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A Life Half Lived

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“Heading home, sir?”

Nick stopped and turned, looking indifferent to the resulting dramatic flaring of his coat. Coulson was standing a few yards down the hall, obviously just having stepped out of his own office, his leather messenger bag hanging off one shoulder. He smiled mildly at Nick, waiting for an answer.

“Well, I’m not sticking around here any longer. If one more person asks me about that situation in Richmond, I’m going to do something I’ll regret.” He paused. “In a few years, at least. It’d be damn cathartic right now.”

Something subtle changed in the nature of Coulson’s smile. “Actually, sir, I was just on the phone with the governor of Virginia--”

Nick pointed a long finger aggressively at Coulson and squinted. “Close that pie hole, you fucker.”

Coulson chuckled and made his way down the hall to join Nick, who punched him in the shoulder before holding open the stairwell door and following him through.

“Did you read Sigurdsson’s latest AAR?” Coulson asked, loosening his tie with a few short jerks.

Nick snorted. “You know I did, you’re the one who BCC’d me on it. And you know what I’m going to say about it.”

Coulson nodded slowly, shifting his bag on his shoulder. “Do you want to be there? It may take a while to schedule something with us all available.”

“No, you’re a big boy, you can fire the horrifyingly incompetent agent by yourself. Or take May if you need parental support.” Nick swiped his ID card at the security point and leaned in for the retinal scan.

“I don’t know how comfortable I am with the idea of having you and May as parental figures,” Coulson mused, following Nick into the parking garage. “Especially since you refuse to admit to your crush on her.”

Crush,” Nick muttered, shaking his head. “Maybe you do need an adult when you deal with Sigurdsson, what with your being a teenager and all.”

Coulson smiled as he pressed the disarm button on the car fob in his hand, a shrill beeping resonating through the almost empty space. “I don’t hear any denial, sir.”

“I’ll shove your denial up your ass, Phil.” Nick kept walking straight, heading for the street-level pedestrian door as Coulson veered to the right. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Don’t want a ride?” Coulson had the door handle of a sedate grey sedan in his grasp, patiently waiting for the biometrically-activated threat scan of the vehicle to finish. “I’m heading by your place.”

Nick looked at him for a long moment. “Why are you heading to Brooklyn at two in the morning? Taking a car at this hour, sure, but to Brooklyn, Mister ‘Manhattan is my life’?”

Coulson just gave him a placid look, punctuated with enquiring eyebrows.

“Barton?” Nick put his hands on his hips and glowered.

“I’m sure I have no idea what you’re talking about. Now do you want a ride or not?”

Nick let out a single loud bark of a laugh and started for the car, waiting for Coulson to unlock the door for him from the inside. “I don’t hear any denial, Coulson,” he mocked, leering at his friend over the console. Coulson just gave him a look and started the car, backing out of the parking spot and heading for the exit.

“What about Audrey?”

“What about her?” Coulson nodded at Samir behind the guard booth, who squinted at his screen before opening the security grate.

“Don’t be coy, you know what I mean.” Nick fiddled with the heating controls in the central dash until Coulson swatted his hands away.

“One of my favourite things about Audrey is her open mind,” Coulson said, rolling the car to a stop at a red light. “That and her wonderful sense of adventure.”

NIck stared, mouth slightly agape, for a full five seconds while Coulson’s eyes glinted and a small smirk crept over his face. Then Nick lost it, whooping and laughing raucously. “You dog, Phil! You unbelievable fucking dog!” He slapped his knee. “How you manage to pull two full tens at the same time -- and without being a cheating bastard -- is beyond me, mother of Christ.”

Coulson just let his smirk bloom into a full smile. “It’s a talent, Nick, I must say.” He hit the indicator, then blared the horn at the taxi that cut him off. “I don’t think it’s something I can teach you though, so you’re going to have to keep going to those singles’ nights at Wally’s.”

NIck snorted, wiping tears of laughter from his face. “Fuck off, Phil, like you know anything about my sex life.”

“Your mood tells me plenty,” Coulson quipped, then winced as Nick thwacked him in the chest with the back of his hand.

“My mood tells you shit all, Playboy.”

They lapsed into silence as they headed over the bridge, Coulson taking full advantage of the relatively empty streets to flex the car’s muscles a little. Nick rolled his eye, but didn’t complain -- hell, if it got him home faster, all the better.

By the time they’d pulled up in front of the dingy brick lowrise with the surprisingly tasteful graffiti on the alley side, Coulson’s phone had gone off six times with received texts and they’d participated in a fierce hand slap fight, Coulson trying to defend the phone while driving and Nick trying to get the phone while laughing his head off. He raised his hands in defeat when Coulson threw the car into park and shoved the phone under his ass.

“Fine, fine, don’t let me help you with your booty call responses,” Nick said, easing himself out of the car. “Your loss.”

“I’m the one who’s got the booty call in the first place, Nick -- I don’t think I need your help.”

“Whatever. You’re fired if you come to work late tomorrow. Or if you gloat.”

