Chapter 1: The time Clint sacked Phil's house
Clint has certain steps he takes, with every new handler who’s assigned to him. Steps that involve breaking into their personal quarters, creating a comprehensive mental catalog of all their belongings, and subjecting them to rigorous psychoanalysis. He likes to be sneaky enough that he has enough time to complete the task with an appropriate level of attention to detail, but not so sneaky that he doesn’t get the chance to subject the outraged agent to his conclusions while their belongings are still spread out around him on their own living room floor.
Agent Phil Coulson, sadly, offers very little material to work with, though Clint could probably work up a monologue on the bareness of his home. He’s creative that way.
The Captain America trading cards, though, which he finds in a Stark Industries prototype of a miniature translucent controlled-environment lockbox (and naturally unlocks to examine in a better light)... well, those seem like they might touch a nerve.
When Coulson returns home to find Clint cross-legged on his living room floor, a half-empty artisanal soda from Coulson’s fridge in his hand, precious trading cards strewn all around him (and Clint has to give his handler points for literally not even blinking), Clint doesn’t give him a chance to speak before he goes for blood.
“Seriously, Coulson? All the superheroes out there these days and you choose the one in the tight mini?” He picks up a card, holds it to the light, flicks it experimentally, and notes the way the skin around Coulson’s eyes tightens even though he doesn’t twitch. The guy’s got control, Clint will give him that. “Way to be classy, dude.”
Coulson steeples his fingers in front of his lips for a moment, which Clint suspects is his buttoned-down way of railing at the universe. When he speaks, though, his tone is disarmingly pleasant. “You are an excellent spy, Agent Barton. Logic therefore suggests that you wanted me to find you in my home, and wanted me to know that you had done your... due diligence... as pertains to my character. Since I observe that my trading cards all remain present and intact, I presume that this invasion is an additional screening mechanism rather than a declaration of antagonism. I find that... interesting. And somewhat counterproductive. Care to tell me what exactly you hoped to accomplish?”
Clint thinks it’s a rhetorical question, but then Coulson stops and waits for him to answer. Stalling for time, he gets to his feet and then... just stands there, awkwardly.
Coulson raises an eyebrow. “Please, Agent Barton, make yourself at home,” he invites, elaborately deadpan. Clint doesn’t move. “Sit, Agent,” Coulson raps out, his voice suddenly steel-edged. He points at a folding chair, not exactly the most comfortable choice in the room, but easy to get up from.
Clint makes a show of unconcern as he sits, lounging back with his ankles and arms both crossed, in the lounge chair opposite from where Coulson had pointed. It’s important to establish a certain level of shock and awe in these early days of partnership.
He grudgingly gives Coulson points for not grinding his teeth.
And then... silence. Coulson is still waiting for an answer. Clint isn’t going to give it, and if a psychological pissing contest is what Coulson wants, well, Clint is going to win it, because that’s what he does, and Coulson may be turning out to be a little more interesting than his other handlers, but he’s still a suit and Clint isn’t backing down.
Somehow, when Coulson speaks first, it doesn’t feel like a surrender. It’s more like he’s aware of the games Clint is playing and could care less how he scores. The bastard.
“Look, Barton,” he says directly, “you’re a good agent. I said it, I meant it. You’ve run through a lot of handlers, though, and SHIELD is reconsidering your value to them. I’m good at what I do. I’m willing to work with you. I’m willing to listen to you, even; I think you’re more than just a good shot. But fighting me every step of the way? That’s not going to work. You’ve got to give some ground or it won’t matter if I’m an asshole or the best thing that’s ever happened to you. So fill me in. What was the point of this exercise?”
Clint grits his teeth and goes for the simplest explanation that won’t make him look too douchey. Or crazy.
“I don’t like to be surprised. Seeing what you keep around you, or,” and he glances meaningfully at the bare walls, “not, that’s context. So’s seeing how you react to me when we’re not in your tidy little office where you get to call all the shots and everything is how you set it up.”
Coulson examines him long enough that most men -- men who didn’t spend hours at a time holding perfectly still in service of the perfect kill shot -- would have squirmed. Clint leans further back in the lounge chair like he doesn’t have a care in the world and lets out a loud, luxurious burp.
Coulson’s blank expression doesn’t falter but his lips twitch every so slightly. Finally, he inclines his head. “Well, I suppose that’s fair.”
Clint stares. He has no retort for agreement. Normally, by this point, the situation would have devolved into red-faced shouting or, in the case of a couple of his more idealistic handlers, condescending lectures about trust and consideration for personal boundaries and behaving like an adult.
