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ask ourselves what road to take

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Clint knew it was going to be bad as soon as he looked up from whatever the hell Nat had gotten for him to eat and saw Fury standing in front of him.

"Walk with me, Agent."

Fury strode off, clearly not even entertaining the thought that Clint wouldn't follow, which was, well, basically true. Clint hauled himself to his feet without even thinking about it. The rest of the team looked startled (Banner and Rogers) and annoyed (Stark) but then Clint saw the expression in Natasha's eyes (fear and sadness, everything that it had taken years for her to lose after she'd come in with him and left the Red Room behind) and knew.

Fury was silent as they navigated their way out of the little shawarma joint and halfway down the block. Clint finally couldn't take it any longer.

"It's Phil, isn't it?"

"He went up against Loki on his own," Fury said. "Held him off for a bit, Thor says, but..." Every word dropped whole and echoing into Clint's ears, Fury sounding more tired and sorrowful than Clint had ever heard him. It was just one more incomprehensible thing in a week that was pretty much defying description already. "I got there right before the triage team called it."

Clint stood there in the middle of the bombed-out street and tried to figure out what he was supposed to be feeling. Sad, yeah. Angry--hell yeah. That was all there, but muted. Mostly--mostly he was numb.

"Barton?" Fury was looking at him like he wasn't sure Clint had heard him, so Clint clawed together some kind of a response before Fury felt like he needed to repeat himself.

"Yeah," Clint said, nodding once, short and jerky. "I'm--yeah." A horrifying thought came to him, and the words half-fell out of his mouth even as his heart slammed hard in double-time, "Nat knows, right? I don't have to tell her--?"

"The rest of the team is aware," Fury told him. Clint nodded again and it made no sense that maybe having to tell Natasha was the thing that tripped him over into feeling things, but it was what it was. He reached desperately for the calm he'd learned to call when everything counted on the shot and got centered enough that Fury's face was in focus again.

"Thanks," Clint managed to say. "For telling me, I mean." For not letting it come from someone who didn't know Phil, who'd only have known Agent Coulson is what he meant; it was Fury's turn to nod.

"I'm sorry for your loss," Fury said.

"You, too," Clint said. Phil and Fury went way back, to the Rangers, long before Clint had come stumbling into Phil's life and Clint knew the depth of that kind of a relationship. He wanted to say more, say that he was glad Phil hadn't been alone at the end, ask for more details, but his brain couldn't shape the words. "I should--" he gestured back toward the restaurant, like it mattered to the rest of the team where their wayward, suspect archer might be, like they could possibly care, but Nat was there and Clint desperately needed her baseline in this suddenly fucked-up reality.

"Clint," Fury said, and he was suddenly not the Director, but more the guy Phil used to call Marcus. Clint wasn't sure if that made it easier or harder to stop and turn back, but he did it regardless. "I know I wasn't always on board with you and Coulson, at least not at the start, but--you made him very happy."

Fury turned and got into the SUV that was waiting for him, leaving Clint alone on the street. It was, Clint admitted, probably for the best. He didn't know how he managed not to scream out his denial for the few seconds it took for Fury to get away, but he knew he couldn't have held it in for much longer. Clint hadn't made Phil happy, at least not as happy as he could have. Clint knew that, and now he got to figure out how to live without having the chance to fix it.

* - * - * - *

Natasha met Clint on the street, the rest of the team straggling along behind her. She looked him over once, swiftly. Clint was too exhausted to put up any kind of a pretense, so she got it all in a heartbeat. Clint didn't know that he'd ever seen her allow that much emotion to show, but yeah, it'd been a hell of a week. "Come on," she said, taking Clint's arm. She touched him carefully, as though she was waiting for him to shatter. Clint supposed it wasn't an unreasonable assumption. "We're staying at the Tower."

Clint half-stumbled as she steered him toward a line of waiting SUVs; he hadn't actually thought about it, but yeah, no, he couldn't see himself bunking out on the 'carrier, not after everything, and Phil's co-op was--fuck, no, that wasn't happening. Clint stumbled for real at that thought; he would have gone down but for Nat's grip on his arm. Her fingers were digging into where that last window he'd slammed through had cut him up good; he should have been spitting curses at the pressure on the open cuts but there was nothing in his head but Phil.

"Breathe," Natasha murmured. "Please, соколёнок, breathe for me."

It was too hard to resist her, especially when she was asking, not ordering. Clint didn't have it in him to disappoint her, too, so he focused again and breathed in, and then out, carefully, like he was going to take a shot, like he had with Fury. He wondered if that was going to be how he was going to have to function now, but even that was too much for his brain to deal with. He breathed and he went where Natasha directed him and he didn't think about anything else.

"I'm sorry," Natasha kept saying as they walked. "So, so sorry."

