Chapter 1: When a Situation Rises Just Write it Into an Album
January 19, 2011
The sun is shining, the world is at peace for the first time in centuries. The air tastes fresh and sharp, like winter.
Tony, buried deep in work and mechanics, knows nothing of this. Phil is on the other side of the world (okay, a slight exaggeration), and Tony has work to do. There’s just one little problem.
Tony feels like shit.
“Jarvis,” he croaks, pressing his hands into his eyes. “I’m dying.”
“What is this, how did I catch the flu, I haven’t gone anywhere in…”
“Fifteen days, sir.”
“Yeah, that. Ugh.”
Tony tensed. “Give it to me, J.”
“Based on your most recent blood sample, I believe I can identify the problem.”
“Lay it on me. And don’t tell anyone, including Phil, unless otherwise instructed.” The mother-henning would be horrible.
“You have 1.8 grams of palladium in your chest.”
Tony froze, and his world stopped. Heavy metal poisoning. The thing keeping him alive was also killing him. He couldn’t stop a bitter laugh.
Funny. He’d just started wanting to live.
March 3, 2011
Nothing was working. Every combination - every permutation - of every known element. Nothing.
“Run it again, Jarvis.”
“Sir, perhaps Agent Coulson -”
Jarvis quietly started running the simulations again, and Tony slumped back in his chair, staring at the wall. He couldn’t tell Phil; the agent would just glue himself to Tony’s side, neglect his work, focus all his worry on Tony, and Tony couldn’t handle that. He refused to drag Phil down with him. Phil, Pepper, Happy, Darcy, Rhodey - if Tony told them, they would all run themselves ragged with worry and trying to help him.
It was selfish, but if he couldn’t find a solution, he didn’t want to watch them watch him die for the last of his life.
He would find a way, though. He would.
April 22, 2011
Tony stares at the wall. “Is this a good idea, Jarvis?”
“I believe the expo will be very fruitful, sir.”
Tony nods, still staring at the wall. “My will.”
“It’s up to date sir. Perhaps - “
Jarvis practically sighed. “Happy is waiting for you in the garage, sir.”
Tony checks his blood toxicity before standing. It’s a habit he can’t shake, an obsession he can’t stop. Watching the numbers climb is watching his life tick down, and he can’t quit, counting up and counting down in morbid, horrified fascination. Phil’s on a mission, which is for the best. He’s started noticing Tony’s distraction lately, and Tony is having a harder time staying cheerful.
“Let’s do this,” he says, and heads for the garage, trying to shake the fog from his mind. Phil will be back in the morning. Opening ceremonies of the expo, and then he can sleep.
Chapter 2: Sick of all the Insincere
May 14, 2011
Phil frowns. He’s really not sure what’s gotten into Tony lately. First that thing in January, when he found Tony just staring at a list of computations in his lab as though they were the key to life, the universe, and everything. And then the craziness at the senate hearing - sure, Tony could be reckless, but even he didn’t try to tick off the senate on purpose. Usually.
Phil focused back on the matter at hand. “Apologies, Agent Hendricks.” Phil quickly moved on to discussing the agent’s mission. Evaluate the upcoming agent, then Tony, Phil decided. He would only be gone about two weeks, and then he could corner Tony properly. “Report to Agent Barton to discuss code phrases for the mission,” Phil finished. Clint was going to be Hendricks’ field partner for his evaluation, not that Hendricks knew that. Hendricks thought this was a legitimate mission, so Phil needed to treat it like one. He would have plenty of time to worry about Tony after the fact.
May 25, 2011
Apparently, Phil noticed as he raced past a store full of TVs, something big happened in Monaco. That’s where Tony was, though, so it was little surprise. He’d look into it further later. When he wasn’t evaluating a young agent. He was almost done, luckily.
May 29, 2011
What. The. Hell.
“Would you care to tell me why you’ve restricted me from attending my cellist’s birthday party,” Phil said pleasantly.
Fury winced, and Phil’s eyes narrowed. It had been a long mission. He’d spent some time pretending to be dead, but Fury had kept him busy. Now Phil was wondering exactly what Nick was trying to hide.
“You’ll blow Natasha’s cover.”
“Natasha’s - what are you talking about?”
Nick sighed. “Over the last several months, SHIELD has become increasingly concerned with Tony Stark’s erratic behavior - as an organization, Phil. It was deemed necessary to send in an agent to discover what, if any, problems were occurring. Natasha Romanov was sent in, and effectively placed to watch Tony Stark make Pepper Potts his CEO -”
“He WHAT -”
“-and the slow deterioration of his physical and mental health. The birthday party is going to be a disaster.”
“What do you mean,” Phil said, “the deterioration of his physical and mental health.”
Nick heaved a great sigh. The game was up, there was no keeping it quiet anymore. “I mean the fact that he has palladium poisoning, likely caused by the arc reactor, which is currently both keeping him alive and killing him. Natasha gave me confirmation last night.”
Phil just sort of stops, for a second. Stops breathing, stops thinking, stops. “Tony’s dying?”
“Tony’s been dying.”
“I’m going to kill him.”
“That’s the spirit.”
Nick leaves him alone, and Phil decides it’s probably a good thing he’s not allowed to go after Tony right now. He’s a bit of a mess. His heart is roiling in his chest. He’s hurt. Why wouldn’t Tony tell him? Didn’t Tony trust him? Why? Phil could have helped, they could have solved this before it got so serious - this has to have been going on for a very long time, now. The betrayal stung in his chest, but it was quickly replaced by grief. Tony was dying and no one knew how to fix it, if Tony didn’t.
He and Tony are going to have a very, very long discussion tomorrow, because all the bitter emotions swirling through Phil are coalescing into rage.
For a while, Phil’s really not sure what he’s angry about. He knows he needs to figure it out tonight, though, because Fury or not, tomorrow afternoon he and Tony are going to be have a very, very long talk.
The first thing he’s angry about is easy: that Tony didn’t tell him anything was wrong. They could have worked together on a solution; Phil may not be a supergenius, but he’s no slouch. Often he comes up with common sense ideas that Tony misses, the obvious solutions that Tony sometimes forgets in favor of the complex.
Still, there’s a whole ‘nother level of complicated mixed into the anger, and it takes Phil a good hour to realize he’s angry at himself. It takes another hour to figure out why.
Phil had known something was wrong. Since January. He’d never even asked Tony what, not seriously. He hadn’t had time for his husband. He’d been running in and out on missions, and when he was home, he just wanted to relax and enjoy his time with Tony. And the whole time, Tony was dying, drifting away between the breaths they took in sleep and the words they said over lunch. Phil hadn’t been treasuring each and every breath when any of them could have been the last he ever got from Tony. Because Phil was busy. And maybe he couldn’t have helped, but maybe he could have. Phil hadn’t talked to Tony in almost a month - possibly the last month they ever could talk.
Phil felt a little sick himself, right now. Clearly he needed to figure out some of his priorities.
Of course, he was also pissed at Fury. Nick knew something was going on, even figured out what was going on, and he didn’t say a word to Phil. He sent one of Phil’s best friends undercover to watch the cellist, and Phil had no idea. Natasha didn’t either, so she was off the hook. Fury though. Fury was going to hurt over this, and Phil was going to make sure it happened.
Phil froze up as a horrible thought crossed his mind. What if - what if Tony knew Natasha was spying on him? Did Tony think that Phil knew he was dying and just didn’t care?
There went any chance of sleeping.
Chapter 3: 'Til all my Sleeves are Stained Red with all the Truth that I've Shed
May 30, 2011
“You have a very upset husband waiting to talk with you,” Nick said, after Natasha went outside and before he got up to leave the donut shop.
Tony winced. Phil was going to be pissed. Maybe he could put off the inevitable confrontation - too late.
Phil slid into the booth across from Tony, face blank. Tony could see the tight lines at the corners of Phil’s eyes and the tight jaw that meant Phil was angry. Very angry. Probably angrier than Tony had ever seen him - with the possible exception of the dishwasher argument.
“...And when exactly were you planning to tell me you’re dying.”
Phil raised an unimpressed eyebrow. “Yes, that. What were you thinking?!”
Tony stayed quiet. Best to let Phil get it all out, then move on to explaining his side. The rage was fair, though Tony was a little surprised Phil’s composure was slipping.
“Don’t you trust me?”
Tony blinked. “Yeah, of course -”
“It sure doesn’t feel like it! I had to find out from my boss that my husband has been slowly dying since January! You could have died, and I would have been gone, and I had no idea!”
“I didn’t want you to worry.”
“Well, I’m fucking worried! I realize this is a little bit my fault -”
“- for being gone so much, and not taking the time I should have to talk to you, but -”
“It’s not your fault -”
“I can’t lose you!”
Tony fell silent as Phil shot to his feet with the statement.
“I can’t lose you, Tony. And I almost did. And I didn’t even know. How would you feel if I had, I don’t know, cancer or something, and didn’t tell you?”
Tony felt a stone sink in his stomach. “You have -”
“No, just an example.”
Tony tried to hide the relief, knowing it wouldn’t be appreciated right now, but he was pretty sure he failed. “I… I didn’t want the time I had left with you to be sad. I didn’t want you to watch me die. I didn’t want to watch you watch me die. I was selfish.”
Phil took a deep breath and settled back onto his seat. His muscles were wire-taut.
Tony wondered if this was it. Was this the moment he lost the closest thing he’d had to home since Jarvis died? “I’m sorry,” he said.
Phil sighed. “Did you even try to fix it? To stay alive with me?”
“What? Of course I did!”
