Clint doesn’t find out about Phil until they get back to the helicarrier after the ‘yay-we’re not dead’ schwarma celebration. Fury takes him aside and Clint balls his hands into fists and tries not to look as nervous as he is because, yeah, he’s just helped save the world but a few hours ago he was trying to destroy the carrier and killing their people and Clint has no idea what Fury’s going to do to him for that. But when Fury speaks it’s not about Clint and his actions while under Loki’s control.
“Rogers is informing Banner and Thor but I wanted to tell you myself. Agent Coulson was killed by Loki during his escape from custody.” Clint just stares and doesn’t quite understand what the man is saying because ‘Coulson’ and ‘killed’ don’t belong in the same sentence unless Phil’s the one doing the killing. Phil once killed a man with a paperclip and Phil doesn’t make mistakes and he doesn’t die.
“I am very sorry for your loss, Agent Barton,” Fury says and Clint wonders if maybe this is his punishment - Fury pretending that Phil is dead - and Clint deserves it, he knows he does, but it’s still harsher than he’d expected.
“Is that all, sir?” Clint finally says when it’s clear Fury has nothing else to add.
“Get some rest, Agent Barton,” Fury says and it’s a command Clint isn’t going to follow, not yet, but he knows better than to say so. Fury turns and walks in the direction of the damaged bridge and Clint assumes that’s a dismissal.
Natasha is behind him when Clint turns around, at a distance that would have been just out of earshot for most people, but Tasha’s not most people and he knows she heard everything.
“Tasha?” he asks as she moves toward him, wanting, needing her to tell him it’s not true - it’s some kind of undercover assignment and they’ll have to pretend for a while and Clint can do that, has done it but in the end Phil will come home and everything will be ok.
“It’s true,” she says, because she knows what he’s thinking and stops just in front of Clint, close, but not touching, not reaching out because she knows him, it was Clint and Tasha before it was SHIELD and she knows he can’t be touched right now. “Loki stabbed him with that damn staff. We heard them call it.”
“Heard. Heard, not saw?” because Clint will take anything now, just the slightest chance, and Fury lies.
"Clint” Tasha’s voice is hoarse and strained and dammit, Clint thinks, Fury’s convinced her, she really believes it and she still doesn’t reach out but Clint can tell that she really wants to because she loved Phil too, shit, loves, she loves Phil too and it isn’t true. It isn’t.
“No,” Clint says, because Phil’s not dead, he can’t be, but there are people who are, good agents and it’s Clint’s fault and he can’t do this. “Not now, Tasha.”
She looks like she’s about to say something but she doesn’t and Clint walks off the flight deck toward the interior and Tasha doesn’t stop him, doesn’t follow, but Clint can feel her sad gaze on his back the whole way.
He swings up into the air ducts first chance he gets because at least up here he doesn’t have to see the distrustful looks the other agents and personnel throw his way, not that he blames them. Clint heads for his ‘nest’ -- his favourite corner high up above the engines and conveniently close to the vent in Phil’s office. He’s got a large pillow and a blanket stashed up here and Tasha knows how to find him if he’s needed or if Phil comes back but Clint believes the part where Phil was injured so Fury’s probably got him tucked away in some secret corner, recovering.
Clint curls up with the blanket and pillow and listens to the hum of the engines and wishes Phil was there to hold him. He doesn’t come down for two days.
Twelve hours in Natasha brings him a plate of food - standard SHIELD cafeteria fare - which she leaves by his side without a word. He eats it, because Tasha will leave him alone as long as he takes care of himself but if he doesn’t, she can and will drag him to Medical.
Usually when Clint needs a mental break he spends the time calculating trajectories in his head, but now every imaginary arrow has a SHIELD agent at the other end and Clint can’t think of a single thing to say to their accusing faces. Instead, he curls in on himself, buried in the blanket, hugging the pillow to his chest, and thinks about Phil. Phil is Clint’s rock, his safe place, his home - whether a warm body pressed against his at night; a confident, steady voice in his ear in the field; or a soft smile from the other side of the couch - Clint needs Phil. He can’t, won’t allow himself to even consider that what Fury and Tasha told him might be true, because if it is then Clint will come apart, there will be nothing left of him and he won’t be able to function at all much less do his job. He won’t be able to make Phil proud of him.
