Title: Never Saying Goodbye (AO3 link)
Pairing: Clint Barton/Phil Coulson
Length: 3,800 words
A/N: with thanks to 17pansies for the lightning fast beta.
Clint’s head is pounding. When he tries to open his eyes, colours scream at him, noises flash light and dark.
He feels like the world has a migraine and he’s trapped inside its aura.
He knows he’s tied down but doesn’t know where he is, where Loki is, whether he hurt Natasha when he fought her.
He strains against the straps again, but they don’t give, just bite into his wrists, seconds of pain that light up blue behind his eyes.
Maybe when Loki comes back, he’ll do Clint a favour and kill him; Clint’s done everything he’s asked.
A hand curves around his forehead, shockingly cold (bright and white, fading into gold).
“Tasha?” Clint croaks with effort, but the voice that says, “Shh, Clint, relax,” is Phil’s.
Clint drags his eyes back open, doesn’t know when he closed them. Phil’s a white and grey blur amongst the now-sepia world.
“Shh,” Phil says again. “You’re okay.”
“Nat’sha?” Clint forces out. His throat clicks.
“She’s okay, too.” Phil’s voice is faint. Clint doesn’t know if that’s his ears or if something else is wrong.
What else could be wrong?”
“You need to relax,” Phil tells him. “I can’t stay, but relax, close your eyes, you’ll be okay soon.”
“Phil,” Clint begs. He doesn’t want to be alone again. He can feel Loki knocking at the edges of his brain when he’s alone.
“Natasha’s coming,” Phil says. “You’re okay.” He presses his mouth to Clint’s, murmuring, “I love you,” even though he never says it in words like that.
“Love you,” Clint echoes and forces his eyes to close.
“No, you’re wrong,” Clint says, pushing his chair back from the table and everyone sitting at it. There’s half-chewed shawarma in his mouth. He doesn’t want and he has to force it down past the block in his throat.
“Clint,” Natasha says. She sounds so sad (sad for him) but there’s no need, it’s not true.
Stark (the one who first said, “Barton, don’t you know? Coulson’s dead.” Who said it like it hurt but not like it was gutting him from the inside) frowns at him. “Where you two close? You and Agent Phil?”
“Are,” Clint snaps. “We are close.” He running on fumes, less than that even, and he doesn’t need whatever bullshit game this is.
He needs a bed and Phil and that’s it.
“I’m sorry; it is true,” Captain Rogers says and Thor nods solemnly.
Banner doesn’t say anything, but he doesn’t contradict them either, just keeps poking at his food.
“When?” Clint asks. He hates the shake in his voice; he knows it’s not true, damn it.
Natasha looks down then back at him. “Loki stabbed him while you and I were fighting in the vents.”
Clint’s so relieved so fast, he feels dizzy with it. “No,” he says, trying to catch her hand. She doesn’t let him. “Nat, I saw him after that; it’s not true.”
“You saw him?” Stark asks. “When? When you were having crazy fever dreams in your private cell slash infirmary room?”
“Basically,” Clint allows, “but it wasn’t like – ”
Natasha’s eyes had been wide and almost hopeful for a moment. That fades.
“Seriously,” Clint says to her, ignoring the others. “He came to see me, said you’d be there in a minute.” He doesn’t know why he needs her to believe it, when he knows it’s true, but he does.
“That was obvious,” Natasha tells him. “Your subconscious would know that too.”
His SHIELD issue smart phone vibrates before he can answer her.
Where are you? the message says.
The contact ID is Phil’s number.
Clint’s hands shake when he sends back the address. Must be the exhaustion.
“Clint?” Natasha asks.
Clint holds up a hand. He can’t say it; she has to see it.
Forty-two seconds later, the door to the restaurant chimes open and Phil walks in.
Clint’s ears ring.
Everyone else inhales and starts talking at once.
Phil looks bad. He’s white-pale and too blue around the eyes. His whole left side is held stiffly and his left arm’s in a sling.
He’s here though and everyone can see that.
“Good afternoon, Avengers,” Phil says and smiles.
“Agent Coulson?” Rogers demands, while Stark says, right over him, “What the actual fuck?”
