Clint landed the quinjet on the first semi-flat spot he could find on the sloping mountainside. He pried open the console and disabled the tracking chip before he disembarked. The air was thin and cold this high up, and he’d barely gone ten steps before he started panting. He ignored it, sharp eyes scanning the rocky terrain as he climbed the slope, shifting his gear higher on his back.
Three hours later, he was breathing like an asthmatic after a marathon and his fingers and cheeks were numb with cold, when he finally found it. A narrow crevice amongst the scattered rocks that descended deep into the bowls of the mountain. Clint didn’t give himself time to think before he tied off his rappelling line and started his descent.
It was a sheer drop, and each time he kicked off the rock face sent a new tumble of loose stones clattering to the bottom. There was no light this far down, but he could still see everything around him in indistinct shades of gray. Over the sound of his labored breathing and the tumbling stones, he could hear the steady splash of an underground river echoing across the cavern.
He reached the bottom and turned. There was the river, the water, like everything else, was grey, with white shadows passing just below the surface. There was a rickety wooden boat docked against the bank, and a stooped, equally rickety figure standing at the bow with a pole in his hand.
“I need to cross,” Clint said, his palms sweaty with nerves as he dug his hands into his pockets, rattling the coins there.
The ferryman held out his hand. Clint dropped a silver dollar onto his palm and climbed aboard, settling on the bench in the middle of the little boat. The ferryman used the pole to push off from the bank and into the current. Clint glanced over the side at the water and felt a shiver of a fear slide down his spine. The white shadows were people, their faces twisted in agony and longing as they were dragged along with the current. He jerked back and leveled his eyes on the far bank and wondered what the fuck was he even thinking to try this.
Oh, right. Phil. That’s why.
The boat bumped up against the bank. Clint climbed ashore and started forward. The chill he’d felt coming over the water was a hundred times worse on the shore. He shivered and pulled his arms close to his body. It wasn’t just the temperature, the cold was a bone deep chill like falling into a frozen lake. The kind of cold that settles into your limbs as the heart stops beating. He kept moving, but the motion did nothing to warm him. The landscape was completely uniform. An empty, grey plain of dead grass coated with frost. There was nothing, no landmarks or defining features, to guide his way, so he walks straight on and hopes that he’ll find something.
His limbs were heavy, and his body felt numb. He was too cold to breath, and he was starting to think he was too cold for his heart to still be beating. He couldn’t still have blood moving in his veins and still be this cold. It would really, really suck to get this far only to end up dead himself. Granted, its not like he has much to leave behind. Maybe he should just stop. Settle on the ground and let the cold sooth him to sleep. There’s no end in sight, so why bother? He was so tired, and he’d fought so hard, just a little rest . . .
“Oh for fuck’s sake!” Clint snapped, the words were swallowed up by the empty mist but it was enough. “I’m not giving up, you fuckers!” There was no one around that he could see, but he had the distinct impression that he was being watched, that someone was waiting for him to give up so they could steal away whatever life remained.
He filled his mind with thoughts of Phil and Natasha and the new team that he hadn’t had time to know yet. He thought he’d get on great with Tony, and wouldn’t that just drive Phil up the wall? Banner sounded like a chill guy, you know, when he’s not a giant green rage monster, maybe a bit boring, though. Thor would be a hell of a lot of fun to go drinking with, and probably had some awesome blackmail material on Loki. Cap might be cool, too. Propaganda and Phil’s fanboy glee aside, Rogers had given Clint the chance to help when he had no reason to trust him, and for that Clint would always be grateful. Tasha would kick his ass for doing this without her, but Phil would be there to keep her from doing too much damage.
Even with the thoughts of the living in his head, the life-sucking cold of the dead dragged at him, urged him to lay down and rest, to forget. He keeps walking.
He lost track of time, of distance. He had no idea how long he’d been here, or how far he’d walked and at first, he thought the figure in the distance was just a wisp of fog. As he drew nearer, it began to take shape, and he realized it was a person walking towards him. He was too far away to see the face clearly, but he knew that stride anywhere. A tired grin slid across his face.
Phil looked exactly as he did the last time Clint saw him. Sort of. A grey, washed out version of himself, but the flat, stern look and impeccable suit was definitely Agent Coulson at his finest.
“Hey, Phil,” Clint said, his voice was hoarse with disuse and gravely with exhaustion. He came to a halt just out of reach of the specter, just in case.
Phil huffed and glared, crossing his arms over his chest. “You’re an idiot,” he said. Clint could hear everything he didn’t say hidden in the tone of his voice. I can’t believe you would do something this reckless, but I’m so glad to see you again that I can’t really get angry about it, but I will worry myself sick wondering how the hell you got here and what the fuck were you thinking?
