A/N: I honestly thought this was done; then a post-Manhattan Coulson turned up in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Remember that back when I wrote Chapter 4, having Coulson not-be-dead was considered a "fix-it"...)
Working on this chapter has been like standing on shifting sands, and so I decided to settle it in the small cracks, filling in some things left open, those unexplained gaps. Much of this will without doubt be overtaken by more revelations - but like Phil Coulson's memory, thoughts and conversations are shards of time and space; you may see a picture only when you step back far enough.
This is a bit angstier than the other chapters, but Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is not exactly a fluff fest, and The Winter Soldier looks like it's going to send us down some dark alleys. (Warning: chapter addresses issues of mind control and victimization.) Spoiler alert for the elements of the later episodes of emAgents of SHIELD/em, starting with "A Magical Place".
Thanks, as always, to my dear friend Runawaymetaphor (who knows why).
Chapter 5: Clouds
So this is how a pinned butterfly feels.
Clint's first reaction when he hears that Phil Coulson is not in fact dead, is relief.
Not the kind of relief, though, that you might feel when you watch a burning house, and the friend you thought was inside texts you from a bar across town. That kind of relief is simple and easy, and Clint's life doesn't lend itself to simple and easy.
No, the relief he feels is a momentary, heady feeling that maybe, somehow, this single death-that-wasn't could erase the dozens of others that are carved into his ledger.
But that's bullshit, of course. And perhaps unfortunately, Clint isn't big on self-delusion, either.
The eyes of the people staring at him as he holds up the plaque only confirm what he already knows: That the list of names on it is still longer by sixty-eight than it should be, and that weighing the thousands who survived against the hundreds who didn't works a lot better in theory than in practice.
The facts are there in his hands, neatly cast in bronze.
Plus, this is S.H.I.E.L.D., where life and death are concepts that are at best relative, and whatever Coulson's resurrection might mean, it sure as hell isn't to provide absolution for Clint Barton's sins. So all things considered, relief lasts about a third of the way through the memorial ceremony - up to the moment when Fury starts reading all the names on that good damn plaque out loud.
Clint loses it somewhere around the D's, but luckily – in a manner of speaking – he's had a childhood's worth of practice in slowing his breathing and turning to stone when what he really wants to do is scream. (Exposing your guts, he learned at the hands of his father, just leads to harder blows and smarter targeting.) He manages to relax his hands just before his nails dig into his palm and wreck his aim for a week.
His next reaction, which is to feel like crap about the first, is even more short-lived. Clint has far more substantial things to be concerned about than feelings about his own feelings; therein lies the road to emotional masturbation, and who the hell has time for that.
So by the time the ceremony is over, he's on to reaction number three, best characterized as an irresistible desire to smash Nick Fury's face in. The heel of the thumb creates a satisfying crunch when you use it to drive a guy's nose into his brain …
Of course, the last thing Clint needs is another round with S.H.I.E.L.D.'s psych team. ("Can you describe that image in more detail, Agent Barton? How did it make you feel?") As long as nobody figures out a way to put the pictures in his head on YouTube he should be okay, but he bites down on his imagination anyway.
The gathering takes a while to break up. Clint makes no move to join the general movement towards the open area on the bridge, where Doreen has set up some morale-building refreshments. (Exactly how memorial services are supposed to bring out an appetite has always escaped him, anyway.)
Natasha scrutinizes him suspiciously, no doubt reading his mind like a pie chart: Clinton Francis Barton, aka Hawkeye. Currently composed of one-sixth grief, one-sixth crushing guilt and two-thirds homicidal rage.
"You're having another Loki fantasy, aren't you? Or else you're wallowing again."
Frankly, Clint is still feeling a little punchy from the near miss with Banner and … well. Let's just say, he's had better days, even within the last three months, and those sure as hell haven't been a picnic.
"Wallowing? Says she, who took on a whole fucking alien army over an imaginary red ledger?"
Natasha's eyes narrow; she's probably calculating whether she should just ignore him or take him on. But she has put up with his shit for some time now and probably deserves better, even from someone for whom self-analysis and target practice are pretty much the same thing. He puts a hand on her arm in mute apology.
"But no, I'm not wallowing, and I'm not fantasizing about killing Loki this time."
Natasha, Clint knows from experience, will do whatever it takes to make him spill and he should probably do so before Rogers - who's been pacing back and forth like a caged lion since that list was read - comes over to let off some steam of his own. (Whoever thinks that Captain America is a sweetheart, has never seen him when he's seriously pissed off and all that righteousness comes pouring out through a balled fist.)
"I mean, seriously, Tash. What the fuck did Fury think he was doing? Lying to everybody like that. Where's he been keeping Coulson, and why? That doesn't bother you?"
"Of course it does," Natasha says, and Clint can tell from her tone that it's not just because a secret the size of Phil Coulson managed to escape her notice. "Maria is pretty unhappy too. On a number of levels."
She points with her chin towards the command station, where the Director and his Deputy are engaged in what diplomats would call a free and frank discussion, which involves the latter's hands on her hips and the former scowling so hard his eye patch has dislodged a little.
