Clint shouldn't be here. He...really has no idea why he is. It's not like he has any kinda connection with Coulson's place. Not like they ever hung out and drank beer and caught a game. He doesn't even know if Coulson has – had, fucking past tense is so hard to adjust to, still, even after a life like Clint's – a TV on which to watch a game. Maybe the inside of his apartment is just a blank slate, maybe it was never more than somewhere to sleep.
Thing is though, Clint felt most connected to Coulson at SHIELD. And obviously he can't go there. Well. He could, but he doesn't want to see agents he knows, looking at him with (justified, justified, it's so goddamn justified) fear. He doesn't want to know if Coulson's office has been reassigned.
So he's here, sitting on the wall opposite Coulson's apartment block, looking up at dark windows, and wondering what the fuck he thinks he's gonna achieve by any of this. Maybe the place has already been let to somebody else. He imagines the lights coming on, imagines seeing a person, maybe a couple, silhouetted against the windows, imagines how that will feel. It seems like, no matter where Clint goes, Phil Coulson will end up written out of existence.
Clint rubs his hands over his face and sighs. Okay. Enough. Enough of this. He's about to leave when the door to Phil's apartment block opens. A woman hurries out and just as Clint's about to turn and leave she dashes across the street and says, "Hi! Hey! Are you – you're a friend of Phil's, right?"
Clint's not sure if it's fear or what, but his stomach twists up tight. "How do you know that?"
The woman – young, Clint realises, maybe like mid twenties – holds her hands up, palms out. "Whoa. I'm his neighbour, he's got a picture of you and your girlfriend in his living room. I just – "
"Right," Clint says, because he is just – he's so done with scaring people. "Sorry. Rough week."
"Do, uh – do you know where he is? It's just, I've gotta leave tonight for a couple weeks, and I don't know who else he'd like to feed the cat and – "
"Yeah, Henderson. When Phil's working away I go in and feed her, but like I said. Holiday. And I don't want to be an ass, but I ran out of the food he left for her like a week ago, so. He's not usually gone this long."
"He died," Clint interrupts, and her face falls.
"Oh, shit. I'm so sorry." She sounds...sincere, but not heartbroken. Obviously. She's just a neighbour, and Clint swallows hard, trying to get rid of the taste of ash in his mouth. She doesn't ask how, which makes sense. Despite their best efforts, enough people died that day that a lot of New Yorkers lost someone. She nods and fumbles another apology instead.
"The cat?" Clint prompts.
"Yeah, I – I didn't want to just ask someone else in the building to do it, I didn't think he'd want strangers in and out – "
"No," Clint says. "I'll take care of it."
"Oh, you're the best," she says in a rush. "I don't – I'm really sorry about Phil. He seemed like a stand-up guy."
"Yeah," Clint makes himself say. "He was, uh. Yeah."
"You, um – god, I can't believe he's really – do you have a key to his place? You can have mine," she offers.
"Sure," Clint says. "That'd be good."
He follows the woman – Faridah, she tells him – up to the second floor and kinda loiters in her doorway while she fetches the key for him. Behind her, Clint can see packed bags. He knows he's maybe being a little rude, because he can't bring himself to make any kind of small talk. She doesn't seem to expect it though, just presses the key into his hand and surprises him with a hug.
"He was a really good guy," she says again.
Clint stands there stiffly, pats her arm, and extracts himself as quick as he can. On the next floor up, he pauses outside Coulson's door for a long moment. He feels like going inside will be confirmation, somehow. It's strange to be in someone's home without them even under the best circumstances, and these are certainly not the best circumstances, but Clint squares his jaw and unlocks the door anyway.
It's...it's a really, really normal apartment. There's a flat screen TV on the wall, a comfy looking couch, and an open plan kitchen-diner. Clint grips at the doorframe as he imagines all the meals Coulson made there, all the others he skipped in favour of work. He forces himself to step inside and shut the door. He was right. It's definitely weird to be here. Still, it's kind of... He could see himself getting addicted to it. It doesn't smell like Coulson or anything, there aren't exactly a ton of personal things scattered around, but still. There's something to it, something that makes him want to stay, and to run away, all at the same time.
