The whole thing starts at two o’clock in the afternoon, one random Tuesday in August.
Well, okay, that isn’t really true. Actually, if you’re going to be accurate—and accuracy is kind of Clint’s deal—the whole thing actually started the year before, when Cap found out that SHIELD was rotten and Tony convinced Clint to let him hire a super and some security for his building. The rationale had been that Clint would have more time to dedicate to his Avenging, but Clint’s always thought it was really so he would stay in the Tower more, because Tony never says it but he’s kind of overprotective of people once he notices they exist and decides he likes them.
Or maybe the whole thing started before that, when Clint’s world dissolved in blue. Or maybe it was years earlier still, when Clint looked around himself and realized that an assassin and a secret agent had become his family. Or when he joined SHIELD, or when he ran away from the circus, or when he ran away to the circus…
Okay, forget about accuracy for a minute.
After the whole Ultron situation, Clint’s the only one besides Tony who still stays at the Tower pretty frequently. Maria sends him on missions sometimes, alone or in groups with some of the others, but he tends to come back to the city instead of going with Nat and Cap to run the probies through their paces upstate. The thing is, Tony doesn’t do so well when he’s alone, and with Rhodey Avenging and Pepper flying all over to run the company and Bruce… gone, he’s alone a lot.
He hasn’t talked about it much, but Tony’s taking the whole Bruce thing really hard. Not that they aren’t all taking it hard, of course, but Clint and Nat still have each other and Thor has his Nobel Laureate girlfriend and space kingdom and Cap has, you know, truth, justice, and his quixotic crusade to hug the crazy out of the Winter Soldier. Or whatever it is he and Nat and Sam keep whispering to each other about in corners.
Clint’s not judging. Something similar worked on him, after all.
The point is that he’s just chilling on the common floor (now 87% more shatterproof!) when Tony’s new AI who sounds like Sinead O’Connor says, “Agent Barton, could you spare a moment?”
He pauses the movie he’s half-watching. “Sure, what’s up?”
“We have an unexpected visitor asking to see Mr. Stark—” Clint’s already moving, pulling his emergency gun out from under the couch and running to the palmprint scanner that will open the panel with his spare bow and quiver—“and he’d like you to join them. She said she wanted to speak to him about Agent Phil Coulson.”
Clint freezes, skidding a little with momentum on the slick floor, hand clenching around his bow. “What?” His voice comes out airless, his throat suddenly high and tight. That’s the last thing he’d have expected; killer robots, weapons of mass destruction, contempt of Congress, sure, lots of people wanted to talk to Tony about that shit, but… Phil? Now, after all this time?
“Her name wasn’t on any of our lists,” FRIDAY continues, seemingly unaware of how hard Clint’s freaking out right now, “but my checks indicate that she flew in from Portland this morning. One of her past employers is the Oregon Symphony. Given these facts, Mr. Stark believes she’s—”
“I know what Mr. Stark believes.” He tries to steady his breathing. “Slim woman? Long brown hair?”
“Yes.” Of course. How many other female musicians from Portland who knew Phil Coulson could there be? Pull yourself together, Barton.
“Where is she?”
“I’ve put her in the small conference room on the forty-second floor. Mr. Stark will meet you there.”
“I’m on my way.” He runs. He can’t help it; he can’t think of any good reason for Audrey to come here, and especially not asking for Tony. He can think of a fuckload of bad reasons, though. His gut is churning. Phil had never been the kind of guy who brought a date to the company picnic, but he’d actually introduced Audrey to Clint and Natasha, and when she’d moved away he’d looked sad for like a month. That in itself should have been enough for Clint to make sure she was okay, but the truth was that after Phil had died he’d barely spared her a thought. Now, he’s sick with guilt. Phil had never doubted that Clint would do the right thing. He had died sure of it, Nat had said, certain that Clint was salvageable. If something had happened to Audrey because Clint didn’t—
He skids into the elevator, because in cases like this the elevator can actually go faster than he can unless he uses a grapple arrow. FRIDAY slams the car down so fast that Clint’s heels actually leave the floor for a second.
