The first time it happened Clint was so startled that he couldn't move. Which wasn't ideal, given the situation.
In his defense, Clint was so new to undercover work at the time that he wasn't even supposed to be doing undercover work. What he was supposed to be doing was providing long-range support while Agent Coulson did undercover work. Only, Coulson's meet-up with a shady minor politician had gone south faster than the quinjet that had taken them to Buenos Aires in the first place. Clint had spotted the hostiles converging on Coulson's position within minutes of the meet, and after some quick calculations had decided there was no way he could cover Coulson's position from up high long enough to get him free.
So he'd jumped off his roof, collapsed his bow into its anonymous-looking carrying case, thrown off his tac vest, and hauled ass out of the alley. He had managed to intercept Coulson and his two-faced, lying, traitorous new friend as they walked down a wide street towards the docks. Some dim sense of preservation-- of self, of Coulson's cover identity as a genial Argentine exporter of livestock, of possible innocent bystanders-- had led him to greet Coulson with a hearty "Pablo!" and a too-bright smile.
That was when it had happened: without so much as breaking stride, Coulson had smiled, wide and delighted, and responded "Steven!"
And then he had grabbed Clint by the shoulders, pulled him close, and kissed him lightly on both cheeks, and the world had stopped turning.
"I had not expected you," Coulson said, just as light and easy as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. "What are you doing here, my friend?"
Clint was too startled to take the cue. A kind of tingling, like lightning striking, had lit up his entire body when Coulson's lips had met his cheek.
(Coulson's firm, wet lips.
Coulson's firm, wet lips, attached to Coulson's smooth, lotioned face.
Coulson's firm, wet lips and Coulson's smooth, lotioned face, and Coulson's unexpectedly floral cologne in his nose, and Coulson's broad, hot hands gripping his shoulders
-- and Coulson's thick chest hair, curling at the point of his open collar, just at the edge of Clint's sight.)
"Steven?" Coulson asked again, hands firming on Clint's shoulders now. "What's wrong?"
His accent, Clint noticed dimly, was atrocious, like he'd learned to speak his English by watching Zorro. It had to be deliberate.
"The... ah... the warehouse," Clint managed, not so much unfreezing as responding instinctively to the demand implicit in Coulson's mild voice. "The, er, the llamas."
"Yes, yes, the llamas," Coulson prompted, his hands still on Clint's shoulders, thumbs beginning to move in minute little strokes-- like Coulson was trying to help ease the words up out of Clint. "What of them?"
"You need to see them before they go," Clint said, "I think they are, um, coming down with something."
"Bah," said Coulson's contact, in better English than Coulson had, "I am sure they are fine, Pablo. You know llamas-- they are always malingering. A few hours will make no difference."
"They're sick ," Clint repeated, looking directly at Coulson and trying to convey Fifteen men, big guns, leave now , with his eyes alone.
"How?" demanded the contact, "Red noses? Weeping eyes? Drool? You are aware that llamas are great expectorators, yes?"
Clint wanted to answer coherently, but all that fur peeking at him through Coulson's open collar was making it hard to think.
"Green," he managed, staring at the gaudy palmetto print on Coulson's shirt. "They, um, they've gone green. And fuzzy. Er. Fuzzier. Than they should be."
At least he managed to stun the contact into silence.
"Yes, that sounds very serious," Coulson replied, patting Clint on the shoulder like he had said something at least moderately coherent. "You never want to play around with llama mold. Thank you for finding me, Steven. You had better take me there."
"But, Pablo, our cocktails," said the contact. Coulson shook his head sadly, beaming a little smile at him.
"I'm desolated, Enrique, but this shipment leaves tonight. And you know what they say: one bad llama spoils the barrel."
Without waiting for a response-- and Clint couldn't imagine what response Enrique could possibly find to that-- Coulson grabbed him and gave him two parting kisses of his own. It sent an absurd flash of frustration through Clint.
Then Coulson was back, linking his arm with Clint's and turning them to saunter off down the street together.
As they turned the first corner, Coulson asked him which way was clear in a light, infuriatingly amused tone, like he had no idea what he'd just done. Didn't he realize how hard it was for a person to think when they were pressed so close to so much chest hair and spicy flowery Coulson-neck? Didn't he notice Clint was still half-dazed with the shock?
"None of them," Clint responded to the question, struggling to get his head back in the game. "It's bluff or fight in all directions. North has the most fight, east has the most bluff."
"Mm," Coulson said, clearly thinking it over. "What are you in the mood for?"
Clint decided he was in the mood for fight, and said so. He refused to think too closely about why strenuous activity seemed so welcome at the moment.
After a short internal battle, Clint had decided this was not the kind of thing he could keep to himself. His reactions had been compromised-- he had to tell someone . According to SHIELD regs it should be his CO on the op, but that was Coulson so that was never happening.
He'd told the Black Widow.
After she stopped laughing (why did everyone think she was super-serious? In Clint's experience, she laughed frequently-- if mostly at him), Natasha had sat him down and patted him on the knee.
"It's just what they do in Argentina," she'd told him soothingly. "I know I'm new to SHIELD, but I'm still fairly sure these kinds of cultural matters are in your briefing packets or training somewhere?"
"They are Nat, I'm not a complete idiot. I know the drill."
"Then what? You found it more uncomfortable than you expected?"
"Look," Clint had sighed, "I got cheek-kissed at least three times by strange men before we hit ex-fil and I didn't have problems with any of them. I don't exactly run around base wrapped in a pride flag but I'm not 200% straight either-- hell I'm not 80% straight. I'm not gay panicking. It's only Coulson that...."
"Makes you tingle. You described it in enough detail already. Are you attracted to him?"
This had taken Clint somewhat aback-- which Natasha probably realized, since he sat up straight and started blinking.
"I... never have been before?" he'd said, trying to fit the concept into his view of the universe and coming up blank. "I mean, he's an attractive guy, and smart and all, I guess he just never rung my bell? You'd think it would have come up at some point-- we even had to do one of those emergency make-out things to keep from being spotted in Quito. No tingle then. He's so... so..." Clint moved his hands parallel to each other, in a kind of squishing motion.
"Slender? Box-like? Voluptuous?" Nat asked.
"No, no, that'd be-- " Clint wiggled his hands hourglass fashion to demonstrate. "Stop that Nat. He's so... um... contained. I guess."
"And his cover was not," Nat shrugged. "Maybe that's all it is. Maybe you're sensitive to his cologne, or there was something in the air. I don't know what to tell you about Coulson, apart from I doubt he intended to put you off your game. He's a good field agent and, I think, will be a very good senior agent as well. I can't see him deliberately doing something that would endanger a mission. So if the problem is just that this was unexpected, it will pass. I don't think I'd worry about it."
It had seemed like good advice at the time. It played to Clint's strengths, as he saw them-- he considered himself a go-with-the-flow kind of guy. At times, the flow seemed to get away from him, like it had when a simple exporter of llamas had kissed him on both cheeks, but given enough time Clint could get used to almost anything. As the lady had said: this, too, would undoubtedly pass.
Except that it didn't.
Clint had waited for it to pass, patiently the first half dozen times that Phil Coulson put on Pablo Jimenez, then with more and more desperation as the years passed.
Yes-- y ears.
Years as Coulson went from "Coulson" to "Phil," as he and Natasha and Clint became Strike Team Delta together, SHIELD and Director Fury's last, most bonkers, hope for the salvation of screwed-up operations. Years of tight situations and tighter safehouses together, of Phil patching Clint up in back alleys using a travel sewing kit, of Clint swooping in at the last minute to extract Phil from alligator nests-- only sometimes metaphorical-- of Nat saving both their asses over and over and over. Years that Clint, even while he was in the middle of them, realized he would likely call some of the best of his life.
Clint would, after all that time, have called Phil Coulson a good friend. Not a come-over-and-hang-out-on-the-couch kind of friend, maybe, but then Clint so rarely had time to hang out on couches anyway. Phil wasn't on Nat's level with Clint, but no one was; Clint and Nat had demolished the personal/professional wall with extreme prejudice. Phil still had one. He was, even after the whole leech incident in the Bight of Benin, sort of self-contained. He hinted far more than he shared, ever cautious of his own boundaries and theirs. It was, Clint figured, a side-effect of being his kind of spy.
But Pablo Jimenez, Pablo Jimenez was another story. Pablo Jimenez was loose. Pablo Jimenez smiled freely when he was happy and cursed up a storm when he was not. Pablo Jimenez wore no tie. Sometimes he even wore no jacket (or tac suit, obviously, since Pablo Jimenez was but a simple exporter of llamas and llama-related products). Sometimes Pablo Jimenez rolled his sleeves up-- and Clint tried not to walk into walls.
Every time Pablo Jimenez saw Clint (or Clyde or Herbert or Bruno or Betsy or whoever Clint's cover persona was at the moment) he kissed him on both goddamn cheeks just like Clint was his long-lost something. And every time, every goddamn time , Clint tingled.
