He knows what it is to be completely unmade, to be powerless and not mind. When it all starts organizing itself into some sort of clarity, he can remember only seeing the helicarrier as a problem to be solved, a trap to be planted. He remembers knowing everything he'd ever known about Natasha and using what was useful with tactical precision.
If the things Clint really knows about Natasha had ever filled more than a thimble, fuck, it could've gone so much worse.
Afterwards, though, she's there, sitting with him, trying to soften the edges when it all starts to hit home.
"Tasha, how many agents?"
She eases him away from it, doesn't give him names, and at the moment, he's grateful.
He's expecting more suspicion than he actually gets, when the call comes out. He's ordered into uniform, not down into the brig. Nearly everyone he encountered on the helicarrier gave him enough of a wide berth that he doesn't see it for the red flag it is until much later.
As usual, Fury's got something running on the side; he nearly almost always does, though. "It's hubris," Phil had told him, years ago, cutting off Clint's rant mid-stream, "to think that the operation we're working on is ever the only one Fury is working on." From the looks of things here, and the absence of Phil's voice on the line, it's obvious that he's out working another operation, or maybe just another angle. Maybe it'll dovetail into theirs.
Then again, Captain freakin' America is running the operation. Phil's probably recused himself from the operation entirely on account of being a complete nerd.
It would be really nice to bump into him, though. He looks around as they head towards the quinjet, and doesn't catch sight of him anywhere.
The Chitauri don't corner well- they telegraph every turn they're going to make, and if there aren't elements of a hive-mind at work in their attack, he'll eat his bow. He watches and shoots and sometimes he's aware of taking aim, first, but it's a good fight, fast, and it's nothing at all like waiting for hours for the target to appear in the kill zone, ignoring the cramp in his knee from holding position for hours at a time. Beyond that, though, the others, they're amazing.
Given what he knows of them, some of while Phil probably hadn't been supposed to mention, he's amazed that they're fighting so well. He'd been expecting them to implode under the weight of their combined egos, psychoses, and distrust, but they're working. Stark lets Rogers give the orders, hell, he flies a nuke into the wormhole, and when he falls, when Tony Stark falls out of the sky, it's Hulk who catches him, gets him down to the ground safely.
He knows that they've already had the chance to fight together against Loki (against Clint, but it's cool, nobody's saying it), but their intent is seamless. Even Thor, who's fighting his own brother. Clint knows more than he'd ever wanted to know about that, enough to suspect that if he were in Thor's position, he wouldn't be handling it so damned well.
Then again, the man is a god.
Afterwards, when the Chitauri are down and Manhattan's scratching it's head at the mess they've made, Stark suggests going out for shawarma. Whatever the hell that is.
It goes exactly as he suspects it would. There's bragging and trash talk and he's taken aback more than once at how solid they are, how unified. Like they've been fighting under the same banner for years, and taken the same losses. There's the conversation dwindling as the adrenaline crashes, and even Thor and Rogers seem defeated by the sheer mass of food they've eaten. Inevitably, eventually, there's Fury on the line, telling them to get out to the extraction point.
They're leaving the restaurant and he's thinking about which part of it he wants to tell Phil first, the next time they manage to get five minutes alone together. He'll probably have to start off with an apology, and he wonders if Hallmark makes a card for Sorry about helping Loki take out a few million dollars' worth of SHEILD helicarrier technology.
As they're filing into the back of the chopper, he doesn't realize that asking Natasha if she's heard from him is about to ruin everything.
"Phil... he didn't make it," Natasha says, her eyes sad enough that he's staring at her, because it's so intense that it's got to be an act, and he can't figure out why she'd say something like that, and any minute now, she's going to whip out her phone, snap a picture of him, and email it to Phil, who admittedly is going to be annoyed enough with Clint that he wouldn't have been satisfied with a Hallmark card anyway.
There's just one problem. She's not going for her phone. She's not even grinning. She's taking his hand, telling him she's sorry. It gives him something to focus on that isn't the weight of Thor's sad stare from across the cabin. Rogers and Stark glance back more than once; it's Rogers who offers his sympathy first. He's sorry too.
