There’s a man standing on a busy street. No one even glances at him as they pass him by. It’s the middle of the afternoon rush, but none of them even brush against him, as if something compels them to keep their distance.
There’s a man standing across the street. Clint sees him when he gets home from school early (because his teachers were asking questions about the bruises, and Clint’s lies weren’t good enough this time, and now his dad is angry and he probably won’t get any dinner tonight, unless Barney sneaks him some).
His dad’s hand is on his shoulder, pushing him roughly towards the house, and Clint stumbles.
The stranger steadies him. Clint didn’t even see him move.
“Maybe you should take more care in the future,” the man says. He doesn’t even sound angry, which is weird, because everyone sounds angry when they talk to his dad, even his mom.
“Listen, pal, I don’t need you telling me how to raise my kids,” his dad snaps and shoves Clint towards the house again.
Barney hisses, “Come on,” and tugs at his arm, avoiding the bruises. Everything in Clint’s body is telling him to walk away and never look back, to just forget this man and hide from his dad (because he’s definitely going to get angry now).
Clint looks back: the man mouths it’s okay.
Later on, the man’s still there, still watching the house.
Clint’s teachers always tell him that he should say something if he sees someone somewhere they shouldn’t be, but his dad always tells him to shut up whenever he talks, so Clint doesn’t tell them anything.
His parents die two days later.
Before he’s taken away to the orphanage, Clint asks the neighbours if they remember the man, but none of them do. When he asks Barney, he makes a face and asks if Clint’s going crazy, because there was no one there that day.
Clint’s been at the orphanage for two years when he sees him again. He ditches Barney (who’s talking about how there’s a circus coming to town, and how cool would it be to run away and join it?) and runs across the road, skidding to a halt just through the gates.
Annie, one of the older women (some of the boys think she’s over a hundred; Barney calls them all idiots and says she’s eighty) is walking slowly across the courtyard. She doesn’t even glance at the man, even when she walks right past him.
It’s enough to make Clint stop and stare, because this means it wasn’t just Barney and the neighbours. Can anyone else see him? Is Clint the only one?
The man looks right at him. He looks exactly the same as he did that day on the street, days before his parents died, and everything about him feels wrong, from his neat suit to his shiny shoes. People age, people grow up and get older, but Clint can tell that he hasn’t. He isn’t normal. Clint isn’t even sure that he’s human.
“She’s going to die from a stroke,” he offers. It sounds like an apology.
Anne is dead within a week, and everyone but Clint is surprised.
“No,” Clint says as soon as he sees him. He crawls down the bed, careful not to wake Lewis up because he if the coughing starts again, Clint will never get him to sleep tonight, and plants himself firmly between the man and Lewis. He’s just a kid (and he knows he is; the older boys say it often enough) but this man, this man the others can’t see, he kills people. He killed his parents, he killed Anne, and now he’s going to kill Lewis. “Leave him alone. He’s seven. You can’t take him away. He’s too young to die!”
He sighs and sits down on the edge of the bed. “I’m sorry. I really am. This was never supposed to happen. Most people can’t even see me,” he says. “The ones who can... Well, I never look the same to them. You’re not supposed to recognise me.”
“Why can I recognise you?”
“It doesn’t matter. Listen to me, I know this is hard, but I’m not here to hurt anyone. My job... It’s hard to explain, but I’m the one who makes it stop hurting. He’s going to die, Clint. There’s no way that they can catch the infection before it kills him. He’s in pain, and I can make it go away.”
Clint heard one of the police officers say that his parents died on impact. He heard someone say that the stroke killed Anne in her sleep. Beside him, Lewis coughs again, something rattling in his chest, and the man looks sad when he turns his gaze to Lewis.
“You kill them.” When the man doesn’t argue, Clint decides to take a chance and asks, “Why can I see you?”
“You don’t want to know that,” he says.
Clint really does, but he’s also just been told that a seven year old is going to die from an infection that no one’s going to catch before it’s too late, and he’s not an idiot: he knows when people are telling the truth and when they are lying. This isn’t a lie.
He doesn’t say anything when the man gently places his hand on top of Lewis’, but he doesn’t think he’ll ever forget the way the entire room goes silent and still, as if everything’s being frozen in time, stretching this one second out until Clint thinks that it will last forever—and then it breaks, and the man is gone, and Lewis isn’t breathing anymore.
