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Ring Around the Roses

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1. cake.

It starts with Tony bringing Coulson a strawberry sponge cake. Or rather, it starts – as several of their missions have – with Tony being too nosy for his own good. He makes the cake at 2am on a Sunday, leaves the mess in the kitchen for Steve and Bruce the next morning and takes it to Coulson’s apartment in Bed–Stuy, Brooklyn. He slips in the front behind a mom and her twin girls and there’s no further obstacles between him and the apartment on the top corner of the building.

Coulson swings the door open with a smile, wearing only a white bathrobe that doesn’t even cover his knees. The smile vanishes when he sees Tony, his expression dropping so fast and hard it might have been anchored to an anvil. Tony is already peeking over his shoulder to get a first glimpse of the agent’s home. He spots a loft floor with a king bed, bookshelves and a blond head peering drowsily over the pillows to see who’s at the door… and that’s as far as he gets before Coulson grabs him by the lapels and shoves him out into the hall.

“What the hell are you doing here?” Coulson snaps, spinning him round and slamming him against the wall. Tony has never seen Coulson fight hand-to-hand, but there’s strength and experience behind the movement. He clutches the tupperware box protectively to his chest.

“I made you a cake!” Tony protests, sticking his bottom lip out. He holds the evidence up. “It’s your birthday. Isn’t it?”

Coulson sags and steps back, but keeps one hand holding Tony against the wall. Tony clicks that he might actually have done something wrong, even though he checked that Coulson likes spongecake and strawberries, he asked freakin’ Sitwell. He was going to come here and give Coulson the cake and Coulson was going to invite him in for coffee and he was going to learn Oh So Many Things by being inside the man’s home and then he would be in such a good mood from the cake and Tony’s general charm that he would finally agree to move into the tower. Tony had everything planned, and he can’t figure out what he’s missed.

It has something to do with the blond in the bed, Tony decides, and gives a melting smile. “Coulson, man, I don’t care if you’ve got a dude in your bed. Are you serious? Have you met me? You think anything legal is going to shock me? Fuck off, you insult me.”

“Oh, Christ,” Coulson rolls his eyes. “That’s not… stay there,” he orders, and steps back inside, shuts the door and locks it. Tony rolls his shoulders and straightens his collar. Maybe he has been misjudging Coulson all along. Maybe Coulson has, like, a secret psychopathic side where he keeps dismembered corpses in his fridge or something. Huh. That means he’s hiding them right now. Tony crouches to peer into the keyhole, which is pointless because it’s not that sort of keyhole.

He’s still squinting at the lock mechanism when Coulson reopens the door. He raises an eyebrow at Tony, who gives a cheerful wave and straightens up.

“Mr Stark,” says Coulson. “Would you like to come in?”

“Do you wanna, like, blindfold me, spin me round a dozen times?”

Coulson gives that smile that means absolutely nothing and holds out his arm to usher Tony through the doorway.

The only big change that he can see as he steps over the threshold is that the blond is sitting at the kitchen table now, smoking a joint. Tony can see him properly this time; he’s in a khaki T-shirt, and has a squat but handsome face, maybe ten years Coulson’s junior, with a fat scar around the corner of one eye. Damn. So Coulson’s got a badass boyfriend. Tony feels bad for ever doubting his pull factor. And for assuming the thing about body parts in the fridge.

“Hey,” Tony raises a hand to the badass boyfriend.

“Hey,” the badass boyfriend nods at him, blowing out a long plume of smoke. He doesn’t wave – his left hand hangs off the table, out of sight. Tony can smell the smoke cloying in the air. Oh man. Coulson’s gonna be awesome to have around the tower, for sure. Tony’s never asked Bruce whether he’s tried weed to keep the Hulk under wraps.

Coulson clears his throat, and Tony grins at him. “Happy birthday! I made it myself. I’m not even kidding. I have so many hidden talents. Do you want some now? I’ll cut us all a slice.”

He makes a beeline for the kitchen bench, and Coulson jogs to intercept him. “Ah, maybe later.”

He grabs the cake out of Tony’s hands. He crosses the room and puts the box in the fridge, which is massive and silver. He’s still in that ridiculous bathrobe. He actually has really nice legs, and Tony wants pictures. He’ll give them to Pepper with ‘For Your Viewing Pleasure, xoxo’ scrawled across them.

“So,” Coulson leans against the bench and folds his arms. “Why’re you really here?”

“What? A bro can’t bring his bro cake on his birthday?” Tony asks, and when Coulson tips his head he shrugs. “Ok, fine. I wanted to see what was so great about this place that you won’t move into the tower.”

“Are you still going on about that?” Coulson shakes his head. “Stark, I don’t want to live with you. I get enough of you when the world’s in jeopardy.”

“Not possible,” says Tony.

“I like my house,” says Coulson.

Tony glances around, waving his hands. “It’s nice,” he winces. “I guess.”

The badass boyfriend laughs.

---

Phil goes to sit down as soon as the door closes behind Tony. He can see Clint's ruined hand clenching and unclenching below the lip of the table, like somebody counting rosary beads.

"What do you think?" Phil asks, after a few moments. "About moving into the tower?"

