They're all broken up about it, but, for obvious reasons, Clint and Natasha are the hardest hit. Natasha doesn't say anything, doesn't want to talk to anyone about it, just leaves when anyone mentions it to her. She just takes to training non-stop, hours on end; it actually gets so bad that Maria- who's trying really hard not to make it obvious that she's trying really hard not to be New Mom- revokes her access to the gym for an entire weekend.
Clint is worse off than Natasha is. As far as Clint can tell, SHIELD doesn't actually have any fraternization regs; Phil was never worried about them, so they must not. Clint's pretty sure the only regs that even exist are "show up" and "don't sass Director Fury," neither of which get followed anyway. It was more or less an open secret that they were together; what was really a secret is at the bottom of Clint's closet.
Clint didn't have a collar, not in the sense of an actual strip of leather to go around his neck; he had a pair of ankle cuffs, much less likely to leave visible marks, much easier to pass off as bondage gear, kinky but not giving anything away, no potential for misguided, ignorant derision. The collar was entirely metaphorical, the meaning lifted away from the object and put down again, right around Clint.
It wasn't about the sex- the sex was phenomenal- and it wasn't about the punishment- the punishment sucked, but he'd needed it every time. It was about the feeling of being kept, looked after, safe and secure when nothing in his life actually was. Phil called the shots and Clint made them, just like everything else in their lives- Clint even called him sir at work, which never got old. It was as simple and as complex as that, just the two of them slotted together, locked in place.
No further explanation needed.
On the day it all crashed down, there was almost no time, only a minute or so, just long enough for Phil to pull him around a corner by his wrist. Phil put his hand around the back of Clint's neck, holding him fast; he kissed him hard and said, "Do good," which was the closest Phil ever got to a pep talk or a battle cry.
"Will do, Sir," Clint replied, and Phil smiled, and if Clint had known then that it was all over but the shouting- he doesn't know what he'd have done differently, just that he would have done something. Maybe he would have thanked him, maybe he would have held him, maybe he would have told him what was going to happen, just so that he wouldn't have had that look of surprise on Phil's face when it did.
Mostly he thinks he would have gone to his knees and asked to be released.
It's not like he's never lost a dom or a top before. He hasn't had many, but obviously he broke up with all of them in the end, in ways reaching from, "I am formally rescinding this collar and wish you the best of luck in your journey," to, "Take this fucking thing back and don't ever call me again, you crazy bitch." And that sucked every time, got to him in ways he didn't expect, the sense that he was betraying them sometimes afterwards, even when he'd grown to hate them.
The worst part of it, the very worst part of it, is that that was never supposed to happen again. Phil was supposed to be the last one, last lover, last owner, because Clint was supposed to die. He knew it was coming, knew he'd make it another five, six years, seven at the outside. You don't grow old, doing what he does, and he's living on borrowed time already. Phil knew it too; Clint's got no doubt in his mind that Phil had a plan for when Clint died. He wouldn't have been happy about it, but that's just how Phil was, prepared for any contingency.
But Clint's not dead, Phil is, and Clint's starting to wish he had as much foresight as Phil. He's got no idea what to do now, no idea how to put himself back together, because there was no ending. Just because Phil is dead doesn't make Clint any less Phil's; if Phil came back right this instant, he'd slip right back into Clint's life, take his rightful place, and Clint wouldn't hesitate for a split-second before letting him do it. He's still under restrictions, for god's sake, ones that never got lifted, and he can't for himself, and he can't let anyone else. He's tied up, locked in, sealed; no one can break it but Clint, and Clint can't, he just can't.
Turns out love really is strong as death, and that blows.
They're at one of Tony's places one night; Clint's not a hundred percent sure where they even are. Tony just said, "Come on, Barton, it's vacation time," and an hour later he was on Tony's jet being offered a hot towel and a bottle of expensive water by a smiling stewardess. This is their second night at wherever it is, somewhere warm and sunny; there's a bottle of tequila, and they're drinking to Phil's memory, in exactly the way that Phil would have frowned at them for doing.
"He really did taze me once," Tony says.
"You deserved it," Clint says, with absolute certainty, and Tony laughs, in that unguarded way that he almost never does. He must be drunker than Clint thought, or maybe it's just the subject matter; Tony takes acting casual to new heights, but that's just it- it's an act.
"Of course I did," Tony responds. "Then he sent me the dry cleaning bill when I drooled on his suit." He passes Clint the bottle while Clint's still snickering- they were drinking from glasses at some point, maybe even had limes and salt, but that point has passed. "Your turn."
Clint tries to think of a good one; he's got plenty, it's just picking one out, one that makes him warm and happy. "This one time, we were in," he waves his hand, taking a swallow of tequila as he tries to remember, "Tangiers, and Sir tried to-" and his words die in his throat. He's never slipped up like that before, never even come close. And of course he had to do it in front of Tony, who, out of all of them, the one who would not only pick up on it, but also be likely to know what it meant- and likely to badger Clint about it if he didn't. Clint looks away; he doesn't want to see Tony's reaction, one, and two, he's not sure he isn't about to cry.
"Hey," Tony says, and when Clint turns, Tony is giving him a fond, sad smile. "C'mere," he says, holding out his arms, and when Clint looks at him skeptically, Tony adds, "Come on, it's a buddy hug. Nothing wrong at all with a little drunken man-cuddling."
