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The bus has been landed in Italy for less than two hours when Phil’s pager goes off. Not his S.H.I.E.L.D. pager, for all that’s worth now, the other pager. The one he wasn’t sure would ever go off again. There’s just a grid ref, a time and a simple code.

‘221’

Wonderful.

He squares his shoulders, straighten his tie and makes for Lola. When May stops him he just smiles his tired smile and says, “No, I’ll be fine. Eat. Sit. We can’t stay off the grid forever. I’ll be back soon. You all get some rest.” And ignores her sceptical look as he drives away.

o0O0o

The café is busy. Well, it would be, with that view of the Grand Canal. Venice really is a magical place and today the tourists know it. He scans the seated crowd. His mark is easy to find by one who knows. He’s in a polo shirt of all things, a disguise as well as a concession to the heat, surely, but even the way his curls are bleached a dirty blonde can’t hide the way his shoulders are set. Phil can almost see the shroud of the imaginary Belstaff covering them. There’s a slight circle of space around his table, even when he’s anonymous he exudes an air of ‘don’t touch’ that even the press of exciteable sightseers can sense. Phil slides easily into the expectant chair and is acknowledged with a small nod and a wave towards the waiting espresso.

They sit a few moments silently watching the vaporetto cruise the canal and sipping bitter coffee before Phil speaks,

“So, how’s your death?”

A tiny quirk of the lips is his reward. “Endlessly fascinating. Yours?”

Phil sighs. “A damn-sight busier than I had been led to expect.”

“I know exactly what you mean.”

Another silence and then,

“It is good to see you Coulson.”

“You too Sherlock.”

The use of his name seems to unlock something in Sherlock’s spine and he loosens, just minutely.

“I heard about Hydra and the fall of the Triskelion of course. I did wonder if you had perished in the chaos. Or perished again, should I say. I’m glad to find you’re again still alive and kicking.”

“Easier to manage when everyone thinks you’re dead anyway. But you’ll be discovering that right now I suppose?”

Sherlock grimaces. “Indeed.” He pushes a brown envelope across the table. “Just some names I’ve picked up along the way which bear investigating. The width of Moriarty’s network has been surprising and the more I take apart the more I seem to find. He had his finger in a number of very dangerous pies. I thought you should take a look.”

Phil takes the envelope and slips it into his light jacket. “Thank you. Appreciate it. We need all the help we can get right now.” He leans a little closer across the table. “But how are you doing? That was one hell of a fall and it’s been, what, a year?”

Sherlock turns to face him directly for the first time and it’s all Phil can do not to recoil, jesus, the man looks like shit. He’s paler even than usual, skinnier to the point of gaunt and his eyes are ringed black with dark circles. But his eyes themselves are the real kicker, they’re not blank like clichés would have it because that would be easier, but Phil sees they are trying very hard to look outwards and not focus on the inner image of the things they’ve seen. It’s the gaze of a man who has to do a horrible job, a job he despises, but is doing it anyway. A man who has lost his life. Phil forces himself to meet it.

“Yeah, I know that feeling too.” He scruffs a hand over his face and waves for two more coffees. As if either of them needs more artificial stimulation. “So, Italy. Moriarty?”

The tiny smile acknowledges the change of subject and Phil sees the gratitude in it. “All gone now. I was just moving on when I heard The Bus had been sighted and it seemed a good opportunity to catch up.”

“One day, you are going to have to tell me how you ‘hear’ all these things about my super-secret organisation and its super-secret transports.”

And now the smile is smug and looks a lot more like the man Phil met all those years ago during his time as London Liaison. “I might. When you work out how I fell. Do you have it yet?”

“Not quite. But I will. It gives me something to contemplate in my acres of free time, how my friend fell to his death in front of his best friend and then walked away.”

“Happy to be of service.” Sherlock smiles tightly. “It wasn’t T.A.H.I.T.I.”

It’s Phil’s turn to grimace. “I should fucking well hope not.”

Knowing he’s hit a major nerve, crossed a line, Sherlock changes the subject himself this time and they spend a quiet half hour exchanging intel and info and stories, letting the heat and noise of Venice wash over them as if it were a blanket of normality they could wrap themselves in. They circle one subject endlessly but it’s not until Sherlock stands to leave, that Phil broaches it.

“Sherlock. John. Will you ever tell him? Will you go back?”

Sherlock frowns, genuinely puzzled. “Of course. Once he’s safe, I’ll go back. Why wouldn’t I?”

The way his towering arrogance remains intact both staggers Phil and warms his heart. Some things don’t change and thank god, thank god for that.

