All of the noise surrounding him was familiar. The beep of a heart monitor, the hiss and puff of a ventilator, the muffled voices of nurses and doctors just outside that door. He hated how familiar it was, but he still drew the sounds into himself. The noise of life. Of reassurance that his heart was still alive. The cool silence of a morgue would have been too much for the threads holding his mind together. He would have disintegrated and never been able to put himself back together. That fate was still only one missed heartbeat away.
Counting every heartbeat, he settled his mind into the place of calm that he went to when he was shooting. One of the unnaturally cold hands that lay on the white, scratchy sheets of SHIELD medical sat inches away from where he propped his chin, eyes on a level to watch the rise and fall of the chest.
A section of his mind was watching the minutes and hours and days tick by on the clock just outside of anyone else’s peripheral vision. Another part was cataloguing every change in number on the monitors, there had been three. Most of his thoughts were carefully not thinking. Not thinking about the last week and all of the maybes and what-ifs. Not thinking about seeing Fury stalk towards him outside the Shwarma place, a storm on his face. Not thinking about how his world had shattered again.
He hadn’t let it show. He had stood tall in the face of the apocalypse, he wasn’t going to falter now. Not while his team was watching, these strangers that he trusted with his life but not his heart.
“Agent Barton. We are placing you under a mandatory psych hold until we are convinced that that Fucker is out of your head.” Fury growled.
The wall of muscle and death behind him shifted, each for a different reason that he didn’t care to quantify.
With a single, hard nod, he had fallen in behind the Director when he turned in a swirl of black leather and stalked away. He had never seen that particular paleness around the Director’s mouth, the tension tightening his shoulders. Phil was the only person able to crack Fury’s facade like that.
“Clint?” Nat called out from behind him, a trilogy’s worth of meaning in the single word.
“It’s ok Nat.” Even to his own ears his voice sounded dead. The smile he dragged on to his face by sheer force of will wasn’t much more convincing.
Uneasy silence suffused the quinjet. Most people would have wondered at the Director coming to get him when the world had just gone insane. Clint knew better. Fury and Phil went back almost as far as Clint and Phil, Marcus would have promised Cheese to look after Clint is something happened to him, just like Clint had forced a promise that Fury would look after Phil if something ever happened to Clint when the archer had joined SHIELD.
All of that still didn’t make this trip easier. Maybe the shrinks would be able to dig the pain and the loss out of his head along with the god who had dug his claws into his brain.
But Fury hadn’t lead him to a padded cell.
Instead at the end of a rarely used corridor in medical, he was ushered into a space hospital room. A single bed the focus of the machinery and the small hive of doctors and nurses buzzing around the room. A gap opened between two of them, allowing a glimpse of the receding hairline and crooked nose he loved so much.
“Is? He’s not?” Clint couldn’t finish the question, scared that this was a figment of his shattered psyche.
“Is a stubborn bastard who is hanging in there.” Fury shoved him half a step closer with a hand between his shoulder blades and then swept back out of the room. He had a no-longer secret spy agency to run after all.
Frozen in shock and slowly blooming hope, all he could do was watch as the doctors worked to stabilise Phil.
Eventually the chaos slowed, the people filtering out until it was just him, his comatose husband and their favourite nurse. Valeria muttered at him in Spanish when he still didn’t move closer now that there was room for him.
“He should know you are here.” She stood next to him, not touching but being there, a steady presence.
Without even looking at her, he knew she was judging him. Hard.
Once all the monitoring had been stable for a while, and hour and twenty-four minutes according to his internal clock, he moved. The single hard plastic chair in the room was dragged from the corner and put at Phil’s hip. Sitting, Clint was able to watch Phil, his monitors, and the only door.
Giving a satisfied hum, Valeria left them to it. She would be back.
He hadn’t moved since.
Sitting there watching and waiting and making sure his mind didn’t wander to the last few days, instead they went further back.
= + =
Finding somewhere to hide from the rain wasn’t easy. The Northwest was his least favourite part of the country. It was always wet and cold, making it impossible to keep his bow strings dry and he couldn’t get the chill out of his bones. With the morning free from training, he had schlepped into town in search of something hot.
Stupidly, he hadn’t counted on the rain. He should have known better. Huddled in the small alcove in front of the small town’s library, he sipped his hot, but burnt coffee and waited for the rain to stop.
So focused on looking for a break in the rain, he missed the door opening behind him. A warm body, slightly taller but lankier than his own, collided with his back sending him stumbling into the rain, his source of warmth and whole reason for being ended up splashed across the side walk.
“Aw, coffee, no.” He muttered to himself. Staring gloomingly down at the spreading liquid.
“Oh gosh. I am so sorry! Let me get you a new coffee. It was coffee right? If not, I’ll get whatever it was.” The most interesting pair of silver-grey eyes he had ever seen was talking to him.
The flirty smirk that had convinced a horde of townies into his bed spread across his face. “Only if your gonna share it with me.”
The other boy tripped over his own feet as he tried to gather up the books he had dropped. The title of the one in his hands distracted Clint from the conquest he had in mind. Unbroken. It was the title of the book printed across his chest. He had read every book with that title that he could get his hands on since the words had become readable. He had to say he was glad it was the book on World War Two and not the Mills and Boon bodice ripper he had cringed his way through two towns back.
“Thank god.” He almost slumped in relief.
Everyone had a soulmark. The question was whether you would meet the person it corresponded to, and realise who they could be to you. The numbers weren’t hard and fast on meetings. Maybe everyone met their soulmate but most people didn’t realise it. Maybe only a small fraction of the population met that other person who would be their everything and just knew.
Clint had never been sure which camp he sat in.
Staring at him in wide-eyed confusion, his soulmate could only blink at him.
Now he knew. No matter what his mark had been, he would have known. No one could meet their soulmate and not realise it.
“Excuse me?” The other boy took a half step away from what would appear to him to be the crazy teenage carnie.
“The book. That’s a good one. Better than Yates unbroken. That was just horrifying. Do people actually find that a turn on? The sweaty cowboy? Sweat is not sexy, trust me.” God, could he not shut up? He was rambling like a virgin in front of his first crush.
“I haven’t read that one.” His soulmate offered carefully, trying to calm the crazy person.
Biting his lip to stem the flow of words, he counted in and out three even breaths. Using the focusing techniques that he normally only used during a performance.
“Don’t.” He said once he was on a more even keel. “It’s trash. Madeleine Black’s Unbroken is worth reading though. Horrifying, but interesting.”
“Okay… I’ll look it up.”
They stood there staring at each other in awkward silence for a few minutes, until Clint started shuffling, self-conscious and bored. How do you tell someone that you are their soulmate?
“Coffee?” His soulmate blurted. “Did you want to?” He waved a hand in the direction of the only diner in town.
Checking his watch, to make sure he had time he nodded. “Sure.” A quick drink and then jogging back to the campsite they were using would get him there just in time.
“I’m Phil. Coulson.” The newly identified Phil introduced himself as they quickly crossed the street, trying to get out of the rain.
“Clint Barton.” Like an idiot, he stuck his hand out to shake. Before he could take it back and stuff it into his pocket, a warm dry hand wrapped around his. Pumping it once before dropping the contact.
“Hello Clint Barton. Do you have some sort of attachments to books called Unbroken? Or are you just very widely read?” The tiniest amount of teasing had leaked into the words. Phil’s eyes sparkled with intelligence and a dry humour.
“It’s uh.” He waved a hand at his chest, the burn of a blush creeping up his neck and onto his face. “My mark. It’s an open book on top of a yellow star. The book’s title is Unbroken.”
Phil’s face looked like a stunned fish, or someone who’d just been slapped in the face by a stunned fish. “Your mark? So I’m your..? Soulmate?”
“Maybe? I mean, I think so. What’s yours?” It was the height of rude to ask someone about their mark, but Clint figured under the circumstances.
“It’s a bird, I think an eagle. With a bunch of arrows and then a target.” Phil drew his hand from the ball of his shoulder to his elbow on his left arm, indicating the size of the mark.