Banner, at least, is staring down at his hands and refusing to look up at any of them.
Clint doesn't even care that they're calling him back for another psych eval. He'd been expecting it since he'd come back to himself on the helicarrier. He'd been unmade, completely undone, under Loki's control. Of course they were going to keep an eye on him. Fighting the decision doesn't have the appeal it once had. He's got no one to fight with, no reason to fight. All the good is gone. For now, there's just dealing.
He sits in the chair and tells the shrink everything she wants to hear. He tries to be honest, because Phil's not here to nag him into it. But Clint won't tell her everything, and it's not just for whatever headshrinking reason's she'd ascribe.
Phil's gone, and Clint's still here, and Hill's been assigned as his new handler, under Fury's orders. She's a few steps up, organizationally, than Phil had been, and it means that he's got their attention. They're watching every move he makes, listening to every word he says.
He's not going to sully Phil's name by admitting he loves him.
The first few days, he's given a wide berth, but the feeling of eyes on the back of his neck never goes away, and he's tired of the dozens of moments, throughout the day, where he's fine, glances up, sees some new expression wearing sympathy or distrust, and it starts all over again.
Fury lets him back on the range on the fifth day, because he's making the SHIELD personnel nervous. At least Clint's out of the way, down there in the range. He's only allowed practice arrows, and doesn't bring up the fact that the blunted ends would be more than enough to secure any escape attempt he could make.
It's six nights before Natasha slips into his room. "We need you to be ready."
"We're scattering," she says, easing onto the bunk next to him exactly the way she'd done on the carrier. When she'd known, and hadn't told him. "There's just one thing we have to take care of first."
Phil's funeral? Nobody's been talking about it, though. Fury had seemed enraged by the mere mention of it, and it's probably the only thing he and Clint see eye to eye on.
"The best way to make sure that Loki and the Tesseract stay gone is if we can keep it somewhere built for that exact purpose." Clint has to go over her words in his head twice. He's not really listening. Then he gets it.
Natasha nods quickly, as if to quiet him, and her eyes are sweeping the room, apprehensive. "And...seeing as how some parties might take the move as a theft of government property, the quicker and quieter, the better. But we should all probably be gone before word spreads."
Clint's tired, he's exhausted, but the walls are closing in on him, have been for days.
"Fury's got our back, he'll run interference with the powers that be, but we're going to need you on this," she says, handing him a wallet that he eventually recognizes as the one he's kept in the safe deposit box ever since coming to town. It's the last clean ident he'd had on him before Phil had offered him a position he'd been in no position to refuse.
Rubbing a hand over his face, Clint considers it. Really, once they're gone, he doesn't have anyone else he can bother to care about, here, but if he keeps thinking at it much longer, he'll only wind up dwelling on what Phil would've wanted. It's better to disappoint him now- again- before he's had the chance to think about it. "When?"
"Now. Cap and Thor are in position, but we need eyes on a clean exit."
It's the second time in a week he's in a position to betray SHIELD, but it's the first time he's given the choice to do so.
Thor's gone, and everyone's scattered, save Tony. He's too big to vanish, really, and he's got a tower and a city to rebuild. Clint catches him on the news talking about it, sometimes, but can never make it through a segment before having to change the channel. Because sometimes, the reminders just come on too damned fast to avoid.
He's in a hotel room in Rockford, Illinois, and when he shuts the television off, it's just him, now. Nobody else. He hasn't even talked to Natasha since they parted ways; couldn't find her if he wanted to.
It's just him, now, and he's suddenly too alone for any of this.
He checks out of the hotel three hours after checking in, and boards the next plane to Portland.
It's tactically stupid to return to the same safe-house twice in a month, but plans were always more Phil's thing than his, but on the flight, he tries, because for once, he knows exactly what he's about to walk into.
