A few dozen pounds of paper landed on his desk with a thwump of displaced air, sending the papers already covering his desktop flying. Looking between the tower of work and the quickly darkening sky, Clint let out a deep sigh and got to work. There went any chance of getting home before the snowstorm the Weather Channel has warning about set in. It wasn’t that he had anything waiting for him at home other than a cat that didn’t seem to like him, and a frozen dinner. It was the headache that had been spinning behind his eyes since lunch time when one of them got too close and stayed there. Whoever they were, had been moving closer and further away all afternoon, but never close enough to be identified and ignored. All he could tell was that they were young, very young, and he didn’t know them.
He wasn’t particularly surprised he didn’t know them if they were as young as they felt. His last lifetime had been spent as an environmental researcher in outback Australia. Not much alive out there, let alone one of his people. It had been the break he needed after the chaos of the first half of the last century.
The new work was mostly patent applications from Stark’s latest engineering binge. Why anyone would need a vacuum cleaner that could also bring you coffee and shine your shoes, he would never know. Mortals were weird. Stark particularly so.
By midnight he had cross-checked, cross-referenced, and submitted all but the last file. Picking it up, something about the paper and weight of it wasn’t right. Paying attention, he realised it wasn’t a SI folder, it was external mail addressed directly to him. Huh. Slipping his letter opener under the flap he cut it open and lifted the papers out. They were still legal documents, but instead of the more familiar patent applications it was an estate notification.
Last Will and Testament
Francis Bernard Barton
He flicked quickly through the rest of the documents. Oh. Apparently he was dead. Or his second to last identity had finally passed away at the ripe old fake age of 89. Why Skye, or Daisy in her current life, was finally killing Francis off, he didn’t know. And really it didn’t matter. There would be a pile of paperwork and then his property would be his again.
It wasn’t something he needed to deal with right that second anyway. Stuffing the papers back into their envelope, and the envelope into his briefcase, he shrugged into his thick winter jacket and left. The office going dark behind him. Thank Stark for his automated everything.
= + =
End of year bullshit kept Clint from getting back to the papers in his briefcase until the weekend, sitting down on Saturday morning after his usual workout, he spread the papers out on his rarely used dining table. Pot of strong black coffee waiting at one elbow, with no mug in sight because he had forgotten it and couldn’t be bothered getting up again, he got the work. Most of it was straight forward. He always kept his affairs in order in case he needed to leave a life unexpectedly. The land and property was the only stumbling block. Saoidh Estate. Fuck. He had forgotten that he had bought that. He had owned the place for years. For decades. He hadn’t been to Scotland since he was newly Francis. Hadn’t been back since, well, a long time. Getting as far away from the green and rain of the little country was why he had gone to Australia in the first place, he remembered with a pang. The reminder of the country and the man he associated it with was too much.
He would have put off doing anything about it, but there was a note from Skye that the caretaker had passed just over a year ago, with an apology for not catching that sooner, and the estate needed his attention.
Unconsciously he tapped the corner of his phone against his bottom lip. He could just go on ignoring the whole thing. Pretend the post-it note got misplaced. His long life told him that would absolutely come back to bite him in the ass. Probably in the most embarrassing way possible. He could get someone else to deal with it. Duncan was always up to a trip back home. That would open him up to being pulled back into the kid’s bullshit though. That never seemed to work out well for him or someone he cared about.
He was going to have to go back and deal with it. Get it ready to sell and then get the fuck out. If he went now he should be able to do it before Christmas.
Tapping in Pepper’s phone number he lent back as he listened to it ring.
“Clint! How are you?” Her bright voice came through the phone so clearly that she might have been in the room with him.
“Hey Pepper. I’m ok and you?” He dampened his voice slightly, the emotional queue to suggest his words weren’t quite true.
“What’s wrong?” She ignored the question. Jumping straight where he wanted her.
“My um. My granddad. I didn’t know him really. He passed away last week. I know the timing isn’t great but I need a week off to deal with his estate.” A carefully inserted tonal wince sold it.
“I’m so sorry. Of course. Take as long as you need.” She hurried to assure him.
“I can still do some work while I’m away. I’ll send you the details when I have them.”
They exchanged quick good byes and hung up. Both too busy to linger. With a single finger, he dragged his laptop closer. Taping in a flight search he was booked to fly out of JFK that night. A quick stop in Heathrow, he would be in Aberdeen mid-afternoon and Pitmedden before Sundown.
= + =
The little town hadn’t changed much. New street lights, and updated cars. It was still picturesque, but it stabbed at him in a way it hadn’t last time. The tingle of another consciousness feathered against his mind, but was gone as soon as it had come. Too quick to figure out anything about the person on the other end. Even after all this time, the lightning, or quickening, that flowed through his veins still had limits.
Driving through the town, with its bright red and green decorations, and people out laughing, enjoying the crisp winter air.
He hated this time of year.
He turned into the long gravel drive of the only hotel in the tiny town. Hamlet really. The tires of his hire car skidded on the ice, biting in finally and sending flecks of rock and ice flying. Laptop bag over one shoulder and small travel suitcase in the other he had heave the door open, the wood had swollen shut in the cold, damp weather and refused to move for him.
“Feasgar math.” The woman behind the counter, who looked about the age Clint looked, greeted him cheerfully. “You must be Mr Barton. Welcome.” Her broad smile warmed him a little. No one in New York greeted each other that genuinely. Not unless they wanted something and even then it always came off more oily.
“Um. Hello. Yes.” He dropped his bag in front of the deep brown, wooden counter. The wood and metal fixtures glistened with care and regular polishing.
She quickly handed over a set of keys. Old brass that was warm to the touch. The whole building had a history to it, the weight of time sitting heavily around the whole place. He could feel the depth of human occupation. If he closed his eyes, he would be able to see the hunters that had roamed this land, and others like it, for millennia.
He didn’t close his eyes. The people he would see wouldn’t be the faceless ancestors of most people. They would be his older brother who had died in the same rock fall as him. They would be his little sister who had gone North to find a mate. They would be his mother and father, withered with age as no lines had marred his face.
She pointed him in the direction of his room. The master suite at the back of the building. It apparently had spectacular views of the church spire. Shaking the memories, he followed her direction. He couldn’t afford to get lost in the past here, there was too much of it for him to explore if he did. There was a reason he didn’t come back to Europe often.
The consciousness from earlier brushed against him again as he was getting out of the shower. Stopping he concentrated on the longer contact. Feelings that twisted just out of reach swept against his skin. A memory of sun dappled on the ground by mid-summer trees. Blood and fire. The smell of wood smoke twisting in winter air. They were familiar to him, but he couldn’t place them. Someone he had only met briefly long ago, maybe. Someone he was trying to forget.
Dressing quickly, he left the little hotel. Walking back the way he had driven, he allowed his mind to stretch, to search for that Otherness. Heading in the direction he had first felt the mind. Each step brought a stronger feeling. An arm heavy with armour wrapped around the shoulders of a comrade. Another step. The bite of steel through flesh, both given and received. Turning a corner. Warm, sweat slick skin sliding against warm, welcoming flesh, moans breathed into another’s neck. A final corner.
A face he wanted to forget but was burned into his heart and brain. A body that held his greatest love and biggest heartbreak. A smile that wasn’t for him anymore. The man who had given him up because of fear watched him with guarded eyes from the other end of the street.
Once, the presence of those deep blue eyes and smug grin had been safe. Comforting. The warm buzz of his quickening had been as familiar as his own, a purring cat in his mind. It was a shock to find that that purring was gone. Sharp claws in its place that pricked painfully into his mind.
Meter by meter, he moved closer to a confrontation he had hoped to never have. Hands pushed deep into his coat pockets, a slim knife in one and the hilt of a rapier, hidden in the folds of his jacket, in the other. He didn’t think Philipos would challenge him, but they hadn’t been face to face in centuries. Who knew what was going through the other man’s mind.
= + =
Warmth crackled and spit from the fire in the corner of his little cabin. It was the only source of heat and light inside, fighting against the chill of fresh snow and weak winter sunlight. To most, the space would have been overcrowded and too small for anyone to live in comfortably. Phil thought it was the perfect size. Each wall lined with overstuffed bookshelves, the wood sagging with age and weight. The kitchen along one wall gleamed with fresh pink copper and old cast iron. It had only been his for a few years. And not even really his. The ever absent Mr F Barton owned the little cottage, and the pine plantation it sat on. It might belong to Mr Barton on paper, but it would always be Phil’s. It was his home. From the straights down the road of the little custodian’s cottage, across the steep mountains and down to the raging ocean. They were the lands of his childhood.
He had walked ancient roads with myths, and crossed oceans with legends. His blade had crossed with metal from almost every continent on earth. The wild valleys and windswept crags of the land now known as Scotland would always be home, no matter how far he wandered. A part of him would always yearn for the still pools and fields of flowers that others spun into faery stories.
Curled up in the deep window seat with a cup of coffee and a frayed book forgotten in his lap, he watched the world outside. Not a lick of wind curled through the trees across his small lawn, the rabbits and other small animals had retreated into their burrows away from the early cold snap. It was peaceful and still. Almost hypnotic in its stillness, like staring at a painting for too long and getting lost in the tiny never changing details.
His morning had been lost to locals coming to pick up their trees. With Guy Fawkes done the lot was open on weekend morning, after St Andrews it would be open every day. The early afternoon had been whiled away with the chores of the estate. Making sure the cold wasn’t effecting anything in the old manor that was shut up for the season, clearing deadwood from amongst the trees and placing a new layer of hay around their bases to stop the water from freezing the roots, feeding his bay mare Aida. The work wasn’t mentally hard, but it was rhythmic in a way. The repetitive days meditative for someone whose life was measured in millennium instead of decades.
With the land looked after his afternoon was his own. He could stay here, read another of the endless books, there was always something new to discover in another person’s imagination, or walk into town. The shop windows would be setting up their Christmas lights, a few of them had been by that morning for the smaller trees that would fit in the window, and the tavern might have someone interesting to talk to. It would probably be his last chance to relax. The steady climb through the holiday season would only get faster and harder, unless he wanted to hire a second person, which he didn’t. Letting people in never ended well. Even if he wanted to take the chance he couldn’t. Hiring needed the estate owner’s approval and that wasn’t going to happen, the distant Mr F Barton having not visited in the two years since Phil had taken up his role.
A frission of energy running down his spine startled him from his unfocused consideration. The movement dumped hot tea in his lap, distracting him from the soft pressure of another immortal passing. By the time he had sopped it up, whoever it had been was gone. It was the first encounter since returning to Pitmedden. As the world got smaller and the population larger, encounters had been steadily creeping up. Before Pitmedden, he had been in Vienna, working as a forgettable accountant at a high-level, corporate firm. He hadn’t been able to go a week without the headache and adrenaline rush, then crash, of an immortal coming in close. For much of his life, he had gone a decade at a time without a challenge. They were almost monthly by the time he left. Whether it was the large metropolis with a lot of people moving through, or stories of an older, powerful immortal living there that drew them, it had become too much. Homesick and still bleeding from a fight he had only just managed to keep his head in, he had been surfing a Scottish jobs board and seen the post.
He had applied and then forgotten about it in the tax time rush. Another dizzying headache, and fight for his life. In the shuffle of balancing Dark Age duels to the death and modern spreadsheets, the job offer was a surprise. But one he found was good. He had called and accepted the job and was on almost the next flight across the channel.
Each day spent outside the tiny hamlet had eased a bit of the tension from his shoulders. They couldn’t get sick, and any injury healed almost overnight. But continued unrelenting tension still affected them, the quickening couldn’t get in front of something that was constant. The return of that tension wasn’t welcome.
Hopefully, they were just passing through and wouldn’t be interested enough by him to come looking. If not, better not to be alone when they first come face to face. Changing out of his damp sweat pants for a thick pair of jeans, winter socks, and boot. A snow jacket that was long and bulky enough to hide a slim blade. He hadn’t lived as long as he had without a bit of caution.
