Clint can't stop laughing.
He's sitting on the mantelpiece near one of the Avengers' mansion's many living rooms, untangling a skein of tinsel and startling the occasional passer-by, and he's just watching his teammates try to grasp the idea of Christmas. They are not having much luck.
Tony's just gone storming past, muttering something about "never in a million years, what are you thinking, I'll be in my workshop, don't even try to – " and Steve is following him at a safe distance, complete with ridiculous floppy Santa hat that someone has put on his head and that he hasn't taken off because it's Christmas and that's what you do, you celebrate.
Thor is totally into Christmas, but he calls it 'Jul' and he's explaining all the Norse traditions of the season to a fascinated Bruce, telling him about his father Odin and the Wild Hunt he leads during the Solstice, trying to tug off one of Bruce's shoes to set out by the fireplace so that Odin can leave a gift in it as he rides by. Fortunately, Bruce thinks it's funny, so he gives Thor the shoe and they lay them out on the hearth, and actually, Clint thinks that that's kind of cool, so he shucks a shoe as well and tosses it so that it lands neatly next to the other two. Thor looks up with a grin, gives Clint a wave and declares him a 'mighty marksman indeed.'
In return, Bruce is telling Thor how Christmas works in America; that there's a Santa Claus who leaves gifts for the children, that it's somehow gotten all tangled up with candy and commercialism and Coca-Cola, and he makes the fatal mistake of telling Thor that there is carolling, because Thor immediately begins singing joyous festivity songs of boar-killings and stable-boys and Jotun goddesses, and Bruce looks just a little nonplussed for a minute, and it's great.
Jan, tiny, is sitting in a box of decorations (red and gold, because it's Tony's house and Tony's tree and Tony thinks the whole red-and-gold Iron Man Christmas thing is hilarious), sorting out hooks and separating the round ornaments from the fancier ones; Hank is showing off by changing size to hang the baubles on the tree instead of just reaching up or down like a normal person would. Clint's had a dose or two of the Pym particles himself, but no, he's stuck here with a bunch of glittery crap while Hank has all the fun.
Pietro's in and out like a flash (literally; Tony's told him how many times not to use super-speed inside the house, but he never listens), fetching strings of lights and hanging them around the outside of the mansion, and Wanda is sitting on the couch watching them. Clint's tried to ask her to predict what everyone's Christmas presents will be, but Steve shook his head and said that wasn't what Christmas was about and Clint would have to wait until morning just like everybody else, and that's when he handed over the pile of knotted tinsel and told Clint to go and do something about it.
And it seems like everyone has a job (kind of, because Tony's not allowed to touch any of the Christmas stuff and so his only job is making sure that he and the robots are out of the way, and Wanda's job isn't really a job either, but at least her presence in the room seems to keep Pietro pretty stable, which is useful all by itself) and everyone has somewhere to be and something to do, and that's… well, actually, if Clint's being honest, that feels pretty damned good.
Clint isn't used to Christmas, really. They never had one at home when he was a kid, because it was hard enough for his mother to make ends meet with him and Barney and with their dad drinking away all the money she did manage to bring in, and anyway, it's not like he would have wanted to spend any more time in a room with his father than he had to, because if there's one thing Clint learned at an early age, it's that being around his father was just going to end in pain.
And then the orphanage, of course, couldn't afford to do Christmas for that many kids, and at the circus it was basically every man for himself, and most of those men weren't the Christmas type anyway, so instead of festive joy, the holiday season pretty much just meant a night off from performing. And late December always sucked anyway, because Clint and Barney didn't have any heating in their caravan, and so really Christmas didn't mean much more than yet another day that they were glad was over.
And since then, Clint's been on his own, so really, Christmas has never quite grown on him until now because it's never held any significance for him. He isn't bitter – he doesn't begrudge everyone else the fact that they've been celebrating stuff like this since they were kids – it's just that, for him, this is the first time any of this has ever meant anything to him, and he's still trying to take it all in. Not that he would ever tell anyone, of course, because Clint doesn't do all that 'emotions' and 'weaknesses' crap, but the truth is, he thinks all of this is pretty goddamned amazing.