For a moment, Clint actually feels a twinge of sympathy with S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Number Two. Relations between Hill and Fury have never been warm and fuzzy, and everything to do with the Avengers Initiative seems to result in a sharpening of the pitchforks on both sides. But this thing … this goes way beyond the usual need-to-know, you-don't-have-the-right-level crap that Fury pulls on all of them on a daily basis.
Fuck it. Sometimes, when you want a question answered, the best way is just to ask. And so Clint decides to go for it, still itching for someone to throttle but using his words, like a good boy. He walks over to Fury and Hill, closely followed by Natasha in full damage control mode.
"Director, Sir. Where the hell is Coulson, and why haven't you told anyone that he wasn't dead?"
Hill looks up sharply and opens her mouth, and Clint fully expects a rebuke, something about not disrupting an Official Conversation. But obviously she wants the answer to that question more than she values protocol, so what comes out is unexpected support.
"Just what I've been asking myself, Director. Sir."
The audience is growing, what with Steve now striding over. Indignation plus enhanced hearing – privacy never stood a chance. His hands are in his pockets, but Clint can see that they're balled into fists.
"Me too. Sir."
Natasha says nothing, but she crosses her arms and dials her stare up to praying mantis.
Now, Nick Fury never appreciates being pushed or cornered and with the odds at four against one (three of them Avengers) his reply pulls no punches.
"You've all seen the surveillance tapes, I'm sure, even though you're not supposed to have access. Stark would have seen to that. So you saw exactly what Loki did to Coulson. He suffered massive chest trauma, entry and exit, and flat-lined right outside the detention cell. "
Steve just nods; Natasha's eyes flick over to Clint as they both remember where he himself had been heading when she stopped him. Clint punches down the snarling 'what ifs' and focuses on Fury's narrative, looking for the inevitable gaps.
"The medics managed to restart his heart, eventually, but it required extensive repairs. We had him on life support for over eleven weeks, while trying to fix the damage Loki's spear had done."
Fury glares at Clint, as if this whole thing was somehow his fault. (Wasn't it?)
"And it wasn't just the chest wound. Barton knows better than anybody what that weapon does to a person's mind. We didn't know where Coulson's mind might have gone, so we had to keep him under observation and his location secret, in case the Council got wind of another potentially compromised agent."
That last bit is clearly directed at Hill, who flinches a little and avoids Clint's eyes. The Council hadn't hesitated to order the death of millions to avert the Chitauri invasion; the death of a single man wouldn't merit a moment's consideration.
It sure is plausible. Yes, Phil Coulson hadn't been stabbed by just any old weapon. And yes, Clint does know better than anyone - with the exception of Erik Selvig - just what that means. Coulson might as well have swallowed the tesseract.
There's something else the Director isn't saying, though, Clint can just taste it. Wouldn't be the first time Fury has used the Council as a red herring.
Fury is still talking and Clint shakes off the sudden blue chill, forcing himself to focus on what the man is actually saying, as opposed to on what he's not.
"His brain, when we eventually got his heart started again, was shown to react to things. Noise. Light. His name. Enough to convince me there was a chance Phil Coulson was still in there, even though the neurologist doctor kept urging me to pull the plug, for various reasons."
Steve is even less versed in medical chatter than Clint is.
"So what does all this mean?"
Fury emits a sigh that could mean anything or nothing.
"We still need to do some more work to get his mind back to normal."
In Clint's case, 'cognitive recalibration' involved a major concussion. What would it require in the case of death, by the same implement that stole his mind? He looks briefly over to where Natasha is holding herself curiously still, and cuts to the chase.
"Like what? Rearranging his brain?"
"As I said, we didn't know what the after-effects of the spear would be. In Coulson's case, Loki didn't stick around to put anything into his head, so we had to keep his neurons active, to stop them from being potentially wiped out. We did that, we succeeded, he survived. But there's some trauma, which our doctors are currently trying to reduce."
Keep his neurons active? Clint knows a shitty euphemism when he hears one, especially when the next sentence has the word "trauma" in it.
"You kept him awake?" he says. "For how long?"
Hill swallow as she works through the implications, but doesn't get the chance to say anything. Steve gets there first.
"All the surgery you mentioned. Everything you did to keep him alive. He was conscious throughout?"
Steve's eyes go far away for a moment, but they come back to settle on Fury, hard and focused.
"The last time I saw something like that, keeping someone awake through what must have been horrific pain, it was HYDRA experimenting on a friend of mine. I'd hoped never to see anything like that again. So what …"
Natasha puts her hand on his arm to stop him. When she speaks, it's in a curiously flat tone.
"So now you're trying to change his memories," she says. "Are you using Red Room techniques on him?"
"We're giving him pleasant memories," Fury says.
It's not exactly a 'no'. Judging by the way Hill shifts her stance, she has noticed that too.
Steve, who has never heard of the Red Room, just frowns, trying to gauge by the others' reaction whether he should be more concerned than he already is.
Fury's elaboration is not helping, but he doesn't sound defensive when he gives it.
