Apparently playing Pictionary makes a lot of difference in the life of a ghost. That night some of the constant, worried tension seeps out of the air. The apartment is peaceful, with Phil on the couch calling out instructions while Clint attempts to make pasta sauce and croons gently along to one of Phil’s godawful CDs. The tragedy is, not only does he now know every lyric that’s ever come out of the mouth of Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holliday, he really doesn’t mind.
‘Someday he’ll come along, the man I love… and he’ll be big and strong, the man I love…’
Phil laughs, managing to lean back and relax without even making a dent in the cushions. ‘Barton, have you been cheating on me with Thor?’
‘Serves you right for cheating on me with Captain America, sir,’ Clint says, sucking sauce suggestively off a spoon, then using it to fish in the pot for a spaghetti strand to test. The spaghetti is slightly overdone but Phil’s not going to know. Clint drains it and decants everything into a bowl, setting it on the coffee table and slumping down on the couch as Billie gets into her stride, singing about meeting her man and building a little home just meant for two.
‘Listening to this song is like suffocating in cotton candy.’
‘It’s a classic,’ Phil says serenely.
‘You’re a classic.’
‘Is that supposed to be an insult?’
Clint shrugs comfortably. ‘I have no idea.’ He takes a musing bite of pasta. Maybe it’s because of the song, maybe it’s just the sense of comfort that comes with Phil’s presence that sends his mind sliding back across the years. ‘Hey, Phil, you remember when we first met?’
‘Vividly,’ Phil says. ‘I was terrified.’
‘You had quite the reputation. Your last three permanent handlers still go pale and twitch whenever your name’s mentioned.’
‘Really?’ Clint asks, mildly pleased. It’s been ten years since he worked with a handler other than Phil for more than an isolated mission here and there, and it’s nice to know he hasn’t been forgotten.
To be fair, the other three were reasonably competent, they just riled him up. But Phil was different. Instantly and utterly different, like putting on a glove that fit perfectly, or picking up a bow that shot true and clean. It wasn’t easy, exactly – Phil was demanding, insisted on impossibly high standards and called Clint on all the shit he tried to pull. But when Clint disobeyed an order or punched some asshole in the face or just plain disappeared for a week, Phil was automatically on his side. He gave Clint the benefit of the doubt, gave him a chance to explain, and even if Clint had fucked up monumentally Phil never let anyone else say a single word about it.
Clint hadn’t been aware of things changing at all. It was a shock when, a year or so on, he glanced up from a recalcitrant mission report to make snarky comments until Phil came and helped him, and realised he was looking at the centre of his world.
‘You were a nightmare,’ Phil says fondly. ‘Punk kid.’
‘You know it, sir,’ Clint says, taking another bite of his home-cooked dinner. A punk kid all grown up, sitting in a cosy apartment with co-ordinated soft furnishings and cheesy music, and he owns an apron, for god’s sake. But he’s happy. Even at this minute, with everything they’ve lost and all they might still lose, he’s happy, because he’s sitting with Phil.
Considering the progress they’ve just made Clint can’t quite shake the sense of excitement as the morning brings them back to the lab, the feeling that something’s going to happen. As soon as they’re within spitting distance Jane and Banner pounce on Clint, though it’s Phil they want. Now Phil has the writing board Clint doesn’t really need to be there, but he stays nonetheless, watching from his perch on the pipes and occasionally passing on a message that’s too time-consuming to write down.
It seems, after a while, that his excitement was justified. The others certainly appear to be catching it, if their increasingly enthusiastic and incomprehensible murmurs are anything to go by. They’re talking signal frequencies and subspace vibrations and a whole lot of other stuff that makes Phil roll his eyes at Clint and grin in a way he never would if he were visible. But finally they look up triumphantly, wielding some kind of device hooked up to a tablet. When they point it in Phil’s vague direction it flashes its lights and beeps faintly.
‘We’re all set,’ Banner says. ‘Let’s go.’
Phil scribbles GO WHERE? on his board.
‘To track down wherever this signal’s coming from.’ Banner looks at the tablet screen, a little surprised. ‘It’s close, actually. Somewhere in the building.’
Clint hops from his perch to follow them and the beeping scanner through the corridors. Progress isn’t steady. It takes them about ten minutes to pinpoint the right general area, and another twenty to narrow it down to one floor.
‘Right,’ Jane says, bringing up a schematic, ‘that puts it just around the corner.’
The beeping continues in its cheerful urgency, seeming to get more and more excited as they make their way towards the mysterious source. They turn the final corner and the scanner trills happily as they step into yet another featureless corridor. But this one seems to have some sort of significance. Bruce pauses, staring at the door a few metres away. ‘Oh,’ he says, with a sort of worried realisation. ‘Oh, that actually makes a lot of sense.’
‘Well…’ He thumbs the lock. The door hisses open revealing an austere laboratory, much the same as the one they’ve just come from, save that instead of the Phil-detecting machines there’s an object that makes Clint stop in his tracks. A gaudy, showy spear, a ceremonial and functional weapon with a double-curved shaft and a glowing blue jewel set into its three-pronged head. A spear that, incidentally, stole his mind and killed the person he cares about most in the world.