“But just so we are clear, Agent Barton,” Coulson continues in that calm, pleasant voice that is simultaneously soothing and terrifying, “I am excellent at my job. What this means is that, while I may not have the marksmanship skills that make you such a valuable asset to our organization, I am completely capable of entering your home, just as you have done mine, and it would be very, very easy to learn every little detail of your past. I am not talking about what is in the highest clearance levels of your file, which I have already seen. I’m talking about what came earlier, those parts of your life that you have, in my estimation, been pathologically careful to keep off the page. So, Agent,” and his voice takes on a warning edge, “consider yourself an open book that I can read cover to cover anytime I damn well choose.”
A lesser man, Clint thinks, would probably gulp. How can a blank face in a suit be so fucking scary? He’s impressed despite himself.
“However,” Coulson continues, his tone softening again, “that is not how I want to this partnership,” and Clint knows he’s not imagining the slight emphasis placed on that word, but he’s not ready to believe Coulson might actually mean it, “to work. So here’s what we’re going to do.”
He pauses, and Clint nods to show that he’s still listening. Intently. Coulson gives him a little smile that’s about ten times scarier than his blank face.
“Your past will remain as buried as you wish it to be, and both your home and mine will remain unbreached going forward. You will take my orders in the field, and in return, I will answer any questions you have and consider any changes you wish to make to mission plans. I will not ask you to trust me, but I will ask you to remain open to the possibility of my earning your trust in the future, and I will do the same.”
No-one has ever taken the wind out of his sails so completely and still left him feeling like he’s standing on solid ground.
This... could work. Maybe.
(Years later, he’ll tell Phil that this turning point validates his whole breaking & entering phase of teamwork, because how else would he have figured out how much awesomeness Phil was hiding under his expensive suits and his pro-leagues poker face. Phil will bang his head against the wall a couple of times before pulling Cint in for a kiss and murmuring fervently against his mouth, “So. Not. The. Point.” And Clint will smile, because horrifying Phil is always a reliable tactic for inciting a makeout session.)
But they’re nowhere near all that now, and Clint is still trying to figure out whether the man in front of him, who collects cheesy trading cards and probably irons his underwear and can take a home invasion without blinking, is the kind of crazy that might work for him, or just a weirdo with delusions of badassery.
“Sir,” Clint says, trying to convey through the unsarcastic honorific that he’s on board with this giving-it-a-chance thing, “just... all right, I’ve done this a lot, you probably know that. And you’ve got my attention. But... ok, really, superhero trading cards? Really? Isn’t that kind of... juvenile? Did you just put them there to mess with me?” Because, really, how can he work with some maladjusted perv who collects cards of some long-dead stupidly patriotic pin-up girl instead of surrounding himself with family and friends and art and plants and whatever else normal people do? (Not that Clint is a great person to judge normal.) Clint isn’t even trying to be rude now, he just... needs to know. Apparently Coulson picks up on that, because he actually answers.
“Haven’t you ever wanted to believe in heroes?” he asks Clint, and for a moment, his face looks almost human.
Clint’s breath catches in his throat. There’s something so simple about that question, and so hopeless. His mouth twists. “It’s a bad idea to want something you can’t have. Sir.”
The silence that follows is a pretty clear indication that they are done with... whatever this is, so Clint launches himself from the chair and heads for the nearest exit before either of them can say anything more.
Just before Coulson shuts the front door in his face, Clint catches something in his eyes, something warm and sad and curious, something that makes him want to trust this man, want to know him.
It’s a bad idea to want to something you can’t have.
But he does.
Chapter 2: The time Clint brought Natasha home
In Fresh Start, I’ve been borrowing annagarny’s amazingly beautiful story about Clint and Natasha’s first meeting (“They’re starting that young now?” “I did”) as my headcanon for their friendship. This chapter is meant to follow it directly. It’s supposed to stand alone, too, but seriously, that story is amazing and you should all go read it.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It’s dark outside when Clint returns to Coulson with the living, breathing target of their assassination op. Not that dark or light or time means much inside the windowless safehouse walls.
Clint follows protocol, sends all the correct codes at all the secret checkpoints, knocks the damn secret knock when he gets back to the safehouse with the scary-ass redheaded kid he’s broken orders for (because whatever else he does, he’s not going to start assassinating little girls), and then he pretty much starts babbling because he has no idea if Agent By-the-Book is going to go for this and the Black Widow’s hand is trembling in his and she hasn’t said a word since she they agreed not to kill each other and he’s pretty sure that if she gets even a whiff of a threat they are all three of them done for.
