Phil walked through the corridors as if he knew what he was doing; that was second nature. He stepped over wreckage they still hadn't repaired and acknowledged the respectful nods of the surviving agents. He walked right up to the door of section 37 with the outward confidence he was known for, thankful that the carrier still had enough emergency power to register his retina and voiceprint and let him in.
Once he got inside and the door closed behind him, he leaned against the wall and closed his eyes, clenching his fists against the exhaustion that threatened to overwhelm him. Here, where no one could see him, he could afford to acknowledge some hard truths. He was in charge, at least until the World Security Council replaced him with a patsy of their choosing, which they were sure to do soon. The country was still in a state of panic. His shoulder was completely fucked, getting worse rather than better. He had a sneaking suspicion he was suffering from radiation poisoning after his visit to the remains of Manhattan. Perhaps it had been a mistake to go there, but he'd felt it necessary to personally examine the site of the portal and make sure nothing remained.
And everyone he cared about was dead.
That wasn't completely true. He cared about the people who'd survived the Chitauri attack and its aftermath, at least on an abstract level. He cared about all the surviving members of SHIELD, even if he didn't know any of them particularly well. That wasn't their fault, just as it wasn't their fault they needed more from him with every passing day.
There was nothing he could do about any of it. He was the acting director of SHIELD, and there were people relying on him to direct them, for as long as he could, as well as he could.
He'd have to get back to that once he left this room, but for now he had a few minutes alone. They all thought he'd come in here to inventory whatever it was that the director had kept hidden here, something he hadn't had time to do until now. He intended to do that, but if he were being honest with himself (and he was always honest with himself; he just chose not to dwell), it was just as much about getting those few minutes alone, to let the mask drop, let his hands shake.
To remember. To grieve.
He set the timer on his watch and sank to the floor, dropping his face into his hands. When the timer went off three minutes later, he wiped his eyes and stood up again. There was work to be done, and he was the only one who could do it.
Hoping to find something useful, something that might heal radiation burns or rebuild flattened buildings, he moved through the room slowly, inspecting each piece of technology. Some pieces were easily figured out--a gun was a gun, even if it might function more like a phaser from Star Trek--but others were a complete mystery. He found himself drawn to what appeared to be a simple silver ball the size of an apple. The sphere was resting inside a clear red cube; the whole apparatus looked like something Steve Jobs would have come up with. He picked it up, and the cube immediately split down the middle and disappeared.
Phil caught the sphere by reflex, keeping it from falling to the ground. It was warm, and the minute it was in his hand, it began to glow. Phil knew he should be concerned, maybe even very concerned, but instead he was enveloped by a sense of rightness and peace. The glow grew brighter and brighter, until he had to close his eyes, and then it flashed brilliantly, almost like the flash over Manhattan, and abruptly went out. At the same instant, an alarm started going off. It was a sound he knew well, indicating an unauthorized person in a secure area. He opened his eyes, placed the sphere on a shelf by feel, and unholstered his sidearm.
The afterimages left from the glowing sphere made it difficult to see clearly, but he was able to move towards the door. It burst open before he could reach the handle, whoever it was gasping in surprise and then saying, in a very familiar voice, "Drop it, put your hands on your head, and get on your knees."
"Barton?" Phil said, incredulous, because it couldn't be. He lowered his weapon automatically nonetheless.
"On the ground right now or I will shoot you," the voice insisted, Clint insisted. His voice was full of pain and anger, not calm dispassion. Phil lowered his weapon to the ground and got on his knees, blinking furiously against the afterimages and staring up at Clint. Clint Barton, who looked back at him with wide, red-rimmed eyes that were grey with flecks of gold and green, not a uniform ice-blue. Clint, who was alive, and apparently no longer compromised. Phil didn't feel like he was hallucinating, but none of it made any sense.
"I don't understand," he said, bewildered. He felt completely enervated; holding his right arm up was a challenge, the left a complete impossibility. "How are you alive?"
"Shut the fuck up," Barton snarled, securing his wrists and hauling him to his feet. Phil stumbled and almost fell, his shoulder screaming, but Barton held him up and dragged him outside.
The corridor outside bore only a superficial resemblance to the one he'd been in earlier. It was intact and clean, and it held a number of agents, all pointing weapons at him and all wearing identical expressions of shock and disbelief. Phil blinked again, shaking his head. He was sure he was wearing the same expression himself, because half the people he saw standing there were dead, including the two walking rapidly towards him. What the hell had that stupid glowing ball done to him?
"What the ever-loving fuck is that?" Nick said as he approached.
Barton's shoulders relaxed a tiny amount. "Sir, this was in the vault; are you telling me you don't know anything about it?"
It took Phil a second to realize they were talking about him. It took every bit of strength he had to force himself to stand straight and face Nick, Maria, and the rest of them (whatever they were) and say, "I believe there's been a misunderstanding. I don't know what's happened or how I got here, but I assure you that I am Agent Phil Coulson, Acting Director of SHIELD, not some sort of doppelganger. What I'm not sure of is how all of you are here, and I'd appreciate an explanation."
He felt Clint flinch at his words, his grip tightening on Phil's bad shoulder. Phil hissed in pain and stumbled again, falling to his knees. He landed hard, his vision greying out. He listed to the side, ending up with his head against Barton's leg. He could feel the warmth of Clint's thigh through his jeans. It all felt real.
"The sphere," he said. "In the vault, the silver ball, it did something." Clint was leaning down, and Phil couldn't read his expression, but his eyes were so beautifully flecked with gold and green. Phil tried again to explain, but he couldn't make the words come out. The last thing he was conscious of was the pressure of Clint's hand on his shoulder, no longer painfully tight, just there, impossible, as warm and solid as his thigh.
Phil woke some undetermined time later. He kept his eyes closed for a moment, staying as still as he could. His left forearm was cold and ached a little where the IV had been inserted. He felt the blood pressure cuff on his right arm deflating; that was probably what had awakened him in the first place. The oxygen flowing through his nasal cannula was cool as well. He was cold in general, right on the edge of shivering, but he could ignore it. He opened his eyes.
"Welcome back," Nick said. He was still there, and it still felt real. "I need you to tell me what you remember about what happened." It sounded so much like Nick that Phil gave up and decided to just go along with it. Whatever had happened, it didn't feel like enemy action.
"What happened," Phil said, or tried to. Nothing really came out; his throat was dryer than the New Mexico desert.
"Here," Nick said, holding a cup with a straw in front of his face.
Phil drank the water gratefully, even though it was ice cold. He started shivering as soon as Nick took the cup away; Nick frowned at him. "I'm a little cold," Phil admitted when he couldn't make it stop.
Nick turned his head and said, "Can we get some blankets in here?" A nurse came in and insisted on taking Phil's temperature, listening to his heart and lungs, and otherwise getting in the way, but after a few minutes a second nurse arrived, stripped the cover off Phil, and put two heated flannel blankets over him, and then replaced the cover on top. Phil closed his eyes in relief. It seemed less and less likely this was anything other than real.
"Don't you dare go back to sleep," Nick ordered, and Phil opened his eyes again.
"No, of course not, sir," he said. "Where would you like me to start? Should I begin with today's events, or with the Chitauri invasion?"
Nick sat back, studying him closely. "Give me the broad strokes on the Chitauri and the aftermath, and all the details from today."
Despite requesting broad strokes, Nick asked a lot of questions about the particulars, his normally stoic face occasionally revealing his surprise at some of what Phil had to tell him. "You never went up against Loki?" he asked at one point.
"No, that was Agent Jackson," Phil said. "I went after Barton. I couldn't ask Natalia, not when I knew we'd have to take him out by any means necessary." He looked at Nick, almost asked him how, why, Barton was alive, why Nick was alive, but Nick shook his head and told him to go on.
So he did. "I found Barton in the corridors near the bridge and engaged him there. He dislocated my shoulder, then put an arrow through it, but I was able to get my gun up and shoot him. It was one of the phase two guns, so his armor was ineffective."
Nick had a look of absolute shock on his face for a split second before he regained control. "You're telling me that you killed Agent Barton?" he asked. "You personally?"
"I had to, sir," Phil said, keeping the anguish out of his voice by dint of two months of practice. "He was compromised. I don't understand how it didn't happen here, wherever or whatever this place is, but on my world he was under Loki's thrall. He led the attack on the helicarrier. He had to be stopped. So I stopped him."
"All right," Nick said after a long moment. "What happened next?"
