Right from the beginning, Clint Barton was a source of complications and headaches.
As far as Phil was concerned, all of the complications and headaches were worthwhile, even in the beginning, but that didn’t change the facts of the matter. He chased Barton from one end of North America to the other, through five different aliases and far enough back to discover that Barton’s birth name was, in fact, Clementine. Finally, at a diner in Los Angeles, Phil was settling down to a quiet, contemplative breakfast when Barton slid into the booth across from him.
Phil froze, his fork hovering halfway to his mouth, and locked eyes with Barton, who stared back, unblinking. After a moment of the strangest silence he had ever experienced, Phil said, “Good morning.”
“Hi. You know who I am?” Barton asked, and Phil nodded slowly.
“I’m assuming you know who I am, as well?”
“You’re the asshole that’s been running me around,” Barton said, reaching to grab a piece of sausage off of Phil’s plate. His face was flushed and discolored with old bruises, his arms thin under a ragged jacket. Until now, Phil had only seen him from a distance, on surveillance footage and through camera scopes. Up close, Barton was uncommonly handsome, even through the marks that an unkind life had left on him.
For lack of other ideas, Phil fell back on courtesy and extended his hand. “Agent Phil Coulson, with th-”
“Strategic Homeland Interference Whatever. Yeah, I know.” Barton ignored the outstretched hand and leaned back in his seat. “Philip J. Coulson. Born in Boston in 1968, raised in Chicago. Parents dead, no siblings. Collects espionage memorabilia, presumably because you’re a giant nerd.”
Phil let his hand drop back to the table, stunned. “I don’t suppose you’re going to tell me how you know that.”
Barton grinned. “I’m just that good.”
“Yes, you are,” Phil agreed. “Good enough that you’ve managed to evade the world’s top intelligence agency for the better part of a year without any kind of resources or training, which leads me to wonder why exactly we’re having this conversation.”
Barton shrugged, but his smile dimmed. “You been after me for a while. Thought I oughta at least hear your pitch.”
Phil raised an eyebrow. “My pitch?”
“You want me to come work for you, right?” Barton said simply. “Took me a while to figure it out. I mean, you coulda killed me easy, if you wanted to. And SHIELD’s legit, but you’re not cops, so I don’t guess you’re gonna sell me to somebody or arrest me. You need dangerous people to do dangerous shit, and I fit the bill.” He spread his hands, then folded his arms across his chest. “So let’s hear it.”
Phil was impressed, and he let Barton see it. Giving Barton a quick once-over in consideration, he answered, “Steady work, housing, food, medical care, decent paycheck.” He paused, then added, “Superiors who treat you like a human being.”
Barton huffed. “Yeah, what’s that like?”
“It’s nice,” Phil replied, giving him a brief smile. “We can train you, help you develop a whole new range of skills, make you the best.”
“I’m already the best,” he pointed out, and there wasn’t an ounce of boasting or pride in the statement.
“What if I said we could make you better?” Phil asked. Barton raised an eyebrow. “With SHIELD, you would have access to equipment and resources you’ve never dreamed of. You could have a bow custom made to your exact specifications, arrows more advanced than most missile guidance systems, and a practice course that would make a Green Beret cry. Right now, you’re the best sharpshooter in the world; SHIELD can make you one of the greatest covert operatives in history.”
Barton blinked back at him placidly. “Huh. Well, I guess that sounds alright.”
His facade of calm shattered as the waitress appeared at their table, and Barton nearly jumped out of his skin. “Can I getcha anything?” she asked, apparently unaware that Barton was having a minor heart attack.
Before Barton could open his mouth to answer, Phil suggested lightly, “I’m partial to pancakes, but I hear the omelets are fantastic.”
“Denver omelet’s alright.” The waitress shrugged and asked Barton, “That sound good to you?”
“Um. Sure. Okay.” Barton seemed to be trying to disappear inside his jacket, all his easy swagger gone. He stumbled through the rest of the waitress’s questions as if he barely understood English. Once she had left, he relaxed, but his demeanor had changed from that of a confident professional to that of a young man well out of his depth. The truth, Phil suspected, was equal parts of both.
“We’d have you go through a series of assessments, to begin with,” Phil went on, as if they hadn’t been interrupted. The longer Barton sat there, he thought, the better chance they had of bringing him in. “They’ll let us have a look at what you’re capable of and, hopefully, give you a sense of what kind of work you’d like to do.”
“Don’t you just want me to shoot people?” Barton asked as the waitress returned, and she paused in alarm. Phil gave her a significant look, and she quickly set down a glass of water and a bottle of orange juice, retreating without a word.
Frowning, Phil turned back to Barton. “That may be your strong suit, but I suspect your skills extend well beyond just hitting targets.”
Barton shrugged. “So what if... What if I get in there, and it turns out I can’t do what you want me to, or you find out there’s something wrong with me? You gonna kill me?”
“Only if you annoy the wrong people,” Phil said dryly, but the humor was clearly lost on Barton, who was used to being employed by a particular breed of scumbag. He cleared his throat and explained, “We’re not in the practice of assassinating our assets before they even get to training, and the assessments are to help determine your strengths and weakness, not whether you’re good enough to be there. That decision gets made before we let you through the door.”
“Okay, but what if you made a mistake?” Barton insisted. “What if I’m, y’know, not... not what you think I am?”
Raising his eyebrows, Phil retrieved a PDA from his pocket, calling up a summary of Barton’s file. “Barton, Clementine Frances, aka Clint Barton. Born Waverly, Iowa, 1985. Parents Harold and Edith, both deceased. Brother Bernard, whereabouts unknown. Ward of the State of Iowa from 1990 t-”
“Alright. Fine. I get it,” Barton cut him off, sinking down miserably in his seat. “So I guess you already know something, huh?”
“What something would that be?” Phil asked, and Barton seemed to curl in tighter on himself.
“That I’m, y’know, a freak,” he mumbled. Phil shook his head in confusion, and Barton sighed. “A freak, asshole. A fucking tranny.”
Phil blinked. “Oh. You mean did I know you were transgender? Yes, I had put that together.”
For a moment, Barton seemed to be waiting for the axe to fall. When it didn’t, he narrowed his eyes. “That’s it? That’s all you have to say is you put it together?”
“Well, I was going to ask for clarification on your prefered name and pronouns, but I thought I’d give you a chance to get in your questions, first,” Phil replied mildly, sipping at his coffee. When Barton continued to stare at him in silence, he went on, “SHIELD is a strict, regimented, paramilitary organization that requires all of its employees to follow critical guidelines concerning security, professionalism, and the chain of command. When it comes to an agent’s personal, religious, gender, sexual, ideological, ethnic, racial, or romantic identity, given that those identities don’t typically interfere with that agent’s work, the powers-that-be do not, officially, give a single flying fuck.”
Phil nearly breathed a sigh of relief when Barton snorted. “You allowed to talk like that?”
“As long as I don’t disclose any sensitive information, I’m allowed to talk however I want.”
That earned him a weak smile, which faded quickly as Barton asked, “So, uh, they’re not gonna, y’know, make me be a girl or do anything to... to try and fix me, or whatever?”
The ways of “fixing” Barton might have encountered made Phil’s stomach turn. “There’s nothing to fix,” he said, more sharply than he meant to. Taking a deep breath, he added, “There may be some complications with intake, but nothing that can’t be handled with the proper procedures.”
“Complications. Sure,” Barton grumbled, but some of his tension had gone. It returned when the waitress came up beside him and set down his plate of food. He mumbled thanks and shook his head when she asked if he needed anything else.
As Barton dug into his omelet with unexpected enthusiasm, Phil asked, “Everything okay?”
“What? Yeah. ‘S fine,” Barton replied, shovelling a forkful of omelette into his mouth.
“It’s just that you seem a little jumpy,” Phil said. “The waitress is certainly intimidating, but I’m pretty sure she’s not a threat.”
Barton tensed but didn’t pause in his eating. With affected casualness, he answered, “Don’t like people coming up behind me. Can’t hear for shit, so I get startled.” Before Phil could respond, he added defensively, “I can still do the job. I can read lips, and if I get up high enough, nobody can sneak up on me. It’s not a problem.”
“No, it’s not,” Phil agreed. Ten months. Ten months he’d been chasing Barton all over the damn continent and never once had there been any indication of hearing loss or impairment. Phil was starting to get a headache. “You’ll have to be outfitted with hearing aids, at least for field work, so that you can communicate with your team.”