Clint spills out of his chair and grabs a seat for Phil, dragging it over to between him and Natasha.
“I’m not staying,” Phil tells him but sits down.
“You look like shit,” Clint says back.
Phil nods, once, not very secret code for I feel like it, too, and looks around at the others.
“Gentleman, please sit down,” he says mildly.
Thor and Rogers do but Stark stays on his feet, flushed and furious-looking.
“You asshole – ” he starts to growl.
Clint contemplates punching him, just on principle. Sure, Phil’s an asshole, but he’s Clint’s asshole, and he’s alive.
Phil puts a restraining hand on Clint’s thigh, which doesn’t go unnoticed by anyone.
“I’m sorry the Director lied to you,” Phil starts, then shakes his head. “I’m sorry the Director had to lie to you.”
Natasha mutters something rude in Russian under her breath.
“That sounds like it would be painful,” Phil says and flashes her a smile.
“It’s supposed to be,” she tells him, but Clint knows, and knows Phil knows, that the fact she’s talking is a good sign.
“Okay,” Stark says through gritted teeth. “Your ninja assassin puppies are settled, now spill.”
Phil turns over the hand he has on Clint, spreading it peacefully, before putting it back where it was. “When the Director told you I was dead, he thought I was. He didn’t know I’d decided to field-test the Life Model Decoys.”
Stark narrows his eyes. “Those aren’t ready. Also? Those are mine.”
“What’s a Life Model Decoy?” Thor asks.
Stark makes a dismissive noise with his tongue. “They’re androids that Stark Industries is developing to mimic real people. They don’t work independently at the moment; you have to be wired in to a computer and control them from there, which makes them mostly pointless.” He turns back to Phil. “But that doesn’t explain why Fury didn’t turn around and say ‘oops, made a mistake, Elvis ain’t dead.’ No, he had to go all ‘lost my one good eye’ on us and make poor Rogers here nearly blub with emotion.”
“I did not – ” Rogers starts then cuts himself off, probably noticing the way Phil lights up.
One day, Clint’s going to tease him for that blush; later though, when he feels less like he’s about to keel over.
“Stark,” Phil says, “what do you think would happen if a LMD was stabbed through the heart.”
Stark pauses. “Massive neural feedback, emulation of physical symptoms, possible – Holy shit, how aren’t you dead?”
“Why would you be dead?” Clint asks. He can hear the way his pounding heart makes the words shake but hopes no one else can.
“There are glitches in the LMDs,” Stark says, sparing him a glance then going back to staring at Phil like he’s a puzzle. “They’re supposed to absorb shocks, keep them from getting back to the human version, but they don’t do that yet. One of my techs couldn’t walk for a week after her LMD fell down the stairs.”
Phil nods. “I was controlling mine from an empty lab. When Loki stabbed it, I felt like I was dying. A junior agent found me five hours later and by then you were already, um, bonding.”
“So you let us carry on thinking you were dead?” Rogers says, sounding disappointed. Clint gets where he’s coming from but he knows better than to think Fury and Phil would do anything else.
“I was in the infirmary,” Phil says. He nods at his sling. “Psychosomatic trauma. It’s wearing off, but slowly. The Director decided not to tell you and then you saved the world. Do you really think he was wrong?”
“Yes,” Stark grumbles.
“No,” Banner says quietly, shrugging when Stark looks betrayed at him.
“No,” Natasha agrees, not looking at Phil.
Thor and Rogers look like they’re still trying to make up their minds.
“You visited me, though?” Clint asks quietly.
Phil turns and looks him over carefully. “I did.”
There are a lot of things Clint wants to ask him. Neither of them are going to say anything in front of the others though.
“What now?” Rogers asks.
Phil doesn’t look away from Clint. “Now, everyone goes home, gets some sleep, and we meet back at SHIELD HQ in twenty-four hours for debrief.” Now he does look away, taking in each of the others in turn. “Assuming you’re okay with me heading up the Initiative.”
His voice is steady, but Clint isn’t fooled; he knows how badly Phil has wanted this.
“If we’re not?” Stark asks.