He's forgotten about the tinsel in his lap, half-picked-apart and looking more like a giant glitter explosion than like actual tinsel, but suddenly it's not in his lap anymore and he's about to say something indignant about giving it back because it's his job and he's sure as hell not going to try to chase Tony down to get a different assignment – but then he looks up and it's Phil Coulson who's holding the tinsel, and he's already got it almost all the way sorted out. Normally, Clint would probably start an argument anyway, but it's Coulson and Clint is really kind of confused about how he feels about Coulson in the first place, and he's afraid that if he opens his mouth he's going to say something really stupid, which is almost certainly true. And Coulson's doing that thing that he does with that little grin he has and then the tinsel's all the way untangled and Coulson just hands it back to Clint and wanders into the main area to see what the other Avengers are up to.
Clint just stares down at the tinsel in his hands for a minute, then gives up and starts laughing again, because of course Coulson has some kind of secret magic tinsel superpower. For a guy who's not supposed to be a superhuman, Coulson is pretty damn good at pretty much everything.
Steve comes back into the room, which means he's managed to placate Tony somehow, and he sees right away that Clint's not doing anything and hauls him over to the kitchen to help out with the cooking. Most of the Avengers aren't allowed to touch anything in the kitchen except the coffee maker (and Tony's not even allowed to touch that, because he keeps on disassembling it and everyone's afraid he's going to turn it into a bomb someday, so he has to use his own espresso machine in the workshop), but Steve, who grew up cooking with his mother, is an exception to that rule. Clint, for no apparent reason other than that he's never tried anything ambitious enough to break anything, is also an exception, so somehow that translates to potato-peeling duty. He grumbles, because he's Clint and it's practically obligatory, but really it's just one more piece of this 'family Christmas' puzzle that he's never had before, and even though he'd sooner face a Hulked-out Bruce than peel potatoes on a normal day, he actually kind of likes helping out in the kitchen today.
Not as much as he'd like to be decorating the tree, of course, but when they let him do that, he started throwing ornaments at the tree. They all landed exactly where he wanted them, naturally – he isn't called Hawkeye for nothing – but Steve said it was 'reckless' and Wanda predicted a high probability that he was going to hit someone in the eye, and when Bruce's heart rate started to go up, that was the end of Clint's stint on tree duty.
"Seriously, Jarvis, Tony hasn't come up with a machine to do this yet?" he asks, tossing what feels like the hundredth potato into the bowl of pale yellow peeled ones and picking up another.
"Master Barton," says Jarvis calmly, "the day I let Mister Stark put an abomination with a blade into my kitchen is the day I tender my resignation."
Steve, who's doing something cranberry-related at the counter next to Jarvis, starts laughing. He's heard stories about a few of the 'abominations' Tony's tried to install in the kitchen, and he knows Jarvis is absolutely dead serious about it. The microwave can only explode so many times before even the stoic butler loses his patience.
From behind them, a pleasant voice asks if there's any way he can help, and Clint turns to see Coulson standing in the doorway. "You like potatoes?" he asks, brandishing the peeler in Coulson's direction. Maybe if he gets rid of the peeling job, he can get in on whatever it is Jarvis is doing, because it looks a hell of a lot like baking and if there are pies involved with this Christmas dinner thing, then Clint is wholeheartedly in favour of it.
"If you don't mind helping with the potatoes, sir, I'm sure Master Barton would appreciate it."
And Clint kind of wants to know why Coulson gets to be 'sir' and he has to be 'Master Barton,' but before he can say anything, Coulson pulls up another kitchen chair, smiles and sits down next to him with a potato and a paring knife, and suddenly Clint's really liking this potato-peeling gig.