“Really, because -”
“I tried every combination - every permutation - of every known element -”
“Are you -”
“Yes I’m sure! I’m good at this, and I have nothing, Phil! There’s nothing left to try!”
“What about an element we don’t know?”
“Well, normally when nothing works,” Phil said, voice dripping with condescension, which… Yeah, okay, Tony probably deserved it at the moment, “You make something new. So. Why not invent a new element.”
“Didn’t think of it? Didn’t realize maybe your brain was working slower because you were sick, and a second pair of eyes could help? Didn’t think about how your death would hurt everyone around you?”
Tony didn’t answer. How was he supposed to respond to a question like that? He wasn’t used to people caring enough to hurt when he hurt. He hadn’t ever had a second pair of eyes on big issues before. It was normal to try and fix everything himself, though Phil had made strides in breaking the habit.
Phil stood abruptly. “You’re under house arrest.”
“SHIELD is placing you under house arrest until such a time as you find a way to save yourself.” Phil led the way out of the donut shop and opened the car door. “Get in.”
Tony obeyed, still a bit thrown by the sudden change of conversation.
“Don’t think this conversation is over. As soon as we’re sure you’re not going to die we will be continuing.”
Tony nodded. “Sure. Just have to create a whole new element from scratch. No biggie.”
“That’s the spirit.”
Tony. Slipped. His. House. Arrest.
Phil was beyond pissed. Phil was so far beyond pissed he landed somewhere apocalyptic with rage. He’d later realize half the anger was worry that Tony was doing something incredibly stupid again, but right then he was just so done. He silently vowed to replace all the coffee with decaf and teach Dummy a new shake flavor. Something revolting, but healthy.
The garage door opened, and Phil stared Tony down as he drove into the garage.
“Oh, hey, Phil, I need you to help me get this down to the shop -”
Phil narrowed his eyes at Tony, who barely acknowledged his presence. Phil ignored his relief; Tony had an idea wrapped tight around his brain, and Phil might be pissed, but he’d yell later, after Tony figured out how to save himself.
Otherwise there wouldn’t be nearly enough time to say everything.
So Phil helped him carry the model inside. Why Tony needed a model of the first Stark expo, Phil had no idea, but he could roll with it for a while. Then Phil left Tony in the workshop, heading for the kitchen. He needed coffee or something.
Less than half an hour later, Phil heard the sound of metal on stone. “Jarvis?” he asked.
“We’ve entered hardware mode, sir,” Jarvis replied.
Phil sighed. They would have to redo everything again.
“It may please you to know that sir has discovered a new element. The projected element should be impossible to synthesize.”
‘Should be’ hah. Tony ate ‘should bes” for breakfast.
“Thank you, Jarvis.”
There was a hesitant pause. “I am… sorry, I did not inform you of…”
Phil blinked. He hadn’t considered Jarvis at all, which seemed shortsighted of him. “I don’t blame you, Jarvis,” Phil said. “I know you would never go against Tony, and it’s important it stay that way. I’m glad he told you, at least, and he wouldn’t have if you were willing to go behind his back and tell me.”
They sat in silence for some time, and then Phil’s phone rang.
“Director Fury on the line, sir.”
Fury wasn’t off the hook yet, either. Phil was still pissed that he put Tony under surveillance and knew that Tony was dying and didn’t tell Phil.
He answered the phone. “You’d better have a damn good reason for calling.”
“We have an 084 in New Mexico. And I thought maybe you’d want a break.”
Phil hesitated. Tony seemed to have his own recovery well in hand, and Phil wasn’t ready to forgive him yet. Still, there was a lingering fear that Tony would disappear if Phil blinked, and he hadn’t really looked into Monaco yet, still too focused on the revelation that was made. He needed the space though.
“I’ll head out in five.” Phil hung up the phone and headed for the workshop. “Mr. Stark,” he said to open, and winced.
“What?” Tony said, apparently missing what he just heard.
Phil, though, had momentarily forgotten why he came down to the workshop in the first place. Reverently, he picked up the first prototype of the Captain America shield design. “Do you know what this is?”
“That, that is perfect, bring that to me.”
Phil had a very bad feeling about this, but handed over the shield.
“Okay, lift the coil, lift - okay, we’re good.”
The shield crunched under the metal coil Tony is working with, and Phil felt it sink somewhere deep in his gut, a sickening feeling of something like grief. Did Tony even realize what he just broke?
Phil felt a bit petty, weighing the shield prototype against Tony’s life, but that still felt like a slap in the face. “I’ve been reassigned,” he spit out before he could say something he would regret.
“Land of Enchantment.”
“That’s what I hear.”
There’s an awkward silence. “Don’t call me,” Phil said. “I’m going to need a bit.”
Tony nodded, not looking at him, fiddling with something between his fingers. He looked a little bit heartbroken. Phil turned, and walked out of the ‘shop.
He had an 084 to handle, and then he would be settled enough to have a logical discussion about this. Hopefully.
The drive to New Mexico was long. Thirteen hours with no stops, and Coulson stopped three times. At the first stop, just off the freeway in Barstow, he picked up Clint Barton, who drove for a while before waking Coulson because his post-mission adrenaline had worn off and he was crashing. They swapped at the second stop, in Needles, where Coulson grabbed a coffee.
The third stop was just outside of Lupton, on the border of Arizona and New Mexico. Coulson stopped to refuel - the car and himself. He entered the tiny gas station and looked around. Eventually, he picked a coffee and two packages of donuts. He also dealt with a small-time robber with a bag of flour. He made sure to get caught on the surveillance camera; it would be amusing to see how it affected the junior agent betting pool on his status as human. He also made a note of the gas station; it was owned by Roxxon, or he wouldn’t bother. The fact that they did own it and a robbery occurred just when he and an Avengers candidate stopped for gas was suspicious.
The drive to New Mexico was long, and quiet, since Barton spent most of it sleeping. It was also about as boring as crossing Nevada, only without the pretty view of the Sierras in the distance. Long, boring drives do have one advantage. They give a person a lot of time to think, thirteen hours and thirty-two minutes that Coulson desperately needed.
His anger had started to fade a bit halfway through Arizona, and turn into something more like overprotective frustration. He didn’t really start thinking about things logically until after Lupton, with 173 miles left of the 890 mile trip. Why hadn’t Tony told him he was dying? Tony had said it was because he wasn’t sure he could handle watching Phil watch him die, but that must have been after he found out, if he’d given up already. So why hadn’t he told him before? Phil thought that he, Pepper, and Darcy had finally broken him of his habit of trying to take care of himself by himself.
Then again, when was the last time Phil had spent much time at all with Tony? He hadn’t really sat down and talked with Tony since New Years. They were both busy, but it was now the first of June! And he couldn’t blame that on Tony, who had been mostly in New York working on the Expo and the new Tower they wanted to get running. Tony was insisting on buying land at the exact center of the city, and it was proving tricky. Especially since the damn thing was going to need its own zip code…
No, Phil thought firmly, focus. That made almost six months since he and Tony had the time to sit down and spend time together, and that was on Phil. He had asked Tony if he was okay, but he should have known better than to take the surface answer as truth. Dammit, though, he should be able to trust Tony to tell him these things!
Phil took a deep breath and consciously relaxed his knuckles from their grip on the steering wheel. He and Tony had been married for three years, come July. He wanted that to have been enough time. It had taken about two years to get Clint and Natasha to accurately report injuries, after they were recruited. He needed to remember that Tony was a civilian with a history of abuse and not a soldier. Besides, Tony would never be average at anything, even this.
He almost hit the brakes as he came to a realization. Phil had left Tony pretty much to his own devices for five months, came home for a day, and left again. “Fuck,” Phil breathed. At least he’d told Tony he’d be back. Hadn’t he?
He jumped a little. “Ah, Barton. Didn’t realize you were awake.”
“Just woke up. That was a rather vehement curse. Also, you may break the steering wheel like that.”
Phil consciously tried to ease his grip again.
“Cellist or mission?”
“Cellist,” Phil said, practically growling. Clint held up his hands, and Phil once again took a deep breath. “Sorry,” he said, once he had achieved some semblance of calm. “I may have done something very, very stupid.”
“About damn time. I was starting to wonder if I needed to join the junior agent betting pool, because no one gets through a relationship without screwing up a few times. No one.”
Phil sighed, relaxing as the archer spoke easily and without malice. “We fought, then I left,” he said simply. Clint knew enough about the abuse Tony had undergone to draw some conclusions.
Sure enough, Clint’s eyes were widening. “Damn,” he said. “Good thing whoever it is adores you. Maybe some flowers are in order this time, though, boss.”
Phil snorted. “I don’t think flowers are going to cut it.”
“Eh, you’ll think of something.”
“I’m not so sure about that,” Phil sighed. He inwardly winced at his own tone. He sounded a bit desperately heartbroken, which was not the image he generally meant to portray to his agents.
“...Are you okay?”
“Yes. Let’s just wrap this up so I can go home.”
“Yes, sir!” Clint said.
It was funny, Phil thought, how much those two words helped ease the tension out of his spine. Clint wouldn’t let him down.
Tony breathed in, held his breath, and breathed out, staring at the spot where Phil had been standing.
Don’t call. I need a bit.
Dammit. Whipping around, Tony jumped straight back into working on the new element that would keep him alive. Live, find some way to convince Phil to stay. Live, find some way to convince Phil to stay. Live… hope Phil stayed.
...How long was “a bit” anyway?
