A/N: This was written for the 2013 Marvel Big Bang Challenge. There is accompanying art if you go to this story on AO3 (my name is Westgate over there).
Thanks to dysprositos for beta wonders, and there really aren't any warnings, except background (read: hardly there) Clint/Coulson pairing. This is a story about Clint and Nick.
Clint Barton knew about assholes. He'd had plenty in his life and was pretty adept at being one himself. He'd been running into way too many assholes lately, though, he thought to himself as he ducked down a cobblestone alleyway in York, England with a bullet graze in his left arm. He figured if York, England wasn't asshole-free then he was pretty well screwed at this point.
He was in trouble, and he thought hiding in a small, touristy town in northern England would be a good idea. He hadn't been to England in months and had taken the long way there from his last job in southern Spain. He thought he had gotten away, but constant vigilance since he messed up his last job had made him tired and sloppy, judging from the graze in his arm. Now he ducked down another alley and pulled up the map of the city from memory and began weaving his way toward the train station.
An hour later, he was tucked into a luggage car heading for London. Perfect. He managed to stay awake for the few hours it took to get there, not wanting to stop until he could find a bolt-hole for the night in the bigger city. He climbed down from the roof of the train car when he saw that no one was around, but as he was ducking around the corner to the staircase of the station, he ran smack into a tall black man in a long, black leather coat.
Clint scrambled away, muttering an apology, and noticed the guy had an eye patch, too. He shook his head as he walked quickly up the stairs to exit the station at the odd feeling the guy gave him.
A few blocks later, Clint realized he was being followed. He was pissed. He was tired and just wanted to get as much distance from his last bosses as he could, knowing that refusing the last hit would put the word on the street that Clint was done. A used asset to be disposed of.
That's what he got for refusing a job. He ought to know better, too. He'd done it once before and had received the second worst beating of his life for it, taking months to recover only to be dragged in front of his boss and reminded that they did not give second chances and if he messed it up again he was done. He was okay with that until two weeks ago, when he got assigned a diplomat in Spain who was clearly a good person with a family. Clint tried not to get involved with his targets, but the basic information packet had been enough to convince him that this hit was bad news. He was really tired of the organization anyway, and decided to run.
It was turning out to be a bad decision, he thought as he saw the brush of a coat when he spun around to try and get a look at the guy following him. He made his way to the roof of a building. He watched the street carefully as he made his way across the rooftops, noticing the guy tailing him lose him after just a few blocks. With relief, Clint made his way to a small pub on the south side of the river and ducked inside. He could count on the crowd to keep him safe long enough to get some water and figure out what to do next.
After a few minutes, a pint of water, and a glare from the barkeeper who was annoyed at the lack of a purchase, Clint ducked out the back door of the pub. This time there were two guys waiting for him, and Clint kicked himself for thinking he was free of the tail. The taller of the two guys, a blond who looked like he wrestled for a living, drew a gun with a silencer on the end. The shorter guy, a red head who was smaller but lithe, pulled a knife, and Clint decided not to take any chances.
He threw himself into a roll and barreled into the guy with the gun, bringing him to his knees in surprise, and he grabbed for the wrist, realizing that he was quicker than this big guy. He snapped the gun out of his hand and heard it clatter to the ground as he flipped the guy into a nearby dumpster with a clang. He turned right into the guy with a knife, though, and felt the blade slide into his side. Ignoring the pain that was coming, he wrestled the guy into a head hold and cringed a bit when he heard the snap of the guy's neck.
He didn't waste any time trying to get any weapons; he just ran. The pain from the knife wound kicked in hard a block later, and Clint stumbled, breathing hard, into a cab as soon as he could. "Gatwick Airport. Fast," he said through gritted teeth, and he shoved a handful of pound notes at the cabbie, who took them gratefully and nodded.
Clint didn't really want to bleed all over the guy's cab, so he stripped off his jacket and folded it up, holding it to his side. He was bleeding pretty badly and needed to get this thing looked at, but he knew he had to get out of the country. He had a locker at Gatwick; it was one of his safe spots where he kept fake ids and cash. He'd just hope the wound was superficial for the moment. When he climbed out of the cab at Gatwick, though, his night seemed to get even worse. Waiting for him at his locker was the guy with the eye patch, and when Clint caught sight of him he turned and ran again.
This was getting old.
Outside the airport on the street, he leaned against a wall, lightheaded and woozy from blood loss, and pissed off. He was almost out. The guy with the eye patch practically sauntered up to Clint, leaned on the wall next to him, and said, nodding at Clint's side, "Let me take you somewhere to take care of that before you kill yourself running."
Clint looked up at the man and sucked in a shaky breath, "Yeah? And then what? You throw me in jail or send me back to Spain? No thanks, asshole." And he tried to push himself off of the wall, but catching himself afterwards proved impossible, and he felt his knees give out.
The guy reached out and pulled Clint to his feet and led him to a black car waiting at the curb. "I'm the asshole offering you a job instead of throwing you in jail, actually." He pushed Clint gently into the car and Clint fell into the back seat, where another guy, a young man in an impeccable suit, shifted over to make room.
"He looks skinny. And like a kid," the young guy said as Fury climbed in behind Clint. Clint wanted to protest but he didn't have any energy left at all, and he felt his eyes slide shut as Fury replied, "He's been running for two weeks and he hasn't been a kid for a very long time, Coulson. Trust me."
"Barton, Greenberg, stand down!" Agent Hill shouted. Clint complied faster, and had a split-second of satisfaction at that until Greenberg caught him across the chin one more time. He staggered a step, but he restrained himself and just backed against the hallway wall, crossing his arms with a scowl. He had been in enough trouble these first three weeks and knew he shouldn't invite more.
Still, he glared at Greenberg, a fellow trainee who had several inches and a few pounds on Clint and wouldn't stop pestering him after each class.
