Phil Coulson wakes in medical, in a dark room with a beeping heart monitor.
He lies in the room, keeping still, feeling his way around his injuries. His thoughts are slow and sluggish, that'll be the pain medication; his chest itches and burns, but in a distant, unimportant kind of way. Nothing else seems injured; his fingers twitch clumsily when he tries, his toes bend and flex, his eyes open and close. No paralysis, then.
They've put in a catheter. Unpleasant, but probably necessary.
He heard Fury say, as he drifted into unconsciousness (into death, he thought) that the medics were there and they'd called it, which means the Avengers believe he's dead. Hopefully his plan worked. If it did, none of them might be aware he's alive even now.
It's a temptation to keep it that way. Tell Fury he wants to be relocated, get a job somewhere far away from New York. Maybe in Portland. He's heard it's nice. He has a fake cellist girlfriend who lives there.
The fake cellist was a necessity, mostly because of Clint. Clint's very, very private and he doesn't like having vulnerable places, doesn't like anyone to know that there are people who could be targeted and hurt in order to hurt him. Phil doesn't honestly care much one way or another --
Didn't care much.
Because now he understands, lying here in the dark, thirsty and in foggy pain. Clint has always seemed invulnerable, even next to Tony Stark in his armor and Thor the actual god and Steve Rogers the supersoldier. Clint is someone Phil once saw take a bullet and shake it off until the mission was over, someone who has defied every single challenge thrown at him, and Phil has never once really thought that could be taken from him.
But Clint belongs to Loki now, Clint and his cloudy blue eyes and dead expressionless face. Not the sarcastic, surprisingly intelligent, surprisingly everything circus act that was Clint Barton.
He wonders if he pulls out the cannula that's helping him breathe, if he disengages the drugs and the IV that's nourishing him, if he shifts his weight in the right way he can reopen the wound and lend some truth to Fury's lie.
Tempting. Still, if Fury's keeping him alive it must be for a reason. If the blast that hit Loki didn't kill him, Phil still has a chance to hurt him back.
He drifts that way for a while, letting the drugs dull the grief as well as the pain, because even if Clint's still alive, Loki will kill him when he's done with him, or Natasha will kill him if she can. That's regs. Phil's spent the last few days telling himself Clint is dead, because that thing is not Clint.
Agents who are compromised to that extent get no mercy. SHIELD has been burned too many times.
Eventually there's a noise, and a door opens; light floods in from the hallway and he can see a shadow against it, the unmistakable shape of Clint's body, bow slung over his shoulder. Great, now he's hallucinating.
He can hear Clint say something -- Nick Fury's a fucking dead man -- and a reply, it sounds like Stark. Not yet. We need him.
The lights flick on, and he can see Clint's face, and yes, there's Stark behind him, and Steve Rogers behind them both. It's officially becoming a very weird drug trip, when suddenly Steve says, "His eyes are open."
And then Clint walks into the room and bends down so their faces are level, tilting his head sideways.
"Clint," Phil murmurs.
"Hey, sir," Clint says. This close, Phil can feel his body heat, smell sweat and blood on him. He curls his right hand into his palm and the sharp sting of fingernails against flesh convinces him this might, actually, be real.
"You were compromised," he tries.
"Didn't take," Clint says.
Phil can hear his heart monitor jump, can actually hear an alarm go off as he tries to sit up, but Clint puts a hand on his shoulder to hold him down, a real solid hand, and Phil leans into it, though it makes his chest hurt. Stark does something to the machines and they stop making noise.
"You're okay?" Phil asks, and hates how plaintive he sounds.
"He's fine," Steve says.
"Loki -- "
"Don't worry about it," Clint replies, and then starts to laugh. What's funny? "Hey, look, I brought Captain America to say hi."
"Apparently I'm only good for hacking the nineteen layers of security this room has in order to actually get to you," Stark says. "We would have brought flowers but it was hard to carry them while we were breaking in through a maintenance tunnel."
"He hummed the Mission Impossible theme the whole time," Clint whispers. Phil tries to raise a hand to touch him, to make absolutely sure this is real, but it hurts to move around the needles in his wrist and elbow. "Keep still," Clint adds, pressing their foreheads together. "Just keep still, okay?"
In the distance, he hears Steve say, "I thought you said he had a cellist."
"I thought he did," Stark answers. Then he laughs. "Oh. Like with a bow. That's not funny, Coulson."
"I'm never funny," Coulson replies.
"That was all me," Clint adds.
"Clint," Steve says, and Clint nods.
"We only had a short window," he says, and it takes longer for Phil to understand than he'd like. They're here in a camera blackout, no doubt caused by Stark. "But it's cool, okay, I was really here, and when Fury lets you out I'm going to act all surprised, okay?"
"Me too," Phil rasps. He feels Clint press something into his hand, cold and sharp.
"See you when you're alive again," Clint says, and the three men leave as stealthily as they'd arrived. He thinks he hears Stark humming the James Bond theme as he slips back into unconsciousness.
He dreams about New Mexico, the hot dust of it, the freezing nights. Clint's voice in his ear over the comms. What kinda people lived around here, you think? Hopi or Zuni or are we in Anasazi country?
Mescalero Apache, Phil replies, because it's his job to know that kind of thing. Zuni were up north, west of the Pueblos.
Clint sounds thoughtful. Metal arrowheads mostly, then. Huh. Might be good hunting. What say when this is done we take a few days and zoom around? Find some ruins, do some rock-kicking?
Some people just collect stamps, Phil says drily, because he will never not give Clint shit about collecting arrowheads.
Some people have dragged me to every creepy antique store everywhere we've ever been, looking for vintage Captain America cards, Clint answers because, admittedly, it's much easier to give Phil shit for his hobby.
He laughs down the comm line, glad it's a private connection, and
...that's when he wakes in the dark, in pain, with needles in his arm.
Just a dream, then. He's still injured, Clint's still compromised, still dead. It was just a dream.
