Clint's a reasonable guy. He can make do, roll with the punches. Besides, most of the time, Coulson's ideas are pretty sound.
But this is not one of those times.
"Sir? That's the stupidest idea I've ever heard."
"Had, you mean."
"Last year. Under the Brandt alias. You said, and I quote, 'next time, I get to seduce the rich guy,' so," Coulson's eyebrow twitches, the bastard's loving this. "It's next time, Barton."
Clint shakes his head. This is seriously my life? "Let's just leave aside the fact that when I said that, I'd just been bounced off several walls and nearly gotten diced by a fan that was bigger than your office. This isn't just any rich guy you're talking about. It's Tony Freakin' Stark."
"He's not an idiot."
"Not at all, unfortunately. But he is very easily distracted."
"Yeah, but." And really, this isn't the crux of it, since Clint's not actually on board with being Tony Stark's distraction. "By me?"
"Don't sell yourself short," Coulson says, looking down at the supply list he's making on his computer, and he's just being nice, buttering him up so he'll do this stupid thing. There's no reason for Clint to be biting the inside of his lip bloody to keep from grinning like an idiot. When Coulson looks up, there's a quick question in his eyes, like he's wondering what Clint's thinking. But what he says is, "I'd do it myself, but at this point I'm fairly confident that I'm not his type."
"Right." Clint refuses to acknowledge the at this point, or the fact that this might not have been Coulson's first idea. "And I am?"
"Hill's made some persuasive arguments toward that end, yes." Clint's pretty sure he'd meant the question rhetorically, but Coulson's staring at him now, eyebrows quirking just a bit as he studies him.
Seriously, there's no good reason to be holding his breath right now.
Coulson's mouth twitches, his assessment apparently completed. "We should probably get lifts for your shoes, though. His tastes tend to run a bit tall."
Clint glares at himself in the mirror. He hasn't worn a tie in years, and looking at himself in the mirror, he's starting to remember why. "Seriously," he says, loud enough that Coulson can hear him from the other room. "How do you know that Stark's even into guys?"
There's this pause, before Coulson responds, and Clint doesn't have line of sight, he could just be distracted by his phone, or flipping through the hotel's room service menu, or just trying to find the right turn of phrase.
"The same way I knew you were."
Or exactly the wrong one.
Clint did not just hear that. Strangling his handler with a half-windsor would have only a slightly higher chance of success than actually getting the damned knot right, so he doesn't reply immediately. He breathes and tries the knot a third time and stares at himself in the bathroom mirror, and tries to figure out what he's supposed to be thinking right now.
Of course they'd done a background check on him, before bringing him on. And of course Coulson would be too much of a professional to bring it up.
"Stark's ETA is in five," Coulson's stepping around the corner and into the bathroom, scanning the monkey suit they've got him wearing and finding it sufficient, apparently. "You all set?"
"Let's just get this over with," Clint decides. He's stepping back from the sink, but Coulson's blocking his exit, reaching up, and-
-he's fixing the tie, or so Clint thinks until he catches himself in the mirror once Phil's stepped back. It's actually sloppier, now, loosened.
"It's supposed to be a party, and Stark's most impressed by people who aren't trying to impress him," Coulson says, heading back through the door. "Try not to look like you're going to a job interview when you get down there, all right?"
Coulson, on the other hand, his tie's impeccable. But uptight was always more his scene, anyhow.
It's not that Clint hates flirting. He just hates trying to flirt with someone who's so much better at it than he is.
Any other time- and if he didn't actually know better- Clint would be crowing about the fact that he'd managed to pull a date with Tony Stark. But he does know better. The fact Stark snapped his fingers and assigned Ms. Potts the task of making arrangements for their coffee date probably hadn't been the best sign.
Afterwards, Stark's swept off by half a dozen people who all seem more comfortable in their clothing than Clint does, and it's as good an excuse as any to actually finish his second drink- the ice had melted long ago, the scotch is thin and watery- and head out onto the patio, which isn't as empty as he'd like it to be. The view is great, though, even if Stark Tower's glaring obnoxiously at the horizon. He's going to have to remember this place if there's ever an op in Midtown Manhattan, but right now, it's making him feel like he's at loose ends. There's no voice in his ear barking orders at him, and he doesn't know what he's supposed to be doing with himself.