Clint whistled, that was a big one. Most people’s were the size of their palms, to span half a limb was impressive.
“Could it be a hawk? My stage name is Hawkeye.” To have what amounted to his name in his soulmate’s mark was considered good luck.
“That would make sense.” Phil’s smile was small but genuine.
Smiling shyly at each other, they accidently bumped shoulders as Phil tried to open the door for him.
“Sorry.” They both apologised.
“The um, milkshakes are really good. You should try them next time.” Phil suggested.
“Next time?” Clint’s heart sank, he had never stopped to think about what he would do if he met his soulmate in a town they were traveling through, particularly as a teenager. Phil couldn’t just pack up and follow him, and he couldn’t stay, Carson’s was his life, his family.
“I um, I’m only passing through.” Without knowing the silver eyed boy sitting across from him, he could feel the heartbreak through the imminent loss.
“We’ll write then, and next time you’re here.” Phil shrugged the hurdle off.
= + =
And that is what they had done. Phil had slipped Clint his address and his parent’s phone number promising that if Clint ever needed anything, that his parent’s would help. Clint didn’t have the same to offer. There was no address he could get letters from, or phone number to a family member.
He had promised to set up a PO box in Tulsa, Carson’s travelled through the Oklahoman city a few times a year, or they were close enough that Clint would be able to check in. He hated the lack of more direct contact, but it was something.
For years, as Phil joined the army and Clint had to run from the family he had, they wrote. Each time Clint made it back to Tulsa, a stack of letters and postcards were waiting for him. One for each month since the last time he had been there. Some of them were a few words scribbled hastily on the back of a desert postcard, others were pages and pages of words and stories, spilling the mundane and the dreams. The hopes for the future.
In return Clint had sent letters and trinkets from his own travels, first to the house in the far corner of Washington State, and then to a series of Army bases around the world. Even as he talked around the exact going ons of his own life, he was able to paint an intricate picture of his soulmates, his career progression from Army boot camp to Black-Ops Ranger. From the US to every corner of the world.
Clint still had those letters, tied with a rainbow of ribbons and broken bow strings, whatever he had had to hand, they were tucked up safe in a box in the top of their closet.
Watching Phil lay in a hospital bed, unmoving and unresponsive, he ran through the contents of those letters. He had each one of them memorised. They hadn’t stopped writing even after they had eventually seen each other in person again.
“How stupid was that Phil? I was a thousand miles from where anyone thought I was and there you were, my knight in muddy camo…”
= + =
Clint was exhausted. He had been on the move in one form or another for three days. Or it might have been five, he wasn’t sure anymore. All he knew was that he wasn’t in Tajikistan anymore and if he was less exhausted he would be making a Wizard of Oz joke. Having crossed what he thought was the Panji river the day before, he should be in Afghanistan now. Most people wouldn’t think that was any safer. Most people weren’t SHIELD Agents who had been held captive for the last three months by a group of arms smugglers who had graduated from AK-47s to tech a little more out of this world.
Afghanistan was crawling with NATO forces, it shouldn’t be too hard to find someone who could call his people and get him the hell out of dodge. He had been following a tributary of the Punji River since he had crossed it just over a day ago. A ready water source, a way to obscure his passage, and generally people lived close to water. Thin lines of smoke winding above the next ridge line was his first hint at civilisation. Halfway up the slope, he dropped to his belly and commando crawled his way to the top. A small village was spread across the next valley, silver lines of irrigation travels dividing the green squares of fields.
Cool metal pressed into the back of his neck directly on top of his spinal cord. The click of the safety echoed in his ears.
“Don’t move.” The voice rang a bell of recognition deep in Clint’s soul.
The sound of a handful of other people moving through the brush reached him from where he was frozen in the dust. Their quiet voiced all carried American accents, but from all over. The man behind him had a North-Western accent, from somewhere close to the border.
Where he had heard it before came to him in a flash.
“Phil?” He wanted to turn over and grin up at his soulmate, it had been almost a decade since they had seen each other. That single time in the other man’s hometown.
“How do you know my name?” The barrel of the gun pressed more firmly into his neck, ready to end him if he said the wrong thing.
“So, I think it’s an eagle not a hawk.” Clint didn’t answer the question.
The press of metal moved back. Clint took the opportunity to flip over, staying on the ground though. Partially from wanting to seem non-threatening, and partially because he didn’t think he could get up if he tried. Shock and recognition ricocheted across Phil’s face.
It was the same and different from the last time Clint had seen it. Two boys had sent pictures of themselves across the country. Now across the world two men looked at each other. Light brown hair had started to recede a little, leaving a higher forehead, and his nose was no longer a sharp blade down the middle of his face, it had been broken, probably more than once. The kind silver eyes were the same.
“Clint.” It wasn’t a question, it was a homecoming.
“Hi.” He waved. Because he was an idiot.
Clicking the safety back onto his rifle, Phil slung it over a shoulder and offered Clint a hand to get out of the dirt.
“Yeah, I don’t think that is going to happen.” Now that the adrenalin was starting to drain away, and his body thought it was safe from the endorphins of a soulmate meeting, every broken bone that he had been forced to run on was making itself known. His head was beginning to pound from malnutrition and a series of concussions. Being upright wasn’t something that was in his immediate future.
“Andrews, Booth. To me.” Two men broke away from the group still searching for other bodies hiding on the hill. The small red-cross on one man’s shoulder, below the yellow star of the Rangers that matched the one over Clint’s hear, marked him as a medic.
They worked together well, moving around each other to hold gauze as needed or pass bandages back and forth. In quick order, Clint was wrapped better than an Egyptian Mummy and being levered onto a fold out stretcher that Andrews, or maybe Booth, dragged from their pack.
Seeing Clint securely strapped down, Phil moved to the front of the group. Silently signally to his men, they drew in close enough to protect the injured man and their own people helping him, without drawing in close enough to impact of their lines of fire.
Slipping in and out of consciousness, the landscape swirled past him. Fine grey dust hung in the air from their passing, coating the back of his throat as he struggled to breath around his broken nose. The first time he forced his eyes open he gazed up at the pale blue sky, a small gathering of clouds to the north said there was rain coming if it didn’t expend itself on the mountains first. The second time, the pale sky had been replaced with the tan metal of a vehicle. Probably a Humvee from the thrumming of the engine that Clint could feel vibrating through his bones. SHIELD didn’t use a lot of military vehicles, they were statements of power and visibility that the spy agency didn’t want to make. They used SUVs or local second hand cars that blended into the local populations.
The low roar of a busy building drew him back to consciousness. Bright lights and the stinging scent of antiseptic told him he was in a hospital, or at least a medical centre of some description. Struggling against the pain, and drugs he fought to remember how he had ended up here. He remembered the dark, stinking cell in the basement of a rough brick building. The smell of his own blood in his nose, and the sound of breaking bones in his ears. It was a memory he knew would haunt him for years.
Silver eyes appearing out of lifeless grey dust brought it back. Phil. He had seen Phil. Or was that all a hallucination? Had his mind conjured an image of the person he most wanted to see as the last bits of hope had slipped away.
A voice from childhood floated out of the chaos of shouting and machines. Arguing abut having a right to see Clint’s medical file. That’s not going to work, Clint thinks to himself. SHIELD wouldn’t let just anyone see his paperwork, even if they were his never before heard of soulmate.
“Phil?” His brain finally caught up with his thought, putting two and two together to get a dream come true.
“Clint!” A warm hand wrapped around his toes, tickling the only undamaged piece of skin he had left.
As the drugs receded a little, he was able to convince the doctors that he was okay with Phil seeing his charts. At first they had thought he was compromised, which he was but not that much, and ignored him. The army ranger that had previously been Phil Coulson, town nerd, had just finished reading through the thick pile of tests and medical notes, a deep furrow of concern around his eyes and mouth, when a team of SHIELD personnel in unmarked black rolled into the ward and shut everything down. Hustling the doctors out of the room and confiscating the file from Phil, they took over Clint’s care.
