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combat baby (come back baby)

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Clint leaves the bloodied trading card on the table after Fury walks out of the room.

He can tell from the curious looks he's getting from the rest of the team that they all thought he would take it with him, carry it around like it's the last piece of Phil Coulson or some shit, but he doesn't need it, not that he can seem to make them understand that. They've all suddenly gone into mourning for some reason, and it's seriously pissing him off. He knows that nobody knows Phil like he does, that nobody's really seen Phil at his best like he has, not even Nat, but surely they know better than this, they have to know better than to think some fucking stab wound is gonna be the end of Phil Fucking Coulson, even if it was delivered by the hand of a god.

"Tonight we mourn the loss of the Son of Coul with you, my friend," Thor says solemnly, his big hand resting on Clint's shoulder in brotherly solidarity, and that's it, that's all, Clint is just over his fucking limit with this nonsense.

"God, what are the rest of you, stupid?" Clint shouts, pulling away from Thor, away from all of them. "Did you see it happen? No. Is there a body? No. We won't even have a fucking funeral, because it's not real. Stop telling me you're sorry, there is nothing to be fucking sorry about, everything is fine, situation fucking normal, okay?"

"Barton," Tony starts to say, shaking his head, but Clint cuts him off, ignoring the terrible feeling in his stomach that surfaces at the thought that if Tony Stark is being serious, shit is real.

"Look, I get it, none of you have been here as long as I have, you don't know how Fury is, but I do. I've seen this shit happen before, and it's nothing Phil and I haven't lived through." He points at Nat. "You know, you've been here with us, you tell them, Nat, tell them how this goes down."

"Clint, I'm so sorry," Nat says, barely even meeting his eyes.

"Et tu, Romanov?" Clint laughs, the sound hard and unforgiving. "Un-fucking-believable. It's a miracle we saved the fucking world today, because we've got ourselves a bunch of geniuses who can't even fucking understand what's going on here, and it's so goddamn simple: Phil is fine."

With that, he stalks out, furious at everyone and everything, including the damn sliding glass doors that refuse to close with a satisfactory crash as he strides away from the team.

He heads home, because he has nowhere else to go: Fury's cut off his access to all of SHIELD's facilities temporarily so that he can have time to "grieve," so he can't sit in Phil's office and play solitaire and wait for the gig to be up, he can't go to the range, he can't hang out in the air ducts and fuck with the junior agents, he can only leave the building, go home, and try to wait this fuckery out.

Steve is standing by his car when he gets to the lot, a worried look on his face. "If you need to talk," he begins, but Clint just waves him off and hits the button to unlock the car.

"No need," he says, tugging open the back passenger side door and tossing his gear inside. "He's fine. I don't know why the rest of you are buying this little farce of Fury's, but that's all it is. He'll probably stroll in next week with a tan from being on assignment in fucking Tahiti, you'll see."

Steve looks at him with careful, earnest sympathy, like he expects Clint to just break down here in the fucking parking lot over a goddamn lie, and Clint has to fight to keep from punching him in the face.

"Okay," Steve says, stepping aside so that Clint can get into the car. "But if you change your mind--"

"I won't," Clint says, and shuts the car door. Steve watches him drive away, and Clint tries to ignore the heartbroken look on his face in the rearview.

He picks up a six-pack and some pizza on the way home, and he grabs a couple of packages of cheap convenience store donuts for Phil and leaves them on the table in the entryway so he'll see them when he gets in, so he'll know that everyone else might be a goddamn moron but that one fucking person had a little faith in him, and that person was Clint Barton.

The first day home, he mostly just sleeps, stretched out across the bed he usually shares with Phil. It's not as cozy as it is when Phil's here, but it's nice to get some rest all the same.

On day two, he wakes up with this wild, frenetic energy that he just can't seem to shake, so he does more pushups than he's ever done before and then goes for a run, stopping by on the way home to pick up Phil's dry-cleaning, because Phil always asks and he always forgets, and just this once, he wants to get it right.

By day five, he's starting to get a little concerned, and he wonders what the hell kind of assignment they've got Phil doing that's keeping him away this long. They saved the damn world, Phil should get a day off.

Day six is a blur of increasingly hostile voicemail messages for Fury, demanding to know where the fuck they're hiding Phil. Eventually, they automatically reroute his calls to the SHIELD psychiatrists, and he gives up in disgust.

A week into this forced grieving period for a person who isn't even really fucking dead, Clint cleans everything in the fucking apartment and then, when he finds himself scrubbing down the spotless kitchen counters for the fourth fucking time that day, flops on the couch and pops in Doctor Who, because that's what he always watches while Phil is away. Phil can cope with any number of shows, but for some reason, a man who can stomach marathons of Supernanny cannot suspend his disbelief for British sci-fi, which Clint has always found strange, but also kind of endearing.

He starts with series one of the new show, because this is Phil's least favorite season, and he's pretty sure that just putting in the DVD's will magically summon Phil from wherever he's gone.

Eight episodes later, Phil hasn't appeared, so he stops the DVD and orders Chinese from their favorite place and gets an extra box of General Tso's Chicken for Phil, because he's always hungry when he gets back from a long op, and leftover Chinese has got to be better than peanut butter and honey on stale bread, which is currently the sad, lonely contents of their neglected pantry.

Clint eats, chopsticks laden with food in one hand and cell phone in the other, thumb scrolling through his call log and his texts, just in case he missed something important, in case Phil left him some kind of clue. The phone rings and he almost accidentally flings the phone across the room in surprise.

It's Nat. He doesn't answer, he just tosses the phone down next to him on the couch and starts another episode of Doctor Who. He hits "play all" on the menu and dozes off right after the theme music of the first episode on the disc, and he doesn't wake up until end of a completely different episode, just as the Doctor is exclaiming to Rose that just this once, everybody lives.