"I made the announcement that Agent Jackson had been killed by Loki," Phil said. "Agent Romanova, Captain Rogers, Thor, and Stark went to Manhattan to try to stop Loki, but they were too late. The portal opened, the Chitauri came through, and the Council ordered us to nuke Manhattan. Stark was killed trying to stop it from happening. The bomb detonated, the tesseract with it, and millions of people died. Including Rogers, Stark, Romanova, Thor, Banner, and presumably Loki; we've seen no sign of his presence. We still don't have an exact number; things have been pretty chaotic."
"What about me and Maria?" Nick asked, frowning.
"Barton killed them in New Mexico," Phil said; he thought he'd mentioned that already. "I was the only one who made it out."
"Jesus fuck," Nick muttered, shaking his head. "So you weren't kidding when you referred to yourself as the Acting Director."
"I'm not kidding about any of it," Phil said angrily. "In my capacity as Acting Director, I went to inventory the vault, because I was the only person left who had the clearance to even get in there. I picked up an artifact, a silver ball encased in a clear red cube. It started glowing, then it flashed once and went out, and I was in your vault, and people were looking at me like I was Loki himself."
"No," Nick said, his voice as gentle as Phil had ever heard it. "Not like that at all. In this reality, it was Coulson who went up against Loki. He was stabbed through the chest. He died, and we've been mourning him for the last two months."
"Oh," Phil said blankly. It had a weird kind of symmetry, he supposed. "In this reality, you said. So you believe me?"
Nick chuckled mirthlessly. "I don't know what to believe, but your DNA matches Coulson's. You sustained completely different injuries from those of our Coulson, and we've had to treat you for radiation poisoning. We found a new artifact in the vault that matches your description, although it hasn't started glowing. Stark's best guess is that you're from an alternate universe--"
"Stark's alive too?" Phil interrupted. He tried to sit up, but his shoulder wouldn't allow it. An alternate universe; he should have realized. It was a logical explanation, all things considered.
"Stark carried that warhead through the rift and threw it at the Chitauri mothership. He made it back just as the rift was closing. He's alive, and so are Rogers, Romanoff, Banner, and Thor. And Barton, but you knew that already."
"How?" Phil asked, his voice cracking as he realized what it all meant. There had been a way to achieve this, a good outcome, and he'd failed to find it. "Tell me how you did it."
"I don't know," Nick said, looking at him with what Phil feared was pity. "Our Coulson died. Natasha fought Barton, and when she kicked him in the head, it caused some sort of cognitive reset and broke Loki's control. The same thing happened with Selvig on the roof. I took down a fighter and slowed the delivery of the bomb; maybe that gave Stark enough time, or maybe it was Barton joining the fight. If you ask me, it was all of it. Listening to your story, I have to be grateful that it worked out the way it did."
Phil stared at Nick. "You mean all it took was a kick in the head?" he asked, feeling like the bottom had dropped out from underneath him.
Nick nodded. "There's no way you could have known, Agent Coulson," he said kindly. Phil didn't miss that he was calling him by name, but it didn't help, because he'd killed Clint, and apparently all he'd needed to do was knock him out and he would have been fine. He'd even helped with the fight. "It might not have even worked in your reality."
"It might have worked perfectly," Phil snapped. "If I'd bothered to try it, maybe other things would have different too, but I guess I'll never know."
"Stand down, Coulson," Nick said, glaring at him. Phil would take that expression over pity any day. "Agent Romanoff didn't have a dislocated shoulder with an arrow through it when she faced Barton. She got lucky."
"They both did," Phil said, looking away.
"I'm not sure Barton would agree with you on that one," Nick said, which was something else Phil didn't understand. "You might want to stay away from him for a while. Not that you're going anywhere for the foreseeable future."
"Yes, sir," Phil said dully.
"Coulson," Nick said, and swallowed. "Phil."
"What is it, Nick?" Phil asked when he didn't say anything else. This wasn't the Nick he knew, the Nick who was his oldest friend. That Nick was dead and blown to bits in New Mexico. But this Nick looked and sounded exactly like him, and Phil couldn't help feeling like something precious had been returned to him.
"I don't know if you realized it or not, but between the radiation and the infection in your shoulder, you were in pretty bad shape when you got here," Nick said. He was giving Phil the "this is serious, Coulson, so you'd better be paying attention" face.
Phil shrugged his good shoulder. "There were a lot of people worse off," he said.
"Let me guess," Nick said dryly. "You didn't bother to mention the pus coming out of your shoulder wound to anyone. How long has it been that way?"
"A couple weeks," Phil admitted reluctantly. "I pulled a few stitches at the beginning. I figured it was just healing slowly because of that. Then I ripped it all open again; I think it got infected after that."
"You're lucky we've got an experimental treatment for radiation poisoning, or the docs tell me you wouldn't have enough of an immune system left to fight it, even with the best antibiotics we've got," Nick said. "They say you'd've been dead in a couple days without treatment, and I'm guessing you wouldn't have gotten treatment where you were."
"Probably not," Phil said matter-of-factly. "Antibiotics were in pretty short supply."
"Shit, Phil," Nick said, shaking his head. "Is it wrong that I'm glad you're here and not there? No, don't answer that. Get some rest; sleep if you can. That's an order."
"I'm not sure you can actually give me orders, Nick," Phil said. "You're not technically my boss."
"We'll see about that," Nick said, placing his hand gently on Phil's bad shoulder. "Rest. You'll have some visitors later." He gestured to the nurse hovering outside the door, who came and injected something into his IV. It must have been a painkiller, because within a couple of minutes his shoulder hurt less. A few minutes after that he was asleep.
The next time he woke up, they let him eat and drink. The food wasn't gourmet or anything, but it was fresh, the lettuce on his hamburger crisp, the tomato juicy, the French fries tender and steaming hot. It was the best meal he'd had in months.
After he ate, he got in the shower. His shoulder and his IV site were wrapped in plastic to keep it dry, but they let him stay under the hot water as long as he liked. When he got out, there were clean towels, a clean gown, and clean sheets on his bed. He'd never taken pleasures like these for granted--he'd spent far too much time in war zones and safehouses for that--but he thought he might have a new appreciation for them now.
He slept again, and when he woke, the nurse asked if he was up for visitors. He nodded, ill at ease. Presumably the people who wanted to see him had known the other him, the Coulson who had died. Depending on who was coming, he'd have known versions of them who had died. He doubted that any of the visitors were people still alive back home; none of them had been close friends.
It occurred to him for the first time that he didn't know if he could get back there, or if he should even try. Then his door opened and Pepper Potts walked in, carrying a large bouquet of flowers, and he forgot to be nervous, because she was smiling at him through her tears and coming forward to kiss his cheek with the same warmth and friendship he remembered.
It was awkward at times over the next few days, as various people stopped by his room. They all stared at him like they couldn't believe their eyes, and he was pretty sure he stared right back at a few of them. Captain Rogers in particular, especially when he handed Phil a set of vintage Captain America trading cards that he'd signed.
Maria Hill came the second day, looking like she was forcing herself to face him. "I'm sorry, I can't," she said abruptly after a few minutes of conversation. "This is just too weird."
"It's okay," Phil said. She didn't come to visit again.
Stark and Banner showed up together, talking eagerly over each other about the device that had brought him here. The upshot seemed to be that it was "as dead as this reality's Coulson," as Stark put it. Even if they could get it working again, there was no way to tune it so it would return him to his reality. "So I guess you're stuck here, Agent," Stark said, grinning at him. Phil wasn't sure how he felt about it, to be honest.
If he'd stayed there, he'd be as dead as this reality's Coulson, too. Could he really have accomplished much in the few days he would have had left? Would they really miss him? The people here, these people who were alive and breathing and mourning the dead Coulson, did they really want him around as a reminder of what they'd lost? It didn't seem like he belonged in either reality, but apparently this was the world he'd be living in now. He should make the best of it.
He'd been there a week before they'd let him leave the medical wing of the carrier. Natalia--no, Natasha--brought him some clothes, and it felt good to get out of his hospital gown and into a suit again, even if it hung on him too loosely. Jasper Sitwell rode with him on the quinjet back to the city, pretending not to notice the tears in Phil's eyes as he stared out the window at the buildings, the busy streets, or at the miracle that was Jasper himself. He smiled and awkwardly patted Phil's hand when they landed on the top of SHIELD headquarters.
Nick had been apologetic about his need to stay in employee quarters, something about his apartment no longer being available, but Phil didn't much care. He'd find a new place to go along with the new life he'd been granted. That was for the best, he thought; he didn't want their Coulson's clothing or furniture. A week or so in a bunk would be fine.
