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Ashes to Ashes

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“Come with me,” is all Fury says when he meets them at the helicarrier, docked for repairs at SHIELD headquarters, after the Battle.  After Loki has been handed over in Tesseract-powered cuffs, after schwarma, after Clint hadn’t needed to ask, and Natasha hadn’t needed to tell.  

How many?’ hadn’t been the real question, and Natasha’s ‘Don’t’ was answer enough.

“They’ve got him on life support,” Fury says, as he leads the exhausted Avengers down a corridor in the damaged ship, “but there’s no-” Fury stops and runs a calloused hand across his face, not quite quick enough to hide the tiny tremor.  

“I didn’t lie,” Nick says, and Clint doesn’t know the story but he can guess.  Stark is uncharacteristically quiet, and Rogers is appropriately solemn.  Clint spares a moment to hope that Phil actually got to meet his hero before . . . well, before whatever happened to put him here in this tiny room Nick has led them to, back in the forgotten corners of Medical where agents go when all that’s left to do is say goodbye and wait.

Clint stands by the door with Nick and Natasha as the others take their turns.  One by one they step up to Phil’s bed, and step back a few moments later.  Clint doesn’t hear what they say - even Thor is quiet - and it’s none of his business anyway.  He pretends he doesn’t see Stark wipe his eyes as he turns away.

Natasha goes last.  She places one small hand on Phil’s forehead and her lips go thin and white.  

“I brought him back for you,” she says quietly, the Black Widow checking in, reporting the success of the last mission he ever gave her.  It makes Clint’s gut churn with guilt for what he’s about to do, knowing he won’t have time to explain it to her.  Tasha puts a supportive hand on his shoulder as she returns to his side, and Clint flicks a grateful glance her direction.

“Can I have some time?” he asks Nick, eyes never leaving the still figure on the bed.  Nick nods.

“As long as you need,” he says, kind and sympathetic like he rarely is.  It’s a long-standing joke among the upper echelons of SHIELD that Phil is the only agent higher than level 5 who doesn’t know how Clint feels about him.  Nick and Natasha herd the others out the door, leaving Clint alone with the artificially-living body of the man he loves.

Clint walks over and sits on the edge of Phil’s hospital bed.  It’s insane, what he’s thinking of doing, and he knows it.  Nothing but half-remembered fairy tales to even say it’s possible and yet . . .  The steady whoosh of the ventilator is too loud in Clint’s ears and the only thing that makes any sense in this fucked up world is right there in front of him and so far out of reach.

Making sure his body hides the action from the camera in the corner Clint unsheathes one of the knives he keeps strapped to his thigh.  He spares only a quick thought for the people on the other side of the door, who will see this and not understand.

“I’m sorry,” he whispers to Phil, to Natasha and Nick and the others.  And then in one quick, brutal movement he brings the knife up and slits his own throat.


A sharp wounded cry torn from Natasha’s throat has the others whirling around just in time to see Clint fall, choking, on the bed atop Phil.  The grainy security feed does nothing to mute the violent splash of blood on the wall, soaking the bed and its unresponsive occupant, pooling on the floor.

There’s a mad dash for the door and Natasha knows it’s pointless, Clint’s action too fast, too efficient to do anything but watch as he dies but it doesn’t keep her from being first into the room.  Clint’s body convulses once and stills.  

Dimly she hears Fury’s broken curse, Thor’s choked off bellow of rage and denial, Tony’s agonising moan.  And then, as they stare in horror, small flames flicker to life around Clint’s body, growing larger, brighter, until the entire bed is engulfed in a conflagration almost too bright to look at. Smaller tongues of fire erupt along the wall, the floor, the machines surrounding the bed, anything that was touched by Clint’s blood.

As quickly as they erupted the flames die down, leaving behind only a thin patina of fine grey ash across the uncharred sheets on the empty bed.

 

Chapter Text

This isn’t the first time Phil Coulson has woken up after being pretty convinced he was never going to wake up again.  It is the first time he’s done so quite this comfortably, however.  This is definitely not SHIELD Medical.

Cataloging his surroundings is second nature by now.  He’s lying on something soft, he’s warm, and most of all, he’s in no pain, nor is he feeling the fuzziness that comes with heavy-duty painkillers.

