Phil Coulson was veritably plastered with words. He wasn't sure what that would mean, if it was because his soulmate had a lot to say before they died, if they died multiple times (he didn't think it was entirely impossible, considering the things he'd seen in his line of work), or if he had multiple soulmates.
Some of them were vulgar. (Oh shit on his back.) Some of them were heartbreaking. (Just hold me... please... on his right shoulder blade.) Some of them were downright confusing. (Don't trust the purple dress, no matter how trustworthy she looks on his thigh in blessedly small print.) And some of them almost made him wish he never met his soulmate. (Oh Phil... god no... please... on his stomach.)
Of course, the thing about the words was that they were the last words a soulmate would ever say. Meaning that soulmates couldn't be determined until one of them died.
Which was awful and heartbreaking and possibly the worst way that it could ever have been done.
If the universe was planning on things like that anyway.
The first time Clint Barton died on Phil Coulson, his last words before he passed out and lost his pulse were "Oh shit."
Phil's heart nearly stopped at that. Probably would have, if Clint's wasn't so busy doing the same thing. Instead he got to work doing CPR, and reminding himself that of course he'd say that as he lay dying. Lots of people probably said that. Surely he wasn't the only one with those unfortunate words somewhere on his body.
He kept telling himself that as the evac arrived, as Clint went into surgery, and as he recovered and Phil sat at his bedside for more hours than he would have for any other agent.
It's a common phrase, he told himself, ignoring the fact that he'd panicked because Clint had nearly died.
The second time was impossible to ignore. Clint had been dosed with an unknown toxin, and had been rapidly becoming delirious and nonsensical over the last half hour as Coulson took out the remaining Hydra agents and extracted Clint to the safe house.
"Watch out for them," he muttered, at one memorable point, slung over Phil's shoulder.
"Of course," he replied. "You stay awake for me. We're almost there."
By the time Phil got him settled on the tiny bed in what passed for an apartment in Ingwiller, Clint was rapidly fading.
"They're coming," he muttered, eyes closed. "S'close."
"I've got you covered Agent Barton."
"Sir," he began, then stopped, his eyes opening, but gazing off into nothing.
"Sitrep Agent Barton."
Clint didn't reply.
"Sitrep Clint. Talk to me."
His eyes drifted shut again. "Don't trust the purple dress," he muttered. "No matter..." he inhaled, "how trustworthy..." another breath, "she looks."
And then he was out.
Phil got on his com, demanded evac ten minutes ago because Agent Barton's heart was about to stop. And no, he wasn't going to explain how he knew that there wasn't time.
Five minutes later they were on a helicopter.
Seven minutes later his heart stopped for the second time.
And again, Coulson spent far too much time after that in the medical wing at Agent Barton's bedside.
He could no longer deny it was a coincidence.
The third and fourth time Clint's heart stopped, he wasn't the one to witness it. That was the pleasure of his new partner, Natasha Romanoff, formerly Natalia Romanova of the Red Room.
Barton certainly had interesting choices in partners, Coulson had to give him that.
But just because he wasn't there didn't mean that he didn't have to hear them, to suffer through them. He was still on coms, and hearing them absolutely broke him.
And of course Natasha knew. Natasha knew, and there was no one else that Phil would have trusted Clint more with.
But Clint didn't know. Phil still wasn't entirely sure if he hadn't told him because he didn't want to share just how many more times Clint would die, or perhaps because Phil didn't want to know what his last words would be.
Maybe that was selfish. It was probably selfish.
He justified it by telling himself that it could ruin what was otherwise a perfectly good working relationship.
But of course Natasha knew, and she was the one to make meaningful glances, and drop hints while Phil once again parked himself at Clint's bedside after the clusterfuck that was the Budapest incident. And yes, he figured it could be called a clusterfuck when it managed to kill Barton twice.
(Sir, I'm sorry, on his left arm, and it hurts, on his right wrist.)
Natasha, bless her, didn't say anything to Barton or to anyone else at SHIELD. Although god knows everyone else probably knew too.
Phil was pretty hopeless that way.
He'd resigned himself, after a period, to the simple fact that Clint Barton was going to die, repeatedly, and that one of those times he would stay dead.
Because he knew that there was no other soulmate out there for him. He'd known it ever since Clint brought home a brainwashed Russian assassin and asked to keep her, and he only replied with an exasperated fondness. He'd known it since the first Christmas that Barton had been at SHIELD, and he'd received a new tie that was shot from the air vent above his desk. He'd known it since the very first time Clint died in his arms and his heart nearly stopped as Clint's did. He'd known it since the first mission that he nearly didn't make it back from.
He'd known for a while, if he was being honest with himself.
But as long as he denied it, he could deny the fact that Clint was going to repeatedly suffer and nearly die, and Phil would have to live with the reality that maybe, this time would be the last.
But at a certain point, when it required a marker to manually cross off each of Clint's deaths, there was no more denying it.
After one more such death (suck my dick Hydra, right over his heart, honestly), Phil was almost ready to tell Clint.
He nearly didn't make it back that time. The doctors spent twenty minutes performing CPR and replenishing his blood volume before Clint managed a steady pulse.
They were the longest twenty minutes of Phil's life, and if it wasn't for the phrase on his back (I've got an arrow for that, sir) Phil wouldn't have been sure that Clint would make it.
But he did and the recovery was long and Phil was going to tell him, he honestly was, but then...
It was a really awful week. A terribly awful horrifying week, and there was no time or energy left over for talking about feelings after that.