There's a bookshelf along from the TV and Clint finds himself walking to it, intending to check out the titles, see what a guy like Coulson read for fun. Except something else catches his eye. The photo Faridah referred to is of Clint with Natasha, on a mission. Her hair is brown and her dark green ball gown matches well with Clint's tux. Copenhagen, he thinks, touching the frame. They're laughing together in the image and Clint feels like his chest is trying to split wide open. It's basically a surveillance picture, but it makes sense that it's all Coulson would have of them. It makes Clint feel like he's missed a step in the dark when he realises the other pictures are all of Coulson's family. He sort of staggers to the couch and drops down onto it.
If Coulson was Fury's one good eye, then Clint and Natasha were Coulson's right and left hands, and Clint feels – he feels sick with blaming himself, of course he does, but he feels lost. He is so lost. He doesn't recognise what's happening to him at first, thinks he might be having a goddamn panic attack or something, until he hears the noise that creaks out of him, shattered pieces of a cry falling from his mouth.
"Oh god, oh god, oh god – " he breathes, pressing the heels of his hands to his eyes and crying and shaking so hard he can't catch his breath. He hasn't shed a tear in years, let alone cried like this, until it hurts, until his whole chest aches, until he can't catch his breath. Until he hears a tiny, inquisitive little noise from down by his feet. He pulls his t-shirt up and wipes it over his face, forcing short, shallow gasps of air into his lungs.
Right, the cat. It's small, almost small enough to look like a kitten still, and it has one paw on Clint's boot, is looking up at him with big green eyes. Clint wipes his face again.
It mrows at him again and Clint leans forward, scooping it up and depositing it on his lap. He'd never have pegged Coulson as the type to keep a pet of any kind, let alone a cat, to shed all over his suits and probably piss in corners where it shouldn't. That thought makes him want to cry all over again, because he had all this...all this heart-pounding, mind-melting mess of feelings for Coulson all these years and there was still so much he never got to know. The cat – Henderson, Clint remembers, what kinda fucking name is that for a cat, anyway? – wriggles out of Clint's hold but only goes as far as the next couch cushion along. She butts her little tabby head against Clint's arm and he reaches out tentatively to scratch behind her ear.
"What am I gonna do with you, kitty?"
Henderson's mostly tabby, with three white legs and one white paw, overly long white whiskers on her cute little face. She gets her front feet on Clint's thigh, starts kneading with her paws. It's kind of impossible to keep crying, so he sniffs once, rubs at his eyes again, and strokes over the length of Henderson's spine. He notices a weird kink at the base of her tail and she glares at him when he touches it.
"Pretty kitty," Clint mutters. "You hungry?"
It's not like she can understand him, obviously not, but she jumps down from the couch and follows him to the kitchen. There's a bag of cat biscuits on the side and Clint pulls out a handful, settles down on the cold kitchen floor. Henderson's there inside a second, and Clint can feel the cool whisper of her breath, the soft nuzzle of her mouth as she eats the biscuits from right out of his palm.
His throat aches when he thinks about Coulson sitting here, doing just this after a hard day. When Henderson seems to have had enough, Clint drops the rest of the biscuits back into the bag and scratches her under her chin, ruffling the patch of white-grey fur there. Her eyes narrow to green slits and she starts purring, a surprisingly deep rumble for such a little thing. Clint can't help smiling, even though it feels wobbly on his face.
"You know what, kitty-cat? I think you're gonna have to come home with me for a while."
He finds a travel box in the closet and feels that tight, clenching, twisting sensation in his chest again when he sees that there's a t-shirt inside, covered in fur and bearing the Rangers crest. He makes himself breathe and sets about coaxing Henderson into the box. It's easier said than done. For a little thing, Henderson is really determined. She doesn't scratch at Clint, but she makes her whole body stiff and gives him a full-on stink eye.
"C'mon, Barton. You're a goddamn Avenger. Outsmarted by a cat is not an option," Clint tells himself.
He scoops Henderson up and she sets her paws on his shoulder, nudging his chin with her head. He laughs and scratches her side, then moves fast, curling his arms around her body, and sliding her into the box, shutting the door fast. Big green (pissed off) eyes glare at him through the grille and he resists the urge to stick his tongue out. She lets out another, distinctly annoyed sounding yowl.
