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It's Not the Fall

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The press of Clint’s lips shocks him thoroughly. So much so that Clint gets in a few good passes on his slack mouth before Phil pulls away. “Wait,” he says, “wait, hold on.”

Clint stops, but his smile remains and he doesn’t step back out of Phil’s personal space.

Phil is actually speechless for a few humbling seconds before he gets his flapping mouth around the words. “This was a date?”

The subdued happiness on Clint’s face is already sliding away and it makes Phil’s heart ache a little, which is a bit strange but nothing new.

“I just—” Phil doesn’t actually know how to explain it. He’s not offended; actually he’s pretty flattered by the idea that Clint would want to date him and it definitely was a date now that he looks back on it, not an attempt at a one night stand. If he’s honest with himself, Phil is fairly confident that Clint likes him too much to risk their working relationship on a single night of sex, so he must— Oh. Wow.

Clint is pulling away and Phil can’t let that happen, he knows if this is handled wrong something will break irrevocably and he can’t stand the idea of that happening, especially to Clint, with Clint and— oh. Oh. He reaches out, grabs onto Clint’s hand and tugs him gently, so he has the choice of leaving if he needs it. Clint stays, but looks guarded.

“I haven’t— I didn’t realize—” Clint’s face is getting blanker and blanker and the time Phil has to fix this is quickly running out. “Stop whatever it is you’re thinking,” he says, trying to buy time. “I’m pretty sure that’s not what’s happening here, okay? Just give me a minute. Actually,” Phil finishes unlocking his door and lets them both into his apartment, “let’s make some coffee.”

Clint follows him in and shucks off his jacket only after Phil takes his off. They both chose leather jackets, but of completely different styles. Phil’s is shaped like a suit jacket, Clint’s more like a stylized bomber jacket, updated for the modern era. It looks good on him. Phil blinks, realizing that’s not the first time he’s thought that. A picture is forming in his head and he’s not sure he’s comfortable with it.

Phil takes a few seconds to set the coffee machine brewing, just in case this turns into a long conversation. They’ve both been a little free with the alcohol tonight, feeling comfortable doing so, and the happy buzz that had accompanied them to the door is still lurking in the background.

“I think,” Phil starts, sitting down on the couch next to Clint, “this is my fault and I didn’t realize I was doing it.”

Clint’s face darkens and his entire body goes tight like he’s fighting his flight instincts and Phil winces.

“No,” Phil says, “I’m doing this terribly. I’m sorry, I’ve never had to tell my date that I’m not gay before. At least, I didn’t think I was?”

“Oh,” Clint says, looking shocked, “but I thought— I mean there were—”

“Yeah,” Phil says, running a hand through his hair, “I think there were and I didn’t realize I was doing it, so for that, I’m sorry.”

Clint stares at him, but the hardness is gone, replaced with bewilderment. Phil can relate. “So. What now?” Clint asks.

Phil can see Clint thinking it, that Phil is getting ready to sincerely apologize, explain that his friendship means a lot to him and that he’s fine with forgetting about it and moving on. Only. Phil is looking back at the last few months and he can spot it now that he’s looking for it. The small smile Clint’s presence brings out, the extra effort Phil puts in to make sure Clint’s needs are taken care of. The occasional expenditure of energy getting him something just because watching Clint smile makes his day better. He can see it and it feels precious and special and he just doesn’t want to throw all of that away, which is no doubt what would happen if he and Clint call it a no-fault accident and move on.

“I’d like to kiss you,” is what Phil says instead of all that other stuff, “knowing it’s coming this time, that is.”

Clint blinks at him, a little shock showing through on his face. “Why?”

“Because,” Phil says carefully, “I did do all those things you’re thinking of. I gave you all the right signals and I had fun doing it and you responded to them and asked me out. And I had fun. It was a really lovely date and I think maybe all of that means something.”

“Okay,” Clint says, and drops his hand so that it’s laying across the back of the couch, in direct counterpoint to Phil’s which is already there. Clint’s fingers rest on top of Phil’s, and it’s only natural for Phil to spread them so that Clint’s can thread into his and end up with them palm to palm, holding tight. “But you have to participate this time.” Clint is already leaning closer as he says it.

“Deal,” Phil murmurs, meeting Clint halfway. This kiss is softer, more fragile and infinitely gentle. Maybe the first one was too, but without Phil’s participation it had floundered. Phil doesn’t let his second chance go. He tilts his head and lets their lips press and then move ever so slightly. Phil’s eyes close at the sweetness of it, the absolutely perfect feeling of Clint’s lips against his. They separate, but don’t go very far. Clint’s eyes clearly say ‘well?’ and Phil can’t do anything but lean in again for a second careful kiss.

Two becomes five, five becomes ten, and then Clint is climbing carefully into Phil’s lap, cupping his face and looking down at him like he is the most precious thing in the world. It’s a heady feeling. Phil has dated within the agency before, so having someone extremely athletic, with excellent muscle tone, next to his body isn’t something new. But Clint’s body is still just different enough that it feels like a new journey of understanding for Phil’s body which has just sat up and decided on some brand new priorities.

Clint is nothing more than liquid grace. His entire body doesn’t move, it flows and as it’s perched on top of Phil, his grace seems entirely centered on holding Phil close but not too close. He’s aware of an undercurrent of ‘don’t scare the straight guy’ and it irritates him even as he appreciates it. Kissing Clint is pretty amazing. Getting his hands on his back, feeling the musculature is surreal but pretty hot and the lack of soft breasts has stopped being distracting long minutes ago. Still, he’s been half hard in his jeans for a while and his skin is buzzing with awareness, but if he’s honest, he’s not sure he’s ready to find out how well this is working for Clint just yet.

Eventually, around the time Phil’s lips feel swollen and oversensitive, the kiss eases off slowly and Phil is glad to see the worst of the distrust and fear have melted away from Clint’s face. “Well?” Clint asks.

“I’m pretty sure I wasn’t leading you on?” Phil says because that’s about as sure as he is right now. Clint is in his lap and it’s a pretty wonderful feeling but still, Clint is in his lap and nothing like that was ever in his life plan. At all. So he’s not willing to commit to more just yet.

Clint goes a little guarded. “Just—” he swallows, “don’t come in to work on Monday a two beer queer. Okay?”

It takes a few seconds for Phil to unpack Clint’s plea. “I’d like to try dating you,” he says carefully. “I can’t promise more than that, but I can promise I won’t change my mind before we give this a try, okay?”

“Okay.” Clint nods, leaning in to give Phil a careful kiss, sucking on his bottom lip as he pulls away. “I can deal with that.”

“Thank you,” Phil says, because honestly, he’s kind of asking a lot of Clint here. This isn’t your normal beginning relationship traumas, this is more of a ‘please stand back, the bomb might explode’ sort of beginning. Which makes a whole lot of sense with Clint being involved in it. “I’ll try not to keep you in suspense for too long.”

Clint’s face melts. “Oh baby no, don’t push yourself. This is more than I thought I’d ever get before I asked you out.”

Phil blinks at being called baby and finds Clint’s blush when he realizes what he did delightful. “I’d call you adorable, but it’d just go to your head,” he says, pulling Clint in for another handful of careful kisses.

“Who me?” Clint says, smirking. He slides off Phil’s lap and sighs. “I should get back to my place.”

Phil looks at his watch and winces. “Look, if we hadn’t had an epic misunderstanding, either I’d have sent you home hours ago with a first date kiss or dragged you inside and had my wicked way with you and then let you pass out after. Either way, you wouldn’t be stuck making it back to Brooklyn after all the trains have switched to their night schedule. On a weekend.”

Clint makes a face. “The F train does terrible things on the weekend.”

“Yes.” Phil nods. “Yes, it really does. I nearly opened an active case file for it once.”

Clint’s laugh is low and easy and something in his posture relaxes just a bit more.

“The couch is pretty comfortable,” Phil says, Clint’s relaxation making it easy. “Stay here, at least until the train gets back onto the daytime schedule.”

“You sure?” Clint asks and some of his vulnerability shines through his bravado. His hands fidget where they rest against his legs. “I don’t want you to feel like I’m pushing.”

Phil reaches out and takes the nearest nervously twitching hand into his own, soothing out the tension with careful but firm strokes of his thumb. It’s not anything he hasn’t done before, when massaging out ligaments and tight muscles on missions with terrible conditions. It’s more intimate in this particular situation, but Phil doesn’t feel strange or awkward. “You’re not pushing, if you take the train now it’ll take more than two hours and a taxi at this time of night would be nearly $50.” He turns his head to look Clint in the eye, bringing Clint’s fingers to his lips and kissing them carefully before handing Clint back his hand. “You’re not pushing me,” he repeats, “I’m inviting you.” He smiles lightly. “Please, stay?”

Clint relents and Phil goes to find him a pillow and a blanket. When he returns to the living room, Clint is standing next to the couch, stretching. His arms are fully extended, shoulders pushed back and down, aligning his spine perfectly and pulling his t-shirt up enough to reveal a hint of flat stomach. Phil’s eyes run down the line of Clint’s body automatically, his mouth going dry at the, in his opinion, objectively beautiful image and perfect lack of body consciousness. His eyes stop with a suddenness that’s startling at Clint’s lap. Standing in the stretch like that highlights the half erection hidden under soft denim.

It’s an image that doesn’t automatically repulse Phil, which was one of his main worries about this whole thing. He’s never felt especially attracted by the stray penises that’ve come his way in the casual manner a number of professions have in their changing rooms. Phil has gone through several of them in his life. It seems like it would be a deal breaker, so it’s a bit of a relief, to feel this level of intense curiousity about Clint’s body, especially the parts he needs to be intimately comfortable with eventually.

“Looked your fill yet?” Clint asks, amusement written into his entire face. He pushes the stretch into a perfect bend that has his jeans going tight around the ass, and Phil is only human and has to swallow back a noise. It’s a really nice ass.

“Maybe,” Phil rasps, throwing the pillow and blanket at Clint’s displayed assets.

Clint chuckles playfully, not the least bit upset at Phil’s voyeuristic moment. It’s possible he understands where it came from, or at the very least understands that Phil’s enraptured stare is a good sign. He grabs his sleeping accessories before unbending and tosses them on the couch. “I should tell you,” Clint says sheepishly, “it was that week you watched me in the range, when I had the wound on my ribs but they needed me out as soon as possible, so I practiced without a shirt.” He waits for Phil to nod an affirmative that he remembers the incident before he goes on. “There was a look in your eye, at least, I thought there was. That’s what made me think I’d get a yes when I asked you out.”

Phil can feel the flush coming to his face. He remembers that week, how fascinated with the artistry he’d been, how absolutely stunningly the play of muscle under skin had struck him, how he’d never quite realized how much of a full body exercise drawing back the bow was. At the time, he’d thought it was just some stark appreciation for athleticism, but now he can see in his memories, how his eyes had traced the lines of Clint’s body a little too closely. “Wait.” Phil frowns, rolling back Clint’s words. “But that wasn’t when you first thought about dating me, was it?” As soon as he says it, Phil knows he should have put the question away for later. It’s too soon and the night still a little too charged with doubt and fear, to address that topic.

Clint’s look away is answer enough.

“No,” Phil forces himself to say, “we shouldn’t talk about it tonight.” The look Clint sends him touches Phil all the way down to his toes.

Clint bids him a quiet good night and Phil turns to his bedroom before he can almost screw this up again. There’s some blessed relief in that their final bathroom visits are so well timed they don’t even run into each other, but as Phil settles down into bed, wearing only thin pants, he realizes he’s lucky they never had any of the brewed coffee. He’s wired enough as it is. Part of the problem is that the simmering arousal never truly dissipated, he only managed to distract himself from it for a brief time. Now, in his dark and quiet bedroom, with the subtle sounds of Clint moving around just outside his door, it’s hard to quiet his mind.

Or his erection. Jesus.

As he replays the day’s events, starting with Clint appearing at his door looking casual but more put together than he usually tries for on his time off, all the way to those kisses on the couch, where Phil’s senses had been filled with Clint, happily drowning in him, his hand wanders. He doesn’t actually mean to masturbate, at least, not at first, but he’s so keyed up about all of this and he’s practically being eaten alive by worry that he’ll somehow hurt Clint in an unforgivable way that he just needs to know if his body will follow through where his brain is already going.

So his hand wanders along with his mind and as he strokes himself lightly through the thin fabric of his pants, in his mind Clint is back in his lap, holding him so carefully while kissing him until Phil is breathless. In his fantasy, Clint is making noises, bitten-off half moans dragged out of him by Phil’s mouth and hands. With a sharp turn, Phil realizes the fantasy is about how much Clint might want him and that seems— unfair but it also seems to be really working for him. He can feel the damp patch on the fabric and his hips are doing little half rolls, trying to seek out more pressure, more friction.