Phil didn’t leave. He glared at anyone that suggested it, and the one time they tried to physically remove him he put Rumlow down so quickly Clint was the only one able to follow the move. If his blood levels weren’t as depleted as they had been, he would have been in serious risk of embarrassing himself at that display of competence. As it was, all he could do was grin tiredly and fall back asleep.
For four days after arriving at the un-named, doesn’t exist on any paperwork, base Clint drifted in and out of an exhausted, drugged sleep. Each time he woke to find Phil sitting next to him, looking more haggard the longer Clint was in the hospital.
Only once he was able to stay awake for more than an hour at a time did Phil succumb to the need to shower and eat more than a piece of fruit and a shitty sandwich that one of his men was able to smuggle into the room for him. Each of them coming up with a reason to they needed to talk to Phil every few hours, checking on their own person more than on the stranger they had pulled out of the desert.
That night as he watched Clint eat the first solid meal he had had in almost a month, he broke the easy silence. “So eagle, not hawk.”
The comment confused Clint for a second as he groped through his memory of their letters and postcards to try and figure out what the other man was talking about. Nothing rose from the depths.
“My mark. You said it was an eagle, not a hawk like we thought.” As Phil explained the comment made while staring down the barrel of a gun slammed into him.
“Umm.” He never should have said that. That was a security breach of the highest order. Shit. He was so going to be disappeared.
“You work for SHIELD.” Phil continued.
“Umm.” Clint said again. “How? I mean, you shouldn’t know about them.” That came out more accusatory than he had meant and if his face hadn’t been one big bruise or covered in scabs he would have winced.
“Marcus. My first commander in the Rangers tried to get me to move. I would have if I had known you were there.” Phil blurted.
Not having spent much time in the same room as Phil, Clint wasn’t sure if that was normal for the other man. He had the feeling it wasn’t. No one lasted long in the Ranger’s if they couldn’t keep their mouths shut and the mortified expression on his face reinforced that.
“I don’t know any Marcus.” Which wasn’t saying much, SHIELD was a lot bigger than most people realised. But if the guy had been an Army Ranger, the name should have meant something to Clint.
“Tall African-American. Bald. Has an eyepatch.”
Horror dawned over Clint. Phil was talking about Fury, his boss’ boss’ boss.
“Yep.” He squeaked. “I know him.”
The smug smile said everything it needed to about Clint’s loss of composure.
“You should take him up on it, if he’s still offering.” Clint finally continued once he had cleared his throat with a cough that hurt.
“Maybe I will.”
= + =
It hadn’t been an immediate thing. Phil still had six months on his deployment. But one day he had just been there. Clint had just gotten out of a planning meeting and as he left the conference room Phil had been stepping out of Fury’s office, new SHIELD badge in hand.
Rubbing a thumb across the scuffed surface of that once shiny symbol, Clint remembered. He remembered the years that had followed. Of learning each other outside pen and paper. Of blood and pain, laugher and sex.
An uptick in the monitoring had him carelessly dropping the badge that had come to mean so much to both of them as he jumped towards the bed. Face scrunched up slightly with pain, Phil’s heartbeat continued to speed up.
A beeping starts at the same time a team of doctors and nurses rush in. Clint gets pushed to the side as they work frantically to stop whatever is happening. As much as he wants to know what that is, he also wants them to be 110% focused on Phil and asking questions would only distract them.
For almost half an hour the medical team fought to stabilise the fading man. They gave back trying to do it externally and rushed him back into surgery. It was the fourth since New York had fallen.
Standing, bereft in the hallway for a long time he stared at the door they had disappeared behind. This was worse than the last time Phil had been seriously injured in the field. And that one had been bad enough.
= + =
Part of the city was on fire. He wasn’t sure which part, but the thick black smoke that was billowing through the streets told him it was a large fire. Tasha was going to kill him if it was the Opera House. The fire might have been his fault, the new exploding arrows from R & D weren’t as predictable as they should be. At this point though, he didn’t care. All he cared about was getting the bag of medical gear he had just liberated back to the tiny bolthole he had left Tasha and a badly injured Phil in over an hour ago.
What had started out as a simple watch and report mission was turning out to be the biggest cluster in his career. Probably in anyone’s career. The city was rioting around him, ripping itself apart. And he didn’t care. He didn’t care about the innocent people being hurt because all he could think about was the cold pallor of Phil’s skin as his lifeblood seeped from a gut wound.
One of the thugs they had ended up in a running fire fight with had gotten in a lucky shot. It had caught Phil at an angle, tearing along streak of red across his abdomen. Any deeper and he wouldn’t have survived long enough for the two assassins to drag him into the sewers and then a chamber long forgotten by everyone except an exceptionally paranoid, ex-red room operative.
Unerringly Tasha had led them to safety in a city gone crazy. Now they had to stay safe. Which for Clint meant doubling back on his route and taking to the rooves to make sure no one was following him, all while keeping clear of the protests, or using them as extra cover. Getting the things he needed had only taken fifteen minutes, the other forty-five was laying false trails halfway across the city.
Slipping silently in the half dark of the sewer, he had to be careful where he stepped to avoid splashing and giving himself away, or stepping in something he didn’t want to think about to closely.
The dark barrel of a gun greeted him as he pushed through the false wall that sectioned off their hiding place.
“Easy.” He held his hand out wide from his body, letting her concussed mind realise he wasn’t a threat.
Her whole body slumped as she recognised his voice and outline in the dark. No more weapons pointed at him, he closed the door and crouched in the small space.
“How are you going?” He asked, even as he was already at work pulling the makeshift bandages away from Phil’s body. The already present smell of iron thickened. Fresh blood pumped sluggishly out of the wound he had just exposed, painting his already stained skin red. Liberally pouring half a bottle of saline solution over Phil’s stomach. He kept the rest for the equipment. No point sterilising Phil to then reintroduce dirt and shit with the needle he used to sew him up.
For maybe the thousandth time, Clint thanked any deity that was listening for his eyesight. Anyone else would have been left blind and bumbling in the almost complete darkness, not Clint. He could see just enough to sew the gaping hole in Phil’s body closed and cover it with a layer of pressure bandages and then wrap the whole thing just in case. The whole time he kept talking, making sure Tasha stayed awake. Leaving her alone to watch Phil, he had known she would fight like hell to stay conscious, make sure they were both safe. Now that he was there, she would let herself slip away knowing someone was protecting them.
For two days as a running battle was fought above their heads, he changed bandages, and forced water and vitamin slurries down all of their throats. It was enough to keep them alive. But Phil hadn’t woken up once and they were both worried that if they didn’t get the older agent proper help soon, he wouldn’t wake up.
With Tasha finally steady on her feet, if significantly more gaunt then she had been on Monday, they wedged themselves under Phil’s arms and bodily dragged him from the sewers that were running a lot more red and black than they had been when they arrived.
Stumbling out into the shallow spillway that ran down into the river, they were all soaking up to their knees in watery blood and ash. Stealing the first boat they came across, Clint left Tasha to navigating their way down the crowded water, to use the better light to do another check over of Phil.
Coming to the conclusion that there wasn’t anything more he could do, he lent his forehead gently against Phil. “When you wake up,” he wasn’t going to even think about the other possibility, “I’m dragging you to the nearest courthouse and make this shit official.” Dropping alight kiss on the spot of relatively clean skin where their heads had been touching, he ran a hand through the blood matted hair and then went back to quadruple checking that there wasn’t anything else that he could do to make sure he could keep his promise.
= + =
It had taken them another two hours of creeping along the river and doding police patrols to sail free of the burning city. The horizon behind them was tinged orange with flame. Even in his memory, smoke swirled through his nose. He had thought that was going to be the longest two hours of his life. The saving grace of that trip had been that it turned out Phil had been swimming in and out of consciousness and heard his promise. His first words upon waking in the hospital enough to be aware, had been a simple ‘yes’.
Now standing in front of the surgical suite doors, waiting for word, he learnt that there was a deeper level to hell. Three times over eight hours, the heart crushing pain and loss of a bonded soulmate dying gripped him. There were stories of people following their mates into death if their bond was strong enough, for the first time Clint believed them.
