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Caught In Death's Shadow

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i. And now I'm off to save the world once again
But I don't know how I'll pull it off this time

Nick was twenty-five when he found the book in a musty, easily overlooked back corner of his favorite used book store in Harlem. The leather cover was cracking, red faded to a rusty brown and only a few flakes of gold still clinging to the swirling curlicues along the spine. The yellowed edges of the pages were brittle and crumbled under his touch. He just held it cradled in his hands, too afraid of damaging it to even try opening it to read the pages, but something whispered at the edge of his hearing that it was meant for him. Nick had never given much credence to magic or the supernatural, but he was a big believer in following his gut, so he handed over the two dollars the clerk charged him and took it home.

It sat on his bookshelf, forgotten and unread for another handful of years until Nick was sorting through his things for a move. Nick at thirty was more open minded than he'd been at twenty-five, which was the only reason he didn't automatically scoff and toss the book into the pile intended for Good Will when he saw the pages and pages of spells. Instead, he tucked it carefully between his copies of The Art of War and Restaurant at the End of the Universe in the box labeled 'BOOKS TO KEEP'.

Nick was thirty-two when he found the spell. He spent the night shivering through a cold sweat that no number of hot showers could touch, the promise of power tingling in his fingertips.

At thirty-eight, HYDRA was sinking its claws into more things than even SHIELD could trace and Nick was desperate. Desperation was not a good look on him. It made him take wild risks that would either pay off beautifully or end up blowing up directly in his face, maybe taking out everyone else around him in the process.

In the end, after weighing the odds, making a pros and cons list, and doing up an entire color coded spreadsheet of all the ways this could potentially destroy everything, he finished off the half empty bottle of cheap whiskey that had been lurking in the back of his freezer for the better part of the past year and flipped a coin.

Nothing was free, not really no matter how people might promise it was, he knew that even as he lit candles and drew clumsy symbols on his peeling linoleum kitchen floor in ash. But he was desperate and he was willing to make a trade. If he had to do a double take sometimes when he walked past mirrors or if his sudden change in depth perception took longer to get used to than he'd thought it would, at least he could take comfort in the fact that he looked pretty bad ass with an eye patch.

His superiors at SHIELD didn't ask, and anyone below him wouldn't dare after how brutally he'd—they'd—taken HYDRA down; if they didn't already know, it was probably above their pay grade, most of them reasoned. Still, there weren't even any rumors circulating, SHIELD's underground gossip network almost eerily silent. There's not a whisper about the eye patch, and certainly not about the man who was suddenly Nick's shadow.

Not that there was anything to say about him. He was competent, all guileless smiles and ruthless efficiency that was practically commonplace in SHIELD, and it kept anyone from looking too closely at all his various oddities, like the fact that he never seemed to get injured, no matter now many missions he was sent on. And if no one noticed other things either, that his skin was maybe a few degrees too cool to the touch, that sometimes he would go so still it seemed he wasn't even breathing for entire minutes at a time, that his face never gained a wrinkle or his hair a single strand of gray in all the years he worked there, well.

Who really takes that much notice of yet another man in a suit, anyway?

Nick stands in the doorway of the small, sterile room that's tucked away in the far end of the almost labyrinthine basements under SHIELD headquarters. Phil's asleep, eyelashes reduced to dark smudges over only slightly lighter bruises under his eyes. That's the only color on his ashen face, though, and his hospital gown is thin enough that with his blanket pushed down around his waist, Nick can see the outline of the bandages padding his chest.

The hospital equipment beeps and hums reassuringly, everything saying that everything's as good as could be expected, but after only a few minutes Nick rolls his eye and says, “You're forgetting to fucking breathe again.”

Phil's eyes stay shut, but his mouth screws up in a rueful half grin. “One of these days I'll get the hang of that. It just always seems so frivolous.”

“Yeah, well, it's not,” Nick says, crossing the room to bump the back of his hand against Phil's blanket covered calf. “Did you have fun acting out your death scene?”