"I'm not... I don't know," Clint ducks his head.

"We'd have more space than in this place."

Clint grins wryly. "Oh, yeah, 'cos I love open spaces."

"More rooms, I mean."

"I know what you meant," Clint says irritably, and takes a drag on the joint. There's been an early autumn chill the last few days and his leg's played up, bad. He couldn't settle last night, shifting and turning constantly, getting up to stretch and pop painkillers. He came back about two and lay down on his stomach, his nose cold on the back of Phil's neck. He must have been outside, on the balcony with his plants, or walking around the block while the streets are dead. He whispered, 'happy birthday, you old fart' and Phil laughed and finally went to sleep.

Phil gets up and cuts a couple of slices of cake. Clint's gazing out the window now, his chin in his hand, the joint hanging from his fingers. He mutters, "Do you want to live with Tony Stark and the spandex quartet?"

"I don't mind where I live," Phil says, cutting little squares from his slice. The cake's not awful. "But Fury and the council would sleep easier if I was keeping an eye on them. And I think Steve wouldn't mind me hanging around to back him up in arguments."

"Oooh, he's ‘Steve’ now, is he?" Clint smirks, his eyes narrowing.

"Cap. Captain Rogers. Stop that," Phil covers his face.

 

2. spy.

The next day, Natasha storms up and gets right into Tony’s space.

“If you ever,” she snarls, “stick your face into Coulson’s business like that again, I will break your ribcage open, pull your liver out and feed it to the hulk.”

Tony stares at her. When she doesn’t elaborate, he says, “the Hulk’s vegetarian.”

---

Tony uses all his sneaky digital backdoors to get into the SHIELD employee databases. He finds Coulson – there’s almost eight hundred megs of classified PDF downloads, if he fancied some light reading – and clicks through to the personal information section. He checks ‘emergency contacts’ first, but Coulson only has his sister on record. He goes for ‘declared relationships’, which he didn’t know SHIELD kept a track of, and finds none current. He wanders around for a bit, but Coulson’s employee profile is considerably less interesting than stalking Pepper’s friends on facebook. Finally, curious about whether Coulson has a lovechild squirreled away in Portland, he checks ‘dependents’.

There’s a single name, leading to another SHIELD employee file. And there he is. The badass boyfriend. The record says ‘out of commission’. The ID photo is old, and there’s no scar. All other info is classified above the level of the fake user Tony’s created to get into the database. The only titbit of interest is the title line in the payroll section:

‘Disability Pension: [Type D] [details]’.

---

Tony could go to Coulson, and maybe he would have, right up until that little scrap of info. He goes to Natasha instead.

“Hey,” he winces. “Just curiously, are you having a good day or a bad day?”

She is fixing herself a hot chocolate in the kitchen on the shared floor. She turns around and folds her arms over her chest. “What did you do?”

“You know when you said you’d, like, eat my liver or whatever?”

Her eyes narrow. She’s stirring two teaspoons of milk into the cocoa powder, over and over until it’s the consistency she wants. “Yes. I do.”

“Well, I kind of, y’know,” he wiggles his hand in a so-so gesture. “Anyway, I know you’re going to be mad, but I want to know who Clint Barton is. I’m not gonna ask Coulson, I swear, I just want to know.”

“No! Jesus, Stark,” the glares she shoots him is poisonous. “This is Coulson’s real life, alright? He’s not part of your dollhouse.”

“I just want to know,” Tony raises his hands. “I won’t tell. I swear. Look, if I was really playing everyone’s favourite dickbag I would have gone to Coulson, or hacked deeper into SHIELD, but I’m didn’t, because I don’t want Coulson to know that I know. I came to you. Doesn’t that say something about my honour?”

Natasha doesn’t even dignify him with an answer. He stops whining before he gets a cup of boiling milk to the face. However, she must recognise that he’s using about forty times more tact than usual, because after their next SHIELD liaison she comes up to him outside the HQ. “Wait up. I want to talk to you.”

“Is it about helping me sneak into Fury’s room so I can wear his eyepatches as banana hammocks?” Tony asks.

“No point, he keeps them under a fingerprint lock,” she deadpans. “It’s about Clint Barton. What do you know so far?”

Tony shrugs, glancing over his shoulder. “Pretty much nothing. Did you change your mind? Like, for real?”

“I told Coulson what you’ve been up to.”

“You snitched on me? Romanov! You mercenary!”

“Yeah, well, he seemed to think it’d be better to sate your curiosity than arouse it further. Drive me back to the tower. Alone.”

In the car, she speaks in a monotone, as if reciting a report on the evil villain, Doctor Wet-Paint-Everywhere.

“Barton was a SHIELD special agent, like me. He wasn’t officer material, but he was very good at what he did. Might even have made the Avenger shortlist. He recruited me,” she’s cleaning her nails with a flick knife, glancing at him. “His orders were to kill me, but he convinced me to come with him instead and got me my first work with the division. About a month later, he was captured during a high-risk mission to drop a top HYDRA collaborator,” her phone buzzes. She thumbs it to silent and returns her attention to Tony. “He was recovered about fourteen months later,” she shrugs. “From what I hear, he wasn’t really… able to hold down a job after that. I haven’t seen him, so I couldn’t tell you more.”