He'll go up the stairs and unlock his apartment door. He'll look inside, before stepping in, checking for the tell-tale signs that there'd been any disturbances. He'd check the positions of the few items he'd ever left there. any streaks in the dust. But they'll be harder to see, this time, because they'd only been there two weeks ago, and Phil's presence had given him this ridiculous notion to spend a precious two hours cleaning, after they arrived-
Phil had been as much a distraction as he'd been a help, barefoot in jeans as he'd mopped the kitchen floor while Clint dusted the living room. There hadn't been time, when their phones had inevitably called them back to duty fifteen hours early, to throw out the contents of the refrigerator, or to make the bed.
He might be able to smell Phil on the sheets, when he gets there, and the very idea of it fills him with a panicked sort of dread. And at the same time, it's the only thing he has left to want, anymore.
He stops on the way from the airport and buys beer, garbage bags and a new set of sheets, just in case.
The first night hurts so fucking bad that he's wishing Loki would come and fix it. Make him not care, undo what Clint had done, unmake him completely.
It's morning before he realizes that one of Phil's ties is draped over the hook on the bathroom door. He's calling out to remind him about it before he remembers. It's still knotted, and for an instant, Clint considers hanging himself with it. The thought is jolting, shocking, totally wrong, and he doesn't know where it came from, but he's furious.
He's glaring at himself in the mirror, and anger's better, at least, than what he'd been feeling before. It's probably not the best kick in the ass he could ask for, but it's what he's got.
He throws the tie out.
Retrieves it half an hour later, folds it, and puts it in his nightstand.
He washes the sheets, then puts the new ones on anyway. Dodges across the street for coffee, and the barista nods at him like maybe she remembers him, and it's awful, for a moment, because maybe she does, maybe she's going to ask about-
She takes his order, pours his coffee, and wishes him a good day. She's just being polite.
Afterwards, he just orders takeout until his stomach can't handle it any more.
Clint does what he always does. He finds an archery range that he doesn't use more than once a week, and never goes at the same time of day. Other days he makes the drive up to McIver park and shoots at dead trees, disappearing into the bracken whenever a hiker comes past, or following park rangers for hours. They never know he's there, even when he's only seven feet away.
Even if it's not up to his usual standards of off-mission training, it fills the time and keeps his head quiet. It helps.
He's also picked up new and annoying habits, their reasoning completely transparent even to him. He checks the charge on his phone at least once every fifteen minutes, and if his eyes flit to the (always empty) corner of the screen where his inbox sits, they never linger long. When he's at home, he's forever checking to make sure the charger's plugged in correctly, and that the ringer is on. A few times a week he goes to the library, dials his phone number from one of the computers, just to make sure it'll ring. If the noise earns him an annoyed glance from another patron, or the librarian, so much the better.
It's the closest anyone's come to reacting honestly to him, and he doesn't have to explain himself. It's almost perfect.
Except it sucks. He's just killing time, whiling away the hours, and only ever drinks if he's been awake for more than a day straight. He sits at the kitchen table with nothing worth looking at and slams the beers back as quickly as he can. Three beers is perfect, enough that if he can't immediately sink into sleep, his aim's still unimpaired. Four and it's questionable. He only does more than a six-pack once, finishing it inside an hour, and he regrets it for three days, afterwards.
Lately, he's been thinking about switching to vodka- whiskey had been Phil's drink- but he's never been overly fond of it and if he buys any, it'll feel like he's just stocking up, waiting for Natasha to come through the door with news, with orders, with something, and it would be nice to be able to offer her a drink.
Only she's not coming, she's not calling. Nobody is. The world's fucked, but no more than it's always been, and he knows that it's a good thing, but...
He's pretty sure that fireman get bored, too, that once in a while they maybe sit around hoping for an all out Triangle Shirtwaist, just to have something to do with themselves.
Someone's being buzzed into the building from the apartment upstairs, which is the only reason that the footsteps have gone silent after only fourteen stairs has him grabbing his quiver and selecting its sharpest, sturdiest arrow. Minding the creaking floorboards directly to the left of the door, he eases into position, wills whoever it is that's paused at the top of the stairs to just keep going.
