Three months after the battle of New York, Agent Phil Coulson walks into conference room #1703, looking carefully at each person in the room--Steve, Natasha and Clint--with a very slight and uncharacteristically nervous smile on his face.
"The first thing you need to know is that certain situations have changed," Fury says from his position at the head of the table.
"What the fuck," Steve breathes as Natasha mutters in Russian and looks like she might actually cry.
Clint stares in stunned silence for a few moments, and then bursts out laughing hysterically.
"Agent Barton," Fury says, frowning.
Clint wipes away actual tears from the corners of his eyes as he gets his laughter under control, then gestures dismissively as he plows past what's decidedly not Coulson and heads for the door. "Fuck you, sir," Clint says, "I'm cashing in my vacation days. All of them."
Natasha says something after him, but Clint can't hear her past the rushing in his ears. He very carefully doesn't think about anything at all but getting the fuck out of town, and keeps that focus all through his trek across town, to Stark Tower. He grabs his bow and quiver, steals a few things from Stark--like a car, because why the fuck not?--and then aims his nose west as he keeps thinking about nothing at all.
Clint gets on I-80 and drives until his vision starts to blur. Normally he'd be able to hold out longer than he did, he thinks, but to be fair it's been a bit of a day and he's still not thinking about it, nope. It's getting late and he's more than halfway through Pennsylvania, he's pretty sure, by the time he pulls off at an exit and finds a Holiday Inn conveniently across the road from a Wal-Mart. Pretty much the only things he brought with him were his weapons, so he gets a room and then immediately heads to Wal-Mart for some essentials.
The cashier looks supremely bored and terribly young as she scans his purchases; clothes, snacks, toiletries, energy drinks. He wonders if she saw the battle of New York on TV. He wonders if she knows he's part of the reason she's alive and has a day-to-day life to go to right now. He doubts it.
He wonders if she knows he caused the whole mess to begin with.
And then Clint thinks about all the other shit, and about Coulson, and he needs to run around the corner outside so he can hyperventilate a bit, leaning his forehead on the wall and pretend he's not tasting bile at the back of his throat.
When he gets back to his hotel room, the thing wearing Coulson's face is sitting in the chair by the little table, smiling carefully at him. Clint doesn't have it in him to fight.
"Get out," he says quickly, quietly, and doesn't look at it.
"Barton," it says, and Clint's entire chest aches.
"Get out," he repeats. "I can't--I can't," and he hates himself for how his voice breaks a little right then, "I can't handle this, I can't handle you right now. Not yet."
"I'm not leaving," it says. "You shouldn't be alone."
Clint squeezes his eyes shut and for the first time ever understands why people try to drink away their demons. "Be quiet, please," he says. His voice is more like a whimper at this point, because it sounds so much like Coulson, and he can't take it.
The thing moves. Clint can hear it as it gets out of the chair and takes a careful step towards him, then stops. Clint is grateful; any closer and he would have taken it apart piece by piece, multi-billion dollar value or not.
"I'm going to sleep," Clint says, "and when I wake up, you're going to be gone."
He'd planned to eat, but the faint traces of hunger are all but gone from his body. He dumps his stuff on the floor, takes a piss, and then slides into bed fully clothed, all without looking directly at it. He saw it in his peripheral vision, though, and Clint curses his vision. Wishes he'd never seen it, wishes he didn't know how good it looked.
It sits motionless in the chair for a few long moments, before it says, "All right, get some rest Agent Barton."
Clint wants to rip that name from its fake tongue. He wants to tear out its voice box so nobody will ever have the right to say his name like that, in that voice, ever again.
In the morning, it's gone. Clint considers showering and shaving, then decides not to. He's finally hungry again, so he just runs damp hands through his hair, grabs his things and heads out.
He's not sure where he is; the road signs had kind of blurred together when he exited I-80, but small town America tends to look largely the same. A main street. A small park. Average people living average lives, and Clint wonders how they would handle it if chaos found them. He tries to envision Chitauris racing down main street, crashing through windows and tearing whole buildings apart. He briefly, quickly, sees himself shoot explosive arrows at what looks to be town hall, complete with a clock tower and everything. Clint shudders.
There's a sub shop where he picks up a footlong, and ignores the way it tastes like ash in his mouth. He forces it all down because he does need food, and if he wanted to kill himself there are easier and faster ways than starvation.