Tony’s eyes fell on the item he had used to level out the accelerator. He winced. About two hours after Phil left, Tony had realized exactly what he had crushed underneath his machine. The first prototype of the shield. THE shield. The tattered red, white and blue taunted him from its place on the desk. He’d retrieved it. Finding something else to support the pipes was a nightmare, but Tony couldn’t believe he’d done that. Phil probably took that very badly. It was probably the last straw that made him tell Tony not to call.
Not for the first time, Tony’s eyes drifted from the shield to the phone. He just wanted to pick it up and beg for forgiveness.
Live. Find some way to convince Phil to stay.
With a sigh, Tony turned back to the particle accelerator. “Get ready to fire her up, J,” he said. The sooner he was no longer dying, the sooner he could find some way to hold on to the best person that had ever happened to him.
Hey everyone! Sorry for the long wait between updates, RL got crazy for a while. I thank you all for your amazing comments and reviews; though I was unable to respond to many of them, I did read them all and appreciate them a lot!
As usual, many thanks to Hawkwind1980 for excellent work, plunny breeding, and general awesome beta-ing. :)
I hope you enjoyed the chapter!
June 1, 2011
“They even took my iPod,” Phil heard over the small bug he’d dropped on Darcy. He winced. He just knew she was going to make him regret that; luckily, the brunette woman was sneaky and had easily hidden the fact that they knew each other. She was safer that way and probably knew it. Phil had no doubt she would tear into him once this was all over and she found out about Tony, but there were too many listening ears to tell her now. With a sigh, he threw himself into his work; organizing and preparing the team investigating the hammer for every possible eventuality. He didn’t want to think about all of this while there was work to be done. Which, really, was probably part of the problem.
“You okay, sir?” Clint asked over the comms from where he was stationed high above the hammer, watching.
“It’s nothing, agent. It’s going to start raining soon, though. You can come down for now, just be ready to get back in the air if necessary.”
“Yes sir. You sure you’re -”
“I’m fine, Clint.”
Clint didn’t say anything further on the comm, but Phil was regretting letting Clint out of the nest. He had no doubt that Clint wanted to find him for answers in person. Information gathered face to face was more accurate. Phil looked for something to do, and found plenty. If he stayed busy enough, Clint wouldn’t ask again tonight. They were on the job, and Clint, despite popular belief, could be professional when it mattered.
Phil managed to dodge Clint for most of the evening, into the night. It rained off and on the whole time. Finally, he could find nothing else to do, and looked for a corner to hide in while he ate a late dinner. Phil saw Clint coming across the compound. He hadn’t found a hiding place fast enough.
Thankfully, that’s when the alarms went off, interrupting Clint’s inevitable attempts to help, which would undoubtedly be somewhat juvenile and awkward, but heartfelt. Phil turned the comm back on. He quickly started checking comms and the status of various agents. The intruder was apparently large, blonde, angry, and very good with his fists. Phil issued orders and organized security, but it wasn’t enough.
“What do we do, sir?” an agent asked.
“We need eyes up high. With a gun.” Sitwell nodded in agreement next to him, though he grimaced. Sitwell and Hawkeye never had gotten along.
“On it, sir,” he heard Clint reply. “Found him.”
“Barton, talk to me.”
“You want me to slow him down, sir? Or are you sending more guys in for him to beat up?” Clint’s voice hummed softly in his ear. Phil could hear the rain outside echo in that ear as well.
“I’ll let you know,” Phil replied, watching the blonde approach. Protocol dictated that he order Clint to take the shot. Bring down the intruder chasing an 084. He watched the blonde burst into the main courtyard where the hammer rested from his spot up above and frowned. The look on the blonde’s face when he saw the hammer looked like Tony’s when he worked on the armor.
“Evanston,” Sitwell said. The massive agent moved in; he was an excellent fighter with a mean swing. He went down like a bookshelf run over by a rhino. The blonde approached the hammer.
“You better call it, Coulson, because I’m starting to root for this guy.”
The blonde got closer to the hammer, rain soaking into his shirt. Suddenly, the swift rainfall was covered by the echo of thunder high above, the man illuminated by a burst of lightning that made him look more alive. As though it was a part of him, somehow.
“Last chance, sir.”
“Wait,” Phil said. “I want to see this.”
Phil wasn’t sure what he was expecting. A sword-in-the-stone moment, maybe. When the hammer didn’t move, though, Phil was not shocked in the least by the sudden despair on the rugged face, or the desperate yell. Somehow, this man belonged to this hammer. He knelt before it, hands slipping free of the handle.
“All right, show’s over. Ground units move in,” Phil ordered easily. High above, Clint relaxed the taut string of his bow only when it became apparent that the blonde was done trying to fight them.
Protocol dictated they take him in, possibly bring him down, and vanish him into nowhere. Everything in Phil screamed the wrongness of protocol in this situation. Especially after seeing the peaceful grief etched into the blonde’s face in the interrogation room.
So when Selvig gave him the negligible chance he needed, Phil let him go and set a tail on him. He sent Clint for good measure. Not only was Clint the best, but this also kept him out of Phil’s love life. Two birds, one stone.
Tony had better have figured out how not to die by now.
June 2, 2011
“We’ve got company. Looks like Xena, Jackie Chan, and Robin Hood.”
Phil rubbed his temples. He should have known better than to think Fury was actually doing him a favor with this mission. “Standby, keep watching,” he finally ordered. “Has anyone found Barton yet?”
“Negative,” Sitwell responded. “Last we heard, he was with a pretty brunette at the bar last night.”
Phil had a bad feeling about that one, but technically Clint had been relieved of duty after blondie turned in the night before. The archer was just incredibly late reporting in for work.
“Target and three unknowns moving,” came a murmur over the comm.
“Copy,” Coulson replied. He leaned back a bit in his seat, thinking. Between Foster’s research and the hammer, it was looking more and more like this 084 was going to be a new level of complicated.
The wind picked up out of nowhere, and Phil sat up, his instincts screaming. A massive twister reached from the sky downwards, striking the earth more like a bomb than a tornado. The ground shook under the vehicle, and Phil got out of the car, staring as the winds dropped off just as suddenly as they began.
A massive, metallic robot stood there. Phil had seen a lot of massive metallic robots in his time - he was married to Tony Stark - but something about this monstrosity had his hair standing on end.
“Is that one of Stark’s?” Sitwell yelled.
“I don’t know. That guy never tells me anything.” Not even that he was dying. He knew he sounded oddly bitter about it, despite the fact that on all official channels he had no reason to expect Tony to tell him anything. Dragging himself out of his thoughts, Phil seized a megaphone. “Hello, you are using unregistered weapons technology. Identify yourself.” He set aside the megaphone. “Here we go,” he grumbled to Sitwell, and started backing off. He just wanted to get this over with and try to figure out how to deal with his husband, and giant alien robots were not helping his chances. Phil really just didn’t care about this situation anymore. His sharp eyes catalogued the motion of the robot.
“Incoming!” he yelled, and ran for it. There was an explosion of light and sound and wave of heat even more scorching than the New Mexico sun knocked him off of his feet. Shaking off the surprise, Phil picked himself up, looking around in a slight daze.
“Coulson to town,” he said. “You have incoming. Evacuate everyone!”
“Yessir,” replied a chorus of agents. “We saw it touch down, evac’s already started.”
“Target and the three unknowns know our bogey,” someone else reported grimly. “But they don’t seem to be on friendly terms.”
Yeah, this was exactly the cherry topper Phil hadn’t wanted to top off this day.
I'm very sorry about the long wait! :) Thanks as usual to Hawkwind1980 for being an amazing beta reader! Look forward to more Phil/Tony soon!
June 2, 2011
Tony hurt all over. Not surprising - he’d gone from terminally ill to in recovery to in battle to beat half to shit in less than twenty-four hours.
He’d had a long week, okay?
Still, he’d lived. Item one, checked off the to-do list.
Item two: Convince Phil to stay. That one might actually be harder, Tony mused.
“Huh? Oh, Pepper!”
She rolled her eyes at him and leaned against the edge of the roof. “What is going on? You saved the day. Bad guy beaten. So why the heck are you moping?”
“I am not moping.”
“Yes, you are.”
“I’d have to agree with that one,” Rhodey agreed.
Tony shrugged, though it wasn’t as obvious in the armor. “Phil didn’t take the whole dying thing well. More specifically, the not telling him I’m dying thing. Also there was some sort of emergency in New Mexico.”
“You didn’t even tell Phil?” Rhodey demanded.
“Don’t worry, I have a plan.”
Pepper groaned. “Do not buy Phil a private island.”
“I just… need to fix something,” Tony says, thoughts already zooming a million miles an hour, running numbers and materials and God. It just felt so good to be able to think right again.
Phil is just glad none of his people are involved in the fight. Skilled they may be, but they just aren’t on the level of alien gods with daddy issues - except maybe Clint. There’s a reason he’s being considered for the initiative, and it’s only partly because he’s insane. Still, he’s not pleased, because as soon as the battle’s over, he receives news that he and Clint are supposed to drive the remains of the Destroyer to Roswell. That means at least two and a half hours in a car, unable to escape.
Clint climbs in the passenger side of the large, bland truck, closes the door, and turns to Phil with a grin. “So,” he says.
“I don’t know to what you are referring.”
“Sure you don’t.”
“‘So’ leaves a variety of options and is an unacceptable conversation starter.”
“Your level of evasion leaves distinctly fewer options.”
Phil sighs. The sooner he talks, the sooner he gets this over with. “Cellist,” he says.
“Yeah, one word answer isn’t going to cut it.”
“Where were you this morning?”