"But they don't, Doctor," Clint says, and he's thinking of his parents, but suddenly his whole world tilts on its axis and he realizes with startling clarity that this applies much more proximately to people in his life than the parents he lost before he really knew them. He can't breathe, he can't move, he can't do anything, because the sad, cold reality, and one that he knows all too well, is that really, nobody lives, and Phil, oh, god, Phil is gone.

Phil is not on assignment, Phil is not coming home to donuts and dry-cleaning, because dead people don't eat and they don't wear more than one Dolce suit.

Dead. Phil's dead.

It's the first time he's put that word next to Phil's name.

Everything immediately after that is a blur, but when he comes back to the world, he's wearing sneakers and running through Central Park with no idea how he got there and a cheap pay-as-you-go cell phone in his hand. The call record shows that he must have called Fury at least eighty times with absolutely no answer.

He treks home, and with every step, he's angrier, all of his rage boiling up and shooting straight like an arrow at the thought of Nick fucking Fury, because it's not like he and Phil kept their relationship a secret, and if medical had the body-- god, how fucking impersonal, it's Phil, it's still Phil, no matter what, it will always be Phil-- and they didn't even offer to let him sit with this person that he loves, to hold his hand for the last goddamn time, if any of that is true then he has an arrow with Fury's name on it, and one for anybody who gets in his goddamn way.

And Fury's not taking his damn calls, so Fury really must have done it, he really must have kept them apart the one fucking time it mattered the most.

By the end of day ten he's convinced himself that this means that he was right in the first fucking place, that Phil can't be dead, because if Phil were really, truly dead, someone would have let him say goodbye.

It's early afternoon on day eleven when the package arrives, delivered by some nervous young junior agent. "From the Director," the kid says, but Clint barely even acknowledges him, just signs here and initials there and shuffles back to the couch and slits open the envelope. His heart feels like it will jump out of his chest when he sees the familiar handwriting on the label of the folder inside: he'd know Phil's precise, ordered lettering anywhere.

The folder contains only a DVD, and he nearly trips over the coffee table in his hurry to get it into the machine. He drops back onto the couch, queues up the video, and hits play with the remote. He has to shake it a few times to get the aging batteries to make the connection, but finally, finally, it works.

Phil appears on the screen, looking exhausted and a little rough around the edges but otherwise okay, and Clint breathes a sigh of relief, presses his hands together at the palms, and leans forward, determined not to miss a single word.

"Hello, Barton," Phil says amiably, for all that he looks like hell on the tape, and Clint grins, because this must be it, this must be the explanation for where Phil has been for the past two weeks, but as Phil continues speaking, the knot of tension in his stomach only tightens more. He has a very bad feeling about this.

"It's four in the morning on Tuesday, November third. In case you've forgotten the significance of that date, we've just returned from Operation Iron Fist, where you managed to nearly get yourself killed saving my ass. Please don't do that again."

"God," Clint says, remembering that mission, "it was such a rookie move, Phil."

"If you're watching this, Clint, then I'm dead," Phil says, and Clint's hand goes automatically to his chest, because it feels like there's a giant hole there and no matter how much air he tries to suck into his lungs he can't stop feeling like he's dying. He grabs the remote and runs the footage back and just replays those awful few words over and over, trying to understand it, but he doesn't, he doesn't understand why Phil would say something like that, so he lets it play a little further, his hand still over his heart.

"It's not a joke. I'm not on assignment. Fury is not just fucking with us; it's not like that time in Malibu. This is real, Clint, and if tomorrow goes the way I hope it does, then I'm sorry that I'm not there to hold your hand and give you shit about your terrible sartorial decisions."

He hits pause again. He has to, because he's just realized when Phil must have recorded this, why he included the date at the beginning of the tape.

"If tomorrow goes the way you hope it does? Fuck you, Coulson, you miserable son of a bitch, why would you send me this," he chokes out, the words barely coherent around the aching stretch of one long continuous sob. He puts his face in his hands; he can't look at Phil on the screen.

It's dark outside when he presses play again.

"I'm going to tell you this tomorrow, Barton, but I don't know if I'll tell you why, so here it is. I love you. You have deplorable taste in clothes, you watch movies I don't understand, and you are, without a doubt, the finest person I have ever had the privilege to know."

Clint chokes back another sob, but he doesn't stop the video this time.

"I'm sorry, Clint. I'm sorry for whatever it was that caused you to have to watch this. I--- I hope that you are watching this," Phil says, the mic barely picking up the last phrase. "If it was down to you or me, then I retract my apology: I'm not sorry that you're watching this. I won't apologize for that. I'll never be sorry that the world has you around for one more day. The world needs you, Barton, and I know what that feels like."

"Oh god, baby," Clint says, and he has to stop the tape again, he can't hear Phil over the rushing sound in his ears, but he can't make his fingers work the remote, he's just frozen in place, paralyzed by grief. "Please. Please come back."

But he doesn't, of course, because not everybody lives.

"I knew a guy in the service who did one of these for his family, and between you and me, I always thought it was a little moronic, but the truth is that I didn't think I would ever have anyone to say goodbye to. I'm usually better at planning ahead, but I really didn't see you coming, Barton."

"Right back at you," Clint whispers.

"Goodbye, Clint Barton. Whatever else you may have been to me after I recorded this, you were most certainly the best friend I've ever had. Thank you for everything."

The video ends there, but he can't bring himself to turn off the television. It feels almost like a betrayal, shutting off the electronics that brought him Phil's last words, it feels like he's the one who's killing Phil, and he won't, he can't, so he sits there, motionless, staring into the dull black of the blank screen, his body doing its best to keep breathing even as his mind abandons the will to care.