The first sign of change was a doctor, soaked up to his elbows in blood, pushing through the doors as he stripped the disposable layers of clothing away. He was so tired he walked straight past Clint without seeing him.
The next doctor stopped.
“Agent Barton. We were able to stabilise Agent Coulson but he is still in critical condition. If he pulls through the next twenty-four hours he should be ok.” He tried to keep walking after giving the update.
“Hey!” One hand landed on the doctor’s shoulder, hard. “That’s not good enough! You said that two days ago and he almost died in there!” Clint raged. He needed to know if Phil was going to be ok. Not more of this wait and see bullshit.
“I’m sorry Agent, but that’s the best I have. Now move your hand or I will have you removed.” SHIELD medical was unflinching about the security of their patients and their staff. The threat wasn’t empty.
Clint backed away, putting himself in a defensible position against the wall. They couldn’t fucking try and get him away from Phil, but they would end up hurt and without anything to show for it.
“Just mind your manners.” The doctor, who Clint didn’t know, muttered.
It was another half hour before they rolled Phil out, the passage of time wasn’t as slow, knowing that he would be out soon and not in immediate danger of dying again. When he did emerge, his skin was once again ghostly pale. Back to what it had been when Fury had first led him into the hospital room. More tubes and bandaged had appeared as well.
He trailed the team of nurses and a single doctor back up the corridor and back into the room Clint was getting to know so well. One of the nurses stayed after they transferred Phil’s limp body and attached his wires. She retreated to the corner with a book and a chair on of her colleagues fetched for her. Trying to be as unobtrusive as possible. It didn’t work, he was aware of every time she re-crossed her legs or turned a page.
Settling into his own chair, he hesitate to reach out again. Was it ok to touch? Or would any disturbance put Phil at risk? It was stupid, they had literally just cracked his chest open and stuck their hands inside him, and they were strangers. Not his soulmate. Phil didn’t carry their hearts within his body. But still. He had been touching when everything had gone downhill.
“You can touch him. It’s ok.” A quiet voice was just audible over the beep and hiss of machinery.
He turned to look at the nurse. Eyes searching for the truth that he would never trust to his ears. He saw it in her kind eyes and the smallest, sad smile on her lips.
“Okay.” He whispered back. Finally reaching out to wrap his hand around a cool wrist, fingers resting on a pulse point.
A hush fell over them. Two people sitting on a knife’s edge, waiting for that moment of catastrophe that might never come. There had been enough catastrophe and detours in Clint and Phil’s relationship, he figured, hoped, that they had used up their allotment.
The ships in the night of their first meeting, the blood and tears that had defined their reunion and his proposal, and the less said about their eventual wedding the better.
He snorted at the memory. The whole day had been one disaster after another.
“God, that plum dress that your mom brought for Tasha. Do you remember Phil? There was almost bloodshed.” He chuckled. Settling in to remind Phil of every mishap and misfortune that the other man’s family had brought to bear.
= + =
“Philip Jonathon Coulson!” The triple name of doom cracked through the bustle of Seattle’s busy airport.
In remembered teenage guilt, Phil full body flinched. Already chucking at a stupid advertising slogan, Clint broke into helpless laughter at seeing the infallable Agent Coulson reduced to a naughty teenager just by being in proximity to his family.
“This was such a bad idea.” Phil muttered, before turning to meet his mother with a warm, wide smile. “Mom! You didn’t have to come and meet us.” He had argued for eloping to Vegas.
Clint had flat out refused. If they were going to permanently, legally intertwine their lives, they were going to do it in front of all of their family and friends. For months, Phil had made the point that they didn’t have the time to plan a big wedding so many times that Clint had finally cracked.
For the first time since he had been given it on a rainy summer afternoon, Clint called Phil’s parent’s house. He had talked to them a few times over the two years since Phil had joined SHIELD, but never called them himself. Or even met them. In a short ten minute conversation, he and Beverly Coulson had the rough outline of the wedding and an agreement that Clint and Phil would be happy with any other decisions she had to make to get it done. Beverly had been thrilled to be so involved in her only son’s big day, Clint had been smug for getting his way, and Phil had been horrified.
That had been six months ago. Aside from weekly updates, they hadn’t done anything other than provide a guest list. Phil was already regretting even that much cooperation. Allowing even a few, choice agents to meet his family was just asking for trouble.
Tiny, blonde and boisterous, his mom was standing with a large cardboard sign spelling out his and Clint’s names in glitter and surrounded by wedding bells and rings.
“Mom. You didn’t need a sign.” Phil swept in to hug her.
“Well, it’s been so long since you came to visit I wasn’t sure you would recognise me.” It was said as if it was a perfectly reasonable conclusion. The hint of laughter and threat turned it into something else entirely. A scathing reminder that she and his father weren’t getting any younger and he had cancelled the last three times he had promised to come home for a visit.
“I’m sorry. The new job has been more complex and intense than I realised.”
She thought he had taken an administrative position at the Pentagon, still with the Army.
Humming, she broke away from the hug and turned to Clint. “Hello Dear. It is wonderful to finally meet you.” For years she had been hearing about the blonde archer who had stolen her son’s heart with a pout over spilled coffee. Drawing him close she had wrapped her arms around him and held on tight.
It had been the last calm, sane moment of the four day trip.
The airline had sent the bag with their tuxedos to Seguin instead of Seattle, a short phone call to Natasha who hadn’t left New York yet fixed that mix up. They wouldn’t get married in their penguin suits, but a dove grey Boss suit for Clint and a navy so dark it was almost black D&G for Phil.
The Russian assassin was going to stand up with Clint, and Fury, previously Marcus Phil’s Ranger buddy, was going to be up there with Phil. They, and a handful of other agents, would be arriving late the next evening for a morning ceremony. Fury had refused to let anyone other than the grooms to be leave any earlier, unwilling to leave the New York office stripped of 90% of the Senior Staff.
At least that was the plan. An electrical storm reaching from DC to Augusta grounded everything out of the northern East coast. The rest of the wedding party and everyone who was going to sit on Clint’s side of the aisle, metaphorically, didn’t land in the Emerald City until after midnight the day of the wedding.
Exhausted and annoyed Fury and Tasha had met Clint, Phil and Phil’s mother and three sisters at the hotel they were using as a venue, an hour before the wedding. Already uncomfortable dealing with civilians as herself rather than a persona she could put on and take off Nat was prickly and suspicious, watching everyone with a wary eye.
“No.” The word was said with more conviction than Clint had ever heard anyone use.
It came from inside the room the women were using the change into their dresses.
“Is everything ok in there?” He called out, if it had been any of the other women, he would have left it to Phil but Tasha was his person.
“Can I come in?”
Pushing through into the room, he found Phil’s female family members dressed and ready. Natasha was still in her underwear. Her lack of clothing barely registered, only enough for him to note the two blades she had hidden under her corsety thing.
“No.” She said again, looking him square in the eye with a murderous gleam lurking in the sapphire depths.
“No that!” She pointed at a length of purple fabric.
“What is that? Is that your dress?” Clint glanced between the shiny material and his best friend. “Why would you choose that? It’ll look stupid.”
A shoe came sailing through the air, aimed directly for his head. The four Coulson women gasped, or called out a belated warning. Natasha had telegraphed the move, allowing him to dodge out of the way with a laugh.
“I didn’t!” She growled, glaring at him and then the offending dress.
“I’m so sorry Natasha.” Beverly broke into the argument. “It was one of the colours they chose. Silver doesn’t look good on most people so I didn’t choose that.”
Silver would have been a much better colour for the Russian assassin with the fiery hair. The plum wasn’t going to do her any favours. The colour too bright to sit well together, she would end up looking like a clown.
When he pointed that out, the second shoe of the pair spontaneously learnt to fly, just like it’s counterpart. This time there wasn’t any warning though, Clint never did figure out whether that was intentional or not, he hoped not. Either way it nailed him directly above his right eye. The stiletto heel scoring below his eyebrow, opening up a cut that started bleeding immediately.
