In his mind, recovery ends when his pass lets him back into the gym, the armoury and the ranges. Even when he had moved himself to the mansion he would make the daily pilgrimage Stark Tower as soon as he felt there was a chance. He would take the train, jostled by the commuters, just so he could be absorbed in his own thoughts without being accused of being antisocial. Phil had told him repeatedly (both in person, on the phone and through post it notes dotted around the house) he would tell him as soon as he knew he was clear but Clint was nothing if not stubborn. It gave his final days of rest purpose, gave him time to catch up on the SHIELD rumours before he was back full time and mostly, he felt it served as a warning to everyone else. I’m ready and in a few days I’ll be back.
The routine was always the same. Buy four coffees, walk in, give receptionist coffee, flirt with the receptionist until they buzzed him in, acquire a security escort, give security coffee, flirt with the security guard and wait for Phil to show up. Sometimes the doctors made it before Phil, muttering and fussing over him as he made his way around the building trying doors. He much preferred when Phil headed them off and the two of them could walk in a comfortable silence, sipping not shit coffee until he was tired. Then he would find his way to the one door his card always opened: Phil’s office. He would lie on the couch, read newspapers and complain periodically until Phil was finished for the day and would drive him home. It was the most comforting routine he had, bar the familiar motion of notching an arrow and letting it fly.
He didn’t like it when the routine was upset. When he walked into the coffee shop on a Saturday morning, cheerfully looking at the specials board, he didn’t expect to see Phil sitting there already. There was an empty mug and two travel thermoses sitting in front of him. Clint was un-nerved and hid his hands in his pockets as he bypassed the line and moved to sit across the table. This was either a very good or a very bad sign.
“Don’t sit down Barton, we’re leaving.” Nothing good then. He only ever called him Barton if he was more then three days away from duty or had fucked something up. His mind raced backwards a little, rewinding the last few days of his interactions with Phil. There was a lot of them, he had to admit, but it was the last few days of his recovery period and…and then he realised that for the last four days he had bought two coffees and had been in Phil’s office before he had.
There was nothing companionable about the walk to the SHIELD parking lot. They wouldn’t start talking until free of the Manhattan traffic and the palpable level of stress and tension in the car had gone down. They’d had this conversation often enough to know that the first half hour of this drive was best used to remember what had been said last time.
“You have at least five days left.”
“Nah, who say?”
“The doctors, Barton.”
“What do they know? I’ve been taking care of this well oiled machine for forty years now and I say it’s fine.” Phil didn’t laugh like he normally would but couldn’t quite hide the softening of his eyes and a strained smile that Clint knows so well. Nothing that can’t be fixed then, Clint told himself.
“Well oiled machine huh? You’re a $200 fixer upper at best.”
“You going to fix me up, Coulson?” He couldn’t help himself, even though he regretted the words as soon as he said them. The 200-yard stare snaped back and Phil deliberately tapped his wedding ring against the wheel.
“We need to talk.”
“We are talking.”
“No, Clint, we’re engaging in sexually suggestive banter.”
“Is that the problem?” Phil’s hands tightened on the wheel. A slow rain had started on the outskirts of the city. “Because maybe you should stop providing me with set ups if it is.”
“That isn’t…fair.” The thing was, Clint knew this was coming. This conversation happened like clockwork, when they both ignored reality for a while. He’d had a feeling, when Phil’s hand found his wrist in medical three weeks earlier. There had been nothing very subtle about things since then. No, lately being in the same room as Phil was like having a drug addiction that lived just under the surface of his skin. He’d long ago decided there was no rehab for being in love with someone who was married.
This had started before he’d found the ring in Phil’s pocket while looking for the bill for pizza that he needed to claim back the money since Phil was a stickler for evidence of purchase. This had started before Belize, hiding in palapas and holding onto rifles and each other for two days. This had started the day Phil Coulson had asked him if he wanted to be a better person through a jail door. But in a shitty hotel in Syracuse he’d found all the evidence he’d needed. When Phil had come out of shower and found him rolling the ring across his fingers they had both sensed the change.
“Seperated,” Phil had told him as he leaned against the doorframe.
“Chrildren? “ Phil shook his head and sat down next to him. He gently plucked the ring off Clint’s knuckles.
“Not quite yet.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
“It means the baby is due in six months and I don’t know what to do anymore.”
“Fuck. Where you planning on telling me anytime soon? Or just invite me to the christening and hope for the best?”
“Oh and what was I supposed to say? Sorry I forgot to mention my wife who left me because I didn’t think you’d be around for longer then three weeks? Sorry I didn’t tell you that my love life is so fucked up that I don’t know who’s staying and who’s going? Oh, I know. I’m sorry fell for both of you since everything would have been fucking simpler if I’d never met either of you.”
Clint in genuinely taken aback by it all and Phil, Phil just squeezes his eyes shut and rubs his middle fingers up and down his nose.
“Do you love her?”
“Why’d she leave you?”
“She saw me on the news. The Roskilde footage with the Vikings stealing the re-creation ships and that thing that came out of the sky. It scared the shit out of her and by the time I got back she was gone.”
“And you still sleep with her?”