Maybe Clint wasn't attracted to Phil Coulson-- well, with an asterisk, to be discussed later-- but he was eventually forced to admit that he did have a thing for Pablo Jimenez. And for whatever reason, Pablo Jimenez had become one of Phil's most often-used covers. He'd pulled that suave fucker out everywhere from New York to Naples to Nouadhibou.
Clint had asked him why Pablo was such a favorite, once, after a particularly trying mission in which he'd been cheek-kissed no fewer than four times in a two-hour period. It had been part of an escape as elaborate as a Keystone Cops routine, where they kept splitting up and then meeting each other unexpectedly and having to pretend to have just met because they were in public and couldn't blow cover. He'd managed not to blow the op-- he'd gotten really good at working around the Pablo tingle-- but the effort had burned through most of his reserves of self-control.
"It's not like your Spanish is even that good," Clint had pointed out, and Phil-- still Pablo at the time, or at any rate still in his Pablo clothes, though he was slowly retreating into Coulsonness-- had turned to look at him with an enigmatic little half-smile.
"You have a problem with Pablo Jimenez?" he'd asked, then slipped into his stupid accent. "He is but a simple exporter of llamas, Clint. Who would suspect him of anything? Except wearing too much cologne," he'd added after a moment of reflection. "I need to recalibrate that."
"I know you do," Clint sighed, "I can still smell it on myself." He turned to sniff his own shoulder, neck straining. Phil choked back what he assumed was a laugh at his expense.
"I'm sure a good shower will take care of it," Phil said in his own light voice, and Clint tried not to develop something else he'd have to use a good shower to take care of.
"No, but seriously, why?"
Phil grunted, but did him the favor of taking him seriously-- something Clint had always appreciated. He always seemed to know when Clint's brain was spinning hard behind his sarcastic front, and he usually managed to address Clint's concerns without letting on he knew they were there. Clint had suspected once or twice that Phil's contained Coulsonianity hid his own frantic hamster-wheeling mind. If it did, the facade was flawless.
"I like Pablo," Phil said at last. "He's enthusiastic." He was facing the side wall of the troop transport they were in, but he glanced at Clint out of the corner of his eyes, holding his gaze. "I like how people react to Pablo. I like the trouble Pablo gets into. Unless you want me to stop?"
He didn't want Clint to want him to stop. Clint could tell by how much he seemed like he didn't care.
"Not on my account," Clint sighed, resigning himself to his fate and reminding himself that working with Phil Coulson was worth a lot more torture than this, "I can handle Pablo Jimenez."
It was only half a lie. There was something worse than dealing with Pablo Jimenez-- that asterisk from earlier-- and it was watching Pablo Jimenez turn back into Agent Coulson. Because he didn't do it all at once, oh no. He did it by slow degrees.
After ops, Phil would tuck away Pablo Jiminez's loose walk and looser smiles and soft lips, but he wouldn't tuck away the chest hair. Nor would he cover up the freckled forearms. He could wander around for hours poking out every which way from his suit, in absolutely no hurry to cover back up and set Clint's mind at ease. Seeing Phil Coulson, contained, courageous, and Clint's comrade in arms, like that was a complete and total disaster. In those moments, Clint could almost believe he was attracted to Phil. He could imagine that Phil contained, if not multitudes, then at least both Pablo Jimenez, simple exporter, and Agent Coulson of SHIELD.
Then Agent Coulson would reappear at his stuffiest and most dependable for the debrief and Clint would give up trying to understand the state of his boner. Inevitably, he would just endure it until he could deal with it in private while thinking randy thoughts about cheek kisses and cologne.
This was how it went for at least six years, even after Phil started being dragged off more and more often on Fury's secret business, even after an alien and his hammer fell through a portal in New Mexico, even after Tony Stark got himself kidnapped, freed himself, and made himself a fucking gundam suit instead of dealing with his PTSD.
In fact, this was how it went right up until another stupid alien god came through a portal into the PEGASUS facility, made Clint his puppet, and killed Phil Coulson.
It was not a set of memories Clint tended to linger on.
In fact, it was a set of memories Clint spent a great deal of time actively walking away from-- up and down the Appalachian Trail, through the foothills of the Himalayas, deep in Denali, and across more than one fjord. Anywhere, essentially, where he was unlikely to meet people who knew him as Hawkeye the Avenger, Hero of New York-- or anyone remotely resembling an simple Argentinian llama exporter.
It wasn't denial, no matter what Tony Stark (and Deputy Director Hill) said. Denial would have involved a lot more covering his ears and eyes and muttering na na na na na na na under his breath whenever he remembered waking up on the Helicarrier. But he didn't think he could be faulted for needing a bit of a break after the mindfucking that Asgardian asshole who wished he was a god had given him.
Being under hadn't been so bad. It'd felt clear, concise, exhilarating. No distractions. His mind and body had all seemed to work at peak capacity, without anything silly like feelings or bodily needs weighing him down. The come down, on the other hand, had been hell. Nat, who was wise to the ways of Clint, had let him know Phil had died first thing, while it could still be drowned in all the other grief.
At least he had the consolation of knowing Phil'd gone down swinging, and not with an arrow in his chest. Of all the deaths on the Helicarrier, at least that one hadn't been Clint's fault. Phil Coulson had always been at least a little bit of a mystery to Clint even when you took Pablo Jimenez out of the equation. It was kind of fitting that in his last moments, Clint had no clue what the hell Phil'd thought he was doing. Even he couldn't have planned for Phil to confront Loki on his own with a cumbersome and untested weapon.
Clint had a lot of practice with grief, to be brutally honest about it. He knew how to handle it.
So no, Clint wasn't in denial, but that didn't mean he was fit for society, either-- hence the extended backpacking tour. The crush of people, which never used to bother him, made him nervous now. There was too much to keep track of, too many people he could hurt or be hurt by, and no possibility that any surprise would be nice. No more unexpected cheek kisses to be had-- at least by anyone he'd want. (Except Nat, but Nat wasn't a people, really.)
All alone on the trails, he was able to make his mind and his body his own again-- or just to ignore them, if he wanted, in favor of watching the rain drip off pine needles or counting the dragonflies he met along the way. Sometimes, Nat would drop in from nowhere and walk a day or two with him, just keeping pace. And sometimes, he'd look out of the corner of his eye and be nearly sure that Phil was there. He maybe talked to Phil a little bit as he went-- nothing big, there were no After Death confessions to be made. He just narrated the journey for Phil, more and more each day until finally his dead friend Phil walked just behind or to his side most days, closer even than he had been in life.
And sometimes, Phil even slipped a bit into Pablo.
Somewhere in the middle of the high country above Yosemite, discussing a marmot sighting with his dead friend Phil, Clint had a moment of clarity.
"You know what's weird, Phil?" he said, still watching the marmot poke around between two boulders, digging for whatever marmots dug, "it never occurred to me that you were Pablo, you know? I mean, that maybe you used him as a cover so much because you liked being him or being him felt like you? Don't mind me."
That last was said as much to the marmot, who'd popped up and was eying him warily, as it was to Dead Friend Phil. After a moment, with several backwards glances at Clint, the marmot set to burrowing again.
"So what's weird about that," Clint continued in a softer tone, "is that if Pablo was you, and Pablo was, um. Basically, it was you all the time, that I was...." Clint trailed off. It seemed that he couldn't even tell Dead Friend Phil that his lips had been electric and his chest hair had become something of a kink. That what had confounded him at the time he'd have given anything for now. He sighed, explosively enough that the marmot startled and ran.
"I just miss you," Clint said. "I don't think I knew how much I'd miss you."
And there, in the high country, sitting on a rock with the sky wheeling above him and no one around for miles but marmots and mule deer, Clint finally cried. For his dead friend Phil; for Pablo Jimenez, simple Argentinian exporter; for the life Clint had used to have and all the good things that came with it, now fading into memory.
Of course, life being absurd and SHIELD being doubly so, it was only a month or so later that Clint came down out of the Poconos and nearly ran into his dead friend Phil.
Dead Friend Phil looked very much not dead, and just as much not a ghost. He was standing in the woods in his full suit, and staring at what seemed to be the corpse of Boy Scout troop leader. The body was floating in mid-air, which explained why Agent Coulson would be on the case-- and this was definitely Phil at his Agent Coulsoniest. It was like he'd been pulled forward from a time before Loki and popped into the hole his death had left.
Clint would have thought he was hallucinating, except that Phil wasn't alone. He was surrounded by several SHIELD-types that Clint didn't know, and by Agent May-- who Clint knew but whose presence surprised him almost more than Phil's did.
There were several rules of operational security drummed into you at SHIELD, and one of the first was never compromise another agent in the field . Another one was never assume it's the simplest explanation . So Clint had slunk back into the brush, after taking a good hard stare (plus a couple of pictures) for posterity, and left the way he'd come.
He needed intel, and he needed it immediately-- before he did something potentially disastrous. So he went straight to Director Fury and shoved his phone, and the pictures, at him.
After deleting the photos, taking out the SD card (Clint had expected that), and crushing it, Director Fury looked up and said:
"He really was dead, Barton. He just didn't stay that way."