Tony taps his fingers on the steering wheel. This information is dovetailing two scenarios in Tony’s mind, and one of them is not flattering towards Coulson. He waves his hands in front of his face. “Yeah, yeah, okay. So Coulson volunteered to… what? Babysit him?” because the idea that upright, proper Coulson would take advantage—

“No, Jesus,” Natasha rolls her eyes. “They were basically married long before I joined SHIELD. But Coulson doesn’t talk about it. So don’t ask.

“Why couldn’t he just tell me all this himself?” Tony grouches. “Man, I met this Barton guy and everything, but Coulson couldn’t just let me know? What if I’d said something awful? I might’ve been like, ‘hey, buddy, you get that scar in the war or something? How much fun was that?’”

Natasha just looks at him for a long time.

 

3. hold.

Tony keeps trying to lie closer to Pepper, hang onto her, and finally she rolls into him. “Seriously, Tony, it’s too hot. Budge over.”

He shifts away, but he can’t sleep, because if he’s not got a grip on her than how’s he supposed to know where she is? What if someone took her away? What if, what if? He can’t get it out of his head.

 

4. pitfall.

The square wasn't big, but it was lined all round with old apartments converted into offices, and was empty on that festival day. It was a perfect trap; intel said their target always left via the back door, into the square, and there was a massive parade on the main street that blocked his front exit and would have covered the sound of the arrest. The target was coming that way on his meeting with his HYDRA contact, unaware that in three minutes, the whole square had been silently lined with SHIELD agents. He could never have escaped.

Clint had a spot on the roof, in a little nook where two towers from different centuries clashed together. He had a good view of the ground, but he couldn't see the archway that formed the main entrance to the square. That was stupid. He had Fischer watching the arch and their drivers in the vans outside were extra lookouts, but he should have kept an eye on it himself. It was his team, his plan, his responsibility. He should have been watching.

It was the perfect trap.

The target was bait, not victim. The drivers must have been killed silently, before they could get on their radios. Using some weapon they didn't know HYDRA had, perhaps. By time the shots started, most of the team was dead and it was far too late for Clint to get control of the situation. When the agents burst out of the window in the building next to him, he had nowhere to go but down and seconds to make the decision.

He jumped. Three floors, and he tried to land the way he'd trained, the way he'd done dozens of times off the circus tightrope, off the top of the climbing walls at HQ, but in the end it was just a three storey fall onto solid cobbles and all he could do was protect his head. There was a wet crunch like celery snapping. The pain stunned him worse than anything he'd felt before, worse than the fractured skull from the Swordsman's blows, worse than the fire when he was twelve (but not worse than what was to come, oh no). For a second even the shouts and the cracks of the bullets receded before the wave of pain. Then he came back to himself and tried to stand. He couldn't. His right leg made shapes that legs shouldn't make, so he got on his elbows and crawled towards his bow.

He'd got maybe two feet before the boot struck him in the ribs, twice, and then came down on his neck. There was a rifle butt against his cheek. It pressed so hard he felt his teeth cut the inside of his mouth. The HYDRA agent was yelling, almost hysterical - he was a young guy, as confused and frightened as Clint's men must have been in their last seconds of life. Clint didn't feel afraid, but his mind coiled like a spring, as if it could fling his final thoughts across thousands of miles of ocean: I'm sorry, Phil, I'm sorry. We knew this would happen. I shouldn't have let you get attached. You are—

And then the gun was shoved away from Clint's face, and an officer was berating the young soldier. "No! Leave him! He's not going anywhere," he knelt and gripped Clint's hair, twisting his face up towards the closing circle of enemies. "I know you. Don't I, sniper? You're a key asset," he glanced up at his men. "And the labs need a new one."

 

5. access.

‘Don’t ask,’ Natasha had said. Tony shakes his head.

Come on. Natasha knows him. She’s been studying Tony before he even knew her real name. She wouldn’t have told him all that stuff if she didn’t expect him to ask. Obviously.

He decides that being annoying is the best way to get what he wants.

“Coulson, move into the tower.”

“No.”

“Please.”

“No.”

“You can have any rooms you want.”

“No.”

“I’ve talked to the others. They want you around. Steve even said, and I quote, ‘I think Agent Coulson would be good for us’. Do you really want to disappoint Captain America?”

“I’m going to have to, Tony.”

“He walks around in his boxers, sometimes, you know. Steve. It’s a forties thing. Just walking around, in your hot pants, making breakfast. I have footage.”

“No, Tony.”

“Don’t you love me?”

“No.”

About a week later, there’s a villain who can turn himself into a sort of electric Jell-O and the Avengers do all the heavy lifting before SHIELD arrives to finish things off. Coulson walks over to Tony when he’s got his faceplate up and is telling a cluster of adoring clean-up agents exactly how damn sweet it is to be able to blast all your problems away. They see Coulson approaching and they scatter.

Tony is several generous inches taller than Coulson with the Iron Man boots on. He looks down at him. “Man, you’re cramping my style. Agent Sato was about two minutes from asking me to sign her uniform.”