“Last I heard, you were with a brunette at the local bar.
Clint’s eyes take on a dreamy quality. “If I ever meet that woman again, I’ll marry her,” he says.
Phil raises an eyebrow. “Well, where were you?”
“Well… So I meet this brunette at the bar, right? And I’m like, shit she’s hot.”
“Very valley girl of you.”
“Then, we get chatting, head back to the room, and have the best sex of my entire life. Next thing I know I woke up in handcuffs and with a phone number, Phil. A phone number to a 24/7 sex line. I think I'm in love. I’m horribly hung over, but I try calling it, and it’s a sex line. She left me the number to a sex line, Phil.”
“Yes, that’s definitely a good sign,” Phil says drily.
“I went digging later, and she tazed Thor, after hitting him with a van. She tazed the god of thunder! Oh, and I think she knew you.”
Phil almost slams the brakes, imagining Darcy staring down Thor with nothing but her tazer. “What?”
Clint continues at once. “Yeah, so on the note with the phone number, she wrote ‘sorry hot stuff, needed to pass a note.’ At first I was really confused, but then I looked in a mirror. She wrote ‘Phil, you’d better return my iPod, asshole’ in bright pink sharpie across my chest.”
“She dotted the i’s with little hearts.”
“I really need to remember to pick up an iPod. When I tell you she’s a friend of the cellist’s, I’m trusting you not to go digging or breaking confidences.”
“No problem, but can I get her number?”
“As I never, ever, ever want her to encounter Natasha, no.”
Clint considers the possibility. “Yeah, alright,” he says. Silence falls for a moment as Clint eyes Phil, and then his expression fills with unholy glee. “Now that that’s covered,” he says, “what is going on with the cellist?”
Phil is very, very tempted to bang his head against the steering wheel, but refrains. The horn starting and stopping in short bursts would attract attention to their otherwise innocuous truck, and that would be bad. “I fought with him. Also, uh, the brunette doesn’t know. Yet. Or she would have left me a rather more violent message.”
“Pissing off the friend is a bad plan. Not a good way to win the cellist back.”
“Trust me, I know. She’s the one who got him out of the relationship before.”
“...Are you sure I can’t have her number?”
“So, what are you fighting about? I don’t think you ever said.”
Phil sighs. Still almost two hours on the clock. “He was… in trouble. He’s known since… for months, and didn’t tell me a thing. Not so much as a word. And I knew something was wrong, but I figured I would deal with it when we finished that training with Hendricks. Thought I had all the time in the world, only I didn’t, and I had no clue because I was working.”
Clint reads between the lines. “So you fought with him,” he prompts.
Phil’s on a roll now. “Argued about trust, because clearly he didn’t trust me, and about asking for help. It’s like he doesn’t realize he has people who care now! And to top it off, I hadn’t talked to him for almost a month before we fought, because Hendricks, and he just dealt with it. He didn’t tell D… the brunette, either! Just kept talking about how he…” didn’t want to watch you watch me die “...didn’t want to bother me. Like it would be more of an inconvenience than finding out too late that he -” was dying.
Clint stares at him. “Um… does he like chocolate?”
Phil actually blinks at that. “I’m sorry, what?”
“Because, don’t get me wrong, I totally understand why you’re upset, but let’s look at this just a little differently.” Clint pauses, to allow Phil to object if he wants.
Phil pulls over. “Switch me places,” he says.
Clint nods and they swap seats. Phil doesn’t know if he can stay level enough during this conversation to drive. When they’re settled and underway, Phil inclines his head, indicating that Clint should go on. Clint probably has a better reference for what Tony is thinking anyway, and enough distance from the situation to explain it in terms Phil might understand.
“It took me months to even start opening up to you, and that was knowing it was literally your job to keep me alive.”
Phil starts slightly. This conversation is already going differently than he expected.
“Your cellist - well, considering the off-the-books expedition Nat and I went on in ‘06, I’d say he’s got some similar issues. And maybe he’s doing better, but some things scar deeper than others. Some things that are scars don’t look like scars, either. Maybe he didn’t want to be a bother, but he learned that he was, somewhere. And logically he might know you don’t think that - might believe it, even - but logic doesn’t overrule cold, hard experience.”
Clint paused, and Phil sat in the seat, somewhat stunned, as he tried wrap his head around the words.
“Maybe he knew he could come to you, and maybe you were ready to have him,” Clint continues, “but he still couldn’t, because he’s not ready. Or maybe he is, but doesn’t know how, I don’t really know where he’s at in the process. And sure, it’s taking him longer than it took me - or even Nat - but he’s not either of us. He doesn’t have the same training, or the same experiences, or the assurance that whatever you might think of him it’s your job to watch out for him. No. All he has are his past experiences, and I get the feeling he didn’t have many good ones before you. He’ll be ready when he’s ready, when he’s had enough good experiences that they stick - even when shit hits the fan and he falls back on raw instinct. Counseling might help make the process a bit quicker, but really only so much can be done without a lot of time.”
Clint falls silent, and several minutes pass as Phil considers that.
“It’s been what,” Clint says, “almost five years, since you met? Three since you got married? And he was alone for how much longer than that?”
“Almost four times that,” Phil says, slowly. He’s still a little upset, still a little angry. And he does have some right to be. But he can also see where Tony’s coming from, understand a bit what was driving him. Add in the way the palladium and side effects were muddling his brain, and everything made sense, even if it still upset Phil.
“Add in the fact that you said you weren’t around much at the time,” Clint says, sounding tired, a bit sad, and far too understanding, “and his reaction makes a lot of sense. So. We talked about flowers, but does he like chocolate?”
“Only combined with caffeine,” Phil replies on automatic, “and I refuse to give him chocolate-covered espresso beans. Never again.”
How the hell is he supposed to fix this?
So, so, so sorry for the long wait! Life, and nanowrimo, happened. Thanks to ALL of you for your comments - I do read them all, even if I don't always have time to respond.
Chapter 7: Something to get off my Chest (Part Tony)
WARNING: Struggling with alcoholism, addiction. Mentions of past abuse.
Phil plans to call Tony as soon as they arrive. Really, he does. But there’s paperwork, and a lot of noise about Ross trying to get Blonsky of all people on the Avengers team, and Phil has no idea what to say anyway, and he just… puts it off. Just one more day, and he’ll call.
And in the meantime, he watches his phone, desperately hoping to hear from Tony.
June 3-7, 2011
Tony stares at his phone. Don’t call for a bit. I need some time.
Tony turns resolutely away. He isn’t sure how long “a bit” is, but it’s probably longer than a few days. It seems unlikely Phil would want to talk to him yet. Tony swallows. Phil has never given him the silent treatment before. Ty had, often, but usually over stupid things - choosing the wrong meal, leaving his shoes in the doorway. Tony knew that wasn’t justified, these days, but is it okay for Phil to do this now? Pepper and Rhodey didn’t seem to surprised Phil had wanted some space, but how long was “a bit?”
Tony realizes he’s staring at the phone again and turns away, again. Maybe it was okay now because Phil had left to get space, instead of locking Tony in a closet to make space? That could be it. And Phil hadn’t left because he wanted Tony to be miserable, like Ty did. Just because Phil was upset.
He just didn’t have the frame of reference he needed for this entire situation.
Maybe he needs to focus on ‘how to fix’ instead of on ‘what even,’ for lack of a better term. Tony sighs, forces his gaze off his phone (again), and turns to the shattered remains of the prototype Captain America shield.
He’s not quite ready to face this, either. It’s one of the few things about Phil that drives him up the wall - his Cap obsession. And it’s not that he thinks Phil is a nerd or anything (though he is, and it is an extremely attractive trait). It’s that Howard spent his whole life looking for the Captain, and Tony has a niggling, persistent fear Phil will leave for the same reason.
Tony shoves that thought aside. Phil already has left, so it’s a bit of a moot point unless Tony can convince him to come home, and the shattered, priceless Captain America memorabilia sitting on his workbench is Tony’s best bet.
“Jarvis, find me the authentic paint,” Tony says.
“Right away, sir,” Jarvis replies.
Tony digs into the meat of the shield. He quickly realizes piecing it back together is going to be a much larger project than he thought, and as much as he would like to, he can’t just abandon his work for SI or SHIELD while he works on this. He’s going to have to take his time, too, and work carefully to find ways to hide the repairs without damaging the integrity of the design - wouldn’t want to give it to Phil in anything less than mint condition…
June 8, 2011
Huh? No, wait, but that piece might fit just so, and that would balance the -
- star, so he could get it to hold. Then -
Tony blinks. “Huh?” he asks, looking up from his project.
Pepper sighs, rolling her eyes at him. “You’ve got a call from a SHIELD line.”
Tony groans. “It’s not a Tuesday or a Thursday. It is, in fact, a Wednesday. So SHIELD can go to -”
Tony freezes in his seat. “Oh?” he asks, aiming for nonchalant.
Based on the look Pepper gives him, he doesn’t succeed. “Oh,” she agrees. “It sounds like it’s a business call. Something to do with Ross.”
“I hate Ross.”
“I know, I know.”
“Fine! Fine, I’ll take the call. Jarvis, pick it up for me.”
“Of course, sir.”
Tony hears the click that signals the line is connected, opens his mouth - and freezes again. What now? What’s the protocol for talking to your husband when you’re fighting but have to do work together?
“Tony here,” he finally says, figuring it’s better than nothing. Not super formal, but not overly friendly and potentially driving Phil even further away, either.
