‘You’ll drown their roots, watering them that much,’ Phil says.
Given the circumstances, it’s not terribly surprising that Clint drops the coffee mug he’s been using to water the houseplants and jumps a foot backwards in sheer astonishment.
The SHIELD handbook has stern things to say about agents who jump backwards in sheer astonishment, but then the SHIELD handbook doesn’t take into account quite how startled an agent can be when his dead boyfriend creeps up unexpectedly behind him and criticises his indoor gardening skills.
‘Fuck,’ Clint says. ‘Fuck, holy fucking fuck. Phil.’
He’s shaking so hard his teeth rattle. If he were in a state to notice anything at all he would have seen Phil’s face freeze in surprise too, but he isn’t. He’s only in a state to stumble desperately towards Phil, reaching out to hold him, to bury his face in that immaculate suit.
‘Hawkeye, stop right there.’
The words jerk Clint abruptly to a halt, his body responding before his mind has a chance to process. When Phil raps out an order like that he does not disobey. ‘Sir?’ he says automatically. It takes a moment for the reflex to fade. ‘Phil?’
‘Um.’ Phil makes a rueful face, looking nonplussed for possibly the second time since Clint’s known him. (The first being the day Clint first kissed him, when Phil had just said ‘Really?’, so confused and pleased and glowing that Clint could only do it again. And again.) ‘I don’t think a hug’s on the cards right now. We have a slight disembodiment problem.’
He demonstrates by walking straight through the coffee table.
‘Phil,’ Clint says weakly, ‘I don’t know about you, but I really don’t believe in ghosts.’
That’s how it starts.
How it ends, for Clint, how the whole world ends, is with him sitting eating shawarma in a pita and finally letting it sink in that though they saved a whole shitload of people that day they lost the only one that mattered.
During the battle, reality had been the arrow and the target, movement, wind and time, but now every sight and every action is full of the absence of Phil. Everything. When a customer shrugs out of a dark suit jacket and drapes it over the back of a chair. When Clint reaches up to touch his earpiece for comfort, and realises there’s no comfort left any more. When he turns automatically to get the subway to Phil’s apartment – his apartment now – and stops in the street because he doesn’t know if it would be worse to go back there, or worse not to.
The world ends with Natasha’s hand on his arm, squeezing tight, her hard voice straying into the dangerous world of emotion as she tells him that he can get through this.
Clint knows he could get through it. He’s well enough versed in loss to know it really is all about living one day at a time. He could cry for a year and then move on with his life, maybe quit SHIELD, maybe not, paste on a smile, meet someone new. He could kick the grieving process’s ass and make his shrink proud. It would be hard, painful work, and the prize at the end is inner peace and maybe a strange new kind of happiness.
And Phil would still be dead.
What’s the fucking point?
‘I’m sorry I startled you,’ Phil says. His voice is gentle and apologetic, but the relief in it is obvious to someone who knows him as well as Clint does, someone who’s heard the expressionless way he says Good job Barton. Stand down, and felt the kiss that comes later. ‘I didn’t think you could hear me. You never have before.’
They’re sitting side by side on the couch, in front of the offending coffee table with its litter of unwashed mugs growing fuzz on half an inch of coffee sludge, mission reports that Clint has tried to write and given up on in tears halfway through, a couple of empty vodka bottles from when Natasha was round and a couple more from when she wasn’t.
‘Before?’ Clint says.
‘I’ve been here a while.’ Phil reaches out abortively as though to take his hand and stops short, lips pursed. ‘I spent the first few days shouting at you and you didn’t even twitch. My hands went right through you. I followed you around SHIELD and tried with everyone I met, I thought Thor was my best chance. Nobody heard. Since then, I’ve just been talking to you and hoping, and now…’
‘Uh huh,’ Clint says. He takes a breath, trying to get the dazed sensation out of his head. ‘Rogers did say you’d always be with us in spirit. Guess your big damn American hero is never wrong after all.’
Clint tries to smile but it falls apart somewhere in the middle. There was nothing funny about any of it. ‘Phil,’ he says painfully, ‘I said some shitty things.’ He winces at the memory of it, of snarling into the empty apartment, I don’t need you. Just a handler, just a good fuck, never wanted you anyway. Sitwell next, I’ll fuck him in your office, you holier-than-thou bastard, he doesn’t pull this stupid self-sacrificing shit and he’s a better handler than you ever were...
