There were two words Phil Coulson hoped he never had to hear. Granted, Phil didn't want to deal with the loss of any of his team or his friends, but he knew he'd have to, eventually. Death was part of the hazards of their chosen occupation; he couldn't put himself in harm's way and not expect to lose people. Knowing that didn't make it any easier, and many SHIELD agents chose to handle it by not getting close to anyone, keeping an emotional distance to insulate themselves. It didn't work, of course; there was no way to truly keep from forming attachments, no way to be assured that when a colleague went down beneath a hail of bullets the pain would be any less because you never acted on the attraction. Phil had realized that when he'd had to make that call to Natasha and tell her, in his calmest voice, that Clint had been compromised by that bastard Loki, and when he woke up in that hospital bed, unsure whether Clint had survived or was even Clint anymore.
Now that he worked with superheroes, Phil was only too aware that Clint was the most human of the group, the one at the highest risk. He knew SHIELD didn't have any weapons that could stop either Thor or the Hulk –he sincerely wished he didn't have to read those science progress reports about creating one either – and all the studies seemed to show that Steve Rogers' regenerative abilities would keep him young and fit for much longer that Phil could hope to even be mobile. Of all the SHIELD upper echelon, only Phil and two others knew about Natasha's enhancements, the terrible experiments the so-called scientists in the Red Room carried out on her young body; because of that, Phil put even odds on Black Widow being around at least as long as Captain America.
That left Tony and Clint, two vanilla humans as Clint liked to pronounce so Tony would argue he was rocky road flavored. But Tony had the suit and Jarvis so, during any given fight, if someone was going to be seriously hurt, odds were it would be Clint, and that thought was always in Phil's mind. So, after a rough few days when Clint was sent back out into the field before he was fully healed from his last mission, he'd told Phil to keep the lights on until he got back; without thinking, Phil responded "As you wish." And there it was, everything rolled up into three words that meant much more than just I love you and be careful and come back to me. No matter what the parting shot – "Have fun storming the castle," "kick ass and chew bubble gum, and I'm all out of bubblegum," or "I'll be back" – the answer was always "As you wish." Tony had laughed at them at first, too happy to call Phil Buttercup in that stupid accent, but superheroes were a superstitious lot, and it became a ritual they all waited for. The ramp to the quinnjet couldn't close until the words were said; Tony even started supplying movie quotes for Clint to use.
So the call, when it came, surprised them all. "Coulson's missing," Natasha radioed in the middle of a fight with HYDRA goons; soon, it was all too obvious that sometime, while they'd been caught up in the onrush of attack, Phil Coulson had simply vanished, no sign of where he'd gone, no clues left behind. For two days, Clint went crazy; for two days, Natasha went under the radar. Two days for Tony to work non-stop in the lab, have Jarvis running every search program; two days for Bruce to pace frantically, for Steve to try to get Clint & Tony to eat or sleep, for Thor to return to Asgard to ask Heimdall for help. Two days, and then the Surgeon escaped from a maximum security SHIELD holding facility, and Clint disappeared from inside the Tower itself.
Phil blinked, trying to clear the caked blood from his eyes, focusing; his internal clock told him it had been over two days, close to 52 hours since his vision had gone black. He'd woken up here, effectively restrained, still in his suit and tie, sans his jacket which was draped over a nearby chair, his normally perfectly polished shoes scuffed from being dragged. All his weapons were gone, he could feel their missing weight, and he decided to play a waiting game to see what they wanted. It didn't take long for the beatings to start; they'd worked him over, never saying a word as they systematically took him to the edge of passing out then left him only to return hours later and start all over again. By the fourth time they'd exited the room, he'd remembered how Clint had been taken and tortured with no questions asked and started to put the pieces together. And now, his gaze blurry, surveying the grimy basement room, he wasn't completely surprised to find Clint hanging from the ceiling, wrists secured in iron manacles, wearing nothing more than his jeans, bare feet, bare chest, head lolling to the side from the drug they'd used to knock him out.