And then Clint went on more missions and Phil was delegated to other things and the time never really worked out.
Until they were both assigned to New Mexico, and Phil decided that was it. He would tell him. He'd sit Clint down at dinner, probably one at a crappy diner, considering they were sort of in the middle of nowhere, and tell him about the words. No, not just about the words. Also about how he felt.
That would be much harder.
But the fucking tessaract misbehaved and a vengeful alien god came down from the sky with his blue light and took Clint away and reduced the base to rubble and destruction.
And then Phil had to go save the world. (And rescue Clint of course.)
Except that involved the worst bunch of superheroes that Fury could have put together, even if it included Captain America, yes, the actual Captain America, Steve Rogers in the flesh, and Phil got to meet him.
And then he sort of... died.
He assumed he was going to anyway. Loki speared him through the chest, probably right through the suck my dick Hydra that Clint's last last words had been.
He slouched to the floor and wondered what his last words would be, if Clint knew already.
He shot Loki, that dick who took Clint away from him before he got a chance to tell him, and then Fury showed up.
There was blood in his mouth by then, an unfortunate side effect of getting stabbed in the middle of the chest, blood sort of ended up everywhere, and then Fury appeared.
He spoke around the blood, because surely his last words couldn't be so that's what it does because he had to say something poignant, something meaningful.
"This was never going to work..." oh god he could feel the blood as he inhaled now and his vision was pretty much gone "if they didn't have something to..." oh come on just a bit further don't leave it like this "to..."
"You're an absolute fucking idiot," Clint told him.
When Phil managed to clear the fog from his brain, and the resounding chorus of not dead... not dead? in his head and blinked away the days of sleep from his eyes to read the words that Clint was brandishing in front of him, he had to agree.
This was never going to work... if they didn't have something... to... was stretched across Clint's lower back, which explained why he'd never seen it. He'd seen Clint shirtless multiple times, mostly for CPR, although he wasn't afraid of admitting that he appreciated when Clint walked around shirtless. But the sliver of skin that the words were on would have been covered by pants for the most part.
Clint tucked his shirt back down and turned around to stare at Phil. Angry, definitely.
"I guess you saw them?" he mumbled, his throat dry from surgery and intubation and being unconscious for god knows how long.
"Um, yeah," Clint replied, scooping ice chips into his mouth for him. They were heavenly. "Hospital gowns don't cover much you know. I don't remember half of them, and I'm sure I haven't said all of them yet, but some of them are pretty memorable, especially when you tell them to first year agents. Honestly, I was drugged sir, it wasn't my fault I was rambling about women in dresses."
"Sorry," he said, when his brain managed to work through the torrent of words that had been thrust at him. It was really all he could come up with.
"I know. But you can make it up to me."
Despite the pain and the fog and haze and the fact that he was drifting back to sleep already, Phil managed to smile.
"I tried to tell you," he told Clint, next time he surfaced back to consciousness. "I was going to take you out for dinner... but then Loki... sort of..."
He sighed, and it was a mistake, because sighing required lungs and his lungs were still not doing so great, even after the five surgeries he'd been told he'd had.
Even the oceans of drugs that were flowing through his veins couldn't make up for that.
He'd apparently gotten an infection or something, it was hard to tell what was real and what wasn't, but when he was lucid enough to understand that they were going to put him out for a couple of days to cool him down and get the infection under control, he grabbed Clint's hand and squeezed as tight as he could. Probably not very tight considering the painkillers and loss of muscle mass from lying in the bed.
"I love you," he whispered to Clint.
Clint paled, and Phil wondered if it was because he said it, or because of what was going on that he was terrified. But he didn't have much more time to think about it because he drifted.
Phil woke up and his chest felt better and everything felt lighter. Clint was there, of course, and he didn't look much better than he did before. Still pale and tense and down on sleep.
"Hey," Phil said, squeezing his hand.
Clint looked up and smiled at him. When Clint smiled, Phil felt like the sun was shining just for him. Or maybe that was the drugs talking, but it was certainly wonderful.
"I'm back," he said simply.
"I know," Clint said, squeezing his hand in return.
"I'm not leaving again for a long time," he added.
Clint smiled again, and oh god there was the sun. "I can't say the same," he admitted.
Phil would have laughed if he hadn't known it was going to hurt.
Clint did attempt to die on a number of other occasions, but it never quite stuck. But as the days went on, and Phil put a mental check mark next to each of the ones that had been used, he couldn't help but feel more apprehension about letting him go on missions.
Life was good together. They spent a lot of years working with the Avengers together, Clint as a team member, Coulson as the SHIELD liaison and handler. They got a cat and five different houseplants. They fought and sometimes Clint stormed out to go shoot at things and Phil would sit in the dark bedroom in his armchair stewing. They always made up though, and when they kissed each other it was like the world was set back on its axis.
When he was down to one unused phrase, Phil would have been entirely content to lock Clint up in a room, safe and out of harm's way, rather than still working in the field, albeit not as an Avenger these days. But that wasn't who either of them were, and both had to accept that one day, they would die. Forever.
Phil didn't know where Clint's other words were, or if he had more than two. And in turn, he kept his final ones hidden from Clint.
After all, who wanted to know when they were going to die?
(It just made it that much worse on each other though, praying each day that a certain combination of words didn't make it out of the other person's mouth, for fear that they would be the last.)
(Coulson died first. Clint's second string of words read I love you. Phil's last string read I know.)