Disclaimer: I do not own the Avengers or any of the characters affiliated with them. If I did, there would totally be a Hawkeye/Black Widow movie in the works.
Author's Note: While I embrace constructive criticism, remember this old saying if you choose to leave a review "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all"
And we're back! I'm alive! I know - SHOCKING :D For those of you who were like - "where'd she go? Is she dead?!" I assure you...I am not. I DID move halfway across the country though so anyone that has made a move like that or worse knows how crazy my life has been lately. But fear not! I have not abandon Clint or my quest to put him through emotional and physical hell on a regular basis!
Before I go any further two things about my good friend Kylen: first, she beta'd this for me so any remaining mistakes are mine :D She's been amazingly patient with me as I got settled in my new home and was what inspired me to get back on the writing horse. Second, she has officially posted the start to her OWN Avengers universe and I STRONGLY urge everyone to go check it out. It is amazing and I love it.
Now, for those of you who may have forgotten what I've been writing about in my long absence - or for those of you who are new - this is the next installment in my "Milestones" series that covers Clint's anniversary of joining SHIELD year by year. I've written A LOT of stories in this universe I've created so if you're curious click on over to my profile page and check out my work :)
Now on we go to Milestone Nine...
As life runs on, the road grows strange with faces new - and near the end the milestones into headstones change, neath everyone a friend.
James Russell Lowell
July 12th, 2012 – 3 months post Loki
Clint rolled his head across the cool metal behind him, eyes shifting over the dark sky as he watched a plane fly overhead.
Or maybe it was Stark – the guy never told people when he was coming and going.
With a sigh, he sat forward, eyes roaming over the bright lights of New York as the city hummed with life, even in the dead of night. The bright lights of the obnoxiously large letters of Stark Tower lighting up the air beneath him.
He flinched when his watch suddenly beeped, signaling it was midnight – the start of a new day.
The start of July 12th.
Today would have been nine years – nine fucking years. But it wasn't nine years – it wasn't anything.
Phil was dead.
Phil was dead and now July 12th didn't mean a damn thing. It was just another day. Another god damned day.
Nine years ago…
"Clint Barton." The man moved closer, with a confidence Clint rarely saw in anyone outside the military. The accent was distinctly American too.
Well shit. This day keeps getting better and better.
"Du hast den Falschen." Clint backed up a step. (You've got the wrong man.)
"We both know that's not true, Barton. Even if you haven't gone by that name in almost a year." The man was still approaching.
Clint kept moving back, bringing his back up gun to bear.
"You don't want to do that. " The man put up a hand.
"Oh no?" Clint huffed a pain filled laugh.
"No. For one...I'm wearing Kevlar."
"Won't matter if I shoot for the head." Clint pointed out sharply.
The man actually smirked at him. Clint's eyes narrowed.
"You won't do that."
"Why the hell not?"
"Because you're still trying to figure out who I am and why I'm here and most importantly," He cocked his head a little, "If anyone else stateside knows where you are."
Even back then the man had seemed to know him. Had known how he thought – had been able to anticipate what he'd do. He'd taken Clint's ass down like it was nothing and then he'd called him out on all his bullshit.
Nine Years Ago…
"I have a job." Clint countered.
Coulson looked meaningfully at the two dead men on the fire escape.
"Something tells me your profession has just gotten more hazardous."
"I can handle it."
"I'm sure you can." Coulson was eyeing him like he knew something Clint didn't. "I'm telling you, you don't have to."
"Don't have to what?"
"Handle it. You don't have to do this anymore."
Clint scoffed. Now he knew he was being bullshitted.
"You trying to tell me, you aren't trying to hire me to kill for you?"
"That's exactly what I'm trying to do." Coulson replied flatly.
Clint drew back with a blink. Oh.
"Why the hell would I do that when I'm sure I make a hell of a lot more now?"
"Because if all it was about was the money, you wouldn't have waited for Béres' family to leave." Coulson stated knowingly.