The next night Tasha comes back with two plates and they eat together in silence. She falls asleep with her head pillowed on Clint’s thigh and Tasha’s not Phil but her warm, solid presence by his side makes something clenched within him finally release and he sleeps without dreams that night. In the morning they come down together and Clint’s ready to face the rest of the team, ready to do what needs to be done, because he knows Phil will be disappointed in him if he lets their relationship interfere with doing his duty. Phil’s absence is a constant pressure in the back of his mind, but wherever Phil is he’s not going anywhere and Clint doesn’t need to push his luck with Fury any more than he already has. They only work because Fury knows they’re both professional - that they’ll get the job done and make the tough calls - and Clint won’t be the one to prove him wrong.
The Avengers all pitch in and help with the clean-up effort. There are still a lot of people out there who hold them responsible for the massive destruction downtown and being seen active in the recovery effort does wonders in terms of popular opinion. Of course, Rogers would have insisted they help out even without the PR aspect and Clint is grateful for the work -- he’s creating rather than destroying and that’s not something he gets to do often. Every hour he spends not shooting his allies means fewer people who look at him with wary eyes and he finds he’s being forgiven faster than he expected, or even deserves.
Clint still sleeps in his nest but Banner has taken Stark up on his offer of lab space and moved into the tower. Thor took Loki back to Asgard that first day he spent in his nest and Clint’s glad he didn’t come down to watch because if he had no one would have been able to stop him from putting an arrow in the bastard’s eye. Tasha - when she sleeps at all - sleeps wherever she feels like it which is sometimes in some unused room at SHIELD but more often on Tony’s couch. Someone has to keep team Stark-Banner from accidentally destroying the world.
Stark gives Rogers two days to get with the program, then he just shows up at Steve’s mostly empty apartment and alternately bullies and guilts him into relocating as well. The day they move Steve in Stark tells Clint he’s got a room in the tower ready for whenever he decides he’s tired of sleeping in ceilings, so the next day Clint shows up on Tony’s doorstep with his bow and arrows and a single duffel bag.
Stark takes one look at his bow and says “I can do better,” before disappearing into his workshop and leaving Clint to fend for himself. Luckily JARVIS is very helpful and once Clint gets over the strangeness of talking to a house he finds the AI’s dry, sarcastic humour a source of great amusement, usually at Tony’s expense.
Clint watches baseball with Rogers, spends hours with Tony working on new arrows and an improved bow design, and curls up on the couch with Tasha watching classic movies on Tony’s wall-sized TV. He and Tasha are close, always have been, and they say more with silence than they ever could with words. Clint knows she’s worried about him but they both know enough about grief not to interfere with each other’s coping mechanisms.
Most unexpected is the friendship Clint forms with Bruce Banner. Bruce is the only one Clint really talks to because they don’t know each other enough to say volumes without speaking the way he and Tasha do, and of them all, Banner’s the only one who knows intimately what it’s like to have hurt and killed people you care for while unable to control yourself. He knows that hearing other people say ‘it’s not your fault’ doesn’t make it better.
“You have to let it go,” Bruce says. “It happened, and nothing you can do can change that. You weren’t in control and I won’t tell you not to feel guilty because you always will but if you let the guilt take over - start messing with your head - then you’ll make mistakes and those mistakes will have consequences that will be your fault.” It's the voice of experience, and it’s harsh but it’s true and it does more for Clint’s peace of mind than a dozen sincere platitudes.