At least Clint hadn't been out in the wilderness so long that he'd conjured up an entire team of friends for his dead friend Phil, then.
"Is there any part of how that happened that isn't code word classified and need to know?" Clint asked, just in case it was a mundane miracle instead of a SHIELD one. He wasn't surprised when Fury shook his head. "So, what, you had an alive-again Level Seven everyone thought was dead, and decided to make good use of him?"
"Level Eight now, and yeah. Yeah I did," Fury said, watching Clint with something approaching sympathy. "Look, for what it's worth, not reading you and Romanoff in wasn't my first choice-- or his. If circumstances had been different...."
If they didn't all work for a covert intelligence agency, for instance. If Phil weren't one Fury's most trusted agents. If Clint hadn't been spending more time with marmots then with missions lately.
"But sometimes we need ghosts at SHIELD," Clint said, "more than people need their friends back." After so long in the wilderness, he'd nearly forgotten how much SHIELD could suck.
To his credit, Fury winced.
"My hope," he said, "is that you will get your friend back, eventually. If everything goes well."
"Never known Phil not to complete his mission objectives, come hell or high water," Clint replied. Hell, high water, or startling his archer with an unexpectedly freckled forearm. Clint was just very, very glad that he'd seen Coulson all suited up, not undercover. And he didn't much want to examine why he was so glad that Coulson's team wasn't currently privy to Phil at his Pablo best.
"That's what I'm counting on," Fury said, then tilted his head. "Out of curiosity, are you planning on coming back to work any time soon?"
Clint's first instinct was to say no. What he really wanted to do was run away, head for the hills, take some time to assimilate the fact that all this time his dead friend Phil hadn't been so dead after all-- not to mention the fact that Clint had lately had some disturbing revelations about just how friendly he'd felt towards said dead friend. But if he ran, he might miss it when his dead friend Phil was allowed to be not-so-dead again, and that would be the worst of all.
Anyway, the thought of roaming SHIELD's halls again, or rolling out on a mission, or even wandering through the streets of a city, didn't seem so bad as it had a half year ago. Time'd either healed Clint a little or else made him crazy for company and a sense of purpose.
And Phil's team hadn't seemed like the kind that never came in from the cold. They had the well-stocked, fat look of a team with tons of logistical support. So there was a possibility, if only a slight one, that Clint might come off the ass-end of some mission only to find Phil passing through the same base, also on the ass-end of a mission. It was a long shot, but enough to tip the scales.
"Yeah," Clint said, facing Fury and hoping none of his calculations showed on his face, "yeah, I think it's time to come home."
Clint didn't see Phil over the next few months, but he did hear rumors. The System that all SHIELD agents were proverbially supposed to trust was under-girded by a thick strata of scuttlebutt, and Clint knew Phil was out and about again from the way SHIELD rippled around him. It wasn't quite the same as it had used to ripple, before the Battle of New York, but it had a definite sense of Coulson to it. There was speculation about Melinda May having left her bureaucratic red-tape haven, about the old Globemaster that showed up at bases from time to time, about Victoria Hand at the Hub being extra salty for a week after its visit there.
He wondered if Nat could sense the Coulson in the system, but didn't ask. It wasn't out of a particular sense of operational security or because he trusted the system or whatever SHIELD bullshit. It was more like superstition, like if he told Nat that Phil was alive, was real, and was going to come home to them one day, he'd jinx it. Phil would die again, for good, while he was off somewhere on his stupid jet plane, and Clint would never get to really see him again.
Also, Nat might decide to go off looking for Phil, and Clint wasn't sure he could handle that. It was comfortable to keep talking to the Phil in his head, especially now that he knew the real Phil was out there as well. The Phil in his head was a known entity. And unlike the real Phil, he didn't do uncomfortable things, like wear open collars and give Clint air-kisses. There was no danger that Clint would get dumbstruck around the Phil in his head (except maybe late at night and in the shower).
The Phil in his head was still his old Phil, his friend... whereas real, alive-again Phil? Real Phil might turn out to have changed. Or to not want to see Clint again. Or any number of things.
Real Phil had all these huge thoughts in his head most times, and Clint had used to hang on every word whenever he could get Phil to share them. But after so long without talking to Phil, how could Clint know if those thoughts still had room for Clint?
Anyway, SHIELD still had room for Clint, that much was at least clear, and Fury kept him hella busy. He didn't have time to go on a cross-country odyssey to find the real Phil, and he didn't think Nat had time either now that she was holding Steve Roger's hand as he acclimated to a huge government agency. Clint was just waiting for Steve to get wise, jump out of a window or something, and run screaming into the night. He didn't see Steve as the huge government agency type.
Clint found that mental image hilarious right up until Nick Fury was killed and, in short succession, Steve Rogers did jump out of a window, he and Nat did disappear, half of their colleagues turned out to be secret Nazis, and three helicarriers crashed into the Triskellion. He'd figured Steve would shake SHIELD up, but that seemed a bit excessive.
Of course, Clint wasn't there when it all went down; he was too busy fighting his way out of what was supposed to be his safe house, leaving everyone in his extraction team dead or maimed behind him. Which was what they deserved for being secret Nazis-- sorry, Hydra, whatever-- and also for thinking they were a lot sneakier than they really were. Nazis or not, they were SHIELD trained and their instructors would have been ashamed.
By the time Clint got back to DC most of SHIELD was on the lam or in the custody of the US Army. Clint looked up where Deputy Director Hill had got to-- Stark Industries-- and went straight to her. It was the right move. She and Pepper Potts sorted him out, hooked him up with Nat, got him immunity for testifying to the absolutely nothing he knew, and got him set up in Stark Tower. Eventually Steve joined them, and Thor came back, and Hill presented them with some juicy Hydra bases to destroy. (It served Nat and Steve right-- if they were gonna take down SHIELD they'd better be around to clean up the mess.)
Tony renamed the Tower and just like that, Clint was a full-time Avenger. If there was one thing he hadn't seen coming when he'd headed for the hills after the Battle of New York, it was that. Well, okay-- that and the Phil being alive again thing.
Clint was nearly sure Phil was tangled up in all this Hydra clean-up they were doing. The first time he'd gotten Hill alone someplace he was relatively sure wasn't bugged, he'd leaned over real close, pasted on his best Coulson-smirk, and said:
"So. Heard from Pablo Jimenez?"
That earned him one of Hill's finest "do you actually know what you think you know and do you really expect me to confirm it" blank looks.
"I saw him in the Poconos. Told Nick," Clint explained. "I just want to know if he's safe."
Hill let out a long-suffering sigh, the kind he'd heard her use more than once on him and Phil back in the Delta days.
"He's..." she paused, clearly debating word choice, "around and about."
"Sorry. 'Safe' was probably too much to ask."
"He's too busy being him to stay safe," Hill said. "He's with his team, so at least he's not alone, though god knows what he thinks he's doing."
"Then he'll be all right," Clint said, putting on his most determined voice. "He was always at his best when everyone else thought he was crazy."
"I--" Hill looked like she wanted to argue for a moment, before her expression shifted. "I guess that's one way to look at it."
" Is he all right?" Clint pressed.
"Are any of us right now?" She snapped, then shook her head. "Sorry. He's just... he changed a little, after he died. I keep forgetting that, until I talk to him again." She sounded, Clint had thought, a little lost.
He wondered what "changed" mean, what Phil had done to cause Hill to look that conflicted-- and then pushed it out of his head. No time to wonder when he couldn't follow up on it, especially not when poking into it further might make other people ask questions, too. Bad enough Clint had to convince a handful of politicians and military brass that he wasn't a secret Nazi, he'd never forgive himself if he dragged Phil into it.
So, yes, when Hill suddenly came up with primo Nazi Octopus intel, Clint had figured he might have an idea where it came from. He made a point of casually asking Hill if their mutual friend had passed it along, and got a wink and a smirk in return. And if that didn't mean Phil, Clint didn't want to know. He liked the thought that Phil was still out there, attacking Hydra from the shadows and passing along information. Clint had always trusted Phil's intel; it grounded something in him to believe that was what he was acting on every time he slipped into the seat of the quinjet for another Avengers mission.
He didn't ask further. It didn't seem right to try and disturb whatever Phil was doing, since he was still playing dead and it was hard to find shadows to lurk in anywhere near the Avengers. The limelight was harsh around them.
But Clint could imagine what would happen if he met a simple Argentinian exporter again. He could always imagine.
If Clint had any lingering doubts that Phil was Hill's secret source of intel and support, they were laid to rest in a dramatic fashion when a motherfucking helicarrier appeared in Sokovia. He was a tad busy at the time attempting to save the world from an overgrown, overeducated, robot with daddy issues and way too much time on its hands, so his only immediate reaction was "huh," and underneath that, in his head, "go, Phil." Then he went back to punching robots and trying not to punch the zippy Sokovian dork Pietro.
But later, when everything was still and Clint was in the Carrier's med bay with Nick Fury (also not dead, which Clint had known for a while) leaning over him, the topic had come up. Clint had been chewing on it while he was being patched up-- it was the only thing he could think about that didn't make him want to weep.