“Because you’ve been dead.” Phil explains gently, “He thinks you are anyway. Don’t you ever think he might not be pleased to find out otherwise? He might have moved on?”

Sherlock grins a genuine sparkle in it this time. “John Watson? Never. Moved on to what? I’ve been away.”

He stands and probably only Phil catches the way his fingers move abortively to fasten a coat that isn’t there, the slight flex of a neck much more used to a scarf.

“I’ve got Serbia to do. And then yes, I’ll go to London and tell John I’m alive. I’ll go back to him. Question is, Coulson, will you?”

Phil could pretend not to know what he means, but when two of the world’s greatest detectives/spies get together, what’s the point of trying to hide things? He sighs.

“I don’t know.”

“And they call me emotionally constrained. You should decide.” He sweeps up a sunhat and places it defiantly on his bleached thatch. “I hope I’ll be seeing you Phil.”

Phil nods. “You too. Take care. Let me know how it goes?”

“Naturally.”

And with that he turns and sweeps off into the crowd, lost among the selfie sticks and murano-glass stalls in a matter of seconds. Phil sits until he can’t ignore the angry glances of the frustrated waiter and has to order a pizza to cover his use of the table. He considers Sherlock’s words until it arrives. Should he? Could he? Would he be… his order arrives and he shakes off the train of thought. The pizza is good, of course it is, he’s in Venice, but he barely tastes it. He’s too busy trying not to remember who it reminds him of.

o0O0o

Back on The Bus and it’s safe to say that life is more than busy. Not only are Phil and his team still settling their business with Hydra, but he’s dealing with the aftermath of Nick Fury’s spectacular decision to use alien DNA to bring him back to life which is sending him quietly and then not so quietly mad. He thinks about making the call, admitting his existence more than once. More than a few times. Then the family of one of his Bus daughters, Skye, comes out of the woodwork in a pretty spectacular fashion and suddenly, as well as handling a second branch of S.H.I.E.L.D. which turns out to be even more secretive than his, they’re chasing enhanced people or ‘Inhumans’ all over the place. Which is all fun and games, as his mother used to say, until someone loses a hand. Or something like that anyway.

So he could be forgiven for not checking his triple-deadlocked inbox and Sherlock’s email sits unnoticed for a while. When he gets round to opening it, he perhaps wishes he hadn’t. The note is terse.

Coulson. I’m in London. Not dead. He punched me, many, many times and now he’s marrying someone else. A woman. Draw your own conclusions I think?

SH

Well.

Perhaps it’s for the best that he has other things to deal with. After all, his other girl has just been eaten by a space-rock. So that needs sorting out. He buys a burner phone, just in case, and types in the number. He doesn’t dial.

o0O0o

It’s a long and complicated time before Phil has chance to check the mail again and the short missive;

Coulson. The woman is Mary. She’s actually brilliant. The wedding was lovely, I made a speech and solved a murder at the same time, so a good time was had by all. Except the murderer of course. They’re having a baby and John is going to be very happy.

I’m actually leaving the country for a time. We all part on good terms but moving on at this point is prudent. My jet leaves in half an hour. Keep an eye on them if you can.

I hope we speak again.

SH

just seems to confirm that his recent slide into dating Rosalind Price, the head of the ATCU is a good one. Moving on indeed. Best for everyone.

He doesn’t have time to follow thre news too closely, but he hopes Sherlock is okay.

He doesn’t dial the number. He keeps the phone.

o0O0o

Rosalind dies. She dies in blood and fear and agony right in front of him while he can do absolutely nothing to halt the slick red tide that carries her away. It takes seconds for the feeling of sick futility to change to a white hot rage with death at its core and the only time he pauses in his breakneck hurtle towards the reckoning is to fire off the answer Sherlock’s desperate text:

She’s going to run. Need an untrackable tracer. Send S.H.I.E.L.D London resource locker code NOW. SH

And then he goes to another planet and comes back a different man. A murderer. He’s nothing but a killer filled with grief and guilt and a black hole of bad, bad choices. Phil puts the phone away in a desk drawer. Because what can he offer to anyone, even if he dared? He doesn’t, can’t won’t.

o0O0o

The news articles are neatly clipped and shipped anonymously to one of his oldest safehouse addresses, miraculously still standing. Phil opens the packet and his heart falls. An obituary. Several front pages which he reads with growing horror. Sherlock’s fall from grace. Descent back into drugs. His challenging of a famous TV personality Phil’s never heard of but who is apparently a big deal in the UK. It seems ridiculously out of character and dangerous, what the hell is Sherlock playing at? Each article makes mention of the fact that John Watson is no longer to be seen constantly at Sherlock’s side and Phil’s heart breaks for him. So much invested, so quietly and for what? There’s a post-it note on the last article, a longer explanation of the circumstances surrounding Mary’s death, and in Sherlock’s tight handwriting it reads

How can I justify this? Should I have stayed dead?