He tanks up at a Sheetz with Stark's black AmEx, and doesn't even feel bad. If Stark minded, he never would have made it out of Stark Tower; JARVIS would have seen to it.
When Clint is about to get back in the car, not-Coulson's sitting in the passenger seat. Clint refuses to feel impressed at its stealth. It's got a serious look on its face.
"Agent Barton," it says, then hesitates and adds, "Clint," like it's trying the name out. "We really need to talk."
Anger surges in Clint, and he slams his fist into the top of the car. It doesn't even flinch. "You don't fucking get to talk," Clint hisses. "You don't get to say one fucking word."
It frowns, but Clint ignores it and instead slides into the driver's seat and starts the car.
It doesn't say anything else, but it looks carefully at him as he pulls back out onto I-80. Clint looks only at the road.
Clint had known about the LMDs Stark was developing with Fury for months. He wasn't supposed to know originally, but what else was new?
He'd laughed at Coulson for weeks after he found out he was their prototype. "Is it an exact replica, sir?" he'd asked with a leer and a waggle of his eyebrows. "Down to every last detail?"
Coulson had smiled blandly at him and said diplomatically, "The Life Model Decoys are designed with a self-sustaining Artificial Intelligence, with the project goal being for them to be able to pass as their Target Model in any given situation."
Stark has apparently done a wonderful job.
Clint grimly thinks he's going to punch Stark in the face the next time he sees him, and he guns the engine a little harder; puts a little more strain on the car. He's steadfastly ignoring the silent figure in the passenger seat.
They're just about to cross the border to Illinois when lights flash in Clint's rearview mirror.
He briefly considers just taking off--God knows he could, especially in this sleek car--but in the end decides it's not worth it. He pulls onto the shoulder, rolls down the window and then leans his head back against the headrest.
Not-Coulson's still silent in the passenger seat.
The cop that comes to his window is porn star hot, and Clint can feel her gaze on him from behind her sunglasses. He hands her his license and the registration he digs out of the glove box without protest (and he's still not looking at not-Coulson when he leans over, his knees close enough to touch as he roots around in the glove box).
"Do you know why I pulled you over?" she asks.
Normally--before--Clint might have been a smartass. He'd definitely have flirted. If he'd stopped for her at all, that is. Here, now, today, Clint just says, "I was speeding, ma'am."
If she's surprised at his honest answer, she doesn't let it show. Instead she looks at his registration, and one eyebrow arches up over the top of her sunglasses.
"It's not my car," Clint says. "It belongs to a friend of mine."
"Your friend is Tony Stark?" she asks, skeptically. Clint gets it, and doesn't have it in him to be offended.
"Yes," he sighs, worn and tired and not really lying, just exaggerating a little. JARVIS, he reminds himself, would have stopped him if Tony wasn't okay with this.
The officer doesn't look convinced. "Sir, if you could please step out of the car for me?"
Clint unbuckles his seat belt and is about to do as she says, because sure, this is his life, when not-Coulson leans across him. His heart shoots up in his throat, because not-Coulson's face is suddenly right there, inches from his. It looks out the driver's side window and up at the cop.
"Ma'am," it says, handing over its--Coulson's--badge. "I'm Agent Phil Coulson with the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division. Might I have a word?"
Clint feels nauseous.
She scowls at them both, then with one hand resting almost casually on the top of her service weapon, she says, "All right, if you could exit the car slowly please?" She looks at Clint again. "You stay put for now."
Not-Coulson gets out. Clint wants to push the gas pedal to the floor and leave him there. He's not sure why he doesn't.
Not-Coulson and the cop stand by her cruiser and talk, and Clint can't help but glance at them in the rearview mirror. Not-Coulson's gesturing very slightly, and the cop reaches into the cruiser for her radio and then says something into it. Clint might be able to read their lips if he bothered trying--hell, he might be able to hear them if he leaned just a little more out the window--but he can't find the energy to care all that much.
Then not-Coulson and the cop smile at each other, briefly shake hands, and they're both walking back towards Clint. Not-Coulson gets into the passenger seat, the cop hands back Clint's stuff. "You're all set to go," she says. "Don't speed anymore."
"Yes, ma'am," Clint mumbles, eyes stinging and wet, and he puts his sunglasses on to hide it.
They're fifteen minutes back on the road before Clint trusts that his voice will carry.
"Why are you here?" he asks.
Not-Coulson looks at him; Clint can see it in his peripheral vision. "You need me here," it says, simply, plainly, and Clint punches the steering wheel so hard they swerve a little.