“Tony here,” Phil hears on the line after a brief silence. Tony’s voice is a little hesitant, like he isn’t sure he wants to be having this conversation. It feels like someone jabbing a paperclip into his chest and twisting. No, “hey, agent, what’s cooking?” or “I could take the place of that paperwork you’re doing” or “Let’s create some new forms to file, agent” to spice up his entry. No, this greeting is bland, generic, and screams “I don’t want to talk to you but I will because responsibilities.”
And it hurts.
He’ll keep it brief. If Tony doesn’t want to talk to him just yet, that’s fine. Phil can deal. He’s got work to do, anyway.
Phil lays out the job, waits for Tony to accept, and then jumps off the line with a quick, “We’ll talk later.”
Jarvis helpfully plays a dial tone while Tony stares at the holographic phone screen, but Tony barely registers the noise. Later. Sure. Guess “a bit” is “a bit longer” then.
At least pissing Ross off to make sure Banner gets added to the Avengers roster instead of Blonsky sounds like it will be fun. Maybe if he does a good job, it’ll earn Tony enough good will with Phil to chat sooner, not later.
June 9, 2011
It is easy. It’s incredibly easy. Tony buys out the bar and Ross absolutely, resolutely refuses to release Blonsky into SHIELD custody, end of the world or not.
Tony has Jarvis call Phil to tell him it’s over - Phil doesn’t want to talk to Tony, anyway - and forces his feet out the door. He forces himself to look away from the gleaming, liquid-filled bottles on the wall and climb into his car. He forces himself not to stop at any of the well-lit clubs or bars in the area, and eventually, he makes it home. He heads straight down to the workshop, tossing aside his suit in favor of an old tank top and sweats piled haphazardly on the couch.
Then he sits at the workbench and stares at the broken shield, trying to will himself to work. Inadvertently, he finds his gaze sliding instead to the mini fridge in the corner.
It’s been years (though he felt drunk at his birthday party, probably the palladium talking), but fuck, he needs a drink.
But he promised Phil he wouldn’t.
But Phil was gone.
But he might come back.
But dammit he needs a drink, he can feel the need burning in his throat and drying his mouth, making him wobbly and woozy and…
“Jarvis,” he croaks. “Call, call someone, I need, I need a drink, just, Jarvis -”
“Dialling Ms. Potts, sir.”
Tony nods and sticks his hands under his arms, fisting them and trying very hard not to look at the tiny workshop fridge, where the only bottle of alcohol he owns sits, untouched, to remind him of how strong he is.
He doesn’t feel strong now.
Pepper walks quickly down the stairs towards Tony’s workshop. Jarvis’ terse voice directs her there, informing her that Tony hasn’t cracked the bottle yet. Punching her code the moment she reaches the doors, the blacked-out glass opens for her and she steps into the workshop.
Tony sits in the center of the room, a bottle of whiskey on the table in front of him. He stares at it, covetous and hateful, lusting and despising. He looks as though he wants nothing more; he looks as though he wants nothing less.
And that, she supposes, is alcoholism in a nutshell.
“I’ll take that,” she says, and marching over to the sink, dumps it down the drain. When she turns around, Tony is slumped in his chair. The muscles in his body have relaxed, and he’s shaking a little. Walking over, footsteps gentler as she leaves the empty bottle behind, Pepper pulls him to his feet. “We’ve just reached Mark 3, is all,” she says. “Now come on. Jarvis got the water started for cocoa.”
“With real cream?” Tony asks. He sounds much younger than his thirty-one years.
“Yes,” Pepper replies. “With cinnamon and nutmeg sprinkled on top.”
Tony lets her tug him out of the workshop, and she smiles. “Sorry,” Tony mumbles.
“What for?” Pepper asks. “Tonight, we won.”
Tony’s lips twitch a little. Pepper’s counting that as a win. They make their way up the stairs, and into the kitchen. Jarvis, brilliant AI that he is, has the water hot and waiting. Pepper hums as she moves around the kitchen to make the cocoa. Tony takes a seat at the bar, watching her and looking a little lost.
It reminds her of the first time she dumped his alcohol down the drain, years ago. She is glad he called her then, even though he hardly knew her. She is glad he called her now, even though he worries about bothering her. Though that didn’t stop him from dumping the CEO position in her lap, she thinks a tad grouchily.
Finishing up the cocoa, she slides a mug in front of Tony and takes a seat next to him. “Now then,” she says, “What’s going on in that head of yours?”
Tony tells her. He talks about fighting with Phil, about this weird new thing where Phil isn’t talking to him, but isn’t not talking to him - and how long is “a bit” anyway?
Pepper sighs internally. She gets where Phil is coming from, she really does, but he seems to have forgotten that Tony has no context to judge a normal relationship. Making a mental note to call and discuss things with Darcy, Pepper soothes Tony. She winds him down with the skill years of practice have given her, until he’s a droopy mess and willing to admit that yes, he’s human, and he does need sleep.
“Things will look better in the morning,” she whispers.
Tony nods, and lets her tuck him into bed.
Pepper slips out of Tony’s room and back to the kitchen. Jarvis, the saint, has kept the water hot for her, so she fixes a cup of tea before moving into the living room and slouching onto the couch. “Men,” she sighs, and sips her tea for a few minutes. Warm, mostly content, and very comfortable, she smiles up at the ceiling. “Could you dial Darcy for me, Jarvis?”
“Of course, Ms. Potts,” Jarvis replies.
Pepper waits as the phone rings.
“Hello?” Darcy yawns. Pepper winces; right, late at night.
“Darcy, it’s Pepper. Sorry for calling so late…”
“‘S fine, my scientist is an astrophysicist. What’s up?”
Pepper scowled. “This whole… Phil-Tony situation!”
“Wait,” Darcy says, much more alert. “What situation?”
"Oh. Oh, shit. That’s right, you don’t know.” Darcy waits as Pepper takes a deep breath. “Okay. Okay, right, so starting from the beginning - no, starting from the ending - Tony is mostly okay and currently not dying.”
“Christ. Give me a few minutes, I need coffee.”
Chapter 8: My Life Gets Kinda Boring
June 10, 2011
His phone rings, again. This is the third time in the first ten minutes of this half hour meeting.
“Phil. Just. Answer. The. Phone,” Fury says, slowly.
“You informed me that this meeting was not to be interrupted.” Fury glowers, and Phil nods. He’s made his point.
Turning his attention to the phone, Phil glances at the display - then pales at the white letters spelling out “D End Stop.” Across from him, Fury lifts an eyebrow. Clint and Natasha, on the other sides of the table, blink.
Clearing his throat, Phil clicks the answer button and raises the phone to his ear. “Coulson here,” he says.
Phil pulls the phone away from his ear, wincing. “Excuse me,” he says. Fury waves him off as Clint’s jaw drops.
“Is that her?” he asks, eagerly. “Can I get her number? Can I talk to her? Will she go out to destroy a restaurant with me?”
“What - no. No, not allowed,” Phil says. Stepping outside, he waits.
“...Was that hot arms guy?” Darcy asks.
“Well then. YOU BASTARD!”
“I deserve that.”
“My best friend was goddamn dying. Dying! Actively growing closer to death! And what did you do?”
“STOLE MY IPOD AND SAID NOTHING!”
“Well, I -” Phil tries.
“I’m not done yet.” Darcy hisses.
Phil closes his mouth, turns down his phone volume to minimize ear damage, and settles in for a scolding. A painful scolding. “Continue,” he says.
“Not only did you not tell me Tony was dying when you found out,” Darcy says, “But you also proceeded to fight with him, walked out on him after said fight, and haven’t called him since.”
“Work doesn’t count!”
“It’s not like he called me, either.”
“YOU TOLD HIM NOT TO, YOU IDIOT!”
“I…” Don’t call me. I’m going to need a bit. “...Shit.”
“You’re supposed to be some kind of genius at managing people, the most difficult people on the planet, and all you have to say is shit? Tony has zero frame of reference for this! He doesn’t understand taking time to cool off, because guess what, his last boyfriend never did! He has no idea how long ‘a bit’ is, and he’s convinced you’re never coming back! Have you noticed he’s stayed entirely out of the media since the Expo? Tony thinks if he’s very good, you might call him again, and he’s worried that because he had to call Pepper to help stop him drinking after spending a night at a bar, for you, he’s not good. Do you have any idea how badly you’ve fucked up? If you don’t get back here and fix this, CONSIDER YOURSELF DEAD, YOU STUPID, IDIOTIC, STUFFY, SUIT-WEARING GOVERNMENT DRONE! AND BRING ME BACK MY IPOD, YOU JACKBOOTED THUG!”
Phil will probably need to get her a new handset too, because by the sound of the phone slamming down, it probably broke. Slowly, he lowers his phone from his face. “Fuck,” he says.
Phil turns quickly, to find Clint and Natasha standing in the doorway.
“I want to meet her,” Natasha continues.
“Mine,” Clint says, rather plaintively.
“I’ll share on alternating Tuesdays, you baby,” Natasha says, rolling her eyes.
“I rather think she would dislike the insinuation that anyone but her has any chance at dictating who she belongs to.”
“That just makes her even better,” the two spies say in unison.
Phil side-eyes them. “I need to send you out separately more. That was worrying.”
His phone rings in his hand. Looking down, Phil sighs at the display. Darcy again. He sets the phone on silent.
“As it happens,” Fury says behind him. “I have separate missions for them. If we could get back to our meeting?”
Phil knows he is only human. He’s not perfect, and he’s not infallible, as much as he would like to claim to be. There are quite a few graves demonstrating the effects of Phil making mistakes. It never ends well. His choices have a lot of consequences that aren’t always easy to live with.