‘I knew what you meant,’ Phil says.
It turns out Phil’s still kind of invisible to the world in general, which is why Clint ends up in Fury’s office voluntarily for the first time in living memory.
Fury’s standing at the floor-to-ceiling window when Clint walks in, looking out over the destruction of midtown New York. SHIELD central is only just outside the battle zone and the view is anything but cheery, with scattered demolition crews knocking down yet more of the ruined buildings. Fury’s face, when he turns, does not look like that of a man with high job satisfaction.
‘You wanted to see me, agent?’ he says grimly.
‘Sir,’ Clint says.
‘What can I do for you?’
Clint’s been wondering how to lead in to this one. In the end, he just goes with the thing that’s been hovering in the back of his mind ever since Phil appeared. ‘Sir, I need you to tell me if I’m crazy.’
Fury looks, if possible, even less amused. His expression turns wooden, eyebrow slightly cocked. ‘Alright,’ he says, in a voice that suggests Clint is currently within the limits of patience, but that he’d better not stray much further. ‘Why do you think you’re crazy?’
‘Just listen, sir.’
‘Alpha twenty-seven alpha,’ Phil says calmly into his ear, ‘Five five five delta Romeo,’ and goes on, string after short string of letters, numbers and symbols that Clint repeats, their voices overlapping.
By the end of it, Fury has his arms folded dangerously. ‘Barton, you have ten seconds to explain what the fuck is going on.’
Clint gives a helpless little shrug. ‘I’m seeing a ghost,’ he says. He takes a deep breath, because the answer to this question is going to take his life down one of two paths. ‘Am I hallucinating?’
Fury’s eye narrows. His gaze burns into Clint for a good half-minute before he speaks. ‘No, evidently you are not,’ he says finally. ‘What you are doing, agent, is fucking with my world view. Now tell that dead bastard that if he ever reappears on this plane of existence he’s up on charges for breaking command code protocols.’
Around Clint, the world exhales. For a long moment the air is full of nothing but the singing realisation, real, you’re real, you’re real.
‘He can hear you, sir,’ Clint says. He’s determined not to grin like an idiot in front of the Director of SHIELD but with Phil standing right next to him, a warm smile on that deeply beloved, selectively visible face, it’s really, really hard.
The not-quite-a-team is gathered around the conference table in one of the smaller briefing rooms. A few seconds ago they looked somewhat disgruntled at being called away from whatever technological discoveries, acts of advanced manipulation or absorption of pop culture they’d been involved in. Now Natasha sits perfectly still, her lips about a millimetre apart, Rogers is vibrating with puppy-like hope and Stark and Banner look deeply sceptical.
‘You seriously expect us to believe this?’ Stark says.
Fury doesn’t exactly smile, but he comes close enough that his mouth turns up fractionally at the corners. ‘Barton, what is form HR-13B used to report?’
‘Form HR-13B reports estimated threat level of hostiles encountered on a mission that involves a disturbance in space-time, sir,’ Clint rattles off, after a second’s consultation. He shoots Phil a look of mild incredulity.
‘It actually gets a lot of use,’ Phil says. He frowns. ‘I hope someone completed one after the battle with the Chitauri. We’ll need to check later.’
‘Ooookaaaay,’ Stark says. ‘Admittedly, that is something no man but Coulson would know.’ He pauses. ‘Wait, does this mean he’s here right now?’
The question and its obvious answer cause a mild buzz of consternation as the team look at the spot beside Clint with deep suspicion, then turn to scan every other corner of the room.
‘He’s here? Where?’
‘Are spirits not visible in this world?’
‘We don’t have spirits in this world.’
The hubbub dies down a little as Rogers gets meaningfully to his feet, with a look of a person Doing the Right Thing. ‘Hello Agent Coulson,’ he says firmly. ‘We’re all very grateful to you for serving your country, sir.’
Clint snorts. That’s Captain America all over, managing to slip in a tiny implied reprimand to the others that it’s rude to talk about someone like they’re not there. Which it is, but honestly, when confronted by a ghost people tend to focus on incredulity first and good manners a distant second.