Coulson picks up on the first ring, and Clint wonders if he's been going quietly nuts, waiting in the garage down below.
"Hit a snag," Clint admits, feeling himself sobering slightly with the admission. "He's having his assistant pencil me in for coffee next week, but I lost him. Sorry, sir."
"If Ms. Potts is the one penciling you in, you've got as good a shot at face time with Stark as the President does. You ready to get out of there?"
"Like you wouldn't believe," Clint decides, downing the remains of his drink in one go and passing the glass off to one of the endlessly circulating caterers.
"I'll be out front when you get downstairs, then."
Clint's scanning the waiting cars for the black SUV, and it's not until Coulson's halfway out of the Corvette and waving at him that he realizes that he'd switched vehicles. Makes sense, given the rest of the car porn happening all over the place. The SUV would stick out as badly as a SHIELD earpiece, around here.
"Nice ride," Clint says, but when he climbs in, he finds that Coulson's sullied the dashboard with half a dozen folders, a newspaper and a sudoku book. Clint's duffel from earlier is in the back seat, but the pillow and blanket folded next to it on the seat take a moment to sink in. The bag on the floor holds a thermos of coffee and a bag of donuts, and it's kind of... something.
Coulson had been prepared to wait in the car all damned night. He would have, had Clint been more successful.
"Don't worry about it," Coulson says when he notices him regarding the debris. "You got further than anyone else has in months."
Clint loosens his tie, takes it off, wondering how long it'll be before he can change into jeans. If he's lucky, Coulson will let him change out of the monkey suit before beginning the debrief.
In the truck stop bathroom, he balls the tuxedo into an appropriately wrinkle-inducing knot and shoves it in his duffel. Heading back out into the all-night greasy spoon attached to the gas station, he spots Coulson already seated in the corner booth, tiredly studying the menu. In front of him on the table are two steaming cups of coffee, and Clint decides that he might be a little bit in love.
It's a fleeting thought, though. Nothing he needs to acknowledge, and anyway, Coulson's grilling him for ridiculously minute details three minutes later, and by the time they're leaving, Coulson's been shoved back into the box where he belongs. Bossy. Annoying. Psychotically thorough.
Of course Stark (Call Me Tony) is onto him the moment he shows up at the cafe.
"So how is Coulson, first name Agent, these days?" Tony turns the tablet he's holding around so Clint can see the first of what prove to be several pictures of the two of them working in the field. "I haven't seen him around for a while. And I'd say he never calls, never writes, but that would be, like, the biggest lie ever."
"He's fine," Clint grins, actually relieved. Tony might be a pain in the ass, but at least he moves quickly. "He misses you."
"Not as much as Fury does, but then again, Fury only sends me fruit baskets and very disappointed looks, not my own personal cupid, so maybe I should reassess, though..." He frowns, suddenly. "Hold up. Are you planning on shooting me with a bow and arrow?"
"Not today," Clint allows.
"Good." Tony grins, reaching down to grab the large black case Clint had pretended not to notice sitting at his feet. He's honestly puzzled, though, when Tony pushes it across the table towards him.
"It's okay. You don't have to get me anything. Sparing me the sales pitch is thanks enough."
Clint rolls his eyes, opening the latch. There are eight arrows inside, resting on the foam padding. The heads are interesting, but he doesn't know what to make of them.
"I may have stumbled upon some improperly secured emails from SHIELD R&D. The grappling one you've been using is crap for dealing with anything softer than limestone, and the one on the end there should be an improvement on that two meter blast radius you've been playing with."
"How'd it go?" Coulson looks up from his computer- he's looking at ebay, of all things- when Clint gets back. "What's that?"
"A consolation prize, I think." Shrugging, Clint opens the case and shows him. "He probably made me the moment I showed up at the party."
Coulson nods, unsurprised, and leans back in his chair. "Well, it was worth a shot. Fury's already signed off on the contingency plan."
