Captain America tells them to suit up. It isn’t exactly the type of thing you ignore. Not that Clint wants to, not when it’s his best chance of getting to put that arrow in Loki’s eye socket.
There’s just something bothering him, something he needs to know first. It isn’t sitting right that he hasn’t seen Phil yet, not once, not when they’re all prepping to take down Loki. Not when Clint was compromised and now he isn’t. “Where’s Phil? Tasha, where’s Phil?”
One look at her face is all the answer he needs.
“Oh, fuck.” Clint turns away from her, rubbing his hands over his face. Fuck, I’ve killed him. I killed him, he thinks, and he doesn’t realize he said it out loud until Natasha responds.
“You and I both know you can’t do that to yourself,” Natasha says, echoing their earlier conversation. “This was Loki, all of it, and you’ve got to stop doing that.”
“Then what do I do?” he asks in desperation because he can’t even fucking think, he can’t... Phil is dead and Clint was... He can’t...
“We stop Loki,” she says with a voice of steel.
Clint nods and takes a breath. He’s a soldier and having a mission focuses him even when everything else is shit. If he concentrates on what needs to be done then he won’t think about all of the things that are wrong.
They stop Loki. Clint feels a tiny glimmer of satisfaction as he aims an arrow at Loki’s face, as he looks at Loki beaten and bruised on the floor, but it doesn’t help. It doesn’t stop the ache and it doesn’t fill the hole in Clint’s chest.
Killing Loki won’t bring Phil back and it won’t erase the things Loki made Clint do.
He still wants to.
They’re all kept kind of busy with the whole Loki thing, so when Clint returns to the helicarrier, nothing’s been cleaned yet. He crouches down on the floor next to Phil’s blood on the wall and rests his fingertips against it. He thinks about Phil always trying, always doing what’s right. He thinks about Phil dying with no one there but Fury while Clint was helping to create the mess that got him killed, while Clint was getting some sense knocked into him by Natasha, far too late.
Clint has the sudden utterly ridiculous revelation that he hasn’t seen a body, that Natasha hadn’t either, that Fury is a goddamn liar. He runs to the medical bay, clinging to his pathetic hope.
But no one will quite meet his eyes when he gets there and they just point him to a gurney, leaving him alone. He pulls back the sheet and Phil is lying there, cold and pale and still, a fucking hole in his chest.
Clint sinks into a chair and leans his elbows on the gurney, hiding his face in his hands. “Oh, Jesus,” he moans. “Fuck, Phil. Why’d you have to...” He stretches a hand out and hovers it over Phil’s face, touches his cold skin and knows it isn’t Phil. It isn’t Phil anymore.
Phil is gone and Clint wasn’t there and Phil fucking left him. It was never supposed to be like this. Clint was the stupid one, Clint was the one who should have... Phil was supposed to be the one in control, always, careful and smart. This was never supposed to happen and Clint doesn’t know how he’s supposed to go on.
“You left me,” Clint says. “You left me, you bastard.”
“Oh,” says a startled voice coming from the direction of the doorway.
Clint glances up and sees Steve standing there, clutching something in his hand, his eyes big and his lips parted in surprise.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know,” Steve says and steps closer. Clint has the idea that what he meant to say was, I didn’t know anyone was here, but he changed his mind partway through. Steve’s face has morphed into something like pity and his, I didn’t know, now means something else entirely.
“It’s okay,” Clint mutters, dropping his gaze back to the body that isn’t Phil anymore because he can’t stand looking at Steve’s open face. Steve doesn’t know Clint and he didn’t really know Phil either, and who does he think he is, coming in here like he has the right to, like he knows anything, like he cares when he can’t. He can’t.
Steve is still there, though, and he’s still talking. “I brought these,” he says, holding his hand out.
Clint opens his palm automatically and Steve gives him a stack of cards. They’re Phil’s trading cards, the ones of Captain America, the ones he was so proud of. Clint knows how Phil got each one, can picture the unveiled giddiness on Phil’s face when he talked about them, when he talked about what Captain America meant to him. The cards are bloodstained (near mint, Phil always said) and Clint wants to throw them back in Steve’s face.
There’s something else, too. Clint moves his thumb and reads the Steve Rogers scrawled across the top card in fresh black ink. He raises his eyes to Steve again.
Steve swallows. “He... he wanted me to...” Steve can’t stop fidgeting, shifting his weight, his blue eyes full of guilt. “Well, I signed them and I thought maybe... I know it’s stupid and I’m sorry I didn’t do it sooner. I’m just... I’m really sorry.”
He sounds nothing but sincere but Clint figures Captain America can’t sound like anything less. Steve darts a glance over to Phil’s body and whispers, “I’m so sorry,” before he leaves.
Shit. Captain fucking America and Phil would have been so excited, he would have beamed at Steve like the giant dork he was, asking for Steve’s autograph, showing off his near mint trading cards, and Clint was miles away, doing Loki’s dirty work.
It isn’t until Clint notices the way the blood is smudging on the cards that he realizes he’s crying.