Coulson shifted the car into gear. “May as well fire me now, sir.”

“Fucker.” Nick slammed the door shut, cackling as Coulson squealed the tires in retaliation. His upraised middle finger was met with a little wave out the window as the car turned the corner.

Nick shook his head fondly, digging his keys from the deep inner pocket of his coat and letting himself into the building. A short flight of stairs, a retinal scanner disguised as a peephole, and a triple key lock later, he let himself into the little single bedroom apartment.

He immediately bent over and unlaced his boots, kicking them into the almost empty closet with thuds that echoed. Flexing his socked toes into the carpet, he stripped off his trenchcoat and hung it beside the heather grey peacoat occupying the only other coat hanger on the rail. He then made his way across the bare living space, beelining for the bedroom and the single piece of furniture in the space: a dresser.

He pulled off his long sleeved t-shirt, wincing slightly and rolling his shoulder as he dropped the shirt onto the pile of similarly black clothes in the corner of the small room. His jeans and kevlar undershirt followed. From the dresser drawers, he pulled out a faded green t-shirt with an age-cracked lion graphic on the front, a worn pair of light blue jeans, and an over-large smoke grey cardigan. He dressed quickly, then exchanged his leather eyepatch for a brown adhesive one, shoving a pair of thick framed glasses overtop. A quick trip back to the front closet provided him with a brown newsie cap, worn backwards, and a rough looking pair of white chucks.

Making his way into the barren kitchen, he rubbed his hand along the upper hinge of the pantry door. There was a small click and the door opened, revealing a pantry full of empty shelves and a single raised floorboard. Beneath the floorboard was a series of biometric scans, including a needle that jabbed his finger for a blood sample. Those completed, a panel in the wall of the pantry receded and a ladder appeared. Nick clambered through the hole, swearing profusely when he banged his forehead on the edge, and climbed down. He followed the long, dimly lit tunnel at the end of the ladder for a solid city block, thumbing through the messages on his (alternate, bright red) phone. The tunnel ended with a short ladder climb back to street level, where he appeared from behind a dumpster and then slipped from the alley onto the sidewalk.

He ducked into the subway station on the next block, breaking into a loping run when he saw the northbound G approaching. Ignoring the three other passengers, he composed a text message to send once he got signal again, the train swaying and rocking him against the pole propping him up. Twenty minutes later, he stepped out into Queens and immediately crossed the street to the bodega lit up by neon signs.

“Good evening, Paolo.”

The young man behind the counter looked up from his crossword puzzle and smiled. “Mr Johnson! You’re here pretty late -- working the night shift?”

“How many times, Paolo, it’s ‘Marcus’, not ‘Mr. Johnson’,” Marcus shook his head fondly. “I’m just a customer, not your boss.”

Paolo smiled sheepishly. “Marcus, then. What are you looking for tonight?”

Marcus headed straight for the coolers at the back of the little store. “I’ve been requested to bring home milk. Apparently, milk-less mornings are unacceptable.”

Paolo chuckled, nodding. “I’d agree with that.”

They made small talk over the purchase, Marcus pointing out a mistake in the crossword and asking after Paolo’s new baby (“We think she has colic, cries every night like clockwork.”) before bidding him goodbye and heading down the block.

A short walk later, made longer by a break to pet the neighbourhood tabby, Marcus climbed up the front stairs of a handsome brick townhouse. A simple Yale key opened the purple front door for him and he whistled a little ‘all clear’ tune as he wiped his shoes on the welcome mat and dropped his keys into the catchall bowl.

Quiet footsteps made their way across the floor above him, then softly down the stairs, as he put the milk in the fridge and rifled through the mail stack. He was leaning over the kitchen counter, examining a bill and picking at the grapes in the fruit bowl when a pair of slim hands slid over his chest, a warm form pressed to his back.

“Good morning,” he murmured, turning in the circle of the hug, pressing a kiss to the mussed head of hair in front of him.

“If you want to call this morning,” Melinda replied, pulling her face out of his collarbones, eyes slightly puffy from sleep.

“You’re the one who’s so determined to keep the front door alarm active in the bedroom, Mel, so don’t complain to me about it.”

Melinda shrugged, pressing her ear to his chest and tightening her arms. “Feels safer.”

Marcus nodded into her hair, rubbing a hand up and down her terrycloth covered back. “I know. How are the kids?”

“Fine. They missed you at dinner.” Melinda shifted digging her chin into Marcus’ chest to make eye contact. “Daniel made the soccer team.”

“Oh, good! I bet he’s pleased.”

“He is. His first practice is on Monday.” A small smile spread over her face. “I think Amelia’s dating someone, too. She’s not talking, though.”

“Oh?” He kissed her forehead. “Any idea who?”

“Marisa Lindley, I think.”

Marcus paused. “The girl three doors down with the really nice locs?”

“Yeah.”

“Huh. I’m not as surprised as I thought I’d be.”

Melinda’s smile broadened. “That’s what I thought too - they’ve always been really close. I think she’s scared to tell us, though. I don’t know if it’s just usual ‘not wanting parents to know’ teenager stuff, or if she’s nervous because she’s dating a girl.”