So, “Hey, we got chocolate, sir?” he says the moment they’re through the door. “Don’t know why we would, but we better fucking have chocolate, because I promised her more chocolate, and she’s only... what are you, kid, twelve, thirteen?” She stares at him wordlessly. “Whatever, if we don’t have chocolate you’re going to have to break cover and get some, like the good stuff, because when thirteen-year-old -- we’re just going to go with that, kid, ok? -- when thirteen-year-old girls are deprived of chocolate it is a fucking scary thing.”
Coulson examines the two of them -- Clint pleading and protective and defiant, the Widow scrawny and blank-faced, bare feet bleeding from some embedded glass shards even though you’d never know it from the way she didn’t limp once on the trek back to the safehouse, every line of her ready to break for the door -- and something passes briefly over his face that Clint’s never seen before, something that speaks of old wounds and a depth of feeling that Clint honestly hadn’t been certain his stone-cold handler possessed.
But, “Language, Barton,” is all Coulson says.
“There’s a kid in the room. Watch your language.”
The Widow’s fingers jerk a little in his -- he’s still holding on, both to reassure her and to prevent her from making a break for it -- and he realizes with some incredulity that there’s a smile twitching at the corners of her mouth, and her shoulders are unwinding a bit. She thinks Coulson made a joke.
Wait, did Coulson make a joke?
“Did you just make a joke, sir?”
“Swear again and find out, Agent.” Coulson winks at the kid. She recoils. Clint sighs. “You two, sit.” Coulson inclines his head toward the couch. “I’ll see about... chocolate.”
Clint lets go of the kid’s hand and sits, leaning back and resting an ankle on the opposite knee, trying to look reassuring and unthreatening and, well, not too much like himself, mostly. The kid waits until it’s clear Coulson actually is puttering around the kitchen (Clint can’t blame her; he kind of doesn’t believe it himself), and then she sits on the very edge of the couch, eyes on the door, spine straight.
“Miss Romanova,” Coulson says mildly from the kitchen, and she jerks to her feet, wincing slightly. Clint glares daggers across the room, but his handler appears unruffled.
“How do you know my name?” she demands. Her voice is raspy and suspicious, and it makes Clint want to punch something, anything, that it comes from someone so young.
“Your last name was in our files,” Coulson answers easily. “We don’t know your first name. I hope you will tell us what it is, but there’s no need for you to share that yet if you don’t want to. Please do sit, Miss Romanova; those feet look painful.”
“I feel nothing,” she shoots back, but she does sit again after a moment.
“What I was going to say, Miss Romanova, is that I agree with my colleague’s decision to bring you here, and I will do everything I can to ensure your safety if you decide to work with us.” He tries to hold her gaze from across the room, and she doesn’t bolt, but she looks away.
Coulson, Clint concludes, is not so good with the kids. Even the prematurely lethal ones. He finds this oddly reassuring.
Coulson comes back into the living room, such as it is, with a plate of food -- chocolate, yes, little Lindt truffles that run the spectrum of white to dark chocolate, but also peanut butter-laden celery, strawberry yogurt, and a turkey and cheese sandwich with lettuce, tomato, and... avocado? Seriously? Coulson catches his look and his mouth quirks. “It’s on SHIELD,” is all he says, which Clint takes to mean that this is his way of compensating for what they both know is a crap assignment. At SHIELD’s expense, literally. His respect for the man climbs a little higher, as it has been doing incrementally for the three years they’ve been working together.
By this point (though granted, the bar is set pretty low) Clint respects Coulson more than anyone else he’s known. Not that he’d ever let on.
Coulson is focused on the kid. “There’s plenty of chocolate here, but I hope you will also consider having a little lunch. I think it will make you feel better. It’s up to you, though.” It’s like he’s talking to a very skittish cat. Clint thinks that tone would probably either make him break down completely or goad him into punching someone, which may explain why Coulson has never used it on him.
The Black Widow does neither. She takes the plate and is about to open the yogurt when she freezes, looking suspicious and so, so hungry.
“Clint,” Coulson says, catching on, “why don’t you take a bite or two of everything, make sure it’s all up to snuff.”
“That ok, kid?” Clint asks. She shrugs tensely. “Point to where you want me to bite,” Clint offers. Her lips twitch, and she points to the very center of the sandwich, then folds her arms as if to say, What are you going to do about that? It’s encouragingly bratty. Clint flips a knife out of his boot, ignoring how she goes very, very still, cuts the sandwich in half (diagonally, cause that way is just better), and takes a bite, as demanded, from the very center of the sandwich.
It’s actually a pretty good sandwich. He shares this thought with the kid, who is unimpressed. She points to a celery stick. “The whole thing,” she orders. Clint makes a face -- he’s not really a green veggie person -- but crunches down.
