BLEED THE HOURS
When he was first told about Coulson’s death, Clint had no reaction other than a soft ‘Oh,’ and a quiet nod.
It was an accepted hazard, in the work they did.
When Clint showed up for Loki’s ‘goodbye party’ - Stark’s term - wearing black-lensed sunglasses, most of them knew better than to comment. All of them knew that Clint had worked with Coulson a long time, that he was the only handler the archer trusted in his ear. Steve and Thor clasped his shoulder in silent sympathy, Banner gave him an apologetic glance, and Stark opened his mouth half a dozen times, only to close it again without speaking.
Clint had a feeling that Natasha might have had something to do with the billionaire-genius-playboy-philanthropist’s forbearance, but he’d been working with Natasha a long time, too. He knew better than to ask questions like that of her.
So, nobody asked about the sunglasses, not even Loki - not that he could have, his jaw bound shut so that he couldn’t unleash his poisoned tongue on the people he’d wounded so deeply.
It had taken the Hulk to hold Clint back from putting an arrow through the trickster god’s eye. And it seemed Loki was more aware of that than they had expected; he never once met Clint’s eyes as they escorted him to the teleportation site.
When it was done, Loki gone back to his own realm with his brother holding his chains, Clint very quietly returned to the Shield ground base where he had his quarters, retrieved his weapons, and went to the range.
He stayed there for fifty-two hours.
In every heartbeat, he shot. Not once did he pause to sleep, to eat or drink. He fired arrows as fast as he could draw them, every target striking true, even when his arms began to tremble with exertion. He knew what the limits of human endurance were, and he pushed past them without blinking.
At the twenty-seven hour mark, his shooting glove - designed to withstand months of normal use - wore through at the fingertips, the material thinning until it finally split, baring the callused skin of his fingertips to the singing string of his bow.
At twenty-eight hours, his fingers started to bleed.
By thirty, when the slickness of the blood on his hand and the tremors of his exhausted arms meant he couldn’t draw his bow any more, he threw it aside, careless with the weapon for once in his life, and picked up a rifle instead.
An exasperated, angry Hill stormed the range at hour thirty-two, demanding that he report to medical before the damage he was causing himself - a valuable government asset, she said - became too severe to repair.
He ignored her until she told him she had outranked Coulson, and if Barton had answered to him he had damn well better answer to her as well. That was when he swung his arm toward her, eyes still on a target on the opposite side of the room, and put a bullet in the floor less than a quarter-inch from the toe of her right boot.
When she opened her mouth again, the second bullet nicked the toe of her left boot. Hands clenched into fists, she spun on her heel and marched out, already growling orders into her radio.
Natasha appeared, on Hill’s orders, at hour thirty-three. Natasha herself knew better than to fight Clint down when he was in this mood; he rarely let himself close enough to care for someone, and losing Coulson...
The man had always seemed so unflappable, so unshakable, that it was easy to believe he was invulnerable as well. It was hard to remember that he was probably the most fragile one of them all.
Natasha leaned on the door and watched Clint, silently, for an hour, watching the steady drip of blood off his elbow, the slow trail of it down his forearm.
“When will you stop?” she asked, softly, and a bullet pinged off the doorframe, close enough to singe a lock of her hair. He didn’t look at her, just swung the gun back towards the targets and kept firing.
She didn’t blink, just stared at him until he’d expended the clip. In the pause between ejecting and reloading, Clint answered her, his voice almost too soft to hear.
Nodding silently, Natasha slipped out, closing the door as quietly as she could behind her.
Stark tried next, at hour thirty-eight, and had marginally more success than everyone else in that he didn’t get shot at. He wasn’t acknowledged, either, but he spent over an hour nattering at Clint about upgrades he’d planned for the bow, for the arrows, for the suits the specialists wore.
When he started on that vein, Clint spun on him, silent, and leveled the gun at his forehead. “Design suits for the agents,” the archer said, his voice deadly calm, and Tony had nodded, his hands raised by sheer force of instinct.
“I will,” he answered, his voice gentler and kinder than any member of the team had ever heard it before, and Clint had nodded once, his eyes dead in his face, and turned back to his targets.
Tony left after that, more shaken than he could remember being since Afghanistan.
They recalled Steve Rogers next, hoping that his Captain America influence would be enough to draw the archer from his self-imposed exile, forty-six hours in.
The range door had barely opened under Rogers’ hand when Barton’s voice rang back to him, cold and assured. “No.”
“You haven’t even -”
“Barton, I -”
The bullet pinged off the door at the very tip of Steve’s middle finger, scorching a thin line of skin off the end of it.
