A day goes by, and Phil is dead.
Three days go by, and he is still dead.
A week passes, and Clint can’t breathe.
Seventeen days, and his heart beats on in a thousand pieces.
A month passes, and he moves into Stark Tower, into an entire floor made just for him, into too much empty space.
At a month and a day, he breaks into Stark’s world class liquor closet, and, for the first and only time in his life, Clint drinks himself into darkness. Stark brings him coffee and says nothing. Natasha brings him water and doesn’t have to.
A year goes by, and Phil is still dead.
Ten years go by, and Clint spends them saving a world that has lost something of what made it bright.
A lifetime later, his heart beats on, still in pieces.
“You should see it,” Clint says. “Stark’s really going all out.”
Three days have gone by, and Phil’s eyes have not opened. There is a machine that moves the air through his damaged lungs, and Clint doesn’t know if its whirring is better or worse than the silence it keeps at bay.
“We’re gonna have our own floor,” Clint says. “I thought there might be a problem with, y’know, with us, but you know what Stark said?”
Phil does not answer.
“He said, ‘Well, then you’re gonna need a bigger closet’,” Clint says. “No shit.”
Three days have gone by, and the doctors say that he will wake up, that his eyes will open and he will breathe on his own. Clint will be here beside him until then, waiting to hear that blessed breath and see those sharp eyes.
“You told me we’d have a place, one day. Remember? Day we got married,” Clint says. “You promised. Said you were gonna give me a home.”
Words and vows and promises mean so little in other mouths, and three days have gone by with only silence from the one person who has ever kept Clint’s faith.
“You did, too. You really did,” Clint says. “So wake up, okay? Wake up, and let’s go home.”
“Tell me about them, these frail heroes in whom you place such faith.”
The surface of Phil’s mind is slick and frozen, like clear ice. He thinks there is a reason he should not answer Loki’s question, some stronger loyalty he is betraying by saying these things, but he can’t recall what it is or why it would matter. He offers every detail he has on the Avengers Initiative, even as some part of him scrambles for purchase inside his own head.
Loki laughs. “This is what your master would send against me? Soldiers and monsters and men in armor?”
“Don’t underestimate them,” every part of Phil answers. “These people are smart, adaptable.”
“Yes, I’ve met that one you’re so fond of. Barton.” Loki scowls, and Phil shivers. “Odious, loud-mouthed little cretin, though I’m sure he has his uses.”
A flash of anger spiders across the cold in Phil’s mind, and he doesn’t know why. The heat of it leaves a crack in the icy surface, a chink in the frozen wall. The shape of it is familiar, and Phil is drawn to it across the smooth expanse of Loki’s landscape in his mind.
“Don’t underestimate him,” Phil repeats, and it echoes through him. It is something he has said before, a doubt that he has answered many times.
There it is. The crack in the slick surface, and the shape of it is Clint.
Three days go by, and by the time Loki’s thralls and hired guns descend upon the helicarrier under Phil’s lead, the crack has widened, has become a foothold in the ice. He cannot stop himself from taking aim between Clint’s wide blue eyes, but there is enough heat in his heart to be relieved when he misses and grateful when Clint does not.
He has, perhaps, misjudged the scepter’s power. Or else it is the strength of mortal’s hearts that falls below his estimation.
Wherever the error lies, Loki is disappointed to watch the cold blue fill Barton’s defiant eyes only to be chased away by pain.
“This is terribly unfortunate,” Loki sighs as Barton drops gasping to his knees. “I was hoping you would prove useful.”
Three seconds go by, and Barton crumples, his strong hands clutching at his chest, no doubt attempting to press away the ice coursing through his veins. It is a loss, but no mortal is irreplaceable. Perhaps Loki will seek out Barton’s lover, the plain-faced man called Coulson. Calm and competence are precious virtues, even in a slave.
Optimistic, Loki goes about his purpose, leaving Barton to die shivering on the floor.
Phil hears Clint’s warning shout, but not in time. He whirls to face Loki, and the blade of the spear slips sharp and cold between his ribs.
He is on the ground, though he doesn’t remember falling. There is yelling, fighting, and through the red haze creeping across his vision, he sees Clint vaulting from one railing to another, dodging Loki’s attacks.
It will be a short fight, for all Clint’s skill, and Phil has little left with which to help him.
