“Talk to me Barton,” Coulson said quietly as he put on his blinker and turned onto a side street lined with small, cottage-like houses with neatly kept lawns.
Cul-de-sacs, Clint thought they were called, but how would he really know?
This wasn’t his area, these postcard little communities with their matching SUV’s and their American flags waving happily from the front yard. Coulson had assured him that this was ok, that holing up in his childhood home with his parents for a few days was safe, but Clint was more nervous than he’d been facing down a roomful of drawn pistols and it showed. The sniper, who could maintain his position with a deadly stillness for hours while waiting for his mark, was shifting constantly in the passenger seat, his left knee bouncing like a piston and his hands curling and uncurling insistently, twitching for a bow.
It wasn’t the area that made him anxious - the cookie-cutter, picture-perfect little houses - it was what they held, what they were that was making Clint sweat.
Clint didn’t… Clint didn’t do home, didn’t do family. He’d never had a real one growing up, on either count, not one that didn’t remind him of shouting and anger and abuse, not one that lasted more than a few months at a time and didn’t leave him feeling cold and hungry and small when he remembered it. He didn’t know what to expect or how to act, and the very thought of being dropped into the middle of any wholesome, All-American household made him uncomfortable. The fact that it was Coulson’s…
Well, that terrified him.
It was more than just the fact that he was harboring a crush on his handler. Coulson was one of very few people he was close to, very few people that he trusted. He fully believed that he owed the man his life – without him by now he’d either be dead in a gutter somewhere or wishing that he was. No, it was more than that, more than the thought of being allowed a rare glimpse into the private life of the mentor that he knew so little about, that was so closely and jealously guarded, more than the fact that Coulson trusted him enough to bring him to his very doorstep…
No, Clint respected Coulson.
It was a fairly foreign experience for him, respecting someone. SHIELD had introduced him to a number of men and women who were impressively skilled, competent and at the top of their field, men and women who were mostly good and who didn’t look down on him for who he was, who he’d been. His handler though, the man was something else entirely. Even without the completely ridiculous years of pining, he’d proven to Clint time and time again that he valued him, trusted his opinion on ops, believed in him, and he’d been the first one to do all that, perhaps in Clint’s whole life.
So it mattered to Clint, what he thought, and knowing that he was about to meet the man and woman who had raised senior agent, SHIELD legend, and certified badass Phillip J Coulson, nearly had Clint shaking in his boots. He’d faced down Hydra cells with less anxiety than this – give him a bow and show him a target and he was all ease and confidence. That stuff he knew, understood. That stuff he was good at.
Not so much.
“Breathe Agent,” Coulson said beside him, a hint of bite in his voice that Clint recognized from their ops together, the ghost of the edge of a blade that reminded him to focus, to do what he did best. “I told you, my parents are aware of who I work for and what I do. Not the details, but they know enough. It won’t be a problem for them to put us up for a few days.”
“Right,” Clint muttered, feeling the tips of his ears go hot.
Of course, leave it to Coulson to be the consummate professional, to assume that Clint was worried about security clearance. And that should be what he was worried about, inconveniencing the man’s parents or blabbing something that he shouldn’t, not panicking because he didn’t know how to settle in a living space that wasn’t a shitty refurbished studio or a nine by twelve box of a standard dorm back at HQ. Clint’s homes, such as they were, had been run-down trailer parks and the undersides of bridges and the hulking, linen tents and straw beds of the circus, not condominiums or sprawling ranch houses.
Christ, he was making himself nauseas imagining all the ways he could completely embarrass his boss in his own home…
“How’s your side?”
“What?” Clint muttered distractedly, wiping damp palms on the thighs of his jeans.
“Your side, Agent Barton.”
Aw hell, he knew that tone, the one that sounded like Coulson was just starting to get annoyed, but really meant that he’d passed pissed three miles back. Clint hadn’t answered him the first time -
“It’s uh, it’s fine sir,” he reported, pain searing across his torso now that he moved his arm to check, actually started thinking about it again.