Clint didn't have a standard education and found himself asking questions about things the other recruits just knew, but he was acing every test and knew he had to fill in his gaps if he was going to make it here. So he decked Greenberg after the jerk snickered about Dick and Jane books on the way out of class that afternoon. He'd tried ignoring it, but it was the third day in a row for the tiresome jokes.
Agent Hill intimidated Clint a little bit; he'd watched her sparring a couple times, and she'd kicked everyone's ass with ease, and she seemed sharp as hell on top of that, so Clint knew he should probably stay on her good side. He stayed against the wall and watched her carefully as she approached.
"Greenberg, report to Agent Rose immediately. Barton, with me," she snapped, and Greenberg just spun on his heel and left as Clint followed her down the hall. After a couple of minutes he groaned. She was taking him to Fury.
He'd been recruited by the man, but that consisted of a visit once he'd come down from the painkillers from the knife wound, and the visit was short and to the point.
"You wanna be a good guy instead of a bad guy?" Fury had asked.
"I'm not always a bad guy," Clint replied.
"You could be better here."
"You guys here are always good guys?" Clint asked.
"When we can't be, we try to pull out."
"I like being on my own. Never been much for big groups." Clint tried to resist, but his heart wasn't really in it.
"We'll train you so the biggest team you'll have to work with is about four most of the time. And we have good health care."
"Yeah, okay. I'm in." Clint didn't have much to lose by joining up, he didn't have any grand life plans that it was interfering with, and if these guys turned out to be assholes then he'd disappear. He would always be good at that.
Looking back on it as he headed to Fury's office sporting a black eye, swelling jaw, and sore fist, he probably should've asked a few more questions. But he was enjoying the training classes when he didn't feel stupid or have to deal with idiots like Greenberg, and if Fury was right about team size, well, he'd make it work. He could work with four people if they were smart.
He took a deep breath as he followed Hill into Fury's office and stood as she left.
Fury was sitting at his desk working on paperwork, and he looked up at Clint passively and just stared for a minute. Clint refused to squirm and held his ground. With a sigh, Fury said, "Barton, you kind of suck at people, don't you?"
Clint refused to flinch despite his surprise at the assertion. It wasn't the reprimand he expected (and didn't contain the words 'you're fired' the way he thought it might). He just shrugged and replied, "To be fair, sir, they kind of suck at me."
Fury raised his eyebrow, shuffled a paper out from a file and stared at it. "Three fistfights in three weeks. That's a record."
"I guess I'm not used to dealing with these types of people, sir. I swing when I'm mad," he tried to explain, unsure if any of it would matter and wondering how long it would take him to get overseas if Fury fired him. He liked London; maybe he'd try and make London work.
Fury nodded. "What types of people would that be?"
Clint bit his lip. "Um, educated assholes?" he replied tentatively.
Fury actually chuckled. "That's a new description for our other recruits, I'll give you that. You're getting in fights because of their education levels?"
Clint nodded. "Yes, sir. Well," he clarified, crossing his arms maybe a little too tight to his chest, "I'm getting in fights because they keep feeling the need to show off their education levels and trying to shit on mine. I ask questions, you know. I figure if you want me to be an agent, then you probably want to make sure I actually know what 'destabilization of a region' means, right? My fifth grade teachers didn't bother to inform me of this stuff, sir. If I wait 'till the end of the class to ask then I miss the rest of the point." Clint stopped with a sigh and then added, "Greenberg offered me a Dick and Jane book today. I didn't see the need for a discussion."
Fury just stared for a moment, so Clint shrugged and added, "Educated asshole. It's okay that he knows more than me, but he doesn't have to be a dick about it."
Fury nodded. "Okay. You're gaining a reputation, though. Folks aren't going to want to work with you."
"I'm a sniper, sir. They don't need to discuss Dickens with me; they just need to trust me to cover their asses."
"You have a point, but do you think you could manage to avoid hitting anyone for a couple of weeks?" Fury asked. "Complete the training regimen and we'll have you out in the field as soon as we can."
"Yes, sir. I'll try. Thanks for not firing me."
"Not today, Barton. Standard punishment for fighting on base applies, though," he replied with an intimidating smile.
Clint sighed. "Yes, sir. I think they were threatening a sleep-deprivation test last time."
"Serves you right. Stay awake thinking of alternate scenarios to fighting in response to morons."
Clint let a grin escape as he nodded and turned to leave the office. Recruits who got in trouble had to 'volunteer' for R&Ds experiments that needed people. Clint had done one food research test and found that living on their homemade MREs actually wasn't too bad, and had done one round of truth serum testing and that had sucked, although they didn't ask much beyond his teenage sexual experiences, which were varied enough that he figured he at least entertained the questioner for a good hour. It made him vomit for twelve hours after, though. Sleep deprivation sounded like somewhere in between.
"Agent Barton, you didn't take the shot when ordered, according to your handler. He says, and I quote, 'Agent Barton disobeyed two direct kill shot orders and changed position without permission, causing a delay to the mission and left one other agent without proper backup.' Would you care to explain?" Fury asked, leaning back in his chair and squinting at Clint.
Clint sighed and shrugged. He hated working with idiots. Fury was very much not an idiot, and Clint respected him, but he hardly ever worked in the field with Clint, and everyone Fury assigned to Clint refused to listen to him. They saw a young kid, even though Clint was thirty (he was usually secretly grateful for his youthful appearance), who used a strange weapon and didn't have a high school education. He'd only been working as a field agent for two months since his training was completed, and it was turning out to be a disaster.
He hated SHIELD. He'd been here four months, going through a two month training program that was supposed to be longer, but Clint found that he came in with a very different skill set than the trainers were used to, so he was promoted early. He didn't have any idea how to make friends, the early promotion didn't help, and now as he stood in the Director's office he was floundering and seriously considering making a break for it.