"Yeah?" Clint doesn't want to know, and it must show on his face.
"Don't worry. This time, it's Natasha's turn."
Natasha is Stark's type, but then again, she's always somebody's type.
Fury, though? He isn't, not by a long shot, and by the time the dust settles, it's clear that the feeling's mutual. Fury de-prioritizes Stark's recruitment and announces that they're going to start focusing on other candidates for the Avengers Initiative, and for two months, he's got nothing better to do than wait for orders. Some days, he's crawling out of his skin, winds up lurking in the hallway near Coulson's office on the off chance that a call comes through for wheels up and feet on the ground. On the good days, he's able to get some flight time in. On the really good days, he and Natasha are banned from the range because Tony Stark hadn't been lying, and while the building's infrastructure was engineered to take a two meter blast, five times that is a little bit much.
On the bad days, though, he wakes up feeling like a civilian, complete with a desk, a backlog of paperwork, and a boss that makes him resubmit every third report form he's filled out.
"You were an analyst for how long?" Coulson shakes his head, as if he were actually some middle manager who lived for paperwork, and Clint hates it when he does that, doesn't like being reminded of the William Brandt days, back when his only goal had been to dive into everything he could so deeply that he didn't have time to surface, look around, and contemplate the reasons he'd been working a desk. Ethan Hunt's wife isn't really dead, she never really was, but that doesn't change his memories, and fuck Coulson for bringing it up, but he's already moving on. "I refuse to believe you've lost all recollection of our basic filing systems, Clint."
"Traumatic experience with a SR28B form, sir," he says, looking down at his computer at the sea of red flags the system's spit up, feigning ignorance, pretending he hadn't set them off deliberately just to have Coulson step out of his office for five minutes to break Clint's monotony.
Because he's a little bit worried that if he's left to his own devices for much longer, he's actually going to give in to the stupid impulse he's been fighting for months- ever since Operation: Seduce the Rich Guy- and he's going to access SHEILD's personnel files- which are at least seven levels above his security clearance- and get as much intel on Coulson as Coulson'd had on him. Not only would it send up the kind of red flags he really didn't want, the kind that resulted in kicked down doors and a little one-on-one time with Fury in an interrogation cell, it would mean he'd have to admit that he's actually been thinking about it.
About Phil Coulson.
In ways that might get complicated.
And this, right here, Coulson grumping at him about paperwork, it really isn't all that bad. He'd rather have this than nothing.
Finally, finally, they need boots on the ground and eyes in the sky, down in New Mexico.
Clint wakes up when the car starts moving again and takes out his earplugs, wincing at Coulson's music selection. He only ever breaks out the psychotic big band stuff when the coffee's ten hours past working.
He doesn't open his eyes, not yet. They'd flown into Albuquerque, and the rental car's seats hadn't seemed this uncomfortable when they'd first set out. "Want me to drive?"
The music's turned down to something less than ear-shattering. "I'm good." Coulson actually sounds like he means it, and he turns the music down.
Clint forces his eyes open; it takes a few moments for Coulson's face to work itself into any sort of focus, but the wakefulness he finds there feels like some sort of personal insult. The dashboard clock reads 4:19, and despite himself, Clint's lurching forward in his seat.
"The hell? You were supposed to wake me like an hour ago."
"We're almost there," Coulson says, pulling a package of donuts out of his jacket, and then another, tossing them to Clint. "Got breakfast."
"Both kinds, huh?" Neither of them are appealing. It's too damned early.
"Impulse buy. Couldn't decide." He's grinning, and there's something a little wild about it, a little adrenaline laced, like he he's riding the high after a really fun fight. Or maybe he's just had too much sugar already.
"How much longer until we get there?"
"Hour and ten, or thereabouts. I'll wake you when we get there."
The music's already done its job, though, and Clint's not tired anymore, so he sits up, looks out the window at all the nothing they're driving through.
They never get around to eating the donuts, they just debate their comparative merits- chalky powdered sugar versus waxy chocolate coating- until the sun comes up.
There's a crater and monsoons in the desert and a hammer that they both deny trying to lift. There are physicists and a crazy long haired dude who turns out to be some sort of god, and then there's his brother. They roll with all of it. They do what they do.
