a restaurant nearby booked for lunch, and that's it. Another friend is throwing them a party tomorrow, but I think Steve and Nat just want something quiet with no pressure. They hate crowds," and why exactly is Clint telling him all of this? He can't think of a single good reason. Christ, he needs to get laid. Good thing he's probably never going to see the guy again (the thought of which does not sting, because that would be ridiculous).
"Hmm," Phil says, again. He's got this affinity for non-committal sounds, it seems. Clint can't get a read on him at all – he acts interested, but not; he asks questions but doesn't appear to be listening to the answers – looks like he's casing the place, in fact.
It's downright rude, is what it is. Clint huffs and faces forward again.
The plane takes off in short order, and Clint loses himself in the view out of the tiny window, the endless blue. Phil is quiet, and so are the other people in the front half of the craft. Maybe Clint could even nap.
"So what do you do, Clint?"
Apparently not, Clint thinks, turning to find Phil perched on the armrest of the seat across the aisle from him. It can't be comfortable, but Phil doesn't look like he cares. The mild smile is back, blue eyes lively and clear.
Maybe this guy is just the most awkward flirter on the face of the planet? If that's what he's trying to do. Hard to tell. Clint isn't exactly a wilting violet, but he doesn't get picked up all the time, either. Mostly in bars when he wears his sleeveless mesh top. For some reason, that happens to be a babe magnet. (Works for him, anyway.) But Phil – he doesn't look like he's chatting Clint up. He looks like he just wants to talk. Maybe he gets nervous on planes and is looking for a way to distract himself? Clint doesn't mind, really. He can help the guy out.
"I'm a high school physics teacher," he says with a smile.
Phil's eyes sharpen; he stops darting looks around the cabin. "Really?" he says, sounding genuinely surprised.
"Yep," Clint confirms, enjoying the warm feeling of not being what people expect. He likes it; every time it happens, it drives in the knowledge that he has accomplished something in his life, something his father never would have expected from him.
"That's awesome," Phil says. It's maybe the first unguarded thing he has said to Clint, and Clint shouldn't like it so much. But Phil's eyes are warm, and his smile has slipped into something more expressive, and Clint just can't help himself.
Still smiling that smile, Phil sighs, looking down at his hands neatly laced in his lap.
"I really, really wish you'd taken the train, Clint," he says conversationally. "But I'm glad you didn't."
Clint blinks, slow to process.
"Uh," he replies eloquently.
Phil looks up again, a fetching stripe of pink over the bridge of his nose. Clint nearly swallows his tongue at how fucking gorgeous it makes him look. Okay, so he probably wouldn't ever manhandle Clint over the back of a sofa and fuck him until he begs to come, but maybe it's worth seeing if something might come out of this, anyway.
All of a sudden, Clint becomes excruciatingly aware of the fact that he has been up since four a.m., and it's been thirteen hours since he brushed his teeth or washed his face. Strange, how none of that had registered an hour earlier.
"I'll be right back," Clint promises a little awkwardly, giving Phil a smile he hopes conveys just how much Clint can't wait to come back and talk to Phil some more. He shimmies past Phil's knee, giving his hips an extra sway as he throws the strap of his back over his head, adjusting it to rest across his body (and if that showcases the long, muscled line of his arms, well, Clint would have no idea about that, really).
Once he has locked himself in the plane's miniature toilet, he digs inside his bag for the toothbrush and mini toothpaste he carried with him just in case he got stranded before the wedding (what? He's seen enough movies about the bride's best friend getting waylaid by unlikely problems on the night before the wedding, he likes to be prepared). He cleans his teeth as quickly as he can, staring himself down in the mirror as he brushes.
"Easy, Barton," he murmurs, after he rinses and dries his mouth on a paper towel. "So the guy is seriously cute. That is no reason to lose your cool. You can do this. Just – smile at him some more. Ask him what he does, listen to him talk a while, then ask if you can have his number. Piece of cake."
The scruffy-haired man in the mirror looks back sceptically at him, eyebrows risen into a 'really?!' expression that Clint makes a face at.
"Shut up," he mutters, leaning down to splash some cool water over his face and rub through his hair. Should he put on some scent? He lifts his arm and sniffs his armpit. Yeah, definitely some deodorant, at least. Travelling by plane is kind to no one, but it's more convenient and takes much less time than the train ride his new friend had been so quick to recommend.
Right. He's ready – or as ready as he'll ever be. "Go get him, tiger," he tells his reflection, giving himself a thumbs-up. He takes a long breath, bites the inside of his lip and prays he hadn't read the man completely wrong, because Natasha will murder him in cold blood if he turns up to her wedding with a black eye.
He unlocks the door and slips back out, making his way down the aisle between the seats and trying not to feel too self-conscious. Phil still perches on the armrest across from Clint's seat. He looks a little out of breath, but he gives Clint that smile Clint is beginning to feel quite fond of – mild, but with more than a hint of warmth. His eyes are very blue – and very wide when Clint, apparently more frustrated with this whole thing than he'd thought, loses all semblance of common sense, stops in front of him, cups his face in his hands, and tips it up into a kiss.
Phil's breath catches. His lips are soft, softer than Clint expected. He tastes like mint chewing gum, a hint of black coffee when Clint licks past his lips and into his mouth. Hands come to clutch at Clint's back; shivers crawl down Clint's spine when he feels them pulling him closer. Phil's mouth opens wider, and his tongue darts out to tangle with Clint's, and then Phil tilts his head and everything is perfect.
Right up until Phil twists him suddenly, pushing him back up the aisle while he spins gracefully and blocks a punch to what would have been the back of Clint's head only seconds before. And then Clint can't do anything but gape, shocked, as Phil proceeds to quickly and efficiently beat back the attacker – a burly white guy in his thirties – and slams him into a seat, knocking him out and tying his hands with the seatbelt before Clint can find his voice to ask, "What the hell?!"
"I'm sorry," Phil says, kicking backwards and taking out the knee of the guy creeping up behind him while Clint uselessly flails his arms in warning. "I did try to warn you. It would have been much easier to keep you safe on a train."
"Safe? What? Who are you? Who are all these people? What is going on?"
Phil gives the scene around them a quick once-over, eyes resting on each unconscious man in turn (are they unconscious? Or...dead? Clint's stomach swoops sickeningly, heart pounding in his ears.) Seemingly satisfied, Phil turns back to him. Clint fights the instinctive urge to flinch, standing his ground instead. His hands clench on the holdall strap, still tight across his chest, as if it's any kind of barrier between them.
