The first thing Phil hears when he and Clint step out of the elevator into the Tower’s main living quarters is the loud clang of a dropped pot and Tony Stark cursing from the kitchen. The second thing he hears is JARVIS’ calm “Welcome back, Agent Coulson.”
The cursing in the kitchen stops abruptly. “That wasn’t funny, JARVIS,” Stark says, and Phil realises with shock that Tony actually sounds . . . shaky.
“It was not intended to be humorous, sir,” JARVIS replies, and then Tony appears framed in the kitchen doorway staring in shock at Phil where he stands, leaning heavily on Clint’s shoulder. Clint tenses slightly beside him, and Phil squeezes his upper arm in reassurance. Phil is still reeling from the recent revelation that he is, in fact, still alive. Even better, so is Clint, and Phil finds he no longer cares what anyone else thinks of him . . . of them.
Phil has a moment to appreciate the rare sight of Tony Stark speechless, then the other man exclaims, “Agent!” and smiles widely.
For a second it looks like Tony’s actually going to hug him, but Clint fixes Stark with a glare, exuding ‘back off’ vibes and Phil says, “Watch it, Stark. I can still tase you.” Tony backs up, hands in the air and a ‘who, me?’ expression on his face. Clint huffs, but Phil’s known him long enough to know he’s secretly amused.
Clint starts to lead him toward the hallway Phil knows houses Clint’s room, but Phil stops him with a hand on his arm and says “Couch.”
“Phil,” Clint starts, but Phil cuts him off.
“I’m going to have to talk to everyone soon and I’m not having the whole household traipsing through our room. The couch.” Clint sighs, but alters his trajectory to lead Phil over to Tony’s sofa and Phil sinks gratefully into the plush velvet cushions. His shoulder has been aching for the last half-hour and he leans back with a sigh. Clint sits down next to him, legs curled up, side still plastered against Phil’s. They haven’t broken contact for more than a few seconds since Clint found Phil in the empty storeroom where Fury’d stashed him after telling everyone he’d died. Considering Phil had thought Clint lost to him once Loki took over the archer’s mind, he’s not complaining about the contact.
Stark plops down in the armchair facing the couch and studies Phil intently. “Fury told us you’d died.”
Phil opens his mouth to explain and hears Clint mumble “Fury’s an ass.” He holds back the instinctive urge to reprimand Clint for disrespect because Clint’s right, Fury is an ass, and Fury’s handling of Phil’s ‘death’ - not to mention his neglect of the Avengers in the aftermath of the battle - have made Phil lose most of the respect he’d had for the man. From what Clint’s told him, Fury pretty much left the Avengers to their own devices once the crisis was over - didn’t even make sure Banner and Rogers had a decent place to stay - and if it hadn’t been for Stark of all people tracking them down and offering them room in the Tower the Avengers would have been scattered to the four winds.
“The report of my death was an exaggeration,” Phil tells Stark, his inner nerd relishing the opportunity to actually use the line. Clint rolls his eyes, but he also presses closer to Phil with something like a shudder. The events of the past five weeks are something neither of them will get over anytime soon. Phil knows his lover still has nightmares where Phil dies and Clint’s the one holding the staff - it had been one such nightmare that had woken him up after they’d both fallen asleep in Phil’s bed in the storeroom and all Phil could do was hold Clint tight to his chest while the archer shuddered and sobbed into his neck, whispering reassurances into Clint’s ear, reminding him that he was there, he was alive, he was real until the archer eventually calmed down.
“Are you going to be ok?” Stark asks with rare seriousness. Phil sighs.
“I got stabbed in the chest, Stark. It’ll take awhile, but yes, eventually I’ll be fine.”
“You know you’re staying here, right? Fury obviously lied to us for a reason, and I don’t trust him as far as I can throw him . . . without the suit. I’ll fix you up a room, should be ready by tonight.”
“That won’t be necessary,” Phil says.
“Look, don’t argue with me. This is one you aren’t going to win. You’re part of this damn team, and you’re injured, and I don’t want you anywhere we can’t protect you. And if that damages your pride or whatever, fucking get over it because . . . “
“Tony!” Phil interrupts and smiles slightly at the poleaxed look on Starks face at hearing his first name come out of Coulson’s mouth.
“I don’t mind staying here. I just meant that you don’t need to fix me up a room. I already have one,” and Phil raises his hand where it’s clasped in Clint’s to emphasise his meaning. Clint looks a bit worried, but Phil squeezes his hand gently. Trust me.
“Wait . . . what?” And that makes three times Phil’s stunned Stark into speechlessness, and that’s got to be some kind of record. “You and Barton?” he asks incredulously. Then he turns to Clint, “You and Coulson? Seriously?”
“Is it really that hard to believe?” Clint mumbles, and his shoulders hunch instinctively. He starts to pull his hand from Phil’s but Phil holds on tight, not letting him hide this, and turns to glare at Stark. Stark takes in Clint’s posture and gets it immediately.
“No, no, I didn’t mean it like that. I just didn’t think Coulson did . . . . relationships.”
Phil rolls his eyes, but inwardly he’s impressed. He hadn’t expected self-absorbed Tony Stark to pick up on Clint’s insecurity and immediately address it. Then again, he also never expected Stark to take to this team thing as well as he has. Working together in the field is one thing, but inviting them all into his house . . . making sure they were all taken care of . . . that was above and beyond what Phil had thought the man capable of. Maybe he’d underestimated Stark after all.
“I am human, Stark. Hard as that may be for you to comprehend.” Stark grins.
“Well you do do a good job at hiding it,” he snarks back, and Phil feels Clint start to relax. Stark stands up from his chair abruptly.
“Well, this deserves a celebration! JARVIS, can you ask Bruce and Steve to come up here please. Don’t tell them why.” Stark flashes a conspiratory smile at Phil, and Phil decides to let him have his fun.
“Dr. Banner is in his laboratory so technically I should be asking him to come down, sir.”
“I don’t care if you tell them to moonwalk, I just want them here.”
“Very well, sir” JARVIS replies, unruffled, and Phil hears Tony mutter “insolent program” under his breath.
Stark heads toward the kitchen again, apparently intent on concocting something for the ‘celebration’. Clint starts to stand up to help but Stark stares him down and points his finger at the couch. “Sit. Snuggle with your boyfriend or whatever. I’ve got this.”
“Husband, technically,” Phil corrects Stark and the other man shakes his head.
“How the hell did I miss that?” He asks, rhetorically, because Phil can think of a number of reasons why Stark wouldn’t have caught on to their relationship, the biggest one being that Clint was working for the enemy the first time Stark had seen him, but that’s not something he’ll ever say. Clint clearly feels guilty enough already.
Instead, Phil leans back against the cushions and tugs on Clint’s arm until he curls up against Phil’s side, head burrowed against Phil’s shoulder, and sighs contentedly. Phil turns his head and presses a kiss against Clint’s hair, tugging at his hand where it’s still entwined with Clint’s so that the archer’s arm rests across his belly in a loose embrace.
Phil listens to Tony puttering in the kitchen and Clint’s soft breathing near his ear and allows himself to believe that everything is going to be ok.
