They waited to tell him until after, after the world had been saved and Loki had been shunted back to Asgard in not nearly enough chains for Clint’s comfort.
Fury waited until Earth’s mightiest heroes had all gone their separate ways before handing him Phil’s bloodied dog tags with a grim look.
Which was smart, really, because Clint would have gone after Loki with his bare hands, and that wouldn’t have ended well for anyone. It didn’t make him feel any less like punching Fury in the face or soothe the sting of Natasha’s complicity.
They waited to tell him, and he would have seen the wisdom in that if he could have seen anything other than the slips of metal in his hand, the last tokens of a life of service, stamped with simple facts that could never encompass even a fraction of the man they were meant to sum up. He would have seen the wisdom, but, for the first time in his life, he just couldn’t see.
“He believed in the Avengers Initiative,” Fury said, and he almost sounded like he cared. “He wanted you to be a part of it.”
“I know what he fucking wanted,” Clint snapped. “He wanted to go off-base to get waffles for breakfast. He wanted me to read those stupid comic books he kept in the closet. He wanted me to stop hogging all the blankets and start folding my fucking socks. He wanted t-”
Clint broke off. His voice just wouldn’t go anymore, and Fury had the decency not to look him in the eye.
“Fuck it.” He didn’t squeeze the tags in his hand, as much as his fingers ached to close around them. If he held too tight, the dried blood would start to flake off, and he refused to lose any more pieces of Phil. “Fuck you. Fuck the Avengers. I’m done.”
Fury’s eye narrowed. “I’m afraid that’s not really an option.”
“What are you gonna do? Send someone to drag me back?” Clint growled. “You and I both know that if I go to ground, there’s not a tracker ali-... alive who could find me.”
“I can think of a few.”
“You can think of two. And you just told me that one of them’s dead.” Clint turned around and walked away. He’d had enough of this freak show, and more than enough of this conversation. “Good luck with your little project.”
“I figured you for a lot of things, Barton,” Fury called after him. “Never figured you for a coward.”
Clint flipped a middle finger over his shoulder and kept walking.
They didn’t wear tags, not on the kind of missions Clint usually got. Those kinds of missions, getting killed meant getting caught, and getting caught meant S.H.I.E.L.D. got to look innocent and say they’d never heard of you. There would be no body, no identification, no one to collect the tags and send them home.
Phil was always the one who gave him the briefing, for those kinds of missions. He would hand Clint the file, blank-faced and professional, and they would go over it, hash out the details, and come up with a plan of action. Then Clint would pull him in for a kiss, slow and long and fierce, like it was the first and the last and every one in between, and, finally, Clint would take off his tags and hand them to Phil, his name and purpose and everything he was left hanging from a chain beside Phil’s heart until the job was done.
And the person that he became on those kinds of missions would come back, bone tired with blood on his hands, and Phil would put the tags around his neck so that he could be Clint again.
He wore Phil’s tags in place of his own, and the flakes of old blood sloughed off and stuck to his skin. Maybe he could absorb them, take those last little fragments and make them part of his heart, part of his body.
With his luck, he’d probably cut himself shaving and bleed them out.
“You’re being ridiculous,” Natasha told him.
It had been a week. He was in Buenos Aires, living off a cache and hustling tourists at pool.
“I don’t.... I can’t begin to....” Natasha had never been good with feelings. She had them, she used them, she didn’t express them. The fact that she was trying now sent some warmth to the places inside him that had gone cold.
“Don’t,” he said. “Thank you, but don’t.”
They drank until Clint could see nothing but red, the red of her hair and the blood on his hands and the red-black blood on Phil’s thin metal tags.
“I’m done, ‘Tasha.” His mouth tasted like blood, but maybe that was the tequila. His skin was slick, but that must have been sweat. “I’m not coming back.”
They drank, and they didn’t talk. When Clint woke up, rough and aching and squinting against the sun, she was gone. He curled in on himself in the narrow bed that was still somehow too big and didn’t move until the next day.
After Buenos Aires, it was Osaka. Then Seoul. Then Taipei. Then Perth. Then some little town in Guangdong he could never remember the name of. He kept moving and Fury kept sending agents after them and he kept seeing them three countries away.
Natasha could have found him again, but she didn’t.