Ambling into town, nodding at the people he knew, stopped to talk to Mrs MacIntyre down the road about the boundary fence that the last storm had damaged and helped Timmy rescue his ball from a ditch. He had been here long enough to be known but as with all small communities unless you were born there you would always be an outsider.
He didn’t mind it so much, they left him alone for the most part.
Taking a longer route to Main Street, let him approach from a different direction than his home and cover more ground to try and feel the stranger out, he was one street over when the mind brushed against his again. The next step solidified the contact. It was the caress of spring air against his mind, heavy with moisture and growth. He remembered that feeling, only one mind he had ever come across felt like that. Kourosh. Cocideus. Oro. The man he had loved and lost. Each step another scent memory. Hot hide glue in a winter hut. Sweat and sand. Lust. Sex.
He could barely put one foot in front of another. His heart pounding in his chest from fear and want. The quickening screaming a warning in his head, it had never fully accepted the other man as ‘Not a Threat’ in the way other paired immortals’ told him their lightening did. It burned through his limbs, tingling in his fingers, readying his body to defend itself. To draw blood and accept the life force of another.
That bloodlust wouldn’t be quenched today. He may have ripped out Kourosh’s heart, but he wouldn’t cut off his head.
Meeting the eyes of his one time lover for the first time since that horrible night in Hispania was sweet pain. For a second, the kind man looked out at him from behind eyes as temperamental as the ocean. They were grey with weariness at the presence of an unknown immortal. Phil saw the second he was recognised. His eyes slammed to slate grey. He had only seen that colour once, when Cocideus had been swirling with too many emotions for any single one to come to the fore.
He hated that he had put that look back in his eye, knowing a good chunk of the whirlwind was pain.
Slowly they moved towards each other. With so many people around they could pretend not to know each other. Did he want that? No, what he wanted was to pull him close and never let him go again. Things were different now, at least in this part of the world. They could love without fear.
At two, Koroush cut his eyes away and walk passed as if they didn’t know each other.
Phil stumbles a step before catching himself and continuing with his amble through town. He knew as much as he was going to about what he came into town to find out, whether the newcomer was a threat. He had hoped for a hard yes or no, but known he wasn’t likely to get one. Koroush was as likely to kill him as not, but not over the stupid Game. Over some never ending, delusion that there could be only one immortal walking the earth that so many of their people prescribed to. If they drew blades it would be personal.
Eyes down cast he hurried away. Coward, a voice that sounded a lot like his long dead uncle spat in his mind. With no knife in his back he assumed the other man let him run. Probably thanking his lucky stars he was free of a coward like Clint.
Around the corner, he quickened his step. Hurrying back to the hotel. The sooner he could get an appointment with the real estate agent and the groundskeeper, the better. He didn’t want to see Philipos with his new lover, see them happy together while Clint had been pining away for centuries for a man who didn’t want him anymore.
Leaning against his closed door, he was waiting for the other end of his phone call to be picked up.
“Fuck you and the horse you rode in on.” The voice on the other end grumbled, having picked up half a ring before it went to voicemail.
“Aww, come on now. Strider was a great horse.” Clint felt a small smile creeping across his face. Skye always cheered him up.
“Naming your transport after whatever book you are reading at the time is going to get creepy.” It was an argument they had had multiple times. He still contended that Castle was a great name for a car. It was wonderfully ironic. The immovable building for the most efficient personal transport in history.
She disrespectfully disagreed. “Do you know what time it is?” She grumbled, jumping conversation.
“Lunch time?” He was pretty sure she was somewhere on the East Coast of the US, so it was in the middle of the day for her.
“Exactly. As in the sun is currently in the sky. It is light outside and I don’t appreciate being awake.” A computer purred to life under her words. She might be grumpy that he woke her up, but she would still help.
“I need to get this shit sorted ASAP and get the fuck out of Scotland.”
“What happened?” His tone had her instantly alert, ready and willing to rain digital destruction down on someone, and physical if he could wait the eight or so hours it would take for her to get to him.
“He is here.” The three short words were answer enough. She knew the story. She knew the pain that he still carried with him. Over long winter nights and scorching summer days, he had parted with his story bit by bit. Training the newly quickened woman, teaching her how to survive in a world she hadn’t been ready to face. Part of that was not getting attached. It was the only lesson she had completely and utterly failed at. He couldn’t blame her though, it was something he had always failed to do as well.
“Shit. Clint. I’m sorry. All you really need to be there to do is list the property. A meeting with an agent and a walk through should do it. Let me try and line something up for first thing in the morning. Hopefully you can be out of there by tomorrow night, Tuesday lunch at the latest.”
“Thanks.” He whispered into the phone. The line going dead without another word. Neither of them were big on telephone courtesy if they didn’t have to be. The days of having a phone still too new for them to waste time on the damn things if they didn’t have to.
Pushing away from the door, he shuffled to the twin bed, stripping off layers as he went. Down to his boxers and tee-shirt he burrowed under the covers and hid from the world. His body still thought it was the middle of the day, but he had no intention of moving from this spot until whenever the appointment Skye was booking him was.
= + =
Overnight a thick blanket of grey snow clouds had rolled in. The lands that had been sharply defined the day before, were soft and shrouded in mist. Clint stood outside the real estate office in Ellon. Pitmedden was too small to have its own, and it was the closest. A man in thick, dark jeans and a bright red cable knit sweater was locking up the door behind them. They had spent a warm hour in the office signing papers and discussing terms. He hadn’t seemed impressed by Clint’s insistence that he just wanted the place gone, and that he had no interest in any sort of significant profit.
Finally, using the ‘it was granddad’s who just died and I have no attachment to the place and more important things to do in New York so can we just get the fuck on with it’ card, the man had grumbled to agreement to accept pretty much any offer and push for a speedy settlement.
The only thing left was doing a tour of the property, Skye had emailed the groundskeeper to let them know to expect the little party. If all went well, he would be on his way back to Aberdeen within two hours and back in New York by Midnight. If this guy would hurry up and the weather held.
“Sorry about that Mr Barton. That lock’s a little sticky in the cold.” He didn’t sound too apologetic. A slower way of life was the price of doing business in a small town.
“No problem.” His acceptance was as insincere as the apology. He had been in the big city and having to account for every second of the day for too long to be comfortable ambling aimlessly through a day anymore, although he knew he would easily relearn if he needed to.
They each piled into their cars, Tom in a decade (plus) old Land Rover, and Clint in the tiny bubble hatchback rental. They bumped and jostled their way back towards the tiny, medieval hamlet, pulling off on a perfectly maintained road a few miles from town.
The buzz of another immortal had begun swirling in his head as they got closer to Pitmedden. This time it was expected, but even less welcome. He didn’t think it would come to a fight, but in most ways it was much more painful. He couldn’t just stab this problem to make it go away.
The louder the buzz got in his mind the deeper his mood plummeted. They were moving away from town again, the road on his land heading up and into the hills but the buzz wasn’t lessening, breathing into it he realised it was still getting stronger. Closer.
Son of a BITCH.
Philipos was on his land. He was the fucking groundskeeper he had employed for the last two years. His car skidded to a halt on the gravel, dirt and pebbles skittering from under his tires as he slammed on the brakes.
Stalled, his mind had frozen. To get out of here he would have to face the one person he never wanted to see again. Drumming his fingers on the steering wheel, he considered just leaving. Up until last week he had forgotten he even had the property. Would it be so bad to tuck it away in the depths of his memory once again? There were certainly worse things lurking in the recesses of his mind than a few acres of land in north Scotland.
The rap of knuckles against the driver’s window startled him from the logistics of holding on to the place. The hirsute face of Tom was looking at him, rosy cheeked from cold, and eyes wide with concern.
Hesitantly, he pressed the down button for his window.
“You ok?” The other man lent an elbow on the open window, successfully forcing him to answer the question.
“Oh, yeah. Sorry. I hadn’t realised how pretty it was here.” Clint mentally cringed at himself. Really? Pretty? God, where was his brain. He could keep up with Pepper Fricken Potts (You didn’t swear around her unless you were Stark), and Tony Fucking Stark (You swore around him if you wanted to be taken seriously) and he couldn’t keep up with Tom the Scottish real estate agent?
“Never came out to visit gran’da?” His opinion on people who didn’t fulfil their familial obligation clear in his voice.
“He was never really here. Bought it when he was passing through after the War, spent a couple of years here and then left. Don’t think he ever came back.” After the bloody fields that had replaced his own home, Clint had needed somewhere to collect himself. He had spent millennia fighting, he had killed more people than he could count and fought in battles that apparently changed history. But the wholesale slaughter of the World Wars that had shaped the last century had been on a level he had never seen before. Mortal lives seemed so short already, that to throw them away so carelessly baffled him. It wasn’t often that he felt alien from the mortal population of the world, but in the first half of the last century he had. Needing to retreat from everything and everyone to be able to forgive. Talking to his friends who were almost as old, or even older, than him, they had all felt the same. A deep sadness for the people, and burning anger at the institutes that had sent them to die.
Tom nodded knowingly and left it at that. He clapped a broad hand on the window edge, signalling a topic change that Clint was only too ready for. “Well, the house is still a little ways up and then the groundskeeper’s place is off to the left.” A finger, rough with outdoor work but ink stained from the office, pointed towards the rise and then off towards a smaller track that veered sharply left before both disappeared in the scrub.
“Let’s get to it then.” He pasted a smile on his face and turned the engine over, letting the growl of decent horsepower put the point on his sentence.
= + =
An email had been waiting for Phil when he powered up his laptop the next morning. Every morning was the same, up at dawn, the coffee maker burbling happily in the background, shuffling half-awake through the little building to put toast on and pull on jeans and a plaid shirt. As he waited for nibbled at his toast and waited for the coffee to cool enough to be drinkable, he checked the weather and his email before heading out for the day. The quiet routine of it was comfortable. To others it might look boring but slowing down was why he had moved back to the area. It suited him just fine.
Most of his emails were deals on gardening equipment and the occasional email from a friend checking in. Immortals’ concept of time was much more relaxed than most peoples. For them years to go by between talking to someone but they were still considered close friends. Contact more often than that would probably raise a few eyebrows, quiet questions of intentions and dark quickenings would quickly follow. The Game an ever present threat to close relationships between them all.
The email in perfectly formatted ‘Formal Internet’ language stood out from the normal hoard. It was from the HR office his job was contracted through. The subject line just read ‘Site Visit’. Clicking into it he sat properly to focus on the message.
Dear Mr. Coulson,
Blah Blah Blah.
The Owner of Fothair Corais will be visiting for a site inspection the afternoon of blah blah blah. Sorry for the short notice. Blah.
Some person he didn’t know.
Well that wasn’t good news.
It also wasn’t something he could do anything about. Sending back a quick acknowledgement, he logged out and got on with his day. Whatever the so far absent Mr Barton wanted, in the end it wouldn’t really affect him. At worst he would have to find a new job, which he did with enough regularity that it wasn’t that much of a hardship, he would even keep his current identity if he had to move, his DOB still believable.
His morning passed quickly, shuffling between one task and the next. His mind wandering to sun drenched days sitting outside a sweltering blacksmith, carefully slicing feathers. Laughing in the warm nights with the love of his not insignificant life.
The cold blade of his pruning shears pulled from his thoughts. The zap and crack of miniature lightening sealed the cut almost as soon as it had opened. The wound was small enough that it closed and disappeared between one blink and the next, not even leaving a scar behind.
Distracted from his thoughts, he realised it was past midday and he needed to eat and clean up before his supposed boss turned up. Settling his tools and washing himself up, took the remainder of the little bit of time before the proposed visit. That didn’t really mean anything though, Mr Barton could have turned up an hour early or three hours late and still been ‘on time’.
It had grated for the first few months here, but over time he had settled back into the swing of it. A book and cup of tea would keep him occupied until someone turned up.