It doesn't react at all, and Clint wonders just how mad Stark will be if he shoots the thing, leaves it broken and destroyed at the side of the road in Illinois, wiping out close to a year's worth of hard work.
They stop in Chicago, and it follows him into the hotel Clint decides on, all the way into his room. Clint pulls the curtains aside and looks down onto the city.
"It's been a while since I've been home," it says, and sounds content with life. Clint's chest feels like it's going to burst. It comes to stand next to Clint at the window. "Let’s get pizza."
Clint doesn't smash it through the window like he wants to. Instead he grabs his bow and quiver and stalks out of the room, slamming the door behind him.
Rooftops, despite their difference in stability, structure, shape and slope, are still much the same all over the world. Clint looks down at the people below him and nocks an arrow, draws the string taut, and waits. It only takes a few minutes to find what he's looking for. The pickpocket looks appropriately alarmed when the arrow pins his sleeve to the ground mid-lift, dragging him off balance in the process and causing him to lose the wallet. Someone shouts in alarm, but Clint doesn't linger to see who. He's already moving on.
He stops three more pickpockets, a mugger, and a break-in before midnight. In between, he works on his agility and climbs rooftops and scales buildings. He stops at a hot dog cart in the early evening hours and forces himself to eat a couple of dogs, reminding himself once again that starving to death isn't an option. He continues to hunt, and treats not thinking about it like a mission, because it's the only way he'll succeed.
When he finally goes back to the hotel room, not-Coulson's sitting on the floor by the window, arms crossed, tucked up against the wall, sleeping.
Clint glances around the room, at the single bed and lack of chairs. Something inside of him twists, almost like guilt. It's enough to make him leave again. He gets pizza and eats it in the hallway.
He's probably caused minor headlines in the newspaper the next morning. Clint doesn't care. He gets out of bed before conceding that, yes, he does really need a shower. He can't be assed to shave though. Once he's clean, he gets dressed and gathers his stuff.
Not-Coulson's still slumped against the wall, and briefly Clint considers leaving it again. It would be easy to just walk out, and not have to see it, not have to know it's there.
"Hey," Clint says, voice rough with early morning and lack of use. "Hey," he tries again, kicking not-Coulson's leg carefully.
It blinks slowly at first, coming to life--waking up--in a way Coulson so rarely did. Its suit is rumpled, Clint notices. Coulson would throw a fit. Stark's still got some work to do before it'll be perfect. That thought is at once alarming and oddly comforting.
"Time to go," Clint says when it looks at him with an expression resembling confusion on its face.
Clint decides against following 80 further, avoids Iowa like the plague, and instead gets onto 57 southbound. Not-Coulson either doesn't notice, or it doesn't mind.
"Thank you for waking me up," it says politely when they're three hours out. "I didn't think you would."
Clint doesn't answer, just grips the steering wheel tighter and turns on the radio.
When they hit 55, Clint makes a pit stop at a Roxxon gas station. He tries not to think about how not-Coulson goes to use the restroom and gets coffee. He does get surprised at the metric fuckton of donuts and the gross gas station sandwiches it buys, and something must have shown on his face because it shrugs. "I'm hungry. I haven't eaten in a while."
Clint carefully doesn't think about how impressed he'd been when he learned the LMDs could eat and actually sort-of process food ("pass in any given situation," Coulson's words ring in his ears).
After that, he gets off the Interstate and starts following random roads northwest again, because they'd almost reached Arkansas and fuck Arkansas. Clint has a personal beef with Arkansas ever since that one time. Not-Coulson chews donuts next to him and gets powdered sugar on the upholstery. Stark will probably not like that, and Clint experiences a sort of muscle spasm in his face at the thought, almost as if his body wants him to smile, just a little.
It's getting dark again and they're passing through Springfield in Missouri when not-Coulson asks, "Are we going anywhere in particular?"
Clint says, "No," and by the time he realizes he hadn't objected to its casual use of the word we, it's too late. He scowls and pretends he minds. He thinks about pushing it out of the car while moving. Wonders how well it'd hold up to that. Coulson would be bruised, but fine. Hell, Coulson would probably have expected it.
They stop for the night at a Super 8 in Independence, Kansas. Clint carefully doesn't look at not-Coulson as he gets a room with two beds, and then keeps on not looking at him as he enters their room and puts down his stuff.
