The battle is a fucking hell of a thing; Clint's done some crazy shit in his life, but it's never been like that, nothing like full out warfare. Certain incidents in Budapest aside, he's spent most of his career in tight, dark places, waiting things out, kicking people's asses one by one, shooting targets who never saw him coming and didn't live to see him go. This isn't like that at all; he's good at taking orders- whether or not he obeys them is another question- but he didn't think he'd be this good at cooperating, not with anybody but Natasha or Phil.
It takes him a while, after they've actually gotten a good meal and gotten cleaned up and everything like that, to start figuring out where everybody is and what happened. He very carefully avoids asking about numbers, about people who were with him, about people who were nearby, about the hazy faces he can sort of see when he thinks about the time he was under.
There are people he's got to know about, though, things he's just got to know now and start dealing with. He's going down the list with Maria- who apparently he didn't kill, which is really good- Natasha and Steve there for support, when a thought occurs to him. "You didn't mention Phil."
Maria's face goes blank. Clint turns to look at Steve and Natasha; Natasha looks worried, and Steve just looks confused.
Clint's heart stops dead.
"What happened to Phil?" he says, and the three of them just look at each other, having a silent conversation that Clint's not part of. "Listen to me," Clint says carefully, rage rushing in to replace the sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. "Someone is going to fucking tell me what the fuck happened to Phil."
"Who's Phil?" Steve says, in a small, gentle voice.
"Don't you fucking give me that, Rogers, you know exactly who the fuck I'm talking about," Clint says, his hand clenching into a fist. He feels like he's about ten seconds from hyperventilating, and he's not sure he won't punch Steve in the mouth before he gets there. "I am asking you where Agent Phillip J. Goddamned Coulson is. If you won't-"
"Clint," Natasha says, grabbing him by the biceps and looking him straight in the eye, the way he'd only let her get away with. "Clint, there is no one at SHIELD named Phil Coulson. I'm not trying to tell you that someone named Phil Coulson died. I'm trying to tell you that there was never anyone named Phil Coulson."
"Of all people, Natasha," Clint says, the betrayal of it like a lead weight, "I didn't expect to get fucked around like this by you."
"Barton, you're going to psych," Maria says, in the closest Maria gets to a kind voice.
"I don't need psych," Clint says, pulling free of Natasha's grip. "I need a straight answer."
He walks out, leaving them looking at each other; of course, when Maria Hill wants you in psych and Natasha Romanov and Steve Rogers are there to make sure you go, you don't walk very far.
Clint's had absolutely nothing to do with psych from the patient end; he's read their reports, but that's been the extent of his interaction with them. He's never even been down there- he suspects they only even have a place on the Helicarrier for situations exactly like this one, for when somebody with a bunch of combat training has supposedly lost it. It's bullshit, because the only thing he's lost is Phil.
The shrink's office isn't exactly the most plush one in the world. The chairs are nice, though they're bolted to the floor, but the walls are just bare bulkhead, infuriatingly abstract paintings hung up on them; Fury clearly lacks a certain amount of love for the psych division.
"Agent Barton, I'm Doctor Edwards," the shrink says, as Clint sits down across from him. "We haven't met formally, I'm afraid."
"Wish it could be at a better time," Clint says; he's still pissed as hell and he can't seem to stop from bouncing his knee up and down, but he might as well try and pretend this is going to be anything but a trainwreck.
"Tell me what's going on since you came back from the city," Edwards says calmly.
"Well," Clint starts, trying to control his breathing; he can't be doing this, he's got to get it back together no matter what's going on, he can't let it be known how big of a weak point Phil is for him. "I came to talk to Maria, and I found out nobody seems to remember my handler." He narrows his eyes. "If this is a training exercise, then I'm calling it right now. I lose, oh well, we'll get 'em next time."
"I assure you, Agent Barton, everyone here is being honest with you." Edwards smiles. "Or as honest as we're allowed to be. This is SHIELD."
"Funny," Clint says sarcastically.
"So tell me a little about Phil," the shrink says.
Clint has a thousand things to say. Phil is a hardass, Phil drinks coffee like water but never gets the jitters, Phil watches Hoarders without shame, Phil is losing his hair but still manages to get really impressive bedhead, but Phil loves morning sex, so it was only ever going to get messed up anyway.
"How long have you been here, doc?" Clint asks him.
"Two years," he replies. "We haven't been on the same bases much, but I've been around."
"In two years," Clint says, giving him the stare that he's been informed is very uncomfortable, "you never met Nick Fury's right hand man?"
To his credit, Edwards doesn't flinch. "And that's who Agent Coulson is?"