“You want to pick me out a chocolate?” he asks when he’s done, and she hesitates and then shakes her head.
“Chocolate’s all mine,” she says, and then she practically inhales the sandwich, crusts and all.
“After you’ve eaten,” Coulson says while she goes to town on the food, using that same calm, unassuming, soothing-a-spooked-animal voice, “I can look at your injuries. Up to you, of course, if you want that to happen. We have a pretty good medical kit here, and I think someone should at least look at your feet. Once we’ve cleaned them out, we can get you some shoes, should make things a little easier. Clint can tell you, I’m a fair emergency medic. Comes with the training. SHIELD -- that’s where we both work -- likes to keep its people in good shape. I’ve patched Clint up, well...”
“More times than I can count,” Clint chimes in when Coulson appears to get lost in the process of tallying up how often he’s had to save Clint’s ass.
Her narrow-eyed gaze flits between the two of them, measuring. Clint guesses her silence is meant to be intimidating, but the effect is sort of ruined when she starts in on the celery and inelegant crunching noises fill the room. Without really meaning to, he glances at Coulson, intending to share the humor, and is surprised to find an expression that is almost... tender. Coulson shuts it down the moment he catches Clint looking.
“Hang on a minute,” Coulson says suddenly, and he leaves Natasha and Clint on the couch while he he goes into the bedroom to rustle around in his military-issue duffel. Clint can’t imagine what he has in there that’s not protocol (a.k.a. totally boring and of no value to anyone in this situation), but he emerges with a small, garishly colored rectangle of laminated thick-stock paper.
Natasha suddenly looks very interested and very young.
“Um, excuse me, did you find time in our busy schedule of political assassinations in enemy territory to go visit with the local nerds?” Clint demands. Coulson looks every-so-slightly sheepish, but he squares his shoulders and hands the card to Natasha, who grabs it and then remembers to look disinterested.
“It’s yours,” Coulson says. “I collect them, but this one should be yours. A reminder. That there are good people out there. And anyone can grow up to be one.”
Natasha doesn’t say anything, but she clutches the card close to her chest and then slowly, slowly, extends her leg in clear invitation.
Coulson nods gravely.
“This will hurt, but then it will feel better. And it will heal. I promise.” And he waits until she nods to grab the med kit and a glass bowl and pull up a low stool, gently grasping her foot and anchoring it between his knees. He pulls out a delicate set of tweezers, cotton balls, and alcohol. Her expression doesn’t change, but she loosens her grip on the card enough to gaze at it, blinking rapidly.
“Stephanie Rogers trading cards? Really?” she asks, and Clint is a little creeped out that her inflections when she asks the question are almost the same as his when he asked Coulson the same thing three years ago. If Coulson notices the echo, he doesn’t let on.
“When I was your age,” Coulson says as he disinfects the tweezers, a phrase that would have a normal kid sneering in disgust but which seems to capture the Widow’s attention, “I had two sisters.”
Clint leans back, his interest piqued. Coulson has never talked about his personal life, not even the smallest tidbit, not ever. And, with uncharacteristic restraint, Clint had tried to respect their wary working truce by not poking around.
“My sister Aria was two years younger than me. I guess after having a Katie -- that’s my older sister -- and a Philip, my parents wanted a name with a little more zazz to it, do you think?” The question is posed just as Coulson uses the tweezers to pull the first piece of glass out of the kid’s wrecked foot. She doesn’t make a sound.
“They were both huge Captain America fans, had the cards, the comics, everything. And I loved them too, but I was embarrassed to like Captain America. My best friend, he said girl heroes were only for girls, and if I liked her that meant I was one.” As he talks, he’s gently, methodically pulling glass out of the Widow’s soles. Each shard makes a shrill, scratchy plinking noise as he sets it in the bowl.
“Now I know that all heroes are for everyone, but I was stupider back then.” Clint snorts a little at the idea of Coulson ever being stupid. “Katie understood. I was small for my age. I was already getting beat up at school. But Aria thought it was the stupidest thing she’d ever heard when I tried to tell her why I wouldn’t go to the comics story with her.” Another shard of glass screech-plinks its way into the bowl. “Aria had this bright red hair, like no-one else in the family, and none of us could ever tell her what to do or how to think, not even Katie.” He smiles a little. “You make me think of her, actually.”
Coulson’s hands are rock-steady as he works, gentle and efficient, but his expression is far away.
“She told me that I could have a secret identity, mild-mannered nerd by day, superhero by night. And she let me borrow her Captain America cards for inspiration, since Stephanie Rogers wasn’t really anyone’s idea of a hero until she made it happen.”
“She died,” the Widow says tonelessly.