In between, though, there are strange hours of dead time, which Coulson likes to use for antiquing.
Coulson collects Captain America cards, and has no compunction about dragging an assassin into every dusty shop they pass.
He's finally got some vacation time built up, and assurances from several intelligence analysts that the odds of the world ending before next Tuesday are slim, so he points his motorcycle upstate, and finds himself stopping in every small town he passes.
When he realizes why he's been scanning the storefront windows, he's actually a little bit irritated with himself. But there's some rain rolling in, and he's got no real plans, and another antiques shop is as good a place to wait it out as any.
He finds a near mint Captain America trading card in a box, in between Sandy Colfax and Refrigerator Perry, and for all he knows, Coulson's already got this one, but he buys it anyway, meeting the clerk's eye as he pays for it- pays a lot for it- pretending like he isn't turning into a complete dork.
He feels like an even bigger dork slipping it inside a card on Coulson's birthday two weeks later, because for some reason, he's hanging way too much importance on Coulson's possible reactions, when really, it doesn't mean anything. It's just a trading card. The birthday card, at least, is completely rude, enough that Coulson's wincing even before he opens it, so maybe it all balances out.
And suddenly, Clint's completely absolved, because Phil Coulson is obviously the bigger nerd. He's grinning like an idiot and diving into his desk for a hard plastic sleeve to put it in, because Coulson's the type of guy who just happens to have airtight trading card cases on hand, right there in his desk drawer, next to the White Out and extra ammo clips.
And Clint, it's confirmed now, is the type of guy to find it endearing.
That being in love with Phil Coulson thing? He'd meant it in jest.
Clint's pretty sure he'd been joking, not that he has plans on even admitting that much.
It was one thing when Captain America was just a guy on a piece of cardboard. It's another thing entirely when Fury makes the announcement that they've begun looking for him.
Coulson's ecstatic when they actually find him, and Clint grins, tries to play along, but it's making his stomach hurt.
Because Captain America? He's not the type of person who's easy to compete with.
"I like the idea of him. I like the idea of all of them," Coulson says later, after Fury's provisionally signed off on Clint and Natasha being added to the Avengers Initiative roster. And Clint's already feeling transparent and embarrassed about the whole damned thing before Coulson smiles at him and makes it so much worse. "And I like the fact that you're one of them."
It should be awful but it isn't, Loki won't even let him care, and then Natasha's kicking him in the head and it's crashing down, suddenly a nightmare, and there are no silver linings, no bright spots in the mess of all this, because Coulson's not even around.
They're eating shawarma and Thor's raising a toast to the fallen, and Rogers is raising a toast to Phil Coulson and it's just not tracking at all, but Natasha's looking at him with wide eyes, shaking her head and not quite glancing down at her lap. Underneath the table, out of sight of the others, she extends her pinky finger before closing her hand into a fist, signaling him. Not here, not now. There's something more that she can't say, not with the others all watching his reactions, looking so damned sad.
"It's okay," Natasha says, closing the door. They've only got a few minutes before the debrief, but the prospect of finally getting some answers isn't doing anything to unwind the knot that his stomach's become.
Either is the slip of cardboard she's holding up. It's hard to recognize the card he'd paid so much for underneath all the blood, and when he does, he thinks he's going to throw up, but Natasha's shaking her head, thrusting it into his face again.
"Look at it, it's fine, Clint," and eventually, he actually hears her.
Because it's the card he'd bought, and it's covered in blood, but there's no way it should be, not with the airtight case that's supposed to be protecting it, but for all he knows, Coulson had risked taking it out for an autograph. It doesn't mean anything.
"He's not dead," she says, and the steadiness in her eyes does mean something. "Fury's hiding it."
"Long story short, he was trying to free Thor from the holding cell when Loki stabbed him. They took him to the helicarrier's infirmary, and a short while later we heard the announcement. Fury got us all together while you were in recovery, and he threw these on the table, made us look at them."