Phil opens his eyes.  He’s lying in what appears to be a nest of pillows and there’s a denim-clad thigh about six inches in front of his face.  He rolls over and looks up to see Clint Barton sitting cross-legged next to him, staring down at his hands clasped in his lap.  The last time Phil saw Clint it was through a security camera in Stuttgart.  He should be scared to be here alone with a compromised agent, but the defeated posture is all Clint.

Phil sits up gingerly, still expecting a pain that never comes.  Now vertical, Phil can see that the ‘nest’ is tucked into the corner of a maintenance shaft in what could be pretty much any office building but Phil is willing to bet he’s in SHIELD Headquarters.  

“Somehow I thought the afterlife would be a little less . . . industrial,” Phil says.  Clint makes a choked sound that is probably supposed to be a laugh.  He still won’t look at Phil.

“Barton, report,” Phil says with a sigh.  

“What’s the last thing you remember, sir?”  Clint asks, finally looking over at Phil, and there’s something different about him.  He looks almost . . . younger, somehow.

“I remember getting stabbed with a giant spear, actually.  Which is surprising, since I seem to be sitting here without a scratch.  And you look different.”  Clint flinches visibly at that.  He opens his mouth as if to speak, but closes it again.  Phil has never seen Clint lost for words before.  Nothing about this situation makes sense.

“Barton, talk to me,” Phil says, “because I’m coming up with a lot of crazy scenarios here.  Are you even the Barton I know?”  Clint laughs.  It’s a bitter sound.

“Yeah, I am.  I’m me, you’re you, I promise.”  Phil feels something tight within him relax.

“Loki?” Phil asks, because really, that should have been his first question but the whole not being dead thing has thrown him just a bit.  

“Loki’s secure.  The Avengers kicked ass in your honor, sir,” Clint says, with a tiny hint of a smile. “Natasha got him out of my head and we stopped the army he brought to invade New York.  It was all very dramatic.  And then we came back and Nick told us you . . . the doctors . . . there wasn’t any hope and I just . . .”

“You just what, Clint?” Phil asks softly.  Clint takes a deep breath and ducks his head between his shoulders in an instinctive gesture Phil has seen only a few times before - the natural inclination to protect the head from an expected blow.  With the familiarity of long practice, Phil stamps down the urge to resurrect everyone who has ever hurt his agent and kill them all over again . . . slowly.

“I’ve been lying to you for years,” Clint says finally, miserably.  “I’m not . . . exactly . . . human.  And I’m selfish, and I can’t do this without you, so I might have made you not exactly human too.  And I’m sorry.”  Clint shakes his head violently, still speaking resolutely to the floor.  

“No, I’m not sorry.  I’m sorry that I’m not sorry.  And now you’ll probably hate me and you’ll have every right.  You should hate me and I’m a selfish bastard because I’d rather you be alive and hating me than the alternative.”

A part of Phil is calmly pointing out that he really should be focusing on the fact that he’s apparently not human anymore, but the much larger part of him wants nothing more than to gather Clint up in his arms and tell him, over and over again, that there is nothing he could do to make Phil hate him because Phil loves Clint, has loved him for years, quietly, in the background, knowing that he’s far too ordinary for someone as amazing as Clint and not caring if that makes him a pathetic old man with a crush because Clint deserves Phil’s love even if he could never return it.

Or at least, that’s what Phil’d thought, but now Clint is babbling about selfishness and needing Phil to be alive and there’s hope there and Phil needs to get this whole ‘not human’ thing out of the way so they can focus on what’s really important, which is Clint, and how it maybe sounds like Clint might love Phil too.

“Nothing you could ever do would make me hate you, Clint,” Phil tells him fiercely, scooting closer so his knees are touching Clint’s and reaching out one hand to rest on Clint’s arm.

“This could,” Clint insists, stubbornly.  

“Then tell me,” Phil says, “so I can prove you wrong.  You said you’re not human, and you made me not human too.  So what are we, and why do you think I’ll hate you for it?” Clint freezes, eyes closed, every muscle tense and waiting for the pain he’s so sure is coming.

“I’m a Phoenix,” Clint answers quietly.  “I couldn’t stand the idea of you dying so I made you immortal.”