"Nat's gonna figure it out, after this," he'd told Nick wearily. (Yes, he was Nick now too-- he wasn't the boss of Clint anymore, after all.)
"Figure what out?" Nick had asked, only half paying attention; Clint figured he must be exhausted too.
"Who the helicarrier came from. If she doesn't already know."
"Mmm," Nick said, still sounding a little bored with the topic. Clint watched him for a moment.
"She knows, doesn't she?" he asked, suddenly sure of it, even though the thought made him sad. Both of them knowing and not telling each other because of op sec he could see-- but her not mentioning it after SHIELD fell? He wasn't sure what to make of that.
"Ask her," Nick told him, shrugging. "I have no idea; she and I never talked about it."
Clint considered this. If she honestly didn't know, he wasn't sure now was really the best time to bring it up. He had next to no emotional reserves and hers were probably even lower.
"Maybe I'll wait a bit. But... how is he?"
"I don't know," Nick confessed. "I've been out of touch. He's been a bit distracted. There's a lot on his plate."
"I wouldn't want to disturb him," Clint said, closing his eyes and trying to make them both believe it was true.
It was a hard sell, at least for himself. He felt like he'd been running a marathon since SHIELD fell, like he'd tumbled to the ground thinking he'd made the finish line only to find it impossibly further off. Even with the Avengers all around him, he'd felt isolated, nothing like the old, cozy Delta days. Sometimes even Nat seemed further away-- he could blame Hydra for that, or his time in the wilderness, or the secret about Phil, or maybe all of it. Whatever the reason, his anchor had slipped.
He was so lonesome, even in the crowded medical bay, even with Nick sitting next to him. It was hard to tell himself he didn't really want some of his old life back, some of Nat at his side and Phil-Pablo and his stupid cheek kisses and electricity. Maybe it was selfish, but he didn't have the energy to deny it.
Nick gave Clint a long look, like he'd read the whole thing on Clint's face. Maybe he had-- you don't get to be the head of a spy agency by being obtuse.
"I don't remember you ever disturbing him before," Nick said gently. "It's your choice. He's out there if you want him."
It was just like Nick, Clint decided, to say something like "he's out there if you want him" but leave no clue where "he" was, or what he was doing. Clint gave it up as a bad bet for a bit, staying on with the Avengers as Tony repaired the Tower-- again-- and moved Avengers headquarters somewhere a little less crowded. He stayed long enough to see Wanda Maximoff start to settle in and watch the new team in action, but then the restlessness hit.
Clint couldn't fully explain it-- maybe the battle with Ultron had depleted his team-player reserves. It had felt at times like he was holding the Avengers together largely by digging in his teeth and dragging them all into battle by the scruffs of their necks. Clint wasn't used to that kind of work, that was Steve work or Tony work-- or Phil work. Anyway the team was bigger now, and everyone was training well and...
... and there was something missing.
Clint wasn't ready to positively say it was time to find Phil, but it was definitely time to think about finding him. Ever since he'd realized Phil was alive, the thought of him had sat like a burr just under Clint's skin, prickling when he moved too fast, keeping him from getting too comfortable. He couldn't even decide whether to talk to Nat about it, and was frustrated at himself for that, too. Somehow, telling someone who might not already know felt like an unwarranted presumption. The itchiness kept getting worse, and he finally felt it swamping all his good intentions to stay away, to keep out of Phil's hair while he did his work-- whatever that was-- and to not be a bother.
Unable to decide, Clint informed Tony and Steve he was taking some vacation time, and then took off-- though not as literally as Thor had, a few months previously. He just slung a backpack over his back, found himself a truck, and set off. Maybe he'd let the road decide for him; it had last time.
In the event, it didn't take all that long for the road to make its decision. Clint made it as far as Baltimore, and already his gut was roiling. Not because of Phil, but because somehow, while he had been busy with rebuilding the Avengers, the world had started to change. Well, change more . There were reports now, of people exploding, floating, of weird powers, more and more every day. How had he and the Avengers missed all this? Clint wasn't sure he could take a vacation to find himself or Phil. He wasn't sure that going back to the Avengers would help, either, though. So he went to Baltimore, because he'd heard rumors.
Phil Coulson must have heard those rumors too, because Clint spotted him pretty quickly when he arrived at the burned-out apartment building that had maybe once held a man who did a street hustle using trick fire that came from his eyes. Clint had to do a double-take, because for a minute he wasn't sure if he was seeing Phil or Pablo Jimenez, simple exporter. Phil wasn't dressed in a suit, not even a linen one. He was in black, tieless, his shirt unbuttoned at the top, and one hand sporting a glove like he thought he was Michael Jackson... or maybe Luke Skywalker. The rest of him hadn't changed an iota, except maybe to grow even more handsome in that 40s movie star way.
Clint had forgotten just how much Phil could fluster him with something as simple as exposed clavicle. He felt as tingly as if Pablo had left particularly wet kisses against both his defenseless cheeks, and Phil hadn't even turned to look at him.
Clint stood watching for what felt like an age, poised between running towards Phil like something out of a Hallmark flick, or just bolting. It wasn't until Phil shifted, maybe getting ready to leave, that Clint made up his mind.
He moved fast, coming up to Phil on a curving trajectory to avoid surprising him but to give him minimal time to decide to escape. Screw op sec. Screw not being a bother. Screw everything. Clint was done waiting for his reunion.
Phil saw him coming about twenty feet out, and his face went slack with shock.
"Clint?" he said, or at least Clint thought he said. His mouth was making the right shapes, anyway, hanging open a little.
Abruptly, Clint realized they were still in public-- somehow, seeing Phil had wiped that out of his mind. He needed cover for them both.
"Oh my god, it really is you!" Clint said, forcing his voice to be hearty, as he closed in. "I haven't seen you in years ."
And then he clasped Phil by his shoulders, pulled him close, and kissed him on both cheeks.
Phil froze, looking poleaxed. Clint felt a little that way himself, he had to admit-- as it turned out, kissing Phil on the cheeks was almost worse than being kissed. Phil's face was rougher than Clint had remembered, more stubbly. He didn't smell fruity like Pablo, but man did he smell good. But Clint had momentum going for him, and he pushed through the shock.
"I had no idea you'd be here; what've you been doing all this time?" he asked, shaking Phil a little.
Phil put a hand on Clint's hip, perhaps to steady himself, and Clint did freeze. It was the gloved hand, and it... well, if Clint had to guess, he'd say it was a Luke Skywalker hand. What the hell had Phil been doing to lose parts of himself?
What else was Clint going to find out Phil had lost?
"I..." Phil said, apparently still flustered. "I... was just passing by."
Apparently, if nothing else, Phil had lost his suavity. The Phil Clint had known wouldn't have been caught dead this speechless. Then again, the Phil Clint had known hadn't died yet. Maria had said he'd changed. What if they couldn't riff off each other anymore? Clint couldn't just leave Phil hanging. He had to get them out of here-- and hell, maybe Phil's team was in the area too. Shit.
Maybe he ought to have thought this through a little better. Well... Phil'd always appreciated his improvisational skills.
"Uh, are you busy?" he asked, then realized that was a little ambiguous. "I mean, you want to go somewhere and... and chat?"
"What?" Phil asked, blinking a little. "Where?"
Oh. Right. Phil was probably living in some secret bunker somewhere or had a quinjet or something. Not like Phil could invite him home without, at the very least, an extensive scan for weaponry and trackers.
"Anywhere that's good for you. We could grab coffee or something? Or, uh, drinks? Dinner?"
Clint realized belatedly that he hadn't let go of Phil's shoulders, but he wasn't sure he could bring himself to. Phil might do something stupid like run off. Or lose another appendage.
"I...." This had to be a record for Phil flustration. Clint didn't think he'd seen Phil so undone since... Quito? And that had been a combination of interrogation drugs and a bad empanada. "You want to-- with me? Really?" His voice cracked on the end, all astonishment.
"Yeah?" Clint said, wondering who the hell else Phil thought he would be referring to.
"But, you only just--" he stopped, eyes narrowing. "You talked to Nick or Maria?"
Oh, so Phil hadn't known Clint knew he was alive. Well that explained a lot of the big-mouth bass impression.
"Both," Clint shrugged. "I knew you were around. Saw you in the Poconos."
"Oh. You... um. You didn't want to say hi then?"
He looked a little hurt, Clint thought, though he managed to hide it quickly. He'd definitely changed; it was like he'd slurped Pablo Jimenez into himself, or gotten stuck midway between Pablo and Phil.
"You just sounded busy, and Nick said I shouldn't bug you. So, I didn't. And then, things got crazy busy-- well, you know," Clint explained, and now that he said it out loud it sounded a little thin. "But the offer's open if you want to-- I mean, if it's not a bother-- "
"No, no, it's not-- I mean. Yes. I'd. Coffee. Definitely. Just..." Phil shook his head, stepped back from Clint's grasp, and then looked like maybe he regretted doing it. "Let me just... let my friends know."