Clint shakes his head, setting down the bottle. He shouldn't, but he sits down next to Tony and lets Tony hug him close. He waits for a while for Tony to say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing; instead, Tony rests his chin on the top of Clint's head and starts talking about new armor designs, the untapped possibilities of neural interfacing, plans for restructuring the Fed. He's talking a mile a minute and Clint barely understands a quarter of it, but understanding's not the point. Clint relaxes into his side, letting Tony's babbling soothe him.
He wakes up in the morning still in his clothes, lying on the couch with a blanket wrapped around him. The inside of his mouth feels and tastes like an old sock and he has a headache, but other than that he feels a little better.
Tony walks in just then. "Good, you're up," he says. "Come on, there's this beach I want to show you. Okay, it's my beach, but that's not the point. Grab your swim trunks."
He lets Tony drag him along, down to the ocean; the water is cool and the sand is warm, and Clint doesn't think of much of anything at all the whole time they're out there. It's nice.
He sleeps in his cuffs most of the time; more often than not, they're the only thing that can get his mind to stop racing and his chest to stop aching long enough for him to be able to.
Life goes on, despite Clint's best efforts. Maria reassigns him to Sitwell; they get along fine, he's kind of befuddled by Clint sometimes, but he knows enough to get that Clint is Clint and that not letting him screw around a little usually screws things up.
The best thing about him is that, despite expectations, he doesn't remind Clint of Phil at all.
They've just come off of a mission; this one was quick, in and out, but that doesn't mean it wasn't really badass. Clint made some shots that fucking Robin Hood himself- who is something like God to Clint, someone who doesn't exist but who gives Clint hope anyway- couldn't have made. He also got to headbutt this one guy who almost got the drop on him, and that's all bonus.
And he gets back to his room, and he- it's just that sometimes, really good missions make him a little horny. Something about the adrenaline rush, when it doesn't have that clutching, tight fear of a situation gone bad; it just turns him on, replaying how he did this or that, the memory of how his muscles stretched, the arrow flew. Narcissistic, yeah, but that's not a good reason to stop.
He lays down, licking his hand before he takes a hold of his dick, stroking it. He pushes up into his fist, wanting it good and fast, just something to take the edge off before he takes a shower and heads to bed. It's been a really long time since he's done this at all; the last time was a week or so before-
He shuts off that line of thought before it can go any further.
Fifteen minutes later, he's still at it. He's biting his lip, and he's trying hard, but the pleasure is starting to be outstripped by the frustration. All he can think about is Phil, what Phil would want, what Phil would say, and it's only making things worse. The thought of Phil standing over him, watching him, still goes straight to his cock, despite all the pain; it's the other side that's fucking him up. Clint isn't- wasn't- allowed to come without permission, and he doesn't have it, can't get it.
It isn't fair, and it isn't right; Clint tries to work around it, find a way to handle it. He tries to imagine Phil's voice, that smug tone he got when he finally told Clint to come, when he knew he had Clint entirely at his mercy- not that he didn't have Clint at his mercy all the time. That just makes it worse; Phil would be livid if he knew that Clint was cheating like that, using Phil's own words to go against his orders. There's so little of Phil he has left at all, and breaking up something he did, tossing it away, feels like sacrilege, even when it's hurting Clint, which is the last thing Phil would have wanted to do.
Clint lets his hand fall away from his cock, and he stares at the ceiling for a very long time.
He doesn't put the cuffs on. He also doesn't sleep.
Maria's the one who brings it to him; it's an envelope, and all it says on it is BARTON, in Phil's neat, blocky handwriting.
It sits unopened in his room for a week and a half.
He has to get drunk again before he can open it. Phil signed it across the seal, just like he always did, so Clint opens it from the top, not wanting to tear it, not wanting to destroy one more thing that he can never have more of.
There are only two things in it: a sheet of typing paper and a set of small keys. The keys he recognizes immediately; they're the ones that open the locks that go on his cuffs. He shakes them out of the envelope and onto the bed, not wanting to touch them, not just yet. He doesn't really want to touch the paper, either, but it's got to be done, it's got to be done now if it's ever going to be done at all.
He takes it out and unfolds it. It's on Phil's letterhead, but it was written with a typewriter; that's Phil all over. He probably shredded the tape after he wrote it, just to make sure, just so this would only ever be between the two of them. There are only two lines:
I love you. I release you.
Phil signed and dated it right underneath, and Clint startles- it was only a few days before everything happened, before Phil died. And Clint- maybe he didn't have a plan, but he should have known that Phil did, that Phil always did, that planning was Phil's job, his entire existence. And just seeing those words hurts so badly, so much worse than he thought it possibly could. It means that Phil is really gone, that Clint is really alone.
At the same time, it feels like a weight has been lifted off of him; he can move on now, once he finally finds the strength. And he knows it will never actually be that simple, that he won't think of Phil over and over, feel it cut him again and again, but at least he has it, in black and white and brass, the last permission Phil will ever give him.
Clint picks up the keys, clutching them so tightly that they cut into his hand. It hurts, but he doesn't mind.
It's the best thing he's felt in a long, long time.