Sleeping was unsurprisingly difficult. He had nightmares, but that was nothing new. The subjects were, though, and the guilt. Phil saw the shrinks for his mandatory sessions, and it helped, a little, as it usually did. He went through physical therapy for his shoulder, and that helped, too, although his range of movement and strength would never be what it had been. He found a new apartment. Nick did some sort of clerical hocus-pocus to get him declared alive and working for SHIELD again, if not on active field work. He got used to interacting with the people he both knew and didn't know, and after a while, it almost felt normal.
The only person he cared to see whom he hadn't seen, not since the day he arrived, was Clint Barton. He asked Nick about it, but all Nick would say is, "Give it time, Phil."
Pepper looked sad when he asked her, but she shook her head and didn't say anything.
Phil asked Natasha, because if anyone would know what was going on, it would be Natasha. She gave him one of her studied blank looks and said, "He took Coulson's death really hard. I can't tell you any more than that without breaking a confidence." After that, she went away on a long assignment. He thought, but he wasn't sure, that Clint went with her. He didn't have the same security clearance he'd had before.
He saw the team occasionally, whenever he couldn't get away with refusing another of their frequent invitations. Clint was never there.
Pepper met him for lunch once a week when their schedules allowed, usually at a bistro halfway between SHIELD headquarters and Avengers Tower. Six weeks after he'd gotten out of the hospital, she texted him to ask that he meet her at her and Tony's penthouse instead of the restaurant. He didn't think anything of it until he stepped off the elevator and saw Clint sitting there.
"Damn it, Pepper, I can't believe you would do this," Clint said, standing up, his fists clenched. He was wearing a heavy platinum ring on his left hand. A wedding ring. Phil couldn't take his eyes off it; why hadn't Natasha said anything?
"I'm sorry," Phil said. "I didn't know you'd be here. I don't understand why you don't want to see me, but I have to respect it. I'll just go."
"No, don't," Pepper said, a hand on his arm. "Clint, we're all worried about you, and we're tired of waiting. I know this is rough, but you've got to face it. JARVIS, don't let either of them leave until they've talked this out. I'll be downstairs." With that, she pushed past Phil and got into the elevator, the doors shutting behind her.
"Fuck," Clint said, sitting back down and putting his hands over his face. He sounded completely wrecked, and Phil was moving to his side before he quite knew what he was doing.
"I'm sorry," he said again, stopping short of the sofa where Clint was sitting. "I don't know what it is that is causing you such pain, but whatever it is that I did, I'm sorry."
"You didn't do anything," Clint said, his face still hidden. "Look, it's not your fault, okay?"
"I'm pretty sure it's my fault I killed you," Phil said bitterly. "Apparently all I needed to do was kick you in the head, but I wasn't, I'm not Natalia, sorry, Natasha. I can call her if you want; I'm pretty sure she's somewhere in the country." That was completely unprofessional and ridiculous, he thought. Get a hold of yourself, Coulson. He took a deep breath and focused on masking his feelings.
"What the fuck are you even talking about?" Clint said, finally looking up.
"I'm talking about calling your wife," Phil explained, relieved that he sounded in control again. "I thought you might--what?" he asked, because Clint was laughing. It sounded almost painful, but it was still laughter.
"My wife? Natasha?" Clint said, gasping for breath. "That's--Jesus, I think that's the funniest thing I've heard in, like, ever."
"I don't understand," Phil said, feeling as lost as he had when he first arrived. "Your ring, I thought…."
"My ring," Clint said heavily. All the laughter was gone as quickly as it had arrived. "This ring? This one here?" Clint asked, pointing at it.
Phil nodded. "Unless a lot more is different about our realities than I thought, that's a wedding ring," he said, keeping his voice calm and matter-of-fact.
Clint looked at him, his expression bleak. "It is a wedding ring. I'm not married anymore, though. Just haven't been able to take it off." He looked down at his hand, twisting the ring around his finger. "I've been a widower for almost four months, but I can't seem to take it off. Which is pretty funny considering I used to wear it on a chain around my neck most of the time, or leave it behind when I was on a mission."
"I'm sorry," Phil said. He didn't know what else to say.
"You really thought I was married to Nat?" Clint asked him, like it was the most ridiculous thing he'd ever heard.
"Where I'm from, in my reality, Clint Barton and Natalia Romanova had been together for several years," Phil said carefully. This whole conversation was a minefield; he would have preferred a Hydra interrogation. "That's why I went after Barton when he was turned. I couldn't ask her to take down her lover."
"So you did it instead," Clint said, studying him.
Phil nodded. "You lost your wife during the attack?" he asked. "Did she work for SHIELD?"
"Wow, you really don't get it, do you?" Clint said, shaking his head. "There was no wife. No cellist, either. I lost my husband. My husband was killed, and it was all my fault."
"Cellist?" Phil said, wondering if he looked as shocked and confused as he felt. The pieces were falling into place, hope and guilt and fear following closely behind.
"Never mind that," Clint said, glancing up at him. "You're not disgusted, are you? Do they still have Don't Ask, Don't Tell where you're from? Do they have bisexuals? How about gaybashing?"
"What? No!" Phil said, dropping all pretense of calm. "I'm not, I wouldn't.... That's not an issue, I promise. Jesus, Barton, just tell me. Please. Tell me who your husband was."
"My husband was Phil Coulson," Clint said bitterly. "So you'll excuse me if I don't find it particularly pleasant seeing you."
The words tore Phil's world apart, even as they made everything make sense. He forced himself to take a breath, to keep standing there until he could make his mouth work again. "I understand. I'm sorry," he said quietly, shattering to pieces inside. "JARVIS, I'd like to leave now." What he'd really like to do is find a place to hide until he could face what he'd learned, until he could work out how the fuck he was supposed to respond to all of this without making things worse.
"Of course, sir," JARVIS said. His voice was just a tiny bit different from the one Phil was familiar with. Phil held onto that observation like it was a life raft in the middle of an ocean. The elevator door opened, and Phil got in.
Pepper stopped him in the lobby and apologetically asked if he still wanted to get lunch. He shook his head and said he'd lost his appetite. He went back to his apartment and sat on the sofa until it got too dark to see, and then he went to bed. Eventually he went to sleep.
The next day he went back to work.
Clint stopped completely avoiding him after that, although neither of them sought the other out. Phil was used to that, to contenting himself with occasional glimpses in the hallways of SHIELD or in briefings. He threw himself into the work they permitted him, planning operations, searching through mission reports, helping in whatever way he could.
A few weeks after his conversation with Clint, Thor appeared in New York, announcing they'd rebuilt the Bifrost. He greeted Phil joyfully and moved into the tower with the rest of the Avengers. When he heard about the device that had brought Phil to this reality, he insisted on examining it. "This is a great boon," he said reverently as he picked up the sphere, which remained a dull silver color. "It is for the restoration of what is lost, for the righting of wrongs. It was a gift from the goddess Idunn."
"Uh, sorry, big guy, but it's actually a device that allows people to transfer between universes," Stark said, glancing uncomfortably at Phil.
"Can it not be both?" Thor asked. He looked at Clint, who promptly got up from the table and left the room. Thor shook his head sadly and switched his gaze to Phil. He looked away, feeling sick to his stomach. Rogers changed the subject, and they continued with the briefing.
Phil continued to receive invitations to various get-togethers with the team. If he turned down too many in a row, Tony or Steve or Pepper would come to his office and refuse to leave until he agreed to join them. Clint was usually there now, and although they didn't interact much, at least Phil could verify that he was okay, that he liked and trusted his teammates, that they liked and trusted him.
They gave Phil back his level seven security clearance six months after his arrival, but his shoulder remained an issue; he couldn't possibly meet the medical requirements for active field duty. He volunteered for experimental surgery using some of the technology developed for the Winter Soldier. Bucky Barnes had returned to the fold and was serving as one of the Avengers alongside Steve, his best friend, and Natasha, his lover. Phil certainly hadn't seen that one coming, but he'd be pleased if Bucky's metal arm helped him get back to active duty status.
The day before the surgery, he paid a visit to Phil Coulson's grave. The headstone read, "Phillip James Coulson, 1964-2012. Hero, Friend, Beloved Husband." There was a potted poinsettia in front of it. He took a glove off and rested his hand on top of the marble.
Phil wondered if they'd even had a memorial for him back in his reality. There hadn't been a lot of time or energy for those, not with so many dead and so much to do. His friends had been dead already, all the people who had come to this Coulson's funeral. Here they were still alive, and astonishingly enough, mostly still his friends, even though he wasn't the man they'd known and buried. He didn't get it, but he couldn't help being thankful.