Instead, he crossed his arms defiantly. "The kill shots were given prematurely based on the angles and weather conditions, and changing position didn't leave Agent Tannen without any backup, and when I got into place he had better backup than before." He paused and added, "I made the shot and no one got hurt." If there was one thing he hated most after two months of working for a government agency, it was the protocols. Getting the job done was all he had to worry when he was working on his own. He'd never heard the word 'protocol' until he sat down in a strategy class for SHIELD. He thought it was pretty synonymous with 'bullshit,' if you asked him.
Director Fury looked down at his paperwork again and then looked back up at Clint. Clint was always amazed at how natural Fury's appearance seemed, like he was born with that eye patch and scarring. Fury was the only person Clint had run across at SHIELD that commanded any sort of respect in him. Sure, there were nice people and smart people he'd worked with, but none that were smart enough or tough enough to command Clint's respect. He worked with them out of his respect for Fury. Except like now, when they were morons. Then fuck them.
"Agent Barton. This makes your third disciplinary report in two months. People are starting to talk like you don't fit in here, like you don't belong. How do you respond to that?" Fury's voice was even, forceful, and clear. What it really wasn't, though, was accusatory. He was just stating facts.
Clint shrugged and decided to throw himself into the nearby chair, even though he'd never actually sat down in Fury's office before. He unzipped his field jacket he was wearing and rubbed his hands on his cargo pants before looking back up at the Director, who seemed unbothered by Clint parking himself. He met his eye, though, and leaned forward. "Look, sir. Do you need me to fit in here? To belong? I mean, I haven't really been part of a team since I left the circus, and even there I had to be pretty fucking mercenary. I know I have to work with people here, but damn it. They keep fucking up their judgments about what I need and where I need to be to do the job. How is that my fault? I'd be smooth as silk to work with if anyone read the situations right. If I ever 'belong' here, well, I don't really give a shit about that, sorry. I just want to do the job."
"Why?" Fury asked pointedly, and it caught Clint off guard.
"Why do you want to do the job? I recruited you out of a black market ring of entrepreneurs, and you'd never been part of a formal organization in your life. Why do you want to do this?"
Clint thought for a minute. Fury had never really asked him why he said yes to his offer months ago. He'd made the offer, laid things out clearly in terms of Clint's options, and walked away. He'd kept his eye on Clint throughout his training, calling him in to discuss classes and then ops, and it always seemed like he'd respected Clint's opinion. That might have something to do with it. "It seems like you trust me to do it, sir," he answered finally. "And you're asking me to do better things with my weapons than anyone on the street ever did. Why would I want to kill random people for money when I could be helping take down terrorists and maniacs I used to work for?" Clint shrugged again. "This seems like a better option."
"So you want to keep working for us, but you think everyone else is fucking up their jobs?" Fury replied carefully.
When he heard it put like that, Clint cringed a little. "Making me seem pretty arrogant there, sir," he said sheepishly. Fury nodded. After a beat Clint said, "I need more control, sir. I need them to trust me to know where I need to be. I'll scout out locations and defend them with your god damned paperwork if you need me to, but I need to be able to make changes. No one around here seems to recognize that, so I come off as the asshole who can't follow orders. Have I fucked up a mission yet?"
Fury shook his head. "No, you haven't, which is why you're not back out on the streets. Okay. I've got someone in mind to work with you. He'll listen. You guys can work out how much paperwork is involved – be warned that he's an ace at paperwork – but he'll listen. Stay here," he added as he lifted his phone to make a call. "Coulson. My office now. Barton's waiting."
"Are you reading a car manual, sir?" Clint asked, although he wasn't sure if Fury heard him since it hurt to breathe and it felt like there was a cinder block sitting on his chest; his voice felt weak in his own ears. He really wanted to make sure he wasn't hallucinating, though. He figured since he couldn't really remember how he got to Medical and it was Fury sitting in his chair, he might well be dreaming.
"It was that or baseball statistics, and I fucking hate baseball. Doctors said a voice in your ear might help wake you. About damned time, too, Agent. Jesus," Fury said, closing the car magazine and stretching in his chair.
Clint was confused. He liked Fury all right, but didn't think either one of them thought of each other enough to merit a bedside vigil. His confusion must have registered on his face because Fury sighed and pulled his cell phone out of his pocket, typing a message to someone.
"I had to send Coulson and a few others on a mission right away – residual from the mess you guys found– and he made me promise to stay with you until you came around," Fury said, typing.
Clint started to ask how long he'd been out, but after he tried to take a breath to talk, pain shot through his chest and he felt his throat close as he felt a wave of panic wash all the way down to his fingertips. As the monitors started beeping frantically, doctors swept into the room and Clint's vision started to grey out as he fought to breathe, and, from what he could tell, failed miserably. He could've sworn he heard Fury's voice in his ear, saying, "Damn it, Barton. Don't do this to us." But he couldn't breathe, and his chest felt like it was burning to ashes, and then everything was dark.
"Grady Sizemore hit .289 and had 81 RBIs and 22 homeruns. Coco Crisp – what the fuck. Is that a real name? Stupid game. Coco Fucking Crisp hit .300 with 69 RBIs and 16 homeruns. He'd have done better if he had a real name," Fury read as Clint's eyes adjusted to the light of the room and he felt a breathing mask on his face.
He tried to breathe deeper and Fury looked up, relief flickering in his eye, and he put down the magazine in his hands, a glossy collector's edition from the Cleveland Indians. Clint lifted his arm to take his mask off, but he was weak and couldn't even raise it. He let his eyes drift closed again and took stock of himself. Weak as a kitten, apparently, and incapable of breathing with just the normal oxygen line. The weight on his chest felt a little lighter than before, though, and the actual breathing bit didn't hurt. He still didn't remember what had landed him there, though, or why Coulson wasn't the one sitting with him.
He opened his eyes again, and Fury was standing this time, hands gripping Clint's bedrail.
"Can you stay with me for more than a minute this time, Barton?" he asked, his voice flecked with the compassion Clint remembered from when they'd first met. It sounded almost gentle.
