The explosion was big, bigger than any of them had seen in a while and that was saying something. The Hulk was the closest to the blast and he was sent tumbling away like a child’s toy in a hurricane. Clint crouched down behind the square stone plinth that had held a bronze prancing horse and be-whiskered rider only seconds before and focussed entirely on Coulson’s voice in his ear. He couldn’t hear it all, but was pretty sure that the general gist was ‘get the fuck out of there in one piece’. The noise made by the metal statue as it rattled away down the street reminded him of that army of ancient armour that only a few weeks ago had sent them-
“Hawkeye, report,” Coulson snapped in his comm and Clint looked up, blinking. The billowing dust was slowly settling, the blast retort receding and he shook his head to clear the ringing in his ears.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m here,” he said, not missing the slight undercurrent of stress in his handler’s voice. Christ but Coulson must be worried as hell, he thought with a cough. “Ok, that was the last of the devices, so once this dust settles, I’m going to go take a look-see.”
“You will do no such thing, Barton.”
“Hey, who else is there?” Clint stood slowly, feeling the blood dripping off the fingers of his arrow hand, running down the side of his forearm from the gouge across his bicep. He’d do for now, he decided, giving it no more than a cursory glance. “Tasha’s broken her ankle, Hulk just got tumbleweeded clear down to the Smithsonian and last I heard, Thor and Cap were dragging Tony’s sorry, short-circuited hide to the nearest store selling can openers.” He coughed again, his lungs full of dust and soot and powdered concrete. “
“Thor will be with you in three minutes.”
“That’s a negative, sir. We don’t have three minutes.” He risked a glance around the plinth and watched the Disperire vortex flare and pulse. The dozen or so pale yellow, leggy aliens guarding it were all looking upwards. “That thing is going to go supernova if we don’t get the EMP device into it.”
“Stand down, Barton,” Coulson almost growled at him. “Iron Man and the Hulk were both incapacitated whilst trying, so you are not, repeat not, going to attempt.”
“Tony and the other guy aren’t exactly subtle, sir.” Clint broke cover suddenly and sprinted over to the dubious shelter of an upturned Peterbilt tractor unit. He eyed the battered red paintwork, wondering for a moment if Tony could really build a proper Transformer like he’d promised. Of course, that could have been the bourbon talking. “I’m small, fast and I’ll be in and out before those oversized rubber chickens see me.”
He spotted the dusty briefcase containing the EMP and measured the distance between him, it, the chicken aliens and the vortex.
“You are not going to do anything, Barton.” Phil’s voice pulled him back into the moment. “Fall back and get that arm looked at.”
Unconsciously he flexed the fingers of his left hand. Yeah, so what, he was bleeding. Nothing new there. Somewhere nearby were Cap and Thor, and pretty soon, they’d come charging in to the rescue – just once they’d ensured that Tony wasn’t a Stark Shake’n’Bake.
“Twenty four yards to the briefcase,” he said, watching the aliens mill around. They weren’t doing much, which was peculiar. Clint had a sinking feeling that they were waiting for something very specific. Chances were, he reasoned, that it wasn’t something that the rest of the human race would be very keen on witnessing. “Thirty six yards to the vortex beyond that. Effective detonation distance, ten yards. Ergo, I have to travel fifty yards before any of them can take me out.”
“Don’t even try it, Barton.” It wasn’t an order, Clint realised, hearing the urgency in Coulson’s voice. “You are ordered to stand down and fall back. Thor is en route, two minutes fifteen seconds.”
The vortex began to glow even brighter.
“Time’s up, sir,” he said, drawing an explosive tipped arrow. “Funny how I never thought I would be the last one standing on the front line.” He nocked and released the arrow smoothly, barely even bothering to glance at the upside down Chevy. A moment later, it exploded in a ball of flame as the arrow pierced the exposed gas tank. That was his cue.
He reached the briefcase in a matter of seconds, scooped it up and realised that not all of the rubber chicken aliens had been distracted by the bonfired Chevy. Didn’t matter now, he was committed.
Everything slowed down. His thumb found and depressed the button on the underside of the briefcase’s handle – ten second timer armed, he thought.
“Barton,” Coulson’s voice in his ear was hollow. “Throw the damn case. And that’s an order.”
“Sorry sir,” he said. “Can’t risk it being deflected.”
Pushing off with the last reserves of energy he had, Clint ducked his head, aimed at the vortex and ran. A bony hand reached out and grabbed at his arm, but the grip slipped in the blood.
“Never did get around to asking you out,” Clint noted, throwing himself under the grasping arms of two more creatures, sliding on his heels like he was aiming for third base.
“Clint.” That wasn’t a tremor in Phil’s voice, Clint thought.
Three steps up and he was somehow, miraculously clear of the aliens for a split second. The vortex gaped, whirling green and blue and shot through with flashes of silver. Like Coulson’s eyes, he thought giddily, suddenly finding himself on the edge of nothing and forever.
“Bad time to tell you I love you, isn’t it sir?” he gasped, the Disperire sucking all the oxygen out of his lungs. Hauling the briefcase back for momentum, he flung it forwards, feeling himself being dragged after it.