Well, he’s in it now, so he eases his waistband over his cock, swallowing a whimper of relief as it’s no longer confined. The fantasy changes a little. Phil doesn’t want to accidentally create a fetish out of Clint’s desires, which, now that he thinks about it, must be so very big because no sane person takes this sort of emotional risk without there being something large feeding it. Instead he tries to imagine further, about what Clint might do next. He thinks of and then dismisses a few ideas quickly. Either they’re not feasible with two men or it’s not something he’s ready to think about, let alone imagine how it feels.

The word ‘blow job’ sears through his mind and the hand lightly stroking himself tightens and he has to bite his lip to stop the sounds. The idea of watching Clint slide off his place on Phil’s lap and onto his knees, reaching up to undo Phil’s buttons, nosing into his lap and mouthing over the thin cotton of his briefs is intoxicating and his hand speeds up. He doesn’t realize exactly how keyed up he is until he gets about as far as sinking into Clint’s hot, wet mouth and it’s all over but a few sharp hip thrusts into his tight fist. He takes a long time to stop shaking with the intensity before he dares reach for the tissues, afraid he’ll knock something over and Clint will burst in.

Eventually he cleans up and the heavy-limbed feeling of post orgasmic haze overcomes his lingering worries about this whole thing. Still, as he sinks down into sleep, he knows that a single successful experiment does not a relationship make.

*****

In the morning, he stumbles out of his bedroom bare chested and eyes mostly closed, following his nose to the smell of freshly brewing coffee. He makes it all the way to sipping at his cup blissfully before the quiet chuckles permeate his brain. Phil shuffles around to see Clint whose face is all wide smiles and easy going. Phil does catch a quick once over from Clint whose eyes darken as they look. He flushes when he realizes how little he’s wearing but doesn’t move to cover up. There’s at least a good half cup of coffee left.

“How come you’re not like this on missions?” Clint asks. He’s relaxing easily on the couch, looking mussed but fully dressed. Except for his feet. Which are bare. For some reason, it seems unbearably intimate to Phil.

Phil forces himself to lean back onto the counter in a relaxed pose. “Well, for one thing, when we’re on missions I’m on duty.”

Clint smiles. “Well this look suits you.”

The blush he’s been ruthlessly shoving down bursts forth all over his skin and Phil spends the first few heated seconds staring down into his coffee cup. When he looks back up Clint has stood up from his sprawled position and stopped a few feet from him.

“Phil?” Clint asks quietly, his eyes more serious than before, “Everything still okay in the cold light of day?”

Phil smiles softly. “Everything is fine.” He puts his coffee cup down on the counter and shuffles closer. “No sudden urges to participate in cliche uber-masculine practices.”

Clint laughs in that low voice that does something tingly and wonderful to Phil’s spine. “Normally,” Clint says casually, moving even closer, until they can’t be more than a few molecules from touching, “I’d wait for you to get your bathroom rituals out of the way, but the coffee should do it and you look—” He cuts himself off, eyes roving over Phil’s skin hungrily. “You look pretty amazing standing there mostly asleep and relaxed.”

“Hmm?” Phil asks, half curious about what exactly Clint sees in him and half curious about how this eventual kiss will pan out.

“You’re,” Clint hesitates while finally closing that last bit of distance, “so relaxed, almost soft focused.” He bumps their noses together playfully. “It feels like you trust me.” Their noses bump again, followed by a quick brush of lips, “letting me see you like this.”

“I do,” Phil says, taking in another brush of lips, a little shocked at how easy a morning routine with Clint is. “Trust you, that is.” He leans in for more, but Clint is suddenly far away. He opens his eyes from the half-lidded, drowsy thing they were doing and looks at Clint who seems stiff and uncomfortable all of a sudden, he also seems very far away for the entire 18 inches or so that separate them. “What?”

“I promised myself I wouldn’t push you,” Clint says, running a hand through his hair. “This seems— pushy.”

Phil’s heart does something funny in his chest and he can’t not reach out to Clint and tug him back into Phil’s orbit. “Clint, listen to me.” He pauses, waiting for Clint’s nod. “I'm 45 and just agreed to date a guy for the first time in my life, after having spent decades not even thinking about it. Probably,” he corrects. “I admit to possibly scheduling some time to re-examine my subconscious a little bit after last night.” He tugs Clint even closer, until they’d be hugging if their hands weren’t intertwined as they are. “You're 32 and just agreed to date a 45-year-old who was pretty sure he was straight not 12 hours ago.”

He takes a minute to let that sink in, because it’s a little absurd on the cover, but also he wants a second to absorb the feeling of Clint pressing into him. His body all warm and firm, but not too firm, feels damn good up against Phil’s front. Clint’s shirt is soft and thin and the heat from his body seems to come right through to warm Phil’s bare skin. Eventually he leans back enough to kiss Clint’s temple before looking him in the eye. “I think we’re both pretty invested, don’t you?” Clint flushes, looks guiltily away before meeting Phil’s gaze again and nodding. “So there can be some, minor, pushing.”

“Okay,” Clint says seriously, “I just—” He pauses and there’s a deep breath and a firming of resolve. “You were right last night. I’ve wanted this for a while. A long time.” He waits, looking directly at Phil who just looks calmly back. “I didn’t think I was going to get a chance, and now that I have it I don’t want to reach for stuff you’re not ready for because part of me wants to get what I can, while I can.”

Phil’s heart does something funny again, only it’s a less-positive funny. Clint’s expecting to get his heart broken. He was expecting it before finding out about the extra hurdles, and Phil just wants to dig deep inside of Clint and find whatever hurt caused all of that self-doubt and smooth it out, heal it as best he can. There’s a moment that’s shocking when Phil realizes the variety, breadth and depth of emotions he has that are all caught up in Clint and then something slides into place and the whole misunderstanding inches just a bit closer to making a whole lot of sense.

Phil untangles one of his hands and reaches up to touch Clint’s cheek, to cup it lightly and let his thumb brush against the morning stubble. It’s an interesting feeling and the only thing Phil thinks about it is that it might feel nice against his skin. He leans in for a kiss, the one that Clint interrupted a little while ago. Phil makes a concerted effort to put in just a hint of force. Where last night he had been mostly passive, with a hint of curiosity, this morning he actively sucks on Clint’s bottom lip before running his tongue along the seam of Clint’s lips.

Clint opens up under him with a ragged noise, sucking on Phil’s tongue, letting him inside, practically swallowing him whole. The point Phil had been trying to make is quickly lost. Now all he can do is hold on as he and Clint share a shattering kiss, one that completely redefines Phil’s senses and expectations. He’s forced to stop it before they can get carried away, as much as he’s enjoying it. The adrenaline is running a fine line between arousal and fear and he doesn’t want to ruin this by having a panic attack at the wrong time.

“Okay?” Clint asks, his breathing harsh in the quiet that follows. “That was…” his hands are shaking as he holds Phil close.

“Yes.” Phil nods. “Sorry, I just meant to—” He stops, swallowing and leaning into Clint’s hold which has somehow transformed from sensual back to comforting.

“I know,” Clint says. “I appreciate it, too.” He chuckles against Phil’s temple, kissing it softly before gently peeling away. “Though I can’t say you haven’t given me food for thought.”

Phil’s entire front feels cold as Clint finishes pushing away, which is ridiculous considering his back is just as shirtless. “Go out with me tonight?” he blurts out, wanting to somehow start this all over the right way, or keep it going, something like that.

“Sure,” Clint says easily, smile back on his face, only a little dimmer than earlier. He still looks pretty shaken.

Or aroused. Phil admits he’s not had a lot of practice spotting the intricacies of male arousal on anyone but himself. That particular subject is something he’s currently getting a brand new education in.

Clint has his shoes on before Phil can clear his head enough to finish making plans. He’s waiting by the door by the time Clint finishes finding all of his stuff and putting it back on or into pockets. It’s strange standing barefoot next to a booted Clint. It’s not a situation that has ever come up before and Phil has the strangest sensation of being shorter, even if it’s just barely, than the person pecking him on the lips. That hasn’t happened since childhood.

“Meet up in Penn, by the good coffee shop?” Clint asks, squeezing Phil’s hand companionably. Manhattan is the middle ground from both of their homes and there’s plenty to do inside it, even if it’s all about 30% more expensive.

“Four o’clock,” Phil nods, squeezing back, already making plans. “I’ve got an idea,” he smiles and tugs Clint down, that’s still weird, for a chaste kiss and then rubs their noses together for good measure. It’s important to Phil that while some things might make him feel uncomfortable, that he express the affection he can. For Clint. For himself.

Clint’s face breaks out into a sweet smile, one that Phil isn’t sure has ever been sent in his direction, and he nods firmly to Phil before reaching for the door knob. Phil stays out of direct line of sight of the open door — he’s barely dressed after all, but it’s pretty early on a Saturday so the only people who might be out are the Lebowitzes and the Kleins who walk to and from synagogue together. He firmly resists leaning against the wall and peeking out into the hallway to watch Clint wander away. His fight against his better nature is interrupted by Clint’s swift return where he is caught up into a swift but firm kiss, one of Clint’s arms around his waist, the other cupping his cheek, pulling him close. It’s practically a movie kiss and Phil finds his back bowing back just a bit.

“Sorry,” Clint says breathlessly, when he lets Phil’s lips go. “Just wanted to make sure.”

Phil’s lips are tingly and a little distracting. “Make sure of what?”

Clint ducks his head, pecks him once more, and then lets him go. “Of everything.” He winks saucily and then ducks back out of the apartment leaving Phil breathless, tingling and — damnit — half hard. He’s also smiling so wide his cheeks are starting to cramp a little.

He waits, pressed against the nearest wall, to make sure Clint doesn’t return again. It would be just like him, but he might consider that pushing as well. Phil finally stretches and putters back to the kitchen to both finish his cup of coffee and finish planning the day. Their first date, that they’re both aware is a date. He feels like that should be an important factor.

With nothing else to distract him, he finds himself drifting off into his head, and before he knows it his coffee is stone cold and his cereal a touch too soggy. He’s also still got the residual hormones running through him from Clint’s goodbye. He briefly thinks about using it for a few careful human sexuality experiments as he spies his laptop from across the room, but he thinks maybe that’s a good way to complicate things. He barely knows how to find good heterosexual porn; God knows what he’d find if he went looking for the gay stuff.

Still, his daydreaming has done nothing but make him throb with tension and he has a funny feeling that’s going to be something he’ll need to get used to all over again. Instead he takes a long shower, savoring the feel of his hand wrapped around his cock, imagining Clint pressing close to him, his body trembling with arousal, clutching at Phil tightly. He doesn’t even need to imagine things that haven’t happened this time; he’s got plenty from that unexpected kiss in the kitchen. The spark of something hot and a fiery had been created in that kiss and it is making Phil’s hand feel like absolute heaven as he thrusts into the tight, slick fist it makes.

He braces an arm against the cool tile as his orgasm pools low in his belly and its intensity is a shock — long slow burns involving nothing more than his own personal frustrations haven’t been part of his life for a while, but if he’s going to be seeing Clint, he’ll have to get used to that again as well. He’s still panting by the time the shower finishes washing all the evidence down the drain.

It’s patently obvious that there’s something going on between them, something worth pursuing, worth taking a long and deep look at himself and deciding if this is worth an entire remaking of his self-image. Clint’s softly smiling face flashes behind his eyes and he knows that his instincts have already decided it’s worth a certain amount of personal discomfort. That doesn’t mean he’s convinced he’ll be ready for anything approaching mutual orgasms for a while. Which means he has a couple of cycles of mildly frustrating hours of arousal to look forward to. At least they’ll be capped off by spending some quality time alone, rediscovering the plethora of the ways orgasms can become brighter, hotter and more intense with a protracted and stymied wait to get through before them.

Chapter Text

That afternoon, as he’s getting ready for his first real and true date in a very long time, he’s aware that he stands staring into his closet for far too long. His life doesn’t often allow for the kinds of dates he enjoys. Dates where he spends hours of time with someone whose company he wants to savor. Sharing an experience or three that they both find entertaining. Casually untangling the bits of someone he genuinely likes so that he can start to understand them and so that later he can be there and do things for them just because he can.

It sounds a lot like his job in many ways. But understanding an agent’s weapon preference or why their past might inform a current operation is nothing at all like knowing why something small can make someone smile softly to themselves, even if the skills are sometimes the same. Phil blinks and pauses his casual perusal of his shirts and realizes he’s already playing the pronoun game, inside of his own head of all places, too. So he forces himself into a relaxed pose and redoes his last few thoughts. Phil can’t wait to find out what makes Clint smile softly to himself, to figure out why he does the little things he does in his time off.

Phil is perfectly aware of a large portion of Clint’s history, and he’s had some idle thoughts about how that changes more than his professional habits, but now he wants the details that aren’t in the file and he wants to share his own. Phil wants to know what Clint’s like first thing in the morning when they’re both relaxed and there’s no mission op or awkward sexuality talk hanging over their heads.

