“The best thing for being sad," replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, "is to learn something. That's the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.”
-The Once and Future King, TH White
Before the Avengers are even a glint in Nick Fury’s eye, it is Fury and Natasha Romanov and Phil Coulson. Oh, SHIELD is a great deal bigger than the three of them but they are elite and they are gifted. Fury runs the whole division and Natasha’s abilities as a covert operative and assassin are unparalleled. Phil is indefinable but it is generally acknowledged that, without him, SHIELD would fall down around their ears.
Years later, they are joined by Clint Barton. Clint is the man with the aim and the man with the vision and sometimes, he even takes orders. He is the last of the happy few to join SHIELD’s high echelons. He is also the most reluctant. It is not that he does not care about his colleagues but they are his colleagues and not his friends. The divide is important to him. There is work and there is home and if home is an empty, barely-furnished apartment, it is still a great deal better than many of the alternatives. There are voids in Clint’s life and he has no intention of filling them. He means to keep it that way but Natasha does not allow it and, surprisingly, neither does Phil.
On his first day, Fury tells him that when Agent Coulson tells him to jump, he needs to ask how high.
“And when Agent Romanov does?”
“You should probably duck.”
Months after Clint joined, they are at the end of a long and irascible mission in the ass-end of nowhere in France. It’s summer and it’s sticky-hot and the three of them are sitting around a wrought-iron table outside a bar in a small village. Phil, immaculate in a suit and sunglasses, appears distracted by his phone and Natasha has just ordered a round of pastis. Clint soon learns that pastis is vile, with or without water. Natasha downs it without blinking and even Phil doesn’t seem to mind it. Clint’s not sure if it’s a SHIELD requirement to be some sort of pastis connoisseur but he orders beer in the next round and doesn’t understand the stony expression on the waiter’s face until Natasha explains that Clint probably shouldn’t have ordered a Belgian beer in a French bar.
“If they didn’t want me to buy it, they shouldn’t sell it,” says Clint.
Phil’s phone rings and he pushes up his sunglasses to rub at his eyes before he answers. Unusual to see the man display any sort of weakness at all.
“You know I can’t tell you – “ Phil’s head is tilted to the side; he is listening intently. “No, just tell him to email it to me. I’ll have it back to him by tomorrow.” Then he laughs. Phil Coulson genuinely laughs and Barton is charmed. “Then he should have had it done sooner. He doesn’t get his disregard for deadlines from his father, I’ll tell you that much.” Phil glances at his watch. “Yeah, 3pm. Okay, sure. Talk to you – yes. Yes, of course.”
Natasha is scanning the wine list and doesn’t seem the least bit perturbed that the irreproachable Phil Coulson makes personal calls on the job. Clint supposes he should make nothing of it but now his curiosity is piqued and it turns out that he works with people, who have lives.
“Homework?” asks Natasha, without looking up.
“Late,” says Phil and there’s something in his expression that’s almost fond in the way that it isn’t when Clint is four weeks late handing in an incident report form.
When they’re back in Manhattan, Phil is as unreadable as ever. It’s not that Clint watches him; it’s just that he is more observant than he might previously have been. He begins to notice things about Phil, despite the man’s attempts to blend into the SHIELD wallpaper.
Phil doesn’t wear a ring but that’s not unusual. A lot of SHIELD agents eschew anything that might be viewed as leverage. Clint can’t access Phil’s personal file, which is endlessly frustrating. Asking Natasha would be too easy and too much like giving in. Occasionally, Phil holds debriefings in his own office and there is nothing to suggest that the man has any ties to the outside world. There are no photographs and no children’s drawings or even any decorations beyond a cactus, which was a present from Natasha when Phil’s orchid died.
Clint gets a little resentful when people push ahead of Phil getting out of elevators or when it’s always Phil who steps aside to let others pass. Phil holds doors open and not just for women. Phil is a kind man and he goes unnoticed. When other SHIELD agents do notice him, it’s generally in a rather dismissive, oh, him way. He’s just that older guy, with the receding hairline and completely blank expressions that probably mean he’s a psychopath, but you’d have to be a psychopath to work so closely with Fury and Romanov and Barton. Clint’s kind of proud of that, actually.