“You should start selling pre-signed shirts on the carrier,” Coulson suggests.

“You think?”

“No.”

Tony lets out an exaggerated sigh. Coulson coughs. “I’m reconsidering your offer.”

Tony almost asks ‘What offer?’, but he clicks pretty fast. “When can you start shifting? I can send guys over tomorrow to help.”

“Wait a moment before you say yes,” Coulson cuts him off. “There are several requirements. I want the very top floor, the one with the small deck. I want the deck fitted with eight-foot windbreaks. I want all the cameras removed, as well as any sensors that supply JARVIS with information more complicated than the air conditioning functions. I want the lift access to be only available via swipe card and PIN code, which will be held by only myself and Clint.”

Tony protests. “What, you think Thor’s going to sleep walk into your pad every weekend?”

“It’s not about what I think. It’s about what makes Clint feel secure.”

“JARVIS monitors the tower for safety reasons, come on, you know that. I can’t count the times he’s saved me from passing out drunk in dangerous places. That’s not even a joke, it’s been more than three.”

Coulson simply looks at him. And waits.

“You’re serious?” Tony flings his arms out. “Not even a camera by the lift? What if SHIELD turns on us one day and sends a team of baby Romanovs to slaughter us in our sleep? These are serious considerations.

“And those were serious requirements. Take them or leave them. I’m perfectly comfortable in my apartment.”

Tony groans and almost facepalms before he remembers that every part of him is covered in metal death except his face. He shrugs. “Fine. Done. I’ll even get it to you in writing if you want.”

“That’d be good. When it’s on my desk, I’ll give you a moving date,” Coulson smiles, again with his what-does-that-mean smile, the one that could be sarcasm or patience or endearment or hunger, Tony never fucking knows.

 

6. news.

Phil got the call while he was at the pool. He'd left his bag and clothes in a cubby-hole, and when he surfaced in the middle of his breaststroke he could hear the ring tone going off, tinny and echoing around the tiles. He didn't worry about it, pausing only to note that he should turn it on silent next time. About half an hour later he got out, dried himself, dressed and finally found the voicemail on his phone.

"Hi, Agent Coulson," said a woman's voice, down a crackling satellite link. "This is Dr Nyreem, I'm at base on the Vervain mission. I met you in Minsk last year, under Campion's command? Listen, you're probably going to hear this officially in a couple of days, but I wanted to call straight away, because I know you were friends - and I can't give details over this line, obviously, but - Agent Barton's been found alive. He'll be on a transport home soon. Anyway… I thought you should know. Um, bye."

All the energy seemed to drain out of Phil's blood. His heartbeats were suddenly thick and sluggish, and the smell of chlorine in the air was so thick it seemed to be clogging his chest. He waited until the message ended, saved it and then put the phone in his bag. He felt like he should ring someone, tell someone, tell everyone. Clint is alive. But the Vervain mission - a raid on HYDRA labs - was probably still in clean-up mode and this was sensitive information. He couldn't go blurting it out to the whole division.

Clint is alive.

Clint is alive.

Clint is ALIVE.

Nothing could ever be wrong in the world, not ever again.

 

7. moving day.

Tony does not get a moving date. He does write up an in-no-way-legally-binding contract on fancy Stark Industries letterhead (okay, no he doesn’t, he explains the whole situation to Pepper, and she indulges him and whips it out in twenty minutes), signs it and mails it to Coulson’s office. Coulson texts him, “Trial period 2 weeks”, and then Tony doesn’t hear anything else from the agent, but he has workman renovate the top floor with windbreaks, picks out furniture that he thinks matches the style Coulson had in the apartment, and mails him the access cards.

Coulson and the badass boyfriend move in sometime on a Sunday morning, in complete secrecy. The agent just turns up at lunch that day to announce that they’re settled in. Bruce and Natasha are eating Steve’s experimental Moroccan tomato bake and Tony is pretending to eat it because he doesn’t do canned tomatoes. Next thing they know Coulson’s standing in the doorway, saying, “Hi, kids.”

Tony jumps. Natasha lowers her newspaper a couple of inches.

“Phil!” Bruce says through a large mouthful. “Whfaf afe fu – forwy –” he swallows. “What are you doing here?”

“I just moved in,” Coulson jabs his thumb over his shoulder. “Is there a cooking roster or something I should put my name on?”

“Not officially, I’m just branching out,” Steve smiles from the kitchen. “Do you want lunch?” He’s at the sink doing his own dishes instead of putting them in Tony’s state-of-the-art industrial-sized washer, because he says it reminds him of the forties, which would be like Tony wistfully lighting his own birthday candles because it reminds him of all the times his dad missed his parties.

“We’re almost done unpacking, do you mind if I take a couple of plates upstairs?”

“Whfo’s wfe?” Bruce asks.

“Oh my God, Banner, chew and swallow,” Tony demands, and Bruce shows him the contents of his mouth. It’s disgusting.

“Me and my partner, Clint,” Coulson answers Bruce without blinking. “You won’t see him around much, he’s a bit of a homebody.”

Bruce’s eyes widen and he looks at Tony, who just says, “Chew,” again.