"Like I said, we had no choice, and we're trying to limit the damage. Right now, Agent Coulson thinks is on vacation in Tahiti."
Sunshine and warmth.
Palm trees, swaying in the breeze. Azure waters and the sound of waves lapping at an opalescent beach. The laughter of children, carried by gentle winds.
Beauty and peace.
So far from the alarms and the smell of burning wires, the shouts, the fear and the chaos of the bridge. From the pain burning in his chest, the agony of breathing. Loki's sneering face. The recoil of that weapon. Fury, yelling; his own whispered response.
Oh yes, Phil Coulson remembers. He remembers it all. But he doesn't really want to. Not in the face of all this beauty.
He turns his face to the sun, breathes in the scent of a thousand bougainvillea blossoms. It's been weeks, but Phil knows that after that injury he did need some R&R, so he refuses to feel guilty.
Suddenly, a disturbing thought: Did Hill sign off on this? Rehab and time off is one thing, but S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Accounting Department isn't known for picking up the tab for luxury vacations.
His eyes fly open.
He's not in Tahiti anymore.
Hospital. He's in a hospital. The light is harsh, not warm. There's beeping, and things attached to his head, his fingers.
A S.H.I.E.L.D. medical facility. Not one he recognizes, but the set-up is familiar.
A form in white is moving around the edge of Phil's vision. His mind tries to catch thoughts, elusive things like fireflies; his tongue tries to form words.
"Wha' happened? How …"
His throat feels raw. Screaming? No, of course not. This is Medical. Tubes, then. Breathing tubes. He remembers not breathing.
The form approaches on soft feet. A face, peering at him through the fog.
"Welcome back, Agent Coulson. The Quinjet that brought you back from Tahiti hit a rough spot and you suffered some head trauma," the nurse? Doctor? Explains.
"Given the residual issues from the chest wound you sustained before your rehab, this new trauma resulted in temporary disruption of brain function. There will be some memory loss, which should however disappear over time."
The man's voice turns gentle, almost pleading.
"What do you remember, Agent Coulson, starting with when you went after Loki?"
For the first time, Phil completely understands what people mean when they talk about 'dredging their memory banks'. Worse, he feels like he hasn't exercised his vocal chords for weeks, and his head ...
Must have been some concussion.
"Loki had trapped Thor. I thought I saw him, but he wasn't … wasn't real. Then I remember seeing …"
The tip of the spear. coming out of his chest. (So this is how a pinned butterfly feels.)
He tries to catch the memory of Fury, bent over him, asking him, no, ordering him to stop dying. His own voice:
'I'm clocking out here, boss'.
'Not an option.'
'No, it's okay.'
But it's not okay. Death is not an option. It rings in his head, like a mantra, a memory forged in blood and steel:
Not an option. Not an option. Not an option.
He shakes his head, to ward off that voice; bad idea..
"What else do you remember, Agent Coulson?"
He shakes his head again, this time to try and stop the ringing, reaches for the next memory. It floats like a butterfly, blown in on a soft warm wind, lands.
Much better: Sunshine, the scent of salt water and exotic flowers in the breeze.
"Rehab, in Tahiti. Lovely place. Almost magical."
The short flight from the helicarrier back to Manhattan passes in silence, with each of the Quinjet's occupants lost in their own thoughts. Neither Steve nor Natasha seem to feel like talking, and Clint uses piloting as an excuse to remain quiet.
By silent agreement they all head to Clint's apartment, stopping at the corner store for a supply of beer and a semi-decent bottle of Sauvignon Blanc for Natasha.
Once upstairs, Steve plays with the keyboard by the door, the one that sets up the various security features S.H.I.E.L.D. provides to its operatives in their private accommodations. His lips move as if he were creating imaginary sound effects, like a video game (if he knows what that is).
"Do I even want to know who you're aiming for?"
Clint flips open one of the beers and hands it to Steve, who looks a little self-conscious and pulls back his hands.
"I wish I knew," Steve says. "Fury? Although I guess we should be happy that Coulson survived. He seemed … seems like an okay guy."
Natasha opens her wine and pours, foregoing her usual comment about chipped glasses, screw tops and the end of civilization.
"He is, once you get to know him. Don't let the suit and the hero worship thing creep you out."
"He got me into S.H.I.E.L.D.," Clint says, "and then spent a couple years making sure Hill and I didn't kill each other. He's kind of like the lube that makes everything work. No idea how he does it. Half the time you don't even notice he's there, or what he's doing, but when he's been somewhere, stuff just … works better, you know."
"So you'd think that the fact that Agent Coulson wasn't dead would have been a major morale boost for S.H.I.E.L.D. at a difficult time, no? Not to mention …"
Steve doesn't finish the sentence, but the way he looks at Clint it's pretty sure what he means, and yeah, Clint can't really argue with that. He'd still have felt like shit about all the things he did under Loki's control – still does – but there'd have been a bit less.
Natasha nods on his behalf.
"Which begs the question why Fury kept Coulson's survival hidden for so long."
"Was it because he didn't want to face the music after that little card trick of his?"
Clint considers Steve's suggestion briefly – it's not like he hasn't mulled that particular question over in his head for the better part of the day.