"I'm in security," Phil says calmly, resettling his suit jacket. His hair is a touch tousled, hanging into his eyes. It's a good look on him. "These people are muscle hired to reappropriate a certain object that, due to an unforeseen and frankly bizarre set of circumstances, has ended up in your possession."
Clint waits, but Phil doesn't seem inclined to elaborate. What he does do is give Clint a slow once-over that makes the skin on the back of Clint's neck tingle in response.
"I don't understand," Clint admits, confusion and adrenaline transmuting into slow-burning, frustration-fuelled anger. "This can't be right. I haven't done anything wrong."
"No," Phil agrees. "You haven't. You were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. But we'll get you out of it, I promise."
He gives Clint a sweet, gentle smile, and turns, leading the way to the pilot's cabin. Clint stands there and stares at his back, trying to reconcile the easy, reassuring middle-aged man with the guy who just whupped half a dozen guerrilla-shaped goons without breaking a sweat. Not just that, but he – oh God, what has Clint gotten himself into? – turns the handle and walks right into the cockpit.
Clint's lungs seize. What if the guy is some kind of terrorist? What if the dead (they are dead, he knows they are, oh God) people littering the salon were air marshals, here to stop him? If Clint gets himself killed tonight, Natasha is going to eviscerate him.
It's no use winding himself up into a panic without knowing all the details. He follows Phil down the aisle, peering around the edge of the door. The sight that greets him almost knocks his legs out from under him – a trail of sticky red liquid leads to the pilots, lying in a heap in the corner, chests and backs splattered with crimson.
"Oh, God," Clint says faintly, sagging against the door with his hand presses to his mouth. For a wild second, he thinks he'll pass out and Phil will just kill him, too, for being a nuisance.
Except that Phil could have killed him at least five times by now, and he hasn't. He said he was here to protect him. Now, he swings around in the pilot's seat, eyes taking Clint in with something that looks very much like concern.
"Oh, Clint," he says, voice gentle.
"Are you really in security?" Clint blurts out, desperately looking anywhere but at the dead bodies, or at Phil's face.
Phil sighs. "Technically, yes. Right now, though, I'm here for your security; and I'm sorry, but I'm going to need your help."
There is a bruise turning a blotchy red on Phil's temple. The knuckles on his right hand are scraped, like he hit something harder than he ought to have. He looks just as mild and unassuming as before he went all ninja assassin on everyone's ass but Clint's – and the fact is, Clint does not have a scratch on him. Clint can do paranoid with the best of them, but for some strange reason, he trusts Phil.
"This is crazy," Clint mutters to himself, but that doesn't change the fact that Phil, badass besuited ninja Phil, is asking for Clint's help, and Clint has never been a 'no' man.
He swallows, then steps further inside the cockpit. "What do you need me to do?"
He can't do a damned thing about how strained his voice comes out, but Phil is smiling in approval and Clint can't find the emotion necessary to care.
"I need you in that chair," Phil points to the co-pilot's seat, "and to be my second. Can you do that?"
Clint eyes the overwhelming number of switches and blinking lights, inwardly bracing himself. He can do this. He is a physics teacher, and he's good at following instructions.
"Piece 'a cake," he says, trying out a smile. His skin feels tight and creaky around his mouth, but he perseveres until the horrible fake feeling fades. "Although I gotta point out that this would've gone a lot easier if you hadn't killed the pilots," he adds dryly.
Phil scowls, flipping a dozen switches in quick succession and grabbing the steering lever. "Okay, that was not my fault," he grouses. "How was I to know those bozos would be stupid enough to shoot up the cockpit? I mean. Even Hydra used to have some recruitment standards."
The smile that Clint feels creeping over his face at Phil's tone feels a lot more real than the last one.
"Okay," he says placatingly, instead of asking about what the hell Hydra is supposed to be. Phil shoots him a suspicious look, which Clint ignores with the ease that comes from teaching a bunch of disgruntled teenagers every day. Apparently Phil is sharp and self-aware enough to know when someone is humouring him – and doesn't appreciate it. It makes Clint like him even better, if he's honest. "I'm listening. Tell me what to do."
Phil does. It's all mostly incomprehensible and delivered in a quick-fire string of instructions that test Clint's reactions just to keep up. When the plane bounces off the tarmac and starts to slow, and the haze of terror and adrenaline and, actually, smoke, begins to disperse, Clint has a flashing realisation that he could never have done this by himself. Yet another time that Phil has saved his life.
"Oh my God," he says faintly, slumping back into the co-pilot's seat. "Jesus Christ. Never make me do this again."
He rubs at his stinging eyes, then down his face. Strangely, his hands are rock-steady. He holds them out to check, and stares at them for probably longer than he ought to, because when he looks up, it's into Phil's face, hovering a mere foot away.
"You did really, really well, Clint," Phil says warmly, giving him a proud smile. Clint tries and fails not to flush under the praise.
"Thanks," he mutters, unable to look away from those pretty, pretty eyes. Leaning forward like this, Phil looks poised to kiss him; it would take nothing more than tilting his head and ducking closer, and...
Those firm, mobile lips twitch with an emotion Clint can't read, and Clint snaps out of it, realising with a burn of mortification that not only was he staring hungrily at Phil's mouth, but he is also half-hard in his pants, cock pushing eagerly against the zipper.
"I," he tries to say, but Phil's hand rises and his finger comes to press against Clint's lips, keeping them closed.
"That shirt looks absolutely spectacular on you," Phil says wistfully, and while Clint is busy gaping at him and trying to come up with a way to say, 'You should see me out of it,' he almost misses he tiny prick into his left thigh, right through his pant leg. He stares at the miniature dart between Phil's long fingers, recognising it for what it is just as his vision starts to blur.
"Why?" he whispers, and then he must pass out and drift into a hallucination, because he could have sworn he feels a press of lips to his cheek, and a whisper in his ear – "I really liked that kiss, too."
Clint wakes up, and immediately regrets it. His head is pounding, and there is a truly horrendous noise blaring very close to his ear. It takes a few moments before the racket resolves into words, rocking guitar, a good beat. Huh. It's actually...a really awesome song, even if Clint has never heard it before.
And then he realises the male voice is singing, 'Ever fallen in love with someone, ever fallen in love, in love with someone, ever fallen in love, in love with someone you shouldn't have fallen in love with?' and the entirety of yesterday crystallises in his mind with the sudden, overwhelming sting of knowing you have made a mistake, but finding it hard to work out what the mistake actually was.
Possibly it had been getting on the plane. Or, possibly, it was taking leave of his senses and kissing Phil (even if it was a very nice, very enjoyable, far less innocent kiss than Clint had expected, and it had lit a fire in the pit of his stomach that, under different circumstances, Clint would have done just about anything not to lose).
Possibly it was waking up yesterday at all.