She sighs, looking for the words. "You and I have our orders and we follow them. The others, though... are they either not soldiers, or not our soldiers. And going by the way Fury spoke to us, I believe this was a ruse to band us together more tightly as a unit."
"You believe." But Clint considers it, for a moment. Fury is exactly the type of man who'd not only pull something like this, but actually pull it off.
"I believe nothing. I merely pay attention. Once the helicarrier was evacuated and the damage reports were coming in, the infirmary was locked down and listed as a no-go zone, though it sustained no damages during Loki's attack."
My attack, Clint wants to interject, reflexively, but he doesn't need to follow that line of thought right now. He wants to keep thinking about this, about how Coulson's not dead. He wants to be convinced.
"Have you seen him?"
"No," she admits, and for it being such a little hope, it's still crashing hard. "But I have a source in medical who confirms that not all patients were transported out to mainland facilities."
"Just how good is this source of yours?"
"Very good," she says, and she keeps secrets so habitually that he's not surprised when she says nothing more. She does, however, slip a scrap of paper out of her pocket with two deft fingers. She holds it out- it's an access code- and as an apparent afterthought, she passes him the bloodied card as well.
She'd said Fury had used the cards as a rallying point, something to goad them into action, and he's pretty sure she's doing the same thing now.
But she's smiling at him- she's the queen of conspiratorial grins- because she knows. Clint doesn't need a piece of cardboard to rally.
"When you find him," she says, turning away from him now, one hand already on the doorknob, "tell him it worked."
By midnight, reality's winding sickly through him. He's enumerated every single way that Natasha's intel could be wrong, outdated. He's considered the possibility that she's just another person clutching at hope.
By four in the morning, he's tired and angry enough to admit that yeah, things like this- miraculous returns from presupposed graves- just don't happen. And even in a life as insane as his has become, it sure as hell doesn't happen twice.
The bitch of it is, the last time his superiors lied to him, letting him go on believing- for years- that he'd gotten Hunt's wife killed, at least he'd discovered the lie in the same moment that he'd discovered that she wasn't, in fact, dead. Hunt had absolved him completely, then.
But ever since, when he thinks back to his days as William Brandt, it's the guilt he remembers first.
Natasha's intel to the contrary, what Clint now has is this.
Coulson might be alive.
Clint might not have gotten him killed.
He just doesn't fucking know.
Two days of psych evaluations later- they're stupid, they're always stupid, and he'll never understand why it is the shrinks think their sessions will do a better job getting intel out of him than any of the interrogational techniques he'd already been trained to resist- he's finally put on stand down and sent home to await his orders.
The first time he breaks them (and half a dozen security protocols, though Fury's got their back on this one) is an hour and ten minutes later, when Loki and the tesseract disappear from SHIELD's facilities.
The second time he breaks them, two late nights later, is the second time he's broken into the helicarrier in a week. He can't help the passing thought that it was easier, last time, when he actually hadn't cared what he was likely to find.
But his thoughts are his own now, and he's got nobody to blame but himself when he notices his hand shaking as he punches the code into the infirmary door.
"I was wondering when you'd figure it out."
Blinking at the lights, Coulson's pale and washed out looking, clearly needs a shave, is currently trying to decide whether or not he's supposed to be irritated. It's an expression that Clint knows well, and it would be comical were it not for the tubes and wires and the machines he's hooked up to. It's the only thing in here, looking around at the medical equipment, that seems right.
"I didn't, sir." Clint has the feeling that he's supposed to say something more than that- he'd come up with dozens of things when he hadn't been sleeping, the past few nights, but Coulson's rubbing his eyes and squinting under the florescent lights, and just as Clint's remembering that he really needs to ask him if he's doing okay, if he's feeling all right, Coulson smirks.
"Who else knows?"
Nobody I don't trust, he only nearly says, but it's a little disingenuous. He just trusts Coulson more. "Tasha put it together."
Coulson grins, slow and easy. "That's my girl."
Clint blinks down at the IV stint taped to the back of his hand and manages not to laugh. "Are you on drugs, sir?"
"Several, at the moment."