"I'm going to take a shower," he says, because he feels grimy and gross from a full day's worth of driving. Not-Coulson doesn't answer, but somehow his mere presence gives off a pleased vibe.
Clint turns the water just a shade too hot, and loves the way it feels as it stings his skin. He still doesn't want to shave, but does so anyway. When he gets out of the shower, a towel wrapped around his waist, not-Coulson's sitting on his bed wearing boxers and an undershirt. The suit is on a hanger, and it gestures towards the bathroom. "Mind if I go?" it asks.
Clint can't get words out for a second, the lump in his throat threatening to suffocate him. Eventually he chokes out, "By all means."
When not-Coulson comes back out, Clint's got the TV on and he keeps his eyes locked on the screen.
"You don't give a guy much time to pack," it says ruefully. Clint considers ignoring it. He considers protesting, You're not a guy. He considers shooting it in the face. He does none of those things, but instead reaches down into his bag and pulls out a couple of things.
"Buy your own shit next time we stop," he says, throwing a henley and a pair of jeans at it.
It looks grateful. Clint wishes he didn't have such excellent peripheral vision.
"Thank you, Clint," it says carefully, as it pulls on the clothes. Clint looks then, only because he never got to see Coulson in a henley and jeans, and the sight makes him want to set the entire motel on fire, it hurts so much.
He sucks in a deep breath and holds it as he turns back to the TV. Not-Coulson sits down on its own bed, and Clint busies himself with ordering a pizza. It's not a deep dish, but he still shares with not-Coulson this time. They eat in silence and watch some random baseball game on the TV as Clint slowly remembers how to breathe again.
The next morning, Clint sleeps in. When he eventually blinks awake, the shoddy alarm clock by the TV says it's 10:23am, though it could be wrong. Clint doesn't know, and doesn't care.
The other bed is empty, but just as Clint exists the bathroom, not-Coulson walks back into the room. It's still dressed in Clint's henley and jeans, but it's carrying a duffel bag over his shoulder, much like Clint's own.
"I got my own shit," it offers, like an explanation, and Clint realizes he's looking directly at it.
He quickly looks away and mumbles, "Good."
They get in the car and Clint drives, and if it's all becoming familiar, sliding into Stark's car with not-Coulson getting into the passenger's seat, Clint's not acknowledging it. Clint turns on the radio, and they don't talk.
They're right by Meade State Park when not-Coulson says, "I wish you weren't so angry with me."
Clint has to pull over to the side of the road so he can vomit up the Applebee's lunch they'd eaten together in Wichita, kneeling in the dirt on the shoulder.
By the time his stomach's empty, not-Coulson's there. It puts one hand carefully, tentatively on Clint's back, and Clint's stomach rebels again against the touch.
Clint doesn't beg, but still says, "Please don't touch me--please."
Not-Coulson takes its hand off Clint, and when Clint raises his head, it looks sad, like it can feel Clint's pain.
Clint wipes his mouth on his sleeve, chugs down an energy drink to get the taste out of his mouth (keeping it down through sheer force of will), and then cranks the radio once he's back in the car.
"I'm sorry," not-Coulson says, barely audible through the music.
Clint sighs. Yeah, me too, he doesn't say.
They're in Oklahoma, and Clint's trying to decide whether to go south to Texas or north to Colorado, when not-Coulson says, in a slightly desperate tone Clint's never heard in Coulson's voice before, "Please, just talk to me, Clint, please."
Bile rising, Clint doesn't answer. He drives south to Texas.
It's late by the time they hit Amarillo. Clint checks in at a fancier than normal hotel, Ambassador something or other, and only opens the door long enough for them to chuck their duffel bags in, before he heads back out. He doesn't leave the door open for not-Coulson, because he doesn't expect it to enter, either. Just like he thought, not-Coulson follows him.
It's not hard finding a dive bar. It's not even far from the hotel. They could have sat down in the fancy hotel bar, but Clint doesn't want fancy alcohol right now, he wants cheap. He wants the kind of alcohol that will hurt as much going down as it will coming up; the kind of alcohol that would make his daddy proud. Not-Coulson doesn't speak, but slides onto the bar stool next to him and matches his orders.
The first shot burns, the second shot just hurts.
"You getting drunk?" Clint asks, when he means to ask, Can you get drunk? He doesn't correct himself, because--Pass in any given situation.
For a moment, not-Coulson doesn't seem to realize it's being addressed. Then it frowns. "Apparently."