Clint hears Steve and Bruce arrive at nearly the same time - Bruce coming down in the elevator in the hall and Steve coming up the stairwell because Steve doesn’t believe in elevators when one has two perfectly good legs. They both turn into the kitchen without glancing at the living room and that’s fine with Clint, he’s happy to just sit here, leaning against Phil with their hands clasped in Phil’s lap, and enjoy the quiet before the inevitable storm.
Clint still can’t quite believe Phil is here with him, and he’s kinda glad Tony turned down his offer to help because he’s more than a little afraid that Phil will disappear if he doesn’t keep a tight hold of him. He’d woken Phil up this morning with a nightmare, which he feels bad about, because Phil’s still recovering and clearly needs his rest.
It was a familiar nightmare - the one where Clint’s the one who kills Phil directly instead of indirectly through Loki - and even though he knows that’s not how it happened the nightmare leaves him breathless in a cold sweat every time. Only this time he’d had Phil to hold him and whisper reassurances into his ear while he broke down in an embarrassingly thorough manner. There’s a part of Clint still believes that this is the dream and that he’ll wake up to a bunch of empty storage rooms and no Phil, and Clint thinks that would be even worse than the nightmares.
But for now Phil’s here, solid and warm by his side, his large hand holding Clint’s possessively and if this is a dream, Clint’s going to enjoy it while it lasts.
“I hope you didn’t call us here to help you cook, Tony,” Steve is saying from the kitchen. “Are you making omelets? ” Steve sounds incredulous and Clint snickers softly. He’s not sure what surprises Steve more - that Stark is trying to make omelets or that he appears to actually be succeeding.
“These aren’t just any omelets,” Stark replies. “They’re celebratory omelets. I called you here for Coulson’s not-really-dead party.”
Bruce looks confused and concerned at this, and Steve closes his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose. “Tony . . .” he starts.
“No, really,” Tony interrupts, “take a look.” And he waves the spatula in the general direction of Phil and Clint and the couch. Bruce and Steve turn and see them.
Steve freezes, his face an amusing mask of astonishment, jaw literally dropped. From behind him Clint hears Bruce’s amazed “Holy shit.” When Steve actually twitches in disapproval at the curse, it’s all Clint to do to not laugh out loud.
With each person who sees Phil and reacts, Clint is more and more convinced that this isn’t a dream after all. It makes him giddy, and he grins and gives his teammates a jaunty little wave. “Hi!” he says, and he feels more than hears Phil chuckle beside him. That laugh is something he once thought he’d never hear again, and the sound sends a thrill down his spine.
Steve collapses into the armchair and Bruce folds himself on the floor. “How?” Steve asks.
“Fury’s a lying bastard,” Clint sing-songs, and completely ignores the glare Phil sends him.
“Clint is, essentially, correct,” Phil says, and explains how Fury had kept him drugged and locked in a storage room and how Clint had found him. Clint tunes out the explanation - he knows all that because he lived it, and he doesn’t want to dwell on the experience. He snaps back to attention when Bruce speaks.
“You were looking?” Bruce asks him. “All this time, you were looking?”
Clint shrugs his shoulders in an unconvincing attempt at nonchalance. “Yeah,” he says, trying to make it sound like his search was some sort of side-project or harmless hobby instead of the only thing holding him together that it was. “Some things just didn’t add up. I was pretty sure Fury was lying about something, and I wanted to know what.”
Bruce actually looks a little hurt at that, and Clint feels the rare need to clarify. “I didn’t tell any of you because I figured you’d think I was crazy. Hell, at times I thought I might be crazy, or at the very least indulging in some wishful thinking. I just . . . I needed to try.” Bruce’s expression clears and he nods, and Clint knows he understands.
“Why would the Director do that?” Steve asks in genuine bafflement because Steve’s world is pretty clearly defined into ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ and he hasn’t had enough experience yet with the shades of grey in which SHIELD generally operates.
“I don’t know yet,” Phil replies.
“But we’re going to find out,” Tony declares, walking into the living room with a waiter’s tray balancing five omelet covered plates. He catches the room staring at him, or more accurately, staring at the tray, and smirks. “Hey, don’t look at me like that. I keep it around for when I manage to convince Pepper to play ‘picky diner, naughty waitress’ with me.”
Steve groans and puts his head in his hands and Phil glares at Tony. “What you and the lovely Miss Potts get up to in your spare time is something we neither need nor desire to be shared, Stark.” Bruce is quietly laughing and Clint doesn’t bother trying to hide his smirk.
Stark, with his quick-fire brain and his utter inability to focus on one thing at a time, has already shrugged off the conversation. “JARVIS, would you please do a search of SHIELD’s systems and look for anything relating to Agent Coulson after the helicarrier attack?”
“Of course, sir,” the AI replies and Clint’s a little surprised that Phil doesn’t even question the totally unauthorised breach into SHIELD’s network.
It’s an indication of exactly how much his trust in Fury and SHIELD has been shaken, and Clint’s a little relieved. One of the things he’s been afraid of is that Phil will just make excuses for the way Fury treated them all and set himself up to be lied to and used again. Instead, Phil just gives Stark a slight nod and says, “Thank you.”
Tony grins, a quick flash of teeth and eyes sparkling with unholy glee as he begins to hand out plates. “Don’t worry, Agent. If Fury has some nefarious purpose we’ll find it. And if he’s just being a dick we’ll find that too!” Clint thinks maybe Stark is a little too happy about the possibility of getting dirt on Fury but if there’s anyone who can figure out what the hell the man was thinking without a telepathy ray it’s Tony Stark.
Clint takes a moment to appreciate the sense of comradery and acceptance he and Phil are both getting from the the team. Clint shows up with an injured Phil in tow and Tony’s immediately talking about setting up rooms and protection and hacking through SHIELD’s formidable security to find answers and maybe a bit of leverage and Bruce and even Steve are nodding enthusiastically to the plan. Clint rather expected Bruce to be in favour of taking action, considering his own personal experience with abuse of authority, but Clint had thought the stalwart Captain America would balk at the sheer number of laws they’re planning on breaking. Instead, the man agrees without hesitation and with a fierce, protective determination that takes Clint’s breath away. From the expression on Phil’s face, Clint can tell he’s surprised by their vehemence as well.
Clint loves Phil with everything he has, Phil’s the best thing that ever happened to him and a gift Clint still isn’t sure he deserves but one he never intends to give up. But the acceptance and concern of his team-members is even more unexpected, and it’s slowly filling up the family-sized hole in Clint’s heart that he’d thought would always be empty.
So of course, that’s when he and Phil reach out with their free hands to take their plates from Stark and in doing so inadvertently call attention to their still-clasped hands. Bruce notices and flashes Clint a broad smile - he’d never spoken to the man directly about his relationship with Phil, but Bruce is more observant than most give him credit for and Clint isn’t surprised that he’s clearly known for awhile. Steve, though, freezes with his fork halfway to his mouth and stares, eyes widening.