Fury has the things from Phil’s office packed up and sent to the Tower for Clint, minus anything sensitive, of course, and Clint accepts the box without comment and sticks it, unopened, in the corner of his closet. He does send Fury a message asking about funeral arrangements, because Clint will play along if that’s what it takes. He gets a message back saying Phil’s body was cremated - something about contamination concerns - and isn’t that convenient.
So Clint settles into a routine and life with Avengers isn’t always easy - Steve and Tony in particular have spectacular fights, and Bruce has a tendency to mope sullenly in his room, but these people accept Clint for who he is and it’s very nearly perfect. There’s only one thing - one person - missing. Clint’s patient, he’s a marksman and a sniper, he has to be, but it’s about the time that Natasha gets sent over to Europe, two weeks after everything went down, that Clint decides Fury’s had enough time to come clean with them. If Fury won’t send Phil home, Clint decides, he’ll just have to go find Phil himself.
And finally we're up to the events of "Sometimes the Darkness is your Friend." Only one more chapter left.
The helicarrier has finally been totally evacuated and stripped and scheduled for demolition -- it was too damaged to be worth repairing and Stark’s building a new one anyway, so if Phil’s anywhere, it should be in SHIELD’s ground Headquarters.
The first place Clint checks is the morgue, because he’s not stupid and he knows what’s behind the concerned glances the others sometimes send his way. They think he’s crazy - he’s in denial - and on the off-chance that they’re right he needs to know now.
There aren’t any bodies in the morgue, not anymore - they’ve all been sent home to their relatives or buried in the plot behind HQ - but there are records. Clint reads them all, taking particular notice of the ones killed by arrow wound, memorising the names because Bruce is right, he can’t change it, but he can sure as hell remember. There’s no record for a Phillip Coulson.
If Fury were telling the truth - if Phil had been killed and his body cremated, the file would be in here. The fact that it isn’t means Fury has something to hide, and that’s more than enough evidence for Clint. Now all he needs is to actually find Phil.
Clint still helps out with rebuilding New York. He still hangs out with the other Avengers and he even gets his reports to Hill in a timely manner and attends the mandatory psych sessions without complaint. If Natasha had been there she would have immediately known he was up to something, but the others don’t know Clint well enough to see his complacence as the warning sign it is.
The shrinks spend a lot of time talking at him about the after-effects of loss of control and guilt and violation. Words like ‘rape’ are thrown around. It’s nothing he hasn’t heard before. They try to explain the Five Stages of Grief as if loss were a new concept for Clint and he has to bite his lip to keep from laughing inappropriately in their faces because Clint has had more experience with loss than any of them will ever know and he has read Kübler-Ross, and if they think they have anything left to teach him on the subject of death and dying then they are deluding themselves. Still, Clint’s been managing shrinks since he was three years old and he gives just the right answers - well within parameters but not so perfect as to be obvious - and he’s soon cleared for duty. Not that Fury’s been sending any of them out on missions yet - which is good, because otherwise it would interfere with Clint’s self-assigned mission: find and retrieve Phil Coulson.
Once, two years ago, Clint had been captured when a mission went south. It had been one of the few missions he’d been assigned without Phil as AIC, and Phil had made sure it was also the last. He’d been held for six weeks before Coulson had found him and it was the longest time he’d spent away from Phil since the day he’d been recruited. Forty-six days of cramped solitude interspersed with amateur interrogation techniques. Forty-six days of not knowing when or even if he’d be rescued. At least then he’d had every reason to believe that Phil was out there, safe.
Natasha had left for Europe thirteen days after Loki's army had tried to destroy the city and on day fourteen Clint had broken into the SHIELD morgue. On day fifteen Clint begins his nightly excursions to SHIELD HQ to search for Phil.
Clint starts with the obvious: Medical. Phil’s not there - Clint didn’t expect him to be, so he’s not disappointed - and while Phil does have a record on the Medical servers (Clint’s no Stark, but he knows his way around SHIELD’s systems), it hasn’t been updated since before Loki stole the tesseract. Clint takes his time in Medical, searching every doctor’s office and treatment room for any evidence that Phil was ever here. By day eighteen Clint has searched all of SHIELD Medical, including the isolation and quarantine wards.