He holed up in Sofia and set himself to filling the wound gouged inside him with alcohol. He drank until he was overflowing, until he could feel nothing but the light press of metal against his chest. He drank until the weight of Phil’s name around his neck dragged him down into darkness and deep, terrible dreams. He woke up, and the hole inside him was still there, bone dry, so he tried again.
That was how Stark found him, crawling up by his fingernails out of black unconsciousness, realizing that he had yet again failed to either fill up the hole or kill himself. At that point, he was no longer certain which he was aiming for.
“I see you’re coping well.”
The only thing worse than being hungover was being hungover in the presence of an uncomfortably sober Tony Stark. Clint cast about for the nearest bottle, but Stark had apparently moved them all beyond his reach. He groaned and buried his face in.... What was that? His jacket? He seemed to have passed out on the floor, and he absolutely could not find the strength to care.
“What do you want, Stark?”
“Right now, I’d settle for you not dying of alcohol poisoning, which seems to be what you’re trying to do,” Stark said, sliding a glass of water across the concrete floor toward him. “We can discuss my long-term objectives when you can sit up without assistance.”
“Fuck you,” Clint muttered, mostly out of reflex. He drained the glass and put his head back down to stop the spinning. The chain around his neck had gotten twisted, and the edges of the tags dug into his jaw. It hurt, and it was the best thing he would ever feel again.
Stark kept feeding him water and cheeseburgers and babbling about food and Banner and skiing and a lot of science stuff that Clint could never in a million years have even pretended to care about. He didn’t mention the Avengers or Loki or S.H.I.E.L.D., though he did say that he really wanted to get a look at Clint’s bow and quiver, maybe make some improvements. Clint just took what he was offered and tried to get most of his vomit in the sink.
When Clint could stand on his own, Stark hustled him into the shower and proceeded to hover in the bathroom doorway, still talking, while Clint attempted to wash away a week’s worth of binge drinking and self-loathing. The smell and the dirt came off, but no amount of hot water could strip him of the feeling that his skin was not his own, that he was wearing the cast-off rags of someone else’s life. He emerged feeling clean and thin and broken, like a piece of wet paper tearing at the center.
Once he was settled with fresh clothes and a large mug of coffee, both of unknown origin, Stark sat across from him and said lightly, “So I gotta say, as disappearing acts go, this is pretty impressive.”
Clint sipped at the coffee, burning his tongue, and didn’t dignify that with a response.
“I mean, you’ve got the world’s foremost intelligence agency running in circles while you sit here and drink away half of Eastern Europe,” Stark went on. “Thank you for that, by the way. I feel strangely gratified watching S.H.I.E.L.D. beat their collective heads against the wall. And that little vein by Fury’s eye that throbs when he’s mad? Endlessly entertaining. Thankfully, I have, A, better tech, and B, a certain master spy who’s been keeping tabs on you.”
Clint tried to find the will to be surprised, to feel betrayed, but it simply wasn’t there. “Natasha told you where I was.” He couldn’t even turn it into a question.
“She pointed me in the right direction. For some reason, she’s worried about you, and it seems to me that anyone Natasha Romanov thinks is worthy of her concern is probably someone I want on my side.” Stark was watching him with those quick, sharp eyes, and Clint thought that most people would probably feel uncomfortable, being looked at like that. He just felt tired.
“I’m on your side,” Clint said, and he meant it. “I just.... I’m done fighting.”
Stark nodded, and Clint wanted to hit him. The desire was vague, though, distant, and Clint just curled his fingers around the hot mug.
After a long silence, staring down at his own clasped hands, Stark said, “I barely noticed him, the first time I met him. He was just some guy in a suit that I didn’t want to talk to. I thought he was.... No, I didn’t think anything. I walked away and forgot about him.” Stark shook his head. “Maybe not the stupidest thing I’ve ever done, but I’m starting to think it’s up there.”
The blood on the tags was long since gone, and months of water and sweat had wiped them clean. Clint could feel them sticking to his chest, clinging to his heart.
“The first time I met him, he shot me.”
Stark snorted. “Love at first bullet wound?”
“Something like that.” Clint paused, and something stirred deep down at the bottom of the empty space inside him. “No, actually, it was the rabbits.”
“Wow. I mean, I’m certainly not going to judge what two consenting adults do in the privacy of their own home.”
