Clint had always figured his going crazy someday was inevitable. The life he'd led, the memories he had crawling around his skull, that probably would have been enough to push him over the edge eventually even without a god falling from the sky and using a magic scepter to turn him into his own personal Clint Barton puppet. He couldn't be surprised it had finally happened.
He'd blamed the hallucinations on the concussion at first – a knock on the head hard enough to snap him out of divine mind control might have some other side effects - but they'd stuck around even after the headache and ringing in his ears faded. The doctors had cleared him back for active duty and to do that they'd run him through enough tests for Clint to be sure the problem couldn't be physical.
Which left only one answer for why he was sitting through a mission briefing with Phil Coulson leaning against the wall next to him.
It had started the day after the funeral. Clint would turn his head and Coulson would just be there, sometimes coming and going in a blink of an eye and other times going about his business like Loki had been nothing but a horrible dream. Hell, the day before they'd had an hour long conversation about the state of the Mets' starting pitching in the deserted rec room.
Clint had long ago lost track of what Stark was going on about; even if the technicalities of the plan hadn't been over his head there was something about the guy's voice that sent Clint's attention wandering, which was an achievement considering that part of Clint's job was focusing for hours on end. He was clear on his part of the plan; beyond that Clint was more than content to stare at Coulson and ponder his own ongoing nervous breakdown.
Coulson, however, clearly was listening to Stark and Clint knew that frown – Coulson didn't like what he was hearing. At all. "What if they have an EMP?" Clint heard him say, and it only took a quick glance at the blueprints Stark and Banner were gesturing over to see that yeah, that would be a problem of the "members of the team falling to their deaths" variety.
He must have scoffed too loudly because Stark stopped talking and tried to glare a hole through his skull. "Oh, did you have something to contribute to the conversation?"
"Yeah, actually," Clint said. He glanced over at Coulson for an instant, then nodded to the blueprints. "What if they have an EMP?"
"Then we'll...huh." He turned the blueprint on its side, as if that would shake the answer out. Banner leaned forward too, his brow furrowing. "Huh," he said, echoing Stark, and Clint saw Fury let out that deep breath that meant he was trying very, very hard not to strangle everyone in the room.
"Let's reconvene tomorrow," Fury said, tapping his folder on the table as he stood. "Barton, good catch. You two," he said, gesturing to Stark and Banner, "try to fine tune this into something that won't get everyone killed."
Clint doubted Stark and Banner even heard him; they were already deep into the project and speaking in science, oblivious to the agents and support staff milling around with a free afternoon suddenly in front of them. He glanced over to see that Coulson had disappeared back into whatever fevered part of his brain hallucinations came from, then he stood and stretched some of the tension out of his shoulders. He didn't think anyone had noticed him leave the room, but when he got back to his bunk and closed the door he turned around to find that Nat had slipped in behind him, silently as a spirit. "What is going on with you?" she said with her arms crossed over her chest, a lifetime of making sure no one overheard her keeping her voice low. "You've been distracted. It's not like you."
"I always get distracted when Stark talks, you know that."
"It's more than that."
She knew him too well for him to even consider lying; Clint sank down on the bed and looked up at her, his arms on his knees. "I'm seeing things," he admitted, looking away when alarm flashed through her eyes. "Hearing things."
"Is it Loki?" she said, clearing choosing her words. "Is he talking to you?"
"No," he said, glancing back up. "I'd turn myself in if that was happening, you know that. No one's telling me to do anything."
"Then what is happening? What are you seeing?"
Clint stared down at the floor, drumming his fingers against his arm. "I'm seeing Coulson," he finally said softly. "Just...I don't know. Not even doing anything special, just around half the time. Catching the game, sitting in on briefings. The thing about the EMP back there, I only picked up on that because I heard him say it."
"That is the kind of catch he'd make." She sat next to him on the bed, mirroring his posture. "Do you want to talk to psych? I'll go with you."
