Saving the world was exhausting. There were few things Clint knew emphatically, without a shadow of a doubt, bet his first born on, kind of things. Saving the world? One of them. “Saving the world is exhausting.”
The carrier shuttling them from the remainder of Stark’s fancy tower, albeit a less than structurally sound tower now, shook Clint around a little. Across from him, Natasha’s face was impassive, still scorched from battle, and as beautiful as ever. She wasn’t a solider. She wasn’t meant to be in the ranks, fighting toe to toe, getting herself roughed up like a grunt, but she pulled it off well. She could manage. He’d never had any doubts about that.
Clint let his eyes close as he settled ever further back into his seat, lessening the pull of the harness across his chest. They were alone, just the two of them, sans the pilots in the front cab of the carrier. Thor had elected to stay back with The Cap, and handle Loki’s transportation and containment personally. Stark had taken off the moment the threat had passed, and Clint wasn’t sure they could have gotten Banner into the carrier if they had tried. Well, the Hulk at least. But Banner hadn’t exactly made an appearance again by the time they’d been set for extraction.
“The first thing I’m going to do is sleep for a month.” He said it decisively, not that there was much hope for the idea at all. Sleep came in intermitted intervals for him at best. But they’d earned some downtime. That much was certain, but Clint didn’t think he’d spend most of it sleeping. So he amended, “Or maybe just for a day. Yeah. A good, solid day.” Curled up around Phil, making the older man feel sorry for him, and take care of him, and be extra nice to him. And if he was especially lucky, he’d sucker Phil into putting on that hot little number he’d picked up the last time they were in Japan.
The Japanese were the kinkiest bastards in the world.
God bless the Japanese.
And to hell with regs and propriety, and what anyone else thought. The first thing Clint was going to do before sleeping for a solid twenty something hours was kiss Phil. He was going to give it everything he had, because there’d been a few moments there, perched on the roof of a building, looking up at mammoth creatures from another world, that he’d thought he might never get the chance again.
“Sleep sounds good,” Natasha said, and when Clint opened his eyes, he caught a faint smile tugging at her mouth. “That will have to wait, of course, until the paperwork is processed.”
Clint groaned. “You sound like Phil.” He shook his head as she tensed up. “We just saved the world. We just kicked some ass, took some names and sent one overgrown, ridiculously obnoxious, in desperate need of a spanking, god back to where he belongs. The paperwork can wait. The paperwork should wait. No, Natasha, it’s going to wait.”
“Clint,” she said, apprehensive and looking crushed.
“God, Tasha,” Clint bit out, “you’re not going to die without paperwork. It’ll still be waiting for you when you get back from vacation. You should go on vacation, too, that’s what I’m saying here. Because that’s a really good idea. I’m thinking me, Phil, a remote beach without any locals or tourists, and those coconut drinks with the little umbrellas that taste like shit and are overpriced, but are totally awesome anyway.”
Natasha ground out, “There’s something you should know,” and in that instance, something was wrong. Something was terribly wrong and everything from her posture, to the tone of her voice, to the twisting of her face was wrong.
He couldn’t help trying to make light of the situation. “Don’t tell me I’m going to get a bill sometime soon for all of that damage. We are not liable. I repeat, the Avengers are not liable.”
She was quick in unbuckling her harness. The motion allowed her to lean forward, elbows resting on her knees in a picture of poor posture that only helped Clint’s anxiety build.
“I don’t … I’m not sure how to tell you. If I should … Clint … this is …”
His resolve hardened. “Tell me what? Natasha?”
She seemed to find herself a moment later. “It’s about the attack. On the airship.”
Clint drawled slowly, “The one I practically orchestrated while playing puppet to Loki?” She nodded. “What about it?” He still felt like utter shit, physically and then some. Loki had turned his mind inside out, turned him against himself and his friends. And then Loki had used him like he was cheap, made him kill and destroy and taint his soul.
“We were a mess,” Natasha hastened to say, her guard down with him, and only him he knew. “Fractured. Captain Rogers and Stark were busy trying to keep us afloat, Fury and Hill were bogged down in the command center. Thor was MIA.”