The conference room door is standing open. He can hear Tony’s voice going a mile a minute, light and seemingly unconcerned, failing entirely to cover the thread of tension underneath.
“—admit that I’m surprised. We never knew your name, and we looked, so to have you show up now…”
“Thank you for seeing me, Mr. Stark. I wouldn’t take up your time unless it was important.”
Clint’s breath catches, and he hurries his steps, nocking and drawing and holding as he bursts into the room, where—
“Barton, what the fuck?” Tony splutters.
“Back away from her,” he orders.
“Hey, hey, easy, everyone calm down,” says the perfect stranger sitting at the conference table.
“Clint, this is Daisy Johnson, she’s—”
“Not who you think she is.” He makes his bow creak for dramatic effect, the broadhead pointed right into one of the woman’s wide brown eyes. “You have three seconds to explain what you’re doing here and what you did to Audrey, or I start shooting.”
“What I—I didn’t do anything to Audrey!” she’s shaking her head, hands up and open, body language submissive. “Audrey’s fine! I just spoofed her profile so you’d let me up here. I just want to talk! I swear, Agent Barton, I just want to talk.”
Tony’s wary at his side, now, hands poised to call his suit, carefully not blocking Clint’s shot. He’s done a lot of work to make sure Hawkeye’s identity stayed classified. “How’d you know who he is, Daisy? If that’s actually your name.”
She makes a weird face, a little wistful and a little wry. “It… kind of is? But not legally. Well. Honestly, I’m not sure if I even have a name anymore, legally. I kind of deleted it last year while I was on the run from Hydra.” She takes a deep breath. “My name is really Daisy, but I used to go by Skye. I’m an agent of SHIELD.”
“SHIELD’s dead.” Tony’s not giving any ground, which is good, because Clint’s still way too freaked out to do much negotiating.
“So’s Nick Fury, but that hasn’t stopped him from doing anything lately.” She meets Clint’s eyes, a steady, accepting look. A kind look, but something about it makes him ache. “So’s Phil Coulson.”
Tony turns his head toward Clint, wide-eyed. Clint isn’t sure what kind of noise he just made.
“When it comes to SHIELD,” Daisy continues, and now Clint knows why he hates that patient, even tone; it’s because it shouldn’t be her voice using it. “Dead’s kind of a flexible category.”
"Bullshit," Tony snaps. "I don't buy it. Hill came here, Fury can't stay away, but you’re telling me that after everything that’s happened, Mr. I Believe In Heroes just rode it out on a beach somewhere?”
“Of course not!” She’s being held at arrow-point by Hawkeye, but she’s not giving an inch; she actually rolls her eyes at them, and Clint can’t help a pang of reluctant admiration. “God, you really are self-obsessed, aren’t you?” she demands. “Where the fuck did you think that helicarrier in Sokovia came from, Goodwill?” And of course, of fucking course, it had never quite sat well with Clint for that to be Fury; the man who had made a habit of pulling that kind of thing out of his ass with a smug grin was—
“An old friend,” Tony murmurs. He’s gone pale. “That motherfucker.” Clint’s not sure whether he means Fury or Phil or both. Probably both. Clint’ll cosign for both.
“That still doesn’t explain why you’re here,” he says. “Sure, maybe you know SHIELD business. Lots of people that’s true of, these days. You come in here, throw his name around, spin a story and get us to drop our guard, then what? Contact poison on the doorknobs? Gas canister in the HVAC? Homing beacon for a robot army?”
“Please, not another robot army,” Tony says.
“And I thought May was paranoid,” she mutters, just at the edge of being too soft for Clint’s hearing aid to pick up. Her face creases in annoyance for a moment before she very obviously takes a deep breath to try again.
(“I know you’re frustrated, Barton, but help me understand,” a calm voice whispers in Clint’s memory. “Stop for a minute, take a deep breath, and start from the beginning.”)
