Clint came back from his first mission with SHIELD feeling, for the first time he could ever remember, like he fit into his own skin. He'd long since given up on having any worth in this life when SHIELD had tracked him down in the form of a mild-mannered looking gentleman in well-tailored suits who had schooled Clint in hand-to-hand when Clint had finally slipped and allowed his pursuers to get close enough. Granted, Clint was half-starved by that point, recovering from a cold that had bloomed into bronchitis, and generally not at his best. But if he was honest with himself, which he occasionally was, he knew Coulson would have taken him even if Clint had been in prime condition.
Clint went to medical in the wake of the mission as procedure dictated because he might be a smartass and willing to question orders, but he didn't want to push too hard, want to lose this opportunity, the way it made him feel. He didn't want to lose the voice in his ear that let him know he was doing well, he had someone at his back. Clint pretended he didn't even mind whose voice it was, but he suspected he might.
He was cleared quickly, since he didn't have so much as a bruise on him, and he made his way down to the mess. He was starving and wired and there wasn't a chance he was going to rest soon, so he figured he might as well swipe a snack and give his body the blood sugar boost it would need to sustain his level of energy. Without knowing why he was doing it, he grabbed a cup of dark roast coffee, one cream, no sugars. Clint didn't actually drink coffee, too bitter, soda did him just fine, but Coulson did. Coulson mainlined coffee at times. It was one of the few pieces of evidence Clint had that Coulson was actually human, and not some superior being from the future.
Clint would pass by Coulson's office on the way to his quarters anyway—kind of, if he took the scenic route—so it seemed courteous to bring the man something. He'd be doing wrap-up paperwork and he'd been the one to support Clint's training and generally be there over the past year. Clint knew he owed the guy a hell of a lot more than a coffee, but Clint wasn't really good at the big gestures, or even the little ones. He was too used to having people reject his overtures to have developed any decent protocol regarding making them.
He knocked on Coulson's door. It was cracked, which was usually a sign visitors were allowed entry, so Clint slipped inside. And found Coulson dead asleep, slumped over his desk. Clint frowned at the sight. It didn't fit into everything he'd seen up until now. He had been faintly sure Coulson was indestructible and above such things as the need for REM sleep.
Clint closed the door behind him softly, but the click woke the man all the same. He startled up and then blinked. "Barton. Did you need something?"
Clint shook his head. "Just stopped by to say thanks."
Coulson ran a hand over his face, which was a shocking tell. Clint could see the deep-set bruises around the man's eyes now that he was really looking. Coulson recovered enough to say, "You did the work on your own, specialist."
The words were both straightforward and kind, the way Clint had come to expect from his handler. They were a gift, and Clint found himself wanting to return the generosity. He said, "I could help, sir. With some of these forms. Probably not the briefings, but all the basic stuff, weapons-use reports, I could—I could do those."
Coulson looked at him a long time, probably longer than he would have had he not just awoken from exhaustion-induced unconsciousness and said, "I'd appreciate that, Barton."
Clint sat down on the other side of the desk, and got to work.
Sometimes, after a mission had gone balls-up—which was roughly seventy-eight percent of the time, by Clint's very unscientific calculations—Clint liked to come up to the roof of HQ and just breathe. It wasn't quiet up there, New York was never quiet, but it was removed, somewhere to regain his balance. He'd never, in all the nearly three years he'd been coming up there, run into another person.
He stopped in his tracks when he saw Coulson's back. The man had stripped down to his shirt, and the sleeves were rolled to his elbows. The line of his shoulders was uncomfortably slumped and even though this had always been Clint's place, his hideaway, he felt like an intruder. He was about to turn around and leave when Coulson asked, "Something I can do for you, Barton?"
His voice was crisp, professional as ever, but there was a threadiness to it, like a blanket that still served well, but was worn in spots. Clint said, "Just came up to find some peace, sir. I'll commandeer another spot."
"There's plenty of space here," Coulson said softly, but loud enough for Clint to hear him. Clint knew dismissals when he heard them; invitations were always harder for him to discern. Still, he was pretty sure that constituted one. He came over to stand next to Coulson.
There was a comfortable silence between them for a long time, maybe half an hour, before Clint asked, "What's your opinion on motorcycles?"
Coulson looked over, blinking, some of the tension bleeding from his expression to be replaced by mild confusion. "American or foreign?"
Clint laughed, a sharp, shocked sound. "You're a motorcycle elitist, seriously? No, never mind, I don't even know why I'm surprised."