“It was odd to be on that end of it. I don't think I like bleeding, and it's going to be annoying to pretend like I'm recovering from having something shoved through my chest, but the actual near death scene was interesting. I think I did pretty decently, too. Maybe I should look into doing theater.” And that right there is something Nick isn't even going to think about touching. Phil props himself up on his elbows, then wriggles up a little higher on the bed, and Nick sits down where his feet were, absently adjusting his pants and swinging his ankle up over his knee. “I hope some footage of it survived. I'd love to have that on tape.”

“Of course, you forget to breathe, but you remember to fake a possibly deadly injury just in case the security cameras are still rolling. Because it's not like I couldn't have had that edited out or anything.”

Phil leans forward, and it's like a flip switching. “I am tasked with remembering many things,” he says, his usually kind eyes suddenly hard and unfathomably old. He taps the tip of his index finger lightly against the middle of Nick's eye patch. “Sometimes the little things slip away from me, but I never forget that which is important.”

Nick swallows hard, the dark veins that spiderweb out from underneath the edges of his eye patch throbbing with a sudden sharpness, and nods. “No,” he says in a small, subdued voice that would make any of his people gape at him in disbelief. “You don't at that.”

ii. It's the world that's confused.
And it's never too late to save the hopeless case.

Clint doesn't remember the much about the night he was recruited—kidnapped?—into SHIELD by Phil Coulson.

He remembers the stifling heat that the big top seemed to trap rather than keep out.

He remembers going out after the show and drinking probably more than he should have at a local dive; though that's less of a memory than just how his nights tended to go back then.

He remembers hitting on someone he shouldn't have. Someone's girlfriend, or maybe their boyfriend.

He remembers that there was a tattoo of a smiley face on the middle knuckle of one of the guys who followed him outside, dragged him into an alley, and tried to teach him some kind of bullshit lesson.

He doesn't remember seeing the knife, though he has the scar on his side from where it slipped in between his ribs.

The guys had disappeared after that, and Clint had just enough time to register the puddle of mucky water under his cheek and have the startling revelation that he was probably going to die this way, out back with the rest of the trash, when a dark figure detached itself from the shadows. His vision was starting to blur, but it looked like the thin tendrils of shade stretched after it, trying to pull it back into their inky depths. The figure shook them off—not that there was anything to shake off, Jesus, Clint was fucking cracking up—and sank to one knee next to him.

It was dim in the alley, but there was enough light for Clint to make out the face of middle aged guy wearing a suit and a smile that would have looked a hell of a lot more in place over coffee than a stab wound. Clint choked on a half hysterical laugh that turned into a groan of pain almost immediately.

“Either call an ambulance or call the morgue, because I think I'm probably about to die here,” Clint managed to grit out between shallow, stuttering breaths that rattled wetly in his chest.

“Not yet,” the man said, his thumb ghosting over the blood slicking Clint's chin. “I can use you, so you need to stick around for a while longer.”

The last thing Clint remembers before his eyes closed and he fell into unconsciousness was a faint, half heard whispering trickle like sand falling against glass.

“We thought you were dead,” Clint says. If he was a little smarter, he would have made it sound like an accusation. Phil is used to emotion from him; the blank, carefully neutral tone is as good as making up a sign to hang around his neck saying 'I'M UPSET ABOUT THIS (AND MAYBE NEED A HUG)'.

“I'm not,” Phil says, not even looking up from the game of solitaire he's playing. Not on a computer or anything. He's playing with an actual deck of cards, the black and red stark against almost bone white fingers. Clint wonders where he even found a deck of cards, if someone was thoughtful enough to bring them in for him or if he'd had to request him. If Clint had known he was down here and needing something to distract him, he could have brought Phil a damn deck of playing cards.

Although maybe he wouldn't have. Not right now, not after everything that's happened. Not when the fucker hasn't even fucking apologized.

“Fury said-,” Clint cuts himself off. Some anger's bled into his tone. That's better. Clint is on familiar terms with anger. It's practically an old, comfortable friend by now.