Raising his hand to his eyes, Rogers inspected the reddened, cauterized welt on his fingertip with weary resignation, watching as it began to knit together before his eyes.
“I understand,” he said softly, and closed the door again.
It was hour forty-nine when the tromp of boots echoed through the corridors leading up to Fury’s office. Tony Stark, in full Iron Man regalia, his helmet under one arm, was flanked by Captain America on one side, shield riding high over one shoulder, and the Black Widow on the other, her slender shoulders tense in what any experienced agent could recognize as a murderous rage.
Why Fury was in his ground office rather than the helicarrier, none of them cared to question. Agents in the hallway scattered at their approach, and the three of them stormed past his bravely protesting secretary without even a glance, slamming through the double doors to the office.
Fury, entrenched behind his desk with a cup of coffee in one hand and a pen in the other, barely glanced up at their arrival. “Is there something I can help you folks with?” he asked blandly, addressing his paperwork more than the trio of borderline-homicidal heros storming his office.
At least, he addressed the paperwork until Stark brought his gauntleted fist down on the center of the papers, putting enough force behind the blow that the varnished wood shattered down the middle, crashing the center of the desk to the floor.
“You are going to lose Barton,” Stark said without preamble, as Fury raised an eyebrow at the wreckage of his desk, watching the storm of tattered papers fluttering downwards.
Very calmly, Fury bent to retrieve his pen’s cap from the mess at his feet, setting his coffee cup on the floor in the same motion. Capping the pen, he tucked it carefully into an inner pocket in his coat before sitting back in the chair, folding his hands in his lap, and fixing Stark with his unwavering gaze.
“You have my attention, Mister Stark. And you will be receiving a bill for my desk.”
“Quite frankly, I don’t give a damn about your desk,” Stark snapped back, hands flexing in the armor as if he wanted to bring his repulsers to bear on the man before him. “You’re letting Barton destroy himself over this.”
“And what, precisely, makes you believe I have any control whatsoever over how Barton elects to spend his time? He’s no less a loose cannon than you, Stark,” Fury pointed out calmly, resting his elbows on his chair’s armrests and bridging his hands beneath his chin. “In fact, the only man he ever took orders from willingly was Agent Coulson.”
“Yes, Agent Coulson,” Stark snapped, as Rogers and Natasha shifted, hands moving a hair’s breadth towards their respective weapons. “The one man that all of us have an emotional stake in is, so conveniently, the man you send in against Loki on a fucking suicide run -”
“What makes you think I had anything to do with his choice? Phil was never particularly good at following orders, either.”
“His trading cards,” Tony continued, jabbing an armored finger towards Fury. “You played that one brilliantly, Fury. Pulling them out of his locker and, what, soaking them in his blood while he lay in the medbay? The blood was too fresh to have come from his initial wound even if the cards had been on him, you lying son of a bitch -”
Fury held up a single hand, the universal ‘stop’ gesture, and Tony almost bit his tongue as he fell silent, muscles along his jaw flexing as he bit back his diatribe.
Silently, Fury pulled back the sleeve of his jacket to reveal a white bandage, stark against his skin, wrapped around his wrist, just beyond the bone. “The blood on the cards was mine,” he answered, tone level, and Steve hissed from between clenched teeth, anger flashing bright in his eyes.
“So that entire thing was your plan from the beginning,” Tony snarled, his voice rising to a near shout. “You get us to believe it, you engineer his death -”
“Why are you so certain it was Fury’s plan?”
Tony did not yelp. He wouldn’t deny jumping - it was impossible to deny, when jumping, and landing again, in the Iron Man armor made the floor rattle beneath their feet - but to his dying day, he would deny yelping, regardless of what the eyewitnesses insisted.
Phil Coulson was standing behind them, smile benign, suit perfectly creased, his hair and countenance unruffled.
The moment of shocked silence spread out over the room, a near-physical weight of astonishment pressing down on the three Avengers.
Until Natasha gave a shriek of rage and hurtled forward, one fist raised in preparation for a blow.
Tony was never quite sure, afterwards, whether he blinked or the movements were simply too fast to follow. All he knew that, between one heartbeat and the next, the Black Widow had gone from flying across the room to pinned stomach-down on the floor, fisted hand held securely by the wrist and drawn up between her shoulderblades, one of Coulson’s knees in the middle of her back, the other shin braced across the backs of her thighs.
“Natasha, please don’t hit me,” Coulson said, his tone as bland as ever. “I actually was stabbed in the chest two days ago, and I’m still in some pain.”