"I doubt it. Strategic value, plus hindsight proved him right. Coulson would have agreed, probably would have put him up to it, if he hadn't died first. You do what's necessary."
Steve gives a slightly exasperated snort and shakes his head, and Clint and Natasha exchange a quick glance. What will Captain America do, the day he really comes to understand that truth and virtue in S.H.I.E.L.D. are always clothed in shades of grey?
Steve's jaw is working, grinding away, chewing on a bone he is obviously not into letting go. Suddenly he nods – small little bobs of the head, like he's agreeing with himself.
"Fury called Coulson his 'one good eye.' Maybe he couldn't let him die because Coulsonis … his friend? And he couldn't tell us, because he would have had to admit something he considers to be a weakness."
Steve's eyes flick from Clint to Natasha, looking for signs of approval. It's not a bad theory as these things go; in their business, friendship is often considered a liability. Besides, Nick Fury sure isn't the sentimental sort; as the Red Room drilled into Natasha, Love is for Children.
But if Clint has learned anything, it's that all that is complete bullshit. He only has to think of Natasha, who is working through her own thoughts in silence. All the things they've been to each other over the years, all the times they've pulled out all the stops, including her standing up to Loki so she could drag Clint Barton's sorry ass back from the gates of hell … Coulson himself had known just how to pull Natasha off that interrogation in Moscow, how to get her into that fight. And it wasn't about tactics.
Steve, Bruce and Thor, and all the various and different pains they carry; hell, even Tony Stark, whose palladium-plated heart is pretty much pure gold inside, however scratched and dented - they all know it too, Clint is pretty sure. Having someone you can trust, not wanting them to die - that is not weakness. It's what gives you strength.
Yes, Nick Fury knows that friendship has its value – even if only as a weapon of war. Clint shakes his head.
"No. If it was useful for him to admit it, he would. And did."
Natasha seems to be on the same track.
"Fury is a practical man. I'm guessing he plans to put Coulson back to work, and wants to prevent a scene when one of us runs run into him in the coffee line-up at the Hub."
Clint weighs the argument; on balance, it sounds plausible. S.H.I.E.L.D. is a secretive organization, but every pair of boots on the ground has an iceberg's worth of admin support behind it – you can't keep someone as well-known as Coulson hidden for long. Steve's eyebrows go up, but he doesn't argue the point either.
"I'm a lot more interested learning why Fury told us about the false memories he's implanting," Natasha continues. "He could have just told usthat Coulson really had been rehabbing in Tahiti. We might even have believed him enough not to check up."
Perhaps Steve isn't so naïve after all. "Maybe he wants us to validate the story to Coulson? Fury would know that you two, of all the people he knows, would tell Coulson that no one knew where he was. This way, you're likely to play along with what he believes, and confirm that Tahiti is where he was."
Somewhere in there may be the truth - but there are a lot of unanswered questions, and far too many shades of grey. (Not to mention red.)
The doctor nods, but his eyes are curiously intent.
"Good. Things are coming back, then. What do you remember hearing about the battle for New York, while you were in Tahiti? You were in a coma while it happened, but your therapists would have talked about it. We're trying to connect dots here, so try and remember."
Phil is stymied. Battle? New York? He frowns.
"Nothing. I …"
The doctor nods knowingly. His voice is firm.
"That's understandable. All that is secondary memory, since you weren't there for it. You were in a coma, after Loki's attack. It looks like that's what you've lost then – the things you learned after you woke, and while you were in rehab. In Tahiti."
Phil is concerned. How can he do his job, if he doesn't … But the doctor is ahead of him. A good man, understands what it means to be in S.H.I.E.L.D.
Fury hires the best.
"Never mind, Agent, we'll show you the tapes. Catch you up, until your neurons make the connections themselves. You will need to know everything that has happened, if you want to return to work. I hear the Director has plans for you."
He hesitates a fraction.
"You do want to go back to work for S.H.I.E.L.D., don't you?"
Phil gives the matter some thought. Agents have handed in their badges for injuries far less traumatic, been given a handshake and a decent pension. He could go to …
He tries to remember the name, her name, the place she went. (A discussion he had with Pepper Potts? Why does he remember the discussion, but not what … who … it was about? There was a woman …)
S.H.I.E.L.D. is the one constant in his life, his foundation, his bridge to who he is. Leaving?
Not an option.
"Show me. Teach me. I want to remember."
And so Phil watches clip after endless clip, amateur and CCTV footage of the most stirring heroics imaginable: Captain America in action - he lingers over those ones, even replays a few when the nurse is out of the room. Watching, learning, being awed by the impossible that no longer is.
Thor and Iron Man, flying. Suddenly, he remembers his discussion with Thor. The genial-yet-fierce God of Thunder, who had called him 'Son of Coul,' and talked about Bilgesnipes.
He can practically feel the synapses firing now in his brain, neural pathways being knitted together. Things come back, things he remembers, and thus doesn't need to see: The engine, burning. Chaos on the bridge. Agents. Dead and dying.