Clint panics. Phil hadn’t seemed worried about the rest of the team finding out about them and Clint had gone with the flow - it was always Phil who insisted they be ‘professional’ in front of the agents at SHIELD even though Fury had attended their wedding so it wasn’t exactly a secret. But somehow Clint had forgotten that as far as Steve was concerned, a couple of months ago he’d been going about his life in the 1940s and he hadn’t been around SHIELD headquarters long enough to have heard the gossip. Clint tenses, his brain telling him he should pull away from Phil to make it easier on Rogers but his heart wanting nothing more than to press closer.
Before he can do either, Phil’s hand disentangles with his and Clint’s heart falls for just a moment before Phil’s hand is back, gripping his forearm and pulling him closer. “Relax,” Phil whispers and Clint finds himself immediately following orders because Phil has never steered him wrong.
Stark is glancing between them and Steve with a worried frown on his face. “Uh . . . Cap? Did anyone tell you it’s ok to be gay nowadays? I mean, it was ok to be gay back then too . . . . did you even use that word? ‘gay’? . . . but, well, most people didn’t know that at the time. But most people have figured it out now. I mean, there are always some diehard assholes, and it’s not perfect but you know it’s not illegal anymore and . . .”
“Tony!” Steve interrupts Stark’s babbling. “I know all that. They covered it in my cultural sensitivity sessions. I was just surprised.” Steve turns back to look Clint in the eye. “Sorry. I’m happy for you, really. Is this a recent development?”
Phil’s still gripping Clint’s arm, but he responds softly. “We’ve been together for five years and married for two.”
Steve turns to Clint, his eyes full of embarrassment and remorse. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I didn’t know. I didn’t realise what you were going through.”
“It’s ok,” Clint interrupts him because he really doesn’t want to think about what he was ‘going through’ the past several weeks. “Phil’s not really dead, so it’s all good.” It’s not exactly the truth and no one’s fooled but they let it go because they’re good like that and Phil moves his thumb, caressing the inside of Clint’s wrist. Clint takes a bite of his surprisingly good omelet and nestles closer to Phil and thinks maybe it will be all good sometime soon.
Sorry for the wait, folks. This one is kind of a filler chapter, and the next few chapters should be coming out more quickly because I kept getting inspiration for those while writing this one, so I've got a couple of pages of notes and a few full scenes already written. Next up is Pepper, Natasha, and Thor. And then Fury, I promise.
For a ‘not-really-dead’ party it’s a rather quiet affair - once the initial explanations are over no one really seems to know what to say. Stark is watching Phil like . . . well, a hawk. Clint has listened to Phil complain about Stark often enough to know that their relationship is complicated in ways Clint never understood until he’d gotten to know Tony better.
Clint knows for a fact that Phil actually enjoys his occasional interactions with the self-titled genius billionaire playboy philanthropist even as he complains about the sheer amount of paperwork the man’s activities generate. For one thing, Stark makes Fury’s eye twitch, and as Phil is a founding member of the super-elite brotherhood of people able to get under Fury’s skin, such an accomplishment earned his automatic respect. Phil is fond of Stark, always has been, and Clint has spent many an evening watching Phil on the phone with Pepper, one corner of his mouth curled up as he listens to yet another colourful insider-edition episode of ‘What Crazy Shit Has Tony Stark Been Up To Lately’.
Clint’s biggest problem with the man has always been the way he didn’t seem to see Phil as anything other than an occasional nuisance. For every witty repartee and amusing phone call that brought a smile to Phil’s face, he suffered countless hours of arguments, negotiation, ruffled-feather soothing, bribery and outright threats on the man’s behalf, not to mention the mountains of paperwork, which Phil doesn’t enjoy nearly as much as everyone thinks he does.
It would have been hypocritical for Clint to have hated Tony for all the Stark-induced migraines Phil has endured, considering that the number of Phil’s Clint Barton-induced migraines well exceed even Stark’s most lofty efforts, but Clint couldn’t stand the way Stark seemed to treat Phil as if he were a thorn in his side, rather than the other way around.
Clint had been prepared to hate Stark on sight, and had had all sorts of ideas on how to exact a certain amount of revenge when they eventually met. Of course, circumstances being what they were, it was hard to hate a man who nearly died to save the world, and then invited Clint to live in his house despite Clint’s determined efforts on Loki’s behalf to kill him.
But a month spent living with Tony Stark, watching him work, seeing him interact with the others, made Clint finally understand what Phil had seen behind the dismissive, cocky attitude. Considering his own background, Clint knows he should have recognised Stark’s mask for what it was, but he hadn’t really gotten it until the day he’d accidentally gotten a glimpse of Tony and Pepper curled together on a chair by the bar. Pepper was talking softly into Tony’s shoulder as he held her, tears streaming down her face, and Clint caught Phil’s name. Clint was deep in his own denial, but the look on Tony’s face was like a punch in the gut. Tony looked . . . lost. There was grief and regret and guilt and a dozen other emotions that had nothing to do with comforting Pepper and everything to do with Phil. Clint had retreated quickly, both from the intimate scene and from the reminder, but he’d made a mental note tell Phil when he finally found him that Clint been wrong, that Tony Stark actually cared.
As he watches Phil acknowledge Tony’s anxious gaze with a short nod and an actual smile, Clint realises that Phil already knows. Tony huffs a bit at being caught, then he shrugs and rolls his eyes at Phil as if to ask, “well, what do you expect?” Clint hides his smile behind his last bite of celebratory omelet.
Phil has stalled after eating about half of his, the rest lying abandoned on the plate on his knee, but Clint figures that’s about all he can hope for anyway. They’ve both had enough experience with life-threatening injuries to know that it takes a while for the appetite to come back. Clint makes a mental note to ask Tony to have Dummy fix up some nutrient shakes for Phil for the next few days. He looks up from where he’s been staring at his empty plate to see Phil watching him, concern in his eyes.
“I’m ok,” Phil says softly.
“I know.” Clint replies, just as quietly. And he does. The only good thing about Fury’s deception is that he clearly kept Phil out through the worst of the recovery. Phil’s medical chart had been helpfully kept at the end of his bed and Clint had looked it over before they snuck out of Headquarters. The damage was less extensive than originally feared and is almost completely healed. He’ll still be sore for another week or two, and he’ll need physical therapy but they can both do that in their sleep. Phil’s fine. He won’t break. Clint knows that. He just has to work on believing it.
Clint is pulled out of his thoughts when Steve reaches down to take his empty plate from him. He’s already got Phil’s half-full plate in his other hand so Clint yields his up without protest. Steve has a look on his face that Clint has translated as his ‘I have failed to live up to my own insane standard of behaviour by neglecting my responsibilities as team leader in some obscure manner that makes sense to no one but me and I am attempting to atone for my atrocious lapse in judgement by being earnestly and obnoxiously solicitous’ face.
The fact that the team has yet to be sent on any actual missions and Clint has already seen that face often enough that he can translate it with such specificity is a harsh reminder that, despite appearances, Steve is just as fucked up as the rest of them. Clint’s not sure if that look is for him or Phil, or perhaps for both, but he knows Cap will forgive himself in his own time and not before and nothing he can do or say will speed up the process so Clint resigns himself to putting up with Steve’s walking on eggshells routine for a few days.
