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Who by Fire? I

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It's Natasha who tells him. Of course, Natasha; lover, betrayer, sister, but in the end friend. Who else would it be now, with Coulson (Phil, oh god Phil, now he will never be Phil, all chances gone-) gone.

It's the worst thing she's ever said to Clint.

He's dead. Phil Coulson is dead. Phil Coulson is dead and Loki killed him.

“Stabbed through the heart.” Natasha says.

The irony is not lost on Clint. Loki had landed so many blows after prying into Clint's mind. He'd known exactly where to strike to take the heart out of them all because it was right there in Clint's mind.

Clint looks at her, sees sadness in her eyes and he doesn't doubt the truth for even one second. It's maybe the only thing that would convince him, the pain in her eyes. He can't feel anything. He's glad in a completely detached way that someone feels the loss. He's completely hollowed out.

Clint feels the weight of all the losses pressing down on his chest. Natasha leans in close, Clint can smell her sweat. “Breathe,” she whispers, worry fighting with sadness now.

'You shouldn't worry about me' Clint thinks, but he does what he's told and breathes. He can stop later when there aren't so many people looking at him.

Steve steps forward and Clint can see the questions he wants to ask mixed with concern. But Clint can't answer questions, because he doesn't have answers. All he has now are regrets, and words he never said, and no more chances.

Clint stands quickly and turns away, tries not to see what's been playing across the inside of his eyelids since he woke up in a cell hours ago. It's no good though. Clint can see their faces, all the people Loki used his hands to kill, every time he closes his eyes, even when he blinks. He can add Phil Coulson's face to that list. Even though Loki didn't use Clint's hands he still killed Phil Coulson as surely as if the blade was his own.

Clint wants to let the thought drive him to his knees, wants to let the guilt press down on him until his heart stops. But he can't, not here. Not with the Avengers looking on , not with Nat so close at hand. He knows she will want to save him whether he deserves it or not. The answer is most definitely not, but there's no point in telling Natasha or any of them that. It's what they do, save people. Natasha especially, is too loyal, too rigid, and too removed from her own redemption to turn away from his. Clint doesn't have the heart to tell her. There's no point in saving him now. He has destroyed his own last chance.

He never told anyone, not even Phil, what he hid away in a corner of his heart, tucked under old fears, and past betrayals and the certainty that Phil Coulson was too good for Clint Barton. Now it's too late.

Phil Coulson is dead. But what can Clint say in the face of all the damage that has been done in other lives, damage he has done? What can he possibly say about his own lost hope and foolishly broken heart over someone who was not even his?

Clint talks to the doctors and lies to the shrinks and they all buy it. He tells them nothing really hurts and he doesn't remember anything after Loki touched him. Clint Barton lies extremely well, it's his job. He's almost as a good a liar as he is an archer.

They clear him for leave with a request for a follow up in a couple of weeks. Clint nods and agrees and goes to his quarters. He sits and stares at the hard gray walls and tries not to think.

Natasha comes to get him when it's time to see Loki on his way. She takes his knives and his side arm, before they leave. He doesn't argue with her. Even if he did stab Loki through the heart it would not undo anything, least of all Clint's own guilt. He will have to live with that. As long as he lives.

He gets a small amount of something akin to satisfaction from the desperation in Loki's eyes when the demi-god reaches out to grip the Tesseract's vessel. The feeling is inadequate but it will have to be enough, because it's all he's going to get.

Natasha let's him drive when they leave the square and he's grateful to have something to occupy at least part of his mind. It only does so much good but it keeps the faces of his dead at bay for a while, at least until they get to his apartment.

“Want me to come up?” she asks when he parks.

Clint shakes his head no. “Just gonna sleep,” he says and hopes she'll give him this.

He watches her drive away, meets her gaze in her rear view mirror, tries not to let anything show in his own eyes.