Phil’s hand grips Clint’s thigh tight. It distracts Clint from the pain in his head.
Rogers rounds on Stark. “Of course we do; why wouldn’t we?”
Stark flings out both arms. “He lied to us.”
“So did Fury. Are you planning to defect from the whole of SHIELD?”
“We could,” Stark says, lifting his chin mutinously.
When Clint looks back at Phil, he finds that he’s smiling, a full-blown, totally relieved kind of smile.
“What?” Clint asks, leaning into him.
“They didn’t once question that there is an Avengers Initiative,” Phil murmurs back.
Clint tries to match his grin – Phil’s worked for this for so long – but he’s too tired.
Phil’s smile flickers as he looks Clint over and then he’s on his feet. “All right, we’re going. Natasha, do you need a ride?”
Natasha shakes her head. “I’m okay.” She looks at Phil and Phil looks at her. Clint looks away so he won’t accidentally evesdrop on their silent conversation.
“Agent Barton?” Rogers says softly, so Clint takes himself over there.
“What’s going on?” he asks, looking meaningfully over Clint’s shoulder and Phil.
Clint blinks. Out of everyone, he never thought Captain fucking America would be the one digging for gossip. “I don’t know what you mean?” he tries.
Rogers puts his hand on Clint’s arm. Clint freezes but doesn’t shake him off. “Are you in trouble?” he says quietly. “SHIELD understands that you were compromised, don’t they?”
Oh. Clint thinks over to how this might look: Phil rocking up, keeping Clint in his seat, then dragging him off.
If you didn’t know about them, it might look like Clint’s under SHIELD lock-down.
“Yeah,” Stark drawls. “I don’t think that’s what’s going on. Is it Robin Hood?”
“Captain,” Phil calls before Clint can think up a lie. “Can I have my husband back, please?”
Rogers’ eyes go wide and round so Clint uses the opportunity to extract his arm without breaking the guy’s wrist.
“Husband?” Stark chokes. Banner reaches over and pats him on the back. “I was guessing at some kind of fuck buddies thing, not...”
Clint shrugs. He’s kind of stunned himself; as far as he knew, Phil was still using the Cellist cover story on most everyone. He forces himself to smile, slow and cheeky. “Debrief’s in twenty-four hours, Stark.”
He turns and falls in beside Phil. Up close, Phil’s looking shaky and exhausted and Clint wants to put a hand on his back, but he won’t do that in front of these people, who are going to be Phil’s new team.
“Since when are you a driver?” Clint asks. Sitwell’s his senior, but he’s also Phil’s best friend; Clint saw him hungover and puking after Phil’s bachelor party so they don’t stand on ceremony.
“Since this idiot decided to check himself out against medical advice to come get you,” Sitwell says, putting the car in gear.
“Phil?” Clint demands. “Seriously, are you okay?”
Phil keeps fumbling with his seatbelt. “Are you?” he asks, which is shitty and unfair.
Clint knocks Phil’s hand away and fastens the buckle for him. “Do not die on me,” he says quietly, for Phil’s ears only.
Phil shakes his head. “I’m not going to,” he promises. He catches Clint’s hand. “Clint. I swear.”
Clint jerks his hand away, sinking back into his own seat. He can’t, not right now, not when they’re not at home.
Their apartment is on the edge of Chelsea, way outside the worst of the devastation. It’s like being in another world, people on the streets gossiping about the battle like it’s just something they saw on TV.
Phil invites Sitwell up, because that’s polite, but Sitwell is way more sensible than either of them, just says, “Fuck no, I’d rather deal with alien invasion clean-up.”
“Me too,” Clint tries, even though he’d probably pass out in the middle of it.
Phil shakes his head then leans too heavily into Clint’s side and Clint loses interest in anything but getting him upstairs and horizontal as quick as possible.
It’s an old building with a steep staircase from another age and no elevator. They live on the top floor because they’re both paranoid bastards and Phil’s grey by the time they reach their door.
Clint unlocks the door and is just about to step inside when he hears movement from the apartment next to theirs. He ushers Phil inside then kicks the door shut behind them.
“That was rude,” Phil chides. “We like our neighbours.”
