I don't own Agents of SHIELD.
Set between 2.06 A Fractured House and 2.07 The Writing On The Wall. Second in the Nature series.
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Next up in the Nature series: Nature Abhors A Vacuum, which takes place in the hours following Rosalind Price's assassination. If you add me to your Author Alerts, you should get an email telling you when that goes up - should be within the next week or so, it's out with my beta reader at the moment.
May didn't cue the visual from this end, thankfully. Natasha will only have audio to go on for the moment. But that's more than enough for her, Phil knows. Even that one word will be enough for her.
"Hey, Coulson." Natasha faces the camera dead-on, chin lifted. The razor-sharp cheerfulness of her voice is enough to make him wince.
She's on to him. This is not going to be fun.
"Identify yourself," he snaps.
"Agent Natasha Romanov, freelance SHIELD, clearance level 8 — thanks for the promotion, by the way. Designation Tango Juliet Yankee 41 India Uniform 7344, Strike Team Delta codename Black Widow." She finishes with the first line of the Constitution. In reverse. In Russian.
Phil identifies himself in much the same way, adding, "It's good to see you. Surprising, I'll admit, but good."
On the screen, her mouth lifts in a quiet smile. "I was in the neighbourhood. Thought I'd drop by."
"At crazy o'clock in the morning?"
"Time zones are a government conspiracy." The words are dry. "I had a late breakfast not that long ago in another country. Is there a reason you're not letting me see your face?"
She's got him there. "I need a minute to clean up," he admits.
"You got in a fight at crazy o'clock in the morning?"
"No. Self-inflicted." And he winces again, because she might not do anything as obvious as tensing, but he can see the coiled steel in her stance clear as daylight. "Not much of it, don't worry. Long story."
"I've got time." It's not a request.
Phil catches May's eye, holds a brief silent conversation — not without a feeling of triumph, because their ability to hold said silent conversations has gone up and down over the years — and nods. "Come on in. May will walk you up."
"You'll be okay?" May asks once she's cut the connection.
"Fine." He tosses her jacket to her as she heads for the door. "If you're quick."
The second she vanishes around the corner, the urge comes back with a vengeance. He grits his teeth, turns toward the wall, spins away. No. He can't go there. And then he spins away again, this time from the desk. It would be easy to override May's commands on the keypad. He's the Director, he can override anything.
Anything except this stupid, dangerous compulsion.
A glance at the open doorway. Nothing. Or nobody, rather. Ten seconds would be too soon to expect anyone to make it from the front door to his office, even Agents May and Romanov. Even May's two minutes is on the light side. But he can always hope.
He paces a lap around the room, eyes flickering from the screen to the desk to the doorway. The dried blood on his temple pulls uncomfortably when he blinks. He's got time to clean that up before Natasha gets here. If nothing else, it's a distraction.
The bathroom next door is slotted into the tiny space between the emergency exit and a storage locker. He braces himself before meeting his gaze in the mirror. He doesn't want to see a madman looking back.
But it's only Phil Coulson there, shadows under his eyes and a smear of blood on his forehead.
Less blood than he'd expected.
The slimline cabinet behind the mirror holds basic first aid supplies; he cleans himself up in less than a minute, relieved to find the scratches are shallow. Only one of them broke the skin. It doesn't really need a bandaid — the bleeding has all but stopped — but he dabs antiseptic on and sticks one over it anyway. That's better. Soap and hot water takes care of the blood under his fingernails, in the creases of his knuckles, spotted along his wrists. He scrubs both forearms until the skin flushes pink, thorough as any surgeon.
Back in the office, he finds himself standing in front of the wall without conscious thought, one hand lifted to splay against the screen. He grimaces and shakes his head, trying to knock the nagging itch loose. No such luck. He blinks, forces his eyes wide, blinks again. His eyes feel gritty, head clouded, but the buzzing in his head won't shut up, and if this goes on much longer —
He steps back. Forces his hands to his sides, where they flex restlessly.
No wall. No desk. That doesn't leave him many options.
Is anyone else likely to visit apart from the two he's expecting?
He settles on the floor, leaning back against his couch. Legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles. Arms folded over his chest. His right thumb rubs circles on the calloused pads of his fingers. Eyes fixed on the doorway, he sinks into the old headspace of Spotter to Clint's Sniper.
Deep, slow breaths.
One blink every twenty seconds.
Eyes focused on an area, not on a point.
Nose filtering and cataloguing smells.
Ears alert for the slightest sound.
Ignore the patterns. Lines and dots and lines and dots and
Ignore the patterns. Have to carve have to get them out out out
Ignore the patterns.
