The first actual mission after the whole Loki incident slash alien invasion slash mindfuck is a simple takedown, usually well beneath both Clint’s skills and his clearance level.
But it is to be expected. It’s SHIELD, so the alien mind control defence is considered entirely valid, but he’s still the one responsible for the biggest security breach in SHIELD’s history and a death of a dozens of agents. Not to mention the part where Loki’s army all but destroyed Manhattan.
The fact that he helped to stop that counts a lot in his favor, so his punishment is mostly a few weeks of downtown writing incident reports and helping with the cleanup and damage control.
So the first mission being a cakewalk and a few states away is actually a good thing. At least that’s what Clint thinks until he’s at the designated meet-up point and it’s Coulson behind the wheel.
“Isn’t this a little beneath your paygrade?” he asks. He’s expected one of the mid-level agents, low enough on the totem pole to be sent to Phoenix in the first place, but experienced enough to be entrusted with the task of watching Clint for any signs of residual Loki infestation. He hoped it’d be Sitwell, maybe, one of the few agents he can work with for a prolonged time without either of them attempting either a murder or a suicide.
Another one of those very few is Coulson, admittedly, but this is way beneath his paygrade. The last mission they were on together was New Mexico and Coulson has been running the whole show there.
“I argued for an actual mission. Fury argued for an extended holiday.” He probably did, too. Fury might be a manipulative asshole able to use Coulson’s death to guilt everyone into getting their shit together, but if he has friends, Coulson is probably one of the closest ones. “This is a compromise,” Coulson shrugs and taps his fingers against the wheel. “Get in, Barton.”
“Should you even be out of the hospital? You look pale, I don’t want you driving if you’re about to pass out. One death experience for a month should be enough, even for you,” he says dryly, because it’s easier than admitting he’d rather smash his fingers with a hammer than spend even a few hours alone in a car with Coulson, let alone a few days on a mission together.
Coulson just stares at him pointedly until Clint gives in and does actually get inside the car. He stretches his legs and leans against the window, taking as much distance as he’s gonna get.
Thankfully, Coulson was never the one for idle chit chat, so the first hour of the journey is blissfully silent. If you don’t count the radio, and that’s another thing you need to know about Coulson, he has terrible taste in music and rarely changes the CD to boot, so it’s the same seventeen songs on repeat, one worse than the other.
“How about some radio,” Clint says finally, before he can stop himself. Coulson waves his hand magnanimously.
“Ten bucks for losing the quiet game.”
“We weren’t playing the quiet game,” Clint protests, and gets an actual smirk in return.
“Could have fooled me,” he says, hand extended as he waits for the money. Clint huffs but reaches out for his wallet and fishes out two fives. He could argue, sure, but that never leads anywhere with Coulson.
He flicks through the radio stations and passive-aggressively leaves it on the classical music channel. His SHIELD-mandated shrink would probably have a lot to say about that.
Coulson is the one to break the silence next, after a lovely half an hour or so of the string quartet concert, as he reaches out to switch the radio to a different station. “This is the last time I’m telling Stark anything,” he says, sounding much less exasperated than he usually does when he’s talking about Stark, almost fond. Clint knows Stark spent a considerable amount of time hanging out in the medical, bugging the hell out of Coulson, in a backwards way showing that he actually cared.
It doesn’t bug Clint. There’s no reason for it to bug Clint, and so it doesn’t.
“Actually, Natasha told me,” he shrugs. “Man, who knew dying could ruin your dating life.”
“I think it’s more the part where I couldn’t quite explain why I was declared dead in the first place.”
Yeah, that could put a damp in your love life. This is why you should date people with clearance, preferably within two degrees of yours.
Not that Clint dates. It’s what he hears.
There’s an expectant silence in the car, like Coulson is waiting for Clint to say something. He doesn’t look away from the road, looking relaxed in the driver’s seat, but Clint feels the weight of expectation on his skin.
It’s a skill he picked up a long time ago, the ability to read Coulson’s approval or annoyance in the silences on the comms. It made them good in the field together, it’s less of an asset now.
He lets his head roll to the side slowly, closes his eyes and forces his breathing to level, feigning slumber.
It probably doesn’t work, but Coulson lets it slide.
They pull up at a gas station sometimes later. Clint actually lost the track of time, the sleep he was attempting to fake creeping in for a few minutes or more.
The tank is half full, from the look of it. Coulson shrugs when Clint raises his eyebrow and half-smiles in a way that could be considered sheepish in anyone who hadn’t played a part in defeating an alien invasion this very month. “I think I want some donuts.”
“Really. After the last time?” Clint asks. Coulson’s face doesn’t register a surprise at him knowing, but then again, Clint hasn’t exactly kept quiet when he learned about the whole thing. The story made rounds around the SHIELD facilities, growing better with each retelling.
“What are the odds it’d happen again?”
“I’d say you jinxed us now, well done.” Coulson gives him a look, part exasperation and part amusement, and Clint shrugs, like he usually does. He thinks he might survive this trip if they keep it like this, light and normal, Clint going from focused when he needs to to running his mouth off, Coulson alternatively snarking and sighing at him.