“Well, if you wanna hear about that....”
“Y’know, I really don’t.”
“It was a book,” Clint said. “The rabbits. It was a book about rabbits.” He could still smell that apartment, a tiny, moldy room in... Belfast, maybe? “We were on a mission. Had to lay low, don’t remember why. We spent a lot of time playing cards and staring at the walls. But he had this book.”
“A book about rabbits.”
“Yeah.” Stiff, yellowing pages. Spine broken in so many places, the text on the edge was unreadable. Dog-eared, annotated, loved. “I asked him about it, and he told me. After a while h-.” He’d read it aloud, but that memory, the sound of Phil’s voice and the creaking of the book in his hands, that belonged to Clint alone. “After a while, I got the whole story. But he was just... so into it, this book about rabbits. It was his favorite.”
Stark nodded, and this time, Clint thought, he really did understand.
“I’m not gonna give you any lines about what he would have wanted,” Stark said, “and I’m not gonna tell you that I understand, because I don’t. I mean, I’ve... lost people. I understand that. I understand... grief, and whatever.” He waved a hand absently, and Clint liked him a little better for that. “And I didn’t know him that well. Not as well as I should have. Or wish I had. He seemed like.... He seemed like a pretty amazing guy.”
The big, gaping emptiness at the center of Clint’s being stretched inside of him, and he could feel nothing but the weight of dog tags around his neck.
Stark cleared his throat. “He must have loved you. I mean, like, a lot. He struck me as the all-or-nothing type. So do you. So I figure, you must have been pretty nuts for each other.”
Clint wanted a drink, wanted a bow in his hand, wanted a knife in his gut, anything. Anything that didn’t feel like this, that didn’t make him remember Phil’s hands on his face, breath in his ear, name on his heart.
“As far as I’m concerned, there’s a place for you on the Avengers, if you want it. Rogers and Banner moved into the tower, and there’s a.... Well, there’s plenty of room, even if you don’t want to fight. I think you’d be a good guy to have around, in any case.” Stark took a deep breath. “But I get it if you don’t, except.... I mean, what I’m trying to say is, Coulson... Phil. He died saving the world, but the world he was saving had you in it. And, honestly, I think he’d be really fucking pissed off if he knew what you were doing.”
But the world they’d saved didn’t have him in it, Clint couldn’t say. And what was that worth? This world where Phil Coulson was in the ground and Clint fucking Barton had to live on with nothing but blood on his hands and a dead man’s dog tags around his neck? Stark was offering him something resembling a home, but the only home Clint had ever wanted had been gutted by a magic stick.
Abruptly, Stark put out his hand. “I’m Tony Stark, by the way. Inventor, celebrity, Iron Man. You may have heard of me.”
Clink blinked at him. “What?”
“I just realized we never actually met,” he said. “I mean, I got the short version of your life story, and then we fought off a bunch of aliens. But we never really, y’know, met. And now I’m sitting here trying to offer emotional support like we’re buddies. Seemed kind of weird.” His hand was still hovering over the table between them. “So, hi. I’m Tony.”
It was ridiculous, and something about the gesture touched the edges of that empty space inside him. Slowly, Clint reached out and took his hand. “Clint Barton.”
Stark grinned, and Clint could see the charm that drew so many suckers in, as well as an unexpected sincerity. “Nice to meet you, Clint.”
They talked on through most of the night. Or rather, Stark talked, mostly about himself, but when Clint did speak, mostly about other people, Stark listened with such intent interest that Clint felt stripped-down and self-conscious. After a while, even listening to the chatter was exhausting, and he curled up on the hard mattress, pretending to sleep and listening to Stark tap away on that fancy phone-slash-supercomputer he carried around.
Even if he’d wanted to, Clint couldn’t sleep with another person in the room. For years, the only people who’d ever seen him asleep were Natasha and Phil. So he lay there, waiting, gripping the tags in his fist, and didn’t think about anything.
In the morning, Stark declared that they were going out for breakfast, coffee and whatever the Bulgarian equivalent of a jelly donut was.
“I’m pretty sure it’s just a jelly donut,” Clint told him.
“Really? It’s not some kind of utilitarian, Communist pastry thing?”
Clint just trailed after him and didn’t say that Bulgaria hadn’t been Communist since 1989.