"No. No way," Clint said, shaking his head. "I just got cleared again for the field, that'll set me back weeks. If I have to sit around talking to shrinks for one more day I really will crack up."
Nat nodded, her eyes going distant. "I hear him sometimes too." She looked down at her hands. "No one else called me Tasha. I miss it."
Clint leaned over and kissed her temple. "Hey. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to bring all this up."
"It's not exactly going anywhere." She looked up at him, flicking her hair out of her eyes. "And if you start blaming yourself again I'll stab you."
Clint had learned long ago never to call Natasha Romanov's bluff; he leaned back against the headboard, his arms over his chest. "You remember what I said to you the day we met?"
Nat's lips quirked up. "I asked whether you were there to arrest me or kill me, and you said, 'I think we can make you a better offer.'"
"Yeah, well. I wasn't exactly being original there." He shook his head, trying to fight the feeling of his past creeping up on him. "I know he was there on Fury's orders, but the way I was going if Coulson hadn't said that to me I'd probably be in a shallow grave with a bullet in my head by now."
She studied him for a long time. "I'm leaving on assignment in the morning."
Clint hadn't expected that to hit him as hard as it did. Obviously he'd known he couldn't lean on Nat forever. "Wondered why you weren't saying much in the briefing. Stark and Banner are going to be pissed when they have to juggle things around again."
"I think Fury likes keeping them on their toes. I leave at 0500."
Clint nodded. He didn't think he'd ever left on assignment later than dawn, he'd always assumed because Fury and Coulson didn't sleep. "Who'd they assign you to?"
Clint frowned. "I don't know him. Her? Her," he said when she nodded. "She good?"
Nat shrugged. "She's SHIELD."
Clint let the silence sit for a moment. That had been the one eventuality he and Nat hadn't talked about, that they would have to get used to someone else's voice in their ears, someone who they didn't know and whose thought process was alien. Clint knew they'd been lucky; it was unusual for an agent to have the same handler their entire careers, but with their histories he and Nat had been considered special cases. He'd taken it for granted that Phil Coulson would always be there to watch his back. As much as he looked forward to getting back in the field, he knew hearing some stranger's voice in his earpiece was what would bring it all home. "Where're they sending you?"
He knew she wouldn't give him more detail than that, not that he'd ask. "Watch your back."
Nat tilted her head. "I always do."
Clint nodded. "Check in, okay?"
She squeezed his hand. "Of course." Agents in the field weren't technically supposed to do that, but he and Nat had a system. "Don't fall apart while I'm gone. Promise."
Clint nodded again, hoping it was a promise he could keep. He closed his eyes for a moment, suddenly exhausted, and when he opened them again a few minutes later he found she'd slipped away just as quietly as she'd come.
Clint found his target and loosed the arrow into the crowd, feeling his lips curl into a grin as the woman dropped. He didn't want to grin. He tried to stop his arm from reaching back and nocking another arrow against his bow string to repeat the process, tried to close his eyes to keep from watching another body change from fleeing to falling. An explosion blocks away shook the building under him but his focus didn't break as he sent more arrows into the crowd, shooting with a younger pair of arms, back before he'd had to adjust his aim to compensate for the tendonitis in his right shoulder or the surgeries on his elbow. The Kosovo riot exploded around him and he kept shooting, working down the mental target list he'd been given that morning. The contract said he was there to provide security but he was a sniper, he knew what he'd been hired to do.
He'd been told his targets were insurgents. He found out later they weren't, but back then Clint never bothered to ask as long as the check cleared. Clint tried again to stop himself to no avail, another arrow loosing to bury in another target. Clint felt his lips curl up again and knew it was because he was having fun.
Clint wasn't that guy anymore. He didn't do this anymore. His arm still reached back for another arrow.
That broke the spell. Clint dropped his bow and slumped down to one knee against the roof ledge; he glanced over his shoulder to find Coulson staring at him with that appraising look of his, the one he'd first seen on the other side of a jail cell. "You're dreaming," he said, and Clint nodded. That was how it usually worked; Nat's nightmares always reached back to a red room in Russia, Clint's were always of Kosovo.