"Thought you were hanging out with the cool kids," he mutters as he digs in the peeler and tries to see how long a strip of potato peel he can get without breaking it.
"Kind of overwhelming in there," Coulson says without looking at him, and Clint is a little startled because, okay, the truth is? He could've been in the middle of the living room with everyone else while he was untangling the tinsel, but with all of them in there talking and laughing and sharing memories of past Christmases, it was a little overwhelming, and all the stories about childhood wish lists and stockings and leaving cookies and milk out for Santa just reminded him that he wasn't really like them. Even Tony has Christmas stories. Sure, most of them are about Jarvis and feature toy hovercars and flight simulators, but they're still memories and that's something Clint just doesn't have.
He knows he belongs here, knows he's one of them and they all care about him, but it's sometimes tough to remember that when they all share things he doesn't. And he knows that's his problem, not theirs, and he knows it's an issue, and he's working on it, he really is, but at the same time… it's still tough, okay? He's pretty much the luckiest person he knows, and he feels kind of guilty when he thinks about the way life probably turned out for the other kids at the orphanage, or for the other circus labourers – and it's really hard to feel so lucky and so guilty and so happy and so conflicted all at the same time, and yeah, okay, Clint is definitely overwhelmed right now.
The strip of potato peel falls off and he just focuses on that, holding it up to see how long it is. Next to him, Coulson puts down his knife and picks up a strip of his own, measuring it next to Clint's, and Clint looks at him in surprise. He didn't think Coulson would approve of games like that. But not only does Coulson appear not to mind, his peel – goddammit – is the longest one.
Coulson gives him that smile again, that knowing one that says he has all your secrets and he's better at keeping them than you are, and Clint suddenly recognizes that confused feeling and aw, man, aw, crap, no way, because it's Coulson and Coulson sees everything and he can take you apart with a paper clip, and Clint knows he's totally, completely, one hundred percent screwed.
Quickly, he looks away.
Ten minutes later, hands raw from constantly slipping the peeler just a tiny bit too far along the potato so that it nicks the skin of his knuckles, he asks, "Jarvis, how the hell many potatoes you need, anyway? Did you let Thor invite all the Asgardians again?"
Jarvis looks over. "That should be enough, Master Barton. Would you care to assist with the corn?"
It's hours before Jarvis decides they've done enough for one day and sends them all out of the kitchen to join in the festivities in the main living room. Clint's exhausted and he's pretty sure there are bits of corn husk in his hair, so he ducks out of the room for a quick shower before heading back to where everyone else is, partly because cooking dinner for a dozen superheroes and change isn't exactly tidy work, partly because he kind of needs a break from company before he dives back into the fray.
Damp-haired and dressed, he gets back to the living room just in time to see Coulson ask quietly to borrow Steve's Santa Claus hat. He stops in the doorway, waiting to see what's going to happen, and Coulson – Clint could swear the man's a ninja – slips behind the couch and drops the hat over an unsuspecting Tony's head. Which is pretty funny (and when Clint snickers, Coulson's head snaps up and he spots Clint hovering in the doorway), but the hilarious part is when Steve won't let Tony take the hat back off. And Tony growls unintelligibly under his breath, but Steve slides a little closer to him on the couch and drops an arm around his shoulders, and the hat stays where it is.
In the end, they all decide to watch a movie. Steve was iced before any of the real classics came out, so he has a lot to catch up on; Tony gave him a Stark Industries tablet sometime around Thanksgiving and Pepper pre-loaded it with the old standards (Rudolph, Frosty, the Grinch), so now Steve's captivated by the possibilities. It's a Wonderful Life is already on TV, so that's what they settle in to watch, Clint perched on the arm of one of Tony's fancy couches and everyone else scattered in various positions around the room. Clint doesn't sit still well, though, and some of the scenes in the movie hit uncomfortably close to home, so he's up after about ten minutes, making popcorn, checking on the slow-cooker food Jarvis has left to simmer overnight, anything he can think of to give him an excuse to move around. He likes being in the living room with everyone, but he kind of feels like an interloper watching Steve's childlike enthusiasm, because it's the first time he's seen the movie, too, and he doesn't want to take away from Steve's moment.