“Sure. Whatever. Probably break ‘em the first time out.” Barton stabbed at his rapidly-disappearing food.
“Then we’ll replace them,” Phil said. “Things get broken all the time. It’s rough work.”
Barton gave him an odd look. “So what happens to me?”
“If you get broken? That’s what we have doctors for.”
“No, I mean if I break shit. What’re you gonna do to me?” The answer seemed somehow important to Barton, but Phil was at a loss.
“Give you a lecture about personal responsibility?”
Barton frowned. “Is that a joke?”
“I... Yes?” Phil shook his head. “I don’t understand. Unless you’re deliberately destroying property, no one’s going to do anything to you.”
Barton’s expression suggested that he seriously doubted that, but he didn’t argue. “So once I’m in, I’m in, right? You’re not gonna kick me to the curb if I don’t make quota, or something?”
“SHIELD agents take a life-long oath to be humanity’s last line of defense,” Phil told him solemnly. “In exchange for that oath, the organization takes care of its people in every way that we can. Once you’re in, you’re one of us. You’re family.”
“Family’s bullshit,” Barton spat, but it seemed reflexive, like something he had repeated to himself whenever the need arose. “Even if something happens, and I’m outta commission for a while, I still get all the perks, right? Place to stay and food and stuff?” At Phil’s nod, he pressed, “And medical stuff, too? Like, if I’m sick for a long time, or something?”
Phil thought for a moment, then said, “When I was a junior agent, I developed pneumonia. Not because of a mission, but because I caught a cold and was too stubborn and stupid to take care of myself. Then I interrupted an instructional briefing by coughing so hard that I passed out and woke up in a hospital room. When the doctors let me go, my supervising officer took me to her condo, threw me in her guest room, and said that if she caught me moving around for any other reason than to piss or eat, she’d feed me to the neighbor’s poodle.”
Barton laughed out loud, the first pleasant sound Phil had heard from him. “No shit? Sounds like my kind of lady.”
“She was something else.” She would have liked Barton, too, Phil thought. “To answer your question: your medical benefits will cover anything and everything that could possibly happen to you, short of actually dying. There’s not much they can do about that.”
Barton nodded, but he was distracted, chewing at his lip. “So even if I go in tomorrow and the doctors, y’know, find something wrong with me, that’s not gonna... I’m still in, right? Whatever’s wrong, you can help?”
The faint tremor of fear in his voice made Phil lean forward in concern. “Is something wrong?” Barton just shook his head, and Phil said, “Barton, if you’re ill or injured in some way, I need you to tell me right now, and I can get you immediate medical attention.”
“I’m not sick,” Barton murmured.
“It wouldn’t be surprising, given your situation,” Phil went on. “It’s likely your immune system is compromised, and it w-”
“I’m not sick,” Barton repeated sharply. “I’m... not. I...” He stared at Phil uncertainly, like he was looking for some kind of assurance.
On impulse, Phil took a napkin from the stack at the end of the table and pulled a pen from his suit pocket. I, Sr. Agt. Philip J. Coulson, he wrote, on behalf of the Str-. He crossed that out and wrote, on behalf of SHIELD, officially extend an offer of employment to Cl- Phil paused, but only for a second. to Clint Barton, effective immediately. At the bottom, he put the date and his name and signature, then passed the impromptu contract to Barton, who eyed it with suspicion.
“This is good?” he asked. “You bosses’ll honor this?”
Phil nodded. “You have my word.”
That seemed to be good enough for Barton, who signed his own name and passed the napkin back, saying, “Guess that makes me an Agent of SHIELD, now.”
“Welcome to the nut house,” Phil replied, smiling. “Now, do you want to tell me why you’re so concerned with our medical resources, or would you prefer to go straight to a doctor?”
“I don’t need... I mean, I do, but it’s not like... like I’m dying, or...” Barton sighed and scrubbed a hand over his face.
“Well, that’s good to hear. I’d hate to lose my star recruit so quickly.”
Barton fixed him with a hard look and said flatly, “I’m pregnant.”
Phil’s mouth didn’t actually drop open, but it was a near thing. “Pregnant,” he repeated.
“With a child.”
“Sorry. Sorry. I just mean...” Phil was already thinking of which forms he would need to pull, what doctors should be called, which facility would be best suited, how to protect Barton’s privacy while preventing other personnel from saying anything offensive, and generally planning the smoothest route through the obstacle course that had just been dropped in front of him. He was silent long enough that Barton started to shift in his seat.
“Guess I’m not what you expected.”
Phil took a deep breath, and gave Barton what he hoped was a reassuring smile. “Well, you’re certainly full of surprises.”
He just hoped that was the last surprise for a while.
“The hell do you mean he wants to keep it?”
Phil pinched the bridge of his nose, wishing for the kind of painkillers that were illegal in some states. “The OB started talking to him about the termination procedure, and he said, no thank you, and what should he do to start taking care of the baby.”
“I’ve seen the reports on his physical,” Fury grumbled. “That kid’s so undernourished, he shouldn’t be able to stand up, much less carry a damn baby. And what does he think he’s gonna do when it’s born? Strap it to his back and take it up in the nest with him?”
“I... think he’s still working on that, sir.” Phil thought of the look on Barton’s face, terrified and determined, arms folded across his stomach. “Honestly, sir, I think that’s why he came to us. He could have found somewhere to get an abortion or just... just waited for someone to punch him hard enough in the right place, but there’s no way he could have carried a pregnancy to term on his own, not the way he was living and certainly not with us chasing him.”
Fury whirled on him, jabbing a finger into Phil’s face. “With you chasing him. Why he came to you. This isn’t some stray that wandered in, begging for scraps. This is your project, Coulson, and you’re going to take responsibility for it.”
“Director, I think th-”
“No, no, no The last time you said I think, you wound up on a wild goose chase with this delinquent. You thought he could be useful. You thought you could persuade him. And you know what the damndest part is? You know what part really has my sides splitting?” He picked up a file off of his desk and held it up on display. “The part where, despite promising me the world’s greatest marksman and bringing home a hot mess little punk, you were right. Have you seen these scores?”
Phil couldn’t help but feel a small burst of pride. “Yes, sir, I have.”
“He flew through every test we gave him without batting an eye. He’s been here a month, and he’s already broken at least three sharpshooting records. The results of his tactical aptitude test broke the computer. The analysts had to go over it by hand.” Gesturing with the file, Fury advanced on Phil. “This smart-mouth redneck you brought me could be one of the most effective assets we’ve ever had.”
“I agree, sir,” Phil replied, and he tried not to make it sound too much like I told you so.
“Good. Because from now on, he’s your primary assignment,” Fury announced, swinging back toward his desk.
The trace of smugness evaporated. “Sir?”
“Now that we’ve hooked him, we can’t afford to let him slip the line,” Fury explained. Phil had a sinking feeling in his stomach. “You think he’s here ‘cause of that little bun in his oven? Alright. So what happens if he loses it? Or maybe he gets spooked, decides it’s not worth it, that he can take his chances on his own. Or hell, maybe he actually has the damn kid, gives it up for adoption. What then? He’ll have the skills to do some real damage if he decides to make a run for it. Do you understand what I’m getting at here, Agent Coulson?”
“Yes, sir, I do.”
“And what am I getting at?”
“You want me to make Barton... want to stay, not just for the baby, but for himself. You want me to make sure he doesn’t run.” Phil paused. “Sir, exactly how do you suggest I do that?”
Fury shrugged. “You’ll figure something out; you’re a people person. Either way, I want you at Barton’s side every moment he’ll let you be there, and I want you watching him when he won’t. His needs are your top priority. His wishes are your pet project. When he’s not busting his ass in training, you treat that son of a bitch like royalty. Understand?”
Phil’s head throbbed, and he fought the urge to close his eyes and sigh. “Yes, sir.”
“Good.” Fury kicked his feet up on the desk and reached for another file. “Now go be a good baby daddy. I’ve got work to do.”
There wasn’t enough aspirin in the world, Phil decided.
The truth was, Fury’s order wasn’t all that different from what Phil had been doing already. Barton had desperately needed someone to metaphorically hold his hand through the labyrinth of exams and paperwork that had occupied his first two weeks, and to literally hold it while various medical professionals poked and jabbed and general invaded his space. It wasn’t exactly a hardship; underneath the layers of trauma and mistrust, Barton was bright and charming, and Phil enjoyed his company, even when it was just the shared quiet of reading, which Barton did almost as voraciously as he ate.
