No one knew how long Thor was going to be gone. The first few days, everyone was on edge, waiting for him to show up at any moment. They all would jump every time the elevator dinged. And they'd gotten excited when they had heard the low rumble of thunder. But the elevator was always someone else, and the storm had passed without Thor showing up.
Clint spent his days lying on the sofa watching movies and crap television. The others would come in and sit with him every so often. He both hated it and loved it. It was nice to have company. To have people to comment on the shows with. Steve was always interested in the Discovery Channel and would literally sprint into the room if he heard the Mythbusters on. Not that he recognized many of the myths. Clint thought he just liked catching up on science and culture while watching things blow up. That was why Clint watched it. Bruce and Tony weren't allowed to watch with them anymore because they spent the whole time yelling at the tv. Plus, no one liked giving Tony any ideas for ways to create explosions.
But it was exhausting to hold back the pain so much. He knew that they wouldn't judge him for showing how much he hurt, but he had spent a lifetime hiding pain and being told to suck it up. So whenever anyone sat down on the couch next to him, he wrapped an arm tighter around himself and set his face into a calm smile. He'd pretend not to wince as a wave of pain made it feel like a knife was being twisted into his kidney and they would pretend not to see it. It wasn't the best system. But it worked.
Clint was still managing to eat a few bites of food when the team got called out a week later. The pain was in between waves and he felt as good as he had since the pain had started to come back. When Steve had made the call to assemble, he'd reacted on instinct. Jumping off the couch and racing towards his rooms to grab his bow.
"Absolutely not." Tasha had stopped him in the hallway outside his room. It took a moment for Clint to understand what she was talking about. Then the reality of the last few weeks caught back up with him in the form of stabbing pain. He immediately tried to hide it. Tasha just raised an eyebrow at him. "No."
Clint growled, frustrated. "Just let me out of the house. I'm bored as fuck just lying around all day. Let me have a comm and sit in mobile command or something." He didn't care that he was begging. He needed this.
Tasha's shoulders softened. "I know. I do."
"No. You don't" He was fighting to keep from screaming at her. That would not help anything. "I'm Hawkeye, Tasha. Please... Imagine if you couldn't be Black Widow anymore. Imagine if you had to sit back and watch as your team goes off without you. Imagine if you were so absolutely worthless." His voice cracked on the last word and he dropped his eyes to the floor.
Tasha took a step forward and placed a hand on his shoulder comfortingly. "We can still beat this. Thor will come back with answers and we can go from there. Until then, you need to stay out of the field. Okay?" She offered him a tentative smile and he nodded.
"Can I get a comm and video feed?"
Tasha's smile twisted and an evil gleam came to her eyes. "That's up to the field commander for this mission. Which, since Sitwell's still in Berlin, means it's Coulson." She disappeared down the hall before Clint could respond. He wanted to run after her. To yell at her for doing that to him. For dropping something like that on him and just walking away. For throwing that disaster back in his face.
His knees felt weak as he staggered the rest of the way to his bedroom. Tony had run past him, rubbing sleep from his eyes as he went for his suit. He didn't notice Clint and Clint ignored him. He didn't bother closing the door before dropping onto his bed. There was a distant roar as Iron Man took off before the building fell into an echoing silence. Clint's mind decided that it needed to fill the emptiness with memories of everything he'd done wrong. Of the times he'd gone too far on a mission and had gotten Coulson hurt. Of the times Coulson had gotten into trouble by covering for Clint's screw-ups. Of the time Clint hadn't been able to stop Loki from plunging a spear into Coulson's heart.
Clint must have fallen asleep because the next thing he knew, it was dark outside and he could hear the ruckus that was the team returning. He counted their voices, making sure they had all made it home. With Thor gone and him stuck in bed, it was just the four of them out there. They could handle themselves, but things happened. There were accidents and people died. But he heard Tony's laughter and Steve and Tasha yelling at him and he could just make out Bruce's snort of amusement. They were all safe.
Clint rolled over, ignoring the way the change in position shifted his ribs and constricted his breathing. It wasn't anything he couldn't handle. Wasn't anything he wasn't used to. He snuggled his head into his pillow and sighed. Today needed to be over. This week needed to be over. This whole fucking life just needed to be over. He was sick of it. Sick of hurting. Sick of being tired. Sick of being hungry and unable to eat.
It wasn't the first time in his life Clint had thought about suicide. Growing up like he did, he'd considered it more than once. Right now, the idea of a bullet in his brain sounded way too nice. Just one quick shot and it'd all be done… He'd always managed to find some reason to stay alive. For his brother. For Coulson. For Tasha. For the team. But he wasn't a part of the team anymore. He wasn't an asset. Wasn't anything. Just a lump of medical mystery that could barely muster the energy to take a shower.
