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‘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.’

‘Funny, Barton.’

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.’

‘Clint!’

Clint grins.

‘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.’

Chapter Text

Clint gets his donut. He also gets to spend an hour on the range, drawing and releasing smoothly while Phil lounges in the corner, watches and chats. It’s nice. Phil never has time for this normally. Silver linings, Clint tells himself.

All in all the day goes on almost as usual, except for the bits that aren’t. Perching on a jutting corner of coolant pipes in one of the labs Clint throws small objects at Stark’s head and tells Banner, ‘Yes, he’s there. Yes, he’s under your scanner. Still there. No, not glowing.’

‘No electromagnetic radiation,’ Stark says, scowling as stale cookie bounces off the centre of his forehead. ‘You know, Barton, what with your boyfriend’s life being at stake and me being the genius who’s going to save him you’d think you’d be trying harder not to piss me off.’

‘My money’s on Bruce,’ Clint says, sneaking a hand into his pocket for the arsenal of tic-tacs he knows he’s got stashed away somewhere, and then catching Phil’s eye and subsiding again.

‘Behave, Clint.’

‘Sorry sir.’

The others poke their heads in now and again, checking up on progress. Rogers asks intelligent questions and doesn’t actively try to get into a pissing contest with Stark, which Clint appreciates. Natasha comes and leans against Clint’s cluster of pipes, wordlessly passing him up a sandwich. She watches the proceedings keenly for five minutes and then disappears as abruptly and silently as she’d arrived. Fury also observes for a few minutes, looming intimidatingly, presumably as some form of encouragement. And then there’s Thor, who walks up to the scanner and experimentally pokes a finger through the space occupied by Phil’s eye.

Phil, being Phil, doesn’t even blink.

‘Hey!’ Clint snaps, flicking his wrist and lodging two tic-tacs in quick succession in the whorls of Thor’s ear. ‘Quit that!’

Thor steps back with a mildly apologetic look, tilting his head on one side to inspect the space more thoroughly. ‘It is somewhat strange. In Asgard, spirits of the dead can be seen and felt when we summon them to the mortal plane.’ He frowns. ‘I do not know why I cannot feel your shield brother.’

‘Don’t you even try to feel my shield brother.’

Thor’s thoughtful expression deepens. Then he grins. ‘I have it!’ he declaims. ‘We will make a sacrifice to draw his spirit home. Where can we obtain one of your great leviathans, the grasping creatures with the many arms?’

‘Uh… what?’

‘Guys.’ Stark makes an impatient gesture. ‘Some of us are working here. And considering that Asgard physics consists of whatever Thor pulls out of his ass on any given day, how about we leave the mumbo jumbo in fantasyland, huh?’

Honestly, Clint kind of feels like he’s strayed into fantasyland already.

***

Once the readings are complete the rest of the day is a blur of nothing in particular. The two of them catch up on paperwork, some of Clint’s and some of Phil’s that nobody else really knows how to do. Clint gets a little more range time in and some sparring with Natasha. Phil reads up on the outcome of a couple of missions, with Clint turning the pages for him.

And then they go back to Phil’s place, and Clint maybe falls apart a little bit, because this is the time when they should be able to touch each other.

After Clint has burned dinner-for-one spectacularly and paced the length and breadth of the apartment a hundred times or more, talking in starts and unable to settle, Phil finally tells him in no uncertain terms to go to bed. Clint knows he probably should. He hasn’t slept properly in a long time and the day’s been a rollercoaster for all its inactivity. But the thought of turning out the lights terrifies him. There will be no warm arm to reassure him that Phil’s really there. He doesn’t dare to close his eyes.

‘Do ghosts even sleep?’ he asks as he slopes unwillingly into the bathroom.

‘I don’t know about ghosts in general,’ Phil says. ‘I do.’

Oddly enough, that’s first moment when it’s hammered home to Clint that Phil really has been there the whole time. ‘So… where have you been sleeping?’ he asks.

Phil shrugs, looking slightly uncomfortable. ‘With you. Next to you, on top of the covers.’ He catches Clint’s momentary freeze-up, and adds, ‘Do you mind? I can go somewhere else if you like.’

Clint reaches for his toothbrush to hide his confusion, turning on the tap and running his thumb over the bristles. ‘No, that’s okay,’ he says, though in some ways the fact that Phil has been right there beside him every night he’s lain staring up at the ceiling, unable to cry, is the freakiest thing he’s ever heard of.

‘I warn you, it can get a little strange,’ Phil says, looking over Clint’s shoulder to meet his eyes in the mirror, raising one eyebrow as though to say that, Clint’s current minor emotional breakdown aside, he’s aware that there’s a hint of comedy value to the situation. ‘You move around a lot. I sometimes wake up with bits of you poking through me.’

Clint knows there’s a really filthy joke there somewhere, but he doesn’t have the energy to find it.

When he’s curled under the covers, with Phil propped up on one elbow beside him, he still feels restless, jittery and exhausted, like he’s been up for two nights straight running on coffee and adrenaline. ‘Phil, can you just…’ Hold me. Promise me you’re okay. Promise me I won’t lose you again. And no, Phil can’t. Clint swallows a breath that’s close to being out of control.

‘Shh,’ Phil says. ‘It’s been rough, I know.’ He sounds so sympathetic, which seems somehow unfair to him. Yeah, Clint’s the one who’s been grieving, but Phil took a spear-thrust to the lungs, somehow missed the concept of the glowing white light and must have spent the last two weeks wondering if he’d be stuck in limbo, alone and invisible for the rest of eternity.

‘You’re dead,’ Clint says. ‘Aren’t you scared?’

Phil smiles. ‘You must have me confused with someone else. Phil Coulson doesn’t get scared.’ If things were different he’d be carding his fingers soothingly through Clint’s hair right now, but at least there’s still the warmth of that look he wears, the little self-deprecating smile, a practiced facade and yet such a fundamental part of who he is.

‘Phil…’

‘Isn’t that right, agent?’

Clint exhales, letting his head fall back. ‘Yes, sir,’ he murmurs. ‘Phil Coulson is without fear. He is without mercy. He once killed a man with two paperclips and a gummi bear.’ Suddenly he’s smiling back at Phil just a little, and it’s okay to let his eyes fall half closed without feeling like he’s getting lost in the dark. ‘They say that if you make more than three mistakes on a report he’ll tear your heart out with his teeth.’

