Clint Barton fell in madly in love with Phil Coulson the very first mission they went on together.
He'd been at SHIELD almost a year and still not entirely sure that this gig beat the army (with a disciplinary record to match the attitude) when the strike team he was on got tasked with taking out a pirate mothership off the coast of Somalia. They were getting a new handler – Florentino had gotten herself transferred to a desk job once she hit the twelfth week of pregnancy – and though Clint was distinctly unenthused at the idea of breaking in a new supervisor, he was still in a pretty good mood.
Really, he'd had no idea that piracy on the high seas was still an issue. This wasn't SHIELD's usual bailiwick, but it was rumored that this particular crew had started working with A.I.M to run unregistered weapons technology to such warlords as could meet their exorbitant price. And that was the sort of thing that SHIELD took an in-depth and generally lethal interest in.
The new handler came in – a mild, unassuming-looking man in a neatly-pressed suit. Clint rolled his eyes behind his sunglasses. Hopefully, this would turn out to be the milk-run they were promised: this paper-pusher looked like he'd faint at the sight of blood but a job was a job, and so Clint perked up and paid attention to the briefing.
Turns out, real-life pirates? Not so much fun.
It wasn’t the milk-run they were promised. The intel they'd gotten underestimated the crew complement, and, though there was no A.I.M. weaponry in sight, Stark tech would kill you just as dead. (Funny how every jumped-up thug and tin dictator with a chestful of medals managed to have the latest and greatest SI could offer these days. Obadiah Stane must be laughing all the way to the bank.) “Caspar Milquetoast” became “Agent Coulson, sir!” within five minutes of boarding – the man led the assault on the wheelhouse and took out the advance guard without so much as breaking a sweat. Clint was impressed. Even with the sudden change of tactics, the ship was theirs within the hour: they'd taken no casualties, and only sustained a couple of minor injuries.
After that, there was nothing to do but hold it until they could rendezvous with their liaison in the Indian Navy. Clint took his turn guarding the prisoners, but that still left him with a chunk of free time – free time which he was determined not to use thinking about how his new handler really, really didn't look like an accountant when he was wearing a tac suit. Real life pirates might not be so much fun, but they were still on a by-God pirate ship, and so midnight found Clint at the bow, staring out to sea and practicing his Jack Sparrow impression.
He was on his third chorus of “It's a Pirate's Life For Me!” when he heard the sound of someone clearing their throat behind him. Clint whirled around in surprise – he couldn't remember the last time someone had been able to sneak up on him – and found himself face-to-face with Agent Coulson, now changed back into a black suit. At first glance, Coulson seemed as serious as he ever was, but there was a smile lurking in his eyes.
“‘You are, without doubt, the worst pirate I have ever heard of,’” said Coulson, quoting the movie.
Clint’s mouth went dry. “‘But you have heard of me,’” was all he could think of to say.
The corners of Coulson’s mouth turned up, and the laugh lines around his eyes crinkled.
And, just like that, Clint’s heart was gone.
Now, of course Clint Barton didn't believe in anything so soppy and frivolous as love at first sight. And even if he did believe in it, it wasn't going to happen to him. And even if it did happen to him, it certainly wasn't going to be reciprocated. It was, therefore, for strictly academic purposes that he found himself digging through the SHIELD manual on the day they got back, trying to parse out SHIELD's fraternization policy. (To sum up: it was complicated. SHIELD was not overly thrilled with intra-office relationships, but understood the kind of work its agents did, and consensually trading bodily fluids with coworkers of similar clearance levels was infinitely preferable to inadvertently trading company secrets with partners outside the organization. At any rate, it wasn't an overt “no,” and that was all the wiggle room Clint Barton needed if he was going to make a move on his handler. Which he most certainly wasn't. He was simply interested in finding out more about the man, since Coulson was temporarily in charge of their team. That was his story, and he was sticking to it.)
As it turned out, according to office legend, Coulson was SHIELD's resident memetic badass, the only man Chuck Norris was afraid of. Coulson was at his desk twenty-four/seven. Coulson didn't need to sleep. Coulson did the work of ten men. Coulson had paperwork that kept track of when all the paperwork had been filled out. Coulson once killed a man with a pistachio macaron. Coulson was an android.
As he tried to sort out the man from the myths and the legends, Clint was amazed to discover the number of them that were actually true. From his personal observation, Coulson really did work ridiculous hours, eighty to a hundred a week, at least, and would turn up fresh and rested after just a couple of hours at home. He did have a thing for paperwork – he kept careful notes on everything, once for SHIELD and then a second time in his own personal logbooks, the latter in his own cypher that cryptology would love to be able to break. (Seriously, Coulson had supplied them with a sample: there was an annual contest with a large cash prize, unclaimed lo these fifteen years.) The Pistachio Macaron Caper was confirmed by none less than Jasper Sitwell himself, though that was one of the few stories that ended up less badass than it sounded – the mark had had a severe tree nut allergy.
And when it came to the android part – well, Barton just confirmed what he already knew: underneath that carefully bland exterior existed a kind man with a wickedly dry sense of humor. It did depend on his mood, but Barton learned the tells for that, too. For example, Coulson usually had music on in the background in his office: he said it helped him focus, and Barton clued in pretty quickly. Big band and jazz meant that Coulson would be open to him coming in and hanging out, talking smack and shooting paperclips into the ceiling. Classical music meant that Coulson would be polite and friendly, but very much in a “Don't you have someplace to be?” sort of way if Barton wasn't bringing in something work-related. And if there was no music playing? Batten down the hatches and run for cover.