But his hand clenches and there's something in it, warmed now by his skin. It's small, rough, dulled from age and corrosion. Shaped like an arrowhead. Metal, the kind you might pick up if you were hunting for them in southern New Mexico on a two-day vacation between jobs with your boyfriend.
Clint was here. That really happened. Clint is safe, alive, resurrected. He aches with the knowledge. Clint is alive and he found him again.
He holds tight to the arrowhead, almost so tight it cuts the skin, and waits.
Clint Barton has had a very, very exciting day.
So then gwynhefar suggested a sequel from Clint's POV, and apparently Saturday night is Creativity Night here at chez Closer.
Clint Barton really just wants to go home.
There are multiple problems with this, in layers.
A) His quarters are on the Helicarrier.
1. The Helicarrier is trashed.
2. He has no way of getting there.
B) Tony Stark is in his immediate vicinity.
1. Tony is insisting on shawarma.
2. Everyone else is starving and agreeing with him.
C) Really, he has no home.
Because he ran away from home and then from the orphanage and then from the circus and then from a life of crime and the only place, the only place he never ran away from is Phil Coulson.
D) Phil is dead.
Clint is tired and his whole body aches and his boyfriend is dead, and it's almost his fault, though Natasha's pep talk is at least keeping him from believing he killed the man himself. He is focusing all his energy on blaming Loki, on hating Loki so hard it burns away the grief.
But Tony is insisting on food, and these people helped him. They won't see it that way, they don't know, not even Natasha knows. But they helped him take down the man who killed his home, and they don't seem to care that he was pretty evil until about three hours ago. He's willing to follow them anywhere. He's clinging by fingernails to what little he has.
They don't go to the shawarma place so much as invade it, and the guys working there say "Hey, we saw you on TV!" and "Were you the good guys or the bad guys?"
After Steve solemnly promises they're the good guys, Tony says "Okay, here's the deal. You keep feeding us everything you have until we say stop and when we say stop I'm going to give you this Black Amex and you can charge us whatever you want. Throw in a grand or two for property damage."
Which is a guarantee of good service, Clint will give him that.
He doesn't eat. Every time someone puts food in front of him he casually edges it towards Thor. Through a haze of hate and desperation he can barely make out that Thor and Steve are in an unacknowledged eating contest.
About an hour into the feast, when everyone's beginning to perk up and hold actual conversations again, Tony's helmet starts talking to him.
Sir, it says, I believe I have surveillance footage from the Helicarrier which may be relevant to your interests.
Tony puts the helmet on, and then through the metal they can hear him say, "Sweet Christ, that motherfucker."
Then he plonks the helmet onto Steve's head, which, okay, that's really funny, and Steve says, "That motherfucker."
The entire table goes silent.
Steve takes the helmet off and tosses it to Tony. "I want visual confirmation in person. Can you make that happen?"
"Not alone," Tony says, and then looks around the table. "Hey, who wants to break into the Helicarrier?"
Everyone's hand goes up. Only Bruce asks, "Why?"
Tony sets the helmet upside-down in the middle of the table and a projected film clip plays out of it, and Clint shoots out of his chair.
Bruce is singing backup on a computer jerry-rigged to pick up satellite internet at Stark Tower. Thor's got guard duty on Loki, which makes sense, though he helps ferry Clint and Natasha up to the Helicarrier while Tony takes Steve up. Natasha's playing wheelman (translation: stealing a quinjet while they break in).
"Why did we bring him again?" Tony asks Clint, as they hack past the third secure access door in the maintenance tunnels.
"He's right behind you," Steve reminds him, glowering.
"Okay yeah but seriously why did we bring him?" Tony asks.
"It'll make Coulson happy," Clint replies. Steve crosses his arms, and his muscles bulge menacingly. "I don't know why," he adds. He really doesn't. He has theories about Phil's thing for Captain America but he's never delved deeply for fear of what he'd find.
"So here's how this is going to go down -- open sesame -- " Tony interrupts himself as the door opens and they crowd through into yet another tunnel. "This place is shot to shit, so I'm going to induce a surveillance blackout and nobody will care. Bruce, talk to me."
"Shouldn't be hard," Bruce's voice comes over the laptop's speaker. "I'll send the query, you answer it, we'll start a feedback loop."
"At your service, sir."
"Don't you use that sexy voice with me. Anyway," Tony continues, turning back to them. "The blackout will last exactly fourteen minutes. When I hack the last door, we're going out to the right, left down the first corridor, it's either the second or third door on the right. You boys following?"
"Out right left, two or three," Clint repeats, tense. He's not letting himself hope. He's not. It could be footage from earlier, or from the morgue, all scrambled up in the Helicarrier's half-functional systems. The final door pops open, and Clint scrambles out first, moving at a fast trot down the hall. Tony follows, Steve on rear point.
He's not hoping. This is just an op. Just an op, like the hundreds he's done, just information retrieval.
The second door is locked, so he moves on to the third while Tony stares blankly at door #2 and says, "Manual locks? Jesus Christ. Steve, you got a hairpin?"
Clint opens the third door, and light spills into the room. There's Phil, lying on a bed, in the dark, heart monitor a steady beep-beep-beep.
"Nick Fury's a fucking dead man," he says, staring at Phil, too chickenshit to go any further.
"Not yet," Tony says grimly, behind him. "We need him."
"For what?" Steve asks.
"Eh, point," Tony replies.
Clint reaches into the room and fumbles for a light switch, flicking it on. Warm yellow light washes over them, over Phil, attached to a thousand sensors and machines, and his heart clenches because even if Phil is alive that's so many fucking machines, who knows --
"His eyes are open," Steve says.
Oh God. Oh God.
Clint steps into the room, right up to the bed, and Phil's eyes track him, slow and sluggish. He hears a noise that sounds like a dry swallow, but at the tail end of it there's a faint murmur, Clint.
"Hey, sir," Clint says, his heart going so fast it's like a hum, his hands itching to reach out.