"You don't know what you're talking about." Clint scoffed. But his insides clenched, thinking of Julian Béres and the father he'd almost taken from him.
"I'd give you a reason, Barton, for every hit. I'll give you a file telling you exactly why the target needs to be retired and I know that's a hell of a lot more than you get now." Coulson cocked his head like he was sizing him up, "You aren't as cold hearted as you pretend to be."
"No…you're an eighteen year old kid who made a few unfortunate choices. I'm giving you a chance to make it right."
"Make it right." Clint scoffed doubtfully, looking away.
Phil had always believed Clint could make it right. Clint had never been as certain – still wasn't. Was probably as far from believing that now as he had been that day nine years ago.
Clint had turned on his own people – he'd led Loki right into the heart of SHIELD and he'd helped the power-tripping alien destroy everything that meant anything to Clint.
Hell, he'd helped Loki come up with the whole damn plan. Unleash the Hulk on the helicarrier and everyone would be so distracted by the raging green beast, that they wouldn't see Clint coming until it was too late.
Getting Loki captured on purpose so he could wreak his own havoc had been the icing on the cake. Loki had loved that part of the plan – loved the chance to screw with his brother even more.
Clint clenched his hands into fists.
Loki had done more than screw with Thor, though. The man had wanted the Avengers scattered and broken. Clint hadn't considered – as he plotted and schemed with the mind-raping bastard – that he was an Avenger too. And at the end of the day, the would-be world dominator wanted him destroyed too. And Loki had known – the moment Phil walked into that holding room – how to break Clint like he thought he'd broken everyone else.
But the difference – Loki hadn't broken the rest of the Avengers. He'd just made them stronger.
Clint was the only broken one – the only weak one.
Loki had taken the only person that had ever been able to convince him he was strong.
3 Months Ago…
"I want to see it. I need to see it."
Fury stared across his desk at him. An odd, almost regretful look in his eyes.
"It won't help, Clint." Natasha added quietly from his left.
"I don't care! Show me the damn footage!"
"Barton," Fury stood from his seat, "you need to take a step back…"
"I have a right to see it! Phil's fucking last moments, Fury! How can you deny me that?!"
"Because all it's going to do is hurt you!" Fury snapped as he leaned across the desk. The director forced a deep breath – seeming to struggle with his own emotions for a moment before going on. "And that's the last thing Phil would want."
Natasha almost had him with that tone. Clint looked over at her – saw the pleading in her eyes. She was literally begging him not to pursue this – to just let it go. But he couldn't let it go. He couldn't let it go any more than he'd been able to 'let it go' when Phil had been on his death bed two years ago after the attack on the New York base.
"You don't need to see it, Clint." She put a hand on his forearm – whether to restrain him or communicate comfort, he wasn't sure. For a moment, he almost caved.
But then the pain returned.
His expression hardened and he jerked his arm out of her grip, turning his dark gaze back on Fury.
"If you don't show me – I'll find someone that will."
He knew his standing within SHIELD was on shaky ground – knew people were skittish around him now. But he would use that to his advantage until someone gave him what he wanted. He didn't care who he scared, who he intimidated. He was going to see the footage, one way or another.
Fury sighed and sent a silent look of apology to Natasha, who just nodded.
Fury sat and clicked away on his computer and then typed in an access code. With a painfully serious expression, Fury met his eyes.
"You can't unsee this, Barton. Are you sure this is what you want?"
Clint rounded the desk.
Fury arched an eyebrow, opening his mouth to rip him a new one for ordering him out of his own damn office no doubt. But Natasha caught his forearm and seemed to change his mind with just a look. Clint turned his back to them and sat.
The office door clicked closed behind them and Clint pressed play.
Clint sucked in a sharp breath, shaking his head, his fists clenched so hard his fingernails were digging into his hands. It took every bit of self-restraint he had not to slam his hands into the cool metal of Stark tower that surrounded him – not to hit the unforgiving surface until his hands bled so that he'd have some outlet – any outlet – for the pain ripping through him.