He wants those things and more so much it causes a bittersweet pang inside his chest. Phil remembers finding dating difficult, because with civilians there’s a constant drawing of the classified line and with people in the business there’s the constant push/pull of death and danger with a side order of internal politics that never seems worth it. Phil has participated in a few casual relationships because companionship makes him feel steadier, but even those have fallen by the wayside in recent months, possibly years.

Phil is fairly sure he and Clint have a decent chance with all of those other possible problems, so he’s just going to have to work hard on the big one not interfering with the natural progression of two people negotiating a new relationship. If it fails, Phil wants it to fail for a real reason, not because he’s too scared to try. If he genuinely figures out that he’s just not bisexual enough, and wow, that’s a new word he’ll have to practice, to have a fulfilling relationship with another man that’s one thing. It’s entirely another thing if he lets that hurdle stop him from even trying.

He chooses something casual but nice, remembering the times Clint seemed to find Phil dressed down absolutely delightful. He remembers an old adage that the opposite of what you normally wear is the most intriguing. So he picks out comfortable but well-maintained jeans, a black t-shirt that he spent a pretty penny on because it started out soft instead of needing hundreds of washings to get there, and a cashmere sweater in a silver gray with a v-neck. It’s fall, but early enough that sunset doesn’t mean a sharp chill sets in just yet, so he forgoes his jacket altogether. He feels vulnerable in his clothes. There’s nothing about his outfit that matches any of his and Clint’s previous interactions. It’s exactly what he was going for, but it makes him nervous all the same.

He stays that way, with his stomach fluttering in time with the E train’s shimmies and shakes past the local Queens stops, all the way until Clint spots him through a crowd in the middle of Penn Station and his face goes delighted. His distraction at Phil’s appearance soothes something inside of him, and for some reason if both of them are disarmed by the other’s presence, that makes it all easier.

Phil is completely absorbed in looking his fill at Clint, who is also freshly showered and shaved, but also has a forest green, button-down shirt tucked neatly into his black jeans. The pants are in fact so black Phil that mistakes them for dress slacks until he gets a closer look. He’s so engrossed he just about misses Clint’s careful lean in and eyelid droop.

“You’re wearing the good aftershave,” Clint murmurs, managing to still be heard in the bustle of the busy station market. “God, I love that smell on you.”

Phil can feel the blush. He doesn’t remember actively deciding to wear his favorite aftershave, but rather it was a reflex born of knowing what sort of evening he was preparing for. He rarely wears it to work, or even after work, preferring to keep unobtrusiveness as his ultimate weapon, but the aftershave is also one of his preferred social accessories.

Clint is still leaning close, so Phil gets a whiff of him and the reaction he has to Clint’s scented soap mixed in with the smell of his leather jacket is visceral and a little surprising. He fights the urge to bury his nose into the junction of Clint’s shoulder and neck and instead smiles indulgently and ducks his head. That he knows that Clint uses scented soap for his completely off-duty days is something else to consider later.

“You look amazing,” Phil says instead of offering to lick Clint’s neck, which is fast becoming an urge he’s not sure he can maintain control of. They stare at each other a little goofily until a noise loud enough to separate itself from the din startles them both. Next to him, Clint chuckles and Phil can’t hold back his snickering as well. He gestures for Clint to follow him. They may as well get going while they laugh it out.

“Walking okay?” Phil asks at the intersection that has a flight of stairs down at one end and the first up escalator on the other. “It’s ten blocks or so.”

Clint nods easily, walking so closely to Phil that their arms brush more often than not. The deja vu is a little surprising, but Phil’s mind recalls all the other times he and Clint have walked this closely without tripping one another up. Discounting secret passages and tiny closets that seem to populate their missions, it’s still been happening an awful lot recently and it had definitely happened during the date Phil hadn’t known he’d been on.

Both Phil and Clint have spent enough time in the NYC subway system that little things like knowing which exit (out of upwards of twenty or so just for Penn) is the best to take for any given situation is instinct. Though Clint seems to be taking his cues directly from Phil’s body language because he has been distracted to the point of forgetting to tell Clint where they are going. He’s a little embarrassed by that, though the fact that Clint isn’t asking but just trusting him to lead the way to something fun or interesting makes his heart beat a little faster.

“We’re going to the Paley Center,” Phil explains as soon as they’re back in the open air, “though, last time I went it was still called the Museum of Television and Radio.”

Clint looks intrigued and he relaxes a little while Phil explains what he remembers about his last visit. “It’s not just staring at old televisions,” he says and relates a bit of the history the history.

“Sounds quirky,” Clint says, but his smile is genuine and relaxed.

“I uh—” Phil clears his throat. “I remembered a story you told me, in medical.” He waits for Clint to nod. “It was pretty early on. We were still getting to know each other and it was your first really serious injury and you hadn’t made a lot of friends yet so I was—”

“You visited me every day,” Clint interrupts. “I remember.” His eyes dart away quickly. “I really appreciated it even if I was a surly SOB at the time.”

Phil shrugs. “It wasn’t that bad. Remember, I’ve seen Fury confined to medical.”

Clint mock shudders and they fall into a short silence before Phil remembers he was explaining something.

“So,” he starts again slowly, “right in the beginning, before they’d weaned you off the good drugs, we had a conversation and I asked if there was something that would make the time pass easier and you deflected a little but then— The pain killers must have really kicked in.” He remembers that visit to medical in sharp and vivid detail. Clint had looked so small and fragile in that bed, every inch of him either bandaged or connected to a tube or a wire. It had scared him when he’d remembered how young Clint actually was.

He’s three steps gone before he realizes Clint has stopped walking. Before Phil can do anything, Clint catches up, but the ease in his stride is missing. “I told you about the cartoons?”

Phil looks around and then takes a step to the side, glad they’re on an avenue side; the sidewalks are wider there. “Hey,” Phil nods him over and out of the pedestrian stream. “We can do something else.”

“No,” Clint says quickly, “no, sorry, it’s fine.” He smiles fragilely. “It’s great, really. No one’s ever—” He cuts himself off. “It was just a surprise, that’s all.”

Phil reaches out, only slightly aware that they’re in public but finding it hard to give a damn. “A good surprise?” he asks, twining their fingers together.

“Yeah,” Clint says, voice shaking just a little, his hand reflexively tightening on Phil’s.

He keeps their hands entwined, going so far as to tighten his grip when Clint’s slackens just a bit, probably trying to give Phil a natural out. But now that he’s holding Clint’s hand, he really doesn’t want to stop, to hell with being in public. Next to him, he can feel Clint relax and resume a more equal share of the hand holding, even if he remains quiet for the next few blocks. By the time they get to the entrance and Phil is buying their tickets, he realizes he forgot to finish his explanation, again. Oh well, Clint will figure it out by the end of the tour.

The tour through the exhibits is different than the one from over a decade ago, which is fine with Phil. It’s still pretty interesting. The exhibits have been updated nicely and it’s all still just as quirky and endearing as he remembers it. The older technology on display intrigues Clint as much as it did Phil. The modern era of spying is a weird combination of too slick and old and clunky. Some countries are decades out of date and along with understanding how SIM cards work, most agents also need to know the base components of a radio and where to scrounge them.

There’s an announcement on the promotions board near the end of the tour for an upcoming event, scheduled for that evening. It’s a panel on comic books in new media, transitioning to movies mostly, but there are a few authors who have moved them into novels. They’ve got a couple of directors and script writers coming in, even names Phil recognizes despite his paltry amount of free time.

It’s Clint who suggests grabbing some tickets, which surprises Phil.

“Well,” Clint says carefully, “you find this place interesting and you haven’t been wrong so far.”

Phil blushes hotly but nods. “We’ll check on our way out, but first...” He nudges Clint back to what the docent is saying and waits for her to finish with the ending spiel. As Clint listens to the instructions on how to search the microfilm library he gasps quietly, his hand suddenly clutching Phil’s painfully.

“What— But I thought—” Clint babbles quietly while Phil leads them over to a quiet corner.

“You said you’d missed them a little, even if you only remembered bits and pieces,” Phil explains quietly. “The museum has the largest and most expansive archived collection of broadcast television in the United states, and the database can be searched by year and broadcast station.”

The truth of it is that Phil has wished to give Clint even a small slice of the kind of life he feels Clint deserves for a long time, and it’s hard to find concrete evidence of any of Clint’s early life that isn’t a CPS file. When Clint left the system, he truly left the system and anything of permanence he wanted to keep traveled with him. Phil knows he’s lost most of that over the years. Memories are all Clint has left of anything good from that time, and that’s always made Phil a little achy inside.

The story Clint had slurred to him, half asleep and drowsy, was one that had given Phil nightmares. Things like the television hadn’t been for little boys in the Barton house and was usually only theirs to try to enjoy when their father wasn’t home, which as the years went on, wasn’t often. Except when guilt came into play. Sometimes Clint stayed home from school when he wasn’t sick. Those days, his father gave up a few precious hours of television.

Later, Clint had told him, carefully staring at the wall across from his hospital bed, Barney had worked the system hard to get Clint some TV time at the group home. It had only happened twice and only near the beginning, but Clint had explained to Phil how hard those days had been for him and those half hours had distracted young Clint from his homesickness the way nothing else had.

So when they sit down at the computers, Phil takes the clues from Clint’s file and his own search terms and does his own bit of digging. When they’re done they both have a charmingly out-of-date printout, thin paper from a dot-matrix style printer, with nearly 20 index codes. More if Phil breaks the database sorting matrix code, which isn’t all that complex. It takes a little while, but eventually Clint inputs one of the codes into the viewer and presses Enter and his entire body lights up with success.

Over his shoulder Phil sees a cartoon start to play silently (each station only has a single set of earphones). Phil catches the title sequence and does a bit more searching and finds a good handful of episodes to offer Clint when the first one is done. If they watch them all and then go to the show later that night they’ll miss dinner, but that’s fine with Phil as long as Clint’s face stays bright and delighted like the way it is now.

By the end of the first episode, there are damp tracks running down Clint’s face and when the last of the credits fade from the screen he takes off the earphones and turns to Phil who is starting to worry a little bit at the tears.

“Thank you,” Clint says roughly. “Oh, God, it was just as bad as I thought it’d be, but it was perfect. Thank you.”

“Good,” Phil says quietly, reaching out to take Clint’s hand again. He wants to hug him tightly but he’s not sure how well that will go over. Clint and emotions can be volatile or at the very least, sarcastic, especially in public, but Clint’s hand is shaking in his and Phil makes an executive decision. He grabs their printouts in case they want them later and pulls Clint over to a quiet corner and hugs him. Clint melts into him, arms wrapping around Phil tightly, his head tucking into Phil’s neck where he can feel the dampness of Clint’s face on his skin. The shake becomes a full body thing for a few seconds before Clint calms down, but the hug goes on for a while.

When they untangle, there’s one one guy in the corner looking grumpy, but he stays far away from them. The docent who led the tour discreetly hands Phil a travel kleenex package and a bottle of water. She smiles kindly at them and then leaves them in privacy. It makes Phil wonder if that sort of thing happens a lot in the records room. Clint cleans up a little and soon he looks fine, if a little red-eyed.

“Let’s go get some dinner,” Clint says.

“You don’t want to watch some more?” Phil asks, but he knows he’ll keep the printouts and his notes for a future outing.

“Another time,” Clint says, tapping the pocket Phil has their slips of paper in. “It really is a terrible show.”

Phil lets it go at that, but he does ask if Clint still wants to try for the show that night. If anything, he seems more enthusiastic than earlier, so they grab some tickets, which aren’t actually all that expensive, and head off in search of someplace local to eat.

They share plates of food at a quiet and darkly-lit place, the type that seems to flourish in small Manhattan storefronts. It’s all delicious and only slightly overpriced, but the experience is worth it. They spend long minutes taking bites from each other’s plates and finding strange combinations of flavors surprisingly intriguing. In his more introspective moments, Phil thinks this is the perfect accidental metaphor.

The panel at the Paley Center is both interesting and hilarious and Phil’s face aches with smiles and laughter by the time they wander out into the night. He stops himself from telling Clint that he shouldn’t follow him into the subway — they literally need the same line but in different directions — because he doesn’t want it to end just yet.

At his door, things start to get a little awkward, mostly because beyond agreeing to date, they haven’t actually had any conversations about Phil’s, or Clint’s, limits.

“I want to invite you in,” Phil says, pulling Clint close. “I want to spend more time with you, but I need you to know that I—”

“Hey,” Clint says, cupping Phil’s cheek. “I wasn’t expecting anything.”

“Well,” Phil says, blindly unlocking his door, “I wasn’t going for nothing either.” When he gets the door open, he leads Clint inside, closes the door and then leans Clint against it, all with an easy smile. “This was a really wonderful evening,” Phil says, letting their bodies drift closer. “Thank you.”

Clint blinks, gently tugging Phil further into his orbit, his fingers curling loosely into the Phil’s belt loops. “Phil, you found me my childhood cartoon fetish based nothing more on a drugged confession and probably some notes in my file.” He brushes a soft kiss against Phil’s lips. “Thank you.”