Chapter Text

“Like you, right?” Phil asks, as the enormity of that sentence takes hold.  “You made me immortal like you?” Because that’s the most important thing.  Living forever may not be all it’s cracked up to be, and Phil’s seen enough death and destruction to understand how immortality can just as easily be a curse as a blessing, but the most important thing is if he’s going to live forever, that he doesn’t have to do it alone.

“Yeah, like me,” Clint mutters in a slightly scoffing tone, like he thinks that makes the whole situation worse, rather than better.  Phil has to remind himself that Clint has been through hell the past few days, so of course his confidence is shot, because otherwise, he’d be getting annoyed at all the misery being projected his way.

“Will you look at me please, Clint?” Phil asks, keeping as much frustration out of his voice as he can.  Clint looks up, startled, and he looks so lost Phil just wants to hold him and tell him it will all be fine, but he needs some answers first.

“Ok, let me see if I’ve got this right . . . You’re not human, you’re a Phoenix, although since you look like a human and not a giant firebird I’m going to assume that the myths I’ve read aren’t entirely accurate?”  Clint nods.  Phil takes that as a sign to continue.

“Do you turn into a giant firebird?” he asks, because inquiring minds want to know.  Clint makes a small choking noise that seems to aspire to be a laugh someday and his eyes brighten just a tiny bit with amusement.

“No,” he answers, shaking his head.  “From what I was told, the term applies to the ability to be resurrected through fire, not to any specific physical form.  The legends say that the firebirds were the first Phoenixes, and that some humans gained the ability later, but who knows if that’s true or not.”  Clint shrugs.

“You were told?  You weren’t born a Phoenix?”  

“That’s actually a matter for debate.  No one knows whether or not they’re a Phoenix until they die and are reborn . . . or not.  It’s not like it comes with an instruction manual, and I’ve only met a handful of others.  Some seem to think that you are born a Phoenix and others think you earn it somehow by having crappy life experiences.”  Clint shrugs again.  “I’ve never heard of a Phoenix who had a happy childhood.”

“So how did you make me one?” Phil asks, confused. Clint suddenly looks miserable again at the reminder, but Phil needs to understand the full situation before he can offer reassurances.

“I didn’t really know if it would work,” Clint answers softly.  “If there’d be any other way . . .”

“I know,” Phil assures him.

“It’s actually something of a myth.  There’s this legend about a Phoenix who fell in love with a human.  They both knew the Phoenix would live long after her lover died, but they thought they’d have a full human lifespan to be together.  Instead, they were set upon by highwaymen when travelling one day.  They were both mortally wounded, and the Phoenix used the last of her strength to crawl over to her lover so at least they could be together in his last moments.

“She died before her lover, who was still barely clinging to life when she burned.  Because they were so closely entwined, the fire took them both and they were both reborn, and from that day on they lived happily ever after, together as Phoenixes.”

“Wait, you were dying too?” Phil asks.  Clint rubs the back of his neck nervously.

“Not at first,” he says. “But we only burn after death, and if there was any truth to the legend I felt I had to try.  So I, uh, killed myself.” He cringes against Phil’s reaction to that.

“What if it hadn’t worked?” Phil asks, breathless with horror at the idea of Clint killing himself over him, even if it hadn’t been permanent.

“Then you’d still be being kept alive on life support, and I’d wake up and have a lot of explaining to do,” Clint says tightly.  Phil acknowledges the point, and figures Clint still has some explaining to do to Natasha and Nick at the very least.  That can wait.  They’re almost there.  Just a few more questions.  He takes a deep breath, putting the emotion of the last few minutes away for a moment.

“How does it work?” he asks, knowing Clint will understand that he means everything, Phoenix 101.  Clint straightens, looking relieved to be back on a slightly less fraught topic.

“When a Phoenix dies, its body is consumed by tongues of fire.  Phoenix fire doesn’t burn anything other than the Phoenix itself - buildings, furnishing, even sheets on a bed are safe.  The flames consume the body utterly.  The Phoenix is then reconstituted in the nearest place they feel safe - and yes, that can be as nebulous as it sounds,” Phil smiles a little at that.  “I haven’t died enough times to draw any conclusions about exactly what constitutes a ‘safe place’, although at the least I’m always out of immediate danger of attack or discovery.”  Phil nods at him to continue.

“When you’re reborn, all current injuries are healed.  Anything physically wrong with you the moment you died is fixed.  Scars and such usually remain, as long as they’re not themselves causing problems.  Any kind of scarring that impairs movement is gone.