On day nineteen he searches Phil’s office for clues, ruthlessly suppressing the memories each item evokes, and by day twenty-one he has searched all the other senior agents’ offices for good measure. He finds nothing -- no files, no reports. The last document of any kind with Phil’s name on it is the requisition form for the jet that extracted Tasha from Saint Petersburg after Loki’s initial attack and Clint notices a lump that feels a lot like doubt start to form in the pit of his stomach.
Clint wants to be able to say that he keeps his faith, but by day thirty he’s searched close to two-thirds of the 476 rooms in SHIELD HQ and the lump is a boulder. He sleeps less and less and he’s beginning to resent the pitying, helpless looks the others give him. He’d go back to sleeping in his nest in HQ if he didn’t know it would make the others come after him ‘for his own good.’ But he swore he would search every single room if necessary and that’s what he’s going to do. He treats it like any other mission because he has to and Clint can come apart when the mission is over, not before. Only this time when Clint comes apart, Phil won’t be there to put him back together again.
So when on day thirty-eight Clint drops from the ceiling of just one more storage room nestled between office supplies and spare uniforms it takes him a few moments to register that this room has a bed in it, and in that bed is Phil Coulson.
Chapter 4: Chapter 4
This is it, folks. Hope you enjoyed. And yes, I probably will be writing more in this universe.
The first time Clint sees Phil after Loki it takes a few seconds for his brain to register what his eyes are seeing. Clint’s been following the same pattern for so long: drop into a room, search for evidence of Phil, climb back up and crawl to the next room. Wash, rinse, repeat. Because SHIELD has cameras in the hallways but not in the ceiling (and with Clint on the payroll they really should have known better) and Clint has always felt more at home from up high anyway. He stopped really expecting to find anything about a week ago - he’d been focused simply on fulfilling his self-imposed mission - and now that he’s found Phil it doesn’t seem real. It’s like reaching the last step at the top of a really long staircase - the sudden completion of the task almost feels like a loss.
Phil is pale as the sheets he is resting on - his face thin and his eyes sunken and dull and he’s the most beautiful thing Clint has ever seen. He’s alive and he’s awake and he’s staring at Clint and Clint’s frozen - he can’t move, can’t even breathe. Until Phil’s lips move and Clint hears his own name in a broken, nearly inaudible whisper and then he’s at Phil’s side, fingers gripping the stiff white sheets and he doesn’t even remember moving.
Phil’s still staring at him and he looks so lost and confused Clint’s heart breaks and he takes a deep, shaky breath and closes his eyes to stop the tears before he even realises what he’s doing. And then Clint panics, because he’s been looking for so long and no one else, not even Tasha, believed Phil could be alive and what if they were right, what if he’s finally snapped, gone crazy, fallen apart and not even noticed and now he’s hallucinating and it’s not real. He’ll open his eyes and there will be nothing there, just another empty room and it will break him, he knows it will.
So he simply stands there, eyes closed, fist clenched. He could stand here forever, Clint thinks, here in the darkness with nothing but the sound of his own heartbeat loud in his ears, drowning out all the sounds of the world and as long as he keeps his eyes closed the world is out there and in here - in here there is hope.
But then he feels just the lightest of touches on the back of his hand and his eyes fly open and Phil’s still there, still real, and the confusion in his eyes is gone, replaced by hope and awe and joy. Clint turns his hand over, lacing his fingers together with Phil’s the way they’ve done a thousand times before, holds on tight, and believes.
“They told me you were dead,” he says, and it’s part explanation, part apology for taking so long, part confession because Phil’s always been the one to listen to Clint’s hurt and broken pieces and blunt their edges with his very presence. “I didn’t believe Fury but then Tasha said it was true and I couldn’t . . . they wouldn’t let me see a body and Fury lies and I’ve been looking but I didn’t think . . .” and Clint swallows down the shame that threatens to take him over because Phil would never have given up on him, “I didn’t think I’d really find you.” But he has. Oh God, he has.