"Good to see you are still in prime condition, Agent Coulson." The man said as he walked into view, dropping his briefcase onto the nearby table top; as he turned, a cold jolt of recognition ran down Phil's spine. "You can never tell about hired help. Rarely able to control their base impulses." He took out a small glass vial, filled a syringe with the clear liquid and prepped it, then turned and inserted the needle into Clint's arm. One of the first rules of surviving capture was to not offer information, not even talk if possible; Phil had a damn good poker face that covered the dread settling in the pit of his stomach. If half of what he suspected was true, he and Clint were in serious trouble. They weren't here for information, there were no ransom demands … no, they were being used and that made them expendable.
Clint groaned a little, rolled his chin down to his chest, and struggled to come awake. Dazed, he tried to move, shook the chains that held him, touched his bare toes over the cold concrete, and finally looked blearily around. Phil gave him credit; there was barely a sign of recognition when those blue-grey eyes lit on Phil's face. When he saw the Surgeon, however, Clint cursed out loud.
"Well, fuck. Didn't we just do this? What? Six, seven months ago?" An exception to the rule, Clint would often try to snark people to death, to push them into revealing secrets just to get him to shut his smart mouth up. Rarely worked, but he seemed to enjoy it; still, he never gave up anything, just annoying chatter to distract them. "Dude, if you wanted a second date, why didn't you just call or text? This is a little awkward, but I'm just not that into you."
The metal of the knife glinted as the light from the florescent bulbs hit it. "Let's just skip the pleasantries, shall we, and get right to it? There is nothing I want to know from you except how much pain you can endure. I already know that you and Agent Coulson are … is lovers a good word? Significant other seems so cold and impersonal, and you aren't married, so spouse won't do. Partner? No, I like lover because that's what you are. Each other's weakness." The silvery sharp tip skittered down Clint's rib, slicing a thin ribbon on skin loose from the muscle; he grimaced but made no sound. "He practically tore the building down last time to find you. I find that interesting."
Only training and years of experience let Phil sit there and keep his eyes on the scene before him when he wanted to flinch away. Any sign of his emotional state would give the torturer what he wanted, so Phil shoved it all down and locked it up for later. "What are you testing this time? You already know what will happen if you take one of us. What do you hope to learn?" he asked.
"Why, nothing at all. I already know everything I need to know. This time, I get to have fun, as much as I want." He carved another long cut, leaving a red line that ran down to the top of Clint's jeans. "There's only one rule; Barton dies first."
"Distraction." Clint said, his voice a little thready. "Keep everyone busy looking for us until they can carry out the plan."
"Well, I think I can see what the Agent sees in you, Hawkeye. Not as dumb as you look are you?" The Surgeon laughed a little and carved a line around Clint's bicep that was straining to hold his weight. Things were getting worse by the minute; someone wanted the Avengers looking for their friends, and, worse, someone was using their relationship to inflict even more anguish.
Every single time the knife touched Clint, sunk in and traced some macabre design, Phil could almost feel it on his own skin, a shadow of the pain Clint must be feeling. "So, one thing I don't understand." Phil hoped to split the Surgeon's attention, take some of it away from his torture of Clint. "Obviously, I can tell what you're getting out of this. What about your boss? I imagine your services are not cheap. Nor is springing you from a SHIELD facility an easy task."
The tip slipped in deeper and Clint bit his lip until a drop of blood appeared when the knife dug in. "You would be surprised how easy it was. And I don't kiss and tell, Agent. Now stop trying to distract me. I've been dreaming about this."