Coulson narrowed his eyes a bit. "Not so much an elitist as…"
Coulson sighed. "My dad's a mechanic. He likes to rebuild Harleys that haven't been treated well. I can't help feeling like the rumble isn't quite right with any other bike."
Clint did his best not to show surprise, though it was a challenge. He'd never really considered Coulson's family, although now that seemed foolish. Of course Coulson had come from somewhere, probably somewhere he was loved, with people who called occasionally and checked in on him. The thought made Clint's stomach twist uncomfortably so he made himself stop thinking about it. Instead he said, "The first thing I bought after I got my first paycheck here was a 1992 Honda Fireblade CBR900RR, first run. I bought it used, couldn't afford anything like a Harley or something brand new. I've done some upgrades since, especially on the suspension. Upped the engine power from 900 to 1200."
Coulson looked baffled. "You've never said. It's not even registered as owned by you."
Clint ducked his head. "Used an alias. Still needed to feel like I had some secrets."
Coulson's laughter was a little huff of mirth, not much, but something. Clint looked up at him. "Wanna go for a ride?"
Coulson raised an eyebrow. "You have three broken fingers, a sprained elbow, and obscured vision in your right eye, Barton."
"Obviously, sir, you're going to have to drive." Clint grinned, wide and excited.
For a moment, brief and pure, Coulson seemed almost giddy. "You sure?"
Clint nodded. "Positive."
Coulson's stride to the building entrance wasn't undignified—never that—but it definitely had some speed to it that wasn't usually there.
Clint was not stupid, not in the ways that mattered for a SHIELD operative. He knew Coulson was taking the flack for Clint's decision to bring Black Widow in. He also knew being assigned her wasn't a gift from Fury. It was a punishment, for allowing something so completely out of line to happen on his watch. If Coulson succeeded, maybe then there would be rewards. If not, well, Clint wasn't sure what the consequences were, but he didn't want to know. Neither of them were going to know, if Clint had anything to say about it. He had no idea why, but he was pretty sure Widow was going to make good. He thought it might have something to do with how much she reminded him of himself.
Right now they had her on lockdown, Coulson the only one going in and out. Clint had no idea what happened in their sessions, but he knew that as soon as Coulson came out of the containment area, the strict line of his shoulders, the ever-cool fašade slipped just a little, just enough. Clint noticed the relatively wan look of his features, the sharper tilt of his facial structure, suggesting he wasn't getting regular meals.
Clint caught him the fourth time he re-emerged. Coulson nodded at him coolly, but not with any blame behind it, just the need to conserve everything he had for whatever was being negotiated, hammered out, in that little room between him and one of the most notorious assassins of their day. Clint asked, "Have a moment, sir?"
Coulson looked at his watch. "Thirty minutes, exactly. What did you need?"
Clint tilted his head and said, "It's, ah…can you come with me?"
Coulson frowned, but followed as Clint threaded his way through the halls, eventually to his quarters.
Coulson paused at the door. "Barton—"
"Your virtue's safe with me," Clint quipped. "Just take a seat at the bar."
"The bar" was really more a countertop with mismatched bar chairs behind it. SHIELD quarters weren't very large, and Clint liked to utilize every inch of space. Clint went to his freezer, where he, at all times, kept two jugs of chicken soup with meat kreplachs. Clint didn't believe in much, not really, but the family of trapeze artists at the circus had been descendants of Hungarian Jews and had taught him that this particular food could literally heal anything. He'd seen it on more than one occasion. When he'd finally been able to get off SHIELD grounds, the first thing he'd done was stake out a deli that made it and order several bowls for carryout.
Now he took one of the two Tupperware containers out of the freezer and slid the contents into his pan—he only owned one—and set the stove on high. He told Coulson, "It'll only take a minute. You'll be back in plenty of time."
Coulson looked at the stove as if it might answer the questions of the universe. Finally he asked Clint, "Are you making me chicken soup?"
"Heating it up, really," Clint answered.
"That's…" Coulson, underneath his fading veneer of placidity, looked flummoxed. "That's very nice of you."
Clint laughed and got out a bowl. He owned two of those. "People should be nicer to you, I think."
Clint was pissed. He was going to kill whatever incompetent dick of a base-communications lead had made it so Coulson and he were stuck at the extraction point—which was little more than a shack, barely providing cover from the harsh winds of a Bulgarian winter, let alone warmth or any other basic human comforts—for another three hours. But his anger at that particular dick was nothing compared to that which he felt at himself for getting Coulson shot.