There are other agents who are perfectly pleasant to Phil. Agent Sitwell hovers somewhere in that nebulous region of colleague and subordinate but Clint sees Phil laughing with Sitwell in the break room so today they are colleagues. Phil looks up when he sees Barton and he’s still smiling.
He gestures to the empty chair next to him and it’s a clear invitation to join the troops. Clint sort of panics and just shakes his head and mimes drawing back an arrow.
“I’d say the practice makes perfect, Agent Barton, but one can only assume, at this point, that you’re attempting to exceed perfection.” Phil’s tone is perfectly dry but he gestures. “Fine. Do report back on the grappling hook arrows, won’t you, or R&D will have my hide.”
Clint grins and tips him a salute.
Days pass, and weeks. Clint continues to watch Phil. Only it’s not watching, it’s opportunistic observing.
“Why do you work so late?” he asks, one day.
Phil looks at him.
“Seriously, Coulson. You’re here till all hours. That can’t be healthy”
“Dare I ask how you know so much about my work practices, Agent Barton?”
Clint knows when to hold his own counsel. He just rarely does. On this occasion, however, he stays quiet.
Phil claps him on the shoulder as he walks away. “Well, next time you see that I’m in my office, at least have the decency to bring me coffee.”
Clint just can’t deal with this man. He does begin to provide coffee, though not too often, in case Phil gets used to it. Sometimes, when it’s late, and Clint has a backlog of reports, he goes into Phil’s office and sits cross-legged on the floor, their pens scratching against paper in a companionable duet.
Once, Phil’s phone rings and Clint looks up, wondering if he should leave. It’s only 7pm but Phil’s tie is loosened and he looks exhausted but he’s smiling, now, and doesn’t seem even to notice that Clint’s there.
“Way past my bedtime?” Phil asks, his voice becoming this warm and friendly thing. “It’s way past your bedtime.”
It’s endlessly evident that Phil’s talking to a child until, “Okay. Straight to bed, you hear? Put –“ There’s a shift in his tone. “Hi, Ellie. No, no fear of that.” He chuckles. “Daylight is for the weak.”
Clint keeps his gaze fixed on his report forms and suddenly feels extremely uncomfortable. Phil hangs up. There’s silence and then he clears his throat.
“My sister lives in England,” he says and that’s all there is to it.
The next day, Clint finds Natasha. “What do you know about Coulson’s family?” he asks. He doesn’t ask. He demands to know.
Natasha looks him up and down, her eyes narrowed, before coming to some conclusion or other. She gives out information in aliquots. Clint’s never sure when he’s had his apportioned share. “He has two sisters,” says Natasha. “A bunch of nephews and nieces.”
“He’s not married?”
The look that Natasha gives him is sharp, like a scalpel blade, and she exhales. “He’s not married.”
It’s strange that that doesn’t reassure Clint. He worries at the nebulous concept of Phil Coulson’s family. Two sisters and no wife and he works Thankgsiving but always takes three days over Christmas, according to the rosters. He’s scheduled for a week’s leave in July and that’s it. The rest of the time, Phil Coulson is here, at SHIELD, working eighteen-hour days and not hearing the remarks made about him (no life and married to his job and no sense of humour but Clint has heard him laugh and he has seen him smile).
A few missions follow that send them to different parts of the world. Even when they’re totally classified, other agents tried to guess where they’ve been. Sunburn on the back of Barton’s neck suggests he’s been somewhere tropical and the shadows under Coulson’s eyes imply wicked jet leg but their colleagues are some fools if they can’t reconcile snow and long hours to produce the exact same effects.
Clint’s pretty sure that Phil’s not sleeping. This time, they’ve returned from Scotland, because some super-villain thought that the Orkneys were a smart place to build a base and no one ever taught him about respecting World Heritage Sites. Clint sees Phil going home after midnight and he’s in before six most days and, unlike Clint himself, Phil doesn’t take long cat naps in the rec room in the middle of the afternoon.
There are more phone calls but they’re conducted behind closed doors and, after each one, Phil looks even more exhausted. Clint begins to wonder if there’s an ex-wife or maybe Phil has a wayward brother, too. He has no idea what to say to Phil, though, and Phil’s work remains unaffected.