Clint's not sure how not-Coulson can hold its liquor, because by the time it should be about good and drunk, Clint's having issues seeing straight. His body is protesting loudly, brutally reminding him he hasn't eaten much lately, and what he ate that day is currently left roadside somewhere in Kansas.
The bartender says something to him and then reaches towards him, and it's only SHIELD training plus the rigid philosophy that he will never, ever turn into the same kind of drunk his daddy was that prevents Clint from reacting with violence.
"I've got him," Coulson's voice comes in his ear then, warm and familiar, and Clint wants to cry, because not Coulson.
The body he leans on feels real enough under his hands, and it's like a betrayal of the worst sort. Clint does cry then, and not-Coulson helps him off the stool and out of the bar. "Come on," it says. "Come on, Clint."
Clint hiccups miserably and probably gets snot on not-Coulson's shirt--his shirt, really, not-Coulson's still wearing his fucking henley--but he can't stop.
He blinks in and out for a little, registering that not-Coulson's getting them back to the hotel, and then he's falling into the softest fucking bed he's ever laid in.
Clint breathes deeply and gets snot on the covers. The bed dips, and not-Coulson's there, right next to him. Not touching him, but just being near him, face so close to Clint's he can feel its breath. Pain takes him, little pinpricks that spread all the way into his bones, and Clint has to close his eyes. It's bubbling in his chest, suddenly, everything he wants to say and hasn't, everything he could have said but didn't.
"I miss you," he says on a sob, voice distorted and raw with his clogged nose and his grief. "I miss you so fucking much."
Clint thinks closing his eyes was a great idea. Coulson's voice has always had such a pleasant timbre to it, even when it's coming from not-Coulson. Clint's very sleepy.
"But I'm right here," not-Coulson says. "I'm not going anywhere."
"I don't want you," Clint mutters resentfully, drifting. "I want the real Coulson. I want Phil."
There's a sharp intake of breath, and Clint wonders briefly if he hurt the LMDs feelings, and then he's asleep.
Clint wakes up with a rolling stomach and an intense headache. The first thing he sees is not-Coulson's sleeping face on the bed next to him.
In sleep or charging mode or whatever it is these things do, not-Coulson is so still, and Clint can't help but look. He takes in all the details; the swoop of its eyelashes, the careful strands of its eyebrows. He looks at where the hairline starts, the soft curve of its ears and the pores of its skin, and Clint hates with his entire body.
It's like there's a string in Clint's chest, wrapping around his heart over and over until it's beating sluggishly, with great trouble. He feels like he can't breathe. He forces himself to do so anyway, over and over. Meditative, like Natasha taught him. Once he thinks he can move without vomiting everywhere or his head falling off, he slides silently off the bed, grabs his bag, and bolts.
Fucking enough, he thinks, and doesn't cry as he speeds faster. Enough.
He drives it all in almost one go; back north through Oklahoma and into Colorado, then onwards into Nebraska. From there he hits I-80 again and continues west. He has to stop and tank up several times, and even those few stops grate on him. When he crosses the Utah state border, he is running on mostly fumes and hatred, and his fists don't relax their death grip on the steering wheel until he's almost to Salt Lake City and has to stop, or risk falling asleep behind the wheel.
Clint's dehydrated, still hungover as fuck, but he's alone.
That thought feels incredibly liberating and soul crushing all at once. At least he's finally able to get some decent sleep.
In Boise, Idaho, he realizes Natasha's on his trail. He doesn't see her, but it's a gut feeling that never fails him, he knows. He doesn't want to see her. He's grateful she worries, but he can't face her--not yet.
Instead of checking into a hotel like he'd planned, he drives through the night and doesn't stop until he's in Portland, Oregon. The amount of miles he puts behind him feels great. He's trying hard to avoid analogies about shedding his skin, but it feels a bit like a renewal.
After catching up on some sleep in a Best Western, Clint scales some buildings and watches the skyline. He stops a couple of muggings and a lot of pickpockets. At one point he gets spotted where he sits, high on a fire escape, and he gives a grim salute to the gaping teenager with his cell phone camera out, before climbing to the roof.
It's on the outskirts of the city he finds a circus, and it makes him stop and stare, mouth slack and eyes wide. It's not at all similar, really. Carson's had been tents and trailers and carnies. This tent looks more like a building. The people bustling about are employees and gymnasts and performers, not semi-organized freaks of nature brought together with a general rejection by society as their only common denominator. Still, Clint stares for a while, his hurt deep and sore in his belly.