He closes the door of his apartment and drops his duffel on the floor. He makes it as far as the battered sofa before collapsing. He's too fucking tired to get his old service pistol out of the drawer in the kitchen and blow his brains out. And he's not sure he deserves to be let off the hook that easily. Clint falls asleep thinking “You deserve to live with what you did. ”

He dreams, all the people who have died because of him are right there in his dreams starting with his mother and ending with Phil. It's a long list. Everything, even the distant past is washed over by a bitter blue light that makes the bile rise up in the back of his throat. He feels his heart twist in his chest and Clint realizes he's dreaming but he's powerless to change the dreams themselves.

He wakes up in the dark and he can't move because ever muscle in his body is screaming at him and it hurts to breathe. He can feel every hit his body took, before he was Loki's and after he was not. It's his price to pay but it's not enough. Clint thinks about going back to sleep. There's no oblivion in sleep but there's a certain kind of detachment.

But his body is screaming at him and there's not going to be more sleep until he takes a piss and drinks some water. It takes him a while to get to his feet, he's not really sure how long.

Eventually he's standing though, and every fucking cell in his body hurts. He pisses for what feels like an hour but it's probably less. Clint is standing at the kitchen draining another glass of tap water when he a realizes he isn't tired any more. He looks around the dingy rooms where he keeps his shit, hoping for something that will occupy his mind long enough for sleep to catch him again.

He never really cared before, but the inside of his apartment is too small and dirty and suffocating. There's a TV but no cable, nothing to read, just a place to sleep when he can't be at SHIELD. He can only think of one or two places on the planet he wants to be less.

He makes his way to the roof of his building and sits in the dark, unarmed and half conscious, secretly hoping something viscous and awful will come out of the night and kill him for what he's done. Make him pay for the lives he's cost. Make him pay for Phil. He barely notices the familiar blue film over everything he sees.

He watches the sun come up over the dirty gray sky, with his feet hanging over the buildings edge, wishing he could fall, because he cannot jump. When the city comes to life around him and that life is too much to ignore Clint goes back to his apartment.

He turns on the shitty old TV and stares blankly at the screen. Some stock race with a lot of beer commercials. It occurs to him there's beer in his fridge.

He gets up and brings the case to the TV and starts to drink. It doesn't take long to get hammered when you slam back beer on an empty stomach and an overloaded system. Clint passes out a couple of hours later but there's no oblivion in sleep now either. Only dreams, the faces and voices of the dead, and blue light.

He wakes up once and the sun is high and bright and it makes his head ache even worse. Clint stumbles to his bed and falls onto the stale bedding, asleep again almost before he stops falling.

When he wakes up it's dark again. His muscles hurt less but he still can't move at first, held in place by a different kind of pain and a species of regret so powerful it has sunk into his bones. Clint's chest aches and his whole body is in miserable turmoil.

Clint stands, thinking fleetingly of running, with no idea where to, but he's dizzy and sick and can hardly stand. He barely makes it to the toilet before he pukes, bile, beer and self loathing pour out of him. It's produces no relief, everything still hurts and his head still aches so bad he can barely breathe. Clint falls asleep on the bathroom floor, the smell of vomit in the air.

Clint wakes up slowly, to light and pounding and God did he really think puking his guts out would ward off a hangover? His brain is hammering against the inside of his skull and his guts are boiling. His back is fucking killing him from sleeping slumped between the toilet and the shower and when he moves the pounding in his head is gets worse.

He groans and tries to roll into a less miserable heap, wishing he was still asleep. At least the things that can reach him in his sleep hurt in a less physical way. When he's asleep it's only his heart that hurts, and that is no less than he deserves.

“Goddammit Barton, open this fucking door!” he hears a voice demand, followed by more pounding. There's a crash and foot steps and Clint realizes the pounding wasn't just in his head. Someone is here and they sound pissed. Clint can't think who it's, no one even knows where he lives except Natasha and- Natasha. He's sure she wouldn't come.

“Jesus. Look at this fucking place.” a man's voice says. Clint doesn't understand. What he hears makes no sense to his over taxed brain. It can't be Stark, no matter how much it sounds like him.

“BARTON! You better not be dead, you fucker!” he hears just before the bathroom door crashes open and Tony Stark is standing over him looking down with things in his eyes Clint doesn't deserve ( like worry) and things he does (like disgust.)