Until Clint and Phil are in Phil’s office and Clint’s being debriefed on their latest mission, which was nothing more than a milk run in Mongolia, and an agent comes in with a note for Phil. All the colour drains out of Phil’s face when he reads it, and he’s pretty pale to begin with. He looks like a wax-work and only his eyes move, widening and scanning the page and stopping, saccadic movement like gunshot and Morse code and Clint can see that Phil’s hand is trembling slightly.
“Get Deputy Director Hill if she’s not already with Director Fury,” he says. His voice is steady. He takes a breath and that’s all he needs to collect himself. He stands up. “Barton, walk with me.”
Barton doesn’t need telling twice. They walk briskly along the corridor towards Fury’s office and pass Natasha coming the other direction. She must see something in Coulson’s face because he doesn’t actually say anything. She turns on her heel, though, and falls into step with them. This time, agents are practically falling over themselves to move out of their way and it’s all Clint and Natasha can do to keep up with Phil.
He bursts into Fury’s office without knocking and Fury turns around from where he is facing the window. Hill is sitting at Fury’s desk, phone in one hand while the other hand flies over the computer keyboard, surely too quickly to be performing any kind of useful function.
“When did this happen?” asks Phil and Clint wants to ask what, what’s happening but the expression on Fury’s face stops him short. Fury looks worried and grave.
“Two hours ago. I’m going to ask you this once, Coulson. Are you sure you want to be a part of this?”
Coulson’s reply is low and steady. “You’d have to cuff me to my desk to keep me here, sir.”
Fury nods. He looks resigned but not entirely happy. “Fine. Wheels up in an hour. There’ll be a briefing in ten minutes. Your team?”
“Romanov and Barton, sir.”
“As I’d expected. Ten minutes, Coulson.”
Clint doesn’t know if it’s because they’ve been working together for so long or if they’ve just learned to read the spaces between Coulson’s words, but he and Natasha fall into step behind Coulson again. Natasha peels off to the female changing room and Barton follows Coulson to their locker room. They’re in their field suits and standing in the designated conference room seven minutes after Fury issued the order.
At ten minutes, the room is full. Field agents, techs and medics, and Coulson still looks white. Barton briefly wonders if one of the medics could give him a shot, sedate the shit out of him so they can leave him here. Whatever’s going on, it’s already taking its toll on Coulson and they’ve not even been properly briefed yet.
The room is darkened and a screen is lowered. Fury clears his throat. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a situation. A Code Pirithous is in progress.”
Clint lowers his head so that Natasha can translate. He’s always been a bit lax about learning SHIELD designations because most missions can be distilled down to point-and-shoot and, in any case, Natasha or Phil will always explain. “It means that a member or members of a SHIELD agent’s family has or have been abducted.”
“Well, that’s a dumb thing to do,” says Clint, his eyes darting towards Phil, who’s standing just behind Hill.
Two photographs appear on the screen. Coulson is the only one who’s not looking. On the left is a blonde woman, who looks to be in her early fifties and on the right is a little boy, with a wide smile and a gap between his teeth.
“Shit,” murmurs Clint because that can’t be Coulson’s nephew. The resemblance is so close that if someone told Clint that Phil had reproduced by asexual budding or someone had scraped off some skin cells to clone him, Clint’d believe it.
“On the left is Eleanor Margaret Walker. On the right is Philip Andrew Coulson.” There is an alarmed hum within the room, like a swarm of outraged bees. “Eleanor is fifty-three and five foot eight. She’s also known as Ellie. Philip is eight years old and three foot seven, also known as Pip. They were taken, in broad daylight, by HYDRA agents, near the British Museum in London. So far, the usual demands are being made, regarding release of hostiles. By the time we hit European landmass, we’ll have their location narrowed down to three possibilities. You all know the drill.” Fury pauses and his gaze flickers towards Phil, who’s looking resolutely and blankly ahead. “Let’s get Agent Coulson’s sister and son home safe.”
They’re in the plane and headed east before Coulson speaks. “It’s not the first time Ellie’s been kidnapped,” he says. He frowns and worries at a thumbnail. “When we were kids-“ He lifts one shoulder, half-shrugging.
