Iron Man I
Phil's tie was loose – loose – as he rushed away from Tony Stark's press conference, a gaggle of reporters ready to slit each other's throats to get a question in edgewise. He couldn't say he was surprised, though at the moment he could hardly spare a single emotion for one Tony Stark. No, his focus was on the calm voice coming through his cell phone, trying to reassure him without sounding like it.
“Coulson, he's alive. He's in medical, they're getting him patched up-”
“You could have told me you were going to send him on that mission,” Phil growled as he slid into his deceptively mild-looking government sedan. The tires screeched as he pulled away, merging into traffic just ahead about a dozen additional news vans tearing their way into the Stark Industries parking lot.
“We needed your focus on Stark. Which, if the news reports-”
“Nick,” Phil interrupted his friend, not caring to stand on formality, “you handle it. I'm going to confirm my husband's alive, after you sent him out in the field without his handler.”
The line went dead. Phil threw the phone onto the passenger seat, only just not throwing it out the window because medical might call him. He was listed as Clint's next-of-kin, and emergency contact, and power of attorney... everything.
Which was why Nick shouldn't have sent him out on a mission without running it by Phil first. He expected a certain level of disregard for his own safety and foolhardiness from Clint himself, but not Nick. Then again, Nick wanted him here, looking into this Iron Man disaster. And what Nick Fury wanted, he got: through chicanery, deception, and any underhanded tactic he felt would be useful in reaching his goal.
Two hours later, Phil was practically jumping out of a private jet and onto the runway of the helicarrier. The proverbial dust certainly hadn't even settled by the time his loafers struck the tarmac and he was running to medical, using every shortcut minus the air vents. Only Clint used those.
Two irritated-looking orderlies later – not crying or cowering in Phil's presence, but since they were orderlies on the SHIELD helicarrier, Phil really should have been disappointed if they had been – Phil found Clint's room, not hesitating before charging in.
The first thing he noticed was the ring. It was there, a shiny piece of titanium that looked too clean, too polished, too bright against Clint's scratched, pale skin. Phil's heart leapt in his throat, his eyes going to the heart monitor first. Beeping, beeping, beeping. BP and heart rate fine, vitals all fine, fine. It was only then that Phil allowed himself to drop into the chair on Clint's left and look up at his battered, pale face.
Phil reached forward and laid his hand over Clint's, finger pads rubbing against the ring. Clint's face was bruised, looking like it'd been put through a meat tenderizer. One eye was swollen shut, the other rimmed in cuts and abrasions. His left cheekbone looked horrendous – almost certainly cracked. At least his jaw wasn't wired shut, his lips just cut and puffy. It could be worse.
Phil's hand tightened over Clint's, feeling the warm metal there. It almost was.
Phil drew a breath, regaining some composure. He smiled weakly at Clint, who had one bleary eye gazing at him. “Barton. What have I told you about going out on ops without me?”
Clint seemed like he wanted to move, maybe shrug a nonchalant shoulder, but all he managed to do was make his body tremble a little before it stopped. “Sitwell was there. 's'all good.”
Phil didn't say anything. Instead he let his finger rub significantly over the wedding band.
A breath, and then an amended: “'s'all good now.”
There was a moment of peace as Phil looked at Clint, still mentally cataloguing his injuries based on symptoms: cracked ribs, judging by the way he tried not to breathe too deep; broken wrist on his right hand, obvious from the splint; maybe a broken collarbone because of the way Clint was aborting his movements. Phil would get his file from a nurse later.
“So what's Stark like?”
The laugh came out more like a sob, and had Phil wiping tears from the corners of his eyes with his free hand, but it still made him smile. Clint's lips quirked up, too, though not much. Phil would be amazed he was even talking with the injury to his face, but for one, he knew Clint was on the good drugs by now, and for another, nothing was on record as being able to shut Barton up for long.
“You two are never going to meet,” Phil settled on.
Clint laughed, left hand shifting beneath Phil's palm-up. Phil interlaced their fingers together and sighed. The wedding ring might be there, but so was Clint, and that was good enough for Phil any day.