Even Phil’s looking a little pale. Clint doesn’t want to know what’s happening on his own face. ‘OK,’ he says calmly, ‘would someone please tell me what the fuck that thing is doing here?’
Banner presses his lips together a little awkwardly. ‘It’s here for study. It’s based on Asgard magic and tesseract energy, we need to learn more about it.’
‘I thought…’ Clint trails off. What had he thought? That the damn thing was evil? That nobody would be stupid enough to leave it where it could hurt people? ‘I thought they got rid of it.’
Phil manages a small smile. ‘It’s an extra-terrestrial mind control device. They could hardly give it to a thrift store.’
‘Well, you should be glad they didn’t,’ Jane says. She’s looking down at the sensor in her hand, giving it that little ineffectual tap-and-shake that people give electronic items that aren’t quite working. ‘That’s where the signal’s coming from. There’s a lot of noise, but Phil’s energy signature is very specific.’
‘You mean…’ Clint trails off. Of all the baffling technobabble this is probably the only thing he understands. He just wishes he didn’t.
Jane nods, still frowning over her sensor with Banner craning over her shoulder to see. ‘The spear is putting out an energy signature. Something complex enough that I think a person could perceive it if they were tuned into the right wavelength. Whatever it’s doing, it’s creating the image of Phil you can see. It must have made an imprint of him when he was stabbed.’
Banner gives her a slightly uncertain look. ‘You’re saying it recorded his physical form and his brainwave patterns. That’s a lot of information. I doubt it’s even possible.’
‘Have you got a better explanation?’ Jane says. ‘I mean, a ghost is all very well in Asgard, but here it’s got to have some basis in our physics.’
‘In which case we’re starting from the premise that the spear can create an interactive likeness of Phil. Philosophically that’s a difficult one unless you believe it can take an imprint of the soul.’
‘What do souls matter? According to Clint he passes the Turing test with flying colours. That makes him a thinking entity.’
‘You could make a case for it, but there are too many objections to the validity of that test,' Banner says. 'Besides, the spear might be able to create a thinking entity, but is it an accurate imprint?’ Then his face stills as he looks over at Clint. Scientists tend to get carried away, but possibly he realises how tactless it is to argue about the philosophy of mind when the subject of the discussion is standing a few feet away. ‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply... of course Phil has a soul,’ he says, which is not convincing at all.
Clint and Phil exchange glances.
‘So I’m an energy projection made from a recording of my brain,’ Phil says. ‘Well, that’s interesting.’
Clint feels a slightly manic laugh bubbling up inside him, and swallows it before everyone thinks he’s cracked up completely. ‘You died, but it’s OK because we’ve got you on TiVo,’ he says. ‘Seriously, Phil. Fuck this shit.’
Fury’s immediate response to the news is not encouraging. Phil seems unsurprised. Clint really wishes he could be as blasé.
Keeping his mouth shut has never been his strong suit. The many, many times in his life when he’s got smacked around by his captors or beaten up in alleys by unfriendly bar patrons it’s almost invariably been because he mouthed off at the wrong moment and failed to stop when common sense really ought to have kicked in. All of which means that, in the inevitable discussion about whether Phil might be an evil duplicate Phil created by Loki for nefarious purposes, the prospect of losing his temper, saying something extremely unwise and being confined to the brig until further notice while SHIELD orders the spear destroyed as a security risk makes him feel sick with nerves.
As it turns out he needn’t have worried, since he doesn’t have the chance to get word in edgeways. In fact, his only contribution is to confirm that Phil doesn’t have a goatee.
A soon as the meeting starts Fury is faced with five Avengers and Jane, all seemingly determined to talk constantly and often simultaneously. The scientists among them make a lot of noise about thought patterns and data storage and the difficulties of permanent brainwave manipulation, Thor declaims at top volume that Loki’s influence can’t extend across the bifrost, Stark’s the proponent of the goatee argument, Natasha gives a lengthy tirade about psychology in Russian and Cap, to everyone’s mild embarrassment, expounds on the inherent goodness of the human spirit so earnestly that it’s almost convincing. Judging by Fury’s face it’s a fair bet he only concedes because he’s teetering on the edge of a migraine, but nonetheless, after a half hour of nonstop verbal haranguing he accepts the consensus that while Phil might not technically be the same man who’s buried in a pleasant, leafy cemetery outside New York, he’s still undeniably Agent Phil Coulson of SHIELD.
‘That was some pretty impressive tag-team bullshit,’ Clint says afterwards, flopping down onto a couch in the break room. He holds up Phil’s drawing board, which has a smiley face and a THANK YOU written on it. ‘This is from me too.’
‘You’re welcome, Agent Coulson,’ Rogers says firmly into empty space. ‘We’re not losing you again.’
‘Yeah, who cares if you’re an evil computer program?’ Stark says, shrugging. ‘Everyone’s got their issues. We don’t discriminate. We’ve got demigods, Capsicles, rage-monsters and ninja assassins on the team. Virtual Coulson fits right in.’
