The SHIELD craft lands on the roof of the shawarma place as they’re picking over what’s left of their food, absently passing the leftovers to Thor. The weight of it shakes grit from the ceiling; Clint thinks flatly that it would be mildly poetic if they survived the alien invasion and then got crushed. There’s a routine to the post-mission clean up, even if this one’s going to be on a lot larger scale than usual.
“Come on,” Steve says. He wipes his mouth neatly with a dusty paper napkin and stands. Clint doesn’t know if someone designated him team leader while he was -- out of it, or if the Captain has enough gravitas that it’s assumed. He missed those formative hours.
A SHIELD agent Clint doesn’t know is waiting for them on sidewalk. She looks calm enough, with a gash on her cheek held together with a piece of medical tape and a hell of a bruise starting to blossom on her right eye. She nods tightly at them, says, “Director Fury would like you back as soon as possible.” Clint wonders what would happen if they just refused. He doubts there’s really anything she, or Fury, could do to stop them.
The street outside the shawarma place is littered with glass and debris, and a pair of flipped over cars. One’s still burning around the edges; the flames give off a thick, oily smell that makes the food twist distantly in Clint’s stomach, and he grimaces. They take the fire escape on the side of the building up to the roof, then up the ramp into the back.
Clint has spent days of his life in the back of these things, and it seems far away despite that. He sits, fastens the strap, and drops his hands into his lap. Natasha sits beside him, Steve across from him. Their uniforms are just mildly ridiculous against the practical matte black of everything else. Stars and stripes are kitsch, whatever Phil says. Said.
The edges of the grief Clint hasn’t had room to think about start to eclipse the calm, and he looks to the front as the craft takes off. The control panel and metal seat where Phil should be and the absence of his steady competency is tangible. There’s a hole in the world.
Natasha brushes her knuckles against the back of Clint’s hand.
Clint cuts his gaze away from the negative space. Natasha leans back in her seat and folds her arms over her ribs. From the corner of his eye Clint can see the slant of her hair against her cheek. Neither of them really like to be seen by other people, so they exist in unnoticed, inconsequential gestures. Clint remembers having a knife to her throat, looking down at her with the order to kill sounding tinny in his ear. Her rage was blinding and hopeless.
She will never try to gently hold his hand and say she’s sorry, and that’s why Clint made the call.
It’s an hour’s flight from the middle of Manhattan to the helicarrier listing in the Atlantic. Clint tips his head back and looks at the stacks of gear stowed carefully away above Steve and Thor and Bruce across from him. Parachutes ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice, and weapons for those times when you find yourself unarmed. Clint knows there’s a bow and stocked quiver up there somewhere, because Phil made them standard issue.
Clint jerks his eyes to the smudged silver star in the center of Steve’s chest.
When the transport lands, they all sit still for a moment, listening to the engines power down and the ramp unfold. This is the most unreal moment; having to go back from being an assassin to a person, and not getting lost in the disconnect. Steve runs his fingers through his hair, much less all-America blond with sweat and ash and grit shot through and stands. The rest of them follow; Clint’s beginning to sense a pattern.
He pauses at the top of the ramp, squinting into the late afternoon brightness. His timeline doesn’t track, which isn’t really all that strange. Battles always take more and less time, because the autopilot he slips into can turn four hours into a heartbeat and draw out a single moment to protracted slow motion. There’s still smoke rising thinly from half a dozen places and repair crews crawl over the deck like ants.
The attack on the helicarrier is drenched in saturated, acidic colors.
“Hey,” Natasha says, standing at the bottom of the ramp. “Come on.”
Clint looks at at her. The wind pushes her hair away from her face and he can see the smattering of little cuts on her cheeks and at her hairline, dirt and ash. She’ll be black and blue in the morning, they all will. Clint has a lump from when she slammed his head on the metal railing. He nods, and hooks his fingers on the strap of his quiver across his chest. He wishes there were arrows in it.
They fall in step walking behind the rest of the team. Clint watches Thor’s cape flap in the wind, and Dr. Banner hitches up the too big pants they snaked from a broken storefront. Technically, that probably counts as looting, but no one wanted to try and fit the Hulk through the front door of the shawarma place. Clint can feel the eyes of the SHIELD agents and crews skirting over him as they walk, awed and -- a little afraid.
Clint wants to make Phil appear in every person he sees, and when he doesn’t, the weight of that absence makes his lungs catch like they’re full of smoke. He walks steadily, eyes up, and doesn’t turn his head to check because he knows what happens when you start indulging that. The loss is so bitter, though, and sharp.