By the time Steve is finished cleaning up, Phil is flagging, leaning most of his weight against Clint and trying valiantly to not appear as close to falling asleep as he actually is. Clint catches Bruce’s eye and the scientist stands up abruptly, announcing that the meal was very nice but he has an experiment to check on and Agent Coulson still needs to settle in so perhaps they should all let him get to it. Phil isn’t fooled for a second, but he nods gratefully to Bruce who smiles back and says how great it is to see him again - as if Phil had just been out of town and not supposedly dead - before heading back toward his lab upstairs. Steve makes his own excuses, blushing a bit as he gently squeezes Phil’s good shoulder on his way out and murmurs, “I’m glad you’re ok,” without meeting Phil’s eyes or Clint’s.
Tony waits until Steve is gone and then gives Phil another searching look. “I’m gonna go check on what JARVIS has come up with,” he says as he stands.
“See if you can get an update on Natasha’s progress while you’re at it?” Clint asks, and Tony nods. Tasha should be here, and it isn’t right that she still thinks Phil is dead but although Clint knows that there is no way Fury isn’t aware by now that they have Phil back he still doesn’t want to call attention to them by messaging Tasha directly. Phil throws Clint a worried look at the mention of Tasha and Clint knows he’s thinking the same thing.
Tony heads in the direction of the hall to the express elevator down to his workshop but he stops at doorway and looks back. “Don’t do anything like this again, Coulson,” he says, and it’s meant to be a command but it sounds like a plea. It’s a promise Phil can’t give and they both know it.
“I do have a first name, Stark,” Phil says in response. “You might find it useful on occasion.” The look that’s passed between them is one Clint is intimately familiar with - it’s the same look that is passed between him and Tasha every time one of them is headed into danger without the other - and for a moment he feels like he’s intruding.
Then Stark smirks and says “See ya, Phil,” before turning his back and leaving them alone in the room. Phil gives up all pretense of not being utterly wrecked and leans heavily against Clint.
“He cares about you,” Clint says, wrapping his arm around Phil’s shoulders.
“I know.” Phil answers, sighing. Clint shifts, sitting sideways on the couch and tugging at Phil’s good arm.
“C’mon. Bed.” Phil doesn’t object and he lets Clint help him up from the sofa, which just goes to show how very tired he must be. Clint leads Phil into his room in the tower with its king-sized bed Clint has barely slept in.
Phil is quiet and unresisting as Clint helps him out of the stolen SHIELD sweats he’d nicked from another storage room and manhandles him into the bed, stripping down to his boxers and slipping in behind him and spooning against Phil’s back as he lies on his good side. Clint throws an arm over Phil’s side and Phil catches Clint’s hand in his, tugging it close to him.
“I love you,” Clint breathes into the back of Phil’s neck, conscious of Phil’s heart beating steadily under his palm and feeling so very very grateful.
“I know,” Phil says, and Clint can hear the smile in his voice. He falls asleep between one breath and the next.
Clint counts. It’s a habit left over from his childhood. Phil knows this because he and Clint spent a night not long after they officially started dating in the dark of one of Clint’s nests and telling each other every last horrible, painful secret they could remember so that the other would know what to do when the past inevitably reared its ugly head. It was the only way to keep their demons from catching the one they loved off-guard.
Because of that night Phil knows that one of Clint’s first memories is of hiding in the cupboard under the sink, silently counting - ‘five-one-thousand, six-one-thousand’ - while he listens for his father’s footsteps. And when his father had eventually found him it was the lashes Clint counted, one after the other until the man finally collapsed in a drunken stupor.
As a child Clint counted every blow their father landed on him and his brother. He counted the number of steps between the living room and his bedroom door and the number bottles of booze lying empty on the floor. Later he counted the kids in the orphanage who got adopted, and the families who talked to him and then left him behind. He counted tickets at the circus, and cards, and flips, and towns, and arrows, and inches off-center, for which there were still more blows to count.
Nowadays Clint still counts arrows - arrows and targets and bullets and Clint once nearly gave Phil a heart attack by breaking cover to sprint directly at a gun-wielding thug - “he was out of bullets, Coulson, I was counting.”
Clint counts mission successes and failures. Like Natasha, he counts his kills and he counts the lives he couldn’t save. He counts how many times Tasha has kicked his ass and how many handlers he went through before being assigned to Phil (a SHIELD record) and how many times each of them has been injured in the field and the first thing Clint had said to Phil in that jail in Somalia was “forty-six” and Phil didn’t have to ask what he meant because that time Phil had been counting too.
So when Phil wakes up after his first night in the Tower to hear Clint mumbling “three hundred and eighty-three, three hundred and eighty-four” in his sleep he’s worried, but not surprised. Clint’s brow is furrowed and Phil smooths it out with his thumb until Clint’s eyes blink open - still a brilliant, clear blue and Phil releases a breath he hadn’t realised he’d been holding.
“You were counting in your sleep,” Phil murmurs softly. “What were you counting?” Clint’s eyes, at first soft and warm with sleep and affection, grow dull and haunted.
“Rooms,” he answers, and Phil feels a stab of pain in his chest that has nothing to do with his healing wound.
All Phil can think to say is “I’m sorry,” and the words are so very inadequate in the face of all Clint has suffered.
“Don’t, Phil,” Clint says with a small shake of his head, his hair rustling against the pillow. “You’re here,” and he smiles, one hand coming up to lay against Phil’s cheek. “And I can think of much better things to count.” Clint shifts in the bed, propping himself with one muscular arm and leaning down to press his lips against Phil’s. His other hand trails down Phil’s chin and neck to rest palm flat against Phil’s chest, just to the left of the surgical scar. Clint pulls back before Phil can respond.
“One,” he says with a smirk, and dives back in. Phil raises his head to meet him and this one is longer, a languid re-exploration. “Two,” Clint whispers when they finally break apart. Phil arches his back against the mattress as - “Three” - Clint’s hand dips lower.
Phil is aware he’s being spoiled. Leisurely - if cautious - morning sex is one thing, but now Clint is standing in Tony’s kitchen, wearing only a pair of sweatpants, and making pancakes. Clint is actually an excellent cook, but he lacks the patience to do it often, not to mention that their lives rarely afford the opportunity. Phil leans casually against the counter next to where Clint stands, sweats hanging low on his hips as he whips the batter to the beat of Nine Inch Nails’ “The Hand that Feeds” - apparently Clint cooks at the Tower enough to have a ‘Cooking Playlist’ stored with JARVIS. Phil watches, grinning, as Clint pours perfectly symmetrical disks of batter into a pan with one hand, while flipping half-cooked cakes on another pan with the other - a stunning display of ambidextrous coordination.
Clint is beautiful like this - all competence and grace, managing to make the simple act of cooking breakfast seem like an elaborate interpretive dance. Despite all he’s been through Clint unarmored radiates life, all sparkling eyes and quicksilver grins and Clint has heart - Phil didn’t need Loki to tell him that. It’s the cheesiest, most clichéed notion in the world (Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?) but Clint reminds Phil of the sun, doubly intoxicating to one who has lived his whole life in the shade. Clint’s radiance is all too often obscured by the clouds of his past, but when he’s like this - happy and warm and open - it makes everything worth it. Clint’s damaged - they all are, but Phil lives for those moments when something he does or says banishes one of those ever-present shadows from Clint’s face.