But he also knows himself and his need to pick at scabs before they’re properly healed, making a bloody mess of them. And the recent events haven’t even begun to fade, they’re gaping open wounds and he’ll bleed out if he’s not careful. He’s made attempts at patching things up, starting with agents’ funerals and Natasha, but the first was like pouring salt over it and the second... well, Natasha had, on occasion, sewed up his wounds with rough thread and a needle she held over a candle. It hurts like a motherfucker, but they’ll be fine, it’s him and Natasha... they’ll be fine.
This... this is different. “You know what Natasha says sometimes...” he starts as they walk into the gas station and stops at Coulson’s mildly interested look. “Nevermind,” he says and Coulson lets it slide once again, nodding and heading off in search of his donuts.
The bored kid behind the counter looks a little less bored and a bit freaked out. Clint watches him for a few seconds over the shelf, but once he establishes that the kid is worried because he’s just paused what looks like a cam version of a recent blockbuster on his laptop and Coulson looks every inch like the G-man he is, Clint relaxes.
“Oh, hey, Mountain Dew,” he says out loud and enthusiastically, like he’s just stumbled over a greatest idea in the world.
“We’re not stopping if you have to take a leak in half an hour,” Coulson warns him good-naturedly.
Clint rolls his eyes. “Aww, but Mom,” he offers flatly, just to see the flicker of reaction on Coulson’s face. It’s gone quickly, as he bows his head to inspect the donuts before he makes the usual choice (all of them), but the smile is there, tugging at his lips.
Sometimes picking at scabs could be totally worth it.
The art of stealing donuts from Coulson is not avoiding him finding out. He’ll find out. He probably knows the moment the thought forms in Clint’s head, or even earlier. He did buy four packets instead of his usual two, after all.
(“I’m on vacation,” he offered with satisfaction at Clint’s look.
“I thought it was a compromise,” Clint shot back.
They key isn’t Coulson not finding out. It’s not being caught right in the act, with his hand in the packet and fingers sticky with icing. (Pun not intended this time, but a good one nonetheless.)
Clint’s done with two donuts already and on his way to the third. He doesn’t like donuts all that much, he’s always prefered bear claws, but that’s not the point here. Coulson is asleep in the passenger’s seat, after Clint made him switch and give up the keys for a while. There’s been a brief argument about that, which Clint won, on the virtue of being the one without a recently punctured lung.
The part where Coulson is actually asleep and not just pretending to be so just makes Clint’s point all again.
(And yes, strange as it could seem, he does know how Coulson looks and sounds like when he’s feigning sleep. It might be a strange thing to know about someone, but after years of missions and stake-outs and assignments there’s very few things he doesn’t know about him, or about Natasha for that matter. The only remaining secrets are the inconsequential ones. And a few really big ones.)
He eats the third donut and licks off the icing remaining on his fingers, then wipes them against his jeans. It’s not like there’s any other suspect, but all evidence should be removed nonetheless. Attention to detail is important in their line of work.
Coulson shifts in his sleep and grimaces, not holding back the flicker of pain or discomfort in this unguarded state. It’s a reminder of how close he came to dying.
No, not close. He was dead for near half a minute, from the report Clint got a hold of. And then there was the three days he was considered dead, before Fury fessed up. He maintained it took him three days because it was a touch and go for a long while, and he wasn’t sure if he’d be made a liar or not.
Clint isn’t sure if that makes it better or much worse.
He learned that Coulson was dead on the second day. Natasha didn’t tell him, and then there was New York. Then they somehow ended up actually going for the shawarma Stark suggested, then there was the matter of Loki and Thor’s return to Asgard, then Natasha took him home and forced him to rest before the paperwork and reports and depositions.
It was Hill who told him, when he asked why Coulson wasn’t there for his briefing and if it could wait until the cleanup was done and Coulson was available. She looked at him like he just punched her, her lips setting into a tight line as if to keep the words in.
When she did speak, her voice was almost gentle, starting with his name, not “Specialist” or “Barton” that she’d normally use. Clint didn’t need her to say anything more, his stomach was already turning and the ringing in his ears muted the next words. He’s not quite sure how he got through that briefing, or the next day of others just like this, all mind-numbingly dull and painful but not nearly as bad as the feeling in his gut every time he thought of Phil.
“Three,” Coulson says, eyes still closed, but his voice alert and calm. He goes from deep asleep to completely conscious in a matter of seconds, a habit you never shake.
“How about one more time, with full sentences?” Clint tells him, deliberately pretending to not understand.
“Three donuts, Barton. You could have asked.”
“Well, where would be the fun in that, sir?”
Coulson nods, clearly accepting the explanation, before he stretches and glances at the radio’s clock. The sky is dark gray by now, the road ahead almost completely dark. It’s not that they haven’t driven in much worse conditions, but Clint thinks most doctors would agree Coulson would be better off in bed.
“According to the signage, we’re close to a town. They’re bound to have someplace to sleep in,” he offers and watches Coulson muster up arguments to continue driving. “If you say we’re on a time-sensitive mission, I’m gonna call Fury to check with him.”