The top of the gravestone was smooth and cold against his palm. He left his hand there for a moment, then turned to go, only to see Clint standing behind him, his face full of grief and shock. He was really tired of seeing that look on Clint and knowing he was responsible for it.
"What the hell are you doing here?" Clint asked, sounding as weary as Phil felt.
"I'm sorry; I didn't know you'd be here," Phil said. It was another useless apology, but he didn't know what else he could say. "I was just leaving."
He made it a few yards down the walkway when Clint said, "Wait. Coulson, wait."
It was the first time Clint had said his name; hearing it come out of Clint's mouth made his chest tight. He took a deep breath and turned around. "You don't owe me anything, Barton," he made himself say. "I understand. I can't help that I'm here, but I hope you know I would never intentionally…. I'm sorry, Clint," he said, putting everything he couldn't say into one last apology. "I'm sorry I'm not him. I'm sorry he died. I know he never would have wanted to see you in pain like this. I know I don't."
"You really don't, do you?" Clint said. "It would be easier if you were an asshole, you know."
Phil snorted. "Don't let anyone hear you saying I'm not," he said. "You'll ruin my rep." It felt almost normal, almost like it used to, before everything went to shit between them.
"The rep's about you being a badass, not an asshole," Clint said, bordering on fond.
Phil couldn't help smiling. "I'll try to remember that," he said.
"See that you do," Clint said. He looked at Phil, really looked at him. All Phil could do was stand there, keeping his face as open as he could without betraying his inner turmoil. It seemed like the only fair thing to do.
"Other me was really with Nat?" Clint finally asked.
Phil nodded. "They fought a lot, but they seemed quite happy together, from what I could tell. Very similar to the relationship Natasha has with Bucky."
Clint looked away, laughing brokenly. "I don't get it," he said, sinking onto the grass next to the grave. "No matter how many times Tony explains it to me, I just do not fucking get how there could be a universe out there where I don't fall in love with you." He met Phil's eyes, his gaze steady. "How is that even possible?"
Phil sat down across from him, careful not to get too close. He felt like his heart was breaking all over again, or maybe just continuously. "It's possible," he said quietly. "It's possible if you're straight. Which you were, where I come from."
"Really?" Clint asked, his eyes narrowing. But he was still looking at Phil. "You know that for a fact?"
"I do," Phil said, nodding once.
"Because that's almost as hard to believe as the other thing," Clint said. "I mean, even if I were straight, I'm pretty sure I'd have fallen for," and his breath hitched, holding back a different word, "for Phil. Fuck. How the hell are we even supposed to talk about this, anyway? Tony calls him Coulson Prime, which he would have totally loved and claimed to have hated, but I can't call him that. And I don't know what to call you."
"You could call me Evan, I suppose," Phil offered blindly, grasping for something to ease Clint's pain. "It's my middle name."
"It's not James?" Clint asked, surprised.
Phil shook his head. "I guess it's another one of those things that's different."
"No offense, dude, but you don't look like an Evan," Clint said, leaning back against the headstone and closing his eyes. "I should probably just man up and get used to calling you by your name." It was only then that Phil realized Clint wasn't wearing his ring anymore.
"I don't want you to feel like you have to," Phil said. "I don't want you to do anything that makes you uncomfortable."
"Yeah, I got that," Clint said, waving his hand. "Do me a favor and stop apologizing, okay? None of this is your fault."
"Okay," Phil said after a moment. "I'd better get going." He stood up, brushing dried grass off his pants.
"Good luck with your surgery tomorrow," Clint said, his eyes still closed.
"Thanks," Phil said, surprised and pleased.
"Coulson," Clint said, opening his eyes again. "I'm sorry, too. I'm sorry the other me did…what he did." He didn't specify what he meant by that, and Phil didn't ask.
"There's no need to apologize for something that wasn't your fault, or so I've been told," he said instead. "I'll…I'll see you later." It came out sounding more like a question than a statement, unfortunately.
But Clint just said, "Yeah," so maybe it was okay.
The surgery went well, or so the doctors said; Phil wasn't so sure. He couldn't feel much more than pressure where the metal and electronics were, but the area surrounding the implants hurt worse than it had in months. At first he could barely move his arm. He threw himself back into physical therapy, and gradually the pain went away and the mobility returned, although he still didn't have much sensation in the skin over the implants. He spent a lot of time with Bucky, who understood what it was like to fight through the pain and frustration to get the new technology working for him, and who shared absolutely no past with any version of Phil Coulson. Talking to someone like that was soothing; he didn't have to wonder.
Bucky kept him up to date on everything that was happening while he healed; it turned out the guy was an inveterate gossip. Phil heard about Thor proposing to Jane, about Steve dating Darcy Lewis, about Tony tossing around the idea of proposing to Pepper without ever actually doing it. He heard far more than he wanted to about Bucky's tumultuous relationship with Natasha. Bucky filled him in on the growing respect between Tony and Steve, Thor's reluctance to return to Asgard, and the continuing bromance between Tony and Bruce. He urged Phil to come out with the team more often, and Phil promised to try.
At the end of each conversation, Phil would ask, "How is he?"
Bucky would answer him, would say, "He had a bad week, but Nat says he's doing better today," or "He ate half the cookies Darcy baked the other night," or "Nat fixed him up on a secret blind date and now he's pissed; he won't even talk to her."
Once, he said, "You know, he asks about you, too."
"What do you tell him?" Phil asked, looking at his hands.
"I tell him you had a bad week last week, but I think you're doing better now," Bucky said gently. "I tell him your arm's getting stronger. I tell him you miss him." Phil looked up at that, but he didn't say anything. From the way Bucky looked back at him, he didn't need to.
Phil kept working through all of it, planning and researching, building up his physical conditioning, spending hours in the gym or on the range. Sometimes he'd see Clint there, shooting arrow after arrow, perfectly on target, as he jumped and rolled and ran. Phil watched him as he always had, full of awe at Clint's grace and skill.
They finally cleared him for field duty a week after the anniversary of the Chitauri attack, four months after his surgery. Ten months after he'd left one world and come to another. He said a silent prayer of thanks to a God he didn't really believe in, and hoped that the world he'd left behind had healed some of its wounds.
His first missions weren't anything serious; he shepherded some junior agents through a couple of easy undercover operations and served as Natasha's handler when she took down a Hydra ring-leader she was perfectly capable of taking down without any help whatsoever. Then he infiltrated a Ten Rings cell in Colombia. That was a little more of a challenge, but it worked out well in the end.
"You're an idiot," Clint said when he came to visit him in Medical.
Phil had already heard the same thing from a few others, but he hadn't expected it from Clint, hadn't expected to see him at all. He shrugged to hide his surprise. "It's just a graze," he said. "The armor stopped the others."
"Do you even hear yourself?" Clint said, shaking his head. "Would it kill you to listen to me for once?" He realized what he'd said, turned pale, and walked out of the room.
"Shit," Phil muttered. He'd better keep away from Clint for a while, he decided.
Fury, however, had a different plan. Phil's next operation was with the team, Clint definitely included, although they left Banner back in New York. Intel suggested that Loki had resurfaced in Norway, possibly in league with Hydra. They took the Quinjet to Oslo to gather more intel, which was mostly futile, then traveled north to Tromso, where it was cold and getting colder as the year moved on.
Clint didn't say much to him during the trip, but that wasn't anything new. He was quiet, polite, and professional, not just with Phil, but with everyone, even Natasha and Steve. No one brought it up; there were too many things on all of their minds. Thor was worried about his brother. Bucky was on edge and trying to hide it with bluster. Everyone pretended they didn't remember that it was Hydra that had had the Winter Soldier when they found him, or that they'd found him in Lillehammer. Everyone ignored the way Phil kept glancing at Clint and glancing away again.
In retrospect, they really should have realized the whole thing was a trap. It wasn't a very imaginative trap, but it was a very large one, at least in terms of the number of assailants.
Bucky got hit first, Steve and Natasha immediately rushing to his side. Phil radioed for back-up while providing covering fire, even though he knew there were no teams closer than Oslo. Tony and Clint each took out a few of the enemy, Thor a few more, but it seemed like there were hundreds of them. Phil couldn't figure out where they were all coming from before Clint was dragging him behind some cover. Phil wished they'd brought Banner along; they could have used some smashing. Thor, Steve, and Tony were giving it their all, but there were just too many. Clint stood to draw his bow, and Phil saw the Hydra goon just in time to throw himself in front, firing rapidly even though he already knew they were all protected by helmets and armor.
The goon lifted his gun, which looked a little like a tesseract-powered taser, and shot him.