“I made you cry,” Phil mumbles into Clint’s lips. “I didn’t mean to make you cry.” They kiss again, slow and soft. Phil feels brave, so he lets their bodies drift until the door behind Clint is holding them up and he’s pressed firmly into Clint’s front.

“You gave me the one good piece of my childhood back,” Clint says, taking Phil’s lips again and again until one kiss flows into the next and their mouths are partly open with the lushness of it.

They spend a long time just kissing. It possibly moves into ‘making out’ territory, but Phil refuses to call it that. Still, they find themselves on the couch, curled up in one another, reclining at an angle, with Phil on top, one leg sliding between Clint’s. His skin is buzzing and they’ve worked their shirts out of their pants and their hands have spent a good deal of time running up and down skin. Phil spends a solid couple of minutes mesmerized by Clint’s stomach, evenly caught up by the differences in muscle and bone and the amazing way they’re put together.

Eventually Phil works his way around to Clint’s jaw and neck, finally giving in to that first impulse. He kisses the soft skin just over his pulse point, nuzzles it softly and then licks, feeling just a little naughty as his tongue touches fluttering skin, especially as Clint’s chest sucks in a sharp breath as he does it. Clint’s fingers thread through his hair, holding him close before gently moving him away from that patch of skin.

“Too much,” Clint says softly, kissing Phil carefully, at first, before choking back a moan and shifting his head in a way that makes the kiss deep, very deep, and Phil goes with it letting Clint inside his mouth with his sweeping tongue. It electrifies his body and he pulls Clint closer, closing those last few inches between them, his thigh moving up until he feels something hot pressing against it, but he’s distracted by Clint’s thigh and the perfect hard ridge of muscle it presents to roll his hips against.

Clint wrenches his head away. “Sorry, sorry.” His body goes from pliant to tense and his legs move away. “Too much.”

It takes a few hazy seconds for Phil to realize what happened and it’s absolutely ridiculous that it makes him blush. “Don’t be sorry for trying to respect my limits,” he smiles and squeezes Clint’s nearest hand, “and yours.”

Clint smiles thinly, but there’s nothing angry or upset in it, just maybe a little brittle. “I think I need to stop,” he says, running a free finger down Phil’s temple and jaw, “as much as I don’t want to.”

Phil agrees, now that he realizes what exactly happened. He needs to stop, too, and examine how the heated erection Clint is sporting felt pressed against the inside of his thigh. He smiles at Clint, gives him a final kiss and then slowly peels away. On one hand, that he did that to Clint is pretty amazing. On the other, it still leaves him with pretty complicated feelings.

He checks the clock and winces. “You should stay here again,” Phil says once he has put an entire couch cushion between them. “Don’t go out at this hour,” he says and then bites the bullet feeling that honestly is probably the only way they’ll make it through this. “I’ll only worry anyway.”

Clint shifts — fidgets really — on his side of the couch. His face is flushed and his lips swollen, but he’s holding his lower half terribly still. “I don’t know,” Clint starts, “last night was one thing but—”

“You think going out like that is a better idea?” Phil asks. He feels strangely proprietary about Clint’s current condition and returns Clint’s wry look with one of his own. “Listen,” he says because he wants, no he needs, Clint to feel comfortable in his space and he needs Clint to feel comfortable about their potential physical relationship and not worry more than necessary about Phil’s reactions. “Stay the night. I’ll dig out something for you to sleep in and you can—” he stutters just a little, “take a shower to relax,” his face heats up quickly and he and Clint share a short laugh, “and tomorrow we can work out a better long term solution.”

“Long term?” Clint is smiling shyly at him.

“Yeah,” Phil takes Clint’s hand in his own and brings it to his lips, “long term.”

Clint’s face transforms and a touch of wariness and fear slides off him. There’s still something guarded in his eyes, but Clint brightens nevertheless. “You’re pretty amazing,” he says, “you know that?” He tugs their entwined hands back to him and returns the kiss to the knuckles. “Most guys would have just run for the hills, but not you, Phil Coulson. You run into a surprise brick wall— Don’t give me that look,” he shakes a finger from his free hand at Phil. “Those do so exist. You run into a surprise brick wall, stop, figure out why it happened, and when you realize you took part in making the wall, you nod your head and just accept it.”

“There’s no point in denying making my own bed,” Phil says mildly. “I admit, I’m not sure about exactly what prompted me to say yes instead of just apologizing and asking to live and let live...” He trails off. “No. That’s not true. I thought to myself that I couldn’t bear to hurt you and I realized I hadn’t felt quite so—” The word sticks in his throat. “That in the last few months I haven’t been—” Why is it so hard to say?

“Lonely?” Clint asks, eyes soft and understanding. “Yeah, I know what you mean. I was nearly sick with guilt when I realized Nat wasn’t enough. We’re assassin BFF soulmates after all.”

“Did she hit you for daring to want something just for yourself?” Phil asks pointedly.

Clint runs a hand through his hair and looks away. “Maybe.”

Phil sighs. “I was kidding, but you actually apologized to her, didn’t you?”

Clint’s lip juts out and his posture slumps a little and before he can answer Phil swoops in with a few kisses, careful not to let it go overboard. “I just realized what that feeling is that I get whenever you sulk,” Phil says when he’s done.

“Oh?” Clint says casually, raising a curious eyebrow.

“Mhhmm,” Phil smiles, dipping in for another kiss, and another and he knows they need to stop but it’s hard to pull away so instead he lets their noses touch. He’s got a hand on the back of the couch to keep himself balanced, but its mostly his own muscles keeping their bodies separate and the angle is pretty awkward but Phil figures he’s got a good thirty seconds before something starts to complain and he’s finding it hard to work up the determination to say goodnight. “My levels of frustration about some of your antics make a lot more sense now, too,” Phil says as their foreheads touch.

“Aww, shucks,” Clint says playfully, one hand holding him by the back of the neck, the other rubbing circles into Phil’s flexing bicep. “And here I thought I was just special.”

“You are,” Phil says and he really means to be something other than deadly serious, but the words just fall out of his mouth with a quiet intensity that makes his heart thunder. Before he can say anything else, he’s caught up into Clint’s gaze which has gone wide with shock and he can’t do anything but kiss Clint’s parted lips. It’s freeing to be able to say these things, to realize he’s been thinking them for a long time and to finally have context for them and Phil forgets himself briefly and curls back against Clint, arms sliding around his body to pull him close.

A roll of Clint’s hips pushes pleasure through Phil’s body with an intensity that frightens him. He backs off the kiss, whispering “Sorry, sorry, I didn’t mean to push,” into Clint’s lips.

“It’s fine,” Clint says, “but I really need to say goodnight now.” His voice is rough and a little trembly, but he looks pretty calm.

Phil, on the other hand, feels shaken and scared. He makes himself sit calmly back on the other side of the couch. “The closet next to the bathroom has towels. I’ll leave something for you to change into outside the door.” He’s moving to stand when Clint’s hand touches his arm.

“Are you okay?” Clint asks and while there are still traces of desire to be seen in his face and body, he has also definitely transitioned into worry.

“Yes— No,” Phil corrects, reminding himself that being honest is the better idea, “but I will be.”

“You sure?” Clint asks, his arms cross and if possible he’s even stiffer than earlier.

“Yeah,” Phil smiles carefully, “I just wasn’t expecting—”

“My man parts?” Clint guesses, his eyes sparkling and his lips quirked upwards.

Phil kicks him, but gently because he knows he’s just trying to lighten the mood. “No,” he says. “To feel that good.”

Clint stares at him for a few seconds before something in his face changes, softens into worry, “How long has it been since you’ve dated anyone?” Phil is about to give a glib answer, it’s habit more than anything, but Clint catches him with a simple, “Seriously.” Phil’s open mouth clacks shut before he can spout off something flippant or even just technically correct.

He has to think about it, roll back some calendar years to remember his last serious relationship.

“Yeah,” Clint says after not too long. “That’s what I thought.”

“Is it—” Phil swallows. “Do you think that it’s because I’m actually—”

“Gay?” Clint sighs, shifting closer but carefully keeping two feet on the floor at all times.

Their thighs press together and Phil can feel some tension automatically leaving his frame.

“Honestly?” Clint asks, but doesn’t wait for Phil to answer him. “Only you can answer that question, but I can tell you it doesn’t matter to me.”

Phil sighs. “I don’t feel like there was something that big missing from my life.” He leans into Clint’s side, but tucks his hands under his arms. “I think at least that much I’d be aware of, even with mountains of denial heaped on top of it?”

“Probably,” Clint agrees and then he sighs. “Look, this is going to sound pretty egotistical, but maybe it’s not that you’ve been super secretly in denial about your latent homosexuality so much as you really like me. Enough that some other stuff doesn’t matter as much.”

“You’re right,” Phil says, “that does sound pretty egotistical.” He elbows Clint playfully and they tussle for a little bit, carefully keeping their hands and feet inside their own personal rides. “I mean, the idea of having sex with a woman is kind of unappealing at the moment, but not because she’s a woman, but because,” he looks sideways at Clint, “she’s not you.” He chuckles quietly. “I guess it has been too long since I’ve dated anyone seriously, I’ve forgotten what that feels like.”

“Me too,” Clint says, “and I’m really glad you didn’t freak out.” He hugs himself tightly and looks away. “I mean, I’d have dealt with it, but it would have been hard.”

“I’m not physically capable of freaking out,” Phil says deadly serious.

They stare at each other until Clint breaks and then they’re laughing uproariously and there are tears in Phil’s eyes before he can calm down. Eventually Phil gets himself to leave and take a quick run at the bathroom before leaving it to Clint. The shower is already running by the time he comes back out of his room with the largest pair of sweatpants and t-shirt he can find. He and Clint are actually just about the same height, but Clint has more bulk all over.

Phil gives in to the temptation to press his ear against the door and listen to Clint puttering around inside his bathroom. Probably already naked. That thought makes Phil’s body jolt with adrenaline, but he’s not sure if anticipation or fear. Or both.

By the time he’s lying in his own bed, he’s moving so quietly he can hear the various splashes as Clint moves around under the spray. Some of the lost tightness in his muscles and thighs comes back once he settles down. He can’t stop listening for the sounds of Clint moving around and then he can’t stop imagining it. It’s not that he hasn’t seen Clint in various states of undress over the years. He’s just never used that knowledge for… other reasons.

Now he can’t stop remembering the times Clint had emerged from a puff of steam in the showers, damp and clad in a towel slung low on his hips, looking flushed and relaxed. Clint has never been body shy. He knows exactly the kind of shape he must be in the perform to his maximum potential and since he breaks the records at regular intervals, Clint is aware that his body is pretty well honed. What’s always intrigued Phil is that it’s not an arrogant body comfort, just a comfortable knowledge.

He gives up on trying to be good about it when his cock throbs at the memory of Clint pressing against him and he licks his palm and slides his hand into his sleep pants and palms his erection. God, he hasn’t jerked off three times in 24 hours in years. Still his hand feels damn good and he shudders as it closes into a tight fist. He remembers Clint’s hands on him and can hear Clint moving around in the other room, naked, and it’s a short trip to gasping into his arm as his thumb rubs against the sensitive part just under the head. He’s just switched to holding his fist steady as he rocks into it over and over again, his toes curling and heart beating when Clint’s voice comes softly through the door.

“Night, Phil.”

It’s quiet enough that if Phil were asleep it wouldn’t wake him, but as he’s been straining to hear a sound, any sound, it’s loud inside his ears and he comes abruptly, stomach pulling him upright. He barely gets his free hand into place to catch the mess and he’s still twitching as he falls back down to the bed. His limbs are loose and floppy when he finally moves them again. He carefully wipes up his hand and then curls over into his pillow, eyes already heavy with sleep.

Chapter Text

In the morning, he is once again enticed out of his bedroom by the smell of brewing coffee. This time, he remembers who’s out there waiting for him and it’s possible he puts in a little extra zombie just for show. Phil smiles into his cup as Clint laughs at his antics. Clint kisses his shoulder as he shuffles past to claim a seat at the table.

Phil joins him and they sip coffee and catch up on email on their phones. It’s quiet and comfortable and they spend a lot of time talking with their bare feet, running them up and down one another, a big toe tracing someone else’s arch. Phil finds himself with a half smile he can’t make go down; Clint’s face matches.

Eventually, they are both dressed, albeit casually, and they both sigh. The work week looms in front of them, long and stressful. Phil is stuck inside some heavy planning meetings and Clint is off on an overnighter with a junior handler needing an evaluation, the very things that Phil hates most — Clint too, Phil thinks. Still, it means that as much as Phil wants to install Clint into his couch for awkward hand holding and movie watching, they need to separate sooner rather than later because working for SHIELD does occasionally have homework and it almost always sucks away all of your free time. Phil has actual chores he needs to get done.