“Look,” Daisy says, “I know you guys are probably not in the most trusting mood right now, so what can I say to get you to believe that I’m really just here for completely non-evil reasons? I only ever had Level One clearance, so I probably don’t know any really convincing codes or anything, but I’ve been working with Coulson for two years. I could tell you things about him, maybe? Stuff that wouldn’t be in the files?”
“Like what?” Clint’s half afraid and half desperate to hear what she’ll come up with.
“He has this collection of old spy stuff that he’s super nerdy about,” she says, and Clint starts relaxing his draw almost involuntarily. “He knows everything about Captain America and the Howling Commandos. He comes across all super-G-man at first, but once he gets to know you he starts making terrible dad jokes. He has a flying car named Lola that he won’t let anybody touch except him. He gets weird if you hug him but he always tries to give you food when he’s worried about you.”
Clint’s bow is all the way down, now. “What kind of food?” he asks through the lump in his throat.
“When Jemma—” her voice catches on the name; she clears her throat and keeps going. “Was undercover with Hydra, she said he brought her kale and fussed at her because all she had in her fridge was beer and Sriracha. But he had to put me in—um, a safehouse one time, and I was upset about it, and he sent me like a case of Little Debbie cakes and a bunch of those terrible mini-donuts.”
“What flavor donuts?” Clint knows what she’ll say. He knows.
“Powered sugar and chocolate covered. Well, ‘chocolatey’ covered.” She makes little finger quotes, and Clint puts the arrow back in his quiver. He feels—he’s not sure how he feels, whether the boulder in his chest is relief or rage or hurt or joy. Tony’s looking between Clint and Daisy, eyes narrow and sharp.
“So, what, are the donuts some kind of passcode?” he asks, and Clint barks out a rusty laugh.
“Nah,” he says. “Just, he could never decide which to get, so he always ended up with both.” He sniffs, and Tony ignores it, because Tony’s a great bro sometimes.
“So,” Tony says, voice bright and brittle, “Leaving aside the many, many questions we all have about why Agent faked his own death and lied for years—and Captain America is going to be very disappointed in such base dishonesty—why has he picked now to come out of whatever secret SHIELD closet he’s been hiding in?”
Daisy bristles. “Don’t talk about him like that,” she says, and fuck, if Clint hadn’t already been convinced that would have convinced him, because there’s nobody else who can make his people so stupidly protective without even realizing he’s done it. “He didn’t do it on purpose,” Daisy continues. “He really did die in the Battle of New York, and I’m not talking one of those things where you code for five seconds, I’m talking all the way dead, for like a week—”
“Bullshit,” Clint interrupts, sick and reeling. “The fuck he was, I don’t care what kind of line they spun you, girly, but there is no way—”
“He was!” she shouts. “He told me himself, and you didn’t see his face, he was really fucked up about it! SHIELD apparently had this secret program—”
“Of course they did,” Tony sinks back down into one of the conference room chairs, pushing it back on its wheels two feet with the force of his dramatic slump. Clint freezes, suddenly remembering the months before New York, a project Phil couldn’t talk about, meetings that he came out of looking worn and grey.
“Anyway, long story short, “ Daisy says, waving her hand impatiently, “Director Fury brought him back to life with mad science. It was all really traumatic and he lost a lot of his memory, and he thought he might go crazy, and then HYDRA happened and Fury made Coulson the Director of SHIELD, and we’ve been really really busy since then trying not to get killed by anybody. And a lot of people have been trying,” she finishes, rushing the words like she’s afraid of being cut off. “And he didn’t send me; he doesn’t know I’m here. I came because he needs your help, Mr. Stark, and he’d never ask it for himself.” She half turns, rummaging in a bag that’s slung over the back of her chair and coming out with a file that she slaps down on the conference table. She flips it open and starts shuffling through, and Clint catches a series of X-rays, medical charts, and what looks like engineering diagrams before she settles on a large color photograph, a man’s left arm lying atop blankets. The curve of strong bicep emerging from a pale blue hospital gown is sprinkled with freckles, and there’s a familiar scar pattern just above the elbow that Clint knows; a knife fight in Manchester, a deep slice from where the knife had deflected off Phil’s vest into his arm. A lucky blow, really, though the guy had gone down with Clint’s arrow in his throat immediately afterward, so it’d been the last luck he’d ever had. Below the elbow, though—Clint’s eyes keep trying to slide off, Clint’s brain is trying not to take it in, but below the elbow there’s bandages, thick bandages, but not thick enough to hide the huge swath of nothing where the hand—fuck, where Phil’s hand should be.