To top it all off, they worked well together. Really well. Even if he hadn't been nursing a monster crush on the senior agent (a crush he would deny to his dying breath, no matter how refined the torture), Clint would have learned to respect him in fairly short order. Coulson was smart, he was competent, he was careful and, most of all, he listened to what Clint had to say. He didn't always agree but he never dismissed Clint's concerns out-of-hand, and if he disagreed he explained why. So when they found a permanent replacement for Florentino and Coulson offered to take him on as one of his individual assets, Barton had agreed in an embarrassingly short amount of time.
Before long, Clint's reputation as a disciplinary problem began to fade, his star was on the rise, and office gossip added another item to Coulson's list of memetic badassery: Phil Coulson was the handler who had tamed Clint Barton.
They were a few years into their partnership when Coulson called Clint to his office to brief him on the new assignment. “What do you know about the Black Widow?”
“The Black Widow?” Barton whistled. “Isn't she just a scary story handlers tell their assets to get them to go to medical and finish their paperwork on time? I would've thought that she was too old to still be active.”
“Sadly, no. We're headed to Caracas to remove her from play. Our orders are to terminate with extreme prejudice.” Coulson dropped a thick file in front of Clint. “Wheels up at 0300. Let me know if there's anything about this you wish to discuss.”
“Thank you, sir.” He pulled the file over and started reading.
This was the deal he'd made with himself: he'd read through all the intel SHIELD had on the target and try to understand the person whose life he was being called on to end. And, usually, there was something in the file he'd want to talk about with Coulson – some possible misconstruction of motives, some ambiguity in the proof of guilt, but not this time. As he paged through, Barton began to be glad he hadn't eaten yet. She was another super-soldier project, this one not entirely a failure, and the Red Room had twisted her to their will. Her actual kill list dwarfed even the wildest rumors about her savagery. (Though, he did have to say, she might be pure evil but she looked pretty damned good for a woman of seventy-three.)
Still. SHIELD had decided that a lot of people would sleep better in a world without her in it, and, from everything he read, he couldn't disagree.
Caracas sucked. It had always sucked, it would always suck, and he couldn't wait to get this job over with and get home.
“I swear, all I do up here is sweat. My clothes are soaked through, I've drunk a metric fuck-ton of water and I can't seem to stay ahead of the game,” griped Clint.
“Barton, I want to tell you something, and I need you to know that I mean, this deeply, sincerely, and from the bottom of my heart: shut up and color,” snarked Sitwell.
“Awww, I always knew you cared.”
“Yeah, I've got your initials carved into all my log books. How much is a metric fuck-ton, anyway?”
“It's slightly less than an English fuck-ton.”
“Less chatter on the comms, please.” Coulson's voice came over the headset, but Clint could hear the smile in his voice. Clint was about to say something sarcastic in return when a movement caught his eye.
“Target spotted,” he said, and the comms went absolutely silent. If he hadn't seen the pictures in the file, he wouldn't have believed it, but there she sat by herself at the café, all lithe limbs and beautiful red hair.
Something was off, though. He watched her glance around – if he hadn't known any better, he would've said she'd spotted him. She wasn't leaving, though. Was this a trap?
He watched her for a bit longer.
“Do you have the shot?”
“Target acquired,” he said automatically, but he was starting to doubt. This seemed … unsporting? Was that the word? It was something in her eyes... a look of exhaustion, like this was the end she knew she was always coming to and she'd decided to let it happen. This wasn't a hit, it was suicide-by-Barton, something with which he was a great deal less comfortable.
An odd thought for a professional assassin, but there it was.
“Barton, take the shot,” ordered Coulson.
The uncertainty continued to curl around his fingers. “I'm not sure about this, sir.”
“You know who she is, Barton. You read her file.”
“She knows I'm here. I think she's tired of running. I think she's looking to die.”
“Well, we're here to kill her, so if we're all in agreement...”
“But we're not, sir. I think she wants to come in from the cold.”
There was a pause at the end of the comm line.
“Please, sir, trust me on this one. Let me talk to her.”
“Barton, wait five until I can get O'Brian into position as your backup. Permission granted to engage the target, but you're only getting twenty minutes. At the twenty-minute mark – or if she even so much as twitches the wrong way – I'm giving O'Brian the kill order. Understood?” said Coulson.
“Roger that.” He put down his bow, but checked to make sure his sidearm and knives were ready to go.
He wasn't stupid, after all.
They got her, under guard, to the safe house and started calling in backup for the level of secured prisoner transport this would require.
“You owe me a whole case of antacids, Barton,” said Coulson as he was assigning Clint to primary guard duty. They were interrupted by Sitwell.
“Fury's on for you. He's pissed off.”
“Osaka-pissed-off or Nyiragongo-pissed-off?” said Coulson.
“Khyber-Pass-pissed-off.” replied Sitwell.
Coulson winced, and took the phone. He walked off into the safe house's office. Clint and Sitwell watched him go.
“Fuck me, Barton, you'd better be right about this. You're watching Coulson lay his career on the line on your say-so,” said Sitwell.
Clint didn't even have a sarcastic reply for that. He swallowed hard.