“With meaning,” Coulson counters. It’s not the tactic Clint would take, but it’s working; apparently the Widow has a soft spot for the good Captain, because she’s starting to look at Coulson with more consideration than suspicion. Her fingers worry absently over the card he’s given her.
He’s working on a large shard that’s particularly deep, and she finally reacts to the pain, hissing and wincing. Coulson teases it free with a murmured “sorry,” and then squeezes her ankle a little, an unthinking gesture of comfort that Clint’s seen him to give to others under his care in the field, though never to him, for some reason. Amazingly, the kid doesn’t object.
“What does Aria do now?” she asks, a little hoarsely.
Coulson doesn’t look up from his work. “She disappeared later that year,” he says simply, and it takes a few heartbeats for Clint to be able to breathe again. “We never found her.” He sprays her foot with a numbing disinfectant and starts wrapping it in sterilized gauze.
“I like to think I specialize a little in finding a place for people who are lost,” Coulson says after a moment of charged silence, a hint of irony lurking in the look he shoots Clint.
Well, Clint can’t really argue with that. His three years working with Coulson pretty much represent the longest and healthiest relationship of his life, and his handler has become emotional shorthand for home even though he doesn’t even use the guy’s first name.
“So you’d fit right in, if you wanted,” Coulson continues. “SHIELD has schools, for other, ah, special cases. You wouldn’t have to do fieldwork, you could be a language specialist, a scientist, whatever strikes your interest. Think about it, for a few days. We’re here for a little longer. You can lock the bedroom from the inside if you want, and we have food and medical on hand. I won’t ask you to trust me,” he adds, in what Clint now knows is his signature line for hard-luck cases, which would inspire cynicism if he weren’t so damned sincere about it every time. “But I will ask you to keep the possibility of it open for the future, and give me a chance to earn your trust.”
She thinks for a moment. “What happened with the cards?” she demands, a non-answer.
Coulson blinks. “I kept Aria’s collection for her, so she’d have it when she got back. And then I thought, I should keep collecting more, so she won’t have to make up for lost time. After a while, it was just... a reminder that anyone could be a hero if they cared enough. Even Aria, maybe, somewhere out there. Even me.” He looks a little surprised at himself for sharing all this.
Her face is unreadable as she digests this, while Coulson disinfects the foot and starts wrapping it in gauze to match the first one.
“There,” Coulson says, securing the last bit of tape nice and neat around her big toe. “All set.” She pulls her foot back immediately, smooths her fingers over the card she’s holding, and offers it to Coulson.
He shakes his head. “It’s yours. A welcome present. Or something to remember us by, if you choose to leave.”
“What happens if I choose that?”
“We let you go, for now. But if you come up on SHIELD’s radar again, we may not be the ones sent after you, and... I cannot make any guarantees. I am... sorry, Miss Romanova. Sorry to find you here. Sorry we can’t give you more options.”
She nods and stands, eerily graceful on bandaged feet, and sweeps her hair back from her face in a gesture that would disconcertingly normal if it didn’t reveal a swollen, angry-looking string of bruises mottling her hairline.
Coulson winces in sympathy and reaches out automatically as if to cup her face.
Her eyes widen and she takes a step back toward Clint, as if seeking his protection.
And then time slows down. Because, as they’ve both sort of forgotten, she’s not actually someone who needs anyone’s protection.
She feints downward as if her knees have finally given out, then snags the knife out of Clint’s boot and lunges, snarling, at Coulson, sweeping his legs out from under him in a single smooth, unexpected movement. Coulson goes down hard, head knocking the floor before Clint can even react, and he watches Coulson’s training kick in, watches as he rolls into evasive maneuvers, non-deadly force, watches as this lost, lethal kid flips out of reach and shoves a bookcase over to pin Coulson to the ground like she does this every day, which, come to think of it, she probably does. Clint finally springs into action, grabbing her shoulders in an attempt to pull her away without hurting her, and is batted aside with a hard, high kick to the solar plexus. She whirls back to grind a knee into Coulson’s neck just enough that he can still breathe, and, breathing hard, she presses the tip of the knife to his cheekbone, just below his eye.
Time speeds up again.
Clint has his bow off the table in an instant, arrow trained on her, point-blank range. She looks back at him along the sight lines, eyes wild.
“Kid,” he says, quiet, urgent, “stand down. It’s ok. You’re ok. You don’t want to do this.”
Her breath breaks in what sounds like a sob. There’s a trickle of blood on Coulson’s cheek, and she shudders, but doesn’t back off.
“See,” Clint says, a little desperately, “He’s fine. Our offer still stands, we’ll still keep you safe. But you have to back off now. You have to let go.”