He goes back towards downtown after that, takes care of a couple more muggers, and doesn't stop until he overhears the radio of a passing car talking about a vigilante with a bow and arrow. He spends the rest of the day in his hotel room, channel surfing but not really seeing anything.
After Portland, he drives first to the coast then follows 101 south. The air changes and he starts leaving the windows down as much as he can stand, wishing that he'd taken one of Stark's convertibles instead.
It's not until he hits Crescent City that he registers he's not in Oregon anymore, and he realizes that he did see the Welcome to California sign a while back, but somehow didn't really process the information.
That seems to be as well of a sign that he's tired as any, and he finds a motel and settles in for the night. Being so close to the ocean makes Clint feel minutely more relaxed, and he falls asleep early, CNN on the TV on mute.
Clint knows instinctively that he's not alone in the room anymore when he wakes up. He figures Natasha's finally caught up with him, but when he sits up, it's not-Coulson staring back at him from across the room.
"I am not a Life Model Decoy," it says immediately, and Clint blinks at it. It's no longer wearing his henley and jeans, but instead it's in one of SHIELD's training uniforms. It's odd, because Coulson never wore those. Clint rubs the sleep out of his eyes and then blinks again, because what the fuck did he just hear?
"I am not a Life Model Decoy, Clint," not-Coulson repeats, and Clint's brain just sort of--shuts down.
"I'm Phil Coulson," Coulson says, either seemingly completely oblivious to how Clint's about to lose his fucking mind, or possibly just plowing ahead in spite of it. "I'm Phil Coulson and I didn't die on the helicarrier, okay? I came close, but I didn't die. Director Fury had me revived, Clint. I'm me. The LMD is not functional yet, you know that, Clint."
Clint stares. And then he starts to shake, because what he's hearing has got to be a lie, it's all got to be a lie, or a really fucking unfunny joke, because--
"I killed you," Clint says, and his voice sounds so foreign to his own ears. "I killed you!"
Coulson is across the room in a flash, sitting down on the bed next to Clint and grabbing at his neck, holding him as steady as he can through Clint's shaking, so he can look into his eyes. Clint lets him touch. Clint touches back, both hands gripping Coulson's wrists and feeling for the pulse there, except Coulson had told him LMDs were supposed to have a pulse, too, and none of this can possibly be real!
"I'm real," Coulson says, as if he's reading Clint's mind, "You never killed me. You were not responsible for anything that happened to me, Clint."
Clint squeezes his eyes shut and realizes there are tears on his cheeks, and something very heavy is sitting on his chest. He can't stop shaking. He grips Coulson's wrists harder. "I killed you," he repeats, and hates how broken he sounds.
"Jesus," Coulson breathes, and it can't possibly be real, because Clint's Coulson would never sound this emotional, like the core of his being has been scrubbed raw and left exposed to the world. "Jesus, Clint, you didn't. I'm so sorry. I should have made this clear sooner, but I didn't know what you needed, I didn't know--I didn't realize--I didn't realize that you'd think--," he says, and it comes out haltingly and in pieces. "I was trying to be what you needed," Coulson says, "I thought you knew who I was!"
And that's his Phil right there, holding him and holding strong, and Clint sobs, stripped bare and not at all understanding how he could have read everything so wrong, how he couldn't have seen Phil when he was right there.
"I love you," Clint says, forehead touching Phil's, because he never got to say it before the battle, and he certainly never got to say it after. "I've loved you for so fucking long. I'm sorry."
Phil breathes out a shaky huff against Clint's face and says, "Don't fucking apologize, Clint," and Clint so rarely hears Phil swear. "I knew, I knew, of course I fucking knew, you wear your heart on your sleeve like a fucking badge, and I should have done something about it sooner, but I thought--I was waiting, and--," Phil shakes his head and squeezes Clint's neck once before bringing his hand around to cup his jaw. "I'm the one who should apologize for waiting around for you to make a move."
Clint's dizzy, and he opens his eyes to meet Phil's gaze. It's a bit blurry, because he's still working on controlling his tears, but he does see Phil, his Phil, and now that he does--now that he knows what he's seeing--he can't stop looking. "I was going to," Clint says, then leans in and kisses Phil on the lips. It's quick and warm and wet with tears, and Clint keeps his eyes open and still shakes like a leaf. It's perfect. "I was going to," he repeats as he pulls back. "After we got done in New Mexico."