“Jesus, Clint,” Tony says crouching down and Clint wants to punch him in the face so bad. Punch him in the face and yell at him to save his fucking pity for someone who deserves it.

Clint leans over and heaves into the toilet instead. His stomach clenches tight and hard because there's nothing but bile and spit and not very much of either of those. A bolt of pain slices through his gut and it makes him groan. He can't take much more pain.

“Come on Barton. Let's get you cleaned up.” Tony reaches out.

Clint bats his hand away. “Fuck off Stark,”

“No can do, buddy. We're going to SHEILD right fucking now, and you smell like a fucking brewery. Or a morgue. I'm not quite sure which, but you aren't getting in my Bentley smelling like that. So let's get a move on okay? I don't need Fury any more pissed than he already is.” Tony says back over his shoulder “Find him some clean clothes will you?”

Clint looks where Tony was talking and sees Natasha staring at him in something like horror.

Clint can't really string two coherent thoughts together and he's used up all his energy deflecting Tony so when the man pulls Clint to his feet and shoves him into the shower, clothes and all, Clint goes where he's pushed. The water hits his skin just as his own smell hits his nose. He wonders how long it's been since he showered.

Clint stays under long enough to peel away his clothes and get somewhat clean. When he steps out there's a towel, and a t-shirt and boxers and jeans waiting for him there's no point in resisting. Between Nat and Tony they are the two most stubborn people he knows. He pulls on the clothes and steps out of the room with water running down his neck from his hair. He doesn't stink any more but he doesn't feel one bit better or more alive.

Nat is leaning against the wall by the bathroom door waiting for him. “Shave” she says. He looks at her blankly for a second, thinking ' What for?' then goes back in to the bathroom to do as he's told. It's easier to do it than argue, mostly he can't be bothered.

Tony is by the front door when he comes out, this time, holding a cup of coffee and a handful of ibuprofen, waiting for him and tapping one perfect shoe impatiently. Clint takes the coffee and pain relief both without a word, steps into his unlaced boots.

Clint doesn't ask where they are going or why, just sits in Tony's ridiculous car and drinks his coffee.

“Clint.” Natasha says, pity and sorrow and something else coming off her in waves, and Clint can't take it. The fact that she of all people feels sorry for him stings. He turns toward the window and ignores the rest of what she says.

He loves her, she's his best friend, but nothing Natasha says will change anything, and she of all people should know that. It doesn't stop her from talking. Clint turns inward and starts to hum, pushing away the sound of her sympathy or platitudes or what ever the hell it's.

He hopes whatever Fury is calling them in for is important enough and hard enough to drown everything else out. Especially the pity he sees in her eyes. Maybe a good fight will make him feel... something, anything.

When they get to SHEILD's ground base Clint wonders how long he has been in his apartment. The base is swarming with people and there are walls where there was only rubble the last time he saw it. The debris is gone and in it's place is productivity and rebuilding. The sight makes Clint stop in his tracks.

How long since it was blown to hell? How long since Loki?

“Almost three weeks.” Tony says. Clint realizes he asked out loud.

That can't be right. He can only remember at best three, maybe four, days. He remembers the night on the roof, and drinking all his beer, and crawling into the bathroom, and waking up with a sore back.

He has no idea what he has been doing all this time. Presumably eating and drinking and pissing and sleeping but he remembers almost none of it. Three weeks of recollection have been replaced by a void and that thought is crippling. He hopes distantly that he stayed in his apartment the whole time. At least there the only one he could hurt was himself. The thought of inflicting harm on more people who didn't deserve it makes his stomach turn and his legs start to wobble. Please not-

“We have to go.” Natasha says behind him and gently pushes him toward the elevators. He can either go forward or collapse where he stands. Clint goes. There's no gain in falling apart in full view of half of SHIELD and Fury is waiting. Clint might not have a clear picture of the last however long but he remembers very well how much the director hates to be kept waiting.

When the three of them step into a conference room everyone looks up at the same time. They are all there, the rest of the Avengers. Director Fury looks up at the same time as the rest and Clint looks him right in the eye carefully avoiding the empty spot to his left. The spot where Coulson should be standing.