“Shit!” Clint clapped a hand to his eye, trying to keep the blood off his suit.
“Clint!” Tasha yelped, apology already thick in her voice.
The Coulson women inarticulately called out. Wordless cries of concern and shock.
Natasha came out of her frozen shock first, instinct taking over. A pile of napkins appeared in her hand and in the fewest movements possible, she wedged them between his hand and his face.
Samantha, Phil’s youngest sister, hurried out of the room. Off to fetch help or more napkins. Clint didn’t know and didn’t really care at this point, when Tasha had moved his hand he had seen a bright patch of red on the pure white of his cuff. All he could think was that he didn’t have another shirt and he wasn’t getting married in bloodstains, he had spent enough of their relationship covered in his own, Phil’s, or someone else’s blood. Today was meant to be normal, what their lives would have looked like if they were civilians.
As he obsessed over the blood, Natasha and Beverly grabbed an elbow each and guided him into a chair. The two older sisters were doing something.
The door banged open, a large form blocking the light before resolving into his not-my-husband-yet.
“Clint! What happened? Samantha just said there had been an accident.” He hurried across the short distance between them.
Natasha moved back gracefully letting Phil crowd in close. His large warm hands, moved Clint’s to get a better look at the cut. Without the pressure blood began flowing down over Clint’s eye again. The compress of napkins was quickly returned.
“He should go to the hospital.” Beverly said from her position behind and to the left of Phil, concern written deep on her face. Clint suspected it was parental concern but wasn’t familiar enough with the concept being pointed at him to be sure. And why would she care, he wasn’t her family, Phil was.
“Can you just give us a moment Mom?” Phil didn’t turn away from Clint, his hand over Clint’s to press down.
“Mom. Please.” It wasn’t a question even though it could have been taken as one.
With a huff, Beverly herded Christina and Amanda out of the room.
= + =
“And god, Fury’s face when we turned up. Both of us, and Tasha covered in blood, and a blooming black eye. He couldn’t decide whether to laugh or give up on us completely.” He chuckled at the memory of complete bemusement on his Boss’ boss’ face.
A tiny uptick in the heartbeat monitor had him falling silent. Waiting to see if Phil would settle again, or if the doctors were going to have to rush in and throw him out again. He wasn’t sure how long he had been talking, but they weren’t out of the 24 hour buffer period yet.
The line on the monitor jumped again.
“Um, nurse person. Sorry. What’s?” He waved a hand at the monitor and Phil without looking away. Unable to take his eyes off Phil in case something happened or he disappeared. Any other time he would feel bad for not knowing the nurse’s name, now he just wanted to know that Phil was ok. There wasn’t the heart stopping agony of Phil dying, not yet.
“Miriam, or Midge.” She spoke as she hustled him subtly out of the way. Two fingers on Phil’s wrist and her eyes on her watch she murmured under her breath, too low for him to hear.
A third blip in the pulse. This time a low moan accompanied it.
“Phil?” He rested a hand on the unconscious man’s shin, squeezing slightly. Making sure Phil knew he was there.
“I think it was just a flutter.” She softly placed Phil’s hand back onto the coarse sheets that smelt like antiseptic and illness. Retreating back into the corner she had claimed and her book, she was almost as good as Phil at disappearing into the furniture.
“And then that officiant? She had no idea what to make of any of it.” Clint launched back into his story.
= + =
The small reception room was too much for the tiny wedding. Aside from Phil, Clint and their officiant, there were ten people there in a room designed for fifty. Contrarily, it made it both more intimate and sad. The lack of people in their lives that they cared about enough to invite to the most important day to their lives.
“We are gathered here today.” The tiny woman began, the traditional words flowing easily from her mouth. She must have said them a thousand times but they still came out sincere.
Clint barely heard her, wrapped up in the sparkling silver of Phil’s eyes. From the smile that Clint had only seen when they were alone blooming over his face, Clint knew Phil was as focused on him as he was on Phil.
It was an amazing feeling.
“Clint and Phil, please join hands…” The words focused back in.
The moment shattered as seven cell phones blared out in concert. The Coulson clan jumped at the sound while seven SHIELD agents dived for the offending items. The officiant just stood there stunned at the turn of events.
“Fury.” “Romanov.” “Sitwell.” “May.” “Hill.”
The crack of voices broke the final straw of intimacy to turn a family event into a brewing storm of competence. And for Clint and Phil petty revenge for whatever was interrupting their wedding.
“Pick up will be here in Ten.” Fury announced to the room. “Let’s get this done and then go be cowboys.”
“Phil?” Arthur, Phil’s dad asked into the crystalline silence of six abruptly ended phone calls. “Phil, what’s going on?”
“Work dad. It’s fine. Can we do this?” Phil twined his and Clint’s fingers together. Sorry he mouthed.
Clint shrugged. “At least we’ll be married, don’t care how. Just don’t wanna wait.”
The widest grin any of the agents had ever seen and his family hadn’t seen since he got on the bus to basic, split Phil’s face.
“Skip to the important part.” He ordered the officiant.
“Right, um. Do you Phil Coulson take this man to be your husband in...”
“I do.” Phil interrupted.
“Do you Clinton Barton take this man to be your husband?” She learnt quickly, stopping at the same point that Phil had interrupted her.
Clint cringed at the use of his full name, and behind him Jasper sniggered.
“By the power invested in my by the State of Washington I now pronounce you man and man. You may now kiss your husband.” She smiled benevolently as them.
They crashed together. A meeting of titans. Lips moving against each other, arms locked around each other.
“Times up. Let’s go.” Fury broke in.
Even with the threat of global disaster looming, they were still grinning at each other like loons when they parted.
The other guests cheered for them.
Quickly scribbling their names on the marriage certificate they left it with Beverly and Arthur to lodge. The rest of them took off running.
= + =
“I think it is still the only time I ever saw you sign a document without reading it three times first.” Clint chuckled wetly. He hadn’t even realised tears had begun rolling down his face.
He needed Phil to wake up, let him see those silver eyes again.
“Read it before the cer’mon.” A quiet, barely there, voice said. The words rough with pain and drugs.
“Phil? Hey.” His own voice was soft as he met the eyes he had been missing for days.
“Lo’ki?” It was painful just listening to him.
“Gone. Gone from my head. Gone from earth.” Clint assured him. He assumed Loki was gone, Thor had been adamant he was going to take his brother home. “I’ve got you. Rest. Get better.” He smoothed a hand over Phil’s hair. Settling it back into its usual order. With a hum Phil fell back into his drugged sleep.
Now that Phil had woken, even for a second. The adrenalin burned itself out of his blood, leaving him feeling exhausted and hurt. Every muscle in his body ached and the thousand cuts he hadn’t noticed before made themselves known, stinging with salt from his sweat and dirt from the explosions and the fight he barely remembered.
“I’ll keep an eye on him if you want to shower.” Midge offered from her corner.
The acrid smell of ash of ash and the iron burn of blood swirled in his nose. “Thanks.” He leveraged himself out of his chair and limped his way to the small ensuite bathroom. The beat of hot, high pressure water on his shoulders and back was heaven in a bland SHIELD room.
A pair of sweatpants and a tee shirt had been slipped through the door he had left half open to be able to hear if anything changed. The soft burble of conversation winding into the bathroom as he dried himself off. . Skin still damp, cotton sticking uncomfortable, he hurried back into the room. He expected to see Midge and a doctor conferring. He wasn’t expecting Midge, tiny five foot nothing Midge, to be bodily stopping and irate Captain America and Iron Man, even without the suit, from entering the room.
“You do not have clearance to be here Captain.” She glared up at the National Icon.
“Fury told us Agent Coulson had died.” The World War 2 Hero growled.
“Fury is a lying liar who lies.” Stark sing-songed.
Clint was able to duck back into the bathroom before anyone noticed him. Not even the enhanced sight of the super soldier seeing the sniper if he didn’t want to be seen. The voices were slightly muffled through the wall but he could make them out.