“Nick says a lot of things. And I'm a fast healer. Always have been.” Phil looks up then and pats an unusually clumsy hand on the sliver of bed next to his hip. His hands have been sure and steady on the cards, and Clint's pretty certain the fumble is intentional, some kind of act to get his guard down, but when Phil says, “Come here, tell me everything I've been missing out on,” Clint goes to him and takes his hand to thread their fingers together.

iii. If you need someone to believe in you
I'll let you know I will

Pepper found him while he was watching Natasha train. There was no logical, physical, feasible way that she should have been able to get that far into SHIELD headquarters, but then the usual rules had never applied to them. Phil didn't recognize her face, not the one she had on, but when she linked her arm through his and tipped her head against his shoulder, he dropped a hand over her wrist and squeezed it lightly.

“There's been talk that you've gotten yourself into a bit of a situation,” she said. Her voice was different, but familiar all the same, carefully sculpted human warmth just barely concealing the faint rasp of feathers against bone.

“I'm handling it.” Phil watched Natasha spin and leap. She was beautiful, but then Phil had always thought that about the honed edge of a knife or the gleam of a polished pistol.

Pepper just made a soft hmming noise and let the questions he knew she was itching to ask drop, once again proving why she was his favorite. They stood there in companionable silence for several more minutes watching Natasha tear through her training equipment, and Pepper finally tilted her head to the side and asked, “Are we certain that she's not one of us?”

Phil bit back a laugh and shook his head. “If anyone could claim her, I think it would probably be War, but so far as I can tell she's nothing more than she appears.”

“Pity,” Pepper said, and pressed her cheek a little harder against his shoulder before pulling away. “I'll be around if you need me.”

“I won't,” Phil called after her, but Pepper just waved with a little swivel of her wrist over her shoulder without looking back and kept walking away.

“I’m just saying, there’s the drinking, the drugs, the poor eating habits, the reckless driving, the even more reckless science experiments, not to mention the great big hole in his chest.” Phil tilts his head to the side, eyebrow ticking upward in sardonic amusement, and vaguely waves his forkful of pancakes at Pepper. “I think you might be bending the rules a little. You haven’t become attached, have you?”

Pepper just smiles back at him, serene and sweet as sugar venom, and asks, “And how exactly is it that our Captain Rogers is still walking around?”

“A favor to you,” Phil says archly.

Pepper gives him a long look. “Exactly how do you figure that?”

“You must admit he makes dealing with your self inflicted charge somewhat easier. Now that they've gotten over the whole 'hating each other' thing, they're practically domestic.”

Pepper laughs at that and motions for the waitress to top off their coffees. “You're a menace,” she says, not without fondness, and blows the steam wafting from her mug in his direction.

“That is one of the many descriptors that have been applied to me, yes,” he says with a wink, and when Pepper laughs again, Phil thinks this warmness spreading through his chest that has nothing to do with his drink must be something like what it's like to be human.

Two tables over, a man claws at his throat and topples out of his chair onto the floor.

Pepper sighs, but there's already a faint glow limning her hair, and the man's strangled gasps cut off.

“Every lunch is a working lunch with you, boss,” she says mock accusingly.

“And yet you continue to show up for them,” he points out, and they both turn to feign concern while another customer starts to give the first CPR.

iv. I wouldn't let you go
You could run run run run but I will follow close


Clint should be dead several times over by now. It's just simple statistics. One night he tried sitting down to work out the actual odds, but that just ended with him wanting a drink, so he doesn't do that anymore.

The closest he came to actually dying, other than that night in the alley with Phil, was his sixth mission for SHIELD. It had been going well for the most part, although his handler was a pompous little asshole who Clint probably would have snapped and punched in the face just a month or two ago. That was progress, that was restraint like a fucking saint, Clint thought. But he could deal with pompous, knew how to handle assholes, and the mission was so routine that Clint could have done it in his sleep if it had come down to that.