“Barton.” the director says looking him over. “You look like shit.”

“Yes sir.” Clint knows how he looks.

No point in denying it. No one says anything, they all just keep looking at him, but it's kind of too much, all the concern, on all these faces. He wants to tell them not to bother, he's fine. It's probably a lie but who cares there's more important stuff going on. Funerals and shit. And the thought of funerals makes his gut fill with cold and Clint wants to find some where to hide. He let's his eyes slide out of focus so that the room is filled with indistinct shapes and feels a sort of numbness settle over him.

He wonders what is going on why nothing is happening why they are all just standing there looking at him. He doesn't meet their eyes or look to closely at them because the only thing that would be worse than seeing the pity he doesn't deserve written there would be the condemnation he does deserve.

He can't shake the feeling they are waiting for something. He hopes it's not dependent on him because he's got nothing. Clint Barton is all tapped out.

He stands there, mostly checked out,waiting along with them, until Phil Coulson steps into the room.

Clint doesn't move or breathe or blink, afraid the illusion will blow away if he does. Clint knows it's not real. What ever he's seeing it's not there. Not there, NOT THERE!

The air in the room is suddenly thick and hard to breathe in. Clint keeps his face and his body very still, hoping no one notices that he has completely lost what ever is left of his mind. He tries not to stare at the imaginary dead guy even though he's pretty much everything Clint wants to see.

“Barton?” The director says and it sounds like Fury is miles down a tunnel, his voice echoing off the walls and it's like a punch to the gut. A headache flashes into life pressing against Clint’s eyeballs from the inside and the flair of nausea is horribly painfully terrifyingly familiar. This is how it felt and sounded to have Loki's hand wrapped tightly around his mind squeezing out the details the demi-god wanted.

Something shakes loose in Clint's head and without warning the last three weeks, the days he barely remembers, slam into him, hard.

Through a thin haze of familiar cold fire Clint can see those days clearly and wishes he couldn't. All the nights waking up with Coulson's voice in his ear saying “you did this” while blood bubbles up between Phil's lips, Clint unable to get away because this is his to own and he must bear witness to what he did.

Or Coulson standing at the front of a crowd of Clint's dead pointing an accusing hand before they are all blown apart by a blast of blue fire.

Or Phil convulsing on a floor while Clint stands unable to move and watches.

Or the bodies of agents he has killed, the people he slaughtered, stacked like cord wood in a row that is far too long to ever forgive.

Or Coulson lying long dead in a pool of congealed blood, surrounded by the people Loki killed with Clint's hands.

Or the faces of men and women he had lived alongside, eaten with, fought with, falling with an arrow through them.

Or Phil's body pinned to a bulkhead by arrows Clint knows he put through Phil's heart because he's still holding the bow.

And it's all colored in the same tones as the hours he'd spent as the right hand of a crazed god. It's as bad as anything Clint could ever imagine, because Loki might be imprisoned on Asgard but he has also been inside Clint's head all this time.

Clint feels the world twist into an ugly new shape and wishes to god he couldn't remember any of it. Wishes he could go back to the black hole that made up his memory of the last few weeks, because this is all so much worse. He can feel something welling up in him like bile and god he's sick of puking, and hurting and breathing and he just wants everything to stop, every fucking thing to just stop. No sound. No guilt. No Pain. No breath .

“Barton?” Rogers asks stepping closer, and there it is. One more person looking at him with worry and and sympathy and some other thing Clint can't name and doesn't want, and knows he doesn't deserve. It's so much worse because it's not Phil even though he wouldn't want Phil this close to something that could hurt him the way Clint could, if he wasn't already dead. Clint doesn't want anyone that close to him ever again. He can't take the chance that anyone else might be poisoned or ripped apart or killed by his hands.

Clint looks for an escape, tries to make sense of the mess inside his own head. All he can see or feel or hear are all the days and nights filled with the last thing he'd lost, the last chance he stood by and let die. He feels a new kind of guilt for thinking of what he has lost when so many others have lost more. The mess inside his head twist and turns on itself and he can't take any more. Clint stands, knocks the hands reaching for him away, and runs.