Come to think of it, that probably explained the chills and the fatigue threatening to hit him like a sledgehammer, rumbling around just beneath the anxiety-twitches.
He’d caught a bullet across his ribs on the way out of a warehouse almost an hour before, a grazing wound that looked a lot worse than it really was because it made him bleed like a stuck pig. His handler had barked and snarled about getting him Kevlar insets for his vest as they ran, but given that Clint had had the mobility to haul ass out of there firing arrows over his shoulder the whole way, he himself hadn’t complained.
Gunshot wound notwithstanding, it had been an easy mission, him and Coulson in and out, but apparently things had gone to hell in a handbasket back in New York while they were gone and SHIELD hadn’t been able to spare a Quinjet to come and pick them up. With no safehouse in the area and evac at least two days away, Coulson had radioed back to Fury that they were going to stay with his parents, duct-taped a thick pad of gauze against Clint’s side, and hustled him into an unmarked van before he could do more than marvel at the fact that the man had parents at all. The pool amongst the junior agents was currently three to one on him being an android versus having been whipped up in a lab somewhere as Fury’s perfect right hand, and sure, Clint knew better (because what kind of robot had a poorly hidden penchant for powdered-sugar donuts), but the man was simply too good, too observant to have been born to a regular mother and father somewhere like everyone else, right?
And speaking of observant, Coulson had evidently caught Clint’s silence, a note of pain or reluctance in his answer, or maybe he just plain hadn’t believed him, because he was staring at Clint intently with that little furrow between his eyes that he got sometimes, one of the many expressions Clint had yet to fully puzzle out. Concern, yes, that part was easy, but it wasn’t quite the same as it was when he was worried about his other friends or assets, not Nat or Jasper or Maria or anyone.
The scrutiny made Clint squirm a little, dragging a gasp from his lungs when the pain in his side flared unexpectedly into a fierce, throbbing ache. Twisting gingerly in the seat, stiff from almost two hours in the car, he attempted to stretch his spine, actually assess his injury for the first time since they’d gotten onto the highway. Moving hurt, but not in the grinding, shifting way of broken bones. Bruised ribs then, beneath the long gash in his skin, but not cracked. That pleased him – shooting with broken ribs was a bitch.
Unfortunately, moving also opened the wound again, undoing all the clotting that had occurred and sending a fresh sheet of warm blood down over his side, soaking through the gauze and rapidly staining the grey cotton of his t-shirt a dull crimson.
“Shit,” he muttered, leaning forward and turning in place to grab a blanket from the back seat, one of the thin fleece throws they used for cases of shock and hypothermia.
“Get some pressure on it,” Coulson commanded quietly beside him, his eyes dangerously on Clint instead of the street.
“Gonna need stitches sir,” Clint hissed between gritted teeth as he lifted the hem of his shirt and pressed the folded blanket hard against his side.
“We’re almost there,” the man replied calmly, and hell if that steady, stoic voice wasn’t a godsend right now when Clint’s nerves were already on edge. “Just try not to bleed out on the seats. The van’s a rental - I’d like to get my down payment back.”
Clint snorted, groaned when a low chuckle jarred his torso. The banter wasn’t something new between them. It had started out as snippy sarcasm on his part and dry, deadpan wit on Coulson’s, his way of keeping Clint in line over the comms. It was a different approach from that of any of the other supervising officers he’d gone through, the first that Clint had ever approved of, and evidently unsettling for the other agents listening in on the ops, but it worked for them and it was the only thing that had worked with the archer who had already blazed his way through half the handlers in the organization. Over the years it came more easily as Clint became less mistrustful and Coulson not so stiff, and as time went on it was easy to start thinking of the calm, confident voice in his ear as a friend. Coulson’s jabs became more playful, Clint’s out and out flirtatious, but his handler never balked, always ready with a comeback that sometimes even managed to shut Clint up if it didn’t send him rolling off his perch laughing instead.
Within a month of becoming his sole handler the man had learned to play Clint like a fiddle, and at times like this, when he needed a distraction, needed a laugh, he found that he didn’t mind so much. He hated going to medical, and even though he knew that they were practically on the other side of the country, that he was safe from the huge, echoey white rooms that stank of antiseptic, just knowing that he needed attention made him tense up.