This one might cost him more than he’s ever been willing to pay. Don’t call me. I’m going to need a bit. Jesus. Phil isn’t sure he could have screwed up worse if he’d tried. He pulls out his phone to call Tony and hesitates. He has a lunch meeting in ten minutes. It’s probably better to wait, make sure he has the time to give Tony his full attention. Tucking his phone away again, Phil heads off for the meeting.
It’s long, boring, and Phil is exhausted by the time it’s over. Holding his phone, he stares at it. He’s a little worried that if he calls, he’ll be too grouchy to stay calm and apologize. Besides, he has paperwork, and it would be better to have all his distractions out of the way.
The two foot stack of paperwork may take some time to get through, so Phil resigns himself to calling Tony after dinner. Sitting at his desk, he takes his pen to the dozens of signature pages and blank lines like serial killers take knives to their victims - viciously, without remorse, and with a great deal of personal gratification.
He finishes just in time to watch the last good plate go out in the cafeteria, and decides to forgo dinner.
June 11, 2011
Phil wakes up groggy, hungry, and feeling generally like the back end of a particularly smelly dog. Smacking his phone on the nightstand, he sighs as his alarm fades into blessed, blessed silence. His position as assistant director of SHIELD is worth it just for the nicer beds in his on-site rooms.
Only to be immediately broken by ringing and a glowing display that reads, “D End Stop.”
Phil puts the phone on mute and looks at the time. 6:02 am. Stumbling up out of bed, he groans. Maybe the hot water in the shower will help him perk up.
The water isn’t hot. It is, in fact, freezing cold. It wakes him up, but not in a good way. Washing as fast as possible, Phil is reaching for his phone the moment he plods out of the shower, dripping water all over his bathroom floor and out onto the carpet as he shivers. He wants nothing more than to wake up next to Tony in the morning and complain about how bad this one was -
Phil freezes. Inches from his phone, his hand shakes, and Phil sighs. He really has no right to call and complain all over Tony after everything. He needs to call, but he’ll do it later, when he’s feeling a bit better. He’ll apologize, make sure Tony’s okay, then whine about his terrible morning.
Yeah, solid plan.
Following his own wet footsteps back into the bathroom, Phil grabs a towel off the rack and dries off. Once he’s finally stopped dripping everywhere, he moves to the closet. He pulls on his suit, then grabs a tie at random. Turning to look at the mirror as he ties it, he freezes.
The tie is hideous. It’s a red monstrosity with green spots and blue stripes. Tony gave it to him last April, as a joke. Phil smooths his fingers over the crappy material and slides it loose. Turning back to the closet, he starts sorting through his ties. Gift from Tony, gift from Tony, gift from Tony, once used it to tie Tony to the headboard, gift, gift… When did his entire tie collection turn into presents from Tony?
Screw it, ties weren’t even mandatory, hadn’t been since one of the agents lost it and spent the day running around and choking people with them because he felt like he couldn’t breathe. He was... fired, but also effectively made his point. Closing his closet, Phil takes a deep breath and turns around. He tucks his phone and keys in his pocket, leaves his usual sunglasses on the dresser, and heads for the door. He tugs his shoes on, ties them, stands. Reaching up to run his fingers through damp hair, Phil absently notes he hasn’t combed it.
Phil heads out the door.
“Morning,” Phil wearily greets the front-desk man.
“Mor - ah. Are - are you feeling alright?”
Phil waves him off and scans his card, heading into the SHIELD building. Behind him, the front-desk man picks up the phone and hits speed dial four. Phil makes a beeline to the elevator. Normally he’d take the stairs as a sort of warm up, since he likes help train some of the better junior agents in the morning, and he swears he hears someone gasp as he jabs the “down” call button.
A few night-shift technicians step out of the elevator when the doors slide open. They stop in the doorway when they see Phil standing there. All three mouths drop open as they freeze and gape.
Phil makes a mental note of the three technicians. Clearly they need more training to withstand abnormality in the workplace. “Problem, agents?” he asks, adding a smirk for good measure.
One of them passes out. Phil can’t help but snicker as the agent’s friends hurriedly drag him off. This is going to be fun. Normally he just internally laughs at Clint’s antics, but this day’s already in the hole. Might as well go all out.
Mentally, Phil makes a note. Wait to call Tony when feeling more like a normal human being.
As the elevator descends, Phil’s phone rings. Pulling it out of his pocket, he frowns at the number of missed calls on the screen. He could’ve sworn he had the phone on silent… Wait, Phil thinks. Wait. Jarvis hasn’t yelled at him, or talked to him, or communicated with him in any way in a while. Suddenly the ridiculous number of red lights, the cold water, and the ringing phone make a lot more sense than he would like.
Phil silences the phone again and puts it in his pocket as the elevator opens onto the training floor.
The two agents on the mat closest to the elevator glance over and freeze. As Phil stalks across the center of the room towards the baby agents, the whispers start behind him, quickly moving around the room. All the senior agents who have finished their required training for the day bow out, heading for the elevators en masse.
The baby agents wait for him to approach in apprehensive horror.
“I quit,” blurts out a redhead on the front row. “I resign.”
“Sorry,” Phil says, “but it’s not that easy.”
He hears some very satisfying whimpering, and not just from the agents in front of Phil.
By the time training is over, six agents have tried to quit. Phil makes a mental note to mark their difficulty handling surprises in their files. It may slow their promotion, but probably for the best. Needlessly, he smooths his hands over his suit, just to emphasize the lack of wrinkles, then turns and swans out of the room. His stomach is growling, so he heads for the cafeteria. Breakfast sounds amazing.
Entering the cafeteria, Phil grins as every agent in the room averts their eyes, then tries to subtly watch him in their peripheries. He grins a little wider, and at least half of them avert their eyes entirely. A few sharpen, as though readying themselves to take an attack.
Phil is gaining a surprising amount of information from this little adventure. Stalking over to the main line, all the agents there scurry out of the way, letting him move to the front of the line. Normally Phil goes for oatmeal, an apple, and a glass of milk. A solid healthy breakfast, and easy to eat with one hand while dealing with the overnight paperwork.
Today he decides to change things up. He grabs three eggs (fried, over easy), a handful of bacon, a few sausage links, an apple, two biscuits with gravy, and a glass of juice. Then, just because, he adds a parfait.
Half the cafeteria has emptied by the time he turns around, leaving the corner table with the best line of sight conveniently empty. He’s feeling much better about the day now.
He can’t call Tony in the crowded cafeteria though, so it’ll have to wait.
Heading over to the table, Phil slides into the best seat and settles in. From here, he can see every agent in the cafeteria - which means he also sees the moment Clint Barton struts into the room. Clint doesn’t really look around, instead taking advantage of the abnormally short food line to get breakfast. Only when he’s gathered, ironically, the same selection of breakfast foods as Phil, plus waffles, does he look around. His eyes light with unholy glee when they land on Phil in the corner, and Clint strides over.
Everyone in the room holds their breath as Clint sets his food on the table. “So, cellist problems?” Clint asks.
Half of the remaining agents book it for the doors as Phil’s eyes narrow.
Clint nods. “Why is it you can get away with this? Whenever I screw with the other agents I get reprimanded.”
“And who exactly is going to reprimand me?”
“...Point. Hey, can I have handcuff girl’s number? Pleeeeassssse?”
“Phil, Phil, she’s the one. Even Natasha is impressed by her.”
“She left you handcuffed to a bed.”
Clint gives him giant puppy eyes. It’s always been a weirdly effective tactic for the archer, Phil muses, but this time the potential chaos weighs more. “No,” Phil says.
Clint sighs. “Fiiine.” He shoves a slice of bacon in his mouth.
Phil follows suit.
“...Will you give Tasha her number?”
“You know, there’s a nice, cozy posting in Antarctica that I need to fill.”
“Oh, would you look at the time, I have to hit the range,” Clint says, and shovels his food into his mouth as fast as possible before booking it out the doors.
After finishing breakfast, Phil decides to head to his office and get started on the overnight paperwork. The stack is smaller than he expects when he checks his inbox. He doesn’t really feel like doing it, either.
Instead, he eyes the couch in his office. It’s mostly kept for Barton and Romanov to chill on when they have nothing better to do, in a desperate attempt to stop them doing anything else. Phil isn’t sure he’s ever actually sat on it.
He throws himself down, with the drama befitting the entire situation.
“The Disney princesses would be proud,” a vent says.
“Antarctica,” Phil sing-songs and hears the faint creaking of Clint scurrying away.
Phil pulls out his phone and tries to open the Angry Birds app. Mysteriously, it leads to The Cellist’s contact information. Sighing, Phil leaves and tries to get into 1010! It, too, leads to the phonebook. As does every other puzzle game.
Giving up, Phil sets the phone aside as it starts to ring shrilly again. On the end table are a couple novels, mostly for show. Phil never has time to read them.
No time like the present, he supposes. He needs to regain some semblance of normalcy before he calls Tony anyway. Opening the barely-used copy of The Count of Monte Cristo, Phil starts reading, trying to ignore the continuous ringing.
He barely notes his assistant poking her head in, seeing him, and beating a fast retreat. Good, that means she’ll keep everyone out.
Lunch comes and goes.
At about four, Phil’s stomach rumbles, distracting him from his book. He sighs and stretches; it’s been a long time since he curled up with a book and just took a breather. He’ll go get dinner, then head home and call Tony. Sliding his dead phone into his pocket, he moves off of the couch and across the room, ignoring his slightly rumpled suit and hair. Whatever, everyone else sleeps in their office.