He lost himself deep in the adventures of Gilgamesh. He had re-transcribed a version written by Koroush and gifted to him many years ago to preserve the old text. The Old Aramaic flowed across the page, drawing the reader with it. His own hand had never lived up to Koroush’s but he wouldn’t risk the beautiful original by reading it.
The crunch of gravel broke into the battle between Gilgamesh and Enkidu. The flare of a quickening pushing against his mind, it was the reason for his higher agitation at a battle he knew the outcome of.
Had Koroush come looking for him in a place where they could have it out in private? Was this what they had really come to? He would never draw a blade on the other man, if he had come for Phil’s head, he could have it.
A voice thick with the Scottish brogue crept through the thick walls. Expounding the ‘renovation and holiday rental value’ of the main house. Phil couldn’t help but snort at that, the main house was a drafty nightmare of a building that would never be fit for human habitation.
Real estate agent trying to make a sale, his mind labelled the voice.
Abandoning his book and long empty mug, he gathered himself to step out that front door. He knew what he would find. The energy having given it away when he started to pay attention to it. Koroush was on the other side of the thick, uneven wooden door.
Koroush was Mr Barton, the absentee landlord. His mind only made the obvious connection as he pushed through the door into the weak winter sunlight. In trying to get away from the pain of other immortals, he had wandered into the domain of the one man who wielded the ability to permanently cripple him.
Their eyes met across the little courtyard. The third man ignored by them both. Eyes connecting, the buzz of adrenalin kicked up by the presence of another of their kind settled into a low level prickle of their hackles. A threat recognised and accepted as not imminent but still a threat.
“Mr Barton?” He broke the eye contact, flicking his eyes away and then back up again. Walking across the yard, he held out a hand to Koroush.
“I’m yeah. But Clint not Francis.” The hand that quickly slipped in and out of his, cool and much more lightly calloused then he remembered. Office work rather than hard labour.
“Mr Barton just inherited from his gran’da.” The man he had been ignoring explained. “Tom Wells.” His handshake was much more purposeful.
“Phil Coulson.” Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Koroush, Clint, paying close attention to the name he used, filing away to make sure he didn’t use the wrong one. Just like Phil was doing.
“Sorry about the short notice. Are we ok to go inside?” Tom indicated the half open doorway behind Phil.
“Of course. May I ask why though?”
“I’m selling. No interest in reliving the past.” Clint rejoined the conversation, voice hard. The hidden double meaning clear to Phil.
He stepped out of the way and let them past. The two men were passed him and inside his space quickly, the cold disincentivising people from staying outside. Phil lingered a little longer, pulling the sharp air deep into his lungs, trying to clear the knot that had settled at the base of his throat.
Eventually he had to follow them. HIs home only had three rooms, a combined kitchen/lounge, a bathroom, and the tiny bedroom tucked up under the roof. With three not small men in the main room, the room felt even smaller. Against the perfectly tailored, fine Italian wool suit that Clint was in, the rough hewn bookshelves stuffed to overflowing with ragged paperbacks and peeling leather bound tomes looked ragged and old.
The man he could hardly look away from was standing at the window seat, staring unblinking, down at the book and mug Phil had abandoned to meet them. The ice had melted when he turned at the sound of Phil’s entry.
“The place looks good.” Tom said into the awkward silence he didn’t understand the origin of.
“I um, did some work on the roof last summer. It was leaking in that corner.” He pointed to the wall just over the kitchen sink. He looked away, unable to decipher the emotion lurking behind the softening of his ex-lover’s eyes.
Escaping the room, he led Tom on the short tour. Wedging them into the bathroom and bedroom. Trying to find anything he could to talk about, to delay returning. He couldn’t do it for long. The house had been in poor repair when he moved in and he had fixed it up, but the building was took small to occupy them for long.
Just before going back down the steep ladder, he stopped Tom with a hand on his shoulder.
“If he decides to sell, I would like to make an offer on the place.” Phil told him. He wanted to tell him he would offer 10% higher than anyone else, but the difficulty of explaining how he could afford that in the short time they had was too hard, so he left the offer out there on it’s own.
“Oh. Sure. I can let you know. But I have to present any offer I get.” Tom was sincerely apologetic.
“I understand. I just want you aware that I would be interested.” Phil lifted his hand and waved them both forward. There wasn’t anything else to say.
Clint had moved when they returned to the lounge. He had drifted over to the bookshelves, a single finger sitting lightly on the spine of one book. He couldn’t see the title from where he was, but he knew which one it was. All of the books on that shelf were new. The spines unbroken, the words unread. He didn’t need to read them, he had written them.
A fantasy series on how he wished their story could have gone. If the world they had lived in had been just a little bit more kind and he had been just a little bit less scared.
Had Clint read them? Or was the bright, unmarked colours what had drawn his attention amounts the flaking, worn covers of the rest of his collection?
The little cottage was warm and well cared for. A small fire burnt in the grate, copper pans gleamed on the wall over the stove. It reminded him of his place in Australia, small but loved. And he hated it for that. He didn’t want to care about this place. He didn’t want to have any good memories of it when the person who he had gotten it as a reminder of was no longer his. Hadn’t been his for a very long time.
He and Tom were alone in the small space, Phil having left them to it thankfully. Stepping carefully through the space, the rucked up blanket on a deep window sill, lined with pillows, caught his eye, drawing him over. An empty mug sat next to a book, the readers place marked by a scrap of paper rather than being left open and risking damage to what was probably a very expensive item. The scuffed leather cover was blank.
He knew he shouldn’t. It wasn’t any of his business what Phil cared about enough to look after it so well. He did anyway.
PIcking up the book he opened it to where the marker was. The page wasn’t full of modern letters. Most people would mistake the script for Hebrew, or not recognise it at all. He knew it was Old Aramaic. He hadn’t read, or written, the ancient language in a long time and it took him a second to dredge it out of his memory.
When he did, the meaning of the words became instantly clear. He knew this story. Focusing on the story, he realised he knew the hand that he written it. Phil. He had written this story down for Phil and at some point he had copied it. Keeping it in the original language rather than updating it.
Why would he keep that? And then be reading it the day after running into each other for the first time since the Dark Ages.
Had he been assuming things he shouldn’t have? Movement of air told him someone else had entered the room. Old instincts too ingrained to be forgotten. The hunter, warrior, immortal sitting just below the Varner of civility, was always watching even if his mind was on something else.
He didn’t try to hide the confusion and want in his eyes. Even after all of this time, the want still sat deep and warm in his gut.
Whatever Phil saw there, it sent him running. Stuttering out something to Tom and then rushing from the room. Clint was left alone in the warm space, book still in hand. Carefully he put the book down when the weight of it in his hands became too much, dragged down by the emotional weight rather than the physical. Wandering around the room, he scanned the books lovingly sorted. He picked out the order after the first case, instead of genre or author, it was my memory. If a book conjured a time or place, it was grouped together. He recognised a ten year period they had spent together in Thebes, and another section of the time just before they had met in ...THAT PLACE THEY MET. Half way around the room, he came across a single shelf that didn’t fit with the rest. The books looked almost untouched. Unrelated to the surrounding volumes about Victorian England. The shelf was tucked into a dark corner behind an armchair. Not easily visible unless you were standing right in front of it.
Crouching he ran his fingers over the covers. He was right, they were unopened. He recognised the title, and author, having read the series when it came out about ten years earlier. They were good books. Alternative history fantasy that followed a gay couple fighting against the ignorance and intolerance of their world, and a suitable evil big bad.
The creak of a floor board behind him, stopped him from pulling the third of the series from the shelf and trying to figure out why Phil had kept them if he wasn’t going to read them.
Clearing his throat he stood and faced the other two men. “How are things looking Tom?”
“Very good Mr Barton. Very good.” Tom’s bright smile was almost hidden by his thick beard. “Thank you Mr Coulson.” Tom held out a hand for another handshake. “Sorry about the short notice. I’ll let you know when things start happening.” Clint watched as they exchanged a few perfunctory pleasantries, and then allowed himself to be ushered from the building.
Tom got in his car first, they were going to meet in town, at the Pub of all places, to finalise the paperwork.
“Clint?” A voice behind him stopped him half in, half out of the car trying to decide if he wanted to turn and face whatever it was Phil wanted.
With a sigh he climbed back out and turned around. Not saying anything, if he had something to say, he could start without Clint’s prompting.
“I’m sorry.” The apology wasn’t what he was expecting, not that he really had any expectations of whatever this was. “I don’t think I ever said that, in Spain. I’m sorry things happened the way they did.”
“You just left Phil. There one day and gone the next. For years, I didn’t know what had happened.”
“I left a note.” He broken in defensively. Arms crossed, a subconscious move to try and protect his not actually vulnerable soft bits.
“Yeah, some note. ‘I have to leave. I’m sorry.’ That could have meant anything.” He didn’t actually want to argue about something that had happened millennia ago. “It doesn’t matter anymore though. I have to go.” He knew he was showing too much. Letting too much of what he was feeling leak into his voice. “Wadae, hubun.”
He was in the car and halfway down the drive before he could regret his parting words. Using the old pet name felt like he had ripped his heart out.
Phil wasn’t his anymore. It wasn’t his place to use pet names. The short drive back into town passed in a blur of self-recrimination and the start of snow flurries. The outside world whiting out to match the internal buzz of panic and loss and a little bit of self-hatred. Phil had moved on, he was happy. He wouldn’t ruin that for him.
Tom was exactly where he had said he would be, the second booth on the right from the main door. It was the only table with decent lighting in the whole place, sitting below a window, glazed with warped and bubbled glass. Original to the building. Though with the slowly increasing snowfall, the light was fading fast.
“Where do I have to sign?” The last of his patience on this whole trip was gone.
“Right to it.” The agent smiled, a tiny bit of shark peeking out for the first time. It would be a considerable sale and his cut would probably pay his rent for six months. He had three piles of paper in front of him on the worn oak. Little bright tabs sticking out.
Efficiently he flipped to each tab, explaining what Clint was signing as he signed it. Clint might not work in property law, or in the UK, but none of it was completely foreign to him. A bare thirty minutes after walking into the dim room, he was on his way out again. A sheaf of papers under one arm, and a promise to have the estate on the market by the end of the week.
Checking out of the hotel took almost as long as signing away his “gran’da’s” property. Packing didn’t take long, he had only brought a small bag and never bothered unpacking. Sticking his toothbrush and toothpaste backing into his bag was about the extent of what he had to do. What took forever was trying to give his key back.
Senga spent ten minutes asking after his short trip to Pitmedden, Then moved on to why he was leaving earlier, what New York was like (she had always wanted to go, you know?), and if he had any christmas plans. Antsy to get out of there, he kept an eye on the window. As she prattled on, the snowfall thickened and his chances of getting a flight out lengthened.
If he had to drive to Edenborough or even London, he would. The next bed he slept in was going to be his own.
He escaped with promises that it was his work dragging him back to New York, rather than anything here driving him away, still floating in the air behind him. Only once he was signalling to turn out of the driveway did he feel secure in having successfully evaded her devious attempts to keep him in the little town.
= + =
Phil watched the cars skitter down the long, gravel drive. Three words that he never thought he would hear again, tumbling through his brain. “Dehina huni, fik’iri.” Once it had been a farewell and a promise. A goodbye and a declaration. Shared history wrapped up in three short words.
Tingling in his nose and fingertips told him he had been outside for too long without proper clothing, his quickening waking up to warm his vulnerable flesh. Lost in thought and the deep past, he hadn’t realised the light snowfall had thickened and that the early winter dusk had come and gone. Tucking his hands into his armpits, he hurried back inside.
The fire had burned itself out in his absence and the inside of his home was as cold, dark, and uninviting as the first day he had stepped into a building let gone to seed. A room that had seemed cozy this morning, was now claustrophobic. Switching on the heater, he left it to warm up the house. Maybe being surrounded by the magnesium flame of mortal lives, he would be able to pull some of that back into himself. Or at least find contentment with a slower life he had found in his homeland over the last few years.