Clint nods, tries to think of what he's meant to say, next. Now that he's had a few moments to get his bearings, get over the surreality of all this, he's finding that he's still angry, annoyed, knocked for a loop, and completely fucking ecstatic, and he can't figure out how to fit it all into words. He's got nothing.
He's got a card in his pocket, though, and it gives him an idea.
"Don't get mad," he says, pulling it out. The corner had folded, creased in his pocket, and even though it doesn't matter now, he's holding his breath as Coulson carefully presses it flat between his fingers and thumb, because even when it's beyond salvaging, Coulson's the type to fix whatever he can.
"They were in my locker," he's frowning in annoyance when he looks up. "What happened?"
"You died, we fought. Then we won. Stark flew a nuke through a wormhole, Hulk saved him from crashing to a horrible death, Thor took Loki back home. Natasha and I pretty much just kicked ass. Well, after she kicked my ass, but I'll take her boot to my head over Loki being in my head every time." Coulson's nodding, but he's not asking any questions. "Anyhow. Fury's holding off the powers that be, the rest of us are going to ground, except Stark, who's..."
"Doing the exact opposite?"
"Yeah." Clint tries a grin. The empty infirmary isn't as terrifyingly uncomfortable as it had been when he'd first arrived, but he's forgotten something.
Coulson's tapping the card against his thumbnail. It might be a cue.
"Oh. Yeah. Rogers. He was awesome." It's ridiculous, how he wants to choke on the name, especially given the fact that he's not even lying, but maybe it would be less daunting if he were. "I'm starting to see why you're so in love with him." It's a joke, it shouldn't hurt to say it, but Coulson's stuck here with tubes sticking out of him, he needs to know, and this isn't about Clint's stupid headspace.
Besides, Coulson's still here, and is this close to rolling his eyes, and -hold on, crap. Sure, Coulson can read him like a book, but Clint's just gone and highlighted it for him.
"I don't know," Coulson says, brandishing the bloody card before dropping it on the bed beside him. His voice sounds rougher, now, earnest, and it's only the intonation that gives his words weight. His lungs just don't seem to be up to the task. "He's really not my type."
And he's meeting Clint's gaze, yeah, but he's tense.
No, he's just gone shy, face frozen as he stares, eyes wide.
Clint swallows, and wonders what Coulson's files say. Maybe he should've broken into them after all.
Clint's not too bad at flirting, though he does catch himself stammering once or twice. What makes it work is that Coulson's so much worse at it than he is- he says he'll kiss him- Clint's already sitting on the edge of his bed, leaning over him and suppressing the urge to do something stupid like hold his hand- under two conditions. It's a relief to have something to laugh about because all this fumbling, this fighting not to evade when asked how long, this stumbling to return the question, it's killing him, and it's out in the open, here, but it hasn't gone far..
"Right," he laughs, not tearing his eyes away from the stint sticking out of the hand that's wrapped loosely around his wrist, because he'd always kind of thought he'd be the one to make the first move. It's Agent, right?" And Coulson's snorting quietly- it sounds almost painful, but it's happening- and this'll be so easy, because yeah, calling him Phil, he can manage that.
The second condition, though?
Between the damage the helicarrier had taken, the medics sleeping in the office next door, and the guards patrolling the corridors, it takes him fifteen minutes to get out to Phil's on-board quarters over in the next section, and ten minutes to get back. By the time he slips back into the infirmary with the toothbrush and toothpaste, Phil's eyes are closed, and it would be a disappointment, only Phil had said since I pulled your file after our first op, and it's been, hell, years now. Another 24 hours won't kill him.
He can't leave a note, but he can slip the card, toothbrush, and toothpaste, carefully underneath Phil's pillow.
And he can kiss his forehead, too, because Coulson might be the type to have an entire protocol planned out for how this is going to play out, but Phil, Clint's pretty sure, wouldn't begrudge him this.
Tomorrow, he'll come back. He'll break in again and they'll do this- well, they probably won't manage properly, the setting's all wrong, and when he's thought about it, he'd always pictured Coulson- Phil now, how cool is that- in a tie, but they'll do this.
He'd joked, once, about seducing the rich guy, but honestly? He'd rather seduce Phil Coulson.