Reality Bites

by Liss Webster

Clint knows as soon as Nat comes out with that bullshit about there being red in her ledger that something (worse) is wrong. She's pulled that scam on more marks than he can remember, shiny eyes and vulnerable lips; for a second, he's kind of insulted that she'd think it would work on him, before he realises that she's hiding something from him, and he can't deal with not knowing what's going on. After Loki, he needs some control.

She doesn't want to tell him, but she doesn't evade when he calls her on it, so whatever it is, probably everyone else knows, and it's probably just... it's probably...

Natasha tells him that Phil Coulson is dead. Loki stabbed him, she says.

Clint says, "OK. Shit. OK," and, "I need to take a piss." Captain America appears while he's on the john, and Nat gives him the go ahead, and he's suiting up to take down the vengeful asshat of a demigod who scrambled his brains and is trying to destroy the earth. And who stabbed Phil. Apparently.


It's kinda funny, looking back, because Clint can't actually remember meeting Coulson the first time. SHIELD is an organisation full of anonymous-looking people in suits and shades, uttering cryptic monosyllables into their comms., and to Clint, in those early days, they were pretty interchangeably pains in his ass. There was a mission in Africa – shit, where was it? Mali? Niger? Clint can't remember, is distracted by Natasha and Captain America murmuring to each other, and his eyes glide over the jet readouts, but he's flying on autopilot. Why can't he remember? Chad, maybe.

Clint's been sweating his ass off in a lousy tenement block with clay walls, waiting for a shot at a war criminal in hiding. He's been there days, pissing in a bottle for fuck's sake, like SHIELD couldn't run to a toilet, and the target's finally come, finally stuck his head above the parapet, and Clint's got his arm drawn back, can feel the tension in his bow, and then comes that voice in his ear, telling him to stand down. Fucking stand down, like, what, all of a sudden this mission has changed? He nearly doesn't. He's read the files. He knows what Olurobi's done. Wiping someone like him off the face of planet would be an honest-to-god good deed, not that Clint's under any illusions that SHIELD is the kind of place that attracts boy scouts. He knows the rules, though; he follows orders. The extraction's arranged for...

Fuck, Clint can't remember, can't think, why won't Nat and the Captain shut up?

... anyway, some empty lot away from the town. There's a helicopter touching down as he arrives, and Clint swings himself on, bow on his back. Coulson's there; his was the voice in Clint's ear; and Clint remembers now that he knew him, already knew him; doesn't remember knowing him before that moment. He's sweating like a pig, and hates wherever the fuck it is, and he punches Coulson right in the mouth.

Clint almost smiles at the memory, at how Coulson had simply pressed the back of his hand to his lip and raised an eyebrow and said "Do we have a problem?" and Nat touches his arm, and he's flying them to Stark Tower with a grin on his face because a wannabe master of the universe did not take out Coulson. It just doesn't end like that. Coulson is fucking indestructible.


Clint's been a SHIELD agent for years, and he's good, he's damned good, that's why he's on the list for the Avengers Initiative in the first place. He's got an eye that never misses and can call a play as well as anyone, and he knows how to focus on the job in hand. Here and now, he's sending his arrows singing into whatever-the-fuck those aliens are, and helping civilians get the hell out of dodge, and he's got Natasha's back, always, but he can't stop thinking about Sao Paulo.

Sao Paulo's a shithole, literally and metaphorically, at least the Sao Paulo they're running around in, trying to take out the Black Widow. Coulson's his handler, because after the punching incident in Africa, Coulson, oddly, is the only agent Clint manages to get along with. Except, who was he kidding, killing Natasha's not on the cards for him. This time, he doesn't follow orders; instead, convinces Coulson that he's right, that they should bring her in, make her theirs. Clint thinks she wants this too (maybe), but it's not the first time he's heard about the red in her ledger. This time, Clint makes a call, and Coulson backs his play.

He helps a kid out of a bus and thinks about the thing Stark's come up with – what was it? Life model bullshit? Coulson pulled some kind of switcheroo on Loki, it's obvious. It'll be something like that. He's not dead.


They're working together, properly, like an actual goddamn team, and Clint thinks Coulson's going to be loving this, tucked away on the helicarrier somewhere, listening in to the comm chatter, listening to the Avengers Initiative actually working (assuming it does work, and Loki doesn't win). He's going to get a kick out of the Legolas crack too, Clint knows, because Coulson loves all that Lord of the Rings shit, merchandise and everything, like the freaky-ass Captain America cards are an isolated incident.

Budapest (shithole; not this bad a shithole, what the fuck, Natasha?) is where Clint meets Phil for the first time. (Clint grins, and takes down a flying alien quad bike, not even looking, because it's the kind of shot that Coulson would roll his eyes at.) There's a comic book store down behind a church, and Coulson makes them stop off there. It's not a rendez-vous or a drop or a bonus assassination target. Phil Coulson is a comic book nerd, and this is a shop that sells vintage crap, including issue #4 of The Howling Commandos. This is (apparently) a big deal, but they all know, Barton and Romanov and Coulson, that the big deal is that this has even happened. Outside missions, they've become Clint and Natasha and Phil. Clint kind of enjoys the Howling Commandos.