Clint cracks open an eyelid, seeking out the alarm clock on the bedside table to get his bearings. Instead of the usual bland, black hands on a white background, his eye is met with a post-it note in a hideously vile shade of neon pink, saying, 'You have one hour to get up, shower, have coffee, and make it to the church on time.'
"Fuck," he groans. Then the meaning of 'church' filters through his brain, and the resulting "Fuck!" is much more violent and full of despair. The sound echoes in his head, making him nauseous. He pushes himself upright, sitting on the edge of the bed and reaching over to his bedside table. He rips the post-it off the face of his damn alarm clock to find out that the decisive, spiky letters are correct – he does have exactly one hour before he has to leave the house or be horribly late. He also finds a glass of water, and two tylenols on the table beside his alarm clock. 'Drink me!' the blue note on the glass says. There is a little smiley face drawn under the words. Bless the psychotic asshole, he's made sure Clint won't barf all over Natasha's wedding dress during the ceremony.
The ceremony. The Present. Clint leaps to his feet, rushing into his living room and searching frantically for his precious satchel.
"Shit," he swears, grabbing his head with both hands. "Oh, shit."
Which is when he happens to glance into the kitchen, and stops in his tracks. On his innocuous kitchen island sits a rectangular box, wrapped up beautifully in light blue tissue paper with a shiny lemon-yellow ribbon along the sides and tied into a bow at the top.
'Present!' advises the by-now-familiar black handwriting, on a pleasant lime green background this time.
"Fuck me," Clint muses faintly. He has no time to open it beforehand, not to mention that he'd never be able to do half as good a job on the wrapping the second time round, so all he can do is hope that Phil hasn't screwed him over (or has at least had the forethought to find a suitable alternative if he has.)
He has no more time to waste, so he leaps into a lightning-quick shower and shave, managing to nick his jaw only once from rushing (and wondering if Phil came in here when he delivered him home, if he stayed to watch Clint passed out on the bed, if he had been curious enough to snoop through the house and divine Clint's simple existence from the equally simple décor – all the kind of things Clint is aware are extremely inappropriate for him to wish for, because, hello, stalker.
Doesn't explain why Clint doesn't feel the least bit violated, only safe.)
Fuck it, he can deal with his ridiculous brain later. He's heard about this. They call it Stockholm Syndrome or something, where the victim imprints on their abuser. ...Except that this is far from Clint's case. Phil didn't abuse him. He saved him. He got Clint safely home, even put him in bed in last night's clothes. He also made sure Clint woke up on time and got hydrated and even has a present to take to the wedding, after all.
"Snap out of it," he advises himself, then struggles into the dove-grey suit Natasha chose for him while insisting it brought out his eyes. He takes five minutes to tease his hair into something marginally less embarrassing, then shoves his feet into his shoes and pockets his phone and wallet, rushing for the door – where he stops, arrested by the sight of another note, this one a much more pleasant sunlit yellow, nearly the same shade as the ribbon on the present.
'Breathe. Relax. Don't forget your present. And have a wonderful day. x'
Clint spends more time than he can probably afford staring at the note, obsessing over that little x while his stomach does a funny twisty thing behind his belt. The sudden vision of Phil waiting for him on the other side of his door, clad in another immaculate suit, ready to accompany Clint to his best friend's wedding, sends a sharp ache through his chest that Clint frowns at, wondering if he's been drugged again. He hardly knows the man. Why the hell would he want that from him? For all he knows, the guy tortures puppies in his spare time. Just because he has a beautiful smile, and gorgeous, gentle hands that nevertheless could snap him in half if Phil wanted to, and a sweet, soothing voice that made Clint relax despite himself, doesn't mean he is a good match for Clint. Clint, who grew up on a farm in Iowa, and spends his spare time volunteering at the pet rescue clinic, and organising can drives, and watching stupid movies with Nat and Steve and Bucky and Sam and the rest of their gang of freaks. Who is really very boring, as it happens – and will certainly look that way to someone as suave and badass as Phil Coulson.
"He is not for you," Clint tells himself firmly, making his hand shove the note in his pocket and unlock the front door. If he's extra-careful when he walks the present over the threshold, well, no one needs to know.
The ride to the church takes thankfully less time than usual, it being a Saturday. Clint makes it right on time to catch the mingling guests, before the small crowd is herded inside. There are only friends present – it would be 'and family', but neither Natasha nor Steve have any left. They are each other's family now, them and everyone else in their small group. As Clint watches, Bucky Barnes, resplendent in his best man tuxedo, fixes Steve's slender silver tie, something Steve apparently never learned to do by himself. Steve beams gratefully down at him, before leaning closer to press a kiss to his cheek. Meanwhile, Natasha, Pepper, and Tony lurk behind a corner, out of sight of the others, heads together as they engage in a lively discussion about the new merger Stark Industries is eyeing up – something to do with weather control, of all things. As yet unnoticed, Clint grins fondly at his people, so happy to be a part of their lives.
"There you are," Bucky says, prowling over to throw an arm over his shoulders. His observational skills rival Clint's for picking up details, especially from up close. Clint wonders what Bucky would have made of Phil Coulson. He'll never know now, he supposes, giving Bucky a bright smile.
"Hey, man," he says cheerfully, drawing Bucky into a brief hug. "Where do I get rid of this?" He hefts the present. Tucked into one fold, something creamy white catches his eye. He brings his arm up higher, squinting at the little square with a familiar spike of black ink just peeking over the tissue—
"What?" Bucky says, leaning closer too. "What's wrong?"
Clint shakes his head slightly. "Nothing," he insists distractedly. If only he could get a second on his own to pull the card out and read it...
Bucky snorts. "Uh huh," he drawls. "How long have you and I known each other? What, the present wrapping service made a hash and the famous Hawkeye didn't see it 'til now?"
Unsurprisingly, though not to Bucky, the thought makes Clint laugh helplessly.
"Pal, you wouldn't believe me if I told you," he says, shaking his head wistfully. Can you miss someone you've only known for three hours? How does that even work?
Bucky is watching him closely now, still smiling but with his eyes narrowed like he is scenting prey. "Something happened," he states, looking Clint up and down. "Gonna tell me what?"
"Maybe later," Clint promises, because he knows himself well enough to accept that he wants to talk about Phil. Maybe a little too much.
Besides, Bucky, Steve, and Bucky's boyfriend Sam were all in the army; and Natasha, well, who even knows what Natasha does at the DoD. They might have heard something about Clint's mysterious rescuer.
"All right, folks," Sam yells from the church steps, right on cue. "It's time to see Natasha get shackled for life. Come on in, enjoy the show."