Phil’s all pink round the ears, looking at Clint with an expression as close as he ever comes to discomposure. ‘Clint, Captain America just thanked me. Tell him I said… something. Anything.’
It’s too good to miss. Clint turns a solemn, serious face to Rogers. ‘He says yeah, you owe him one, but if he can get a naked picture of you he’ll call it even.’
‘You are so dead,’ Phil says flatly.
‘You’re one to talk.’
‘Question,’ Stark says, holding up a hand as Rogers, blushing furiously, subsides into his chair. ‘How come Barton’s the one getting haunted?’
Yeah, Clint thinks resignedly, someone was probably going to pick up on that at some stage.
‘I mean, there’s the whole unfinished business thing,’ Stark continues, pushing his sunglasses down his nose, ‘Because, you know, I get the need for paperwork as much as the next guy, love the stuff, but coming back from the dead to make Hawkeye finish his mission reports?’
‘It’s not the mission reports,’ Clint says, hiding a smile as Phil mutters something venomous about Stark’s capability to accurately report what he ate for breakfast. ‘We…’ he glances up at Phil, who makes an alright, I suppose you must face. ‘We were kind of a thing.’
Natasha already knows, of course. Clint had always assumed she did, because she worked closely with both of them and she watches and listens even when she’s on the other side of the gym laying a six-foot martial artist out flat on his back, but he hadn’t been sure until her quiet words the day Phil died. Fury doesn’t bat an eyelid, since the first thing Phil did after Clint kissed him was to walk into Fury’s office and lay out the deal, full disclosure, either turn a blind eye to the regs or kick them both out. But Banner, Stark and Rogers are all honestly gobsmacked, and then there’s Thor, who just looks bemused and nudges Stark for a translation of the word ‘thing’ in this context.
Phil’s expression softens. ‘We are a thing,’ he corrects. ‘Present tense. Unless you only loved me for my body.’
‘It’s a pretty scorching body, sir.’
In the hush that suddenly falls it takes Clint a second to realise that, while Phil can get away with saying that kind of thing in public these days, the same doesn’t apply to him.
‘Huh,’ Stark says, breaking the silence. ‘First of all, I always wondered what he was hiding under that suit. And second of all, let’s get back to you and Coulson. Coulson and you, together?’
Clint glares. ‘Got a problem with that?’
‘I bet you call him “sir” in bed,’ Stark says musingly. ‘That’s… actually really hot.’
‘Shut the fuck up.’
‘Gentlemen,’ Fury cuts in, his voice falling like a lead slab and effectively crushing the conversation. ‘We have a situation here. It would appear Phil Coulson is not as departed as previously imagined, but I cannot use agents who stand around being dead. Give me solutions.’
It’s the catalyst for a whole heap of what would be science if the scientists weren’t having so much trouble accepting the basic premises.
Handing Stark a new problem is like handing a kid something shiny that shoots lasers and makes beeping noises. In seconds he’s got his head down, scribbling on his tablet, talking nineteen to the dozen to nobody in particular, unless you count a slightly mesmerised Rogers, while Natasha buttonholes Fury on the other side of the room, talking equally fast in Russian Clint’s too rusty to follow. Thor takes the opportunity to turn his baffled puppy-dog eyes on Clint. ‘I do not understand,’ he persists. ‘What is this thing called ‘thing’?'
‘Uh.’ Clint pauses, trying to think how to phrase his answer without being crude. Phil’s right there and surprisingly old-fashioned about discussing relationships. ‘Me and Coulson, we’re special to each other,’ he says. ‘You know. More than just colleagues. More than friends.’
‘Ah!’ Thor says, looking happily enlightened. ‘You say that you and the son of Coul were shield brothers with a warrior’s bond?’
Clint’s not quite sure what to do with that one.
At the other end of the table, Stark’s teeth flash in a grin. ‘Only if a warrior’s bond means fucking like bunnies.’
‘Indeed it does,’ Thor confirms.
‘Oh.’ Stark blinks. ‘Then yeah. Good.’ He shrugs and goes back to talking resonance frequencies with Banner.
At Clint’s shoulder, Phil makes the tiny huffing sound that means he’s laughing without moving a single facial muscle. ‘The smart guys are on the case,’ he says. ‘I think we're done here. Let’s go and get you a donut.’