"Were you the one who made the charges go away?" He'd always wondered. The timing had been right but Clint had never worked up the courage to ask. It had always been easier to pretend he'd come to SHIELD without any past at all.
"I can be persuasive," he said. "It's hard to recruit someone who's in front of a firing squad."
"I wasn't exactly grateful back then."
"You came around eventually." Coulson looked pleased about something. "Director Fury and I had a running bet on whether you would stay with SHIELD."
"Yeah? What was the going rate?"
"Twenty dollars and a steak dinner. He wasn't very optimistic." Coulson smiled. "I always do enjoy taking the Director's money."
Clint stared down into the chaos. "What made you take that bet?"
Coulson cocked his head to the side, quiet for a few long moments. "Because there's more to you than this."
He woke with a start back in his bunk, his chest aching like he'd said the wrong word to the Hulk. He suited up, grabbed his bow and went down to the outdoor range, not caring that the rain was driving so hard that between that and the darkness he could barely see the targets even with the floodlights switched on.
Clint shot until his shoulders burned and his fingertips bled. He finally ran out of arrows as the sky began to lighten into dawn; he could barely lift his arm to wave to Rogers as he passed him coming out as he headed back in. He dropped back down to his bunk, his hands shaking so hard he couldn't get out of his gear; a part of him wanted to see Nat off but he wasn't supposed to know she was even leaving.
The scent of long ago explosions still lingered in the air. Clint closed his eyes and let his mind wander back to an offer made in a jail cell that didn't officially exist. He wondered if maybe it wouldn't have been better if he'd said no.
Two nights later Clint startled awake again, only this time to find Coulson there in the room with him, leaning against the wall wide-eyed and shaking. "Hey, you okay?" Clint said, because sure, why not comfort his hallucination? Perfectly normal thing to do.
Coulson nodded. "I had a nightmare," he said, sounding vaguely embarrassed that Clint had caught him being human for a moment.
"I think so."
"Yeah, I've been there," Clint said. He helped Coulson sit on the bed, wondering if it was a bad sign that his delusions were tactile now.
"Thank you." Coulson rubbed his chest absently, like something hurt. "I didn't mean to wake you."
"Nah, I don't mind. I was gonna be up in a couple of hours anyway."
"May I stay here a while? It's very...quiet, where I am."
Clint quirked an eyebrow at that but didn't question it. "Suit yourself, but I'm not much of a talker."
"That's a different kind of quiet."
"If you say so."
"You're kind of strange, Coulson. I don't think I ever told you that."
"It's highlighted on my resume."
Clint lay back and watched Coulson sitting there on his bed in his agent of SHIELD suit and knew this should feel at least a little bit weird. He supposed that was part of the going crazy. "You missed the briefing this morning. You should hear what Banner and Stark have come up with now."
So Clint went through the new plan point by point, highlighting what had made him uneasy and trying to elaborate when Coulson asked him questions even though a lot of the science was beyond him. He supposed this was nerves about being part of a field op for the first time since the invasion, and at least talking to Coulson gave him something to say at the next briefing in a few hours. He realized this was the first time he'd seen Coulson all day, something unusual lately. He guessed that was a good sign, even though it sure as hell didn't feel like one.
"It's peaceful up here."
Clint glanced behind him to see Coulson sitting against the back wall of his perch, a semi-enclosed balcony forty floors up that gave him a sweeping view of the entire avenue. "It can be."
"I've always admired the way you can concentrate for so many hours when you're on mission. Even compared to some of the other snipers SHIELD employs it's quite remarkable."
Clint smiled to himself – now he was hallucinating performance evaluations. "Lots of practice." Being able shoot straight wasn't all that unusual a skill; it was the waiting that drove most snipers stir crazy, the laser focus you needed to keep up for that one second of work. It didn't matter how well you could hit the target if you missed the opportunity for the shot.