Her eyes waver between him and Coulson, who is very conscious and very still. Clint can tell he’s fine beyond some cuts and bruises. He’s keeping still because the other option is some serious violence and he’s trusting Clint to unspook the Widow so that won’t be necessary.
Clint feels sick to his stomach. This is Coulson’s area of expertise, not his. And the consequences of failure... he can’t think about that. Somehow the fact that SHIELD would never work with him again is secondary to the idea that Coulson might be hurt.
“You don’t want to do this,” he repeats. “I’m going to trust you, ok? See, I’m going to lower this bow a little. Will you pull the knife away? I promise Agent Coulson won’t move, ok? Nice and slow, now.” He gradually moves the arrow’s tip to point at the floor and not the kid’s head, though he keeps it drawn. She sounds like she’s on the verge of hyperventilating, but she draws her fist back just a little, so the edge of the knife is no longer touching Coulson’s skin. The moment the knife is no longer in play, her hand starts trembling.
“That’s good, kid, that’s very good. See, we’re ok. We’re all still ok. We’re still on your side. Nothing’s changed. Instincts and reflex, kid, we get that. No-one’s hurt. Nothing’s changed.” He keeps talking, trying to maintain a soothing litany of promises and platitudes. He’s pretty sure he’s repeating himself at this point. His voice is soft, calm, competent, his best imitation of Coulson, actually, and he’s afraid to go silent because it seems like as long as he’s talking, they’re at a standstill and this could still end well for all of them.
Please, let this end well for all of them.
Finally, finally, something he says must sink in, because she pulls back further, still tensed for an attack, and very, very slowly removes her knee from Coulson’s throat. He takes in a few hoarse breaths but doesn’t move.
“Thanks, kid. Thank you. That is really good. Ok.” He gently sets the bow aside and meets Coulson’s eyes. They’re filled with pain and relief. “Ok, now Agent Coulson is going to sit up, is that ok? He won’t stand, but I’m just going to raise the corner of the shelf a little and he’s going to slide out and go sit by the wall, over there, ok?”
She nods. Still repeating soothing nothings, Clint lifts the shelf and lets Coulson back himself out of the way, obviously nursing some bruises but seeming otherwise intact.
“Ok, back to the earlier plan, ok? You’re going to think about staying with us? Is that still ok? We still want to help you. Will you stay and think about it?” Somewhere out there is a hostage negotiation team that is really fucking glad he never chose their career path. He was trained to kill people, not talk to them, damn it. “What do you want to do now, kid?”
She looks suddenly ancient, pain and exhaustion and defeat written into every line of her body.
“I’ll sleep,” she says. “I’ll... think. I don’t know what I want.” She limps toward the bedroom.
“More chocolate?” Clint asks.
“Chocolate for breakfast?” Her eyes light up. This kid is going to break his heart.
From across the room, Coulson speaks up. “We have some Count Chocula in the pantry. It’s a chocolate cereal,” he adds when she looks confused. “What?” he says in response to Clint’s incredulous snort. “I like chocolate, too.”
“Ok, kid, you got it, chocolate for breakfast.”
She opens the door, examines the deadbolt lock, and then pauses on the threshhold. “My name... my name is... Natasha,” she says slowly, like it’s a foreign word to be puzzled over. She looks... sad. Without thinking about it too much, Clint smiles at her, a big goofy out-of-place smile meant for the kind of kid that no-one in this room has ever been, and she brightens a little, which tugs at protective instincts Clint didn’t know he even had.
“See you in the morning, Natasha,” he says gently.
The door closes behind her, deadlock clanking into place.
Clint looks at Coulson, and Coulson looks back, and they just stay there for a moment, processing it all, and then Clint takes a deep breath, and then another, because he doesn’t think he’ll ever have enough air again, and he walks across the room and slides down the wall to sit on the floor next to Coulson, and he lets his head drop into his hands and just rocks there for a minute, breathing in and out.
“God damn,” he says quietly, mindful of Natasha in the other room. If he knows anything about her, she’s listening through the door right now. There’s too much running through his head to even know where to start, but something in him just really needs to be next to Coulson right now. His handler looks more frazzled that Clint would have thought possible.
“God damn,” Coulson echoes. “Jesus, Barton. Jesus, who starts that young?”
“Kind of sounds like you did, sir.”
Coulson laughs a little, a sound completely lacking in actual mirth. “Yeah, suppose so.” He seems uncomfortable.
“Hey, I get the secret agent title for a reason, boss,” Clint says. “All confidential, all the time.” He’s aiming for casual. Coulson’s piercing, grateful look tells him he hasn’t quite gotten there. “Here,” Clint says, reaching for the med kit, discomfited by the power of that gaze, “let’s get that cut fixed up.” He may be shaking on the inside, but his hands, as always, are completely steady.