It turned out his assessment was essentially correct. Phil went down, paralyzed. He watched, powerless, as the goon took down Clint in the same way he'd taken down Phil. The goon hit him again with the stun-gun, and Phil was out.
When he came to, his aching head was resting on someone's thigh, and that someone's hand was on his shoulder. He kept his eyes closed, recognizing the rhythm of Clint's breathing, the scent of his body. His head was resting on Clint's thigh. His bare, warm thigh. The hand on his shoulder was Clint's. It was unexpected and deeply gratifying for the two seconds he allowed himself before he opened his eyes. The narrow cell they were in was dimly lit, cold, and contained nothing other than the two of them, a couple of threadbare blankets, and a stainless steel toilet. "Welcome back, sir," Clint said gruffly, and Phil put a hard lid on the deep, unbounded joy those three simple words gave him.
"Talk to me, Barton," he said, sitting up. His neck went into a spasm, making his headache ten times worse. He ignored the urge to massage it, or, better yet, to put his head back where it had been a moment ago.
Clint snorted. "We were stunned by faceless Hydra goon number fifty-six. I woke up here about five minutes ago. I can't hear anyone outside. I'm pretty sure they removed our trackers--there's blood on your shirt, and my shoulder stings."
Phil looked at Clint for permission, then examined the back of Clint's shoulder, pulling the collar of his shirt down and palpating the area around the scabbing wound as lightly as he could. "Yeah, it's gone," he confirmed. "Can you check?" he asked, turning to the side. His implant was in the back of his upper arm, where it wouldn't interfere with the electronics in his shoulder.
"You mind?" Clint said, gesturing at his shirt. Phil pulled his arm out of the sleeve so Clint could see.
He shivered a little at the gentle touch of Clint's callused fingers. "It's cold," he said when Clint looked at him.
"Yeah," Clint said, watching him fix his shirt. They'd both been wearing thermals on top, but Phil was regretting their decision to forgo the bottoms. "Yours is gone, too. You want a blanket? They're pretty dirty, but they're better than nothing."
"I think a little dirt is the least of our worries," Phil said, raising an eyebrow. "Did they leave us any water?"
"Just what's in the toilet," Clint said.
"Right," Phil said, sighing. "At least we're not shackled. I wouldn't want a repeat of Minsk."
"Minsk wasn't as bad as Juarez," Clint said.
"I wasn't in Juarez," Phil said, grimacing. "That was Sitwell. I mean, in my world."
"Sitwell, really?" Clint asked, his eyebrows up. "Why him and not you? We knew going in Juarez was going to be a cluster-fuck. I wouldn't have made it through Juarez without you and Nat."
"Jasper died in Juarez," Phil said quietly, remembering. "You and Natalia couldn't get to him in time."
"Sitwell died four years ago?" Clint asked, taken aback. "I knew he--I could tell, the way you look at him, same as you look at everyone--but I figured it was last year. Shit, Coulson, I'm sorry. I know you were friends."
"And now we are again," Phil said wryly. "I can almost forget, sometimes. I think Nick's completely blocked out the idea that I ever wasn't here, that I'm not the Phil he knew." He looked at Clint, who was looking at the wall, his shoulders hunched. "Fuck, Barton, can we forget I said that? I'm sorry--"
"I thought I told you to stop apologizing for things that aren't your fault," Clint interrupted hoarsely.
Phil swallowed another apology. "How did you make it out of Juarez?" he asked after a moment.
"It was Phil," Clint said softly. "He did his thing, disarmed a drug lord and three body guards with a fucking dried out Bic. I was useless, gut shot and bleeding all over Phil's favorite D & G, but he and Nat carried me out of there and got us home."
Phil hesitated, then went ahead and said it. "I'm glad he did. And I'm glad Natasha found a way to get through to you on the helicarrier."
Clint looked like he was about to ask something, but the guards chose that moment to roll a bottle of water and a second bottle of something that looked like baby formula through a slot at the bottom of the door. "Probably soymilk. Or the Norwegian equivalent of Ensure," Clint said, looking at it dubiously. "If we're lucky. I guess we get to share, huh, sir?"
"You go ahead," Phil said. "You haven't been eating much."
"Yeah, like that's gonna work on me," Clint said. "You'll drink your half if I have to force it down you, Coulson."
Phil smiled. "You won't have to," he promised.
"Unless it's drugged," Clint added after a moment, looking at the bottle again. "If it's drugged, you have my permission to induce vomiting."
Phil nodded again, his smile gone. "Understood."
"Okay, here goes nothing," Clint said, opening the bottle and chugging half of it as fast as he could. "That was absolutely disgusting," he said, making a face, "but it didn't taste drugged. I think it's the stuff they put in feeding tubes or something. Here, I'll trade you." He handed Phil the half-empty bottle and took the water, taking a few gulps and swishing it around in his mouth before swallowing.
Phil drank the solution down steadily, wiping his mouth with his hand when he finished. "I think you're right," he said, considering. "It should keep us alive, at any rate."
"Yeah, hopefully it won't take them long to find us," Clint said absently, taking another drink of water before handing the bottle back to Phil. There wasn't a shred of doubt in his voice; he believed they'd make it out of here. Phil wished he had half of Clint's certainty.
"Hopefully," Phil said, leaning back against the wall. He knew he should stand up, examine their cell, look for clues indicating where they were, ways to escape, but his head hurt, and he was tired.
"You okay?" Clint asked, looking at him.
"Headache," Phil said.
"Still?" Clint asked, sounding concerned. "Did you hit your head when they stunned you?"
"I don't think so," Phil said, grimacing. "I might have wrenched my neck."
"Come here," Clint said, gesturing, and Phil moved closer. "The usual?" Clint asked.
"What?" Phil said, confused, only to let out a groan as Clint dug his fingers into Phil's neck, finding the exact spot where the muscle was knotted and working it like an expert until it released. He groaned again when Clint found a second knot and massaged it with the perfect combination of pressure and depth.
Clint gave his neck one more squeeze and dropped his hand. "Better?" he asked softly.
"Yeah," Phil said, just as softly. "Thanks." He's done that before, he thought. He did that for his husband.
He didn't know what it meant. It might not mean anything. Before Natalia, before everything went to shit, Clint used to touch him sometimes. They'd been friends back then, not just agent and handler. They'd had each other's back.
That's probably all this was.
"I'm gonna take a look around," Clint said after a few minutes of silence.
"That's a good idea," Phil said, standing up. The two of them searched the cell carefully, but there wasn't much to work with. The ceiling was too high to reach, even if Clint boosted him. Besides, it was as featureless as the walls. The door was thick, the seams around it too thin to get a fingernail in, and there was no way to open the slot from the inside. The toilet was joined to the floor without any bolts, and there was no toilet paper. It flushed automatically, they figured around once an hour. They couldn't tell for sure, since they'd been stripped of anything they could possibly use, including their watches, their shoes, and most of their clothing. Phil supposed he should count them lucky that their captors had at least left them their boxers, undershirts, and socks.
"At least it's not Minsk," Clint said when they'd finished their explorations and settled with their backs against the wall. Phil was cold, even with a blanket wrapped around him; the skin over his shoulder implants wasn't enough to insulate the metal inside against heat loss.
"At least it's not Minsk," Phil agreed, taking a drink of water and handing it to Clint.
"Can I ask you something?" Clint said hesitantly.
"Of course," Phil answered, more calmly than he felt.
"I was just wondering what it was like, where you used to be."
"That's not a question," Phil said, frowning. "I mean, I don't know what you want to know. Specifically."
"I guess I was wondering what parts were the same and what parts were different," Clint said. Phil tried not to let his frustration show, but Clint must have picked up on it, because he said, "Like, how did we meet? Did you shoot the other me?"
"Shoot you?" Phil said, schooling his voice to hide his horror. "No, I didn't shoot you. I held a gun on you, but that's as far as it went. I explained who I was, what SHIELD could do for you, for Barton, and he decided it sounded better than the alternative. The other Coulson shot you?"
Clint shrugged. "I didn't give him much of a choice. He winged me, just enough to stop me from running. It was the right call." He looked at Phil. "You made the right call when you shot the other me on the carrier. I want you to know that. He would have killed you. Hill told me you said he'd killed her that first night. Her and Fury both."
"I don't know what difference that's supposed to make," Phil said.
"Loki got me here, same as in your world," Clint explained, still watching Phil. "But it sounds like he had more control over there. Hill was the one who figured it out, and thank God for that, because I think I would have jumped off the tower otherwise."
Phil couldn't keep the distress off his face at that confession, but at least he kept himself from apologizing again.