Phil nods seriously. ‘And afterwards he’ll make you fill in a form so it can be disposed of as biological waste.’

‘He never gets angry. Just disappointed.’

‘And he secretly monitors every SHIELD com link so he can be even more disappointed by what he hears.’

‘Yeah,’ Clint agrees. ‘And there’s a trapdoor under his desk leading to a warehouse of suits. If he ever wears sweatpants the universe will spontaneously explode.’

‘So they say.’

‘And he sleeps folded up in the filing cabinet in his office.’

Phil laughs, low and amused. ‘Really?’

‘Junior agents swear to it,’ Clint says through a yawn that sinks his head more heavily into the pillow. ‘The paperclip thing’s true though, right?’

‘Yeah, that one’s true.’

‘You’re a really disturbing person,’ Clint mumbles. He snuggles down and listens, occasionally throwing in a comment, as Phil talks on, rambling through nonsense and shared jokes and nothing at all. He falls asleep without noticing, caught between one second and the next.

***

The next few days aren’t awful, because Clint has a whole new scale of awful now, and compared to having no Phil at all this is fucking awesome. But at the same time his life kind of sucks a whole lot.

He’s benched, of course, for so many, many reasons. Anyone who lost a friend on the helicarrier still looks at him funny, and he’d be punching walls over that and the guilt and the rest, except that right now he really doesn’t have the time to worry about anything except Phil.

On top of that, the SHIELD rumour mill has exploded to the point that a whole security clearance has had to be made aware that Phil’s still around. People come up to Clint sometimes and say things like, ‘Tell him we miss him,’ or more often, ‘Can you ask him to look over this mission plan?’ or ‘I need his thoughts on my specialist’s psych eval,’ or a million other things. Clint doesn’t care that they’re asking, Phil’s irreplaceable and everyone knows it. But he hates the little twitch that’s started around Phil’s mouth.

Rogers was right. It’s not nice to talk about people like they’re not there. It’s not nice never to be spoken to directly. Phil brushes it off but it’s driving him nuts, and that’s driving Clint pretty nuts too. ‘Tell him yourself,’ Clint’s snapped more than once. It doesn’t work. Apparently most people would rather forget the question than talk to empty air, and that doesn’t make Phil any happier at all.

Rogers and Natasha are good about it though. Rogers might be annoying at times with his painfully artless virtue, but holing up with him, passing on Phil’s starry-eyed questions and watching Rogers direct his answers carefully to the exact point Clint’s talking to, Clint decides he might just be OK.

And when Rogers says, ‘I’ll see you both tomorrow,’ without a hint of sarcasm, and Phil says ‘Goodnight, Captain,’ just like normal… well, Clint kind of loves him a little bit.

But there’s also Stark, who’s not good about anything at all, ever. Unsurprisingly, he’s the one who tips Clint over the edge.

***

It’s exactly one week after Phil first popped up, and just after lunch Clint runs into Stark in the corridor outside the lab. Stark barely notices, head bent over his tablet, somehow magically managing not to walk into walls. Clint has to raise his voice and ask twice how the tests are going before Stark looks up.

‘Yeah, no,’ he says. ‘I’m kind of ready to admit that Thor’s giant squid sacrifice might be your best bet.’

Phil swears briefly under his breath.

‘Nothing?’ Clint says.

‘Nothing. Nada. Zip.’

‘Then what the fuck have you been doing in there all this time?’

‘Chasing ghosts, apparently,’ Stark snaps. ‘There’s nothing there. Look, Barton, buddy, are you sure you’re not having some… what’s the polite word? Episode?’ He wipes his hand over his eyes. ‘I mean, you’re all we have to go on here, and you aren’t exactly in the most emotionally stable space. Thing. Whatever.’

And see, Clint can tell that Stark’s frustrated and tired and wired, probably from skipping every meal and potential minute of sleep in order to keep on running the data from Phil’s scans. He’s doing everything he can, and Clint really shouldn’t hate him. Except that he does.

‘Phil is here.’ he says tightly. ‘He’s right next to me, I proved it already, what more do you want?’

‘Clint,’ Phil says warningly.

Stark shrugs. ‘If you’re delusional it won’t do any good telling you this, but anyone can learn the names of report forms.’

‘I can’t learn command codes.’

‘Yeah, that was more convincing before we knew you were sleeping with him.’

Fortunately, or not, depending on your point of view, Natasha catches Clint’s arm a millisecond before he smashes his fist into Stark’s face.

He’s not sure where she came from or how long she’s been there, but obviously long enough to get the gist of the conversation. And she has company. A large, heavy hand descends onto the back of Stark’ neck and steers him away, Cap’s blond head bent to speak low and fiercely, Stark’s voice piping up defensively in answer.

There’s no breaking free from Natasha’s death grip. After a minute Clint finds himself being led to an empty meeting room, and when the door closes he lets her slide her arms around him with the slight awkwardness that always fades into comfort.

Phil slips in through the wall a few seconds later, his face a taut mask of calm painted over a helpless kind of anger. He watches for a moment, raises a hand to Clint in a gesture of acknowledgement, and then goes back out the way he came.

Clint should go after him. Instead, he looks away and presses his face into Natasha’s shoulder.

It feels so good to be held.

***

Chapter Text

Phil’s office door is locked. Phil, presumably, walked straight through it. Clint goes in through the air ducts.

‘Hey,’ he says, poking his head out of the ceiling, ‘can I come in?’

Phil’s leaning back in his swivel chair. Currently it’s swivelled sideways, which means his outstretched legs are sticking through the wood of the desk. He doesn’t seem to have noticed. ‘You’re already in,’ he says wearily. ‘And I never managed to keep you out before, so why would things change now?’

‘Nope. Not gonna change,’ Clint says. He kind of wants to stay up in the crawlspace, because it’s high and protected and feels more comfortable than being in the room where Phil both is and isn’t, but he drops lightly down onto the carpet anyway and hops up onto the desk, swinging his feet over to Phil’s side. ‘Phil,’ he says carefully, ‘You OK?’