After what seems like an age but is probably less than five minutes, he hears footsteps coming up the stairs. In his peripheral vision, a shadow appears on the far side of the misted glass and moves along the corridor outside. Another three seconds and May is in the doorway, Romanov at her heels.
Phil blinks, deliberately narrowing his focus, and rises to his feet. May shuts the door and moves to her couch, picking up her neglected book. Natasha crosses the floor to halt a single pace from Phil.
They examine one another in silence.
"May filled me in," Natasha says after a minute. There's a tiny v of concern between her brows. Her eyes are soft.
Phil nods, momentarily bereft of words. He's struck by the brilliant shine of her red hair, the contrast of her forest green shirt and matching Converse, the faded blue jeans. It occurs to him that he lives underground now, that he and his people mostly wear black or grey, safe colours for operating in the shadows.
How long has it been since he's seen colour this rich?
He lifts a hand to brush a loose curl back from her face. She stills, eyes on his face. Delta was always pretty touchy-feely; Clint especially had a tendency to ground himself with half-conscious nudges of the shoulder, an arm around the waist, a hand on the knee. It's been a while for Phil. He'd forgotten how much they depended on it.
How long has it been since he's hugged someone?
Directors don't hug people. The only person of close enough rank is May, and he has too much respect for her personal space to do more than clap a hand to her shoulder in passing occasionally.
Not just colour-starved but touch-starved, too. He hadn't realised.
Phil draws a gentle breath and tucks the strand behind Natasha's ear. A single silver ring in each ear. That familiar chain around her neck with its silver arrow.
His hand cups her shoulder, the linen shirt soft and worn under his fingertips. "Thank you."
As ever, she understands the silence between the words. She steps into his embrace, arms wrapping around his back, and he breathes in the smell of citrus shampoo and feels himself relax. Inexplicable tears prickle the backs of his eyes; he forces them back. Clenches his eyes shut. Smooths a hand over Nat's back and concentrates on the feel of her, here and safe, warm and strong and well.
She draws back and sets a slim hand to his temple. "Sit."
It's a gentle order, but an order nonetheless. Phil perches on his couch and lets her check him over. Those piercing green eyes take in every added wrinkle on his forehead, every new scar on his hands, the invisible weight on his shoulders. She explores the red scratches with a ghosting touch, assuring herself that they're not deep, that he's looked after them properly.
"I'm sorry I haven't been in touch," he says when the silence stretches for too long.
"No, it's not." He shuts his eyes as her fingers probe the edge of the bandaid. Somewhere in the back of his mind he marvels that he can still do this, that after thirty years in the spy business he still has it in him to sit motionless and defenceless, to close his eyes and relax at the touch of someone else's hands. "I should have called you weeks ago."
"Why didn't you?" She's not judging. It's just a question.
"Been busy. There's… a lot going on. But that's no excuse."
"You're too hard on yourself, you know."
He chooses not to reply to that. "Where's Clint?"
"If it goes smoothly? Ten days."
"He's not injured?"
"Not last I heard."
Phil nods. "Good."
"And you?" Natasha sits beside him, close enough to brush knees.
He keeps his eyes on his lap. "I've been better."
There's a snort from the other couch.
He can feel the weight of Natasha's gaze. After a long moment he gives up and says, "May won't shoot me in the head."
"Damn right I won't," mutters the couch.
"You want her to?" Natasha asks.
"You know what's going on in here, right?" He taps his head. "Neurological breakdown, essentially. I have these patterns burning holes in my head, they want to get out, and if they can't — it's not good. So I find myself bending paperclips into weird shapes or scratching lines and circles on my desk or carving them into walls for metres on end. Initial episodes were once a month; they've progressed to once every two days now. Except…" He stops.
"I wanted to carve last night. But I'd carved the night before."
"The episodes have progressed to happening every night."
A slim hand covers his, halting the fingers plucking at a loose thread on his trousers. "I know you're fighting it."
"You've been here ten minutes."
"I know you," comes the calm reply. "You're fighting it. Hence the shadows under your eyes, the presence of May in your office at crazy o'clock in the morning, and the frankly huge pile of paperwork in your Out tray."
Phil looks up then. Meets Natasha's gaze, which is equal parts amused and worried. They're both thinking about the Out tray and Clint's utter loathing of paperwork. "Hypergraphia is the first stage," he blurts. "Cranial excoriation usually develops from there. Then aphasia. If I haven't resigned by then, emergency protocols kick in and, in absentia compos mentis, I'm removed from office and May becomes Director. Next, secondary insomnia related to the hypergraphia. Obvious side-effects there; humans can only go so long without sleep. Final stages, catatonia and/or complete psychosis."