Suddenly having an ulterior motive soured Phil’s mood as he pressed the alert on the door to Barton’s quarters. There was no answer after several seconds, so Phil pressed the button again. Security had set up a buzzer that flashed and vibrated, in addition to making sound, so that Barton could be alerted even if he couldn’t hear. The keypad indicated that the room was occupied, and Phil tried again with a cold weight growing in his stomach.
Finally, he punched in his override code and rushed into the room, half expecting to find Barton lying in a pool of blood on the floor. Instead, he was immediately treated to the unmistakable sound of someone vomiting in the small adjoining bathroom. Phil peeked passed the bathroom door, and, sure enough, Barton was curled miserably around the toilet, clinging to it like he might fall over.
Phil waved a hand to get his attention, and Barton jumped so hard that he banged his head against the wall. “Jesus fucking Christ! How the fuck did you get in here? What the fuck d-”
His anger was interrupted by another wave of nausea, and he returned to his previous position. Phil found an empty plastic cup and filled it with cold water from the tap, waiting until the vomiting subsided to hand it to Barton. “Sorry I startled you. You didn’t answer the door, and I thought... I was concerned.”
Barton glared up at Phil as he took the water. “Thought you said nobody could get in here if I didn’t let ‘em in.”
“I have a security override,” Phil explained, and the impulse to kick himself was strong. He’d offered Barton a safe sanctuary, and then barged into it like he was entitled to be there. “I should have told you. I’m sorry.”
Barton just kept glaring at him over the rim of the cup. “Who else?”
“Senior agents and medical staff, but no one would come in unless there was an emergency.” Phil soaked a washcloth in the sink and wrung it out before handing it to Barton. “Put that on the back of your neck.”
“Emergency. Right,” Barton scoffed. He rolled to sit with his back against the wall, holding the washcloth in place. “So you just gotta say what? You thought I was dying and only your cock could save me?”
Phil hid his flinch as he sank down to the floor, sitting opposite Barton in the narrow space. He wound up nearly sitting in the shower, but he wanted to give Barton as much room as possible. “I’ll talk to security about restricting access to your room. You can decide who’ll be able to come in.”
“How about nobody?” Barton suggested darkly.
“One medical professional and one senior agent,” Phil compromised. “You pick which ones.”
Immediately, Barton answered, “You and the OB. But that’s it.”
Phil pulled out his PDA and sent a request message to security. “Done.”
Barton was still scowling, but he seemed marginally satisfied. “So what are you doing here? Did you need something?”
“I came to... check on you,” Phil said, because it was true and not because he wanted to demonstrate that he was being solicitous and caring. “I also wanted to let you know that I went over your assessment scores with Director Fury, and we discussed the best way to move forward with your training.”
“Yeah? You gonna start throwing me at obstacle courses?” Barton tilted back the plastic cup to drain the last of the water, and Phil noticed, for the first time, that he wasn’t wearing a binder under his t-shirt. The incongruity of breasts on his otherwise masculine shape was a little jarring, but so many things about Barton were.
“Most of your physical workouts will be low-impact strength and conditioning, for the time being,” Phil told him. “There’ll be some weapons qualifications and basic martial arts forms, but you can look forward to a lot of tai chi and yoga.”
Barton frowned. “I know how to fight.”
“You know how to brawl,” Phil corrected. “Spend a week on the mats with Agent May, then come tell me you know how to fight.”
“Fair enough,” Barton allowed. “So that’s it? I’m just gonna be doing fancy stretches for the next six months?”
“Hardly. We’re going to fast-track your general education requirements, prioritizing sciences and history, since those seem to be your weak points.” Phil pulled the assessment summary out of his pocket, glancing at it for reference. “With a little bit of study, you should be able to test out of the math and cultural requirements, no problem. The next admission cycle to the Academy is in September, and we’ll want to get as many prerequisites as possible out of the way before you start, especially since you’ll be joining advanced classes.” He looked up to find Barton starting at him curiously. “What?”
Barton opened his mouth, closed it, and dropped his eyes, tugging restlessly at the hem of his track pants. Finally, he asked quietly, “You really think I can do this?”
Phil waited until Barton’s gaze came back up to answer. “Yes. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t.”
Something settled in Barton’s expression, and he looked away again. After another long moment, he said, “They gave me some of those fancy hearing aids, but they itch like fuck.”
What the subject change meant, Phil had no idea, but he wasn’t about to press Barton on it. “Do you want go see if they can fit them better?”
Barton shrugged. “It’s not a big deal.”
“It is if it means you’re not going to be comfortable wearing them.” Phil hauled himself up and thought ruefully that he was getting too old for heart-to-hearts on the bathroom floor. “Come on. I know someone in the supply department who can help.”
Smoothly, Barton rose to his feet with the grace of someone it had been beaten into, but he winced as his back straightened. “Don’t know how long I’m gonna be able to do that,” he said, resting one hand absently over his stomach.
“I knew an agent who did fieldwork almost into her third trimester,” Phil said. “Belly out to here, and she could still come out of a side roll with perfect form.”
“Damn,” Barton muttered, impressed. A second later, he asked, “What, uh, what did she do? After she had the baby?”
“She named him Jamal, and she and her partner took him home and showered him with love and attention,” Phil replied. “I think he’s in... fifth grade, now. No, sixth. God, I feel old.”
Beside him, Barton was quiet, whether because it was harder to walk and read lips or because he was lost in thought, Phil didn’t know. Part of him wanted to put his arm around Barton’s shoulders, to offer comfort and support, but touching Barton when he wasn’t expecting it was a shortcut to broken bones. One of the nurses had learned that the hard way. So, as they walked along in silence, Phil pulled out his PDA and began making a list.
The weeks went by quickly, and Barton occupied nearly every waking moment in Phil’s life. When he wasn’t physically at Barton’s side, he was trying to manage the nightmare mountain of paperwork he had created for himself. On top of getting the preferred name and gender officially recognized by any organization outside of SHIELD, at some point and for some unknown reason, the state of Iowa had declared Clementine Barton deceased, which meant a long series of fruitless phone calls and a nearly permanent headache.
He was on the verge of finding a window to throw his phone out of when there was a light knock on his office door, and Barton peeked inside. “You busy?”
“Yes. Please come rescue me from this insanity,” Phil sighed, relieved. “I’d much rather talk to you than a bunch of shit-throwing bureaucrats who wouldn’t know good sense if it squatted down and pissed in their mouths.”
Barton laughed as he dropped gingerly into the chair across from Phil. He was doing more of both, as time went on: laughing and moving with care. The gaunt edges of rough living had filled in to become strong, lean muscle, and his belly had begun to curve outward, giving him a softness that made his good looks shine brighter.
“The junior agents don’t believe me when I tell them that you swear,” Barton said.
“Nor should they. I’ve worked very hard to build my reputation as straight-laced and boring,” Phil replied. “I’d appreciate if you wouldn’t spoil their illusions.”
Barton snorted. “Boring. Sure. So what shit-throwing bureaucrat were you boring today?”
Phil hesitated, but he knew that Barton had a right to know his own history. “Well, it turns out that you’re technically dead.” Barton’s eyebrows went up, and Phil explained, “Seven years ago, the state of Iowa filed a death certificate for Clementine Barton. Apparently it was easier to discreetly file a missing persons report, wait two years, and file the death claim than it would have been to list you and your brother as runaways. Barney was arrested at least once in that timeframe, so they couldn’t claim he was dead, but you just... vanished.”
Barton propped his elbows on Phil’s desk and rested his mouth against his clasped hands so that only his sharp blue eyes and furrowed brow were visible. His stare was distant, his mind elsewhere, and Phil was about to go on when he said softly, “Fifteen. I would have been fifteen.” Nodding, he sat back again in the chair. “Good. That would have been a good age to die.”
Phil’s stomach dropped. “Excuse me?”
“That little girl? The one that name belongs to? She’s gone,” Barton told him. “Maybe she never really existed. Either way, I like thinking that she died at fifteen. Better than living through everything after that.”
“But... you did live through it,” Phil said, but Barton shook his head.
“I did, but the kid in me was definitely dead by then.” There was a well-worn sadness in his voice, familiar grief for a lost youth. “Nah. Let her rest in peace.” With a hopeful look at Phil he asked, “You can make me somebody new, right? I mean, I guess it’s kind of illegal, but...”