‘I’m fine,’ Phil says. He flashes a tight smile. ‘I just need to find someone who makes Tasers that ghosts can operate. I swear, sometimes Stark makes me turn in my grave.’

Clint swallows. Phil has a grave. There’s a corpse. He saw it.

Phil raises an eyebrow. ‘Too soon?’

Clint scowls. Suddenly he can’t quite meet Phil’s eyes. ‘Always going to be too soon,’ he mutters. ‘Listen, Phil… I’m sorry, back there, with Natasha…. I just…’

‘I know.’ Phil’s smile has an edge of bitterness to it at first, fading fast. ‘I’m not upset,’ he says, and it’s almost convincing. He rubs at his eyes, like he’s really just tired of the whole thing. ‘You needed to be touched. People do, sometimes.’

This thing between them started with touches. Little things, like the way Clint bumped his shoulder against Phil’s after a mission to elicit that exasperated twitch, the way Phil’s lips pressed together and his eyes laughed. Things like Phil’s hands, brisk and capable, cleaning a wound, and Phil staying solid, not pulling back when Clint leaned into him more that was necessary, relaxed against him, closed his eyes and let him work.

‘People need to be touched,’ Clint repeats, hearing the anger and frustration edging his voice. ‘You do.’

Phil glances down. ‘Yeah,’ he admits quietly. ‘I do.’

I can’t be what you need, Clint thinks, and is suddenly furious with himself. The lack of contact shouldn’t be so limiting. Phil’s been the voice in his ear more times than he can count, and that was always enough, it shouldn’t matter. He should be able to make it not matter.

‘Would it help if I said “I’m holding you in my heart”?’ he suggests.

It’s hard to surprise Phil, but his face freezes for a moment before his eyebrows lower in finely tuned disapproval. ‘I don’t know, Barton,’ he says dangerously. ‘Would you like to try it and find out?’

Clint takes one look at his expression and shakes his head. ‘No sir.’

It’s just a stupid joke. But Phil looks like himself again, and that’s enough.

***

Clint knows he can be selfish sometimes. He needs Phil so much more than Phil needs him. Phil isn’t the breakable one. He’s the one that puts up with Clint’s repressed emotional bullshit, he’s the one that coaxes Clint down from high places as though it’s somehow worth the effort.

Clint would die for Phil in a heartbeat. He knows how to do that. This, though, holding Phil together when they’re both falling apart… this is harder. He has to try harder.

***

It’s Jane Foster who makes the breakthrough, the very next day. Afterwards, Phil says ruefully that he should have thought of her before. She’s younger than the two scientifically inclined Avengers, more flexible and used to thinking on the tangents necessary to reconcile traditional physics with what might be thought of as magic. Put simply, this is a woman who, when her boyfriend suggests sacrificing a giant squid, does not laugh.

To Clint’s relief, there isn’t actually a squid involved. As Jane blithely explains, the key is equivalence, and a giant squid in Asgard can be equivalent to a particle accelerator or a particular frequency of light or a chemical catalyst in their own universe. It’s just a question of setting up the proper translation matrix. And then, she tells him from her perch on Thor’s knee, perhaps, they’ll be able to get some kind of read on what Phil actually is.

Thor smiles and calls her beauteous.

Clint looks uncertainly around the room at the stuff she’s set up. ‘Will it hurt him?’ he says, because the things look like fucking ray guns, and that’s not okay with him.

‘No,’ Banner says, at the same time as Jane says, ‘Maybe.’

Clint glares at them both.

‘I’ll be fine, Clint.’ Phil positions himself under the faintly glowing barbs of the futuristic torture chamber. ‘Wish me luck,’ he says, with a wry twist of his mouth, bracing himself as Jane hits a button.

Whatever happens, it’s instantaneous. There’s sharp blue crackle, blurring round the edges of Phil’s form, brief but very bright, banishing the shadows from the corners of the room and setting everyone blinking away the spots on their vision as Phil glances around, apparently unscathed.

‘Holy cow!’ Rogers says, ‘that was him, wasn’t it? Just for a second, in that glow. I swear, I could almost see his face.’ He grins so wide it’s almost a laugh of delight. ‘Really good to see you again, sir. We’ll have you back in no time at all.’

Jane looks up from her monitors with an answering smile. ‘We’ve got it!’ she declares. ‘We have a reading.’

‘A signal,’ Banner says, peering over her shoulder at the flashing display. ‘There’s some kind of transmission. God, we’re making progress. We can analyse that. We can trace it.’ He pauses, frowning. ‘But that energy signature, that’s…’

‘Tesseract energy,’ Jane says. ‘Of course it is. What did you expect?’

***

As they make their way back into the lab complex after another sparring session, a late lunch and a truly bizarre relayed meeting with two of Phil’s underlings about canteen food and morale, of all things, Clint catches sight of a small dark figure hovering in one of the doorways and nearly turns on his heel and walks away.

‘Hey,’ Stark calls, ‘Barton!’

‘Fuck off,’ Clint says. Stark had been wisely absent from the scans, but even by the afternoon the desire to punch him in the face has not receded at all.

‘Aw, don’t be like that. Clint. Clint, baby, you like me really.’ Stark smiles winningly. ‘Come into my lab, I made you a thing. Well, not for you, for Coulson. It’s a world’s first, he’s going to love it.’

Clint pauses, wavering. ‘You made something for Phil?’ he asks, intrigued in spite of himself. After all, what could someone make for Phil? Clint tends to go with a bacon sandwich and a cup of coffee when it’s been a rough day, but right now that’s not much use, and neither is anything else he can think of.

‘Yeah. I got the idea from the beauteous Jane’s sensor thing,’ Stark says, guiding Clint inexorably into the lab, ‘which, by the way, shouldn’t work at all, but you know how it is. Paradigms. Bastards, the lot of them. Anyway, the sensor senses Coulson and it makes stuff glow blue, so.’ He gestures to an object on the bench, which looks a bit like an animator’s light box, except that above the glass screen is a shimmer of nothingness and faint, swirling colours hitting the dust in the air.

‘So?’ Clint says flatly.

‘So tell him to…’ Stark stops, exasperated. ‘Sorry, sorry, I know, I’ll tell him myself. OK, Coulson, if you’re spooking around the place somewhere come poke a piece of your ectoplasm at the screen.’