Phil's slurring badly. "You were compromised."
He looks confused, afraid, and Clint clenches his hands on the rail of the bed.
"Didn't take," he manages. Behind him, some machine goes crazy; Tony hits it with a well-timed punch and it dies, whining.
"You're okay?" Phil asks. Clint winces as the hope in his voice. He can't talk, his throat's closed, he can't even breathe. Fury took this from him, Loki took so much and then Fury couldn't fucking resist taking this, too, but Clint's going to get it back. He has five other superheroes, two of which are in this room, and he's going to get it back.
"He's fine," Steve says, when it's probably pretty obvious Clint can't talk.
"Loki," Phil rasps.
"Don't worry about it," Clint blurts, laughing, because oh God, Phil's alive and he's asking about fucking Loki. It's hysterical.
But Phil looks lost, so Clint does the one thing that he's sure will make him happy.
"Hey, look, I brought Captain America to say hi," he says.
Steve blushes, which is also fucking hysterical, and Tony bitches from behind them about how much work he did to get them here, and Clint can't help it. He's not really much of a talker but the one person he can talk to like a normal person, the one he trusts, is alive again.
"He hummed the Mission Impossible theme the whole time," Clint whispers.
Phil shifts in the bed, wincing, hand lifting, and Clint decides, fuck it all. Just, fuck it, fuck secrecy and the fake cellist and just, all of it.
He presses his forehead against Phil's, warm and solid. "Keep still," he murmurs, resting a hand on his arm. "Just keep still, okay?"
He can feel Steve's I am vastly out of context expression from here.
"I thought you said he had a cellist," Steve says.
"I thought he did," Stark answers. Clint waits for him to get it, and a second later he does. "Oh. Like with a bow. That's not funny, Coulson."
"I'm never funny," Phil mumbles, slurring again.
"That was all me," Clint says. It was, he asked for that, and Phil just laughed at him and agreed, because he's more than Clint ever deserved or expected to get. He stays there, sharing breath with Phil, ignoring the awkwardness surrounding them, until finally Steve clears his throat. Time's ticking by.
"Clint," he says, after another ten seconds.
Clint babbles reassurances, because Phil still looks horrifyingly confused. They have to go but it won't be for long, and yes it's real, and he has a plan for when Phil finally gets out. Phil seems to relax a little. Clint fumbles in his pocket.
"Come on, lovebird, we gotta go," Tony urges, but Clint has his lucky arrowhead from New Mexico here somewhere -- every arrowhead is lucky until he finds the next one and then that one is lucky, and it's not weird, everyone has their superstitions. He finds it, finally, and presses it into Phil's fumbling fingers.
"See you when you're alive again," he promises, and lets Steve haul him out, loses himself in Tony's mindless movie-soundtrack humming.
They're well out of danger, almost back to the first access door, when Tony drops back a little next to Steve and says, "Soooo, did anyone mention Stonewall to you? Marriage equality? Pride? Rainbow flags? You get any of that?"
"Don't be a douche," Clint calls over his shoulder.
"I'm trying to educate our good Captain here."
"Yes," Steve says. Both of them stop. Clint turns around.
"They did?" Tony asks, looking kind of impressed.
"I know how to use the google dot com," Steve says proudly.
"And you googled for gay rights?" Tony gapes at him.
"I looked up a lot of things. Have you seen these cat pictures with the funny captions?"
"Oh my God." Tony's fingers are dancing over the computer screen even as he talks. "Captain America uses the google dot com. That's the best fucking thing I've heard all day."
"And I want you to know I support you and believe you should have equal rights," Steve says to Clint.
Clint is officially having trouble coping.
"Uh, thanks," he says.
"Okay, door is a go, Natasha, what's your twenty?" Tony asks, as Clint eases the door open and peers through. Coast is clear. Nobody cares about the nerve center of the sewage system right now, apparently.
"First jet on the runway," Natasha's voice echoes through the computer. "Visual confirmation?"
"Confirmed," Steve says, as they dart through the Helicarrier towards the jet.
"Is he okay?" Bruce asks.
"He's awake and reasonably lucid," Steve replies.
"Also, he's fucking Clint," Tony announces, and then adds "Ow!" as Steve smacks him in the head.
"What is wrong with you?"
"What? I feel our team should be informed when one of us is doing our handler -- "
"You don't out people like that, Stark, even I know that!"
"Oh yes, you learned it from the google dot com."
Clint listens to them bicker with half an ear, more concerned with making sure they get to the jet in one piece. Okay, so in the space of a day he has lost his boyfriend, been deprogrammed, fought a battle with aliens, jumped off a high rise, watched a god eat his body weight in shawarma, infiltrated the Helicarrier, discovered his boyfriend is alive, and been outed by Tony Stark.
"Seriously?" Natasha asks, as Clint jumps into the jet and starts the takeoff sequence. "You and Coulson? You dog." She punches his arm.
Clint lifts them off casually, reversing off the flight deck, keeping an ear cocked for chatter on the official line. He wonders if everyone on the Helicarrier is asleep or something. A nap sounds really good right about now.
"Hey, where are we going?" he asks the world at large as he slinks out under the radar. They didn't really plan past get in, make sure Phil is alive, get out.
"Oh, uh, Stark Tower," Tony calls. "You guys can crash, and I need like eighteen showers after this day."
Clint thinks probably it's bad that he doesn't remember the flight to the tower, seeing as how he was flying them there. The next thing he remembers is falling onto a couch in a super delux fancy condo, too exhausted to stand any longer.
He reaches for his lucky arrowhead out of habit, then remembers it's not there. He left it with Phil.
Well, for this bullshit Phil owes him at least a trip to Yosemite to go hunting obsidian. They've had many arguments about how Clint thinks obsidian is the coolest material for a weapon ever (it comes from volcanos!) and Phil thinks he's a crazy man, but this is definitely going to give him an upper hand.