"Alright. Okay. Let's get your stuff," he says, and gathers up what he can find. There are spare litter trays and food bowls, as well as a cluster of toys in one corner, ping-pong balls and catnip stuffed mice, that kind of thing. Clint's not really thinking too much, and Stark's probably gonna freak out, but he doesn't want to just leave the cat here until SHIELD do whatever it is they do when an agent dies and they have to deal with the remnants of their civilian life.
He carefully shuts down on that line of thought and bags up what he think he'll need. He's not sure why, but it seems really important that he looks after the cat, this unexpected evidence of Coulson's life outside SHIELD. He ducks back into the kitchen and washes his face, not wanting to walk out looking like – well, like he's just fucking broken down on a dead man's couch. After a moment's indecision, he also takes the photo of him and Natasha.
He got to Coulson's place via rooftops and back alleys, but with the cat box in one hand and the bag of toys and food in the other, he decides to call a cab to get back to the tower. Clint thinks he was probably as surprised as anyone when Stark offered them all rooms, even if he was one of the first to accept. It was more a desire to be away from SHIELD than to live in Stark's playboy palace, but so far it's working out pretty well.
His plan, such as it is, is to get Henderson as far as his room, let her out of the box, and work out what the hell to do later. Instead, he runs into Tony as soon as he steps out of the elevator.
"Uh, no," Tony says, waving his coffee mug towards the carrier in Clint's hand. "The tower has a strict no fleabags policy."
"She was Coulson's," Clint says.
"Oh." Tony's face changes, a flash of pain quickly hidden. "I guess we can make an exception."
Clint nods once and steps past, hurrying enough that Tony doesn't have time to get out the questions that are written all over his face.
Henderson becomes a feature of the communal areas of the tower pretty quickly. Clint even catches Tony feeding her scraps of fish a couple of times. Tony teases Clint a little about turning into a cat lady, but only when Pepper isn't within hearing because Pepper? Head over extremely classy heels in love with Henderson, just like pretty much everyone else. Clint finds Steve doodling pictures of her, sees Thor carrying on serious conversations with her in the Allspeak. Natasha has a weakness for fluffy things that she would never admit to anybody. Bruce talks about pets and lowering blood pressure, but Clint sees him rolling ping pong balls back for forth for Henderson, and thinks the smile on Bruce's face is about something much simpler.
Never mind the others, it doesn't take long until Clint adores her, and not just because of who she used to belong to. Sometimes he can't bear to be around the people he endangered – which is pretty well the whole of New York – but he can't stand to be alone either. Sometimes he talks to Henderson because it's marginally less crazy than talking to the walls, and a lot more comfortable than talking to anyone who'd understand the words.
Much as the others like her, Henderson is most attached to Clint. Some days she trails after him everywhere, a meowing little shadow, demanding attention and affection. And yeah, okay, obviously he thinks of Coulson every time he sees her, and it makes something clench up inside him. But she's... Clint's never really been an animal person, even in the circus, but Henderson has a whole lot of personality. Admittedly her personality is often pretty bitchy, but Clint can respect that.
When she's not looking at him like she thinks he's the stupidest thing in the world, Henderson is actually really affectionate. All you've gotta do is walk into a room and she rolls onto her back, belly bared and daring you to stroke her. It's kinda unbelievably wonderful to have something around that trusts him without even thinking about it. She gets these crazy fits where she runs around the place, launching herself onto shelves and off again in the space of a blink. She does stuff that makes Clint laugh without thinking about it first, and that feels great.
Truth is, Clint can feel himself turning back into something resembling the man he used to be and it is such a relief. Every time he gets through a day without thinking you killed people you've worked alongside for years, it feels like a victory and a betrayal at the same time, and everything is so fucking complicated. Henderson though, all she gives a shit about is being fed and played with and basically having everything on her own terms. It's refreshing.
Then comes a SHIELD job that takes Clint away from the tower for two weeks. While he knows Henderson's well cared for, he's surprised by how much he misses her. When he gets back to the tower, Pepper is just leaving the communal area, and she smiles at him.
"Henderson stole your t-shirt, dragged it under the TV and has been sleeping there for the last thirteen days."
Clint can't help grinning hugely. "At least someone missed me."
"We all did," Pepper says, squeezing his arm on her way past.
Sure enough, as soon as Clint walks into the room Henderson is there, giving him her best 'where the fuck have you been' squawky meow. He scoops her up and she headbutts his chin.