"You think?" He laughs; it emerges only slightly hysterical. "There's no fix, Nat. There's nothing we can do. I'm trying to fight it, but pushing back only seems to make it stronger. Whatever I do, it's a lose-lose scenario. If I hold out, it gouges patterns on the insides of my eyelids until I can't sleep, can't eat, can hardly hold it together to command an op; if I give in, I still can't sleep because I'm too busy carving, and I get the back spasms and muscle cramps that go with it. And all the time —"
He gulps air. Rubs a shaking hand over his stubbled jaw. "All the time it's getting stronger. It never makes sense in my head. Every time I think — if I can just write it down, carve it out, dig it deep, it'll make sense. It'll make sense, it'll stop trying to tell me its secrets, if I can just understand what it means — but I can't. I can't. I've got no idea what it means."
Natasha takes a breath. Puts a hand on his arm. Lets her breath out without —
"Say it," Phil says.
"I've tried them." That alone will be enough to tell her how serious this is. "I get a sort of terrifying half-sleep where I'm not far enough down to actually rest but I'm too far down to wake up. Good nights I get four hours, bad nights I get eight. And I dream about carving. The whole time."
"Even with the special ones?"
"Even with the special ones." The ones she'd concocted just for him, knowing his abhorrence of them, the way they stripped him of any semblance of control. The special ones that actually worked; not for long, but for long enough. Three hours. Sometimes four. More than long enough to give him the edge he needed.
Nat frowns. "Damn."
"I'll need a list of — "
"Symptoms, side-effects, date and time ingested, how long it takes them to kick in, how long it takes them to wear off, all of that, I know." Phil waves a hand toward his desk. "All there. Hard copy. Bottom drawer."
She looks sideways at him. "Hard copy, really?"
"Internet's great for communication. Not so great for privacy." He's always been a private person. Even moreso since becoming Director. Conversely, he's only realised this last six months how much he really, really needs people around him. He's no lone wolf like Fury. Too much isolation makes him go stir-crazy.
If he's honest with himself (and he's always honest with himself), so does being stuck in this office with the weight of SHIELD on his shoulders.
Phil drops his head back against the couch and stares at the ceiling tiles. Sixty four wholes, twelve halves, and seven bits. He's counted them more than once. A warm head lolls against his shoulder, red hair tickling his nose.
Yeah, he's missed this a lot.
"What do you need?" Natasha asks quietly. "Sleep or carve?"
His mind skitters for a moment, a one-track record skipping a beat before finding its place again. "Both."
She frowns. "Overwatch."
"I need both," he says. He's let it go for too long, he can see that now. Should've carved last night when he could still summon the energy. Now he's got exhaustion tugging him backward while compulsion drives him onward. He's losing fights on both fronts. "I need to sleep, but my mind won't let me do that until I've carved. I need to carve, but I'm so tired I'll probably fall asleep before I can finish the first section. And so on. It's a cycle. Symbiosis. I need both."
"Which do you need more?"
He mulls that over for a minute, fighting the sluggishness of his mind. Right now his eyes want to slip closed and stay closed, but he's already slept tonight — for a given value of sleep — and not for long. He hasn't carved yet. And once he's started…
A tingle of warmth spreads through his veins, a fizzing spark, the fuse of a firework both exciting and dangerous.
Once he's started he can never stop until it's done. The urge to carve overrides all other urges; sleep, food, bathroom, nothing else matters but the carving, the driving need to get it out, make it known, have to understand.
When he thinks about it like that, the answer is obvious.
"Carve," he says. With the admission, the confession, comes a feeling not unlike breaking the surface after being underwater for a long time. Whatever it is, it's clean and sharp and fresh and even as his stomach sinks, the blood sings in his veins.
Not half as much as it will sing once he's actually carving.
Working together, the three of them set up the camera and the drop-cloth and the tools. May overrides her previous command. The screen rolls up to reveal the glorious blank space of the wall. It's waiting for him. His heart is both heavy and light when he steps onto the sheet, scrunches his toes into the cool cotton, and turns to face Nat and May.
"Tell me I'm doing the right thing." It's a request, not an order. A plea. He's desperately unsure, himself. If anyone in the world will give him a straight answer, an honest answer, it's these two.
And Clint, of course.
But Clint's not here.
"You're doing the right thing," May says. "Better to let it out now. It might not be so convenient later."
Natasha just steps forward and wraps her arms around him. Bless her. It's answer enough. He holds her tight and basks in the embrace, inhaling citrus and sweat, exhaling all the stress and indecision that dogs his heels these days.
"Don't make me wait this long again," she murmurs in his ear.
Phil lets a rusted laugh slip free. "I won't. I missed you, Nat."
Body safe, mind set on his course, he drops his arms.
Turns to the wall.
Picks up the knife.
And begins to carve.