After yet another kitchen check ("Jarvis, are you sure we have enough eggnog for tomorrow?" "Absolutely certain, Master Barton, just as I was the last time you asked."), Clint comes back to find that suddenly Coulson is on the couch next to where he's been sitting and Natasha has been relegated to the smaller couch with Bruce. He sits down, and Coulson murmurs, "Stay with us, Barton."
"I'm not going anywhere," says Clint. "I'm just – "
"Getting to the good part," is all Coulson says, and tips his chin toward the television screen, so Clint shuts up and watches along with them. He never finishes his sentence, but he doesn't get up again, either.
They go to bed early, worn out from a day's worth of preparations (and Tony's still protesting that he totally has robots for that kind of thing and if they'd just let him, he's fixed the pressurization problem and the AI's got Christmas programmed in, and Steve puts one big hand over Tony's mouth and reminds him that it's Christmas and they do things like this together, and Tony gives in because he always gives in to Steve). Bruce has fallen asleep in the living room, awkwardly sprawled across the smallest couch with his mouth half-open and his skin faintly coloured in the reflected light of the Christmas tree, and Natasha throws a blanket over him before leaving the room. Tony and Steve go up to bed together, which everybody studiously doesn't notice because there are rules about fraternization. The room empties out, and Coulson lingers long enough to catch Clint's eye and say good night before he leaves.
Clint stays up for a long time, watching the lights on the Christmas tree shift through a rainbow of colour, listening to Bruce's sleepy breathing and just thinking.
Bruce wakes up early, like, six o'clock in the morning early, and even though Clint's used to it, it's goddamn Christmas morning and he figures they deserve a little peace. So he opens one eye and mutters, "Don't even think about going into your lab, Banner."
Bruce is taken aback. "How did you know I was – "
"You talk about synchrotrons in your sleep."
"No, I don't."
"Then how the hell do I know about them? And what's a 'relativistic gamma,' anyway?"
Bruce's whole face lights up and he begins explaining, which is completely unexpected because Clint just picked some random words out of something he thinks he might have once seen on a diagram of Tony's, but it turns out that he's actually said the right thing for once. To be honest, he doesn't really understand a word of anything Bruce is saying, but Clint thinks Bruce is pretty cool (except for the whole, you know, Hulking-out thing, and even that has its uses), so he listens anyway.
Tony wanders in sleepily while Bruce is saying something about gyrofrequencies or something like that, blinks in surprise and says that if they're going to be having fun conversations, he needs more coffee, and he gives Clint a funny look because, let's face it, of all the Avengers, Clint is the one least likely to get into a conversation about… math, or physics, or whatever the hell it is they're actually talking about now.
It's gotten pretty animated by the time everyone else wakes up, with Tony and Bruce and Hank arguing about energy loss rates and self-absorption and Clint's muttering to Pepper that Tony of all people should know about self-absorption and Pepper's giggling in a way that Tony knows perfectly well is at his expense, but Steve's arms around him and the blond head resting on his shoulder are keeping him from doing anything about it, and – well, basically it's a freaking fantastic morning as far as Clint's concerned. Especially when Coulson joins them, taking in the whole scene without saying anything, the way he does, and then leaves and comes back with two cups of coffee.
He hands one of them to Clint, sits down next to him, and says something about injection spectra to Bruce, who immediately responds with adiabatic something and Tony jumps in with equipartition and no one else really knows what they're talking about, but it doesn't matter, because nobody's fighting and nobody's getting hurt and nobody's an enormous green rage monster and for the Avengers, that's pretty much a victory.
And Coulson brought him coffee. Which Clint is trying really hard not to read anything into, because it's Christmas and that's probably just what people do.