Phil is quite sure that the look on his face must reflect a blackmail-worthy level of sappiness, so he’s almost grateful when a feminine shriek from the penthouse above interrupts his sentimental musings.
“He’s what?!” Pepper’s voice is shrill and Phil almost feels sorry for Tony . . . almost. He can’t make out Stark’s rumbling reply but the frantic patter of bare feet on Tony’s hardwood stairs indicates that Clint and Phil’s quiet morning is about to be invaded. “Where is he?” Pepper is shouting back at Tony, and this time Phil hears Tony’s response.
“Probably still sleeping, Pep. I hear getting stabbed really takes it out of you.” Phil winces a little, because yeah, it really does, but hey, could have been so much worse.
Pepper is dashing down the hallway now, and she stops dead in the kitchen doorway, eyes wide as she stares at him. “God, Phil,” she says, sounding choked, and hell, Phil hates it when women cry.
“Ms. Potts,” he greets her in return, a slight smile softening the impersonal title. Pepper gulps a laugh, and moves toward him, completely ignoring Clint, watching her from the stove, and Tony, who has appeared in the doorway behind her with a smile and a shrug.
“Don’t you ‘Ms. Potts’ me, Phil Coulson” She jerks to a stop a foot in front of Phil, eyes watery and voice trembling. “Can I . . . hug you?” she asks, looking him over anxiously, as if seeking evidence of his injury under the zip-up grey hoodie he borrowed from Clint. Phil just nods and pushes away from the counter as Pepper takes one step forward and wraps her arms around him gently.
She sniffs a bit when she pulls back, but she looks him in the eye and fixes him with that same no-nonsense stare that occasionally even works on Tony Stark. “I expect this kind of stunt from that idiot,” and she indicates Tony with a toss of her head, ignoring his indignant squawk, “but I expected better of you Agent Coulson. You’re not to do anything like this again, you hear me?”
“I’ll do my best,” Phil allows, and yeah, it really was a pretty stupid thing to do, but he hadn’t exactly been thinking clearly at the time. He glances over to see Clint wearing a smirk that doesn’t quite reach his eyes and knows that he will do his best - not for Pepper, although she’s a good friend - but so Clint never has reason to look like that again.
Nodding sharply, as if satisfied with his answer, Pepper turns her high-wattage smile on Clint. “So you must be the cellist,” she says, and Phil groans because he’d almost forgotten that little fib. Clint gets that ‘deer-in-a-headlight’ look and holds up a laden plate as a peace offering.
“Pancakes?” he asks, hopefully. Pepper takes the plate from his hands and puts it back down on the counter, reaching out instead to pull Clint into a much tighter hug than the one she gave Phil.
“Thank you for finding him and bringing him back,” she says, and it’s Phil’s turn to smirk at the look on Clint’s face, because it’s clear he’s not really sure what sort of response is expected out of him.
“You’re . . . welcome?” he says finally, and Pepper laughs.
“And yes, I do believe I will take a pancake or two,” Pepper replies as she pulls back. Clint grins, and spins around to start doling out the fruits of his labour. It’s not long before Steve and Bruce wander in, enticed by the wonderful aromas coming from the kitchen, and even if it’s not quite the quiet breakfast with his husband that Phil had been expecting, he’s not going to complain.
“Did JARVIS find anything interesting?” Phil asks Tony after breakfast.
“I’m a little surprised Fury hasn’t stormed the Tower looking for you,” Clint grumbles. But no. It’s not that Fury wouldn’t do that, Phil knows, but he is a master of the long game. Fury’s got some plan he hasn’t seen fit to let Phil in on, and Phil is discovering that his appreciation of Fury’s methods is suffering from being on the other side of the equation.
“Oh yeah,” Tony answers. “He has another assignment all lined up for you. I don’t think he was planning on telling us anything.” And Tony’s got such a look of betrayal mixed with ‘I should have expected that’ that Phil curses Fury in his head once again. What the hell are you up to, Nick?
“So what’s the plan?” Steve asks, getting down to business.
“Any news on Tasha?” Clint asks.
“She should be getting back sometime today,” Tony reports. “Assuming Sitwell’s SitRep is accurate. Heh - Sitwell’s SitRep.”
Phil rolls his eyes. “Perhaps we should wait until she gets back before making any team decisions?” he suggests mildly, knowing Tasha would be very put out if she wasn’t afforded the chance to get back at Fury.
“What about Thor?” Steve asks with a frown.
Tony shrugs. “Do you know how to contact him?”
No one does, so it’s reluctantly decided that they’ll have a team meeting once Natasha gets back and fill Thor in whenever he ultimately appears.
Which in fact turns out to be about fifteen minutes after Steve mentions his name. Tony and Steve meet him on the roof of the Tower where he appears, while Pepper gets on the phone to let the Mayor know that the giant tornado that just touched down on Stark Tower is nothing to be worried about.
“Son of Coul!” Thor booms when he enters the sitting room at Tony’s heels and sees Phil. “I am glad that you are yet living, my friend!”
‘Son of Coul?’ Clint mouths at Phil with raised eyebrows and Phil just smirks. As Thor-given names go, his really isn’t that bad.
“Good to see you again as well, Thor,” he replies and the god of Thunder beams.
“Yeah, perfect timing, big guy,” Stark says as he throws himself into a chair. “We were just talking about you.”
“I know,” Thor says with a grave nod. “Heimdall informed me you had need to speak with me.”
“Are you sticking around?” Tony asks.
Thor looks surprised. “I - I had thought to visit my Jane. But yes, if I am welcome, I would enjoy, as you say - ‘sticking around’.”
“Why wouldn’t you be welcome?” Steve asks, a troubled frown on his face.
Thor looks down, uncharacteristically subdued. “Loki is - was - my brother.”
“No one blames you for that,” Clint objects fiercely, and Phil knows he’s thinking of himself. None of them have blamed Clint for leading the attack on the helicarrier despite his own efforts to the contrary, so how could Thor think they’d blame him just for being related to the guy?
“I still love him,” Thor says, voice a painful mix of shame and defiance.
“Of course you do, he’s your brother, ” Clint replies. “We always love our brothers, even when they don’t deserve it.” Clint’s voice is tight and bitter and damn Barney Barton to the depths of hell, Phil thinks.
“Lord deliver me from people with overdeveloped guilt complexes,” Tony interjects, patting Thor on a shoulder-blade, the height differential making a shoulder-clasp awkward. “You’re welcome to stick around as long as you like. And as for your girl, Stark Industries could use an astrophysicist. I don’t think I have one of those yet. What’d’you think, Pep? Think we can steal Jane Foster away from SHIELD?”
“I’ll get right on that, Tony.” Pepper says with a roll of her eyes but a warm smile. Phil makes a mental note to point Tony in the direction of Betty Ross as well.
Pepper leaves the table to head upstairs - presumably to begin a plan to lure Jane Foster into the fold. Tony steers Thor toward the elevator with a “c’mon big guy, let me show you your room.” Bruce starts gathering up the breakfast plates, Steve jumping in to help out and shooing Clint and Phil away with a reminder to let them know when Natasha gets back.