In the end, Stark pulled him into the first cafe they saw and bought a plate of muffins and two cups of something that reminded Clint of the thick, black sludge that accumulated around the edges of the coffee pots at S.H.I.E.L.D.. He wasn’t hungry, but he managed to eat enough that Stark, who continued talking around every mouthful, seemed satisfied.
It was almost pleasant, almost normal, and Clint almost felt bad about vanishing when Stark wandered away to investigate a rack of postcards. He scrawled “Thank you” on a napkin and left it on the table.
After that, no one else came after him.
After that, he started taking jobs, partly for the money, partly for something to do, and mostly because it didn’t matter anymore what he did. He drew lines - things he wouldn’t do, people he wouldn’t kill - but they were far back from the boundaries he’d once kept.
Phil’s tags stayed in a zippered pocket on the inside of his tac vest. He wouldn’t wear them, not now, not when he was doing these things.
The people who hired him never asked for his name, and he didn’t have one to give. His own tags were lost, left at S.H.I.E.L.D. or fallen somewhere along the way, and his name was lost with them. He wasn’t Clint, anymore, or Hawkeye or Agent Barton. He was loser, thug, criminal, and all the other things he’d been called before he was anyone, things his father had called him and worse.
One job, and then another and another and another and another and they ran together in a long trail of blood and bullets. Not arrows, not for this. He lost track of the cities, lost track of the beds and the blinds and the targets. He lost the ability to sleep, except for the hours when exhaustion or alcohol laid him out. He lost any inclination to eat, except when dizziness reminded him that food would keep him on his feet.
The thing that stayed was the thin metal slips in his pocket, dented and discolored with wear. Sometimes, he took them out between jobs and put them on, felt the cold edges against his skin and remembered that, once, someone had loved him.
And then the job went wrong.
Jobs went wrong all the time, that was nothing. But this job went so spectacularly sideways, the whole earth tilted with it, and he wound up with his back against a wall and a very angry Azerbaijani man holding a recently-fired semi-automatic pistol to his head.
The man was shouting in a language Clint didn’t understand. What did they even speak in Azerbaijan? He could pick out a few words, though. Specifically, S.H.I.E.L.D., spy, traitor, and he thought he even heard Hawkeye. The source and degree of his displeasure were pretty evident, regardless.
“I’m not with S.H.I.E.L.D.!” Clint yelled back at him. “I’m not with S.H.I.E.L.D.! You fucking paid me!”
The man growled a question, and Clint was pretty sure he heard his own name in there, somewhere.
“Yes, okay? Yes I’m Clint Barton, but I’m n-”
The man ground the muzzle of the gun into Clint’s cheek and forced his head back against the wall.
The two thugs Clint had been working with were dead, shot by their boss, and one of the bodies was lying at a strange angle on the floor, its dead eyes staring up at Clint. There were other bodies, other dead pairs of eyes. The whole place smelled like blood, shit, and gunpowder.
The man shouted something else, pushing the gun into Clint’s face hard enough to bruise.
“Fuck you,” Clint hissed, and the man spat in his face. “Fuck you!” he said again, forcefully. “Sure, whatever, I fucked you over. So fucking shoot me!”
He was going to die, here, in a burnt out factory in god only knew where, shot by a man who thought he was a liar.
He turned his head so that the gun was levelled right between his eyes. “Shoot me!”
Of all the betrayals he’d committed, he was going to die for one he was innocent of.
He leaned forward, feeling the gun dig into his skin. “You fucking asshole, just shoot!”
It was simple, really. An elegant solution to a twisted problem, a sharp slice through an impossible knot. He’d just let this jerk kill him, and then it would be done.
The sound didn’t echo, didn’t crack and thunder off the walls like the other shots. There was just the soft pop of a silencer and then red.
The man jerked once and crumpled to the ground, blood seeping from the bullet hole in his forehead. Some of the fine red mist had spattered on Clint’s face, and he could taste it on his lips, feel it sticking in his eyelashes. He looked around wildly for the shooter.
It wasn’t a sniper. The shot had come from inside the building, floor level, somewhere to his right. But there was no cover along that wall, no alcoves or shadows, nothing to conceal his mysterious savior.
“Natasha?” he called, because who else would it be? Who else would bother to save him? Still, no answer came but the echo of his own voice.