“We’ll get her back, sir,” says Clint. “We’ll get them both back.”
When Natasha leans against his side briefly, he knows he’s said the right thing. He’s not sure when the voids in his life started being filled by Natasha and Phil but he knows there’s not a thing he wouldn’t do for Phil Coulson.
Hill gives them more details. HYDRA’s demands include, as Fury mentioned, the release of certain HYDRA agents held in SHIELD custody. Their demands grow more and more outrageous and it seems that HYDRA believes that SHIELD knows the whereabouts of Red Skull.
“Tell ‘em he’s on holiday with Elvis,” says Clint. He wants to shoot out some kneecaps.
“They say they’ll trade for a SHIELD operative,” says Hill, her brow furrowed. “Of course, they’ve set their sights pretty high.”
They all know what that means. HYDRA wants Fury or Hill or Coulson. Phil’s jaw clenches slightly.
“Based on flight paths, foreign intel and a few taps we have in place, we’ve got the locations narrowed down to three. These are HYDRA bases near Hockenheim, Nyon and Montpellier.” She glances at Phil. “We expect to be able to pinpoint their location with their next contact.”
Phil just nods. His hands are screwed up into tight balls and Natasha leans across and takes hold of both of his hands, rubbing gently, her eyes fixed on his face. Despite the stress of their current situation, Clint feels a surge of something unpleasant in his heart, like he dropped the ball or missed a step.
Nyon it is and it’s only two weeks since the last time Clint was in Switzerland. The extraction is swift and stealthy and bloody. The expression on Phil’s face is terrifying. Clint wishes he hadn’t seen that sort of soulless gaze before but he has, even if it wasn’t Phil, who’s got to be operating on auto-pilot now, but he’s shooting hostiles and not shooting friendlies and unless that changes, neither Clint nor Natasha are going to stop him.
Hill stays with the jet, overseeing the entire operation remotely and they learn afterwards that she’s somehow got this HYDRA division completely fooled; they think that she’s seriously considering trading intel on Red Skull (and Amelia Earhart, too, Clint reckons).
Ellie and Pip are in a reinforced room within another reinforced room. Natasha’s the one to go in and get them, not because Phil fails at the last but because there is something – something that stops him from setting foot over the threshold and that’s when Clint understands, or thinks he understands; Ellie was kidnapped before. When we were kids- Clint is suddenly certain that it wasn’t just Ellie.
Natasha emerges, leading Ellie out and Ellie’s carrying Pip.
Phil’s face is impassive until the moment he sees his sister.
“He’s fine, Phil, he’s fine. He hurt his arm, that’s all-“
Phil holds out his arms and Pip is carefully transferred in and there’s this change in Phil’s face. It knocks the breath out of Clint. Phil’s features soften and he smiles, sure and happy and affirming.
“Daddy?” The little boy’s voice is quiet, almost tremulous and he speaks with a textbook English public schoolboy accent. “I knew you’d come-“
“How’s your arm, pet?” asks Phil. His voice is everything soothing, as though Pip’s only woken from a nightmare and needs reassurance to sleep.
“It hurts,” says Pip and he turns his face towards his father’s chest. Phil lays his hand on Pip’s head and nods. They wind their way towards the exit, flanked by Natasha and Clint.
“What are you wearing, Philip?” asks Ellie. Her voice is a little shaky but she’s able to walk, at least.
“I know you didn’t think I wore ties to work all the time,” says Phil.
“I know I did,” says Clint, under his breath and Ellie shoots him a surprised smile.
“Who are your friends?”
“Agent Barton’s the one with the pathologic inability to keep his mouth shut. Agent Romanov’s on your right.”
“It’s Clint,” says Clint, as Natasha murmurs her first name, too. “I can too shut up, sir.”
“I’ve yet to hear the evidence,” says Phil but there’s nothing heated in his tone.
They fly first to a military hospital in France where it’s discovered that Pip has a broken wrist, received when he slipped and a HYDRA agent grabbed hold of him to stop him from falling. There was evidently no malice in the acquisition of injury but Clint rather wishes he’d taken out a few more HYDRA agents. They spend three days there, between medical check-ups and psychiatric evaluations and debriefings.