“And you?” Clint asked, honest in his curiosity. She’d taken care of him earlier, after he’d slipped from Loki’s control. And they’d spoken only briefly. But there were too many things he still didn’t know. There hadn’t been time to ask the important questions, however. At least not until now.
She gave him the barest of smiles now, forced and drawn tight. “I was dealing with Banner. He … we played into Loki’s hands on that matter. We were certain we could wring him for information, I was sure. I thought we’d gotten the upper hand. We knew why Loki had allowed himself to be captured so easily. We knew his plans for Banner. And we still ended up not being able to impact that information one bit. We were useless. The beast broke free, and he nearly ….”
“He shook you up,” Clint said softly, gently. “Doesn’t make you weak to admit that, Tasha. It doesn’t make you an ounce bit weak. In fact I’d probably look at you a little differently if it hadn’t. What Banner ha cooped up inside of him is nothing short of apocalyptic. You did the best you could, held yourself together how you could, and you pretty much did the impossible. You survived. I think it’s okay to be a little shaken up, considering that.”
“In hind insight, with the engines in danger of dropping us out of the sky, and the hostiles onboard, I guess it’s expected that we might have shifted our priorities away from Loki.”
“Yeah,” Clint encouraged.
Natasha swallowed down a hard lump in her throat, eyes glued to the floor in front of her. “Phil Coulson didn’t.”
“Phil?” Clint echoed. “Phil went after Loki?”
Natasha looked up at him then, a blank look across her features, unknowing and unsure. “He always had a knack of showing up in the spot that someone else had overlooked, or where the last bit of reinforcement needed to be. So yes, he went after Loki, intending to stop him from escaping, because that’s the kind of man Phil was. Because it needed to be done and there was no one else to do it.”
Clint’s breath caught from a moment, and his heart beat painful against his chest. “Tasha?”
“I saw the damage to the room. It’s hard to tell what was what in the aftermath, but it looked like Phil got at least one good shot off. He probably hit Loki clean. That’s more than the rest of us got in on him combined.”
She looked so remorseful and so saddened and Clint hated her so much.
“I heard Fury say they called it. They called it on him, Clint. The medics did. Loki was too much. Loki …”
Phil was the most important person in Clint’s life. He was more important than Fury who let him slide on the rules and bend some of the others, and Natasha who was his friend and confidant and loyal partner to the end. Phil was the first person to ever truly give him a clean slate free of judgment as an adult, and take him by his actions from that point on, and not anything from his past. Phil had been a mentor when needed, firm and reminding, and then a lover later on in the kind of way that Clint had never thought he’d have. Or deserve to have. Phil was his medical proxy, his Handler, his everything. Phil made getting up in the morning worth doing, and falling into bed at night pretty easy.
It was cheesy and stupid and Clint would never dare repeat it, but the best days of his life were spent perched on the edge of Phil’s desk, watching the man guzzle the coffee Clint had manage to smuggle in for him from Starbucks. Those days, few and fleeting, but made even more important by that fact, were the moments that Clint lived for. Just being able to reach out and tug a bit on Phil’s tie, or muse his hair, or tease him about his paperwork, or try and sway him to Thai for dinner, not Mexican, or argue with him about Stark, or anything else. Just being able to.
In the calmest of terms, in the simplest of words, Clint asked her, “Where is Phil?”
“I … I don’t …”
“Where is Phil?” His voice rose, he was angry, and suddenly she was the enemy.
“Medical?” she hazarded a guess. “Fury must still … he must still have his body.”
Clint thought he might suffocate. He couldn’t get the harness off fast enough. He couldn’t break free, he was drowning, he was dying. He’d died the moment Phil had, he just hadn’t known it. He’d been dead for ages.
“Breathe. Just breathe, Clint.”
Her hand was heavy on his shoulder, trying to coax him through the motions.
“Get away from me!” he barked out, stumbling away.
“I’m sorry,” she rushed out.
The worst part was, she was sorry. Clint knew her. He knew her like the back of his hand, and she was sorry. She was sorry for him. He didn’t need her pity.
“Why weren’t you there!” he demanded, turning on her lightening fast. “You know Phil. He sees danger and he charges head first into it. It’s the marine in him. You know if there’s trouble, he’s going to be knee deep in it. But we’re not dealing with terrorist cells here, or nuclear threats, or cotangents, or anything else. We’re … we were dealing with a god. A fucking god, and you let him go traipsing down there to his death?”