The mainstreet pub, not that there was another one in the tiny town to get it confused with, was empty except for Hamish behind the bar and Old Man McAllister tucked onto his usual stool at the end of the gleaming length of wood that filled the space. The spark of flash fire life he had been looking for was to be found on a random Monday night in Pitmedden. He stayed for a single pint before wandering into the thick, suffocatingly silent night.
For hours, he wandered the streets of the town, and the roads that covered tracks the Romans had never reached. The rugged north had withstood centuries of invasions, the people disappearing into the mists and high mountains. Leaving myths and ghost stories behind. It was closer to dawn than midnight when he turned his feet towards home, the witching hour laying a cloak of calm around his shoulders. He remembered his mother ghosting bare foot from his parent’s bed to cast the bones with only the pale light of the stars to read them by. She had always been done before the first touch of colour had crept into the eastern sky.
The furnace had been chugging away as he had shivered and wandered. Looking for clarity in the silver of Danu’s light. The sharp, biting cold had only once before given him a glimpse through the veil as his siblings had. The night before his first death on his oldest brother’s blade. He had always wondered if it was the alien blood running through his veins, that whatever magic he had come from it was just too different from the magic that bound his family to this land was why he was blinded where the rest of his tribe had seen.
The Goddess had been kind to him tonight, lifting her veil a second time. To grant him a glimpse at something beyond. At his parents together and happy in perpetual sunlight. And the Goddess asking him why he had given up the gift she had given him.
He was asking himself the same question. A decision made in the first rash of fear and hatred that his own stubbornness hadn’t allowed him to take back. As it was wont to do, the wheel of life had turned once again, making things that were once accepted, acceptable again.
Was he willing to take the chance to make things right? Was he the sort of guy that got the guy?
Warmth creeping back up his fingers, he knew he was. A calmness settled over him, and the last of the nervous tension he hadn’t even been aware of dissipated. Leaving bone deep exhaustion in it’s wake. Wrapping himself in a ragged quilt he dropped onto the overly soft couch and was out like a light.
= + =
His grand plans to rush after Clint to New York were put on hold early the next morning. A rapid knocking jolted him out of a deep, dreamless sleep. Falling off the couch, his feet and legs got tangled in the blanket, sending him back to the floor with a painful thump.
When he finally wrenched the door open, the fist on the other side nearly wrapped him on the nose.
“Please. Phil. Help.” It was Mrs MacIntyre from down the road.
“Cara, breathe. What’s happened?” He carefully rested a calming hand on her shoulder, extenuating his own slow, deep inhales to try to get some oxygen into her.
Subconsciously it worked, her breathing syncing with his. “Timmy is gone. I was baking and sent him out to play.” Tears were gathering in her eyes as she talked. “His bike is in the garden and he didn’t tell me he was going anywhere.”
Phil knew the boy had the run of the area between the Phil’s own little cottage and town as long as someone knew where he was going.
“Is anyone looking for him yet?” Best to not double up on other search parties.
“No.” She hiccupped. Her husband Dave would be down in Aberdeen for work, as he was every week. His own place was the next closest.
“Ok. Go home and wait for him there. Call Hamish and get him to put together people from town to start there.” He directed as he stuffed himself back into his winter gear. It was still slightly chilled from his long walk the night before. “How long has he been missing?” He wasn’t sure what time it was so couldn’t guess.
“An hour. Maybe two?” She was wringing her hands as he dressed, but was more with it, his stoicism rubbing off.
He efficiently shuffled her out of the house in front of himself. Locking up behind them.
Seeing her into her car, he made for the small stable just off the main house. It had been as decrepit as everything else when he moved in but last summer had been dedicated to doing it up, and now a young Bay mare was enjoying the fruits of his labour. It was too slick for his bicycle and drive ran the risk of missing something. Overall, the all-terrain ability of a horse and the extra high was the best chance of spotting something.
She pranced through the cold morning air as he led her outside, the roof too low in the barn for him to mount inside. Swinging onto her back, he pointed her nose to the road and kicked her into a trot. Eyes sweeping the layer of fresh snow for a sign of a bicycle tire or small boot breaking the surface. It had stopped snowing an hour before he had gotten home, so any markings wouldn’t have been lost.
Trotting along, cold air sent enquiring fingers down the tiny space between hat and scarf. He met another group out looking for the boy without seeing any sign of him.
“Phil!” It was Matt from the general store wrapped in green plaid wool. “Any sign?”
“No. Where have you been?” He called out. No reason to back track.
A quick comparison of who had been where, and he was off again. The feeling in his fingers and nose only still there because he was pumping his quickening through his blood. It meant his mind wasn’t occupied by the weather and gave a kick to his eyesight. He could see that little bit further, and better.
For hours, he wound through back country roads and then paths, and then cuts through the trees and fields that were little more than game trails, working his way further and further away from town. He had long since checked his own Christmas tree stands and fields and moved on to the thicker, wilder woods that stretched from his Northern border up into the mountains. A small impression in a patch of snow had him dismounting stiffly, his legs and feet seized up from spending hours in the saddle. It had been a long time since he had ridden for so long.
Bending beside the snow, making sure he was out of the little bit of sunlight that made it through the thick canopy, it was a child’s footprint. Wrapping a hand in Aida’s reins he led her on, slower now that he had a lead to follow. An almost silent sob carried to him on the back of the slight breeze. The sound came from a small hollow off to his left. Flicking Aida’s reins around a branch he left her on the slightly higher ground, the amount of roots and animals holes on the slope had the risk of her stumbling and breaking a leg too high for him to risk her.
“Timmy? Can you hear me?” He called into the still air, stopping to make sure his own footfalls didn’t obscure a reply.
“Phil?” It was quiet and broken, but definitely Timmy.
“Keep talking, I’m coming to you.” Carefully he picked his way down into the hollow, keeping a firm grip on the trees and shrubs to save himself a nasty fall.
Reaching the bottom, he found Timmy sitting in the dirt, one leg out in front of him awkwardly. Without even getting close, Phil knew it was broken.
“I’m going to have to set this before I can get you out of here.” He crouched next to the sniffling child. Red splotches of colour sat high on his cheeks from the cold and his tears. Gathering what he needed, he knelt beside the misshapen limb, one hand above and one hand below the break. Quickly he gripped the leg, pulled and twisted, feeling the bone grate and then pop back into place. Timmy screamed at the burst of pain and then promptly passed out. All of it too much for his small body to handle.
Phil felt bad for putting him thought it, but knew it was the best option.
Laying a branch on each side of the small leg, he bound it all in place with his scarf. Immobilizing the limb to stop any more damage. Carefully pulling the small, lax body into his arms and snug against his chest, Phil picked his way back up the little hill. Meeting Aida at the top. The horse was exactly where he had left her, happily munching away on a tuft of grass that had so far managed to survive the cold snap.
There was no graceful way to get them both into the saddle. Putting the little boy up first, he kept a hand on his back as he used a rock to awkwardly climb up behind Timmy. It was a far cry from his normal easy vault.
The ride back to town took as long as the ride out, even though he was aiming for an almost straight shoot to Main Street. He was every step the horse took under him, every jolt as she clipped a tree root. They were barely moving faster than a crawl. Time, and precious daylight was trickling passed. Timmy had woken up half way back. Wrapped up inside the front of Phil’s jacket, he came to with a gasp. A cry muffled in the thick fabric.
“Timmy? How are you?” Phil carefully let go of the reins in one hand to pull the jacket down enough to talk to the little boy. Making sure the pressure of his legs were even and his other hand was slack, letting Aida picker her own way.
“It hurts.” He whimpered.
“I know. Try not to think about it.” He knew it was useless advice, but he didn’t have anything else to give. “Tell me, what do you want for Christmas?”
With open questions that every child in the Christian world would get engaged in, Phil kept him talking and distracted. The temperature starting to fall when they finally emerged from the trees into the ploughed over fields of the Angus farm to the north of town. From there they were able to pick up speed. The frozen fields less treacherous than the forest. Every light was ablaze, what should have been a soft glow of domestic lights through curtains or windows, was every light the on and every window uncovered, the unsteady sway of torches and lanterns extended the artificial day into the fields and along the roads.
“WHO GOES THERE?” A voice called, face invisible behind the bright beam of light they were directing into his face. “Phil?” The beam dropped slightly.
The flick and sparkle of his quickening cleared his eyes quicker than any mortal, the face of Rohan coming into focus.
“I have Timmy. He needs a doctor.” His words were met with a second of stillness, of shock. Then chaos erupted.
Clint wrenched his carry on out of the overhead compartment and shuffled down the too small aisle. He had waited until most of the other passengers had gotten off. Never feeling their need to rush off the plane just to go and stand in a different line, he was happy to wait until he could move properly. It probably helped that he didn’t have any checked bags and five thousand odd years of life behind him to teach a little patience.
The next forty-five minutes were lost to standing in Customs and Security lines. Passport and ticket in one hand and bag in the other. He hated airports. The crush of people a lot to take and the chances of another Immortal being close by were high. His quickening was held in as tightly as he could, but there were still at least two brushes against others before he was stepping out into the salty, frigid air of New York City. The slight undertone of garbage and urine wasn’t as welcome. After only a few days in the fresh, brisk air of rural Scotland, it was that much stronger. Choking. But maybe that was the pain and sadness clawing at the base of his throat.
Shaking off the melancholy, he climbed into the next available cab. It was done now. He watched the winter grey city through the window as the driver cussed out the other drivers, the weather, and anything else he felt like. Clint had stopped listening after the first ten minutes. The anger and undertone that he understood.
His apartment in Mid-Town was cold and dark. The tall windows letting in light from the street lamps below that barely lifted the shroud enough for him at least to be able to make out the shapes and shadows of his furniture. He turned a single side lamp on, its puddle of warm light almost swallowed by the oppressiveness of the small apartment.
It didn’t take him long to unpack, throwing most of the contents of his bag into the laundry basket that had been emptied while he was away. He grabbed an apple and went to bed. The last few days a rollercoaster of emotion. Of memory.
His sleep was disturbed by images from his past. Of Luk’a moving above him for the first time, sweat glistening on his eternally pale complexion, the quickening stopping a tan from holding on his Northern skin. The smell of blood and fire swirling through the air as Alexandria had burned. The sight of Incencio’s back as he had walked away. That last one wasn’t a memory, it was a horrible conjuring of his own mind.
In the pale light of dawn, he woke in a cold sweat. Tears on his face and arousal running through his veins.
He was behind his desk an hour before anyone else even arrived, lost in the intricacies of a counter-patent application that Hammer tech had submitted while he was gone. Did they really thing SI wasn’t going to catch that and beat them into the ground with it? Stupid.
“Clint?” His boss’ voice startled him, a cascade of paperwork slid to the floor in response to a jerk of his elbow at the intrusion. “What are you doing here?”
He looked up into the clear, concerned eyes of Pepper. She was standing in his doorway, eyeing him like he was going to explode or melt down any second.
“Working.” He answered sarcastically, waving at the piles that had grown in the two days of work he had missed.
She sat in the free guest chair, shutting the door behind her. “You look like death warmed up.”
He was too tired to hide the smirk, she wouldn’t understand the irony but he did and it tickled his slightly bent sense of humour. “Just tired.” He finally allowed.
“It’s more than that. I’ve seen you tired.”
He couldn’t meet her eye. “I ran into someone. The someone.”
“Oh, Clint. I’m sorry.” She knew a highly edited version of his history. He had confided in her after the third time she had tried to set him up on a blind date. “Are you sure you don’t want to take some time off? You have enough leave.”
He was shaking his head before she had even finished. “I’d rather keep busy.” Pointedly, he drew the next file towards himself. He liked Pepper, they were maybe not friends, but definitely friendly. That didn’t mean he was going to have a heart to heart with her. Even if he did want to, and wanted to explain the whole older than the language you speak situation, she would never understand. Until you live that heartbreak, until you had watched the personification of your heart walk away from you, you wouldn’t understand. And he didn’t want her to. It hurt. It hurt so much, sometimes he couldn’t breath through the pain and it felt like the only thing keeping him going was the lightning in his veins.