As they stand by the door, their hands reach out to each other; Phil’s land on Clint’s hips, Clint’s on Phil’s arms. They take a few long breaths, savoring the moment. Phil feels a pang of emotion in his chest. “Next weekend?” He asks, rubbing his thumbs into Clint’s sides, but over his shirt.

“Friday?” Clint asks, running his hands up to Phil’s neck so his thumbs can rub slow circles around the pulse points.

“Maybe,” Phil says, letting their foreheads rest together. “I never know about Fridays until the morning. I might not be done until late.” A week seems so far away he and aches a little inside. “Saturday?”

Clint kisses him softly. “I’ll wait for you on Friday.”

“You don’t have to,” Phil says. If Monday’s meetings go bad, Friday is going to be really long.

“I want to,” Clint says carefully, “but if you—”

“What?” Phil can feel Clint tensing under his fingers.

“What do you need from me at work?” Clint asks slowly.

Phil wants to have an answer for that, to even know where to begin, but he’s barely thought about the terribly awkward conversation he needs to have with one of his friends before anything further happens. SHIELD being SHIELD, if he starts behaving in a manner contrary to what is expected, certain balls may start rolling that would only end in embarrassment. “I—” He hesitates. “I need to talk to someone first, before I can answer that. Is that okay?”

Clint nods, like he expected that. “Are you going to do the paperwork?”

“I think we should,” Phil says, realizing he’d been planning on doing that first thing, “but I get a little leeway. It’ll get classified to eyes only so there won’t be prying eyes everywhere.” He realizes how that sounds and tries to correct himself but Clint gets there first, occupying his lips with another of those careful kisses that make Phil’s pulse speed up.

“I understand,” Clint says once their lips separate. “How about I bring you lunch and you tell me how that conversation went and we sign off on the paperwork together?”

“It’s a date,” Phil says, throwing in a little smirk for fun.

“Awesome.” Clint kisses him, then kisses him again and then their arms tangle and Clint’s leg winds around Phil’s and Phil feels the world tilt as he’s dipped. When he’s done, Clint takes care to put Phil back onto his feet and hold him till he’s steady.

“You know,” Phil says casually, despite his breathless voice, “I think you’re doing that on purpose.”

Clint blinks with wide eyes that say ‘who me?’ but they haven’t fooled Phil for years. “Well,” he says between kisses, “I am trying to distinguish myself as having a unique skill set that makes it worth all the effort.”

Phil’s brain unfogs at that and he wraps Clint into a hug. “Hey,” he says into Clint’s ear, “you’re worth effort. You always were. And whatever this is between us isn’t about effort, okay?” Clint’s body slowly loses tension and becomes pliable against Phil’s. “At most, I’d go for an Alice in Wonderland reference.”

“Wizard of Oz too cliche?” Clint asks, still tucked into Phil’s shoulder.

“Absolutely,” Phil nods, briefly wondering if he’s suddenly gained an entire culture, an entire movement and history he needs to learn about — the Oz reference never occurred to him. “And if I ever start looking to get back through the looking glass, I’m pretty sure I’d drag you with me. No matter what.”

Clint pulls away enough to look him in the eye. “No matter what?”

“Absolutely.” Phil nods firmly. “Before Friday night, I thought of you as a close colleague, if not friend. Beyond that,” Phil’s hands idly smooth down an imaginary crease in Clint’s shirt, “I’ve always thought you were an extraordinary human being, the kind of person that makes the hard parts of my job worth it and the easy parts a great joy.”

Clint stares at him, wide-eyed.

“Christ,” Phil breathes out, “I really like you, don’t I?”

“Yeah,” Clint stutters out, shocked.

They say goodbye, both deeply distracted. It takes Phil a while to find the concentration to get his bills paid and the dishware migrated from sink to dishwasher to cabinet. He’s so distracted that he only remembers to send Director Fury his invitation to breakfast minutes before he turns in for the evening.

Asking the director to breakfast is a long-standing signal that Phil needs to talk to him, that it’s important, but that he doesn’t want the meeting on his books. Phil has only used it a handful of times and he feels a little silly requesting it for something as relatively unimportant (to national security) as a new relationship.

Friendships are strange in intelligence agencies. The usual things that bind two people together, experience and secrets, have a twisted and complicated turn when adding security and clearance concerns. Spy friendships survive name changes, passcodes, long silences, and dead drops for even the most innocuous of things. Personal secrets are frowned upon; personal secrets are leverage for the wrong people. So spies also learn to live with sharing the most embarrassing things if necessary. Uncomfortable conversations never get easier, but the existential angst that accompanies the necessity slowly ebbs away with the years.

His phone buzzes before he finishes falling asleep and Phil reaches for it.

SHOULD I BRING EXTRA BULLETS?

Phil smiles, and tells the Director he thought he was too old for security blankets. In the morning he wakes up to a single-word message.

FUCKER.

There’s a diner tucked away in a corner about two blocks from the main SHIELD building in New York City. It’s run and owned by SHIELD dependents and never has any trouble making ends meet. There’s even a rumor that they’ve managed to hold on to a 99-year, rent-controlled lease. Each table has a switch and a light, upgraded from the bell system a few years ago, so that no waiter or waitress can appear and interrupt an important conversation. The tables are stocked with water bottles and drinks are handed out especially swiftly. Sally’s has had decades of perfecting the system and it’s a rite of passage for a Supervising Officer to take their charge there upon successful completion of level one testing.

Fury likes it because he doesn’t have to switch out his floor length duster for a shorter coat and pull on sunglasses to hide his eye patch. Also, their coffee is really good.

Phil is waiting for him when the Director arrives the next morning. There are full coffee cups and menus on the table and Phil’s hands are clamped firmly on each other to avoid fidgeting. He waits, mostly patiently, while Fury adjusts his coffee to his liking and then sips it for taste.

“Marcus,” he says and Fury winces.

“Well shit,” Marcus says, “and here I just thought there was a mole in the agency or a rogue nuclear bomb, but this sounds serious.”

“Maybe.” He laughs quietly.

Breakfast is delivered within seconds. Phil knows what Marcus likes and he’s not sure he can sit through ten minutes of painful small talk. The gesture does, however, get Phil a raised eyebrow. Phil busies himself with his scrambled eggs.

“Cheese,” Marcus says quietly, “you’re scaring me.”

His blush reflex is getting an excellent workout in the last few days. “It’s about some paperwork I’ll be giving you later today.”

Marcus puts his elbows on table and leans in. “This feels a helluva lot more serious, and personal, than some paperwork.”

“It is,” he sighs and pushes his plate away. “This weekend, Friday evening actually, I found myself in the peculiar position of having gone on a date without having realized it.”

Marcus looks skeptical. “You’re not usually that unobservant.”

Phil takes a deep breath and forces his shoulders down into relaxation. Moments of truth come very rarely in his line of work. Those moments have long since been figured out and analyzed for the proper responses. “It was Barton.”

Marcus stares at him. “Shit.”

“It was a surprise,” Phil admits. That first touch of lips is seared into his mind, if only because it’s so rare to know the instant your life changes course.

“I’ll find him someone good,” Marcus says, hands wrapping around his mug tightly. “He shouldn’t be—”

“No,” Phil says as soon as he realizes what Marcus is saying, even if the implications warm him because it’s obvious Marcus cares about both of them in the situation in his head. He cares that Clint not be penalized for an honest mistake and he cares that they both be comfortable with the situation. “No. That’s… not it.”

Marcus’s eyes narrow at him. “Cheese?”

“I asked you here because I need you to be my eyes only on the AF-101B,” Phil says finally. “Normally I’d exercise my ‘private until mission critical’ options, but I thought, all things considered, in our business someone might sound a false alarm.”

“A. F. 101. B.” Marcus says carefully. “Phil,” and now it’s getting serious. When Marcus breaks out the first names it’s time to duck and cover. “I really don’t care, but I thought that you weren’t—”

“Yeah,” Phil looks down into his cup. He’s nearly finished it in his distraction. “It was a surprise for me too.”

The silence that follows is heavy, only broken up by the muted sounds coming from the other tables of silverware clattering against dishware. Marcus chugs the rest of his coffee and then refills his cup from the warm carafe on the table. Phil, for want of something to do, starts back in on his breakfast, even if his hunger is muted now.

“Are you sure?” Marcus eventually asks.

Phil tries to pinpoint the words, but he’s been finding himself lacking in that area a lot in the last few days. In this instance, part of the problem is that he wants his friend more than his friendly colleague, but he’s not sure they’ve truly transitioned to that place yet. “I’m pretty sure he’s in love with me,” is what he finally says, “and it scares the crap out of me.”

“But not enough to scare you away?”

“No,” Phil admits. “It makes me want to do a lot of things, but running away isn’t anywhere near the top of the list.”

“Well, that’s something then, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” Phil says, finally letting his gaze settle back onto Marcus’s eye, “I guess it is.”

The conversation lapses. It’s strange because Marcus has never, ever, hesitated in expressing an opinion and Phil’s stomach is tying itself into knots over this apparent and epic restraint. It hasn’t occurred to him that there might be more than some embarrassing ribbing from his friend. What if Phil has misread the situation entirely? He’s seen reasonable people with reasonable opinions explode when the theoretical becomes reality, usually with a close family member or friend. They’ve even used that scenario for their own purposes in operations.

“Tell me about him,” Marcus says when he’s wiped up the last of his slightly runny eggs with his honey wheat toast.

Phil pauses with his nearly empty coffee cup on the way to his mouth. “Barton?”

“Clint,” Marcus corrects him. “Tell me about Clint.”

He takes a careful swallow and then puts his mug down. “He’s…” Phil pauses. He thinks about Clint, about the words he has yet to find.

“Never mind,” Marcus says. “Your face says it all.”

*****

Hours later, Clint knocks on his door politely and so completely out of character it brings a smile to Phil’s face. He’s holding a plastic bag in one hand and cup holder in the other.

“Oolong,” Clint explains while Phil sniffs at it. “There’s a tea shop Natasha likes that has some really great stuff.”

Phil takes a sip and savors the complicated flavor, which somehow manages to complement the cheap Chinese Clint brought along with it.

“Not cheap,” Clint corrects his observation. “Quick, efficient, and well run. Just because it doesn’t cost much doesn’t mean it’s poorly made.”

Phil’s heart turns over in his chest and he can’t help but feel like he’s just gotten the distillation of Clint Barton via Chinese Food metaphor and it’s beautiful. Before things can get too messy, Phil turns over the forms and Clint takes a few minutes to add what he needs to. Phil has most of Clint’s vital statistics and details memorized, so it’s mostly signing and dating. Clint goes along at a fast clip until the last page.

“Fury?” He looks up in a panic. “Fury is your friendly exception? Am I going to be assassinated in my sleep?”

Phil chuckles. “Clint, two words: Natasha Romanov.”

Clint pauses and shrugs sheepishly. They’re both expecting the be all and end all of shovel speeches.

Lunch is quietly companionable and Phil enjoys it until he realizes that at the end of it, that’s all there is, until Friday. A sort of achy sadness sits inside of him and it’s a very strange feeling.

“So,” Clint says, gathering their garbage, “Phil. I need to know what you need from me at work.” It’s said kindly and softly, but there’s a pleading inside of it and Phil can tell it’s not born out of a need for permission, but rather a simple need to know.

“Lunch,” Phil says. “Wednesdays.”

“Okay.” Clint smiles.

“I’d rather not—” He stops, unsure of if it’s what he wants or what he thinks he should do. “I need to be professional inside this building and on operations.” They can amend it later if he needs to.

“No problem.” Clint nods. There’s no surprise in his eyes or his posture.

“I don’t— I think that—” Phil’s shoulders slump. “You shouldn’t think that Friday isn’t just as far away for me.”

“I know,” Clint says. He’s leaning against his closed door, his hands stuffed into his pockets. “I know, Phil.”

They stare at each other for long seconds and Clint starts to feel so far away.

“My week is too busy to—”

“Phil,” Clint says firmly, “I understand. I’ve got two overnights this week as it is. They threw another one at me this morning. Next week we’ve got the operation you’re planning this week, and I know there’s something coming for the end of the month.” He smiles softly. “I understand.”

“Good,” Phil says. “Thank you.” The problem is that he feels like a damn teenager and is desperately thinking about the adult equivalent of under the bleachers. The problem is that he’s got an office that locks and an override code for surveillance and Clint is right there being so understanding. Technically, with the paperwork signed, the classified code isn’t breaking any rules, though the spirit of it all would take a beating.

“Okay,” Phil says, fed up with himself. “I declare an exception.”

“An exception?” Clint looks intrigued, his whole body going from relaxed to just tense enough to be primed for movement.

“Yeah,” Phil nods, stepping closer to Clint, grasping his hands and purposefully putting them on Phil’s hips. Their kiss stays soft and chaste. Neither of them are looking for anything too inappropriate, but because Phil is just getting used to wanting to touch Clint, it’s hard to remember not to.