Which of course meant the asshole—Sutters, Clint thought, though he really didn't care enough to remember if he was being honest—had to go and change the game plan. Probably he was trying to gain brownie points with the people upstairs, but Clint couldn't find it in himself to give a fuck, because suddenly he was out in the open on the ground instead of up in his nice, hidden perch, and he had just enough time to register the red dot on his chest before the pain burst through him.

He came to in SHIELD's medical wing. Everything was dull and fuzzy, and it took several moments of muzzy blinking before he noticed Coulson standing beside his bed. He wasn't doing anything, just standing there without even a phone in his hand, but his jaw was tight and the skin around his eyes was so pinched that Clint's fingers twitched with the urge to touch there, soothe the strain from his face.

The slight drag of his calluses over the scratchy hospital sheets was almost inaudible, but Coulson's head snapped in his direction, and he sucked in a deep, uneven breath before slowly sinking into the chair next to Clint's bed.

“You should still be asleep.”

Clint tried to shrug, but that pulled uncomfortably at the stitches in his chest. Attempting to talk doesn't go any better, even after Coulson offered him a sip of water, even holding the straw pinched steady between his thumb and index finger while Clint slowly, carefully drank. His eyebrows didn't hurt to badly though, so he tried to use them to convey exactly how incredibly little he wanted to sleep.

Coulson made a soft, derisive noise and repeated, “You should still be asleep. Your body needs to heal, Barton.”

It had to be the morphine, Clint knew that, but in that moment he would swear that Coulson's face flickered, an impression of a skull interposed over his face and deep, empty sockets where his eyes should be.

Clint blinked, puzzled, and Coulson put his palm on his forehead like he was checking his temperature and said, “Sleep.”

Clint did.

“You're up late,” Pepper says, her mouth tipping up at the corner to invite him in on the joke. Phil frowns at her and shifts a little where he's leaning against the wall outside Clint's room.

If he listens carefully enough, he can hear the slightly strained wheeze of his breath as he sleeps.

Pepper steps closer and touches the back of his wrist. “It's funny, because we don't actually sleep,” she points out, then pauses, the pretty face that Phil's come to think of as hers scrunching up a little bit. “Well, at least we don't need to. I tried it as a hobby a few years ago, but I can get so much more done if I skip it.”

Phil is old, so old that he stretches back to the very beginning of time itself. Even Pepper, who is so much younger than he is, would be considered beyond ancient if the humans only knew. She's the eldest of his children—if they can be called that—crafted out of loneliness with the excuse of desiring help as the number of souls that needed to be reaped grew and grew. A lock of red hair has escaped from her bun, and Phil eyes it for a second before brushing it back behind her ear. Pepper's small smile is confused, but affectionate, and the vice constricting around his chest eases slightly.

Phil had rarely felt the full weight of his years until Nick Fury trapped him with an eye and some fumbling sorcery, and he doesn't like it.

“Clint is sick,” he says when Pepper shows no signs of leaving.

Pepper nods slowly. “Yes, I know. I was the who called the pharmacy and convinced them that they should have a delivery service for the afternoon.”

“He's sick,” Phil says again, insistent. If he inhales deeply enough, he thinks he can smell the tang of Clint's sweat from his fever. “He should never be sick.”

“It's the flu.” Pepper bites her lip and narrows her eyes at him thoughtfully. “He'll be fine, boss. You can feel his thread better than I can, and even I can tell it's still strong. This won't be the thing that breaks it.”

Phil practices breathing, deep and even like Clint can't manage right now, and bites back the words that threaten to slip out. Clint is his. Clint is special. Phil doesn't want Clint to--

But that would be unthinkable, because there's bending the rules, and then there's that.

“This is what you get for cheating when you play cards with Pestilence,” Pepper finally says, her tone carefully, deliberately light. She bumps her shoulder against his and quirks a grin at him. “He gets into a snit and suddenly half an entire state is down with a bug.”

They stand there quietly for a long while longer, just taking in the comfort of long familiarity. Pepper finally wanders off when sunlight starts to creep in through the windows and lighten the hallway, leaving him with a kiss on the cheek and no solution to his troubles.