"It's a flesh wound," Coulson said, because Coulson had the annoying ability to read Clint's mind.
"You're not funny," Clint told him.
"You're just saying that because you're hungry. You get grumpy when you're hungry."
Clint looked at him in disbelief. In truth, the injury was just a flesh wound, or at least, non-fatal, but it had bled plenty and also, "It is my job to get shot. If anyone is getting shot, it is me, sir, what the hell is so hard to understand about that?"
The bullet which had lodged itself in the fleshy part of Coulson's left shoulder probably would have gone right through Clint's throat, but that wasn't the point. The point, thank you very much, was that Coulson was the handler, his job was to stay out of the damn way, not wade in when shit looked like it was getting hairy.
"Barton," Coulson said softly, and something about it, maybe the way Coulson didn't sound like he believed he would manage to get Clint's attention at all, made Clint stop pacing.
"Sir," he said, his jaw tight.
"Want to know a secret?"
Clint blinked. It was so far from what he'd been expecting that he barely even made the decision to say, "Yes," before he was saying it.
"Today's my birthday."
It took a second for Clint to process that information. "Are you—you know there're whole schemes and plans in the organization to find that information out, right?"
"Wouldn't have wanted to give you a useless secret." Coulson sounded mildly affronted at the idea Clint might think that.
"Wow, um. Who else knows?"
"The Director. Hill."
In three hours, when they were picked up, it would no longer be the same day in Bulgaria, but Clint still had several hours in America. He figured since that was their home it technically counted. "This is kind of a crappy birthday."
"Not my worst," Coulson said.
That assertion didn't make Clint feel better. He'd seen some pretty bad birthdays, too. He wouldn't wish that on Coulson. Instead, he forced himself to stop moving and sit down next to Coulson. "How's the shoulder?"
Coulson's smile was tight. "Fine."
Clint gently pulled Coulson toward him, settling his uninjured side against Clint, so the hurt agent could rest on something more comfortable than the wooden wall of the shack. "While you're giving away secrets, wanna tell me what your favorite kind of cake is?"
"Banana caramel," Coulson answered, sounding a little woozy, but still present.
"Stay awake for me here and I'll find you some before the end of the day Eastern Standard time."
"Shouldn't bribe your superiors," Coulson told him, the words slurring, but still essentially him.
"I do all sorts of things I shouldn't." Like getting those superiors shot.
"What's yours?" Coulson asked.
"Flavor. Keep up, Barton."
Clint smiled, shifting to take as much of Coulson's weight as he could, provide as much warmth as possible. "Funfetti."
"That's not a flavor." Coulson sounded positively indignant.
"You and Betty Crocker can have it out, sir, as soon as we get that flesh wound all healed up."
"You're a plague upon truth and decency."
Clint laughed. "Don't I know it, sir."
Clint felt when Coulson slipped into unconsciousness, but by his internal clock, they only had about twenty minutes left, so he let him. He made sure, when Coulson woke up from surgery, to have banana caramel cake waiting for him—for the record, no easy feat.
Coulson looked suspicious. "Pretty sure you missed your deadline."
"No, sir, I was on time. You were the one sleeping the day away."
Coulson laughed softly, a quiet little huff, and made Clint share the cake.
Clint struggled up to wakefulness. He wondered what the fuck he'd taken or what he'd drunk to make him feel like he'd been hit by a truck and a few cars following the truck. Maybe he had been. Weird shit like that happened on missions now and again.
Then he managed to get his eyes open and somehow the act of being able to see allowed everything to rush back. He choked on his, "Oh," and then Coulson was there, placing ice chips on Clint's swollen, cracked tongue. When he'd gotten enough moisture in his mouth, Clint asked, "How long've I been out?"
"Better part of fifty hours, but seven of that was in surgery," Coulson told him. Clint loved that, how Coulson never acted like it was in a person's best interest not to be told something. He might not tell a person something for one reason or another, but he never behaved as though it were for the other person's benefit.
"The knee?" Clint asked, doing his best to keep an unconcerned expression, have his tone be even.
"They had to pretty much completely replace the entire structure of it, but some physical therapy and you'll be back on the ground," Coulson said, and it was only because Clint knew him that he could hear the way the man was struggling to keep his own voice flat, professional. He added, "Everything else was fairly superficial."