There’s some satisfaction in the look of amazement mixed with betrayal Coulson sends his way. Apparently Clint’s totally right in suspecting Fury would not only back him, but also possibly ground Coulson for a few weeks. Good to know.
“You’re not getting any more donuts,” Coulson tells him. He’s probably lying.
The town’s bed and breakfast is the type Clint doesn’t care for, with ghastly wallpapers, too much furniture, and the faint smell of cats’ urine in the hall.
Coulson, who is the kind of guy who dates classical musicians and collects vintage memorabilia, apparently finds it charming. He’s also a cat person. Figures.
“They’re much less annoying than some people I know,” Coulson says, and the cat he’s petting at the damn reception desk purrs and leans into the touch, fucking furball.
“He probably has fleas,” Clint says maliciously, and that earns him a glare from the woman who appears behind the counter. She tells them there’s only one room available, because it’s “the season.” The season for what, Clint would like to know. The whole place is dead quiet. And smells of cats.
One room. She probably just hates Clint and wants him to suffer. Well played.
And sure, they’ve shared close quarters before. Including a few nights in a car, and something like a week in a single room with one bed, no real bathroom, both of them and Natasha. That was fun.
It’s different now, because he’s started to doublecheck what he wants to say, because there are moments when he thinks Loki’s mindfuck was only the second worst thing to happen to him this month, because he starts to forget why this is a really, really bad fucking idea...
“Clint,” Phil says quietly, question laced with worry.
Fuck, he’s slipping.
“I’m taking the bed by the window.”
“Yes, I know better than to try to take it from you,” Coulson says flatly. Clint is a little disappointed and completely relieved that he lets it go again.
He digs into his duffel bag, partly to cover up whatever disappointment might show on his face, and partly because Coulson takes off his jacket and hangs it on the back of the fugly chair by the even fuglier desk, and then undoes his tie, sliding it off with some satisfaction. Clint would ask why he even wore it for the fucking road trip but he knows better on that one.
“I’m taking the first shower,” Coulson offers, and heads for the bathroom, thankfully choosing to continue undressing behind closed doors. Clint folds into the bed and closes his eyes, breathing out slowly.
He was an idiot to consider the paperwork and depositions were any kind of punishment. He’s not sure how he pissed off Fury (couldn’t have been all about Loki, that happens), but the man is creative in his torture choices.
There’s a scratching at the door and somehow pathetic meowing. Of course. Come to mock him. He goes to open the door and the cat from downstairs sashays in, and then jumps on Clint’s chosen bed. He stares it down and it stares back, the narrowed eyes reminding him a bit of Natasha.
He lets it be.
When Phil emerges, dressed for sleep in a threadbare SHIELD workout shirt, faint traces of bandage visible under it, Clint waits for him to look at the cat, then back at him, eyebrows raised. “Don’t even say anything.”
“Wasn’t going to,” Coulson lies smoothly. He reaches to pet the cat again and the damn thing seems really pleased with himself. Clint rolls his eyes and heads for the shower. There are days when you just can’t win and they usually end up like this, with a long, hot shower and a reluctance to come back to the world.
Or, in this case, the room that contains Phil in bed that isn’t Clint’s but is damn too close for comfort.
On the plus side, this is a day when no one got wounded or killed. He likes those.
When he finally gets out, Coulson is down for the count, and the cat changed beds, perched in the foot of Phil’s bed, looking at Clint suspiciously. Clint salutes him and stalks towards his own bed under the cat’s watchful gaze.
“Okay, you take the first watch,” Clint tells the animal benevolently. It blinks at him and yawns, before curling up, apparently having decided Clint is trustworthy enough. Clint’s touched, really. If still somehow jealous about the fact the dumb animal gets to curl up next to Coulson.
Yeah, he never said he didn’t have issues.
The nightmares are expected.
That is, he’s been having them on and off since Loki took his mind out for a spin. Not every night, but enough to be a considerable problem.
Sometimes they’re mild, just the hint of an alien presence in his mind, alien but by now familiar. Someone else guiding his actions but not quite controlling them, like a devil on his shoulder. He wakes up slowly from those, breathing harshly and staring at his hands, wondering for a few seconds if they’re still his own, before he remembers.
Then there are the other ones. The ones where he kills without a second thought, silently and efficiently, the ones where he sees his former friends and coworkers die at his hands and feels no remorse, just a satisfaction of a job well done. Those are worse not because of their content, but because of their nature. Nightmares he can deal with, those are memories. They end with a start and a jolt, as he goes from deep asleep to wide awake, and those are the mornings when he runs for hours until everything hurts, and spends the days on the shooting range, putting holes through the targets and trying to forget faces.
And then... there are the ones where he kills Natasha. The ones where the Helicarrier goes down according to plan. The ones where he puts a bullet in Fury’s good eye. The ones where he’s the one to stab Phil, except he aims for the heart and doesn’t miss. Those feel real, like memories that just didn’t happen.
He wakes up with a start, a hand gently pressing on his shoulder. “It’s okay,” Phil says, his voice level and calm. Informing, not placating.
Clint blinks and licks his lips, dry and parched. He tries to calm his breathing down and more or less succeeds, even if it’s still a little too shallow.