“We can like them tomorrow,” Clint tells him and taps him on the ass. “Go sit down; I’ll get you some water.”
Phil goes without arguing, which is some kind of miracle, and Clint turns toward the sink.
There’s a mug on the draining board, one he remembers using his last morning before they moved into Project Pegasus.
He loses some time, just staring at.
It’s bizarre how normal everything looks. He doesn’t normally have this kind of problem after coming home from a long mission, but everything feels more… more today.
Phil’s nowhere to be seen by the time Clint’s shaken himself back together and filled the mug with water, but his jacket’s over the back of one of the chairs at the kitchen island and his shoes are lined up neatly in the rack in the hall.
“Hey?” Clint calls.
“Bedroom,” Phil calls back so Clint heads that way. Phil’s standing in front of the half-mirror on the wall beside the closet, squinting at his bare chest.
There’s nothing to see, just the same stretch of smooth, pale skin and dark hair as always. The sling’s sitting on the floor, his arm held close to the side of his body.
Clint puts the mug down by the bed and comes up behind him, presses his face into the side of Phil’s neck, eyes closed. Phil is warm and solid, and Clint kind of wants to just slump into him and sleep right here.
“It feels like there should be a mark,” Phil says quietly, voice rumbling through his back into Clint’s chest. “But it’s all in my head.”
“Yeah?” Clint asks, pressing closer. “Guess we got that in common.”
“Clint,” Phil tries but Clint doesn’t let him turn around. It’s playing dirty; if one of them’s hurt, they’re supposed to compensate for that, but not this time.
“Think I would have gone crazy if you hadn’t come seen me last night,” Clint confesses to Phil’s neck, which smells of hospitals and the salt of old sweat.
“I know.” Phil lifts his good arm and curls it backwards around the back of Clint’s neck. It can’t be comfortable but it feels so good. “I was just going to check on you through the window, but I heard you yelling for Loki.”
Clint screws his eyes up tighter, tells himself not to shake. “I was fucked up,” he whispers.
Phil scrubs roughly at his hair. “Let me turn around?” he asks.
Clint doesn’t want to, but Phil asked, so he does. Clint accidentally catches sight of himself in the mirror while Phil’s moving and he's glad he got them inside before Mrs Altman saw either of them.
He looks like shit. The red rings around his eyes make him look like some kind of evil psycho panda and his skin’s sallow like he hasn’t slept for a week. Which he pretty much hasn’t.
Phil pulls Clint into his arms. It’s warm and strong and he shouldn’t be using his left arm but Clint doesn’t mention that.
Clint’s heart keeps pounding. He can’t relax and his skin feels like it’s crawling. He doesn’t want Phil on his feet any longer though, so he fakes a yawn and stumbles back.
“Bed?” he asks.
Phil yawns automatically after Clint then looks surprised at himself. “Good idea.”
Clint leans in and kisses him quickly. “You go ahead, I gotta shower.” He’s filthy and he’s not getting into their bed wearing Loki’s touch on his skin.
“Skip it,” Phil says heavily, but he doesn’t try to keep Clint back.
Clint takes his time stripping, watching to make sure Phil actually gets into bed, before heading into the master bath.
The shower doesn’t help. He thought maybe he’d be able to relax a little once the last few days’ worth of dirt was washed off but now he’s just clean and jittery rather than dirty and jittery.
He can’t stand in the shower and let the heat relax his muscles without wanting to punch the tiled wall; even the drag of one of the stupid, fluffy towels Phil loves feels too much on his skin right now.
He goes back to the bedroom and stands in the doorway, watching Phil, who’s stretched out on his side, back to Clint.
“I’m not a huge fan of people lurking behind me right now, Barton,” Phil rumbles, which just goes to remind Clint he still doesn’t know all of what happened while he was MIA.
“Sorry, sir,” he says smartly and steps around to his side of the bed.
Phil’s eyes are closed, which doesn’t mean he isn’t tracking every move Clint makes.
Clint sighs and scrubs a hand over his face. “You’ll sleep way better if I take the couch,” he admits.