Phil sat down on a bench, staring at the university. Or, what was left of it. It now had a distinct redecorating job – a touch of that unmistakeable Banner style.
Phil chuckled to himself. Then he winced and shoved his head between his knees. That was definitely a concussion. Fantastic. At least Natasha managed to avoid getting killed. A little concussion and some property damage when Banner was doing his green routine was truly the best anyone could hope for.
Oh, that was loud. Phil thought about lifting his head, but the nausea made that decision for him. Between the knees it would stay.
He did manage to shift his weight enough to raise his left hand out to the man running towards him, shouting his name like he wanted all the junior agents milling about to lose respect for him. Phil sighed as warm fingers closed around his own.
“Sorry, took forever. Jack-ass the pirate didn't want to tell me where you were, and when I conned Sitwell into revealing you and Natasha were out, I had to do some threatening... Shit, Phil. I guess it's not as bad as it looks?”
Clint's thumb was rubbing nervously over Phil's ring finger. The ring finger that was pointedly devoid of a wedding band.
“Not that bad,” Phil confirmed. He had thought about it: just for a moment, just as Banner really seemed to be getting into the swing of throwing edifices at bystanders. But then he had ducked, kept running, barked some orders, and watched as Natasha flipped her way to safety. He had decided the situation didn't warrant any potential-death treatment.
“Not that bad?” a voice rang out in front of them. Phil raised his head, just a little bit. Just enough to catch a glimpse of Clint's concerned expression in the corner of his eye, and witness a flash of red hair and redder lips pressed together in a thin line. Instinctively Phil's eyes swept her for damage, but all her injuries seemed superficial.
“Holding up?” Clint's voice was amused next to him. If his hand hadn't still been gripping tightly to Phil's, Phil might not have known just how worried he still was.
Natasha took one look at Phil and walked past them. She called out disdainfully over her shoulder: “We can debrief when you're not concussed. I'm taking a bath.”
Clint's grip tightened. Phil groaned and let his head drop down between his legs. At this point, throwing up might be for the best. Maybe he'd feel better afterwards.
Phil just hoped Clint's concern would outweigh his anger. At least until he got his head feeling a bit more normal-sized.
Iron Man II
“It's above your clearance level,” Phil said as he shifted the phone to his other shoulder. Clint's laughter was soft over the line, and Phil smiled. Today was a good day. A Captain America shield prototype in Stark's lab, gorgeous sunset in his review, new op that had the promise to be interesting, and Clint's laughter in his ear. And Stark was going to live, it seemed, though Phil still wasn't sure if that went under the positive or negative column for his day.
“Come on,” Clint wheedled. Phil tried vaguely to figure out the noises he heard behind Clint: light traffic, wind. Somewhere flat, next to a highway. Gas station, probably. “You never know when you might need eyes up high.”
It was a good day. Good enough that Phil felt secure pressing his luck to make it even better. “Where are you?”
“Two more miles up on your right. The Chevron.”
He really should have known. “Be there in two,” Phil promised. They disconnected without saying goodbye.
A minute thirty seconds later Clint was sliding into the passenger seat and Phil was merging back onto the highway, their actions syncing neatly. Clint reached over and squeezed Phil's thigh in hello.
“Everything smooth,” Clint asked, though it wasn't really a question. Phil knew he was looking at his left hand, noting the absence of a ring, without even having to glance over. Mostly because Phil was doing the same, eyes flickering just once to Clint's left hand.
“You, too,” he observed. Clint hummed and squeezed at Phil's thigh again, though this time he left his hand there. Phil eased up on the accelerator. No need to rush. Not with Clint safe and secure next to him, and who knew what waiting for them in New Mexico.
Phil stared at the giant metal monster bearing down on the small town. Part of him wished it was one of Stark's creations, but a bigger part of him knew it wasn't. This thing was as alien as the immovable hammer that had crashed into the dry ground, and the man who was so determined to retrieve it. The knowledge of that fact sent chills through Phil's spine. This was a threat. A threat his men had no way to deal with. Unless that blonde man abruptly proved as heroic and useful as he seemed to think he was, they were in trouble. He was in trouble. Grimly, Phil slipped his ring out of his wallet and slipped it onto his ring finger. Clint might be miles away, sent off on some errand for Fury, but if Phil was going down, it would be with some small piece of Clint with him.