“Loki?” Phil asks, voice a little stronger but still rough and scratchy, probably from a breathing tube, and Clint pushes that thought away as soon as it comes because Phil’s here and breathing just fine and asking about Loki of all things but Clint knew when he’d started with Phil he’d be getting Agent Coulson too.
“Gone,” he answers, voice tight with anger at all Loki’d put them through. “Thor took him and the tesseract both back to Asgard,” and good riddance, Clint thinks. “The Council’s pissed but I think Fury’s relieved he doesn’t have to deal with it any more.”
“How long?” Phil doesn’t specify and doesn’t need to because Clint’s entire being has been the answer to that question, ticking off the days and hours and minutes as if nothing had existed before the moment Phil had been taken from him.
“Thirty-eight days,” Clint answers without hesitation and there’s a part of him that wonders what would have happened on day forty-seven and he’s grateful he’ll never have to know.
“Loki’s army made a mess of parts of New York but there weren’t as many casualties as we were afraid of,” he continues, falling back into the comfortable familiarity of debriefing mode, and this wouldn’t be the first time he’d given a report with one or the other of them in a hospital bed.
“The Avengers?” Phil asks, and Clint’s surprised to realise he doesn’t feel that little hint of jealousy at the mention of what has always been his main competition for Phil’s attention. He knows them now, knows that they are worthy of the faith Phil has always had in them, and he’s got Phil back now, it’s enough, he can share.
“Everyone’s fine. You were right about Stark, by the way,” and hadn’t that been a surprise. “The Council tried to nuke the city but Stark flew the bomb through the portal and almost didn’t make it back. Thought we’d lost him there for a minute but he’s a tough bastard and don’t you dare tell him I said that.” Because Tony would totally hold that comment over Clint’s head for years if he ever heard.
“Natasha’s off running something over in Europe with Sitwell,” he continues, because Phil won’t rest until he’s heard about them all, “and Thor hasn’t come back from Asgard yet, but Steve and Bruce didn’t really have anywhere to go and I didn’t want, couldn’t stay in the apartment,” God, the apartment - Phil’s apartment technically but they’d lived there together for two years and Clint could not have handled seeing all of Phil’s stuff still where he left it, “so we’re all staying in Stark Tower. It’s kinda nice,” he adds, because it is - Clint’s not used to having friends, but that’s what the other Avengers are quickly becoming. It’s new territory for him, but he thinks it might be worth it.
Phil relaxes a little more with each bit of information Clint gives him - Clint knows he’s filing it all away in that brilliantly efficient head of his, probably already formulating a dozen action items to increase team performance and coordination - he’s got that sort of faraway look he gets when he’s running scenarios in his head and it’s such a very Phil look it makes Clint’s heart beat just a little bit faster. And then Phil turns his focus on Clint again and there’s so much love in his eyes that Clint’s already racing heart skips a beat. Phil says his name again and Phil’s voice is strong and sure, nothing like that first broken whisper, and Clint grins. But Phil’s not smiling, and he seems to hesitate just a moment before he opens his mouth.
“You’re . . . you,” he says, and Clint’s blood turns to ice in his veins. Because the last time Phil had seen him he’d been under Loki’s control and he’d been so caught up in the joy of finding Phil again that somehow he’d forgotten.
Clint knows without asking that if it had been anyone other than Tasha who had found him during the helicarrier attack they would have shot to kill because that’s protocol and it’s a protocol Clint agrees with because when an agent is compromised to that extent their life isn’t worth the lives of those they’d take down with them. And Phil would have known that, would have had to live with that knowledge and Clint drops his eyes to their clasped hands and wonders if he could have been half as strong as Phil if the tables had been turned.