Then he was falling, falling and the briefcase pulsed in his hand.
“Report,” Phil said into the eerie silence. From his vantage point on the south lawn of the White house he could see the shattered wisps of the vortex snaking off up into the sky. The Washington monument lay in two pieces, a broken jagged finger pointing accusingly up into the roiling grey sky. It made a change to be fighting these things somewhere other than New York, he thought abstractly. About time these invading aliens got it right and went straight for the seat of power.
The fact POTUS was circling somewhere over Guam in Airforce One was beside the point.
There was a faint crackle in his earpiece.
“I said report,” he snapped, making the junior agent next to him jump.
There was nothing. No snappy comeback, no pointed jibe at Stark’s showmanship or quip at Thor’s gallantry. The silence was all encompassing and Phil felt something hollow settle around his heart.
“That was some fucking party,” Stark coughed in his ear and if Phil hadn’t spent the last fifteen years training himself not to react, he would probably have leapt out of his skin. As it was, his left eye twitched and the two agents who’d been looking at him at that precise moment both took a step back. “Coulson, I’ve got Cap here. Where’s everyone else?”
“The Widow is in medical and Banner was reportedly down by the Smithsonian. As for Thor and Hawkeye, unknown.”
“There’s movement by the monument sir,” one of the jumpy junior agents said, eyes wide. Phil snatched up the closest pair of binoculars and trained them on the scorched parkland. He focussed on his breathing, slowing it back to its regular speed.
Thor. The hollowness inside him swelled a notch, but as he watched, the god raised his hammer and flew up into the sky. And he was carrying something.
The god continued straight up into the air, veering south east before vanishing out of sight. It took Phil a moment to recall that the Helicarrier was hovering some 24,000 feet above the runway of Andrews AFB.
He turned away and began barking orders, keeping his mind firmly on the job in hand and not letting the tiny flicker of hope he felt distract him. Not much, anyway.
“You know, this is really fucking inconvenient,” Clint grumbled. He sat on the hospital bed, arms defensively crossed and scowling at a grinning Stark.
“What, that you didn’t die after all? After saying what you said, over an open comm? Hell, I can’t think of anything inconvenient about that. Seriously god damn funny though.”
“Shut the fuck up.” Clint slid lower in the bed, glaring at the smirking genius. “I probably should have died, no thanks to you short circuiting yourself and ending up so much scrap metal that Cap and Thor between them could barely shift.”
“We did truly carry him some four of your city blocks,” Thor boomed. “He may be heavy, my good friend, but we could not let the Man of Iron lie low in such a place. Just as I could not let you be swallowed whole into the gaping maw of that whirling vortex.”
“Yeah, well, guess I should say thanks for that.” Clint sighed and squinted sideways at Natasha. Everyone was keeping well out of her reach, because a lethal assassin with a foot encased in steel grey carbon fibre was not the most pleasant tempered of creatures. “Go on then, Tasha, I can see you’re dying to have a dig as well.”
“Heroics at your age, Barton?” she sniped. “Please, spare me the dramatic declarations in the face of certain death.”
Clint winced. They were never going to let him forget this, he was sure of it. Until his dying day – his real dying day, not the one he’d just had – they would make his life a living hell, he was sure of it. He’d not even laid eyes on Coulson since, well, yeah, since. He had no idea how he was going to look his handler in the face either. A dozen years they’d worked together in one capacity or another. And he couldn’t have told you the precise moment that he’d fallen for the older man, only that one sultry, steamy afternoon in a sun dazed Malaysia he’d looked at the man who’d just taken a bullet for him and realised that he was in serious trouble. Even if it had been a small calibre bullet and was little more than a flesh wound that had annoyed the crap out of Phil for the neat slice it had put in the shoulder of his suit. This thing had snuck up on him, probably the only thing that had ever managed to do so, apart from Tasha.
With a groan, he let his head fall back against the uncomfortable pillow and shut his eyes.
“Just go away, all of you, and let me die of mortification in peace.”
“I’m sure Coulson will be along to debrief you shortly,” Stark sniggered. “Although probably not in the way you’d like him to.”
“Tony,” Steve actually managed to sound scandalised and Clint was grateful enough to decide to kill him last of all, and make it quick, right up until the solider spoke again. “Not on the first date.”
Clint cringed. He wished fervently for an arrow so he could open a vein, but seeing as how he was in medical they’d probably just sew him back up before he could do more than spot on the sheets.
The door opened silently. Everyone in the room turned and looked and even Tony had the self preservation to hop down off the end of Clint’s bed.
Phil looked at them all and wondered once again how he’d managed to end up babysitting a group of the world’s biggest damned delinquents. At least Rogers had the grace to look uncomfortable, unlike the snarky smirk Stark was wearing. Natasha just glowered, but he reckoned the broken ankle was predominantly to blame.
Banner lounged quietly against the wall in the corner and Thor was grinning.
“Son of Coul!” he began, but Phil shook his head.
“Enough,” he said quietly, and finally looked at Clint.