Phil is on his phone answering before he can even think

You can’t. Life does not balance. And no, you shouldn’t, whatever happens, your life is worth it. You deserve to be happy.

He believes it as he writes it. For Sherlock.

Come here if you need to. We have space for one more genius.

The answer chimes back almost instantly.

Thank you. I can’t. But thank you. SH

There’s no time to dwell.

It’s like the universe is laughing at him. Dead men refuse to stay dead and he has to chase down a man he knows he killed. It would be painfully ironic if only it weren’t just painful. He saw the light go out in Ward’s eyes and yet he still has to watch him hurting those Phil loves again and again and again and then even when he’s gone, finally, incontrovertibly gone, he takes Phil’s new family with him. He can barely hold them and himself together, let alone go chasing anything else and even though his words to Sherlock occasionally come back to haunt him, how can he think about being happy when there’s so much to do and so many to take care of? The sentiment seems like so much bullshit in the face of flame-headed demon skulls and malicious homicidal robots.

Yes, in place of the undead now they get the never actually alive trying to take over the world and everyone in it in the name of a twisted form of love and Phil loses himself completely for a while, albeit in another, digital, world. When he gathers the pieces he forces himself not to focus on why his other self collected, among the postcards and motor calendars, so many arrow-heads. Bird feathers. Circus posters. He can’t bring himself to examine it and own up to what he knows, he’s no further on than he was in Venice all that time ago. But hey, he’s trapped in a computer dimension and heading a rebellion against a fascist dictatorship, doesn’t he deserve some emotional slack?

But he has to admit, when he offers himself in a bargain with the aforementioned flame-skulled demon in order to get rid of the newly real girl AIDA and her textbook of evil he doesn’t exactly mind what the terms are. He’ll pay it as long as she dies. And she does. Excellent.

o0O0o

There’s a brief period of peace after AIDA dies, just a few hours before they have to attend their dinner of the damned where Phil’s fully expecting to be arrested and trialled for crimes committed by a robot with his face and he uses it to check his secure inbox on a laptop Simmons is able to scrounge up before she goes to spend her time reassuring Fitz that he is back, real and a good man. However she can. It brings a lump to his throat and he tries not to let their bond make him feel lonelier.

Surprisingly there’s another message from Sherlock, and he feels horribly guilty for a second that he has no idea how his friend is, what happened to him in the face of his addictions and abandonment. Phil steels himself to open the attachment and freezes in pleasant shock. It’s a set of photographs. Two are headlines, proclaiming in tabloid-print ‘Super-Sleuth Sherlock Is Back!’ and ‘Baker Street Boys Triumph Again!” but it’s the others that draw his eye. A little girl, clearly straddling that line between baby and toddler, with the eyes he’s seen in pictures of Mary Watson but an expression that is pure John, is frowning at a huge cake as if the numeral ‘two’ candle is a personal affront. He laughs to see her but the sound catches in his throat when he spots Sherlock in the background looking tall, well, weight and black curls restored, unfairly handsome as always, standing so close to John Watson that their shoulders are touching and smiling like Phil has never seen him do before. He looks again and this time emotion chokes him because while Sherlock is looking at the girl, John is looking at Sherlock as if he hung the moon, with a fondness that Phil can feel warming him even through the screen. The other pictures are cute domestic shots, the girl playing on a rug, then her again, asleep on John’s chest as he naps in an armchair Phil remembers clearly from his visits to 221B, Sherlock squinting down a microscope in a kitchen that is actually visibly clean, blue dressing gown hanging down unnoticed into the girl’s grasp, but it’s that expression Phil goes back to for long moments. Eventually he reads Sherlock’s message.

It isn’t always perfect. Sometimes it’s an annoyance. Sometimes it’s tedious. Mainly it is what it is. But I will tell you this Phil, I am so very very glad that I am not dead.

Make the call.

SH

Despite everything, the phone is still in Phil’s desk drawer. Perhaps Mace never thought it was worth moving. He draws it out slowly and thumbs on the screen, which miraculously opens. The number is still in there of course and his thumb hangs over the green ‘call’ button for a long enough time that May turns up at his door to tell him that they’re ready to go.