After a moment, the footsteps begin again, but it only takes three at most to turn to head up to the third floor, and they've just stepped on the creakiest floorboard in this entire building.
When he hears the creak again, he's straining to get a good look through the door's peephole, but there's nothing to see but the door of the empty apartment across from his.
He hasn't heard anything from anybody. They're laying low. If someone wanted to get a hold of them, it would've been easier just to call.
The floor creaks a third time, and whoever it is, they're hesitating on that spot. Maybe they're distracted, looking at the address on a package they're delivering, or rehearsing some bit of bad news they're about to deliver.
Natasha would've had him meet her somewhere where they'd both be sure they weren't walking into a trap. Anyone else would've knocked on or kicked in his door by now, and if it were an enemy, it's unlikely that they would've been so stupid to warn him by stepping on the same spot twice.
He's being ridiculous.
He's starting to ease back from the peephole when it's suddenly filled with Phil's face.
Clint's first impulse is to open the door; he already has his hand on the lock, but he hasn't turned it yet. Because nothing is ever this easy. You don't get things just from wanting them so much.
He forces himself through a list of possible options- skrull, new SHIELD field tech. At best, it's some other dimension's version of Phil. At worst, it's a mental break, an hallucination brought on by boredom and paranoia.
Phil's eyes are staring at the door number. Without the door, he'd be staring at a spot on Clint's shoulder, avoiding his gaze. The suit he's wearing is the wrong color, but Phil's shoulders, when he squares them with purpose and raises his hand to knock, is dead on.
Don't open the door, Clint tells himself, because this has to be a trick. Maybe this Phil knows he's being watched.
If it is, though, it's a good one. Phil winces as he raises his hand to knock. His face twitches and the lines around his eyes tighten, briefly, in pain, and his left hand's gone to his lower back.
It's not an expression Clint would ever imagine for him, and if someone's gone this far just to fuck with him, an injured Phil is no more believable than an uninjured Phil. It's a useless detail.
It's also an advantage, if Clint's wrong in hoping. He has the door open before Phil has the chance to knock. Has the arrow jabbed up under his jaw before Phil's even had the chance to track him.
"It's me," Phil says, and his voice isn't as confident as it sounds in Clint's dreams, but he's not moving. Clint's not ready for it, he should know better, but he believes him, because Phil could back up, right now, if he wanted to. There's nothing stopping him but an empty hallway and he already knows the best route out of here and at least fifteen different ways to turn Clint's weapon against him.
He's not using any of them, Clint notes. Not reacting to the threat, not doing anything more than searching out his eyes, and right now, the arrow point is the only thing keeping him from coming closer. If this Phil were an imposter, he should've attacked by now.
Clint wants to believe him so badly that he just can't let himself. He grabs Phil by the arm and drags him inside, shoving him against the wall as he kicks the door closed.
Phil's taking it patiently. Doesn't speak, just looks at him, stares back in disbelief, and his eyes don't waver, not even a little.
Clint wants nothing more than to buy into whatever illusion this is. He catches himself, though, the moment he thinks to move the arrow away.
"They told us you died." Suddenly, the arrow in his hand is sickening. He hates himself for what he's doing.
There's a spark of grim humor, life coming back to Phil's face as he replies, and says exactly the wrong thing. "Reports of my death have been-"
"Don't. No." Clint spits, shoving himself back, out of striking range, but not so far that he can't attack if he needs to. Phil doesn't move an inch, and somehow, it's everything. Nobody would go through all of this just to have their doppelganger blow his first lines. "Because reports of your death weren't even reported until we'd already won. And as far as exaggerations go? Say what you will about Natasha, but she wasn't talking in superlatives when she told me what happened." He forgets that he's trying not to look, and catches the shift in Phil's expression. It doesn't stop him from wanting to twist the knife. "She was barely talking at all."