He sneaks back into Clint's room and slides into the bed beside him. Clint stirs in his sleep, reaching for Phil without even really waking up, and Phil lets himself be pulled in. Beds and the very idea of sleep are still strange, even after all this time, but he presses a kiss to Clint's forehead and does his best to pretend that he knows what it's like to close his eyes and slip into a dream.

v. Come take a walk with me
but if you do there is no turning back.

The first time anything happened between them, Clint had been with SHIELD for nearly five years and had been in love with Coulson for at least four and a half. There was nothing unusual about that particular day, or at least not anything that Clint's ever been able to pinpoint.

He was slumped in the spare chair in Coulson's office while Coulson was working his way through a backlog of paperwork. Most of SHIELD seemed to think Coulson was some kind of pod person or maybe a robot. If they only knew the things Clint knew. Like how Coulson hated paperwork, that he avoided it until it was inevitable and he started getting threatening calls from the people who needed it, and then slogged through it all at once, like that was somehow better.

Clint had made the mistake of offering to help exactly once; Coulson's idea of a filing system is still something that gives him nightmares. After that, he still tended to show up for Paperwork Day, but he generally just hung around and made snide comments about Sutters, who never did manage to figure out how to pull his head out of his ass, or worked his way through his encyclopedic knowledge of puns whenever Coulson started looking too frustrated.

That particular day, he'd pulled a bag of shiny red pomegranate seeds out of his jacket pocket and started idly popping them into his mouth during the gaps of his commentary. It was nothing, just a snack, which he did often enough, but then Coulson noticed and it was like his entire focus narrowed laser-thin on Clint's mouth.

“Pomegranate seeds,” Coulson said, something rough and almost amused about his voice that made Clint's stomach flip in a completely not unpleasant way. His gaze slipped up to Clint's, and it was like he was being pinned, completely helpless to look away. “It's been a long time since I've had pomegranate seeds.”

Clint gestured a little helplessly with the bag still clutched in his had. “Do you want some?”

Coulson's eyes had gone dark, his tongue darting out to wet his lower lip like he wasn't even aware he was doing it, and Clint was out of his chair and crossing to him the instant his head started to dip in a nod. And it wasn't like Clint was planning for anything to happen, not really, which almost made it that much better when he started to offer the seeds to Coulson, and Coulson ignored them in favor of sliding his hand around the back of Clint's neck and pulling him in so that he could lick the taste from his mouth.

They're watching an old rerun of Hercules: The Legendary Adventures when Phil suddenly huffs a laugh and pulls Clint a little tighter against his side. Clint looks up from where Hercules is fighting with Hades and arches an eyebrow at him. “What?”

“Nothing,” Phils says, his fingers digging into Clint's hip like he's trying to keep Clint in place. Not that that's anything Clint objects to, but Natasha is less than five feet away from them, and even Phil had looked a little frightened by her after the last time they started getting handsy during a 'team bonding activity'. “It's just.” Phil pauses and gives Clint a strange smile that he can't quite decipher. “Pomegranates.”

There's something in Phil's tone that says that should explain everything. It kind of really doesn't, and Clint frowns at him until Phil laughs again and leans in to kiss him. Then Natasha starts throwing popcorn at the both of them, which prompts Thor to start flinging chips. By the time their snack food fight dies down, it seems like bringing the pomegranates back up would just be strange, so Clint lets it drop.

vi. So many things I need to know
You can't hide your secrets and nothing's sacred

Nick didn't know what he expected after he shakily drew the last of the symbols and finished reading the passage of Latin that he'd painstakingly looked up the pronunciation to and practiced until it sounded almost natural rolling off of his tongue.

Whatever he'd expected, it sure as fuck wasn't an unassuming man in a suit who looked like he'd fit in just fine with the HR department down at SHIELD headquarters. Actually, that wasn't entirely true. The guy looked like even HR at SHIELD would be too fast paced for him.

“You're in need of my assistance,” the guy asked, head tilting slightly to the left, and Nick wanted to punch something, because no, he was in the need of the assistance of someone who could actually get shit done.