Steve sticks his tongue out at him; around the corner, Natasha is snickering so loudly that Clint is surprised Steve doesn't hear her. She runs a hand down her chic little knee-length dress, then raises it to pat her pillbox hat in place, in the process crumpling the lone pheasant feather that sticks out of it.
"Whoa, whoa, hey," Clint says, jogging over. "You'll mess up Janet's hard work." His fingers grip the wire under the feather, straightening it out. "There. You look like a double spread in the wedding supplement."
Natasha sticks her tongue out at Clint, too – it's a toss-up who picked it up from whom, her and Steve being the goofs they are. "Can't believe you talked me into wearing a two-hundred-dollar hat," she says despairingly.
"You look a million dollars in it, котенка," he says, reaching up to brush one flame-coloured curl back from her forehead. "Ready to go?"
She beams at him. She and Steve and so in love, it's a little nauseating at times.
"Definitely," Nat says, winding her hand through his arm and navigating the slightly uneven pavement like a champ even in her four-inch-heeled pumps.
"I sure hope you've got some flats smuggled away at the restaurant, for all the dancing Bucky's planning," he says quietly, ignoring the small stab of regret in his stomach. He doesn't even know if Phil dances, though the way he moves...
"You okay?" Natasha says quietly, sneaking a look at him from under her short mesh veil.
"Fine," Clint answers automatically. When she pointedly pinches his arm, he relents. "Something happened yesterday. I'll tell you later, at the restaurant, okay?"
"Okay," she says dubiously, but then they're at the doors of the church and the band is striking up 'I've got the world on a string', and she gets distracted by looking at Steve looking at her like she hung the moon and stars above.
Clint leads her to the altar, where Steve stands as still as he can (not counting his twitching left hand, probably desperate to take her right), then he pushes her veil up and kisses her warmly on both cheeks.
"Love you," he murmurs, and smiles at her soft "Love you," back.
"Dearly beloved," intones the officiant, and Clint can finally walk to his seat on the left of the aisle and tune everything out. He doesn't need to hear Natasha promise Steve to love and cherish him, and Steve promise Natasha 'for as long as we both shall live'. He knows all that already. It's in the way their fingers brush, the way Steve stands just a tiny inch behind Natasha, having her back as always. They don't need rings and vows, but Steve wants them, and Natasha will always indulge him.
Across the aisle, out of the corner of his eye Clint notices the way Sam's index finger strokes against the side of Bucky's hand, and the way Bucky shifts surreptitiously, tangling his little finger with Sam's. Behind them, Tony is looking up at the ceiling, eyes suspiciously bright, as Pepper holds his hand in both of hers and smiles at the couple in front of the altar, looking luminous and so content.
Clint wouldn't be human if he didn't feel the empty space on his left like a black hole, curving gravity around it. He can no longer bring himself to fight the image of a tall, middle-aged man, with a slightly receding but attractively tidy head of hair, dressed in a breath-stealing suit, that small, sweet smile lingering on his sensuous mouth.
'Why,' Clint wants to lament, shaking his head at himself a little. 'Why do you do these things to yourself, Clint Barton? He is not for you.'
From across the aisle, he can feel Bruce's eyes on him. He turns his head slightly, and sends him and Betty a smile. Bruce, bless his heart, lifts both eyebrows at a well-calculated angle, asking without words. Clint shakes his head once, mouth twitching ruefully. Bruce's eyes are understanding, kind and supportive. It's been a long time since Clint dated, and in that time, most of his friends had managed through trial and error and so, so many bottles of vodka, to pair off. Clint has never really been that into any of them, besides the occasional 'damn, he/she looks hot' stray thought, because it's true, his friends are a bunch of gorgeous, gorgeous people. But damn it, he can feel maudlin on his best girl's wedding day; he's allowed. And anyway, she isn't looking right now, and he can get away with it. When they leave for the restaurant, he's going to have to buckle up and get his head back in the game, or she'll want to know why. (She'll want to know why anyway. She's even more observant than Clint and Bucky.)
"I do," Steve says, and, "I do," echoes Natasha, and then he's snaking his arms around her and she's clinging to his shoulders, and they are kissing hard enough to make even Clint blush. Seriously. Hot people. He wasn't kidding.
Clint cheers with the others, slipping in place next to Tony and patting his shoulder obnoxiously while Tony snarls at him and dashes his wrist over his eyes, daring him to make something of it. Clint and Pepper trade amused, long-suffering looks; humouring Tony is a full-time occupation, and they all help share the load.
The wedding party is not huge, but it's not small, either. Thirty people mill around, hooking up for a quick ride to the restaurant a mile and a half away. Clint contemplates saying that he's gonna walk, give his seat up to Bruce's cousin Jen, but the truth is, his dress shoes pinch, and he doesn't fancy a forty-five minute walk in them the least bit.
"Barton, come ride with us," Bucky calls, waving from the far end of the street outside the church, so Clint makes his way over and slips into the back seat alongside Peggy Carter. She looks at him, and slowly smiles.
"Oh, god, what, what is this, are you ambushing me? Barnes, I thought you were out of the subterfuge business."
Bucky straps himself in as Sam revs up the engine and peels away from the curb.
"You've been acting weird all day," Bucky states, shifting half-around to look at Clint over his shoulder. "Out with it. What's going on? Are you sad and lonely, Barton? Want me to set you up?"
"No," Clint says emphatically, because the last time Bucky set him up, Clint ended up having to listen through two hours of baseball talk that nobody but Bucky and Steve could find even remotely interesting.
"Okay, so you're not a sports fan, I can do better, I swear, come on."
'Well, if you can find me a hot-as-hell, probably-government agent going by the name of Phil Coulson who can kill people with his pinkie, I'll cry uncle in a flash,' Clint thinks.
...Except, going by the charged silence in the car, he didn't just think it. He went and said it, didn't he. Fuck his life.
Bucky's jaw is hanging open, eyebrows wrinkling his forehead as they try to climb up it. "Spill," he directs, unclipping his seatbelt and crawling into the back seat between Clint and Peggy despite Clint's protests. He sighs, and gives in to the inevitable.
"Coulson, you say," Peggy drawls, tapping a perfect blood-red fingernail against her equally poppy-bright mouth. "The name rings a bell, to be honest. Kind of...plain-looking?"
Clint gasps, legitimately outraged. "Not plain," he growls. "Okay, I'll give you unassuming, but he's gorgeous, okay."
Peggy looks skeptical, but Bucky is grinning.
"Do tell," he purrs, and Clint feels the back of his neck heat.
'Fuck off, you pathological flirt, I'm not letting you within ten yards of him."