He looked back at the dead man on the ground, at all the dead men. He’d been so close. Another half a second and there would have been no more blood and red, no more slings and arrows, no more slips of metal to remind him of what wasn’t there.
“Are you following me? Making sure I don’t do anything stupid?”
Silence. There was no one there. The shot had come from nowhere.
“Well, too fucking late, because stupid’s all I’ve got. No more good choices. Rational has left the fucking building.”
Clint laughed. He couldn’t help it. The whole things was just too fucking hilarious.
“Congratulations! You get a front row seat to the final performance of the amazing Hawkeye! One night only! There will not be a repeat performance!”
He bent down to prise the pistol from the dead man’s grip.
“See, this is it,” he said to the empty room. “This is the end of the show. And you can tell Nicholas J. goddamn Fury and the Avengers and all the rest of them that they didn’t save the fucking world. We didn’t save anything. All we did was make the misery last a little longer.”
He reached into the zippered pocket on the inside of his tac vest and pulled Phil’s tags, warm from the heat of his body. He held them so tightly that the edges cut into his palm.
“Enough. Just, enough. I’m fucking done.”
The muzzle of the gun fit into the indentation of his temple like it was meant to be there. His hand was shaking. His hands never shook.
“Sorry you wasted your goddamn bullet,” he said, and he really hoped someone was there to hear it, because those seemed like appropriate last words.
He tensed, and only a lifetime of training kept him from jumping out of his skin at the sound of that voice saying his name. Only the conviction that the sound could not possibly be real kept his finger from twitching and sending that one last bullet through his brain. Slowly, slowly, slowly, needing and fearing to see what could not possibly be there, he turned.
Phil wasn’t wearing a suit. He was dressed in simple, casual black and grey, but he held himself with the same straight-backed competence as always. There was a gun with a silencer in his hand, hanging at his side. His face was tight and pained, eyes fixed intently on Clint.
And he wasn’t real. He couldn’t be. Because Phil Coulson was dead, and all that was left of him was a pair of dog tags. He wasn’t real, and that meant the inevitable had finally happened and Clint had lost his mind completely.
He shouldn’t have been surprised that hallucinations could sound scared, but his subconscious filled in so much nuance, so much feeling, in Phil’s voice that it cut straight through him, slicing into that empty space he’d never managed to fill up. He tried to laugh, but he choked on it.
“No. No, no, no, no, no. This isn’t happening. I’m not seeing this.”
The hallucination took a step forward. “Clint?”
“Stop it! Stop saying that.”
The hallucination looked confused, and Clint’s imagination really was out-doing itself. There were those little worry lines between the brows that begged to be kissed away. Clint screwed his eyes shut and dug the gun harder into the side of his head.
“Saying... Clint, please, wait. Saying what?”
The sound of it, god, the sound. It was the voice in his nightmares and his good dreams, had been the voice in his ear for years, the voice he longed for in moments of silence. “That. That name. Anything. Just stop.” He took a deep breath, trying to steady his hands. “You’re not real. Not real. I’ve gone crazy, and you’re not real.”
“Not real? Clint, it’s me. It’s Phil,” the hallucination insisted. “I know th-.... I know what Fury told you, and I know this is hard to believe, but it’s me.”
Clint shook his head, and the muzzle of the gun stuttered against his skull. “Phil’s dead. Phil’s dead, and you’re a... a survival mechanism.” He couldn’t look at it, at this false thing. “You’re what my brain came up with to keep me from shooting myself. Sorry, mister figment. Not gonna work.”
“No! Jesus, Clint, stop.”
It sounded desperate, frightened, and Clint felt like he was drowning in his own emptiness. That was how Phil would have sounded, if he’d seen Clint like this. Then Clint thought of Phil actually seeing him like this, and welling shame pushed the hot tears out of his eyes.
“I’m sorry,” he sobbed. “I’m so sorry. I can’t. I fucked up everything. I’m sorry.”
The hallucination moved toward him, and he shied away. No amount of imagination and memory could make him feel that touch again, and he didn’t want a shade of the real thing. The hallucination stopped, still too close, close enough that Clint could imagine the smell of sweat and clean clothes.