He'd watched the footage over and over – hoping every time that he would see something, anything that would indicate that everyone was wrong. That Phil wasn't dead.
Because Clint had felt it – from the moment Natasha had told him – he'd known it couldn't be true. Phil couldn't be dead – Clint would know if he was.
3 months ago...
"I could sleep for a week." Clint tossed his quiver and bow onto the bed and sank down beside them, going after the laces of his boots. "And as much fun as it's gonna be to have a chat with the SHIELD psychiatrists, I'd like to delay that as much as possible."
Natasha closed the door to their New York safe house and turned the locks, but didn't say anything.
"I'm still starving – even after the schwarma– I feel like I haven't eaten in days." He frowned. "I don't think I have eaten in days."
Natasha turned at the door and stepped a pace closer.
"Maybe I can talk Phil into bringing something by…where the hell is he anyway? I figured he'd be breathing down my neck the second the dust settled."
Natasha's tone grew sharper.
Clint paused and looked up at her – the look in her eyes had everything inside him freezing.
"What is it?"
She licked her lips and took a step closer, going to her knees in front of him.
She closed her eyes for a moment and then reached forward to grip his hands in hers.
Clint blinked and scoffed.
"What?" Maybe she'd hit her head.
Her expression didn't change.
"Loki killed him."
Clint stared at her, eyes searching hers intensely. She wasn't lying – believed what she was saying. But that meant…
He ripped his hands out of hers and stood.
"No." He stepped around her and moved to the other side of the room – towards the window.
"You're wrong." He growled out the denial. "Phil's not dead."
He just wasn't – plain and simple. He couldn't be. He was Phil fucking Coulson.
"Fury was there."
"Then Fury's full of shit! Phil's not dead, Natasha! I would know if he was!"
But Phil was dead – no matter how wrong it felt. No matter how much Clint still couldn't believe it. Phil had done what Phil did best – step up and be a hero. And he'd gotten what most heroes got – a bloody end.
And Clint hadn't been there. Had let Phil down when he'd needed him the most. Phil had always – no matter how crazy of a situation Clint landed himself in – been there for him. Phil had never let him down. And Clint hadn't done the same. Instead, he'd helped the murderer carry out his plan.
He'd practically killed Phil himself.
And he was never going to forgive himself for that – he never wanted to.
Suddenly beating his hands against hard metal sounded unreasonably appealing.
The access hatch he'd used to get up here opened and he momentarily abandoned his self-destructive plan. He knew it would be her before she ever climbed into view.
Natasha Romanoff just wasn't a presence you forgot.
She closed the hatch and silently moved to sit with him. She didn't say anything, just reached to take one of his hands in hers and sat.
Hours later, they watched the sun rise into the sky, welcoming the day with a sunshiny brightness Clint was miles away from appreciating.
It should be raining.
He didn't react to her voice –the first words either of them had spoken since she joined him up here.
She didn't seem particularly surprised by his lack of response.
"Do you want to go see him?"
Clint clenched his jaw. That was so far from what he wanted to do it wasn't even funny.
The thought of laying eyes on the headstone…of seeing Phil's name on it…it brought such a strong swell of overwhelming pain that he could barely breathe. He couldn't do it – he wasn't ready. He might never be ready.
"No." His voice came out rough – but he supposed that was expected. He couldn't remember the last time he'd spoken – or had something to drink…or eat. The thought of food nearly made his sick right there.
"It might help."
Of that he was absolutely God-damn certain.
"Clint, you didn't go to the funeral…maybe you need the closure of seeing him."
Clint's jaw twitched. He'd gone to the funeral. He might not have been there in a conventional sense – but he'd been there. Watching through a scope from a thousand meters away. He'd watched the most important man in his life get the hero's funeral he deserved – watched people that wanted to believe they knew him listen to Fury speak of heroism, of a life of service to his country.