"We shall see," Bucky says ominously. Sam is no help at all, throwing Clint amused looks in the review mirror as he expertly navigates what traffic there is.
"I would give in, Clint," he advises, resigned. "I have yet to discover anything that deters Bucky from doing what he wants."
"Worked on you, didn't it?" Bucky says, smirking in such a smug, filthy way that Clint has to roll his eyes and look out of the window before he starts whining and never stops.
Peggy shrugs when Clint looks to her to be the voice of reason. "I find them entertaining, actually," she admits.
"Of course you do," Clint gives in and groans. "You're as bad as the rest of them."
"Guilty as charged," Peggy concedes, unbothered. "Anyway. Let me make a phone call. This sounds like something Nick might be involved with."
"Nick?" Clint and Bucky ask in unison, but Peggy just smiles and takes out a thin smartphone, drawing what look like a series of lightning bolts on the front to unlock it.
Before Clint can pester her for more information, Sam parks the car and pulls up the handbrake.
"All right, folks, let's go get wasted on Steve's dime."
"Tony's dime, actually—oh, hello, Nick."
Peggy pushes the car door open and slides out, stylish shoes clacking on the series of flat river stones leading to the main door of the restaurant. Just as Clint climbs out, too, a large van draws to a stop nearby, three burly men jumping out to unload all the gifts into several crates and lug them inside. Clint stares after them, eyes fixed on his own blue-and-yellow offering, cheerfully standing out amongst the other candy-coloured boxes.
"Seriously, though," Sam says behind his right shoulder. Clint turns to find him standing there in his suit, hands in his pockets, smiling at him in easy acceptance. "Don't mind Bucky, he's easily distracted. You okay?"
Clint sighs, rubbing a hand over his forehead. "I'm fine," he says tiredly. "Except—have you ever met someone, just for a few minutes, and it's like they've burrowed under your skin? Like they're the only person you can think about, even days later? That's weird, right?"
Sam shrugs, smiling. "Eh, not so much. Happened to me once or twice in my life. First time was Riley. Second time was Bucky."
Clint grins, realising what Sam is saying. "Really?" he asks, feeling somehow lighter than before.
Sam grins too, a flash of even white teeth. "Promise. Those feelings are worth chasing after."
With that, he taps two fingers to his forehead in a lazy salute and saunters towards the restaurant. Clint's smile fades as he watches Sam's back, because for all their talk, there is no way for Clint to contact Phil; and no guarantee that Phil would want to talk to him again, even if he did.
(Except for that note, the treacherous voice in his head says. Clint's fingers trace the outline of it in his pocket, thumb flicking at one edge in an idle caress and wondering if Phil leaves notes for all the people he is sent to protect. Perhaps he might like to hear from Clint, after all.)
Clint sucks in a deep breath, smiling wryly. Maybe Peggy will be able to unearth some information from her contacts – and then, Clint will see if he's got the guts to follow through on the lead. Turning on his heel, he starts towards the front entrance to the restaurant. Peggy paces not far away, phone gripped to her ear and her head bent lower. She looks tense. Clint pauses, waves an arm, trying to get her attention to ask if she wants him to wait for her. She turns, sees him, and her mouth opens in a silent 'No' of warning.
Which is when thick fabric swooshes past Clint's ears, and the world goes dark.
Clint comes to as he's being yanked about by gravity, loose on the floor of what he supposes is a van, seeing as he's able to stretch full-out without bumping into any seats. His head feels a little woozy, like it did this morning when he woke up. He didn't even feel the dart prick this time. He sighs.
"Phil," he grumbles, "if that's you, we're gonna be having a long talk about unnecessary dramatics."
He goes to rub his face, but can't, because his hands are tied. Dread pools down his spine. Phil hadn't needed to tie him up before; why would he now?
Then the hood gets ripped off his head, and he blinks through the sudden blinding light into the face of... ah.
So, remember how last night Clint was worried Phil might be some kind of terrorist psychopath? And how Phil just smiled calmly and it stopped Clint freaking out? Well, this guy's smile is exactly the opposite of that. This guy's smile looks unhinged, and something primal in Clint's gut wants to curl away and hide, because he recognises crazy when he sees it.
"Ahah, I'm afraid I'm not darling Phil," the man says regretfully. "But how interesting that you have gotten on such close terms already. This will be easier than I supposed."
"What?" Clint says, thoroughly confused. "Who are you?"
The guy smiles again. It's terrifying.
"Well, my name is John, and I work with Phil."
"...You work with Phil?" Either Clint's self-preservation radar is fucking up again, or this guy is fibbing.
John laughs. It slithers over Clint's skin, turning it clammy. "I say 'with', but really, that isn't a cover we need to maintain anymore. No, dear boy, I'm here to help you get rid of the flash drive."
"...The flash drive? What flash drive?"
The backhand is sudden and shocking. Clint tastes blood in the corner of his mouth, and tests the inside of his cheek gingerly with his tongue. He must have cut it on his teeth. Wow, he never thought he'd be back here again.
"Now, kid, word of advice - don't fuck with me. Tell me where the flash drive is, and we can all go our separate merry ways."
"I swear to you, I don't know anything about any flash drive," Clint says, as plainly as he can. John squints at him suspiciously, then gets up from his crouch.
"Well, fuck. I guess we'll have to wait for darling Phil to try and rescue you, then. I do hate shooting friends. It always leaves such a mess."
Clint goes cold inside. "What makes you think he's coming? He got the flash drive last night, he doesn't need anything else from me."
"Oh, I beg to differ," John says condescendingly, holding up an already-familiar yellow post-it between two fingers. Clint's skin crawls, to see this fucker touching it. Phil left it for him. It's his, damn it. "Darling Phil doesn't leave love notes to just anyone."
'Love notes'? Clint's brain stutters, trying to wrap around this idea. Could it really be—or is this guy playing with him? (Really, Clint, crazy weirdo kidnaps you and taunts you, you reckon he might be lying?)
John peers down into his face, unhinged grin showing up again. "Oh, you like him! Aw, that's so sweet. It'll sure suck to see him get shot, huh? So why don't you tell me where the flash drive is, and Phil won't have to die?"
"I don't know where the fucking flash drive is," Clint snarls, fighting the shakes he can feel start up in his shoulders.
John sighs, and straightens again. "Pity," he says, shrugging. "I hate to mess up the van, it takes Brock ages to clean it up afterwards."
He is left alone after that, trying to figure out how much time has passed since he was taken. He knows Peggy saw him, and she'll have told Bucky and Steve and Sam, and Natasha will have dropped everything and insisted they go after him. He will get to ruin her dress after all, he thinks despondently. The van keeps a straight course for the next while, and Clint wonders if they're taking him out of town, some quiet place Upstate where they can dispose of him and Phil - he doesn't kid himself about these people's intentions.