He runs past the elevators toward the stairs. Whatever is written on his face makes every person in his path step out of his way. Some of them seasoned agents, pressing themselves up against the walls, and Clint doesn't blame them. He's dangerous and they should probably run from him. He thinks he hears Coulson call him and it just makes Clint run faster, he knows he's lost some fundamental grip on something and he needs to be where there's no one -

A hand grabs at his shoulder and he hears “ CLINT!” He has that hand twisted back and pushed away from him before he registers that it's Natasha. He doesn't hurt her more but he doesn't let go. Just pushes her against the nearest wall and snarls at her and heads for the stairs.

He needs to get out of here. Needs to be gone, as far as he can, because as hard as he has tried to outrun everything Loki left him with it's all still right there. Not burrowing deeper into his mind or sweating out his pours but right there on the tip of his tongue and in his fingertips waiting for someone else to kill.

But then there are two bands of steel wrapped tight around his torso stopping him. And he can't move, no matter how hard he struggles, and fuck he struggles. He thrashes even though he knows it's pointless. That's okay because he has been slamming up against pointless shit and struggle for a while now and he will keep on till it kills him.

“Barton!” a voice in his ear says and Clint realizes the steel bands a around his chest and biceps are the arms of a super soldier and he can't get free, can't get away, can barely breathe. He struggles harder because somewhere in the back of his cloudy mind is the thought that if he fights hard enough maybe Cap will hold on so tight that pressure will stop his breathing and then he won't have to think about any of it, what that other fight cost, the fight against a god, the lives he's taken. Phil.

“Clint!” he hears again. The voice full of apology as an arm tightens around his throat and Clint has time to think “he's choking me out, the fucker” before everything goes dark and Clint gets back the oblivion he wanted so badly.

He wakes up in the dark again. He blinks twice and closes his eyes.

He can't move, again. And the weeks of grief wash back over him. This last dream has been the worst even though it was also the best, because at least in this one Coulson hadn't been dying. Clint hears a sound like a dying animal and realizes with a kind of detached horror that the sound is coming from him.

“Clint.” he hears from somewhere close by and now it's worse because it's Phil's voice and Clint. he can't. He can't open his eyes and see Coulson's dead face surrounded by all the others looking back at him anymore. He can't.

“Please go away.” Clint tells his ghosts. “Please,” and he knows he's crying because he can feel the tears on his face and hear the way the words are ripped out of his throat. Clint tries to turn away but this time he really cannot move. Maybe it's the weight of the guilt and what Loki did to his mind that is holding him down. “I wish it could just be over” he whispers to the empty room, really wishing his ghosts could hear, wishing they would take pity on him and either leave him to die or kill him.

A cool dry hand touches his forehead and Clint can feel the callouses on the palm and god he wishes it was real.

“I'm sorry.” Coulson tells him and brushes Clint's hair back. Clint laughs, only it sounds more like a sob.

“Me too” Clint whispers and falls back into the darkness without opening his eyes again.

He wakes up again and this time it's light out. He wonders why he opened the blinds, letting the sun in. He doesn't remember doing it. He tries to move and he can't, again. Nothing has changed but the light. The light and the fact that he remembers his dreams. Terrible dreams of the walking dead brushing the hair off his forehead. He can still feel the callouses and it makes his chest ache with want and regret. Again.

The world around him starts to shift into focus and Clint stares up at a ceiling he realizes isn't his own. The unpainted cracks in his apartment have been replaced with acoustic tiles he has seen before but can't quite place.

Clint tries to sit up and panic flashes through him when he realizes he's pinned solidly to a bed. Then he recognizes the smells that have finally filtered through and Clint knows he's in a hospital. There's an IV in his arm and some very powerful shit is floating around in his blood, fucking with his brain chemistry, because everything feels flat and washed out. Except the light, which feels kind of okay actually. There isn't a hint of blue in it anywhere not even around the edges of things.