“Boss? Hey? You okay?”
Phil smiled, just a small thing that he kept carefully hidden from the rest of his men with a tilt of his head and hand to the comm in his ear. “Fine, Barton. Done with Fury's errand?”
“Fuck no,” Clint snorted in his ear. “Got halfway there, then heard about the escalating problem you guys were dealing with. Got back as fast as I could.” There was a pause, where Phil supposed he was supposed to fill with reassurances that it wasn't that bad, with admonishments that Clint shouldn't have disobeyed orders and returned to his side. But Phil knew, without scanning the rooftops or shadows around him, that Clint was close by. And if he was, he would be able to see the ring on his finger. Discreetly, but not trying to hide it from Clint's eyes which would surely spot the movement no matter what, Phil slipped the ring off his finger and placed it back in his wallet.
“We have the situation here under control,” he replied.
“Missed all the fun.”
For a moment, Phil paused. He could hear the tightness in Clint's words, the complete absence of his normal joking tone. Glancing around, Phil assessed the situation on the ground, then came to a decision. “It's getting dark. And it's been a long few days. Stay the night here and get on the road first light.” Turning away from a subordinate that had wandered too close, Phil dropped his voice: “I'll wrap up here in an hour or two.”
“Should I get a room?”
“I've already got one.”
Phil could feel Clint's smile on the other end of the line before he even spoke. “You know your competence gets me hot.”
Making a show of checking his watch, because he knew Clint would see the gesture, Phil countered with. “One hour, twenty-five minutes. I expect you waiting for me.”
“Sir yes sir.”
Phil schooled his expression into something a bit more field-appropriate before hanging up the phone and turning back to the men around him. “Someone get me Ms. Foster, please? I need to debrief her.”
The phone jingled out “Star Spangled Man with a Plan” that morning over breakfast. Phil didn't comment on the change of ringtone as Clint giggled himself stupid over his cup of coffee, instead choosing to answer the phone with his normal calm. “Sir?”
“We have a situation you might be interested in.”
Phil let his eyes shift to Clint's, lips pressing together in just the smallest display of confusion. Fury sounded... amused. In that subtle, imperceptible-to-everyone-except-Phil kind of way that he had. Clint's head cocked, eyes flickering to Phil's left hand. He shook his head once, fingers on that hand coming up in the smallest reassuring gesture.
“Interested in?” Phil repeated.
“We found him.”
Phil sat down. Hard. Whatever reassurance he might have given Clint was useless the moment his face went that pale, and Clint was already jumping up, grabbing for his gear. Phil just barely managed to snatch a hand out as Clint swept past, stopping him short.
“We found the Captain, Phil. Early reports indicate he's alive.”
Phil swallowed. His throat worked some more. On one level, his mind was thinking about what the knew of the serum, aging effects, the damage freezing does to cells, where his cold weather gear was, and a hundred other pragmatic concerns. But on the top level, all his brain could do was shout They found him they found Cap you're going to get to see Cap he's there go to him go see Cap you get to MEET HIM.
Phil swallowed again.
“Phil.” Clint's hands were warm on Phil's forearms. From the mug of coffee, some back corner of his brain noted. The main part was still screaming and sounding not unlike himself at four years old.
“I'll be in the air in twenty,” Phil finally said, almost surprised that his voice was that of a man's and not himself as a child. With that, he disconnected the call. His eyes focused on Clint's.
“Do...” Clint looked down at Phil's left hand again.
“They found him,” Phil said. And, oh, saying it out loud. Oh. A hysterical giggle bubbled up from his throat and a smile burst across his face. His eyes might have started to tear, Phil couldn't even tell. “They found Steve Rogers. He's alive.”
A relieved smile flickered across Clint's face before he sunk into the chair next to Phil, still maintaining his grip on Phil's forearms. “Scare me a little more, Phil. Fuck.”
Phil's head was buzzing. He had to get dressed. He had to get packed. He had to...