'Don't come,' he thinks desperately, trying to project in Phil's direction. 'Please don't come, I can't bear to get you killed.'
Eventually, the van slows, bumping Clint hard as it switches roads for rougher terrain. It stops after a while, and the doors are thrown open on a small clearing covered in a carpet of fall-coloured leaves. John reappears, before stepping aside and gesturing at him. Another guy fills Clint's vision then, big and thuggish-looking. Clint recognises him as the guy who took the wedding gifts inside and probably cased the place. The guy grabs him and throws him over one shoulder, starting for the small cabin in the middle. Upside-down, Clint can't make out much of the sun, but by the quality of light he's guessing it's still mid-afternoon, so they can't have been on the road for more than an hour. Not being in the middle of some wasteland does wonders for Clint's capacity to hope.
...Except Phil shouldn't come for him. He probably won't in any case, but he really shouldn't. Clint can't cope with the thought of Phil, lifeless and still on the ground because of Clint.
(Or, at all, really, but that's another matter that Clint doesn’t have the mental capacity to entertain at this time.)
"Sit tight," the goon tells Clint when he dumps him on an uncomfortable chair in the middle of the room. There are scuffmarks on the floor, and a reddish blotch in the far corner, halfway up the wall. Clint doesn't have to be a genius to see this doesn't look good for him.
The two of them leave Clint there, closing the front door. Outside, low murmurs signify a conversation, but Clint is too far away to hear anything of use.
"He'll be here," filters through the wood, John's voice grating in irritation.
Clint breathes deeply, clenching his teeth. The air in the cabin is stale; cobwebs line the windows. He's guessing these people aren't big on housekeeping. He tries to get his hands free, but they've used zipties rather than ropes, and tightened them to the point where the smallest movement from Clint makes the plastic dig into his skin. The tips of his fingers are starting to go numb. He wonders if it's worth calling them in to try and get them to loosen the ties, but that's just asking for trouble, and besides he desperately does not want to talk to John for any period of time. The guy has a screw loose, that's for sure.
Muffled though the sounds are, Clint can still hear the rumble of an engine from the direction of the road, as well as the groan of aged floorboards when John and his goon shift on the porch.
"No, please, no," Clint groans, starting to struggle in earnest.
Until, that is, he hears a tiny crackle on the wall behind him. He freezes, then twists as far as he can to look over his shoulder. There's nothing, and then the flicker of light comes again, moving in a rough circle with barely a whisper.
"Hi, hello? I'm sorry, I think we're lost?" A girl calls from the front, softly-accented voice hapless and disarming. "We were heading for Westchester, I think we took a wrong turn? I told you that was the wrong way, Jeremy, but you never listen!"
A male voice rumbles in response, starting quiet but quickly rising in irritation.
Behind Clint, there is a quiet crack and the room gets lighter when a part of the wall simply comes off.
Clint's mouth opens in a silent 'O', delight and despair battling inside when Phil smiles at him from the other side.
"Phil, no, you gotta run, they want to shoot you!" he hisses, wild-eyed.
Phil doesn't appear to be listening. He steps nimbly inside the room and snaps the bonds on Clint's wrists, then beckons for Clint to follow. They slip soundlessly out of the cabin, pausing only for Phil to fit the piece of wall back in place before dipping low and running towards the other end of the clearing. The trees are starting to shed, but the foliage is still thick enough that once they're past the clearing, they should be safe.
So of course that's when, out of the corner of his eye, Clint spots movement; without stopping to think, he throws himself across Phil's side and pushes him out of the way.
Fire bursts through his shoulder that's covering the left side of Phil's back. Clint staggers, but he's no stranger to pain, so he grits his teeth and keeps moving. Or he tries to, but there must have been something in that gun other than just the bullets, because his legs give out and he slumps forward onto his face. Above his head, a gun goes off and dimly Clint hears something heavy fall over not too far off.
"Take them down," Phil snarls, and on the other side of the clearing a small war seems to break out. Meanwhile, Phil's hands are gentle as they turn Clint over and check the front of his shirt for an exit wound.
"Shhh," Phil whispers when his fingers peel the wet fabric away from the wound and Clint whimpers a little. "It's all right. You're gonna be okay."
Clint just looks at him, dizzy with the released adrenaline. Phil's face is slightly blurry, as if there is a halo around his head. The thought makes Clint smile. His own guardian angel.
…His own guardian angel bearing guns and kicking ass with zero prejudice. That thought is even hotter than the one that went before.
It's possible that there was some kinda drug went in with the bullet, because... Uh, what was he saying?
"Your eyes are so pretty," he sighs when Phil looks worriedly at his face again. "'S fine. Trust you. Even if y'are all overdramatic 'n stuff. How many gadgets've you got anyway? Are you Agent Double-Oh-Seven or something?"
"No, I'm not Double-Oh-Seven," Phil mutters. He peels back Clint's eyelids to look at his pupils, before shaking his head. "Asshole owes me fifty bucks."
Such pretty blue eyes. Clint sighs again, before blinking. "What?" he says. There's something important he needs to ask Phil, but then Phil's face is right there, and his lips brush against Clint's temple.
"Sleep a while," Phil says, looking at him with something that, unless Clint is much more out of it than he thinks he is, is fondness. One of Phil's long fingers trails gently over the skin of Clint's right cheekbone where John struck him. "The medics will be here in a few minutes, and also I'd really rather you weren't awake when I have to do this."
With that, Phil takes off his jacket, bundles it up, and presses it into Clint's shoulder with both hands.
"Bastard," Clint maybe screams; he doesn't know for sure, because that's when the world goes dark.
Clint wakes up to the steady, quiet beeps of monitors and pale golden sunlight. The smell of bandages and antiseptic is thick in his nose, which clues him in exactly where he is even before he opens his eyes fully. The room is disappointingly empty, and there's nothing to distract Clint from the ache in his right arm that spreads all the way down his side. He tries to move it, and his shoulder screams. Oh. Right. Yesterday's—yesterday? Yeah, he can't have slept that long – events come back to him in a spiral of horrified mortification – he'd been kidnapped! He'd had to be rescued! What the hell was his life turning into? On top of everything, he'd missed Natasha's wedding reception, and he'd promised her he'd sing. He just hopes getting shot is enough of an excuse to mollify her.
Speaking of, he'd better call her, or she'll mount her own search party to find him and murder him properly this time.
Just as he's trying to swap the emergency button from his right to his left side to press it, the door opens and a cheerful young woman steps inside, smiling brightly at him as she clutches a chart to her chest.