Clint was right, though, and it turned out better than they could have hoped. Coulson (and by extension, Clint) was immediately put on Romanoff-sitting duty, shepherding her through the interrogations and the checks until SHIELD was satisfied that she was not a danger to the organization and its allies. (Out of all the tests, it was the telepaths that freaked Clint out the most. He was terrified he'd end up in a room with both the Teeps and Coulson at the same time, but luck was apparently running in Barton's favor that day: Coulson was needed for something above Clint's clearance level, and so Hill oversaw the deep-brain scan.) Clint asked her, just once, why she'd defected, why she'd let herself be taken, and all she said was, “I no longer wish to be what the Red Room made me.”
It was a good answer. He could work with that.
Once she'd been cleared, she was assigned to Coulson as his second asset (probationary) and the three of them together were unstoppable.
The problem with suddenly having a partner, however, was that it took all of two seconds for Natasha to ferret out all his secrets, including his deeply buried feelings for their handler. (Everyone at SHIELD assumed that he and Natasha were involved, but it wasn't true. There had been attraction, to be sure, but they'd quite sensibly worked through their sexual tension by sleeping together, and afterwards mutually agreed that it wasn't going to work out.)
She broached the subject with him with her usual tact and delicacy. “You want him,” she said, like she was stating the color of the sky or the fact that water was wet, like that was just something normal people said right out loud.
Clint was horrified. “I do not!”
She raised one perfectly-shaped eyebrow.
Argh! He could keep arguing, but... “It doesn't matter. He doesn't want me, so that's that.”
“I think you're wrong. I think he's just as gone on you as you are on him.”
“You're totally high.”
“Am I,” she said, and headed out of the room.
The seed had been planted, however, and he started to to pay closer attention to how his handler reacted to him. Their relationship was much the same as it had always been – if Coulson was in a bad mood, Barton steered clear; but if he wasn't, he would let Barton hang out on the couch in his office, and every so often, a look or a gesture – the smallest of things, really – seemed to indicate that maybe this wasn't just a friendly relationship. Barton spent every free moment he could there (Coulson's musical tastes were getting to him – dammit, he was even developing a taste for ska), and he started to dare to hope.
That hope started to coalesce into something Barton thought he might possibly consider taking the chance to think about acting on thanks to one particular incident: one night, after everyone else had gone home, he'd stretched out on Coulson's couch and started playing games on his phone, as he'd done a thousand times before, listening to some Ella Fitzgerald on the radio. What was different this time, however, and what he didn't realize until later, was that he'd been singing along. At some point, it occurred to him that he'd stopped hearing any tapping from the keyboard – he looked up and caught Coulson staring at him with an unreadable expression on his face. Clint met his eyes, and Coulson spoke:
“Clint, I...” Coulson trailed off. His eyes were shining and there was a hint of a smile around the corners of his mouth.
Clint's heart leapt up in his throat. “Yes, sir?”
Coulson seemed to think better of it. In a split second, his face closed off again. “Romanoff? That was a good call, Barton. I'm glad you stuck your neck out for her.”
That was ages ago. “Thank you, sir. Me too.” He was too confused to follow up at that moment (something for which he kicked himself later), but he tied himself in knots trying to figure out what that open expression had meant.
He obsessed about it at Romanoff for a while (read: months), and she eventually brought him around to the idea that he should go ask Coulson out to coffee. With that, it was hard to go wrong. Coulson drank coffee the same way the average human being breathed air and “meeting for coffee” could always be relied upon as the date of least commitment, if things didn't go the right way.
Nevertheless, Clint researched the occasion like he was planning the invasion of Normandy. He hunted for weeks to find the perfect coffee shop – the right brew, the right music, the right ambience. He had Natasha take him shopping for outfits – one to ask Coulson out in, the other to actually go on the date in. (She teased him mercilessly, but helped him anyway.) He came up with a list of things to talk about, in case the conversation didn't naturally flow. He was ready. He could do this.
And so it was that, on a Friday night, bolstered by a pep talk from Natasha and dosed with a shot of liquid courage, Clint Barton found his way to Agent Coulson's office, with Intent. It didn't bode well from the start – he heard a Schubert string quartet on the radio – but he pressed forward regardless.
He knocked, and the door swung open. “Sir...” An unexpected sight greeted him – Coulson was fussing with his cufflinks, wearing one of his nicer suits and obviously getting ready to go out. Clint hadn't prepared for this, and his nerves were starting to fail. “Wow, it's only 1900, sir, are you taking a half-day?” Clint tried to joke.
It at least won a smile. “No, I'm headed out to meet Alexandra for dinner.”
Clint's stomach dropped like a rock. “Alexandra?”
“Oh! I thought I'd mentioned her – she's the new cellist for the Diana String Quartet. We struck up a conversation after the concert last week and, well...”
Nope, he hadn't mentioned her. Clint sure as hell would have remembered something like that. Clint nodded, ignoring the sickening pain radiating out through his chest. “That's great, boss, have a good time.”
Coulson turned to face him and Clint had a panicked moment in which he was sure Coulson could read his mind. “Are you all right, Barton? Did you need something?”
“Nah, it's nothing that can't wait until Monday.”
“Are you sure? If it's important, I can call and let her know I'll be late...”
“No. No! It's fine. Hope your date goes well.”
“Oh, it's not a date. She's just a good friend. Thanks, Barton, I'll see you later.”
Natasha joined Clint from her vantage point as Coulson disappeared down the hall. She looked positively gobsmacked. “That doesn't make any sense. I mean it, I talked to him this morning, I could have sworn...” she said, much bemused.
