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Calling Like a Crow

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It wasn't quite purposeful, neglecting to tell Clint about Phil.

Bruce and Thor obviously had no idea that he didn't know already and Tony and Steve had no idea how very important it would be for Clint to know. Natasha is aware of all of this and while she normally has very few problems balancing ends versus means, when it comes to the handful of people she cares about, she is fiercely protective.

It feels wrong -- it is wrong -- keeping Phil's death from Clint, but a very many things had happened in a very short time and then many more things needed to move forward quickly. She knew if he were to be at all functional and not a crazy-eyed, self-destructive killing machine, she'd have to put off telling him.

So she waited until they were done and Manhattan was a smoking wreck around them.

Her plan had been to get Clint somewhere quiet and isolated when she told him. For all that Clint and Phil had been discreet about their relationship, she had no doubts about their commitment to each other or the depth of feeling between them. She fully expects Clint's reaction to be...intense.

And possibly apocalyptic.

She forgets, though, that Tony Stark is occasionally a decent human being. So when he uses his shwarma to offer a toast to "a very good man, Phil Coulson," she feels Clint go very still next to her and closes her eyes for a moment.

"What?" There's something dangerous in his voice, something Natasha has only heard a handful of times, that captures everyone's attention.

Steve shifts uneasily in his seat, his hand hovering over his shield, but freezes when Clint looks at him. "Agent Coulson was killed when he attempted to stop Loki's escape."

Clint blinks twice then closes his eyes and carefully sits back in his chair, his shoulders collapsing in towards his chest. The quiet, hurt noise he makes is nothing familiar, nothing she recognizes as Clint and it terrifies her.

The others shift restlessly, finally realizing something is wrong at the table, but she waves off their questions. Clint hasn't moved at all since he settled against the chair, his hands limp and shaking in his lap.

"Clint?" She reaches out to touch his shoulder, but even with his eyes closed he flinches away from her.

He just shakes his head and exhales unevenly.

This is nothing Natasha knows how to fix.

***

It's all too much.

Clint can feel himself shutting down, can feel the tiny and bright parts of himself snuffing out as if they'd never existed. His focus narrows until all he can hear, all he can feel is his own heartbeat pressing against his brain and whiting out the corners of his vision. This isn't grief or rage or anything else he's ever felt in his life. It's a cold numbness that he thinks would worry him if he had anything left to give. He's been shoving everything down since he woke up strapped to the bed. Pushing away the fragmented pieces of memory from his time with Loki and the aching betrayal of his own mind, knowing that if he just held it together long enough, he could get to Phil and everything would be okay.

Oh, god. Nothing would ever be okay again.

All he can think about is how the last conversation they had was about fucking dry cleaning. He can't even remember if he'd told Phil 'I love you' when he'd left to go on his shift in the lab. He keeps replaying those twenty minutes in his head; eating some toast, stealing a drink out of Phil's coffee, Phil bitching about the dry cleaner in town leaving a spot on his suit, getting up, kissing him quick because Clint is running late, and then... did he say it? He sometimes does, sometimes doesn't even though he always feels it.

Felt it.

Oh, god.

He'd always known the danger of being in a relationship with an active agent. There was always the chance that one of them could be killed or captured, but Clint had just assumed that he'd be the casualty, not Phil. It was something they'd both accepted, but it was why they kept their relationship as quiet as they could and why Natasha had come up with the story about a cellist of all fucking things.

Phil hates - hated cello music.

Clint can hear Natasha talking but doesn't, can't care what she's telling the others. It doesn't matter anymore if she tells them everything. It doesn't matter if she tells them about Budapest, or even Moscow. It won't put either of them in any danger if she tells them about Dublin or the small, civil service last summer.

Natasha touches him and this time he doesn't flinch away. The numbness has spread enough that he barely feels it. She gets him on his feet and he's vaguely aware of his body moving. He trusts Natasha to get him wherever he needs to be without injury, but at this point he doesn't even care if she walks him off the edge of building. All he can do watch the loop behind his eyes of the last time he saw Phil, the last time he laughed with him, the last time he kissed him.

He loses count of how many times he rewinds the mental film, but the next time he opens his eyes, they're somehow back on the Helicarrier and Director Fury waiting next to a pile of crates with a hammer shaped hole in the middle of them. He makes it to the end of the jet's ramp before he realizes why Fury hasn't looked away from him.

The thought of hearing I regret to inform you... shatters something in Clint and he stumbles, holding on to Natasha even though she's just as beat up as he is. "I can't, I can't hear it. God, please don't make me."

He's not crying, even though his eyes are burning, but even in a whisper his voice sounds broken to his own ears. It's enough to have the others surround them in a tight circle, keeping curious eyes away. He breathes in the familiar scent of Natasha for a moment and nearly has himself under control when a big, warm hand gently squeezes his shoulder and Steve's quiet voice says, "I'm sorry for your loss."

Clint lets himself shudder once, because Steve will always remind him of Phil and his damn trading cards, but the quiet voice in his head that sounds like Phil is telling him head up and get away clean and get home. He pushes back from Natasha, very carefully not thinking about how he doesn't have a home anymore. After a lifetime of foster homes and base housing, Phil was his home.