Clint Barton. So much more than a mere sharpshooter with a smart mouth, even if he'd be the last one to see that. A general, leading an army. How did he die? Or … did he?
The Hulk, so unlike his shy alter ego. A mindless beast, they'd called him, but rampaging with a purpose, just like he had in Harlem. Fury had been right, after all.
Then, suddenly, Black Widow and Hawkeye, fighting side by side, as they had in Budapest, in Chiapas, in Abidjan. So he came back from under Loki's thrall. How? The human mind is an amazing thing.
But why hadn't he come to visit Phil in Tahiti, or now?
Why had none of them ever come? It's been weeks. Months.
Oh, well. Probably busy, or on a mission. S.H.I.E.L.D. is like that. And with all that's come to light …
Another vid he replays a couple of times is Maria Hill's testimony before the Council. A nuke against Manhattan? The Director must have been livid. Phil smiles as he imagines Fury's reaction. (He can afford to smile; New York is still standing.)
Stark. Who knew the man had it in him? He probably still doesn't know Phil's name, would still brush him off like so much lint, but that's okay. There are different rules for genius, for heroes, and Stark delivered when he had to.
Phil makes a note to tap into the Level 8 files on that nuclear strike order, though, and on the Council's decision to reinstate Barton. Something tells him the two issues may be connected. The Council is not known for gratuitous altruism; they would have wanted a scapegoat, a diversion, and Barton was a sitting duck. The whole thing smells like a horse trade. Fury is good at those.
Yes, Phil is starting to think for himself again. The dots are connecting. He can sense it and it feels good, even if the pictures that emerge aren't pretty.
Fury has promised him a new assignment when his rehab is complete. Hill should be there with the details soon. He'll miss Barton and Romanoff, of course, but it will be fun to break in a new team, to learn new people and raise them to their potential.
Phil wishes there was a way to feed memories directly into his brain to speed things up, though, so he can close up the gaps faster and get back to work sooner. There's a lot to take in and he tires easily; a shortcut would be nice. He taps the screen for more.
At least his memories of Tahiti are clear; he would really hate to lose those. It's truly a magical place.
Word of Coulson's new team has been trickling through S.H.I.E.L.D.'s firewalls. Elusive, they are, mobile, touching ground only rarely. News of an alien virus, alien artifacts, a new form of super soldier, like the ones Stark had chased. Background noise to Clint's own assignments.
Life moves on, and lives like theirs move quickly. He'd missed Coulson at the Hub by a few days once; quite a ruckus, that was. He'd had a brief chat with May, once, when he'd found she'd moved jobs, but she'd been pretty closed-mouthed even for May. Sitwell had hinted at a meeting somewhere though, all hush-hush at Coulson's request, just a few days ago.
So when the call came, it had been a surprise – and not. Clint isn't sure if it was a welcome one yet. Too much unsaid, too many things left in the shadows, since ...
Coulson is already there when Clint gets to the little outdoor café, sitting in front of two beers, waiting. After all that time, he seems eager for Clint's company.
Clint takes those last few steps, wondering what he should say. He peers up at the patch of sky that's visible between the buildings, over the top of Stark tower, where grey clouds are starting to move in.
The café where they'd agreed to meet (neutral ground?) is a couple blocks away from Stark – no, Avengers Tower. The little place had been right in Battle Central during the Chitauri invasion, closed for a long time while the city healed. But precisely because of that, it's become quite popular.
To make up for their losses, the owners have been keeping the terrace open pretty much year round since, with heating lamps strategically located where the umbrellas would be in the summer.
There have been a few unusually mild days, but now the wind is beginning to pick up, bringing colder, more seasonal air; Clint can feel it on his face. New York is not yet done with winter.
He pulls up a chair, metal grating on stone.
It's as good a conversational gambit as any.
"There's always a storm coming."
Coulson's voice is its usual bland self, but there's a new tightness around his mouth and a guarded tone in his voice that wasn't there before. He's not talking about the weather.
Shit. Clint had hoped this might be easier, the first time they actually get to sit down face-to-face, after months of near misses in the field and at HQ.
"Yeah. Lots happening these days."
Coulson shifts around in his seat a bit, and Clint realizes he's maybe not the only one who feels awkward.
"Why'd you pick this place?"
Coulson gestures vaguely around them. The terrace isn't full, but there are people at more of the tables than you would think given the season, all looking up at regular intervals.
"Cap likes it here. It's open, busy but quiet. People don't bother you. They're too busy looking for Stark flying out of his lair. The odds are pretty good these days too, what with their place in Malibu still out of commission."
Coulson nods sagely but doesn't say anything, and so Clint adds, "Plus, one of the waitresses has her eyes on Rogers and gives us free refills on the coffee."
Truth is, Clint would actually have preferred coffee on a chilly day like this, but he knows a gesture when he sees one and picks up the one Phil had ordered for him. He takes a sip and clears his throat against the threatening silence.
"Glad you called, Phil."
He hopes that doesn't sound as awkward as he feels, being here with the man for whose (temporary) death he still feels responsible, regardless of what Tasha or the shrinks might say.