Clint grinned, his heart slamming against his ribs as he slid his hands into his pockets and rocked on his heels. “Hey, you’re the guy who decided to fight a god singlehanded. Sounds kind of stupid to me.”
Phil did not look amused, or even slightly apologetic. “And yet you’re the one who decided a trip to the underworld was a brilliant plan.”
Clint shrugged. “I figured I’ve got more brains than that Orpheus guy, so what the hell? What’s the worst that could happen?”
Phil looks torn between smacking him upside the head, kissing him, or yelling at him. Instead he gives Clint a long glare that says That is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard and if I ever hear you say it again I will kick your ass.
“So . . .” Clint jerked his head back in the general direction of the river. “You comin’, or what?”
Phil sighed. “I’m dead, remember?”
“And . . .?”
“And if you want me to go with you, you have to convince the person in charge to let me leave.”
“Can’t we just ninja our way out of here? You’re good at that.” He started forward anyway, falling in step beside Phil as they walked on into the barren wasteland.
Clint laughed, warm and just a little hysterical. “You have no idea how much I’ve missed that,” he said, once he could breath again. “No one else says it right. You’re the only person I know who can stuff disapproval, annoyance, and amusement all in two words.”
A smile twitched at the corner of Phil’s lips. “You’ve given me plenty of practice.”
“And if this works, you’ll get plenty more.” Clint reached out to take Phil’s hand and wasn’t surprised when his fingers passed through it. There was a faint impression of a chill against his skin and then nothing.
Phil’s face tightened, the faint wrinkles at the corners of his mouth and eyes deepening as he turned his gaze forward. “And if it doesn’t, you’ll leave and not come back until its your time,” he ordered, harshly. “Don’t you dare give up the rest of your life because of me.”
“What makes you think I have one without you?”
Before Phil could answer a black swathed figure appeared in front of them. It was impossibly tall, and thin, covered from head to toe in a long black robe, with a scythe in its emaciated white hand.
YOU’RE NOT SUPPOSED TO BE HERE, Death said, the cowled head inclined towards Clint. The voice rang out like the slamming door of a crypt.
Phil placed his spectral form between Clint and Death. “He’s--.” Phil started.
“Here to take him home,” Clint cut in, moving forward to Phil’s side. “He’s not done yet, there’s too much work for him back home for him to be dead.”
Death regarded them, or they thought it did. It was hard to tell with the head completely obscured by the hood. YOU REALLY THINK THAT MATTERS?
“Not to you,” Clint said. “But we need him back.”
NO. GO AWAY.
“Clint...” Phil’s face was stern and sad, but Clint hadn’t come this far to give up that quickly.
“No, seriously,” he said. “We work for this organization called SHIELD and--.”
I KNOW ALL THIS. WHAT’S YOUR POINT?
“Ah, ok, see, without Phil there to run the show, a lot of people are going to die and make a lot more work for you, right?”
Death inclined its head towards Phil, looking as skeptical as a faceless specter could.
“No, really,” Clint went on. “He’s been dead two weeks and the whole place is falling apart. If we’re not on top of our game, innocent people die. We can’t do our jobs if Phil’s not there to keep everyone in line.”
Now Phil was giving him an incredulous look that said I can’t believe you’re trying to bullshit Death with that crap, are you insane? Stupid question, of course you are.
“And I need him there,” Clint went on, and now he was just babbling and he should probably shut up before he said something he didn’t mean to, but he couldn’t seem to stop. “I haven’t been able to breath or think or do anything without him. It’s like someone ripped a giant black hole in my world and its just sucking everything into it. Like someone ripped me in half. Please, please let him come home.” He didn't bother to hide the plea in his tone. If it would get Phil back, he would gladly go down on his knees and beg if he had to.
“Jesus, Clint,” Phil’s voice was low and heartbroken. He made a move as if to embrace him, but his arm passed through Clint’s shoulders. Clint flinched at the sudden chill and the agony in Phil’s voice, but kept his eyes on Death’s face.
Death was silent, regarding them both a heavy gaze that they could certainly feel, even if they couldn’t see it. It was like having all the layers of the self stripped away like so much trash, laying bare their very souls. Even Phil, ghost that he was, shivered under that examination.
Finally, after a small eternity of absolute silence, Death spoke.
OKAY, FINE. YOU CAN HAVE HIM BACK.
“What, really?” Clint blurted. Phil’s shoulders settle the way they did in the split second before an op went FUBAR. There was no way it was that easy.