He just breathes for a moment, using every bit of training he's ever received to get himself under control. He opens his eyes and everyone but Natasha looks very, very worried. He knows what he looks like - face blank, eyes dead, hands loose at his sides - and that it's probably fucking terrifying to see from the outside, but this is the only way he can make it through what comes next.

Clint shoulders past Thor, who looks like he's about to cry himself, and stands in front of Fury. He doesn't salute and he doesn't make eye contact, because fuck this organization. He just stares over Fury's shoulder and waits.

"I need you to follow me, Agent Barton."

Clint feels something crack inside of him because dear fucking god are they going to make him identify the body? He doesn't react beyond a microscopic twitch, though, he just falls into step behind the Director, the rest of the Initiative following behind.

They don't head towards the morgue though, and neither are they headed for the bridge and Fury's office. Clint knows every inch of this stupid flying boat and the only thing in this direction is the medical bay. A tiny shard of hope breaks free of the sharp mess in his chest, but he does his best to grind it down to dust. Hoping and wishing for things to be different is for children and the naive and Clint hasn't been either for a very long time. Director Fury stops just outside the doors leading to the facility, but doesn't turn around.

"Agent Coulson's heart stopped at 13:42 hours today. He flatlined for one hundred and eleven seconds before being revived on scene by medics and stabilized enough to be transported for surgery."

It's only Steve's sharply drawn breath and Tony's quiet, "Son of a bitch" that convinces Clint he's not hallucinating. His brain starts making connections and he turns to Fury.

"If you ever fucking do something like this again, I will walk and take Phil with me whether he wants to go or not."

He steps around Fury without waiting to see how his announcement goes over. The medical bay is busy in a way he's never seen it before. Doctors and nurses are scurrying around, but without the focused intensity that meant someone was in imminent danger of dying. Every bed and chair he can see is filled by an agent or tech, with a varying level of injury among them. Clint will have to take the time to deal with his own guilt about that later.

Dr. Kraft looks up from the chart he's examining when Clint stops in front of him and he motions them towards his small office. "He's going to be fine, Agent Barton."

The last of the disbelief Clint has been harboring dissolves and he feels a little lightheaded with relief. He slumps against the wall and rubs his hands through his hair, wincing when he hit some of the glass embedded in the back of his skull. "Can I see him, sir?"

"I can give you five minutes." Dr. Kraft's eyes sharpen at the tiny noise Clint can't stop himself from making. "If you agree to admitting yourself for medical care without complaint I'll put your bed in with his."

Clint makes a face, but nods quickly. He's pretty sure he just signed himself up for all the brain scans in the world, but he can't find it in himself to care about that. "Thanks."

"I'll start your intake paperwork. You've got five minutes." Dr. Kraft opens the office door and points Clint towards the room at the end of the hall.

Clint doesn't pause when he gets to the door. He doesn't dare, still afraid this is all an elaborate fiction and Phil is not here but in the morgue. He's there, though.

Phil is alive. He's propped up on the bed and he's got a breathing tube and an IV and a shit ton of bandages wrapped around his chest, but he's alive. Clint wants to touch him, to hold on and never let go, but he isn't sure where he can touch without hurting him.

He steps up the the bed, as close as he can get and rests his hands featherlight and tentative on the bedding. He moves in starts and stops, slowly covering the distance until he can brush against the side of Phil's hand. The familiar feeling of his skin is what finally breaks him. His knees give out as he slides his hand into Phil's limp one and drops his head onto the side of the bed.

***

Natasha herds the others out of Coulson's room when she sees the tell-tale tremors start in Clint's shoulders. Enough of his underbelly has been on display today and she can give him this small bit of privacy.

When the door is firmly shut behind her, Natasha allows herself to finally relax and let go of the adrenaline that's been fueling her for most of the day. "Gentlemen, I propose we get our injuries treated then see if there is enough illicit alcohol on this vessel to render all of us unconscious."

Tony and Thor immediately agree to her plan and start comparing preferred debauchery methods. Steve looks resigned, but shrugs and claps his hand on Bruce's shoulder. "I can't get drunk and I bet you probably won't, so how do you feel about chaperoning this crew, Dr. Banner?"

"It wouldn't be the worst job I've had, Captain." Bruce shifts under Steve's hand. "You have to carry Thor, though."

Steve laughs and holds out his hand to shake on it. "Done."

At Natasha's nod, the medical staff stop hovering and converge on them. She worries for a moment about Bruce, but lets a nurse pull her into an exam room when Tony deftly slides between him and anyone in scrubs or a lab coat.

Natasha winces as she peels herself out of her uniform and lets the whole thing fall onto the floor with a muted thud. A good portion of her body already has visible bruising and she knows it will only get worse before it gets better, but that hardly matters compared to what they accomplished today. She ignores the chiding of the nurse as she pokes at the giant mark on her hip, unable to stop the slow smile growing on her face.

Yes, much was accomplished today.