"I'm sorry, but-"
But nothing. Clint needs to get this arrow out of his hand, now, because this, right here, isn't like fighting for Loki. He knows exactly what he's doing, with a weapon to Phil's throat, and Phil- his Phil, the real Phil, is looking at him with such concern that he feels sick.
Clint launches the arrow into the far wall before speaking, only to find that he doesn't even know where to begin, so he continues. "They wanted to lock me up, afterwards, did you know?"
The admission hangs in the air, stupid and obvious and underwhelming. He needs distance, needs to get some space, so he heads for the kitchen, talking over his shoulder. "Everyone else got the basic debrief, fifteen minute eva. I kept getting called back, for hours, fucking days."
"You were the only one among them who spent any time-"
"Under alien mind control? Yeah. No kidding. And then I came out of it, fought my ass off, only to discover that given the option, I would've rather stayed under."
"At least then I didn't care if you lived or died," Clint says, his hands still remembering the feel and weight of the arrow he'd held to Phil's neck. He can hear Phil's footsteps following him into the kitchen now. He doesn't know what he's looking for, but staring at the sad contents of his fridge seem as good a place to any to start.
The realization shouldn't be so exhausting. He takes a breath before turning around; when he does, he notices that Phil's followed him into the kitchen, he's bracing himself against the counter, and Clint's going into the freezer for an ice pack before it occurs to him that he's going to have to hand it to Phil.
He wants to back away, sees better from a distance, but Phil's here, he's taking the ice pack and trying to get it into place beneath his brown jacket, and Clint's not sure how, but he knows, somehow, that he's been going about this all wrong. When Phil winces, Clint feels it.
"Fuck," Clint mutters, fingers twitching, wanting to help and not knowing where to start. "You okay?"
"Well, I died. For a minute." Phil says. The joke feels like a lifeline of sorts, one that Clint's not too stupid to grab. "And then I pulled my back, and right now? That's actually worse."
"So you almost died," Clint tries the words on, liking the sound of it, even if Phil's standing in front of him, held together with paperclips and hope.
"Didn't even come close to your record," Phil adds, and Clint remembers Rio, too. "It was barely thirty seconds."
Not to me, it wasn't. "It was a month and a half," Clint replies, and there, he's said it, but he doesn't know what to do with himself, here.
Phil seems to understand. "Look. I'll explain all of it, and I'll apologize again, but do you mind if we sit down, first?"
"Whatever, yeah." Clint frowns, glancing curiously at Phil's torso while trying to remember which of his two chairs is the least uncomfortable. If Phil's gone so far as to actually admit he's in pain, chances are, a chair won't cut it.
Phil doesn't fight him when Clint leads him to the bed. "Sit, lie down, whatever you need. You taking anything for it?"
Phil pulls a pill bottle from his pocket, shows it off, and the lines are back around the corner of his eyes. Phil probably needs to lie down, and Clint needs to let him, almost as much as he needs to just retreat, for a moment.
"I'll grab you some water," Clint offers, and heads back to the kitchen, as fast as he possibly can.
Phil's passed out by the time Clint's washed a glass and come back with water, and Clint's just beginning to realize how far out of his depth he is, here, trying to read the signs of whatever is wrong with him by his posture. Phil's on his back, knees bent, feet on the bed, and when Clint comes around to set the glass on the nightstand, he can see the ice pack sticking out underneath Phil's left hip. Whatever it is, it's bad enough that he'd passed out without removing his shoes, but not so bad that Clint had been prepared to find him asleep.
He wants to prod, wants to check up on him, wants to see, but Phil's asleep, and Clint's honestly having a hard time forcing himself to look at his face, right now. He's frowning, a bit, like he does when he falls asleep at his desk, sitting in a chair that's apparently ergonomic as all hell, as long as one doesn't fall asleep in it.
Clint doesn't know what's wrong with him, only that apparently, he's not dead. Hadn't been for weeks.
Natasha had held out on him for several hours- and weeks later, Clint's had the time to deal with it. She'd made the right call, because Clint, right then? He'd already been on the brink of doing something willingly stupid. This would've been enough to push him over.