“I’ll make it happen,” Phil promised. It was, in fact, illegal, but he was hardly startled to discover in himself a willingness to break the law in the interest of Barton’s well-being. “Honestly, it’s probably the simplest solution. Do you want a middle name or just ‘Clint’?”
“Clinton. And, what the hell, keep the middle one Francis.” Barton shrugged. “It was my grandmother’s name. Never knew her, but she always looked nice in the pictures.”
Phil began making notes. “Designated male?” he asked. There was a pause, and he looked up to find Barton chewing his lip. “This is just to create a paper trail. All of your SHIELD documentation will list you as nonbinary unless you choose to change it.”
Slowly, Barton nodded. “Yeah. Male.”
Phil wondered if Barton had ever been able to say it freely before, to call himself a man aloud without fear of being uncovered or ostracized. It wouldn't be the the first time Phil had forged a false identity, and he suspected that the fabrication might be closer to Barton's own truth than what circumstances had dictated for him. "Let me know if there are any other details you'd like to adjust. Otherwise I'll just stick as close to the record as I can."
"Sounds good." Pulling a folded piece of paper from his pocket, Barton said, "I stopped by for a reason, actually. Wanted to show you this."
On the paper was a pair of black and white images that appeared to show the same elongated blob from different angles. The indecipherable numbers at the bottom of each picture were the only indication that Phil wasn’t looking at it upside down. “Well, that’s something.”
“Kinda looks like an alien, doesn’t it?” Barton remarked, and Phil tilted his head, squinting.
“You know, it really does.”
Barton took the paper back from him and grinned. “Hard to believe that’s gonna turn into a person. I mean, she's got a ways to go, but she's getting there."
Barton nodded. "That's what they said. Won't know for sure until she decides for herself, I guess. Or himself. Themselves."
"I suppose not," Phil agreed. Barton was smiling in a way Phil hadn't noticed before, as if suddenly seeing possibility in the world, instead of just heartache. Phil hated to remind him that there was still some heartache left, but it needed to be mentioned. "Academy classes start next month. Dr. Forson said you have your schedule worked out?"
"Yup. Not exactly the standard track, he said, but whatever." Barton shrugged. "Gotta learn what I gotta learn."
"Well, not all at once," Phil pointed out. "You could wait for the next admission cycle, get a few more core requirements out of the way."
Barton's smile faded, and he narrowed his eyes. "Wait till after the baby's born, you mean. So all the nice little recruits don't have to deal with a knocked-up tranny walking around."
"Please don't say that. You know that's not what I meant." Phil sighed. "The agents here aren't fazed by anything. You could give birth to a green, ten-legged cephalopod, and the first question would be whether to attempt containment or communication."
"And the newbies aren't conditioned to the weirdness yet. I get it."
Phil rubbed at his temples and decided he was going to invest in a company that made aspirin. "If they're stupid enough to give you a hard time, then they don't belong here in the first place, but it's not your job to rout out the assholes."
"Oh, come on, Coulson." Barton rolled his eyes. "If there's an asshole in the room, I'm gonna find ‘em. Part and parcel of being a freak."
"You're not a freak."
"I'm different, and the assholes are gonna sniff that out, baby bump or not,” Barton said. “I’m not gonna hide my shame just to make it harder for them. No way. I’m gonna walk in next month and see who’s first to point and laugh at the pregnant dude.”
He locked eyes with Phil, shoulders squared and jaw set, bristling with defiance and challenge. For a second, Phil saw, not the bright and fearless agent-in-training, but the young man who had taken on every horror the world could throw at him and survived.
“Don’t kill any other trainees on your first day,” Phil warned.
“Don’t worry,” Barton promised. “I’ll at least wait until second semester.”
True to his word, Barton didn’t kill anyone, and he was well into his third week before he broke any bones. From what Phil could piece together, the other recruit had taken to sitting near Barton during breaks and attempting to bounce small objects off of his stomach, most of which Barton caught and threw back with terrifying accuracy. It wasn’t until he approached Barton and tried to poke him with a sharp stick that Barton had broken the boy’s nose and two of his fingers.
“Dr. Ramirez made a point of complimenting your defensive technique,” Phil told Barton over lunch the following Saturday. “She said she’s seen qualified field agents who couldn’t take down an opponent from a seated position.”
Barton shrugged. “Got him by surprise. He didn’t expect me to fight back.” In an undertone, he added, “They never do.”
“Well, the other recruit will either be expelled or sent back to remedial team training. Either way, he’s not going to make it very far.” Phil shuffled through the papers he’d brought with him and slid one across the table for Barton to sign.
Obediently, Barton scrawled his name on the line and on the next page that Phil indicated. “Why do you say that?” Frowning at the page, he asked, “And what does power of attorney mean?”
“It’s someone you choose to make legal decisions on your behalf if you’re incapacitated,” Phil replied. “And I just mean that someone who’s inclined to act that disrespectfully toward another human being, much less a fellow agent, is never going to do well on team ops. So, even if he did qualify for fieldwork, he’d be stuck as a specialist with no chance to move up the command structure.”
“Incapacitated like unconscious?” Barton filled in the required answers and passed the papers back to Phil. “Besides, isn’t that what I’m supposed to do? The specialist stuff?”
“Yes, but I think you have the potential to work in multi-pronged operations and, eventually, to command your own team,” Phil said. “To answer your question, incapacitated covers any state in which you can’t legally make choices for yourself. Unconscious, comatose, psychologically unstable. It’s important that you choose someone t-” He read the name Barton had put down. “Oh. Oh, well I suppose that makes sense.”
“Who the hell else was it gonna be?” Barton shifted in his seat. “Besides, I figured it’d end up being you anyway, if I left it blank.”
“I probably would have designated one of your doctors, actually, but... thank you.” Phil never failed to be stunned by the amount of faith Barton placed in him even as he continued to seem uncertain of everyone else.
Shifting again, Barton rolled his eyes. “Like it’s a fucking honor. You’ve gotta be tired of babysitting me, by now.”
Never, Phil thought, surprising himself. “If by babysitting you mean ensuring the future health and well-being of my favorite asset, then yes, I’m just sick to death of you,” he said dryly.
“Aw. I’m your favorite?” Barton’s voice was light, but he grimaced, still squirming in his seat.
Phil frowned. “Are you alright?”
“Yeah, fine. Just need to pee,” Barton said. “Feel like I have to go every five fucking minutes. It sucks.”
“So go. I promise not to run off and leave you with the check,” Phil told him.
“It’s cool. I can wait until we get back,” Barton insisted, but his jaw tensed.
“To the Academy? Barton, we haven’t even gotten our food, yet.”
The restaurant was a generic Italian chain that Barton loved and Phil hated, and they had been seated on the opposite side of the building from the restrooms. Barton would have to carefully maneuver his way across the entire dining area, which would be a challenge for anyone over five months pregnant, compounded by the stares and whispers that were being directed at him even while seated. Once he did reach the restrooms, he would then be confronted with a very uncomfortable choice between two inadequate options.
“Come on,” Phil said, standing up and extending his hand. “I’ll go with you.”
Barton stared at him blankly. “What?”
“You don’t feel safe going on your own. I can go with you.”
“Oh my god, no. You are not taking me to the fucking bathroom,” Barton groaned, covering his face. “For fuck’s sake, sit down. I’m not five.”
“If you were five, I’d be worried about you getting lost or eating soap,” Phil pointed out. “Right now, I’m worried about you developing a urinary tract infection.”
“Oh my god,” Barton mumbled again, but he must have been in genuine distress, because he allowed Phil to help him stand.
As they made their way from the table, their waitress approached hesitantly, smiling in confusion. Phil gave her a pleasant smile of his own and said mildly, “Just getting some air. We’ll be right back.”
Some of the other patrons stared, but Phil put on his most petrifying Agent Coulson face and laid a hand protectively on the small of Barton’s back. They seemed less inclined to take notice after that. Once in front of the restrooms, Barton came to a dead stop, chewing his lip as he glanced between the two doors.
Phil let his hand rest solidly against Barton’s back and said quietly, “Whichever one you want.”
With a deep breath, Barton nodded and moved toward the men’s, letting Phil get ahead to push the door open for him. The room was spacious and empty except for one man at the sink. He caught sight of Barton and did a double take, but an icy glance from Phil silenced any comment he might have made as Barton vanished quickly into the single stall.
Phil took up a position at the stall door and, once the other man had gone, told Barton, “I’m right here if you need anything.”
