Clint walks into his apartment in Avengers Tower to find Tony Stark leaning against his kitchen counter, in an expensive, finely pressed suit and eating cookies. Eating cookies and staring Clint down. “Hey, Clint,” Tony says cheerfully, taking a huge bite out of a cookie.
Clint sighs. “Hey, Tony.” Clint was all too happy to take Stark’s offer of housing following the battle. It was free, came with the promise of privacy, and had the added bonus of not constantly reminding Clint that it’s been almost four months since Phil—did what he had to do. It didn’t take long for Clint to realize that Tony had a very different definition of “privacy.” When Clint walks towards the fridge, Tony’s eyes follow him around the kitchen. “So, what have you been up to?”
Tony crunches audibly. “Eating cookies,” he says, innocently.
Clint opens the fridge, looking for the carton of milk. “I kinda got that. Why are you eating cookies here?”
Clint finds the milk and turns around, leaning against the fridge door. “I’m sorry?” He asks, not quite keeping his impatience out of his voice. Clint’s spent the day walking around the city, cataloguing the damage he’d unleashed with his hands. He’s tired, slightly overwhelmed, and absolutely does not need this shit right now.
Tony just grins filthily, mouth still full of cookie. “You were busy moping around the city. I wanted to ambush you when you got back, and I figured at some point you’d come into the kitchen.”
“But why cookies?”
“So I had an excuse to be in the kitchen.”
Clint closes his eyes and takes a swig, reminding himself that Tony has no idea that mountain of emotional turmoil Clint’s been under since the beginning of forever. “Okay. Let’s just -- go with that, for a moment. What did you want to ambush me for?”
Tony’s tone grows dangerous. “Someone called the tower asking for you.”
Clint opens his eyes, staring. “No. That’s not -- nobody knows I’m here.” Seriously. SHIELD business would come through the SHIELD cellphone. The shit-fest of May demolished 50% of his social circle. The other 50% is currently beating the crap out of Captain America in the gym. “Who was it?”
“No idea. He left a message with Jarvis. I listened to it.”
He. Clint’s heart begins hammering, because it’s not possible, but he can’t help the sick hope that begins to crawl its way out of his stomach. “You listened to it? Why would you do that?”
Tony waves his hand vaguely, as if that’s an explanation. “Anyway, he says ‘Fuzzy Capricorn’ and then lists a whole bunch of numbers in German which, a) you know German, good job, and b) I’m pretty sure are coordinates to Fuck-Nowhere, Nevada.”
Clint’s world is destroyed and rebuilt in the space of a moment. He sucks in breath sharply, so thankful for the fridge that’s currently holding him up. His eyes flutter close, and he keeps breathing, hard and fast. He’s alive, Phil’s alive, he was right, he was right all along, he’s alive… At some point, Clint sinks to the floor, but he can’t find the strength to care, because Phil is alive…
When he resurfaces minutes later, Tony is crouching down next to him, holding the milk carton. When their eyes meet, Tony flashes a grin. “So,” he says brightly, “do you want to tell me why we’re going to Fuck-Nowhere, Nevada?”
Clint shakes his head sharply. “We? I don’t think there’s a we in this, Stark.”
Tony snorts. “Oh, please. The mystery man called here for you, Legolas. If he’s associated with you, that means he’s smart, and if he’s smart he’d have known I’d have listened to that message. That’s, like, blanket permission for me to do what I want. And I can get us to Fuck-Nowhere, Nevada a whole lot faster than you can go on your own.”
That actually…makes sense. Clint looks at Tony again. The cookie ambush, the clear invasion of Clint’s privacy, could all be Stark satisfying his innate need to be nosy and piss people off. Or, in a weird, perverse way, it could be Stark making sure that Clint’s not alone when he gets the message, offering the quickest solution to fix his friend’s pain.
Clint looks into Tony’s eyes, bright and staring down at him. “Okay. Okay, Tony.”
Two years earlier
Clint walks sleepily into the kitchen, yawn turning into a grin. Last night Phil agreed to marry him. They’re gonna get married. Super married. Like, so, so married. That’s a thing, right? Okay, so Clint might not be firing on all cylinders just yet, but he can’t be blamed for this. Because Phil (the Phil that agreed to marry him) is in the kitchen in a t-shirt and boxers, fiddling with something on the table. “Morning, Phil,” he says, yawning again.