Clint hung onto her voice, vaguely aware that they were surrounded by the rest of the team and that they weren't just walking aimlessly. It didn't actually matter to him, but he did notice. He walked where Natasha told him and breathed like she'd asked him to, and when they got back to Stark's broken tower, he got on the elevator and rode to the top with them. It ended there, though. Natasha thought he should sleep, but that was a joke, and one that Clint wasn't even going to pretend to play along with. He shrugged her off and stepped out onto the landing deck, shattered glass crunching under his boots.

Deliberately, he walked to the edge of the landing pad. This high up, the wind swirled around him, cold and sharp no matter that it was May. He had a prime view down to the worst of the damage he'd helped create, but he still saw better from a distance and the longer he stood there, the more his brain started to work its way clear from the tangled mess of Loki and the Cube.

Getting free--that was why he was out there and he took one breath after the next, each one burning off a little more of it all, until he'd gotten rid of enough that he couldn't see anything but Phil, gone. Every time he forced his thoughts away they squirreled around on him and he was back in the street hearing Fury's He went up against Loki. Again and again, until it drove him to his knees and left him choking instead of breathing.

"Steady," Rogers said from behind Clint. He didn't touch Clint but he was right there, close enough that Clint could hear him over the wind and his pounding heart. "Steady," Rogers repeated. Clint wasn't inclined to listen to many people even in the best of times, but he'd just spent hours with that voice in his ear and he was too tired to fight it. Rogers kept talking low and calm; he was making it easy to listen to him and Clint held onto that with everything he had.

"I'm good," Clint said as soon as he could. He sounded like shit, like he'd been gargling shattered glass, but getting the words out gave him something more of a foundation to build on. He didn't know how much of it Rogers was buying, but he eased back a step, clearly giving Clint the choice as to whether he stayed or left. To Clint's surprise, he went with the stay option, despite being firmly in the camp where you go to ground to lick your wounds.

"Okay, maybe not good, but better," Clint admitted. He decided to blame his sudden candor on the fact that in a day coming straight out of a collective nightmare, he never once doubted the guy had his six.

"Agent Romanoff was… concerned," Rogers said, clearly searching for a polite way to tell Clint that he thought Clint had been freaking Natasha out.

"Yeah," Clint sighed, as he tried to figure out a polite way to tell Rogers that there was more going on than what was on the surface, that if Nat really had been freaking out she would have dealt with it herself, whether by harassing the shit out of Clint or by slamming his head into a wall again. "About that--"

"Right," Rogers said, one side of his mouth quirking up into a rueful sort of a smile, "I thought I'd just go along with whatever reason she had for wanting it to be me out here talking to you." Clint resisted the urge to shake his head to try and clear it--Nat's gift/concussion had left behind a dull pounding that hadn't yet run its course--but if anything might be worth an extra spike or two in the throbbing, it was the realization that the good captain had seen through Nat's maneuvering (or that Natasha had trusted him enough to let him see through. Clint wasn't sure which was weirder.) At Clint's surprise, Rogers' smile edged up toward a smirk, but then faded back to serious as he added, "Especially since I had a few concerns of my own."

"I'm--" Clint started with the automatic 'okay', but something in Rogers' face made it so he didn't need to brush him off. "--not going to jump," he finished.

"I could give you the speech about how it's never easy to be the one left behind, and how you just have to keep going, but since I ditched into the Atlantic less than a month after I found myself in a similar situation, it'd be pretty hypocritical of me." Rogers met Clint's eyes steadily. The wind bit into Clint's skin and he spared a thought for what that cold might mean to the man opposite him. If it bothered Rogers at all, he showed no sign. "I will tell you that the smartest woman I ever met told me that the very least I could do was to honor the choice that had been made and the man who'd made it."

Rogers said it evenly enough, but Clint could hear the layers under the surface tone; the grief and rage and guilt all but sang to Clint. Under all of that, though, Clint felt the solid determination that was all Steve Rogers, not Captain America. He'd spent a fair number of years giving Phil grief about his deep and abiding love for Captain America, but that had stopped once Phil had trusted Clint enough to stop brushing him off and actually talk with him. The serum, Phil had said, hadn't made the man; it just freed everything already there. Clint didn't know how much interaction Phil had had with Rogers before-- everything, but he hoped Phil had seen how right he'd been.

"I'm sorry," Rogers said, and Clint realized he'd been standing there staring at the guy for-- a really long time. "I didn't mean to stick my nose in--"

"No," Clint said, breathing in slow and long, like he was settling in for a shot. "No, you're right."

The cold air burned in his chest and lungs, but it reminded him once again that he was still here, against all expectations and odds, and that had to mean something. Clint had to make it mean something. It wasn't going to be enough--it was never going to be enough--but it would do for a start.