It had been an ongoing joke with Clint about the various training seminars agents underwent, all kinds of alternative techniques for dealing with pain and surviving extreme conditions. Fury was adept at advanced meditation to the point of separating body and mind, an ancient teaching of the Buddhists that he had studied for years; he thought all the agents should find some way that worked for them. Some seminars had been far too new agey for Clint, and Phil too if he cared to admit it, but they'd gone anyway; it had given Clint good fodder to wheedle Bruce with and annoy Tony. Now, though, Phil remembered one specific workshop on pratyahara; locking his eyes with Clint's, he let memories filter through his mind – laughing at Clint's choice of music for a long road trip, a horrible playlist of songs guaranteed to get stuck in his head for hours; Steve signing the replacement trading cards Tony found, Clint grinning at how they'd managed the surprise; eating linguine on the roof of a safe house in Bologna with Natasha and Clint, listening to a violinist practice next door; the first time they kissed, in a cheap motel room, the taste of whiskey in Clint's mouth; the scratch of a pen on his skin, writing Clint's love as he dragged him back from the edge – and he could see when Clint made the connection, fell into the emotion and disconnected from the pain.
Time collapsed as the Surgeon worked and they floated together in the alternate space for who knew how long. Then he was gone, frustrated, slamming shut his briefcase; Clint's jeans were dark with the blood that ran down his back and chest. He groaned, but managed a smile at Phil; the room was bugged so there could be no conversation, but they didn't need that. They'd long ago learned how to communicate without words, just eyebrows, facial tics, quirks of the lips, and finger flicks.
When the guard entered, Clint sagged down as if unconscious, and he lowered Clint down to his knees before approaching Phil, needle ready; rearing his head back, Phil slammed into him. The move earned him a backhand to his face; angry, the guard grabbed Phil's tie and twisted it around his wrist to keep Phil still. It was what Phil was waiting for; he turned his torso sharply to the right, and the material tightened along the guard's wrist, torqueing the arm until the ulna snapped. A quick jerk back to the left and the tie slithered off the screaming man who stumbled back right into Clint's reach. He caught him in a chokehold, using the chains then keeping him upright to grab the keys. Good thing Clint was so flexible (circus training, he'd laugh when he easily shifted positions to give Phil a better angle); after one cuff was open, he was out of his bonds in a few seconds, freeing Phil and taking the guard's gun as he crossed to the door. Phil picked up his jacket and tossed it to Clint who shrugged it on for warmth.
The concern was that becoming involved would make working together more dangerous, too worried about each other to be effective in battle situations. In fact, the opposite was true; they moved as one unit, knowing what the other was thinking, what they were going to do, without speaking, an intuitive bond that only strengthened over time. The two guards coming down the stairs didn't have a chance, Clint's shots hitting their marks in quick succession, Phil taking their weapons as they continued up into the main part of what was obviously some sort of research facility.
Clint checked the hallway before they headed in what looked like the right direction; a couple of turns and more guards came running, alerted to their escape, and they took them down too. A search of their bodies produced a new model Stark phone, and Phil smiled; for once, Tony's technology fetish was going to come in handy. He popped the back off, took out the battery and pressed the right sequence to ping the GPS system; a short text sent and he dropped it into his pants pocket as a locator.
"Wait," Phil said, catching a glimpse through a partially open door. "We need to find out what they're up to." He stepped inside the room and cursed under his breath. Four devices were almost complete, small briefcases beside them, ready to be deployed; they were simple but effective, lacking only the payload, and the implications were chilling. He crossed to a computer and brought it out of sleep mode; placing the phone beside the CPU, he tapped in a special code and watched the screen as a lightning fast wireless download began. He was going to have to tell Tony he had been right about this little hidden feature.
"Damn it," Clint murmured when he heard the sound of boots in the hallway; he motioned Phil to let him know the guards were trying to flank them. Phil nodded towards the other exit door then the plan was in motion and Clint dashed out into the hallway. Shots came seconds later, sounds of fighting, and Phil grabbed the phone, picked up his own weapon, and hurried through the other door. He came out behind a security counter, crouching down to hide, peering around the side. Kneeling on the floor, held down by four guards, Clint was waiting with his hands on his head, Phil's jacket pulled tight across his broad shoulders. A man entered from doors that opened to outside, flanked by six guards; a blue hood covered his head, one long slit for his eyes. All the men wore uniforms that matched the man's bright blue outfit.