The halls are weirdly empty as he moves down the hall, he notes.
Turning down the long hallway that is the only access point to his office (there’s a similar hall outside Fury and Hill’s offices, for security reasons), he pauses as Fury steps out at the end of the stretch and crosses his arms.
“Agent Coulson,” he says.
“Director Fury,” Phil says, not bothering to restrain his sarcastic tone.
An agent comes around the corner behind Fury, takes one look at the situation, and turns back around to walk the other direction. Phil can hear tell-tale creaking in the vents - Natasha and Clint watching, at a guess.
By the time Phil gets home, he’s been accused of impersonation four times, wrinkled his suit, and gone without dinner. He unlocks the door, steps inside, and shuts it behind him. He locks it carefully. “Hey,” he calls, “I’m…”
He falls silent, and the silence responds. Right. Still haven’t called Tony, so not Tony laying in wait with a… mood-enhancing surprise. Or takeout.
Phil picks up his phone and dials for a pizza. He’ll call after he eats, when he’s a little calmer. Maybe in the morning, after he’s slept, and his mood is improved.
(He wants to talk to Tony, but he’s a bit afraid it’s too little, too late.)
Chapter 9: All the Problems that we could Solve
.....if we just had a single damn adult conversation
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
June 12, 2011
When Phil walks into work, hair once again a damp mess and tie-less, Natasha greets him at the door.
“Agent Coulson,” she says.
“Agent Romanov,” he replies, warily.
“We,” she says, “are going to go out for breakfast.”
There’s a glint in her eye Phil knows better than to ignore lightly. People who refuse to acknowledge Natasha’s commands when she looks like that tend to disappear. Phil’s too skilled to simply disappear, and he considers arguing.
The glint sharpens, and Phil sighs, gesturing back outside, where a sleek SHIELD car is pulling up. He doesn’t want to deal with getting the blood out of his suit, or paperworking his way out of paying damages. SHIELD insurance doesn’t cover injuries acquired through the intentional provocation of Black Widow, either.
Heading outside, Phil climbs into the car, Natasha sliding in smoothly behind him. She gives the driver the address to one of their favorite cafes, and they set out. The car ride is silent, Natasha appraising his messy state. Her knees are crossed, and she reminds Phil eerily of Pepper Potts for a moment. He wonders if the two women are keeping in touch now that Natasha’s assignment is over. It’s a frightening thought.
The car pulls up next to the cafe. Natasha opens the door and steps out, Phil following behind her. The place makes amazing coffee and these stuffed bagel things that are to die for. They each order coffee and food, then make their way to the best table in the house - formerly inhabited by other SHIELD agents who vacated the spot when they saw Phil and Natasha walk in. It had a good view of all exits and entrances, while being mostly out of sight.
“So,” Natasha says, while they wait for their order, carefully taking no note of the SHIELD agents in the cafe attempting to flee unobtrusively, “Cellist troubles.”
Phil sighs, and nods. “I already discussed this with Clint,” he half-whines, half-grumbles.
“It apparently didn’t do much good.”
“It did a lot of good, in that I realized exactly how badly I screwed up,” Phil replies.
Their conversation pauses as the barista delivers their bagels and coffees. Phil picks at his bagel before taking a bite; he’s not really hungry.
“Can I borrow your phone?” Natasha asks abruptly.
Phil is just relieved the conversation seems to be over. He fishes it out of his pocket and hands it to her. Natasha powers it on, waiting for the phone to come fully online. She enters Phil’s password with no problems. Phil focuses on his coffee.
Thirty seconds later, he regrets it, as Natasha hands him his phone back. “It’s for you,” she says.
Dialling The Cellist, the screen reads.
“Damn it -”
“...Hi,” Phil says lamely.
“Phil!” Tony half-shrieks. “...Hey. Hey - one second.”
Phil hears some muttering, something about Jarvis being a traitor, some crashing and banging, and then Tony’s back on the line. “So, what’s up? Something for SHIELD? Consulting hours are -”
“No, just wanted to talk.”
Natasha smirks at him across the table.
“...Oh,” Tony says. His voice is small. “About… about what?”
“What do you think?!”
Phil takes a deep breath, levelling Natasha a glare. Holding her hands up in surrender, she rises and makes her way to the bathroom. Phil angles his body in such a way that no one in the cafe can read his lips and sighs the breath back out. “Sorry. I’m… still a little upset, I guess.”
“Sorry,” Tony says.
“How busy are you on Wednesday?” Phil asks. He’s got the day off, according to a sticky note Natasha left on the table.
“I’m not!” Tony says, a little too quickly. “Well, I can not be, by the end of today. I mean, Wednesday’s great.”
“Great. Where will you be?”
“I’ll meet you there on Wednesday, then. Afternoon. Sleep the night before. Please?”
“Yeah. Yeah, okay. Wednesday, I can do Wednesday,” Tony says. He seems to be stuck on repeat.
“See you then?”
He can practically see Tony nodding. Then Tony remembers they aren’t on video. “Yep,” the billionaire says, a bit strangled.
“...You, too,” Tony says.
Phil hangs up and stares at the phone. Natasha slides back into the booth. “Now was that so hard?” she asks.
He glares at her. “I hate you,” he says.
“You love me,” she replies, and steals his bagel.
Tony hangs up the phone in a little bit of a daze. The conversation was short, stilted, and Tony’s pretty sure he said “Wednesday” more times than is generally acceptable in a single conversation, but. Wednesday. Phil’s coming.
He needs to call Pepper and see if she can rearrange the meetings he has that day. At least two are about the Expo debacle, but she’s good enough to make it work.
And Phil didn’t even know about the shield prototype Tony was fixing for him. That meant he was coming back just for Tony what.
Tony stares at the prototype. He can probably have it done by the time Phil arrives. He was going to give it to Phil, hopeful that the lure of Captain America that doubled as an apology would be enough to keep the agent a little longer. Now, though. Now… Tony wondered if maybe, just maybe, Phil would come back even without it. Would come back to Tony, not to Captain America.
(He swears he can hear the echo of the door slamming, Howard Stark on his way to the arctic to check the expedition again, and Tony’s birthday is tomorrow but it’s fine, Captain America’s more important, always has been, always will be -)
“Jarvis, call Pepper. We need to make some miracles happen.”
“Of course, sir.”
Pepper isn’t pleased, but does seem relieved he’s talking to Phil again. Tony makes a mental note to buy her some nice new shoes in repayment for managing to reschedule the two meetings he had that day.
June 15, 2011
Phil stands in front of the Malibu house and takes a deep breath. He checks his watch. 13:04. Technically afternoon.
Maybe he should come back later.
Phil turns around, intent on doing so.
“Welcome home, Master Coulson,” Jarvis says, frostily. “Do come in.”
Phil decides it would be unwise to leave and turns back around. He stalls again. Does he knock? Should he just walk in? What’s the protocol here? Eventually, he compromises. He knocks and then lets himself in, asking Jarvis to notify Tony of his presence. He makes his way to the kitchen, hoping to have an offering of food for Tony to help fill any awkward silences as they try to hash this mess out.
He only just has time to set out some chips and salsa on the counter when he hears Tony’s footsteps pause in the door behind him.
“...Hey,” Tony says.
“Hey,” Phil replies, turning around and giving him a once-over. Tony seems tired, maybe a little thinner, but overall in good shape. He looks much better than the last time Phil saw him, still just coming down from the palladium. He moves around the counter and takes a seat. Tony walks over and sits as well, leaving one stool between them. Phil hides a wince; Tony hadn’t done that since before they got engaged. They sat in silence for a long moment, each munching awkwardly on the chips.
“I’m sorry,” Tony says, breaking the silence. “I shouldn’t have hidden it. I should have told you I was sick.”
“Thank you,” Phil says softly. “But do you understand why I was upset?”
Tony nods. “Yeah. It’s so odd to have people worry.”
“That’s definitely part of it. I’m sorry, too, Tony.”
Phil sighs. “I was too out of touch. I hadn’t been home for any solid amount of time in months - looking back, I’m not sure I gave you the chance to tell me. And - I’m sorry for heading straight on a mission after. That wasn’t very fair of me.”
“Oh. Um. That’s really not necessary.”
“I’m sorry anyway.”
“...Thank you,” Tony says, staring at the bowl of salsa like it holds the answers to life, the universe, and everything.
“I was upset with you,” Phil says, “but I was also upset with myself, and that spilled over a little. That wasn’t okay.”
“Seriously, apology accepted.”
“We should take a vacation.”
Tony blinks. “Okay, that came out of nowhere.”
“Well… I’ve been neglecting you lately. We’re going to need some time to move past this. Get to know each other again. And you definitely deserve a break.”
“Only if you ask Pepper for me,” Tony says, hesitantly joking.
“Maybe we should just leave without telling her.”
“I’m sorry, I thought we were trying to avoid my death here.”
Phil grins. “You make a valid point. Let’s make her dinner first.”
Tony outright laughs. “So… we’re good?” he asks, smile dying a little.
“Well, I am, are you?”
“Then yeah, tesoro, we’re good.”
This story is almost done! With my broken computer you may have to wait for an update, but it's also spring break, so who knows?
A zillion thanks to my brilliant beta reader Hawkwind1980! You rock, Hawk!