Phils fingers dig a little into his shirt, he can feel the pressure on his skin. He’s sitting at the edge of Clint’s bed, his body language telegraphing worry, concern. Clint knows he should smile and say everything’s alright, everything’s fine. Nightmares happen in this line of work and it gets easy to dismiss them.
Not this one.
He doesn’t move, because saying it’s fine would be telling Phil to step back, take his hand away. Clint’s not quite ready for that.
“Sorry I woke you up.”
“I’ll live,” Coulson shrugs. “The cat’s pretty pissed, though,” he adds. The animal in question doesn’t even look up, just continues to lick itself on Coulson’s bed.
“It’ll live,” Clint mutters. The skin on his shoulder itches, and he wonders if he’d get away with tilting his head just a little, brushing his cheek against Phil’s knuckles. Probably not.
“You called my name.”
There are few responses Clint could have to that. The easiest would be to laugh it off, say something along the lines of Coulson being glad it wasn’t a sex dream. It would be a bit like punching himself in the face, but it’s still easy, something expected of him.
He meets Coulson’s eye and shrugs. “Just a nightmare. Loki. Helicarrier. The works,” he says dismissively. “I’m fine.”
That’s the cue, the moment for Coulson to step back, move his hand away. But he holds for one, two, three seconds longer, looking into Clint’s face searchingly. “Alright,” he says finally, and shifts, standing up and taking the step back to his own bed. Clint feels the loss of the physical contact even more acutely than he expected to.
He realises he’s holding his breath and lets it out slowly, deafened by his own heartbeat and pulse rushing. It’s part the residual strands of the nightmare, and part Phil’s proximity, the way his eyes were soft, worried, asking something Clint didn’t dare answer, let alone consider.
He closes his eyes and wills himself to calm down, get back to sleep. It’s not working all that well.
“Sometimes it’s the Helicarrier,” Coulson says quietly, but the sudden words startle Clint into opening his eyes and flinching. Coulson must have noticed, but he continues as if he didn’t, speaking into the silence and darkness of the room. When Clint looks to his right he can see the outline of his face, staring at the ceiling. “I wake up and every shadow on the covers looks like blood in the darkness.”
The message is loud and clear. They all have things they’d rather forget, nothing to be ashamed of. That’s not the point, Clint wants to say. “I know it’ll pass,” he points out.
Coulson shakes his head. “Probably. But that’s not... The point is, I wake up, and those are only shadows.”
“It all happened.”
“And it’s over. You carry it with you, Clint, even when you’re awake. No one thinks...”
“You know what Natasha always says?” Clint interrupts him quickly. He’s heard this before, how it’s not his fault. He knows that, in a way. He doesn’t believe it, not really. “About the ledger.”
Phil shifts to look at him. Clint can make out his features pretty well in the dark, and what he can’t see, he can fill in from memory. The way Phil’s mouth tightens and his brow furrows when he thinks Clint is being deliberately obtuse. “You insist on paying someone else’s bill,” he says, surprisingly softly.
Clint doesn’t really have an answer to that, not one that would satisfy Phil anyway. He stays silent, closing his eyes against Phil’s searching gaze. After a while, he falls asleep and doesn’t dream at all.
“Didn’t mean to wake you up,” Coulson says, first thing in the morning. Clint must have woken up seconds ago and he is yet to open his eyes. He can feel the warmth of the sun shining straight into his face and doesn’t quite want to open his eyes under the glare.
“It’s fine,” Clint mutters and shifts to get out of the sun rays before he dares to look. Coulson must have just woken up himself and barely got up. He looks much better, like he’s actually rested for once. That doesn’t happen all that often, to either of them.
The cat meows and Clint realises that was the precise sound that woke him up, not Phil moving. It buts the door pointedly with its head and Coulson obliges in letting it out.
“So, it just wanted a one night stand. I feel used,” Clint says mournfully, causing Coulson to roll his eyes to cover his amusement.
“Maybe he’ll call you.”
“It would only end badly when he decides to move to Portland in pursuit of his career,” Clint offers. It’s a cheap shot, and possibly uncalled for, but he’s an asshole, this is hardly news. Coulson doesn’t look annoyed, just a hint of exasperation mixed with bemusement, and something that hits close to relief. Clint being a dick is probably a welcome return to normal after last night.
“And for that, you’re buying me breakfast,” Coulson tells him, like he’s not the one with the SHIELD expenses account.
“I’m pretty sure you still owe me dinner and some good booze. You said the chances of the blue cube blowing the joint up were pretty slim,” Clint mutters.
“It wasn’t a formal bet so I don’t really owe you anything, Barton. And technically, Tesseract didn’t cause the explosion per se.”
“I’m hearing an awful lot of discussing semantics and no actual reason against me getting food,” he argues, and then remembers why this is an extremely stupid idea. He’s talking himself into a fucking dinner with Coulson while he’s still unsure he’ll survive this road trip.
Maybe all those people marking his files with “reckless behavior” and “disregard for personal safety” were on to something. Who knew.