"I must be distracting you."
Clint scooted himself toward the back wall, years of being shot at making him careful to keep his head below the balcony ledge. "I can afford a distraction right now." In fact, if the plan worked the way it was supposed to he shouldn't even be needed, and if it did go bad it should do it loudly enough that he would get plenty of warning. "You don't look so great," he said, giving Coulson an appraising look, and it was true: he had dark circles under his eyes and he generally looked haggard, the way he did when he'd been up for days in the control room trying to fix a mission that had gone bad.
"I'm tired," he admitted, confirming Clint's suspicion. Clint couldn't even begin to guess what that said about his own mental state and wasn't prepared to delve into it. He knew it was a bad enough sign that he was this relieved to see Coulson at all; it had been almost two days since Clint had woken up to find Coulson in his room and he'd worried that the hallucinations had stopped as suddenly as they'd begun. Coulson rubbed his chest again, the way he had the last time Clint had seen him. "I feel like I can barely keep my eyes open."
Clint leaned his head back against the concrete. "Y'know, if you'd asked to keep me company on jobs before I wouldn't have said no."
"I'm not overly fond of heights," he said, sending an embarrassed look Clint's way.
"Yeah? I never knew that. How'd you manage on the helicarrier?"
"I can function in them, I just...prefer not to."
"Never would have guessed that. I don't recommend getting up and looking over the ledge, in that case."
"I don't intend to." He rubbed his chest again, wincing this time, but when Clint touched his shoulder Coulson tried to wave him away. "I'm fine."
Clint left his hand on his shoulder anyway. Even if the hallucinations were coming less frequently they still felt solid. "Yeah, well, you don't look it."
"I told you, I'm fine. I'm just tired." He leaned his head back, eyes closed. "I wish we were friends."
Clint wondered about himself sometimes. "What're you talking about? We are friends." Hell, aside from maybe Nat Clint didn't think he'd ever had a better friend.
Coulson shook his head. "Handlers aren't allowed to fraternize with field agents, especially ones they're responsible for. It hurts our objectivity, creates issues of favoritism, causes all kinds of related problems."
"I used to hear that in the military all the time and I thought it was BS then. COs act like the grunts won't respect them any more without distance."
"It's to protect us, too. Sometimes we have to give orders that are...difficult enough without a more personal relationship."
"Yeah?" Clint had been around long enough for that not to need any explanation. "Would you do that? Order me into a suicide mission? Order Nat?"
Coulson was quiet for a long time. "If I had to."
It looked like it killed him just to say that. Would've killed him. Jesus. Clint had never realized he was this masochistic."I'd follow that order. I've worked for plenty of people who'd do that without having to and you can always tell the difference."
"That's a lot of trust."
"You earned it." This was a team op with Fury running the circus, which meant Clint could hold it together but he knew the next one wouldn't be. Someone else would have to earn that trust and Clint didn't even know how to start that process any more.
"I've always liked this dream," Coulson said, the sudden change in subject throwing Clint for a second.
"You think you're dreaming?"
Coulson nodded. "I've had it before." He let out a long breath. "Joining SHIELD is the best decision I've ever made. I don't have a single regret. But all the same, being in SHIELD means there's one or two things I can't do when I'm awake."
"Yeah? Like what?" Coulson looked embarrassed again and Clint couldn't stop himself from pressing. "You have some stuff you're putting off for retirement? Gonna play some golf, work on your scrapbooking..." Clint was pretty sure the glare Coulson was sending his way could actually be registered as a weapon. "Fine, fine," Clint said. Joking about Coulson making it to retirement just made his chest ache anyway. "So what would Phil Coulson do right now if he wasn't an agent of SHIELD?"