"You are proving to be a pain in my ass, even more than I expected." His voice was filtered through some sort of distortion device, making it computerized and impersonal. "Where is Coulson?"
"Who? Sorry, but I've got no…" The butt of the gun hit Clint hard, right in his temple, sending him sprawling; from Phil's position, he saw the small block drop and slide under a potted plant before they jerked him back up. For a split second, Clint saw him; he brazenly winked at Phil.
"It doesn't matter. He's here; he won't leave you. I had hoped to keep him alive to see the destruction of the Avengers and SHIELD, but I suppose watching his lover die will have to do." The man's laugh was eerie, reverberating along the walls. "I'd say that I hoped the sex was worth it, but I know it wasn't."
"Well, now I know you're talking about someone else." Clint spat blood out of his mouth onto the man's polished shoes. "And destroying the Avengers? Um, no." His hands were behind his back, and Phil saw him palm the detonator, resting his thumb on the trigger. He must have picked it up in the lab, along with the block of C4, part of the bombs being assembled there.
"Laughably easy, actually. What do you think will happen when Stark's so-called green energy arc reactors explode, killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people?" He signaled his men, who fanned out, looking for Phil.
God, Phil thought, it was simple, really. A small suitcase sized nuke and instant chain reaction; whoever this was obviously had people on the inside to spring the Surgeon and kidnap them both easily, so getting into Stark facilities might just be as effortless. The only problem with the plan was that they hadn't counted on one Clint Barton. People made that mistake all the time. Most of them were dead.
"Stand up." The guard said from behind Phil, gun at the ready. With little choice but to comply, he rose up into the line of sight of the hooded man.
"Ah, there you are. Good. Just in time." He aimed the pistol at Clint's head. "Really, Phil? I mean, I see the lure of the body, but don't you think he's a little young for you?"
"Hey, I'm right here." Clint protested before Phil could answer. "What the hell do you want anyway? Or are you just going to talk me to death?"
"I want Coulson to know the pain of losing everything," the man growled back at Clint. "And I want you to shut up."
"Phil?" Clint asked, calm and easy, without turning. Phil saw it all in a moment; the original guards were no more than hired muscle – restrained ones, for sure, but muscle all the same. The new men were vastly different, disciplined men who seemed more like zealots than military; they snapped to attention and never wavered as they surrounded them. At least four bombs, soft targets, and no one knew about them. Here, now, they were outnumbered 4-to-1, the odds were long against them, and Clint was far too close to the C4 to emerge unscathed. Phil had never wanted to have to make this call.
"I say we pull out and nuke the site from orbit. It's the only way to be sure."
Clint craned his head and gazed at Phil, his love written all over his face. Their whole lives together were there in that one look, and a sharp jab of ache punched into his heart, followed by gratefulness that they'd had any time at all. With a crooked smile, Clint answered, "As you wish."
This time, Phil did shut his eyes as he drove his elbow into the guard's stomach; diving for the counter, he heard the click and felt the first wave of the explosion that knocked him senseless and ripped a hole in his very soul.
Those were the first words Phil uttered when Tony landed beside him; he didn't stop digging through the rubble even though his hands were bleeding from all the cuts and scrapes and his weight was shifted all onto one leg to avoid his twisted ankle and jagged gash in his left thigh from a piece of shrapnel.
"Coulson," Tony said, but Phil ignored him, so Tony picked up larger pieces of concrete and started to help; Thor joined him. Phil tuned them out and kept going, hoping with each shift he'd see a hand pushing through or hear a smartass remark; if anyone could survive the blast, Clint could, just to prove Phil wrong. And because Clint was a protective soul – the fact that the mystery villain hinted he'd known Phil would have pissed Clint off. That alone would be enough to kick Clint's stubbornness into overdrive.