He turns his head towards the window hoping the sun will warm him a little because he's so cold he can feel it in his bones. Clint has time to ponder if that's the drugs, before he sees the chair beside his bed and the person sitting there watching him.

Clint wonders what kind of shit they have got him on that he's seeing things. Coulson has a pinched unhappy look on his face. Clint isn't surprised, being dead probably sucks if you don't want to be dead.

“Clint.” Coulson says in an annoyed tone Clint knows pretty well. “I'm not dead.”

Clint laughs bitterly, closes his eyes and turns his face as far away as he can. “Sure you are.” Clint tells him. “I helped Loki kill you.” The last part comes out all cracked and fucked up, and Clint absently wonders, as he willfully falls back into the darkness, if it will ever stop being so fucking horrible.

He wakes up often after that, and every time it's almost the same, which is different from the last couple of weeks, when he woke up in a different spot every time.

He's in the same hospital room and there's an IV in his arm and there's always someone sitting in the chair beside his bed.

Once it's Steve Rogers. He looks heartbroken and Clint wants to think of something to make the guy feel better because Cap is actually a good man and he's had enough sadness in his life already. Clint can barely breath and can't find any words at all. Cap just smiles at him with all the sorrow in his heart evident in his eyes “ Don't feel sad for me, Cap. I don't deserve it," Clint tells him and lets sleep take him over. The next time he wakes up Steve is gone.

A couple of times Tony is there and he's reading to Clint, some celebrity gossip crap neither one of them give a shit about. Clint let's Tony's voice wash over him and lull him into a weirdly comfortable half sleep.

Sometimes it's a nurse sitting in the chair, a couple of times it's Nat, but mostly it's Coulson. Clint wonders a couple of times if Coulson is the only ghost. Did he remember it wrong? Are some of the others dead? Thinking about it makes his head hurt, so he turns his face away and wills sleep to take him.

Every time Clint wakes up he feels a little more alive and a little less as if he's going to fly into a million pieces. There's no hint of that traitorous blue light anywhere, not even on the edges of his vision. Clint wonders if that means he's getting over what ever Loki did.

He thinks days must have passed, guessing by how many times he wakes up in the dark. He can move more now, and Clint realizes: he was in restraints before and now he's not. Maybe it means he's better. It's a decent theory but it's ruined when he finally completely wakes up because Coulson is sitting in the chair beside his bed. So much for not being crazy.

He can't stand it and closes his eyes, wanting sleep to come for him again.

It doesn't work.

He can hear movement from across the room and can't help looking. Cap is standing by the window looking out at something that is making him frown.

“Hey.” Clint says. Cap's head whips around and he grins. Coulson looks right into Clint's eyes and smiles. Clint can't look at him long, it makes his chest ache, so he turns to look at Steve.

“Welcome back, Clint.” Cap moves around to where Clint can see without twisting his head so far. “How are you feeling?”

It's a simple question but Clint has to search for answer because he has no idea. “I – uh. Don't really-” he assesses and decides “Better I guess.”

The answer must be the right one because Steve smiles, wide and relieved. “You had us worried for a while there.”

Clint looks away, ashamed that they would worry, after everything that's happened. “Sorry.” He says.

It's Coulson who answers “Don't apologize Clint. Christ! After what happened to you we should be apologizing.” and that gets a snort from Clint because a) dead guy doesn't get a vote and b) it's bullshit anyway.

“He's right” Steve says and Clint feels the shock all the way through down into his marrow.

“What?” Clint says so quietly he can barely hear himself, but he doesn't have enough breath left for more, the wind knocked out of him by a possibility he's so desperate for he's afraid to think about it.

“ Agent Coulson is right. You shouldn't be apologizing.”

Clint stares at Cap before his eyes flick over to Phil's chair and then back again.

“You can see him?” Clint asks Steve, and he can hear how desperate he sounds but it's hard to care when the earth is tipping on it's axis. Again.

“Clint.” Coulson says and reaches out to touch Clint's hand, maybe to reassure, but Clint flinches away unsure of what would be worse, feeling that touch, or not.