Clint's not going to get angry; he's not going to scream. He's not going to do anything that'll get him sent to medical and pumped full of drugs. "Yes. That's Phil's position. He's a senior special agent, level 7 clearance. Yes, I know everybody thinks it goes up to six, but there are more. Fury's probably a twelve. Thousand."
Edwards nods. "Is Phil here now?"
And there it is. Clint rubs at his forehead. "If Phil were here now, I'd say, 'Hey Phil, say hello so this jackass will stop asking me stupid questions!'"
The shrink doesn't do him the courtesy of getting angry. "And you can't find Phil?"
He sighs. "I probably could if you people would let me go. I can't do anything sitting here with my thumb up my ass."
"Do you feel like this a lot, Clint?" Edwards says. "Like you're being held back?"
Clint gives him a look. "You're going to sit here and make me talk to you for an hour or two hours or whatever you want, aren't you?"
"You can leave whenever you like," Edwards tells him.
"You don't actually mean that," Clint says.
"I said 'can'," Edwards says. "That's true. I didn't say 'should.'"
Clint settles back into his chair; there's nothing to do but play ball, not if he wants to actually get away from this situation.
A few hours and a prescription for happy pills later, they do let him go. They've only released him on the condition that he be attended at all times; that sounds fine until Tony Stark rolls up to collect him.
"How did you get volunteered for this?" Clint asks, as he tosses his stuff in the backseat of Tony's sports car.
"I volunteered myself," Tony says. "Now get in. Happy's making steaks, and he and Pepper really will eat all of it if we don't get there fast enough."
"Isn't Bruce a vegetarian?" Clint says, climbing in and shutting the door behind him.
"Yes," Tony replies. "That's why we don't have to worry about him eating our steaks." Tony turns up the radio and punches it; it's hard to talk about anything over the noise, and that suits Clint just fine.
It's actually not as bad as it could be; he's been crazy in a lot worse places. JARVIS won't let him leave the building, even when he tries his best building-escape techniques. Tony won't go against JARVIS, but Tony will, among other things, help Clint break into the SHIELD mainframe. Of anyone who can know about this, Clint figures Tony is the most likely to have his back; Tony already knows what kind of slippery bastards run SHIELD, and one disappearing agent is nothing compared to the shit they've already done.
"If this agent was in the system, he's been scrubbed out," Tony tells him, after a long night of running viruses and eating pizza; Tony seems oddly at ease doing it, and Clint wonders what Tony was like as a teenager, if Tony was ever really a teenager, if Tony's not a teenager now.
"It's SHIELD," Clint says, annoyed. "That doesn't mean anything at all."
"Bingo," Tony says, sitting back and stretching. "Time to get drunk to celebrate our failure. Or hey, do you like weed? Because Bruce has this stuff- I don't even know where he gets it, but you will see the face of God."
"Tony, it's four AM," Clint points out.
"Because you've cared about getting a good night's sleep ever in your entire life," Tony says. "Come on. You won't regret this one."
Clint's not entirely sure whether he regrets it or not. He spends a few hours laying on the roof of the tower watching the sun rise, rising with it, while Tony cackles for minutes at a stretch and Bruce just sits around in the lotus position observing calmly. He wakes up at three in the afternoon with a dry mouth and a sunburn, because Tony Stark is an asshole at heart.
It's fine, because most of the people he needs to talk to, they're the kind who tend to work at night. He calls contact after contact, he's blowing through pseudonym after pseudonym for favors, and no one, no one remembers the quiet man in the black suit, no matter how loud he may have been at the time.
Natasha and Steve come to visit on day six; Steve brings flowers, but Natasha brings her clothes, and Tony doesn't do a thing to stop her from setting up shop. When there's a free moment, in between bouts of Tony being Tony, Steve pulls Clint to the side. "Hey," he says quietly, "if you need to talk, I can listen. I know it must be rough."
Clint is about to mouth off to him when he realizes that yeah, Steve does, he really does know how rough it is to lose somebody. Clint is still floored by what a good man Steve Rogers is, when the rest of them are a bunch of flighty dicks, with the possible exception of Bruce; here Clint is, apparently off his nut, and Steve's still willing to take him seriously, to respect the loss even of someone who, as far as Steve knows, never existed.
They really don't make them like Steve anymore, and it's entirely possible they never did.
Natasha comes to him that night, after Clint's gone off to pretend to sleep. "I don't want to," she says, "but we need to talk about Loki."
"I don't want to talk about Loki ever again unless we're talking about how nice his funeral is," he says darkly.
"He played with your mind, Clint," she insists. "He could have fucked anything up in there that he wanted to."
"Not this," Clint says. "This is too much."
"If Loki did this to me, if Loki put all this inside my head, he is a sicker fuck than we even imagined," Clint says tightly. "There are years inside my head, Natasha. I can see everything. I am in love with Phil, and Phil loves me. It's been that way for a very long time, and you know that. You've always known."