They almost die a lot, him and Natasha. It’s routine and there’s nothing really that unusual about ending a day like this. SHIELD agents are supposed to be invincible, to act like they are, and never acknowledge the reality that they’re not.
Fury comes out and meets them on deck, standing with his hands clasped behind his back and his gaze steady and locked down. There’s ash on his clothes, too, and grit and sweat. Everything smells acrid, from smoke and old fear. Fury looks at them and behind the stoicism Clint can sense the deeply tamped down triumph, because he was right; there was a team hiding in them.
“Nice work,” he says, nodding.
Steve squares his shoulders. “Thank you, sir.”
The platitudes abrade Clint, like a piece of grit in his eye. He looks away, out over the deck. He thinks about kneeling in front of Loki with the arrow nocked and the team behind him. Logically, he knows there’s no guarantee putting the bolt into Loki’s brain would have killed him, but. He’d sleep better if he had, when he manages to sleep again.
There’s the same sense of restrained, purposeful action inside the helicarrier with agents and technicians scurrying here and there with tools and papers. Clint knows how much paperwork even minor incidents generate, because he never does it. He hands it to Phil and kisses his cheek and tells him he’s Clint favorite bureaucrat. Clint smirks, and then remembers that he's not going to be passing on paperwork this time.
The thing is, he wasn’t him when it happened. He was in Loki’s acid trip candyland strapped to a gurney while Natasha sat beside him. He heard it, and he understood it, and the first thing he felt was a rush of triumph that he knows didn’t come from him. It came through him, though, and it felt real. And maybe there was some part of him buried deep down in the center of himself that reacted, but it was a trapped, caged corner of his mind. Loki made him glad.
He stops mid-step in the SHIELD corridor. His shoulders roll inward and his hands curl up into fists he doesn’t mean to make six hours late.
“Clint,” Natasha says.
He blinks and looks at her through a scrim of visual white noise. “What?”
Clint follows Natasha to the med unit with his eyes trained between her shoulder blades. He’s aware of the people he walks past, the agents sitting on gurneys while their hands and faces are stitched back together and those laying curled protectively on their sides. It’s probably his imagination that his their eyes between his shoulder blades, afraid and accusing. He imagines they’re just about full up, with the attack he led. Clint is very good at his job.
They’re herded into a private room and Clint sits on the gurney he’s directed to. He’s never liked the sharply antiseptic smell of the med unit, or any hospital. He thinks about being a kid again, taping sprained fingers together in the back of a trailer because his people didn’t do hospitals. Not unless they had to and had to was never good. One of the medics, with two neat stitches in her cheek and her hair escaping from a braid, says something to him.
Clint blinks and shakes away the cobwebs. “Sorry?”
She smiles tightly. “Can you take your-” She waves her hand. There are dark circles beneath her eyes. “Your arrow thing off?”
“Quiver,” Natasha says. She’s sitting to his right, leaning forward with her elbows on her knees. She smiles crookedly at Clint as another medic pushes her hair back and prods at a cut.
The medic nods, and smiles again. “Quiver.”
The mechanics of arming and disarming himself are as deeply ingrained as breathing. He puts his fingers on the buckle and has to stop, for a moment. He doesn’t want to take his quiver off, even though he knows there are no arrows left and the chance he had he let go, because that’s what needed to be done. He’s not good at self-sacrifice and the taste is metallic and acrid.
“Do you--” The medic moves to help and Clint jerks back.
“No,” he says, harder than he means to. “I’ve got it.”
He undoes the buckle and hands his gear to the waiting hands of another SHIELD agent. The medic touches the few nicks on his face. Clint cuts his eyes to the floor and presses his hands against his thighs. He watches one of Natasha’s feet bounce impatiently, because she doesn’t like the med unit any better than he does. She has no use for doctors telling her to take it easy for a few days, to let herself rest.
In Budapest, she sewed Clint’s thigh back together with dental floss and vodka, and he didn’t die.
The medic presses her fingers to the back of Clint’s arm and makes a little sympathetic hiss. “You have glass back here,” she says, easing his shoulder forward.
“I jumped through a window,” Clint says.
The medic reaches for a pair of tweezers. “Of course.”
It stings when she starts pulling the slivers out of his skin. It’s distant, though. Not the same distance that adrenaline dumping into his system brings, where he could be bleeding out and still feel like he could fly. It’s just irrelevant. He’s had salt water poured into knife wounds before. And there isn’t anyone waiting for him, to press their hand against his chest and make sure his heart is still beating.
The medic’s telling him that he doesn’t need stitches, she’s just going to bandage it up, when Fury reappears. She trails off in the middle of her recitation about taking it easy and not doing anything too dangerous, lacking any sense of belief in the words. The helicarrier almost fell out of the sky. There’s no safe for any of them. Just relative levels of danger.