Gentle hands tugged at Phil and he came out of his numb stupor; somehow, he'd ground to a halt and he'd missed when the Hulk began lifting the biggest shards. Steve pulled him away, let Phil lean on his strength, and Phil didn't argue, unable to do more than follow, detaching from his emotions, falling into shock. A blanket was thrown around his shoulders, and even Natasha's presence offered little solace. Lights were brought in as night fell; suddenly Fury was beside him – he couldn't remember sitting down, but now that he was aware, his ankle and hands were throbbing painfully, and the ache in his thigh was constant.
"There are four devices, sir. Targets are Stark's arc reactors; the information is on the phone in my pocket, assuming it survived the blast." Giving his report was settling, a familiar act that he could do without thinking.
"Later, Phil. We can do this later," Fury said.
"No, sir. We do this now or I can't promise I can do it at all. I have no idea what will happen when …" His eyes drifted over to the still smoking ruins then he jerked them back. "I need to do it now."
"Alright. Sitrep." Fury gave him what he needed … normalcy. Phil started at the beginning and ran through the whole thing, every detail down to exactly what the mystery man had said and Clint's last words. "So you know this guy? Dated him?"
"I'm not sure, sir. He could have been simply been trying to agitate Clint. But I will make a list of all of my past relationships, intimate or not, just in case. It will be a place to start. One thing is sure, he seemed to have a personal vendetta against me." Phil sagged down, his shoulders slumping as exhaustion caught up to him.
"We'll get him, Cheese." Fury promised.
"Phil! Get your ass over here!" Tony shouted. "We've got him. And he's alive."
"So, exactly how many are we talking about?" Clint shifted, shoving another pillow under the long cast on his left leg. He innocently eyed Phil where he sat on the loveseat, ankle securely wrapped with an ace bandage, propped up on his own set of pillows on a chair.
"You are not going to let this drop, are you?" Phil leaned down to take a sip from the straw in his cup; his hands were wrapped with gaze to avoid infections so he couldn't hold anything and Clint took that as a sign to hog the remote control.
"Nope. I mean, honestly Phil, you've got an ex-lover who's turned super-villain. That's totally cool." He insisted on going without a shirt, arguing that the doctors said it was better for the various dressings on his wounds 'to breathe.' Phil was sure it was just to drive him a crazy and remind him of how completely ripped Clint was. Despite all the joking, Clint was obviously worried that the mystery man and the Surgeon had both escaped; Tony and SHIELD were working on finding out every detail they could about the two men, but they were still at large.
"The list I made included all types of relationships, not just sexual ones. My money's on someone I took down in my time in the military or SHIELD. There are a lot of them out there with grudges." Draping his arm over the cushioned back, Phil sighed when Clint leaned in and settled his head on Phil's shoulder.
"Well, I prefer the jilted lover route. Seriously, you're just so damn good that being without your perfection drives men insane." Tilting his head, Clint snuggled … as much as he could with a broken leg and a myriad of cuts … into the crook of Phil's arm. "Or maybe you turned him down, and, in his eternal disappointment, his life flashed before his eyes … cup o' tea, cup o' tea, almost got shagged, cup o' tea."
"Great. Now I want to watch Buffy again." Phil tightened his arm around Clint's shoulders.
"Sounds like a plan; I've got it queued up on Netflix." Clint punched the play button on the remote, and Phil knew he'd been outmaneuvered.
It's impossible to live life waiting for something bad to happen, always looking forward to what might come, expecting for the beast in the jungle to spring, missing the everyday moments where life really unfolded. Tomorrow either one of them could die, but right now, they were together, warm bodies relaxed against the other, enjoying a quiet night in front of the television. That was what was important, banking up every single one of these memories; trite and true, Phil thought, but having Clint, for even a brief time, was worth the potential hurt. He knew that with a dead certainty after telling Clint to push that detonator; Phil had made the decision, and he'd do it again if he had to. For now, though, he planned to sit and rest and heal and power watch episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer – at least the first five seasons – until they were called back to active duty. If the apocalypse came, they could beep him.