(And they all live happily ever after, and they live and they live and sometimes they nearly die, through recklessness, through that innate lack of self-preservation, through self-sacrifice in abundance, but, in the end and in spite of themselves, they live.)
Coulson turns fifty. It’s over a year since the Latveria debacle and he’s fifty and Barton crows when he finds a few grey hairs on Coulson’s chest. Coulson has a mandatory medical at work and it seems that everyone is out to make him supremely aware of his age but the young doctor informs him that though his blood pressure is slightly raised, it is perfectly acceptable, if not admirable, in someone who works so closely with the Avengers. In any case, she tells him, one’s only as young as the man one feels and Coulson supposes that Barton is quite a bit younger than him. He takes the proffered lollipop to give to Barton later.
There is a party for him. It is nominally a surprise but it’s a well-known fact that it is nigh-on impossible to surprise Phil Coulson and the last person who did get the drop on him ended up in a hospital bed. That was five years ago, though, and they have kissed and made up. Coulson’s experience of significant birthday parties is rather limited although it’s increased since he became part of the Avengers Initiative. Stark wanted to celebrate every last one of Rogers’ milestones that passed unremarked in the Arctic ice. Thor likes any opportunity for a feast and Banner was adorably grateful when his birthday was celebrated with cake and soothing music. Darcy Lewis’ twenty-fifth birthday party was a month ago and Coulson didn’t particularly enjoy it, being too stricken by the realisation that he is twice as old as her. He’s old enough to be her father and, sometimes, she looks at him in that amused way, like old people say the funniest things, and then he gives her some thankless errand to run, like extracting status reports and sense from Banner and Stark.
He remembers another birthday, many years ago; his grandmother’s eightieth, in England, when Coulson was five. Even though it was the sixties and parts of London were allegedly swinging, it seemed that all of his grandmother’s friends hadn’t quite let go of the war and young people these days don’t know they’re born. Everyone wore drab greens and greys and olives, apart from Coulson’s mother, who stepped out in unapologetic primary colours.
And here, today, Rogers is blue and red and Stark is red and yellow and Barton and Banner fill the spaces between. The Avengers are a kaleidoscope and a cacophony and if Coulson could change his winding path, with its missteps and small avalanches, he wouldn’t. He doesn’t regret a single grey hair or injury acquired in the line of duty and that is why there is a party for him, in one of SHIELD’s larger conference rooms and that’s why his sisters are here, because they never really believed that he was an accountant. Coulson tries to tell them that there are SHIELD employees who still believe he works in the finance department and Barton looks outraged at the very notion. Stark asks if Coulson will file his tax returns. Coulson asks if he’ll submit mission reports in a timely manner (and so the stalemate continues).
Coulson and Barton are no closer to spontaneous demonstrations of affection apart from a five-minute slot in a grubby courtroom when Barton asked if he could kiss the bride and the Justice looked distinctly unamused and Coulson ushered Barton out and they ate pancakes in their favourite diner and Coulson told Barton how, in England, the wedding reception is called the wedding breakfast and Barton grinned and toasted him with too much maple syrup.
There are still days and weeks when Coulson’s brow is deeply furrowed and logistics and catastrophe make poor bedfellows and there are still days and weeks when Barton is irritable and his feet are itchy and his fingertips are itchy and they need to take a vacation or a time-out but not from each other (never from each other). Coulson lets Barton drive more often these days and it not an admission of weakness or failure. Barton teaches Coulson archery but there is too much laughing and touching for it to be a resounding success.
And at Coulson’s birthday party, Fury makes a toast and so does Hill, and so do Rogers and Stark and Banner and Romanov and Thor. Barton’s is less a toast and more a few words about looking forward to the next fifty years and they’re murmured with uncharacteristic shyness and Stark stares at him with unflattering shock, waiting for the punchline. Pepper Potts speaks and Darcy is unexpectedly sweet and there’s something about Coulson being pretty fit for a fifty year old and Barton growls which makes Coulson tip back his head and laugh and everyone stares at him because Phil Coulson does not laugh but he is happy and he needs them all to understand that (despite the missteps and small avalanches). There is a birthday cake, complete with candles, blazing like an inferno and Coulson invites Thor to blow them out, which is undoubtedly cheating. Barton leans in close and whispers in his ear that he knows Coulson has the lung capacity to vanquish a mere fifty candles.
When the lights are dimmed and the last toast is toasted and it’s time to go home, Barton snags an unopened bottle of champagne and his fingers curl around the sleeve of Coulson’s suit and if his lips brush lightly over Coulson’s shoulder, it is when everyone’s gaze is averted.
(And they leave and they live and the punchline is that it is happily ever after.)