"Hello! I see you're awake! How are you feeling?" she asks excitedly. Clint has the uncharitable suspicion that she's hoping to poke at him some more.
"Not so bad," Clint allows, trying to sound firm and believable rather than asking for confirmation.
"No, the GSW was a through-and-through, no major damage caused, so you should heal right up in no time. I'm just going to check on the wound," she says before laying down the chart and tugging a glove on. Despite her enthusiastic demeanour, her touch is gentle and professional when she lifts his dressing and peers underneath.
"Just fine," she proclaims, before taping it back down and beaming at him. "Agent Coulson will be pleased."
"Agent...Coulson?" Clint hazards. He knew it. He knew Phil was a government agent of some kind. No one was that capable without being a professional.
"Speaking of," the doctor says with a lifted finger, before pulling out a slim handset from the pocket of her labcoat. "Hello? Yes, sir, he's awake and right as rain. He's asking after you," she adds, smiling at Clint while Clint is frantically shaking his head at her, because he must look like death warmed over and he doesn't want Phil to see him like this.
...Except that Phil saw him looking a lot worse last night, when he was bleeding all over Phil's jacket.
"Of course, sir," the woman agrees, tapping the connection closed. "He'll be in to see you a little later, Mister Barton. I think some other people might like to see you now," she adds as she opens the door.
Shit! He'd forgotten to ask her to call Natasha, Clint realises, just before the woman in question marches through it, eyes narrowed and mouth set in a militant frown. It eases the second she sees him, mutating into the kind of worry that makes him cringe and warms him up at the same time.
"I'm fine," he says.
"He really is," the doctor agrees, just before she shrinks back against the wall when Natasha skewers her with a glare.
"Nat, stop scaring the nice doctors," Clint says weakly as she comes closer to brush a kiss on his cheek.
"No one would tell us anything," she growls, looking furious.
"Well, to be fair, Mister Barton's injuries were sustained in the course of a classified operation," the doctor says reasonably. Her reassuring smile fades when Natasha turns to look at her again. "I'll just leave the two of you to catch up, shall I?"
"Thank you," Natasha bites out. Clint pats her hand with his left. She turns to him, fast as a snake with a new target.
"What the fuck is going on?" she demands, and Clint, knowing this is the only way to mollify her, starts at the beginning.
Steve turns up around the time Clint explains waking up in his own bed with no memory of how he got there, Bucky slinking in after him looking shifty.
"Sam and Peggy are outside," he says when the others look at him. "It's not pretty. There's a one-eyed pirate look-alike that Peggy is reaming out, and everyone is looking at her like she's marching to her own death. I think Sam only stayed so there will be actual unbiased eye witnesses to whatever the fuck goes down."
Clint groans and lets his head slump back on the pillow. "I think I'll sleep for the next hundred years," he says weakly, before jumping when Natasha prods him in the side.
"You woke up, then what? Did you do an assault kit?"
Clint gapes at her, incensed. "He didn't roofie me, Natasha, God! He wouldn't do that."
"And you know this how, exactly?"
"Because he's nice," Clint says, avoiding her eyes. "He saved me. He even got me a replacement present to give you. Did you like it, by the way? I didn't have time to open it."
Natasha looks studiously away towards the window.
"Yeah, about that," Steve says slowly.
Clint listens in appalled resignation as Bucky tells him what happened after he was taken, careful to include all the appropriate hand gestures.
"Wasn't even five minutes after Peggy raised the alarm when this big fuck-off plane landed on the lawn outside the restaurant and this guy in a suit comes sauntering out, asking if we'd seen which way they took you. Well, the bride here wasn't gonna stand for that, so then Steve had to step in to stop her murdering your guy before he'd told us what was going on. So then me and Sam remembered you rambling on about pretty eyes and kick-ass suits, and we kinda figured out who the guy was.
"Two minutes later, he's called his team off the plane, divvied up instructions, and they fall to them, it was obvious they'd been trained and good. He took my bike, I had to unhook all the Just Married cans off'a the license plate, you know how long it took me to get them on in the first place—and then he swung a leg over the back and disappeared," he finishes when everyone glares at him.
"We tried to get his team to take us with them, but they said we'd compromise the story and only endanger you more, so we stayed put," Natasha says unhappily.
Steve side-eyes her. "For a given value of 'put'," he adds wryly, and Natasha looks away towards the window again, trying to project innocence. Clint, who has known her for more years than he cares to count, groans.
"Natasha, what did you do?"
"I didn't do anything," Natasha says primly.
Clint looks at Steve, who sighs. "She didn't. Tony very much did. We tracked the agents, then we hacked into their comms. We heard when they found you and brought you here."
Clint lies back and looks at the ceiling for a bit, pretending he isn't a little bit touched. (Okay, a lot. Whatever.) "Where is 'here', anyway?"
"Bang-ass in the middle of Manhattan, actually," Bucky says, dropping into the visitors' chair and stretching out his legs. "They got a helipad on top of this building, except that plane is no chopper. Takes off and lands vertically. Sam almost wet his pants."
"Then we just had to make enough of a nuisance of ourselves to get in to see you. They tried to stop us, of course," Steve adds. He doesn't elaborate; Clint only has to look at him to see how well that went over. "Apparently, Peggy knows your guy's boss. It was all downhill from there."
Clint wonders whether he should correct them in their use of adjectives, but gives in when he realises he and they both know exactly who they're referring to with it.
The door opens again and Sam comes in, looking a little pale around the edges. Peggy stalks after him, followed by a guy who could well serve as the pictionary definition of 'badass'. His leather trenchcoat billows around his legs as he marches inside, giving Clint a very unimpressed look out of his one remaining eye. (It's no less intimidating for it, to be fair.)
"So you're the guy who keeps disrupting my nice quiet agency," he drawls.
Clint fights the urge to hide under his sheet. "Uh, I wouldn't know about your whole agency, but—listen, it wasn't my fault. Phil told you it wasn't my fault, right?"
The guy stares at him. "Phil," he repeats flatly. Clint bites his lips and tries to look harmless.
The dude heaves a gusty sigh that seems to originate in his heels. "Where did I go wrong," he mutters to himself. Then he points a very pointy finger at Clint's chest. "You. Stay put until my doctors release you. The rest of you, go home. You've seen him, he's fine, and he's going to stay that way, I promise you that. He's safe here; thanks to him, we've weeded out a few undesirable elements from this organisation. We're footing all his hospital bills, too. He'll be back to work on Monday all nice and fresh to deal with his little horrors.
"Carter," he adds, nodding at Peggy before turning on his heel and stalking back out.
"Do I even wanna know?" Clint says, eyeing Peggy, who looks supremely satisfied with herself.