But none of them – nobody there – really knew Phil Coulson. They all knew parts of him – some knew the friend, others the agent. Some – like Natasha – had known a combination of the two. But not even Fury could claim to know Phil like Clint had.
Nobody had known the brother – or the father – Phil was.
And maybe that was the problem. Maybe Clint was the only one that really knew what the world was missing now – what he was missing. Maybe that's why he couldn't move on, why he didn't even know how to start.
She sounded so concerned – so God-damned understanding. But she didn't understand – not really.
"I'm not going." He hadn't meant to snap it out so harshly, and practically felt the momentary hurt roll off her. But Natasha Romanoff was made of the toughest shit there was – and he knew that no matter what he did or said, she wouldn't be so easily pushed away.
As if to prove him right, she tightened her grip on his hand.
Clint felt some tension leave his shoulders. She wouldn't push him – not yet. It would take a hell of a lot longer for her to push him into something she knew would hurt him so much.
"Will you at least come inside? Get some sleep? Maybe eat something?"
"I'm not hungry."
And he wasn't – hadn't been for days. Natasha's eyes flashed with worry and she swallowed.
"I'm not tired."
That was a lie.
He was tired – tired of everything. Tired of missing Phil, of hearing footsteps behind him and thinking for a second it was his handler before reality caught up, of hearing his phone start to ring and wishing "I Wear My Sunglasses at Night" would be the ringtone that came through the speaker – and of always being so disappointed when it wasn't.
He was tired of fighting a losing battle against the evil in the world. Of taking one hit after another without any time to catch his breath.
He was tired of pretending to be strong – when he was anything but.
He was just tired.
Her tone drew his attention. Natasha never begged – never let her tone lose any of the strength that was Natasha Romanoff – never showed fear or helplessness, no matter the situation.
But she was begging him now.
She was afraid now.
She was helpless now.
He'd caused that.
He turned his head slightly, shifting his eyes to meet hers.
God damn it she was good. She knew – as he did – that Clint would do anything for her. Would always do anything for her. And he also knew that the reverse was just as true. She was his and he was hers. That's just how that shit worked.
So he nodded.
Clint stared at the ceiling of Natasha's bedroom, breathing out a long breath and tightening his arm around Natasha as she shifted next to him.
He'd tried to sleep – he really had – but it just wouldn't come. Two hours he'd been laying here, staring at the ceiling, listening to the last important person in his life breath next to him. She'd stayed awake with him for a while before eventually being lulled to sleep by the steady rise and fall of his chest where her head was pillowed.
He closed his eyes – hoping vainly that sleep would grant him an escape for just a few hours.
"Do you like this? We started working on the prototype after you sent the Destroyer. Even I don't know what it does." Phil smirked. "Do you wanna find out?"
Loki vanished – reappearing behind Phil and driving his spear up through Phil's back. The agent cried out in pain.
Clint snapped his eyes open – blinking away the memory of the footage – and breathing sharply through his nose. He shifted away from Natasha, carefully moving her head onto a pillow and sliding off the bed.
She stirred but didn't wake.
Clint moved to her closet – where all his earthly possessions were currently housed. He had a room in Stark Tower somewhere – but he hadn't taken the time to find it yet. Hadn't even had the inclination. When he did sleep – which wasn't often these days – he did it in Natasha's room…or in the vents.
Silently, Clint pulled the closet doors open and stepped in, reaching up to a cardboard box pushed back in the farthest corner of the top shelf. He pulled it off and sank to the ground, sitting cross-legged with the box on the floor in front of him.
For several moments he just stared at it.
3 months ago...
Fury slid a box across his desk, eyeing the young agent slouched in the opposite chair with a hint of worry.
"That's all the personal effects we recovered from Phil's room – with the exception of clothes and things like that."
Clint pulled his gaze from its aimless glare at the far wall to the box. He stared at it.
"I think Phil would have wanted you to have it."
Slowly Clint stood and lifted the box from the desk. Without a word he stepped around the chair and towards the door.
Clint paused with his hand on the door, the box balanced against his hip.