Clint falls asleep muttering to himself about obsidian arrowheads. When he wakes, hours and hours later, his hand goes to his pocket again, and he remembers he left his arrowhead with Phil. Phil, who is alive.
He curls his hand around nothing, thinks of volcanic glass and hand-crafted metal arrowheads and Phil, and waits.
JARVIS is all up in that.
Sometimes I start writing and can't stop. It would be more distressing if I didn't have AO3.
The next time Clint wakes up, he has a moment of total freakout because he doesn't know where he is.
Memories coalesce slowly. Right. Loki, battle, Phil, Stark Tower. Nap.
He sits up, feeling the previous day's exertions in every muscle. Scattered around this very nice empty loft condo in Stark Tower are:
Bruce Banner on the bed, dead to the world, snoring like a buzz saw.
Back to back with him, Steve Rogers, shield clutched across his chest, legs curled up around it.
Natasha Romanoff in a corner, doing a handstand.
"Hey," he says, turning his head so that she's almost right-side-up.
"Hey," she replies, and kicks off the wall, flipping onto her feet. She walks over and pushes his legs up, sitting down on the couch.
They look at each other for a moment and then Natasha lets out a snort and Clint laughs. She scoots up until his legs are bent over hers, her thigh pressed against his ass. She leans her head on his arm and shakes it, still laughing.
"So," she says, looping an arm around his shoulders. "You and Coulson. Why didn't you tell me?"
He shrugs, which makes his back hurt. "Sorry. I get..."
He doesn't know how to say it, really, that he doesn't like people knowing where to hurt him. That he wants to keep things like Phil private, treasures only for him, because otherwise someone might steal them. "I don't know. You know."
"Yeah, I guess," she answers. She sobers a little, studying his face. "Is it good?"
"Apart from the whole almost dying thing? Yeah," he says. He looks down at his hands. "It's really good."
"Dunno, a while now," he says vaguely. "Started when he got back from Malibu after the whole Stane thing."
"I wish I'd known," she says, lifting her chin to rest it on his shoulder. "I would have handled things differently after we got you out."
"Doesn't matter. He's not dead, so." He smiles at her. "Appreciate the thought."
"EVERYBODY UP," Tony yells, entering, and Steve starts awake and tumbles into a fighting stance, while Bruce just moans and mutters something in what sounds like Urdu. "KITCHEN, BAGELS, THEN TIME TO SAY BYE BYE TO LOKI."
He throws a small pane of glass at Clint, who catches it warily. It turns out to be one of the fancy new computers he's been seeing some of the senior management with, except this one's only about the size of his palm. There's just one thing on the screen, a video window labeled PHILWATCH '12. It's a direct live security-cam feed from the room they broke into yesterday. Phil's apparently asleep.
Tony Stark can be such a dick, but Clint is starting to get why people like him anyway.
The next time Phil wakes up, Director Fury is sitting in a chair next to his bed, watching him. Because that's not creepy.
Phil still feels a little slow, but the searing streak of pain that rips through his chest when he moves tells him that they've got him off the really heavy drugs. He clenches his hand desperately, feels the arrowhead dig into his palm, and relaxes.
"Before you ask," Fury says, "Loki is contained. It worked. You have some major tissue damage and the spear nicked a lung. They're estimating six to eight weeks of daily physical therapy, reduced range of motion in your left arm."
"Our people?" Phil asks.
He has been pretty sure Fury doesn't know about him and Clint. The fact that the first words out of his mouth weren't "Barton's okay" confirms it, because Fury at least has always been good about that kind of thing.
"Everyone made it through," Fury says. "As a bonus, Romanoff managed to recover Barton, and they got Selvig back too. I'll have a full briefing for you when you can stay awake for longer than ten minutes at a time."
"Fair enough," Phil says quietly. Then, "They're going to kill you when they find out."
Fury sits back, tilting his head. "If they find out."
Phil makes an inquisitive noise.
"We can relocate you. New name, new identity. Might be a nice break after..." Fury waves his hand around at the room, the Helicarrier, their messed up world.
"No, thank you," Phil manages.
Phil takes a deep breath. "I have a life here. It's not much," a lie, "but it is mine."
"How do you want to handle your return from the dead?" Fury asks.
"Oh," Phil says, "We'll think of something."
Clint waits and waits.
They all gather to send Thor and Loki off, Clint barely restraining blood-red rage. It's better than the sick, violated feeling that the rage overlays. He watches Thor take Loki up, back to Asgard for punishment, and hopes viciously that it's painful.
After that they scatter. Steve has a little apartment in Brooklyn where he presumably spends his time researching the world on the google dot com. Bruce drives off into the sunset with Tony, in a car that makes Clint's mouth water, and Clint and Natasha head out to return the stolen jet to the Helicarrier. Nobody has apparently noticed it's missing, which is actually really worrying, so Clint accosts the carrier's security director and decides he's going to get very personally involved in updating their crisis management procedures.
It keeps him busy.
He walks around the carrier, aware that ten or twelve floors below him, Phil is recovering. He checks the little camera feed often -- eats meals in his room with it propped nearby, carries it in his pocket. Most of the time, Phil sleeps. Once in a while Clint catches him awake, but he doesn't do much. Still, it's nice, like Phil's sitting in a corner of the room working on reports or reading newsblogs.
A week passes. Two weeks pass. Natasha goes out on assignment, but Clint's skills aren't called for. At the end of two weeks, Phil is moved out of the room, and Clint catches a ride down to New York to see if Tony can locate him.
"Yeah, sure. JARVIS is all up in that," Tony says, kicking back from the desk he's working at. "JARVIS, run facial recognition on Phil Coulson, last twelve hours, find out where he went."
"At once, sir," JARVIS answers.
"Fury went ballistic when he figured out my AI was seducing his flying aircraft carrier," Tony says to Clint, who cracks a smile. "But when he decided to scrub the code, JARVIS just went deep. He's totally integrated now, the onboard programming thinks he's a part of it. I think he likes it. Gets him out more."