“What I need is for you to never ever mention this ever again,” Barton grumbled, voice muffled through the thin barrier. “Fucking humiliating.”
“Nothing humiliating about having someone to watch your back in a hostile environment,” Phil replied, hoping that no one would send any restaurant staff in to “check” on them. He was fully prepared to defend Barton’s privacy with physical violence, but he desperately hoped he wouldn’t have to.
Ultimately, the excursion went without incident, and their food was waiting by the time they made it back to the table. Barton collapsed into his seat like he’d been walking for hours instead of just a few minutes.
Before tucking into his meal, Barton mumbled a quiet, “Thanks,” and Phil made himself smile.
Aside from the occasional guest lecture, Phil tended to stay away from the Operations Academy. The appearance of any senior agent usually caused a stir, and Phil couldn’t help but look at the crowds of young people and wonder which ones weren’t going to make it past their first year in the field.
The sunlit courtyard was bright and warm in the October afternoon, a small breath of fall on the light breeze, and he let the recruits’ curious glances wash over him, enjoying the weather as he waited patiently. He wasn’t there for them; he was there for...
Barton emerged from the shadowed interior of the building, wrapped up in conversation with two other recruits. He said something that made the other two laugh, and a faint warmth spread in Phil’s chest. Finally, he thought, the world at large might see a piece of Barton’s humor and charm.
Barton caught sight of Phil and suddenly lit up brighter than the October sunshine, which did something unexpected to Phil’s stomach. As he waved his companions on, the young woman, who had apparently been carrying Barton’s books, gave him a light kiss on the cheek, which had an entirely different effect on Phil’s insides. Something must have shown in his demeanor because Barton approached him with a darkening expression.
“What are you doing here? Is something wrong?”
“What? No. No, everything’s fine,” Phil promised, smile returning. “I just... Well, I wanted to visit, and I brought you a present.”
Barton raised an eyebrow. “A present?”
“A real present? Because the last time you said you had a present, it was paperwork.”
“Paperwork to get you more time on the shooting range,” Phil reminded him. “Though this one may not be much better, but I brought lunch to make up for it,” he added, lifting the paper bag he had set down at his feet.
“Seriously?” Barton glanced down at the bag and back to Phil.
“Is that alright?” Phil asked. It had never occurred to him that Barton might have had plans, or even friends to spend his afternoon with.
“Of course! It’s awesome.” Barton grinned. “Can we chase some zeros out of the loungers, though? My back is gonna kill me if we sit on the ground.”
Following him toward a shaded area with various outdoor chairs and tables, Phil inquired, “Zeros?”
“Y’know, almost level one. Recruits in their last year before they get picked up for fieldwork,” Barton explained. “Most of ‘em are alright, but they like their privileges.”
Phil came to a stop in front of two occupied deck chairs, looming politely, and asked, “Do you mind?”
The two recruits vacated the chairs with impressive speed, mumbling, “Yes, sir. Sorry, sir,” as they bolted.
“That’s a neat power,” Barton remarked, lowering himself gingerly into one of the loungers. Even in the few weeks since Phil had seen him, his belly seemed to have grown, and he moved much more slowly, if no less gracefully. Settling down, he muttered, “Oh, for fuck’s sake. You might have to help me up when we’re done.”
“It’ll be my pleasure,” Phil assured him, sitting in his own chair so that he was facing Barton and digging their lunch packages out of the paper bag. “You said you were craving hummus, so I thought gyros might be a nice treat.”
“Fuck yes!” Barton snatched the foiled-wrapped sandwich out of Phil’s hand and was inhaling it before Phil could get his own opened. “I’m hungry all the fucking time,” Barton complained. “It’s like it’s never enough. No matter how much I eat, this little jerk always wants more.” He punctuated the statement with a poke at his swollen belly
“I expect it’s very exhausting, being a foetus,” Phil drawled. “Burns lots of calories.”
“Right. Floating around in there while I do all the work.” Barton poked his stomach again with a glare before turning back to Phil. “So what was that about a present?”
“Oh. Right.” Phil reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a metal compact, roughly the size of his palm. “This was developed to help create safe zones inside hostile areas,” he explained, twisting the two sides of the compact and pulling them apart to reveal a length of translucent cable. “The anchor points are made of a titanium alloy with over ten thousand micro-hooks to keep them secured, and the cable is the same materials they use to make synthetic diamonds. You attach each anchor point to either side of a door, and they’d have to knock down the entire wall to get to you.”
He let the cables retract and held the device to Barton, who looked at it with a blank expression, shaking his head. “I can’t take that. That’s for missions and stuff. I can’t...”
“It’s for keeping assets safe,” Phil said. “It’s to help you feel safe, no matter where you are.”
“I don’t...” Barton shook his head. “Why? Why would you give me this?”
Phil paused. “Well, I... I thought you could use it anywhere you don’t want someone barging in on you. Your dorm, restrooms, anytime you can't wear your hearing aids...”
“No, no, I get that.” Barton was staring into Phil’s face like he was searching for something. “I mean why? Why are you giving me things and bringing me lunch? Ever since I sat down in that diner, you’ve been trying to help me and do stuff for me, and I don’t get it. I know you wanna take care of your asset or whatever, but this? Even I know this is above and beyond, and what I wanna know is why?”
There had to be a simple answer, but when Phil opened his mouth, none would come. Because I want to seemed reductive and disingenuous. Because I was ordered to wasn’t likely to be received well. Because you need it. Because I can. Because you let me. “Because I...”
Suddenly, Barton’s face twisted, and he put a hand to his side. “Holy fuck.”
Phil’s blood went cold. “What? What’s wrong? Do you need the doctor?”
“No! No, no, it’s just... Oh my god.” Barton moved his hand forward a few inches and broke into a wide grin. “Oh my god, she’s moving.”
“Moving! She’s kicking,” Barton said, delighted. “I’ve been feeling stuff for weeks, but I didn’t know... Oh my god.” He grabbed Phil’s hand and placed it on the swell of his stomach. “Here. Feel.”
Phil let his hand rest, attentive to any motion, but whatever had been happening seemed to have stopped. All he felt was the intense heat of Barton’s skin through the soft t-shirt. Shaking his head, he told Barton, “I don’t feel anything.”
“Guess she must have stopped.” Barton was still grinning, his previous concern forgotten. “Man, that was so cool. Weird, but cool.”
“I imagine it would be.” Phil was again at a loss for what to say. “She’s eager to get moving, I suppose, which is what I should be doing, also.”
Barton’s expression wilted. “You came all the way out here just for lunch?”
“I thought I might say hello to a few of the instructors while I’m here,” Phil hedged, suddenly defensive. It occurred to him that a forty minute drive to spend twenty minutes with Barton might have been a little excessive. “It’s a nice drive,” he added, as if that might excuse him.
“Sure okay.” Barton crumpled up his foil wrapper and tossed it neatly into a recycling bin several feet away. “I guess you’re busy with saving the world and stuff.”
“And stuff,” Phil confirmed. “I’d much rather sit here and sunbathe, believe me.”
Barton laughed. “Okay, as soon as there’s a break, I’m taking you to the beach, ‘cause you sunbathing is something I’ve got to see.”
“I’m sure you’ll be very impressed with my chest hair,” Phil deadpanned, and Barton snorted.
“Yeah, well, I’m not exactly in bikini shape,” Barton said, patting his belly for emphasis.
“You could wear a muumuu,” Phil suggested. The thought of lounging on a beach in the sunshine with Barton for company almost made him want to blow off the rest of the day and fly them both somewhere tropical.
“Oh man, I should totally do that. I could wear one to class.” Barton started to lever himself upright and waved a hand at Phil. “Come on, help me up before you leave so I can waddle off to my combat seminar.”
Hauling Barton gently to his feet, Phil frowned. “I thought you weren’t taking any combat courses until next semester.”
“Handicapped Close Combat,” Barton replied. “It’s supposed be for, like, fighting with an injury, but I figured I’m kind of a walking handicap right now, so why not learn the moves. It’s been fun.”
“Fun,” Phil repeated. He was somehow not surprised that Barton’s idea of fun was learning to execute fall kicks at the end of his second trimester. “As long as you’re careful.”
“Obviously. Hey, thanks for lunch, and for, y’know, the door thing.” Barton twisted to stretch his back, but Phil suspected that it also gave him an excuse to look away.
“Of course. Anything you need. You know that.”