"No, see, I shot at her and Fury, but I hit Fury in the chest, even though I knew he was wearing armor," Clint went on. "And Hill, I shot at her, but I missed."
Phil blinked. "You missed? But you never miss, Clint." He was worried Clint would be upset that Phil used his first name, but he didn't seem to notice.
"Exactly," he said, nodding once. "So you see what I'm saying. It's the difference between our worlds, or one of them, anyway. I missed. Selvig built a backdoor into the device that Nat used to shut it down. On your world, those things didn't happen. On your world, your Clint would have killed you. You had to shoot him."
"Or I could have knocked him out," Phil said, looking down.
"He never would have let you," Clint said firmly.
"How do you figure that?" Phil said.
"Because I could have killed Nat that day, but I let her beat me, Coulson. She was distracted, had just gotten away from the Hulk, was fighting me, her best friend. Most days it's a pretty fair fight between us, although I'd give her the edge, but not that day. I could have killed her. There was something of me still left, though, so I didn't. I let her take me down. Your guy, there wasn't enough of him left. You made the right call."
"Maybe," Phil said, but he felt better about what had happened than he had since he'd first gotten to this world.
"We should probably get some sleep," Clint said, looking down. "Be nice and rested for whenever they decide to start interrogating us."
"You're probably right," Phil said. "It's not like there's anything else to do." He stretched out on the floor, pillowing his head on his arm, wrapping the blanket around him.
"Fuck, it's cold," Clint muttered from behind him.
"At least it's not Minsk," Phil said. In Minsk they'd been completely naked, shackled to opposite walls, and taken out frequently for beatings that, while somewhat pedestrian in scope, were also effectively painful. It had gone on for three weeks, until they had finally gotten a chance to take out a couple of guards so they could escape. If Juarez had been worse, Phil didn't really want to hear about it.
He closed his eyes and slowed his breathing, listening to Clint, who was doing the same. If it had been anyone else, he would have volunteered to take a watch, because he would have needed to, but it was Clint, so it was okay. It took even less time than he thought it would to fall asleep.
He was back in Minsk, shackled to the wall. Clint was gone; he wasn't coming back. Phil knew that, the same as he knew he was going to die here, cold and hurting and alone. God, he was so cold, he was shivering, and he was wandering through the helicarrier, on the bridge, and there were bodies everywhere. There was Nick, shot through the head, and Maria, shot through the neck. He looked through the windows and saw the remains of New York, and he was cold and very alone.
"Hey, Coulson, Phil, come on, wake up," Clint said. "Come on, you're shivering, wake up and get over here."
Phil sat up and folded his knees, wrapping his arms around them. "No, it's okay, I'll be fine," he said, rubbing his legs.
"Don't be an idiot," Clint said. "I'm freezing, too. Come on, we can share. Put one underneath us, one on top, okay?"
"Yeah," Phil said, still trying to shake off the dream. "You're right. I mean, if you're okay with it," he added as he realized exactly what Clint was proposing.
"It's fine," Clint said. "It's what we need to do, unless you want to freeze to death."
They spread one blanket on the floor. Phil started to lay down, but Clint frowned, and Phil figured he'd just offer to take watch for a while after all. "No, it's okay," Clint said when Phil got up again, "it's just, could you get on the other side?"
"Sure," Phil said, and rolled over. "Okay?" he asked.
"Yeah," Clint said, and Phil could almost swear there was a hint of satisfaction in Clint's voice. He got into their makeshift bed and pulled the blanket over the two of them, laying with his back against Phil's. The warmth of Clint's body against his shoulder was heavenly. He fell back into a dreamless sleep almost immediately.
Phil woke when the slot opened and two new bottles rolled in. Clint had turned over during the night and was now spooning him, his arm draped over Phil's chest. Phil squeezed his eyes shut. He knew he needed to wake Clint up, that it wasn't fair to wish they could stay like this. He started to carefully move away, but Clint's arm tightened around him. "What," Clint mumbled, then tensed as he realized where they were, and who was in his arms. "Shit," he said, sitting up.
"It's okay," Phil said, because he didn't know what Clint would do if he tried to apologize. "I think breakfast is served."
"Yeah," Clint said, sighing heavily. "I'm just gonna," he said, gesturing towards the toilet.
"Sure," Phil said, keeping the blanket over his lap and willing his dick to settle down.
They drank their breakfast in an awkward silence. Phil waited another half hour or so before starting some yoga stretches, then moving into calisthenics. Clint watched him for a minute, then joined in. It was harder to concentrate on his exercises after that, because Clint's idea of calisthenics included things like walking around the cell on his hands, his shirt off so it wouldn't fall in his face. He left his shirt off when he switched to a series of burpees, and his boxer briefs didn't exactly hide much. Phil deliberately looked away and started his own set of burpees. By the end of it they were both sweating, which was stupid, because half an hour later they were freezing again, although neither of them was eager to admit it.
"Let's not do that again," Clint said eventually, huddled under one of the blankets.
"Agreed," Phil said. He clutched his own blanket around him more tightly. "All things in moderation."
"They haven't interrogated us yet," Clint said, glancing at the door.
"I noticed," Phil answered.
"Still feeding us, though," Clint said. "And no cameras."
"They could have taken pictures before we came to," Phil reminded him. "If the others got out--"
"They're not here, so I'm going to choose to believe they did," Clint said pointedly.
"Could be there's some debate about what to do with us," Phil said. That was probably their best shot; at least it kept them alive longer, gave SHIELD time to look for them. If SHIELD even knew they were missing.
"At least if they were interrogating us we'd get a look outside," Clint said.
"Maybe," Phil said, because they could always use blindfolds.
"Fuck, this is a depressing conversation," Clint said, leaning his head back against the wall. "Let's talk about something else."
"What do you want to talk about?" Phil asked.
"Tell me more about your world," Clint said, sitting forward.
"I thought you didn't want to have a depressing conversation," Phil said, raising an eyebrow.
"Not about what happened, the Chitauri and everything," Clint said, rolling his eyes. "Tell me about your life before that. Your childhood, or the Marines, I don't know."
"I wasn't in the Marines," Phil said. "I was a Ranger before I joined SHIELD."
Clint inclined his head. "Army Ranger instead of Recon Marine, got it. You still grew up in Connecticut?"
Phil nodded, keeping his face impassive. Clint frowned at him. "What is it?"
"Nothing," Phil said.
"Did you still go to Yale?" Clint asked.
"For grad school," Phil confirmed. "I went to NYU for undergrad. What about you?"
"Me?" Clint asked, his eyes wide. "I got my GED after I joined SHIELD. Because they made me. The other Barton went to college?"
"Just some courses at community college," Phil said. "He was a Marine for a while."
"How'd that work out for him?" Clint asked, smirking. "If he was anything like me, I'm betting he got kicked out for insubordination."
"He did," Phil said, chuckling. "Always had to do things his way, chain of command be damned."
"Why'd you join the Army?" Clint asked.
"My grandfather was in the Army during World War II," Phil said, considering his words. "My father always held him up as the epitome of role models, the real deal."
"Like Captain America?" Clint asked perceptively. "Steve was Army, too."
"That helped with the decision," Phil admitted. "But most of it was trying to be the son my father wanted."
Clint looked at him but didn't ask him to explain.
"Your turn, Barton," Phil said. "I don't really know much about your childhood."
"My childhood?" Clint said, grimacing. "That goes right in the depressing conversation category, sorry."
"Oh," Phil said. "I didn't know. I thought…the Clint I knew, he never really talked about it, but I guess I thought it wasn't that bad once he was adopted."
"He was adopted?" Clint said, his face betraying his shock.
"You weren't?" Phil asked, his heart sinking. He'd met Clint's parents once. They hadn't understood their son, but they'd loved him.
Clint shook his head. "My brother and I ran away and joined the circus when he was twelve and I was ten," he said. "How the hell did the other me learn how to shoot if he was adopted?"
"In the circus, like you," Phil said. "His adoptive parents were acrobats. His brother died in the same accident as his mother and father."
Clint shook his head. "No wonder you didn't have to shoot him," he said. "What was he doing when you picked him up?"
"He was a mercenary," Phil said, remembering the first time he saw Clint Barton, full of controlled fury and perfect competence, with just a hint of vulnerability and guilt when Phil told him what the people he'd been working for had actually been doing.
Clint blew out a breath. "I was a thief. A homeless, dirty, hungry thief. I still don't know what Phil saw in me that he thought was worth saving, but I'll never stop being grateful that he did."
"Barton," Phil said, "he saw you. That's all he needed to see."