She took the hint. Quietly leaving him to his work.
= + =
One grey day slipped seamlessly into the next. The steadily dropping temperature the only indicator of the deepening winter. What light he had found in his life in New York had been stripped away since his visit to Scotland. The city that was his temporary home just looked monochromatic and dirty compared to the deep greys and silvers that made up the Scottish Winter landscape.
He shuffled lifelessly through his work. Sat through drinks with the people from the office and a single awkward lunch with Pepper when she finally got sick of his moping and dragged him out of the office.
A thick layer of snow finally settled on the ground on the first day of December. It transformed the city from harsh and dirty, to soft and pristine. It just made him miss the wilds of his past that much more.
Lost in thought, watching the lazy swirl of snow outside his office window, the phone almost clicked over to voicemail when the insistent noise penetrated his brain.
“Yes? Hello?” He almost fell out of his seat as he pushed off and rolled across the plush carpet to reach it in time.
“Hey Sk.. Daisy. Sorry. How are you?” Clint cringed, he was too far in the past that he had almost used the wrong name. He needed to get his head out of his ass.
“Better question is, how are you? You got back from Scotland weeks ago? Are you ok? What happened? Did he do something?” The questions tumbled over each other, her voice tinged with barely contained annoyance.
She lived in data and information, even before there were computers. She had immersed herself in intelligence networks and communication routes. Her biggest pet peeve was when someone she cared about kept information from her that she felt that she needed. What her criteria to determine whether she needed a certain piece of information was still steeped in mystery to Clint. Two decades ago it had been the colour of his hair, before that which hand he was pretending to use as his master hand.
He wanted to lie. To tell her he was fine and that selling the place was a relief, Tom Wells had emailed a week and a half after Clint had returned to New York to tell him an offer had been made. He didn’t want to tell her that he wasn’t sleeping because the kindest blue eyes he had ever seen was haunting his nights. So he had stayed silent. He hadn’t called, or emailed. He had out right ignored her efforts to contact him.
“I’m here.” Is all he could say. He was still putting one foot in front of the other, getting out of bed in the morning. Even that felt like saying too much.
They were silent for a long time. Things unspoken sitting between them. They both had a history of struggling with staying in a world that was cruel and unforgiving to too many. To anyone else, he never would have even said that, other immortals would never understand that tiny niggling doubt, and mortals had only the vaguest grasp on the existential despair that watching history shift around you could bring.
“It’s my fault.” She whispered.
“What? What’s your fault? My shit-fight isn’t your fault.” He was the one that had gotten himself into this mess. And really if he was being fair to himself, which he didn’t have a long history of doing, it wasn’t his fault either. It was just circumstance. Coincidence.
“No it’s not. I knew Phil was there. I just didn’t know Phil was Phil. Or whatever you knew him as. You are both just so sad though. I’m so sorry Clint.” She sounded miserable.
He couldn’t do anything. Part of him was furious. How dare she meddling in his life like that. She hadn’t even reach her first millennium yet and she had the gall to judge his life? Fuck that noise.
But also, she hadn’t known. She hadn’t been found when they broke up, and he had carefully never named his great lost love. Their world was small and getting smaller every year. He wouldn’t bias her against one of their own who wouldn’t kill her at first buzz. How could he blame her for a conscious choice he had made?
“It’s okay Daisy. But I need some time. I… Bye.” Until he got the sick whirlpool of emotions out of his gut, he couldn’t trust himself to not explode at her.
He dropped the receiver onto its cradle before she could say anything. Glaring at the piles of paper waiting for his attention on his desk, he swept up his coat and walked out. Leaving all of it behind. On the street far below his office, he didn’t turn down into the subway station that would take him home. Instead, walking through the dusting of snow that was still falling. Letting the cold seep into his body and mind, freezing the tumult inside him.
Eventually he got as far in that direction as he could, coming out at the river. Down river let him keep walking without bumping up against roads and industrial parks that would require more thought than he was willing to give.
For hours he walked. The only decision he made was to push his quickening down to stop it trying to warm him up. The bite of the cold was refreshing. A small pain to distract him from the otherwise all encompassing torment his mind was caught up in.
He didn’t bother going back to his apartment that night, as the sun rose over the city, staining everything red, he stopped in at the drycleaners down the road from the office and just went back to work. Exhaustion allowing him to settle into a sort of cushioned peace.
Delay after delay kept Phil in Pitmedden. Making sure Timmy was going to be okay, rolled into a round of drinks at the Pub to thank everyone who had helped out - which was most of the town – with what felt like the adult population between Aberdeen and Inverness feeling the need to hug him or shake his hand. He slipped away when the editor of the local paper started talking about getting a photo for an article on the search and rescue.
The next few days were eaten by the paperwork that came with saving someone. Police reports and a meeting with the local council to try and make sure it didn’t happen again, which was a waste of time kids had been wandering off to explore for as long as Phil had been alive and nothing they did could stop it.
It wasn’t just the town that was conspiring against him, the weather seemed just as determined to keep him there as anything else. An ice storm rolled in as he was packing him bags. Every plane in Western Europe was grounded and the estate couldn’t be left to its own devices. For a week he battled snow and ice in freezing temperatures to keep the main house and the out buildings, including his cottage, standing, and the trees alive. Failing at his job so spectacularly when the rest of his life was in such massive upheaval was unacceptable.
In the middle of all of that Tom had shown up asking if he still wanted to make an offer for the estate himself. He jumped, throwing a number at the man and rushing off again. Between everything else, he would have been hard pressed to tell someone what his offer had been. The severe cold front moved on, leaving days of hard labour in its wake.
The only thing keeping him moving was the quickening sparking through his veins, it was active enough that doing any sort of electrical work was out of the question. Instead he helped sluice ice sheets off rooves, and shovel snow off roads. He dragged hay bales out to the barns and animals that vehicles couldn’t reach in the bad weather.
Wiped out on the second day of clean up he was sprawled up his couch watching the dust motes dance in a beam of watery winter sunlight when his phone rang. He didn’t want to get up. He wanted to stay where he was and let the burn in his muscles settle and hopefully fall into an actually restful night of sleep. But that ring tone was one he knew. One he couldn’t ignore. Sitting up sent a spike of pain through his overused abdominal muscles and pushed a groan out of his throat. If she was calling to chat he was going to kill her. Throw her out of a plane without a parachute maybe?
“This better be important.” It was the shortest he had ever been with her. The words clipped and laced with annoyance that wasn’t rightfully hers to carry.
“M’sorry.” Her voice was small. Hesitant.
It threw him directly from annoyance to concern. “For what?” He kept his voice as gentle as he could this time.
“I didn’know.” She sniffed. “And it hurt you both.” A rustle of cloth against the receiver shushed across the line.
“Hurt who?” He churning in his gut told him he already knew the answer.
“You.” She said again. “And Clint.”
The churning coalesced into a stone. “You didn’t hurt us Daisy. We hurt ourselves. Or I hurt us.” He wouldn’t let her think Clint bore any of the blame for their situation. It was on him and he would own that.
“But I didn’t know! I just. You. He. You were, are, both so lonely. I thought you would get along, be friends. Maybe something more.” Her voice gained and lost confidence as she had talked.
From the moment he had met the younger woman, and he was sure long before, she had struggled with seeing the people she cared about sad. Her life had been unstable and violent even before she had gone through her first death, and it had only gotten worse after. He wouldn’t allow their friendship to become something that hurt her to.
“You sent Clint here?” Slowly the threads were coming together. He had never mentioned the other man, and if they had never met, they probably would have gotten along just like she thought they would. “You were trying to help. I didn’t tell you about us and I assume he didn’t either. Never apologise for trying to help. Maybe just check next time.” While he didn’t blame her for anything, he also didn’t want to give her the idea that setting him up was a good idea.
“Kay.” She sounded a bit calmer, more on an even keel than she had been when he first answered the phone. “How’s everything?” An obvious request to move past it.
Catching up with her was nice, they hadn’t talked in a while, but as he listened to her expound the newest RAM something, he couldn’t help his jaw cracking with a wide yawn, cutting her off.
“Sorry.” It was sheepish rather than apologetic this time. “I’ll let you sleep.”
“Sorry, it’s been a long few days. We can talk later.” Pressing the off button, he dropped the little device on his chest and was out before it finished its second bounce.
= + =
He didn’t sleep for long. As exhausted as he had been, his quickening had still been active working on the touches of frostbite that had managed to take hold and all of the little cuts and bruises that he had accumulated over the last week or more. With light swimming through him, a few hours and he was up and about feeling as if he had had a solid eight hours. It was one advantage he would never get tired off.
The moonlight creeping through his window was anaemic, washed out by a long winter night, and ice that still hung suspended in the upper atmosphere. With its light, he threw a few clothes in his bag. Slipping away in the middle of the night would hopefully keep anything else from stopping him getting to New York. Only as he was turning his key in the lock did he realise he shouldn’t leave the estate unsupervised. The christmas trees needed to be cut and delivered, or picked up depending on the family. Aida couldn’t be left alone, and if another storm rolled in, the damage if left unattended could take years to repair. Swearing softly, he dug his phone out of his pocket. Having to shuffle through multiple layers to reach it.
Triumphantly he branished it. Hitting speed dial three, he waited for the call to connect.
“Really? Is this payback? I didn’t mean to keep you awake.” Daisy grumbled without waiting for him to speak.
“Sorry.” He said completely unapologetically. “I need a favour. I’m going out of town for a bit, can you come and watch the estate?”
“Me?” She asked, incredulously. “You want me to come and watch a farm?”
She had always been a city dweller. A foundling in Beijing, she moved from one centre of power to another. The only experience she had with rural landscapes was passing through them between one life and the next.
“Yes, Skye. You.” He stuffed his bag into the back seat of his truck and then himself into the front seat, talking all the while. “You can ask Darren next door for help with the trees. Just feed Aida and make sure there isn’t any snow or ice building up anywhere.” It really wasn’t that hard. “The key is under the hedgehog if you don’t feel like breaking in. Thank you.” He just kept talking so that she didn’t have a chance to refuse.
“I hate you James MacCumhaill.” She rushed out before he could hang up on her.
He threw the phone on the passenger seat with a laugh. He was confident she would be there as soon as possible. With that last worry out of mind, he threw the truck into reverse and took that first step in putting right what had been broken so long ago.
= + =
Getting a flight out of Aberdeen that wouldn’t take him an age to get to the US wasn’t going to happen. He opted to drive to Edinburgh instead. He spent half the drive down the coast arguing with various airlines trying to get a seat. Finally he found a direct flight that afternoon that had a seat free. It was going to cost him a pretty penny, but he could accept that. He couldn’t accept another delay, another reason to second guess going after Clint.
It was a struggle to stay in his seat for the flight. Giving in, he paced the aisle. Counting his steps up and back, up and back, up and back, until he noticed the glares from the flight attendants. Mumbling an apology, he found his seat and shuffled back into it. The businessman in the aisle seat ignoring his request to get back in. He hated flying. Humans weren’t meant to be in a tin can thirty thousand feet above the ground.
It was a clear night out the window, a wide swathe of stars above and nothing below. Shutting the little blind, he pulled out a book and tried to get lost in the adventures of Bilbo. It was only mildly successful.
The flight touched down just as the sun rose over the city that never sleeps. A layer of ice had the glass and concrete flashing orange and red in the sunrise, lighting the world on fire. Phil watched it with dread settling in his stomach. He could feel the fires of the inquisition licking at his heels. It felt like a sign, his ancestors telling him this quest for forgiveness was going to end in heartache and a fiery death. Not his favourite way to go.
Steeling himself, he ignored it. Pushing the feeling out of his mind, the world had moved on from superstition, he tried to convince himself, ignoring his midnight stroll of only a few weeks ago. He missed Clint. Wasn’t that enough?