The gun is too heavy to lift, now, but he levers it up, aiming in the right general direction, and fires the moment Loki steps into the line of sight. He is distantly astonished to see it shoot a burst of focused flame that knocks Loki back against the far wall.
Clint is beside him in an instant, hands pressing against the wound in Phil’s chest.
“You’re okay. You’re gonna be okay,” Clint insists, and, to his credit, his voice does not rattle on the lie.
“The controls,” Phil says. Every part of him that is human and afraid wants Clint to stay here with his hands touching and mouth close, but they have a job to do. “Open the cage. Help Thor.”
Phil spends the last few minutes of his short life hating how quickly and easily Clint obeys.
The sound of the door sliding open masks the rush of Loki’s feet, but Phil can hear nothing beyond the song of metal slicing through the air. The blade of the scepter swings true and draws a fine, scarlet line across Clint’s throat.
Someone cries out. It might be Phil. It might be Thor. It is not Clint.
The only noise Clint makes is a sick, wet sigh and the heavy wrench of flesh hitting steel as he falls.
Phil pushes the gun away. The immortal brothers are locked in their own endless struggle, and their war is nothing to him, now. He drags himself by inches across the floor, leaving a streak of blood in his wake.
Clint reaches out to him with one strong arm. His head is turned, his bright eyes fixed on Phil’s as the distance between them closes, and so Phil is watching as the light goes out of them.
He does not scream. He does not cry. The ending inches are miles, and Phil fears his strength will fail before he can cross them. Three seconds go by, and at last he is close enough to gather Clint into his arms, to close his eyes and kiss the lids, to lay their bodies down, and, finally, to rest.
Their blood runs out and pools together in places where the feet of gods have tread.
Clint’s never had much use for SHIELD agents. They’re openly disdainful of heroes, at best, and, at worst, they get in the way and get people killed.
This new guy, though. Coulson. He’s something else.
“I still don’t get why you’re talking to me.”
Coulson smiles patiently. “The Avengers’ relationship with SHIELD has always been a little, ah, strained. The director wants to change that, and I’m just trying to get a sense of how the team works.”
“Yeah, you said.” Clint tugs at the frayed cuff of his sleeve. He feels awkward and trashy next to Coulson in his slick suit, the way he always feels dirty and dumb trailing after Steve and Tony. “But why me?”
“What do you mean?”
Clint shifts in his seat. “I mean, I’m just a reserve member. Second string, no powers, no nothing,” he says. “Hell, half the real Avengers don’t even like me.”
Coulson just smiles. “Well, maybe that’s their loss.”
If Clint didn’t know any better, he’d think Coulson was coming on to him, but the only people who ever come on to Clint are groupies and spies. He somehow doubts that Coulson falls into either category.
They talk for an hour. Questions and answers, and Clint finds himself telling stories from the days when he was younger and dumber, before he knew what it was to die a thousand small deaths and two pretty big ones.
He tells Coulson about Natasha. Coulson asks about Bobbi.
Three days go by, and they meet again. One hour turns into two, and tales of heroism turn into memories of war, traded between them the way they trade rounds at the bar. Clint doesn’t drink, but he buys Coulson beer. Coulson buys him pop and doesn’t ask.
A month passes, and Clint has long since given everything he had that might be of use. Coulson has met with other members of the team, and Clint has suffered gracefully through the ‘I had lunch with Captain America’ beaming. They still meet, still trade sodas and stories and, sometimes, silence.
Two months pass, and they are in a back hallway of the Avengers mansion when Coulson kisses him. A minor crisis has been averted, and there is a clean white bandaged wrapped tightly around Clint’s head. Coulson stares at it like he’s never seen an injury before, stares at Clint like he is something strange and new.
“The call came in,” he says. “I didn’t.... I thought....”
And then his mouth is on Clint’s. His fingers scratch at the edge of the bandage where it crosses the back of Clint’s neck. This soldier in his slick suit is kissing Clint like his lips are air and hope and life, and Clint is stunned to find that he wants it.
Three seconds go by, and Coulson pulls away. Clint lets him, lets him lean back and breathe and find whatever it is he’s looking for in Clint’s eyes. He doesn’t know what Coulson sees, but it must be the right thing.
A lifetime goes by, and this is the right thing, the best of all possible worlds.