"Are you at all worried about Skynet?" Clint asks.
"No. I programmed JARVIS to be awesome. Hey JARVIS, open the pod bay door."
"I'm sorry, Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that," JARVIS answers.
"See? Awesome." Tony says. "Sit down, have a coffee, this'll take a few minutes."
Clint accepts the mug shoved at him, seating himself across the desk from Tony.
"Are you, um, you know, doing okay?" Tony asks, busying himself with the holographic display on his desk again.
"Sure," Clint answers.
"Because, frankly, and I am dead serious here, that was some fucked up shit that happened to you."
"Comes with the job."
"Wow. Stoic," Tony says.
"Mr. Stark, I've located Agent Coulson," JARVIS announces.
"Who loves you?" Tony cries, spreading his arms. "Throw it on Clint's pocket screen. Adjust display so that the feed follows Coulson wherever he goes."
Clint takes the screen out and studies it. Phil is in what looks like a physical therapy room. His shirt is off, and they must be changing his bandage, because there is a giant, angry red wound running from his collarbone to the bottom of his ribcage.
"Wow," Tony says, peering at it. "He got the hell stabbed out of him."
Clint looks up at him and makes a spontaneous decision to trust Tony.
"Why hasn't he come back yet?" he asks.
Tony looks at him with actual empathy, which is surreal. "I'll see if I can find out for you."
He's written up several methods of informing the Avengers that he's not dead; all of them unnecessary, of course, but Fury doesn't know that. He's covered every angle, come up with every situation where they could minimize negative reactions. He's sent them to Fury.
Fury is playing some long game of his own, however, and Phil sleeps two weeks away before he's well enough to move out of the room, well enough to start physical therapy (with a very discreet therapist, in a sequestered portion of the Medical wing). The first few days, physical therapy consists of deep breathing, to make sure his lung capacity is back up to normal.
Breathing is very, very boring.
Somewhere, a few floors above him, Clint has been walking around the Helicarrier, keeping this secret, probably wondering what the hell is going on. He wishes there were a way to get a message to him, a way to let him know yes, I'm fine, be patient. He keeps the arrowhead first under the blankets on his bed and then in the pocket of the medical-issued pajamas they give him. He still wakes up some days and has to remind himself that everything's fine, and the arrowhead helps.
He hopes everything's fine. Most men wouldn't bounce back from being kidnapped and brainwashed, but Clint isn't most men and he compartmentalizes beautifully. Still, Phil wants to see him again, to make sure he's okay. He's reasonably sure Clint is going to use this entire episode to extract some kind of enormous favor out of him, and he'll give it up gladly.
He just wants to see him.
The night after his first day of real PT, he sits down with his computer to write yet another proposal for Plan: Come Back From The Dead, and halfway through a fairly strongly worded memo to Fury, his screen goes black.
He thumps the side of it in frustration, because he didn't save his work, and a line of text appears.
DONT WORRY COULSON
Phil blinks at it.
I HAVE A MESSAGE FOR YOU FROM CLINT BARTON
WHEN ARE YOU COMING HOME
He taps the screen almost frantically, desperate for a way to respond, and a very basic keyboard appears. He types quickly, unsure how long this mysterious connection will last.
After a moment of indecision, he adds,
TELL HIM LOOK AFTER YOURSELF
The screen blanks, and a reply appears.
TRY HARDER ASSHAT
HE MISSES YOU
That reeks of Tony Stark.
The screen blanks out again, and then his strongly-worded memo reappears.
Phil does something incredibly impulsive, and finishes the memo with an offer of his resignation if his team isn't made aware of his continued existence by noon the following day.
Clint can barely contain his excitement when he gets the ATTN: AVENGERS email on his encrypted account, requesting (commanding) that all members of the Avengers Initiative present themselves on the Helicarrier at ten the following morning. A flurry of emails flick back and forth; Tony speculating if he can bring Pepper, Bruce asking if someone can give him a ride, Natasha demanding to know if anyone was aware that hello, she's in Paris, does nobody check her calendar?
He barely sleeps, skips breakfast, goes to the range to calm his nerves and spends so long losing himself in the easy one-two-three of target practice that he almost misses the ten o'clock call.
Natasha did make it back ("Stark sent a jet. It had a stripper pole, that man is all class") and she arrives on a SHIELD transport with Bruce. Steve shows up a minute later via Iron Man Express, windblown and grinning, while Tony complains about being an actual grownup with an actual schedule to keep and having to make time for SHIELD on short notice.
Clint watches it all from a high perch in the hangar where they're gathering, secure and nearly invisible on a narrow ledge. When Fury actually shows up, Clint drops to the hangar floor, looking cool and not at all like this is Christmas and his birthday rolled into one.
Fury makes some speech he doesn't pay attention to about the necessity of unity and the progress the Initiative has made. Clint clenches his hands in his pockets because if this isn't actually what he thought it was he's going to have a hard time not punching someone. But then Fury finishes -- apparently, Clint's still not really listening -- and steps back, and Phil comes through the door, walking slowly. He looks terrible, gaunt and with dark streaks under his eyes.
Tony gasps with appropriate drama. Steve says "Coulson!" very convincingly. Bruce and Natasha both have their "I am so shocked" faces on. Natasha's is much more convincing.
They're not exactly alone here in the hangar. There's the Avengers, Fury, Hill, and a number of SHIELD staff running around. Clint pays attention to exactly none of this as he takes a few steps forward and cups Phil's face with his hands and kisses him. It's a long, intense Hi there, glad you're alive kiss.
"Uh, we're not all supposed to do that, right?" he hears Steve ask.
"I think we're restricted to handshakes," Bruce replies.
"That's an interesting way to come out," Phil says against his mouth. Clint laughs and retreats a little, glancing at Fury. For the first time he can remember, Fury looks completely and totally surprised. Hill has a hand over her mouth.
"Well, this explains a few things," Fury says after a minute, with a There will be words later look at Phil.