Almost before the words were out of Clint's mouth Coulson pushed himself to his knees and kissed Clint, pressing him back against the wall. Clint had never been so surprisedbut he'd always been quick on his feet; when Coulson started to pull back Clint cradled the back of his head and pulled him back in, leaning up into the kiss because there wasn't going to be the next time. "I told you I like this dream," Coulson whispered, running one thumb along the stubble on Clint's jaw. "Just wish it didn't always end there."
Clint blinked and he was alone on the balcony, every inch of him shaking. He rubbed his hands over his face and tried to figure out what the hell that had just been, what was wrong with his fucking brain? He didn't have time to dwell on it, though; he heard a series of popping explosions and knew that was his cue to get back into position. He nocked an arrow and crouched back by the ledge, thoughts of anything except this next shot banished. Plenty of time to fall apart later. Right now it was time to go to work.
Just because Nat was the covert expert didn't mean that Clint didn't have his moments. It wasn't much to disable the surveillance camera; this was just the public records room, not where the classified stuff was kept. He knew he had five minutes max before someone came to investigate; it would probably be less risky to hack into the digital records but those could be altered more easily. Clint wanted something only Fury had touched. Something about the hallucination on the balcony kept itching at the back of his mind, something that wouldn't let him rest until he was sure. Either the delusions were slipping him down just a little bit further, or...
If he was wrong he would go to psych and lay it all out, but first he had to be sure.
Clint found the file labeled Coulson, Philip quickly and started paging through it; the first few pages were basic identifying information, education details, public facts anyone could find. He paged forward some more until he reached the psych profile; most of it was redacted, thick black lines hiding anything even theoretically compromising.
Or almost everything. Clint had to sit against the the wall when he read the words mild acrophobia sitting there in the profile, had to read it over and over again until he could trust his eyes.
He hadn't known anything about that until a dead man confessed it to him.
He kept reading. Most of the mission logs were redacted, which Clint had expected; he flipped through page after page of black lines until he got to the end of the file and the confrontation with Loki, described in the dry SHIELD shorthand everyone learned to file reports in. He guessed that only the chaos of the past couple weeks had kept that from being redacted, too.
Clint had never asked how Coulson actually died. Once Nat told him that it had happened and that Loki had done it Clint hadn't wanted to know any more; bad enough he knew that much, he didn't need any other details living in his head. He hadn't even been able to bring himself to ask if it had been fast because of the risk the answer might be no.
He forced himself to read through it now. Ambush from behind. Single stab wound through the back that extended through the chest; death in minutes (long, long minutes, God, Clint had not wanted to know this) from blood loss resulting from a damaged aortic arch combined with a collapsed right lung. There was a diagram and he remembered Coulson wincing in pain and rubbing his chest.
One final detail jumped out at him, something else he had to read over several times: Loki had killed Coulson with the scepter. The very same thing Loki had used to mind control him.
Clint closed the file and shut his eyes, turning that over in his mind. For the first time since a god wrapped his mind in ice Clint felt hope flare deep in his chest, something so delicate Clint was afraid to even look at it directly.
Probably he actually was crazy. The fear of that was choking, because if that was true and he acted on this he would lose everything, he would lose SHIELD and Nat and everything else about this life he'd scratched and clawed for himself.
The hope was stronger.
Clint stormed into Fury's office, a clear sign that he was tired of living if there ever was one, and slammed the door behind him. "I want to see him."
Fury just looked up, annoyance arching the eyebrow over his good eye. "Agent Barton, I've been meaning to talk to you. Care to tell me why you were snooping around in the records room earlier?"
Clint paid that no mind; a light bulb couldn't go out at HQ without Fury somehow knowing about it. "Agent Coulson," Clint said, his heart pounding so hard he felt dizzy. "You lied about him being dead. I want to see him."
There was something so close to pity in Fury's expression that Clint almost started to doubt himself. "I knew you were cleared back for the field too quickly. You need time to process everything that..."
"You're lying." Clint caught the warning on Fury's face just in time. "Sir."
"Phil Coulson was my best agent, why would I lie about that?"
"I don't know, sir. But you are."