Bruce swallows and stammers. “I didn’t know you were seeing anyone?”

“He’s a well kept secret, Doc,” Coulson winks over his shoulder. “Are the plates in here, Cap?”

“Next door over, Agent,” Steve nudges with his foot. “Can we come up and see your floor? Meet the fellow?”

“Thanks, uh,” Coulson pulls out a couple of plates and starts doling out spoonfuls of the Morrocon bake. He seems to be ignoring Steve’s question, but finally says, “You know, it’s a mess. Not today.”

Tony notices that he still does not make eye contact with Captain America while standing shoulder-to-shoulder with him. He grins into his smoothie.

“Is Thor around this week?” Coulson asks as he crosses the kitchen.

“Yeah, he’s upstairs with his new sound system,” says Natasha.

“He’s absorbing the last seven decades of Midgardian music,” Bruce sniggers. “I think he’s just got to The Doors.”

“Well,” Coulson says, still loitering in the doorway. “I just thought we could have a, er, house meeting tonight. To sort some things out. Does that work for everyone?”

There’s a round of nods and mumbled agreements. “Good,” Coulson smiles, takes his food and goes.

---

That night, Coulson lays things out in a tidy, sanitary manner. He tells the Avengers that Clint used to be SHIELD, and now he isn’t, because HYDRA spent fourteen months connecting experimental mind-control devices directly to his spinal chord. Bruce puts his hand over his mouth. When Steve asks again, incredibly gently, why doesn’t Clint come and meet them, Coulson answers as if they were discussing a new seatbelt policy in the quinjets. “It’s too many people, for now,” and nods to himself. “He has to handle new things carefully, one at a time. He’ll be around.”

“Give us some rules,” Natasha says, her arms folded over her chest. “We’ve all seen war, Coulson. We’re not going to get huffy about it.”

“Okay,” Coulson scratches his nose, leaning against the back of the couch. “Don’t get mad if he takes off halfway through a conversation. Don’t walk behind him, even if he knows you’re there,” Tony thinks of a cake snatched out of his hands before he could take it into the old apartment’s kitchen and another piece of the puzzle falls into place. “And, you know, don’t treat him like damaged goods.”

“On Asgard, I think we have an affliction like this, after the most terrible of crises,” says Thor. “We called it inn viðara tillit. It heals with time.”

“I don’t think humans have enough time, Thor,” Coulson answers, and Thor nods, looking chastised.

 

8. welcome.

Bruce is feeling kind of annoyed at Tony. What was he thinking? Yeah, they all thought it would be good to have Coulson around, they talked about it heaps. It's not just because they like the guy, though they do. It's because SHIELD still gets on their case every other month about putting a handler on Tony’s permanent staff. Fury gives excuses – closer ties, public confidence in the initiative, easier communication during emergencies – but they all know it’s not about efficiency or synergy or whatever buzzwords SHIELD has come up with this week. It’s about watching for green in Bruce and ice-blue in Thor, it’s about making sure Captain America doesn’t get caught with a prostitute or throwing anti-Semitic slurs at cops, it’s about spotting the exact moment that Stark Industries ditches the ethical business model and goes back to making fucktons of money.

SHIELD wants to know that someone’s got a leash on the Avengers, and Natasha is barely even on the division’s books anymore. But Coulson is healed from his hole in the heart and back to fulltime: it would be a compromise that everyone would be happy with.

But this thing – it’s not going to work. Bruce is sure of it. He doesn’t even know why Coulson agreed to it.

He first sees Clint coming down the corridor towards the shared kitchen. Bruce has just come in from the deck where he’d been reading Nuclear Physics B. Vitamin D is good for his mood, and what’s good for his mood is good for everybody. There’s a figure with a gait he doesn’t know silhouetted in the hall and it puts him on guard for a second before he realises who it must be.

Clint’s a stout guy, very much in shape despite his agoraphobia, but he leans heavily on a cane. There’s a scowl on his face that never really goes away, as immovable as the scar. His left hand is in the pocket of his hoodie. He stops where the corridor opens out into the spacious lounge. Natasha raises her head from her papers – analyst work she’s doing SHIELD.

“Hi,” she says.

Bruce remembers Tony saying that she knows Clint, from back in his SHIELD days. He doesn’t acknowledge her with any friendly sign. He hovers for a moment, adjusting the cane. Finally he says, “Phil said, uh, there was a gym on this level?”

“Yeah, just back the way you came, on the left,” she starts to put her work aside, “Let me show you—”

“Fuck off,” Clint says without warning.

Bruce actually flinches. He clears his throat, wanting to say something, afraid there’s going to be a situation, but Clint turns and makes a fast pace back along the corridor. Natasha goes back to her work without comment.

“That’s not okay,” Bruce says, when he’s out of earshot. “We live here too.”

“I’m not bothered,” Natasha assures him.

 

9. need.

The dinner that Phil cooked is still sitting on the coffee table where he put it.