When Thor arrives, he doesn't even spare a moment for the scientific summit happening on the rug, heading straight for the fireplace and holding up his boot triumphantly, and then Bruce and Clint remember about Jul and check their shoes as well. Apparently, someone's in on this whole Norse celebration thing, or maybe Odin did come by with the Wild Hunt, because there are all these weird fruit and nut things in the shoes. Clint's not entirely sure he trusts them at all, but Thor claps him on the back and assures him that they are 'the fruit of Asgard, greatest of the Nine Worlds,' so all right, Clint bites into something round and yellow and pretty freaking delicious, and Thor grins again and says he has 'bravery befitting a warrior,' and then everyone wants to try the yellow things.
At some point, Jarvis wants to know if they want breakfast, but the Asgard hero fruit is pretty filling, so instead of feeding them, he just brings out a tray of Christmas crackers and suggests that they go wild. Or at least, as much as Jarvis ever suggests 'going wild,' so it's really phrased more like 'if you would care for an old English family tradition,' which they would. They pull the crackers, laughing at the ridiculous things inside them and groaning at the jokes until Hank says he can't take any more and confiscates everyone's little slips of paper, and Clint picks up a gold cracker that looks kind of cool and offers the other end to Jarvis, who looks gratified and pulls it with Clint. He looks somewhat less gratified when Clint makes him wear the crinkly green paper crown inside, but after all, it's all in good fun, and anyway, it's Jarvis' tradition in the first place.
There's a shiny silver cracker in the corner of his vision and when he turns, Coulson's proffering it to him, so he grabs hold and pulls and somehow, somehow he ends up with the big end. The hat's purple, so Coulson makes him wear it because it matches his uniform, and Clint says, "Fine," and retaliates by snagging the fuzzy red Santa hat that's become the bane of everyone's existence and depositing it on Coulson's head.
The room's a mess and they're all acting like they're drunk, which is impossible because it's only mid-morning and most of them have had nothing but coffee and Odin's fruit, and anyway Tony doesn't drink anymore and Steve can't get drunk at all, but no one seems to mind and Jarvis even looks indulgent. Clint wonders if this is what Christmas is always like, what Christmas is supposed to be like, and if so, it's kind of a shame he hasn't had one until now.
They've all agreed not to do presents, because most of them don't really get paycheques, and Steve still doesn't even know how to use a credit card, and no one can buy anything for Tony anyway because he's freaking Tony Stark and he probably already owns about ninety-five percent of New York, so the deal was, no presents from anyone for anyone.
Of course, they've listened to that about as well as they listen to most orders, which is to say, not at all. It's actually Tony who breaks the agreement first, slipping Steve a flat package that makes Steve bite his lip and frown because there was a deal, Tony, you don't break deals with friends, but they all take off their paper Christmas cracker hats and throw them at Steve until he opens his present. Everyone expects it to be something Tony's built for Steve, because that's what Tony does, but when Steve carefully peels apart the brown paper wrapping, it's a perfect replica of an early 1940s Brooklyn Dodgers jersey, complete with autographs across the back.
Tony explains, "I looked up all the players who were on the team back in the thirties and forties and sent it around to them, and – " but he never finishes his sentence because Steve cuts him off with a kiss that makes Pepper and Natasha shoot each other knowing glances, and then Steve admits he has something for Tony, too, and after that it turns out that they're pretty much all guilty of having gotten something for someone.
Clint feels kind of weird about it, really, because he came to the Avengers with nothing but the clothes on his back, a bow and a quiver full of arrows. Everything he owns now is something that S.H.I.E.L.D. has provided or that Tony has engineered for him, so he doesn't have much to give. Instead, he stands off to one side, leaning against the doorframe and watching everyone.
And then there's someone beside him, leaning casually on the other side of the doorframe.
"Hi," says Coulson, still not really looking directly at Clint.
"Hi," Clint answers, because he's not sure what else to say.
"I didn't get you anything."
Which is fine, because, "I didn't get you anything either."