IF YOU PASS TWO TESTS.
“I thought it was usually three?” Clint muttered. Phil elbowed him in the side, or tried to, anyway. The glare he gave him was more than adequate in delivering his message: Shut up and don’t give it any ideas about making this harder than it has to be.
I’M A BUSY EMBODIMENT OF A NATURAL PHENOMENON, Death said. I DON’T HAVE TIME FOR THREE. FIRST, YOU HAVE TO PROVE YOUR DEDICATION.
“Dude, I came all the way to Purgatory, I really think I’ve proven how dedicated I am already,” Clint grumbled. Phil didn’t even try to hit him this time, just gave him a long, hard stare that quite plainly said Seriously, Clint, I love you, but shut the fuck up.
Death glared at him, or Clint thought it was glaring. It was hard to tell with the cowl concealing its face, but he could feel the irritation coming off of it, so it was probably safe to say that Death was glaring. Then Death turned its head to Phil.
YOU SURE YOU WANT TO GO BACK? HE’S KIND OF A SMARTASS.
Phil’s glare softened. “He’s my smartass.”
Death shrugged. SUIT YOURSELF. It turned back to Clint. YOU HOLD ON TO HIM, AND NO MATTER WHAT FORM HE TAKES, YOU CAN’T LET GO. IF YOU DO, EVEN FOR A SECOND, HE’LL PASS ON TO HIS FINAL REST, AND YOU’LL BE TRAPPED HERE UNTIL THE END OF TIME.
Clint nodded, and tossed off a ‘bring it, bitch’ grin that he didn’t quite feel as he turned towards Phil.
“I think I read this story once,” he said, casually. “Tam Lin, right? With the boyfriend stolen by elves or whatever?” He reached out a hand to the older agent and felt warm skin under his fingers. Phil’s eyes went wide and Clint didn’t give him time to respond. He pulled Phil close, crushing him against his chest, and held on.
He was holding a column of fire. His first instinct was to jerk back with a shriek of pain, but he bit down the scream and kept his arms locked tight around the inferno. The heat and smoke seared his lungs, his skin burnt, blistered, and blackened, his blood boiling in his veins. He could smell burning hair, cooking meat, and he couldn’t scream even if he wanted to, because his lungs were charred. Don’t let go.
In an instant his cooked flesh was restored and he had barely a second of relief before he was clutching a swarm of hornets. The roaring buzz was deafening and a thousand stingers plunged into his arms, his chest, his face, his groin, his legs. He couldn’t hold back the scream this time, the darts of agony driving anything remotely resembling conscious thought from his mind. Don’t let go, don’t let go.
And then the hornets and the stingers were gone and his arms were full of writhing snakes. Their sinuous bodies thrashed and twisted in his grip, scales scraped across his skin as they hissed and struck, sinking poisonous fangs into his arms and neck. He couldn’t feel his limbs, his entire body going numb, his lungs frozen as venom seeped through his veins. Don’t let go, don’t let go, don’t let go.
It was Loki in the circle of his embrace. Tall and regal in his armor and helmet, green eyes so cold they burned, a vicious, leering grin across his lips as his icy hands caressed Clint’s chest. Clint’s entire body jerked, his stomach rolling with horror as he squeezed his eyes shut and thought don’t let go, notrealnotrealnotreal.
“You made a wonderful pet,” Loki crooned, hands drifting lower. “Won’t you come back to me?”
Clint wanted nothing more than to run screaming, to rip the bastard apart for everything he’d done, everything he’d made Clint do. He wrapped his arms tighter around the too tall, too thin, armor-covered body. Don’t let go, don’t let go, don’t let go.
The reek of decaying flesh hit his nose, filled his mouth with its cloying flavor and he sucked in a harsh breath to fight the wave of nausea that threatened to drive him to his knees. He opened his eyes and desperately wished he hadn’t. It was Phil. Phil’s desiccated corpse with maggots oozing from his empty eye sockets and a gaping hole in his chest. Rotting arms came up to close around Clint’s waist, the skin sloughing and peeling, the muscles horrifically soft as they squelched and oozed against Clint’s sides. Phil had held him this way a thousand times before, and this grisly parody made him shiver with horror and revulsion. When the corpse spoke, it spoke with Phil’s even tones.
“I knew you would betray me, Barton,” it said, leaning in close. “It’s in your nature. You’ve tried so hard to be a good guy, and you failed. You will always fail. You will always be alone.”
“Shut up,” Clint choked out around the bile in his throat. “You’re not him.” He locked his arms tight around the corpse and shut his eyes. At least he could block out the sight, if not the reek or the words.
