When Natasha tells him about Coulson, her lower lip trembling just enough to prove how serious she is, Clint doesn’t believe her. He won’t believe her. She is wrong, obviously, and Fury is wrong and anyone else who tries to tell him Phil is dead is wrong too.
His conviction buoys him through the next two days, through destroying (or protecting, technically) most of Midtown Manhattan, through a shwarma dinner with the rest of the team where they are all a little hysterical and still running on pure adrenaline, through debriefings and shipping Loki and Thor back to Asgard, through the cab ride back to their apartment.
Phil is not dead. Phil cannot be dead because Clint would know, would be able to feel it in that part of his soul that belongs to Phil, has belonged to Phil for ten years. (Or longer, probably, but it took them a few extra years than the average couple to get from meet-cute to first date. If Phil arresting Clint counts as a meet-cute and Chinese food on the floor of Phil’s office counts as a first date, that is.)
Still, their apartment is too quiet, too still and too empty and it hits Clint like a punch to the gut. Wherever Phil is (not dead, not dead, not dead) he isn’t here. He falters in the bedroom, looking at Phil’s shoes lined up neatly on his side of the closet next to the jumbled pile of Clint’s many pairs of combat boots, and wonders for one terrifying moment if having Loki inside his head somehow fucked with his equilibrium and what if Phil’s dead and Clint can’t feel it?
The thought makes bile rise in his throat and he dives towards the bathroom, where he kneels and dry-heaves because dinner was over twelve hours ago now and he can’t remember eating anything else since.
He showers because he can’t remember the last time he did that either, and after he dries off he pulls on sweats and Phil’s most ancient Harvard sweatshirt, with its unravelling cuffs and peeling-off letters.
Predictably, there’s nothing in the refrigerator because neither of them have been here in weeks (unless Phil stayed a few nights while he was collecting Stark and Cap) so he calls for a pizza and crosses the hall to knock on Molly’s door.
“Clint, honey,” she smiles at him and ushers him into her apartment, the mirror image of his and Phil’s except hers is cluttered with knick-knacks and photos and the general detritus that comes with living in the same apartment for upwards of thirty years.
“You boys have a nice trip?”
“Business, not pleasure,” he shrugs. Nice is just about the last word he’d use to describe Loki and everything that followed. A grey cat winds itself around his ankles and Clint crouches to scoop him up. Kitty burrows into Clint’s arms and starts purring like one of Stark’s expensive cars.
“He behave himself?”
“Of course. He and Daisy got along real good this time. No tail-pulling, at least.”
“Progress.” Clint grins. Daisy is Molly’s youngest granddaughter who, until now apparently, had a particular hatred for Kitty.
“You wanna stay for dinner? I just put a lasagne in.”
“Wish I’d known. Just ordered a pizza, though.”
Molly clucks her tongue disapprovingly. “I’ll bring over some leftovers tomorrow.”
“Sounds good,” Clint nods.
“Tell Phil I said hello.”
“Will do, Molly. See you around.”
Clint sets Kitty down inside their living room and the cat streaks off to re-familiarise himself with the apartment. After investigating the litter box in the corner, the kitchen, the bedroom and the hallway, he comes back to where Clint is sitting on the couch and leaps up next to him, curling up tight against Clint’s thigh.
Once the pizza arrives, Clint cues up one of Phil’s crappy shows on the DVR and eats four slices straight out of the box. He watches five episodes of Supernanny and doesn’t feel tired at all, so he watches three more before dragging himself into the bedroom, where he lies awake for a long time in a bed that feels way too big.
All of the SHIELD shrinks (they just keep trading him back and forth because he is, according to his file, reticent, stubborn, and at times downright hostile with medical personnel) say he’s in denial.
Clint doesn’t do denial. He’s known since he was six years old the only belief worth clinging to is the truth, and Phil is not dead so Clint isn’t in denial. He explains this pretty rationally to four shrinks, but by number five he loses his cool a little bit and ends up throwing a vase across the room where shatters into about five thousand pieces.
He gets escorted off base and back to his apartment and the phone call comes in from Hill a few hours later that he’s suspended until further notice. It’s not a punishment, she says more gently than he’s ever heard her speak, we just think you need some time.