Clint doesn’t cry. He bites his lip and stumbles out of the room, is sick in the closest bathroom, but he doesn’t cry. He spends hours kneeling on the cold tile floor, breathing hard and wondering if that’s what death is like.
He and Barney run away three days later. They don’t even stay for Lewis’ funeral.
He isn’t really surprised when the man turns up at the circus. Part of Clint wants to call him a stranger (he doesn’t even know his name) but it feels wrong. He still looks the same, and Clint’s spent years going over every detail, from the look on his face when he took Lewis’ pain away, from the way he almost looks sorry whenever he sees Clint.
They’re outside Margaret’s trailer. He's is holding a faded tarot card in one hand. Clint wonders if he tells them they’re going to die, or if he just kills them when the time comes. He wonders if it hurts, if they have a split.
“What is it this time? Another car crash? Another stroke? An infection that’s too far gone?” Clint snaps, because he’s seen too many people die (Lewis was just a kid; Anne was a good person: they didn’t deserve to die) and this man, this stranger that no one else ever sees, who no one ever remembers, is there every single time.
“A mugging goes wrong and they beat her to death.”
“What’s your name?”
They’re sitting on the wall that runs around the edge of the field. Clint throws small pebbles at the rats that run towards the tents, just hard enough to scare them off.
“What makes you think I have one?”
“People have names.” Even his dad gave him a name, and Clint can’t remember him ever giving a fuck about him unless he was looking for someone to punch.
“I haven’t been a person for a long time.” It’s said with the hint of a smile and Clint force himself not to laugh, because it isn’t funny, not really. “My name was Phil.”
“Phil,” Clint repeats. He likes it. It doesn’t sound foreboding or creepy. It’s a normal name for someone who was normal once. He doesn’t ask how Phil died, or what he was before he became a reaper, or how he became a reaper. “My name’s Clint.”
“I know.” Phil throws a pebble at a rat. It misses one rat, but hits two others. “My aim used to be better. I used to be able to hit—” He catches himself, swallows hard. “You don’t need to know about that.”
Phil feels like a person, sitting so close to Clint on the uneven wall that their thighs touch. Clint swings his legs against the stone thud, thud, thud and very deliberately doesn’t think if Phil’s always so warm or if it’s because it’s the middle of summer.
Death is not a looming man in a black cloak; Death isn’t even real, or at least that’s what Phil says (a SHIELD agent is killed by a slow-acting poison and no one knows that anything is wrong until she dies in the middle of a meeting). There are just reapers, men and women who are given orders and carry them out without asking questions.
Clint’s not really sure about that, but Phil hasn’t lied to him before. That puts him on a very short list that’s mainly comprised of people who were usually under the threat of a painful death.
For him, Death is a man with sad eyes, who always wears a nice suit and stays to chat afterwards. He’s a friend, not someone to be afraid of, even when some of the SHIELD agents talk about death, their voices quiet and scared.
“It’s going to be gunshot wounds this time.”
If Phil’s hanging around the Helicarrier, something bad’s going to happen, Clint’s sure of it. Fuck. He wants to stay and ask, but Fury’s not going to be impressed if Clint’s late for guard duty (and, as little as the Tesseract does, he doesn’t want it to be the reason for another black mark on his record).
Clint’s already on his way out the door when Phil says, “I’m sorry, Clint,” and he turns around. It’s only the second time he’s ever heard Phil say his name in all the time they’ve known each other.
In the time it takes him to move, Phil disappears.
Loki’s sceptre touches his chest and Clint understands.
“Who’s going to die this time?” is the first thing Clint says. His leg feels like someone’s tried to rip it off and, oh, yeah, someone did. A huge someone with teeth the size of Clint’s torso. Fucking scientists and their creepy experiments. Why would anyone want a dog that size? It took three exploding arrows to take the bastard down. His leg hurts, and if it turns out someone he saves is going to die anyway, he’s going to be pissed off, because that’s not fair on anyone involved.
Phil’s sitting at the mess that Clint calls a desk – it’s littered with empty wrappers, plates and paperwork that Hill keeps sending him memos about – tapping a touch screen and looking thoroughly unimpressed with whatever he’s seeing. There’s a mug of coffee sitting beside him.
“No one,” he says. “I do get days off.”
They’re all tangled up in something that even SHIELD will write off as weird if they find out about it, surrounded by death, and Phil hasn’t even been alive for a long time. Clint doesn’t think he’ll be alive for much longer: how long can you live when you work for SHIELD and one of the only people you consider a friend (or maybe something more) is a reaper who only visits when he’s killing someone nearby.