Rogers unfailingly politeness eventually won out over Midge’s stubbornness. No one who joined SHIELD could really say no to Captain America, not for an extended period of time.
“Does he have anyone?” Clint heard Steve, and it was Steve not Captain America, ask.
“There’s a cellist. In Portland I think.” Stark said, his voice not carrying like it normally did. It was the soft hurt man under the bravado that he showed to the rest of the world. “I’ll get Pep to call her. She’ll have the number.”
An indelicate snort was the first sign that Natasha was also there. The scratch of chair legs against the squeaky linoleum and the shuffle of large people settling into vinyl chairs suggested the people that for a blink of time had been his team, were staying for the long haul.
Clint wasn’t sure whether he should go out there, or stay in here and hide. He didn’t feel up to facing them all. Sliding down the wall he sat on the cool tiles, his back against the wall separating him from the person his soul was yearning for.
Their voices tuned in and out, sometimes too quiet for him to hear, and sometimes he was too lost in his mind for him to figure out what they were saying. The only sound that stayed in the centre of his mind was the beep-beep beep-beep of Phil’s heart.
An hour, and then two passed. The others falling into silence.
The beep-beep blipped again.
The click of heels told him Midge was moving. Hurrying across the room to check on his heart.
“He’s ok.” She said over enunciating every word, making sure Clint could hear her.
“Did Miss Potts get in contact with the cellist?” Steve asked, concern in his voice.
The good captain would want Phil’s person to be with him if something happened. It touched Clint while also infuriating him, they were the ones making that not happen. Clint and Phil were classified.
“Not yet. She got one of his sisters though. His parents are already on their way.” Stark answered, his voice half distracted.
Clint could see it in his mind. The genius fiddling with his phone or some tiny bit of tech, just to have something to do with his hands that would turn into the next great invention. Clint nodded off, dozing against the cool wall half an ear on the rhythms of the other room.
The clip of heels and the shush of business shoes on hospital flooring approaching the room brought him out of his doze.
“Oh Phil!” Beverly’s voice was a bomb dropping and a salve to Clint’s mind.
“Where’s” Arthur started.
“Arthur!” Beverly cut in.
“Should be” He tried again.
“Arthur!” She scolded.
He huffed at her.
“Miss Potts is trying to get in contact with the cellist Ma’am Sir.” Steve said.
He could almost see the earnestness on the blonde Adonis’ face. Beverly hummed no-committedly. Six months after the shortened wedding Beverly and Arthur had accidentally gotten caught up in an operation gone wrong when they had come to visit in New York. They had been fully read in after that, you couldn’t really explain away spontaneous skin colour changes. The explanation had included their marriage being classified and privileged information. Anyone who hadn’t been at the wedding wasn’t to be told.
“The cellist? Oh, of course. I didn’t think he was still seeing them.” Arthur wasn’t as good at remembering the cover story as Beverly.
“We can call. Better to come from someone they know.” Beverly took over assuredly.
Clint couldn’t believe Phil was still using that cover. It had started as a joke when a junior agent had asked him out for coffee, it had stunned the normally unflappable man that a woman half his age was interested in him that he had sputtered something about bows and run. The woman had assumed he meant a musician and the story had got around that he was seeing a cellist.
Phil had shrugged and gone with it. Building The Cellist into a whole relationship. Meeting the parents included.
The need for secrecy around them had waned in the last twelve months. The need for The Cellist decreasing in line with the decreasing security requirements. Culminating in The Cellist moving away, there was a grand plan for Clint and Phil to go out for a public coffee that was meant to happen in two weeks.
He’d forgotten about that. He could go out there. Or he could have when they first arrived now it would just look fucking weird. He had been sitting in the tiny bathroom for hours. He was okay being seen as weird, just not that weird.
The other room feel into silence. Natasha and Tony were the only ones who had met before this disaster. The door beside Clint’s shoulder opened.
“Beverly? Are you okay?” Arthur called from the other room.
“It’s fine, a spider. It’s fine.” She slammed the door behind herself, closing the two of them in the room that wasn’t really big enough for one of them.
Tucking her skirt close into her knees she sat next to him. Shoulders pressed together, she waited for him to say something.
“How are you going?” She caved first.
“Dunno. ‘Kay I guess.” He said into his chest, shrugging tiredly.
“Come on, we got a hotel room down the block. Come and get some sleep. Arthur will stay with Phillip.” She pushed off the floor and held a hand out to help him off the floor.
The set of her jaw said she wasn’t going to let him do anything else.
“’Kay.” He got himself off the floor, he was as likely to pull her down as she as to pull him up. Stepping onto the closed toilet he was in the ceiling in seconds. The vent cover dropped silently into place behind him. The dust in that part the system was an inch thick, he was the only one who used them as a highway and he didn’t often have a reason to sneak into or out of medical.
Beverly met him two corridors over a few minutes later. He didn’t know what excuses she gave to everyone else and he didn’t care. She tucked her hand into his elbow and led him out of the building.
Clint was shocked at the bright stab of light when they stepped outside. He had thought it was midnight not midday. The lack of crowd was almost more startling than the time of day. There were people around but only a few days had passed since war had come to the city for the first time since independence and the people were still reeling.
“Just down there.” She pointed to their left and drew him along in her wake.
They garnered a passel of odd looks. Beverly in her perfect summer dress and Clint in dust stained sweats and tee shirt. The concierge was about two seconds away from trying to stop him from coming in. Beverly glared the man back behind his desk. The pair of them powered through the lobby and into an elevator.
He slumped against the shiny wall of the elevator car as it sped them upward. In silence she led him down the deserted, lavish hallway. The room she let them into, was as lavish and impersonal as the hallway had been. A tiny sitting room had three doors leading off it, she manoeuvred him to face one of the doors and gave him a push.
“The door in the middle is the bathroom and we are on the right.” She stood in the middle of the room and watched him go.
His vision was greying out, exhaustion dulling his sense. He didn’t remember the last time he slept. Properly slept, not just catnapped or dozed.
The bit of light that had seeped in around the thick drapes when he collapsed onto the bed had shifted when he struggled back to consciousness. He wasn’t caught up on sleep, but he didn’t feel like he was going to keel over anymore either.
Rubbing sleep out of his eyes, he shuffled out into the shared area of the suite. Arthur was waiting for him.
“Where’s Beverly?” He looked around, as if he expected to find his Mother-In-Law hiding behind the settee. It was the only piece of furniture an adult could hide behind, even as small as Mama Coulson was.
“She went back to the hospital a few hours ago.” Arthur glanced up from his newspaper and then back down.
“Hours? How long was I out?” The light hadn’t changed that much.
“About eighteen hours.” The paper was folded and put to the side, his considerable attention focused on Clint. The silver eyes that were identical to his son’s looked up at him from the wrong face. Similar but wrong in too many ways.
“Shit. Is everything ok? Back on base?” He dropped into the chair opposite his accountant Father-In-Law.
Arthur pushed a plate of bread with a triumvirate of dips across the table. “Miss Potts appeared, she doesn’t have the Cellist’s number so Mr Stark is trying to hack it. Phil woke up again, only for a second. Asked about you and Natasha before passing out again.” The older man reported.
“Okay. Um. Okay. Shower.” He shuffled out of his seat and out of the room.
“Beverly pick up some actual clothes, they’re in the bathroom.” Arthur called to his back, flicking the newspaper open again.
The water in this shower was even better than the one in SHIELD medical. He stood under it a long time thinking about what he was going to do. Talk to Fury was the priority, they couldn’t keep up the charade that he was being held by psych for long before Steve and Tony remembered their Fury is a lying liar who lies conclusion and started questioning everything else.
Beyond that was a murky grey fog that for once he couldn’t see through. What emerged depended on too many people that he didn’t know well enough to predict. The World War II soldier who was a single step away from crumbling. The Billionaire who felt everything to the quick but hid from the world in the spotlight. The Monster who was hurting and scared. Natasha. He liked to think he knew her, that he knew which way she would jump, but in this he didn’t. Would the demons from her past pull her back under in a world gone crazy?