Fury shook his head. "And what makes you say that, Agent Barton?"
Clint took a deep breath. Now or never. "I've seen him. He's divulged compromising information to me, things I would have no way of knowing otherwise."
Fury stood up and started toward the door. "I sympathize, Barton, but I don't have time for this. You need some long sessions with psych..."
"The two of you bet on whether I would hack it in SHIELD." The words hit Fury like a taser; he turned around, one hand still on the door knob, as gray as if Clint himself was a ghost. "A two spot and a steak dinner. You had to pay up."
"How did you know that?"
"Coulson showed up in a dream I was having and told me. I'm betting he thought he was dreaming, too." He could tell Fury was standing just on the edge of believing him and pressed on. "He's afraid of heights. Not enough for it to be a problem, just enough that he doesn't like them."
"You read that in his file."
"I read the file because I already knew that. Coulson told me himself and that time I know he thought he was dreaming." Clint stepped up to Fury, forcing himself to stand barely inches away. "Tell me I'm crazy. Say the word and I'll go with you to psych and I'll never say another word about this. But first you have to look me in the eye right now and tell me that I'm wrong."
Fury stared at him for a long, long time. "Come with me."
"I'm not wrong," Clint whispered. For a second he didn't think his legs would hold him up.
"You say a word to anyone I won't only deny everything, I'll have you thrown back in that jail cell where we found you."
Clint nodded. "Sounds fair."
"Come on, then. Before I have second thoughts and decide we've both gone crazy."
Clint had never even known SHILED headquarters went down this far, stairway after stairway and doors that needed both Fury's fingerprint and retinal scan to open. He knew the security they'd kept the Cube under when it wasn't actively being tested and didn't even want to imagine what needed to be kept down here.
They walked down one last corridor and Fury unlocked a final door, leading to a spotless medical bay. It only took Clint a moment to spot the room's only occupant, bracing himself against the doorway when he saw Phil Coulson pale and still but alivein the first bed. "LMD in the coffin?"
Fury nodded and Clint shook his head. "Nat is gonna kill you slow."
Fury just shrugged, like he already assumed that was coming. "I figured either people would never know I lied or he'd pull through and everyone would be so happy they wouldn't care."
"I don't get it. Why lie in the first place?"
"The team needed the motivation." Clint spun around to stare at him for that and Fury raised his hands. "You weren't there, they were all bickering like children. I don't regret any tactic that works. And the doctors told me there wasn't any hope anyway, so I thought it wouldn't be a lie for very long."
"He sure looks like he's breathing to me. He's not even on a vent, no life support."
Fury crossed his arms, staring down at Coulson. "We thought he was on the mend, then the day after the funeral the bleeding started again. We had to rush him into surgery and we got it under control but he fell into a coma and hasn't come out since."
That had been when the hallucinations had first started. Can I stay here a while? It's very...quiet, where I am."What's wrong with you people? You're supposed to talk to people in comas," Clint said, taking a seat at the bedside.
"I'd be here around the clock if I could so change your tone."
Clint bit back the next comment because he knew that look on Fury's face; Coulson'd had that look when Nat was shot a few years back and it had looked bad. "Sorry."
"Keep it that way." He sighed, pulling up a chair next to Clint. "His condition keeps degrading. Vitals drop by the day, the doctors don't know why."
Clint remembered him saying he was tired. "But if he came out of the coma, he'd be okay?"
Fury shrugged. "The doctors don't know why he's in the coma in the first place, but sure, it would help."
Clint nodded. "You have cameras in here?"
"This floor doesn't exist, hell no it's not on the grid."
He nodded again. "Can you give us some space?"
Fury was quiet for a minute. "Why're you the one seeing him?"
Clint shrugged. "Because of the scepter, maybe. I don't know. Give us some space."
"You really think you can wake him up?"
Clint grinned, settling in the chair. "Let's put some money on it."
The room was very quiet when Fury closed the door behind him. "Hey," Clint said, leaning close. "What we did on that balcony? You wake up and we'll do it for real. To hell with the rules. You got my word."