Customs was as full as it ever was, and security eyed all of the bedraggled travellers, looking for a sign of nervousness or anger or whatever it was that made TSA agents twitch. Smiling congenitally at the agent flicking through his passport he kept his foot still, even though it desperately wanted to tap. How long did it take to stamp a passport? After an eternity, or two minutes who was to say, the agent slid the little booklet across the counter and waved the next person forward. Phil’s ‘thank you’ was completely ignored.
Shaking his head at the current loss of manners, he flicked open the handle on his bag and walked out of the airport. A taxi rank was to his left, the pick-up area to his right, and a sign pointing to the buses and trains further down the building. It was as he was standing in the damn chill of winter next to the ocean that he realised he had no idea where in a city of 8 million people, he would find the one person he was looking for. He could rent a car, or driver, and spend the next week driving in circles looking for a quickening that matched. With so many people he knew that wouldn’t be as simple as it once would have been. The last three times he had been in the city, it had been an ant’s nest of immortals. You couldn’t go a block without feeling the buzz of someone brushing up against your mind. At least not when he wasn’t holding his own quickening in close, reducing his range and giving himself a low level headache the whole time.
Alternatively, he could go stand in the middle of the city and just let go. He would be able to feel Clint that way, but so would everyone else, and he would spend the whole trip fending off challengers and possibly sending the city into blackout if he actually had to take a head.
The final option was calling Daisy. It was even odds that she killed him for waking her up again. It was mid-morning in Scotland, but she was a night owl. Too bad. He turned his phone on, only to be met with a waiting message from the very person he was about to call.
>>call me and die
>> c is at 12a 320 42nd Ave
That solved that. Typing in a return message of thanks and a grumbling ‘I know his name’, he joined the other red-eye travellers waiting for a taxi. There were seven people in front of him. A lucky number, a tiny voice that sounded like his mother said in his head. In good conscience he couldn’t ignore the sunrise and take this as a sign. He did it anyway.
Eventually, the line moved and he was able to tuck himself into the warm backseat of one of NYC’s famously yellow cabs. He gave the address to the driver and sat back, it wasn’t going to be a short trip and the delay with Customs and the line meant they were going to be hitting the island right on peak hour.
Thankfully for his sanity, the driver was vociferous. Chattering away about the Game from the night before, Phil wasn’t sure if it was baseball or football, maybe basketball? From that he moved on to the traffic, the poor conditions of the roads, and some movie Phil had no intention of seeing. He hmm’ed and uha’ed at all the right places to keep the man talking. White noise to drown out the worry that was nibbling at him.
Stomach twisted into a gordian knot, the car finally stopped outside a modern, glass and steel highrise. It was a beautiful building in a cold, industrial sort of way. Definitely not what he had ever pictured Kos living in. Maybe Clint had changed since Phillipos knew him.
A uniformed doorman sat behind a table just inside the door, monitoring the comings and goings of the residents and acting as gatekeeper for their guests. With a deep breath, Phil crossed the foyer to him.
“Good Morning Sir.” The smile on the man’s face was friendly but distant.
“Hello. I’m here for Mr Barton.” He allowed the Scottish brogue to colour his words. Just a friend from out of town, whoops didn’t he mention I was coming? That’s too bad.
“Name please?” His hands were ready to type the information into the computer, to check whether Phil was expected.
Phil suspected the other man didn’t need to check, he already knew Phil didn’t belong. He was an imposter. “Phillip Coulson. I’m probably not in the calendar, it’s a last minute thing.” He apologised, grimacing at the oversight.
He only got a frown in return. “Mr Barton didn’t say anything. I’m going to have to ask you to leave.” His hand moved from the keyboard to the phone. The implication being that he was ready and willing to call the cops on Phil if he didn’t get gone.
“No problem. Thank you.” He headed back out into the cold. Well shit. What now? Skye wouldn’t be up for hours and he had no idea where Clint worked.
Hotel and breakfast first, then he would figure out his next move.
= + =
Clint had one of the most productive days he had had since returning from Scotland. The papers flying from his inbox to his outbox. A pile of responses for a couple patent infringement cases ready to be fact checked sat finished on one corner, and a stack of patent applications for the patent office on the other.
Happy with how much work he had gotten done, he gathered his coat, phone and travel mug. A fancy, flavoured coffee from the place down the road sounded like a valid reward for his good work. Having left his phone on silent, and in his back where he forgot it most of the time, he dug it out as he dodged other suit clad business people. The little device was still a novelty, instant global communication. What the fuck? Huh, Fred had tried to call him. He tapped in the code for his voicemail and waited through the automated ‘you have’ blah blah, whatever message.
“Good Morning Mr Barton. Sorry to disturb you at work.” The calm, polite voice of one of his building’s doormen waited for him. “I just wanted to let you know that a Mr. Phillip Coulson attempted to see you, and gain access to your apartment this morning.”
Clint stumbled to a halt in the middle of the crowded walkway. The sudden stop had the person behind him bumping into him.
“Sorry.” He muttered, still staring down at his phone because what?
“Fuck you.” The other man grumbled as he shoved past.
“Yeah, whatever man.” He didn’t care particularly about obstructing traffic, but the next guy might not be satisfied with cussing him out so he wove between people until he was right next to a building, sheltered in the lee of a fancy sculpture thing that he had never actively noticed before.
The hell was he meant to do with that? Phillip was in the city and trying to see him. Stuffing one hand into his pocket to try and keep warm, he had forgotten his gloves, he waited for Fred to pick up.
“Good Afternoon. Avalon Building. This is Fred.” The call was answered quickly.
“Hey Fred. It’s Clint, returning your call.” He shifted side to side, keeping his blood circulating.
“Good Afternoon Mr Barton. As I said in my message, a Mr Phillip Coulson stopped at the building asking after you.”
That wasn’t anything Clint didn’t already know. “Did he say why he was there? Or leave any contact details?” Clint flipped off a teenager on a skateboard who tried to run over his foot swinging around an older woman.
“He said he was here to see you and that it was a ‘last minute thing’.” Fred quoted the exchange he had had with the stranger. “He didn’t leave any details. I’m sorry, from the way he talked he seemed to be a friend or I would have asked for a phone number.” Not really true. If he was someone Fred needed to know, he would know.
“No problem. If he comes back can you get a number?”
It wasn’t really Fred’s job, he wasn’t a secretary, but he was also aware that Mr Barton owned the building. Better to do what the boss said, even if he pretended he wasn’t the boss. “Of course sir.”
“Cool. Thanks. See you later.” Clint stepped back into the flow of people. Anyone else he would have hung up already, but the doorman was more proper than almost anyone he knew in this day and age, he would glower about the lack of manners if they didn’t finish the conversation properly.
“Have a good day Mr Barton.”
Now Clint could hang up. Fred would never hang up on him.
There was one other thread he could pull. He knew Skye knew Phillip, she would be able to give him the other man’s number. But did he want to go to her for that favour? No, not really. Leave it. Sliding his phone end over end in his hand, he continued weaving through the anonymous crowd in search of caffeine.
Checked into a hotel further down the island, Phil set out again. It had been a long time since he had been in New York. His last few lives had been focused in Europe with few reasons to come to the New World. He was quickly finding he had missed the energy of the place. So many people found one big city the same as any other, but there was a history that was seeped into the very bones of a place that was unshakable. Over time it changed, just like the people in it, but the history was still there. Layer upon layer. Walking the streets, listening and watching, you could get a feel for a place that just seeing it in pictures would never allow.
The shout of a dozen languages, and accents rang in his ears. The aroma of food from every corner of the globe lingered in his nose, mixing together. Light and dark, colour and absent, danced across his eyes. He lost himself in the crowds. Turning away when a buzz brushed against him. Keeping to himself in a city that was happy to shelter all.
He stopped when he was hungry or cold. Taking refuge in a cafe and then a small art gallery along the High-Line. The art wasn’t to his taste, but it was interesting and kept his mind of why he was here. Left to his own devices he would have been worrying at it like a tongue with a loose tooth.
Avoidance wasn’t getting him any closer to Clint and closure. Mid-afternoon, he armed himself with a coffee and danish in the back of a quiet hipster cafe. Phone to his ear as he waited for Skye to answer.
“What up AC?” She was much chirpier than the last time he had talked to her. Awake this time.
“How are you?” He would put it off a little longer.
“Fiiine.” She drawled, she knew what he was doing and wasn’t going to let him get away with it for long.
“Did you get to Saoidh ok?” One more dodge.
“Your shack is still standing.” They had moved on to needling.
“I’m going to need more than his address.” He finally admitted. He may have been intending to make this trip for a few weeks now, but he had also been avoiding thinking about how this was all going to work. There wasn’t going to be some running across the beach at sunset to fall into each other’s arms grand romantic scene. Most likely, Clint was going to slam his door in Phil’s face, maybe after telling him to fuck off. And he would deserve it all. He had left it fifteen hundred years to apologise after all. He was cringing at himself. Coward hadn’t been a word he would have used to describe himself, but maybe he was going to have to re-think that.
“I’m sending you his details now.” His phone pinged under his ear. Thanking her he hung up.
It was an email. Not a full dossier on Clint Barton, but a good deal of information. Home address, work address, birthday, and phone number. Now what to do with it?
= + =
After a spectacular morning, Clint’s afternoon was a bust. He got almost nothing done at work. He had spilt his fresh coffee over a pile of papers, been late for a meeting he had forgotten he had scheduled, and burn himself trying to set a new pot of coffee brewing. Just after 5pm he gave up. Nodding good-bye to Sam, his EA, he shambled his way into the elevator and out of the building. Hailing a cab, he sank into the over-used pleather seat and closed his eyes. Let himself rest for the relatively short drive.
“Good Evening Mr Barton.” Fred greeted as he held the door open for Clint.
“Hey Fred. What’s the word?” The foyer was significantly warmer than the street. It brought a flush to his exposed skin as he stopped to shed a couple of layers.
“It has been a quiet afternoon, Sir. Mr Coulson has not returned.” As he updated Clint, he ruffled through the pile of mail and passed the few envelopes and a package over.
“Thanks Fred. Let me know if he turns up.”
“Am I adding him to your approved list?” Fred had a pen and paper ready to take the details down.
Clint had to stop and think about that. He wanted to know why the other man was here, but did he want to face him again? “No.” He said slowly. “Just let me know if he turns up.”
“Of course sir.”
He was able to distract himself with the mail on the short ride in the elevator, bills and a letter from Methos. That last one was interesting enough to get him through the walk to his apartment door and his daily struggle with his keys. They always got caught on a stray thread in his pocket or lost in his briefcase. None of the kitschy christmas presents from his EA over the years had helped, and he fully expected another one to appear at the christmas party in a few weeks.
As he did every year he toyed with telling them he would prefer to celebrate Saturnalia, or even Modranicht, mostly just to see their faces. His people had had their own winter festival. He didn’t think the sheltered Manhattanites he worked with would appreciate his family’s traditions of sacrificing an animal, normally a sheep, roasting it over an open flame and then feasting all night on its meat and moonshine to keep the darkness at bay with their cheer.
Behind his door, his apartment was chilled. Dark and empty. He was sick of coming home to nothing. He turned on every light, and heat source he had, and left the tv on a hockey game, background noise and movement to make him feel less alone.
Methos was grumbling about some new immortal running around Paris making things difficult for the Ancient. As the two oldest immortals still walking the earth, the two men had moved in and out of each other’s orbits over the years but generally stayed away from each other. Methos’ meddling had always annoyed Clint, while Clint’s preference for staying out of it all had always baffled Methos. It worked for them. Every know and again, they would send one another a letter in a language few would understand, complaining about things that only someone as old as themselves would understand, they both remembered a time before cities, or even villages.