“Can you make him a robot hand?” Daisy asks Tony, and Clint can’t breathe; whatever Tony says in response is lost as he slams out of the conference room and runs to the stairs and up to the penthouse and outside, out onto the balcony where Tony usually lands the suit, and it’s not until he’s out on the narrow catwalk that runs behind the giant A that his throat relaxes enough to get some air.
He’s out there for—a while, let’s just say a while—before he hears Tony’s voice, that conspicuously nonchalant voice he uses when he’s trying not to show that something’s important, over-enunciating his words so that Clint doesn’t have to look at his lips to understand.
“You know, house rules clearly state that safety harnesses are mandatory for anyone who goes past the red line without either a suit or a jetpack,” Tony says. He’s hovering two feet away from Clint, because of course he is.
Clint holds up the grappling line he’s got wound around one of the support struts of the A. He’s heard enough lectures from Cap on the topic to last a lifetime, thanks.
Tony settles on the catwalk beside Clint, and say what you will about Tony but the man’s a damn good pilot. The kind of precision he manages with whatever eye-twitch and micro-movement navigation system he’s got in those suits is impressive. The catwalk creaks but stays firm; Tony wouldn’t have a place on his own building that wasn’t safe for him to land.
He raises the faceplate of the suit, but doesn’t turn to look at Clint. The two of them just sit there for awhile, staring out over the city. It’s a nice day. Not too hot, bit of a breeze. Seems like it’s always a nice day when things fall apart.
“It’s a hell of a thing,” Tony says at last, about two minutes after he’d started twitching at the silence. Clint appreciates the effort. “You going to call Romanoff?”
“I—maybe,” Clint says. “I don’t know. I mean, she needs to know. The team needs to know. But—” he shakes his head, unable to put it into words. Telling Nat seems too big, somehow. It would make it too real. He kind of just wants to stay here on this nice comfy catwalk (it isn’t comfy) and not think for a while, because when he thinks all he can think about is dead for a week and mad science and three years of pointless grief.
“I got the feeling you three were all roommates at SHIELD sleepaway camp,” Tony continues.
“We worked together,” Clint tells him, and the understatement is so vast it almost makes him smile. “Just me and Nat, and Phil to run the ops. STRIKE Team Delta. Smallest STRIKE team in SHIELD history, and the highest mission success rate.”
“And you tried to tell us you weren’t much for teams.” Tony’s voice is still so careful. It’s nice of him. Somewhere under the layers of churning emotion, Clint appreciates it, that’s he’s trying so hard.
“Wasn’t a team, not really.” Clint’s voice has gotten thick, and his view of the horizon is getting blurry. He ignores it, and so does Tony. “Family’s closer, but not even that. It was more like—like being one person with three heads and six arms.”
“And twenty-seven guns, I’m guessing.”
“Guns, knives, arrows, flashbombs, grenades, broken bottles, random shit we found on the street…” Clint chuckles, and it hurts his throat and it’s a relief. “Phil didn’t look it, but he was a hell of a dirty fighter. Doesn’t. Doesn’t look it. Shit.” He scrubs his hands down his face, tastes bile in the back of his throat. “I thought—no. Doesn’t matter. Looks like to him we were just another squad.”
Tony sighs. “Don’t get me wrong, Barton,” he says. “I am pissed as hell over this shit, but if our mystery visitor down there’s telling even half the truth, you maybe shouldn’t jump to any conclusions about Coulson’s motivations in this mess.”
Clint wants so badly for that to be true—for there to be a reason besides not giving a shit for Phil to do this to him and Nat—that it’s almost frightening. “Yeah?”
