He knocked and braced himself for Clint’s reaction. Fury had at least somewhat apologetic when he had told Phil after waking up that most people he knew thought he was dead.
“To give them the push they needed”, Fury had told him and it worked which was the only reason Phil had not told Fury that he could be as melodramatic as Tony Stark. The end justified the means was not a policy Shield followed very often.
Now he was standing in front of Clint’s door and was waiting for the inevitable fallout to come.
He heard footsteps from the other side and took another deep breath before the door was opened.
“Hey”, Clint said, smiling sadly and a little broken. His eyes were red rimmed as if he hadn’t gotten enough sleep lately. “Come in.”
That was not the reaction he had expected.
A little confused he followed Clint into the kitchen.
“Clint, I-“he started but Clint said, “Tony and Bruce let loose some flying mechanical monkeys this morning. Hill nearly shot them.” He smiled a little at the memory while Phil was still confused. He had prepared for a lot of reactions but not this one.
“And Natasha sent a postcard from the Philippines. She wants to train junior agents every year now if that’s where we send them.” Clint got up from the kitchen table and busied himself making coffee all while continuing to talk casually as if Phil had been gone on a mission for a week and not been declared dead three months ago.
“Thor took Jane to visit Asgard. Talk about meeting the future in-laws”, he put a mug in front of Phil. “Half milk, four sugar. I still didn’t forget”, and he smiled that horribly sad, broken smile again. Phil tried to reach out for him but Clint flinched immediately as if burned.
“Steve asked me to come on a mission with him, but, you know”, he shrugged, trailing off. “He put up your cards last week. All framed in the Stark Tower. Tony didn’t even say anything but he looked a little misty around the eyes. Guess he misses you, too.”
Phil didn’t know what to say to that.
“Made you speechless, huh?” For a second Clint’s familiar grin surfaced before being overtaken by the sadness that seemed to permeate everything in the flat.
“He made me a new bow. Just in case. Not that they’ll call me when there’s aliens falling from the sky again. But it’s a nice gesture.”
“You were handpicked for that team”, Phil told him like he had told him countless times before.
“You picked me. Never really said thanks for that.”
“You don’t need to. Your own merits recommended you for the job.”
“You know, I might have believed that someday.” Clint looked away from him and stared out of the window.
“I’m sorry”, Phil whispered.
Clint still didn’t look at him but Phil could see that although he was still smiling sadly, his eyes were filling up with tears.
“You never said that before, before leaving. But it’s nice. Damn”, he rubbed a hand over his face. “I guess this means it’s getting worse. You’ve never stayed this long before either.”
Suddenly Phil had a horrible idea about what Clint meant when he said “before”.
“When was the last time you saw me?”
“You’re getting forgetful? I didn’t think the dead could do that.”
“Clint, I’m real.”
“No, you’re not”, he said it with absolute conviction.
“Clint-“he tried to reach out again but Clint recoiled.
“Don’t-“he said quietly. “It’s hard enough to keep my sanity as it is.”
“I know Fury told you that I died but I didn’t. It was a lie, Clint. It was for the sake of the mission.”
“You know that’s what I thought the first time you turned up here. I was so happy. I even told Natasha to come here but she couldn’t see you even though you were right there”, Clint’s tone was heartbreaking.
Phil was going to kill Fury.
“Call her, or call Tony or Steve or whoever you want to. I’m real Clint.” He walked closer but Clint shook his head when Phil raised his hand to touch him.
“Please don’t”, he whispered, his voice breaking when Phil’s fingertips caressed his cheek.
“I’m real, Clint, I’m real”, Phil dropped a kiss from Clint’s cheek to his mouth for every word. “I’m real.”
“No, you’re not”, Clint kept insisting but his arms wrapped around Phil’s shoulders. “I don’t believe you. This is all a dream and when I wake up you’ll be gone and it’ll be worse.”
“I’m not going anywhere”, Phil promised him, holding him close.
While Clint slept, exhausted and still unconvinced that Phil was real, Phil called Fury and for the first time in his life, shouted at his boss. Because as far as fuck-ups went this one was epic and the WSC’s plan to nuke Manhattan looked downright rational next to it.
In his defence Fury admitted that he had been stupid and that, since he didn’t know Clint very well, had no idea faking Phil’s death would have such a devastating effect on his psyche.
Phil told him to call the Avengers in for the next day for a meeting. He would convince Clint he was real, one way or another and watching Natasha enact her revenge on Fury for messing with them would lighten his day further.
“Do you have a mission for us, sir?” Steve asked as soon as all Avengers were assembled.
In the car on the way to Shield Clint had looked at him and asked, “Are you going to trail me for the rest of my life, then?”
“If that’s what it takes you to convince you I’m real”, Phil had replied but when he had left the room just before the other’s arrived Clint’s eyes had flickered sadly as if he hadn’t expected Phil to stay.
“I have…an apology”, Fury replied. “To all of you but especially to Agent Barton.”
Clint looked up in surprise.
“Three months ago I made you believe that Agent Coulson was killed by Loki,” there was a minute shift in stance for everyone. It would be heart-warming if it wasn’t based on a lie. “I thought what this team needed was a push, a motivation and while your subsequent actions proved me right I should have lifted the charade the moment the Chitauri were defeated. Instead I let you all go your own ways.”
“Okay, cut short on the speech”, Tony interrupted him. “What are you trying to tell us?”
“That I’m alive”, Phil said and stepped out of the shadows. They all were staring at him except for Clint who was looking at Fury.
“Nice try but-“he was interrupted by Natasha cursing in Russian. “Wait, you can see him?”
“Of course we can”, Thor laughed and slapped Phil’s shoulder. “It is good to see you, Son of Coul.”
And then in a moment of distraction, Steve Rogers of all people hit Fury. “You utter-“
Phil might or might not have felt a little giddy about seeing Captain America getting this worked up on his behalf.
Natasha gave Clint a little push in Phil’s direction. “I can see him, too”, he heard her say.
Dr. Banner gave him a small smile, understandable since they had only talked once, but Tony said, in all sincerity, “It’s ah good to have you back.”
“You, too, Stark.” And then he was finally in front of Clint who still looked like he might not believe that Phil wasn’t just another hallucination.
“You’re back for good?”
“You know anyone else here who’d volunteer to handle Stark?”
Clint smiled. It was a small smile but it was a start.