"Aaand it's awkward using the word debrief after that," Hill says, "but Agent Coulson does need to do follow-up meetings with each of you about recent events."
"Nobody else kiss him, he's susceptible to infection," Fury says, with a look at Stark. He walks away, Hill trailing behind, still occasionally glancing back at Clint.
"Business now, this later," Phil says to him gently, and Clint nods, almost glad to retreat into Agent Barton, who isn't feeling all this emotion.
The team closes ranks around them then, everyone talking at once, a few of them overplaying this whole "we're so surprised you're alive" thing. Tony's bragging about the new armor improvements and Steve's asking if Phil is sure he should be up and around and Natasha is bickering with Bruce about whether he should have hulked out in surprise and Phil's there in the middle of it, quietly answering back, a faint smile on his face.
Clint closes his eyes, basking in the chaos.
Say what you like, the Avengers are never boring.
The Avengers debriefings are just proof that Phil made the right decision in coming onboard the Initiative, because ordinary SHIELD ops were becoming routine and this, this is never ever going to be routine.
Stark has the first follow-up, because he actually does need to get back to SI. He looks...oddly subdued as he sets a flash drive on Phil's desk and slides it across.
"I wrote up a report," he says. "It's all on there."
Phil looks at it. "You voluntarily did paperwork?"
"In, uh, light of your injuries, and man you look like shit," Stark adds, "it was sort of generally agreed that perhaps right now was not the time for me to inflict...well, me...on you. So, um, I'm going to -- "
He starts to rise, and Phil says, "Tony. Sit down."
"O...kay," Stark agrees, dropping back into the chair.
"I can get this," Phil says, holding up the flash drive, "from anyone. What I need from you is a little different. I need to know about the team dynamic -- how they work together, how we can make them work better together."
Stark's brows pull together. "Why ask me?"
"Well, arguably, you're the most socially adept of any of them," Phil says.
"Aw, that's sweet. Also, worrying. But cool, okay," Stark says, and sits back and spends the next half hour providing the most concise, insightful team portrait Phil could ask for. Phil doesn't even have to talk.
When Stark leaves, Steve enters and lays an envelope on his desk. Phil opens it, intrigued. Inside are nine mint-condition vintage trading cards, each in a plastic protector sleeve.
"Where did you get these?" he asks, flipping through them, fascinated. Not a single one is damaged in any way he can see.
"It turns out when Captain America asks if anyone has old trading cards, it's really easy to find replacements," Steve says. "Natasha called it leveraging my social currency."
Phil smiles. "Will you sign them?"
"Well, no," Steve says, and then in a rush, "Because you're not allowed to die again until you get them signed, so I'm not going to sign them, so you're not allowed to die."
He says it with utter seriousness, but with a wary look in his eye, like Phil might think this is crazy. Phil understands; soldiers have their superstitions, and this isn't any crazier than Clint's sequential lucky arrowheads.
"I see. Thank you for replacing them," he says, and tucks them into his pocket. Steve gives him a sunny Captain America smile and a militarily precise account of the battle.
Natasha is after Steve, and she knows Phil well enough to know that more than anything he needs to hear what's been going on in the last three weeks, what new gossip she's picked up, what the state of SHIELD really is. She brings sandwiches and sodas and they eat lunch and talk, like they always have. At the end she rests her elbows on his desk and leans in.
"I talked to Clint," she says. "After we broke in to find you. He says things are good?"
Phil nods. "I think so. Dying aside."
She smiles. "That's what he said. Guess I know why you guys were always eerily in sync on missions."
"I think that came first, to be honest," he answers.
Bruce is next after Natasha, and they both know he doesn't really remember any of it. He just cracks stupid, really funny jokes about everyone for twenty minutes, and Phil finds himself laughing, even though it hurts and also totally ruins his rep.
And then there's Clint.
Clint sits up high, perched in the rafters over the hallway leading to Phil's office door, and watches the others go in and out. He's last on purpose; he doesn't intend to share Phil once the others are done.
His mind drifts into half-dreams; it's not uncommon for him. He keeps his eyes on the door, taking everything in, but his brain is elsewhere, sleeping, throwing up images from his subconscious. Today it's antiques, intermingled with his childhood. Clint likes the smell of dust you get from antiques, finds it comforting, knows dusty places are safe to hide in. He complains when Phil drags him into yet another antique store, but honestly, he doesn't mind them. Tons of places to hide. He remembers a preacher in their church when he was young: my father's house has many rooms.
Clint's been into pretty much every collectible store on the eastern seaboard, quite a few overseas, and some scattered around the rest of America. He's come to classify them: the big faceless antique malls full of little booths, the small high-end dealer shops, the shabby, creepy storefronts run by people who are one step removed from active hoarding. Comic book stores and baseball-card stores, the outliers, filled with teenagers getting their fix.
The first time Coulson stopped him, said Wait here and ducked into an antique store, Clint obediently waited. He figured it was a SHIELD cover operation, and Phil was checking in. He hadn't really thought anything more about it; it wasn't his place to question his handler, at least not as long as his handler was Agent Coulson.
The second time, he risked peeking through the window. The fourth time, he followed him in but didn't stand close enough to hear him talking. The sixth time, he listened, and then cracked up laughing.
Phil hasn't stopped him from following him inside since long before the Stark incident in Malibu, which is fuzzily when Clint dates their relationship from. Now when it happens, Clint wanders around and gets into junk while Phil chats with the owners casually about "Baseball cards, collector cards, ephemera -- that kind of thing."
Clint knows -- he kind of hates that he knows, but he loves Phil Coulson, so he knows -- that there are nine Captain America cards considered "vintage" by professional collecting standards. Phil owned them all before Fury ruined them, but he was always on a search for mint-condition ones. Clint had begun to think it was just habit that kept him ducking into weird old shops and setting eBay searches. Now, of course, they're probably going to have to start over. Coulson's probably secretly pleased.