She didn’t try to touch him again, for that he was thankful. But she did say, growing in boldness, “I was trying to stop Banner from tearing the airship apart from the inside out. I was bogged down. I couldn’t get there. I didn’t even know where he was.”
“Watch his back,” Clint ground out. “I never ask you for anything, Natasha, but that I asked you. I looked you in the face when I told you what he meant to me, and I told you, watch his back. You swore you would.”
Natasha drew in ragged breaths. Clint didn’t breathe at all.
“I tried,” she said brokenly. “I tried to get there. I would have been there if I could. If I knew. If there was time. If I hadn’t …” She looked at him fiercely, with so much anguish and guilt. “I got stunned. I don’t know what happened. I just sat there. I sat there. Phil was taking on Loki, and I sat there. I tried. I did. I just didn’t try fast enough.”
Clint pressed his palms to his eyes. He hunched low.
“I tried,” Natasha echoed. She took her seat again.
“Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” Clint breathed.
“There wasn’t a time or a place. And it just seemed easier. For the moment, at least., to just put it off. You deserved to know, I should have told you right away. I should have told you the moment you came back to your senses. But I couldn’t. I was afraid I’d loose you.”
Clint straightened up, back rigid as he buckled his harness once more. He closed his eyes and let his hands unfurl. “You were right.”
“You were right,” he repeated, taking deep, even breaths. “Because without Phil--” Phil had only ever been the one thing tying him to SHIELD. Without Phil, there was no reason for Clint to belong. He suspected that was the reason why Fury was so quick to look the other way at their indiscretions. There wasn’t a non fraternization policy at SHIELD, per say, but Clint had always known the dilemma involved in serving an important cause with a loved one. Clint would have picked Phil over the world any day of the week. Fury also knew that. Long ago, Clint had stopped trying to figure Fury out. As long as he did his job to Fury’s standards, and got to go home with Phil at the end of the day, nothing else mattered.
Now there was no Phil to go home to. If he did go home, all he’d see would be Phil’s coffee stained favorite mug, and the rumpled bed sheets from the last time they’d made love and hadn’t had enough time to make the bed before a mission. He’d see Phil’s bathrobe, and the brand new tablet that Phil spent organizing their schedules on, and Clint stole to play Angry Birds on. Clint couldn’t go back to those things. He couldn’t go back to Phil’s near empty bottle of aftershave or the dog eared book on Phil’s side of the bed.
“You’re hurting,” Natasha said. “You have a right to be. But I want you to try and focus on what Phil did for us, and what his sacrifice meant. He pulled through for us, and we should remember his bravery.”
Clint snorted. “You remember his bravery.”
Clint remembered the first time he saw Phil, looking out of place in his suit, overly polite, genuinely nice, and firm in his resolution to believe in Clint. Phil had said, “The past is the past. SHIELD isn’t interested in your past, only what you can offer in your future. We want you, Barton, and if you accept, you’ll have a place with us.” Clint hadn’t really had a place to belong before that.
Then, after Clint had accepted, and signed an inch of paperwork, Phil had taken him to the side and said, “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.” What he’d meant, of course, was that Clint needed to be thankful, and not rock to boat. Phil was a stickler for the chain of command and rules. Clint was probably all kinds of in love with Phil at that point, despite Phil being a stick in the mud, and that was why he’d given him a half salute and promised to be on his best behavior.
Clint had waited a whole five months to kiss Phil. Five months of learning to deal with each other, becoming friends, risking their lives for each other, and dealing with unbridled sexual tension. It probably wouldn’t have been such a big deal if Clint had only been looking for sex.
“I want to see him.”
“I don’t think you should--”
“I didn’t ask what you thought,” Clint said sharply, mind still reeling. Regardless, he had to see for himself. He had to know. He needed to see Phil.
Natasha said, “Don’t do this to yourself.”
Clint held his ground. “I want to see him.”
They wouldn’t let him see Phil. In fact, it was Fury himself who came to call when Clint began to tear apart the place he’d thought they’d be keeping Phil after the coroner’s exam. Fury, with his set frown and no nonsense. Clint might have tried to throw him out a window, taking a page from Loki’s book.
