"You're missing out on a great party, you know."
Phil casts a look at the figure strolling beside him, quirking up an eyebrow. Clint never shows up in military garb, and today isn't an exception, hands tucked into old scruffy jeans, wearing a faded t-shirt with a long-forgotten logo on the front. His hair is mussed as if he'd just gotten out of bed, and he grins cheekily at the skepticism on Phil's face.
"Honest! The physicists from Sector C are doing something with lasers and liquid nitrogen in the mess, it's pretty awesome-looking. And Sitwell's about to be mobbed for taking over the karaoke machine, Hank's drunk-experimenting in the workshop, and Bucky's got the America on a secure comm line having surprisingly vanilla holo-sex with Tony."
Phil pauses at that, the sound of his boots clicking against the metal floor silencing as he stops, torn between the need to go get his crew back in line--and keep Hank from destroying the lab again--and the desire to continue on. Clint's smirk widens at his hesitance, only to fall into a pout as Phil shakes his head and continues walking down the quiet corridor.
To say that the Hawkeye's the most bizarre ship Phil has ever captained is a laughable understatement at best. The regular crew--the ones who don't run screaming after their eight months are up--are a collection of misfits and eccentrics that alternate between brilliance and psychosis, depending on the hour. They're the ones who just barely made the cut, soldiers with attitudes just like their pilot, insubordinate and rebellious.
And Clint is insubordinate. He is rebellious. Phil knew that even before General Fury exiled him to the Hawkeye for the mess on Naiad, having heard the whispers from other captains who’d suffered through their assignments. He knew Clint was snarky and stubborn and contrary--and he's reminded of it every time his course routes are cheerfully ignored in favor of 'better, faster ones that don't suck'.
It would be a relief to go back to the staid, stern pilots that made up the rest of the fleet. It would certainly be better on Phil's nerves, frazzled after every close call--even if they are always soothed, afterward, by a cup of hot chocolate waiting in his quarters. He would be able to keep an even keel on other ships, as opposed to the stomach-twisting lows when Clint laughingly darts through impossible asteroid fields to shake their enemy tail, or the heady highs whenever they successfully work together during battles to bring every single fighter home.
"I trust security to keep the crew in line," he replies. "And Jan's been talking about dragging Hank to the observatory, she'll find him before he does anything too destructive. He barely nicked the outer hull last time, anyway."
"You weren't the one who had to deal with the third-level reconstruction," Clint mutters. His hand ghosts across his side, as if in memory, and something in Phil's chest tightens.
"No," he agrees softly, the only kind of apology he can offer. "I wasn't."
The desire to reach out and touch resurfaces as strong as ever--but Phil has months of practice now, and he shoves the compulsion down with barely a thought.
He reaches the end of the corridor, a circular door that's even more heavily reinforced than the one to the nuclear missile bay. It's forbidding, cold and untouched, lights blinking from the seals that keep it closed--but there's something sacred about it, something humbling and reverent. Phil reaches out to lay his palm flat against it and only then notices the writing above the door, raised from the metal in elegant, flowing lines.
Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.
Phil glances at Clint, who offers him an easy shrug and a grin that doesn't reach his eyes.
"It was the first thing I did when I hooked in. Had to leave my mark somehow, you know?" he says, as if he's just a tiny puzzle piece that makes up the whole of the Hawkeye. As if he isn't its heart and soul and mind, his presence evident in every inch of the living ship: from the playful metal arches in the hydroponics garden to the crisp, no-nonsense lines that make up the fighter bays. Clint is the ship. The ship is Clint.
Phil's fingertips skate over the cool metal in a kind of longing before dropping to the first keypad, typing in the override codes. As he presses his palm against the scanner he shoots Clint a look.
"You could open this, you know."
"I could," Clint agrees breezily, folding his arms across his chest with a tight, uneasy smile that's a pale comparison to his usual bright expressions. "It's more fun watching you flail around."
"DNA and handprint scan verified for: Philip J. Coulson, Commander of the MV Hawkeye. First failsafe disengaged."
"I'm not going to do anything, you know," Phil says quietly as he draws back his hand, shifting over to the next lock.