“You mentioned I looked different,” Clint says and Phil jolts at the reminder, studying Clint intently.

“You do,” he says.  “You look younger.”  Clint nods.

“So do you,” he says. “Being reborn sets you back to the last time you were fully fit with no damage from aging.  For most men, that’s around thirty-five or so.”  Phil’s eyebrows raise into his - still - nonexistent hairline.

“I look like I’m thirty-five?” he asks, incredulously.  Clint grins.

“Yeah, you kinda do.  Of course, you always looked younger than you actually were, so it’s not that noticeable. No new hair though,” Clint says with a smirk, “in case you were hoping.”  Phil sighs.

“I lost most of my hair before I was thirty,” he says resignedly.  “It’d be too much to hope for that any of it came back.”

“Anyway,” Clint continues, “in between deaths you age normally, injure normally, and heal just as slowly as a normal human from anything non-lethal.  Some Phoenixes deliberately kill themselves after any injury that takes longer than a day or two to heal, because they know it’ll be gone when they resurrect.  Of course, that makes it hard to keep quiet when you keep resetting back to full health and youth, so obviously I haven’t done that unless I was going dark on a mission where no one would notice if I was injured and then suddenly healed.”

“Belarus?” Phil asks in sudden realisation.  Clint nods.

“Yeah. Bad thigh wound.  Wouldn’t have made it out on my own with it, and probably would have lost the leg.”

“Anything else?”

“Nothing else concrete,” Clint says.  “It’s not just injury - you’ll resurrect if you die of poison or disease too, including old age.  There’s another legend, says if you live for a certain amount of time - I’ve heard 200 years, and 500, and even 1000 - that if you’ve lived past whatever arbitrary age, and you survive long enough for your organs to begin to shut down from nothing other than age and wear, that you’ll actually die for good.  

“But like I said, it’s a legend.  To be honest, I don’t know if there’s anything that can kill us for good.”  Clint sighs and looks down at his lap again.  “Like I said - I’m selfish.  And I’m sorry.”

“Are you planning on leaving?” Phil asks, careful to keep his tone neutral.  Clint looks startled.

“Not planning on it exactly.  I mean, I did almost bring down the Helicarrier.  Dunno what they’re going to do with me for that,” he says, attempting a nonchalant tone that is ruined by the pinched look on his face.

“That wasn’t your fault,” Phil says firmly.  “Nick won’t let any of that come back on you.  And that’s not what I meant.  I was talking about the future. Were you planning on us going our separate ways for the rest of our apparently very long lives?”

“If that’s what you want,” Clint says, voice small.  Phil is suddenly, blindingly angry.

“No, that’s not what I want,” he nearly shouts. “You keep acting like you’ve done some sort of horrible thing to me and I should hate you for it.  I don’t hate you.  You saved my life.  Yeah, so that life’s going to be a bit longer than I originally expected.  I can handle that.  I can handle that as long as I’m not alone.  If I have you.”

Clint is staring at Phil in shock, eyes bright.

“Phil . . . .” he breathes, and there’s a lightness in his voice that Phil hasn’t heard in a very long time.

“I was so afraid,” Phil admits. “I didn’t think we’d get you back.  I was afraid we’d have to kill you - that I might be the one who had to do it and I didn’t think I could.  And the last thing I thought about when I was dying was that I’d never know. I’d never know if you were safe.

“I’m glad you did what you did.  I am so relieved that you’re here, you’re you, you’re safe.  That I'm here to see it.  I don’t care about anything else.  I just want . . . I’ve wanted for years . . . I want to be with you.  For as long as you’ll let me.  Forever, which is apparently now not an exaggeration, if that’s ok with you?”  Phil snaps his mouth shut and holds his breath, a little appalled at the torrent of words he’s just uttered, but determined to have his answer one way or another.  Clint is watching him with desperate eyes.

“I . . . Are you sure?” he asks, voice cracking.

“For years, Clint,” Phil answers, heart lifting in hope.  

Clint’s face cracks into a huge, beatific smile.

“I told you I was being selfish, didn’t I?” he says with a smile, and Phil shuts him up with a kiss before he can say anything else.