“You let Loki use you. You murdered good people. You could have fought harder, but you didn’t because a part of you enjoyed it, didn’t you? Not thinking, not worrying. Just obeying. It’s what you’re good at, isn’t it?”
With his eyes closed, it was even worse, because it was Phil’s voice in his ears. Calm, assured, and soft, just as Clint remembered. The words were infinitely worse than the fire, the hornets, the snakes, and Loki combined because it was every fear and doubt Clint had ever had about himself spoken in a voice he trusted above all others. He had only just started to loosen his grip to block his ears when he remembered and held on tighter than before. He opened his eyes and Phil’s decaying face was scant inches from his own. He could see the rotten mass of grey brain tissue through the in the empty eye sockets. A maggot dropped out of the socket and landed on Clint’s collarbone. He flinched, held on. Don’t let go, don’t let go, don’t let go. It’s not real. It’s not Phil. Don’t let go.
“You let Loki kill me. And then you let him walk away unscathed. You’re on a team with gods, and geniuses, and monsters, and legends, and you have no place among them. You have no place with SHIELD, not after you murdered their own. None of them will ever forgive you. They will never forget. Their dead will haunt you into madness and I will be waiting there to remind you why you deserve every moment of insanity that they bring you.”
A sob tore at Clint’s throat, tears burned their way down his cheeks and he squeezed his eyes shut against the sting. “Shut up, shut up, shut up! You’re not him!”
Hands, warm and solid and whole, cradled his cheeks. The reek lingered in his nose, but the source was gone. The body in his arms was solid muscle and smooth skin under an impeccable suit. His eyes snapped open and through the haze of tears, he could see Phil’s face. His hazel eyes wide and there, skin pale and marred only by the faint wrinkles at the corners of his eyes and mouth.
“Oh god, Phil!” Clint let out a strangled cry. He crushed Phil to him, burying his face in the older man’s neck, and let the sobs shake his body apart. His legs must have given way, because they were crouched on the cold stone floor with Phil’s solid body curled around him like a living shield. Phil’s arms were like vices, clutching hard enough to bruise, squeezing the air from his lungs, and Clint didn’t give a fuck because it was Phil. Phil’s arms, Phil’s voice murmuring endearments in his ear, and Phil’s familiar scent of gun oil and ink filling his nose.
“I’ve got you, love,” Phil said, calm and even and soft and soothing and earnest. He kept one arm tight around Clint’s ribs while the other began stroking through the younger man’s hair, petting and caressing like he would after a nightmare or failed mission. “I’ve got you. I love you, I’ll never leave you, none of it was your fault, none of it was true.”
Death tapped its scythe against the ground to get their attention. Clint didn’t react, but the expression on Phil’s face was vicious enough to send even Nick Fury running for his mother. It had no impact at all on Death, though the being sounded somewhat contrite when it began to speak.
YOU HAVE ONE MORE TEST AND I’M SHORT ON TIME.
It took all of Clint’s willpower to untangle himself from Phil’s grip. Phil stood and pulled the archer up with him. They kept their fingers interlocked as they turned to face the robed being. Clint scrubbed at his face with his free hand and forced his breath to even out.
“What else you got?” he demanded, a shadow of his usual cocky grin on his face.
Death gestured back across the expanse of nothingness. YOU REMEMBER THE STORY, RIGHT? YOU WALK OUT OF HERE AND HE WILL FOLLOW YOU. IF YOU SPEAK TO HIM, IF HE SPEAKS TO YOU, OR IF YOU LOOK BACK BEFORE YOU REACH THE MORTAL REALM HE WILL DIE FOR A SECOND TIME AND YOU WILL NEVER SEE HIM AGAIN. NOT IN THE AFTERLIFE, AND NOT IN ANY OTHER THAT FOLLOWS.
Clint gave a sharp nod and sneered up at the dark figure. “You’re kind of a bastard, did you know that?”
I AM WHAT I AM. Death shrugged and made a shooing motion with its hand. GET GOING. I HAVE THINGS TO DO.
“With pleasure,” Clint grumbled. He tightened his grip on Phil’s hand, only for his fingers to pass through a chilled vapor. He jerked around to stare as Phil’s body faded back to a gray phantom. The older man stared down at himself and then turned a sharp look on Death.
“What the--?” Clint started.
Death shrugged again, and it was an almost...sheepish gesture. YOU WERE DISTRAUGHT. I THOUGHT IT WOULD HELP.
Clint gaped. Phil gave the robed being a long, unreadable look before he spoke.