He promises himself, when he has sorted out this legal mess, been arrested and released again, he will make the call. The phone slides easily into his jacket pocket, next to his heart.

o0O0o

Space happens. Of course it does. Fucking space.

o0O0o

Back on Earth, in the right time finally and Phil is exhausted. He stumbles into what is left of the base, hoping against hope that his room is intact and has a functioning door. It does and he closes it gratefully behind him before slumping against it hoping to hold back the world, just for a while.

His skin prickles. He can hear breathing. Someone is in there with him.

For fuck’s sake, what in the name of all that is holy could it possibly be now? More aliens? Leprechauns? Alien leprechauns?

Silently as possible he brushes a finger over his artificial wrist, bringing concealed electronics to life.

“Whoever you are, you ought to know I have had just about e-fucking-nough and my patience is very, very thin. So whatever you want, just get the fuck on with it so I can sleep.”

The form in the darkness stirs and then a voice Phil had never expected to hear again in this world drawls gently, “I have to say boss, you look good for a dead man.”
The room swims, his knees just buckle and the floor surges up to meet him. He barely registers the arms that catch him before the blackness closes in.

“Clint. Clint? Clint!” Phil is flailing up from sleep and calling out before his eyes are even open. The bed he doesn’t remember getting on to gives under him as he tries to push himself up but he’s anchored by a strong warm hand, holding his, holding him like the gravity at the centre of the earth.

“Shh, boss, it’s fine, I’m here.”

“Jesus. Thank fuck.” Phil struggles up to a half-sit against the pillows. “I thought I dreamed you.” Then he realises what he’s saying and who he’s saying it to and his face tries to go pale and blush at the same time. He settles for gaping like a fish on land until he can manage to gasp a mortified “Wha...how…how are you here?”

Clint smiles, tightly. “John Watson called. He was clearing up some of Sherlock’s shit to make a room for Rosie and found a box of S.H.I.E.L.D issue tracers. And he’s not stupid, he knew there was only one way Sherlock could have gotten hold of those so he made him tell him. And then he called me.” Clint’s hand tightens on Phil’s. “I had to hear from John Watson that my handler, my friend, my bloody lover was alive after all these bastard years. I couldn’t get hold of you. So I came. And then when I got here you’d disappeared again. So I waited. But from a phone call, Phil. A phone call.” There’s real pain in his tone and his grip is almost too much. Phil winces.

“I’m sorry Clint. I really am. It’s been…I should’ve…but I didn’t, I couldn’t. Shit. I am sorry.”

“Phil.” Clint sighs heavily. “I know exactly how it’s been, you’ve been dead for years, I know exactly how it’s been. But you could have and you should have.”

“I wanted to.”

“Well.” Clint closes his eyes for a moment, shakes his head. “I guess that’s something.”

Phil can hardly make himself speak and when he does his voice is tiny. “I left it too late, didn’t I.” He’s ashamed to find tears making their way down his cheeks. After everything, gods, aliens, robots, inhumans, torture and demons, this is what makes him cry. “I left it too late.”

“Hey, hey, no.” Clint lets go of his hand and without its warmth Phil starts to shake uncontrollably but then Clint is sliding onto the bed with him, gathering him up in his arms and stroking his tears away. “No, never, there’s no such thing as too late. You have some serious explaining to do. And there is definitely such a thing as ‘not fucking soon enough’. But never, ever too late. Never ever.”

Phil would be sobbing now but instead Clint is kissing him, soft and gentle that soon turns to hot and deep and it’s a kiss that might last until the end of the world.

It’s been a long time, but Phil is very very glad that he isn’t dead.

o0O0o

Miles and months away, Sherlock returns to 221B after a long day in the morgue. He swipes up the post from Mrs Hudson’s hall table as he goes up the stairs, discarding the obvious fanmail and brown envelopes of bills before ripping open a lush purple envelope and smiles at the gilt-printed, arrow-emblazoned card inside. Rosie toddles to greet him and he sweeps her up for a giggly kiss.
“Hello little lady, how do you fancy a trip to New York?”
John appears in the kitchen doorway, rumpled and gorgeous in a hideous jumper, tea in hand. Sherlock shifts Rosie to his hip and frees a hand to reel John in for a heated kiss of his own. John’s ears pink delightfully afterward as he carefully sips his tea.
“We’re going to New York? For a case?”

Sherlock grins.

“Wedding invitation.”

That night, arm round a dozing John, he sends a quick text,

Of course we’re coming. So, how’s your life after death?

And laughs when the answer pings back almost immediately. It’s a selfie, Phil and Clint against the night sky, holding up hands emblazoned with thin shining engagement rings and accompanied by just three words,

Absolutely bloody heavenly.