Fury stared at him for a moment and then seemed to change his mind about whatever he'd been about to say.
Clint slid out the door without further prompting.
He'd taken the box back to the tower, shoved a few additional things that reminded him too strongly of Phil into it, closed it up without looking inside and stowed it up into the closet. He hadn't pulled it down in the three months since.
With a deep breath he pulled at the woven flaps and folded them down out of the way.
He reached in and pulled out the first thing his hand touched.
Two ticket stubs – Yankees at Devil Rays.
Clint couldn't help the small grin that snaked across his lips. That had been a much needed, very relaxing mini-vacation.
He rested the ticket stubs on the floor next to him and reached in again.
He pulled out a slightly crumpled piece of notebook paper.
THE EPIC EVENTS OF JULY IN THE LIFE OF PHIL COULSON
The ink from his own handwriting was faded now – seven years after it had been written. He could still remember the look of awe and amusement on Phil's face as he'd read through the list.
Clint put the list with the ticket stubs and pulled out the next item.
The knife Phil had given him to celebrate five years – taken off a dead South African, he'd said.
Clint hadn't even had the strength to carry the damn weapon for the past three months. He weighed it in his hand, feeling the near perfect balance, and then set it aside.
The next thing he pulled out surprised him.
It was a picture – of Clint talking with Brit and Kara. When the hell had Phil taken a picture? How had Clint not noticed? What a sneaky little bastard.
Clint shook his head in amazed amusement and set the photo down.
He pulled out a few odds and ends – headphones, CDs, a few books he knew Phil loved. He looked at the titles of the stack in his hand, pulling the last one away from the group and setting the rest of them aside.
The sight of the book prompted Clint to search through the box for the medal case. He found it easily, but didn't bother opening it. He knew it was empty.
The medal was in Phil's casket with him – right where Clint had all but begged Fury to put it.
Clint dropped his head, resting it on the edge of the case for a moment – forcing himself to breathe deeply. He set the case aside and shifted through the box, pulling out a pair of sunglasses, a watch, and Phil's wallet.
He stared down at the empty box.
Where the hell was the book – and the trading cards?
The trading cards – in retrospect – had probably been on Phil's body. He'd been dogging Rogers for his autograph from the moment he met the man. The only reason Fury wouldn't have put those back in the box would be if they weren't in a condition to be returned.
That thought caused a sharp pain in his chest.
The book on the other hand…it was his and Phil's history – every moment, good and bad, chronicled in black sharpie and scrawly handwriting.
It wasn't here.
Suddenly irrationally angry, Clint shoved everything back into the box, hesitating only with the knife. He held it for a long moment before sliding it into the back of his pants. He folded the flaps of the box back and lifted it back to the shelf.
He closed the closet silently and slid out of the room.
Natasha opened her eyes as her bedroom door shut and rolled onto her back. She covered her mouth with her hand and shook her head, refusing to acknowledge the wetness growing in her eyes.
She had to do something.
Clint was in so much pain it hurt just to watch him.
And the damn box. He chose today – of all days – to open the damn box and torture himself with the memories of everything he'd lost.
She sat up, wiping at her eyes and slid off the bed.
She couldn't just let him hurt like that – she had to try and do something, anything to help.
With that thought in her mind, she followed his path out of the room.
There were three places he would be – the roof, the range, or the gym.
Given the fervor with which he'd been throwing things back into the box – she'd put her money on one of the latter two.
She swallowed her initial frustration of finding the range empty and made her way through the tower to the gym.
She heard him before she ever went through the door.
The sound of flesh on leather was hard to miss.
She pushed through the door and strode over to him, shoving him hard in the chest and away from the blood smeared punching bag.
He stumbled at the force of the shove, but caught his balance after a few quick steps. He was breathing hard, his knuckles split and bleeding.
Natasha felt anger sweep through her.
"So this is your answer? This," she gestured at his hands, "is how you're going to cope? By hurting yourself?"