"Hey, cutie," he says, and she digs her claws into his shoulder a little, like maybe she's punishing him for being gone so long. "I'm sorry," he tells her. "I had work. Anyway, Pepper and the rest took good care of you, right?"
She butts her head against his face and Clint can't help but laugh. "Yeah, yeah. I missed you too, Fleabag."
And he did. So much more than he ever thought it was possible to miss a pet. He's not quite sure how, but somewhere along the line he came to love the little bundle of fur and attitude as more than just a reminder of someone else he had loved. He wouldn't be without her, now, even if she does sometimes trip him up and freak him out by appearing in the bathroom while he's showering. Seriously. She's a ninja kitty, and Clint never expected it, but he fucking loves her so much.
"No one is hurt, and nothing bad is happening," she says, which is not as reassuring as it should be. "But you need to get back to the tower right now."
"I – okay. On my way," he says, dropping his basket on the floor and taking off at a run.
When he gets back to the tower there's nothing visibly wrong, no smoke or screaming civilians. Clint steps out of the elevator on the main communal floor, and the rest of the team are standing in a cluster, arguing in low voices.
"Legolas – " Tony starts.
"I swear to god, I will break your face," Natasha says in a rapid undertone.
Tony looks like he's about to argue but then he looks between Clint and Natasha, and something almost like pity comes into his expression. He lets himself be shepherded away towards the elevator by Bruce and Steve. Clint stands there feeling confused and Natasha pauses in front of him. He's known her long enough to know that this pause is not a calculated one.
"Just...take a breath," she advises him, and pushes him gently towards the media room.
Clint can't deny he's really fucking concerned right now, wondering what the hell is past that door. He looks back but Nat and the others are already gone, so there's nothing left for Clint to do but walk into the room.
He gets as far as three steps into the media room and his legs almost give way underneath him. Coulson is standing in front of the couch looking pale and sick and as close to nervous as Clint has ever seen him, but very definitively alive.
"Oh," Clint manages over the roaring in his ears. "Oh god. You – "
"Hi," Coulson says.
"Hi," Clint echoes. "Wow. Hi. I – " He takes a few tentative steps forward, half expecting Coulson to disappear. "You – you're here."
"And alive," Coulson says.
"Right. That. That too. Jesus Christ, I thought I killed you."
Clint did not mean to say that.
Coulson's face falls and he says in a sharp voice, "No. No. Even if I had died, it would not be your fault, Clint."
"I – " There's no point arguing with Coulson even if Clint knows the truth. "What happened?"
"Blood loss, organ failure, infection, septic shock," Coulson lists, like it's nothing. "I've been in a medically induced coma. Woke up a week ago. Got here as soon as I could."
"They let you out after a week?" Clint asks. Coulson doesn't answer, and realisation dawns. "Holy shit. You checked yourself out AMA, didn't you? I'm never gonna let you live that one down, boss."
Coulson just smiles, and Clint can't think of any sight that's made him feel better since Henderson trotted out to meet him after a particularly shitty mission a week ago.
"Oh, man," he says. "Oh, god. There's someone who's gonna want to see you."
"I've already spoken with the others," Coulson says.
"No," Clint says. "Not them." He carefully doesn't think about who asked the others to leave this moment private between the two of them (Natasha or Coulson, must have been), or why (he...can't think about why, he can't because he's just received such a gift, it would be the height of selfish idiocy to want for more).
"I don't understand."
"Just give me a couple of minutes."
"Barton – "
"I'll be right back," Clint promises. "This isn't – I'm not abandoning my post, Sir."
It's only because Tony has cameras everywhere that Clint doesn't curl into a ball in the elevator. This is...this is so crazy. Given time, he'll probably be pissed and confused that Fury kept the lie going for so long, and he'll definitely wonder who else was in on the secret. He can see all these reactions piling up in front of him, but it's at a remove and right now he just feels numb with relief, and still has a quiet, distant roar in his ears.
Clint finds Henderson straight away. She's taken to snoozing away hours of the day on his bed, just below the pillows, so much so that there's a little dent Clint can never quite shake out of his duvet. She's there now, apparently sleeping until Clint sits on the bed and she rolls to show her belly with a familiar little mew.