Clint jerked back, staring at him, his mouth hanging open. "No," he said, his voice breaking. "You did not just say that. You did not just--Fuck, Phil, don't do this to me."
"I don't understand," Phil said, his throat tight. "What did I say?"
"I can't," Clint said. "I know we're stuck here, but I need you to not talk to me right now." He was looking at the wall again, and his shoulders were completely rigid under the blanket.
"Okay," Phil said, standing up and moving as far from Clint as he could get before sitting down again. If that was what Clint needed, he'd do it. He always had.
That's when the door opened, a masked Hydra goon stepping through and reaching for Clint. "No, take me," Phil said, standing up, making his hands shake a little, putting a quaver in his voice. It wasn't difficult. "I'm the senior agent. Take me."
The goon threw a burlap sack over his head and dragged him out by the arm. Phil tensed, ready to take the guy down, but he couldn't see through the burlap, and he had no idea of the layout. Best to gather some intel before attempting escape. And if they thought he was weak, so much the better, especially if they kept neglecting to restrain him or Clint in any significant way.
They cuffed his arms behind his back and fastened them to the wall once he got into the interrogation room, but they left his legs free. The beating they gave him was amateurish at best, leaving him with nothing worse than a split lip and some bruised ribs. They didn't even ask any decent questions; it left him very little to work with. If Clint didn't get better intel when they interrogated him, they'd have to just play it by ear.
They left him cuffed to the wall for approximately two hours after they finished interrogating him before they bothered to take him back to the cell. He played up his injuries on the way back, moaning and stumbling. He got his hands on the guard a couple times, but he felt nothing but cloth-covered kevlar, no weapons or keys or even a pen. The walls of the corridor felt as smooth and featureless as those of the cell. He made sure to bump into the guard again when he stopped at the cell, but all he got out of it was a hard shove into the wall while the guard punched some numbers into a keypad.
Still, it was more than they'd known before. The door opened, and the guard shoved him again, even harder. He deliberately tripped over the sill, planning his landing to minimize any discomfort, but instead Clint's strong hands caught him and held him upright. "What did you fuckers do to him?" Clint said angrily, squeezing his shoulder reassuringly. "He's been through enough already; why can't you leave him alone and pick on someone your own size?"
"Cuffed wrists to wall, no other restraints," Phil breathed into Clint's ear. "Keypad at the door. No obvious exits. We need more intel."
"Got it, sir," Clint breathed back, letting go of his shoulder and pulling the sack over his head. "Are you okay?" he asked out loud, looking and sounding very concerned.
"I'm fine," Phil said, smiling as much as he could without opening his lip up again.
The guard put the burlap sack over Clint's head. Before they could take him away, Clint reached out and took Phil's hand in his, lacing their fingers together for a second. "I'll be okay, sir," he said loudly, acting scared. "Don't worry; I won't tell them anything."
Phil squeezed his hand and let go. Then he sat down to wait.
It was a long wait. Another set of bottles arrived through the slot before Clint came back; Phil carefully drank half of the feeding solution, but he set more than half the water aside. He used the toilet, he paced around the edge of the cell, and he reminded himself that Clint was a very capable agent. From what he'd seen and heard since he got to this reality, he thought this Clint might be even better at what he did than the Clint in his world had been.
Of course, it could be that he was just even more desperately in love with this Clint Barton than he had been with the one he'd shot and killed on the carrier. It didn't seem like it should even be possible, but the relief he felt when the guard finally brought Clint back made it clear that it was nonetheless true.
The guard didn't bother to stick around, just pushed Clint into the cell and shut the door behind him. Phil went to him immediately, noting the blood seeping through the burlap. He put his hand on Clint's arm first, to let him know he was there, then took the cover off his head. It looked like they'd worked Clint over harder than they had Phil. His right eye was swollen shut, his left ear and his mouth were bloody messes, and he was favoring his left side in a way Phil thought was genuine and not an act. Maybe a cracked rib, judging from his stance and the bruising.
"Come on, sit down," Phil said. "Let's get you cleaned up."
"I don't think they're actually Hydra," Clint mumbled, shaking his head and spitting out blood. Definitely worse than they'd done to Phil. "Too incompetent. Don't seem to know what the fuck they're doing."
"That's my impression as well," Phil said, moistening a corner of the burlap and pressing it gently to the corner of Clint's mouth. "Do you think you could drink something?"
"Yeah," Clint said, taking the water Phil handed him. He swished a small amount around in his mouth and spat again, then took a larger drink and swallowed. "Okay, give me the other before I change my mind," he said, sounding a little more normal.
He drank it down a little more slowly than he had before. "Gah, that is still terrible," he said after he finished, holding out his hand for the water. Their hands touched when Phil gave him the bottle. "So what's the plan?" Clint asked when he'd finished drinking. "They come get you, you overpower them, and we make our escape?"
Phil shrugged. "Got any better ideas?"
"Nope," Clint said cheerfully. "That one works for me."
"You're awfully confident in my abilities," Phil said.
"It's you," Clint said, rolling his eyes. "These idiots won't stand a chance."
Phil must have let some of his doubt show in his face. Clint looked at him for a long moment. Phil couldn't look away as Clint met his gaze with his one open eye and said, "I know you," with complete conviction. "Like I said, they won't stand a chance."
Phil nodded, not trusting himself to speak. Things had changed between them, had changed for Clint somehow, but he couldn't get a clear sense of what it all meant.
"I know you," Clint said again, softer this time.
Phil nodded again, flushing. He wet the burlap again and finished cleaning Clint's eye, then moved on to his ear. "Your ribs?" he asked.
"I think a couple are cracked, but they don't seem to be broken," Clint answered, turning slightly so Phil could reach everything. "You?"
"Just bruises," Phil said. "They don't seem to share your confidence in my abilities; they obviously thought you deserved more attention."
"They don't know you like I do," Clint said easily.
Phil didn't know what to do with all of it, so he concentrated on Clint's ear. "There," he said after a moment, looking at it critically. "That's the best I can do." He touched the swelling over Clint's eye once more, just to make sure the bone was intact.
"Thanks," Clint murmured.
"You're welcome," Phil said. He turned away and drank some water, probably more than he needed.
"Phil," Clint said, a catch in his voice. "Listen, we need to get some sleep, but you and I, we're gonna have to talk about this."
"Okay," Phil said, his mouth dry despite the water he'd just had.
"Okay," Clint repeated. "I'm gonna hit the head; you get our bed set up."
Phil nodded. Our bed, he thought. He spread the blanket across the floor, wondering if it was worth their while to do anything with the burlap sack. He supposed they could stick it down by their feet; it might provide a little added warmth. When Clint was finished, he used the toilet, wishing he had a toothbrush.
He got into their bed and pulled the blanket up, turning his back to Clint once again. This time Clint turned with him, pulling him close, draping his arm once more across Phil's chest. "Is this okay?" he asked, his breath warm against Phil's neck.
"Yeah," Phil said, his breath catching in his throat. He squeezed Clint's hand. "If it's okay with you."
"I'm just gonna end up like this anyway," Clint said, pressing his forehead to the back of Phil's head.
"It's fine," Phil said. "It's good."
"Okay, good," Clint said. "I'll try not to freak out on you when I wake up this time."
"I'll try not to have any nightmares," Phil said.
"Sounds like a plan. Good night, Phil."
He'd been Phil all day, ever since he'd said whatever he'd said. "Good night, Clint," he answered, squeezing Clint's hand again. He was a captive of unknown assailants, held in an unknown location, but he'd endure ten times worse for this. For tonight, at least, he wasn't alone. He was asleep in minutes.
When he woke up the next morning, Clint was still sleeping, plastered up against him, his arm over Phil's chest. Clint's dick was sitting snugly against Phil's ass, and it was very clearly happy to be there. Phil made a super-human effort and avoided rocking back against it. He reached up and patted Clint's arm, but that just made Clint tighten his grip and thrust his hips a little. Phil bit back a moan and scooted forward as much as he could. "Clint," he said, patting his arm again. "Clint, wake up."
Clint mumbled, "Five more minutes, babe," and nuzzled the back of his neck. Christ.
"Clint," Phil said again, a little louder. It didn't work. He sighed and switched to his command voice. "Barton."
"Oh fuck, Coulson," Clint said, sitting up as suddenly as he had the morning before. "Shit, I'm sorry."
"It's okay," Phil said, flushing, hoping Clint wouldn't notice and knowing he would. "It's understandable." He stayed on his side, hiding his erection, until Clint got up. The swelling over Clint's eye had gone down overnight, but he was still favoring his left side.