The first four Captain America vintage trading cards were given out with certain war bond purchases in the forties (the first in '41, two in '42, one in '44). They're color photographs, with information about where war bond money goes printed on the back. Phil inherited three of them from his grandfather, who actually saw Captain America perform the day he bought the 1942 bonds. The bonds themselves helped pay for Phil's college education.
There were plenty of them printed, but they're old and cheap, so finding mint-condition ones is rare. Phil found the fourth in an antique mall in Houston, while Clint rummaged in a booth full of nonfunctional sixties kitchen appliances, baffled by humanity.
The next three Captain America cards (1946) came with the first Captain America comic, printed after the war was over. All three of them are enlarged frames from the comic showing Captain America -- badly drawn -- being heroic. They were inserted randomly, so you had to buy multiple copies of the comic to get all three; all three have an Official Captain America Patriot Club Membership Card printed on the back. Phil got two from his father, but they were in shitty condition so when he found a set of three together at a collector's convention (that was a crazy weekend, but kind of fun) he bought the whole set despite the outrageous markup. The ones from his father -- which have his dad's signature on one Patriot Club card and Phil's name in a childish scrawl on the other -- are kept with his important papers in a safety-deposit box somewhere.
The last two that are considered part of the vintage set were issued for Eisenhower's inauguration in '53. One is a miniaturized copy of a propaganda poster from the war, with the pledge of allegiance on the back, which is really random if you ask Clint. The other is a black and white photo of a younger Eisenhower and Captain America taken during the war, with the oath of office on the back.
The black and white card is the rarest. Clint blew a significant chunk of the salary he barely touches on a mint edition for Phil's birthday last year. Oh yeah, Clint Barton has Sources.
Phil's cards have been a private joke between them for so long that he has trouble connecting the smart, serious Cap he takes orders from with the campy loon on the cards. He likes Steve Rogers, and feels bad for laughing at him, but honestly. Those cards are fucking hilarious.
He's not especially threatened by Phil's idolatry of Steve; Phil only loves the symbol, and perhaps the legacy of his grandfather and father that he's now the caretaker of.
(Although if Rogers ever did get ideas, Clint is fully prepared to shoot him in the throat.)
He's going over the current valuations of the cards, individually, as sub-sets, and as a complete set -- when Banner leaves the office. He snaps out of his half-conscious state, waits until Banner's gone completely, and then drops to the floor.
When Bruce leaves, Phil waits patiently; he hears the thud of Clint's boots landing in the hallway from the ceiling, and a few seconds later Clint practically lurks into his office. Clint is a first-class lurker. It's one of the many reasons Phil fell for him.
"Fury authorized you for leave from the Helicarrier," Clint announces.
"No he didn't," Phil replies, but he's already gathering his things, getting ready to go.
"Well, I put in a request for transport and he approved that, which amounts to the same thing," Clint says.
This thing between them has always been Clint's call, really. Clint is the one who gets past security cameras and shakes any tails, the one who shows up in Phil's apartment unannounced, the one who came up with the cellist story. Phil has never questioned it because -- well, first, because Clint on his terms is better than anyone else on Phil's, and because Clint has never been allowed much control over his own life, so Phil could allow him control over this, at least. It didn't matter to him.
Now it's different. Now, everyone knows. That's fine too, for him, but he wonders if Clint's regretting it.
"Let's go," Phil says, and Clint nods, all business, and escorts him to their transport.
Phil knows that relationships have their own symbols, their own language -- things and words that don't translate to the outside world. Clint knows it too; he would have learned it in SHIELD agent training, if he didn't already know it from his days as a thief. Clint's had missions where he's had to seduce people into trusting him. Phil has watched him deftly, gently, but undeniably force intimacy with his marks through symbols, inventing them rather than letting them grow organically the way they should.
But with them, Clint and him, these things were already in place. They'd been working together for years before anything happened. Once it did, Clint tried to force it further, kept trying to use his SHIELD training, and Phil kept having to shut him down, to fling the fake, forced symbols back at him and put the real ones, the ones that grew during their working relationship, in their place. The first two months of their relationship severely tested Phil's patience, but it's been worth it.
"So," Phil says, as they climb into the jet, Clint taking the pilot's seat. "Get a tan?"
Clint smiles. He asked that after Phil came back from Malibu, smelling of scorched wool and metal. The op might have been awful but it's done now. Get a tan?
"Yeah, hell yeah," Clint says, as he lifts them off and breaks them low through the clouds.
"Not to ask the emotionally awkward question while you're in the pilot's seat of a multimillion dollar aircraft, but are you okay?" Phil continues.
"I'm all right."
"Do you remember it?"
Clint shakes his head. "Bits and pieces."
Phil nods. "Do I need to ask you about this?"
Clint's obviously considering this. Phil knows he needs to be asked; he can't just talk about things without being asked, because if someone asks that means they care, they're not just listening to be polite. Clint needs to know the people he talks to care about him.
Finally, there's a brief headshake. "No. Let's let this one go."
Phil nods. "Your call."
Clint sweeps them down around Manhattan, heading for the one land SHIELD base still standing.
"My sense of time wasn't good," Phil says. "How long before you found out?"
Clint shrugs. "You'd been dead a couple of hours by the time Natasha broke me loose. She told me. Team took it hard. Fury meant us to. Then we went into combat pretty much immediately, that lasted a while. Stark insisted on -- "
" -- shawarma, I heard."
"So...maybe six hours total. Not long."
"Way too long," Clint agrees. "You?"
"Days. As soon as Loki got loose with you. I had to." Phil is silent for a while, trying not to think too much about how hard those days had been, about the mask he'd had to wear and the cost of it. Just thinking about it makes him tired. "That's why I went after him. Nothing to lose. Might get the satisfaction of seeing him burn." Phil glances out the window. "Still wouldn't mind that."
"Me either," Clint's voice is raspy. "So are we actually going to do a debrief?"
"We just did," Phil answers, eyes closing. He's so tired. "M'a sleep now."