"It's been too long," Coulson agrees, and then he smiles a little ruefully. "Sometimes I have the feeling S.H.I.E.L.D. has been keeping us on different sides of the planet deliberately."
Work. Yes, they can talk about work. S.H.I.E.L.D. is always a safe topic, and chances that someone's planted a bug in the small bouquet of plastic flowers on the table are pretty remote.
"Yeah," Clint seizes on the topic and runs with it. "No shit. Especially with you having your own plane like a big shot. How's the new team working out, anyway? Last time I talked to May, she thought you'd all survive to Christmas, but not to invest in non-refundable presents."
Coulson actually cracks a smile.
"That sounds like May. No, they're good. They're really good."
"Even Ward? Guy's not a bad sort, but man, he needs to pull that stick out of his ass."
Coulson smiles again, and turns his glass around in his hands. He's got that little glint in his eyes, the one that tells Clint some good gossip is coming. Some things never change; Coulson can dish with the best of them.
"He's been working on it. He and May ..."
His voice drifts off, but his meaning is clear. Clint raises an eyebrow. Melinda May had been no stranger to post-mission adrenaline sex back in the day – hell, he'd know, wouldn't he? – but he thought she'd moved past that, what with her issues. Plus, he'd never figured her to go for the milque-toasty sort. Must be more to Ward than he thought.
"Problem?" he asks.
Coulson purses his lips.
"No more than with you and Romanoff. At least they got it out of their system without feeding years of illegal speculation and gambling on government premises."
Clint raises his hands in surrender. Fair cop that, really. Coulson tips his beer to him and changes the subject.
"They also gave me a couple of rising stars from R & D. Fitz and Simmons. They're not Stark and Banner, but they are very, very good at what they do."
Clint hasn't heard of Simmons, but the other name rings a bell.
"Fitz – is he the guy who designed that grappling arrowhead? I owe him a beer."
"I'll tell him you said that," Coulson smiles fondly. "He and Simmons are desperate to meet one of the Avengers, you know."
Clint snorts. Yeah, right. People lining up to meet him – that'll be the day. (Last time that happened, he was with Carson's Travelling Wonders, and look how that turned out.) But Coulson is not so easily deterred.
"So is the new girl, Skye. You'd like her, Barton. She reminds me a little of you, when first you came in - no respect for authority or protocol, and talks back a lot. Prettier than you, though."
It's Clint's turn to tip his glass. Touché.
"Where'd you find her? Don't remember her coming through S.H.I.E.L.D. training."
"She found us. Beyond that, it's need to know, I'm afraid."
Clint shrugs and takes a deep draught of his beer, letting it run down his throat. Par for the course; secrecy is what you sign up for when you join a secret organization and if Coulson says he doesn't need to know, he doesn't. (Stark would be on the next terminal within seconds, hacking away just on principle, with Natasha handing him a USB stick.)
But Coulson clearly feels like he has to make amends, for what under the circumstances could easily be taken as a lack of trust. Neither of them is particularly good at filling uncomfortable silences with small talk, though, so the next thing comes out pretty awkward.
"What about you? Keeping busy with the Avengers Initiative?"
"Not really. Been working mostly assignments. Saving-the-world level shit doesn't happen too often."
"You should be grateful."
"Maybe. Wondered why Nat and I didn't get called in when Stark had his argument with the Mandarin, though, or when those elf things tried to put the mean time back into Greenwich."
Clint snorts briefly. "Although I did get asked to bat cleanup for that one. Some overgrown iguana that crawled out of a spatial rift and threatened to eat the Queen's corgis."
Coulson nods sagely and Clint stops for a moment to signal the waiter for two more beers. Things are loosening up.
"So what's your official mission? Or is that need to know, too?"
Coulson considers the question, no doubt running through his terms of reference to check for the don't tell Barton tag. There doesn't seem to be one.
"We're trying to stop technologies - or people - that could put the world into another situation where the Avengers would be needed. It's essentially a game of whack-a-mole, with higher stakes and better mallets."
"Sounds like fun. You need an archer?" Clint can't quite keep the longing out of his voice. "Not that I'm bored, exactly, but fact is, the Council still doesn't trust me. And after that shit with Loki, who can blame them?"
He's looking for a reaction from Coulson, but it's not happening. The man has a faraway, distracted look in his eyes - unusual for someone normally so sharp. The look could mean anything or nothing, and so Clint decides just to put it on the table, that thing he's been wanting to ask ever since he learned that Coulson had come out of his coma. (It's been a long few months.)
"Would you? Trust me, I mean?"
Clint peers at Coulson over the rim of his beer glass, to gauge his reaction. It's out now and can't be taken back, not that he'd want to. It actually feels good just having asked the question.
Coulson, of course, is not stupid and will know what he's really being asked. But his answer, for all that, takes Clint by surprise.
"Trust you? Absolutely. Why wouldn't I? Certainly more than I trust myself."
For a moment Clint wonders whether that's supposed to be a compliment of some sort, but Coulson isn't one to say stuff without every word meaning something. So it doesn't take Clint very long to figure out that this whole thing - Coulson asking to meet, after months of silence, that awkward two-steps-forward-one-step-back dance they've been doing since they sat down – none of that is about Clint Barton.