Clint nodded and looked over at the magazine lying on the chair, and Fury grinned.
"Baseball. I hate baseball, but figured it might annoy you enough to wake up again. It worked." Fury drew in a deep breath and said, "God damn, it. Actually thought we were losing you last time, Agent. Coulson is en route at the moment and he's gonna be glad to see you awake. You'd better not pull something like that again on my watch," he said, running his hand down his face. "I'd rather not die by Phil Coulson's hand."
Clint raised his eyebrow in a wordless question. It was odd having Fury fuss over him; nice, but odd, and Clint wanted to know what was going on. Fury read him easily.
"You two were in Sao Paulo," he started, and everything came back to Clint in a wave, washing over him so fast that he sucked in a couple of quick breaths, causing the monitors to start up again. This time, though, he closed his eyes and felt Fury's hand on his shoulder in support and he slowed himself down on his own, hearing the monitors go back to normal.
"Easy," Fury said quietly, "Everything's under control, okay?"
Clint nodded and opened his eyes, biting his chapped lower lip and feeling his fist clench weakly. He tried to hold Fury's gaze, but his eyes slipped away, afraid of an accusation that might be coming.
He remembered a warehouse, too many men, Coulson in the wrong spot thanks to shitty intel, and exposed. Shooting to protect Coulson would blow their cover and put Clint at the center of attention with HYDRA weapons present - an unwinnable situation.
He shot to protect, blew the whole op out of the water, and the last thing he remembered was a silvery light ripping into his chest as if his Kevlar was tissue paper, knocking him from his spot in the rafters. He didn't even remember landing.
"Agent," Fury said, his voice hardening and pulling Clint's eyes back to his boss. "You did the right thing, and I appreciate it more than I can say. The fallout's been taken care of, okay? Coulson is on his way back here. He's fine." He paused and shrugged, adding, "Well, the last time I was able to talk to him you were flat lining thanks to a lung and trachea collapse, so I imagine he's a little on edge, but he'll be okay."
Clint nodded and closed his eyes, oddly pleased that Fury had stayed, and assured by Fury's hand on his shoulder, steady, pressing. Clint fell asleep again.
The next time he woke, he saw Coulson and Fury sitting close, file folders on Coulson's lap and a report in Fury's hands. Clint watched them for a minute, noting the tired lines on Coulson's face, his suit jacket and tie thrown over the chair behind him and his white shirt rumpled, the cups of coffee sitting at each man's feet, and Fury in a different shirt than the last time Clint had seen him. He wondered when these two men had become the only people in Clint's universe that he trusted – in different ways, sure, but he trusted them. That hadn't happened to Clint in a long, long time.
They realized Clint was awake at the same time, both glancing over at him, a weary smile in Coulson's eyes.
Clint wasn't wearing a mask anymore, so he tried out his voice. "No baseball statistics, this time?" he said, still quieter than usual, and hoarse. Must have something to do with a collapsed trachea.
Coulson stood and moved close, his hand on Clint's arm. It felt good, safe.
Fury chuckled. "No, but we were going to start reading mission reports if you didn't wake up soon."
Clint found the energy to grin this time around, and said, "Can you keep him from pestering me about the paperwork for this mess for a few days, sir?"
"I make no promises," Fury replied, gathering up his coffee from the floor and stepping toward the door to Clint's room.
Clint was glad to have Coulson there, comfortable, familiar, and easy, but he called out to Fury as he left. "Sir," and Fury turned, hand on the door next to him. "Thanks for staying with me," Clint said, and the gratefulness in his scratchy voice was genuine, clear, and even surprising to himself.
Fury nodded and smiled just as genuinely. "Thanks for staying with us," he replied, and left the room.
"You have got to be shitting me," Clint mumbled into his glass as he watched Fury and Coulson enter the bar and take all of three point five seconds to spot Clint sitting in the corner. The grin that spread across Fury's face reminded Clint way too much of the Cheshire cat and made him take another swallow of his beer.
Coulson headed for the bar as Fury came and slid into the booth next to Clint.
"Fancy seeing you here, Agent," Fury said, shrugging his coat off to reveal a classy grey button down shirt with the collar undone, tucked into casual black pants.
"Sir," Clint said, pushing the bowl of peanuts over to his boss.
"This place is a little out of the way, isn't it?" Fury asked, taking a handful of nuts.
"Not out of the way enough, apparently," Clint said, flushing red as the words escaped his mouth unfiltered.
Fury just laughed and nodded. "Apparently not. How'd you find it?"
Clint shrugged. "I didn't want junior agents around, and this place has pool tables but a clean floor. That's a good combination."
Coulson came back with an armful of drinks, including another beer for Clint, "They have a cover band on Thursday nights, too, did you know about that?" he asked, passing Clint his beer and handing Fury a drink with an umbrella in it. Clint held his tongue with great effort.
"What do they cover?" Clint asked, passing Coulson the peanuts.
"Eighties garbage, mostly, but they're pretty good musicians."
"How can you tell that if they're playing eighties music?" Clint asked with a grin.
Coulson laughed outright, and Clint almost dropped his beer at the effect that laugh had on him. He'd never heard him laugh outright. Chuckle at something Clint said in his office or over the line, sure, but outright laugh? Never.
He made it his goal for the evening to hear it again.
The men spent a few minutes degrading eighties music, and as the band began to set up, Clint asked, "You guys come here a lot?"
Coulson shook his head. "The number of times a month the both of can manage a night off together is pretty low, so no. We try and make cover night when we can, though. We've been finding cover nights in various towns for, what, fifteen years?"
"Closer to twenty, probably," Fury replied.
"Wait, wait. You two know each other from before SHIELD?" Clint asked a little too loudly, even with the din of the bar pretty high. He was working on his third pint, though, and he hadn't had a drop of alcohol in months thanks to continuous ops.
"Army together," Coulson said with a grin. "And he used to be in a band in between deployments, so he was actually playing when I first started hanging out with him."