Marcus hummed, nodding. “Give her some time, she’ll come around.”

“Or we’ll catch them together.”

Marcus groaned and Melinda laughed, slipping her hands up the back of his sweater. “Oh, deal with it. Your babies are growing up.”

“Apparently so.”

They swayed together slightly, rocking back and forth as Marcus swept Melinda’s hair from her face, tucking it behind her ear. “You remember about the barbecue?” she asked quietly.

Marcus froze and swore under his breath. “Is that tonight?”

Melinda lifted her head and narrowed her eyes. “It sure is.”

“Damnit. Shit. I’ll try, Melinda, but you heard about Richmond. It’s a total clusterfuck.”

Melinda half-heartedly slapped his back. “Don’t use that language here, Marcus.”

“Sorry, sorry, automatic association. Work means swearing like a sailor.”

“Yes, yes, just keep it down. The barbecue?”

Marcus sighed. “I’ll try. I know you’ll get grilled, haha, if I don’t show up, but Richmond is… really bad, Mel. The rumour mill is about right this time.”

Melinda winced. “And the rumour mill isn’t kind.”

“Exactly.”

“Well, I get to make up your excuse then. Fair repayment.”

“Just tell them I had to take someone else’s shift.”

“Maybe. You still good from chaperoning Daniel’s class trip on Friday, then?”

“Yeah, Richmond should be calmed down by then. I’ll be able to skip off no problem.”

“Good, because I’m subbing for Bobbi’s handicapped combat class while she cleans up that mess in Ottawa, so I can’t take your place.”

Marcus snorted. “Ottawa, Jesus. You know someone’s messed up when the Canadians are pissed off. Sigurdsson’s getting fired for that, by the way. Phil might call you in to help out with that process.”

“That man hates firing people.”

“He sure does. He also hates being boring - did you know he’s sleeping with Barton?”

“Yes. I’m surprised you didn’t, actually.”

Marcus shot her a surprised look. “Really? How’d you know? Phil just told me a few hours ago.”

“I work with Barton more than you do and he is not subtle.”

“Ah. True.”

They fell into silence, Melinda slowly drooping in Marcus’ arms as he rubbed her back. The refrigerator clicked and hummed, adding to the background noise of crickets and the occasional car on the street. The window over the sink was cracked open an inch, a fresh breeze seeping through to ruffle at the stack of detrital paper on the corner of the kitchen table. Marcus let out a long breath, pressing a kiss to Melinda’s temple.

“Do you ever regret it?” she mumbled, breaking the question with a yawn.

“Regret what?” Marcus leaned back against the counter behind him, tucked Melinda against his chest.

“This… double life. Being Nick and Marcus. The angry bachelor and the happily married father. The director of SHIELD and the ‘Barbecue King of Maple St. W.’ with a plaque to prove it.”

Marcus was quiet for a long minute, his steady breath ruffling Melinda’s hair. “No,” he said finally. “I don’t. It’s… hard, sometimes. I’d like if the kids knew why we’re so protective. I think there’d be some serious compatibility between the two friends groups. I wish I could invite Phil in for a beer. I wish I could talk about work stress to Terry, instead of always unloading on you when I get home.” He squeezed her in apology. “I wouldn’t have to think so hard about a simple conversation. I could tell Phil that yes, I have a crush on you, and I love you, and I married you, had two children with you, changed my life for you, so maybe he’ll shut up about it--”

“You’re worse at hiding that than you think you are, Marcus.”

He kissed her head. “Shows how fond I am of you, Mel. Fond enough to want to live this double life.”

“Mmm, ditto to all the above,” she said into his shirt, nuzzling at the tiny bit of chest hair visible at the collar.

He smiled into her hair. “So I don’t regret it, I just have some regrets. You know I love people, Mel, I --”

“Just don’t trust them very much, I know.” She met his gaze. “Me, too, Marcus. Me, too.”

Marcus’ hands came up to frame her face, one thumb stroking over her cheekbone. “You’re amazing,” he whispered, his voice sticking in the back of this throat. “Amazing.”

“You’re just lucky you found someone almost as paranoid as you are,” Melinda countered, then bumped her nose against his, pressing in for a long, sweet kiss. “You’re lucky we’re as bad as each other.” She took in his intense, almost lost expression, and kissed him again. “Let’s go to bed. Marcus is going to be woken up in four hours by loud children and Nick needs all the sleep he can get, if Richmond really is that bad.”

Marcus cleared his throat, blinking away the shine in his eye as he swept his gaze around the kitchen, taking in the precariously controlled chaos -- dinner dishes in the sink, discarded bookbags by the back door, snapshots of smiling people on the fridge, all familiar aspects of this part of his life. He sighed, then nodded, standing straight when Melinda pulled away and gently tugged on his hand.

“Yeah,” he said, following his wife out of the kitchen and up the stairs, turning the lock on the front door as he passed. “Let’s go to bed.”