They don’t let him out into the field. They say there’s no mission that requires his special skill set at the moment. He calls it bullshit, but doesn’t protest. It’s not like they don’t have a reason to be wary of him. Hell, he doesn’t even trust himself anymore, so there’s no reason the psych dept should call Fury and tell him their marksman is a shining example for mental health.
He knows he’s not. Knows that being at the range at all hours, stealing surveillance tapes and secret mission reports, eating only when his vision starts to swim is a downward spiral.
He doesn’t think he minds so much.
[He wakes up and it hurts. He hears voices, but he doesn’t remember if he should recognize them. Everything hurts. He falls asleep again.]
It’s probably the sleep deprivation he puts himself through, but sometimes he swears he can see a glimmer of rich green out of the corner of his eyes. He never turns around to check upon it, though. He knows where Loki is, knows that he’s not here, but he won’t give the bastard the satisfaction of seeing him flinch in case the things Clint knows to be the truth turn out to be lies inside of lies.
Tasha gives him a kiss on the cheek when she’s called to another op. She doesn’t look like she knows he’s watching the tape of him shooting other agents every night, but he can tell she’s worried about him. He pats her shoulder and smiles at her.
He doesn’t think she’s buying it.
[He wakes up again and Fury is there. “You’re going undercover, Agent.”
He thinks they must have beat Loki if SHIELD can spare him for another mission.]
Tony keeps sending him new specialized arrowheads, and judging from the complaints of the guys at R&D, he’s also bugging them to improve the armor of SHIELD agents in the field. When he hears that, he has to spend the night on the roof of SHIELD HQ, trying to get his breathing back under control.
He breaks two arrows while he counts the stars.
[They send him to Dublin. He sits in the Temple Bar, listening to some thugs for intel and his side aches.]
There never was a funeral. Something about security and non-disclosure.
They don’t even tell him at first, only after everything’s said and done, and then only because he’s spent years perfecting his reading of Tasha.
He doesn’t remember anything else of that day.
[His only secure line is to Fury. He tells him dates and shipments and asks after everyone, if Barton’s okay.
Fury says everyone’s fine.]
Steve seeks him out, talking to him about a soldier’s duty and things outside one’s control. It sounds a lot like sucking it up and marching on. It’s probably meant as a nice gesture, but Steve didn’t shoot two guards in Germany. Steve didn’t spend days under Loki’s command doing God knows what. Steve didn’t kill his colleagues.
Psych dept. tells him he’s not to blame, that he needs to stop doing this to himself, that not eating and not sleeping isn’t an option. They don’t tell him how he’s supposed to do anything when he can still hear Loki ordering his every move.
They do tell him he’s not a god, not a superhero, that there had been nothing he could have done to prevent it. He’s only human.
It’s probably the only thing psych has ever been right about.
[Fury tells him to stay in Dublin, that he needs more info and Coulson is the only one to provide it. He says that Stark is rebuilding his tower, Steve is watching more television than is probably healthy under Stark’s guidance, Tasha is undercover in Siberia, and they keep in touch with Thor and Bruce Banner.
He doesn’t mention Clint.]
He doesn’t resign, because there’s no resigning from SHIELD. You either die naturally or you get killed, and judging from the amount of times SHIELD’s recently shot at him, he’s not taking any chances.
He leaves everything behind but his bike.
[He comes back despite his orders, and Natasha nearly kills him on sight. Then everything gets a bit messy with Steve hitting Director Fury in the face when he tries to explain something about trust and agents being compromised and necessary covers. And then Stark’s threatening to financially ruin SHIELD forever, and Hulk takes out half a block.
He's very touched.]
He works a very slow night shift in a greasy diner when suddenly his bow is carefully placed on the counter.
“You’re dead,” he tells the other man, because apparently now the psych dept. is proven right and he has finally lost it.
“I was hurt, pretty bad, but I was never dead. Fury lied to get the Avengers to assemble. I gave him my permission.”
He resists the temptation to trail the curve of the bow with his fingertips, to drink in the sight of the other man. He left all that behind. Loki’s manipulation, hurting people he loves, trying to be someone he isn’t. He’s not a hero, not the world’s best marksman. He’s Clint Barton, waiter in a lousy diner in downtown, nowhere.
“I never gave him permission to keep lying to you, though,” the other man adds. “Steve hit him when he found out, very respectfully of course. I’m afraid the rest of them weren’t that respectful in their displeasure with his actions.”
“What do you want?”
“For you to come back.”
“Banner says he tried to kill Natasha as well. Are you holding it against him?”
“It’s not the same.”
“Why not?” He raises an eyebrow. “Because he couldn’t control himself despite his best efforts? Because something else made him act against his very nature?”
“It’s not your fault, Clint.”
“I said shut up, Coulson,” he hisses through clenched teeth and jerks back when he realizes he’s called his name. This isn’t Coulson, he reminds himself. Coulson is dead. Killed by Loki, and Clint helped him. Clint has no place back in SHIELD.
“You didn’t kill me, Clint,” Coulson says very softly. “And you’re not responsible for Loki’s action or what he made you do. It was magic, no one would have stood a chance. Don’t beat yourself up for being human.”
He nearly chokes on the suppressed maniacal laugh and keeps staring at the bow. He’s not ready to face the figment of his imagination in front of him.
“Clint, I’m real,” Coulson presses on and slides the bow another inch into Clint’s direction. “And you need to come back.”
“Clint,” Phil says gently, “you need to forgive yourself.”
“I don’t need to do any -- ” he stops and frowns. Stark, Steve, Banner and Thor entering the diner explains why there have been virtually no customers tonight and why the cook is suddenly absent. “You even brought Thor?”
“He even brought me, you moron.” Natasha suddenly appears next to him and lightly slaps the back of his head. “And Thor said something about you being a mighty warrior, worthy of being on the team.”
Clint expects some kind of quip about that, from either Stark or Tasha, but nothing comes. They’re all very seriously looking, which is especially unsettling with Stark. He’s still not sure about any of this, why they chose him and keep choosing him, no matter the facts.
"You're real?" He asks Coulson.
He takes a deep breath, discards his apron, and takes his bow.
It feels right.
[Clint walks with them back to Stark’s heli, his bow secure in his grip, and Coulson feels like this is the first time he can breathe freely since he’s come back. There will be talks about deceptions, necessary and unnecessary ones, and there will be forms to be filled out and probably fights, and Fury will be punched some more, but Coulson can’t find it in himself to mind it that much at the moment.
Clint’s back where he belongs. Back with the Avengers. Back with Coulson.]