"An old friend," Peggy says succinctly. Clint translates that as 'Hell no, you really don't.'
Despite himself, he yawns hugely, eyes squeezing tight enough to make him see stars.
"All right," Sam says, clapping his hands. "Let's clear out, Clint needs his rest. Call us when they tell you they're letting you go home?"
Clint promises, and they all file out through the door with variations of 'get well soon' wishes. Sam mimes calling him again before they leave, mouthing, 'We'll pick you up' at him. Clint wonders if him and Bucky are gonna try talking Nat and Steve into leaving on their honeymoon already, and estimates their chances at about 50-50 depending on what mood Nat's in when they get home.
Then, he gives up on staying awake and closes his eyes gratefully.
When he opens them again, the room is definitely not empty. In fact, it is very full of a Phil Coulson, legs crossed and a file balanced over one knee. His hand traces across the paper, leaving behind familiar spiky black lines. Clint watches until he fills one sheet and turns it over, continuing on the blank one underneath. From the top of the file, post-it notes poke out in various eye-watering shades.
The sight makes something warm and purring wake up in Clint's chest, stretch languidly and settle in for the ride.
"Afternoon," Phil says mildly without looking up. Clint can't help the grin that spills over his face.
"Hi," he draws. "Long time no see."
"Yeah," Phil sighs, finally lifting his head. There are crinkles in the corners of his eyes when he smiles. Clint, staring at them, feels himself fall that little bit further. "And you're a sight for sore eyes."
"Aww," Clint says, looking down. "You're such a fibber."
"Occasionally," Phil agrees. "Not now, though."
Clint looks back at him, wondering what to say. This is kind of finished. He's alive, the baddies are caught, Phil has whatever they were after. Clint is probably never going to see him again, and the thought makes him inexplicably maudlin.
"So. Back to the real world, eh?"
Phil twists his mouth, nodding thoughtfully. "You could say that," he says.
Clint huffs a laugh. "This is the real world for you, isn't it," he amends, not even asking.
Phil gives him a small smile. "It's not boring."
"I can see that. What with the being shot at and rescuing damsels in distress. Not that I'm a damsel. But I can see how I could be one in this scenario. Um." He wants to smack himself in the mouth and bite down.
Phil watches him for a moment, then shifts his eyes to look him up and down.
"Well, you certainly fit the beauty criteria," he says casually.
Clint swallows. "Thanks," he mutters, the back of his neck burning. Phil looks at him for another moment, then closes the file in his hands and sets it aside.
"Thank you for helping me catch some really bad people, Clint. You were great, and I'm sorry I put you in danger. I never meant for you to get hurt."
The silence stretches for a long moment, before Phil looks down at Clint's shoulder with something sad in his eyes.
"You shouldn't have gotten hurt. You shouldn't have done what you did. I'd have been fine."
"You'd have been dead," Clint counters flatly. He knows the trajectory the bullet took. He had put himself exactly where he'd meant to be.
Phil's eyes rise to his again. Clint can see him wanting to argue, and just glares at him mulishly until it goes away. Phil sighs, sliding his hand over his face.
"You're right," he says at last. "I owe you my life."
Clint shakes his head a little. "And I owe you mine at least three times over. We're even. Or, whatever. You don't owe me a thing."
Phil watches him some more. It's strangely soothing, lying there in bed, letting Phil look at him calmly, still as a statue but for the rise and fall of his chest.
"What if I want to?" Phil says.
It's so unexpected, it makes Clint cough, breath catching in his throat.
"Sorry, what?" he says. He can't have heard that right.
Phil's mouth quirks. "What if I want to owe you? Like, say, enough to take you to dinner?"
Clint narrows his eyes at him, trying to figure out Phil's tells. The man is an enigma; there is nothing about his body language that gives him away.
"Well, not if it's going to be like 'owing' me. You can if you just want to say thank you. Or, you know. Something like that."
He blushes, feeling out of his depth. He is so out of practice at this. Phil is no help at all. Is he actually made of stone?
Except that his lips were so warm and human when Clint kissed him. Clint licks his lips at the memory, and Phil's eyes zero in on the movement with gratifying intent. Clint lets himself smile slowly, trying to tug Phil closer with the strength of his own want.
"That would be okay with you?" Phil asks, his voice just a little bit less under control.
"So okay," Clint promises, trying to hold out a hand. Because he's a dumbass, it's his right, which makes his shoulder ache like the fucking devil.
"Argh," he grunts, cursing himself. Phil is on his feet in a second, leaning in with his hand hovering close to Clint's right elbow. There is no mistaking the concern in his eyes, the definitely-not-clinical appreciation.
So Clint hooks his left hand in the lapel of Phil's suit and tugs a little.
It's nowhere near enough to make Phil move against his will, but it's definitely enough to make Phil move because he wants to. Soft lips touch Clint's again, inching across his mouth as if Phil wants to memorise it. The thought sends a hot spike of want through Clint's belly, humming low in his groin. The kiss is sweet and unhurried, just the touch of skin to skin, breath to breath, but it makes Clint see stars anyway, and hear distant music.
Then Phil pulls back, and Clint realises that what he thought was his brain playing Sinatra as a soundtrack to their second kiss was in fact Phil's very swanky phone going off. Phil curses under his breath and pulls it out, frowning at the display.
"Yes, sir," he answers curtly. "Yes, sir. Yes. Sir. ...Oh, for god's sake, Nick, go home. Yes. Fine. I'll take care of it. See you tomorrow—Monday? Monday. Bye."
He thumbs the display with a noise of exasperation, shaking his head. "Stupid, meddling," he mutters, trailing off when he finds Clint watching him and grinning. "My boss. Also known as a pain in my ass, but don't tell him I said that."
"Tall, menacing, Elle Driver wannabe?" Clint guesses, and grins wider when Phil stifles a laugh.
"That's him," Phil agrees, grinning back. Clint kind of has to stare, because that smile on that face is like a direct hit with a bazooka to his chest.
"Hi," he says stupidly when Phil stops in front of him, hands in the pockets of his pants.
"Hi," Phil replies, grin toning back down into that easy, irresistible smile that started this whole thing. "Wanna get out of here?"
"Only if you take me out in your swanky jet," Clint says, going for haughty but, he suspects, only making it as far as unbearably excited. "Don't you wanna impress me a little bit?"
"My other gadgets didn't do that already?" Phil asks, even as he offers Clint a hand to help him out of the bed. Clint takes it, letting himself lean on Phil's strength and enjoying himself hugely.
Then he pauses, memory finally jogged.
"Wait. Did you say Agent Double-Oh-Seven owes you money?"