“You’re not real. You’re not here, and it’s my fault.” Clint’s voice splintered, broken up by sharp gasps as he fought to breathe through his tears. “I did it. I gave Loki everything. I gave him S.H.I.E.L.D. and I gave him you, and you’re gone and it’s me. It’s my fault.”
The gun was so heavy in his hand. His arm ached from holding it up, but he had to keep it there. If it fell away, he would lose his nerve, and this would never end.
“No. God, no, it’s not. Of course it’s not.” The hallucination held out a hand that looked so much like Phil’s hand, and Clint remembered that touch on his face and those fingers in his hair. “Just give me the gun, please.”
“Can’t. You’re not real,” Clint said, coughing out a sound that was supposed to be a laugh. “You’re not real, and I’m arguing with a hallucination of my dead husband. Best day ever.”
“I’m real, I’m here, I swear. Clint, listen to me,” the hallucination begged. “Fury lied. He lied so the others would do what had to be done. I don’t know why he lied to you. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, but I really am here.”
“That doesn’t even make sense!” He couldn’t look at the thing’s face. It was too close, too real, and it hurt to know that it wasn’t. “Fucking brain. Can’t even come up with a good excuse. Even my fucking subconscious is a failure. Big shock.”
“Stop it,” it said sharply. “Nothing about you is a failure. I love you, and I don’t care if you don’t think I’m real, just give me the gun.”
The walls of the empty space inside him were crumbling, crushing his guts and collapsing his chest until he couldn’t breathe. Every last inch of him was vibrating with a pain that had come to live in his blood, and he wanted to claw through his skin and tear out his heart to stop it beating.
“Clint, look at me.”
And he did, because it was an hallucination, but it sounded like Phil and he had always done as Phil asked. The thing’s wide, steady blue eyes were watching him over the long black barrel of the silencer, it’s familiar mouth set in an equally familiar line of grim determination. The gun was aimed just to the side of his heart, and it was trembling.
He met that gaze that wasn’t Phil’s but was and gave a grin that felt like it tore his face in two. “Are you gonna shoot me, mister figment?” he asked, and it came out sounding desperate and hopeful.
That one syllable sent a thrill down to the deep, cold parts of him that wanted nothing more than sleep. The hallucination took a deep breath, and the shaking of the gun stilled. In a calm, flat voice it said, “Clint, please give me the gun, or I will shoot you myself.”
“Fuck you,” Clint said, and he put the muzzle of his own gun into his mouth.
Then Phil shot him.
There was a blinding burst of pain, and suddenly he was on the ground. Phil was leaning over him, filling his vision, with one hand pressed to Clint’s shoulder and the other holding a phone to his ear.
“Emergency code gregory north. Authentication victor india six one nine. I need medical aid sent to my location immediately.”
Maybe it really was Phil, Clint thought. A hallucination probably wouldn’t call a doctor.
A hallucination probably wouldn’t shoot him, either.
Phil put the phone away and brought his hand to Clint’s face. “Clint? Are you with me?”
Clint felt washed out and filled up, all at once. There was no feeling in him but the touch of Phil’s fingers on his skin and nothing in his head at all, but he was sure he was going to burst with all the things caught up in his chest. His voice came out cracked and strained. “You’re here.”
A smile broke on Phil’s mouth that was equal parts relief and exhaustion. He leaned close and said, “Yes. It’s me. I’m here.”
It was too much. Too much and not enough and Clint hadn’t slept in a week and the hole inside him was spilling over and he had a bullet in his shoulder. “Fucking shot me,” he groaned. “Again.”
Phil kissed his forehead softly. “I’m sorry. I had to.”
“Kept these for you.” He couldn’t lift his arm, but he uncurled his fingers from around the dog tags, showing the thin red marks they’d left in his skin.
“Thank you,” Phil said. He slipped the little pieces of metal around his neck, where they belonged, and Clint felt like he could see properly for the first time in months. He could see the gingerness in Phil’s movements, the traces of tears at the corners of his eyes, the deepened lines of fear and care on his brow, and that unshakable, unnameable thing in his face when he looked at Clint.
He reached into the collar of his shirt and pulled out a different set of tags, letting them fall next to his. “I’ve got yours, too.”
The help he’d called for got there in good time, and Clint surrendered to the mercies of medical professionals. Phil stayed close, every step, every second, and the two sets of tags stayed beside each other on his chest, hanging from a chain over his heart.