“Coulda sworn, huh? Did he look like a guy prepping for dinner with a 'friend' to you!?” he snarled.
“No, he didn't, but I can't explain it! Clint, I am so sorry. I don't... I don't make these mistakes,” she said in complete and total astonishment. At any other time, he would have ribbed her a little at the failure of her much-vaunted people-reading skills, but right now, he couldn't see the humor.
“Yeah, well, first time for everything. Thanks for nothing, Tasha, I'm going to go get drunk.”
She took him out and paid the bar tab. He woke up with an epic hangover for the ages (the woman drank vodka like it was water) and, as soon as he could string coherent thoughts together, he held his chin up and squared his shoulders. At least he'd found out before he'd had a chance to confess his feelings and embarrass himself. Agent Phil Coulson would never be his, not like Clint Barton wanted, but he was his friend, and Clint would have to learn to be content with that. Even that was more than he deserved, so he should be happy with it, right?
He steeled himself with that thought and went to Coulson's office like usual on Monday morning. Without preamble, he flopped down onto his place on Coulson's couch. “So how did your date go?”
“Your date. On Friday.”
“Oh, it wasn't a date, just a friendly dinner. And what was it you needed to see me about?”
Huh. “Oh, it's nothing, sir. Never mind.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, I'm sure. Just forget it.” Clint tapped his foot absent-mindedly to the Benny Goodman on the radio. Friends. You bet. He could do this.
And then the Tesseract started misbehaving. And it got worse.
Clint wished he'd died in the Battle of Manhattan. It would have been so easy. Nobody would have noticed one more body. But all he could think about at the time was revenge on Loki, and how he couldn't get that if he was a corpse. So he kept fighting.
And then they won, and sent Loki and Thor back to Asgard.
He followed Natasha to her room in Stark's tower – he didn't give it any thought, he just went. And collapsed on the bed. She held him through a night and a day as he alternately wept and slept and raged. His teammates were kind, too kind, far kinder than he deserved – he wondered whether Natasha had tipped them off about his feelings for Coulson, but he found he couldn't even care enough about that to ask.
All that mattered was that Phil was dead, and that he, Clint Barton, had helped kill him.
Clint went to the shrink appointments and said the rote things that he always said to fool the psychiatrists, but nothing, nothing ever could make up for the hole that Loki had ripped in his heart. He counted the days until he could be back on duty, until he could get his bow back and he'd be left alone. He accepted Stark's offer of a floor – he had to admit, recuperating in the lap of luxury beat SHIELD's accommodations hands-down – but he still felt like he'd never be whole again.
He might have stayed that way for a long time, but one night, as he and his new teammates were sitting on the communal floor arguing about what movie they should inflict on Steve next, two incredible things happened: a not-at-all-dead Agent Coulson stepped off the elevator and, before anyone could form words or even shriek in surprise, he crossed the room, pulled Clint up out of his seat and swept him into a passionate kiss. It took a second for Clint to respond - he was sure he must be dreaming - but respond he did. It was even better than he hoped it would be.
And if this was a dream, Clint never, ever wanted to wake up. If this was his final break with reality, he'd take it.
Unsurprisingly, it was Tony who broke the shocked silence. “Barton, you... you seem to have a dead guy on your face.”
Phil pulled away from Clint and smiled, and pandemonium broke loose. Stark, Rogers and Natasha started shouting about Fury, Pepper started crying, Bruce demanded an explanation, but Clint could do nothing but stand in shock, unable to think about anything except for the pressure of Phil's hand around his. The only time Phil let go was to accept a teary hug from Pepper – and grabbed Clint's hand immediately after.
Coulson got the group to settle down with the promise of an explanation. He sat on the couch next to Clint, pressing the outside of their thighs together. “Fury didn't lie to you, exactly, when he said that the medics called it. The procedures they used to bring me back are eyes-only, I'm afraid, but as soon as they released me, I came here. I've got a few more tests to pass, but I should be able to return to duty within the month.”
“Back to duty!? How are you even walking upright at this point? I saw the footage – you got stabbed through-and-through with a big goddamned spear!” said Tony.
“SHIELD medical is the best in the world.”
“But that doesn't... I don't understand...” Stark spluttered. Coulson raised one eyebrow. “I'm not getting a straight answer, am I,” said Tony.
“It's classified, Mr. Stark.”
“But you can't expect us to believe that there aren't any aftereffects, not from that kind of trauma!” said Bruce.
Coulson unbuttoned his shirt and showed them the ropy pink scar. “I've got some pronounced weakness on my left side, too, but the physical therapists say I should get full use back.”
“That's unbelievable...” said Bruce. “I mean, literally... I'm not sure I can believe it.”
“I was incredibly fortunate,” said Coulson, buttoning his shirt again.
For once, Tony's genius-brain had outpaced his inner twelve-year-old, but the inner twelve-year-old eventually caught up. “Wait... you were kissing. You kissed Barton.”
Clint found his voice. “I'm glad you found that more believable than Phil coming back from the dead.”
“No, that's not what I meant – are we about to have an outraged cellist on our hands? My insurance policy doesn't cover acts of females scorned!”
Coulson's mouth quirked a half-smile. “I doubt even Lloyd's of London would cover you on that, Stark. No. Alexandra and I are just good friends, nothing more.”
“It's her loss, then!” Pepper came forward and hugged Phil again. She hugged Clint, too, to Clint's very great surprise. “I think you're trading up, Phil!” she whispered sotto voce.