Fury kicks him off the helicarrier. Clint makes it halfway to the apartment Phil keeps for when he’s in New York before he stops and corrects the tenses of the verbs in his head. Kept. Was. Phil is nothing more than a past tense now and Clint can’t go to that apartment.
He doesn’t want to look at the empty bed where Phil should be, where they should fall asleep with Phil curled around Clint and breathing into his neck. He doesn’t want to look at Phil’s things scattered around the apartment, his shoes by the door, the crossword puzzles he never seemed to have time to finish, all the little things that made Clint call him a geek - old Captain America comics, Star Wars novelizations, T-shirts he bought at Comic-Con. Clint doesn’t want to walk past the couch where they watched shitty TV together, where Clint liked to lay his head on Phil’s thigh while Phil ran his fingers through Clint’s hair.
He considers going up to the roof but even that doesn’t feel safe anymore. Too many memories of Phil’s fond amusement when he’d come up to find Clint there, memories of Phil’s smile and his laugh and the feel of his hands on Clint’s skin.
Phil is - was - always good at knowing when Clint needed to be alone and when he wanted to be found. He used to bring food when Clint would go up to the roof after a bad mission and he had a sixth sense about whether he should just leave it or whether he should sit down next to Clint, sometimes sitting in silence and sometimes chattering away. There is a stack of blankets in the closet meant for the roof that they would carry up and lie together on, or do more than just lie on, on a few memorable occasions.
The roof used to be a sanctuary but now it’s only another place filled with regret.
Clint goes to the only place he can.
Natasha opens the door before Clint can even raise a hand to knock, pushing it open and stepping aside without a word. She’s barefoot, dressed in yoga pants and a tank top, her hair damp and curling, no less lethal for all her appearance of casual vulnerability. It’s somehow comforting. It feels like everything’s flipped upside down, like there’s nothing Clint can count on anymore, but he knows Natasha will always be the same. She is the one person he can always trust, the one person he can always count on, no matter what.
Natasha brings out the vodka. Good vodka, and a lot of it, because she’s Russian and Russians are always good for that, cliché or not. They take shots in silence until Clint says, “Do you remember that mission in Prague?”
“When you went in completely blind, against Coulson’s direct order, and I had to save your ass?”
“Hey, I had it under control,” Clint insists. Sort of. If that last guy hadn’t snuck in from behind he would have been fine.
“I thought Coulson was going to have an aneurysm.”
“Before or after he killed me?”
“After. Definitely.” Nat’s eyes are crinkling at the corners a little and Clint realizes he’s smiling. It feels weird but good at the same time.
But then the crushing weight of knowing Phil is never going to be there on a mission again, his steady voice in Clint’s ear, settles back in. It must show in his expression because Natasha’s face tightens. People think that because Nat doesn’t show how she feels it means she doesn’t feel.
She does. She is unsentimental and hard-edged but Phil meant something to her, too. She is the only one who has a hope of understanding.
Clint has the sudden inane realization that the last conversation he had with Phil was about coffee. Phil’s cup had gone cold and he’d been complaining. Clint couldn’t even find the time to bring him a new cup. He never got to say goodbye and the last thing they talked about was coffee and Clint wishes…
He knocks back another shot and says, “I could use a shower.”
Natasha nods. “You know where it is.”
When he goes into the bathroom he is almost afraid to look in the mirror, to see what’s there looking back at him, but it’s only the reflection of his own tired face, his eyes the same blue-green they should be. Clint half-expects to see Loki peering at him from behind his shoulder, the blue spark of his eyes and the dark curl of his hair, or to hear Loki whispering in his ear, things Clint can’t ignore. He wonders how long it will take for him to trust himself again.
Clint steps underneath the spray of the shower and lets the dirt and sweat wash away, but he still doesn’t feel clean. He closes his eyes and imagines Phil is there with him, imagines the exasperated berating he would surely receive for the day’s exploits. (He never even saw a medic; Phil would have dragged him and pushed him onto an exam table himself, sitting on Clint to make him stay if he had to.) He imagines how, in spite of his words, Phil would still knead away the tension in Clint’s muscles and slide his hands over Clint’s body, so good. He imagines how Phil would know exactly what to do to put Clint back on the path to feeling safe in his own skin again.
Of course, Phil isn’t there. Clint opens his eyes and Phil is still dead. He thinks maybe he feels even worse than he did before.
As he dries himself off it occurs to him that he has nothing to wear but what he took off. He wraps the towel around his waist and goes into Natasha’s bedroom, where he sees Nat has left out a T-shirt and a pair of drawstring pants that look like they might have been his at one point. He wonders whether he left them here or if Natasha took them but figures it doesn’t matter.
Natasha comes in and pulls the bedcovers back as Clint finally notices how exhausted he is. They’ve shared a bed so many times they don’t need words, simply getting in under the sheets side-by-side. Clint thinks that if he’d had to sleep alone tonight, it might have killed him.
He lies next to Tasha in the bed and stares upwards at the ceiling, blinks in the darkness. “Tasha,” he whispers, but he doesn’t know what he wants to say. I wish, he thinks, I should have, why didn’t I.
He thinks he doesn’t want to say anything at all. Clint reaches for Natasha’s hand. She lets him.