"You were my groupie," Fury said, a fondness in his voice.
"He still is," Clint added, and there it was, Coulson's laugh again, sending little tremors down Clint's spine. Shit.
"You probably had groupies in the circus, right?" Coulson asked after he stopped laughing.
Clint shrugged, ducking his head in embarrassment. He was aware that Coulson would know his circus story, but actually hearing it out loud made him cringe a little. Times like this he wished for a more conventional upbringing. Shooting the shit with people he actually cared about wasn't something he was used to. He could charm an asshole pretty easily, but these guys weren't assholes, which was entirely new and a little disarming. "Maybe a few here and there, but I was a punk kid and ate it up. Besides we didn't really stay long enough to earn real groupies."
Fury told a story about crushing on some acrobat then, and Coulson explained a short term boyfriend who was a professional musician and Clint joked about making out in the rigging of the big top after a show and suddenly he was seeing both men as people, and it felt good. He couldn't help but hang on every word Coulson said, alcohol and an admiration that had been building in the months since he'd been assigned to work with Coulson mixing in a weird way.
They played a few rounds of pool and listened to the band, sharing nachos and each taking a turn buying rounds, and Clint found himself having the best night out he could ever remember.
Two weeks later, he was cleaning his bow on the range when Coulson stuck his head around the corner and said, "Bad eighties music again tonight? We're all free," and Clint grinned and nodded, trying not to be too enthusiastic.
It became a fairly regular thing, as regular as they could make it, and on their fifth or sixth night out together, Fury had one drink and stood up. "I'm bowing out tonight, leaving you two idiots to enjoy your R.E.O Speedwagon covers on your own."
Coulson looked confused and Clint just nodded. "Got a big date tonight?" he asked with a chuckle. Fury just raised an eyebrow and said "Someone does, but I'm just heading back to base early. I have to meet with the WSC next week and have some serious prep to do. You boys enjoy yourself," and he practically glared at Coulson, who flushed a little and took a swig of his beer as Fury swept out of the place.
About an hour later, Fury's words hit Clint with an almost audible smack. "Wait, who has a date tonight?" he asked Coulson, who did that laughing thing that had recently become the content of Clint's embarrassing wet dreams.
"We do," he said easily, and leaned across the table, brushing his lips against Clint's.
"Your middle name's Joseph?" Clint asked, stretching his legs out in front of him on the coffee table as he leaned his head back on the couch and held the ice pack to his temple. His head was pounding and he wanted to sleep, but Fury had handed him a compress as he stumbled through the front door and told him to sit his ass down on the couch.
From the kitchen, Fury answered, "Sure you want to go there, Francis?"
Clint laughed, and pain shot through his head, making him wince. He tried not to be too obvious.
Fury appeared at his elbow and handed him a glass of ice water and a couple of Tylenol. "You just took out the two top members of a terrorist cell that's on the verge of acquiring Hydra technology and you're asking about my middle name?"
"No," Clint said, swallowing down the pills and closing his eyes. "I was just thinking that a badass like you should have a badass middle name, like, um, Hades." He paused, opened his eyes, and added, "But cooler." Fury chuckled and Clint felt victorious. He must have been woozy because he said, "Made you laugh."
"Go to sleep, Barton. You got smacked on the head, so you only get a couple hours before I kick you in the shins to check on you."
"Really. Joseph?" Clint said as he felt Fury pull him up off the couch a couple hours later. "How about Onyx? Too weird?" He didn't know why he was pushing the middle name thing, other than no one joked with Fury except Clint and Phil, and Clint liked doing it a lot.
"Are you perseverating, Barton? Or are you just being an asshole?" Fury asked as he sat down on the coffee table in front of Clint. "Let me see your eyes," he added as he lifted a finger for Clint to track.
Clint followed it easily, and said, "Just an asshole, probably." After a beat he said, "Joseph."
Fury ignored him and pulled a burner phone out of his pocket and dialed a number. Clint grinned as he heard him say, "He's okay, Cheese. Usual self. We'll be home tomorrow so you can get him the fuck out of my hair."
Clint stood shoulder to shoulder with Coulson, almost touching, as if that could protect them both from the force of Fury's anger.
"They want me to fire you," he growled at Coulson, and then he pointed at Clint and said, "They want me to kill you."
That seemed a little harsh, but after the flight back from Minsk and the security team that immediately flanked Clint and Phil when they climbed wearily off the plane, escorting them to the two chairs outside of Fury's office and making them sit there for hours, Clint was sure Fury wasn't exaggerating.
"You had kill orders. Very clear kill orders. Agents do not disobey kill orders, damn it. You can change the parameters, make adjustments, but you do not disobey kill orders. She's dangerous, more dangerous than you could possibly know, yet you offered her asylum and you," he said, pointing at Coulson, "you know all of this and still let it happen." He paused and took a breath through clenched teeth. "What the hell were you thinking?"
Coulson straightened his shoulders to reply, but Fury stood, waving him off. "You weren't thinking. You were trusting an asset that you're close to and you let –"
Clint wasn't going to stand for where this was headed. He shook his head vehemently and cut Fury off. "No." he said, his voice hard and loud. "You don't get to go there. Sir." Coulson and Fury both looked at him, startled. "You don't," Clint said, shrugging. "This is all on me, and has nothing to do with my relationship with Agent Coulson, and fuck you for starting to suggest that it does." He paused and added, "With all due respect, sir."
Fury stood silent for a minute, and crossed his arms. "Then do explain, Agent, how this is 'all on you' and why I'm having to decide between killing the Black Widow like both of you were ordered to do and dealing with you as if you're a criminal again or standing up to the WSC like no one has done before."