“Well, he's almost certainly got a better ass, at any rate...” interjected Tony. Yeah, Clint was getting uncomfortable with the direction of this conversation, all right. He nearly kissed Bruce when the man told Phil how glad he was to have a second chance to get to know him, and Clint didn't miss a second of how Coulson's cheeks pinked up when Steve shook his hand. Natasha pulled Phil aside briefly and started haranguing him in Russian, a tirade that Phil accepted meekly. Clint's Russian was a little rusty, but he caught enough to know that she was not pleased with his recklessness and that she was mad enough to make his death for real and permanent, if given half an excuse. “You're just lucky your boyfriend is here!” she finished in English.
“Duly noted, Agent Romanov,” he replied, smiling.
All this led to drinks, and dinner, and Clint never once left Coulson's side. The party broke up when Phil hinted that he was a bit tired. Pepper swept him off immediately (with Barton in tow) to one of the guest rooms on the floor. “You'll watch over him, won't you, Clint?” she asked with a wink, and left.
“That was subtle,” Clint muttered under his breath. “Are you going to be all right, sir? Can I get you anything?” he asked in a normal tone of voice.
Phil took his hand again. “I'm not actually tired, Clint. I just thought... well, I guess we need to talk.”
“Yeah. Yeah, we do.”
They stood opposite one another, and stared. The minutes stretched out like eons.
Phil cracked first. “I’ve wanted to kiss you for years, Clint, I just couldn’t.”
“Then why now?” Oh my God, was this really happening?
“I've had to rethink a lot of things, since the Helicarrier. And I swore that, once I had the chance, I wasn’t going to let another minute go by without telling you how I felt about you. But I saw you sitting there and I couldn't think of what to say. So I kissed you. And I’m here. And I’ll stay, if you’ll have me.”
“If I’ll have you… oh, for fuck’s sake, sir…” At a total loss for words, Clint devoured Coulson’s mouth in another long, hot kiss.
They did have each other that night. Several times, in point of fact.
Stark gave Coulson his own apartment in the tower, though that ended up being largely a formality – Coulson spent every night in Clint's bed, a development to which Clint had no objection. Clint couldn't help but notice that, however Coulson might talk about being back to normal, the traumatic experience had nevertheless wrought some marked changes. Coulson seemed somber, less prone to his usual understated humor. He had slowed down quite a bit, no longer working the ridiculous hours he'd put in before, and even let some of his obsessive record-keeping slide. Some nights, Clint woke with Phil's arms wrapped around him in an iron grip, like he was terrified Clint would vanish if he let him go. It seemed almost as if he were in mourning, but then, weren’t they all? There was more than enough loss to go around.
(Clint's own nightmares were a bit better with someone else in his bed. Coulson saw him through the worst of them, gentling him through the tears and not mentioning them in the morning. Clint actually began to believe he might really heal from this.)
Nevertheless, formality or not, Phil officially moved out of his brownstone and into the apartment below Clint's, and Clint, being the good boyfriend that he was, went over to help him pack. It was the first time he'd been to Coulson's old place, and while he'd always figured him for a spartan kind of guy, there really wasn't a whole lot to box up, a lot less than Clint expected. It was the record collection that threw him, though – there were lots of shelves for CDs, but half of them were empty.
“Didn’t you have a whole collection of classical albums?”
Phil's face went blank. “I got rid of them. Lost my taste for the genre.”
The thing with the cellist never went anywhere? Yeah, right. The breakup must've been epic.
Tony had offered to hire a moving crew, but it hardly seemed worth it, for the amount Phil had. Clint and Steve got the van packed and unpacked in less than half a day (Clint had to threaten to tie Phil down before he stopped trying to help carry boxes). It was such a normal-couple thing to do, Clint still couldn't believe it.
Within a few months, Phil and Clint managed to settle into a wonderfully domestic routine and even with everything that had taken place, Clint was happier than he had ever been in his life.
That was when it happened. He should have known things wouldn't be that easy.
As much as Clint's situation had improved (and it had, oh, how it had) he still felt uncomfortable on the Helicarrier and around its crew. Most people didn't blame him, but those that did? It was impossible to look them in their eyes. So generally, Clint stuck to the vents when he needed to get around.
The problem there was that the HVAC system had changed during the 'carrier's reconstruction, and, on his seventh visit, Clint got lost. After climbing around the vents for an hour or two, he gave up and resurfaced in a random room – one of the intensive care bays, as it happened. He let himself down silently, whispered an apology to the figure on the bed, and froze.
No. It couldn't be. He looked closer.
Philip Coulson lay on the bed, pale and thin, for all intents and purposes dead to the world.
Clint fell to his knees like he'd taken a punch to the gut. When had this happened? He'd seen Phil this morning, he was fine! If he'd had a relapse, or if there had been unexpected complications, they should have called him! Why wouldn't they have done that? Clint gasped like a fish out of water. The heart monitor's beeps just seemed to be mocking him. The Universe had gotten his hopes up, had given him what he'd wanted and then ripped out his guts with his heart's desire, as it did with every good thing that had ever happened to Clinton Francis Barton.
With a shaking hand, he reached out to take the chart from the end of the bed, and started to flip through it - there was no name on the chart, but the dates on the pages went all the way back to the day of the attack on the Helicarrier. What the fuck? Had Clint lost his mind? Had this all been some cruel hallucination or a final psychotic break, some last twisted present of Loki's? And if it was real, who the hell had been sharing his bed the past few months?