“I’ll buy you breakfast if you find a place with decent coffee,” he says, giving in and giving up, like he should have from the start.
The last time they had breakfast together was the day before the Project Pegasus facility went kaboom and Clint joined the ranks of the walking not-quite-braindead.
Clint’s assignment on site didn’t exactly encourage social activities, but that never deterred Coulson. And after all, Coulson never had a full social calendar himself, he was the senior agent on site and couldn’t just join the movie nights in the junior agents rec room.
Even if he wanted to, and really, who would want to be subjected to the Matrix marathon a few times a month?
Clint was technically also Coulson’s subordinate, if not on this particular mission then in general, but that never actually mattered outside of the field, or of the occasions on which Clint had backlog paperwork (which was most of the time, but hey).
They never quite arranged to meet for breakfast, nothing like that. Most of the time they happened to pick it up at roughly the same time and weren’t opposed to sharing a table. If Clint sometimes prolonged his morning run to not be in the cafeteria too early, or if Coulson sought him out on the roof on a particularly sunny day, well. It was a routine and Coulson liked it, and Clint got easily annoyed by most of other people.
(He’s not sure why he feels the need to list all the excuses and justifications, but he has a pretty good working idea.)
And if the last few weeks before Loki were a little awkward, the underlying tension becoming a little too much, Clint still wouldn’t really give those mornings up.
That last time it wasn’t even a proper breakfast, Coulson spent most of the time going through paperwork as his coffee got cold.
Clint spent most of the time stealing bits of Coulson’s muffin. It wasn’t until he got to the middle that Coulson reached out without looking up, catching Clint’s wrist in his hand. “Why don’t you never get your own?”
“Yours are always better. I’m pretty sure the kitchen staff hates me.”
“I won’t dispute that, you started it with the whole pizza thing. But all the muffins come from the same tray,” he said, and Clint didn’t point out that his hand was still in Phil’s.
“Could be. Yours are still better,” Clint said with a shrug and pushed down on the disappointment and relief when Coulson rolled his eyes and moved his hand, removing it from Clint’s skin just to push the muffin towards him.
Now, in the little diner in the sleepy town in the middle of fucking nowhere, Clint buys his own muffin, along with an assortment of other breakfast foods. He gets pancakes for Phil, the go-to diner breakfast food of choice for him, and the biggest coffee they have (which isn’t that big), and then watches with amazement as Coulson actually adds milk to it.
“So, this is confirmed. Phil Coulson really died and has been replaced by a pod person.”
“Black coffee doesn’t agree with my meds,” Coulson says.
“As I said, death has side effects.”
“I wish people stopped making a fuss about it. I wasn’t dead for that long.”
The waitress who just approached the table to place Coulson’s pancakes in front of him gives looks at them with suspicion. Clint smiles at her, but apparently that doesn’t help, because her frown deepens.
“You look demented,” Coulson tells him helpfully.
Clint nods. “I’m glad you’re not dead,” he says, and it isn’t what he meant to say at all. He tries to look away, down at his food, busy himself with drinking his coffee, but he can’t force himself to turn away from Phil’s expression, flicker of surprise in his eyes melting into something else.
“I appreciate that,” he says, clipped and dry.
“I mean,” he starts and doesn’t offer any explanation apart from a vague wave of his hand in the space between them. Coulson nods.
“I know.” And he probably does, except not all of it, but that’s fine.
Coulson’s cell goes off with a text alert and he glances at the screen, eyes narrowing as he makes out the lines through the glare from the sun outside.
“I’ve been wondering when they’ll start pestering you. I’m pretty sure the paper pushers were the ones to mourn you the most, no one else fills everything perfectly in triplicate.”
“That’s what you’re telling yourself to avoid your own paperwork, Clint. Not everyone is deeply afraid of the form 71B,” he says and puts the cellphone back on the table, not bothering to answer.
Considering this is the first text, or in fact the first attempt at contact at all he got since yesterday, the idea of this being actual vacation looks more likely. Clint suspects Fury issued an agency wide threat against disturbing Coulson. It’s sort of nice, if also scary.
“Important?” he asks, indicating the cell with his head. It’s probably none of his business, but fuck that.
“Intel from a contact,” Phil says vaguely, and his face is so perfectly blank he’s clearly hiding something. Add to that the aura of contentment, pride, and embarrassment all mixed together, there’s only one thing this could be.
“I thought you had the entire set already.”
“I did,” Coulson agrees. “But then Fury had to go and ruin them.” He doesn’t sound angry that a few decades of his work was undone. Maybe mildly annoyed, but mostly ready for the project of getting the cards back. “You know, it’d be almost alright if he really used my blood,” he muses and Clint remembers what Tony told him about the whole thing. He didn’t know it wasn’t Phil’s blood, but it makes sense. Coulson kept the cards safely hidden in his locker, to get blood on them Fury would have to go back to the body and even he wasn’t that much of a cold asshole.
Well, maybe he was, but he was also much more reasonable.
“Instead, he used something that looks like nail polish or some other...” Coulson continues, now with a hint of annoyance in his voice. “Crimson red. No one bleeds like that.”