“You need to eat,” Phil says for the third time this evening, his hand furrowing through Clint’s hair. It’s like straw, like grass, it always has been, thick and rough as a weed, and the scent of it is always calming to Phil, even today when it needs a bit of a wash. But there’s grey in it too, though Clint hasn’t hit forty yet. Clint is reading one of his history books on World World Two. He reads a lot of books about history, and a lot of books about war. His therapist says this is allowable, if he’s choosing to do it, because it helps desensitise him to his own memories. Clint doesn’t answer, so Phil goes to finish some paperwork.

“You need to eat,” Phil says again, coming through the living room half an hour later to get a cup of tea. It is the fourth time he has said it, but that is not a worry. Ten would be a worry.

“It’s gone cold,” Clint says, not looking up from his book.

Phil takes the plate to the microwave, gives it a couple of minutes on high, and then brings it back. He tugs the book out of Clint’s hand, manipulates the bookmark into place one-handed, puts it on the table, gets a pillow and places the plate on it carefully. When he’s sure it’s balanced, he takes Clint’s hands and puts a knife and fork in each one.

“Eat,” he says, and Clint does.

“You’re too good to me,” Clint says huskily, with a sparkle of humour in his voice. “Your toyboy in your penthouse suite with your billionaire superhero friends.”

“You know me too well,” Phil replies. He takes his tea and presses his face to the top of Clint’s hair as he goes, just for a moment, to keep the scent with him.

 

10. junk food.

They barely see Clint, and when they do he’s a ghost, at the other end of a hall or glimpsed in a room and then gone straight after. Coulson comes to dinner two or three nights out of seven, but his shadow never eats with them. Tony isn’t sure what else he expected, but it’s been three weeks and Coulson is talking about leasing out the apartment, and Tony just thought that – that somehow Coulson was exaggerating? No. But he hoped he might be mistaken, that having the ragtag bunch of superheroes, each uniquely damaged and recovering from their own strange histories, would rehabilitate Coulson’s strange companion.

“How is your buddy doing?” Tony asks Coulson one night, while they’re packing the dishwasher.

“Great,” Coulson says brightly. “Really, better than I could have hoped for. He loves all the space on the balcony.”

Tony nods. “Do you think he’ll come to dinner tomorrow? Cap’s doing some new aubergine recipe with crème fraiche. I predict deliciousness.”

“I don’t think so, Tony,” Coulson says patiently.

“It could be good, man,” Tony pushes. “I mean, I’ve been there, with the Ten Rings and all. We’re not all alone in this kind of shit, I get it.”

Coulson pauses, his sleeves rolled up to his elbows, rinsing a wine glass in the sink. The water runs over the upturned bowl and flows in rivulets off the side of his hand. “I appreciate the thought, Tony, and… look, I’m not trying to diminish what happened to you, but you don’t get it,” he doesn’t sound angry. He sounds tired, and incredibly sad.

There’s silence for a few seconds. Tony doesn’t feel awkward, but he does want to make Coulson feel better, so he says, “You’re pretty awesome, you know? For staying by him. Courageous, or whatever.”

Coulson gives a small huff of laughter. “I’m not really. Maybe if I’d been younger, or sacrificed more, but honestly, it was never a dilemma for me.”

“Give yourself some credit, man,” Tony flicks water at him. “If it were me I’d be like, yeah, I’m an awesome boyfriend for sticking around. Not everybody would.”

"Every day's a gift," Coulson says on cue, like a fortune cookie.

"Oh, come on," Tony groans. "Just let it hang out. Whine a bit. Tell me your woes, White Collar. It'll be good for you!"

"It's the truth!" Coulson splutters.

"I don't believe it."

“It is! It was worse when I thought he was dead,” Coulson counters. “It was so much worse. I remember…” he laughs again, like he can’t believe he’s telling Tony this. “He used to eat all this crap that I refused to touch. Microwave popcorn and candy corn and Pop-Tarts and Snickers. After – I don’t know, it must have been a couple of months after he was taken – it was all official by then that he was dead, and I’d accepted that. But one day I decided I had to clean out the pantry. He always left it in such a mess. And there was all this junk food, just sitting there, and I didn’t want to eat it, but the idea of just throwing it out… it didn’t matter that he was dead, because what if he came back? There was half a bag of these marshmallow things that had sort of melted together, I threw those out, but the rest was stuff he’d want later. Getting rid of it was the hardest thing I had to do.”

Coulson shakes his head and dries off his hands on his trousers. “Every day that I’m not cleaning that pantry out, that’s a day I never thought I’d have.”

 

11. shopping list.

Less than forty-eight hours after this conversation, Coulson gets put on a mission to the Himalayas. He sticks his head into Pepper’s office, where Tony is trying to nut out the venue for next season’s StarkPad release, to leave them with only the briefest instructions. "Clint's got everything he needs, so don't bother him. I'll see you in a week or so."

"Didn’t you want to leave me your swipe card?" Tony asks. "In case of emergencies?"

"Yeah, you're right, you might need to refill his drip feeder," Coulson gives him a withering look and Pepper giggles. "He's not a potted plant. I go away for missions all the time."

"Okay, okay, sheesh!" Tony raises his hands. As Coulson leaves he yells after him, "Keep your mittens pinned to your jersey, sweetie."

