The Helicarrier morgue was empty when Clint dropped soundlessly from the ducts. He’d been avoiding the corridors as much as humanly possible ever since he and Natasha returned to base, avoiding the hostility and suspicious glares that followed him every time he left his quarters. He didn’t know if anyone knew the whole story outside of Fury, Hill, and the other Avengers, but he didn’t think it would matter even if they did. Mind-raped or not, he’d still stolen the Tesseract, blown up an engine and lead a strike team in storming the Helicarrier. Forty-nine agents and support personnel dead. Millions of dollars in collateral damage. Dozens more injured. All of it on him, and he couldn’t remember a damn bit of it.
The lights of the morgue were low, the coroner and his staff having left for food and sleep after processing the bodies of the dead. There was just enough light for Clint to see by, moving across the room to the wall of refrigerated drawers. His palms were clammy and trembling as he reached for the first one. He locked his knees to keep himself upright and forced himself to breath through the steel vice wrapped around his lungs. He wanted to run. He wanted to curl up in a secluded corner and cry for a week. He wanted to put a bullet in his brain. He wanted to find Loki and put an arrow through his eye before beating him into a bloody pulp with his bare hands. He wanted Phil to wrap him up in his arms and tell him it would all be OK.
None of that was going to happen. He’d done enough running as a child, he wouldn’t allow himself tears just yet and he wouldn’t force Natasha to bury two friends in one week. The last two choices were impossible.
He opened the door and slid the drawer out. He pulled the white sheet away and stared down at the body of SHIELD engineer Juan Carlos Almonte. What was left of him, anyway. The entire left side of his body had been shredded and scorched by flying shrapnel from the explosion of engine three.
Clint could picture the shot perfectly: compensating for the high winds, the motion of the Helicarrier, and the shift of the quinjet under his feet. Then the twitch of his finger against the trigger on his bow and then the blast. He could imagine it, but he couldn’t remember doing it.
Clint sucked in a breath. “I’m sorry.”
The words felt incredibly weak and inadequate, echoing in the silent room and bouncing back like a mocking chorus.
He slid Almonte back into the refrigerator and moved on to the next one. SHIELD probationary agent Helen Andrews, killed by two gunshot wounds to the chest. It was an small relief to know that he hadn’t directly killed this one, but he’d lead her killers onto the ship and that was just as bad.
He put her away and moved on to the next. And the next. He memorized their faces, committing their names to the long list of people he would never be able to save. His ledger, as red as Natasha’s.
Every time he slid open a drawer, he felt anticipation weighing like lead in his stomach. Like he was balancing on the edge of a precipice waiting for a hand to shove him over.
And then it did. SHIELD specialist Kyle Chilton was killed by a single arrow to the throat.
Clint’s stomach heaved and he raced for the sink to throw up the meager contents of his stomach. When there was nothing left to come up, he washed the bile away and splashed his face. With water dripping down his cheeks, he forced himself to walk back to the drawer on legs that barely supported his weight.
He couldn’t say it. The words choked him and he could only stare in wordless horror at the dead man with a neat little hole in the center of his Adam’ s apple. Finally, after a small eternity measured in pained gasps, he slid Harris back into the cubicle and moved on.
There were two others. Engineer Francis Lowell died with an arrow in his chest, and Agent Julia Meyers. Meyers was the worst, with an arrow to the back. Clint stared at her the longest. He couldn’t remember anything he’d done while under Loki’s control, just the sensation of horror and rage as the worst of his memories replayed over and over in his head. It wasn’t right; that he had shot an ally in the back, while she’d been retreating, and he couldn’t remember doing it. She deserved better than that. They all did.
He shut the last drawer (medical officer Christopher Zimmerman, three gunshot wounds to the stomach) and slumped to the floor. He pulled his knees up to his chest and buried his hands in his hair, gripping hard enough to sting. His eyes were blank and unseeing, his mind whirling with faces and names and causes of death.
There was someone missing.
Five rows of ten, fifty drawers in all. Forty nine dead. But two drawers were empty. Forty-nine dead, but only forty-eight bodies. He’d been so deep in his guilt after Chilton that he hadn’t realized it right away.
He looked around the morgue, eyes landing on Dr. Hudson’s desk in the far corner. The medical examiner was stringent about keeping his files in order, and copies of the official autopsy reports were kept in the locked file cabinet next to the doctor’s desk.
Clint shoved himself up and over to the cabinet. His hands were slick with sweat and shaking hard enough that it took him four tries to pick the lock. He finally got the drawer open and started flipping through the tabs.
Chilton, Kyle was followed by Davis, Miranda. Clint flipped through each tab, and then opened the other drawers, just to be certain.
Slowly, with a chilled sort of calm settling over him, he shut the drawers and locked them. He dropped into Dr. Hudson’s chair and stared at the dull grey surface of the desk without seeing it.
There was no file for Coulson, Philip. There was no body.
Thor saw it happen. Thor watched his brother stab Phil through the back and drop him like so much trash.
But there was no body.
Clint couldn’t think. Didn’t dare let himself think. It was too much, too painful, too easy to let himself hope. He couldn’t stand it if he let himself think like that only to find out he was wrong.
“You don’t have the security clearance required to be in this area, Agent Barton.”
He was on his feet with knife in hand before his brain could catch up to his body. Director Fury raised an eyebrow, crossed his arms over his chest and looked distinctly unimpressed as the door hissed shut behind him.
Clint let out a sharp breath, sliding the knife back into the sheath at his back. “I don’t think I have the clearance to be out of my bunk, sir.” He was surprised that his voice sounded so level when his entire world seemed to be imploding. His security clearance had been bumped back to Level 1 pending an investigation into his actions under Loki’s control. Simply being on the Helicarrier required Level 3 clearance just for the common areas.
“Find anything interesting?” Fury leaned back against the wall, casual and calm as though discussing requisition forms. His one good eye stabbed through Clint like a well-honed stiletto.
“It’s more about what I didn’t find,” Clint said. He forced himself to stand at attention and met the director’s eye squarely.
“Agent Coulson’s body was cremated shortly after Loki’s escape to prevent the dispersal of magical contaminants.”
Clint felt the floor shift under him and for a panicked moment he thought one of the engines had given out again. He grasped the edge of the desk to keep himself upright and hoped none of the crushing anguish showed on his face. He’d thought he’d kept the hope at bay, but apparently it had taken root despite his best efforts.
“That’s the official story, anyway,” Fury continued with a shrug, voice steady and impassive.
Clint couldn’t breath. Didn’t dare breath. “And the unofficial one?” his voice came out low and harsh. There was desperation in it and he couldn’t bring himself to care.
“Four days ago, Bay State Medical Center’s intensive care unit admitted a John Doe with a single stab wound to the back. The blade fractured his scapula and two ribs, punctured his lung, and nicked his heart. He’s still in critical condition, but the doctors are optimistic.”
Clint’s hands tightened on the desk, hard enough for his bones to creak in protest. He wasn’t sure if he was going to burst into hysterical tears, hysterical laughter, or just punch the director in the face. He didn’t think his legs would hold him long enough to cross the room, so he slumped back into Hudson’s chair. He let out a choked sob before burying his face in his hands, tears leaked out of the corners of his eyes.
He’s alive, he’s alive, he’s alive, oh my god, he’s alive. The mantra echoed in his head like a prayer and he thought the relief, the elation and heartrending need to see Phil right the fuck now would shake him to pieces. Everything else; the anger, the betrayal, the hows and whys and all of the rest of it could wait. Phil was alive and that was the only thing he really cared about.