At that moment, Clint maybe doesn’t mind Stark so much. In fact, come to think of it, all of them are just a little bit awesome.
With Clint, the expression ‘climbing the walls,’ is usually taken literally. This time, though, he doesn’t even have the relief of doing that. Phil is stuck in the lab, submitting to test after test. It’s boring and repetitive, Clint’s already quite astonishingly on edge and there are only so many small items and rubber bands he can use as projectiles before everyone gets seriously tired of having him around.
‘Will you fucking stop that?’ Stark snaps, as an eraser rebounds off a light fitting and falls neatly into his empty coffee cup.
‘Go practise someplace else.’
‘Barton,’ Phil says in the utterly emotionless do not fuck with me voice he uses on medical teams that poke too hard at Clint, ‘if you’re not on the range in the next five minutes I’ll be writing a detailed account of the California incident for Stark to upload to the SHIELD intranet.’
‘Come on, Phil, I don’t-’
‘Christ. No more Supernanny for you.’ Clint glares around at the assembled company and swings himself up into the nearest ceiling vent, ignoring Banner’s slightly bemused murmurings about it, and lets the subconscious map he’s developed take over, guiding him to the elevators and downwards.
It feels odd being without Phil's presence looking over his shoulder, though perhaps the really odd thing is how easy he’s found it to be with Phil twenty-four hours a day. If asked for words to describe himself, Clint would put ‘loner’ almost immediately after ‘archer’. He needs his own space, preferably small, high spaces with sight lines on every approach, and he needs time to process, usually, even to process what Phil’s said and done that day. But this has been easy. It’s nice.
On the range he finds he’s not alone. There are a couple of agents getting in their weekly requirement and both of them are shooting really, really badly. They’re using half their attention to stare at Captain America.
To Clint’s eye Rogers is a good shot but could be a better one. He understands the principles but he certainly hasn’t been trained as a sniper, and everything else he knows looks like it was picked up on the fly. Natasha’s taking the opportunity to give him some pointers, one of her hands wrapped around his as it cradles the trigger, her head pressed against his arm to see around his bulk. Clint grins at her and she gives him the barest flicker of an eyebrow in return.
Cap could learn a lot from her. Clint can’t help thinking that he probably wouldn’t survive the experience.
Indoor practise is dull but soothing. It has to be about speed, since the range is too short and the conditions too stable to test his aim. He needs to be fast these days. Avengers work won’t be all sharpshooting. To save himself from dying of boredom he takes it in groups of seven, two arrows at a time to make the points of a hexagon and the last one in the centre. After a little while Rogers wanders over from the handgun area to watch. Clint fires off another two groups to make a round fifty then turns questioningly. ‘You need something, Cap?’
Rogers leans comfortably against the wall, his face full of friendly interest. ‘No. It’s just that I’ve never seen you do that up close.’
‘Impressed?’ Clint asks cautiously. This is the one thing he’s good at, the only thing he has that might buy him a spot on the team. Even Phil has more of a right to be there, having been their rallying point once in death, and now, apparently, again in the afterlife.
Rogers just nods, a little wide-eyed.
Clint feels strangely gratified. ‘Well, I guess I haven’t seen you spar up close either. We should do that some time,’ he says offering a smile.
‘Sure,’ Rogers says, returning the smile with an eagerness that has Clint wanting to buy him a rubber bone, pat him on the head and take him out for a puppy play date with Thor. ‘How about tomorrow?’
‘Let me know when. I’ll watch your form,’ Natasha says, appearing out of the shadows. There’s absolutely nothing lascivious in her tone, but Rogers isn’t stupid and his eyes widen slightly in what looks a little like panic. Clint’s trying desperately to keep his face straight when his communicator beeps.
‘Barton,’ Stark's voice says into his ear, ‘we need you back here.’ Just that. No quips, no jokes.
‘What’s happened?’ Clint says, instantly alert.
‘Something’s wrong.’ Jane comes over the comms tense and unhappy. ‘Phil stopped writing on his board. The scanners aren’t picking him up. Clint, we’re not sure if he’s still here.’
‘I’m on my way,’ Clint says, and is running before he’s even finished the sentence. He tumbles into the lab what feels like an eternity later, Rogers at his heels, and stares around wildly, spins, stares again. Nothing. He scans the bare walls, pipes and wires, machines and benches. No matter how good his eyesight, he’s not going to see what isn’t there.
‘Phil?’ he says. He can hear the tremble in his voice, which is another thing the SHIELD handbook does not approve of, and yet another situation where the SHIELD handbook can go fuck itself. ‘Where are you?’
‘Clint?’ Rogers asks, and he sounds enough like he’s saying agent, report, that it jerks Clint out of his instant of panic.
‘I can’t see him.’ He looks around at their worried faces, seeing concern and a hint of sympathy that he just can’t deal with. ‘Phil?’ he says again.
There’s a chance that Phil’s invisible like he was before, calling Clint’s name and trying to make himself known. Or perhaps he’s nowhere anymore.