“I wouldn’t have gone,” Phil says, when he and Clint are back in their room, lying next to each other on the bed. Phil hates how easily his body gets tired now, especially when there’s work to do.
“Huh?” Clint asks.
“Stark said Fury had a mission outlined for me,” Phil reminds him. “I wouldn’t have gone. Not without seeing you. Not without making sure you were alright and letting you know I was. I wouldn’t have left you like that, I promise.”
Clint turns to lay on his side, facing Phil. “I know,” he says, a small smile playing around the corners of his mouth and Phil knows how much it has cost him to have that kind of faith.
Thing is, Fury knows too. And he also would have known that nothing - no mission in the world would have kept Phil from letting his husband know he was still alive. So why put all that effort into planning a mission he knew Phil would never accept? It occurs to Phil that perhaps everything they’ve done so far has simply been playing into the man’s hands, but he’s decided he doesn’t care. All he cares about is making sure that he and Clint are protected from any further manipulations. Phil understands the greater good, but there is a limit to what he is willing to sacrifice to it.
Phil dozes for a while, Clint warm against his side, until an insistent beeping from the bedside table pulls him fully awake. Clint rolls over to grab his mobile and Phil sits up to wrap his arms around Clint from behind and lean over his shoulder, peering at the phone.
“It’s Tasha,” Clint says, unnecessarily, as Phil can read the text himself from this position, “she’s back at base.”
Clint types out a quick message: “Come home ASAP” and hits ‘send’. After a moment’s hesitation he types out another: “I found him.” Clint tosses the phone back on the bedside table and leans his head back to rest on Phil’s shoulder.
“How long do you think it’ll take her to get here?” Clint asks.
“From headquarters? With that kind of incentive? Twenty minutes maybe,” Phil replies.
As if on cue, eighteen minutes later, Clint’s phone beeps. “On my way up,” reads the text. Clint and Phil stand as one to go meet the elevator.
Clint is tense as a bowstring beside him, and Phil is actually nervous. Tasha doesn’t care easily. Phil knows that he and Clint are two of the only people she really loves in this world and Clint had really been in no state to support her in the aftermath of his ‘death.’ Phil wonders just how far-reaching effects of Fury’s deception will be - how much more damage it has caused to people who were damaged enough already, Phil himself included.
The elevator opens and Natasha’s standing there, frozen, eyes wide and the dark circles under them show just how badly she’s been hurting. Then she shakes her head, and her eyes turn dark with anger as she stalks forward. Clint takes one smooth step to place himself between Tasha and Phil because Tasha thinks with her fists first sometimes and while he normally wouldn’t get between her and the object of her anger Clint won’t let her hurt Phil.
He needn’t have bothered because Tasha stops in front of Clint, not Phil and wraps her arms around him tight. “I’m sorry,” she says, voice uncharacteristically unsteady. “I should have believed you.”
Clint’s arms come up to hold her as he whispers his own apologies. “I should have been there for you. I’m sorry.” Tasha shakes her head, laughing, but there are tears in her eyes.
Phil takes a few steps forward until he’s standing next to them and Tasha releases Clint to throw her arms around Phil, gently, as if clinging to something precious and highly breakable. “I’m glad you’re all right, sir,” she says.
Phil just says “me too,” and holds her tightly. Clint taps away at his phone for a moment, then steps closer and wraps his arms around them both.
“Fury - ” Tasha starts, and the anger is back in her eyes.
“Later,” Clint interrupts. “Told Cap you were back and to give us some time. We’ll all get together and discuss it over dinner. Not now.” Tasha nods gratefully.
“Come on,” Clint says, pulling away only to grab them each by the hand. “You’re tired, and Phil could use some more rest.” Normally Phil would protest that he’s fine - and he is, really. Even with his injury he’s got a couple of good hours left in him - but one look at Natasha’s exhausted eyes and he submits gracefully to Clint’s manhandling as he leads them both back to his bedroom.
The bed is huge - thank Stark - and by mutual agreement they lie down with Tasha in the middle, reaching across her to hold each other with Tasha sandwiched between them. She’s lying facing Phil, anxious eyes cataloguing every inch of him, looking for the effects of his injury, judging the rate of his recovery.
“I’m here,” Phil tells her, eyes meeting hers, open, letting her see the truth in his gaze.
“We both are,” Clint says from her other side, tightening his grip.
“You’re not alone,” Phil says finally, knowing as he does that it’s her greatest fear.
Natasha makes a soft, wounded sound, burying her face in the crook of Phil’s neck, and they both hold her tightly as she cries.
The Avengers, plus Phil and Pepper, assemble in the dining/conference room on the main floor of the residence. Tony sends Happy out for food, and the driver returns with twelve boxes of pizza in every topping combination imaginable. Phil’s first thought is that twelve is a bit excessive, but he re-evaluates after watching Rogers, Banner, and Thor put away a pie each in record time, and begins wondering if twelve will be enough.
Tony and Steve have apparently filled Thor in on the reason for the team meeting, likewise Phil and Clint have given Natasha all the details as they reconnected. Surprisingly, it is Thor who brings up the most obvious solution, angrily declaring “I have sworn no oaths to Fury One-Eye!”
Tony stares at him blankly for a moment before babbling a bunch of legal terms at Pepper and asking JARVIS to hack into SHIELD Legal. The Avengers Initiative may have been a SHIELD project, but individually their ties to the organisation are weak. Tony is a SHIELD consultant, but the position carries no real obligations. Both Bruce and Steve have technically been in SHIELD ‘custody,’ but Tony’s got plenty of lawyers and with public opinion on their side SHIELD has very little chance of making any kind of charges stick.
Tony expresses some concern about the status of Clint and Natasha, but Phil informs him that both are considered independent contractors - ostensibly to limit SHIELD’s liability should their actions ever become public, but the disavowal works both ways, and Phil is quick to assure the team that he is not currently bound in contract to SHIELD either (he is exaggerating a bit based on a technicality, but even if Fury doesn’t go for it he’s confident in his ability to extract himself).
“What it boils down to,” Tony informs the team gleefully, “is that we could declare ourselves independent at any time and the only thing SHIELD could do to us is claim trademark infringement on the term ‘Avengers’.”
“But could we function as an independent unit?” Steve asks. “Our equipment and our intel come from SHIELD.”
Tony just looks smug. “You get your equipment from SHIELD, but SHIELD gets most of its equipment from me. All we’d be doing is cutting out the middleman.”
“SHIELD pays for that equipment,” Bruce points out, but Tony waves a careless hand.
“SHIELD pays for their equipment because I don’t like them as much as I like us. Pepper, back me up here.”
Pepper nods. “Tony’s right. We can absorb the cost of outfitting the Avengers without much trouble. I can probably even get it set up as a tax write-off.”
“See!” Tony says. “Not a problem.”
“What about intel?” Steve asks.
“I imagine Fury would be willing to negotiate an exchange of information agreement,” Phil says, “especially considering that Tony could probably hack whatever we needed out of SHIELD’s system anyway.”
“SHIELD’s mainframe software is StarkTech,” Tony interjects with a smirk, “I wouldn’t even need to hack.”