“Ah,” the man said, and for all that Nick hadn't said a single word out loud to him, he couldn't shake the feeling that nothing he'd thought had actually been missed.

“No offense, but I need someone who can bring the heat, and you don't look like you could light a match,” Nick offered.

“Your wishes and intentions are inconsequential in this case,” the man said, stepping out of the ash circle. “I'm here now, because you summoned me. It is customary for the price to be paid now.”

The lights flickered—nothing supernatural about that; Nick had been meaning to fix the finicky fluorescent light bulbs for weeks now—and a thrill ran down Nick's spine when he thought he saw the shadowy outline of a scythe glow in the near dark.

“Still, since I'm not what you were hoping for, I suppose I can be gracious,” the man, Death, offered. He smiled, his lips stretching too far in an unsettling parody of a death grin, and reached out to lay his hand over Nick's eye. “At this time, I find I am willing to settle for just the down payment.”

Nick doesn't hear Phil come into his office, but there's a weight to his gaze that's impossible to miss. When he looks up, Phil isn't even pretending that he isn't studying him.

“Do you need something,” Nick asks. Phil still needs prompting sometimes, doesn't always remember that people communicate with words far more often than not, gets too lost inside his own thoughts to remember that his face is not always the open book he clearly thinks it is.

Phil blinks at him, then nods slowly, as if he's come to some decision. “We've had a good run at this, I think.”

“I suppose that's one way of putting it,” Nick says and carefully places his pen down next to the papers he'd been signing. He doesn't know exactly where this is going, but he's already fairly certain that he doesn't like it. “And are we done running now? I thought I had some say in that.”

“You've been an interesting diversion, but there is important work I need to get back to now,” Phil says, like that's just fucking that.

“And if I don't let you,” Nick asks. He straightens in his chair and narrows his eye at Phil. “You're bound to me, in case that little detail slipped your memory there for a second. You can't just walk away.”

Phil laughs.

It's blood chilling, like the whistling shriek of wind ripping through the empty branches of a dead tree during a storm.

“I can, actually,” Phil says with a horrible, dead smile, his eyes gone black and hollow. “You read the contract that you offered me, but you did not understand it, and that's no fault of my own.”

Nick swallows with a click and steels himself to keep from edging backward as Phil slowly stalks closer.

“You didn't bind me to you.” Phil plants his hands flat on Nick's desk and slowly leans in until they're nearly nose to nose. “What you did,” he says in a hushed, almost intimate tone, “was so much worse. You offered yourself to me. You have no power, you have no rights, and the only reason I haven't corrected you or fulfilled the terms of our agreement until now was because you were so amusing.”

Nick breathes in slowly through his nose and closes his hands around the armrests of his chair to keep them from shaking. “My eye was the down payment.” His voice cracks on the last word, and he has to swallow again or continue on a croak. “What exactly do I still owe you?”

Phil chuckles, and it's such a familiar, nonthreatening sound that Nick feels like he might get whiplash.

“Quite a bit more than you'd be willing to part with,” Phil says. “You've managed to stumble into some luck, though, because the rules say I'm allowed to make substitutions, and there's one under your protection I'd much rather have as payment.”

He's gone between one breath and the next, before Nick can ask what he meant or even open his mouth to try, and he doesn't know if he feels sicker from the sudden onset of guilt as comprehension starts to sink in or the slow creep of relief that it won't be him after all.

vii. And I can’t
Just let you go

“You trust me, don't you Clint?” Phil's eyes are wide, almost hurt.

“You know I do,” Clint says. This is probably one of the weirdest things Phil's ever asked him for, and that includes the thing with the Captain America costume, and it's so out of nowhere that Clint almost laughs, but something stops him. He thinks it's probably the completely serious look on Phil's face. “I trust you more than anyone.”

“Then please, just trust me that this is important.” Phil visibly hesitates before reaching out to take Clint's hand and curl it around the pomegranate seed filled bowl. “Eat them.”

And Clint does.