He spends a few moments petting her and then gathers her up in his arms. She sets her front paws on his shoulder and headbutts his chin before settling in as he carries her to the elevator. It's ridiculous, but through the whirl of relief and shock, he can't help feeling a little...yeah, a little sad that Henderson won't be around anymore. Still, it's not like he ever thought he'd get the chance to return her to her rightful owner, so he determinedly pushes the selfish little thought aside.
She jumps down as the elevator doors open and follows Clint, tangling around his feet every step of the way. Coulson looks concerned, but his face breaks into a smile when he sees her and it makes the last couple of months feel almost worth it, to see him so happy.
"Oh my god," he says when Clint leads her over to the couch. "I assumed she'd ended up at a shelter."
"Nah, couldn't do that," Clint says, casual, taking a couple of steps back and shoving his hands into his pockets. "I've got her stuff, so you can pick it up whenever you want, I guess you've got a place sorted."
"Actually," Coulson says, scratching behind Henderson's ear. "Fury wants me here."
"He does? We keeping an eye on you, or is it the other way around?"
"A little of both. You'd have to speak to the Director for an exact ratio."
"Pass, thank you," Clint says. "So...she's staying? You're both staying?"
Coulson arches an eyebrow at him. "Nice priorities, Barton."
Clint shrugs. "She's a good listener."
It's all Clint needs to say for Phil's face to soften a little. A week awake would have been plenty of time for Phil to catch up, and he knows Clint.
"Yeah," Phil agrees.
"Besides, I think Pepper'd have a thing or two to say about you taking her away."
Coulson smiles. "You cannot tell me Pepper Potts is a cat lady."
"Uh. Everyone on the team is a cat lady now, Sir. Your girl's very persuasive."
"Yeah, she is," Coulson says, rubbing his thumbs behind Henderson's ears where she's settled on his lap. "Will you sit down? You're making me dizzy."
Clint sits down so fast that he doesn't realise Coulson was joking until he gets an incredulous glance.
"Too soon, Sir."
Phil gets a guilty look on his face and Clint clears his throat. He wants to beg Phil to be careful with himself from now on, but it is so not his place.
"I gotta ask, Sir."
"Ask away, Barton."
Coulson laughs and pets Henderson's face. "That's what you want to know?"
Clint wants to know why they're still alone; he wants to know why a picture of him and Natasha made Coulson's family photo wall; he wants to know why Coulson is looking at him like he did something way more miraculous than just taking care of a cat for a month or two.
"I really do," is all Clint says.
"It's from a book about spies and orphans," Coulson tells him. "I'll lend them to you, you'd like them. The spy network is called CHERUB."
"No shit," Clint says, with a grin. "I vote we petition the director for a name change right now. The, uh... Central Homeland Espionage Research and...Usurpment Bureau? Maybe ukulele."
"I like it," Coulson agrees with a smile.
"You always said my imagination was what made me a good operative, Sir."
"It's true," Coulson nods, serious all of a sudden. "Status report, Agent?"
"I'm...okay," Clint says after a moment's thought. "I wasn't. I really wasn't. But I'm getting there. I gotta say, boss, I'm a whole shitload better after seeing you today."
"I...thank you, Barton. I'm glad," Coulson says, like he's genuinely surprised that his Lazarus routine would have any effect on Clint's state of mind.
"Plus, Natasha, you know. I have the world's best expert-through-experience in my corner. Brainwashing's got nothing on us, Sir."
To his surprise, Coulson laughs, squeezes Clint's wrist where he's reached out to pet Henderson on instinct and says, "I missed you."
They've been edging around this thing between them for so long that Clint's brain almost skips that altogether. They've both been injured before, hell, both been thought or suspected dead at some point in their careers, and Coulson's never said anything like that. Good to have you back, sure, but never anything like this, so simple and so honest.
Clint's throat won't cooperate for a moment but eventually he manages to say, "Returning the sentiment would be the understatement of the century, so. Yeah."
Coulson squeezes his wrist briefly before letting go. The whole point of Clint on a team like this – super soldiers and alien gods and all – apart from that he's a good shot, is that when the chips are down he can be almost suicidally brave. He chases after Phil's hand and grabs hold, clinging tight.
"I – " Clint doesn't get any further because Phil turns his hand so their fingers are linked and really, what else needs saying?