Clint's mouth tightens. "Then why are you even coming down here?" he snaps. "You-- Fuck, just go back to the damn party, alright? There's nothing past that door but dust and old memories."
"The chamber's sealed, there wouldn't be any dust," Phil replies absently as he leans forward to let the retinal scanner shine into his eyes.
"I want to see you."
"Retinal and brain-wave pattern scan verified for: Philip J. Coulson, Commander of the MV Hawkeye. Second failsafe disengaged."
A hand reaches for him, and Phil jerks back. He stares down at the fingers outstretched toward his arm in blank shock, follows back up to meet Clint's wide-eyed gaze. Phil's done it dozens of times, reached for Clint without thinking, wanting to feel the person he's become so wrapped up in ever since his assignment to the Hawkeye and its quirky, captivating pilot. It's kept him up at night, wondering what it would be like to rest a hand on Clint's shoulder, to run his fingers through his perpetually mussed hair.
He forgets, sometimes, that he can't.
But Clint never does.
As soon as he realizes what he's doing, Clint snatches back his hand, curling it into a fist at his side instead as he avoids Phil's startled stare.
"You've gotten too close, Phil," he says quietly. "This isn't.... This won't end happy. Not for either of us. You're gonna be off this boat soon, and I'll just be a blip on your record. You've got an incredible career left in front of you--just forget about me."
"You know I can't," Phil replies, and when Clint finally looks up at him, he keeps his gaze steady, trapping Clint in place as he says, "Captain-Pilot override code Bravo-Four Romeo, November-Three Juliet."
Clint's mouth twists at that. It's his code, the override he's required to give the captain of the ship in case things ever go wrong, in case he's ever compromised. Only he, Phil, and the Commander of the UTC Forces know it, the code changed for every new captain of the Hawkeye.
Clint's created a lot of override codes.
"Captain-Pilot override accepted. Third failsafe disengaged. Opening Heart."
Despite it having not been touched in years, the door slides open with barely a whisper. Phil turns back to it, walking into the cold room beyond.
He doesn't look back to see if Clint follows.
Chilly vapor from super-cooled hydrogen swirls around Phil's feet as he makes his way into Hawkeye's very core. A thin layer of ice covers every surface, glittering in a dim light that's only the byproduct of technology, the room not meant for anyone who needs to see. Wires descend from the ceiling, arch out from the walls, and climb up from the floor; all of them converging on--no, diverging from--an upright chamber in the center of the room. Phil picks his way carefully through the lines, weaving around them until he's standing in front of the stasis chamber.
It isn't like the deep-space pods: this one is open, no hermetic seal necessary with the freezing temperature of the room. And inside it is Clint, solid and real and there, the man Phil's fallen in love with, the ghost in the system who snarks at him daily and only follows directives if he agrees with them. He's leaner than his hologram depicts, muscles lost to atrophy and disuse, and his pale skin is radically different from the sun-kissed facsimile Phil's used to seeing. It's sheened with the same sparkle of ice that coats the room, which gathers in crystals along the seams of the only article of clothing he wears, a pair of loose-fitting shorts.
Clint's head is cradled in a padded brace, and Phil knows that all the wires in the room connect into the stasis chamber--into Clint--into a port installed at the base of his spine that links the Hawkeye directly to his brain stem. His bodily functions are monitored through the same port, while an oxygen mask covers soft, perfect lips that are blue with chill. Phil inhales a sharp breath when he catches sight of the heavy scarring around Clint's closed eyes, which webs down the side of his face and neck, scoring across his chest.
"You're blind," he says softly. He doesn't know if he's talking to the body in stasis before him or the ship that surrounds him, but it's the hologram that answers, standing in a corner of the room looking tired beyond his years.
"Yeah. It was one of the reasons I took the assignment to Hawkeye. I used to be a fighter pilot, you know? I was one of the best--" he curls his lip, correcting, "--I was the best. Medals and recognitions like you wouldn't believe. But you lose all that when you hook into a ship. You're dead. All that's left of you are footnotes and an empty urn."