It's about Phil Coulson.
And that last comment, well, that's basically an open door for Clint to barge right through. Coulson may as well have issued an embossed invitation.
"Let me guess. You found out about Tahiti, then?" (Oh, and fuck you, Nick Fury, and the secrets you feed on.)
Coulson's eyes narrow almost imperceptibly and his voice drops a couple of degrees in temperature. Maybe he wasn't quite ready for the guests to show up yet.
Clint doesn't flinch. He's here now.
"Yep. Also been told not to tell you. Not like I had an opportunity to lie to you about it though, is it."
He watches Coulson take that in. It's not as if he'd made any move to seek Clint out since his resurrection; he seemed to have been happy enough to disappear into one of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s bombproof stovepipes.
Finally, Coulson nods; they're good again.
"Fair enough. So what exactly do you know? What did they tell you?"
"That your recovery was pretty traumatic. Fury said they gave you memories of a pleasant beach holiday to help you get over it."
"The man himself. Implied that we shouldn't mention it to you, because it would go against the whole point of the exercise, that you'd get traumatized right back."
"So why mention it to me now?" Coulson is back to his usual bland inquisitiveness, which Clint is pretty sure right now is an act.
"You kind of brought it up, that whole trusting yourself thing? Wild guess, you want to talk about it. Whatever it is."
Coulson does that lip-pinching thing again. Maybe he's forgotten that Clint, even though he's mostly a shooter, has had some spy training? For a guy who's been called out, he recovers quickly though.
"Yes and no, I guess." He leans forward now, trying not to look eager. "What else do you know?"
Clint's antennae start to buzz.
"What else is there to know?"
Coulson slumps back.
"That's Level Ten," he says flatly, but this time Clint isn't buying.
"Bullshit. You have a right to know stuff about your own life, and to talk about it if you feel like it. And you obviously do. Your life is your secret to keep, not anyone else's. So if you want to talk, talk."
Coulson's brief smile almost reaches his eyes. "You and Skye would most definitely hit it off."
Clint doesn't allow himself to be distracted.
"It's why you called me, isn't it? So what else is there to know?"
"Based on what I've pieced together, somebody has found a way to bring people back from the dead. Why or how, or how they decide whom to revive, I don't know. Well, we found some of the how, but only a part."
"And the reason all this is so bloody secret is what, exactly? Fear of over-population?" The quasi-joke sounds lame even to Clint, and he's grateful that Coulson ignores it.
"Alien … technology." Coulson falters a little, like his mind is stumbling over something.
That doesn't seem like such a big deal to Clint; half of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s manpower seems geared towards recovering and analyzing shit the Chitauri left behind. Can't have been what got Coulson so upset, especially given what his team does.
"And they don't exactly ask those they work on whether they want to be part of the process."
Clint is tempted to mention that maybe that's because the people being worked on are, well, dead, but he senses that they're getting closer, and that this isn't the time for smartass remarks. Sure enough, Coulson continues, staring into his beer as he does.
"Once it got started, and I woke up, the procedure was … extremely unpleasant. I remember asking them to let me die. Begging them. Many times. But they didn't. And it …" he falters a little and stares into his beer. "It was pretty awful. I assume that's the memory they tried to erase with Tahiti."
Clint's mouth goes a little dry. He's not really the kind of guy people tend to share intimate confessions with - and this? This one's a doozy. So there has to be a point. There's always a point with Coulson.
May as well get to it.
"So why are you telling me this, Phil?"
"You've been there. You know what it's like."
It. It? Right. It.
"I didn't die." Although I sometimes wished I had.
Not the most useful answer he could give, either. But dammit … Coulson frowns at him – his polite way of calling bullshit.
"But you know what it's like to have someone else inside your head, and make your decisions for you."
Oh yes, Clint does. Don't do that to yourself, Clint - that was Loki. As if that explained everything. You had no choice, Agent Barton.
"It pretty much sucked."
Coulson actually manages one of his small smiles.
"That's an understatement."
For a moment, there's silence, interrupted by the waitress who must be wondering how long two grown men can make a single glass of beer last. It's getting chilly, and so Clint asks for the coffee he'd wanted in the first place; Coulson, to his surprise, goes for a Scotch. The waitress disappears to fill their orders, and Coulson looks at Clint in anticipation.
He obviously wants more.
Clint chews his lips. There's stuff he hasn't been too forthcoming with for the S.H.I.E.L.D. shrinks, and that he's only told Natasha (who needed to know). Then again, there's all the weeks and months he'd been beating himself up over Coulson's death-that-wasn't, and this is probably as a good a way as any to get rid of some of the red in that particular ledger.
"Of the two of us, it sounds like you had the shittier deal. During the control part, I mean. Loki made me want what he wanted. I didn't fight. Didn't ask to be let go. I just … did."
"But you had an alien entity inside your head."
"I had a megalomaniac asshole in my head. His brother's okay, alien or no."