“Those medical files she brought? Disturbing shit, and that’s before you get to the part where he just got his hand chopped off with an axe,” Tony says, and Clint jerks so hard he pulls the grappling line tight, his gut lurching at the thought of—of Phil’s hand and—
“Whoa!” Tony’s grabbing him, gauntlet tightening around Clint’s arm. “Sorry, sorry, that was insensitive of me. Sorry. I just meant—hell, you know I’m hardly the chair of the Human Subjects Review Committee, but the stuff Fury pulled to bring Coulson back, even I would have given it the side-eye. So maybe we need to think about cutting him a little bit of slack in the avoiding difficult conversations department.”
Clint’s quickly going from shocked and hurt to actively freaking the fuck out, because Tony is a lot of things, but scientifically conservative is not one of them.
“What the fuck did they do to him?” he demands, heart pounding.
The armor whirs a little as Tony shifts, way more of a tell than he usually allows himself when he’s suited up. He turns his face away again, staring out over the skyline. “Maybe we should go inside for this conversation.”
“Tony.” Clint’s hand is reaching out without any input from his brain, as though he could pull the answers right out of him. It’s trembling, gone clammy with adrenaline, and he pulls it back, clenches it into a fist to hold it still. “Please.”
Tony sighs. “They revived his week-old corpse with some kind of alien juice they’d had sitting around in a bunker for God knows how long—since Roswell, probably,” he says, and Clint’s actually glad for the fucking line, because without it he might have fallen off the building just then. Tony either doesn’t notice or is pretending not to, and keeps on talking with the air of a man ripping off the duct tape. “Apparently all the previous alien-juice test subjects—because naturally there were some, because that always ends well—ended up going nuts. So to try to avoid that, they wiped his memory and made him think he’d been having a nice long recovery on a beach—as though that wouldn’t make him suspicious right off the bat; I’ve seen SHIELD’s budget, you guys were lucky if you got three weeks in a rehab center in Paramus.”
Clint wraps his arms around himself, hunching a little over the knot of pain in his chest. It doesn’t help much. “I can tell that’s not everything,” he says through gritted teeth. “Go on.”
“There’s a lot more. Fury sent him off to head some kind of mobile team based off a jet—”
Clint snorts, despite everything. “He always wanted one of those,” he says. His voice is almost not bitter. “Downside of being a small team, he could never get the reqs approved.”
“Yeah, well, reading between the lines, I suspect Fury knew something bad was in the air and wanted to keep Coulson back as his ace in the hole,” Tony says, “but also, apparently his team was there to take him out in case the alien juice finally sent him off.”
“Fuck,” Clint mutters. Phil must have found out, for Daisy to know. Phil cared about SHIELD so much, about his people: it would have hurt him, to know that his team—that Fury, who’d always been his friend—were treating him like he was suspicious, like he’d been compromised. He would have had no one.
He could have had Clint, Clint and Nat and probably all the others too. He could have had them with a single call, and he’d never made it. Honestly, it almost makes it worse, to hear that Phi—that Coulson had gone through so much and that none of it was enough for him to come to them.
“And then one of the team turned out to be Hydra, so that was its own giant pot of shit stew,” Tony continues.
“Must not have been that bad,” Clint snaps, “Given that he apparently had time to get back with his old girlfriend but he never even thought to call me and Nat.”
Tony heaves a sigh. “Yeah, apparently he didn’t so much get back with her as save her life secretly and never let on he was there,” he says. “I pushed Daisy about it a little after you left. She said there was some guy with electricity powers that escaped from SHIELD custody when the whole Hydra thing went down?”
“Yeah,” Clint says. “Some kind of music fetishist or something, I dunno. ’S how they met.”
“So, yeah, he didn’t tell her either, apparently, if it helps.”
“I don’t know if it makes it better or worse,” Clint says. “We would have helped him. He has to know we would have come in a minute, so why…” he trails off, making a helpless gesture.
“I honestly can’t believe I’m saying this,” Tony says. “But I’m going to ask you to consider a hypothetical situation.”