But Phil's held out for six, nearly seven weeks. And either he's still recovering, or he's gotten himself into and out of another mess that Clint doesn't even know about.
And it's scaring the hell out of him, right now. He doesn't know whether he needs to stock up on bandages or ammunition, if he needs to be on the roof right now, scanning the streets for oncoming attack. He doesn't even know, right now, what'll happen if he reaches out, touches Phil's arm or his side to try to find where he's hurt.
He doesn't know why the hell he's still mourning him.
Because it shouldn't be this way, nothing should. Phil shouldn't have waited a month and a half, shouldn't have died in the first place, but if he was going to come back to Clint, if he was going to be the miracle that Clint's starting to think he needs, right about now, he really shouldn't be lying here, injured and hurting.
Because kneeling next to the bed like this, trying to listen to him breathing, it feels like Phil's come home to die all over again. And if he doesn't open his eyes, soon, it'll be so much worse than before, because he'd had his chance to make things right with him, had the chance to apologize- hell, he could've made his own Sorry about demolishing the helicarrier while under the influence of god-borne mind control card by now, and he's just been sitting here. Freaking out about baristas, lurking around the park, and doing nothing.
All he wants, right now, is for Phil to open his eyes. And he's not, and Clint's too damned terrified to try to wake him up. He's afraid, now, in a way that he hadn't thought he could be, ever again.
He makes it out of the room before the sob's wrenched out of him. After less than a minute, maybe only the amount of time that Phil had actually been dead, he's got it forced back under control, but looking at himself in the mirror hurts, and it's better to duck down until it's out of sight, splash water on his face.
Clint's been back in the room, pacing quietly and staring at the bed, so he sees it when Phil shifts, his shoulder falling against the pillow, and he hears him inhale in his sleep, and it's-
It's fucking beautiful, is what it is.
He's leaning against the dresser when Phil starts to wake up. Checking his watch, Clint's surprised to find that barely an hour has passed. His throat feels rough as he tries to get the words out. "You feeling alright?"
Phil nods disjointedly at the ceiling, and is already trying to get up, rolling onto his side; his face is a little dazed and washed out, and it's what Clint's wanted to do forever, now, so he lets himself help Phil up, sits next to him to give him something to lean against when sitting still seems like a shaky prospect.
"Sorry about that," Phil with a yawn, blinking the room into focus. He looks cross with himself, a little foolish. "Didn't mean to-"
"It's cool," Clint cuts him off. "Was probably for the best."
"Hmm?" Phil does this thing with his eyebrows, sometimes, when he's listening but not yet. Just a twitch that happens that shows he's about to be distracted, and it's an expression Clint's seen a hundred times. He'd started cataloguing it, once, when he'd first started finding that he'd wanted to be the cause of his distraction.
The fact that half the time, it was usually followed by a shake of the head as Phil redoubled his focus on his paperwork or binoculars doesn't make it less appealing. He's not doing it now, though; Clint would hug him if he wasn't so wary of jostling him.
"Gave me some time to think," he says, basking in Phil's complete attention because he can. "Forgot to tell you, earlier. You know, back when I-" attacked you, his mind traitorously provides- "in the living room. I'm really glad you're not dead."
"Me too." Clint can feel the movement of Phil's nod on his shoulder and down his arm, and there's no flinching, no wariness to it. It's just Phil, he's here, he's alive and Clint might not have to miss him anymore, but he should probably figure out what he's supposed to be doing, what he should be saying, instead. And sooner rather than later would be good. Words, though, he just doesn't have them.
He nudges Phil's shoulder with his arm, gently, and when Phil looks up, eyes still tired but smiling and hopeful, and Clint doesn't need much from the kiss. Like the long, complicated conversation they're going to need to eventually have, which will probably go badly for a while before it gets better, it's more than he'd dared hope for.
And when Phil kisses him back, Clint finds himself looking forward to the argument.