They watch for a moment as wrapping paper is torn apart, boxes opened, surprises revealed; Wanda tries on a brand-new pair of boots and loves them, Tony has something for Pepper that he's actually bought himself instead of having her just charge it to him (and to be honest, the fact that he went out and got her something is more of a present for her than whatever it is that's in the box), Hank and Jan have traded gifts and are curled up together at one end of the couch, for once with no arguments or problems or concerns.
Clint wonders why Coulson's here in the doorway with him, and if he feels obligated because Clint's kind of off on his own. But Clint is here by choice, would rather watch than jump in in the middle, because he doesn't really have a contribution to the gift-giving part of things, and so he tells Coulson, "You don't have to hang out here, you know. You can – " and he gestures with one hand to indicate that Coulson should go and join in with the rest of the team. Because come on, even Coulson has got to be able to lighten up a little on Christmas Day.
"I like it here," is Coulson's only response, and so they lapse into a comfortable silence together, taking it all in without the need for words.
Jarvis calls them for Christmas dinner sometime around midday, when the hilarity of the morning and the urge to act like little kids has passed and they're all kind of tired and ready for a break. Somebody got Steve the New York City edition of Monopoly, and everyone's gathered around it, some playing and some just kibitzing. The board has already been desecrated; Steve has crossed off 'Yankee Stadium' and replaced it with 'Ebbets Field,' and Tony, who doesn't believe in free parking, has replaced that square with 'Stark Industries.' Coulson, to everyone's surprise, crossed out the label on the jail and renamed it as Director Fury's office, which earned him startled laughter and pats on the back from everyone around him.
Coulson's actually a really cool guy. It's just that no one seems to expect it. Clint supposes that's how it goes when your job three hundred and sixty-four days of the year is to be a government hard-ass.
In any event, they abandon the game, because Tony's so far ahead of everyone else that they can't even pretend there's still any doubt about who's going to win. Instead, they all crowd around the table and congratulate Jarvis on the food. It looks delicious, sure, but the thing that gets to Clint the most is that he's never even seen this much food in one place before. It kind of stuns him, to be honest, and he realizes just how much freaking work it must be to maintain a household full of them, so he steps away from the table, catches Jarvis in the kitchen, and holds out his hand.
"Sorry," says Clint. "Thanks for putting up with – " me, he means, but what he says is, "all of us."
Jarvis inclines his head politely. "I'm sure I see no reason to apologize, Master Barton."
"Yeah, well… anyway," and Clint ducks out before he can embarrass himself any worse.
But when Jarvis comes back to the table with a tray of drinks, he looks distinctly pleased, and Clint figures maybe that wasn't such a stupid thing to have done after all.
He takes a seat and somehow Coulson's sitting next to him again, and he's got to be doing it on purpose because Clint's still convinced he's a ninja and he wouldn't be sitting there if he didn't want to be. Which just makes it all the more difficult for Clint to tell himself there's nothing to it, that Coulson is just hovering around him because everyone else seems to have found their niches, Tony with Steve, Hank with Jan, Wanda with Pietro, Natasha with Pepper, and even Bruce and Thor are sitting together again and being – well, fairly rowdy by Bruce's standards, which is positively calm by Thor's.
Ham and turkey and stuffing and potatoes cooked three different ways and what seems like at least a dozen kinds of vegetables shut them all up pretty fast, and for a while, the only sounds are of silverware clinking against plates and the occasional soft murmurs of lazy conversation. After they eat, Jarvis offers brandy, mulled wine and cider, and they all end up slumped over their chairs, making vague noises about getting up and doing things that none of them ever actually follows through on. Steve's got his arm around Tony again, Tony's head resting on his shoulder, and even Thor is making sleepy comments about feasts fit for kings and how he certainly hopes they will celebrate the same way at Thurseblot.
Jan groans and tells Thor he can have Thurseblot in Asgard because she's never eating again, and most of the Avengers seem to agree.