“Hey. Hey. Did you hear what I said?”
Phil blinked and focused on Clint, who wasn't looking nearly as excited as he really should be. He actually looked a little worried. “Sorry, what?”
A nervous laugh puffed its way out of Clint's cheeks as he shook his head, squeezing at Phil's forearms. “Proving my point for me, here. Uh, I said: Maybe you should put on the ring? I mean.” Phil waited as a flush rose on Clint's cheeks. “Steve Rogers. I'm pretty sure this is worse than any near-death experiences we've had.”
Phil's mood sobered dramatically at the mention of their rings. “Don't joke about that,” he scolded.
Clint's eyes darted down as he grumbled “Wasn't really.”
“Come with me,” Phil said. He shifted, sliding Clint's hands off his arms and into his own, squeezing reassuringly. “We can meet him together. My childhood hero can meet my adult hero.”
Just as Clint seemed to melt a little at the declaration, his phone buzzed and Fury's sharp tones filled the kitchen. Phil sighed and busied himself with clearing up the kitchen and getting packed. Ten minutes later he was kissing Clint goodbye as Clint shoved his own bag together and they headed in opposite directions. They'd see each other again soon enough.
As Fury placed the ring in Clint's hand, Clint didn't even bother to look at the false sympathy in his eye. And he didn't need Fury to read the lack of grief in his. Fury was a good actor, but no amount of acting would ever convince Clint that Phil was dead by handing him his ring. Phil's ring was never with his personal effects if the situation was life threatening. Phil was alive: it was as simple as that. Finding him would be easy, with that knowledge secure as the ring clenched in Clint's palm.
He bumped into Natasha on his way to the closest vent access to medical. Her eyes flickered down to his fist clenched tight around something, and she seemed to put the pieces together in an instant. But rather than immediately ask Clint what she could do to help find Phil, her eyes stayed sympathetic.
“He had time.”
“Sometime there's no way-”
“He had plenty of time. First when he was going down to face Loki, and then after the guy stabbed him. He had plenty of time to put on the ring. He's been in worse situations, more shocking ones, more desperate ones, and he's put it on. He could have-” the words caught in Clint's throat, choking him, causing an ugly sob to escape his throat. He shook his head, tears gathering in the corners of his eyes as he tried to focus. “He was lying there. Minutes, before. Fury. Phil could have. He would have.”
Natasha followed a half step behind him as Clint continued down the hall, coming to a stop before the vent he was looking for.
“You saw the footage. I saw the footage. It was him.”
Clint didn't even look at her as he hopped into her linked palms, unscrewing the vent from the ceiling deftly. “LMD. Spear entered at the wrong angle. Hologram. Fucking blood packs and squibs and some good acting, I don't know, Nat.”
The vent was off, so Clint let it drop to Natasha as he hauled himself through. She caught it, of course she did, but she didn't say anything. Clint glanced down at her worried face just once before he shook his head and started pulling himself through the vents.
Clint held Phil close to him, laughing hysterically as his fingers rubbed Phil's bare ring finger over and over again. Phil just held him tight, breathing, firm and warm and alive in Clint's grip. He knew, he thought he knew, he knew he wasn't dead. Not if Fury had give him Phil's ring. Not if Phil's ring had been with his “personal effects”.
“Still here,” Phil breathed against Clint's ear. Clint melted into the words, rubbing his cheek against Phil's lips as tears trickled from the corners of his eyes.
“Me too,” Clint replied, three or four or five shaky breaths later. “And we won. So. Hey. Go team.”
Phil laughed and pulled away just far enough for Clint to capture his lips, kissing him for all he was worth. Phil let him, and Clint knew even if Phil wasn't showing it how worried he had been. Clint could taste every monitor Phil had watched during the battle, every movement of his that Phil had tracked so carefully, every split-second hair's-breadth away from death Phil had seen.
Without breaking the kiss Clint slipped Phil's ring back into his pocket with the ease of a dumb kid who'd made his living on the streets for far too long. Phil would have noticed, of course, but he didn't acknowledge Clint's slight of hand except to pull him closer and extend the kiss.