“Clint, you don’t fall out love with someone just because they’re scared of what do you. I visit her when I can, and we work on things.”
“I can’t tell if you’re being funny or not.”
“Neither can I, actually.” Phil smiles then, a slightly strained smile that he only uses when he can’t help himself.
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.”
“It wouldn’t have made a difference. You’re the one who’s married and if you’re ok with fooling around with me then I don’t care.”
“You’re lying,” Phil tells him, unable to keep the fondness out of his voice. “You think I’m scum for having cheated on my wife.”
“I think you have a chance I’d kill for. And you know I don’t use those words lightly. You have a chance for something normal, and a chance to do right. I think you’ll do the right thing, Phil.”
“I can’t move back in with her?”
“And make her a moving target? You really are a birdbrain sometimes, Clint. She thinks I work for the DOD and have a pension. How do I explain SHIELD? How I explain you?”
“You do have a pension.”
“I have a fucking tombstone and a plot. “
“And soon you’re going to have a kid.” Clint leaned over then and bumped his shoulder against Phil’s. “It’s ok Phil. You go raise your kid, have a happy home life. You let SHIELD keep her safe and you never mention me.” Phil opened his eyes and turned his head slightly, capturing Clint’s gaze with his own.
“That isn’t fair.”
That was the line that had stayed with him, after they had left the hotel and finished the mission. It was inhumanly unfair that Phil had met her first, but Clint was used to life being unfair and so he simply wrote his report about how, yes, it was unfair that they had to write off a car in a high speed chase and it was completely unfair that he had shot that man twice in the knees. But life was like that.
He had thought everything would change after that night, but in a comforting way they hadn’t. There was a private meeting between Phil and Fury and then a various meetings until finally everyone had just sat down in a room and decided that this was ok. No one else needed to know and a surveillance team bugged, tapped and installed twelve video cameras into a New Jersey house without any questions. There was a more private meeting between him and Phil a few days later, full of talk about professional boundaries and lines and other things that Clint had gradually come to understand could be summed up as look but don’t touch. He could live with that and, frankly, it was better then he’d expected
Phil had taken a mysterious two weeks off six months later so Clint had left the cutest stuffed toy hawk he could find on his desk and considered himself replaced.
Except, he wasn’t. Phil wore his wedding ring all the time now, tried out his parenting techniques on Clint and Natasha, insisted on two days off in a row and spent far more time then Clint thought normal worrying about spots in preschools and filling out applications for them. But he still worried about Clint’s armour, his eating habits, his psychiatric reports, his Amazon orders and his sleep patterns. It’s been five years and he can still calm Clint with a touch to his wrist, to his shoulder, to his hip. His key card always opened Phil’s office.
It turns out Clint wasn’t the only one with an addiction.
“That isn’t fair, Clint”. He’s back in the car, windshield wipers breaking up the raindrops on the window. It’s raining harder now, a short but heavy summer shower, and he realises that he doesn’t know where they are. If it was anyone else driving he would be making demands but instead he just wants to open the car door and roll onto the road just to see what Phil would do. “I put the child locks on ten minutes ago.” Oh yes, he did that last time.
“Crossing the line.” Phil shakes his head and pulls the car up to the curb. It’s a quiet neighbourhood, unremarkable in any way. The house is white with dark green trimming and the lawn looks like it needs mowing. It’s been burned into Clint’s mind since he first saw a picture of it, five years before.
“You know what our mistake was, Clint? It was making a big deal about the line in the first place. I’m not going to sleep with you. I’m not going to kiss you. But I am going to invite you in for some breakfast. I think it’s waffle day.”
“Who do I say I am?” It’s the only thing he can think to ask. Out of all the permutations and combinations he imagined this wasn’t one of them.
“You tell my daughter it’s your fault her middle name is Fancis and you tell my wife you’re the man who convinced me that going back to her would work out.” Phil reaches over then and puts his hand on Clint’s wrist, barely touching and yet still seeking out his pulse. “Don’t worry Clint. It’ll be ok.”
“But what if…”he starts, his mind already filling in a hundred different ways this is going to go horribly wrong. What if they don’t like me? What if I say something that compromises you? What if someone has followed us here? What if I wreck it all?
“What if we spend the rest of our lives dancing around the fact that you are as big a part of my life as they are?” Phil lets that hang there for a minute, his hand still resting on Clint’s. “Because you are. Not in the same way as them, but when I think about the things that are important to me it comes down to Kate, Anna and Clint. I’m asking you if you want to come have waffles with my family and watch Saturday morning cartoons with my daughter because I’m tired of things not being fair.”
“You really named your daughter after me?” Phil laughs then and the mood that has followed them from New York, from that hotel room years ago, is broken.
“Kate Francis Bishop. Come on, “He undoes he seat belt, the child locks and opens the door. “We’re going to miss the start Special Agent Oso.” It’s stopped raining and the sun is peaking over the roof tops as Clint follows him up the path, hands shoved into his jean pockets because he doesn’t trust them not to betray him right now. He follows him through the door and into hysterical childhood laugher, a rush of PJ’s demanding a hug, small hands clutching a worn stuffed hawk and warm eyes peering over a shoulder.
Clint follows him over the line and never looks back. It seems only fair.