---

It's maybe three days later. Tony's in the lab working on some very delicate circuitry with his favourite teeny-weeny tools, when he gets this jittery feeling like he's being watched. He looks up with a jolt. Clint's standing in the doorway. Creepy. A guy with a limp that bad should not be able to move that quietly, even if he did used to hunt Natasha for a living.

"Hey, dude, what's up?" Tony asks, pulling his magnifying glasses off his head.

Clint flushes a little. He holds out his hand, the same one that's still clutching the cane, and Tony spies a little scrap of paper clenched in his fingers. Clint seems to realise he's being cryptic, and says in a rush, "I'm sorry to interrupt, there's this stuff I don't have and I didn't realise until Phil was gone and if you give me your bank account I'll pay you back right away."

"Of course, of course," Tony jumps up and scuttles over. "I'll sort it out. Leave it to Stark."

He takes the paper. There's three items scribbled on it, including brand names. One of them is - support sticks? For building something? And the other two are bulk chemicals. "It's no problem, I buy shit for the rest of the team all the time," Tony says automatically, squinting at Clint's handwriting. "Phil was so adamant he had everything sorted, too, huh? Tsk, tsk."

Clint squirms and grabs for the paper. "It isn't his fault, it can wait if—”

"I'm kidding, I’m not trying to fob you off," Tony determinedly hangs onto the list. "I'll have it all to you tomorrow, how about it?"

Clint nods, looking less than happy, but then doesn't he always? He limps off without another word. Tony rubs his hand across his eyes, has JARVIS start sourcing supplies for everything on the list and goes back to work.

The stuff is for gardening, he realises as soon as JARVIS starts displaying supply websites - stem supports, insecticide and soil supplements. Tony thinks of the sweetly smoking joint in the apartment and sniggers to himself. He's glimpsed greenery on the top deck when he does fly-bys in the suit, but this is enough for way more than the couple of plants a guy might need to help with leg pain. Tony adds two bags of bone meal fertiliser to the order and has JARVIS put it all on the credit card he usually uses for buying gifts for Pepper and lab supplies for Bruce.

Everything arrives the next afternoon and a couple of boys from reception bring it up the tower. Tony hangs out with them in front of the elevator and rings the phone to the top level. There's no answer, it just goes to a recording of Coulson's voice, but he leaves a message and gives it a couple of minutes before he hears the elevator whirring downwards.

As soon as the doors open, he realises he's made a mistake. Clint is standing there relaxed enough, but when he sees the receptionists his eyes go huge and he flattens himself against the back wall of the lift, his hand wrapping around the cane like it’s a cudgel. Tony turns and tells them to buzz off, "Go on, get," and they head for one of the other lifts, one of them glancing back with a frown.

Tony turns to Clint. "I'm sorry, that was dumb of me. Forgive me?"

The lift doors are closing. For a second, Tony thinks Clint is just going to disappear, but then he hops forward and presses the button to keep them open. He looks down at the pile of stuff. "What is all this?"

"I thought you might need it," Tony says.

"Thanks," Clint whispers, barely even audible. He shuffles out and heaves both the forty-pound fertiliser bags onto his shoulders like they were down pillows, his cane hooked over his elbow. "You can piss off, Tony. I'll come back for the rest."

"What? No, I'll bring it," Tony insists, grabbing the supplements and insecticide bottles. He drops the sticks twice before he can get a good grip on them. Clint looks ready to block him out of the lift, but eventually steps back and lets Tony in beside him. He bumps his hip against the control panel to swipe the card hanging from his belt, and they slide upwards.

The top floor is excruciatingly clean. Tony can see his reflection in the hardwood floors and he’s pretty sure the windows must be a major bird hazard. There’s some art on the walls, abstract impressionism prints that Tony’s dad might have been able to identify and a framed print of that old propaganda poster of the Howling Commandos, Captain America standing tall among them. Tony resists snapping a picture on his phone to show to Steve. There are no photographs anywhere, not of Clint and Coulson, not of Coulson’s family, nothing.

Clint doesn't say anything. He walks slowly and carefully without his arms free to use the cane, and nudges the next door open with his foot. The whole front wall here is taken up with the side of the balcony and it’s – green, nothing but green and splashes of bright colours. It’s unlocked and swings open with another kick, and Tony follows Clint into the forest with his jaw hanging low. There’s rhododendrons in huge clusters like luminous pink ice, and tall silver saplings shifting in the breeze that rustles over the top of the windbreaks. There’s jenga-like stacks of porous boxes sprouting strawberries, red and white, and needled grasses of every organic shade. Clear tarps are stretched as awnings over the edges of the windbreaks and a network of hoses lie around waiting for someone to trip on them. Tucked in the shady corners there are pots of ferns with automatic misters, and a plastic hothouse is hiding the shapes of tomatoes and who knows what other vegetables. Fresh tomatoes. Tony doesn’t do canned. There’s even the suspected Aunt Mary plant at the front where the best sun is, thick-leaved and shameless.