 

Chapter Text

Natasha sits, silent.  Tony and Bruce are crowded around one of the medical computers, with Thor standing beside them, frowning.  Tony is a flurry of barely contained agitation, his movements sharp with frustration, his voice loud and incomprehensible to anyone except Bruce, apparently.  Bruce is the calm in the eye of the storm, answering Tony’s questions in a steady, measured tone.  Occasionally, one of them will ask Thor a question and he will answer, voice softer than Tasha has ever heard it.  She knows they are trying to figure out what happened, to determine whether the light show and the missing bodies had any connection to Loki’s scepter.

“It doesn’t make sense,” Natasha mutters.

“Things like this never do,” Steve says quietly from beside her and Natasha almost startles.

“That’s not what I mean,” she says, once she’s sure her voice will be steady, “It’s not that he did it, it’s the way that he did it that doesn’t make sense.”  She still can’t say Clint’s name.

“How so?” Steve asks.

“We were still in mission mode.  It should have taken longer for it to sink in in the first place, and even then it’s not like him to just give up like that.  He’s the model for ‘soldiering on’.  If he were going to kill himself he’d just be a little too slow on a mission or something - not like this.”

“Sometimes people can surprise you,” Steve says.  “Sometimes we don’t know the people we care about as much as we think we do.”

“I know Clint!” Natasha returns fiercely, and a little too loudly because Tony and Bruce glance in her direction for a second before turning back to their work.  Natasha sits frozen for a moment, her own words echoing in her head with the uncomfortable realisation that she’ll have to get used to past tense now.  

“It’s normal to think like that when you’ve lost someone,” Steve moves to put a hand on her shoulder but she ducks away and he pulls his hand back sharply.  She gets that Steve is trying, but comfort is not what she needs now. Natasha stands and starts to pace in front of the bench, needing to move, needing to feel like she’s doing something, even if it’s useless.

“There is nothing normal about what just happened here.”

“No, there isn’t,” Tony says seriously, coming over to stand by Natasha, followed by Bruce and Thor.  Fury looks away from where he’d been watching the techs in biohazard suits going over the room with sensors.

“What did you find?” Fury asks Tony.

“Nothing,” Tony answers disgustedly.

“There’s definitely no gamma radiation,” Bruce says. “Whatever happened it’s not related to the tesseract or the spear.”

“This is not my brother’s magic,” Thor says firmly, “I have never seen the like before.”

“But it is magic?” Fury qualifies, and Thor nods.  “So you’re telling me that two people who both had contact with a magical spear then disappeared by magic that was not related to the previous magic?  Does that sound likely to you?”

“What about the residue in the room?” Bruce asks Fury before a bristling Tony can respond.

“Organic,” Fury answers, “haven’t done a DNA match yet but I’d bet it’ll match our missing people.”

“There’s not enough mass to account for two bodies though,” Bruce says.

“So where are they?” Steve asks, but no one has an answer.  

In her pocket, Natasha’s phone vibrates, indicating an incoming text.  She debates ignoring it, but there are very few people who have her personal number, and most of them are in this room.  Or dead.  When she sees the caller id on the screen, she can feel the blood leaving her face, her balance suddenly compromised.

“Natasha?” Fury says softly, concerned.  

“It’s from Clint,” Natasha says, voice uncharacteristically unsteady.  “It’s from Clint’s phone.”  

Clint’s phone.  Which had been on his body when it . . . disappeared.  Cautiously, she thumbs the button to open the text.

‘Phil and I are fine, we’re in his office. Sorry for the drama.’

Natasha collapses onto the bench behind her, trembling.  She gives the phone to Fury with shaking hands.

“Son of a bitch,” Fury mutters.  Natasha takes a deep breath.

“I’m going to kill him,” she says calmly.

 

Chapter Text

“So where exactly are we?” Phil asks when he pulls back, and is startled to see a blush rise on Clint’s face.  He beckons Phil to follow, and leads him through one of the vents leading to the nook, until they reach a vent cover.  Clint unlatches it and drops down into the room below.  Phil follows, and bursts out laughing.  They’re in his office.

“Exactly how long have you been nesting above my office?” Phil asks.  He’s smiling, but Clint, when he answers, is serious.

“Years,” he answers.  "I could hear you type from there, hear your voice if you were on the phone.  Made me feel safe.”  

Phil takes a step forward so he is firmly in Clint’s personal space and leans forward slowly, giving Clint plenty of time to move out of the way.  He doesn’t, so Phil presses his lips to Clint’s softly.