Five minutes of quiet contemplation and careful kissing later, Clint slips out of his office and Phil seals the envelope on their paperwork and addresses it to Fury’s eyes-only inbox.

He gets a visit from Natasha a few hours later.

“I thought he’d get it out of his system and move on,” is what she opens with.

Phil waits for her to finish finding her seat. “Yeah, I think that’s what he was expecting, too.”

She eyes him coolly. “And you, Coulson? What are you expecting?”

He looks at her but she’s giving him the full force of her interrogation face, something she hasn’t done in a very long time. He sighs deeply. “Is there an answer I can give you that will satisfy you?”

Natasha continues to stare at him blandly and Phil expects it to be a long conversation until, unexpectedly, her facade crumbles and she’s back to being his asset and sometime friend who respects and trusts him. It’s surprising. “Coulson,” she says. “Phil.” It’s only one of a handful of times she’s ever used his first name “You’re playing a very dangerous game and it’s not just Clint I’m worried about.”

“I know,” he says quietly, and he does. At first, he’d only assumed there’d maybe be some embarrassment on everyone’s parts, maybe a few bruised feelings, but after spending the weekend with Clint he knows the entire situation is exponentially more explosive than that. “He loves me, I think.”

Natasha’s eyes watch him coolly. “He told you this?”

Shit, he hadn’t actually wanted confirmation, and while Natasha hasn’t said it outright, something in her question confirms Phil’s own ideas. “No, not in so many words, but there are signs.” He thinks back to the way Clint looks at him, touches him, like he’s more precious than anything Clint has ever held and Phil has seen Clint look at his bow. “The big one being that he’s willing to let me try at all.”

“Why are you trying?”

“Because,” Phil says carefully, “I couldn’t not.”

Natasha’s head tilts and her eyes narrow, then she leans forward and stares into Phil’s eyes in the most disconcerting few seconds of his entire life. Eventually she slumps back into her chair. “Oh. Phil.”

He smiles thinly. “I know.”

“Are you going to be okay?”

Phil huffs a laugh and looks down to study his fingers. “I don’t know.”

They’re silent for a long time and Phil fights a level of fidgeting people can rarely bring out in him. When she takes a deep breath, he looks up, sure she’s about to speak, finish out the conversation.

When Natasha begins, she’s keeping his eye line carefully, but her body is stiff inside of its pseudo-relaxed position, “Until I joined SHIELD I don’t think I’d ever truly had consensual sex.”

Phil’s heart pounds. The topic has shifted radically from where it was supposed to go. “Has anyone ever? Is there someone I need to?” Inside of his alarm, he’s not even sure what to ask.

“That’s not the story I’m telling.” She smiles wryly at him, but her arms are now crossed protectively against her stomach. “But thanks.”

Phil blinks at her, the ground completely gone from beneath his feet. It’s rare that anyone can actually leave him that flat-footed in a conversation.

“I didn’t quite believe the employment contract at first,” she explains, “about assignments that you’d never ask for and assignments I could turn down.”

Phil remembers an early mission. Natasha had been sent in as a distraction. They weren’t using her to her fullest talents, but they needed her to get used to SHIELD operations, so they had her doing the simple tasks. Phil remembers hearing something over the radios — to this day, he’s not sure what it was — but something had twigged his instincts. “The op in Milan,” he says. “If I’d known, I wouldn’t have given you that assignment.”

“I’m glad you did,” she says, mouth twitching. “When you got on the comms and asked about me, I actually broke character I was so shocked.”

He remembers, but he’s embarrassed to say that he’d not caught on to what was truly going on.

“After that,” she looks away and her cheeks are actually a touch pinker than usual, “I had a little crush on you, for a couple of months.”

Phil chokes on air and surprise, even as his own ego inflates just a little. “Excuse me?”

“You were kind to me,” Natasha says quietly. “You were kind, sincere, competent, and handsome. And all you wanted for me was to be happy, to find peace. To simply be good, not just good at my job, not good at getting better at my job. You saw me not only as an asset, but as a human being.” She looks up at him through her lashes. It’s not meant to be seductive, but rather, shy. “It was a heady feeling.”

“I—” he stutters, completely unmoored by this entire conversation. “I’m sorry?”

Natasha laughs. “Oh no, don’t be. You were exactly what I needed. Kind, compassionate, caring, but also someone who understood the meaning and spirit behind the rules. The longer I was at SHIELD, the more I understood that while you might make an exception in the right situation, mine was not that. It was never really about taking that step anyway.” She crosses her legs and then threads her hands together and rests them at her knee, but the tension is still there in her eyes and shoulders. “You were the ultimate safe infatuation.”

“You’re welcome?” Phil feels like his eyes must be so wide they’re about to fall out of their sockets. This is not the conversation he was expecting; there haven’t even been any knives being casually played with. “Natasha,” Phil says, “I’m very flattered, not just because it was me, but that you felt comfortable telling me. But I have to say, I have absolutely no idea why we’re having this conversation.”

Her smile goes soft and quiet. “Because, even though I’d had sex before, once I’d spent some time at SHIELD, I realized the idea of a consensual relationship scared the fuck out of me. Sex had always been about power, mine over my mark’s, about distraction and control. Never about sharing and intimacy, about softer things than strength. I couldn’t even imagine ever trusting someone like that.”

Phil goes back through the conversation in his mind and realizes that she had phrased that first sentence very carefully. “Until.”

“Hmm?” She asks, but the amusement is clear in her face. She knows he’s caught on, even if its only just a little.

“Until you came to SHIELD, that’s what you said.”

“Until someone asked me out and I found myself not immediately saying no,” she finishes. “You could say, I couldn’t not try.”

“Clint?” Phil blurts out, then is immediately mortified he even asked.

“No.” She smiles fondly. “Though we talked about it. He does love me and I am very fond of him, just not like that. I also thought that if I were to have sex as a direct reaction to everything that came before it, it wasn’t really consensual anyway.”

Phil stares at her, to see if she’s got more to say, but Natasha remains silent. “I’m not very comfortable with this comparison.”

Natasha snorts. “I’m not comparing overcoming sexual assault with overcoming sexual indoctrination.”

“Indoctrination?”

“If the default assumption wasn’t heterosexual, would the date have been a surprise?”

Phil’s head drops. He doesn’t have enough brains for this conversation and that’s not something he often thinks. “Forgive me, but I still don’t understand.”

“Just...” She pauses, uncharacteristically tentative. “Don’t do this for the wrong reasons.”

He studies her carefully and tries to decide if she’s being the Black Widow or if she’s being his friend, Natasha. It’s a fruitless endeavor; she’s too good. He’s not even sure what she’d be trying to get out of him. “I’ve been trying,” Phil says, “for several days, to come up with the words to describe what’s going on, and each and every time I come up empty.”

“Do you have any idea why?”

“A few,” he admits, braiding his fingers together and tightening them to avoid fidgeting. He doesn’t want to say it. It’s too soon and Phil feels like three days to completely reexamine one’s sexuality isn’t a lot of time, but in some ways, he feels like, if anyone, Natasha deserves an answer. “I think it’s too much.”

Natasha raises an eyebrow.

He looks away. “I don’t know if I’m ready to say it. It’s too big and it’s far too soon for anything that big, anything that—”

“Different?”

His shoulders slump and for a minute the stress of it feels omnipresent and oppressive. “Isn’t it enough that I’m trying? That I want to try,” he takes a deep breath, “I really want to try.”

“It is,” Natasha agrees, “for now.”

By the time he can look back up at her, she’s gone, the only evidence of her visit a slightly crooked visitors chair and the vaguely uneasy feeling that he might be using Clint to ease his own loneliness.

Chapter Text

Phil finds himself driven to distraction. Natasha’s conversation echoes into his mind at inopportune times. When it’s not Natasha, it’s Clint who occupies his thoughts and keeps him on a masturbation schedule that seems more than a decade out of date. Somehow, Wednesday manages to take him by surprise, because when Clint pops into his office at noon Phil stares blankly at him for a full five seconds before remembering.

Clint’s face closes off. “Is this a bad time?”

“No,” Phil says, trying to shake out his brain. “I just lost track of time… and possibly the calendar date.”

Lunch is companionable and they both find themselves accidentally drifting off into shy smiles during conversational lulls. When the garbage is taken care of, Phil stands and he means to just escort Clint out but he ends up backing Clint into the door. Clint looks pleasantly surprised to be backed into it. Phil reaches out to hold Clint’s face between his hands. Phil studies him, trying to find an answer to a question he doesn’t have. Clint’s face goes serious and they touch foreheads.

“Hey,” Clint says quietly, “everything okay?”

“Just,” Phil says, “trying to figure it all out.”

“Is it too much?” Clint asks, his eyes going a little bit blank.

“No,” Phil says automatically, but then pauses and decides, again, that honesty is a better policy here. “Maybe.”

“Can I help?” Clint’s body is tensing and his neck is tight under Phil’s fingers.

“Kiss me,” Phil says impulsively. “Everything makes more sense when you're kissing me.”

Clint studies him, a small smile on his face, before he leans in. Instead of those quiet, peaceful, careful kisses of late, the ones that still make Phil’s head muzzy, Clint surges against him and kisses him hard. It’s all teeth and tongue and each nip buzzes through him like electricity or fire. Clint’s hands end up tucked under the back of Phil’s pants, hampered only by his belt. Phil’s arms wind around Clint’s neck and pull him close, until they’re pressed against each other from shoulder to hip, so tightly Phil’s shirt buttons dig into his skin.

Clint whimpers and turns them until Phil is pressed up against the wall and he frees a hand to slide down Phil’s ass. First it’s kneading, which feels really good, the strong hands digging into the muscle like a massage only with more sex. Then the hand moves on, leaving Phil whimpering this time. It doesn’t go far, just enough to pull at Phil’s thigh so that his leg wraps around Clint and pulls him closer.

There’s an equal amount of leg straddling going on and Phil is torn between pulling away and burrowing in closer, but then Clint grinds down and their erections push together so perfectly his head falls back. “Fuck,” Phil gasps, hips bucking without permission, another wave of pleasure running through him. “Fuck. Clint.”

Clint briefly freezes and then, with a suddenness Phil isn’t prepared for, everything gentles, from Clint’s fingers holding on to him, to the way Clint is mouthing at the skin on his neck. Slowly, they return to their starting position, with both feet on the ground and both hands above the waist and in more appropriate places. Their foreheads touch again and Clint rasps out an, “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t apologize.” Phil is breathless, chest practically heaving. “That was at least half my fault.”

Clint’s laugh is mostly dragging in lungfuls of air, but it’s there. “Fuck. I have to walk out of here. Like this.”

Phil chuckles quietly and strokes Clint’s cheek gently. “Thank you.”

“Seriously,” Clint smiles, “no problem.”

Phil can’t help it. He deliberately looks down between them, where they’re still mostly pressed together.

Clint laughs. “Okay, small problem— No, medium problem.”

“Medium?” Phil asks, mostly because it’s Clint and that doesn’t seem like the adjective he’d stick with.

“I’m trying not to scare you off!” Clint explains, pressing one final kiss to Phil’s lips before peeling away.

It’s hard to move far enough away from the door for Clint to be able to open it, but there’s a meeting soon and some paperwork that absolutely needs to get done and a half dozen other things on his mind that will work out better if he doesn’t trap Clint inside his office with him. So they part with muted goodbyes and Phil spends the next thirty minutes finding the proper frame of mind to actually get work done — after he classifies the last fifteen minutes of footage from his office. Phil breathes out slowly as he types in his access code; he really needs to stop doing this or someone is bound to get nosy.

The meeting is terrible. It’s long, boring, and yet full of details that Phil absolutely needs because it’s the follow up to Monday’s rundown of terrible decisions made by other people whose sole purpose seems to be to give Phil a headache. Four hours later, Phil exits the room with more problems than answers, a tension headache, and a sinking feeling that he’s not going home at all Friday. That just makes him grumpier.

The situation deteriorates rapidly, and by Friday morning Phil knows he’s spending the weekend at the office. He sends a runner to the dry cleaners, thankful he started using a nearby Manhattan-based dry cleaners early on. It was quicker, safer, and more private than sending someone to his home when he needed extra clothes in a hurry. There’s a fleeting thought about his sudden slightly more compulsive than usual need for privacy but he doesn’t have time to deal with it so he stuffs it away for later.

Underthings and toiletries are available from the quartermaster, so the suits and shirts are all he usually has to account for. As he works his way through lunch, Clint shuffles into his office making only enough noise to alert Phil. A delicious-smelling package is placed on the desk and when he looks up Clint is worrying his bottom lip with his teeth.

“I got assigned Templeton’s next op,” Clint says, “which means you’re stuck getting his ass out of the fire.”

Phil opens up the brown paper bag to find a container of spicy soup full of thick noodles and meat. It’s exactly what he wants and he spends a few long seconds savoring the smell. “Thank you,” Phil breathes out, reaching for the nearest fork. He practically inhales the near quart of food. It’s been a long day and he’s been in the office since before sunrise. Time zones really mess with his schedule.