Phil smiles at him then, and Clint's missed that smile so much his toes ache with how amazing it is to see it again. "We're done in New Mexico now," Phil says, and Clint's own smile feels alien on his face.
There's a scar on Phil's chest, raised and raw and ugly. Clint runs his fingers over it and licks the skin there, and Phil sighs heavily in satisfaction underneath him.
"Clint," Phil says. "Clint," and Clint is still terrified that this isn't real.
"I'm here, I'm real," Phil repeats, and pulls him up for a kiss that deepens immediately. Clint shakes and keeps touching. He wants to believe.
"If you're worried, we can go find an EMP," Phil says against his lips, with a wry smile.
Clint huffs out a shaky parody of a laugh. "Would it involve leaving this room, sir?"
Phil kisses him again. "Will you call me Phil?" he says, and, "We can stay here as long as you want."
Clint rolls them so Phil's on top and says, "Phil, Phil," into their kisses, and arches up into Phil's naked body and his touch. "I trust you."
"That's good," Phil says on a groan, hands roaming down Clint's body to grab their cocks together. "That's very good."
Clint clings to Phil and says, more lighthearted than he feels, "You're right, of course, you usually are."
He's still shaking and he continues to shake as he comes, making a mess between their bodies. It's okay though, because Phil is right there with him. Phil's always right there with him, following him over the edge and contributing to the mess. It's how they roll; Clint makes a mess, Phil follows him, willingly, eagerly. Clint keeps his eyes open as much as he can manage, and thinks seeing is believing as he blisses out.
Pass in any given situation fades from the back of Clint's mind, and he finally feels calm and whole.
Later they lie naked in bed and Clint's running the tips of his fingers through Phil's hair. He still likes to touch. He still needs to touch.
"What changed?" he asks.
Phil turns his head to look at him. "Hm?"
Clint kisses his forehead. "Fury. He said the situation's changed. Why?"
Phil puts his head back down on Clint's chest, tucks his face inwards. "The World Security Council," he explains, and the words are a murmur against Clint's skin. The vibration of his voice carries, and it's comforting. "I believe the Council and Fury are no longer what you call seeing eye to eye. The original plan was to utilize my death," and Clint flinches, he can't help it, "as a powerful undercover tool, but the Director felt that given the circumstances, it was better to reinstate me into my old position."
The thought that Phil might be gone forever, that Clint might never know he was still alive, eats at him, and suddenly he's gasping for breath.
Phil runs his hand across Clint's chest, says, "I'm here. I'm real."
Clint believes him.
"You totally made Captain America curse," Clint says, and if his voice is shaky, Phil doesn't comment on it.
The tips of Phil's ears turn red, and Clint kisses him again.
"Just for the record," Clint says later, "I was doing fine until you came back. I mean, I didn't realize it was you, but I was fucking fine before. Shrinks even said so. I was just getting cleared for active duty again."
Phil smiles and kisses him and doesn't call him on the lie.
"I thought Natasha would have caught up with me by now," Clint says even later than that, a fresh mess between the two of them.
Phil nods a little. "She did. She just kept her distance. She didn't think her presence would be welcome, but she tracked you on my behalf for a little."
Clint forces the grin through, intentionally reaching for his old self. It sits deep in his gut, but he finds it, the sarcasm and the cheekiness that he didn't have the energy to find earlier. "That's so sweet, Phil. And stalker-ish. Big stalker who stalks."
Phil jabs a finger into his sternum, and Clint rubs his hand over the spot, grimacing but chuckling. The pain is nice.
"So I think I owe you a deep dish pizza," Clint says after a while, and he means for it to come off lighthearted, but instantly feels bad. Shame burns in his belly.
Phil's right there though, squeezing his side and kissing his collarbone. "We'll get it on the way back," he says simply.
I'm sorry I let you sleep on the floor, Clint doesn't say. I'm sorry I didn't see you.
I don't blame you for a damn thing, Phil doesn't say.
"Stop beating yourself up," is what Phil does say, because he can read Clint like a book, and apparently Clint's not making it difficult for him.
Clint leans down and kisses Phil again instead, just because he can and because he wants to.
They spend days in the motel room, ordering pizza and chinese and having sex as many times as they are up for--pun intended. Clint's becoming addicted to the touch, he thinks, because he hates it when Phil leaves even just to use the bathroom or shower or pay for their pizza.