He took his time drying off and dressing, putting off the inevitable. Finally, with nothing else to procrastinate over, he left the bathroom. Arthur was in the same place he had been when Clint had disappeared into the shower an hour ago. The only change was a fresh cup of coffee and a different newspaper. The older man pushed the cup towards him without looking up, giving him a second to finish collecting himself.
Only once the mug was empty did Arthur move. In a single, smooth movement he was up and away from the table. Jacket on and moving towards the door, Clint left standing in his wake.
“Come on Son. Back to the hospital.”
Arthur’s words broke the hold on uncertainty that had settled over the archer. Spurring him across the lavish room and through the door that was being held open for him. The ride downstairs and in the taxi were completed in silence. Arthur was generally more prone to introspection, and Clint didn’t know what to say.
Stepping through the doors into SHIELD’s New York branch, something had to give. As Arthur continued on to the elevators, Clint stopped.
“Clint?” Phil’s dad realised he wasn’t behind him anymore and turned to find where he had gone.
“I, um. I can’t.”
Rather than shouting at each other across the wide expanse, with a hundred nosey agents looking on, Arthur came back.
“You can’t what son?” A thread of threat ran easily through the words. One verbal misstep here could do irreparable damage to his relationship with his in-laws. “Phil’s waiting.”
“I’m sorry. There are some things I have to deal with first.”
“No.” Arthur tried to cut in, but Clint talked over him.
“There is more going on here than you know. Go up. I’ll be there soon.” Clint waved him towards the elevators while turning his own feet towards the stairwell. It would be a long walk up, but there was less chance of running into anyone, the looks he was getting in the foyer was bad enough without locking himself in a small metal box with a group of deadly people who hadn’t had a chance to reconcile his actions under Loki. No one at SHIELD was naïve enough to blame anyone for crimes committed under the influence, of brainwashing or other, but they still needed time to sort that cognitive dissonance out in their heads. He didn’t begrudge them that, he had been in their shoes before.
Slogging his way up fifteen flights, he let his mind go blank. Memories of good times and fights crowded the edges of his mind, those moments that made up a life with someone, even a soulmate. He refused to dwell on them, there would be more in the future and there wasn’t a need to hoard them.
The executive level was quieter than the lobby had been. Kevin, Fury’s, the only one in immediate view. The other man was bent over something at his desk, the furious tap of his keyboard and the scratch of a pen the sounds of someone hard at work.
Clint stopped a foot from the desk. There wasn’t anything like a normal secretary or Executive Assistant in SHIELD, Kevin had been a field agent before an op had medically excluded him from that line of work, he was still one of the best shots in the agency though. As long as you weren’t comparing him to Clint.
“Director Fury will see you now.” Kevin said. The door soundlessly opening behind him.
Knowing that one of the screens on his desk was dedicated to the CCTV showing every possible approach didn’t make it any less Creepy™. Clint sidled his way past and into the office beyond. The shine of chrome and glass greeted him. The hulking shadow of Phil’s best friend was ensconced behind his post-modern monolith of a desk.
The few times he had been in this office was for a reprimand that Phil couldn’t impartially give. This didn’t feel like that. It felt like that rain soaked night when the only light had been sickly yellow bulbs in a diner that hadn’t seen a health inspector since the Kennedy Administration. It was a sticky formica tabletop. A waitress dropping down a meal he hadn’t ordered and couldn’t afford. It was the first time he had met Fury.
It was comfort around the fear.
He dropped into the stiff backed visitor’s chair and waited.
“Clinton.” It wasn’t Fury that looked up at him.
“Marcus.” It was his husband’s best friend and the man who saved his life.
“Damn it Clint. It’s up to you. Walk into that room and claim Phil or not. The only people who have a right to bitch already know.” Marcus had put aside his work to talk to Clint. The full force of his single eyed focus bearing down on the slightly fractured archer.
“It’s not though.” Clint murmured, realising where the hesitation to face the rest of the ‘Avengers’ was coming from. “It’s up to us. Me an’ Phil.” Both of them liked keeping a level of separation between their personal and professional lives. Hell, he didn’t think Marcus knew about the years of letters and postcards. Breaking that secrecy without at least talking to Phil wasn’t right.
“Phil’s in a coma. You’re not gonna be able to keep running until he wakes up.” Fury growled at him, suspicion lurking in the depths of his chocolate brown eye.
“I”ll be there, as his asset not his husband. Arthur and Beverly will be okay with it. Just gotta fake psych.” He was talking to himself more than his boss at this point, working out the angles in his head.
Fury stood with a huff. “Fine.” He growled and stalked from the room, expecting Clint to follow in his wake.
Which he did.
The elevator ride down was just long enough for Clint to message Beverly a warning. They had learnt to hide their emotional responses a little since learning the truth about their son, but he couldn’t expect them to fool super soldiers and genius’.
He trailed behind Fury, shrinking in on himself the closer they got to the Medical Wing. Lying to people who had stood up for him on nothing but Natasha’s word felt wrong, but breaking Phil’s confidence would be even worse. He just had to hope that they would understand the deception when it all came out. THere was no question of ‘if’ in his mind. It would come out at some point, when Phil woke or in ten or twenty years when they retired. It would come out.
The corridor they had put Phil in was still as quiet as the first day he had followed Fury down it. Quiet conversation spilling from the almost closed door the only indication that anything had changed. It wasn’t the change Clint wanted though. He would have preferred that it was Phil’s voice breaking the silence, or even better Phil talking to the rest of the team. The hushed murmur of people being respectful of someone who they wouldn’t wake up with a rave wasn’t the change he wanted.
“Any change?” Fury asked redundantly as he pushed through the door. Any change, good or bad, would have been reported the second it occurred. Everyone knew that Phil was Fury’s favourite.
“No sir.” Midge answered, it sounded like she was still in the same chair she had been when Clint had gone to shower and change all those hours ago.
He drew in a steadying breath and walked through the door with his head held as high as he could manage. Which was with his eyes just above the ground, at about knee level, and his shoulders hunched in to take up less room.
The conversation came to a dead stop. All eyes, except Fury’s, turned on him. Natasha was the first to move, crossing to him in three efficient steps and drawing him into a hug.”Malyshka, kak dela? Kak nam sleduet postupit’?” She murmured into his ear as she held him close.
“M’okay.” He returned her hug with a quick squeeze and then pulled away. “How is Agent Coulson going?” He asked the room, playing as if he didn’t know who was best to ask for information.
“He is doing as well as can be expected. How about you Agent Barton, sir?” He had been right, Midge was still by the wall but she was standing, not sitting. Her polite answer without giving away that she had seen him breakdown in this very room not that long ago easily put her to the top of his favourite SHIELD Medical personnel.
“Agent Coulson? Not Phil? That’s cold, Thursby.” Stark barely glanced up from his tablet. “Ow.” He stopped to rub the back of his head where Pepper Potts had whapped him with a thick sheaf of papers she had been going through.
When had she arrived?
“How are you Agent Barton?” She asked, a kind smile on her face.
He could see instantly what Phil saw in her. He shrugged at her, he wasn’t going to double down on the lies and say he was good. Her face, Cap’s and Banner’s all twisted in various forms of empathy or sympathy.
Natahs led him to a chair on the side of the bed closest to the door, set next to Phil’s head, it was angled perfectly to allow him to keep everything and everyone in his line of sight. She took the only other free seat next to him. It left Fury as the only one left standing.
He had a pretty effective glare for only having one eye. “Agent Romanoff, keep an eye on our boys.” She nodded her understanding. “Keep me updated.” He left once Midge had given a slightly affronted ‘yes’. Of course she would, that was her job, how dare he question that.
Clint was pretty sure the only reason she didn’t scoff in derision was that it was the Director.
Stark didn’t let the silence last long. “I still think she should be here.” He said to everyone and noone.
Pepper and Cap both sighed. Whatever Stark was talking about, it was apparently something they had already covered. From their expressions of annoyed vexation, it had been covered at length.
“No! Hear me out! She meant something to him. If she didn’t he wouldn’t have mentioned her to you Pep. Even if they aren’t a thing they were a thing.” He argued warming up to the subject.