Now Phil opens his eyes. His gaze travels all the way up Clint’s body, cataloguing everything, then locks on his face. “If you think that, then we have a problem,” he says, very seriously.
Clint thinks he should make a crack about how they’ve obviously been married too long if Phil can look at him standing here naked,and still have a conversation with his face. He doesn’t.
What he does is climb into bed beside Phil, even though he knows he won’t be able to sleep.
If Phil needs him here then at least that’s something he can do. At least he can be useful while wide awake and wired.
Phil shifts closer and puts a hand on the centre of Clint’s chest, sliding it over until it rests over his heart.
“Speed?” he asks after a minute.
Clint wonders how many heartbeats he can count. “Yeah.”
Phil moves the hand up to the side of Clint’s face, tilting him around so Phil can look in his eyes. “How much?”
Clint shrugs. “I don’t know. It didn’t feel like it mattered. Loki needed me awake so I kept myself awake.”
Phil doesn’t look happy. Most spouses aren’t when their husbands come home hopped up. “Military grade or something you bought of the street?”
“It was easier to get hold of the military shit,” Clint says. He wants to stare off over Phil’s shoulder, have this conversation with their wall, but he doesn’t.
“Good,” Phil says. “That’s something.” He stops acting like he’s Clint’s doctor, or even his handler, and goes back to being Phil, who does sweet things like stroke his thumb along Clint’s cheekbone, just because.
Clint closes his eyes. His eyelids feel like they have a pulse. He’s so tired.
“I can make some coffee,” Phil offers, “stay awake with you?”
“No.” At least it’s dark behind his eyelids. That’s a relief. “Don’t do that; that’d be dumb. We can’t both be zombies at the debrief tomorrow.”
Phil goes still, just for a second but enough for it to be a tell. “You know Fury’s going to want to see you separately?” he says. “And I can’t get you out of all the psych appointments.”
“You don’t want to get me out of all the psych appointments,” Clint corrects. He reaches up and finds the back of Phil’s neck, pulling him down.
“No,” Phil agrees, settling his head onto the pillow right beside Clint’s, breath warm on Clint’s neck and arm reassuringly possessive across his chest. “No, I want you to see someone.”
Clint turns his face into the top of Phil’s head. He doesn’t have anything to say, not to a SHIELD mandated psychiatrist, not even really to Phil. He killed a lot of people, and it wasn’t his fault, but he made it possible because of how good he is at his job.
And that, that’s on him, no matter how he ends up dealing with it.
“Are you hurting yourself, lying like that?” he asks. “We can move?”
“I’m not really hurt,” Phil reminds him, which isn’t an answer.
Clint rolls over onto his side, which forces Phil onto his back, so it’s Clint’s turn to curl against him, keeping his head carefully away from Phil’s chest and trying not to lean any weight on his left arm.
“Stop fussing over me,” Phil grumbles. “You’re the one who - ”
“I’m the one who can’t be helped right now and you know it,” Clint tells him, “so shut up and fucking let me look after you.”
Phil doesn’t look impressed, but he doesn’t argue. Which means Clint’s really worrying him.
Clint presses his face into Phil’s shoulder. He doesn’t know how he would have coped, if he’d woken up and Phil had really been dead.
“Hey,” Phil says after they’ve been quiet for a while. Clint thought he was asleep. “Look at this.”
Clint rolls onto his back and looks where Phil’s pointing. There are lights in the sky and, for a second, he thinks it’s the Chitauri. Then he looks again, and it’s fireworks.
“What the fuck?” he asks, as half the sky out their window explodes like the Fourth of July. From the distance, he’d say it’s happening over Midtown.
Phil loops an arm around his shoulders and pulls Clint into his side. “Just a guess, but I’d say people are happy they’re not going to be enslaved by aliens.”
Clint just watches. Yeah, defeating Loki and his army was a good fucking thing, but too much happened and too many people died for him to think about celebrating it.
Good luck to the people of New York if they want to, though. They’d have been worse off than him if Loki had won.
“You did that,” Phil says, tap-tapping his fist against Clint’s shoulder. “That’s something.”
“We did that,” Clint contradicts. And maybe that’s something.
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