Her response was Russian and not particularly polite, and Tony caught enough between the profanities to know she meant something about showing him the real meaning of pain as soon as he let her up.
When Coulson actually rolled his eyes and replied in equally fluent, if somewhat less profane, Russian that he’d bleed all over her favorite dress if she tried, she swung one heel up to kick him in the hip before resigning herself, going limp under his grasp.
“Thank you,” Coulson said levelly, releasing his grasp on her and climbing slowly back to his feet. A hint of red was already showing through his shirt as he moved, and Fury shook his head with a sigh.
“Phil, if you tear those stitches one more time, I’m going to give you to Banner’s alter-ego to have them repaired,” he snapped, pushing out of his chair and crossing the room to a polished black filing cabinet. The ‘D through F’ drawer yielded a first aide kit that looked as though it could have supplied a small hospital.
“Noted, boss,” came the bland response, but Tony was fairly sure he saw a trace of a smile pulling at the corners of Coulson’s mouth.
“But - you - blood! Chest! Stabbed! How?!” Tony managed, gesticulating wildly at Coulson and the surroundings of the office, as though Fury’s sanctuary had anything to do with the man’s survival.
“Even at point-blank range,” Coulson answered, unbuttoning his shirt with a carefully suppressed wince, “Loki is not exactly challenging Barton for the title of World’s Best Marksman.”
“You’re saying... Loki missed?” This was from Steve, who was sounding his syllables out a little bit too cautiously, as though he wasn’t quite certain the words would form the way he wanted them to.
“He didn’t miss that much. He nicked the right ventricle, and the combination of internal and external bleeding dropped Phil out of consciousness pretty damned quick. Fortunately, we’ve got some fairly advanced medical tech on board, thanks to a generous outfiting by one of our benefactors,” Fury remarked, nodding towards a startled Tony.
Coulson - his shirt open to reveal a thin, blood-soaked gauze pad taped over his chest - leaned carefully on the edge of Fury’s broken desk, let his eyes drift to Tony as Fury calmly threaded a suture needle. “The damage to my heart is already repaired, thanks to some of the nanotech regenerators you’d stocked us with. They didn’t have enough to heal me fully, but the rest of it is just surface injuries,” he explained, carefully peeling the saturated gauze away to reveal a long, still-deep gash over his heart, the length of it nearly black with suture thread.
“Surface injuries that are not going to heal if you keep tearing them open by being stupid,” Fury added, giving one of the ripped sutures a rough yank to pull it free of Coulson’s skin. The agent at least had the good grace to wince.
“In my defense, sir, I don’t think getting punched by Agent Romanoff would be particularly beneficial to my health, either.”
Natasha - who was still on the floor, though she’d drawn herself up to sit crosslegged - muttered something Tony thought translated to something about illicit relations with a camel. Coulson grimaced, but it was impossible to tell whether that was a reaction to the cursing or the needle slipping through his skin.
Tony sighed, pulled his helmet out from under his arm and stuffed it as unceremoniously as possible onto his head. A few quick words with JARVIS had another order of the nanotech regenerators on route to the SHIELD building within minutes.
When Phil Coulson pushed open the door to the range on the fifty-two hour mark, the bloody, sutured wounds on his chest and back had been reduced to nothing more than a matched pair of red-pink scars, still tender to the touch but healed enough that the doctors reluctantly cleared him for duty.
The gun was leveled between his eyes before he’d even stepped through the door, at virtually point-blank range. Barton’s face was grey with exhaustion and the effects of slow blood loss, his eyes barely open, what seemed like every inch of his body trembling, even if the gun in his two-handed grip was almost perfectly steady.
Phil stepped through the door, moving so close to the gun that the muzzle brushed the skin of his forehead, and said simply, “Barton.”
The gun fell to the floor with a clatter, and Coulson had to lunge forward to catch the archer as he crumpled, the effects of the past days all crashing down on him at once.
They sank to the floor together, Coulson’s arms crushingly tight around Clint’s shoulders, Clint’s face buried in Coulson’s shoulder and his arms around the other man’s waist, and Coulson stayed on his knees on the floor, rocking Clint like a child and whispering in his ear while he shook, until the archer finally dropped into an exhausted sleep.
When Clint came too again, his left arm was bandaged from fingertips to elbow, and the fiery pain through his body told him more than he cared to know about the number of muscles and tendons he’d strained along with the damage he’d done to his hand. He’d pushed himself farther than he’d thought possible; a lot farther, if what he’d seen by the end of it was any indication. He’d never pushed himself far enough to hallucinate before, even on his craziest, most suicidal training binges.