‘Why?’ Clint demands. Stark ignores him, watching the screen impatiently, making vague beckoning motions.

Raising an eyebrow, Phil steps around and positions himself in front of the box. He pauses, one hand tentatively extended, and glances at Clint. ‘I’m going to touch something just because Tony Stark told me too. I think this is the most worrying thing that’s happened so far.’

‘It’s a really bad idea.’

Phil shrugs and reaches out to touch the shimmering glass. Where his finger makes contact the screen makes a tiny noise and a pale blue radiance, an echo of the blinding flash from Jane’s scanner. He snatches his hand back, staring at the small speck of light left behind.

‘Hey,’ Stark says. He hunkers down to peer at it, his mouth softening into a smile. ‘Look at that. Hi there.’

Clint can’t take his eyes of it either. It’s Phil mark, Phil’s thumbprint on the physical world, real and incontrovertible, and it’s awesome. He can feel himself grinning like an idiot as he watches Phil touch the board again, making a couple more specks, then an experimental scribble. They hang there suspended above the glass for maybe half a minute, fading slowly into a blue haze before vanishing altogether.

‘Hah,’ Stark says smugly. ‘Whaddaya think, Coulson?’

Phil shoots a glance at Clint. Then he draws a neat circle in the centre of the board, makes two dots for eyes and adds a flat, humourless mouth.

Stark looks crestfallen. ‘A frowny face? I give you a means of communication and I get a frowny face?’

Phil pointedly draws in angry eyebrows.

‘Good likeness. Ever considered a career as a portrait artist?’ Stark rolls his eyes, spreading his hands conciliatingly. ‘Sheesh. Fine, you’re pissed, I get it. Look, I’m sorry I thought you didn’t exist. And you, Barton, I sincerely apologise for implying that you were delusional, though the next time I run into a guy who sees ghosts I’m probably going to make the same call, just saying. Now will you stop–’ he gestures to the board ‘-stop looking at me like I cancelled Supernanny.’

***

Natasha turns up shortly after that, obviously suspicious at the fact that Clint and Tony are speaking in a civilised manner. Her eyes flick between them, judging the likelihood that she’ll need to put one of them in a headlock in the near future.

‘Look, Nat,’ Clint says, letting his grin break through again to reassure her. He gestures towards the board, where Phil is scrawling in rough capitals, HELLO NATASHA. Clint barely catches her tiny indrawn breath.

‘Hello, sir,’ she says, her mouth softening in exactly the way Stark’s had. ‘Well, I guess Stark’s not a total waste of space after all.’

‘Hey!’

PLAY NICELY, CHILDREN, Phil writes. DON’T MAKE ME HAUNT YOU.

Natasha laughs aloud. Behind her back, Stark’s eyes widen. He glances over at Clint and mouths, ‘I didn’t think she could do that.’ Clint flips him off automatically, refusing to admit that he’s surprised too. Natasha’s laughs are usually reserved for when he hurts himself in a really embarrassing fashion.

Natasha calls Steve down to see, because for some unknown reason she seems to be quite fond of him. Steve calls Bruce. Bruce calls Jane. Jane calls Thor. Phil writes a whole lot of hellos.

Thor beams when he sees Tony’s creation. ‘A writing board!’ he declares, poking at it, making slightly greenish marks on its surface. ‘We have boards such as this for children to learn their runes. And once we are grown in wisdom we use them also for a game, an ancient pastime of the forefathers of the gods, where one must present a word using only images created out of lines of light, formed with the finger.’

There’s a brief pause while everyone tries to parse this sentence.

‘Pictionary,’ Phil says, smirking slightly.

Clint feels his brain seize up for a second, then decides not to bother being surprised. Ghosts, superheroes, alien demigods who play party games, why the hell not? ‘We call it Pictionary,’ he says, for the benefit of the others, and grins at their little ohs of understanding.

‘You know of this game?’

‘Everyone knows it.’

‘Excellent!’ Thor slaps Clint on the back, almost knocking the wind out of him. ‘We will play!’

***

Phil justifies it as a team bonding exercise. His board is covered with fading scribbles.

‘What is that?’ Rogers asks. ‘A martini glass?’

Thor nods thoughtfully. ‘And I believe that is the creature you call an elephant.’

‘A bomb. That’s thing’s gotta be a bomb. And is that…? Jesus, Coulson, you can’t draw that in front of Captain America. Avert your delicate eyes, Captain. OK, alcohol, elephant, bomb, acts we won’t mention. What the hell?’

Clint grins and catches Natasha’s eye. ‘Budapest,’ they say in unison.

***

Chapter Text

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.’

‘Bullshit.’

‘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.’

LEAD ON.

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.’

‘What does?’

‘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.

‘I’m practising.’

‘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-’

‘Out.’

‘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.

Chapter Text

Never has a room full of people felt more empty.

Jane’s eyes are searching instinctively, the way Clint always finds himself looking for Stark’s creepy computerised butler even though he knows there’s nothing to see. She looks shocked. Unused to death, perhaps. The rest of them have all seen too much of it.

Clint steps back, wrapping his arms around himself. If he lets go his heart is going to thump its way out of his chest. ‘What happened?’ he asks. ‘What did you do?’

She shakes her head helplessly, her eyes still alternating between scrutinising the screen and her fruitless search for Phil. ‘We didn’t do anything. The last thing was another scan on the energy signature. He was talking to us after that, but he just… he just stopped. Clint, I’m so sorry.’

They didn’t notice him go, Clint thinks with a totally unwarranted wave of fury. They didn’t notice. He might have just died right there in front of them, and Clint was on the archery range making nice with Captain fucking America.

From where the scientists are clustered Bruce makes a small noise of dismay. ‘We do know what’s happening,’ he says, too quietly, so that stillness falls across the room. ‘Look at these readings. The spear’s powering down.’

Stark’s head whips around instantly. ‘Fuck. Fuck, not yet. I thought we had more time.’

‘Me too.’

Clint stares at them. ‘You knew this would happen?’

‘I’m sorry,’ Jane says again, like it’s her fault, which, no. Clint’s blaming this on all three of them and the universe and most of all himself.

‘Sorry for what?’ he demands.