He called Natasha in a panic.
“Slow down, Clint, what are you talking about?” Natasha looked confused, and glanced over at Coulson, who was standing right next to her. Alarmed by her tone, Tony, Pepper and Bruce looked up from their bickering over lunch. “Seriously, he’s fine, he’s right here. What?” She listened. “Let me put you on hold.” She drew her gun, and pointed it at Coulson’s temple, and suddenly they had the complete attention of the entire room.
A moué of annoyance crossed Coulson’s face. “What?” he asked.
“What happened in Budapest?” she asked.
“Before or after the regatta?” he asked in return. “What’s going on?”
She holstered the gun. “No, really, it’s him,” she said into the phone. “What the hell, Clint?”
“Natasha, give me the phone,” Coulson said. She complied.
He put the cell phone to his ear. “Talk to me, Barton.” He went silent, letting Clint have his say, and then it happened.
Agent Coulson blanched.
Shocked, Natasha took a step back, her eyes wide. Even those in the room who didn't understand what that meant, who didn't know that nothing ever managed to penetrate Agent Coulson's unflappable calm, at least understood that the last thing to spook Natasha Romanoff was a rampaging Hulk.
“Listen to me, Clint, listen. I swear to you, I’ll explain everything, but I need you to do something for me, are you listening? I need you to stay in that room. Got it? You’ve got to stay there. And nobody gets in that room until I get there. Can you do that for me, Clint?” he said, in a tone none of them had ever heard before. “I'll be there as fast as I can.”
“Helicarrier. Now!” he snarled at Natasha, and they sprinted off to the Quinjet.
It hadn't taken the medical staff long to figure out there was an intruder. Clint barricaded the door against them and hunkered down in the corner, rocking back and forth, trying to process the situation. After what felt like far too long, he heard Coulson's voice on the other side of the door.
“It's me, Clint. Let me in.”
“How the fuck do I know it's you!?” shouted Clint.
“Clint, I'm here, too,” said Natasha. “Let us in.”
“What's the code phrase?” asked Barton?
“Mercy in Caracas,” she replied immediately.
It took Clint a little while to disable the lock modifications he'd jerry-rigged, but he did get the door open, and let Natasha and Coulson through. Coulson had evidently ordered the staff and security to stand down, because there was no one else in the hallway. Natasha crossed half-way to the bed, stopped and gaped. Coulson went to Clint and tried to take his arm, but Clint flinched away.
“Please, Clint, I...”
They were cut off when Stark and Cap stumbled through the doorway. They were both in uniform – Stark had evidently flown them both up to the Helicarrier after picking up Steve from the gym – and they stopped and stared, just as astonished as Natasha. Fury followed right behind them, looking resigned.
“What the… what the hell? Are you clones?” asked Stark.
Coulson stormed over and landed a solid punch across Nick Fury’s jaw. Coulson pulled him up by his jacket and shook him like a dog. “YOU TOLD ME HE WAS DEAD. YOU LIED TO MY FACE AND YOU TOLD ME MY BROTHER WAS DEAD.”
“Brother...!?” said Steve.
“I did. Put me down, Phil, and I’ll explain.” Coulson didn’t move. Fury continued softly. “I didn’t know they’d revived him when I told you. And I wanted to wait until they were sure he’d pull through. Telling you he was dead was bad enough once, I sure as hell didn’t want to do it a second time.”
Coulson huffed in frustration, and threw Fury towards the rest of the group. He crossed back to the bed.
“So that’s…?” Clint’s voice broke. He felt so totally at sea.
Fury pointed to the man in the bed. “James Philip.” He then gestured to the man standing at the bedside. “Philip James.”
“Man, your parents were sadists…” said Tony.
“The prognosis,” said Coulson quietly. He gripped the siderail with white knuckles.
“I'll get the doctors to give you the details, but the short version is, they don't know. Loki's spear... well, the Tesseract energy had some sort of aftereffect. The wound itself has healed as best as it can, but he's still comatose. Basically, we're waiting to see if he wakes up.” Fury went to his side and put his hand on Coulson's shoulder, “Phil –“
“I can't talk to you right now,” Coulson snarled quietly, and brushed off his hand.
Fury nodded silently and swept out of the room.
“Now that I think about it, I'm not entirely sure how much sympathy we ought to be feeling about this. You know we spent more than a week without anyone disabusing us of the notion that your demise was somewhat exaggerated, I don't think – mmph!” Tony was cut off suddenly by a large hand covering his mouth.
“Let's go... do something somewhere else, Tony, shall we?” said Steve, and frogmarched Tony out the door.
Natasha turned to follow them out but when Clint moved to join her, she gave him a look that very clearly shouted, “Where do you think you're going, idiot?” and pointed to the figure standing by the bed. Clint wanted more than anything to run, to find a place to hide and sort out his thoughts. The horrible shock of seeing Phil – of seeing Coulson in the hospital bed had barely subsided when it got supplanted by the total confusion of seeing the twins together. Natasha's glare, however, brooked no argument as she closed the door. The sudden quiet in the room was deafening. Through sheer force of will, Clint swallowed down his panic.