On the very back corner at the curve of the tower, there’s fertiliser, trowels, shelves of chemicals, meters for pH and moisture and temperature. Clint dumps the new bags and jerks his head at Tony, who puts the rest of the supplies wherever he can find room. Tony’s still ogling the jungle that’s sprouted on top of his tower. He can’t figure out how Coulson and Clint managed to get all this up here without anyone noticing. Maybe one of them’s hiding a superpower.

He realises Clint is watching him, the perpetual wrinkle in his brow growing deeper. When Tony grins at him, he just says. “Are you leaving now? Because I have to swipe you out.”

Tony swallows. “Yeah, sure man.”

---

When Coulson gets back he seems pissed at Tony.

“Stark, how’d you know about the fertiliser?”

“Huh?” Tony raises an eyebrow.

“The fertiliser you bought Clint. It was the exact brand he uses. How’d you know?”

Tony rolls his eyes. “I’m not spying on you. I found some dirt near the elevator the day you two moved in. I specced it in the lab.”

Coulson crosses his arms. “Don’t do that. Don’t you see? He doesn’t like people watching him. Don’t do that.”

 

12. reunion.

It was three days from learning that Clint was alive before Phil stood outside the door of a private hospital ward talking to a thin redhead named Doctor Higgins. She was a civilian doctor who often helped treat SHIELD veterans, and Phil was finding it hard to concentrate on what she was saying. All he wanted to get into the ward, to see for himself, to know for sure that this whole thing wasn't the world's cruelest joke.

"Do you understand, Agent?" Dr Higgins asked gently. "He's still hurting very bad. Don't overstimulate him."

"Yes," Phil said, for what seemed like the tenth time. "Yes, I understand."

She eyed him skeptically but finally stepped up to the door, knocked and opened it for him. Phil slipped through into a sunny, warm room overlooking the park outside.

Clint lay on his side, facing the door. For a second Phil didn't recognise him at all, and the fear that this had been a mistake, that this man was a stranger who'd stolen or borrowed Clint's name, crashed on him so heavy he almost cried out. Then dark blue eyes flicked up to meet his gaze and the face of the man in the bed came into focus. It was Clint, his head shaved to the scalp, cheeks hollow and his folded arms so thin they looked like they belonged to a child. There was a fat, fleshy, pink scar curving around one eye. Phil crossed the room before his legs could give out and settled in the chair beside the bed.

He reached for Clint's hand, the one that wasn't bandaged up into a shapeless mitten, but Clint jerked away and tucked it against his body. Phil froze with his hand poised in the air, unsure of what to say or do. Against his better judgment he lowered his hand to Clint's cheek, but Clint didn't pull away this time. He let Phil brush his knuckles along the curve of his jaw. Phil could feel the warmth of living blood, the scrape of growing stubble, the pulse of Clint's throat as he swallowed. He was real. He was here, beyond all hope.

"I missed you," Phil said quietly. "There were times I thought I'd die."

Clint rasped, "I thought I was dead. So many times."

He glanced away, eyes flicking to something over Phil's shoulder. For a couple of minutes, Phil just looked at him, at the bandages taped to the back of his neck, disappearing under his hospital gown, at the shapes of old bruises on his face and arms and the ring of calloused scarring around one wrist. He didn't want to imagine it, but behind his eyeballs dangled the image of faceless men with guns and needles and batons. Too many to fight. Handcuffs that left bleeding rings, cold concrete floors, pliers and car batteries… he squeezed his eyes closed, trying to drive the thoughts away. It was over. Everything would be alright now.

He tried to think of something easy and harmless to ask. “How was the flight?”

“Horrid,” Clint said, and his voice had a wisp of something that might have been a third cousin to humour. “They made me stay on a stretcher.”

“Flying on your back makes you nauseous,” Phil smiled from long experience. There was a rush of pleasure that he had such knowledge. It had been worthless information for fourteen months, doing nothing but eat away at him whenever it rose to the surface. Now all that space in his brain, taken up with Clint likes jalapeño Doritos, and Clint snores when he sleeps on his back, and Clint won’t kiss me before I’ve shaved was useful once again.

“Can I get you something? Do you want anything to eat?”

“I’m on a special hospital diet.”

Phil had been thinking of bringing them both lunch, but his appetite evaporated. After a long while, Clint spoke again.

"There's papers on the table for you. Could you sign them, please, and drop them off for me."

"Of course, yeah," Phil said, leaning back and reaching for the thick pile of stapled papers on the bedside cabinet. He pulled them over, expecting hospital release forms or something from SHIELD. When he saw the heading, he just stared at it for a very long time. He turned to the next page.

"Where did you get these?" he asked, because he still couldn't process it, like black ink that hadn't yet absorbed into a dress shirt.

"They let me use the printer at the nurse's station," Clint said, still not meeting his eyes.

"Clint, we," it caught in his throat, and he swallowed. "We can leave this to another day, we can wait until you're out of hospital."

"No, I want you to sign it now," Clint said.

The words glared up at Phil from the paper. SUMPREME COURT OF THE STATE OF NEW YORK, it read. ACTION FOR DIVORCE.

Clint's hand worried at a bandage on his neck. He stared at a point near Phil's elbow, his mouth barely opening as he spoke. "I can't be your husband. I can't be anyone's husband. Can you just leave me alone, please."