"What-- now?" Clint asked, a little shocked. He'd asked, sure, but he'd expected maybe more like a "can we meet at 7." Or "next Tuesday" or "sure, let me check my schedule and get back to you." Phil'd always been a busy man, after all, and espionage waits for no one.
"Yes," Phil said, looking far more sure of himself suddenly and studying Clint hard. "Unless this is a bad time for you?"
Clint shook his head.
"Okay, good. Good... good. The, ah, person I was going to meet doesn't appear to be here. So. No time like the present, right?"
Well, when he put it that way, who was Clint to argue?
"Letting his friends know" apparently involved Phil and Clint ducking into an alley to talk with a young woman wearing black, with long gauntlets on her arms. Her eyes kept flicking back to Clint. Alphonso Mackenzie was there, too, like her much-larger shadow. Clint wondered when Phil had picked him up and how the hell he'd convinced him to do field work.
Something, Phil explained to the two, had come up, and they should head out without him.
"I'll catch up later," he added.
"Later?" Mack asked, sounding frustrated. "We're short-handed, May's still gone, and you shouldn't be--"
"I know," Phil said. "But Daisy knows my plans. You can find me if you need me. And this... has waited long enough."
"How much later?" Mack asked, scowling at Clint (which was, Clint thought, deeply unfair).
Phil opened his mouth to answer-- then shut it again and dropped his gaze, then looked over at Clint from under his eyelashes. In anyone else, Clint would have said he looked bashful, but there was no way Phil had changed that much. Bashful or not, he was definitely looking for some kind of answer from Clint.
Too bad Clint didn't have one to give him-- he half-shrugged and tried to make I'm following your lead here plain in his face.
"I'm open," he said after an awkward pause as Phil just kept staring, looking Clint up and down like he'd forgotten how to read him and had to learn again on the fly.
"Okay," Phil said, licking his lips as he did one last check of Clint's face. "Why don't we play it by ear," he told Mack and Daisy. "I'll check in on the usual schedule."
Mack looked like he was going to argue, but Daisy elbowed him in the ribs.
"You're the boss, boss," she said lightly. "We'll ping you when we get home. C'mon, Mack, leave the Director alone."
Clint filed that "Director" thing away for later Phil interrogation purposes. Daisy took Mack by the arm and dragged him out of the alley, with only one backwards glance and what she probably thought was a subtle wink.
"Do you have transportation, or did you come with them?" Clint asked, jerking a thumb after the disappearing SHIELD agents (if that was what they were, which seemed likely). "I think my truck is still behind the police tape so we're stuck with walking if not."
"Oh, I've got my own wheels," Phil smiled. "Where do you want to go?"
"Anywhere we can be alone," Clint told him. He wanted more than anything to get someplace that was certified free of eavesdroppers so he could talk to Phil properly.
"That..." Phil took a deep breath before answering. "We can do that. Shall we?" He held out his arm.
After a moment's hesitation, Clint took it, and they stepped out of the alley.
As they walked, Phil seemed to be considering something, and after a bit he spoke.
"Can I ask... why now?" He must have seen Clint's confusion, because he hastened to clarify. "I don't want to sound ungrateful. I'm not, I'm blown away that you want to see me at all, after... how long I went without contacting you. But... why now and not before?"
"To be honest, I'm asking myself the same question," Clint replied. "Especially since it's turning out to be a lot easier than I thought it would be. Like I said, I think work complicated things. I mean, when there was work, before it, uh, went under. You had important responsibilities; I didn't want to compromise you. And then after it all came down, for awhile it felt like one thing after another after another-- and maybe I'm an idiot but it didn't occur to me that things had changed."
"Ah," Phil nodded his head, "I understand how that goes. I suppose I did some of the same."
He didn't look happy about the fact, and Clint felt a desperate and rather unexpected urge to comfort him.
"I missed you, I promise," Clint blurted out, and Phil whipped his head up. "I mean, I didn't just start missing you now, I'd missed you all along, even after the Poconos. I think... I think I just I ran out of reasons not to do it, you know? It felt like time."
"I'm very glad it did," Phil said, squeezing Clint's hand where it laid in the crook of his arm. It was the real hand, not the Luke Skywalker one, and Clint suppressed a shudder at the brush of warmth. "And I'll be honest, too: I was afraid it was too late. By the time I felt like I knew where I stood, I mean. Uh-- that's probably so vague it's useless. I'll explain when we get where we're going, just-- I promise there were reasons, if not the ones I originally thought. And by the time they were cleared up, I thought you'd be angry if I turned up. And I couldn't face having you tell me I'd left it far too long and that door was closed for good."
"Well," Clint said, "it wasn't." He was speaking a little at random, but he'd finally realized exactly what Maria meant by Phil changing. This Phil, who had all the wee smiles and competence of the old one, plus all the chest hair of Pablo, had also picked up an entirely new, weird habit: he was actually sharing his feelings.
Clint didn't get long to contemplate what the change meant, because they turned a corner and he spotted Phil's "wheels." His breath left him in a rush.
She was sitting under a street lamp, looking just as gorgeous and gleaming as ever, one of the few extravagant things Phil'd ever allowed himself-- or allowed Agent Coulson, anyway. In retrospect, Clint should have seen her as more proof that Phil'd had an inner Pablo all along.
Clint slipped away from Phil and rushed to the convertible to run his hands along her chrome, her sides, her hood. He practically fell headfirst into her in the attempt, but he had to make sure she was still all there, still whole, still herself. He knew he probably looked absurd, but Phil would forgive him. The sheer joy that had bubbled up at the sight of her was too big to contain.
"Clint--" Phil's voice pulled him out of his reverie and he snapped upright, guiltily.
"'Don't touch Lola,' I know, I'm sorry." He folded his hands together to keep them off the car and bit his lip.
"No," Phil said, sounding a little hoarse, "no go ahead and touch Lola all you want. I-- the last thing I'm going to do is stop you."
"You are the best."
All the joy flooded right back as Clint cuddled up to Lola's windshield, hiding his face in the crook of his arm to keep from giving himself away completely.
Phil made a noise that Clint couldn't really categorize. He just knew that it still sounded a little too wounded for his taste, so he pulled away so that Phil could see just how goofy his grin was. Because Phil was here, and real, and his collar was open and so was he. It was all just too much all of a sudden, he had to share or burst. If Phil could take down his barriers, then so could Clint.
Phil was looking at him like he was still lost.
"You are the best," Clint told him, determined to wipe that look off his face. "You always were, too. You just made it all seem so easy that I didn't realize it till you were gone. But you're back, and here, and... and sometimes this past couple years what kept me going was knowing you were still somewhere in the world. Is that stupid? It sounds stupid, when I hear myself say it."
"No," Phil rasped, "no it doesn't." He was staring at Clint now, eyes wide and mouth a little open, and Clint certainly felt stupid. "It sounds--" Phil shook his head and started forward. He moved so fast that Clint had barely had time to be confused before Phil was right there, pressed up against him and reaching out.
Phil's hand, his live one, snaked behind Clint's neck, and his other hand was on Clint's waist, and he was pulling Clint into a kiss.
Not a cheek kiss, or any other kind of kiss two people exchanged who were just greeting each other on the street.
It was a greeting, though: a greeting of lips, of breath-- Phil's warm and Clint's startled-- and of tongues. Clint realized dimly Phil had half bent him backwards over Lola's side, and his arms had snaked around Clint to hold him tight. Forget tingling, Clint was fizzing, boiling over, and the only reason he didn't dissipate entirely into the air was that Phil was holding him together.
Clint tried to kiss back, mostly on instinct. He might have no idea what was going on or why he was being kissed to within an inch of his life, but that wasn't about to stop his body from getting what it wanted: more of Phil's lips against his, more of Phil's thighs bracketing his, more of Phil's biceps under his hands, more of Phil.
When Phil finally pulled away Clint fell back onto Lola, catching himself with his hands to keep from slithering to the ground. His brain, catching up at last, demanded to know what the hell had just happened.
Something must have shown on his face, because Phil went from looking debauched to looking sheepish. (Well, he still looked debauched, too.)
"I'm sorry," Phil said, "you're a very hard man to resist, and I'm out of practice. I was going to save the kissing for after our date. And ask first. I was planning on that, too."
What? Clint's brain yelped, then tried to play back the conversation he and Phil had been having before, to figure out where any mention of dates had come into it. It was no good; Clint's body was still too busy trembling with the aftermath of that damn kiss to allow for rational thought.
Clint should be responding, he knew that, this was not the kind of conversation you could just leave hanging. But there were too many responses all jumbled up, spinning in his head, things like what do you mean 'our date' and is that why you don't touch Lola, and holy god how did your biceps get so firm , and is this actually happening? And I'm pretty sure I didn't mean to ask Phil out, did I? I'd know if I did, right?
What came out of his mouth, when he finally got something through, was a tiny, rather pitiful:
"Do it again."
Phil's face went radiant, and he gathered Clint back towards him.
"Gladly," he said as his lips closed over Clint's.