After that, it’s home to St Alban’s for Ellie and Pip, and Phil, Clint and Natasha accompany them. Pip’s recovered enough that he’s quite proud of his cast and every SHIELD agent who comes close enough is asked to sign it.
There is a serious discussion over the kitchen table that night. Phil wants Ellie to move back to America with Pip and Ellie’s two daughters, Alex and Charlotte. England was supposed to be the safer option but they found Phil’s family anyway. If Ellie and Pip and the girls are closer, Phil can be more certain of their security measures.
“We’re not moving into that poky flat of yours, you know.”
Phil shakes his head. “No, I was thinking maybe 127? I’ve already talked to Fury about re-requisitioning it.” He offers Ellie a tentative smile. “Think how happy Mum would have been.”
Clint is lost but he gathers up the empty mugs and goes over to the sink. He’s soon joined by Natasha, who bumps elbows with him. She always knows when he has a question.
“127?” he asks. “Isn’t that?”
Natasha nods. 127 is a SHIELD safehouse in New Haven, Connecticut. Clint’s even stayed there, right when he joined up. “It was Phil’s family home.”
Clint has to wonder about Phil’s upbringing. He’s the sort of man who’s devoted his life to SHIELD, and his property, too. He’s the sort of man whose family is considered fair game by the bad guys and that makes Clint’s blood boil, too. Surely a man can be expected to give only so much.
“I’m going upstairs to check on Pip,” says Phil, pushing his chair back from the table. Natasha nods. “I’ll go do a perimeter check.” It’s unconscionable that this quiet neighbourhood in a pretty English town should be classed as a hot spot but Natasha takes her work seriously.
Clint finishes washing the last mug and then sits down, opposite Ellie. He has no idea what to say to her.
“He never talks about you,” he says. That mightn’t be the right thing to say.
“He never talks about you, either.” Ellie’s red-rimmed eyes meet his steadily. “Would you like more tea?”
“No. I mean. That came out wrong. He doesn’t talk about you and he doesn’t talk about Pip to keep you safe. He – he works all hours and goes home to an empty apartment for, like, five hours maximum a night, and he does nothing that could compromise his personal life or his family life because he doesn’t have one.”
“It didn’t work, though,” says Ellie, softly.
“It didn’t work,” says Clint. “But not for want of trying. So I think you should maybe think about coming back with us. Because being away from you and Pip has stopped working, too.”
Ellie stares at him for a moment and there must be some Coulson gene for that strange smile that Barton’s come to associate with here we go again. “Logic isn’t your strong point, is it, Agent Barton?”
Clint looks down at the table cloth. It’s one of those red and white checkered ones and he’s about to start playing a game of invisible chess when Ellie speaks again. She sounds defeated. “We’ll come back to the States. As Phil said, at least we know that the support is there, for Pip, and for me.”
There’s no way, yet, of knowing how deeply affected Pip is or will be by this whole ordeal. He and Ellie were detained for less than fourteen hours but Clint knows full well that that’s long enough to cause some pretty serious problems.
“Pip always tells people that his dad’s a spy,” says Ellie. “They always laugh. I tell them that he’s a lawyer and they hate him for leaving his boy.”
“He’d not – he’d never –“ Clint is appalled.
Ellie reaches across the table and covers Clint’s hand with hers. “You don’t need to defend my brother to me. I know what sort of man he is.”
And Clint knows. He knows without being told that he and Ellie are in perfect agreement on the subject of Phil. “Can I ask – “He frowns. “Pip’s mom?”
“She died,” says Ellie, as though it’s that simple. “Pip was about six months old. It was cancer.” She smiles and it is devastating. “She was fifteen years younger than Phil and it was a great scandal when they got married but –“ She shrugs. “They were in love. A year after she died, Nick Fury came knocking.”
Clint feels a little numb. He never thought of Fury as a vulture before but it seems strangely apt right now.
“Phil’s no good at avoiding his civic duty. He’s too like our mother.” Ellie taps her forefinger on the table. “The domestic arrangements weren’t ideal but it was the best solution we could come up with. It was supposed to keep Pip safe.”