“Stand down!” Fury barked at him, and when Clint was a mite less agitated, or at least less likely to blow up in a volatile way, Fury added, “Per SHIELD parameters, Agent Coulson came into physical contact with an extra terrestrial. For safety reasons, his body was cremated. There’s nothing for you to see, Agent Barton.”
The finality of it all was overwhelming. There was no Phil to see.
“I’m his fucking proxy for a reason! What’s the point of signing those annual reviews if they don’t mean anything!”
“Agent Coulson died a hero.”
Clint snorted, “You and Natasha.”
They gave him Phil’s old marine tags.
He had to see Loki through to the end. Loki, who’d stolen Phil away from him, after stealing Clint’s autonomy, and damn near likely his soul. Clint wanted to rip him to pieces with his bare hands. Valium solved that problem. Natasha got him up, and dressed, and shaved and medicated, and together they were witness to the departure of both Thor and Loki from Earth.
After, Clint bought out a liquor store. Natasha let him be.
Clint had always been stubborn. He’d been almost too hard to kill, if it was any indication of the stunts he’d pulled in his life. Drinking himself to death seemed another feat he couldn’t quite pull off. He wanted to die. Without Phil there, grounding him in reality, making the world just a little less shitty, he wanted to drink himself to death. But he kept waking up, surrounded by booze, surrounded by vomit, always naked. Clint was still trying to work out then naked part around day four.
By day ten Natasha’s policy of letting him be, ended. He had no doubt she’d been keeping tabs on him, maybe being the driving force preventing him from actually drowning in his own vomit. She waltzed into the hotel room he’d rented, seedy and dirty and unable to go home, and pulled him up by the ear.
“Get dressed,” she demanded, threw his shoes at him, and then waited.
Clint said, “Fuck off.”
He loved her.
He’d loved Phil more. Still loved Phil more.
She gathered him close by the collar, teeth flashing a little. “Listen up,” she said, voice low and teeming with danger, “you will get up. You will put your clothing on. Then you will take yourself to whatever passes for a bathroom and clean yourself up. After which we will get coffee, you will sober up, and then we’re going on a little field trip.”
Clint looked over her shoulder, at an empty bottle of vodka. He’d spent a portion of the previous night toasting to Natasha as he finished off the bottle. After all, she’d run interference with Fury from time to time with him and Phil. She was always his backup when Phil had been working too long and Clint needed help wrangling him out of the office, or when Hill went snooping around where she didn’t need to be, namely their personal lives. Natasha, she’d been the one when Clint had said he’d wanted to get a ring for Phil, to drag him down to the jeweler’s on their lunch break, with Phil properly distracted by whatever mess Stark had gotten himself into again.
She was supposed to be his best man--best woman, when he finally worked up the courage to try and convince Phil to tie himself down to and idiot like Clint.
He’d throw the ring out the first time he was strong enough to go back to their apartment. Or maybe he’d ask it of Natasha, as a favor.
“Ten minutes, Barton!”
Clint swayed his way to the bathroom and called over his shoulder, “If I puke on you, I’m not even going to be sorry.”
“I don’t doubt that.”
“Not even a little.”
Getting coffee in New York, even on the fringes of the city, more New Jersey than anything else, still attracted a lot of attention. For the first time, Clint stopped to consider that their faces had been plastered on the news. Their identities were almost completely compromised. Everyone knew him, and they knew Natasha, and they were gawking.
Natasha guided him gently by the elbow as they claimed their coffee and stated, “I have a place we can go.”
Clint hated to admit it, but he felt at home, secluded high above the city, practically hiding out on a rooftop with two chairs and a small table set up on. He’d underestimated Natasha.
As he sipped Phil’s coffee order, something he’d gotten out of pure reflex and memory, the coffee too bitter and too strong for Clint, Natasha informed him, “Stark’s started work on his tower again. He’s not regularly in contact with SHIELD at this point, but once in a while he sees fit to send us progress updates. We think he just likes to brag.”
“You’re still with them, then?” Clint hadn’t expected Natasha to pack up and leave SHIELD like he had.