“Good,” he says when he pulls back, and Clint’s pupils are blown wide and there’s something like reverence in his expression and Phil doesn’t understand, because Clint’s amazing, Clint’s a superhero, and Phil thought that before the Avengers, and before he learned Clint is an honest-to-god magical creature.  Phil’s just . . . Phil. 

But Clint is looking at him like he’s somebody special, and Clint cared enough to do what he did, to reveal the secret he’s kept his whole life just on the chance that it would give Phil a second one.  Clint’s multicoloured eyes are gazing into Phil’s, seeing everything with that perfect gaze of his, and Phil doesn’t care, everything that he is is Clint’s for the taking and Clint rests a warm, calloused hand on the back of Phil’s neck and draws him in for another kiss, plundering Phil’s mouth like he’s staking a claim.

“God, I love you,” Clint groans when he pulls back and Phil just closes his eyes and rests his forehead against Clint’s shoulder, just for a moment, because they’re going to have to start explaining soon and Phil is still trying to wrap his brain around everything that’s just happened.  It’s overwhelming -- good overwhelming -- but overwhelming all the same.  So he takes his moment of peace while he can and Clint’s arms around him are warm and comforting and he feels like he could stay like this forever, and wow, that word has a whole new meaning now.

Eventually Phil pulls back and Clint sighs before fishing his phone out of his pocket.  He types out a text and takes a deep breath before hitting “send”.  He goes to put it back in his pocket but Phil takes it from his hand instead and Clint lets him.  Phil looks down at the sent text still on the screen.

‘Phil and I are fine, we’re in his office. Sorry for the drama.’ Phil raises one eyebrow incredulously.  

That is how you told Natasha we’re alive?”  Clint shrugs sheepishly.

“She’s gonna be mad,” he says, “she’s probably going to hit me.  Fair warning.”

“Who exactly was watching when you . . .”

“Slit my throat very messily over your vegetative body?” Clint finishes, and Phil shudders.  Morbid levity is how Clint deals with things and Phil knows that, has been on the receiving end of Clint’s inappropriate humour more than once but there is nothing about that sentence that doesn’t fill him with horror.

“Yeah, that,” he says shakily and Clint pulls him close again with a grimace.  

“Sorry. Too soon?”

“Give my brain a chance to catch up.  Hearing about your death is never going to be easy, even if it wasn’t permanent.  Who was there?  And did you have to be that traumatic?”

“It needed to be fast, so they couldn’t stop me, and over quickly, so they couldn’t save me.  And I don’t have a gun on me at the moment.  And they were all there - Stark, Banner, Thor, Rogers, Natasha . . . Nick.”

Poor Nick, Phil thinks.  Not only did he have to be witness to what Phil thought were his last moments, but to have to watch Clint seemingly commit suicide in front of him . . . Nick’s always had a soft spot for Clint.  He’s the one who tossed Clint’s file on Phil’s desk all those years ago and told him to do whatever it takes to get this one to join.  Nick had seen Clint’s potential from the start, while it took Phil months of chasing him down to develop the same appreciation.

“You’re going to owe him a big apology after this,” he tells Clint.

“I know,” Clint says.  “I’m using you as a bribe.”

Phil laughs out loud, just as the office door opens.

Chapter Text

Natasha stalks down the hallway toward Phil’s office, Nick right behind her, while the others scramble to keep up.  Every step brings her closer to Clint and it’s all she can do not to break into a run.  Clint is hers.  Ok, so he’s Phil’s too, but he was hers first.  Clint had saved her when she was adrift, brought her into SHIELD, given her a home, a family.  She has other friends now, Phil and Nick and Jasper and Mel, but Clint was the start.  When she built herself up after the Red Room, when she’d created herself out of the pieces they had left, Clint had been the cornerstone.  Those long minutes when she’d thought he was gone had made her realise that she doesn’t know who she is without Clint beside her.  Phil might have been the center of Clint’s world but Clint is the center of hers and she needs him back.  Now.