When his soup is done, Clint deftly switches it out for two donuts sprinkled in cinnamon and sugar. He doesn’t even have to lean in to smell the freshly baked dough. These aren’t just fresh; they’re handmade from the bakery nearby, not the Dunkin’ Donuts around the corner. They’re as delicious as they smell and they practically melt inside of his mouth before he can even begin to chew. He moans a little, delighted at the treat.

Phil catches Clint’s eyes as they darken a little, but mostly Clint just looks pleased with himself. He digs up another white paper bag like the one the first donuts came from and hands it over. “The rest of the half dozen,” Clint says, “for later.”

Phil smiles, taking the bag gently and tucking it away inside of his desk. When he looks back up Clint is fiddling with something on his desk, like he always does, and Phil realizes how upset he is that this is all he’s getting for a few days. As confused as he’s felt, he’d been looking forward spending time with Clint again. It’s taken him all week to realize that Clint has taken the parameters Phil set out to heart and has stopped his random office visits. Clint likes to write his AARs while slouched easily on Phil’s couch and he’s had two overnights since they started this thing.

“Stay,” Phil says. “Until your briefing, stay. On Monday, when we discussed— parameters,” Clint stifles a snicker at that, “I didn’t mean you couldn’t still…”

“Bother?” Clint suggests, already moving to the empty sofa, stretching his legs out easily.

“Yes,” Phil says flatly, “that.”

Clint isn’t fooled, he just winks and settles in deeper, eyes closing to half mast. “I’m gonna nap.”

Phil hums in agreement. It’s what Clint does on evenings like this. When he’s going to be deployed into a night situation, he comes to Phil’s office to sack out for a few hours.

The operation, despite all of the bad news dominoes that had fallen in advance of it, goes off easily enough, though it runs high on tension through the whole thing. It does, however, take the whole weekend. Clint and his backup have spent nearly 72 hours in a perch. They both look ready to fall down on the flight back. Clint even lets someone else behind the stick of the transport, and while Phil worries about both of his agents, Clint’s dark circles make his stomach ache with tension and his palms itch to touch. When they’re safely back at headquarters Phil sends Clint and the backup sniper home for the day.

The wrap up takes forever and Phil lives another 36 hours in snatches of sleep and food in between debriefs and organization. When he does make it back into his office, he can see that Clint has come and gone, his AAR waiting neatly in Phil’s inbox and another half dozen donuts sitting in the center of his desk. His chest hurts when he spies his desk. The remnants of Clint visits are all over his office, from the paper clips piled on his top shelf from an impromptu target practice to the Clint-sized dent in his sofa. He aches for something he can’t quite define, but decides on sleep, because he’s too damn tired to do much of anything else.

Except maybe eat some donuts.

Because Phil’s week started off-kilter, considering his Monday was spent in hand holding the end of an unexpected op that transitioned into clean-up in the early hours, sleep was nearly a lost cause. He caught a few brief naps in between long sessions and before he knew it, Wednesday had reared its ugly head. By then, Phil has no choice but to get at least one full sleep cycle or he’ll actually end up stapling that one annoying agent to the wall instead of just fantasizing about it.

So his Wednesday doesn’t actually start until lunch and that makes it and Thursday beyond hell. He has to catch up on an entire week of postponed meetings and paperwork as quickly as possible. He does it, because Phil is both good at his job and a master of delegation (at least that’s what his last personal review said) by a little after the end of work Thursday.

It’s not until he’s standing blearily at the F stop Thursday evening that he realizes there was no lunch with Clint — his schedule was thrown into upheaval as well. There’d still been the occasional gift, mostly hot coffee waiting for him when he returned from a meeting, but he hasn’t seen Clint since the early hours of Tuesday, when they had passed in the corridors and exchanged nothing more than tired nods. They haven’t touched since since Friday and a wave of longing sweeps through him so hard his knees wobble and he has to sit.

He’s regretting saying no to a ride home, but he’d just wanted to shed the office as soon as possible and since he was too tired to drive he’d settled on the subway, the chilly night air waking him up just enough. Now he’s shaking too hard to hold on to his phone and he’s staring at the two sets of stairs across from the bench he’s settled on and is swallowed by indecision. On the left, uptown, Queens, and his apartment; on the right, downtown, Brooklyn, and Clint. He wants both. So much.

“Sir?”

Phil’s head snaps to the voice. It’s a transit cop. God. Is he carrying? He is. Shit. He’s got a permit and a badge, but holsters make a scene before any of that can be settled. Phil really doesn’t want a scene. Thank God he’s wearing a jacket.

“Sir, are you okay?”

“Just tired.”

The officer at least looks like he’s been out of the academy for more than 15 minutes which means Phil’s probably dealing with someone who is genuinely worried and not someone who’s attempting to enforce the rules. “Sir, you look very pale and you’re shaking. Are you sure you don’t need help?”

The cop feels taller than he should, standing next to him while Phil is sitting. The guy is fit enough, but the full belt makes everyone Phil has ever seen in the uniform look hippy. Other than being generally and generically decent looking, he doesn’t really register for Phil.

Phil smiles, but he suspects it’s not very convincing as the officer sits down next to him, (holster side away; it’s nice to see general competence from time to time). “It was a very long day at work,” Phil tells him. “I just need to get home and to bed.”

The officer eyes him. It’s an assessing gaze. “Maybe you should consider a taxi? I can flag one down for you.”

Phil shakes his head. He’s not in the mood to direct a Manhattan-based taxi through Queens. They never know where they’re going. “Honestly, I’m fine.”

The officer raises one unimpressed eyebrow at him. “Okay then, stand up.”

Phil swallows and pushes up from the bench. He makes it vertical and nods at the officer who looks singularly unimpressed.

“All right sir.” He stands as well. “If you’re sure.”

“I am.” Phil smiles again and then turns back to the two staircases and realizes he still hasn’t made a decision. He should go home, he knows it. Going to Clint’s wouldn’t be fair to him, or wise probably, but he’s also bone tired and that ache inside of him intensifies as he thinks about going home alone and that just makes him worry that he’s using Clint. Never in his life has he been this confused. His head is swimming and his heart feels like its going to pound out of his chest.

“Do you remember where to go?”

Phil whirls, not expecting the cop to still be there. Unfortunately he’s not nearly as well-balanced as he made the guy think, and his knees buckle. He’s caught before he lands and for that little bit he’s thankful.

For the rest he just wants to sink, further, into the floor. There’s no way he’s getting out of this without a whole lot of attention now. Still, considering how terrible he feels, its probably a little warranted. The officer is talking into his radio so Phil fumbles into his jacket to find his government ID.

His hands are almost shaking too hard, but he manages to get the officer’s attention on it. He flips it open and scans it. He nods at Phil and begins a physical assessment, just pulse and breathing, so that in case the paramedics are needed for an acute emergency they’ll know right away. The officer leans in closely so that the gawkers can’t hear — oh, God, there are people watching as he has what he’s sure is a panic attack — “Are you carrying?”

Phil nods and then checks out for a little while trying to steady his breathing. They walk him up the stairs and back out into the open. Using the gurney that way is a pain in the ass, Phil knows, because he’s done it himself once or twice. They sit him down on the thing when he gets there and start wiring him up. Phil is aware there’s been some conversation going on above his head and any other time he’d have picked up on all the details, but he’s having trouble tracking his own thoughts, let alone others.

“Is there someone I should call?” The officer is still with them, his pad of paper out, full of notes. “A superior maybe?”

“Clint,” he says without thinking and then can’t bring himself to take it back. “S-speed dial 3.” The stuttering starts to worry him a bit.

“Sir,” the EMT addresses him, “my name is Michael. Can you answer some questions for me?”

He tries, but as the chaos expands and the officer whose name he never got which is just not him at all, is speaking to Clint and Phil can see he’s having to calm him down as well, his mind keeps wandering and then his breathing gets out of control.

God, a phone call from an agent’s phone without the agent is a bad thing. Yeah, there he is giving Phil the phone. “D-don’t call i-in.” Phil says in between gasping breaths, “G-galileo.” It’s his all clear code. He’s 99% sure this is all his own making.

“Phil,” Clint says and even though the cell phone makes it flatter and doesn’t transmit all of the rough edges of Clint’s voice, it’s still nice to hear. “Are you sure? You sound terrible.”

“J-just, c-come?” Phil asks. He’s over it possibly being selfish at this moment and time. He feels like shit and the paramedics are making worried faces at each other over the monitor.

“I’m already moving,” Clint says. “Please be okay.”

Phil hands the phone back to the officer, because he’s not sure he should try talking any more. The EMTs go back to talking him through his breathing and asking if he has a heart condition. They offer him a sublingual nitroglycerin dose which he accepts because that’s his sort of luck, so he might as well cover the bases he can. The oxygen is more about giving his brain the idea that there’s more available than what he actually needs. By the time a yellow cab pulls up and Clint jumps out, his heart rate has moved down to something closer to normal and he feels like he’s covered in lead he’s so tired.

“Phil.” Clint is all business, his eyes scanning Phil almost clinically before breathing out a long breath and turning to the EMTs and police officer. Normally he’d object to being spoken about as if he wasn’t there, but the exhaustion keeps his attention on staying awake and upright.

Eventually they take the monitors off and help him back into his jacket and then Clint comes over and puts a gentle arm around his shoulders. “Hey boss, let’s get you home.”

He slides off the gurney and Clint has him before his knees even get a chance to buckle. He holds Phil steady until he’s ready to move and then stays with him as he takes wobbly steps to the taxi that has been waiting patiently. He hopes they have enough money to tip well. Only as the door closes and they’re being waved off by the officer does Phil notice the gathering of people and their cell phones. So much for keeping it off the radar.

“I called in a favor,” Clint says. “Betty’s got the surveillance worm up and running for this. You owe her cookies.”

Phil’s shoulders drop in relief and that seems to be the end of his energy. “I’m sorry,” he says, words almost slurring together as he fights back a yawn. “This is so embarrassing.”

“It’s not,” Clint says to him, discreetly grabbing his hand and squeezing it where it sits between them. “You had a really long few days.”

“S’not that.” He yawns again. He’d cover his mouth, but his arms feel like they’re made of lead.

They don’t talk for the rest of the drive and Phil takes longer than he cares to admit to realize that Clint instructed the driver to take them to Phil’s place. They make it up to his apartment without any obstacles and Clint immediately leads him into the bedroom where he is carefully stripped down to his undershirt and boxers and then tucked into bed.

Clint runs his hand through Phil’s hair with gentle fingers before standing up.

“Don’t go,” slips out before Phil can reel it back in.

“I’ll be right back,” Clint says softly. “I’m just getting you a snack.”

Phil resists curling up on his side and feeling miserable and dumb by the skin of his teeth. When Clint returns he’s carrying a bowl of grapes in one hand and a bowl of what looks like chips in the other.

“Finger food,” Clint says, putting it all down and then freeing two water bottles from under his arms. “Hummus and pita chips.” He offers the bowl to Phil who takes a chip in his hand, only slightly trembling now, and dips it carefully into the hummus. The first taste awakens his appetite and it’s gone in two delicious bites.

“Good,” Phil says, already reaching for another. “Where’d it come from? Not my kitchen.”

“I had an errand near one of my favorite places in the village.” Clint ducks his head a little while explaining. “I stopped in for something before I was going to head back to the my place. I got your call just as I was leaving.”

That explains how he got there so quickly. Phil was worried he’d lost a large chunk of time. He stuffs a few more into his mouth before chugging down a few large gulps of water. He’s starting to feel better, still very tired, but the absolute exhaustion is fading just a bit. They both dig in, but Clint leaves the majority to Phil.

“I have other stuff waiting for me.” Clint shrugs off Phil’s insistence that he eat. “I didn’t want to give you anything complicated, like a knife and fork.”

Phil chuckles, which turns into a yawn. Now that his stomach isn’t aching with hunger, sleep seems to be taking over the agenda. Clint puts the bowls aside and leans in to kiss Phil on the forehead. It makes him feel warm, cherished. He wants that feeling to stick around, but it’s quickly followed by the worry that he wants the feeling more than the person creating it. Still, when Clint moves to stand, he reaches out and grabs his wrist.

“Stay,” he mumbles into his pillow.

Clint pries his fingers off and then squeezes his hand. “I’ll be right back. Promise.”

Phil’s nearly asleep when the bed moves behind him. Clint settles in with the quiet clanking of silverware. The warm, solid length of Clint’s leg presses into Phil’s back and a hand occasionally drifts into his hair as Phil finally relaxes into sleep.

Chapter Text

Phil wakes up slowly and to the sound of deep breathing that isn’t his own. He gets his eyes open to see Clint on top of the covers, asleep next to him, the blanket from the living room draped over him. It looks like they started the night separated by a proper amount of space, but sometime later Clint’s upper body moved closer to Phil almost like a plant seeking sunshine. He catches sight of the clock and remembers just in the nick of time to save himself from jumping out of bed that he’s clocked out of the office until at least noon.