Clint sort of wishes he knew how Fury found red nail polish on the helicarrier in the aftermath of an attack. He wouldn’t have been able to explain what he needed it for, since one, the gossip would defy the purpose, and two, absolutely no one would like to be an accomplice to fucking with Coulson’s cards, no matter if he was dead or alive.
And yeah, everyone knew about the cards. In the beginning Clint thought it was bogus, a running joke. Or maybe, as Natasha suggested, an attempt to humanise Coulson in the eyes of the junior agents who for real thought he was a robot. But then he was with Coulson in Warsaw when the man found card number 8 at a street market. Coulson actually smiled in public.
(It’s not that... Coulson smiles, but it’s more like a smirk or a curl of his lips, when Stark is being ridiculous, when the mission goes well, when Clint’s remark surprises him. But Warsaw was the first time Clint saw him full on grin, teeth and sunshine and all. He’s pretty sure none of the junior agents ever saw Phil smile like that, because you can’t witness that and still think the man is a robot, there’s just no way.)
“You know you work with the genuine article now,” Clint points out, knowing it wouldn’t even make a difference. Phil loves his cards.
He shrugs and digs into his pancakes, and Clint was right, working with Steve is not the point (though it’s clear on some days that Coulson still can’t quite believe that), he’s still going to hunt down all of the cards.
Fine, Clint needs a project anyway. He’s sure Natasha will help, not to mention all the others. Between all of them it should be easy.
“You should at least make Fury pay for them,” he suggests and Coulson shrugs.
“They upped my hazardous duty pay after the whole dying thing. And then some after I permanently signed up for the Avengers project, apparently working with Stark on the daily basis is worth a raise.” Clint snorts at that, mostly because it’s true. He’s pretty sure Pepper Potts was the highest earning assistant in the history of ever, before the Stockholm Syndrome kicked in and she started dating Stark.
“Why didn’t I get a raise for working with Stark?” he asks and then realises, before Coulson even has a chance to give him a pointed look. “You’re getting a bonus for working with me too, aren’t you.”
“Enough to afford the horrendous prices for the cards,” Coulson agrees. “And besides, I can’t be really angry with Fury for using them, I was the one to suggest they needed the push.”
It takes an embarrassingly long moment for the words to connect, Clint is frankly ashamed of himself for being so slow. Or he would be, if he wasn’t busy being angry.
“You told Fury to tell us you were dead?”
“Well, I thought I was dying,” Coulson says, and he doesn’t sound apologetic at all, like he was being reasonable, like it was the perfectly fine thing to do. “I thought it might help. I didn’t encourage a blatant destruction of my property, though.”
“It’s not about your fucking cards, Phil,” Clint says, his tone quiet but apparently effective, judging from the surprise on Coulson’s face.
“Clint,” he says, clearly looking for words. He doesn’t seem to understand Clint’s anger. “I didn’t mean to... you weren’t even there at the time.”
But he was, and they both know it. He was on the Helicarrier, leading the charge and initiating the chain of events that lead to Loki stabbing Coulson. And now Phil is sitting opposite him and telling Clint he didn’t think the fake death would, what, affect him in any way?
He fishes two bills out of his wallet to leave as the tip and stands up, placing them carefully on the table.
“Clint,” Phil says and Clint shakes his head slightly before turning to head out. After two steps he turns back, and picks the muffin from the table to take with him. He looks at Phil daring him to say something, and when nothing comes, apart from the soft, hurt look in Phil’s eyes, he moves to head out and for the car.
Steve was the one to tell them Coulson was alive. Apparently Fury had limits, and the limit was lying to Captain America once Coulson was out of the woods if still unconscious.
By that time they weren’t yet shacking up in Stark Tower, but somehow kept spending most of their time there, everyone sans Thor, who came back for a few days but spent them with Jane Foster, and then took her to Asgard to meet the folks.
(If you ask Clint, that’s a material for an excellent comedy. No one asked Clint.)
Steve, as it turned out, wasn’t the one to hold back and break the news gently, so what he said, before he even entered the kitchen fully, was “Agent Coulson is alive.”
There was a chorus of questions and possibly an explanation, amended with Tony’s running commentary on Fury being a fucking bastard, but Clint caught only strands of that over the ringing in his ears. Natasha reached out for him and he turned his hand in her grasp, fingers digging into her skin a bit too hard.
The next day she asked if he wanted to go with her to visit Coulson, since he apparently woke up for a whole five seconds and it could happen again. He declined politely and went to the range for four hours instead. She didn’t ask again.
“This is not an apology,” Coulson says, standing next to the car and dropping a bag in Clint’s lap. Clint doesn’t have to look to know it contains pie for the road. They’ve made stops in diners before and Clint usually gets pie to go, only this time he was a bit busy storming out.
“I should have left you here,” he mutters, shifting in the passenger seat. Coulson has the keys, sure, but not much could really stop Clint from hot wiring the car and just driving off.
Coulson gets into the car and rolls down the side window, leaning back a little to look at Clint. “That’s not an apology, because it could be misconstrued as bribery. Doesn’t mean I am not apologising.”