What was the point in sticking around if he was just going to hurt? If there was no one to help? No one to protect? No one who needed him?
His hand was halfway to his bedside table and the gun in the drawer when he heard footsteps. Shit. He'd forgotten his bedroom door was still open. He flopped back down on the bed. Tony's singing filled the hallway, accompanied by the whirring thump that was Iron Man's footsteps.
"Get your ass out of bed. No evil robots are going to stop us from having our karaoke night!" Clint glared at Tony who stuck his head through the door. "You don't get to get out of this. It's not like you don't just sit on your ass all day anyway. The least you can do is come out and sit on your ass and shower me with praise."
Clint chuckled as Tony stumbled off down the hall. The man was damn adamant about karaoke night. He'd drag Clint upstairs if he had to. A few more hours wouldn't make any difference. The gun would still be here waiting for him whenever he wanted it.
Listening to Tony's rendition of Shoot to Thrill, which he sang every fucking week, helped distract Clint from the throbbing pain in his back. But as Tony hogged the mic for his third song in a row, the room felt suddenly empty. It was usually only the 6 of them, and Thor was loud enough to make up for ten people, but just watching the four others interacting felt so wrong. Like the team wasn't complete anymore. Or maybe it was just that Clint didn't feel like one of them anymore. Either way, by the time Steve finally insisted on calling it a night, Clint's mind was back on the gun waiting for him in his room.
Tasha was sitting cross-legged on Clint's bed when he entered the room. He wasn't really surprised to see her, she always had a way of knowing what Clint was thinking even before Clint did. The look on her face said that right now, she knew exactly what Clint was planning on doing. And she wasn't going to have any of that. He simply walked right past her and locked himself in the bathroom.
It took her all of two seconds to pick the lock and come in after him. "Don't you dare." Her voice was a low growl.
"Get out, Natasha." Clint sat on the edge of the tub and glared up at her. "This is my choice."
"No, it isn't." Her voice tightened at the determination in his face. "Clint." She sighed and sat down next to him. "I'm sorry for what I said earlier. But this isn't an option. At lea-"
"Get. The. Fuck. Out." Clint ground out the words, trying to see past his anger. "The entire Coulson mess is your fault! So you don't get to bring it up. Got that? God, you can be a real bitch sometimes. Really. You think this is just a spur of the moment decision? That I didn't consider it last year, when I was living off IVs? You think I didn't think about eating a bullet the moment this pain came back? I'm exhausted." Tears were threatening to spill from his eyes. He squeezed them shut. "I just want to not hurt anymore."
"Okay." The finality in her voice shocked Clint. He blinked open his eyes to stare at her. "If you want to, I won't stop you. But," Clint groaned. "can you at least wait until Thor comes back? There's always a chance he'll find a cure."
Clint laughed. "Right."
"Please? For me? For everything we've been through together, can you just hold off until we know for sure?"
Clint considered it. Thor could be weeks longer, or he could show up tomorrow. At the rate the pain had been progressing, he figured he had about a month before he was back on an all IV diet. Thor was sure to be back before then. He knew what Clint was going through and wouldn't take his time getting back to Earth. And this was Natasha. His Natasha. The one who had dragged his unconscious ass out of burning buildings more times than he cared to admit. If anyone had any right to ask him to not do this, it was her.
"You found out what it is?"
They were all gathered in a hospital room, much to Clint's chagrin, but Bruce had insisted. Clint hadn't eaten for a few days but had managed to hide it. It would have been fine if he'd hadn't stood up so quickly upon seeing Thor's return and ended up passing out in the living room. Now he was in SHIELD Medical, hooked up to another fucking IV and a heart monitor and a bunch of other machines. It was the first time he'd been to HQ in weeks. Ever since the pain had come back.
Natasha was sitting with him, squeezed up against him on the narrow bed. Bruce was hunched into one of the chairs, eyes constantly darting to the screen that displayed Clint's vital signs. Tony and Steve were both standing on either side of the room, like flanking guards. Their backs straight and their arms crossed. Sitwell was sitting in the other chair. Clint wasn't particularly pleased that he was included. This wasn't his problem and Clint had argued that point, but Steve had allowed it, since Sitwell was still technically his handler.
Thor was standing at the foot of the bed, shifting his weight from foot to foot. "I have discovered what ails our friend, yes." The grim set to his mouth didn't give Clint any hope for a quick and easy cure. "It is a malady most rare. I have searched the most thorough of the Asgardian records and have discovered only two other instances of its occurrence."