“Yes,” she said simply. Then she continued, “Banner went to South America. He wants to be left alone. We want to leave him alone. But if a problem arises in the future, I think he’ll be there. He let the Hulk out and it worked in our favor. Who knows if the results will duplicate themselves, but in a pinch, I think it’s a risk we’re all willing to take.”
“Word from Thor?” Clint asked, disinterested.
“No.” Natasha shook her head. “But we hadn’t expected any. No news is good news. And Captain Rogers went back to his old neighborhood, I believe. He resisted at first, but he’s trying to figure the world out now. I think he got a good look at it with the situation with Loki. To the best of my knowledge, he’s gone home to tie up any loose ends, and then he’ll be fit for duty.”
Voice flat, Clint said, “Great.”
Natasha gave a soft sigh. “I don’t want you to think I’m belittling the situation, Clint, but he’s not the first person you’ve lost that you’ve loved.”
“Just the most important,” Clint shrugged. Squaring his shoulders, he set his coffee cup down and leaned in towards her. “This was Phil, Tasha. Phil.”
She reasoned, “And there has always been a clear and present danger with this job. The risks are presented to us honestly before we agree to the terms of our service. Everyone expects to die for SHIELD at some point, and if we don’t, then we’re just lucky. We’re in the risky business. Phil took that seriously. “
“But Phil wasn’t a superhero! Phil had no business being there!”
Natasha frowned at him. “We’re not super powered, either, Clint. Neither is Stark, despite what he’d like us all to believe. But we still fight along side Captain Rogers. Phil Coulson had more training than you, so who’s to say he had no place in the battle?”
Clint looked away stubbornly.
“I know you’re angry,” Natasha told him. “I know you’re hurting, too. But Phil did exactly what any of the SHIELD agents are expected to do, and that is put the security and safety of others before themselves. He knew he had to go through Loki to get you back, and he was prepared to do that. He would have done anything to get you back.”
Clint hated that he’d needed to be saved. He was supposed to do the saving, not the other way around. Phil had no business having to pull his ass out of the fire. And Clint should have been there to watch out for him, and have his back, and make sure he didn’t go into battle without any backup. There was no way in hell Clint would have let Phil anywhere near Loki without Clint there to act as a buffer.
“I don’t know what to do, Natasha.” He was defeated. He was alone and lonely and didn’t know what to do.
“Come back,” she urged. “Come back and help us continue to protect the planet. It’s what Phil would have wanted and you know it.”
Clint hesitated. “I can’t,” he told her bluntly. “I need to take some time and figure some things out.”
“You mean you need to make a stop at the liquor store down by 8th and Jackson?”
Clint shot her a look. “You try loosing the person that means absolutely everything to you.”
“I have.” She drank her coffee down.
“What now?” Clint wanted to know. Would she go away and leave him be? Would she continue to bother him? Would she stop him from trying to get to Phil a little sooner than planned? Would she eventually stop caring and leave him alone like the rest of SHIELD?”
“I don’t know,” Natasha said honestly.
Clint raised his coffee cup to her in a toast.
Life after that moved embarrassingly slow. The nights he spent drunk lessened, and by the end of the month Clint was able to go home, to the place that had once been home, more out of necessity than anything else. It was a damn near miracle that SHIELD hadn’t cleaned the place out of Phil’s things, yet. SHIELD had a way of making their downed agents vanish off the grid completely, as little as they’d been on it to begin with . Clint needed to beat them to the punch. He’d lost Phil’s body to SHIELD, and the right to have a proper burial. He wasn’t going to loose Phil’s favorite tie, or his Tom Clancy books. Everything that was Phil’s, Clint wanted. Even if he just boxed it up, he wanted it all.
It did get boxed up. It went into storage as fast as he could manage and Clint did his best to drop under the radar. He had no doubt Natasha followed his trail easily, but then he’d never been trying to outrun her, either.
He lost track of the days. Time held little meaning for him. He existed and he wandered and there wasn’t much else to him. He wasn’t ready for there to be anything else.
Natasha called him. She said quickly, “I’ve booked you a flight on the ten-thirty into JFK. Get on that plane or I will personally flail you.”
“I don’t care about any missions,” he told her flatly. “I don’t care, Natasha. I’m not an agent anymore. I’m not a member of SHIELD. They want to let me live, and let me do my own thing, that’s fine, but I’m not going to be at their beck and call. I won’t just suddenly have a change of--”
“Get your ass on that plane, Barton. I’ll pick you up at your gate.”