Clint nodded. "Yes, sir. Look, I was in that game for a long time before you found me and brought me in. I was one of the best and got paid to kill whoever I was told to kill. I didn't like it, which is why I said yes to you when you made your offer. I know what it's like to spend a hell of a long time doing something you hate because it's the only thing you think you're capable of doing. She's smart, and if her redacted file is anything to go on, she's been at this for a long time. When you do this long enough, do you understand the only thing you end up being able to trust? Do you know what that one thing is?"
Fury sighed and nodded. "Yourself."
"Your instincts, sir. Your own gut. That's all you can trust." Clint crossed his arms in front of him and shrugged, "You two gave me someone besides me to trust and it's a lot better. If she's half as smart as her file says, she'll see how this place is better. This place can make her better. I know it. I trust my instincts. So does Coulson, but that's all he did. He trusted my gut and I'm asking you to give it a shot, too. If you guys decide she's not good enough, well. That's a bridge we'll cross when we come to it, I figure." Clint hugged himself a little tighter and waited for Fury's response.
Phil leaned into him a little as Fury said, "That's what you figure, huh? You figure we can just give her a trial run? The Black Widow?"
Clint gave him a small grin. "You must have had contingency plans for if I didn't work out, sir. If not, let Coulson draw up contingency plans for her. He's good at that."
Fury sat back down behind his desk. "And now you're telling me how to do my job. Not sure I like this trend, Barton."
"Everyone needs a little help now and then, sir," Clint replied. He heard Phil chuckle beside him and felt the tension in the room seep away. They all knew Clint was talking about more than Fury, and they all knew he was right.
"Stay down, you idiot!" Clint yelled as Fury tried to sit up in the street and bullets rained around them. Clint had dragged him behind an overturned car and was trying to take out the enemy strike team that had emerged from the research facility SHIELD was taking down. Fury didn't usually come along on these kinds of missions, but he'd made an exception for this one and now he was shot in the shoulder and bleeding on Clint's boots.
Clint's comm buzzed in his ear and Coulson's voice came through tight. "We can't get you out yet. Our guys are taking too much heat. Status report, now." Clint took another shot and groaned as Fury tried to sit up again. He actually stepped on the good shoulder to hold him down.
"Stay. Down. Sir," he growled as he took out another enemy. "Fury's been hit. Shoulder area – not sure how bad yet, although he's conscious and being a moron, so it must not be too bad. Targets still engaged."
"Once we get our targets down, evac will be able to come in for you. Notify me when your area is cl—" and the comm cut off as an explosion sounded through the line.
"Coulson!" Clint shouted, but he got nothing but static, so he gritted his teeth, pushed his worry to the back of his head, and kept fighting.
Finally, the bullets stopped flying at Clint and Fury, and Clint wiped his sweaty forehead after shouldering his bow. He knelt down and looked at Fury carefully. "You still with me, sir?" he asked, as he peeled back the black leather jacket to reveal a bloody black shirt.
Fury opened his eye he'd had clenched shut and nodded. "Still stuck with you, god damn it," he said, and Clint grinned. He could hear the pain in his boss's voice, though, and he was worried as he peeled back the blood-soaked shirt to see the wound still pulsing blood. With a quick stroke, Clint tore a clean strip of Fury's shirt off and folded it into a compress. He pushed into the shoulder and Fury arched off the ground.
"Sorry, Nick," he said softly, but he kept the pressure on.
Fury settled into the pain and shook his head weakly. "No you're not, you asshole." After a pause, he asked, "Where's the evac team?"
Clint met his eyes with a hard glare. "Team two was still fighting. They have to wait until the area's cleared."
Fury nodded. "You report in to Coulson yet?"
"Yeah," Clint replied, unable to keep a tremble out of his voice. He sighed inwardly when Fury caught it.
"What happened?" he asked.
Clint shrugged. "Not sure. Coulson's comm went down mid-sentence. Hasn't come back yet. He said the evac would be ordered in once the area –" he was cut off by the sound of another explosion, this one close by. Clint cursed and threw himself down over Fury. When the smoke cleared he looked down and Fury had his eyes clenched shut. "We gotta get you outta here, boss," he said, and he stood carefully, eyes peeled for enemy targets. "Looks like they're just lobbing stuff, though. We should be able to get at least a ways away." He got no response from Fury, so he leaned down and threw his shoulder under Fury's good one and stood, ignoring the small groan from him. "Come on, boss, just outta this strike zone. It's not gonna be far."
Clint walked and Fury half-stumbled, half-walked alongside him, leaning heavily on Clint for support. Clint could taste the dust in the street and he had shouldered his bow, but he pulled a handgun out just in case. He took heavy breaths in as he pulled Nick down an alleyway and when another explosion ripped through the area they'd just left he stumbled a little before heaving Nick more onto his own shoulder and trying to move a little faster. He could feel blood seeping onto his own uniform and knew he had to hurry.
By the time they rounded a corner and found Phil and an evac team standing there waiting for them, Fury had slipped into unconsciousness and Clint wasn't sure how much further he was going to be able to carry him. Coulson stepped forward, blood streaming down his face from a head graze and worry filling his gaze. He helped Clint maneuver Fury onto a stretcher and then into the nearby chopper, where Clint slumped against the wall and leaned into Phil as the medics worked on Fury and they headed for the helicarrier.
Three hours later, Clint and Phil sat in a medical room watching Fury sleep off surgery and Clint shuddered.
"You okay?" Phil asked, twining his fingers together with Clint's.
"I thought I'd lost both of you today," he answered, his voice weak and shaky.
"Get some sleep, Clint. He's going to be all right. You can give him more hell when he wakes if you're rested."
Clint smiled and leaned his head into Phil's shoulder, sighing. "Yeah. He deserves it."
"Every bit," Phil said, pulling Clint down so his head was in his lap. "Rest. I'll keep watch."
Clint did, and then he felt better and spent the next three days in medical reading bad romance novels to Fury because he couldn't be stopped.
When Fury finally got released, Clint found his locker full of ping pong balls and his arrows replaced by Nerf ones.
He was okay with that.