They eventually managed to stop kissing long enough to get into Lola and leave, although it took some very pointed side-eyeing from passers-by before that happened. Clint didn't regret the extended public display of affection, however. It gave him time to decide he didn't care how Phil'd managed to misunderstand him, he was totally going to turn this into a date.
At least a date.
Phil'd been deliberately vague about when he was going home. Clint melted a little more when he remembered that, so maybe not just a date. Maybe more.
More sounded better and better the longer Clint thought about it. More sounded like everything he'd only belatedly realized he might have wanted. More was the what he couldn't even confess to his dead friend Phil all alone in the high country with marmots and bears.
He had no idea how more would actually work-- but that had never stopped him before. He leaned back in Lola and and basked in the long-absent sense of anticipation.
A half hour and a stop at a crab shack later, they arrived at a little park on the river and wandered until they came to a bench that was conveniently out of the line of sight and sound of practically everything. Clint was half certain he'd used it to meet a contact once before in the Delta days.
There, far from prying ears, Phil told Clint what Nick Fury had actually meant when he'd said Phil had died but hadn't stayed that way. He'd meant that he'd had Phil brought back to life using some kind of weird alien juice procedure that usually caused ranting insanity, then wiped his memory of it to try and avoid that bit. Then he'd stuffed Phil on a spare Globemaster, given him a team of people who were hand-picked to be able to put him down if he went insane, sent them off to Do Good, and waited to see what would happen.
(What would happen, as it turned out, was that Phil and the parts of his team that weren't secret Nazis would kick ass, save agents, and resurrect SHIELD in a half-forgotten SSR bunker, which was exactly what Clint would have expected if he'd known to expect it.)
While Phil talked, Clint picked at the remains of his crab cake and fries and tried not to show just how sick it made him feel. It was wrong, it was all wrong. Not what Phil had done-- that was mostly exactly what Clint expected Phil to do in any situation: the right thing, no matter how messed up Phil himself was.
But Phil had done all of it without Clint. As in, without Clint on his team, or to meet up with between missions, or to give surprise cheek kisses to when Clint bailed his ass out of a tight spot in Tajikistan. Or to be in his corner when he'd needed it.
For the first time, Clint began to reexamine the choices he'd made-- or not made-- since the Poconos.
"You're looking kind of... ill," Phil said finally, with a new note of uncertainty in his voice. Clint whipped his head up.
"I'm fine," Clint told him, trying for a nonchalant shrug. "Just processing. It's kind of a lot."
"I'm tempted to pretend it was nothing big, just to impress you," Phil said, "but I don't think I'd ever put it all together this way for anyone before, and it's actually a little overwhelming."
"I'm sorry I missed it," Clint told him, looking up, and then blanched. "I mean-- that is, I don't mean-- "
"I know what you mean," Phil told him, setting down his now-empty styrofoam clamshell and turning more fully towards Clint. "And I appreciate it, but don't beat yourself up. I made choices too. I'm just glad you're here now-- surprised, but glad."
"That I'm in Baltimore?" Clint asked, trying to lighten them both up. "Yeah, I'm surprised too."
Which was both an understatement and the complete truth, and came out way more solemn than he'd expected.
"You are a piece of work, Barton," Phil laughed, bumping his shoulder to Clint's.
"If I had a penny for every time someone's said that to me," Clint started, leaning in to the touch. Phil cut him off.
"I've always liked that about you, frankly. You... reward effort."
"Huh. That's... the sweetest way anyone's ever told me I'm weird," Clint said, and Phil laughed.
"Not weird, no. You just constantly surprise me. Like this-- us, here now. We'd flirted for so long I'd assumed that was all we were ever going to do. And then, well, I died and Hydra happened, and it's fair to say I stopped expecting to see you again. But here you are, after all. I'm sorry if I still seem stunned, it's a lot to take in."
There was a lot Clint felt like he needed to address in that speech, but one thing most of all:
"We flirted?" he yelped. "When?" And why had no one informed him?
"Well, to be accurate, I flirted," Phil replied, "and you would splutter a bit and blush-- which definitely wasn't dis couraging."
"Wait--" Clint blinked, feeling the world realign beneath him for the third time that afternoon. "You're-- that was why you used that cover stupid cover so often? You were... that was, you were coming on to me? On missions? Undercover? Really?"
"Kind of?" Phil looked both bashful and a little smug. "Honestly, Clint, I once used Pablo Jimenez, Simple Exporter of Llamas, in Ukraine. I'd thought that was a dead giveaway. I was trying not to cross lines, but in retrospect I suspect I bent them a little more than I thought. But it was the only time I'd get to see you open up that way. You're so low-key about everything, even when I know it's an act. It was hard to stop-- even after I realized you didn't want to take it any further than that."
"You," Clint rasped, shaking his head, "you are unbelievable, Phil."
Who the hell else but Phil Coulson would have gone to those lengths to find a non-pushy way of flirting with a teammate? And how did Clint rate that kind of effort?
"Oh, was that the problem?" Phil asked, looking up at Clint with Pablo in his eyes. "My flirting was too bad to be believed?"
"No, I'm just that oblivious apparently," Clint sighed. "Story of my life."
"Oh yeah? If you didn't think I was interested, why did you make a move now?"
"I wasn't-- I didn't--" just before the truth stumbled off his lips, Clint realized vaguely that it was going to sound bad. He stopped himself and reached out to grab Phil, cupping his face and giving him a quick, somewhat sloppy kiss for reassurance.
"I wasn't actually trying to ask you out," Clint said, still holding onto him. Their faces were so close he was practically going cross-eyed trying to meet Phil's gaze.
"You weren't?" Phil asked, pulling back just a little. His eyes drifted down to Clint's still-wet lips, then back up.
Clint shook his head.
"I was just really happy to finally see you again, and I wanted to get us someplace not public to talk, and I guess I can see how..."
"... how I just read into it," Phil finished for him.
He looked like he wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry. Clint wasn't sure he could handle either, so he kissed Phil again. This time he lingered more and got Phil's lower lip caught between teeth as he pulled back, releasing it only reluctantly. It got harder and harder to let go every time; Phil's mouth was dangerously addictive.
"Whenever you stop kissing me, I'm going to feel very embarrassed about that... and likely several other things," Phil told him.
"So what you're saying is I should just keep kissing you until your team comes to drag you off?" Clint asked, grinning. "If anyone should feel embarrassed, it's me, for missing apparently years of signals. Your chest hair is a lot more distracting than you think. But hey, it worked out, right? We're here."
"Yes we are," Phil agreed. "Though, I would like to know where you think 'here' is, since I've apparently been reading too much into things all this time."
"I'm not sure, maybe you were reading things right. Wouldn't be the first time I meant something when I did it, but didn't realize I'd meant it till later. But..."
Clint looked down, trying to find his words. He'd never been that good with the damned things. It was one reason he tried not to talk too much around people more used to using them-- you couldn't get in trouble for what you didn't say. Not that Phil had ever used his words against him.
As the silence grew, Phil took his hand, turning it over. Clint watched as he drew his thumb over each of Clint's fingers in turn, circling each fingernail before tracing back the way he'd come, like he planned to explore the it one inch at a time. Clint's skin began to prickle, anticipating each stroke. The words came then, rushing.
"'Here' is with you," Clint told Phil, because it was the simple truth, and because it felt right, "and it's where I'm supposed to be. First time in years I don't feel like I'm just wandering aimlessly, honestly."
He watched Phil's eyes warm, his hands tremble in Clint's. Clint pulled back a little from the tight two-person hold his world had narrowed into. He felt the warmth of the sun on his shoulders, the press of the wood slats under his thighs. The afternoon buzzed around them, and Clint wanted Phil to kiss his cheeks once more, just to see if it still felt disorienting, or if everything had finally, finally come round right.
"I..." Phil said, then shook his head and leaned in to kiss Clint, a light press against his upper lip. "I can work with that."
Then he cupped Clint's face in his hands and kissed him, carefully, solemnly, on both cheeks.
There was no tingle.
There wasn't exactly a simple sense of rightness either.
No, there was an instantaneous rush, like all Clint's blood had drained to his toes then raced back in the space of a breath.
"Jesus, Phil," he sighed, "you have any idea how unfair that is? I used to take the longest fucking showers after you did that, and unless I jump in the river, I don't think I've got one handy."
"You--" Apparently, Phil was a full-chest blusher under the right circumstances, and Clint happened to be looking down at just the right moment to discover that, as a wave of pink rose under the chest hair visible beneath his open collar. "Well. I." He knocked his forehead against Clint's. "And here I was just going to suggest maybe we want to... take this a little slow?"
Clint bit back his immediate response, which was largely being dictated by his crotch, and which would have been a wail of dissent.
"In what way?" he asked, trying to keep it as even as Phil had earlier. Phil shrugged, his forehead still against Clint's.
"I can run with surprises, you know I can. But this one is," he heaved a deep breath, like he was struggling for air, "a little bit more to restructure my world around than some others."
"You need time to think about whether to do this?" Clint asked, even though he didn't want to. The request made a hell of a lot of sense, and to be honest, Clint was still in the habit of giving Phil most anything he asked for. "That's... if that's what you want, it's cool. Probably smart."