The call ended and Clint stared at the prepaid phone he’d acquired three days earlier in case of emergencies.
She was waiting for him, no pleasantries offered on her end.
He wondered, “What’s got you all worked up?”
“I hate being lied to,” She told him briefly.
“So,” Clint eased out two hours later, hanging off the side of New York’s Mercy hospital, “This isn’t a mission, right?”
Natasha’s head peeked over the side of the roof. “No.”
“And we can’t go in through the front door why?”
“Fury has this place locked down. The floor, at least.”
Clint leaned back into his harness, feet firmly against the windows. “And we’re breaking into a hospital room why?”
Natasha let loose the slack in his rope and sent him plunging down several stories in the blink of an eye.
Finding room 1134 from the outside was a little difficult, but getting into tight, unsure places was a specialty of Clint’s. He made quick work of the window and felt foolish to be his suited up for battle in the middle of a hospital room.
A private hospital room.
A posh, private hospital room with one occupant.
With Phil Coulson as the occupant.
Clint found the floor quickly, hands braced against it for a moment before he was scrambling to the bed, holding onto the railing for dear life, shaking hard.
There was his Phil, sickly pale with bags under his eyes, too thin, but breathing. There was a steady rise and fall to his chest and that was the only thing that mattered.
Natasha didn’t startle him. Her words did.
“You said he called it.”
“He did,” she confirmed. “We all heard it. He was on speaker. He called it and we just believed him, because he was Fury, and he wouldn’t have lied to us.”
“This begs to differ.” Clint rubbed his sweaty palms on his pants before daring to reach out and touch Phil. The agent was warm, and it was the best damn feeling in the world.
“I don’t like being lied to.”
And god knew that Natasha had a nose for it. Part of Clint wasn’t the least bit surprised that she’d detected some deception along the way and found the truth out. She was exceptionally good at what she did.
“Perforated lung,” Natasha explained, “and never let it be said that Phil Coulson is not the luckiest man in the world. Whatever Loki pierced him with, it came immeasurably close to his heart. Anyone else would have been dead.” She moved to stand next to Clint. “There was some serious internal bleeding, a dozen complications, and up until a week ago they were keeping him in a medically induced coma.”
“But he’s awake now?” Clint swung suddenly towards him, one hand resting on top of Phil’s exposed arm.
“Not at the second.”
Clint could have throttled her.
“I’ve seen his charts,” she told him patiently. “He’s still pretty out of it. Sleeps most of the day, from what I can tell. But his numbers are good. He’s on the road to recovery. He’s expected to bounce back completely, given enough time and physical therapy.”
Clint bowed forward, face pressing into Phil’s chest.
There was nothing else in that moment, not the hospital, not Natasha. There was only Phil, alive and breathing, and the solid form that he was beneath Clint.
“Fury lied,” Clint echoed his words.
Clint rose up and posed, “Let’s find out why.”
Clint didn’t have the best temper. He wasn’t especially patient. He wasn’t particularly pleasant to be around. He had his humor, and he had a soft spot for older agents who thought the world revolved around regulations. But other than that, Clint was impulsive. He was reckless, too. Phil told him that a million times. Impulsive and reckless. The perfect combination to get Fury’s attention.
“You really think he’ll show up himself?” Clint asked, elbow digging into a kidney. He was perched on top of a SHIELD agent stationed outside of Phil’s door. There were more agents on the floor, Natasha’s handiwork, and a blinking radio that signaled a breech in the perimeter.
“He’ll show,” she said confidently. “He’s got a soft spot for Phil. He actually likes Phil, and Fury doesn’t like anyone, not even Hill. If he thinks Phil is in danger again, he’ll come.”
Fury did come. He was not pleased. Clint resisted the urge to punch him in the face and start an incident that would likely end up with him unable to see Phil, or dead. Whichever was the worse fate.
“Agent Barton,” Fury greeted, “you didn’t need to go through all of this trouble to get my attention.”
“I believe I did, sir,” Clint said, an edge of the honorific. “And you can imagine my surprise with what I found behind door number one.”