Fury stands in the doorway in the same position he adopted on the deck, feet apart with his hands clasped behind his back. He surveys them with a muscle in his jaw twitching from tension. Clint would guess the council decided to give him a call, probably not overly happy about the spectacle. Clint looks at these people, his team, and doesn’t care. Steve’s getting the burn in his side bandaged and two medics are harassing Tony, trying to do whatever it is you do when someone almost dies. Bruce sits with his hands palms up in his lap, looking very tired and Thor stands, arms folded.
“A minute?” Fury says, directing his gaze to the medical personnel. They pause, hands caught between the need to heal and the instinct to obey. “Unless one of them is dying, which I assume I would already know about, they’ll survive for two minutes.”
The medic’s mouth twists into a grimacing smile she quickly tamps down, and she files out of the room with the rest of them. He watches them, flexing the muscle in his arm to catalog the muted flare of pain.
“There’s something important you should know,” Fury says, releasing his hands and steepling his fingers.
His eyes seek out Clint and stare at him for a split-second. Clint inhales and doesn’t look away, however much he wants to. There’s no point in trying to read Fury; he can’t allow himself to be read no matter how hard he telegraphs intent. Clint straightens up, folds his arms over his chest and looks back. All he’s got left is cold stubbornness.
“You saved the world today,” Fury says. “I am assured the world is very grateful.”
“But?” Tony says, eyebrows raised. “That sounds like it’s leading up to a ‘but.’”
It says something about them, this team that’s meant to be the Avengers, as people and spies and soldiers and gods, that they all shift forward just a little bit. There’s almost nothing left for any of them, Clint has led enough teams that he can sense ragged, futile intent when he sees it. Clint can taste the very, very faint bite of adrenaline on his tongue.
He’ll take, is the thing. He’ll take the fight over what comes when he stops moving.
“My hope is that you will understand why I’ve done what I’ve done,” Fury continues, raising his chin. He smiles at them, devoid of humor. “I don’t necessarily expect it. However.”
“What?” Dr. Banner asks. “I mean, we’ve all had one of those days. What is it?”
Fury inhales and exhales. Clint has never seen him prevaricate before. “It was announced earlier today that Agent Coulson was killed by Loki during his attack on this facility.”
“And?” Natasha says, voice drawn low and tight.
Fury looks at her, looks at Clint. “Agent Coulson was revived by medical staff a short time after the announcement was made. I made the decision to withhold this information at the time.”
Clint stops. For a moment, it’s like his mind gives it up as a bad job and refuses to try and make sense of what he’s just heard Fury said.
It has to be a hallucination, or a dream, or straight-up goddamn wishful thinking. He’s been in moments like this before, where people flicker in and out of existence because he’s been awake for thirty-six hours and he’s still hiding in a deserted warehouse in eastern nowhere with bullets flying by his head. He’s heard people say things in his ear, seen them reach out for him. It happens.
Clint looks at Natasha. Her eyes are wide and her body telegraphs the need to hurt something. And that? Makes it possible. He watches her push off the bed and take an inadvertent step forward.
“How the fuck do you justify that?” Tony demands, breaking the silence.
Clint hears the roar of half a dozen voices fighting to be heard over each other through the scrim of his heart pounding and blood roaring in his ears. Steve’s on his feet, demanding to know what happened and pushing Tony back with one arm while he yells for Fury to explain how he gets off putting them through that. And Thor, fingers clenched around his hammer, roaring in ye olde English so thick it doesn’t make sense around the rage that radiates off him.
Bruce has hands on Tony’s arm and Thor’s shoulder, teeth gritted as he fights down that anger he, apparently, always has. Clint understands that, his mind unnecessarily provides, he really does understand what it’s like to be angry all the time. Natasha puts herself between Clint and Fury, one hand on the grip of her pistols like there’s any ammo left in them. Not that she needs ammunition.
Clint looks up. Phil isn’t dead.
“Where is he?” Clint asks, and his voice sounds so remarkably reasonable in his own ears. None of them can hear him.
Clint pushes off his gurney and looks at Natasha -- and she doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t do anything. But there’s something deep down in her eyes where intuition and understanding live that gives him permission, and her blessing.
He turns, fits his hands to the metal arms of the gurney, and flips it.
The gurney crashes against an instrument cart and sends it shooting across the tile floor to bounce against the wall and scattered sterilized instruments. The bed twists and crashes against the floor. It shocks the others into silence. They stare at him with their arms raised and their fear and accusations and anger burning on their faces. They look like fish in a fucking aquarium.