June 17, 2011
Tony leans back, resting his head in Phil’s lap. Phil’s fingers come up to gently card through his hair. Closing his eyes, Tony sighs. The sun feels warm against his skin, contrasting nicely with the chilly air on the beach. Neither of them is particularly interested in getting in the water, at least not without a wetsuit, but it’s nice to feel the sand beneath their toes and enjoy the sun. The bright weather is unexpected for Portland, and they want to take advantage while it lasts. They enjoy cuddling on the couch with a movie and hot chocolate to excess, but it’s necessary to get out for some vitamin D once in a while to avoid the inevitable onset of cabin fever. Plus, this way Phil wouldn’t whine about the noise the dishwasher made and insist that really, Tony, he’d clearly been right to protest its installation in the first place.
“Let’s not right now,” Phil says.
“Let’s not what?”
“Discuss the dishwasher. Yes, you have a specific face for it.”
Tony snorts, but obligingly lets his thoughts drift away to other things. Inevitably, he finds them resting on the prototype shield stowed away in his baggage. The last couple of days have been a mess of he and Phil talking and apologizing and trying to find their rhythm again, and Tony had been tempted several times to just bring out the colorful keepsake as a peace offering, but something had held him back.
Phil had come back for Tony, and Tony didn’t want to finish making things right because of Captain America. That would hit a little too close to home to the way Howard only ever smiled at him when he managed to find an obscure vintage cup that Steve Rogers drank out of once for a father’s day. No, Tony wanted this week to be just for the two of them. He just hoped that bit of selfishness didn’t make this the last week the two of them ever had.
Tony rolls on his side and presses his face into Phil’s stomach. Phil continues petting his hair, and Tony sighs softly. He’s drifting pleasantly, dozing, and it’s nice to have his mind resting so quietly. It’s a luxury he is rarely afforded. He yawns widely.
“Sleep, tesoro,” Phil says. “We’ve all the time in the world.”
Tony lets his eyes drift closed. “We really needed this.”
“We did,” Phil replies.
“‘S nice,” Tony says, drifting off. “I miss you when you’re gone.”
“I miss you, too. Maybe someday the world will get its shit together and we can...”
June 20, 2011
Phil stretches with a satisfied groan. “Your fingers are magical.”
“Well, so are yours,” Tony replies, rolling over to drop next to Phil. “God, you had some serious knots in your shoulders. You need to relax more.”
Phil turns his head in Tony’s direction with a smile. “But then what excuse would I have to get those hands all over me and slathered with oil?”
“Oh, I’m sure you could think of something,” Tony teases, and drops a soft kiss onto Phil’s lips. They lay contentedly for some time, blankets curling around their waists as the room slowly fills with the dim light passing through the clouds outside. Eventually, Tony stretches like a cat and swings his legs out of bed. “Coffee,” he says like a prayer.
Phil rolls from his stomach onto his side lazily and watches Tony shuffle out of the room. Smiling, Phil rolls himself out of bed as well, padding quietly after his husband. He makes sure his footsteps can be heard against the floor when he enters the kitchen, and sees Tony’s eyes flicker to him and back to the coffee maker. Jarvis must have started it before they got up; it’s nearly finished. He steps up behind his husband and wraps his arms around Tony’s waist, resting his chin on the other man’s shoulder and pressing a soft kiss to his neck. Tony tilts his head to give him more access, but Phil just hums and rests his chin back on Tony’s shoulder. “Bacon or sausage?” Phil asks.
“I’m in a sausage kind of mood,” Tony says, a quirk of his lips and the mischief in his eyes making his meaning clear.
“Food first,” Phil says, and releases Tony, moving to the fridge. He sorts through the contents to find a package of sausage, delivered sometime last night by the courier Tony kept on hand in Portland. Some part-timer who was friends with Darcy.
The coffee maker beeps behind him, and he hears the clinking of mugs as Tony gets the coffee ready. Phil pulls a pan out of the cupboard next to the fridge, closes the fridge, and dumps the sausages into the pan. He sets a lid on top and turns the stove to medium, then leaves the food to join Tony at the table. Tony slides him a mug of coffee easily. Phil sips it. Perfection. “Perfect,” he says out loud. “Thank you, tesoro.”
“Of course, cheri,” Tony replies.
The day waxes late around them. Eventually they have sausage and toast with their third mugs of coffee, and juice to wash it all down. It’s raining outside by then, and bed sounds appealing.
“Bit chilly,” Tony says, giving an exaggerated shiver. “Warm me up?”
Phil smirks, and follows his husband back to bed.
“Stay,” Tony whispers. He’s vulnerable in a way he rarely is anymore, clinging loosely to Phil’s wrist and looking up at him with eyes that wonder if Phil will listen.
“I’ll be right back,” Phil promises. “Just need to use the toilet.”
Tony lets go easily, but when Phil returns, his grip is like a vice around Phil, pulling him in like gravity.
“I won’t leave so long again,” Phil promises. He hopes he never has to break that promise.
“Well, if it’s for the sake of the world,” Tony says.
“Fuck the world.”
“I’d rather you fuck me,” Tony says, eyes half-lidded.
They’ll just have to reheat dinner.
June 22, 2011
Tony packs slowly. He doesn’t have much to take; most of what is in the Portland house stays there year round, just waiting for Tony and Phil to return and make use of it. He only has a few things to take with him: his favorite pair of pajama pants, a couple of pictures, a few fancy ties, a suit he takes everywhere just in case (one in metal and one in gray).
Phil has more things. He never leaves his phone, wallet, gun, or uniform behind. His bulletproof vest travels everywhere with him, specially designed by Tony to be almost entirely unnoticeable and impossibly strong beneath Phil’s Armani and Bespoke suits. Phil also tends to pack a few more clothes, though not too many; he’s used to living out of a suitcase on ops. Once everything is tucked away, Tony sits on the edge of the bed with a sigh. Phil finishes only a few minutes later and joins him there, wrapping their fingers together.
“Back to the real world,” Tony grumbles.
Phil nods. “If Pepper tries to kill you, I hid guns under all the coffee tables in the penthouse.”
Tony laughs. “Let’s hope she doesn’t find them first.”
Phil grins, and tugs Tony to his feet when he hears a knock. “That’s probably our ride. No use leaving Happy to stand out in this downpour.”
They each grab their suitcase and head for the door. “I’ll see you next week, right?” Tony asks, almost hesitantly.
“Of course. Assuming I don’t drown in the paperwork backlog.”
July 1, 2011
“...really a spur of the moment decision,” Tony laughs. “I mean, it’s not like anyone could get to my husband. He’s probably more badass than I am.”
Delighted laughter meets that statement. “Speaking of - details, darling, details!” The talk show host leaned in conspiratorially. “Now, you’ve been adamant not to give out any identifying details about the lucky groom, but I’ve just got to ask - anything planned for the big third anniversary?”
“Well, the fireworks, of course,” Tony says, lasciviously.
“Of course! What’s the fourth without some… fireworks?” He asks. “But that can’t be all that you have planned! We all know you like to go big.”
“Well,” Tony says, and pauses. He glances around, like he’s checking for eavesdroppers. “You can’t tell anyone.”
The studio audience laughs as the talk show host quickly reassures Tony that he won’t breathe a word.
“See,” Tony says, “We had a bit of a spat a little bit ago. It’s all resolved now, but I still think my husband deserves something truly special. I’m sure you remember he’s a Captain America fan?”
“Of course, of course! Still, I can’t believe his favorite isn’t Iron Man!”
“Oh, Iron Man is definitely his favorite,” Tony smirks, though he feels his insides twist a bit. That does sting a little. “But it’s a little strange to collect action figures of someone you’re married to, I suppose.”
The host nods seriously.
“So,” Tony says, “I decided to go big, as you say.”
The entire audience is on the edge of their seats, quieter than just about any studio audience Tony’s ever encountered. Tony motions backstage, and Happy emerges carrying a covered disk. “I found this, practically in pieces, and restored it myself,” Tony says, as everyone watches the disk with anticipation. “Of course, I couldn’t resist engraving my name into an inner corner, but other than that, it’s one hundred percent original. It’s a little early, but maybe a gift will lure my husband home from work to start celebrating a little early.”
“Oh, let us see!” the host exclaims, delight and anticipation on his features. “What do you say, folks? Do we want to know?”
The studio breaks into cheers.
Grinning, Tony stands up and moves towards the covered item. He turns to look at the camera as he approaches. “You’re far too good for me, mio cheri,” he states. “But I do give a good gift. I fixed it for you.” With that, Tony pulls the cover loose. The studio stills as he turns back to them. “Ladies and gentlemen,” Tony says. “The original prototype of Captain America’s shield.”
The room explodes with sound, and Tony just sends kiss to the camera, his heart pounding. His phone vibrates in his pocket, and he pulls it out. Cheri, the screen reads, and Tony answers. He doesn’t even have time to speak before Phil starts telling Tony exactly what he plans to do to the billionaire when he gets home the next day, and Tony feels himself turning bright red. Phil hangs up when he finishes, with a quick, “love you,” and Tony turns back to the slightly calmer audience.
“Who was on the line?” the host asks.
“That was my husband,” Tony replies, trying to get his blush under control. It aches a little, that Phil is so pleased, but unlike Howard, Phil won’t leave Tony behind to chase a dead man. He won’t.
The host smirks. “I take it he was pleased?”
“Let’s just say I’m regretting not delivering in person now,” Tony murmurs as the crowd chortles.
July 4, 2011
Their Third Anniversary
Fireworks, Tony decides, are highly underrated.
And that's a wrap on this fic! Several zillion thanks to Hawkwind1980 for beta reading every chapter. A million thanks to each of you for sticking with me for so long to read it! Look out for the next installment - either Improbably Romantic, or Throwaway Heart!