Not knowing quite what else to do, he walked over and stood next to Coulson by the bed. Coulson grabbed his hand like a drowning man grabs a lifeline, and when he looked over at Clint, his blue eyes were filled with such pain that all Clint's doubts and fears were overrun by a wave of compassion. He pulled Phil into his arms and, because it was a day for impossible things to happen, Phil Coulson wept on his shoulder.
Clint held him until the sobbing stopped, and rubbed his back as Phil sucked in ragged, halting breaths. Eventually he pulled away, and Clint grabbed a box of tissues. Phil wiped his eyes and blew his nose.
There was a tap at the door, and Natasha stuck her head in. “The doctor's here. Do you want to talk to him?”
“Yes. Send him in,” said Phil. Natasha nodded, and disappeared.
“Do you want me to go?” asked Clint.
Phil grabbed his hand again. “No, please. Please stay.”
That was impossible to refuse. The doctor came in and, after apologizing profusely for the orders he'd been given that kept Coulson out of the loop. He summarized James Coulson's condition, basically reiterating what Fury had told them.
“We're doing everything we can. I've got a team of researchers on this – Fury's given us carte blanche. I'm sorry, Agent Coulson.”
Phil thanked the doctor abstractly, and the doctor showed himself out. The agent collapsed into the chair by the bed, and Clint dragged up the plastic chair from the other side of the room.
They sat there together in silence for a long time.
“I need answers,” said Clint, eventually.
“You're owed them.” Phil nodded, and took a deep breath. “Even for twins, we're identical. Nobody could ever tell us apart, not even our parents.”
Clint leaned forward in his chair, resting his elbows on his knees.
“It started as a joke, in the Rangers. A good way to haze the newbies. When Fury went to SHIELD, though, he brought us with him, and it turned into something really useful. Instant alibi. Helpful in interrogation. Useful in training. So it stuck.”
“Fury and Hill, only.”
“We simply traded places, if we were in the office. Either at lunch or at dinner, one would leave and the other would take over.”
“How could you possibly debrief fast enough?”
“We didn't count on it. That's why I kept the logs, why the office always had to be arranged the same way.”
This was all starting to seem horribly possible. “The cypher...”
“... is based on the language he and I came up with when we were kids. That's why no one could crack it. We started the contest to make sure we'd know if anyone did.”
“No, we've been on ops together, Coulson, how the hell...?”
“That was solo work, either me or him, unless the operation was really complicated.”
“But that doesn't make any sense. Your scars, your fingerprints -”
“Plastic surgery. Even...” said Coulson, running his hand over his left shoulder.
Clint's head was swimming. “So the day we met?”
“That was me.”
“Both of us.”
“That... that actually explains an awful lot,” Clint thought some more. “Natasha?”
“That was him. You have to understand we both share the utmost respect for your abilities, your intuition and your judgment in the field. As to anything more than that, well...” He cleared his throat. “We're not clones. Sorry to shut down any twins fantasies you might be harboring.”
Actually, Clint hadn't been harboring any twins fantasies. Though he was now.
“I just... I don't understand. Why did you wait until you thought he...?”
“Because dating was the one thing that couldn't happen. Either half the time we'd have to be unavailable to the person we were seeing, or, we each would have to try to fake it with the other brother's significant other. And that would be a terrible abuse of trust, tantamount to rape. So we never did.”
“But the cellist...”
“James told himself for the longest time that she was just a friend. But she wanted more, and she broke it off when he told her he couldn't. It broke his heart, when he heard she took the job with the Portland Cello Project.”
A revelation burst over Clint like the dawn breaking. He laughed outright, long and hard. Phil raised his eyebrows.
“The music. Oh, my God, it was the music....” He said, as soon as he caught his breath.
“The music?” asked Coulson, amusedly confused.
“If you were playing big band music on the radio in your office, I would go in and pester you, come in and shoot the shit. If it was classical, I'd stay away unless I really needed something. I just figured it was your mood...”
Coulson smiled at him. “No, it wasn't. I've always preferred music with a bit more swing.”
This piece of information, small as it was, eased the burden a little. It didn't fix everything, exactly, but he had a lot more confidence now that he knew he'd always been flirting with the right Coulson.
“So when Fury told you he was dead...”
“It meant I could do what I wanted. Losing my brother? Nothing could make that better. The only thing made it endurable was that I could finally have a chance with you. And I am sorry. I never lied to you outright, but I certainly never told you the full truth. If it's any consolation, if you'd outright asked me if I was sharing a life with my twin brother, I wouldn't have lied to you.”
Clint laughed. “It would never have crossed my mind.”
“That was the point. We were good at it.”
Clint nodded, and a horrible realization struck him. “All these weeks, you've been carrying this around all alone.”
“Not alone. Even if you didn't know what had happened, I had you.”
Clint said nothing. This was so much to take in, and his head was still spinning.
The two of them sat in silence for hours. The nurses came periodically to make their checks, but there was, of course, no change in James Coulson's condition. They gently tried to hint to Phil that his brother had been in this coma for weeks, that he should go home and wait for the call. They didn't understand, as Clint did, that, as far as Phil was concerned, his brother had been resurrected from the dead that day, and Phil needed to convince himself that his twin wasn't really going to vanish again.
Clint might have spent a few sleepless nights staring Phil for much the same reason.
The clock was showing almost midnight when Steve came by.
“I thought I'd come over and spell you, Phil.”
“Thank you, but that won't be necessary. I'll be fine here.”
“I don't doubt it, but Clint needs a break and he won't leave without you.” Clint caught the slightest hint of a wink in those guileless blue eyes.