The thought - the knowledge - that it had been nothing more than his imagination, giving him what he’d so desperately wanted to see was a pain that dimmed the agony in his body to nothing. Keeping his eyes closed, he tried to roll to his side, wanting to curl up and pretend the world had stopped existing the way it should have when they’d told him Phil Coulson was dead.
The weight of a hand on his shoulder stopped him, and Clint turned his head away, a modicum of defiance even as he let the rest of his body fall limp under the gentle restraint.
The hand pressed a little heavier for a brief moment, then lifted off his shoulder, the release accompanied by a weary, familiar-sounding sigh. Telling himself that it was only a doctor, Clint pressed his eyes tighter and burrowed as much of his face into the pillow as he could.
“You know,” a familiar, blessedly familiar, goddamned impossible voice began from beside him, close to his ear from a position they’d mastered over years of post-mission recoveries, the plastic chair pulled up to the side of the bed, right next to the pillows, “I was expecting a slightly more enthusiastic reception from you, Barton.”
Clint sat up so fast his vision swam, pinpricks of white light almost obscuring his vision for a moment, and stared, disbelieving, at Phil Coulson, sitting in the chair by his bed and looking as blandly smug as Clint had ever seen him.
“Feeling better?” the man asked, arching a single eyebrow, and Clint’s mind flashed through a dozen scenarios, from holograms to hallucinogenics to Stark’s fucking robots -
All of which vanished from his mind when Phil’s hand, callused and cool, slid around Clint’s unbandaged right hand, fingertips pressing gently against his palm, the reassuring squeeze exactly as it always was and he didn’t know how, but Phil was alive and sitting next to him, as if nothing had ever happened.
“You look... pretty spry... for a dead guy,” he whispered finally, through a throat that was both too dry and too tight for his voice to escape easily, and smiled gratefully when Coulson held a cup of water up for him in response, touching the straw against his lips. Clint took it, focusing on getting moisture into his mouth and trying to ignore what was already in his eyes.
“How?” Clint asked hoarsely, when he’d drained the cup and Phil had set it aside again. “Fury...”
“Wasn’t entirely truthful with you, I’m afraid,” Phil answered mildly, shifting their joined hands so that their fingers interlaced, the gentle pressure of his grip an anchor point, one that kept Clint from falling apart or falling away. “But I... made the suggestion that he use my injury to provide the rest of the Avengers the push that they needed to unite.”
Clint leveled a speaking glare at him, and Coulson actually dropped his gaze first. “I told him not to tell you. You and Romanoff were the only two I knew wouldn’t hesitate.”
And what kind of world were they in, that a couple of spectacularly screwed-up assassins were more reliable as team players than Captain America?
“My intention was to inform them of the truth once the battle was over,” Phil added, sounding almost sheepish, “but repairing the damage Loki did to me took longer than we anticipated. I wasn’t able to leave ICU until late yesterday morning.”
Clint glanced briefly at the clock mounted on the far wall, displaying date, time, outdoor weather conditions, and current danger level (moderate), but given that he couldn’t remember how long he’d been on the range, it didn’t tell him much.
“Stark, Rogers, and Romanoff came to Fury’s office with the hopes of getting him to intercede in your breakdown less than half an hour after I was released,” Phil told him, squeezing Clint’s hand almost crushingly tight for a split-second, an apology and a plea for forgiveness, all in one. “I came for you as soon as I could, Clint.”
“I know,” Clint answered, as much assurance as he could muster in his raw voice, because really, he did know. He trusted a grand total of three people in this entire goddamned world; himself, Natasha, and Phil Coulson. And he had never, ever doubted that Phil would come for him, save him from everything, including himself.
As if reading his mind, Phil reached across Clint to gently grasp his left hand, calluses catching on the gauze as he ran his fingers carefully over the bandages.
“You did a number on yourself,” he said sadly, and Clint shook his head, laughing.
“The guy who died to get us together says I did a number on myself,” he echoed, flexing his fingers under the bandage. It was true, though; he’d be laid up for a while with the damage he’d done himself, even with all of Stark’s fantastic little medical toys, and the doctors would insist on keeping him pinned down for stupidly longer than necessary because that was what they did, just to annoy him.
But in the end, he’d be back out there, arms steady and his hands sure on his bow, doing his part to save the world from evil, and when he’d done that it would be Phil Coulson’s voice in his ear, guiding him back home.