‘We should have said something before but we didn’t expect it to be an issue. You see, the spear draws power from the tesseract, and now that’s back in Asgard…’

‘So plug it in to the goddamn wall,’ Clint snarls, unable to bear the mixture of sorrow and pity on their faces.

‘Even if we could manage the conversion…’ Banner says, then seems to realise that a technical explanation isn’t really called for. ‘There’s not enough power. But it’s not totally dead yet.’ Clint flinches at the word. ‘I suppose you could say it’s in power-saving mode. We might be able to get him back.’

Rogers settles a firm hand on Clint’s shoulder. ‘They’ll figure it out,’ he says. ‘Let them work.’

***

The three of them work. They babble things that Clint’s too stupid, too fucking stupid to understand and can no more help with than he can fly. After the third hour he can’t take it anymore and takes refuge in the crawlspaces. He makes a quick trip to his favourite corner where he keeps his illicit weapons cache and one of Phil’s sweaters to use as a pillow, then settles in a spot just above the lab where he can still see what’s going on through the ceiling vent. The sweater has lost its hint of Phil’s scent so there’s no point in pressing it to his face. He shrugs it on over his SHIELD jumpsuit instead, and lays his head on his knees.

He’s good at waiting. He’s also good at the moment the waiting ends, where things suddenly and emphatically start to happen.

In this case, three things happen at once. The spear gives out a blue flash, Jane says, ‘Wait, I think…’ and Phil Coulson reappears in the room.

The fourth thing that happens, roughly a millisecond later, is Clint yanking up the nearest ceiling tile and dropping through, making Stark yelp in gratifyingly undignified surprise. There isn’t time to be amused about it, though. Phil can barely stay on his feet. He’s flickering in and out of visibility, in and out of existence. Random points of light decorate his writing board as he fumbles at it with hands that are blurred one minute and gone the next.

‘Phil. Phil, look at me.’

Phil turns. ‘Clint,’ he says, or at least his mouth shapes the word before he fades out again. He reappears a second or so later, hazily, crouched on the floor, hunched up as though he’s in pain. ‘Clint…?’

‘Right here, sir,’ Clint says, dropping to his knees. His hand hovers over Phil’s semi-transparent back. ‘It’s OK,’ he says, looking round at the others and silently ordering them not to make him a liar. ‘They’re going to fix you. Just hang in there.’

From the panicked looks on their faces they’re not entirely sure they can.

‘Get a fucking move on!’ Clint snaps, and instantly everyone’s in motion, thumping switches and tugging at the wires and power cells from three-dozen dismantled blue guns.

‘Clint,’ Phil says again, like he’s slipping. Like he’s close to panic, and Phil doesn’t do that. Not ever.

‘Steady, sir,’ Clint says, drawing on all of the times he’s been on the other side of this, when he’s been the one bleeding, slipping, and Phil the voice in his ear. ‘Stay with me. Talk to me, Phil. Tell me how to water your fucking plants.’

‘You think I don’t know… what you’re doing?’ Phil manages, almost laughing.

‘Learned from the best. Come on. The furry blob ones…?’

Don’t water my cactuses,’ Phil says automatically. ‘They’ll rot.’ He still sounds blurred, crackling with static, but there is something steadier in his form, fewer flickers, and there’s some strange sense that he’s standing somewhere solid again, on rock, not scree.

The minutes pass with painful slowness. Clint knows how to water the houseplants well enough that he can mouth the instructions along with Phil, and by the time they get to the daylily that’s exactly what he’s doing, so intensely focused that he barely hears the commotion behind them.

‘Emergency power online.’

‘No, no, not that frequency! Fuck, does nobody do the reading?’

‘Get it in balance! It’s not holding,’ Banner snaps, as Jane dashes the other side of the lab, jerking the machines into position around the spear.

Clint glances up at that. Stark’s at the controls now. His hands move on the holographic display almost too fast to see. ‘Now,’ he calls, and snarls when Banner hesitates. ‘Come on, come on, you’re killing me here. Trust me, it’s right, will you hit the goddamn button?’

There’s a moment of aching anticipation.

‘Stabilising,’ Jane says. ‘Nice work.’

In front of Clint, Phil’s form twitches and settles, filling up with solid colour like a glass filling up with liquid. He makes a small noise and raises his head.

‘Are we good?’ Clint demands over his shoulder in a voice that doesn’t shake at all.

Jane nods. ‘We’re good. For now.’

It seems like everyone exhales at once in a shared sigh of relief. Jane looks like she needs to go and find something big, blond and godly to hug, Banner has some serious meditation requirements and Stark… well, whatever. Who knows what the fuck is going on in his head. There’s only one important person in the room anyway, slowly straightening up and adjusting the set of his suit.

‘That,’ Phil says weakly, ‘was not pleasant.’

Clint chokes on what might be a laugh and might be a sob. He’s not sure. ‘We’ve had better days,’ he admits.

***

Once again the Avengers are assembled for a common purpose. It’s not going quite so well this time.

‘How about we ask the big beard in the sky really nicely if he’ll give us the tesseract back?’ Stark suggests.

Thor gives him a look that can be translated in any universe as, Yeah, no.

‘Storm into Asgard and get it?’

‘The tesseract is the best-guarded item in our realm,’ Thor states bluntly. ‘It is locked behind spells none but Odin can undo. For myself I would give it gladly, but my father is…’

‘An asshole.’

‘A wiser king than I could be,’ Thor says dangerously. It’s obviously a touchy subject. Even Clint, who has as much experience of functional family relationships as the average mollusc, can see that Odin and his brood have more issues than most.

‘Still an asshole,’ Stark says.

The air around Thor darkens and crackles. He looms as only a giant blond demigod can loom. ‘Do not speak of the lord Odin with such disrespect. All know that your Father was an asshole. And your mother lay with boys in pools,’ he adds vindictively.

‘You really wanna go down that route, blondie? Because if I’ve read my myths right, your mom lay with-’

Shut up!’ Rogers snaps. ‘What’s the matter with you people?’

Insulting people’s mothers ought to be the low point of any discussion, but it seems the Avengers have the added superpower of monumental pissiness. Jane and Banner disagree over some technical shit, Stark and Thor are constantly grating on each other’s nerves and Rogers seems to be shouting at everyone on general principle.