Clint sat with his leg propped up and Natasha half-leaning on him in the remnants of a shawarma shop with his new team, wondering how this was his life, when a rattle at the door drew his head around. Even as exhausted as he was, as ready to just crash with Phil for at least three days and just sleep and have life-affirming sex, he was still surprised to see Fury walk through the door. He thought at least that Phil would be with him at this stage of things. He pulled his feet to the floor and set his food down on the table.
Fury raked his gaze across the scene in front of him and settled on Clint. "Barton, I need to speak to you alone for a moment."
Natasha stood, shaking her head worriedly. "Sir, he – " she stopped for a moment when everyone's gaze fell on her and then went on. "He doesn't know, sir. I haven't told him yet."
Clint was confused, and he got a sinking feeling in his stomach at the tone of her voice. "Told me what?"
"Let me talk to him alone, Romanov," Fury ordered, and Clint wavered a little as he got to his feet. He was so god damned tired.
Natasha looked at Fury like she wasn't sure whether to trust him, which was new to Clint. He'd been trusting Fury with his life for years and didn't understand why she was wary. She nodded, though, as Clint followed Fury across the room to another table.
"What the hell is going on?" Clint asked as he practically fell into a chair and Fury sat across from him. "Where's Phil?" Clint had been compromised by a demi god for three days. He expected his lover to at least come find out if he was still standing.
Fury, in typical fashion, didn't waste any time laying the news on Clint. He just sighed heavily and answered, "I told them Phil was dead, but he's not."
Clint focused on the 'he's not' very, very carefully as all the air seemed to leave the room.
Fury continued, holding Clint's gaze very carefully. "Earlier today Phil made a very dumb move and he was stabbed by Loki's spear as he tried to stop the guy on the hellicarier." Clint felt the blood drain from his face. He didn't need this, he needed Phil. Fury leaned across the table. "Barton, he's alive and in good care, okay? Breathe." Clint nodded and tried to do as he was ordered. "I'm going to tell the rest of your team and then take you to see him, okay? I had to play them a little and I really wasn't sure how that idiot was going to survive this, but he's officially the luckiest bastard in the universe and came through surgery well. Give me a minute and we'll go." He stood and Clint just laid his head down on the table and listened.
Amidst various shouts and questions, he heard Natasha say, "Leave it alone for now, Stark. He's alive and Barton needs to go. I'll explain why, but the rest of us can wait until he's stable, like the Director said." After a pause she added, "Get Barton checked again, sir?"
Fury replied, "Top of my list, Agent. I'll keep all of you posted."
Clint stood again, not sure how many more times he was going to be able to do that today, and followed Fury to the car he had waiting. Despite his worry for Phil, he dozed on the way to headquarters and Fury had to poke him when they got there with a, "Come on, Barton, just a little longer."
Clint climbed out of the car and followed Fury numbly, weaving through hallways and down an elevator to the Medical facility. They had to go through several checkpoints, and even in Clint's exhausted state he noticed the questioning glances at him and a glare or two from Fury at anyone who clearly didn't quite trust that Clint was wandering around right now. When they got to Medical, Fury turned to Clint and glanced up and down his body.
"Okay. Two things here. One, the medical team does not want you in here, okay? They, along with much of the command staff, want you locked up in a padded room right now until we can do some tests and determine a little more about what happened to you. They don't want you near my second in command, that's for damned sure. Two, you look like, and probably feel like, shit. No one is letting you near him in the shape you're in."
Clint felt a surge of anger. "So why did you bring me here? I thought I was going to get to see him. I need to see him."
Fury glared a little. "You think I don't know that? First things first, though. I don't give a fuck about letting you into see him. I'll be there with him, but I know we're not going to get anything out of you until you're sure he's safe. For now, though, go take a shower and change clothes, and let the doctors give you a quick exam, just to make sure you don't pass out on us." He smiled a thin smile and added, "Cheese will not be happy if he wakes up and finds out I haven't gotten you checked out yet."
Clint looked around the room and focused on the chief of Medical hovering near a door. "News, first?" he asked, angry at how plaintive his voice came out.
Fury called the doctor over and asked for a report, and the news was good. Phil was stable, although things would be precarious for a while considering the nature of the injury. He'd have a ton of physical therapy facing him and the doctor repeated that he still wasn't considered out of the woods. He did get a spear through the chest, and was just lucky that the damage was as minimal as it was. Clint listened carefully, seeing again that the doctor didn't look at him once, just spoke to Fury. That was okay, though, and Clint made his way to the showers down the hall afterward and let the hot water wash blood and a little bit of the fatigue away.
He ended up having to get stitched up and shot full of antibiotics thanks to his little jaunt through the glass window during the battle, but an hour later he was wearing a SHIELD issue sweatshirt and pants, being led by Fury into Phil's room. They had him on a respirator and in an induced medical coma, his skin was sallow, and he looked small, so god damned small, lying there.
Clint just stared for a minute before approaching the bed and lifting Phil's hand into his own and twining their fingers together. The words, "I did so many bad things," slipped out unintentionally as he stood there, and he felt tears welling in his eyes. He was too tired to stop a few of them from sliding down his cheeks.
He started when he felt Fury's hand on his shoulder. His powerful voice was uncharacteristically quiet when he spoke. "You didn't do anything, you know. You're going to hear it from all of us for a long time and you're probably not going to believe it for even longer, but you didn't do anything. Loki did, and he underestimated you."
Staring at the still form of Phil in the bed, Clint said, "How do you figure that?"
Fury looked at him carefully. "You missed. Several times you missed and you also knew enough to have done a lot more damage than you did. Something in you was fighting back that whole time, and he disregarded it. His mistake."
Clint didn't answer, and the two of them stood in silence for a while, just watching Phil sleep. Finally, Clint couldn't stifle a yawn and couldn't ignore how shaky on his feet he was. Fury noticed.