"What is it?" Steve was in full-on Captain Rogers mode. His mouth set into a firm line. "What caused it and how do we fix it?"
"I am afraid that I only possess the answers to two of those questions."
Clint was braced for the bad news. For the knowledge of his impending death. But at least it would finally have a name. He repeated the sentence over and over in his head. At least he would finally know what to call this. Would know what it was that was killing him. His nerves were stretched taught and his stomach was doing backflips. Natasha's hand slipped into his and squeezed softly. A reassuring pressure that helped keep him grounded.
Or it did, until the door opened and one more person slipped into the room. The last person in the world Clint had expected to see. The last person he wanted to see. The air in the room turned to ice. For a moment no one moved or breathed. Finally Steve nodded once and Coulson nodded back before leaning up against the door, his arms folding easily over his chest.
Thor hesitated for a second, a smile brightening his face upon seeing Coulson. It fell away as he turned back to Clint. Replaced with something akin to devastation. "It has been given no name but the histories describe it as what you would call an allergy."
"An allergy?" Tony scoffed. Steve glared at Tony, who rolled his eyes. "Just saying, I've never seen an allergic reaction like this." He gestured towards Clint.
"It is not a Midgardian disease and therefore does not elicit reactions that you would recognize. But that is the best term that I can use to make you understand."
"So what did cause it?" Tasha asked.
Clint felt his stomach drop. "but – " He couldn't get the words out.
"That was years ago." Tasha spoke the words for him. "Why would it only be affecting him now?"
"Exposure to the powers of the Tesseract affects each individual differently. For most it is simply power, as it was with my brother, Loki. The power to control others. To assert one's own motives above anyone else's. For most people, when the influence of the Tesseract is removed, their minds return to their original states. However, for an extremely select few, the power bleeds into their beings so fully, that it will never again leave them. No mortal body can withstand such prolonged exposure. The residual energy burns through the person until there is nothing left."
"Can it be reversed?" Bruce's whisper sounded like a gunshot in the silence that followed Thor's words. All eyes darted to the Doc before going back to Thor. The tears in his eyes were more than enough to answer the question.
"How long?" Clint looked straight ahead as everyone turned to stare at him. He kept his head level and his voice steady. Betraying nothing. It was easier than he expected. He had faced death so many times before. What was this compared to gigantic monsters or robots or aliens. "How long do I have?"
"I cannot say for certain. All that I know is that the disease appears to have a pattern. The suffering will increase in strength with each year that passes and each year the suffering will last for a greater length of time. Until such time as the times between sufferings disappear entirely. After this occurs, the body will weaken and fade away, as it is prone to do in long bouts of anguish."
"That isn't an answer." Clint pressed. "I need a time frame."
"Based upon my viewing of your suffering this last year and how intensely it has returned, I would say that the times of respite will end in less than a decade."
Ten years. Clint had ten years to live. At best. And they would be a horrible ten years. Years of pain, knowing that each year the pain would get worse. Knowing that each year the months without pain would shorten until they were weeks, then days, then nothing at all. Years of living attached to an IV bag, too weak to get up from the couch. Years of feeling unable to breath, of feeling like his lungs were being torn apart and his kidneys were being clawed out of him.
All leading up to a slow death. A lingering death. The kind of death Clint refused to allow for himself.
"Okay." He said finally, realizing that everyone was waiting for him to speak.
"Clint – " Steve started, but Tasha cut him off with a wave of her hand.
"Could you all please give us a moment?" Her voice was sweet but left little doubt to the fact that it was not a suggestion. The others all filed out of the room, casting him pitying glances as they went. Anger flared in Clint's chest but he bit it back. He could allow them this, just this once. Sitwell hesitated at the door, stopping next to Coulson who was still standing there.
Sitwell took a deep breath, like he was going to say something, but seemed to think better of it and slipped out of the room, closing the door behind him. Leaving just Coulson and Tasha in the room with him. Something about it felt so familiar. The three of them in a hospital room. It would have been like old times except that Clint was very determinedly not looking at Coulson.
Phil stared at the cheap abstract print framed on the far wall. He was still trying to comprehend everything Thor had said. That Clint was dying. That he only had 10 years left to live and that those ten years would be… Phil swallowed and clenched his hand into a fist to keep it from shaking.
He could hear the soft whir and beeping of the medical equipment over the sound of Clint and Natasha's breathing. He knew he shouldn't be here. That Clint wouldn't want him here. He wanted to leave. Every fiber of his being was telling him to walk back to his office and stop worrying about things that weren't his problem anymore. But his feet wouldn't move.