Admittedly, trying to bluff Agent Coulson took some serious balls, but Phil still had a bit of a blind spot when it came to Captain America. Clint played along. “No, actually, I'm doing ok. It's no big deal.”
Phil looked over at him. Clint tried to look exhausted and hungry. He didn't have to try hard. “You should go, Clint. You don't have to sit here with me,” said Phil.
“Don't have to, sir. But I want to. Really, I'm fine.”
“I appreciate that, but when was the last time you ate something?”
“Same time you did.” There might have been a hint of a challenge in Clint's reply.
“But what? You're telling me you're not going to trust Captain America to watch over your brother?”
It was a palpable hit. Phil wavered. “You'll call me, if anything changes?” he said to Steve, hesitating.
“The very second. I promise,” replied Steve.
Phil agreed. He and Clint got up and headed out. Steve took Phil's chair at the side of the bed.
“Phil?” Steve asked, after the two men opened the door. “If I can ask – when I was flown out to the Helicarrier, when we met for the first time, was that...?”
“That was him,” replied Phil, a little too quickly.
Steve nodded, smiling. “Understood. Go get some rest, sir.”
“Thank you,” Phil returned a sad smile.
Clint waited until they were in the elevator and out of super-soldier hearing-range to speak. “You just threw your own brother under the bus, didn't you.”
“I did not! It really was him!”
“Like you would have done any better?”
“Well, we'll never know, will we.”
They rode the rest of the way to the Tower in silence, unbroken all the way up in the elevator.
“JARVIS, stop,” said Phil belatedly, as the numbers got to his floor.
“You're not coming upstairs with me?” asked Clint.
“Do you even want me to?” asked Phil, with an uncharacteristic note of fear in his voice.
Clint thought about it. This whole day had rattled him badly. “Your brother... when he wakes up...”
“That won't change anything between us. I can't live that life anymore.”
Clint's heart started thumping. They could work through it – he'd been convinced that he'd lost Phil twice now, and he wasn't going to risk a third time.
“Come upstairs with me,” said Clint.
Phil breathed out in relief. “Are you sure? I'm quite literally half the man you fell in love with.”
“Still more than enough for me, sir.” Clint smiled.
Phil kissed him passionately. “Thank you,” he said, pressing his forehead to Clint's.
It wasn't the easiest thing for everyone to accept.
To be sure, it didn't bother Bruce and Steve overmuch – they'd gotten to know Phil (and only Phil) since the Helicarrier. Tony did snark, but Phil pointed out that it hadn't even occurred to Stark that Phil had a first name until Pepper told him, and Tony was duly chastened. Pepper was honestly hurt – she'd thought (not incorrectly) that she and Coulson were friends: finding out that she and the Coulson brothers were friends was a bit hard to take. (Phil apologized, thoroughly and profusely, and promised to do his utmost to rebuild her trust in him.) Natasha vacillated between feeling profoundly betrayed, furious rage, professional admiration, and complete and total astonishment that the Coulsons had managed to pull off such an audacious con for so long. In the end, she came to accept it – she and Phil spent the better part of a weekend talking, and as she realized that she could trust (and had trusted) each brother equally, she came around.
It was a testament to life at SHIELD that Jasper Sitwell had just shrugged his shoulders and said, “That explains a lot.” Maria just said she was surprised it had lasted this long, and Nick and Phil did eventually reconcile.
As for Clint, well, Clint was in love. Besides, he was pretty sure he'd figured out the tells between each brother and spent hours quizzing Phil as to which brother had done what in their shared past. He decided that it would have just been a matter of time before he figured it out for himself, and Phil let him believe that.
After almost a week, Phil relaxed a little when it came to spending all his time at James' bedside, but still spent several hours a day visiting, talking to his brother and playing his favorite music (James' possessions – his prized music collection included – had simply been placed in storage). The rest of the team took their turns as well, Clint included, as they each did what they could to help.
And, one day, when Clint had stopped in to say goodbye to Phil before heading home to make their dinner, their kiss was interrupted by a familiar voice, gruff from disuse.
“Agent Barton, I demand to know your intentions towards my brother.”
“James!” Phil rushed to the bed took his brother's hand, his tears standing out in his eyes.
Clint found that a smile came naturally. “Entirely honorable, sir.”
“Glad to hear it, Barton,” came the rough voice again.
The doctors were called, naturally, as was the rest of the team, and James Coulson was hurried off for a round of physical and mental tests – Phil went with him, as his medical proxy. By the time the two returned, the Avengers (along with Pepper) had assembled to meet the second half of Agent Coulson.
It was not the shock it could have been – nobody would even think they were twins at this point, much less identical ones. The trauma and the coma had left James pale and thin; his hair was whiter, and the lines on his face were heavier. He looked at least a decade older, and a great deal more tired: his prolonged recovery remediated some of these changes, but by no means all, and it was abundantly clear that he would never qualify for field work again. Tony and Pepper gave a dinner to celebrate James' discharge from the hospital, at which James announced his intention to retire from SHIELD, to move to Portland, and to ask Alexandra Dubonnet to marry him. Phil joked that this was the end of the Legend of Agent Coulson, but, like most things related to the death of anything Coulson, it proved to be premature...
“Twins? Yeah, right. That's not what I heard – I heard that when he got stabbed, Fury decided he was too valuable to SHIELD to let him die, and had him cloned... true story! One of my trainers saw the cloning tanks for himself!”