Time is the last thing Clint needs. He needs Phil, and barring that, he needs work. He needs the snap of his bowstring and the whoosh of the arrows and the crisp thud of impact. His fingers actually itch with the need to be doing something so he picks up the phone intending to call Natasha who will happily sneak him back into HQ so he can go down to the range, but the phone rings out and the voicemail that picks up isn’t hers but Phil’s and suddenly Clint can’t breathe.
You’ve reached Agent Coulson, at SHIELD. I am out of the office at the moment, but if you leave a message and your contact information, I will call you back as soon as possible. Thank you.
Clint hangs up without leaving a message and dials Phil’s personal number instead. That phone doesn’t even ring, just clicks over to voicemail immediately and Phil never changed it from the factory settings for security reasons, so it’s just an automated voice telling him the person he’s calling can’t be reached, and isn’t that the fucking truth?
After the beep he says, “It’s me. Just…check in or something. Please.”
He trusts Phil more than he’s ever trusted anyone and Phil has never once let him down so Clint knows that whatever this fucked up situation is, there’s a reason for it.
So he programs the DVR to record Supernanny and Hoarders and Bridezillas because Phil will be pissed if he comes back to a DVR full of Clint’s shows (none of which are nearly trashy enough for Phil’s tastes) and settles in to wait for as long as he needs to.
Three and a half weeks later, Clint is still waiting and Phil is still gone and either SHIELD has forgotten about his suspension or they just don’t care, because nobody tries to stop him anymore when he walks into HQ and spends eight hours at a time on the range before climbing up into the air ducts and staying there until he feels better. He never feels lonely in the drop ceilings; something about the tight space is comforting rather than claustrophobia inducing. He fills the whole space, unlike their too-empty apartment and their too-big bed.
“We need to do something about Barton. He’s going to lose it,” he overhears Hill saying when he’s stretched out on his back in the duct above Fury’s office. She sounds oddly concerned, again, and Clint can’t help wondering if maybe he has lost it already. It certainly feels that way, some days. Thank fuck he doesn’t have a mandatory psych eval for another two months, because they’d have a field day with this.
“There’s nothing we can do.”
Clint has no problem imagining Fury’s shrug or the irritated, stubborn expression on Hill’s face.
“Maria, there’s nothing we can do.” Fury repeats.
The finality in Fury’s voice sends chills down Clint’s spine and he reaches into his t-shirt for the chain around his neck, closing his fist tightly around his ring. He hasn’t worn it on his finger since their wedding day (which was, unsurprisingly, interrupted by an international incident) but he yanks the chain off now and slides the ring free. It’s a tighter fit than he remembers but the weight is even more comforting than the cramped air duct. He resolves to find a way to compensate for the change in his grip, because he doesn’t plan on taking it off again.
That awful, hated word—denial—has wormed its way into his thoughts, tainting his memories and twisting his feelings and making him feel ill every time he tries to tell himself he believes just as strongly as he did when Natasha told him. Because he doesn’t. Doubt has crept in, slowly but surely, settling into the empty corners of their apartment and Phil’s cold side of the bed. It settles heavily on his shoulders when Molly asks about Phil and he tells her he’s fine, away on business again, yeah, he does work too hard, but what can you do? It keeps him from answering Natasha’s phone calls and it wakes him in the middle of the night like a weight sitting on his chest and making it impossible to breathe. Now, when he tells himself Phil isn’t dead, it comes out like a question.
Phil’s Harvard sweatshirt has stopped smelling like him, Kitty has stopped running to the door every time he hears footsteps on the stairs, and the DVR’s memory card fills up and can’t record any more of Phil’s shows.
Phil’s sister calls and Clint doesn’t know what to tell her so he doesn’t say anything, just asks after the kids and says they’ll try to make it to either Thanksgiving or Christmas, depending on their schedules.
Natasha breaks into the apartment one night when Clint is out on a run because the only way he sleeps anymore is if he exhausts himself first and he nearly punches her in the face when he comes back to noise in the apartment that isn’t Phil because for about three seconds he’d hoped and the disappointment nearly flattens him.
“He is dead,” Natasha tells him again. He tells her to leave and she does, and he can’t decide if that’s what he actually wanted at all.
It is an unremarkable, miserable Tuesday. Acceptance is a gentle word but the feeling is anything but. It is an icy numbness, then a slow burn and his heart shattering into irreparable pieces. The part of him that was Phil is gone and is never coming back. He is dead.