Phil turns around and grins, a smaller and more nervous grin than Clint is used to seeing. “Oh, good, you’re up.”
Clint grins back. It’s a reflex at this point. “What are you making?”
“Cookies,” Phil says, holding a plate up. “Perfect timing, they’ve just now cooled down enough to eat.”
Phil has something planned here, and Clint’s sure of it when Phil pulls out a chair. “Here, Clint, sit here.” Clint goes willingly enough, trying to fight the amused smile. “What’s going on, boss?” He asks, sitting his ass in the chair.
Phil pushes the plate of cookies in front of him. “Eat a cookie,” he says seriously.
Clint picks up a cookie and bites it. It’s warm and the perfect amount of chewy, with big chunks of melted chocolate, just the way Clint likes it. “This is delicious,” he says with his mouth full.
Phil sits down beside him, staring earnestly. “I love you, Clint.” His knee is jostling slightly. It’s a tell. Phil never has tells.
Clint swallows, suddenly awake and alert. “I love you too, Phil, but you’re freaking me out.”
Phil takes in a deep breath. Another tell. “I’m going to die.”
Clint puts the cookie down. “Is this -- are you speaking hypothetically, because I know I give you shit about your age, Phil, but --”
“I’m one hundred and two,” Phil interrupts, looking crazed. “Or eighty-six. It depends on how you define age.”
Clint’s heart seizes up. “What?” he whispers, because that’s not true, Phil’s about to turn fifty, he and Natasha are planning a surprise party, there were going to be balloons with Iron Man on them, it was gonna be epic.
“I die for a living,” Phil continues, attempting his Agent Agent voice and failing miserably. “I get a body and a life, but only for a little while. And then I die. New life and new body. It’s what has to happen.”
The world is crumbling slowly around Clint and he has no idea what to do. “‘Has to’? What do you mean ‘has to’?”
“It’s the way the universe works. Because someone always has to die, right? A plane is always going to crash. But if I’m sitting in 23A, that means someone else isn’t. And she gets to go home, kiss her kids, and count herself lucky. And I start over again.”
Clint stares at him with something like horror. It’s not that he thinks Phil is lying. The grave seriousness in his voice, the nervous tics -- Phil absolutely believes he’s telling the truth. But Clint can’t believe it, because it’s too terrible. “How many times have you died?”
“Phil Coulson will be number fifteen.”
Will be. Jesus Christ. “What fucked up kind of existence is that?”
Phil smiles wearily. “One that was hard-earned. I had -- my name was Phillip Crawford. I was a real person. And then I died. I was four, and I drowned in a river. And that was it. That was supposed to be all I got.” He laughs a little, and Clint aches inside. He wishes they weren’t sitting here so formally. He wants to get up and wrap his arms around Phil, but something in the air keeps him pinned to his chair, listening mutely. “It’s a -- it’s a kindness, Clint. I get these small snatches of life, and someone important is out of harm’s way.”
Clint shakes his head. “You’re important, Phil.”
“I’m really not.” He stares into Clint’s eyes, unflinching. “I don’t matter. I never mattered. Everyone has a fate, a destiny, and mine was over at four years old. This is all -- something extra.”
Clint has to turn away at that. He can feel hot tears prick at the edges of his eyes, and he presses his palms against them to stifle it. Of course. It makes sense, perfect, fucked-up sense, and he wants to weep at the cruelty of it all.
“Clint?” Phil’s voice is soft and worried. Clint holds onto it like a lifeline.
“So you’re telling me,” he says, head still cradled in his hands, “you’re telling me that in the original plan of the universe, there was no Phil Coulson. So no one was supposed to shoot me in that back alley, or bring me food in medical or--” Phil makes a pained noise, and it’s enough to force Clint to move his head from his hands. He stares plaintively at Phil. “I was never supposed to have anything as good as you.” Clint’s voice breaks, and the tears finally begin to fall. Phil pushes up from his chair at the same time Clint raises his arms, and the two of them end up on the floor, curled around each other and crying.
It’s a long time before they speak again. Finally, they run out of tears, and Clint’s buried in his face in Phil’s chest, legs tangled together. He feels warm and safe here in Phil’s arms, which is crazy, because he just learned how fragile this all is. He presses a kiss to Phil’s sternum. Phil has always made Clint feel incredibly strong, and he’s going to have to give it all up because the fucking universe thinks Phil is disposable.