“What for?” Clint asks, because he’s pretty sure the dying part is not Coulson’s fault and he certainly isn’t sorry for telling Fury to use it as a push for the Avengers. And Clint gets it, on some level. You lie when you need to and cheat when there’s no other way and kill when it’s necessary.
Doesn’t mean he’s not pissed.
“You know, you were a lot less annoyed when I shot you.”
“You were well within your rights to, then,” Clint shrugs. “Besides, I didn’t know you that well at the time.” To be honest, it was actually their first meeting. Good times.
Coulson nods and doesn’t speak for a while, his gaze fixed on Clint. It’s not quite searching or questioning, just taking in Clint’s expression, contemplative. “I’m sorry for not having Natasha drag you to the hospital wing to see me,” he says finally, as if he’s made a decision about what he’s sorry for.
Clint rolls his eyes. “That doesn’t even make sense,” he says.
Phil nods again, then tilts his head a little, questioningly. “What would you have me do, then?”
The obvious, instinctual answer is “not die,” but Clint has learned before that he has exactly zero control over that. Over people dying, or leaving. Things has been going better the past few years, partly because he was careful to have a very few attachments, and partly because, well, Natasha and Phil, those two could be counted on to live.
Or so he thought.
“Clint,” Phil says, his tone uncommonly gentle. “I’m sorry.”
“What for?” Clint asks again, and he doesn’t think he knows the right answer, that there is a right answer, all he knows is the low buzzing anger that’s almost passed and the pain that has been there for a while, under his skin.
“Not knowing better.”
Clint closes his eyes. Phil sounds earnest, honest, like he knows he’d do most of it all again, but like he’s acknowledging Clint has the right to be hurt, too.
It’s hard to be angry at that.
“What kind of pie did you get me?” he asks, starting to unfold the bag.
“Cherry. The waitress says it’s their best,” Phil says, starting the engine. The car comes to life with a low hum, but doesn’t move yet. “You should have come by,” he says and Clint doesn’t answer, busies himself with the radio controls.
Maybe he should have, but he most certainly couldn’t.
Clint takes on driving in the afternoon, for the last leg of their journey. He can drive leisurely, after Phil’s mad drive all morning they are well ahead of schedule. Idly, he wonders if he should mention Phil’s driving habits to Tony and watch as he tries to talk himself out of getting a sports car from Stark.
Phil gives in to what he probably wanted to do since yesterday and goes through his e-mail, thumbing through his phone with a put-upon expression. Apparently people back at HQ are being idiots, but that’s nothing new.
“They asked you to come back yet?”
“Actually, there’s seven messages from Fury telling me in no uncertain terms that cutting this short is out of the question. I think it’s an automated notification.”
“Are we still pretending this isn’t a vacation?”
“A vacation would involve less stuck-in-the-car time,” Phil says, illustrating his point with an attempt to stretch his legs.
“If they call it off the moment we get there, you owe me ten bucks.”
“This is not how you enter formal bets, Barton, we’ve established that. But make it twenty and we have a wager.”
Clint reaches out without looking to shake on it and knows Phil rolls his eyes but accepts the handshake. Clint isn’t sure if it lingers a bit longer than necessary or if this is just how he reacts to Phil’s touch now.
There is a hint of smile on Phil’s face, like the wager amuses him. That’s part of why Clint keeps on betting against him, even though most of the time he loses. But even under the smile there’s something else, a sadness and weariness Clint doesn’t remember ever being there, even at Phil’s most tired, after the missions that went wrong.
Clint stares at the road ahead for a while, he can’t tell how long. Phil finishes checking his phone and leans against the window, eyes half closed. They’re good with silences, comfortable, or at least they used to be.
Most people think Clint has trouble keeping his mouth shut, especially some of the agents who worked with him, who complain he mouths off on the comms. There’s a purpose to that they fail to understand, the chatter is a way of relaxing, of concentrating on the task at hand, the arrow, the aim, the bow, of shutting off thinking too much. But he’s never had trouble with shutting up when really necessary (it’s that his definition of necessary sometimes doesn’t agree with others’).
And yet now there are words that keep bubbling to the surface, that want to be said, that he has trouble keeping down.
“I did visit,” he says and all but freezes at the sound of his own voice. It seems extremely loud, somehow, even over the radio.
Phil doesn’t move, but there’s a tension in his body that wasn’t there before. “Hanging out in the air ducts doesn’t count,” he offers flatly, like he’s continuing the conversation they were just having, not one from hours ago.
“They count if you know I’m there,” Clint argues, trying for a joking tone. Except of course they don’t count, he knows that pretty damn well. It’s not sitting at the bedside, it’s not keeping watch in the small hours, it’s not folding yourself into the uncomfortable hospital chair and watching the steady lines of the machines.
He tries to think how many times Coulson did just that, even at the beginning, when he was just Clint’s handler, not his friend and certainly not anything more.
It’s fine, he’s used to being a disappointment.
“Yeah, it counts,” Phil says quietly, startling Clint. Not just his words, but the earnest quality of his tone, like he really does mean that. Like Clint choosing to climb into the vents and remain unseen, like the coward he is, is enough.