Clint hasn't eaten all that much, because he isn't really used to doing that kind of thing; by the time he was lucky enough to be able to eat as much as he wanted, he'd grown accustomed to a life where moderation kept you safe and overindulgence got you in trouble. He eats like a fighter now, choosing carefully between what he wants and what will keep him in peak physical condition. So when Coulson stands to clear away the table (because for God's sake, Jarvis deserves a break at Christmas, too), Clint stands with him.
And there's eye contact, which right now Clint kind of wants and kind of doesn't, because on the one hand, yeah, he totally does, but on the other hand, he's pretty sure that if Coulson spends more than about two seconds looking at him, he's going to do something epically stupid. Not that he doesn't do epically stupid things all the time, but it would probably be worse if he did them at Christmastime, and it would definitely be worse if he did them in front of Coulson.
By the time they've moved the clean-up to the kitchen, Clint is convinced that Jarvis is up to something. He keeps giving the two of them jobs to do together – Clint washing the delicate dishes while Coulson dries, Coulson rearranging the refrigerator while Clint tries to cram in all of the leftovers. Half the things they do, Clint is sure they have machines for, but he wants to help and also, frankly, he doesn't really care how much busywork Jarvis gives them as long as he's giving it to them both.
He mentions Jarvis' strange behaviour to Tony, though, while the rest of the team are off watching Miracle on 34th Street and Coulson is at the dining table tackling some paperwork, because apparently half a day is as much as he can take off without having New York collapse into chaos and ruin.
"Oh, no," says Tony, and Clint gives him a quizzical look.
"'Oh, no,' what? What 'oh, no?'"
"I think I know what he's doing."
"What?" Because Tony's voice is kind of ominous and Clint is coming up with all kinds of nightmarish scenarios, like what if Jarvis is a Skrull again, or maybe someone's got him under mind control, or…
"He's, uh, he's trying to get you two together. Do you want me to get him to stop, I mean, I can, I dunno, make him take the rest of the day off or – " He stops, because he's clearly lost his audience somewhere along the way.
"He's trying to…" but words fail Clint.
"Get you guys together, yeah, Jarvis likes to think he's a pretty good matchmaker. Look, I'll tell him to cool it, okay?"
That's pretty much the exact opposite of what Clint wants, but how the hell is he supposed to say that to Tony? So he kind of stammers for a bit and goes, "Uh… sure, yeah, thanks." Which doesn't sound even a little bit convincing, not to Clint, and not to Tony, either, because Tony stares at him for a second or two and then says, "Or I can… not."
Clint doesn't answer at all that time, and Tony just says, "He did it to me and Steve, too."
Clint shrugs. That's different. Tony's the rich, brilliant consultant who funds almost all of their missions, who designs most of their equipment and improves the rest, the guy who owns the house they all live in, the only one of them who wouldn't really be any worse off if the Avengers fell apart tomorrow – and Steve is the team leader, he's Captain America, a living legend, and he's perfect, and so it's not the same for him and Tony because they deserve each other. They're both good enough. Better than good enough.
But Clint's just… this guy who has a neat trick with a bow and arrow. Just some down-and-out kid who happened to get lucky one night and stop a mugger who was threatening the Avengers' butler, instead of anyone else it could have been. And yeah, sure, he's damn good at what he does, but what's that really mean, anyway? Coulson's the one who keeps the Initiative running, takes care of all the paperwork, keeps Fury from ripping their heads off every other day. The guy is basically the heart and soul of S.H.I.E.L.D., though whether that's a good thing or not is still up for debate, but either way, it's not like Clint has any kind of a shot there. No matter what Jarvis and Tony think.
Tony just gives him a long look and says, "Don't sell yourself short."
Clint means to go and catch the last half of the movie, he really does. He just gets sidetracked somehow on the way there and ends up at the table in the dining room instead, sitting opposite Coulson and being inadvertently distracting.