Clint can hear his own breathing, harsh and ragged. Everything starts to haze out again and even that's different, because this time the world goes gray at the edges instead of blue, but it doesn't matter because Clint can feel himself losing his grip again and it's even more terrifying now because he doesn't want to be gone anymore. He wants to stay here and figure out what's going on and have everything make sense again, like it did before Loki. He feels the world slip sideways and pain flashes across his skin and through his bones and it's all too familiar.

Clint hears the cry of a badly wounded animal and then he hears hurried footsteps and feels a warm flush invade his veins. Everything around him gets soft at the edges, a little blurry, but nothing hurts anymore so that's good. He doesn't tip back into the black like before but Clint feels the tight clench in his guts and at the base of his skull loosen. He doesn't want to fall under and clutches at air with his hand for a second before he feels a warm hand in his. Clint holds on and lets it anchor him while he drifts.

After a while he thinks carefully : Coulson isn't dead. Is not. He tries the idea out, pushing at it like a gap where a tooth has fallen out. Soft and bloody and sore. He looks at his hand and sees Phil's hand wrapped around it. Which is weird and feels somehow forbidden but Clint doesn't pull his hand away, because this is what was anchoring him before when he was afraid he was going to float away. He holds on lets himself sleep.

Phil Coulson is sitting by his bed and Clint can hear them all talking. The Avengers. They have been coming in to talk to Clint and see for themselves that he's okay. Clint thinks whatever stupid thing he did must have scared the hell out of all of them.

Every new person who comes into the room says hi to Phil before they even talk to Clint. It takes him a while to catch on to what they are doing. They are making sure he knows it's real. That Phil is real, alive. Because Phil isn't dead even though Clint is still too full of drugs to understand how or why. He will worry about how or why later. Right now he's just going to keep being stupidly grateful.

They take his IV out a day later and an aide brings him fruit juice and Jello to eat. There are pills in a small paper cup and Clint swallows it all down and misses the worried looks his team mates exchange at his lack of opposition.

A TV appears in his room, one of those ridiculously small ones you only see on buses and in hospital rooms. Clint never changes the channel or even turns it off or on but there's always some sound in his room because of it and that seems to help. It doesn't feel like a huge chamber full of of echoes the way the inside of his head has felt for weeks.

He sleeps. A lot. But it's sleep and not oblivion or unconsciousness. He wakes up with a jolt of terror sometimes, afraid he's still back there days ago in hell. They still make sure there's always someone close by to anchor him for the first few seconds after he wakes up. Some times it's Nat or Steve or Tony or Bruce and a couple of times it's even Thor who is usually too big and loud for sick bay. Lot's of times it's still Coulson. Once it's Fury but that kind of scares the shit out of Clint and there's no repeat.
Clint is stupidly grateful, for the team and for Phil being there and for not being lost inside his own head.

He starts sleeping properly, so visiting hours are enforced. Phil looks like hell, tired and washed out, but he always comes in before he leaves for the night. Careful to say “I will see you in the morning. Get some sleep, Barton.”

Clint never says anything back, just nods and watches Coulson walk away. He always swallows the little pill the nurse brings right after because it means there are no dreams and he doesn't wake up until it's light out.

“You've gained back enough of the weight you lost that we can think about discharging you soon.” It's the first Clint realizes there might have been more going on with him than residual craziness from Loki's mindfuck.

The chief headshrinker comes and talks, and Clint nods and tries. The guy makes a lot of sense and Clint thinks the guy doesn't sound like the quacks he's had to talk to after a hard mission in the past. The guy is trying to help Clint make sense of what happened even though neither one of them have any frame of reference for having your mind taken a part by a pissed of god of mischief and chaos.

Dr Hamlin asks Clint “Why aren't you talking?”

Clint looks at him blankly for a second before he says “Nothing to say?”

The doc makes a note and when the nurse comes in with his meds later there's one yellow pill in the cup instead of two green ones. Clint doesn't think new pills are going to give him more to say.

Still. When Dr Hamlin asks him things Clint tries harder to answer. After a while he finds more words.