Death inclined its head and made an impatient gesture. SERIOUSLY, GET GOING. I WASN’T KIDDING WHEN I SAID I HAVE THINGS TO DO.
Phil nodded and turned to Clint, tilting his head towards the empty plain and raising an eyebrow. Well, let’s go.
Clint shook his head and started to turn away, then paused, glancing back at Death. “Um. Yeah, thanks. For...all of this, actually,” he said. “I take it back, you’re not really a bastard.”
“All right, all right, we’re going.” Clint grinned and gave the black form a quick salute before turning on his heel and striding away into the mist.
It was harder than he thought it would be. The dead cold dread that had clung to his limbs on his way in was even worse on the way back. Like anchoring weights of ice to his body, every step forward was exhausting, but he didn’t let himself stop. Phil was behind him. Phil was watching. He couldn’t let Phil see him falter here, not when he’d come this far.
The silence was worse this time, too. He kept straining his ears to catch the sound of footsteps that weren’t there. Stupid, he thought. He’s a ghost, of course he’s not making any noise.
Doubts like insidious weeds began to take root. What if Death had lied? What if Phil wasn’t really behind him? What if Phil changed his mind and turned back? What if all of this was for nothing? What if it didn’t work? What if none of this was real?
His footsteps stuttered. Now he knew why Orpheus turned around. The overpowering need to know for sure that Phil was behind him was almost too strong to resists. Or to call back for Phil to confirm his presence. Clint was used to walking through danger but he always had Phil’s voice in his ear, guiding him, assuring him that he was not alone. Now he didn’t even have that much.
He trusted Phil with his life, his secrets, and his heart. He’d trusted Phil to lead him into living hells and back out again, he could trust Phil to follow him out of the literal hell now.
The journey out felt infinitely longer than the way in, which struck Clint as amusing, because wasn’t it usually the other way around on roadtrips? He opened his mouth to share the observation with Phil and caught himself just in time.
He heard the muted splash of the river before he saw it, but it still felt like he was walking for hours before it came into view. The rickety old boat was waiting at the dock and the ferryman said nothing as he held out his hand for payment. Clint handed over two silver dollars, thankful he’d brought extras, just in case. Phil must be so proud to see him thinking ahead for once.
Clint climbed into the boat and took a seat at the bow. He listened for a light step behind him, waited for the boat to shift with the extra weight, but wasn’t surprised when neither came.
The ferryman poled them across the river in silence, the only sound was the soft splash of the bow cutting through the water, and the pole slicing through the waves.
They disembarked at the far bank and Clint started climbing. Jagged shale cut into his palms, loose stones giving way and clattering down the cliff under his feet. He slid back more than once, biting his tongue on the frustrated curses as he scrambled up towards the soft, warm glow of sunshine at the top of the cliff.
There was still no sound from behind him, the only rocks jarred loose were the ones he knocked free, and his were the only hands scrambling for purchase on the jagged stone. He didn’t look back. He’d come to far to waste everything on his own insecurities. He would reach the surface, and when he turned around, Phil would be there. No other outcome was conceivable.
Slowly, the pale yellow light drew nearer, he could feel the warmth on his face and it was like stepping under a hot shower after crouching on a snow covered rooftop for fourteen hours. Only better.
His hands found grips on the rim of the cave and he levered himself up and over the edge, collapsing facedown on the sun-warmed earth, his breath heavy gasps from exertion and the altitude, sweat soaking through his clothes, his hands scraped and bloodied from his climb.
He allowed himself a moment to catch his breath before pushing up onto all fours, then to his feet without once turning back. His heart was hammering in his throat in a way that had nothing to do with his climb. How had this worked in the story? They both had to be in the sun, right? How far back was Phil? Was he even there?
Clint clenched his fists despite the cuts and took a deliberate step forward, then another, and another. He could see the quinjet farther down the mountainside, right where he’d left it, sunlight reflecting off the metal hull.
“Clint.” A heavy hand landed on his shoulder.
Clint froze. Every instinct screamed for him to turn around, grab Phil in his arms and never let go again.
“Is it safe to look back?” he asked, almost choking on the words.
He could feel the warmth in Phil’s voice slide across his skin. “Yeah, it’s safe.”
Clint whirled and crushed Phil to his chest. Clinging hard enough to leave bruises, as though Death might suddenly reappear in its dark and terrible glory to throw Phil back into the underworld. Phil clung back just as tightly. Warm and solid and unmistakably alive in each other’s arms, bodies flush together, it was a long time before either of them moved. When they did, it was to exchange fierce, deep, bruising kisses, each breathing the other’s breath and marveling in the fact that they were alive and together and neither one was letting go.