He's setting up his targets carefully, judging the most knock-on damage he can do, playing eye in the sky for the team. He hears Tony invoke Phil's name, and it becomes completely clear what's going on here. The Avengers Initiative was a shambles to begin with (SHIELD scuttlebutt said it was immediate loathing between Stark and Captain Rogers), and didn't really improve after that, and this is Fury's plan. Clint feels kinda proud of Phil, that he's managed to inspire enough feeling in these people to get them to unite in his name.

But, seriously, is everyone so dumb that they think a petulant fucker like Loki has got what it takes to kill Phil Coulson? Phil's gonna kick their asses when this is all over.


It seems his efforts are not going unnoticed, and Clint's out of arrows (almost), and this rooftop looks like it's getting a little popular for his tastes, so he pulls a hail mary by diving off the top of it (not a first), and he crashes through a plate glass window, and fuck something hurts.

He lies on the floor, on glass, and fucking hell they're being attacked by aliens and something really hurts and his mind got eaten and Phil...

"Shit, that hurt, I'm fine," he says into his comm., because Phil always worries when he does stuff like that. Doesn't say it, of course (SHIELD agent), but he gets that frown between his eyes and takes a little longer to decompress after, when it's the three of them in a bar and once (Clint remembers) he leaned over, unthinking, and rubbed his thumb lightly along that worried groove so that Natasha looked away, and yawned, and said she needed an early night.

It's a surprise, and it feels completely expected, and it takes forever for anything to happen, and it feels like they've actually been in a relationship for years and just not paid attention to it, which really, they have been. It isn't love at first sight, because Clint can't remember that (all those douchebags in identical suits), it's... "fuck," he says, when they're lying in bed eventually, "is this an office romance? Do I have to start reading Cosmo for tips on how to manage it without weeping in the toilet during breaks?"

Clint lies on glass, and remembers Phil saying, "at least this gives you another avenue to explore when trying to improve your performance reports," which cracks them both up, like Agent Coulson of SHIELD would be that guy.

Phil's... Phil. He's the walking embodiment of professional integrity, and that pisses Clint off sometimes, but you can't not respect the guy, and he's smart and kick-ass and is the world's most embarrassing fanboy, and Clint knows that there is no way he's dead. And it's pretty fucking irresponsible of him and Fury, because the Avengers have done their job, and Stark's saved Manhattan and Nat's saved the world (again), but Clint's been kinda distracted by the "hey, Phil's dead, nudge nudge, wink wink," show, and Phil should've given him a head's up.


He really does want to put an arrow in Loki's eye, but he doesn't (Phil wouldn't appreciate the paperwork, and Clint doesn't want to spend the night on the couch). Loki doesn't get a drink, but god knows the rest of them deserve it, and Stark isn't a man to stint on the alcohol (the very last man).

Stark hands round glasses, and lifts his and says, "To Agent Phil Coulson," and Clint says, "oh, come on, man! Seriously?"

Everyone looks at him. Loki's grinning, sharp and feral.

Natasha's face... Clint does not want to think about this. It's a ridiculous idea, that Loki pierced Phil's flesh, that Phil's blood poured out of his veins onto a metal floor. It is ridiculous that Phil would be dead and Clint not know it.


They have an apartment in New York, and Clint leaves Stark Tower and SHIELD and Loki, and picks the lock because suiting up does not include and take your house keys. This is their place, his and Phil's, and it's exactly the way it was when they left it, eons ago, last week, when Nat went on a mission to Russia that she said was too boring to need all of them, and Fury assigned them to the joint SHIELD/NASA base to hang around watching a tesseract go crazy. There's Phil's dry cleaning on the sofa, where he forgot to put it away before leaving. There are dishes in the draining rack, long since dry. The spider plant, as usual, looks about five minutes away from death, and out of habit Clint crosses to the sink, and turns on the tap to fill the glass on the side they use for watering. There are four messages on the answer machine, probably from Phil's mom. Nothing has changed. He tips the glass to water the plant, and stops.

The soil is damp.

He puts down the glass, and pulls out his gun, instincts on edge.

"Hey," says Phil. He's not dead. He's coming out of their bedroom.

"Fuck," says Clint, and, "fuck." He drops the gun onto the kitchen table, and stands there, leaning over, hands (bruised and bloody and terrified they'd never touch Phil again) pressed against the oak. Phil looks like shit, topless except for six yards of bandages wrapped round his chest.

"Heard you were dead," says Clint, and his voice sounds strange.

Phil does his squinty, wry, not-smile, and starts, "Reports of my death have..." but this is not funny, this is not acceptable, this is not a joke, and Clint wants to grab him and shove him against the wall and (ok, that too) shout at him that whatever crap he and Fury came up with was fucked in the head, but Phil's pale and bandaged, and Clint reaches out and touches his face, and says, "You sure you're not an android Stark cooked up?"

"Pretty sure," he says.

Phil smiles properly this time. Clint can feel his face move and he breathes, shakily, deeply, feeling the warmth of Phil's skin against his hand, and thinks the rush of relief might make him puke.

"If you do something like this again," he says, "I will fucking end you."

"I love you too," says Phil. They're together, and it's fine, and Clint says, "I hear Fury got blood all over your Captain America trading cards," because it seems a suitable penance for putting Clint through this shit.

"We'll replace them," says Phil, and Clint thinks about missions to Budapest with cheap beer and advanced weaponry and comic book shops. Sounds like a win-win to him.