‘My death was supposed to bring them together,’ Phil says gloomily. He’s perched on the pipes, legs swinging, having ordered Clint up there to reduce the number of people yelling. Possibly not the wisest of moves, because Clint now has the ideal vantage point in the room and a mini crossbow tucked down his pants.

Luckily before he can reach for it Natasha scuttles up the wall to join them. He automatically relaxes a fraction. While she might be as intrinsically emotionally unstable as the rest of the group, she’s the one he trusts. Natasha’s his buddy. As an added bonus, she can look up through tear-dewed lashes and smile into the eyes of the man she’s about to disembowel. Clint occasionally needs someone who can disembowel people a little bit, and it’s nice to have a go-to girl.

‘Hi,’ she says, poking him in the side. ‘Listen, relax. I’m beginning to get that this is just how these morons roll. They’ll probably work something out in the end.’

Clint and Phil exchange glances. The problem is, in the end might not be soon enough.

He tunes back into the conversation after a few minutes. This time it’s actually related to the problem at hand, but everyone’s still at each other’s throats about how to keep Phil and the spear up and running.

‘We don’t even know how it works,’ Stark’s complaining. ‘How can we power something when we don’t know what’s going on inside it? If I could just take it apart a little bit…’

‘No,’ snap Banner, Jane and Rogers in unison. Stark pouts.

‘It’s not even that we don’t know how it works,’ Banner says. ‘We don’t know what it does.’ He frowns over the hastily created schematics once more and apparently finds something confusing, which at least is better than Clint, who’s finding everything confusing. ‘The memory circuits where I think Phil’s pattern is stored have the potential for monumental power throughput. They could project more than you need to blast down a city block, let alone make the image of Phil. But I can’t see what all that energy could be used for. The circuits couldn’t keep up the flow for more than a second. What’s the point?’

‘Such a second as it would take to recreate a man,’ Thor says thoughtfully.

‘What?’ Banner shakes his head, sighing. ‘No, it would be nice, but you can’t just press a button and have a fully formed man pop into existence.’ He shoots an apologetic look at Clint, awkwardly ducking his head. ‘To be honest, once we worked out where Phil was coming from I pretty much discounted the possibility of restoring him as he was. The best we can hope for here is to buy ourselves time while we figure out something else.’

Clint feels his mouth drop open, because it would be have been nice if someone had mentioned that earlier. But he doesn’t have time to say anything before the argument starts up again with a vengeance.

‘You mean you just quit?’ Jane demands.

‘Nobody likes a quitter, Bruce.’

‘I’m being realistic.’

Thor’s brows draw together dangerously. ‘That is not so. It is a coward’s way to give up so easily. Many things can be destroyed or created by magic. Why should not the spear recreate our friend’s physical body?’

‘Because it can’t. It’s physically impossible.’

‘Such things are indeed possible,’ Thor booms, looking offended at the obvious condescension in Banner’s voice. ‘I have seen it done many times by Loki and others of our realm. I believe it can be done.’

‘I believe you’re wrong,’ Banner snaps impatiently. Half the people in the room surreptitiously inspect him for traces of green.

‘If he says it can be done, it can,’ Jane says, coming to Thor’s defence.

‘But it can’t.’ Bruce spreads his hands, shooting Stark a tiny glance that says help me out here. ‘Are you saying it’s supposed to bring matter into being? Or are we planning on reanimating Phil’s corpse?’

Which, just no.

‘It can,’ Thor asserts.

How?

Stark pokes Banner gently in the side. ‘What did I say about Asgard science?’

‘It’s whatever Thor pulls out of his ass on any given day,’ Banner recites, with the weary air of one who’s heard that particular sentence at least once an hour for a week or more. ‘Yes, fine. I still say it isn’t possible.’

‘And I say shut up,’ Jane says fiercely. ‘Be helpful or be quiet.’

Banner glares. ‘It’s a moot point anyway. Even if it only takes a second, to try it at all we’d need a completely modulatable energy source with the power to replace the tesseract. That’s an insane amount of perfectly regulated energy, there isn’t anything on the planet that could…’ his voice stutters to a stop in the face of Stark’s grin, which starts small but ends up absolutely blinding. ‘Oh, son of a bitch.’

‘What? What does that mean?’ By this point Rogers has stopped glaring and is just looking flummoxed. He seems honestly shocked that despite having faced the combined forced of Hitler and Hydra he can’t quite cope with three scientists and a god bickering for twenty minutes.

‘Field trip,’ Stark says radiating smugness like a small, self-satisfied supernova. ‘All aboard, kids, we’re going to Stark Tower.’

Chapter Text

The letters that light up the skyline may once have spelled Stark’s name, but after watching from the sidelines for a few minutes Clint is fairly convinced that Stark Industries’ flagship self-sustaining building belongs entirely to its ferociously competent CEO. Pepper Potts is somewhat unnerving, despite Phil’s assertion that she’s a wonderful woman with the patience of a saint. Clint is especially wary of the way he can practically see her competence hanging in the air in front of her, currently in the form of flow charts of possible responses to everything Stark is saying and doing. All of the paths, incidentally, lead to obedience.

He shuffles unobtrusively into her line of sight, trying to get her attention while fervently wishing to slip into stealth mode and sneak off to somewhere else entirely. ‘Phil says thanks, and he’s sorry if we have to mess up your clean energy thing,’ he says. He holds up the board on which Phil has written a heartfelt, underlined SORRY, and next to it… Jesus, if they get through this he’s going to be having a talk with Phil about the correct use of smiley faces. As in, Phil should not use smiley faces. Ever.

As it turns out Pepper has some kind of split personality thing going on, because her stern face breaks into a smile that’s as blinding as Stark’s, though much kinder. ‘Phil, you’re far more important than an arc reactor.’

‘You’re kidding me, right?’ Stark interrupts, bustling up. ‘Don’t be sorry, Casper, I’ve always wanted to try this.’

Pepper sighs. ‘Tony, this is a chance to save Phil’s life. It’s one of the few things in the world that isn’t about you.’

Stark grins at her, steals a kiss and floats off in the vague direction of power relays.

***

‘I admit,’ Banner says finally, when the room is a criss-cross of two-inch-thick cables and JARVIS’s simulations have crunched numbers and come to the conclusion that he hasn’t the faintest idea what’s going to happen when they do this, but whatever it is it won’t exactly be occurring in their current universe, ‘I may possibly have been wrong. Emphasis on the possibly.’