He knows precisely what Natasha's views on love are, but she doesn't look disgusted, not today. "Clint," she says, as gentle as she ever gets. "Remember Kraków? You held me down for three hours so that I wouldn't scratch my skin open trying to get the spiders out."
"And the spiders went away in three hours, didn't they?" he says. "It's been a hell of a lot longer than that."
"Maybe it's going to take longer to get a whole person out than it does spiders," Natasha says.
"I don't want Phil out," Clint says coldly. "If nobody remembers Phil but me and I forget, then there was never a Phil at all."
Natasha has a concerned look on her face, the one that means she's about to say something that Clint doesn't want to hear. "They went to the address you gave them, the one for Phil's apartment," she says. "The apartment numbers don't go up to 308. It's a two story building."
The sick feeling in Clint's stomach, the one that never leaves now, it only gets worse, but somehow he already knew, he knew that whoever took Phil wouldn't leave it at that, would take everything of Phil's away from him too. "Well, that's just dandy," Clint says. "Guess I'm just too crazy to be delusional right."
Natasha knows him dangerously well; he knows she knows that there's no hope of changing his mind that night, that she's just going to have to come back later- and she is going to come back later, even though Clint doesn't want her to. "Get some rest, okay?" she says. "I want you to feel better."
"Yeah, well, me too," Clint says; he doesn't point out that what he needs to feel better and what she thinks he needs are two completely different things.
Clint lays in the dark for hours, looking at the ceiling. He knows there is a Phil, he knows there has to be. He knows from his fantasies, he knows from his memories; working is one thing, all the missions they ran together, the days at SHIELD, but that's the part anybody could know, the part anybody could fabricate.
Nobody could fake the way Phil's skin feels against his, the way his body feels, the things they did together. Clint's fantasized a lot; before Phil, Clint mostly dated his hand, and he very clearly knows what something like that feels like, the idea of somebody sucking his cock or riding him, the false perfection, the selfish want of it. What Clint has of Phil, it's nothing like that at all. Clint can remember what it's like to have Phil in his mouth, heavy on his tongue, Phil's fingers tangled up in his hair; he can remember the time he moved the wrong way while they were fucking and Phil's head smacked into the wall hard enough that it left a little dent, the way they had to make up a work-appropriate story about it when it raised a knot, the way he didn't get laid for two weeks and didn't get to top for another month.
Clint refuses to lose an instant of that; he's not sure he wouldn't keep it if it weren't true.
They still don't let him go, not that it matters. He spent most of his time in Phil's apartment, and it has only recently occurred to him that half his shit was in there. If he's deluded it away, he's going to be pretty damn pissed. There's nowhere to go and nothing to be done. He's exhausted every contact and used up every favor; with Tony's help, he's wormed his way into the SHIELD computers as far as he can possibly go. The only thing he could do is start going to all the places they've been, but there are so many that Clint doesn't have a hope of remembering them all; even if he could, if Phil's in deep cover, burned, or just doesn't want to be found, he won't be in a single one of them.
Clint smokes a lot more of Bruce's weed and watches Hoarders on Netflix for a couple of days, no idea what to do, no more energy to do it.
"I have some interesting news," Tony says, on the afternoon of day twelve, when he wanders in shirtless to the lounge, where Clint has been more or less just staring out the window. "I got an itinerary confirmation on a flight to Portland."
Clint raises an eyebrow at him. "For who?"
Tony goes to pour himself a drink; it's a bad sign. He sloshes some liquor into a glass, taking a sip before he answers. "Clint Barton and Phil Coulson."
Clint's face goes hard. "That's not funny."
"The tickets were booked before the whole thing with Loki and the space bugs- great band name, by the way." Tony says. He shakes his head. "There's nobody who'd do this to you, nobody who has access to my plane." While Clint's still sitting there, completely stunned, Tony comes over and claps him on the shoulder. "Leaves at nine AM tomorrow, so, y'know, don't be later than eleven."
The next morning, Clint's gone by seven-fifteen; by eleven, he's in one of Tony's cars, being chauffeured out into the city. Clint doesn't know where they're going; it didn't occur to him until they were halfway across the country that he had no idea what he was supposed to do when he got to Portland, just that he was supposed to go.
Thank God, the driver had already been given an address, and he takes Clint into a nice neighborhood, pulling up to a small but pretty house that Clint's never been to before. This trip must have been a surprise; Phil did good, because Clint is just as surprised as he could possibly be.
"Here are your keys, Mister Barton," the driver says, taking Clint's bag out of the trunk and setting it on the curb, which is good, because Clint was already thinking of ways to break in. "We'll see you on Monday."