Clint chuckled his way through the letter. A note at the end had him looking at the package, it was from the other immortal. Slicing through the packing tape, the box opened to reveal a little clay figurine, a sigillaria. It was the traditional Roman gift for Saturnalia. This one was odd though, instead of a single person, a personification of a god to bring you luck in the new year, it was two people. Two men, back to back but hands clasped at their sides.
Someone had been chatting to Death.
Carefully the figure went in the exact centre of his coffee table, and slumped on the sofa he watched it, lost in thought.
= + =
Over coffee and pastries, Phil decided he would call. If Clint didn’t want to see him, that was fine. Even to himself it sounded weak. Like a lie. In this instance he was okay with lying to himself. He had moved from the first coffee shop to a 24 hour dinner that would have been right at home in the 1950s. Yet another coffee sat on the Formica with half a piece of pie he had been picking at to soak up the excess caffeine.
Clint’s number was glaring at him from the screen of his phone. Calling him a coward. Being mocked by technology was the final, unacceptable, straw. He jabbed the little green symbol and pulled the infernal device to his ear, listening to it ring.
It fascinated him that the ringtone of each country was different. Why was that? He pondered the technological quirk as he waited for someone to answer.
“Yeah?” Clint answered after more than a few rings. He sounded distracted, as if the phone call only had half of his attention. Or less.
“Hi. Um. Hello. It’s me. Phil. Or um, Luk’a.” Phil tripped over his words, unsure about his reception, and what name to use, and life in general at this particular minute.
“Oh. Hi.” That caught Clint’s attention. His voice focused. Strong. “I heard you were in town.”
“Sorry.” He cringed, unsure. Had that been creepy? Just turning up on the man’s doorstep? “Daisy gave me your address.” He explained.
“She needs to stop meddling.” He said, voice low as if it wasn’t intended for him, but the absent woman instead.
“I asked her for it.” Sort of. After the fact.
They lapsed into awkward silence.
“Why did you want to see me?” Clint broke the stalemate. Curious, but cautious.
“I, um. Well. You see. Fuck.” He lent back in his seat. Why couldn’t he just say it. “Can we not do this over the phone? Maybe grab a coffee? I’ll be in town as long as you need. Or not. If you don’t want to see me, I’ll go.” It was only fair to leave it up to Clint.
“Tomorrow.” It single word was a whisper followed by dead air. The other man had hung up. Whatever he had meant, Phil guessed he would find out soon. Leaving a couple dollars on the table, he left.
On auto-pilot Clint gave the cab driver the address for Stark Tower rather than his apartment. Going into the office and working his way through the waiting patent applications and anything else he could find sounded better than sitting, alone, in his apartment. Maybe, if he was very lucky, Stark would be back from the West Coast and he could go poke at the engineer. Stark baiting always made him feel better.
The colossal tower never really stopped working. SI had no problem with people working the hours that suited them as long as your work got done. Stark had instituted the policy soon after taking control from his father, he was a maniac but he wasn’t a hypocrite. It was one of the things that had drawn Clint to the company in the first place, a leader that lead by example. Sort of. In some things. Whatever, he wasn’t any sort of moral leader, but he didn’t ask anything of his people he wouldn’t ask of himself.
A slew of emails were waiting for him. Some idiot had bought a knock-off of one of their tablets and when it had inevitably failed, exploding even, he had filed a suit against SI instead of the company who had actually made the damned thing. The PR department were freaking out, Adrien, the lawyer who had been given the case, was freaking out, Pepper wasn’t freaking out because she wasn’t genetically able to freak out about anything other than Tony the person, but she wasn’t happy. As the Head of the IP department, it all ended up on Clint, because shit didn’t only roll downhill, it also rolled sideways and even, occasionally, up.
It was exactly what he needed. A meaty problem he could spend the next two days getting lost in.
Hours later the phone ringing pulled him from the draft press-release he and Emily in PR had been shooting back and forth. Blinking at it in confusion he eventually picked it up. The only person who would be ringing his office phone was Pepper and she didn’t know he was in the building.
“Mr. Barton, your Chinese is here.” It was one of the receptionists on the ground floor. Sarah? Samantha? Sa something. Which so wasn’t the point. The point of confusion was that he hadn’t ordered any Chinese, or any other food for that matter. Maybe he should, it was well past dinner time.
“I didn’t order anything, they must have the wrong place.” He said.
“There is a note saying ‘iinah ‘afdal eindama takuluh balfel?” She hesitated over the weird wording, not quite able to pronounce the sounds she didn’t recognise.
“Oh.” He was going to ignore how Phil knew he was at work and that he hadn’t eaten. “I’ll be right down.”
Bag in one hand and the note in the other, she held them out to him when he stepped out of the elevator. The delivery man was long gone. SI paid any tips, let the delivery people go as quickly as possible, the more deliveries they made the better off they would be at the end of the day and there wasn’t any need for them to stand around in the foyer waiting for some executive, or their assistant, to descend from the upper levels. On a busy day that could take ten minutes with the car stopping on every level of the building.
There was more written on the note than she had relayed, the reason easily seen as the rest of it was in the flowing and dotted script of the Aramean’s.
“I took a gamble that you would have gone to work after this morning.”
Nice to know Phil wasn’t stalking him after promising to give him space only a few hours before. Not that he really thought he had changed enough to do that, he would have said something to Skye and she would have done it without being asked. He was glad he didn’t have to get angry at her again.
“Thanks Samira.” Her name tag was half obscured by her large cardigan but he was pretty sure that was what it said.
“No problem Mr Barton.” Her smirk was too knowing. Monday’s gossip was going to be about him and the mystery person trying to feed him.
The food was as good as it smelt, and the extra energy propelled him through the last of the legal tangle. At some time after midnight he sauntered out of the building, pleased with what he had accomplished. It was only as he was waiting for a cab that he thought to pull out his phone and send a quick thanks to Phil.
>> thanx 4 food
>> You are welcome.
The reply came through almost immediately.
Clint wasn’t surprised that Phil was the sort to use full, correct punctuation in his message, he had always struggled to stay update date in the evolution of the lexicon. It had never been a problem though, and probably wasn’t now. He looked just old enough to be out of touch of what the ‘young people’ were doing.
Flagging down a cab, he had a smile on his face the whole way home.
= + =
There were small flurries of messages back and forth over the next few days. Clint lightly griping about the newest stupid thing Stark did. Phil sending unexpectedly artistic photos of various tourist traps around the city, or the coffee and that day’s pastry arrayed in one hipster cafe or another.
It was the evening of the Tuesday a week later before Clint thought about doing anything else. Sitting on his couch, almost the same position as the last time he had talked to Phil on the phone, he tapped in the number and listened to it ring.
“Hello.” Phil’s voice was warm and happy. A soft cloud of feeling that Clint could just lose himself in if he let himself.
“Hi. How are you?” Fuckin’ what? He cringed at the formality of his tone.
Light chuckles burnt through the hazy of embarrassment.
“I’m fine, thank you. And you? Has Adrien found his spine yet?”
Clint had a huff a laugh, it had been a throw away message at midnight on Monday after the other lawyer had royally scuttled the PR and legal plan Emily and he had spent put together. It warmed his belly that Phil cared enough to remember and ask.
“Good. And no. He’s not an on the case anymore though so I don’t care.” He faux grumbled. Really, the guy was fine he was just young by anyone’s standards not just Clint’s.
Settled deep into the sofa, he drew a fortifying breath to say what he had called to say. “I think we can be friends. I’m not sure about anything else and you shouldn’t stay in New York while I figure it out. You have a life you need to get back to.”
What a cop-out. A life to get back to? They picked up and dropped lives like they were going out of fashion. Yes, right now technically Phil’s life was in Scotland, but with a ten minute phone call and a few hours wait, he would have a whole new one here to walk into. Phil Coulson coming to an unfortunate boating accident and a long lost American cousin inheriting it all.
“Oh.” Phil said before Clint could fix the implication that he wanted Phil away from the city. “Of course. There isn’t anything stopping continuing to talk.” His voice was small and tightly controlled. Trying not to let the hurt through. He had been the one that had said he would be ok with whatever Clint decided.
The conversation didn’t recover. Clint trying to stumble his way to an explanation he didn’t think he actually had, look at the top lawyer go, not. He cut Phil off to do it and they both stuttered to a stop.
= + =
Well, that didn’t go well. Phil pushed himself out of the overstuffed armchair in the corner of his hotel room as they disconnected the call. Two determined strides had him across the room and in front of his laptop.
Flights out of New York that we’re heading East were taking off constantly. He was halfway through putting his credit card in to buy a flight to Amsterdam when he stopped. He was doing the same thing. Running when things got hard. When the danger of him being hurt emotionally, he would take a flesh wound any day, he left.
Shoving himself away from the desk he stood in the middle of his room unsure of his next move. Sleep. Sleep on it. See where he stood in the morning.
He still stood firmly in hurt and confused twelve hours later when he woke up. The only thing that had changed was his determination to stick it out. Maybe not here, in New York, but if he did go back to Scotland, he wouldn’t just stop talking to Clint. This wasn’t an end, it was just giving the other man the space to get some perspective. More than once, he had heard Clint say he saw better from a distance. That was all this was.
A day of sorting things out in the city, seeing a few old friends. And then he would go back to what would soon be his estate. Signing back into his laptop, he found a flight going out midday Friday. It wouldn’t get him home until some ridiculous time on Saturday morning, but he would get there.
= + =
His phone was frustratingly blank the next morning. He had hoped that Phil would have sent something. A goodbye this time at least. Or was all that talk about being sorry for how things went last time just that? Talk.
Leaving the stupid thing were it lay, he changed into jogging clothes and left. The sharply cold air driving everything but the drag of air into and out of his lungs out of his mind. The pounding of his feet on the ice-slick pavement a drumbeat for his heart to follow. The frozen morning brought clarity. Hanging onto the hurt from a millennium and more ago was only to keep hurting him. He was tired. Tired of double guessing every overture of friends, or more. Tired of carrying the weight of a betrayal that had only been done with the best intentions.
Even seeing the path forward clearly for the first time in an age, he didn’t slow down or change his route. The ritual of his path through the city giving him time to build the courage to actually follow through.
Dropping the phone onto the cushion next to him, Clint wondered at what he had just done. He wasn’t stupid. He knew Phil was here about them. If it had just been about the estate, he could have gone to Tom, there wasn’t any need to fly across the Atlantic.
The Hockey game had finished, he couldn’t have told you who had played let alone won, and switched to a rerun of Singing in the Rain. He watched as Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds danced and sang their way across the screen.
He remembered seeing it in theatres soon after it came out. Sitting in that dark room and watching the technicolour and wondering if Luk’a would have liked it. Sitting in that dark theatre, it had been the first time he had thought about the other man in over a year. A record he hadn’t been able to match since.
The coincidences piling up were starting to annoy him.
A movie he still associated with Luk’a and the little sigillaria that Methos had thought he just had to have. All on the same day Phil turned up on his doorstep, or as close as he could get in the security concerns of the 21st century.
He wasn’t going to solve the mysteries of the universe tonight. Flicking the tv off, he wandered back through the apartment and turned everything off, making sure the door was locked and his phone was in his pocket as he went.
Laying in the dark he tapped out a quick message to the number Phil had used to call him on and then turned the little device to do not disturb and put it face down on the bedside table.
= + =
Phil didn’t sleep particularly well. Tossing and turning on the overly soft mattress. The sounds of the city penetrating his room even as high up as he was, and the air being pushed around by the ducted heating system was dry and dusty. The disturbance of his body only exacerbated the discord in his mind. Had he done the right thing coming here? Barging his way back into Clint’s life.
He had seemed ok on the phone. Not thrilled to hear from him, but also not annoyed or resentful. Thoughtful was maybe the word for it.
At midnight he gave up on sleep. Throwing off the covers, he dug out a pair of sweats and a tee-shirt. The hotel’s gym wasn’t hard to find and he found the stillness he had been craving in the slow, repetitive movements of a tai chi routine.
He found sleep easily after that.