Fury’s eyes slid to Natasha. “You and I will have a very thorough talk after this, Agent Romanov.”
Natasha was impassive. “Yes, sir.”
“You know what he means to me,” Clint told Fury, voice cracking a little. The hallway around them was clearing out and Clint held nothing back. “Why?”
“Agent Coulson needed to be dead.”
The urge to punch Fury was creeping back up on Clint, stronger than ever.
Fury looked unabashed. “Stark and Rogers needed an extra push. They needed something to avenge. They needed Coulson dead.”
“So you just played with them?” Clint demanded. “You just let them think he was dead and used their emotions against them?”
“All things are necessary in a time of war, even the most compromising of actions.”
“And what about now?” Clint flung his hand out. “Loki’s gone. Thor took his crazy brother back to Asgard. The threat is gone. You want to tell me why you thought it was so important that I spent the past six weeks thinking that Phil was dead.”
Unapologetic, Fury said, “Coulson is your weakness, Barton. He’s the chink in your armor. I need you focused on the Avengers now. I need you ready for whatever is coming our way, and you’d better believe that the universe knows we’re out here now. This won’t be the last threat we face. It won’t be the biggest, either. You’re an Avenger. Your priority is to this earth, and to nothing else.”
“With all due respect,” Clint said, meaning none of it with respect, “if you had a problem with us, you should have brought it up before the Avenger Imitative was active, instead of trying to pull strings afterward and fool people.”
Fury pursed his lips. “Agent Coulson should have died that day on the carrier. He should have bled out. He didn’t. He didn’t die. But Start and Rogers needed him to be dead. And I needed you to think that too, at least until we were sure Coulson was going to pull through.” There was a hint now, of remorse in Fury’s voice, which was ridiculous because Clint was sure that Fury never felt sorry for anything he did. “I couldn’t have you unstable, concentrating on Coulson’s condition. It was the better option to allow you to believe he was dead until there was a positive change in his condition. This was not meant to be kept from you indefinitely.”
That was it? Fury had kept Coulson hidden because he couldn’t trust Clint to keep a level head? Because the mission had needed to come first?
The worst part, the most annoying part, was that Clint knew the moment Phil was up and able to comprehend the situation, he’d agree.
The shitty part was that Clint knew Fury had made the right call. Clint wouldn’t have been able to stand with the other Avengers and protect the city if he’d known Phil was fighting for his life. He would have needed to be with Phil. And if he couldn’t have been, the level of distraction would have been immeasurable. Fury had down the right thing, and it smarted something awful.
“When were you going to tell me?”
Fury inclined his head a little. “As soon as Coulson was up for visitors. Agent Romanov discovered his location just shy of that period. Agent Coulson’s doctor thinks he’ll be ready for visitors by the end of the week.”
Clint risked a look to Natasha, a bit perplexed. She’d jumped the gun. That didn’t happen often.
Fury said, “Indeed.”
The thing was, once Clint had gotten into the room, and seen Phil, he wasn’t going to wait another four or five days. He wasn’t going to wait that many minutes.
“Saving the world is exhausting.”
Phil was propped up in bed, still looking ill and tired, but awake and aware and holding Clint’s hand.
“I imagine it might be.”
“So I was thinking,” Clint posed, “you, me, a remote beach, and some coconut drinks?”
Phil’s eyebrows lifted. “The ones with the little umbrellas?”
Phil was still out of it. He was lax, and cuddly, and all of the things that Clint knew would be gone the moment Phil was back on his feet and in fighting form. But for now, Clint enjoyed himself, along with the privacy of Phil’s room and the man too weak to stop Clint from stealing kisses from him at every opportunity.
“Are you sure you saved the world?” Phil asked, skeptically.
“I might have had a little help,” Clint shrugged. “Maybe a relic from the past pulled his weight, and an overly intelligent, egotistical billionaire. And Natasha might have helped.”
“I don’t remember much,” Phil confessed. “We were waiting for Agent Romanov to return with Doctor Banner?”
“It all worked out,” Clint assured. He leaned in and caught the edge of Phil’s mouth. “I’ll give you the details later.”
“Okay,” Phil said, a little dopey from the pain medication.
“I missed you.”
“That’s okay.” Clint kissed him again, firmly. “It’s okay.”