"Are you still planning on –" Natasha whispered. Phil's eyes flicked to her, instinctively honing in on the sound. He regretted it as it put Clint in his field of vision as well. The man looked exhausted. Even worse than that, he looked broken. He was turned in towards Natasha, like he was clinging to her for support. For the first time, Phil felt like he was intruding on them. Like he was witnessing something private, that he had no right to see.
"Yeah." Clint huffed the word. "Wouldn't you?"
"When did you think?"
"Don't know. Might wait out this year and see. I'd like to have one last hoorah as Hawkeye. Who knows, maybe I'll get lucky and a bomb will take me out. Or maybe we'll actually get a bad guy that knows what he's doing and I can go down in a blaze of glory. Something more memorable than just a bullet at home, you know."
Phil couldn't stop the gasp as he figured out what they were discussing. "No." Natasha glared at him as Clint dropped his eyes to his hands which were picking at a speck of fuzz on the blanket. "Absolutely not."
"It's Clint's decision." Natasha's voice was steady but her eyes were swimming. He could see how much the idea hurt her, but she loved Clint too much to deny him. She wouldn't ask him to prolong his suffering just so she wouldn't have to say good-bye. "And I stand by it."
"Well I don't." Phil knew it was selfish. Clint was in pain. Who was he to ask him to keep suffering? Especially after everything Phil had put him through. He had no right, but he couldn't let Clint do this. He'd tried so hard, last year, when he had thought Clint was dying. Had tried to distance himself, to make it easier on himself. He could remember how Clint's face had fallen as Phil had started to step back. Phil had finally let Natasha convince him that Clint felt the same way he did, and had acted on in.
Clint's reaction would be burned into his brain until the moment he died. The disgust on his face as he ran from the room. It was the reason Phil had asked for a transfer. He couldn't look at Clint and not remember the way his lips had felt and the way it had broken Phil's heart when he had rejected him. The months away from the Avengers had been agonizingly boring. Phil had watched from his office as Sitwell led them in the field. Had felt his gut wrench every time one of them took a hit. Sitwell had been keeping him up to date, but had failed to mention that Clint had started hurting again. A point which he would be bringing up with the man as soon as he got a chance.
Natasha had told him at the last op. Phil had been torn between relief at not having to face Clint and sadness that Clint was suffering again. The guilt had overridden both. It came flooding back as Clint whispered "What do you care?"
Phil felt like his heart was being torn from his chest. "We've worked together for ten years, Barton." He was amazed at how level his voice was. Falling back on decades of practice. "I may not be your immediate handler anymore, but I –"
"No." Clint shook his head. "I don't want to deal with this right now. Okay. So just stop this, whatever it is you're doing."
"это пиздец!" Natasha swore in Russian causing both Phil and Clint to jump. "You two are fucking ridiculous. I'm not letting this get any further." She was on her feet, red hair flaring out behind her. All intimidation and fury. "He loves you." She jabbed a finger from Clint to Phil. "And he loves you." Her finger went from Phil to Clint. "I'm not letting either of you out of this room until you get this sorted out." She stormed from the room, shoving past Phil and slamming the door behind her.
"She's guarding the door, isn't she?" Clint asked. Phil peeked out through the closed blinds of the observation window. Natasha was across the hall, glaring back at him.
"She's not going to let us out of here any time soon, is she?"
They fell into an awkward silence. After a minute, Phil moved to sit in the chair Banner had vacated. He dropped his head into his hands, not wanting to speak first. Natasha had told him once before that Clint had cared for Phil. He had seen how wonderfully that had turned out. Phil wasn't going to make the same mistake twice. Especially not when he was still reeling from Thor's revelation.
"I – "Clint sighed heavily. "Please tell me this is some sick joke that you and Tasha dreamt up. That it's her last ditch attempt to keep me around by giving me the one thing I'd fight for. Because - I can't handle this." Clint's voice faltered. "I just found out that the rest of my life is going to be constant fucking pain, and then – you – just- "
Phil reached a hand out towards where Clint's was lying on the bed. He stopped himself, letting it fall a few inches short. Clint's words were shredding him apart, tearing into his heart. He felt a glimmer of something he lost all hope of ever having. "This isn't a joke." Phil gathered his courage, steeling himself for what he knew he had to do. He wasn't going to let this draw out. "She was telling the truth. I –" he swallowed past the knot in his throat, "I love you." Phil didn't move. Keeping his eyes fixed on a tile on the floor, knowing that if he saw that same disgust on Clint's face again, it would destroy him. He waited silently for Clint to throw it back at him again.