Dim light creeping around the slightly too short curtains woke him at dawn. Without the chores of the estate waiting to be done, he luxuriated in bed for a while. Slowly stretching each muscle until he was spread eagle, and lax across the length and breadth of the bed. The light strengthened, giving shadows and highlights to the mid-tone grey that had been pervasive in the half light.
Even without looming work, several life times of conditioning to be using the light while it was there pushed him out of bed soon after true dawn. Wandering towards the bathroom to relieve himself and start his day, he thumbed open his phone. No expectation of finding anything other than cat videos, or incomprehensible memes from Daisy. A single, unread message blinked at him.
>> boathouse 10am
It was from Clint. The first page of search results, at least he didn’t look further, were for a café/ restaurant in Central Park. Taking as much time as he wanted in the shower, he would still have time to walk the few miles to the restaurant, but a thick layer of slushy snow had fallen over night, and he didn’t feel like arriving mud splattered and shivering to what looked like a high-class establishment.
He dressed carefully. The only suit he had brought with him, a left over from his last life but a cut that was timeless on a mortal scale, was paired with silver filigree cuff-links, a silk tie, and perfectly polished oxfords. It was more dressed up than he had been in year. The formal wear a type of armour, a barrier between himself and the world in the same way plates of iron and steel used to.
Sitting on the end of his bed, perfectly dressed left him feeling antsy and stupid. He was ready hours early. Gathering his overcoat, and laptop he went in search of coffee and the morning newspaper. There may not be any farm chores to see to, but there was the ever present paperwork and management of the stock portfolio he had been putting together since there was such a thing as a stock exchange. The logic and flow of numbers drew him in, capturing that part of mind that was always analysing the world around him. Focusing, sharpening it in a way the quiet trees and animals of the estate didn’t.
A body bumping into the back of his chair dragged him from the river of numbers. Blinking his eyes into focus after watching a screen for too long, he was shocked by how busy the little coffee shop had gotten. There were a lot of people around for so early in the morning. Glancing at his watch, he realised they weren’t the problem. He was. Somehow, he had lost hours in his bubble. It was ten to ten and if he didn’t run, he was going to be late for the meeting that he had wanted. Sweeping everything piecemeal into his bag, he rushed out the front door. Bag swinging wildly behind him.
It was frustratingly difficult to get a taxi when you really needed on Right Now! When you had time to spare they were everywhere. Gods he hated the city.
After five minutes of useless hand waving, a car finally pulled out of traffic for him.
“Loeb Boathouse please.” He wanted to say’ as quick as possible’ or ‘I’ll give you $50 if you can get me there in five minutes’, but the rom-com cliché of rushing to an event to try and win back the love of your life was a little too much for him. Instead he forced himself to sit back watch the blocks crawl past his window.
The cabbie was frowning at him in the rear-view mirror. His tapping foot and constant checks of his watch weren’t endearing himself to the man. Not that it mattered. In another two minutes he would pay him for doing his job and they would never see each other again.
A taxi rank was sitting empty next to one of the entrances to the famous park. Sliding at least twice the amount the ride had been worth through the cash slot, he stumbled his way out the car and started running. Mindful that slipping and breaking his neck wasn’t going to help his case, he had to move slower than he would have liked, the grip on his shoes being almost non-existent.
He was almost ten minutes late by the time he slammed through the front doors. The glare from the hostess was impressive, a whole range of how dare you to who the fuck do you think you are displayed in a tiny tightening of the skin around her eyes and the barest thinning of her lips.
“We are by reservation only sir.” She knew everyone on her list and this man wasn’t one of them.
“Oh, um. I’m not sure if Clint made a reservation. I’ll …” Phil held firm in the face of her disapproval, he had faced down a lot worse than her.
“Mr Clint Barton?” She interrupted.
“This way please.”
Apparently Clint had made a reservation. Shooting his cuffs, and straightening his jacket slightly, he followed her through the beautiful old building. Half of the large dining room was sectioned off for an event. The other half was almost full, every table occupied by at least one person.
Weaving through the restaurant, he felt like every eye was on him. The hairs on the back of his neck rising as three other quickenings buzzed against his. The fluster from being late had pushed them from the forefront of his mind, but now they were back. One was Clint, the sunshine and fire feeling of it familiar. Another was one he had encountered before, glancing around he caught the eye of Amanda in one corner. The other mind wasn’t one he knew, they felt young and his eyes met the man with Amanda. Meeting her eye again, he raised an eyebrow. They weren’t friends but she owed him a favour or three and he could trust her enough not to go after his head. Hopefully that extended to her dining companion. Her wide smile and quick nod was re-assuring.
Turning his attention back to the Hostess, he spotted Clint in amongst all of the people. He was looking right at him. Artfully tousled hair and a dove grey suit open at the collar had him looking lickable. With a final dirty look, the Hostess left him standing awkwardly at the table.
He had to clear his throat before he could speak. “Hello. Sorry I’m late.”
Clint waved at the free chair without speaking, just watching him with eyes as grey as his suit. He was guarding his emotions closely.
They stared at each other across the table. Neither sure what to say, or where to start. Or at least, Phil wasn’t, as far as he could tell Clint wasn’t uncomfortable at all. Content to sit there and wait. It wasn’t a patience he was used to seeing from the other man in any situation outside of battle.
Sitting there, all of the nerves drained away. A Zen calm settling around his mind. He knew what he had to do, and no matter what Clint’s reaction was, he would know he had done what he could.
“I miss you.” The words were simple but everything.
From the flare and quickly banked hope in Clint’s eyes, Phil knew what he was trying to say had been understood even if not believed.
“Please don’t. Don’t doubt what I’m saying. Don’t think I just mean as a friend or a companion or whatever else you are thinking.” Phil filled the silence, words chasing each other in his rush to reassure. He was sorry for the hurt he had caused, but not the possible outcome they had avoided. “I can’t say I’m sorry I left. Things could have gone so badly. But I am sorry about how I left it and that I left it so long.” Twisting the linen napkin in his lap he stopped talking as their waiter appeared. He wished the place wasn’t quite as fancy as it was. He could have used a paper napkin to shred right about now.
Distracted Phil wasn’t sure what he ordered, just that words had come out of his mouth and the man dressed as a penguin had disappeared.
= + =
Clint listened to what Phil had to say, holding his emotions in tight. He wanted to believe that Phil was sorry, that they could find the love and happiness they had once had. But he also knew that wasn’t how life went. He couldn’t just leap at the first scrap of affection shoved his way.
They lapsed back into silence. Phil having said his piece, and Clint unsure how he wanted to respond. After all of these years, he still hadn’t forgiven. He wanted to, but the hurt was wedged deeply into his heart.
Roger, their waiter who had served Clint and Pepper a few times when they had come in for a business lunch or friendly brunch, returned with their filled plates. Eggs benedict for Clint, and quiche Lorraine for Phil. Truthfully, Clint was more interested in the coffees that were quickly followed the meals.
Clint happily tucked in. While Phil picked fretfully at the pastry, pulling it apart.
“It’s even better when you actually eat it.” Clint waved his fork at Phil’s plate.
Blinked at him, startled. How many times had he said that to Phil over the years they were together? He was even worse than Clint at getting lost in a task, or his thoughts and forgetting about the world beyond.
The words had just come naturally, the need to make sure those he cared about were eating and sleeping properly ingrained into his very being, even when he forgot to do the same for himself.
Obligingly, Phil portioned off some of the steaming egg and mushrooms. Chewing the forkful with a groan.
“This is very good.” He mumbled to himself between bites.
It broke the ice. Tentative questions about their current lives asked and answered. What Clint was doing in New York. How Phil ended up in Pittmedden. Nothing of substance. A conservation that you could have found thousands of old acquaintances that you had bumped into after years apart having.
The initial awkwardness crept back in as their meal wound down.
“What do you want from me? From this? Us, whatever.” Clint asked as Roger walked away with the paid bill and a hefty tip. It probably wasn’t fair to ask without having responded in any way to the offered apology, he didn’t care.
He watched as Phil precisely folded his hands on the table, eyes on Clint watching him back.
“I miss you. I know we can’t just pick up where we left off.” A wry smile curved his lips. “Or just before we left off. But I would like to see if we can be something again. If not, then friends.” It was as plain as Clint had ever heard Phil speak about his wants from their relationship, even when they had been together.
“Okay.” Clint said.
Okay, he understood what Phil was saying. Okay, he would think about it. Okay, he wasn’t completely against the idea of a relationship of some description being possible.
“Just. Give me some time?”
“All the time you need. You have my number, I’ll always answer.”
Another layer of snow had fallen while he had been gone. The fresh layer leaving everything clean for the upcoming holiday. Skye had still been awake when he had stumped his way into the cottage. She had viscilitated between happy to see him, she could get out of the mud and muck now, and sorry that it hadn’t worked out in New York.
Unashamedly, he played on that guilt, convincing her to stick around for Christmas and New Year’s. He even promised he would take a trip out to Asia and they could do Chinese New Year’s together, she had been badgering him to go for years but he had always resisted citing too much work to do. By the time it rolled around this year, he would own ESTATE and be able to hire someone to do it for him.
The sun had been peaking over the horizon when she shuffled off to the tiny guest bed that was shoved in a corner of the attic. Using his bed while he was away was different from using it while he was there. Even though he had slept on the plane and was going to rug up once more. Aida needed to be fed and her stall raked out, the trees needed to be checked and then the gates opened for the final tide of people looking for last minute trees. Work having kept them from buying one earlier, or their children finally wearing them down on the necessity of a real tree rather than a plastic one, it didn’t matter. The last week before Christmas was always filled with chaos.
The days slipped past as quickly as he expected them to. Day and night rolling across each other, neither long enough with the things that needed to be done. Days filled with people and the scent of pine. Nights filled with quiet conversation in front of the crackling fire, and the clash of steel in the dark hollows of the woodlands. Neither of them often had a chance to practice against someone that matched their skills who wasn’t trying to kill them. Phil insisted and Skye grumbled but acquiesced.
For all the activity, he had fun. Snowball fights with Timmy in a wheel chair being pushed by one of the older boys. Carollers fighting the wind that had picked up that afternoon to sing off-key, drunken renditions of songs they didn’t remember the roots of, but Phil did. And he remembered the first time, or the best time that he had heard each tune.
Christmas Eve in Pitmedden was the biggest night in the year, from dusk every person in the tiny hamlet gathered on the town green. A bonfire was lit at the second the sun left the sky, smoke and cinders swirling into the dark night. As the darkness deepened, children found their beds. The midnight mass was said out under the silver pinpricks of the universe. Bursts of sound and mugs of mulled wine warmed the souls. Most of the adult population stood watch over the fire until dawn. Waiting for the sun to return in a ritual that pre-dated the first toehold of Christianity in the wild lands Phil would always call home.
A ghost and a dream come true wrapped into one golden face watched him from the other side of the flames as the new Pastor droned on about the miracle of Christ’s birth. No one was particularly listening to him, his monotonous voice uninspiring. Phil barely heard that he was still talking, his whole body focused on the blue eyes watching him. He wanted to answer the call he saw in their depths. Walk through the fire between them, gather the other man in his arms and never let go. But he couldn’t force his feet to take that first step. What if it was a dream? A hallucination of hoping to see something so much, his brain conjured it to fulfil the need.
“It’s him.” Skye appeared beside him, whispering so that others didn’t over hear.
Giving him the option of keeping his life to himself, of waiting until they would have some semblance of privacy. She would probably even disappear to give it to them. He wasn’t going to hide. He wasn’t going to run, or be afraid of anyone else’s opinion of how he ran his life. Not anymore. That didn’t mean actually walking through the fire to reach Clint was the best idea, better to walk around it like a mortal.
Counting each step he kept his eyes on Clint’s for every single one of them. Clint matched him step for step. Face to face, Phil wasn’t sure which of them made the final move. One minute he was starting at the face that haunted his dreams, and the next the soft press of bitten lips was against his.