“Yeah,” Barton said, giving him a small, bright smile. “Yeah, I know.”
Despite evidence to the contrary, Phil did have other duties aside from attending to Barton, most of which had not, in point of fact, been at all neglected. He was in a briefing to discuss an upcoming long-term operation when his PDA buzzed in his pocket. He checked the screen - blocked number, no emergency code - and sent the call to voicemail.
A minute later, it buzzed again. This time, there was a text from a SHIELD cell number he didn't recognize. The text was three words that made Phil think everything inside him was going to crumble apart.
Barton's been shot.
He was out of the room and dialing before the half-hearted "Excuse me" had finished leaving his mouth.
The voice that answered was Victoria Hand, and she didn't bother with any preamble. "It was a ride-along with a surveillance team. Barton interfered in the op and got shot. We're at St. Sebastian's in Newton."
"What's his condition?" Phil was distantly proud that his voice didn't shake.
"Just get here as fast as you can," Hand told him. "And bring medical personnel. These idiots act like they’ve never seen a pregnant person before."
"Copy that." Immediately, he called SHIELD medical and told them to have Dr. Xiong on the helipad in two minutes or he would start firing people.
The forty-seven minutes from that text message to the ICU were the longest of Phil's life, and the seconds after he caught sight of Hand's dark frown and furrowed brow felt like his life was ending.
"Anything?" The fact that he could manage even one word seemed remarkable.
Hand shook her head. "Single bullet through the torso. He's in surgery now."
"Do you know what suite?" Dr. Xiong asked, already preparing for her own form of battle.
"I can find out," Hand said, putting a phone to her ear. Under other circumstances, Phil might have felt a stab of sympathy for the unfortunate soul on the other end.
Further down the hall, two recruits sat miserably in plastic chairs against the wall both of them soaked to the elbows with blood. Striding toward them, Phil demanded, "What. The hell. Happened."
They glanced at each other, then the young woman who had kissed Barton on the cheek a month before said, "An undercover operative was meeting with contacts. We were supposed to stay in the van with the surveillance team, but Barton..." She looked again at her companion, and he picked up the story.
"They had a crate full of kids," he said, and the entire scenario clicked abruptly in Phil's head. "The agents running the op didn't know, but Barton saw something on the video feed that tipped him off. Agent Hand said to call it in and they'd send a team in tomorrow, told us to stand down."
"And as soon as she turned her back, Barton left the van and went after the kids," Phil guessed, stomach sinking. Both recruits nodded.
"He didn't ask us to follow him, sir, but we had to. We couldn't just..."
"He wasn't even armed!" the young man put in. "He just went in and secured the kids. Nobody even saw him until..."
"He was covering our escape when he got shot. He made sure everyone was clear before he made a break for it."
Phil ran a hand over his face. "Of course he did." In top form, he believed that Barton could have had them in and out without so much as raising an alarm, but being seven months pregnant would slow anybody down. Apparently, it had slowed Barton down just a little too much.
Touch-and-go, they said. When it was all over, that was the phrase they used. Touch-and-go. By the time Phil was allowed to see Barton, to sit in the tiny room filled with equipment that he had become much too familiar with over the years and pull up a chair beside the narrow bed, there was no choice but to reach out and take Barton's hand. After that touch, Phil didn't know if he would ever be able to let go.
When Barton finally woke up - honestly, genuinely woke all the way up - Phil was still there, holding his hand.
"You look like shit," Barton observed, his voice hoarse and raw.
Phil held up a cup of water with a straw for him to drink. "Yes, and you're the picture of health and style."
After practically living in the hospital for a week, Phil had taken to avoiding mirrors to keep from seeing the rough stubble and dark circles. Barton was still hooked into too many machines and monitors for Phil's comfort, but at least the horrible ventilator mask was gone.
Suddenly, Barton tensed, putting both hands to his belly, then immediately relaxed. "Oh thank fuck."
"The baby's fine," Phil told him. "You have a punctured lung, three broken ribs, severe muscular damage, and an exit wound the size of Montana, but you will both, theoretically, be fine."
Barton winced and shut his eyes. "Did I fuck up?"
"You disobeyed a direct order, interfered with an ongoing mission, and put your life and the lives of your colleagues in danger. In that regard, yes, you fucked up," Phil said, and Barton groaned. "You also saved the lives of over thirty children, successfully led the rescue without blowing the lead agent's cover, and were only injured because you were attempting to ensure the protection of innocent lives. I think we're going to call this one a draw."
One eye cracked open. "Seriously?"
"It's been decided that suffering your first bullet wound serves as sufficient punishment for your insubordination, though you might not hold your breath for a recommendation from Agent Hand." The sigh of relief Barton heaved was painful, and the rage that had been smothered under Phil's worry and fear boiled over. "What the hell were you thinking?" he demanded. "You had no plan, no weapon, no back-up..."
"Amadore and Wu went in with me," Barton protested. “I mean, I didn’t know they were gonna go with me, b-”
"Recruits," Phil snapped. "Raw recruits who followed you out of a naive sense of nobility."
"Friends," Barton shot back. "Who had my back when I needed them."
"And then you set yourself up to be last out, when you should have taken point." Phil cut off Barton's reply with, "Fuck this compulsive self-sacrificing bullshit. Putting the slowest-moving asset at the front of the formation is just good tactics. You put yourself in danger for no good goddamn reason."
Barton opened his mouth to answer, then closed it again, rubbing a hand absently over his belly. Finally, he said quietly, "Yeah. I did." He dropped his eyes, staring down at the IV needle taped to the back of his hand. "Sorry."
Sick with worry and weariness, Phil sighed. "Why couldn't you just wait? The team was calling in for an op plan. There would have been a raid to save the kids the next day."
"They could have been dead by the next day. Or worse," Barton growled. "Couldn't risk waiting."
He said it with the certainty of someone who knew, who had seen other cages and shipping crates where stolen children were stored before being doled out to their new owners. Phil wondered just how much fortune and circumstance had played a part in keeping Barton himself out of those cages.
Phil scrubbed roughly at his eyes. "I'm just glad you're alright."
Barton didn't say anything for a long time, still watching his hand as it moved over the broad swell of his stomach. After a minute of silence in which Phil nearly fell asleep, Barton spoke up. "I wanna keep her. I mean, really keep her."
Of course he did. After the lengths he had gone to for this unfulfilled promise of a future person, it was no surprise that he would resist being parted from her once she became a reality. "I know," Phil said, gently.
"It's stupid, isn't it? Stupid and selfish," Barton murmured. "I want her to have a chance and have a family and people to love her and take care of her, and you said SHIELD would find her a good family, right? She wouldn't go into the system?" Phil nodded. "So that's what I should do, right? I should let her have a good life. I just..."
"You want a family, too," Phil said.
After a moment, Barton nodded. "I could love her," he said. "I don't have anything else, but I could give her that. That's gotta count for something."
"It counts," Phil told him. "So does the fact that you have the resources to provide for her, a community to help take care of her, and an example of courage, selflessness, and compassion to set for her as she grows up."
Barton looked up at him, frowning. "I dunno about that last part."
"Huh." With a creeping smile, Barton asked, "So does that mean I can count on you to babysit?"
Phil scowled. "I’ll get you a list of agency-approved sitters. I'm not good with children."
Barton's face fell. "Oh. Sorry. I guess I thought... I mean, I was kinda hoping you'd be, y'know, her godfather, or whatever."
One day, Phil thought, he would stop being thrown so completely off-guard by everything Barton did. "Oh."
"Yeah, but if you don't wanna deal with it, then it's not..."
"If you say it's not a big deal, Barton, I swear to god I will poke you in your stitches," Phil cut him off. "It's... It's an honor. Of course. I'll do anything you need."
Barton eyed him uncertainly. "So you're okay with being Uncle Phil?"
"Oh." Phil paused. "Well, maybe we can come up with a better nickname."
Barton grinned. His free hand, still resting in Phil's, gave a warm squeeze, and the tightness in Phil's chest eased for the first time in a week.
With the extent of the damage and how close he was to term, Barton was ordered to remain on full bed rest and moved to a SHIELD facility for extended care, grumbling all the while and insisting at every possible opportunity that he was fine. The best option, Xiong said, was to schedule an immediate C-section, but the baby was still underdeveloped and would be at risk. Barton refused, insisting that the delivery be delayed until the last possible second to give the baby a better fighting chance.