Coulson doesn't seem to mind being distracted; he shoves his papers out of the way and says, "Can I help you, Barton?" but it doesn't escape Clint's notice that he puts the papers away before he asks, and that seems like it maybe kind of might be a good sign.
"No, I just…"
"Christmas movie overload?" The tone is light, almost teasing.
Clint's good at light and teasing, and when he opens his mouth, that's kind of what he's expecting to hear come out, so he doesn't quite know why, instead, he shakes his head and says, "I like it here."
Coulson looks up sharply, recognizing his own words from that morning. Clint doesn't have anything else to say, though, so he nods toward the paperwork and asks, "Want some help with that?"
"You don't even file your own field reports correctly," Coulson points out and forbears to mention that half the time, Clint doesn't file them at all, and when he does, it's usually days late because he has no concept of deadlines.
"Is that a no, then?"
"Actually," says Coulson with a smile, separating a few papers from his stack, "it isn't." And they return to silence, pens scratching on paper, Clint swearing under his breath on occasion because it might not be physically demanding, but paperwork is actually work and it's hard and up until now he had no idea. Coulson is a goddamn saint.
And it's only when Coulson shoots him a startled glance that Clint realizes he's said that out loud, and, well, crap, because the way Coulson is looking at him now, like he's calculating something, solving all of Clint's secrets and deconstructing them, Clint just knows that Coulson's got him sussed.
"You know, I didn't get you anything for Christmas," says Coulson meditatively, and haven't they already had this conversation once?
"Yeah, I know."
"Sorry about that."
"Don't be." They don't even really know each other that well, and Clint spends most of his time being a complete nuisance to Coulson, and there's nothing Clint would really have wanted anyway, and besides, technically no one was supposed to get anything for anyone and it isn't their fault everyone else broke the rules.
For something to say, because he can't think of anything else and Coulson is still looking at him, Clint asks him, "So what did you do?"
Coulson raises an eyebrow. "Do?"
"Yeah, the Avengers haven't been called out in, like, twenty-four hours."
"Take advantage of it," is the simple reply. "There's no telling when it'll happen again."
"Yeah, right. I bet you schedule these things. Woe betide the supervillain who disrupts Phil Coulson's plans."
"Contrary to popular belief, I don't actually run the world. I just debrief it afterward. Would you like to go for coffee sometime?"
"Huh?" And normally it's Tony who's king of the non sequitur, so Clint isn't entirely sure what to make of Coulson's latest bid for the title.
"Would you like to go for coffee sometime?" Coulson repeats. "Or dinner, if you'd prefer."
Yeah, okay, what? Clint eyes the mug of tea beside Coulson suspiciously, in case Jarvis has been spiking their drinks. Because he's pretty sure he just heard Coulson ask him out, and that means one of them must be drunk or hallucinating or something. Or is this still about the Christmas present thing? Or maybe he just doesn't mean what Clint thinks – what Clint wants to think – he means.
So he thinks fast, remembers that Coulson actually cares about the rules, and gives them both a way out.
"I'm, uh, not authorized to leave the base without permission."
"You already have permission," Coulson tells him, holding up a sheet of paper with a spiky signature at the bottom. "Consider it a Christmas present from Fury."
"Oh." And Clint knows that 'Christmas present from Fury' actually means that Coulson has taken care of the requisite authorizations, and that makes it a Christmas present from Coulson, and that means he's planned this, and what the hell is that all about?
There's a pause.
"Is that a no, then?" asks Coulson, and he's smiling again, but it's kind of forced and there's tension around the corners of his eyes and Clint has no freaking idea why he's worried, because as if Clint's going to say no, but then again, Clint has no freaking idea why Coulson would ever even want to ask him in the first place, so he figures, what the hell, right?
"Actually," he says, and the warm feeling he gets when he knows what he's going to say before Coulson does is totally worth all the paperwork he's been doing, "it isn't."
It turns out that Clint kind of loves Christmas.