‘Of course you were wrong,’ Stark says. ‘You’re not me. Theoretically, we’re all set. All we have to do is turn on our 1.21 gigawatts.’

Thor looks puzzled.

‘It’s like making a metric fuckton of lightning,’ Stark explains, without breaking stride.

‘What is a metric fuckton?’

‘Let’s just say it’s enough that this will be really, really fun.’

Thor nods seriously. ‘I approve of this plan.’

‘I really don’t approve of this plan,’ Rogers says, wide eyed. ‘Can we please think of another plan?’

He looks hopefully around the assembled company. Nobody responds aside from Banner, who shrugs. ‘I think it’s insane, but nobody’s listening to me, we’re running out of time and I don’t exactly have any other plan.’

Stark’s grin snaps on. ‘Bruce, baby, I knew there was a reason why you’re my favourite.’

‘So, how does it work?’ Clint asks, eyeing the cobbled-together equipment. Then, as three eager faces turn on him, he adds hastily, ‘Jesus no, not actually how it works. What do we do? Just press a button?’

‘We generate a field here,’ Jane points to more of the death ray thingies, ‘and then all we need is for the spear to make physical contact with the energy barrier.’

‘Someone stabs it in there,’ Stark translates.

‘Also,’ Natasha says, pinning them with a threatening eye, ‘you said theoretically you were set. Explain what that means.’

Stark shrugs. ‘It means maybe,’ he says, his eyes going serious. ‘It means we can try, that’s all. Best case scenario, one brand new Agent Coulson. Worst case, no Agent Coulson at all.’ He pauses awkwardly. Thankfully, it’s Jane who takes over and actually says it. Stark might have thrown in a palliative joke or a jumble of distracting words. She just gives Clint a business-like look.

‘Clint, Phil, we only get one shot. The spear’s not going to survive this.’

It’s difficult to process a moment where hope is suddenly swamped by mind-numbing terror. There’s an automatic reaction, shared by couples in doctors’ offices all over the world: reach for a hand to hold. If Clint could he would have taken Phil’s hand right there in front of everyone. Instead, they just look at one another.

‘All or nothing,’ Phil says quietly.

‘We can try to think again,’ Jane says. ‘I don’t honestly think we can come up with anything else before… well, we don’t exactly know when the power will fail. But do you really want to do this?’

Phil gestures to Clint to hold up the board. YES, he writes.

Clint tries to shrug but his shoulders are too tense, his whole body stiffening with an awful chill. ‘What he said,’ he manages, forcing the words out unwillingly. Every inch of him wants to beg, not yet, but it’s Phil’s life. Phil’s decision.

‘OK,’ Stark says. ‘JARVIS, give me the current reactor energy levels.’

‘Reactor output currently at twenty-nine per cent,’ the disembodied voice says. It seems to hold a hint of apprehension. ‘Sir, I would like to state for the record that I do not advise this course of action.’

‘Duly noted.’ Stark smiles a slightly manic smile. ‘Ignore him, guys, he’s just sulking because I haven’t let him take over SHIELD Central’s mainframe yet. I dunno, I give him one little helicarrier and suddenly he thinks he’s Skynet.’

‘Skynet’s plan was poorly conceived and inherently flawed,’ JARVIS says coldly.

‘You’d do a better job of taking over the world?’

‘You built me to be a problem-solver, sir.’

‘OK, moving on,’ Banner says hastily. ‘Clint, we really are all set. All we have to do is generate the field, and that will take less than a minute. Would you and Phil like a moment alone before we do this?’

Clint has never been the type to say what he’s feeling, and right now he wouldn’t know where to start. The emotions are so much more urgent and painful than he could begin to describe. Besides, aside from the unthinkable ‘goodbye,’ there’s nothing he needs to say. That’s the way it is with Phil.

‘You already know,’ Phil says, echoing the thought. His eyes meet Clint’s, and they hold everything that’s ever been between them, from the tentative, disbelieving beginning to this moment. It’s like a gift.

Perhaps Clint’s own eyes show as much. He hopes so. ‘Yes sir,’ he says, and takes a few seconds more, just looking, before he turns to the others. ‘We’re good.’

Around the room, three pairs of eyes check three sets of readings. There’s the soft click of a single button being pushed. As the hum of electricity deepens Cap steps forwards, gently blue-tinted in the growing glow. As ever, he directs his words to Phil so naturally you could swear their eyes had really met. ‘You and me, we’re gonna have a lot in common after this. I got in a machine and let Stark push a button and look where it got me. We’ll have to compare notes.’

SURE THING, CAP, Phil writes, going pink with pleasure despite everything.

Seriously, Clint fucking loves that guy sometimes.

Natasha wraps her arms briefly around Clint. ‘Good luck,’ she murmurs, and lets him take a second to cling to her as he mumbles his thanks.

Pepper is pink eyed and silent, hand clenching Stark’s forearm as he makes the final adjustments to the energy field. ‘Ready,’ he says. Banner nods, lips pressed together. Wordlessly, he holds out the spear to Clint.

‘Right now?’ Clint says. Suddenly he’s overwhelmed with terror. He needs more time, but nothing will be enough. Nothing but a lifetime.

‘Yes.’ Phil holds up one hand, staring at it, and Clint could swear he sees it flicker. ‘We don’t know how long the power will hold. It needs to be now.’

‘Phil…’

‘That’s an order, Barton.’ He smiles. Kind, unassuming Phil, smiling simply because Clint needs him to. ‘And one more order,’ he says. ‘Just one more: If it doesn’t work… try to find a way to be happy.’

Clint draws in a steadying breath. He wants to say that he can’t, he’d hate himself if he were ever happy again, but if this is to be the last thing Phil ever asks of him then there’s only one answer he can give. He tightens his hands around the spear, unable to look away from Phil’s face. ‘I’ll do my best, sir,’ he says. Somehow the words come out as they should, firm and genuine. A promise.

‘Hawkeye,’ Phil says quietly, ‘take the shot.’

***

It’s Stark’s plan. Nobody is at all surprised that there’s just a teeny bit of an explosion.

***

Amid the smoke and dust and chaos, Clint knows.