“You’re between me and the balcony, Stark.” Clint gestures expansively at his path, blocked by 500 pounds of gold/titanium-plated billionaire. “I ain’t leaving.”
“Right.” Tony sucks in a deep breath. “So. In our line of work, you wonder, right, when is it going to happen? Is this going to be the time that does it, is this when I go out? Will I get the Hollywood death or am I going to die doing something stupid? Will they build statues of me? Will there be parades of mourners over my heroic corpse like the end of Evita?”
Clint clears his throat pointedly.
“Just me? Right. But the rest, though? You wonder. Did I do enough? Did I make it right?”
Clint thinks of Natasha, the red in her ledger. He thinks of Bruce, feverish and shaking with guilt and grief in the Quinjet. He thinks of Tony, building and working and running himself into the ground trying to prepare for a threat that he thinks he’s the only one afraid of. He thinks of Cap, fingers smudged with a thousand pictures of ghosts, killing punching bags and never looking lighter for it.
“Yeah,” he says. “We wonder.”
“So picture it. That moment comes, and you do go out a hero. You save people. You defy a mad god. You inspire a team of superheroes to fight in your name. Statue confirmed, you die knowing that. And then… you wake up again, and the people you trust tell you nobody can know. And you aren’t right, your body, your brain, something’s off, you can tell, but nobody believes you. And maybe you start to wonder, what’s so terrible that they can’t tell me?” His voice gets quiet, and Clint thinks maybe he’s not 100% just talking about Phil. “What have I become?”
“So you say ‘fuck the secrets’ and you go to the people you know you can trust,” Clint grits out. “The people you’ve saved, the people who have saved you, who know—”
“Really?” Tony cuts him off. “Your most important people? The ones who mourned you as a hero? You go to them and maybe risk them? Risk hurting them? Risk them looking at you and seeing a monster? Because I know a little something about that, and in my case it ended in omelets and explosions and Natasha stabbing me in the neck. Put yourself in his place, Barton.”
Clint tries. He thinks of how he felt after Loki, deliberately brings out the memories he usually pushes to the darkest corner of his mind. He imagines that instead of Nat bringing him out of it, maybe Fury managed to capture him, stash him in a cell until Loki was brought down. Maybe they’d have thought he died in the first incursion of Pegasus, crushed in the rubble saving the Director’s life.
In real life, it had taken months for Clint to stop flinching away from people, terrified he’d hurt them; to stop waking, screaming, from nightmares of his hands doing unspeakable things. He imagines being left alone to muddle through it, knowing that Nat and Phil had given him a hero’s burial. He imagines being told that they could never know, being shuttled aside with a team who were really his minders. He imagines being a ghost.
He would have wanted them, he knows. He would have ached for them. But Tony’s right: he wouldn’t have told.
He lets out a long breath. It turns into more of a sob at the end, but they both ignore it.
“Okay,” he says. “All right. Okay. I’ll try.”
“Good,” Tony says. “Can we go inside now? You’re freaking FRIDAY out, she’s still not used to your shenanigans. Heh. Freaky FRIDAY.”
“Yeah, fine,” Clint says. He feels washed out and used-up, like he might float away on the next gust of wind. “I’m still pissed off, though.”
“Oh absolutely,” Tony says. “We’re going to make him grovel.”
“What?” Clint should be used to this by now, but he pauses in the middle of winding up his grappling line to stare at Tony.
“Yeah, I kind of promised Agent Not-A-Cellist in there that I’d build Coulson a robot hand,” Tony says. “And he’ll need to be here for me to do it. So, um, yay? Closure?”
“Oh.” Clint tries to imagine what that will be like, seeing Phil again, moving through the Tower, talking, living. The picture won’t form in his mind. He thinks distantly that he should probably be panicking; honestly, though, he’s been through so many emotional 180s in the last few hours that he can’t get upset anymore. He thinks he’s temporarily exhausted his adrenaline reserves.
A thought occurs to him, and he blinks. “Now we really need to call Natasha.”