Coulson shrugs a little. “It’s not much. I can patch it up in the bathroom, no problem.” He starts to push himself wearily to his feet, then grunts when Clint pushes him firmly back down.
“No, I got this,” Clint says. “The light’s better here.” Coulson looks skeptical. “What, don’t trust my med skills? I’ve kept myself alive for this long, sir, and you weren’t always around to play nurse, you know.” He kneels in front of Coulson and grasps his chin to tilt the wound into the light. “Yeah, that doesn’t look too bad. Shouldn’t even need stitches.”
Clint dips a Q-tip in alcohol and starts carefully cleaning the area around the cut, holding Coulson’s chin steady.
Something about his fingertips brushing skin, being close enough to see the beginnings of stubble and feel Coulson’s short, stuttering breaths, is very distracting.
Clint pushes that aside. “Ok, this part is gonna sting,” he warns, and presses a disinfectant pad to the wound. Coulson hisses and flinches a little, and Clint fights the urge to stroke his cheek in comfort. (Seriously, what?) Cleaning finished, he releases Coulson’s chin and reaches for the gauze and tape to finish the job.
“There, all patched up.” Clint seals the last piece of tape with a flourish and tries to ignore the way his handler is staring at him, trusting and puzzled. He is absolutely, positively not turned on just from looking deeply into Coulson’s eyes... his steely, kind, penetrating eyes... Clint swallows and pulls away. “A-ok and good to go, sir.” He slumps back against the wall and takes a deep breath.
Coulson seems to win some sort of internal debate with himself when he bursts out, “Oh for fuck’s sake, Barton, we’re not on duty. Just call me Phil. I spend too much time already with people who don’t know my first name.” He falls silent, looking vaguely disapproving of himself. It’s... kind of cute. Hell.
“Phil,” Clint repeats, and has a totally illogical impulse to lay his head on the man’s shoulder. “Ok. Yeah. Um, likewise.”
Coulson snorts and holds out his hand. They shake on it, and then Coulson says, “Hi, Phil” in a weird strangled voice, and Clint thinks back to what he just said, and then Coulson gets a look on his face like he’s just realized he’s completely cracked, and suddenly the exhaustion and adrenaline and relief take over and both of them are shaking with hysterical laughter. Clint’s ribs hurt, and Coulson’s face is red, and they are leaning against each other positively howling with laughter and nothing has ever felt so good.
“You know,” Clint gasps out, “you know that wasn’t even funny, right?”
Coulson can’t even talk; tears are streaming down his face. He nods.
“I mean,” Clint says, shaking with the effort of trying to force air into his lungs, “that was like the worst joke I have ever heard in my life.”
“I know!” Coulson wheezes.
“You need more practice, dude.”
They both quiet a little, reflecting on lives where humor is precious and scarce.
“Hey,” Clint says, shoulder-bumping Coul -- Phil in newfound companionship. “You know they call you Agent Android back at SHIELD. I didn’t even know you could laugh.”
“Classified intel. We’ll have to up your clearance level when we get back,” Phil says drily, the effect ruined by the little giggle that escapes at the end, and Clint cracks up all over again, which of course sets Phil off, and they just sit there laughing, and Clint feels more open than he’s ever been before, like this could be the beginning of something big and scary and good.
“My heart about stopped,” Clint confides when they’ve wound down again. “Out there in the field, when I saw her.”
Phil huffs. “My heart about stopped when you went off comms. For the love of... just, don’t do that, Barton! Warn me first! Jesus!”
“Yeah, sorry about that,” Clint says, even though he never apologizes for anything, because Phil sounds like he would be genuinely upset if Clint didn’t make it back and that’s kind of amazing. “There were, um, a lot of voices in my head, in the moment. You were about one too many. I needed... clarity.”
Phil lets his head fall back so he can bang it a couple of times against the wall. He seems lost for words.
“Hey, thanks,” Clint says. “For going with my call, and, well... You were, uh, really great with her.”
“Almost blew it at the end,” Phil points out. “I forgot for a second... the resemblance is really...” He shakes his head. “Damn it. Losing my edge.”
“Not from where I’m sitting,” Clint says. “I don’t even... how did you know I’d be able to talk her down?”
Phil laughs shakily. “Didn’t. Trusted you.”
Clint is overwhelmed. “Phil. It was your life.”
Phil moves his shoulders a little, not meeting his eyes.
“Thank you,” Clint says sincerely, though he’s not completely convinced that is the right sentiment to express when someone has put their life in your hands. “For trusting me. Most people... wouldn’t.”