“I’m not going to do it,” And Clint doesn’t realize the words are out of his mouth until Phil moves his head to look down at him.
“Not do what?” He asks.
“Let you go,” Clint says, and it’s like one of those ancient spells Nat keeps telling him about, because the minute he says it, he can feel the truth of it solidify in the air.
Phil just shakes his head sadly. “Clint. I’m going to die. I don’t even know when, there’s no way to stop it.”
“Yeah, you’re going to die. But that doesn’t mean I have to let you go.” Clint moves so he can sit up properly and look Phil dead in the eye. “You remember everything, right? So you’ll remember me, and you’ll remember us, and wherever you end up, you give me a call, and I come find you.”
Phil stares at him in wonder. “Clint. I don’t who I’ll be or what I’ll look like --”
“Do you love me?” Clint has to fight a sudden wave of insecurity, because maybe Phil wants the change, doesn’t want to be saddled with --
“God, yes. So much, Clint.”
Clint grins. “Then it’s settled. We’ll come up with a code phrase and action plan, and we’ll do this shit.”
Phil brings one of his hands up to cup Clint’s cheek. “I don’t deserve you,” he says softly.
Clint can’t help it. He snorts. “I think we’ve established that’s literally true. Lucky for you, I’ve never been good at doing what fate tells me. Seems kinda stupid to start now.”
A few years later
Clint walks out of the elevator and is instantly met with the smell of freshly baked cookies and raised voices wafting out of the communal kitchen. He pauses in the hallway, straining to listen.
“Tony, I'm sorry,” Steve says, voice gravely serious. “But Phil baked the best cookies, and that's that.”
“No!” Tony's voice rings out, accompanied by the ring of slapped metal. “I refuse to accept this. There was cheating. Biased. You are all biased.”
“It was a blind taste test,” Phil says, and Clint's heart does a funny little lurch. Phil's new voice is deeper and more resonant than his old one. Phil's deadpan comes out even deader. It's fantastic. “Jane used a random number generator to assign each judge one cookie from each batch. She then randomly assigned each person to eat cookie A or cookie B first, to account for any differences the order might create. No one knew whose cookie they were eating. We didn't know whose cookie they were eating. It was a perfectly executed matched pairs design, and you lost.”
“I can't lose. It's a Stark family recipe.” Clint hears a thump. “It's a Rhodes family recipe!”
A chorus of groans follows that statement, and Clint grins and walks into the kitchen. He takes a moment to just look around at the people currently standing around a table filled with cookies: Thor and Darcy each have three cookies in their hands, while the gluten-intolerant Jane is eating chocolate chips out of the bag; Steve, Sam, and Bucky are off to the side, grinning to each other about some weird inside joke; Rhodey and Natasha are in a corner, shaking their heads; Bruce is by Tony's side, a consoling hand on his shoulder; and in the center of it all is Phil. Phil, who's slightly taller and slightly more slender and definitely more blond. He looks, actually, a lot like Steve McQueen, which Clint tries not to think about because as a kid in the circus he had an old poster of Bullit up on the wall in his and Barney's trailer.
Tony spots him first. “Clint!” He cries, jumping forward, cookies in both hands. “Try my cookies.”
“If you're looking for an unbiased judge, you're not going to find one here.” Clint says, crossing to Phil and tucking himself against his side. “Plus, I've had your cookies before, remember?”
Tony brushes him off impatiently. “Yes, yes, but all you could taste was sadness for your beloved. You can't properly judge a cookie with sadness for your beloved!”
“Tony,” Rhodey called from the corner. “Are you done butchering my mother's good name yet? We want to watch the movie.”
Clint tilts his head and whispers to Phil. “I know your cookies are the best.”
“Thanks for the support,” Phil whispers back, grinning at him. Clint gets a little lost in Phil's eyes. Everything about this craziness is so bizarre and different, but the way Phil looks at him has never changed. Phil is exactly Clint's age – exactly, Phil Olson's “birthday” is eight days after Clint's. It's another thing Clint tries not to think about.
Clint, in fact, doesn't think another damn thing, just threads his fingers through Phil's and follows the party out of the kitchen. He lives in a billionaire's skyscraper with more friends than he's ever had and a husband who literally came back from the dead. It sounds like a dream come true.
Probably because it is.