Coulson still comes to see him everyday despite being back on full rotation at SHEILD. They've talked a little.

Mostly Coulson talked. About being stabbed through the chest and being in a coma and the decisions Fury made and even a little about how Coulson feels about that fact that being a pawn is kind of his job. When he tries to apologize to Clint for the lie Clint tells him “Don't!” in a harsh whisper and Phil leaves it be.

The thing Clint feels the most deeply is discomfort with having survived and he's not ready to let it go. Clint still owns his guilt.

He laughs when the doc gives him some shit to read about the effects of surviving rape. He thinks it's a joke at first, but Doc Hamlin has this look on his face. The look that says “At least think about it.”

Clint does think about it. A lot. And he reads because the doc is a smart guy and Clint knows he wants to help. When Clint gets to one passage that talks about feeling guilty for nor being able to make it stop he throws the book against the wall hard enough to crack the spine and crawls into the bathroom where he pukes until his throat bleeds.

The doc doesn't bring him anymore more books, but Clint tries to talk more so that evens out.

They let him go on a Wednesday. He's surprised at first that the sun is shining, and then he feels like an idiot for thinking that. Of course the sun's shining, they saved the world.

Tony's waiting outside with the Bentley again but Happy doesn't drive to Clint's apartment. He takes them to Stark tower. There's an apartment there on the same floor as Tony's, and it turns out, the rest of the Avengers. Clint is (not very secretly) relieved not to be going back to the empty, grubby shithole that was witness to his disintegration.

He's coming to terms with what happened to him during and after Loki's invasion. One part grief, one part guilt, and one part damage to his brain chemistry. He had apparently been completely right in calling it being 'unmade'. You can see it on the MRI images. In order to control him so thoroughly Loki had to break him almost completely. It's small comfort that it would have been easier to control a softer man.

He doesn't sleep as much, the bone deep exhaustion is gone. It has nothing to do with Coulson not coming to see him in the evenings, now that Clint is at Avengers Tower. He tries not to think too hard about missing the hospital because of that lost contact. He wonders why Phil doesn't come here. It can't be any real aversion to Tony Stark. Clint tries not to dwell.

It's actually works out to be okay though. Clint gets his head together slowly and learns to be comfortable in his own skin again. He needs all his energy to do that, now. Beside Clint knows where Phil Coulson is if he wants to go see him.

The roof of Stark tower is full of places to sit and watch the stars and on the nights when Clint can't sleep he perches high above New York looking down on the lives that carry on, making peace with the lives that did not. The lives he ended while he was Loki's right hand. He makes peace with the fact that he lived and they didn't and some where in the back of his mind a voice that sounds mostly like his own whispers every price paid has to be worth it in the end, because the world is still free.

It almost feels like the truth.

Clint is cleared to go back to the range three months after surviving Loki, and the events after that broke apart what was left of his mind. It is agreed by everyone involved that waiting any longer will do more harm than good. Clint is healthy physically and his skin is starting to crawl from boredom and inactivity. No one wants that.

The range feels foreign and familiar all at once but there is one thing that always feels the same, an extension of his arm. Clint takes his bow out of the case and looks at the target and empties his quiver again and again and again, until his arms are shaking. There are no flickers of blue light at the edge of his vision.

Clint goes to get a coffee in the mess hall afterward, and finds himself in front of Coulson's office. He stops where he stands, stares at the familiar door and thinks about missed chances and second chances and prices paid.

He knocks on the door and waits until he hears “Enter.”

Coulson is sitting at his desk the same as always. Tie slightly askew, but otherwise exactly the same. He looks at Clint and smiles wide and a little hopeful “Agent Barton, what can I do for you?”

Clint thinks of the million answers to that question. He says “Come get coffee with me.”

Coulson pushes back his chair, reaches for his suit jacket, straightens his tie and says “ My pleasure,” so quickly Clint has the fleeting thought that Coulson might have been waiting for him.

As they walk down the hall together, and Coulson's shoulder jostles his, Clint looks over and sees Coulson's grin.

Clint is suddenly, deeply, completely, thankful to have survived.