Well, usually only visits. Apparently they get fucking vacations, and the idea alone is enough to make Clint laugh until he’s lying on his bed, gasping for breath, grinning up at Phil. Phil just leans over him, and smiles and shakes his head. It’s not funny (just like Phil not having been a person for a long time wasn’t funny) but it is.
It’s funny and tragic, and Clint doesn’t think before he grabs Phil’s tie (why does a reaper even need a tie?) and pulls him down to kiss him. It’s a bad idea. Clint knows that, but he does it anyway because he’s been thinking about this for longer than he should have.
Phil doesn’t kiss any differently from any of the other people Clint’s kissed: slower and softer, maybe, and he tastes like coffee instead of cigarettes and cheap gum.
Surprisingly, Clint’s the one who has to pull away first, breathing hard and fighting the urge to laugh or say something stupid.
“Can you stay the night?” he asks and, well, it’s not quite as stupid as what he was worried he was going to say, but it’s not the smartest thing that’s ever come out of Clint’s mouth. Phil looks torn for a second, like he’s not sure if he wants to stay or not, before he nods.
“You never told me why I can see you.”
Phil’s warm and doesn’t object to Clint using him as a pillow, which is good because Clint’s pretty sure it’s hard to argue with a reaper. Not that he wants to find out. He usually only argues with people who can kill him when he’s a safe distance away. He rests his head on Phil’s shoulder, staring at the mug of cold coffee on the desk.
“You already know.”
There’s only one thing Clint’s ever considered to even be a possibility, and it’s not love or special powers or anything, but he’d started thinking about it after he found out Phil’s name, after I haven’t been a person for a long time and everything that held.
“How did you die?”
Phil sighs, scraping his nails lightly across Clint’s stomach. They leave pale pink marks in their wake.
“In a war,” he says, and tells Clint everything.
He doesn’t see Phil for almost four years.
Other people die (heart attacks, stabbings, gunshot wounds, impales by debris, throats cuts, dozens of other ways), and Clint thinks he catches a glimpse of Phil slipping around corners, but he’s never fast enough to see more than that.
It’s three days after a building collapsed on top of him and almost crushed him to death. Clint opens his eyes and just knows, even before he sees Phil standing in the doorway. He looks exactly the same as the last time, as all the other times.
His chest aches in a way that’s different from all the other times, slow and creeping instead of fast and sharp.
“Is this what dying feels like?” Clint asks. Is it me this time?
He knows from the way Phil refuses to meet his eyes that it is. Oh. Clint feels like he should something else, maybe something about how Phil left that morning and hasn’t spoken to him since, how he’s half in love with someone who isn’t even alive or even to ask him why the hell he didn’t come back.
“How?” Will it hurt? He doesn’t want it to hurt, and he can’t convince himself that it won’t. This is Phil’s job: of course he says that it doesn’t hurt.
Phil doesn’t sit on the edge of the bed like he did all the other times. Instead, he stands less than a foot away, occasionally glancing at the heart monitor. He threads his fingers together, and Clint’s reminded of the last time he saw him: standing by the door to Clint’s bedroom, his shirt buttoned, his suit jacket on, but he left the tie. Clint still has that tie somewhere, tucked away with photos of his family and an old poster from the circus. “Cardiac arrest caused by the gradual accumulation of blood in the chest cavity. You die in the next half hour.”
Clint already knows what’s coming. Phil holds out his hand. He’s not quite smiling, but Clint supposes that it’s hard to smile when you’re killing someone, even if you’re doing it in the most painless way possible.
Even if you’re turning them into what they were always going to be, because this is the thought he never dared to voice, not even to Phil himself: every second since they met has been leading up to this moment, to Clint’s death. It was always going to end this way.
“It’s okay,” he says and the ridiculous thing is that Clint thinks it might be.
He takes Phil’s hand.
His last thought is, it doesn’t hurt.
There are two men standing opposite an office building, but no one pays any attention to them, passers-by don’t even look at them. The mirrored windows don’t show their reflections and they have no shadows. A small child glances at them briefly, but doesn’t linger.
Phil straightens his tie and Clint laughs, asking why they had to go back and get the one from his bedroom when Phil has dozens of the things. After a few more minutes, when the street is beginning to quieten as the afternoon rush passes, they set off down the street.
They have a job to do.