“He wouldn’t want her here.” Natasha broke in, the underlying tension telling Clint she was about five seconds away from stabbing the billionaire.
“Who?” Clint asked, tearing his eyes away from Phil’s unmoving face.
“The Cellist dear.” Beverly answered him.
Were they still on this?
“And Natasha is right. He wouldn’t. So leave the poor girl alone.” The tick-tick of her plastic knitting needles provided a counterpoint to the conversation, a layer of domesticity that aws rarely found anywhere in SHIELD, let alone in Medical.
Tony huffed grumpily, hunching down into the uncomfortable hospital chair and pretended to ignore than all and tap away at his tablet. Clint knew better, he could see the millisecond long glances he shot as people. Everyone else let the conversation lie. The anxious quiet of a disparate group of people all waiting for the one thing that had brought them all together.
= + =
The burst of noise was too much. Seven people, moving forward, and speaking at once after hours of silence was overwhelming. Knocking over his chair, he stumbled backward, righted himself, and then was in up and away through the air vent just above Phill’s bed before anyone realised where he was going. Or that he was going to go.
Through the pounding in his ears, he made out Phil’s weak voice calling out for him again.
After a week languishing in a coma, his husband’s first word had been his name. A question heavy in the silence that had followed. He hadn’t known if he would be joining Clint in death, or coming back to life of find him enslaved and in reachable. He had gone up against a god because living a life without CLint wasn’t an option.
Clint didn’t need to be told any of that, he would have done the same. Living without Phil wasn’t something he could face. But neither was standing in a room where half the occupants would shove him out of the way trying to get to their friend, not knowing they would be tearing his and Phil’s hearts out in the process.
He didn’t touch the floor between the hospital wing and Phil’s office. Shimmying up between walls and through tiny vents, the hidden places of the building were his highway.
A thin layer of dust lay over everything in Phil’s office. Before Loki and his pick and mix bag of DSM diagnosis, Phil had been at Pegasus for six weeks and Clint had been on back-to-back missions and then in Pegasus also. The large room was stuffy from lack of airflow and the cactus garden and single fern on the window was looking a little worse for wear.
All of it provided a good distraction. Fishing the dust cloth out of the bottom draw, he set to work. Phil was too high-up and too OCD to allow the cleaners in. He kept a ready supply of his preferred cleaning products stashed in the bottom draw of his filing cabinet even though Clint was normally the one that ended up using them. He needed something to do with his hands while he was reporting and dusting the bookshelves worked.
Natasha was the one to come looking for him. Beverly or Arthur might have, if they knew where he would have gone and had access to the area. She slipped into the room without a sound, seeming to move between the dust particles that hung in the air. She didn’t talk, waiting for him to break first. It didn’t always work, he was a sniper after all. But there was a 70/30 chance, in her favour, that it would.
Today wasn’t her day. He finished dusting the bookshelves, and started watering the cacti and filling up the slow release water module for the fern he had bought as a Christmas present a few years ago.
“Clint.” His name cut through the air. “You can’t run from this.”
“I’m not.” He grumbled. With a sigh, he sat in Phil’s chair. He could already hear his husband’s voice griping at him for it. “Or not really. I just can’t, not with all those people around.”
“Their our team.” Natasha pointed out lazily, now that he was talking, he would continue.
“You and Phil are my team. I don’t know any of them.” He pointed out. They both understood the difference between working with someone out of necessity and trusting them after the fact. Phil was the trusting one of the trio, the person able to buffer their smooth edges and gently foster sparks of trust between Natasha, Clint and anyone else.
Before Phil had come to SHIELD, Clint had worked with others but had no friends, had barely trusted the other agents to watch his back. Now, he had monthly drinks with a motley group of snipers, Senior Agents, and scientists that the three of them had gathered.
She inclined her head in acceptance of that fact. “And Phil? You will just hide until no one can see you? What do you think he will think?”
He hated it when she did that. Made him think about someone other than himself when he just wanted to hide from the world. But in this she was wrong. She hadn’t met her soulmate. She couldn’t understand. Phil would never blame him, the level of understanding between the two men went beyond anything he could explain in words.
Lapsing back into sullen silence, he turned his attention to Phil’s computer. Using the Senior Agent’s credentials he logged in to the security system and from there navigated to the CCTV camera that was hidden in the corner of Phil’s medical room. His own login wouldn’t have gotten him access. Only Phil, HIll, and Fury could access the CCTV in Medical, most people didn’t even know they were there, it was one of the few allowances to privacy SHIELD agents were given.
Also the Doctors insisted, something about HIIPA violations and Doctor-Patient confidentiality.
Life flickered into action on the screen. Phil was awake, a second pillow had been tucked under his head to prop him up. Banner and the Captain had disappeared. Bruce didn’t have any particular attachment to Agent Coulson. The Captain could be gone for any number of reasons. Clint didn’t have enough data to guess.
Tony was chattering, assuring Phil he was happy to fly the Cellist in from Portland. Trying to convince him, after the rest of them had already said no. Pepper was glaring at him, her perfectly manicured brow furrowed in annoyance. Beverly was smirking at the three of them and Arthur had moved on to the Washington Post.
Phil. He saved Phil for last. Knowing once he got there, he wouldn’t be able to tear his eyes away. Phil had his best Suit face on. Inscrutable. Blandly agreeable. There was a good chance he wasn’t hearing a word Stark was saying.
He lost himself in watching. He noticed as each blink got infinitesimally shorter. The pain and exhaustion pulling Phil back under. Falling asleep even as Stark was still yammering.
He watched as Stark fell silent and was eventually dragged away by Pepper. Beverly and Arthur were the only ones left. Guardians to watch over their son as he slept.
Time to go.
With a foot on the back of the couch, he propelled himself back into the vent. He dropped into the ajoining bathroom, unwilling to startled Beverly and Arthur and risk waking Phil when he needed the sleep. He made enough noise putting the vent cover back to alert them to his presence. The chair he had knocked over in his hurry to run earlier had been righted. Sitting at the head of the bed waiting for him. Without a word he sat back in his spot.
A fluffy warmth settled over him. He pulled the wooden blanket closer, offering a tired smile to his mother-in-law as a thank you. The soft beep and hiss and huff of the machines lulled him to sleep. Long days and repeat had worn at him and the short sleep in the hotel had been days ago and not enough to start catching up.
A hand curling around one of his woke him. One second he was asleep then he was meeting the silver eyes of his heart.
“Hey.” Phil whispered, his voice still rough.
“Hey.” Clint whispered back.
Glancing around, he saw no one else had joined them while they slept. Arthur was still there, asleep in a corner. Midge was the only other person in the room, apparently engrossed in her book, but she smiled slightly when his eyes passed over her, so not as engrossed as she wanted people to think.
“Tasha told me they got you back. Clint..”
“No. That Bastard taking me wasn’t your fault.” He broke in. He knew, he knew from the tone of voice that Phil was about to try and apologise for that whole clusterfuck of a situation.
The assertion was accepted and the topic dropped easily. “Why did you run?” There was only curiosity, no accusation.
“I didn’t wanna share you. Or not even share. They don’t know. You heard Stark, going on about the Cellist. I would have been nothing. Pushed past.” Clint struggled to find the words.
From Phil’s expression, the broken sentences were enough. Understanding washing over the older man’s face.
“It’s not classified anymore. We’re not classified anymore. Not really. You could have told them.” Phil stretched a little, running his fingers through Clint’s hair. A familiar, comforting movement.
“No I couldn’t. We do that, we do it together.” That he knew the words to. Knew how to explain that. He knew it to the souls of his feet and the core of his bones. “Would you? Do you?”
“Do you?” Phil turned the question without answering it.
“Before this. No. Now yes. I can’t. I won’t be second, or worse, best again.” Clint didn’t look away. Sharp eyes noting every micro expression and flicker of emotion. He couldn’t stop the smile blooming across his face at what he saw there. The flash of fear mixed with a good dose of yes and absolutely and I’m right there with you.