Coulson waves him off. Funny that – normally he's the detail guy. Now that he's started on this line of questions, he seems keen to get to the end.
"So how did you get over it?"
"You mean, over Loki?"
Coulson shakes his head, almost as if he thinks Clint is being deliberately dense. (Maybe he is.)
"Not having … a choice. Being controlled. Having your will taken away. I guess in my case they tried to paper it over with false memories, and that has now failed. How did you get past it?"
You had no choice, Agent Barton. That's what everyone's been telling him. You had no choice. An excuse, a benediction, a pat on the head.
Well, fuck that. Wish it were that easy.
A different voice comes into Clint's mind, unbidden - a shard of a memory, something he'd once overheard, perhaps? The horrors - they are a part of you, and they will never go away ... Whoever said that sure knew a thing or two about what's true, more than any shrink ever could.
Clint grinds his teeth. This is getting pretty personal. He looks up at the sky, but there's no answer in the clouds, and he fucking owes Phil.
"Truth? I haven't. Gotten past it, I mean. I'm responsible for the deaths of some good people." Including yours. "You don't forget that, and you sure as hell don't get over it. No matter what Psych says."
"But you're okay. You're functioning. Compared to what I hear of Dr. Selvig."
"Selvig's an untrained civilian."
Clint doesn't quite manage to keep the sympathetic contempt out of his snort.
"Plus, I got to kill things right after. A lot of things. Knocked Loki off his sled, and thanks to JARVIS, I got to watch what Banner … the Hulk did to him. I'm a shallow guy, so I guess that was pretty cathartic. I'll send you the video, if you like."
He pauses, but only briefly.
"But truth is, I still have nightmares. They're getting fewer, but they're still there. Ultimately, you gotta take each moment as it comes. And deal."
Maybe that wasn't the most coherent of speeches, and it seems like Coulson was hoping for more, but that's all Clint has got for now.
He searches the other man's face to gauge his reaction, sees nothing but disappointment. What did he expect – a magic bullet? The Clint Barton version of Tahiti, Mach Seven? Maybe it's time for a question.
"So. Tell me, Phil. Do you regret being alive?"
Coulson looks at him, puzzled by what may sound a bit like a change in topic.
"The choice they took from you. That was to die, right? You wanted to die. And now you're alive. So tell me. Would you take that back?"
That question doesn't seem to have occurred to Phil, and he frowns for a while in silence – maybe he's running through some of the things he's done since he woke up. Clint hopes, for Phil's sake, that the ledger comes out positive, but given what the man has said about his new team, it's almost bound to.
"No," he says finally. "I wouldn't. There are things to be done."
Clint leans back in his chair and suppresses a grin as he takes the cup from the waitress, who has appeared out of nowhere. Steve really should make a move; she seems sweet and decent, just what the good Captain needs.
"See?" he says. "There you are, then."
Coulson actually looks a little bit pissed off, like he's been dismissed or something, and so Clint explains.
"You got screwed over. No argument here. That whole Tahiti thing? Pretty good indication that someone wasn't playing entirely for the home team, when they did what they did. But you came out the other end, and that has to count for something."
Phil doesn't look like he's ready to buy it, but he came here for a spot of Hawkeye wisdom, such as it is, and that's what he's getting. Take it or leave it, especially now that Clint thinks he's figured it out.
"Like Natasha said, we're dealing with magic and monsters here, nothing we've been trained for. Whoever they are, Fury or whoever else – they shouldn't expect you to be grateful for what they did to you, even if you're okay with being alive now. So kick 'em in the balls when you get the chance. And in the meantime, you better keep doing what you've been doing. Because this stuff?"
He gestures vaguely towards the darkening sky.
"It's not going away."
Coulson seems to have determined something, because he suddenly nods and lifts his Scotch vaguely in Clint's direction. Here's a small smile starting to bloom in the corner of his eyes.
"I assume you're right about that, Clint. None of this will ever go away. But then, I guess, neither are we."
Phil takes a deep breath.
"Thanks for that. I needed a bit of a different perspective. You see, it's not just me. I'll need to have this conversation again at some point. With members of my team."
Ah. Of course. All coming clear now. Coulson isn't the sort that would have this kind of talk - about seriously personal shit - just about himself, closed book that he is. Or would he? Well, it doesn't really matter, does it. Because it really was useful, for Clint, too.
Clint sips his coffee, mentally following the caffeine as it courses through his veins. Nat always makes fun of him when he says that, but if you don't have any super serum to rely on, you have to take what you can get.
They're sitting in silence when the first raindrops hit. Clint cocks an eyebrow at Coulson, but neither makes the obvious suggestion to take things inside. Maybe they're done, anyway.
"Looks like that storm's here," Clint says.
Coulson lifts his eyes to the grey and heavy Manhattan sky, to that spot above Stark Tower, from which not so very long ago an alien army poured forth in the name of the God of Lies.
"Could be worse," he shrugs dismissively, even as the drops start to splatter on the formica table top.
Clint follows his former handler's gaze, squinting a little to keep the water out of his eyes.
"Yep," he says, "it sure could."
He breaks into a small, slow grin.
"Could be snowing."