“Yeah,” Clint answers, because it’s the only answer he has and he knows it’s all there in his voice: the horror and the shame and the guilt and the fear and dear God the relief that it’s over and his mind is his own again and it’s a mercy Clint’s not even sure he deserves but he can’t help being grateful.
“Tasha hit me upside the head,” he explains, answering the implicit ‘how?’ in Phil’s statement and it was a statement and Clint knows he doesn’t deserve that kind of faith but he’ll take it anyway - he’ll take Phil anyway because he’s a selfish bastard at heart. “Stark called it ‘cognitive reboot’” - leave it to Stark to come up with a computer metaphor - “and God, Phil I’m so sorry.”
Clint’s voice breaks and his breath is ragged and his head hurts from holding back the tears and it’s not enough, Clint knows it’s not enough, and he thinks about backing away, thinks about running because Clint’s a coward and that’s what he does, but before he can move Phil has tightened his hold on Clint’s hand and pulled.
Clint had been ready for recriminations, he’d been ready to be pushed away but he hadn’t been ready to be pulled forward so he stumbles and falls, half on Phil and half on the bed, barely holding himself up by his elbows so he doesn’t injure Phil further and Phil’s hands are holding him, forcing him face to face, not letting him look away and one of Phil’s hands is tangled in his hair and the other is caressing his cheek, and Phil’s looking at Clint like he loves him, looking at him like he’s worth it.
“Not your fault,” Phil says, kissing him softly as if Clint was something fragile and precious and he’s heard it before, from his teammates, from Hill, from the shrinks but now he believes it, he has to, because Phil said it and Clint has always trusted Phil’s judgement over his own.
“Not your fault,” Phil repeats, his voice shaky, “thought I’d lost you but you’re here, and it’s not your fault, none of it, it’s Loki’s fault and God I thought you were gone but you’re here. You’re here.” And Clint realises that Phil is shaking, he’s trembling and Clint holds him tighter and buries his face in Phil’s neck and lets the tears come, because it’s only just hit him that for Phil, Clint’s the one who has just come back from the dead.
Clint doesn’t know how long they stay that way, too overwhelmed to even think, but he does notice when Phil shifts slightly and tries to stifle a wince. Clint’s moving in an instant, horrified, because he’s hurt Phil enough for a dozen lifetimes, but before he can roll off the bed Phil’s hand reaches out and grabs his shirt. He’s not holding tightly but Clint can no more move than if he’d been gripped by iron.
Phil’s eyes are as damp as his and there’s pain in them but it’s fading and there is something else there that Clint recognises because he knows the same must show in his own eyes - fear and loneliness and need.
“Stay,” Phil says, and Clint wants to - he wants nothing more than to crawl into Phil’s arms and hold him like he never thought he’d be able to do again but . . .
“Fury.” Clint doesn’t know why the Director has gone to so much trouble to hide Phil from him but he’s afraid, afraid of what Fury might do if he finds out Clint was here - afraid Fury might make Phil disappear again.
“Fuck Fury,” Phil says, and Clint’s jaw drops, because that’s Phil’s dangerous voice, the one that says ‘I’m going to make your life hell before I end it,’ and Clint never thought he’d hear that voice directed at Fury. But Phil’s eyes are bright with determination and with anger - anger on Clint’s behalf, and it’s not the first time he’s seen it, but he’s never quite gotten used to it. “Fury owes us.” Phil says, and Clint can’t argue with that one, and Phil’s eyes are saying ‘it’s ok, trust me,’ and Clint has never trusted anyone the way he trusts Phil, so he settles back down on the bed, careful not to jostle Phil too much.
Clint curls into Phil’s side, settling his head on Phil’s unbandaged shoulder and looping his arm around Phil’s waist. Phil’s chest rises and falls steadily with each breath and Phil’s heart is strong beneath his ear and Clint can feel the weeks of sleepless nights start to catch up to him. And yeah, Fury will probably find them, but Clint trusts that Phil will take care of it and Clint’s had this dream before but this time, he knows, Phil will be there when he wakes up to tell him that it’s real.