Pepper and Phil are assigned to draft what Clint is calling the Avengers Declaration of Independence. Between Pepper’s experience in drafting airtight contracts and Phil’s extensive knowledge of SHIELD operations, the document they come up with is pretty ironclad. Because Steve is team leader, the document is sent from his account along with a note informing Fury that a representative of the Avengers will be coming to SHIELD headquarters the next day to discuss relations between their two organisations, and two letters of resignation from Clint and Natasha.
“Are you going to be ok talking to Fury?” Clint asks as they’re getting ready for bed. No one argued with Phil’s request to be the one to confront Fury with the documents, although they made sure he knew there was no way he would be going alone. “I know he’s your friend.”
“He crossed a line,” Phil says firmly. He’ll probably forgive Fury at some point, but right now he’s still mad.
“You think he’ll let us go?” Clint asks.
“I think that’s what he wants,” Phil answers. He’s been thinking about it. With the Council breathing down Fury’s neck, there are definite advantages to having the Avengers be independent of SHIELD. Clint doesn’t look surprised.
“I figured that might be the case. After everything I almost hate to give him what he wants,” Clint says, grimacing.
“Just look at it this way,” Phil soothes him, “after tomorrow, he won’t be in a position to do anything like it again.” Phil goes to stand up against Clint where he stands by the window, wrapping his arms around the younger man from behind, resting his chin on Clint’s shoulder. Clint leans back slightly with a sigh.
“Fury’s a good man,” Phil says, reluctantly. “I’ve worked with him for a long time and I trust him with the safety of the world. I just don’t trust him with us.”
“Are we done talking about Fury?” Clint asks.
“Yeah,” Phil says, pressing a kiss to Clint’s temple. Clint turns around in Phil’s arms, resting their foreheads together and stealing a kiss.
“I love you,” Clint whispers, and Phil flashes back to that moment when he was dying and thought he’d never hear those words again.
“I love you too,” he answers, walking backward toward the bed and pulling Clint along with him. He wonders how long it will be before every look, every touch, no longer feels like a miracle. He hopes it’s a long long time.
“He did what?” Phil’s voice is deceptively calm, and hard as ice as he stares down Captain America at the breakfast table. Clint puts a restraining hand on Phil’s arm, but his eyes are wide and shocked as well.
Steve gulps. Only moments ago they had been having a nice breakfast. Then Phil had casually mentioned that he still intended to get Steve to sign his trading cards. Seems no one had told either Phil or Clint about Fury’s visual aides.
“He said they were in your jacket.” Steve explains.
“I do not keep priceless, near-mint condition vintage trading cards in my jacket,” Phil says, scandalised. “The only reason they were even in my locker instead of in my safety-deposit box was because I was hoping to get them signed. Do you have any idea how long I spent putting that collection together?”
“I can’t believe he messed with the cards,” Clint says, sounding almost a little impressed, “Even I know better than to mess with the cards.” Phil shoots him a glare, and gets a cheeky grin in return.
Ok, Phil admits, so maybe he is overreacting a little, but he’d spent years and a not insignificant amount of money getting those cards. Phil makes a mental note to add Disciplinary Form 47-B (“Intentional destruction or damage by an agent of SHIELD of property belonging to a fellow agent of SHIELD”) to the stack of paperwork he is going to make Fury fill out as part of their negotiations - along with Form 59-C (“Failure by a commanding officer to comply with the duly-filed and registered advance directives [living wills, medical powers of attorney, beneficiary designations, etc.] of an agent of SHIELD”).
Phil’s indignation over the destruction of his trading cards buoys him as the Avengers descend upon SHIELD Headquarters en masse. Phil re-enters the building he recently escaped from surrounded by the team - his team, he finally understands, and is humbled by the realisation. He’s dressed impeccably in his favourite suit - Tony had surprised them by having Phil’s apartment packed up and moved to the Tower overnight - and bracketed by Clint and Natasha.
Stares and whispers follow them as they make their way to Fury’s office - Phil hears several variations on the ‘I thought he was dead’ theme, and knows his reputation among the rank and file of SHIELD has now hit legendary proportions. He doesn’t even bother pretending to himself that isn’t just a little bit fun. Clint and Natasha are wearing matching smirks, and Phil is mildly disappointed they won’t be around to see the ultimate effect of his ‘resurrection’ on the junior agents.
Hill meets them in the hallway outside Fury’s office. Phil’s pleased to see that she looks a little stunned at his appearance - it seems she wasn’t in on Fury’s play after all.
“Maria,” he greets her as they stop in front of Fury’s door. She gives him a little half-smile.
“Good to see you, Phil.”
“He in?” Phil asks, although he knows the answer.
“He’s waiting for you,” Hill says, and while she still looks a bit strained, her tone is as even as if this were any other briefing with the Director, as if Phil weren’t recently returned from the dead, surrounded by a defensive cadre of superheroes, and about to negotiate his secession from SHIELD.
Phil steps out from behind Rogers, who has been leading the procession through the halls, with Clint and Natasha following at his heels. The three of them stop in front of Fury’s door, Phil’s hand already on the handle. They don’t want him going in there alone, but they’ve already had this argument in the limo on the way over, and Phil had won.
“We’ll be right here,” Clint says, “waiting for you.”
“I’ll be fine,” Phil assures him. Clint nods once, sharply, and he and Natasha take up positions on either side of the door as Phil opens it and steps through into Fury’s office.
Only the epilogue left now folks. Although there will be a prequel dealing with the evolution of Phil and Clint's relationship prior to the events of the movie. Eventually.
Phil is certain he isn’t imagining the quick flash of relief on that passes over Fury’s face as he looks up from his desk to see Phil standing there, but all he says is “Good to see you up and about, Coulson.”
“Yes, sir,” Phil answers agreeably. He knows Fury cares about him in his own way, but he’s still not going to make it easy for the man.
“Those were some interesting documents I received yesterday. I could see your efficient hand in the compilation.”
“It was a collaborative effort, sir.”
“I’m sure it was. This document doesn’t give me much choice, you realise?”
Phil smiles. “Ms. Potts was rather sure that would be the case.”
Fury shuffles some of the printouts on his desk. Phil watches him place Clint and Natasha’s resignations to one side, pull out a pen, and sign them both. “You do realise that you are under contract with SHIELD through the end of the year?”
“You’ll have to check with Legal, but I rather thought that contract ended with my death.” Fury actually winces. “Then again, there’s the matter of the rather unorthodox treatment of my medical care. I was going to simply file a few disciplinary forms, but I could always sue for breach of contract, illegal detainment . . .”
“Enough!” Fury snaps. “What do you want?”
“Your signature on the primary document, for one.” Phil responds, unperturbed by the Director’s show of temper. Fury scowls and scribbles his signature on the bottom of the ‘Declaration’.
“Satisfied?” he asks.
“Don’t pretend you aren’t getting exactly what you want here, sir,” Phil answers, beginning to get tired of playing the game.
“Are we done here, Coulson?” Fury asks, eyebrow arched.
“No,” Phil says firmly. “I want to know why. You owe me that much, sir.”