It’s amazing how easily you can recognise a person if you know them well. You can pinpoint them by their silhouette, the tiny idiosyncrasies of their stride, the sound of a footstep. A breath. A cough.

In spite of the obscuring clouds and the noise of half a dozen people gasping and choking around him, Clint knows, without even having to think, that Phil is there. He can’t call out since he’s too busy coughing himself, but he can surge forwards to meet the indistinct figure staggering towards him. He can reach for Phil, clasp his hand, their fingers tangling as they drag one another out into the clear air and calm of the corridor. And then, at last, he can fist his hands in Phil’s shirt and cling on tight as they collapse together, sliding down the wall into a mess of limbs and kisses and desperate, breathless relief.

Around them the others are scrambling out too, dust-smeared and dishevelled. ‘The son of Coul!’ Thor bellows delightedly, swinging Jane into his arms as Stark and Banner do a victorious fist-bump. Clint barely notices. He’s too busy cupping Phil’s face, running his thumbs over his cheeks and chin, feeling the slight roughness of shaven skin, then burying his head in a wonderfully familiar grey-clad shoulder while Phil holds on to him like a lifeline.

‘Oh god, Phil, you fucking asshole, don’t you ever… don’t you ever.’

‘It’s OK,’ Phil whispers. ‘Clint, it’s OK.’

‘Phil,’ Clint says into Phil’s shoulder. ‘Sir,’ and it means I know you. I trust you. It’s the closest he ever comes to a declaration.

It would be a perfect moment, save for the babble of voices in the background.

‘Oh, thank goodness!’

‘Truly, it is a joyous reunion.’

‘Fellas, don’t you think we should give them some privacy?’

‘But I need to run more scans…’

‘I’m with Jane, let’s scrutinise the fuck out of this phenomenon. You don’t see Coulson in a lip-lock every day.’

‘Stark, step away or say goodbye to your kidneys,’ Natasha says dangerously, which means things are about an inch away from getting physical.

If Clint had a say he’d ignore them all for now, let them fight it out and drag them to the infirmary later, but Phil, as the team’s de facto authority figure, seems to feel he should retain some professional credibility. ‘Thank you. All of you,’ he says, cutting through the tension, sounding just as though he were sitting staidly behind his desk rather than on the floor with Clint wrapped round him like an octopus. It seems he realises the incongruity and moves to get to his feet, gently dislodging Clint’s grip. ‘Up, Agent Barton. Let’s see some work-appropriate behaviour.’ He offers Clint a hand, then wraps a work-inappropriate arm around his waist and presses an equally work-inappropriate kiss against the corner of his jaw.

‘Oh, Phil,’ Pepper says, teary eyed, ‘I’m so happy it worked, I thought...’

‘I was a little worried myself,’ Phil admits, as Natasha sweeps up to him with quiet dignity, kisses him once on the cheek and melts away with the general air that, if asked later, she’ll deny it ever happened. Clint’s snuggled too close to see, but he can imagine the slightly rueful look on Phil’s face. A little worried. Right.

‘And this is your cellist? You could have told me.’ Pepper tries to muster an admonitory frown, but every attempt gets engulfed by her smile.

Then the team descends, Rogers’s grin toothpaste-commercial bright as he pumps Phil’s hand, Banner shyly following suit and Jane managing to keep Thor from inflicting actual physical damage. Clint steps slightly away from the rabble, unwillingly releasing Phil to enjoy his welcome, and finds himself side-by-side with Stark, who’s hanging back from the rest, his head tilted curiously as though he’s determined to solve some kind of puzzle. Clint shoots him a questioning look.

‘Yeah, I don’t see it,’ Stark says. ‘Or, okay, I see it and I still don’t believe it. Seriously, Barton, you and Coulson? There’s some kind of fetish here, am I right?’

‘Fuck you,’ Clint says, but he’s grinning, and Stark grins back, like that’s all he wanted in the first place.

***

There’s medical. There’s test after test, and there will be more in the coming days, psych exams, brain scans, everything necessary for SHIELD to convince itself that the man in the suit, the middle-aged man with thinning hair and the world’s most beautiful eyes, is really Agent Philip Coulson. Clint’s never doubted it. He knows Phil through and through.

They don’t touch so much, really, in those first few hours. The bump of a shoulder here and there, the brush of a fingertip down the back of a hand. Clint has to sit outside for many of the interviews. He doesn’t care. Doesn’t care about any of it. This is work time, unreal time. Later, he knows, he’ll be lying in Phil’s arms, pressed close together, and they’ll fuck and they’ll cry, and he’ll squeeze his eyes closed and tune out every sound and just feel Phil there. Later there will be everything else, all the other little things that he has missed so desperately. Phil cooking dinner, shoving a spoon in Clint’s mouth and ordering, ‘Taste’. Phil snagging a discarded t-shirt off the floor and tossing it into the laundry hamper with a little huff of disapproval. Clint lying with his head in Phil’s lap, Phil’s fingers tangled absently in his hair while unruly children or catwalk models parade across the TV screen.

He can wait. He’s good at waiting.

It’s full dark by the time Phil steps out of the last interview, looking tired and rumpled and gloriously real. Clint rolls to his feet, grinning, still riding the wave of happiness. ‘So,’ he says, ‘I guess you could use a donut.’

Phil nods, his mouth twitching up at one corner. ‘I could,’ he says, and Clint gathers him in and kisses his neck as he talks, feeling the vibration of the words. ‘It’s the third thing on my list.’

‘After what?’

‘A clean suit would be nice.’

‘Sure.’ Clint brushes at the breast of Phil’s jacket, setting loose a tiny cloud of dust. ‘Can’t have the junior agents catch you looking like this. What else?’

‘First thing?’ Phil’s thumb strokes gently across Clint’s lower lip. ‘We’re going home. I’ve got some important business there.’

‘You do?’

‘Very important,’ Phil says seriously. ‘I need to check on my houseplants.’ He muffles Clint’s choke of laughter with a kiss, firm enough to leave their lips reddened when they pull apart. ‘Are you ready, agent?’

Clint relaxes, his hand cupping the back of Phil’s neck, their foreheads pressed together. ‘Sir,’ he says, feeling the world fall perfectly into place around him, ‘yes sir.’