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All the Difference

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Her first date with John Watson was, simultaneously, the best and worst decision Sarah ever made – entirely for reasons she could never have anticipated, on both counts.

 That is, she thinks, why they hung on so long when it was patently obvious that John had no room for anyone but Sherlock to be significant in his life. At first, she'd thought maybe the three of them . . . and she can't quite finish that sentence, even in her head. She doesn't lead that kind of life.

 Except for that one evening when she hit a Chinese assassin over the head with a board.

 And then got kidnapped.

 She remembers the walk home more clearly than any of the rest of it; remembers feeling hollowed out, pared down, raw at the edges – euphoric. She's perfectly well aware that there are chemical explanations for those feelings. She knows about endorphins – about the possibility of becoming addicted to substances controlled only by your own body and what you're willing to put it through.

 Knowing doesn't matter especially much, though, really.

 Thus, when an American organization called SHIELD goes public in the wake of an alien invasion and the rest of the globe is busy having one gigantic, simultaneous existential crisis about their place in the cosmos, Sarah Sawyer is very calmly polishing up her CV and Googling rentals in New York.

 ***

 “Don't bother, I'm fine,” says the man seated on the examination table in front of her, in the triage section of SHIELD's own private hospital, waving her away. He's wearing a hospital gown, a patchwork of scabs and bruises, and a very uncomfortable expression. “Just sign off, I won't go home and bleed to death, Scout's honor.”

 “He was never a Scout -” begins the man in the very posh suit, standing at the end of the bed.

 “Tanzania,” says the hospital-gowned man – Barton, C., per his chart.

 “He was never a Boy Scout,” the suit corrects smoothly, “And please, bother. I'd like to tell you it won't be one, but he really will.”

 Clint Barton has no less than seven probably-cracked ribs, all on the left side, what she suspects is a hairline fracture of the scapula, several lacerations that should have had stitches three days ago, and has dislocated the first and second fingers of his right hand, quite badly. They're not just out of joint, there's obvious damage to the tendons – the first finger is visibly foreshortened, swollen and purple and misshapen where it looks like the bones have slipped alongside one another.

 At one glance, Sarah is talking admitting him for an MRI and surgical repair, but Barton vetoes that idea immediately and with intractable vehemence. No one's cutting up his hand. It takes a great deal of argument before he'll let anyone touch his hand. It gets to the point where he starts reminding them that if he really wants to leave, it's doubtful they'll be able to stop him.

 “Alright,” Sarah says briskly, because it's quite clear she's not going to be able to finish this assessment in the traditional manner, “I want you to very, very gently feel right there -” and she points, to his swollen finger, where she believes the overlap to be. “Tell me what you feel, in as much detail as you can.”

 He gives her a faintly disbelieving look.

 “Someone is examining your hand,” Sarah tells him. “You're a field agent, and I'm given to understand that to mean they trust you with things that blow up and secrets that could blow up bigger things. I think you can observe fine detail and give me an accurate report. If you can't, tell me.”

 “No, I can,” Clint says slowly, still eying her like she's done something extremely unexpected. Maybe she has – this isn't exactly by the book, but it's the only sensible course of action. Eventually he looks down and prods at the first finger of his right hand with his left. “Um. Two bumps, here, and here? And something that feels sorta lumpy and stringy and also – fuck – hurts like a mother, kinda twisting around there?”

 “I can work with that,” Sarah nods. “What are you going to allow us to do for you?”

 He looks between her and the man at the end of the bed, mouth a flat, hard line.

 Phil Coulson – the suit, Barton's handler – has a dry wit and a surprisingly gentle manner with his charge, and does not mind helping her manipulate the tiny bones of Clint's fingers. It' s the only compromise they can reach. Clint's trust of Coulson is visible, a thing of aching depth – what exactly Sarah did to earn herself his sharp-eyed tolerance, she's not entirely sure, but he picks her over any of the far more qualified specialists she'd rather were dealing with his hand.

 Dr. Xi ends up giving extremely detailed instructions in a very pinched voice, via teleconference, because Clint is convinced that if they actually get the specialist in the room, the specialist is somehow going to end up doing the work no matter what they've promised him (he's not wrong).

 Clint shakes the entire time, as they they oh so carefully tug and press and she offers over and over to give him something for the pain, which he refuses – such a fine tremor that it would be invisible, were they not touching him. Coulson never stops talking – not to Clint, but to Sarah, about London and Bosnia, where he'd been as a Marine and she'd been in Doctors without Borders, possibly at the same time. His voice remains easy and soothing no matter what words he's speaking, telling her about horrific things he'd witnessed in a voice better suited to a lullaby. Clint Barton's left hand clutches the edge of the table while they work, so hard his finger nails turn first white, then a vaguely alarming gray.

 He stops shaking and lets go of the table when his fingers are done, splinted and wrapped, and then he and Coulson are trading barbs and in-jokes that undoubtedly reference things far too classified for her pay grade, while Sarah debrides and stitches the worst of the cuts. This must hurt nearly as badly as prodding his finger bones back into place, but if Clint Barton even knows she's still there, he gives no outward evidence of the fact.

 Until she's done, and he gives her this look in the eye – this respectful little nod, like if he had a hat, he'd tug the brim. He marches out.

 Coulson lingers.

 “Thank you,” he says, in a way that suggests there are meant to be more words to the sentiment. He looks uncertain for the first time since Sarah entered the room.

 “It's why I'm here,” she says, smiling at him as she tidies the room. There are staff to do that, yes, but it's a habit too long ingrained from the little London clinic.

 He watches her, and then he begins to help. “Oh, you shouldn't -” she says.

 “Trust me, any issues of contageon between Agent Barton and I are water under the bridge a long, long time ago.”

 “Oh,” Sarah says, and some of the unspoken so that's how it is must leak through – not that it's surprising, really, if she thinks about how they were together. She actually thinks it's rather sweet, until she sees his grimace.

 “That is to say, I've treated his wounds myself. In the field,” Coulson clarifies.

 “Of course,” Sarah agrees, much too quickly – so that's how it is, then. A shame, really.

 “Would you like to get coffee? After your shift. Or another day. Whenever, really,” Coulson – maybe she should think of him as Phil, then – asks her.

 And Sarah's first thought is, oh bloody hell no, not again. Because if Clint Barton and Phil Coulson are not, in fact, making contageon a moot point in entertaining ways, it's only because one or both of them is blind, terribly repressed, or incredibly stupid.

 It's pretty much the worst idea in the world.

 But she's done well, in a backwards sort of way, with that sort of thing before, hasn't she? Taking stupid chances.

 Figuring out that she would have been bored to tears if she'd spent the rest of her life treating respiratory infections and STIs at that little clinic.

 So maybe she isn't likely to be the love of Phil Coulson's life – that spot looks pretty well taken, from what she can see – but he seems like a good man. And he's interesting. And -

 “Sure,” Sarah says, before she's really decided that she's decided. “That'd be lovely.” Oh well, she thinks, here we go again. And there's a thrill to it – a bit of I wonder where I'll end up this time.