Clint sat back, squeezing Coulson's hand once. He just had to be patient now and if Clint had ever been good at anything it was being very, very patient.
Clint didn't know how many hours later it was before Coulson showed up in front of him. "Barton," he said, sounding surprised to see them on Level God-Knows-Where. "You don't have the clearance for..." His eyes fixed on his own body lying in the bed and the words fell away. "Oh."
Clint jumped out of the chair. "Hey, hey, look at me," he said, forcing Coulson to look away from the bed. "Loki stabbed you. You remember now?"
"I..." Clint saw a sudden, satisfied glint in his eye. "I shot him with the gun."
Clint rolled his eyes. "I should've figured you wouldn't wait for R&D to puzzle that one out."
"I like that gun." He stared back at the bed, like he couldn't stop himself. "Am I dying?"
"You're in a coma. You've been dreaming, this whole past week, every time you've been seeing me you've been dreaming. You've gotta wake up now."
"So I'm dreaming now."
"Yeah, but I'm not. You hear me? Something about the scepter, when you dream like this you walk around and I can see you." Clint sighed. "Tell me that makes sense to you, 'cause I'm starting to think I'm crazy again."
"I suppose it's possible the scepter could have telepathic properties," Coulson said, like he was drafting a report. He rubbed his forehead. "Why am I so tired?"
"'Cause you're sick. The longer you stay in the coma the sicker you're going to get so you have to wake up." His gaze kept drifting back to the bed and Clint grabbed him by his suit jacket to force him to look back at him. "Did you hear what I said when I first sat down? About how we'd do a repeat of the balcony but for real?"
Coulson flushed bright red, as mortified as a teenager whose diary's been read to the whole school. "That was a dream."
"Yeah, but only one of us was sleeping." Clint cradled his head and kissed him hard, backing him up against the wall until Coulson started to kiss him back. "Wake up," he whispered. "I don't feel like breaking in a new handler any time soon."
When Clint opened his eyes again there was no one in front of him.
Clint sat back down and squeezed Coulson's hand again. "Not like I'm asking a lot here, y'know."
He counted down one hour, an old trick he used to keep track of time on jobs, with no change. Then two. After three Clint felt that deep pit start to grow in his stomach. "C'mon. You never let me down before. You said you liked taking Fury's money, you wake up and it's yours."
At the end of four Clint felt Coulson's hand twitch. After a few more seconds his eyelids fluttered, blinking slowly open like they weighed a thousand pounds. "Are...you happy now?" He winced, his face going pale as he fumbled for Clint's hand. "Oh. This hurts."
"I think they've been stingy with the drugs, I'll make sure Fury ups your dose when he checks back in." Clint kissed his forehead, feeling like he could breathe for the first time in weeks. "And don't start preaching the rules to me."
Coulson looked like he wanted to try anyway but couldn't find the energy, instead just squeezing his hand hard. "Stay...a while?" he whispered, his eyes already closing again.
Clint smiled, settling more comfortably in his chair. "We've been hanging out a lot lately. Don't see any reason to change that now." Clint watched him take a deep, pained breath. "Take it easy. You've still got a big hole through your chest. We have to get you back to work."
"Looking forward to it."
Clint shook his head. "Only you would look forward to wrangling Stark."
Coulson was quiet long enough that Clint thought he'd fallen back asleep before he spoke again. "Barton," he whispered. "Sure...still not dreaming?"
"It would be a pretty lousy one if you were."
Clint supposed he had to give him that. "Yeah, guess I have too. But no, you're not. So get some sleep. I'm gonna stay right here and make sure you don't go walking around in your dreams again." Clint leaned down, close to his ear. "'Cause if you want me to show you I was serious about the balcony you've gotta heal up first."
Clint was glad he'd leaned that close when he heard Coulson's response, because it was faint enough that otherwise he might have missed it: "Looking forward to that, too."