“No, it doesn’t,” he mutters. “But I didn’t know how to just walk into your hospital room when I was the one responsible for you being there in the first place.”
“Pull over,” Phil tells him and Clint obeys on sheer muscle memory before he even thinks to question it. He’s too used to Phil’s orders in the field to even consider disobeying.
“What is it?”
“You’re driving while stupid, I think there’s a law.”
“I don’t think it’s particularly well enforced,” Clint says as the car comes to a still. He doesn’t turn off the engine, just grips the steering wheel harder, his knuckles white. It feels like they’ve been getting to this point since the beginning of this trip and now that they’re here, he wants it over as soon as possible.
It could be a ripping off a bandaid metaphor, but he thinks it’s going to be more like setting a broken bone, necessary and fucking painful.
Phil tugs at his seatbelt with some frustration, unbuckling it and turning in his seat, clearly waiting for Clint to face him. Yeah, good luck. He did mention the coward part, didn’t he?
(He fucking hopes it doesn’t get back to Natasha, she’d kick his ass. Harder than the last time.)
“It wasn’t you.”
“See, there’s that, it was. It was my intel, my skills, my... Selvig put in a fucking off switch, what did I do?”
Phil shakes his head. “You know, Stark told me off for being an idiot in going after Loki.”
It’s such a non sequitur in a sense that Clint actually looks at him. “What?”
“I choose to dispute the idiocy claim, but he is right about the fact that I went after Loki. I didn’t...” he stops and reaches out, his hand on the side of Clint’s neck, his thumb brushing up the side of his face. Clint shivers, his whole body tensing up, his pulse rushing. He wants to run and yet is glued to the spot. “I think I preferred you angry at me,” Phil says.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Clint says, the slight shake of his head bringing him into an even closer contact with Phil’s hand. He doesn’t think he was really angry at Phil.
And isn’t that a stunning insight his shrink would be proud of.
“I’d take anger over unsubstantiated guilt.”
“It’s...” Clint starts to argue and doesn’t get to finish, because Phil’s leaning in, his hand shifting to the back of Clint’s neck, pressing lightly as he guides Clint into a kiss.
It’s not as unexpected as it might have been before, yesterday, last week, five minutes ago. Clint was aware this was going to happen ever since the first moment Phil touched his face, the excitement and fear buzzing under his skin, a heady noise of pulse rushing echoing in his head.
He didn’t expect it to be gentle, sweet. It should have been angry, Phil shutting him up, the pent-up frustration of the past few months, the build up tension of the past weeks finally coming to the fore, it should have been...
It’s slow. Neither of them wants it to end and Clint sighs into it, and the reaction he gets is an answering groan from Phil. They shift closer, until Clint encounters the problem with his seatbelt and reaches to free himself. His fingers fumble, he doesn’t think he’s been this uncoordinated in years, not unless he’s under heavy drugs in the hospital wing.
He pulls back reluctantly. His breathing his heavy, but not as heavy as Phil’s, who has been in the hospital quite recently. Phil might not think Clint’s responsible for his injury, but he won’t dare to hinder his recovery.
“Fumbling in the backseat wouldn’t cause my stitches to burst,” Phil says, clearly reading Clint’s mind.
Clint hadn’t even thought of any backseat fumbling, and Phil mentioning it is patently unfair. He shakes his head. “It’s a bad idea,” he says, and somehow it comes out too serious, too honest.
It is a bad idea, all of it. It has been pretty well established by the whole universe that Clint Barton doesn’t get what he wants, he’d be stupid to fuck with those rules.
The thing is, Phil has a knack for making Clint pretty damn stupid.
“I have been telling myself that,” Phil agrees with a shrug. Clint’s stomach drops, and if he should feel relieved, he doesn’t. He’s terrified Phil would be reasonable about it. “I’ve decided I don’t really care,” he says, before moving in for another kiss, and Clint gives in.
He’s wanted this for too long and too badly to fight it now, and he’ll take what he can get. And he gets Phil, apparently, for reasons unknown to him that he’s better off not questioning.
“Backseat is still a bad idea,” he mutters after a while, and it makes Phil smile against his lips and nod.
“Far be it for me to discourage the flashes of responsibility in you,” he says.
“Fuck you,” Clint suggests politely and breathes in sharply when Phil grins and nods, like he’s accepting the suggestion.
“I think I’ll call Nick, tell him I’ll take that time off he insisted on.”
“Don’t we have a mission to conclude?”
“He’ll fly someone in, he owes me that much,” Phil shrugs and Clint snorts at that.
“And you owe me twenty bucks.”
“Those weren’t the terms of the wager.”
Clint nods. “I’ll find something else,” he says, brushing his thumb across Phil’s lips before he pulls away, hands back on the steering wheel. Phil watches him for a moment with a small smile as Clint drives back onto the road. Then he fishes out his phone and dials Fury’s number, but his left hand falls to Clint’s thigh, resting there, comfortable and comforting, just the right amount of pressure for Clint to feel the warmth and the promise inherent there.
He’s not quite sure where they’re going now, and where they’ll end up. But in this moment, that doesn’t matter, because he thinks that at the end of this trip, they might be okay.