"Actually, I don't," Phil told him, pulling back. "One kiss from you-- on my cheek , for christ's sake-- and apparently I'm all in. I hadn't expected that, myself. But I'm sort of the Director of a rogue secret intelligence agency, and I don't exist on paper anymore, and you're still an Avenger--"
"I'm on a leave of absence," Clint cut in, because it seemed important.
"-- on a leave of absence, but still. I need a little time to figure out how that's going to work-- if it's going to work. And... maybe we need a little time, too? Leave of absence or not, you have to have a life you need to keep living, right?"
"Eh," Clint said, and decided not to elaborate. 'Actually I've just been wandering until I found a reason to stop' seemed like a little bit too much pressure for the moment. "Makes sense. But, um. My turn to ask for clarification-- by 'take this slow,' you mean... what? Sure, I'm not going to give you my letter jacket or anything yet, but uh... physically speaking."
"Oh for-- you know what I mean, you're practically on top of my crotch. Are we waiting for sex 'till the third date, or are you just not inviting me home to see your etchings and meet the spy family Robinson?"
"First of all, I don't have etchings," Phil told him, mock-solemn, "although I do have some of Peggy Carter's original SSR files you could er, peruse. Secondly, do you have a hotel room around here?"
"I'm about to," Clint said, pulling out his cell phone and thumbing it to unlock it without looking down. He took it back, he took it all back; Pablo Jimenez was a nun compared to Phil Coulson, propositioning him as casually as if he was checking the time.
When Clint did look down, he cursed. Yamblr was still open from earlier, when he'd used it to track down the mysterious exploding guy. And Yamblr was still up in flames.
"Damnit," he sighed to Phil, "I think we underestimated fire guy."
"Really? Camden Yards?" Phil groaned, looking down at the phone. "He couldn't find any place more conspicuous to pick?"
"Back to Lola?" Clint asked He was already pulling away as Phil did the same, brushing himself off as he stood up and somehow, mysteriously, transmuting back into Director Coulson, mild-mannered Man in Black.
"Back to Lola," Phil said, putting on his aviators and reaching out with his Luke Skywalker hand to take Clint's.
Neither of them seemed to know exactly where they were headed, Clint reflected as they trotted through the park, but at least they were side by side, off to get themselves into trouble just like they'd always done best.
The rest could come in time; Clint knew he was on the right track at last.
It was early days to be sure, but Clint thought that he'd eventually look back on Baltimore as a dividing point in his life, like the day he got his first cheek kiss from Pablo, or the day Loki came-- only much less confusing than the former and less traumatic than the latter. He not only felt different, he realized the world was different. The road seemed less inviting, the sun shone a little brighter, and if he still fidgeted whenever he stood still too long, it no longer felt aimless. He knew where he wanted to be.
He hadn't told Phil that yet; Phil had made it pretty clear he was trying to collect data, work through all the angles. Clint thought the data in favor of making it work was pretty strong-- especially the data points from their first epic night together in a hotel room in Baltimore. (It had been about their third date, after all. Date one had never recovered from the attempted scorching of Camden Yard.) He just hoped Phil felt the same.
They'd managed a few more nights together and several non-sexy dates and ever-increasing amounts of texting and a few nights ago, Clint had gone to sleep with his phone on the pillow next to him, listening to Phil's occasional snores and snuffles over the line. The pillow in question had been in Baltimore again; it had become their default meeting-place since Phil still hadn't brought Clint home, and Clint still didn't have a true home except Avengers Tower, which was also currently not feasible. Clint boomeranged back and forth from the city; more than a few days gone and he worried he wouldn't be able to get back the next time Phil had free time.
Still, he was starting to get seriously fidgety two months in. Now that he knew where he wanted to be, it was getting harder and harder not to be there, especially when he had only so much to distract himself with. He'd played around with laying false trails for Phil's shady government agency adversaries and read and re-read and re-re-read everything Phil had given him on the Inhumans they were trying to collect. That all only went so far, and there was only so long he could continue this leave of absence thing before the Avengers got worried.
It was Phil who brought up the topic and proposed a radical solution: tell the truth. After all, he'd said, eventually their paths were bound to cross, and it made sense to do it in a controlled fashion.
"And I'll never have a bigger incentive," he said, and took Clint's hand in his. They were lying in bed, post-coital and a little drowsy, and Clint fought the urge to shrivel into a little ball to escape the tenderness on his face.
"Then let's start with Nat," Clint told him, squeezing his fingers, "please."
"That's a given," Phil said, "when do you--"
But Clint already had his phone in his hand and was dialing Nat's number.
When she picked up, all he said was
"Here's Phil," and passed the phone over. Phil took it, and even managed to greet Nat, despite looking like he wasn't sure if he wanted to throttle Clint or throw the phone out the window more.
The conversation was short and not particularly sweet, and Phil actually started to cry a little in the middle of it, but as near as Clint could tell, it wasn't a bad kind of crying. He just seemed a little overwhelmed. At the end of the call, Phil handed the phone back to Clint.
"I want to see him in person," Nat said into the line. Her voice was thick enough that Clint wondered if the impossible had happened and she wasn't crying a little too. "And you. I'm not going to believe it until I do. One AM phone calls aren't sufficient evidence of life. Why are you calling past midnight, anyway? Where are you?"
"In bed," Clint said, and only later realized that it was the first time he'd told anyone that he was dating Phil Coulson.
There was a long silence on the other end of the line.
"In person," Nat said at last, gently. And then she hung up.
Clint turned back to Phil with trepidation, and found him staring at his hands. Clint took one of them and held it fast.
"I can't believe she hadn't figured it out. The Black Widow . Christ. I shouldn't have let that happen. The number of apologies I owe her--"
"Nat will forgive you," Clint told. "She just needs to have time to work through it, and time to see you in person. Anyway, I was the one on the team with her. I should've told her-- I should've done a lot of things, really, not just let life happen to me."
"Hm. I've always admired how you could just take life one day at a time, honestly. Could have used some of that now. Are you going to call Stark next?"
"God no. This was more than enough, anyway I figure Nat can help plan that. But you know, think of the worry I saved you, doing it this way. You know you'd have over-thought it for ages.. Better to do it quick, like pulling off a band-aid."
"Probably," Phil agreed, his thumb starting to rub over Clint's hand like he had their first afternoon in the park by the river. He did it a lot, Clint noticed. "Was that what you were thinking when you called?"
"Um, it wasn't not what I was thinking?" Clint saw the confusion on Phil's face, and pressed ahead. "Sometimes I only figure out what I meant to do after I do it. Like when I asked you out."
"You didn't ask me out, as it turned out," Phil protested.
"Yeah, but that's what I mean. Look-- I know you need time, babe. I get that and respect that and that's you and I wouldn't have it any other way. I'm just... I admit I came into this completely ass-backwards, but I've got myself turned around and I want to go forward. With you. Whenever you're ready. If you're ready. Uh... no pressure?"
Phil laughed, a little broken thing, but then Clint figured he was still real bruised after Natasha.
"'No pressure,' he says. Next thing I know I'll come home to find you chatting up Agent Koenig, not completely sure how you got there."
"Oh no," Clint told him, "I've got more manners than that. I'll wait. It's your call."
After all, Phil had just agreed to reveal his continued existence to Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, at least partly on Clint's behalf. He was pretty sure that meant the rest was inevitable.
The inevitable happened on a Tuesday, two days before they were supposed to meet Natasha in person. Phil had picked Clint up in Lola and taken him out to dinner, where they'd plotted out their final approach to meeting with her. When it had come time to go back to a hotel, Phil had looked thoughtful, and then leaned in towards Clint.
"You know," Phil said, his breath hot against Clint's ear, "you have never asked to see my etchings."
He said it, the bastard, in Pablo Jimenez's stupid accent.
"I, ah, thought you didn't have any etchings," Clint told him, trying for a calm voice despite being well aware that he'd just clutched Phil's shirt front so hard he'd nearly pulled a button off. "Just Peggy Carter's SSR files, you said."
"Mmmmm," Phil purred, shifting even closer, laying his palm down on Clint's thigh and squeezing gently, "that sounds unlikely. I am but a simple exporter of llamas and llama gear after all, Clint."
Clint had never heard his own name in that stupid accent before.
Clint was a goner, he knew he was a goner, and this was Phil finally telling him that he'd gathered his data and made his decision, and in typical Phil fashion he'd done it with a bad accent and cheap innuendo. Clint felt almost enraged.
"I hate you," he groaned, and Phil chuckled.
"You don't," he said, and nuzzled at Clint's jawline. "You really don't."
"I really do," Clint insisted, "now go get me a fucking lanyard and show me your secret base and those SSR files of yours, Director Coulson. Nobody likes a tease."
"Mmm, fine," Phil sighed. "Home it is."
He started Lola, and turned up her thrusters, lifting them into the air. Clearly, Phil was in a hurry.
As they flew, Clint thought about asking him about it, about what had finally made him decide he didn't need to go slow anymore, finally realize what Clint'd known in his bones since, to be honest about it, their first kiss. He decided against it; Phil would tell him once Phil had the words. His actions were speaking loud enough.