Who looked pretty much how Phil had expected him to – like he wanted nothing more than the floor to open up and drop him 24,000 feet down onto the runway below. Behind the discomfort was something more though, something that probably no one in the room, bar Natasha, could see and it did something uncomfortable to the middle of Phil’s chest.
Clint looked sad. Soul crushingly dejected, like a puppy just waiting to be beaten and the sight was more than Phil could bear at that particular point. Clint was waiting for the rejection, obviously, steeling himself for Phil to either ignore it completely or let him down gently (or not so gently) and generally make him feel even more of a complete idiot for declaring his devotion to his handler in what he’d thought were the last seconds of his life.
Phil Coulson was many things. A BAMF who could kill you with a paperclip should he so choose; a man who had willingly faced down a god with an untried weapon and lived to tell the tale (eventually); a kick ass agent who was just waiting for a chance to taser Stark into a drooling heap; a diehard Captain America fanboy. But one thing he definitely wasn’t was a cruel man, and he saw no reason to extend Clint’s misery a second more than absolutely necessary.
He crossed the room in six brisk strides, stopped right next to the bed and reached out with one hand to slide it around the back of Clint’s head, trying to ignore the way the younger man flinched as if expecting Phil to knock him clean off the white sheets. And then, Phil very deliberately leaned forward and kissed him.
He was vaguely aware of a number of gasps, and some creative cursing from Stark behind him but the moment his lips had connected with Clint’s pretty much everyone in the room had ceased to matter.
Clint froze for a long moment, allowing Phil to gently map out the curve of that fuller lower lip with his own mouth, which was something he’d thought about doing many times over the previous few years. Then suddenly, the archer came to life beneath him and Phil found himself being kissed back with enthusiasm. Clint’s agile tongue ran lightly along the seam of their lips and with an almost silent groan, Phil let him in.
When they broke for air, there was a stunned silence in the room. Not that Phil cared, because all he could see were Clint’s bright, happy eyes gazing back at him. Fuck, he should have done that years ago, Phil thought.
“Uh yeah,” Stark cleared his throat and Phil straightened up to look directly at him. Damn it if the genius didn’t look completely flustered. “So, we’ll just be, uh, getting back. You know, lab stuff, sciencey things to do, stuff to fix, suits to upgrade. So, yeah, well, um.” He gestured vaguely, backing away and then vanished, very quickly followed by Rogers and Banner.
Thor just grinned at them widely, stepping forward to clap Phil solidly on the back.
“A warrior’s bond, my friends, is a truly noble one! I am pleased for you! Come, Widow, we shall drink in their honour!”
Natasha was looking at them with an expression that Phil could only decipher as ‘finally’. He offered her a smile and got a roll of the eyes in return.
“Yeah, I’ll drink with you Thor,” she said. “I think these two need some time alone.” As she passed, she punched Phil solidly on the arm. “Hurt him,” she murmured under her breath. “And you’re dead.”
“So that’s her approval then,” Phil noted as the door swung shut. “How about you?” he asked, turning back to Clint. “I’m trusting I didn’t misread this situation?”
“You never do,” Clint grinned happily. He reached out with the hand that wasn’t snarled up in the sling they’d made him wear and Phil took it, cool professional gaze flitting across Clint’s body cataloguing the archer’s injuries. Then he blinked and slowly let his eyes travel back across the same terrain except with a far more intimate reason. They’d cut Clint out of his uniform top and the younger man sat on the hospital bed naked from the waist up, but still clad in dusty black combat trousers and boots. If you ignored the numerous bruises and flecks of dried blood the med team had missed whilst stitching up the various gouges, he was a beautiful sight.
Clint actually blushed. Phil raised an eyebrow and Clint looked away.
“What’s up?” Phil sat on the edge of the bed and reached out again to slide careful fingers into the cropped blonde hair.
“I guess I – well, I’m just not used to you looking at me like that.” There was something so endearing about Clint’s slight hesitation. Barton had always been supremely confident and cocky, barrelling head first into any and every situation he found himself in. This hesitance was a side that Phil rarely saw.
“Oh, believe me, Hawkeye, I look at you like that quite often. Just not when you can see me.”
Clint gave a happy little snicker and leaned forward to brush his lips over Phil’s on impulse. His handler, however, didn’t give him a chance to back off, using the hand that was already in Clint’s hair to hold him still, the tip of his tongue slowly teasing the younger man’s lips apart. Clint growled in the back of his throat, surging forwards to practically climb into Phil’s lap, pushing Phil back as he did so.
He may have been injured, but that didn’t appear to slow Clint down any, as Phil discovered five minutes later, flat on his back on the bed with Clint plastered against him, pressing chest, hips and legs together.
“I guess you’re well enough to check out of here?” Phil asked, voice rough and half an octave lower than normal.
“They said I could go if I had someone with me all the time. Suspected concussion and all that shit.” Clint rocked his hips and Phil had to bite back his own groan.
“I’m sure we can manage that, specialist. If you’re ready to leave?”
“Hell yes, sir.”