“You’ve earned it,” Phil says easily. “And... Barton, it was a good call.” Something unreadable passes across his face. “It was a good call,” he repeats, softer. He grips Clint’s shoulder, holding on a little too long, like he’s reassuring himself that Clint is still there, then shakes his head and lets go. “We’ll take care of her,” he says, like a promise. “We just have to trust each other.”
It’s been a long day, and Clint’s filters are low. “I... do,” he says, and at Phil’s look of naked surprise, he parrots back at him, not really facetious but using it as cover, “You’ve earned it.” He knows Phil won’t be fooled.
Phil looks almost as uncomfortable as Clint feels, and they dance around making eye contact. Clint runs his hand nervously through his hair. He knows it’s sticking out in every direction, but he’s taken aback when Phil reaches up automatically as if to smooth it down before jerking his hand back like he’s been caught stealing something he shouldn’t even want.
Clint doesn’t do mixed signals. He’s not sure what’s going on here, but he’s sure that whatever he thinks it is, he’ll get it wrong.
He breaks the silence with the first thing that comes to mind. “I can’t believe you used Captain America trading cards to get a Russian spy to trust you and it worked. That is, like, epically badass.”
Phil leans back and huffs out a laugh, but the vulnerable look on his face doesn’t completely disappear. “Stephanie Rogers to the rescue again, huh?”
Clint pulls up his mental image of Phil’s trading cards, lovingly collected and meticulously stored, locked up safe in an apartment that is otherwise too bare to be much of a home, and he wishes he knew how to put Phil back at ease after a day that’s obviously shaken him to his core. As much time as he’s spent wishing he knew what made Phil tick, he’s surprised to learn that he really doesn’t want the walls to come tumbling down like this, with exhaustion and heartbreak, not on Phil’s own terms.
He falls back on being a bit of an asshole. Hey, it’s his way, and Phil has always seemed more amused than offended by his less angelic qualities.
“Ya know, you’re kind of a nerd, sir,” Clint says lightly, and Phil blinks and almost grins, his eyes shuttering, and everything is back to normal again. Mostly. Clint still maybe sort of wants to push his handler against the wall and kiss the breath out of him.
“It’s a weakness,” Phil agrees amiably, his tone wry and completely devoid of insecurity. It’s a less effective deflection now that Clint can picture him as a skinny, lonely, grieving teenager clinging to dreams of last-minute rescues and heroic outcasts.
He’s kind of awed by what Phil has managed to build from those beginnings.
He kind of... wants to tell him that. Maybe without words.
He leans a little closer, and Phil’s eyes snap to his, intense.
Phil licks his lips.
Clint holds his breath.
They both jump to their feet, weapons half-drawn before they realize it’s only the bedroom door opening. Natasha’s wan face peeks out.
“You are both silly,” she tells them. “I have made my decision. I will stay with you.”
And then the door closes again, and the deadbolt clanks back into place.
Phil stares at the door, bemused.
Clint stares at Phil. Nothing he’s feeling could possibly be put into words.
The moment stretches on.
“Hey, I’m beat,” Clint says. “Do you mind taking the watch tonight?” It’s a Thing, and Phil will know it’s a Thing, but it’s not a thing he can actually come out and say, not yet. Phil will get it: he’s voluntarily admitting weakness, which he never does, trusting Phil to pick up the slack, trusting Phil not to use it against him. It’s as far as he can go. It’s almost too far. He fights the urge to shift back and forth on his feet and uses all his super-spy skills to project weary nonchalance.
Phil studies him a moment, then nods. He holds out a hand, weirdly formal, and waits for Clint to do the same.
“Good work today, Agent Barton,” he says, disarmingly earnest, and shakes Clint’s hand. His grip is firm and warm and safe and dangerous and Clint feels electricity jolt through him in the split-second before Phil lets go.
What...? he thinks again, and then, “Sleep,” Phil says, all business, and he’s steering Clint efficiently to the couch. “We have two more hits before we’re done here.”
When he wakes up in the morning, there’s a blanket draped carefully over him, and coffee brewing, and two terrifying nerds discussing Captain America trivia in whispers in the safehouse kitchen, and he knows he’s home.
Wow, sorry, that was a really long delay. Hopefully the length of the chapter compensates!
For those of you also following Fresh Start, I have not dropped it, I'm just having a lot of issues with the plottiness of the next chapter, but it will be ready soon. I've discovered that I do not have a visual/spatial imagination at all, so things like battles are very difficult to write...
For the record, all medical details are completely 100% pulled out of my ass. But if anything is so wrong it pulls you out of the story, let me know and I’ll fix it. :)