He was able to attend most of his classes remotely, and Phil often found him with a laptop balanced comically on his belly while he typed notes with one hand and held up a book with the other. The bed rest caused him to gain weight, in addition to the obvious and rapid growth of the foetus, and the absence of his binder left his breasts as an unfamiliar swell beneath the hospital gown. Somewhere in this strange new perspective, Phil could see shadows of the woman that Clementine Barton might have been in another universe. Then Barton would look up at him and grin, and there was no one else there, just Clint and his bright, bold smile.
“Marian,” Barton announced, just over a week into his confinement. “Marian Jean.” He frowned. “Probably. I think. I dunno. Maybe I’ll meet her and decide it’s something else, but I think we’ve gotten to know each other pretty well by now. Haven’t we, kid?” The last part was directed at his stomach, a recent habit he had developed.
“It’s a lovely name. Very classic,” Phil said. “And neutral enough, in case she decides the feminine doesn’t suit her.”
“Yeah. Kinda hoping she won’t take after me on that one, though. Or at all.” Barton grimaced. “Not that... Well. I guess I hope she just takes after herself, is all.”
“Maybe she’ll take after me,” Phil teased, and Barton laughed, his voice loud in the stillness around them.
It was the middle of the night, and the lights were low in the small room. Clusters of flowers - gifts from Barton’s Academy peers - cast sharp shadows in the yellow lamplight, and in the corner a stuffed rabbit loomed ominously, its plastic eyes glinting and watchful. The medical staff had attempted to enforce Phil’s visiting hours to no avail, but Phil compromised by limiting his visits to long stretches each day, rather than taking up residence in the visitors’ chair as he was inclined to do. Barton, for his part, tended to sleep and wake at odd hours and often seemed pleased with the late night company. Of course, Phil thought that Barton usually seemed pleased to see him, regardless of the time, but that may have been his imagination. He was always delighted to see Barton.
Phil was using the opportunity to catch up on paperwork, a pleasant task in the easy companionship and the rustle of pages as Barton read. The whole scene would have been terribly domestic in a different setting.
“They’re saying it could be pretty rough, ‘cause of the damage from the bullet,” Barton said, not looking up from his book, and it was his bland, casual tone that made Phil pause, pen hovering above the form resting on his knee.
“Only a little more than births normally are, probably. I’m sure it’ll be fine.” Phil expected to be called out on the lie, but Barton just thumbed at the frayed pages in his hand and didn’t answer immediately.
When he did, it seemed to take some effort. “I need you to... If something goes wrong, I need you to take care of her. Even if you can’t keep her, if anything happens to me, you gotta make sure she’s okay.”
Barton looked up at him, then, and Phil suddenly imagined himself holding a tiny infant with those same wide, blue eyes, who stared at him with all the hope and expectation that Barton did now. He knew the answer even as he insisted, “Nothing’s going to happen. Dr. Xiong knows what she’s doing.”
“You don’t know that,” Barton said fiercely. “You don’t know what’s going to happen, and I need to know I can count on you.”
A spike of anger burned in Phil’s throat. “I think I’ve more than proven that to you by now.”
The flicker of shame that crossed Barton’s face made Phil’s stomach twist, but Barton went on with force. “You have. You really have, and I’m so grateful for... god, for just every fucking thing. I swear I won’t ask you for anything else ever.” He tried to lean forward and gasped, putting a hand to the closed wound.
Immediately, Phil stood at his side, coaxing him back down. “You don’t have to... For fuck’s sake. Of course I’d take care of her, but nothing’s going to happen to you.”
Barton gripped Phil’s arm, refusing to be pushed. “If it does, though. If something goes wrong and you’ve gotta make a choice...”
“Don’t,” Phil snapped, fighting to keep his hands from shaking. “You can’t ask me for that.”
“I have to. I’m sorry, but I have to.” Barton’s hand was hot on Phil’s skin, his eyes bright in the soft light. “I hope you’re right and everything’s fine and all. I mean, I... I don’t wanna die. I really don’t. But all the shit that I’ve done is for her. Do you get that? If it wasn’t for her, I would’ve kept running till you caught me or somebody killed me. I wouldn’t be here. I’d be in prison or in the ground, and nothing that I’ve done means anything if I lose her now.”
Phil jerked his arm away, shaking his head. “I don’t accept that. Maybe being pregnant gave you a reason to build something better, but whether or not you have a baby doesn’t change what you’ve accomplished. You can’t ask me to choose a non-existent life over yours just because you think it fulfills some kind of cosmic balance.”
“I’m asking you for a fucking promise, and you’re being an asshole,” Barton snarled. “Sorry if this fucks with your grand plan to make me your all-star fucking agent.”
“Fuck you,” Phil spat. “Fuck you, if you think that’s what this is about.”
“I think it’s about you and your fucking savior complex,” Barton shouted back.
“Which goes well with your persistent self-flagellation and compulsive inability to ask for help.”
“I’m asking! I’m asking right the fuck now!” Barton was flushed and scowling, and one of the monitors beeped sharply as his pulse climbed. “I never get a chance to ask the rest of the time because you’re always right there trying to do every little thing for me.”
“And that’s just such a fucking burden, isn’t it?” Phil sniped, stepping back from the bed. “Having someone actually caring for you and trying to make your life just a little bit easier. I bet that weighs pretty heavy on you, right along with that chip on your shoulder.”
“Why are you being such a jackass about this?” Barton demanded.
“Because you’re asking me to take a goddamn baby as a consolation prize for getting you killed!” The paperwork creased and tore as Phil shoved it into his briefcase, blinking back the stinging in his eyes. “I’m not having this conversation. Not right now.”
“Yeah, okay. Come back when you’re less of a prick.”
“I’ll come back when you stop throwing yourself on your damn sword.”
“Why? So you can stab me in the back with it?”
“Fuck you, you fucking child.”
“That the best you can come up with, dickhead?”
Phil stopped at the door and looked Barton dead in the eye. “Why? What do you want me to call you?”
Freak, tranny, whore, stupid, worthless, dumb slut, this is is all your fault.
Barton held his stare for a long, silent second, then looked away, crossing his arms. “Fuck off.”
“I honestly don’t know what’s worse, what you expect from me or the fact that you think you deserve it,” Phil said bitterly. “But no. Obviously, this is just about me and my savior complex.”
Barton’s face twisted, but he stayed turned away. Phil didn’t let himself slam the door.
He didn’t mean to leave it as long as he did. He meant to come back in a few days, maybe a week, however long it took for the wretched feeling in his stomach to pass, but it never did. Every day, at some point, Phil would start in the direction of the medical ward, and every day the sick wrench of guilt and fear made him turn away to some other destination.
He called for updates and was told that Barton was fine, that there’d been a few visitors, that this technically fell outside his purview as Barton’s supervising officer, and that he should stop threatening to set up the facility staff as training dummies every time they refused a request. Phil kept calling, but he tried to be a little more reasonable.
There was snow on the ground by the time he finally made it all the way to Barton’s door. December was rushing rapidly into the marathon of holiday festivities, and Phil eased his nerves with the pretext of bearing gifts. Then, at least, he could say he had a purpose for breaking his silence and might have a brief buffer of small talk before issuing a lengthy, sincere, and unequivocal apology.
When he arrived, though, Barton was resting fitfully, tensing in his sleep though he seemed unlikely to be disturbed by anything that didn’t register on the Richter scale, and there was nothing for Phil to do but sit in the familiar chair beside the bed and wait with a neatly-wrapped box lying in his lap. Almost immediately, the exhaustion he had been ignoring weighed down on him, lulled by the peace of simply being where he belonged, and Phil dropped immediately into a heavy doze.
He woke abruptly to the sound of alarms and confused voices and a blood-curdling cry of pain.
“We need to move him now.”
“Look at me, Clint. Just breathe.”
Through the flurry of scrubs and lab coats, Phil could see Barton’s hand gripping the rail on the hospital bed, knuckles gone bone white and shaking.
“Clint, you’re going to be fine. Just breathe.”
The agonized howl came again, and Phil realized with a punch of nausea that it was coming from Barton.
“...torn out internal stitches.”
“Breathe, Clint, please. It’s...”
“...stop this bleeding.”
“Come on. That’s it, Clint. Just....”
“Prep a room.”
Then, suddenly, the chaos was moving and gone, disappearing into the corridor. Stumbling, Phil rushed after them, desperate to keep Barton in his sight for as long as possible. As the cluster reached another door, one that would be barred to Phil, he caught Xiong by the elbow He tried to form a coherent question, but she shook him off.