The arms dealers Clint had been betrayed to by a mole had kept him in their sweet, merciful care for three days before Coulson had figured out who'd given them up and how to find Clint. He'd been pretty screwed up by that time, all in all, but the kneecap where he'd taken a bullet and then had them concentrate most of their fun and games was by far the worst.
Clint smiled, at ease now that he knew things would be all right. "SHIELD witch doctors."
Coulson gave him a look that Clint knew to determine as fond. He could read behind the look, too. "Wasn't your fault, sir."
"You're my handler, it's your job to see to my safety, blah, blah, blah. I've read the handbook."
"No you haven't," Coulson said, piqued, as though this was the worst lie Clint had ever told.
"No I haven’t," he agreed, "but you've read it enough for both of us."
Coulson narrowed his eyes. "Your point?"
"Shit happens, and not even you can stop it, sir."
Coulson looked like he wanted to argue, but didn't want to do anything to make the doctors pissed. In the end he simply ordered, "Go back to sleep."
Clint wanted to, but he held on to ask, softly, "When was the last time you slept?"
Coulson just looked at him, which told Clint all he needed to know. Coulson probably hadn't slept since the second he'd known Clint was missing. Clint told him, "Go get Tasha. She'll keep me safe and you know it."
Coulson took a breath. "Barton, I—I won't be able to, that is, it will do me no good to leave."
Clint could tell it took everything Coulson had for him to keep eye contact. It was in moments like this Clint knew damn well he was never going to meet anyone braver than the man in front of him. Clint nodded and said, "Then sleep in the other bed, sir. But sleep."
Coulson hesitated a second, but then went over to the empty bed a few feet over, climbed on shoes and all, and was asleep so quickly that Clint, doped up and everything, managed to stay awake long enough to see him drop off.
+1. Your People Shall Be My People
It wasn’t Tony who found Coulson post-death, or even Clint or Natasha. It was Steve. Clint couldn't decide whether Coulson would be humiliated or tickled pink. And Clint was too busy feeling guilty for not having been the one to figure things out and find him that he couldn't spare too much thought over it. Clint knew how the Director worked and he also knew that no little punk-ass alien with daddy issues was going to take Coulson down.
All the same, he'd never really felt as much relief as he did when he went back with Steve to re-break into where Coulson was being kept and saw him lying there, pale and hooked into a million machines, but alive. To distract himself from the maelstrom of feelings twisting at his insides, Clint asked, "What were you doing, again, when you found him?"
"Following a hunch," Steve said, which wasn't illustrative in the least.
Clint thought back to everything Natasha had told him when she'd had time to catch him up on what he'd missed while busy trying to destroy everything he loved in the world. "Like your hunch about Plan B?"
Steve's jaw tightened slightly. "A little bit like that."
Clint looked at the man in the bed, somehow small. He'd seen him hurt and frightened and asleep on numerous occasions, but never small. He said, "I'm taking him home with us."
"You can help or you can leave," Clint said calmly, "but I am taking him home."
Steve said, "Give me twenty minutes."
"It'll be easier to get him out with help, right?"
Clint started to answer out of sheer habit, tell Steve it was fine, he could get it, when he realized that a) yes it would be, b) it would probably mean less stress on Coulson and c) Steve was offering, without even having to be asked. After a second, Clint nodded. "Twenty minutes."
Eighteen minutes later, Tony, Natasha, Thor, Bruce and Pepper were all there. Bruce was giving quiet directions on how to handle the transit of the IVs. Pepper stood directly behind the door, ready to run interference with anyone who even tried to get in their way. Tony was dealing with all the electronic locks, and Thor was carrying Coulson. Clint ached a bit, feeling as though his use to Coulson was a thing of the past, irrelevant amongst the skills of the rest of the team.
Once in the car, though, Coulson swam up from the cocktail of painkillers and sedatives being pumped into him and, in that first second of waking, an expression of uncertainty and quiet fear passed over his face. Clint said, "Coulson," said, "Sir."
Coulson's gaze sharpened as he focused in on Clint. Clint smiled. "You're all right. We've got you."
Coulson clearly took a moment to process that, then managed, "We?"
"Tasha and me and…and the Avengers."
Coulson held his attention on Clint for just a second more, as if gauging the truthfulness of this statement. Then he reached out far enough to grab Clint's hand—not very far, Clint was on his knees in front of where Steve and Thor were keeping Coulson shielded against the movement of the car—and said, "Okay."
He was still clinging to Clint's hand when he fell back asleep. Clint didn't let go.