“Your mum’s gonna hate me,” he grumbled between clenched teeth, bracing himself against the side of the van as Coulson pressed down on the accelerator a little harder than he probably should. “Muck up all her… furniture.”
Beside him he thought he heard Coulson snort, but then there was a warm hand wrapped around the back of his neck, thumb sweeping over the hinge of his jaw one time, and shit, when did he get so cold?
“You’re going pale,” Coulson said, but his voice was just a little hazy in Clint’s ears, and he wondered if his aids were giving out on him again. “Barton. Barton! Sitrep, now.”
“Going a l,l,little foggy… b,b,boss,” he shivered, wobbling in his seat as he blinked and swallowed hard.
It was the best report Coulson was going to get out of him at the moment. Exhaustion had dropped on him out of nowhere but he was used to this, knew this feeling. It was dehydration, low blood sugar, low blood full stop as it leaked steadily from the wound on his side, his skin gone cold and clammy. It was a relatively minor wound all things considered, a relatively minor mission, but Clint had been on three others back-to-back just prior to this one, and he was starting to get run down. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a real meal or a real night’s rest, and it was finally catching up with him.
But he’d lived through a lot worse hadn’t he - missions and torture and childhood traumas. You name it, Clint Barton had probably survived it. An alcoholic father, an abusive mentor, hard recruitment that led to regular gunfights and kidnapping by terrorists, even a freak tornado the one time.
He would survive this too.
He just needed a little…
“Fuck!” Clint yelped, jerking upright and fully awake again as Coulson dropped his hand to Clint’s side and squeezed, putting hard pressure on his bruised ribs and the track dug out by the bullet. It hurt like hell but the pain was revitalizing in its own way, bringing him back around better than anything else would’ve.
“Almost there Specialist.”
This time when Clint hissed, he only hoped he was successfully passing it off as pain.
God he loved that title, loved hearing his handler say it. More than he should, probably. It was just a thing – there were a dozen other agents at SHIELD at any given time with the same rank, Nat included, but… he liked it. He liked hearing, knowing that he was good at something, the best at something, liked knowing that there was a place and a position for him that he’d earned. That he had gained the respect he was now afforded with his own two hands, that he was needed, not quite as dispensable as he’d always been.
And when Coulson said it…
Probably not the best time to be fantasizing about his boss.
Not there was ever really a good time for that, was there?
It didn’t matter though, because Phil was pulling up in front of a modest little house, pale grey with shutters and a front door painted a maroon so deep that it was almost purple, and oh yes, Clint thought a bit deliriously, he could like the people that lived here. He was still trying to figure out a way to get SHIELD to add a little color to his tac suit, or at least his arrows, but Coulson, ever the pragmatist, kept pointing out the impracticalities of drawing attention to a sniper in the field.
He didn’t have much time to think about it either way - the house or the suit – because before he’d even realized that Coulson had killed the engine, the passenger door was being pulled open and he almost toppled out onto the sidewalk. Clint staggered, got his feet under him as he clung to the frame of the window, but standing seemed to sap what little energy he had left. He felt the ground start to tilt beneath him but then his boss was looping his good arm around his shoulders and hauling him up the walk towards that purple front door, ignorant of the childish fears Clint held deep in his chest for what might be behind it.
“Gonna scare your neighbors,” he slurred, too focused on where he put his feet to enjoy being pressed all down his boss’s side the way he sometimes got to when one or the other of them was hurt less badly than made the position strictly necessary.
“Trust me, they’ve seen worse,” Coulson replied flatly. “I grew up here, remember?”
Clint giggled, mortified seconds later when he realized that the half-hysterical bleat had come from him.
He was mentally tallying up a list of blood loss symptoms that would make up the bulk of his defense when the front door was thrown open and a woman stepped out into the little entryway, her hands on her hips.
“Phillip Jareth Coulson, what on earth!”
“Jareth,” he teased, and then promptly passed out.