The door to Phil’s office looms before her like an unscalable wall, an impenetrable fortress.  Natasha has never been one for self-deception.  She knows that a cheeky text from Clint’s phone is no guarantee that he really is alive and behind that door.  It is far more likely, given what she has seen, that this is some cruel trick of Loki’s.  One last parting shot, aiming to destroy her slowly, in the one way he knows she fears most.  But despite herself, Natasha still expects to see Clint, one hand scratching the back of his neck with that sheepish look on his face he gets every time he does something stupidly risky and knows she’s going to yell at him for it. 

Everything comes to a head as she reaches the door to Phil’s office.  She feels like a badly-cracked vase - what she finds behind that door will either glue her back together good as new or shatter her into pieces so small they can never be reassembled.  Still, her hand is steady as she keys in the code to override the lock and opens the door.

The first thing she hears is laughter -- Phil’s laughter, bright and happy and completely out of place.  Natasha stops, frozen, just inside the door, staring blankly.  Distantly she realises that while she had expected against all odds to find Clint here and alive she truly had not expected to find Phil -- alive, whole, and on his feet, mid-laugh, one hand resting on Clint’s bicep and staring back at her with that soft, understanding expression that somehow manages to feel warm and comforting, rather than patronising.

Her gaze turns to Clint, and yes, there’s the jutting elbow as he rubs his neck, that unforgettable sheepish grin, and Natasha can’t move, torn between pulling him to her and never letting go, and knocking him flat on his ass.

“Tasha,” Clint says her name softly and just like that she is unstuck.  She strides forward, hand raised to slap him silly for scaring her so much but almost without her permission the hand instead grabs the back of his neck, her other hand coming up to join it as she sags against him, letting the warm solid reality of him hold her up as she buries her face in his shoulder.  Without hesitation his own arms come up to hold her tightly against him.

“I’m sorry, Tasha.  I’m so sorry,” he whispers into ear, over and over again.

Eventually she manages to calm down enough so that she can hear other voices over the beating of own heart.  She raises her head from Clint’s shoulder where he is still holding her, seeming content to stay put as long as she needs.  

She listens as Phil and Clint take turns explaining what happened, Clint’s hand rubbing absently along her back as he describes how what they saw, far from being a suicide attempt, was actually a long shot chance to save Phil.  

Realising that Clint had known that he would survive either way, that he was never trying to die permanently, something hard and painful in Natasha’s chest dissolves, leaving her breathless with relief.  She hadn’t screwed up.  She hadn’t missed any warning signs.

As the others are listening to Phil assure them that he is happy with the changes that have been wrought in the process of bringing him back, Clint leans down to whisper in her ear, wiping away her greatest fear with his gentle words.

“I will never leave you,” he promises.  Natasha follows his eyes as he glances at Phil.  Phil, who is looking back at them both with a warm, fond expression she has only ever seen him direct at Clint’s back.  “We will never leave you,” Clint says, and Phil’s eyes reflect the promise in his voice.

 

Chapter Text

Two Years Later:

 

The crack of the rifle echos off the metal walls of the warehouse where Clint crouches, helpless, behind the dubious cover of a stack of wooden crates.  For the first time in his life he curses his amazing vision that allows him to see, far too clearly, the spray of blood that erupts as Phil crumples and falls from the scaffolding forty feet up. 

Clint’s heart is in his throat.  What if it didn’t work?  What if the burning had healed Phil’s injuries but hadn’t actually made him into a phoenix?  

Time seems to slow down as Phil falls, silent, until Clint’s sharp eyes make out the slightest hint of red and then there is a burst of fire as Phil disappears mid-air and lands flat on his back next to Clint.  Phil’s eyes are wide with shock as he sits up and rubs the side of his chest where the bullet had hit.   

“Huh.  That felt weird,” he says, and Clint feels relief bubble up inside him, trying to come out as hysterical laughter. 

“This is your safe place?” Clint asks incredulously, the sounds of battle audible just across the room. 

“You’re here,” Phil replies, smiling.  “How much safer could I be?”

Clint drops his bow, and grabs Phil instead, totally uncaring of the bullets now slamming into the crates just a few feet from their position.  He drags Phil’s face to his, capturing those slightly smirking lips with his own and kisses him until he starts to feel light-headed from lack of oxygen.  Phil gives back as good as he gets and long before he wants to Clint finds himself pulling back, gasping.  He rests his forehead against Phil’s revelling in the warmth of his skin and the feel of that steady heartbeat against his fingers.

“God, I love you,” Clint says, and Phil’s smile lights up his world.