Clint nods heavily. “And you – you have two daughters?” He wants to ask about their father, too, as he pieces together this Coulson jigsaw. He thinks that might be too intrusive. He thinks that Natasha would be proud of him.
“Alexandra and Charlotte.” Ellie’s strange, sad smile returns. “Their father died, three years ago.” Her voice trembles. “Phil and I have not enjoyed good fortune with our – when it comes to –“
Widowed and widowered, parents to young children, abducted like it’s going out of style; these Coulson siblings have not had it easy and Clint kind of wishes there was someone to blame, someone with kneecaps and breakable bones.
He doesn’t know when Natasha returned but she’s here now and she’s filling up the kettle. Clint doesn’t know how Natasha does it, how she makes herself indispensable and terrifying all at once.
“I’m going to go up and see how Phil is,” says Clint and he’s out the door before anyone can tell him it’s a bad idea. He walks up the stairs quietly. He’d clocked the creaky step when they arrived earlier and so he skips that one and walks down the corridor to Pip’s room. The door is ajar and Clint hesitates before pushing it open.
Phil is lying on the bed, alongside his son, who seems to be fast asleep, supported by Phil’s arm around his shoulders and a veritable fortress of pillows. A battered, dog-eared copy of TH White’s Once and Future King sits on the bedside table and the room is strewn with toys and books. In the half-light, the walls look grey but Clint reckons they’re blue in daylight.
Phil offers him a smile. Clint nods towards Pip. “How is he?” he whispers.
Pip opens his eyes. “I’m okay!” He sounds suspiciously alert. “We were reading about King Arthur.”
Clint arches one eyebrow. It shouldn’t surprise him that Pip shares his father’s disdain for sleep.
“I’m going to go talk to Clint for a bit, okay, son?”
“You try get some sleep.”
“I will! Goodnight, Daddy.”
Clint and Phil walk out onto the corridor and Clint realises this is the first time they’ve been alone together since they got the call four days ago. “Great kid,” he says.
A smile appears on Phil’s face. It’s some kind of victory. “Go on, Clint. I know you want to say it.”
Clint grins widely. “The apple sure doesn’t fall far from the tree, huh?”
Phil laughs, almost soundlessly. “You’ve been thinking that for four days, haven’t you?”
Clint feels sort of warm inside, like Phil being able to read him like a book is a good thing. “They’ll come back with us,” he says. “You know that, right?”
Phil doesn’t say anything. He just swallows thickly and his face just crumples and grown men don’t cry and SHIELD agents don’t cry but Clint’s got his arms around Phil and Phil’s forehead is on Clint’s shoulder and Clint doesn’t know what to say so he just rubs Phil’s back as Phil shakes and shudders in his arms.
“It’ll be okay,” he says. “Pip’ll be fine and Ellie’ll be fine and you’ll be fine, okay?”
He’s not sure how long they stand there but he lets Phil dictate and when Phil steps away, his face averted, he lets him ago and when Phil squeezes his hand in thanks, Clint thinks maybe he’s doing okay tonight.
Natasha must think he’s doing okay, too, because when he goes downstairs, she moves over on the couch and hands him a mug of hot tea.
“We’re looking at Phil’s baby photos,” she says, her whole body thrumming with amusement.
Clint grins and winds his arm around Natasha’s shoulder as they look at the photo album with Ellie and he touches a finger to the picture of Phil as a chubby, smiling toddler and his mother laughing behind him. He leans closer and scrutinises the picture. “Is that-?”
It makes sense, of course. It makes sense that Nick Fury would have headhunted Phil Coulson seven years ago and it makes horrible sense that Ellie and Phil were kidnapped as children. They’ve always been in the line of fire, since before SHIELD was SHIELD. Phil Coulson is Peggy Carter’s son and that just adds a new dimension to Phil and he’s already so multifaceted that Clint’s always been a little dazzled by him.
“We’re no strangers to tragedy,” says Ellie. “We’re quite practised in losing the ones we love.”
Phil’s joined them now. He sits on the arm of Ellie’s chair and he smiles at Clint, unruffled, as though he hasn’t just been sobbing in Clint’s arms. “We’re getting to learn it’s not the end of the world, though.”
Clint nods. He’s getting to learn, too.