"You do that," Clint says, his tone affectionate, indulgent.
Phil has an apartment near the base, but on the opposite side of it from the neighborhood where most of the SHIELD agents live (locals call that neighborhood Spookville). It's a bland street and a bland building, intentionally so, but inside it's nice. At least, Clint likes it, and he knows Phil does. Open-plan, lots of room for bookshelves and a gun safe, a decent kitchen. Phil's neighbors think he's an insurance investigator, which explains his occasional long absences.
Clint wakes him briefly to get him from the jet into a car, but he passes out again almost as soon as the car starts. He doesn't wake until Clint pulls into the parking space beneath his building.
Clint helps him out of the car, steadies him, makes eye contact to make sure he can walk on his own, and it's strange -- he's never taken the elevator up to Phil's floor before, never walked down the hall to his front door with him. Clint usually comes in through the window.
Phil's moving stiffly. It hurts to see, but Clint gives him a little space, goes into the kitchen to rummage for food while Phil disappears behind the high panel that blocks off the bedroom from the rest of the apartment. Clint has no idea why Phil thought he needed to wear a suit today, but it's probably a Phil thing, Clint's learned not to ask. He hears the jacket thump to the floor, the rasp of fabric as he pulls his tie off.
There is no edible food in this kitchen. Anything in the fridge has gone bad, anything out of it has gone stale, and the freezer has a frost-burned lasagne and something unidentifiable in tupperware.
"I have ugly pasta or mystery bowl," he announces.
"I'm not hungry," Phil says. Clint glances up, then crosses out of the kitchen, arriving just in time to help ease the shirt off his shoulders.
"Well, if you sleep now, we can -- " Clint stops, staring down at the bandage. It's long and pale, taped to the skin, hiding away the wound. Phil catches him, raising an eyebrow.
"Got a matching one on the back," he says.
"I know," Clint answers, confessing. "Tony gave me a camera feed of your room. The first time I'm seeing it in person, that's all." He kneels down and runs his fingers over it lightly. "Showering must be a bitch."
"Not breathing would be worse."
Clint nods, feeling for a moment like he can't breathe, either.
"That reminds me," Phil says, carefully taking his badge wallet out of his pocket. "I think this belongs to you."
Clint watches as Phil takes the corroded old arrowhead out of the ID and offers it to him. New Mexico, he remembers. Apache arrowheads. Two days off after the Thor job. Rough roads, beautiful desert, sand everywhere. A sort of unreality had settled over them; what they'd just seen was beyond the pale, even for them. Lying on a cheap motel bed after sex, talking about their next job.
You'll be assigned to watch Selvig. Keep him safe.
What will you be doing?
Fury's got something special in mind for me. You too, eventually. Don't worry about it.
Not worrying, then.
"You keep it," Clint says impulsively, taking the arrowhead and returning it to the pocket behind Phil's ID (he had more hair when that picture was taken). "I think that one's yours."
Phil studies him. "But it's your insane lucky arrowhead superstition."
"It's cool, you keep it," Clint insists, standing and picking up his shirt, carrying it to the laundry to hide how freaked out he suddenly feels. "I'll find another one soon enough."
"Is that so?" Phil asks, standing to unbuckle his belt. Clint takes pajamas out of the closet -- a neatly pressed set from a shelf for Phil, a not-too-dirty t-shirt and a pair of Phil's pajama pants from the heap of clothes on the closet floor for himself.
"Yep." Clint answers, toeing off his boots. "When you're healed up we're going to Yosemite."
Phil sighs. "This is going to involve camping, isn't it."
"Almost undoubtedly," Clint agrees. Phil eases into the pajamas unaided, then settles down on the bed on his side, grimacing. Clint ponders this problem.
He can see the issue. Lying on his back will irritate the entry wound. Lying on his front would irritate the much larger surgery wound where they went in to repair the lung. Lying on his side puts weight on both at once.
He climbs onto the bed and insinuates himself behind Phil, carefully tugging him back, taking the weight of his arm and shoulder. Phil shifts, then sighs in relief as the tension in his body slips away.
"So," Clint says finally. "I'm guessing sex is a no-go."
Phil snorts. "Try me in the morning. About two weeks from now."
"It's a date." Clint presses his face to Phil's neck, inhales.
"Thanks for the arrowhead," Phil adds, after a while.
"Thanks for not dying."
Phil dreams about dust, about the peculiar grit that comes from handling old things, the way sifting through old paper roughens the fingertips. Houston, it was Houston. Standing outside an antique mall in the merciless Texas sun, Clint watching as Phil folds a plastic bag around the protective sleeve inside it.
You just paid fifty bucks for a piece of cardboard, Clint says, disbelieving.
It's worth three hundred, Phil answers, tucking the folded bag in his pocket. Clint has known for a while that Phil's been looking for collector's cards, but Phil thinks he doesn't really get it; this is the fourth in a set, the last one he needed to make his war bonds set complete. The dealer didn't know what he had.
Three hundred for a picture of Captain America?
Depending on who you ask, anyway.
Who you ask? What? Clint says, disbelieving.
Some things have no price, in the right hands, Phil replies. That was two missions before the Stark thing blew up. They're already dancing around each other, circling closer, crossing boundaries they probably shouldn't.
Who knew you were a sentimentalist? Clint asks, grinning.
Don't let it get out, Phil informs him, deadpan, and Clint laughs and climbs back into the car, which smells like hot upholstery and stale coffee.
Phil surfaces from the dream, briefly, tensing with the anticipation of pain -- it's become an instinct, as he heals -- but it's not as bad as usual. Clint's still behind him, body warm against his, helping to take the pressure off the wounds.
Two of the cards Steve gave him are replicas, the color Eisenhower Inauguration card and one of the war bond cards. Possibly they're forgeries. Either way, they're definitely not authentic, not that he'd tell Steve that. He'll have to start looking for replacements for those two.
Tomorrow. Right now, he's safe and Clint is here, and he can sleep.