“Wait here, agent. I’ll get back to you when I know something,” she called, her final words muffled by the swinging door.
Phil stood in the middle of the hall, still clutching the wrapped box. He stared at the seam where the halves of the door met like it might open and issue all the answers he needed, might tell him how to behave while the world fell apart.
In a diner in Los Angeles, a young man had sat across from him and made his universe wider. Now, in the hallway of a hospital in an undisclosed location, he felt like it was shrinking again.
He found a chair and sat down, laying the ungiven gift across his knees.
His father had taught him to wrap presents, how to flatten the folds and make the edges nice and crisp. After his father’s death, he and his mother had only wrapped presents for each other. After her death, Phil used gift bags.
He imagined sitting at a coffee table beside a little girl with wide, blue eyes, teaching her to flatten folds, and he dropped forward to bury his face in his hands.
Xiong emerged sometime later. Hours, minutes, Phil had no idea. Her face was wan and tense as she asked if Phil was Barton's legal proxy.
"There’ve been some complications,” she said. “We don't have to make a decision yet, but we need to know now, if it comes down to a choice between the baby or..."
"Him," Phil answered immediately. "Do everything you can to save them both, but if you have to make a choice, it's him." Xiong nodded and started away, but Phil stopped her. “No. Wait...”
It killed him. It ran against every instinct and desire in his being, but, whatever the reasons, it was Barton’s decision.
Phil took a deep breath. “Barton has asked that the child’s survival be made a priority. Please abide by his wishes.”
Xiong gave him a considering look and nodded again. “We’re not writing anyone off just yet,” she said, disappearing once again through the forbidding doors.
As the night drew on with no word, Phil was startled when Fury came striding down the long corridor and dropped into the chair beside him. He put a hand on Phil’s shoulder and left it there for a long minute, a touch of warm comfort in the winter dark. Then Fury folded his arms across his chest and waited with Phil in welcome silence.
After Fury had gone, Hill arrived bearing coffee, donuts, and a book of word puzzles.
“Sit here long enough, you start to feel like you’re part of the wall,” she observed. “You feel like you never really leave, like you’re always here waiting for somebody or watching people suffer.” She waved a hand vaguely at their surroundings. “Hospitals in general. Not here specifically. I’ve only been here maybe twice, few times to see Barton.”
Phil raised his eyebrows. “You came to see him?”
“Had to see what all the fuss was about.” Hill shrugged, slurping at her coffee. “He’s a smartass. I like smartasses.” Handing Phil the puzzle book, she commanded, “Pick a crossword.”
Obediently, Phil balanced his coffee and donut in one hand and began shuffling pages to find an appropriately mind-numbing puzzle.
They made it through three crosswords, two word searches, seven mad libs, and most of a dozen donuts before the terrible doors finally opened again, and a nurse with dark circles under her eyes informed them that she had good news.
The baby was strong and healthy and sleeping peacefully.
After some initial difficulty, the C-section had been mostly routine, and she was pleased to inform them that, as daylight broke after the longest night of the year, Marian Jean Barton had been born.
Barton’s surgery had been more complicated.
The force of his contractions had caused some of his internal stitches to tear. The details were lost on Phil, but he heard a lot of words like organ damage, additional trauma, and severe blood loss. In the end, all he really heard and all that really mattered was that it was over. Barton was stable and resting and would be fine, if a little loopy, in a day or so.
Phil never could figure out who started crying first, though he secretly suspected it was himself. The next thing he knew though, he and Hill were both hugging the nurse and patting each other on the back, and everyone had tears on their faces. Hill shuffled him into an empty room, ordering him to sleep and shower so that he didn’t embarrass himself in front of Barton.
“He just gave birth, and he’s probably on the best painkillers ever invented. He’s not going to care what I smell like,” Phil pointed out. He didn’t add that Barton might not care to see him at all.
Hill looked him squarely in the face and said, “Coulson, right now there are patients in other wings of this building who care what you smell like. Because they can smell you. And I reiterate: sleep. You look like you just stumbled out of a cemetery with a hankering for brains.”
Phil acquiesced with the understanding that she would get him the second anything changed. He laid down on the clean white sheets, and, when he slept, he dreamed of sunshine.
Barton didn’t immediately throw him out, which Phil took as a good sign. Granted, Barton was also high on endorphins and a low dose of drugs, and he seemed fairly sanguine about the world in general.
“I am so completely, obscenely, inexpressibly sorry for what I said,” Phil told Barton. “You’ve only ever asked me for one thing, and I should have respected your request and your decision. I was... I was scared, and I behaved like a spoiled child.”
“You kinda did,” Barton said. At Phil’s look, he shrugged. “You were right, though. About a lot of things.”
“Yes, well. You may have had a point about the savior complex,” Phil admitted.
Barton rolled his eyes. “You think?”
“What can I say? I have a weakness for pregnant vagabonds.”
“Oh, so is this gonna be a thing now?” Barton teased. “Gonna start a collection of deadly assassins with buns in their ovens?”
Phil made a face. “You know, I think I’ll just stick with the one I have.”
“Bun’s not in the oven anymore, though,” Barton said, his face lighting up as a nurse came into the room, carrying a shapeless bundle of blankets. “There she is.”
“She’s anxious to see her mo- her daddy,” the nurse announced. She laid the bundle gently in Barton’s arms and stayed long enough to make sure he wasn’t going to drop it before making a discrete departure.
“Hey, you,” Barton murmured softly to the little shape. A tiny hand protruded from the folds, waving in the general direction of Barton’s mouth. “That’s right. You know me. I belong to you, don’t I?”
Caught by the unfathomable tenderness in Barton’s face, Phil suddenly remembered. “I got you a gift. Both of you.”
The neatly-wrapped package was not as neat as it had been, but whatever it had weathered was worth it when Phil pulled away the lid and showed Barton the top gift. It was a double picture frame with a copy of his first sonogram image on one side. The other side was a picture of Barton, taken by Phil in the early days of his bed rest, in which he was sprawled on the hospital bed, one hand resting protectively on his huge belly and the other offering the camera his middle finger.
Barton threw back his head and laughed in delight. “Oh, that shit’s going right over her crib.” Abruptly, his expression changed to one of alarm. “Oh shit, she needs a crib.” Gaping at Phil, he said, “Oh shit, we need a place to live. I can’t keep her in my dorm, and I d-”
“Don’t worry about it,” Phil interrupted. “I’m taking care of it. I promise.”
Barton relaxed slightly. “You sure?”
“Trust me,” Phil assured him, smiling, and Barton gave him a brilliant grin in return. “Anyway, that’s for you. This is for Marian.”
The rest of the box contained a soft fleece blanket, colored in an impossible shade of purple, with a cluster of bright blue arrows in one corner. Below the arrows, stitched in a clean script, were the letters MJB.
Barton’s grin widened. “Look at that, kid. Hardly a week old and you’re already getting presents.”
“The first of many, I guarantee,” Phil said, offering the blanket to Barton.
“Here, put it under her. Help me wrap her up.”
Adding a new blanket to the mix was apparently easier said than done. In the end, the small, shapeless bundle was now a slightly larger and very purple shapeless bundle, and Barton was shining all over with incandescent joy, possibly heightened by the presence of narcotics.
Looking up at Phil, he asked, “Do you wanna hold her?”
Phil froze, mouth open to give a reflexive denial. This was it, though. This was the culmination of months of hard work and heartache. This shapeless bundle was the anchor point for every arrow that Barton would ever loose again. Phil thought that he ought to at least say hello. “I... Yes, if you don’t mind. I would.”
Phil had never understood the appeal of children. They were necessary for the propagation of the species and occasionally entertaining, but he had never found much reason to be especially fond of them, at least until they could carry their half of a conversation. He supposed there was a certain protective instinct triggered by infants, but that didn’t necessitate any real attachment.
Even in light of this development, he anticipated that his views on small children would remain unchanged, and he prepared himself to make all the appropriate noises about the baby’s appearance and apparent personality. Then Barton leaned forward carefully and placed in his arms the single ugliest, blotchiest, most wrinkled specimen of infancy Phil had ever seen in his life, and she stared up at him with massive, dark eyes that were nothing like Barton’s. She gurgled, and little bubbles of saliva floated out and clung to her doughy chin.
Phil adored her instantly.
“Hello, Marian,” he said softly. “It’s nice to finally meet you.”