Clint barely remembered getting past the scrutiny of Agent Koenig and Phil's team and into the sanctity of Phil's Playground. It was all a blur of underground tunnels and earnest-looking people and a little brick-walled bedroom with no sunlight. He'd probably find it pretty anti-climactic later (the tour, not the part of the evening they were just getting to), but he couldn't worry about that now. He was too busy grabbing Phil to him in a frantic kiss.
They managed to get themselves entirely undressed before they finally had to break the kiss completely. By then, Clint's lips were almost unbearably sensitive. He dodged Phil's next attempt at a kiss and it landed on his neck instead. He felt it like a jolt of electricity arcing outwards across his skin and shook away.
"Oh, god ," Clint managed, and scrambled to push Phil away before he either came just from breath at his neck, or screamed. "Too good, Phil-- 's too much. Jesus."
"Sorry," Phil panted, looking just as wrecked as Clint felt already, and Clint's heart twisted.
From their first night in Baltimore Phil'd shattered all his expectations, even when they'd fumbled to get their bodies to align and learn how they interlocked best, like all new lovers. This hypersensitivity to Phil's touch was new. With the single fragment of his mind left unblown, Clint wondered if it was the place, the night, or something more.
Phil apparently trusted Clint enough, wanted Clint in his life enough, that he was willing to change the entire course of his post-death life and his shadow-cramped agency in order to have him. Phil was giving up his secrets for Clint, giving up his secrets to Clint at last, and he didn't even need Pablo Jimenez, simple exporter of llamas, to do it this time. Maybe Clint's body was just overwhelmed because his heart was.
Phil's lips were back, fluttering against Clint's nipples now, just gently circling, his hands stroking along Clint's side and no, no, no, that was... it wasn't enough, it wasn't... it wasn't deep . He needed to feel Phil as intensely as he felt about Phil, tonight. Clint growled, and flipped them.
"Meep!" Phil squeaked out, looking dazed and gorgeous and so, so desperate. Much better.
"Stay." Clint pointed at the bed, and shoved Phil's shoulders against it, just to be certain he got the message. Phil nodded frantically.
Left with all of Phil spread beneath him and waiting, Clint felt nearly overwhelmed with choices. So he did what he often did: picked the clearest road-- in this case, the trail of Phil's chest hair down his belly-- and wandered down it. He nuzzled in, nipped, pulled, sucked, left Phil calling his name in broken tones, until he finally made it to the thick thatch of hair between Phil's thighs. Phil's scent, musky, aroused, rich, without an iota of Pablo's floral spice, was addictive. Clint took a deep breath and felt his heart begin to slow.
He pulled back deliberately, letting Phil's cock, already fully hard, brush against his cheek, then set light kisses on the crease of Phil's thighs; on the left, then on the right.
"Lie still for me," Clint whispered, and felt more than heard Phil's assent.
Clint reached up to clutch Phil's hands then set about exploring with his lips, nose, brushing his body along Phil's, taking his time and covering every glorious naked inch of him. Phil started out trying to keep still, but by the time Clint had completed a full exploration of his body and reached his toes, Phil was trembling with the effort. His hands clutched the duvet, and his head was thrown back, eyes squeezed shut, as he panted. Clint felt something settle inside him, and brought Phil's foot to his mouth. He slipped his lips over Phil's big toe and sucked.
Phil arched off the bed, cursing.
"Y'okay?" Clint asked, without pulling off.
"Fine, fine-- fuck-- do it again."
Clint did. And all nine of Phil's other toes. He'd played with Phil's fingers before, more than once, sucking gently, pulling them, trying to hit the trigger points that would relax Phil as well as arouse him, and learning Phil's artificial hand in as intimate a way as he could find. This was even better. He thought he could see why Phil had brought out Pablo so often, if it had meant he got to see Clint half as shocked and helpless as Clint was seeing Phil now.
"Come up here," Phil said at last, and tugged his toe free from Clint's grasp. He suited his actions to his words, hooking his ankles under Clint's arms and using his legs to tug Clint forward until Clint was firmly cradled between his thighs. Then he pulled Clint down to be kissed so hard it hurt.
"That," Clint panted, pulling back. "Like that, babe. Hard. Please. I need-- I need that."
Phil nodded instantly, like he'd read Clint's mood through his tongue and this was just confirmation.
"Hard," he agreed, his voice like gravel, "I can do that."
And he did, raking his fingernails down Clint's back, then heaving himself up, all his furry chest rolling against Clint's, and tipping them both over. He dove in again once he was on top, kissing and grabbing, pulling Clint's arms down and pinning him at the wrists while making Clint writhe. Clint closed his eyes and let himself be manhandled, giving himself over to Phil as completely as Phil had finally given himself to Clint.
They eventually got a rhythm going, dicks rubbing between them as they heaved and grappled and panted and exchanged sloppy kisses. Clint felt desperate for more of Phil's warm skin under his hands, more friction, more heat-- and at the same time, it was nearly too much, starting to tip over from pleasure into pain. He shoved at Phil's hips, and Phil wriggled above him, resettling so that he could drive between Clint's thighs instead, leaving Clint's dick to rub against his stomach.
Clint'd always known Phil would be a big man, but he'd been unprepared for the, uh, extent of it the first time they'd had sex. Luckily, Phil apparently found it arousing when he couldn't close his mouth from shock. It was a definite bonus now; Phil's thrusts hit Clint from the underside of his balls to just south of his rim, and all the trigger spots in between. He lifted his hips for better access, threw his head back, and let himself moan.
Eventually, Phil pulled away to shuffle in his bedside table, removing a glasses case and a glock before managing to get his hands on a bottle of lube. Clint watched him slick up his dick, and nearly laughed.
"What?" Phil asked, him, pausing with one hand cupping his head, mid-swipe. He looked more amused than worried.
"Nothing," Clint told him. "Just-- so much better than my imagination."
Phil smiled at him, nearly shy.
"Oh good," he said, "I'd hate to be found wanting compared to Pablo."
" Never ," Clint growled. "Anyway, Pablo's dick wasn't that big."
"Wasn't it?" Phil looked down at his hand, as if he was considering how he could get into a dick-measuring contest with his own alter-ego.
"No. Now, you gonna stay up there, or come down and give it to me?"
Phil came down and gave it to him, the lube adding just enough slide to his thrusts to take off the edge of discomfort, but not so much that Clint couldn't feel every glorious inch.
"Mm," he sighed, canting his hips up so Phil could catch his rim with the long strokes, "don't dip in okay? But this is amazing. Could come just like this."
That got him another frantic nod; Phil's head was buried in Clint's shoulder, but Clint didn't need to see his face to know he was getting close anyway, he could practically feel all the way to Phil's bones. He was all tension, and trembling, Clint realized, with the effort of keeping himself from coming. The realization that he was starting to read Phil's sex signals pleased Clint so much he nearly missed it when Phil went from not gonna come yet to no way I can not come now , but when Phil fell apart on top of him, elbows buckling, and began to thrust helplessly, soft little noises erupting from him, Clint caught on.
"S'okay, babe," he reassured Phil, reaching up to pet his hair, "Come for me, I can... I'll come too." He grabbed his own dick, stroking fast, and the tension in his own body immediately jumped so high he was stiff, incapable of moving anything but his hand, all nerves concentrated on his dick and on Phil still thrusting between his thighs and coming now, covering Clint in warmth. At last Phil collapsed and bit Clint on the collarbone, and everything shattered. He was dimly aware he'd started shaking as he came, and that he was shouting something, but he was too busy setting explosions off in every nerve at once to notice.
His toes uncurled something like two minutes after he finally came down off his orgasm, and he blinked up at the ceiling, trying to find the energy to move.
He didn't find it, but it didn't matter much; Phil'd rolled himself off the bed to go rummage somewhere, and he came back with a water bottle and some wipes. He cleaned them both off while Clint contributed little more than a slurred thank you to the situation.
When he was back in bed at last, Clint flopped over on him, cuddled in, and confessed that he still had no idea what Phil's room looked like.
Phil chuckled, all soft and sleepy, and it was the best thing Clint had ever heard. Better than hearing Pablo's stupid accent coming out of nowhere in Cairo, better than hearing from Nick that Phil was indeed still alive, even better than that first startled Clint that Phil'd let out after three years of separation.
"Still haven't seen your etchings either," he murmured, the words getting half-lost in Phil's chest hair. "Feel cheated."
Phil's arms tightened around him.
"I still don't have any. Is this going to be a dealbreaker for you? I can get some, if it is."
"Would you?" Clint asked, a little wistfully. Sleep was creeping up on him fast. "Sweet of you... mm. Falling... sleep.... G'night, babe. Love you."
He was too tired to parse Phil's stillness after that, until Phil finally shuddered and said:
"And you called me unbelievable. God, Clint. I, uh... I love you too."
"Truly?" Clint was nearly out now, struggling to keep awake long enough to hear Phil's response.
"Truly," Phil said, and kissed his cheek.