"Thanks," Clint says distractedly, only barely remembering to give the guy a few bucks for his trouble- Pepper probably pays him a fair wage and Tony probably slips him a lot more, but it's just what you do when you're not a dick.
He walks up the sidewalk and up the steps to the door, leaving his bag on the stoop; it's hard as hell to bring himself to unlock it. He pulls his pistol out of his holster- God bless private planes- and opens the door slowly. The house isn't big, but he carefully clears it, all the way up into the attic; satisfied for the moment, he goes and picks up his bag, carrying it into the living room and setting it down on the couch.
Someone's been in here recently, probably one of Tony's people, because the fridge is stocked. There's vegetables and local beer; these people may have never heard of Phil before, but this is Phil all over, exactly the kind of grocery list Phil would have given them. There's a box of the trashy snack cakes Clint likes in one of the cupboards, and it makes Clint's heart hurt, knowing Phil knew him so well, knowing Phil is gone without a trace, gone somewhere Clint can't follow. He unwraps one anyway, eating it slowly, savoring the artificial sweetness; it's a very small comfort, but if you don't have any big ones, you need to take every little one you can.
He picks up his bag again, taking it into the bedroom and setting it down on the bed. Someone's been here, too; the bed has been turned down, and in very typical Tony fashion, there are mints on the pillows and lube on the nightstand. Clint's going to give Tony the benefit of the doubt on that one, because he's just not cruel enough to have added that to the shopping list after he found out about the itinerary.
Clint slides the closet door open, and he freezes. There are two garment bags hanging up; they're both tagged, BARTON and COULSON, the labels in Phil's surprisingly messy handwriting. Clint ignores BARTON, whatever, Phil bought him a suit, it's very touching but it's not important right now. He jerks down the zipper on COULSON, afraid of what he's going to see, afraid of what he might not see.
Hanging there is one of Phil's neat black suits, newly pressed; the shirt is new, very light green with subtle stripes, but the tie, it's the one Clint thought he'd lost, the plum-colored one Clint bought him a month before his birthday because he couldn't remember when his birthday actually was.
He never once wept in front of Phil, but Clint knows that if he had, Phil would have let him cry all the tears he needed to onto his suit without saying a single word about it, without even thinking about it. It's good, because Clint doesn't even know how long he sits in that closet crying into Phil's suit jacket, relief and pain pouring out of him in equal measure.
Phil may be somewhere, Phil may be nowhere, but Phil was. Phil was, and if that's all Clint can have right now, then it's enough to go on, enough to give him the strength to keep trying.
When Clint comes back to New York wearing an expensive suit with silk tie as an armband and won't take it off for love or money, nobody really says anything. He's already slap crazy; what's a weird fashion choice?
He's barely off the plane for two hours when he gets a text from Tony; it's a group one, telling everybody to meet up at the Tower, something Tony's never done, and Clint's more than a little curious.
"So here's something fun," Tony says, after everybody's there and ready, him and Natasha and Steve and Bruce; he looks shaky, white. "I can't find Pepper. All I have is a closet full of shoes with no one to go in them."
Clint takes a deep, deep breath, not looking at anybody but Tony. "I need you to calm down for one second, because you're going to flip out in about three," he says slowly. "I don't know who Pepper is."
The pain in Tony's eyes, the way his heart snaps is so hard to watch, but Clint doesn't look away. "I'm sorry," he says brokenly.
"It's okay," Clint says, and Steve reaches over, putting his hand on Tony's back, rubbing it comfortingly. "One is a problem, but two is a trend," Clint says, shaking his head. "This isn't deep cover. This isn't me being crazy. This is something else. I don't have a fucking clue what."
Bruce takes his glasses off, putting an elbow on the table and resting his forehead on his fist; Natasha just looks angry, the way she does when she hasn't figured something out yet and knows it.
"I wasn't going to say anything about this, because it's weird, and I didn't know what it meant," Steve says quietly. "I don't even know if it means anything now, but did Agent Coulson- did Phil collect trading cards?"
"He had a vintage set of yours," Clint tells him. "Wanted to get you to sign them, but I guess you never did."
Steve reaches into his pocket, pulling out his wallet. He flips it open and slides something out, putting it down in the middle of the table.
Clint picks it up; there are five cards with cheery images on them, pictures of Captain America, the Star Spangled Man. They'd be funny, kind of cute, except they're streaked with blood. "Where did you get these?" Clint asks; it hurts immeasurably and it lifts something off his heart, more evidence that Phil was real, evidence that Phil bled.
"They were in my locker with my street clothes," Steve says. "I don't have any idea how they got there."
"These were Phil's," Clint says, looking up at all of them. "You don't have to believe, but I need you to help." He takes one of the cards, putting the other four down on the table, and no one moves for a moment.
Natasha reaches over, picking up a card off the stack, and one by one, they claim their own.