Clint just jutted his chin out stubbornly and stayed silent.
"No." Natasha refused sharply. "You don't get to do this. Not to yourself and not to me."
Clint arched an eyebrow, his gaze dark.
"And what exactly do you think I'm doing?"
"God, Clint, I'm not an idiot! I know your M.O. – this is you punishing yourself."
Clint's jaw clenched and she knew she'd hit the issue where it lived.
"What happened to Phil wasn't your fault."
He scoffed and shook his head like she just didn't get it. But she did – better than he thought.
"You weren't there." She saw him tense and forced herself to forge on. "You brought Loki to the helicarrier." He flinched like she'd hit him and she swallowed. "But this isn't on you, Clint."
"Oh no?" He sounded so disbelieving, so lost, that she wanted to hit something – hard.
"No." She shifted a step closer and when he didn't retreat she took another step. "You want to punish someone? Punish all those bad guys that are still out there. You want to hate someone? Hate Loki. He's the one that caused all of this."
"And what? I was just the bullet in the gun?" He glared at her and backed up a step. "I was awake Natasha…I – " He stopped suddenly, everything in his expression shutting down.
Natasha narrowed her eyes.
"I thought you didn't remember anything."
Clint stared at her unflinchingly.
Before she had chance to figure out if he was lying he turned away.
"I can't blame Loki, Natasha. This is on me. I'm the one that led the attack. I'm the one that wasn't there when Phil needed me. I'm the one that didn't fight hard enough! I'm the one that could have stopped Loki but didn't."
Natasha tried to force herself to take deep breaths – to battle down the emotion that was swelling inside her. But the anger in Clint's voice – all of it directed firmly right back at himself – was almost too much for her.
He turned back to her suddenly and it took everything she had not to look away from the raw pain written all over his expression. Pain and anger went hand in hand when it came to Clint.
"I wasn't there, Natasha!" He pointed sharply at himself. "Phil never let me down. He was always there when I needed him and when it mattered most - when he needed me – I let him down! I wasn't there and I can't deal with that right now. And I sure as hell don't know how I'm supposed to live with it."
Without another word he stalked past her, slamming his way out the door.
Natasha put her hand over her mouth and turned to watch him go. She pulled every last bit of strength she had to keep the sob that threatened to force its way free at bay. She drew in a shaky, gasping breath and pulled harder on her control.
Without warning the training door opened again – none other than Steve Rogers himself stepping cautiously through.
Natasha whirled away, squeezing her eyes closed and internally ordering herself to pull her shit together.
"Are you okay?"
Natasha turned, expression neutral – all vestiges of emotion wiped away.
Rogers looked at her for a long moment and then looked over his shoulder at the door.
"You don't seem fine…and neither did Agent Barton when he nearly bowled me over in the hallway."
Natasha let out a sigh and headed for the door.
"Today was important to Phil and Clint."
She left Rogers puzzling over the meaning of that simple explanation and headed out into the hallway without a backwards glance.
Clint stared listlessly out over the bustling city – its day now in full swing. High above all of the activity, Clint couldn't hear any of the honking horns, or yelling cabbies, or sidewalk salesmen calling for customers.
All he heard was the hum of energy coming from the tower and the whistle of the wind as it swirled around him. All he could hear was a silky whispering voice.
"You have heart."
And all he could think about was that a day he'd always looked forward to for the last nine years was now a day he would always dread.
July 12th would never be the same again.
End of Year Nine
Show of hands for those that feel like I just ripped your heart out...if it makes you feel better - I feel like I ripped my OWN heart out.
Now don't forget to pop on over to Kylen's Afghanistan - its a definite must read :) PS - she loves reviews as much as I do...and on that note...
You all know that I love reviews like a fat kid loves cake
You all know what's coming next - its "New York" and I am rocking and rolling - ask Kylen, she knows lol :D
Thanks for reading!
And YES - I know that I haven't commented on whether or not I'm bringing Phil back...and I'm not going to lol