It was a measure of how distracted he was that he didn't notice the bottles hadn't appeared until Clint mentioned it. "Hard to tell for sure without knowing the time, but it feels like they're late," Clint added, frowning.
"It does," Phil agreed. "Might not mean much, though. We already know they're not the most competent goons ever. Maybe they just overslept."
"Yeah, maybe," Clint said, but he was still frowning.
Phil did some yoga, then some push-ups and squats, moderating his activity to avoid sweating. Clint joined him, working carefully to keep from straining his ribs. Once again Phil tried to avert his eyes from the grace and beauty of his form as he twisted and flexed. He couldn't help noticing that Clint was watching him, too.
After the toilet had gone through its flushing cycle twice, Phil took the empty water bottles and filled them from the bowl, setting them aside. He sat down next to Clint after he finished. "I suppose we should have that talk," he said, controlling his breathing.
"Yeah," Clint said, looking at him seriously. "I suppose we should." His shoulders were tense, and he didn't say anything else; he looked like he was fighting some kind of internal battle.
"What was it that upset you so much yesterday?" Phil asked after a minute or two of silence.
Clint sucked a breath in through his teeth. "You… What you said, I'd heard it before. More than once."
Phil nodded for him to continue. After a few seconds, he did. "It was pretty much those exact words, in response to that exact question. I asked, and he answered. He'd remind me sometimes, when he thought I needed to hear it."
Phil felt like he'd been shot in the gut. "I'm sorry," he said helplessly.
"No, you don't get it," Clint said, sounding angry. "You--fuck, Phil, when I said I knew you yesterday, I wasn't lying. I do. I know you in my bones. And fuck if you don't know me, too."
Phil studied Clint carefully. "I feel like I do," he admitted after a moment. In for a penny, in for a pound. "Sometimes I feel like I know you better than I knew the other one. More and more, to tell the truth."
Clint nodded, accepting it without comment. "The other me," he said eventually. His jaw clenched and released. "You stopped working together before Juarez."
"We did," Phil acknowledged.
"He requested a new handler," Phil answered. It was the truth, but it wasn't all of the truth, and he knew Clint would realize it.
"You said you knew he was straight," Clint said, a challenge in his voice. "How did you know? How could you be sure?"
Phil rubbed at his forehead for a second, shepherding his resources. "You remember Minsk, and you remember Juarez," he said slowly. "Do you remember Saigon?"
Clint gaped at him for a second, a choked out, "Sai--" escaping him. He looked down for a moment, swallowing, and when he looked up again, his eyes were red. "I'll remember Saigon until the day I die," he said, full of emotion.
Oh, Jesus. Phil should have realized; he couldn't believe he hadn't put it together until now. "You know what I did," (kissed you) "what I said" (I'm in love with you). His voice and his hands were shaking.
Clint nodded jerkily, a tear spilling down his cheek. "I didn't believe it at first. You, he was drugged; I figured he didn't know what he was saying. It was only when he woke up in Medical and said it again that I let myself kiss him back."
It wasn't the first time Phil had been ferociously jealous of the dead man who bore his name, but this was quite possibly the worst. He had to turn away, had to hide his face in his hands, vaguely aware that he was breathing too fast, that his heart was stuttering in his chest.
"Phil," Clint said, putting a hand on his back. When he didn't respond, he said it again, but Phil shook his head. "Fuck, Phil, what did that bastard do?" Clint said then, his hand tightening on Phil's shirt. He wasn't just upset, Phil realized. Clint was angry.
Phil straightened his shoulders, lifted his head, and turned back to face Clint. "He didn't do anything," he said, making sure his voice no longer betrayed him. "He pushed me away when I kissed him, but he got me out of there safely. He came to visit me in Medical. When I tried to talk to him, he said he was flattered, but he was with Natalia, and he wasn't attracted to men. He apologized if he'd done anything to lead me to think otherwise. Then he said that he thought it was best if we stopped working together so closely. He put in a request for a new handler, and Sitwell took over. After Jasper died, he mostly worked with Hill." Once again, it wasn't all of the truth, and he knew Clint could tell.
Clint stared at him, Phil's shirt still clenched in his hand. "No offense, Coulson, but the other me sounds like an asshole."
"He certainly could be," Phil said wryly, remembering how hard Barton had shoved him, and how confused he'd been, drugged as he was. Remembered the cold way Barton had looked at him in Medical. "But before, we were friends. Until I told him, we were good friends."
"Until he turned out to be a homophobic jerk, you mean," Clint said, loosening his grip but keeping his hand on Phil's back.
Phil shrugged; he wouldn't go quite that far, but Barton had certainly been more bothered by Phil's sexuality than he would have guessed. "He still talked to me. We even worked together occasionally. And he was happy with Natalia, at least most of the time."
"He still talked to you," Clint said, his gaze sharpening. "Unlike who? Your dad?"
Phil met his gaze and nodded. "My father and my mother both."
The lines in Clint's forehead deepened. It took a minute before he spoke again. "What about your sisters?" he asked.
"My sisters?" Phil asked. He shook his head. "I was an only child."
Clint closed his eyes and leaned back against the wall. "Fucking hell," he muttered.
The lights went out. "Oh, you've got to be kidding me," Phil said into the pitch darkness. "Let me guess, the goon in charge forgot to pay the fucking electric bill."
"If we're lucky," Clint said dryly. "Guess it's a good thing you filled up those water bottles."
"There's probably a little more left in the bowl," Phil said. "I should fill up the others."
"Don't," Clint said abruptly, pulling at Phil's shirt again. "Wait."
"Okay," Phil replied quietly. "I'll wait."
There wasn't any sound but their breathing for several minutes. Clint kept his hand on Phil's shirt. He gradually loosened his grip, his fingers moving back and forth in tiny, abortive touches. Then Clint muttered, "Fuck it," and slid over until their sides were pressed together. His hand went to Phil's hip, Clint's arm around his back. Phil carefully wriggled until Clint moved away from the wall enough for Phil to get his own arm around Clint's back. Phil breathed ten times, his eyes closed, and then Clint pulled at Phil with both arms and hooked his chin over Phil's shoulder, resting his cheek against Phil's. Phil mirrored his movements again. Clint leaned in even closer, embracing him tightly, rubbing slow circles on Phil's back, breathing deeply. "Is this okay?" he murmured, his lips at Phil's ear.
Phil let out a shaky breath. "It's a hell of a lot better than just okay," he said, dropping his forehead onto Clint's shoulder.
"Yeah," Clint said, "it is," and Phil sighed in relief.
They stayed that way for a while, holding each other in the dark. Phil could have stayed there forever.
Eventually Phil felt Clint brush his lips against Phil's temple, cup the back of Phil's neck in his hand. "I know you, Phillip Evan Coulson," he said, his voice full of conviction. "I've known you since the day I saw you in Fury's vault, thin and pale and barely able to stand, holding that gun up until the second you heard my voice."
Phil took a breath and let it out, turning his face enough that his lips could move over Clint's neck. Clint kissed his temple again, his mouth warm and soft, his stubble catching against Phil's skin. "No matter what Tony Stark says, I don't think there's a universe out there where I'm not in love with you," Phil said, reaching up to touch Clint's face. "Including this one."
"The restoration of what was lost, Thor said," Clint murmured, and kissed his palm. "A gift."
"The righting of wrongs," Phil agreed, lifting his head. "A great boon." He turned, searching blindly until he found Clint's mouth, both of them sighing as their lips finally met.
They kissed for an unmeasured time, light brushes of lips, needing nothing deeper than just to connect. "I know you, Clinton Francis Barton," Phil breathed into Clint's mouth.
"There's not a universe out there where I'm not in love with you," Clint breathed back, his mouth curving up in a smile Phil could feel, "including this one."
"Clint," Phil said, his voice breaking. "Are you sure? I'm not--"
"I'm sure. I know who you are," Clint said, warm and confident and full of love. "I know you, Phil. I can't promise it'll be easy. There might be times when it's really fucking hard. I think it'll be worth it, don't you?"
"Yeah," Phil said, "I do." Then he kissed Clint again, and Clint kissed him.
They broke apart when there was a noise outside. They stood as one, facing the door, their arms touching.
Phil counted to sixty, then to sixty again. The noises outside got louder, but he couldn't make out what they were. He was on thirty-nine when the door burst open, bright light flooding in, making it impossible to see. He could feel Clint tense next to him, both of them ready to fight blind and weaponless. Then Natasha shouted, "I've got them!" and he sagged in relief, Clint's arm folding around his waist, holding him up.