"Come on," he said, pulling Clint away from Phil's side toward a small bed-like thing in the corner of the room for visitors. "I'll keep watch for a while," he added as he gripped Clint's arm and helped him stretch out, his body sore and a grimace escaping despite his best efforts. Clint didn't even have the energy to say thanks, and his eyes slid shut as soon as he was horizontal. He felt Fury run a hand through his hair and mutter, "keep watch over both of you idiots," and Clint felt safe for the first time in days.
"Why?" Fury asked, taking a large swig of his beer and glaring at Clint. They were at the bar without Phil, Clint having asked Fury and Natasha to come early. She had joined their ritual years ago, delighting all of them with her ability to mercilessly mock the music.
"Because he's insane?" Natasha answered for him, and Clint kicked her shin under the table.
"Am not," he said, jutting his chin like a petulant kid. He was dressed a little nicer than he usually did for bar night, a blue button-down over a white t-shirt and his good jeans instead of the ratty ones he usually wore out.
"So, why?" Fury repeated, ignoring Natasha skillfully.
Clint rolled his shoulders nervously. "Because for the first time in my life 'official' sounds good. It sounds right."
"You know SHIELD gives you guys everything whether it's official or not, right?" Natasha said, sipping her martini.
Clint shrugged. "Sure, but—" he stopped to take a drink of his vodka tonic (tonight was a night for strong drinks) – "But I want to know. It's important to me to know."
Fury eyed him warily. "You doubt that he's going to stick with you? You're crazier than I gave you credit for, Barton."
"No! I know he's going to stay as long as he can. I know I'm going to stay as long as I can. But. Shit. You guys don't get it," he sighed.
Natasha leaned into his shoulder gently and said, "Issues. Symbols. Right?"
He sighed and nodded. "Right."
Fury glanced between the two of them. "I thought I knew you guys pretty well, but you're not making any sense."
Clint grinned into his drink. "I have issues. Commitment. Abandonment. Depends on what angle you're looking at them from and what day of the week it is. I give him a ring and make it official? I can't run and I can look at him and know that he's not going to run. A symbol. I kind of feel like I need it." His grin faded as he added, "Not sure Phil needs it, though. Or wants it. So you guys are backup in case this goes to shit."
"I didn't volunteer," Fury said, chuckling, "But okay. Fine. Last question, though. Why the fuck are you asking him to marry you at Cover Night?"
Clint laughed and pulled out a piece of paper. "Because this was where we had our first date and I have a plan."
"Uh, oh," Natasha said as Clint stood up.
He waved her off. "Shut up. It's a good plan. Wait and see." He walked over to where the band was setting up and greeted the lead singer by name. They'd been coming for years, after all, and these guys who had day jobs and did this once a week for the hell of it had become buddies. Clint and the others usually bought them at least one round of drinks every time they came and Clint played darts with them on their breaks. He handed Cody his piece of paper and a couple hundred dollars.
"What the hell, Clint?" the forty-something singer asked, incredulous. "I don't need you to pay us. This is gonna be epic."
Clint grinned. "Yeah, but you might have some folks duck out on you for this. I don't want to cost you guys any money with my little stunt."
Cody grinned and shoved one of the hundreds back into Clint's hand. "Half off, then. His face when he figures out what we're doing will be worth every idiot who leaves."
Clint gave Cody a quick hug and said, "Thanks, man," and wandered back to Fury and Natasha, who looked both bemused and curious. He ignored them and finished his drink, waiting on Phil to show up. He came about fifteen minutes later, just before the band started to play.
He brushed a quick kiss on Clint's forehead as he sat down and Fury handed him a beer. Clint's palms started to sweat but he managed to act natural, ribbing Phil for being late and flirting with him over how hot he looked. He did, too, in his crew neck sweater over a white dress shirt and his well-fitting jeans. Clint was reminded every time he looked at him how good his idea was, how much he needed this to work.
The band started out with "I Just Died in Your Arms Tonight" by Cutting Crew and got a raised eyebrow out of Phil and Nick right away. Clint tried to stifle his grin in his drink. They followed it with "Against All Odds" and Natasha glared at Clint with an amused glint in her eye. She was figuring it out. When they finished the set with "Lost in Love" by Air Supply, Phil put his hands on the table and leaned forward.
"Not their usual fare tonight, huh?" he said, grimacing a little.
"Nothing wrong with love songs," Clint replied, standing up to go refill their drinks.
"There's something very wrong with eighties love songs," Phil replied, standing to come with him. "Very, very wrong."
They got their drinks and Phil said hi to the band while Clint stood back and admired the group's ability to keep a straight face when talking to Phil, and then they sat back down. Clint was grateful that Phil was smart, but that also meant the joke sank in quicker than Clint had hoped. Three songs later ("I Just Can't Get Enough," "Wind Beneath My Wings," and "Endless Love") Phil glanced around the room and whispered conspiratorially, "Someone's up to something."
Clint gave him his best blank look, Fury and Natasha suddenly found their drinks very interesting, and Phil looked at all of them. "Wait," he said, looking over at the band, who was all watching Phil far too obviously. "Clint? What's going on?"
So Clint gave him a long-suffering sigh, reached into his pocket and pulled out a blue felt box. He got down on his knee and a wide grin spread across Phil's face as he looked up and said, "You lift me up where I belong, Phil."
Natasha sputtered into her third martini and Fury muttered, "You have got to be fucking kidding me."
"Marry me?" Clint added quickly, his own grin stupid.
Phil just laughed and leaned over and kissed him slow and sweet as the other patrons and the band cheered and whistled. "You're the wind beneath my wings, Hawkeye, so yes," Phil whispered as he pulled away, and Clint just burst into laughter right there on the floor of the bar.
"Fools in love are the worst," Fury said to Natasha as she grinned down at Clint and Phil helped him up off of the floor. She agreed with Fury, but as Clint slipped the silver ring onto Phil's finger, he definitely disagreed.
And that was okay, because he and Fury often disagreed, but things had worked out okay so far.