But now that Clint's started talking he seems determined to not stop, shaking his head and continuing to speak in that quiet, subdued voice that physically hurts Phil to hear. He's known Clint to be flirty and sly, mischievous and playful, serious and stern and professional, but never once has he heard him sound so beaten.
"It helped that I didn't have anyone, of course. No family. A few friends, maybe. My squad. But nobody to really miss me or put up a fight over it. When Steve volunteered for the America, Bucky went to war with the UTC Ethics Council. He almost got kicked out of the Forces, he fought Steve's decision so hard, and when he finally let it go he had to swear to silence about who America was. You're not.... You aren't a person anymore, when you hook in."
"You look like a person to me," Phil says softly, gazing at the unmoving form in front of him.
He chuckles darkly. "Looks can be deceiving. I'm already dead, Phil. My body--that thing isn't really alive, not anymore. All that's left of me are memories and a ghost."
"No," Phil says sharply, turning to face the hologram that has become a permanent fixture in his daily life. "You're not a memory. Memories are in the past. They don't think and speak, they don't mouth off at their commanding officers or play tricks on visiting captains. You're here, Clint." He pauses, taking a breath, making sure that Clint is paying attention. “You are alive.”
Clint lets out a sound. It's small, almost indiscernible over the hum of the living ship around them; tiny and broken and almost akin to a sob, if a mind that ran a living machine could make such a noise. It curls around Phil's heart, climbs up his throat and chokes off his air and makes him ache. He takes a spastic step forward and, before his brain can run through the reasons why he shouldn't, lays a hand over Clint's chest.
Hawkeye spasms around them.
It's just a tremor; a minuscule ripple that shivers through the walls, circuitry lighting up for a brief instant. The skin beneath Phil's palm is cold, so very cold, but it's still physical contact with the man Phil's been with for the past eight months.
The hologram's eyes are huge, shocked and vulnerable, and so desperately hopeful; Phil knows, right then, that he's not going to accept the reassignment. The Hawkeye is the unofficial omega of the UTC Fleet: a punishment for bad behavior, an object of scorn and dread--but the ship is also Clint, a man who fought for his homeland, who gave his body and mind and life to the service.
It's a man who loves music from A.D. 1990, who creates delicate sculptures out of the living metal he's part of, and who waits until the very last fighter is back within the safety of the ship, no matter how much damage Hawkeye takes in the meantime. It's the man who locks Phil out of the control center when he's gone forty-eight hours without sleep. It's the human being who grows quiet and subdued whenever a crewmember is lost and forcefully cheerful after every communique from the Terran Security Council berating Hawkeye’s officers for being unable to keep their ship in line.
It's the man Phil goddamn loves, the ship he loves; and the endless parade of captains who each broke Clint down a little more is officially over.
"You're alive, Clint," Phil repeats softly. He reaches up, cradling a cold cheek in his hand, brushing a thumb across ropey, white scar tissue. He's speaking to the man in front of him now, looking at eyes that aren't ever going to open.
"You're the only person who's said that to me in seven years," Clint says, his voice trembling the tiniest bit. Phil leans in to brush a soft kiss to his forehead, and the Hawkeye shivers around them again. He looks back at the hologram with a small, tender smile.
"Well, you’d better get used to it, then."
Clint stares at him for a moment, uncomprehending. When realization hits, his eyes widen, disbelieving hope written clear on his face. "You'll stay?" he breathes. "You'll really stay, even though your time's up? You won't go?"
"I’m staying," Phil agrees. There's no uncertainty in his words, no hesitance, and after another moment of incredulity, a bright, beaming grin curves Clint's mouth. It's like the sun falling across the earth, brilliant and searingly joyful, and Phil can't help his own replying grin. He brushes his thumb across Clint's cheek one last time before stepping back, tilting his head at the hologram that is just as much Clint as the body in front of him or the ship he calls his home.
"Come on," he says. "Let's get back to the party. It's not your birthday every day, you know."
"Oh, I don't know about that," Clint replies as he falls into step at Phil's side, happy grin still firmly in place. "From now on, it just might be."