“Where is he?” Clint repeats in that same so reasonable voice.
Fury turns to him and looks him in the eye. Clint wants his weapons. “He’s in critical,” Fury says. “He is hurt, Agent Barton. That much is true.”
Clint lets the autopilot that gets him through battle take over, because there isn’t room inside him to reconcile grief and hope at the same time. It’s the living, breathing thing that beats in his temples during a fight so he notch arrows and fire them with a speed he can never match on the range, that tells him where Natasha is even when he can’t see her.
It’s not the nothingness of pulling into himself, it’s the expansive something. Bloodlust, maybe, or letting his skin do when his mind needs a minute.
He crosses the room with his hands in white-knuckles fists at his side. “Clint,” someone -- Steve, maybe -- says and puts their hand on his shoulder. He rolls out of it, not able to look and see who they are or what they want. Clint pushes into the corridor, aware that the Avengers will follow and trusting that Natasha has his back.
Clint walks calmly down the hallway, like he has a hundred times before. You join SHIELD, you spend time in the medical units of the helicarrier. It’s as god-given a fact as Nick Fury being the father of everything around them, and the hand behind everything that happens. Clint hears footsteps behind him and the rising clamor of voice director at Fury.
They want answers. Clint doesn’t need them; he already knows. They might be super soldiers and geniuses and gods, but Clint is SHIELD and he understands the greater good. Believes in it, usually. Another day, he will be able to sit down and look at this moment and be grateful for it. He respects Fury, still, and Clint will work with him until the day they pry his bow from his lifeless hands. He’s not going to forgive Fury for this.
The critical unit’s separate from the rest of the med unit. It does double duty as an isolation ward.
The last time Clint was in the critical unit was after a mission in Russia, with a bullet lodged in his hip from a stray shot as he and Natasha ran away. He remembers staring at the ceiling a dozen different unsynchronized electronic beeps in his ears and calmly thinking that if that was what dying felt like there really were worse thing in the world. He pushes his hand against the identification pad beside the door and it flashes green and opens.
There’s a small part of his mind that knows someone gave him access, and he’d bet Fury.
Clint pushes the door open and looks inside and stops, because he can’t breathe and it’s so, so hard to believe.
“Clint,” Natasha says, because his conscience and his courage always come in her voice.
There are four beds in the critical unit, and only one of them has a person in it.
Clint takes a step into the room and stops. He expects it to vanish, or melt back into reality. He watched Loki appear and disappear and multiply, and Clint doesn’t doubt that he couldn’t pull the same trick with other people. And for a moment, Clint wills it to happen because it’s easier than trying to hope. Or believe. Or accept what he’s seeing.
Natasha murmurs, “Oh my God.”
Phil’s got bandages wound around his chest and a dozen different wires sprouting from his skin like growths. There’s an ashen cast to his skin that Clint knows, blood loss and shock and the sudden sucking grasp of exhaustion when your body gives out. Clint watches his chest rise and fall; it’s a little shallow, but it happens, and the monitors beep quietly.
Clint’s heart feels like it’s going to burst out of his chest. And then -- then Phil opens his eyes and looks at him and smiles crookedly through the haze of the drugs. “Hello.” His voice rasps.
“Hi,” Clint says.
Even as he walking across the tile floor, boots squeaking, he expects Phil to blink out of existence. Clint trusts himself when he’s in motion. It’s the calm after the storm that fucks him sideways. Clint is not good at quiet, even if Natasha argues that its more that he elevates quiet to a higher plane than the rest of them. Phil has a fleck of blood on his cheek and one of his hands palm up on the bed.
Clint sits on the edge of the bed and picks up Phil’s hand. His skin is cool, but not cold. Clint has seen enough wounded, dying, and dead people to catalog the distinctions between them. He touches his lips to Phil’s knuckles.
“Clint,” Phil says.
What exists between them is done not necessarily in the dark, in hidden places where the rest of the world is afraid to go. It’s just done between them, drawing the necessary line between Agents Coulson and Barton of SHIELD with their weapons in their hands, and Clint and Phil barefoot in their apartment arguing over what kind of take-out to get. Clint doesn’t share the things he cares about with other people. He can’t.
And he still bends over, cups Phil’s face in his hand, and kisses him.
Phil makes a soft sound in the back of his throat. The fingers of his other hand curl around Clint’s neck, thumb stroking the small patch of skin just behind his ear that only Phil knows about. They’ve had so many better kisses, but. But.
“Everyone saw that,” Phil says softly.
“You’ve been dead all day,” Clint manages. “I don’t care.”