Fury sighs. “The Council has seen the value of having a team like the Avengers on hand. I don’t think any of us would like what they plan to do with them. I needed the Avengers out of the Council’s hands and I needed to not be seen as the one doing it or I wouldn’t be in the position to protect the rest of our people. Do you understand, Coulson? It was necessary.”
“That part I already knew, sir. But Stark and Banner were already about to break off over Phase Two. Why me? Why the deception?”
“They needed the push, Coulson,” Fury continues. “You said that yourself.”
Yes, but only when I thought I really was dying, Phil objects silently. “And after?” he says aloud instead.
“I needed something they wouldn’t forgive me for,” Fury says simply. Mission accomplished, sir, Phil thinks bitterly. He knows he won’t get what he wants from Fury. Once the man decides on a course of action he commits to it. He never apologises. The deception already begun, continuing it would have seemed to Fury the most obvious option. Why think up another lie when you already had one in place?
Phil wonders if Fury can even comprehend the kind of damage his ruse could have caused. How long would he have kept it going if Clint hadn’t pressed the issue? Would he have simply watched while first Clint and then Tasha self-destructed? Or would have have not even noticed until it was too late - too lost in the Big Picture. The needs of the many . . . There was a time, before Clint, when Phil would have agreed.
Suddenly, Phil is tired. He doesn’t want to fight about this any more. The documents are signed. He has what he needs.
“I’ll make sure you get my updated contact info, sir,” Phil says as he retrieves the signed documents from Fury’s desk. “I will keep SHIELD updated as to the Avengers’ activities. In return, I expect any relevant intel SHIELD obtains will be conveyed in a timely matter. I don’t think I need to tell you that Stark will be watching.” Phil turns toward the door, not bothering to wait for a dismissal.
“Phil,” Fury calls when his hand is on the doorknob. Phil looks back over his shoulder. “It was necessary,” Fury repeats, something almost like the apology he will never actually say in his tone.
Phil thinks about Clint and the look on his face when he says thirty-eight days, hears Clint’s voice counting empty rooms in his sleep. He thinks of Natasha and the way she trembled when he told her she wasn’t alone. He hears the resigned disappointment in Tony’s voice: I don’t think he was planning on telling us anything. He thinks of Pepper’s tears and Thor’s anger and Bruce’s cynicism and Steve’s honest hurt confusion: Why would the Director do that? And then Phil thinks of three scenarios off the top of his head that would have achieved the same objectives without all this pain and he looks Fury in the eye.
“No, sir. It really wasn’t,” he says, and closes the door behind him.
Clint and Natasha fall into step beside Phil as he hands the documents to Steve and the group turns to leave. Maria hovers nearby, clearly wanting to ask what is going on but not wanting to risk the wrath of overprotective Avengers.
Phil takes a deep breath. No point in taking his dark mood out on Hill. He peers out from behind barrier of Clint’s shoulder to give Maria a half-smile. “Take care of him,” he tells her kindly. “I might forgive him someday, and I’d like him to still be around when I do. And tell him he owes me some trading cards.”
Maria nods. “Take care of yourself, Phil,” she says. Then she looks at the team, still in protective formation around Phil. “And take care of them too.”
“I intend to,” Phil assures her solemnly. Her smile widens as she turns smartly and heads off down the hall. When she’s out of sight and they are alone, Phil sags slightly and leans against Clint. His shoulder is screaming and the talk with Fury has drained him more than he was expecting. It’s over. The Avengers are independent, out from under the authority of both the Council and Nick motherfuckin’ Fury. All Phil wants now is to curl up somewhere soft and let Clint hold him.
“Can we go home?” he asks softly, knowing he sounds exhausted and not even caring that the whole team can hear him. He knows now that they won’t think any less of him for it.
“Yeah,” Clint says, resting his hand on Phil’s shoulder. “We can go home.” Natasha gives his arm a gentle squeeze.
“Alright,” Tony says, clapping his hands together. “Let’s blow this popsicle stand.” Phil nods and straightens up again, untouchable mask in place once more for the junior agents as they make their way out of SHIELD and back to Tony’s limo.
Phil spends the ride back to the Tower sandwiched between Clint and Natasha, eyes closed, head pillowed on Clint’s upper arm.
“You ok?” Natasha asks.
“Hmmm” Phil agrees, drowsily. He feels more than hears Clint’s chuckle under his ear.
When they get back, Phil will let Clint bully him into taking one of his pain pills, and they’ll curl up together on their bed and take a nap before dinner. But for now, Phil is content to rest under the indulgent eyes of his team.
Chapter 8: Epilogue
So this is it, folks. The end of this story arc. I *will* be writing more fics in this universe -- I have a prequel planned dealing with the early parts of Clint and Phil's relationship, and I'll probably do some one-shots set after this one, but I also have two other projects in the works, so it might be a few weeks before I get back to it. I hope you've enjoyed the series so far!
When they get back to the Tower, Clint leads Phil up to their bedroom and undresses him slowly, pushing him back on the bed. Phil reaches a lazy hand up to grasp Clint’s shirt before he can pull away.
“Off,” Phil orders.
Clint grins. “I thought you were tired?” he asks, but he pulls his t-shirt off anyway, straddling Phil on the bed.
“Not that tired,” Phil replies, pulling Clint down on top of him.
They make love slowly and for once, quietly. It’s gentle and sweet and Phil gets the feeling that Clint is worshipping him with his body and every touch feels holy. It’s over, all of it, finally. They’re together and his team is protected. This is the victory dance.
When they’re done and Clint has cleaned them off with a washcloth fetched from the bathroom, Phil sighs and rests his head on Clint’s shoulder.
“I love you,” he says into Clint’s neck, because he remembers what it felt like to believe he’d never get to say those words again and he resolves to say them more often in the future.
“Love you too,” Clint replies, and he rolls onto his side and pulls Phil close, wrapping himself around Phil, one palm resting on the scar over Phil’s heart. It makes Phil feel safe and protected, and usually Phil’s the one taking care of Clint, grounding him, protecting him when he’s injured or upset, but now their roles are reversed, and Phil allows himself the luxury of being the one taken care of for once.
They both sleep without nightmares that night, and wake late in the morning. When they finally emerge from their rooms it’s to the divine smell of bacon and eggs - Steve is standing at the range with an honest-to-god apron on, and Bruce hands them both a cup of coffee with a smile.
“Morning,” Tasha says from her place on the couch, looking up from where she’s working on the crossword in the morning paper with a genuine smile - the one she rarely lets anyone see. Tony and Pepper make their way down shortly thereafter, and Thor follows with a booming greeting.
They sit at the table, all of them, eating Steve’s wonderful breakfast and chattering amongst themselves. Tony and Bruce are debating some obscure physics topic, Bruce with quiet confidence and Tony with loud gesticulations. Natasha is actually in close conference with Pepper, whispering something Phil is quite certain he doesn’t want to know about. Thor is teaching Steve the wonders of texting - probably using his frequent conversations with Jane as examples, based on the blush that heats Steve’s cheeks.
Clint reaches down mid-bite to snag Phil’s free hand in his, and just smiles innocently when Phil glances his way. Phil tightens his grip as he looks around the table. This is his team. This is his family. It may have been hell getting here, but Phil finds that he’s never been happier.