When they do move on, they hold hands in the car like teenagers. Coulson's got a bigger duffel now, and he's brought back Clint's jeans and henley. Clint tells him to keep them, and grins into the sunshine as they continue down 101.
In San Fransisco, they stop for a full day and two nights. Clint's never really had a vacation before, and this trip didn't start out as one, so the concept of going to see the Golden Gate Bridge for no other reason than seeing the Golden Gate Bridge is weird as fuck. Clint probably lets his confusion show on his face (because seriously--it's a bridge, and he's not allowed to climb it, so what's the point?--why do people do this?), but Phil smiles as if right here, right now, staring at a red bridge he's happier than he's ever been, so Clint doesn't think it's completely pointless. He'll go watch a lot of bridges if it'll make Phil smile like that.
They buy more condoms, and lube, and once they get back to their hotel room Clint fucks Phil across the table. Phil retaliates by ambushing Clint when he's about to shower and makes him sit on the edge of the sink for the most enthusiastic blow job Clint's ever had.
Clint kisses with his eyes wide open, vision sharp and seeing clearly for the first time in what feels like months.
Once they hit Malibu, Phil directs Clint to Stark's mansion, and JARVIS lets them in the front door. Clint puts the stuff he stole in New York on the living room table, and says, "Sorry, JARVIS," with a sheepish grin, but he doesn't feel bad because smiling feels too good.
Then Stark shows up and there's a whole lot of yelling.
"What the fuck," Stark yells, and unlike with Steve, Clint had expected the cursing. "What the actual fucking fuckity fuck fuck?!"
"It was classified information," Phil says calmly, blandly, and Stark has to go to his workshop and double check that the LMD is still there, just to be sure. Clint doesn't think about the months where Phil was alive and he had no idea, because he just can't.
Once he's done yelling at them, yelling at JARVIS, yelling in outrage at Pepper, Rhodey and Fury--and for some reason, Bruce--over the phone, Stark offers to show them his latest progress with the LMD.
"Check it, I think I've got a new synthetic skin sample ready, it's awesome, just like the real thing, it even gets red and then peels if you leave it in the sun for too long," he says, enthusiastic like a 5-year old.
The idea makes Clint nauseous and he has to leave for a little. Leaving Phil's side is hard to stomach, but he doesn't go far, only out onto the balcony for some air. Phil follows within seconds, Stark on his heels like a puppy dog.
"...and what are you even wearing?" Stark asks with disbelief heavy in his voice, gesturing to Phil's jeans and t-shirt.
"Clothes," Phil says simply, grabbing Clint's hand and lacing their fingers together. That shuts Stark up. "Lets go home," Phil says to Clint. Clint feels happiness tentatively taking root in his chest, and he quirks his lips up in agreement.
"What about the cellist?" Stark asks.
Phil gives him his blandest Coulson-smile. "What about her?"
Stark leaves them alone on his jet, ducking into a different section with the excuse of having work to do. Clint's grateful, and lets the happiness and calm center him and spread to his limbs as he puts his head on Phil's shoulder. He's tired of being tense.
Phil lets him, and kisses the top of his head softly, sweetly.
"I'm here, I'm real," Phil says, and if Clint had any doubts left, he doesn't feel them anymore.
Clint raises his head and waggles his eyebrows at Phil, holding up the lube he stuffed in his back pocket earlier. "Wanna join the mile high club?"
Phil grins cheekily back and says, "Who says I'm not already a member?"
"Well, I'm not," Clint says, undeterred and completely unsurprised, because it's Phil, after all. It's his Phil. "You should recruit me."
It takes a lot of persuasion, just as Clint thought it would, but it's completely worth it when Stark comes back in and finds them naked and snuggling under one of his ridiculously expensive (but oh, so soft) throw blankets, now sweaty and stained with lube and come.
"No," Stark says on a breathy whimper, and then, louder, "No! This is not why I left you guys alone! I let you use my card, my car, I--I can't--JARVIS, why are you--how could you let this happen?! This is not buddies, JARVIS!"
"I'm terribly sorry, sir," JARVIS says, in his usual, dry tone, "I wrongfully assumed that sexual relations were permitted aboard this aircraft as you've taken such liberties on multiple occasions in the past. Might I suggest that sir be more clear with his objectives if different parameters are to apply to different people?"
Tony sputters, and their verbal sparring fades to background noise as Phil laughs against Clint's skin.
Clint laughs back. He's got Phil's arms around him, happiness in his limbs, and warmth in his chest.
Everything's going to work out.