"Why?" It was the last thing Phil had expected to hear. The shock of it finally caused him to look up and meet Clint's eyes. There was none of the disgust or anger that Phil had been expecting. Instead, Clint looked even more broken and confused, like a lost child.
"Why everything. Why me? Why now? Why – " Clint's voice cracked and he fell silent.
Phil inched his hand along the bed until his fingertips were just brushing Clint's, still expecting him to jerk away at any moment. But Clint's hand stayed put. The feel of his skin sent shockwaves through Phil's body. He smiled at how easily Clint could affect him. "Because at some point, I began to enjoy the bantering over the comms. Because I started looking forward to seeing you come swaggering into my office. Because you could stay optimistic during the most fucked up missions but still managed to call everything exactly as it was. Because I spent far too many hours in this hospital, scared that this time would be it, and you'd be gone and I'd never get to see you again."
"So why now?" Clint shifted his hand so that his fingers overlapped Phil's. The gesture sent Phil's heart into a tail spin. "Why say all of this to a guy who just found out – well – you know. Why not sooner?"
"Because there was always another mission. Another adventure to have together. Another reason to convince myself that it was unprofessional. That we were too good of a team and that I couldn't let my own emotions get in the way of that. Because – because I was scared you'd reject me." Phil curled his fingers, pulling them back, away from Clint's.
"No!" Clint's hand latched onto Phil's suddenly. "Don't." Clint's hand twisted until their fingers were intertwined. Phil wasn't going to admit how perfect the innocent gesture was. Or how many years he had dreamt of getting to do exactly this, though not usually with the whole dying thing. "I'm sorry."
"It's fine." Phil shook his head and let his eyes drop back to the floor. The bed groaned and Clint's free hand was on Phil's cheek, lifting his face up until they were eye to eye. Clint had leaned forward so that they were only a few inches apart. Phil could feel Clint's breath on his skin.
"No, it's not fine. I thought you were doing it out of pity. Dying man's last wish, you know." Phil nodded. It made sense that Clint had thought that. It was how Clint's mind worked. Phil should have known that. Should have guessed that Clint would have seen it that way. "But I am, truly, sorry."
They both eased forward, bridging the gap left between them. Their lips met and it was everything Phil had ever dreamt it would be. Even if Clint's lips were slightly chapped. Even if the air smelled so sterile that it burned Phil's throat. It was perfect. Because when they finally broke apart, Clint was looking at him with nothing but happiness.
"So, what now? I mean, this isn't a fairy tale where true love's first kiss fixes everything. I'm still dying."
"And still a mood ruiner." Phil groaned and rested his forehead against Clint's.
"You said you liked that I called things straight."
"No, I said I loved that." He felt Clint's laughter and smiled. "But it's up to you. Though putting in my two cents, I'd prefer if you didn't shoot yourself."
"Yeah, no. That option went out the window the moment you kissed me."
"Good." Phil couldn't stand the thought of losing Clint again so soon after he finally got him. "So?"
"I don't know. I was never good at making plans. That was your job."
"Cause your plans had a very nasty habit of ending in explosions."
"Duh! Explosions make things so much more interesting."
"Well, how about we stay away from explosions for now. Maybe just take this one day at a time and see how it goes."
"Sounds boring." Clint whined.
"You're an ass."
"You know you love me."
"Damn right." Phil leaned forward and pressed another kiss to Clint's lips.
In the end, Clint got his wish. He went out with a bang. It wasn't a huge explosion or a supervillain, just a man with a gun. Clint had been out walking around the city, enjoying one of his few days without pain. Phil was supposed to be with him but there had been an incident and he'd had to go into the office. So Clint had been alone when he had stumbled onto the attack. Two men forcing themselves on a girl at gunpoint. He hadn't hesitated, simply jumped into action. But his muscles were weak from months of pain. His reactions had been slow and sluggish. The woman had gotten away unscathed, but Clint had gotten three bullets to the chest.
Phil missed him. Every cell in his body ached to have him back. To have just one more day together, but they'd gotten six years. Six long and amazing and sometimes trying years. Years of arguments and make-up sex. Years of Phil learning to work out of the Tower so that he could spend more time with Clint. Of Phil learning the triggers that made Clint's pain worse and the things that could always distract him enough to forget. Of the Avengers becoming more than just his team. Of them becoming his family. The people he turned to when he was worried about Clint. Or when he was struggling with the eventuality that hung over him and Clint's relationship. The people who stood with him now, gathered around the simple granite slab that marked Clint's grave.