He returns to his starting position, curled on his side facing Clint. He sees that Clint has mirrored his position sometime in the middle of the night. His hands stop inches from Phil’s chest and his hair manages to look both mussed and relaxed at the same time. Phil reaches out without thinking and touches their fingertips together. It feels silly. He’s going to stop. Any minute.

Clint’s fingers flex a little and then deliberately poke back. Phil returns it with a gentle tap. It escalates to the laziest thumb war in the history of the world and both of them laughing quietly.

“Feeling better?” Clint asks when they settle down.

Phil takes an internal inventory and sighs. “Yes, better.”

“So,” Clint pushes himself up onto his elbow, “want to talk about it?”

“I was tired,” Phil says, “really tired and I— I wasn’t prepared for...” He swallows hard. “Clint you make me feel—” He breathes out. He’s not ready to talk about all the things Clint makes him feel. So Phil switches to the other topic that’s making him go a little insane. “I’m worried I’m with you because it’s easy…” Phil watches as Clint lets himself fall back onto the bed, arms curled around his stomach. “You can stop laughing any time now,” he says dryly.

“Sorry,” Clint giggles, wiping away tears, “just. Oh, God. Being with me is easy. Can I tell Nat? Because she needs a good laugh every few years or so. It cleans out the cobwebs. I’d also like you to record that and send it to a few of my exes.” He giggles some more. “Maybe even a few of my ex handlers.”

Well, when put that way, it was pretty fucking hilarious. Phil had written one of those early reports himself. Still, the laughter makes something unpleasant bubble inside of him, hurt and anger on behalf of Clint. It takes them a few more minutes to calm down. By the time that happens Clint is curled up next to Phil, pressed against his side, head resting on Phil’s chest. It feels good.

Clint strokes a hand down Phil’s side. “So, it’s easy being with me?” He sounds bewildered as he asks it.

“Very,” Phil agrees.

“Okay,” Clint says, still running his hand up and down. “You’re gonna need to explain that one to me.”

Phil nods, but he doesn’t speak right away. Instead he rolls onto his side and scoots down so that their faces are even and he pulls Clint in for a kiss. It’s soft and sweet and everything Phil has come to anticipate from these quiet moments with Clint. When they separate, Phil’s hands are cupping Clint’s face and Clint still has one hand on his side, stroking slowly, starting at his hip and going about halfway up his ribcage.

“Natasha,” Phil finally starts, “had a conversation with me.”

Clint frowns. “Did she warn you off me?”

“No, nothing like that.” Phil strokes Clint’s cheek. “It was my shovel talk, only it involved fewer violent threats than I was expecting.”

“She likes to play against character.”

Phil huffs out a breath of laughter. “As I was saying, we had a completely different conversation than I was expecting,” he explains, “but mostly it came down to being sure I was doing this for the right reasons.”

“Oh Tash,” Clint sighs closing his eyes, “trying to protect both of us.”

“I know,” Phil says. “I can’t even be angry at her for it.”

“Right?” Clint eyes open back up. “It gets annoying after a while.”

“The problem is,” Phil plows on, worrying if he stops, he’ll never get started again, “she has a point.”

“Yes,” Clint agrees. “That’s usually when I get annoyed with her too.”

Phil smiles a little. “You and I, we talked about loneliness and that’s a big worry in our sort of job and most people, they just either take it on the chin or work around it. I’ve been feeling that a lot lately and you present an fairly neat and easy solution to a lot of it.”

“Except for the Extra Penis?” Clint asks and there’s a glint in his eye. He’s pushing the boundaries on purpose.

“Except for that,” Phil agrees. “Everything else falls into line. We get along, we enjoy each other’s company. We have similar interests but with plenty of diversity. We’re not only in the same line of work, we work for the same agency, so the conflicts of interest and accidental intel gathering are moot and we’re enough within the same structure so the secrets between us would be minimal; they would be akin to two lawyers or doctors within the same firms. There are things we can’t tell each other, but not the sorts of things that are likely to bother us too often.”

Clint’s eyes go almost comically wide. “Shit. You’re right. I am easy.”

Phil lets his eyebrows go up in a silent ‘I told you so’.

“Okay,” Clint says after some thought, “stick with me here. Sometimes that’s how people narrow it down, you know? Sometimes that’s how people decide who to date. They take the deal breakers out early.”

Phil nods slowly. “Okay. I can see that. I did that once, a while ago.” He shudders dramatically. “It left me with Nick.”

Clint’s face goes slack in horror. “Oh, God, no wonder you stopped dating.”

“It’s possible I was too afraid to ever try again after that,” Phil admitted.

“You need a hug,” Clint tells him. “After that, I need a hug.” Clint hauls him close and it’s weird to let it happen in bed. In a fight, sometimes it’s appropriate to let your opponent make all the effort, but in bed, half-dressed and cuddling, it’s a strange sensation.

“Let me ask you a question,” Clint says in his ear, still holding him close. “Do you think about it? Like, are you going through your day and something reminds you of the fact that you’re dating, maybe eating alone, or hearing something funny you want to share?” He pauses and waits for Phil to nod before going on. “When you think about it, do you miss me? Or do you miss having a warm body next to you while you live your life?”

Phil doesn’t answer him; he’s not sure he’s meant to, at least right away. Instead he focuses entirely on Clint. With the blanket still separating them, there’s something extra safe about getting this close. It’s like he can focus on Clint as a whole person instead of a potential (and maybe a little scary) bedmate. It definitely feels nice to be holding him, but it’s hard to tell if it’s because it’s Clint or because Phil has spent a very long time single.

“Just think about it, okay?” Clint asks before letting him go. Phil doesn’t go far, just back to where he was before, which was facing Clint and only inches away.

“I promise,” Phil says, meaning it, especially considering that’s just about all he’s been able to do when not working anyway.

They stay where they are for a while, occasionally reaching out to touch, even to kiss, and Phil indulges in a few well-placed nuzzles that feel pretty amazing to give until he’s flat on his back and Clint is hovering over him, letting their lips brush over and over again. It’s a charged atmosphere, but the undercurrent of sexual attraction feels muted, like they’re both happy to just have this.

“What set you off?” Clint eventually asks, after resting his head against Phil’s shoulder. “Into the panic attack, I mean.”

“The platform stairs,” Phil answers idly, drawing random shapes onto Clint’s bicep using his forefinger. “I really wanted to be at home and in bed, but I also really wanted you there. I couldn’t choose which direction. It flummoxed me.”

“And flummoxed isn’t a natural state for you.”

“Not at all.” Phil can say it without irony. For as long as he can remember, people have remarked to him on how he doesn’t turn into a panicking mess as soon as a situation goes haywire. He’s the one who calls 911, talks to the police, sits in the ambulance with his dying mother and doesn’t stress the EMTs by making a scene. The number of compliments he’s received from trained professionals over the years, before he was one himself, started to make Phil feel embarrassed for his fellow man.

Eventually, they get out of bed and put themselves together. Phil barely feels any physical effects from the night before and suggests they take the subway in together. It feels like a brave suggestion, even though Phil knows it’s really not. Still, Phil takes his goodbyes inside the apartment, pulling Clint close and savoring the feeling of a still slightly unfamiliar body pressed into his in between kisses. The kissing is starting to morph from tentative pecks to more familiar, lingering things.

It’s not that the kisses are deeper or more sexual, but that they’re learning each other’s likes and preferences and Phil is starting to find his favorite bits of Clint’s lips. The barely-there dip of his upper lip. The way he smiles inside of the kiss, making the lines around his face just deep enough for Phil’s nose to fit without blocking his airway. The way Clint’s head tilts just a bit more when Phil scrapes against his bottom lip.

It leaves Phil to start imagining other places on Clint’s body he might enjoy and to wonder if they’re the same ones that keep him occupied on a woman. The curve of a chin, the swell of a hip — well, that one is probably not going to happen. Maybe his ass will capture Phil’s attention. His face heats as he pictures Clint in his field uniform. He has always admired the line he’s made, so apparently yes, he does like Clint’s ass.

Even after he gets himself together and heads in to work, he spends odd minutes in between tasks in his office wondering if he’ll miss breasts or penetrative sex with an organ that produces its own lubrication. That one makes him strangely uncomfortable, probably because he’s not quite ready to think about the alternatives.

When he gets home, late, but not too late, there’s a bag on his coffee table. Inside it is a pile of books and a note.

Phil,

I know you’re itching to research so I thought I’d save you the pain thousands of others experience by blindly Googling into the void. Don’t. There’s no combination of words or filters that will get you useful results without mountains of porn, most of it terrible. These are why I was in the Village Thursday evening. I thought you might like not having to look me in the eye when you got these. Text me if you want to get together this weekend.

—Clint

Phil smiles. He has been rather dreading the eventual research. The top books seem to be autobiographies, then a book of essays by queer authors, another couple whose contents aren’t immediately apparent based on the covers, and then the single hard cover in the bunch. It had a large Post-it on the cover obscuring the title from view.

READ THIS ONE LAST.

—C

Phil peels the note off and finds himself holding a book titled When There Aren’t Too Many Dicks on the Dance Floor: A Manual for the newly fabulous. Phil’s eyebrows go up. He flips through the pages and then immediately slams it shut. Those are fairly graphic cartoons. Thankfully, the dust jacket gives a decent summary. Apparently it is a guide, not necessarily to gay sex, so much as how it might differ from the sex the reader might have been having up until this point. Specifically for the ‘late bloomer’. Something about it puts him off. Not the acts; maybe it’s the unspoken assumption of discovery. Phil suspects that while the book will be useful, it will address him as if sex with a woman wasn’t what he was supposed to be doing in the first place. Being a late bloomer and all.

Phil picks the top book back up and scans the back before shrugging and taking it with him into the bedroom. He accidentally gets through nearly half of it before blinking and realizing it’s nearly midnight. He forces himself to put it down and to roll over. Despite his churning brain, he’s tired enough to fall asleep soon after.

He’s in the shower Saturday morning when he realizes he never sent Clint a message. He doesn’t want to miss the chance for a date. Their lives are too hectic, too dangerous, to waste the time when they have it; the next chance might not be for weeks. When he gets out, he pauses at the fogged mirror. He doesn’t really need it. There’s a razor in the shower and he does the hair brushing in the bedroom. Still, he takes the corner of his towel and wipes the mirror down so he can see himself in it.

The book he’s reading has a scene like this, where the main character stands in front of a mirror and tries to recognize himself in the man he sees. “I,” Phil whispers to himself, “am...” He can see his lips moving and he can feel his mouth forming the words, the vibrations from them starting in his neck and going up and out. “b- b-” He can’t say it. Phil would like to think it’s because he’s not sure yet, but he’s just a touch too self-aware for that. Though not self-aware enough to realize when he was flirting with Clint. He swallows and tries again. “I. Like. Clint.”

That one’s easier and he still feels like it’s himself in his reflection saying it. He squares his shoulders and tries again. “I. Like. Ho-olding. Clint.” That one was harder, he’s not sure why. One more, he thinks, and then he’ll get dressed and send out a flag for a free evening to Clint.

It takes him a second to come up with something he’s sure he can handle. “I.” He says with what he feels is more confidence than before. “Like.” Still feeling solid. “Kissing.” A small warble on that one, and his face is slowly getting red; the heat from the shower had left his skin within seconds of turning off the hot water and the breeze from under the closed door is chilly, so the flush is easy to see and all his own doing. “Clint.”

Phil has to look away almost immediately. He feels too exposed inside of his own reflection. He rushes out of the bathroom with a speed that’s singularly embarrassing and only adds to the heat taking over his face. He stares at the screen of his cell phone for a good thirty seconds before finding the words. Which is just pathetic, considering all he needs to, and does, send is, “Free tonight, make plans.” Phil was in charge of their last official date, so he figures it’s Clint’s turn. Phil also feels more discombobulated than he has since puberty and he’s not sure he’d come up with anything good anyway.

That evening Clint takes him to a street fair and they weave in and out of crowds buying small bits of food and drink and occasionally perusing someone’s wares longer than others. It’s a strange quirk, but he and Clint are both comfortable inside the fair crowd. It feels safer to them. Their kinds of dangers rarely happen amidst crowds of milling families. They spend the whole time talking about anything but work, talking about what it is in each booth that calls to them. Clint likes the handmade jewelry; something about the artistry makes him think of his bow.

“I still make my own arrows sometimes,” Clint explains quietly while running a finger down a tangled series of flat pewter wires that manages to come together into a sophisticated looking necklace. “It was taught to me for two reasons.” He moves on to a tray of bracelets, pendants attached to leather thongs. “It was cheaper.” Phil nods; he figured that. “But it also was about artistry.”

Phil hums, keeping his eyes on the displays, trying not to stare at Clint as he tells his story. Phil has always found something deeply compelling about Clint when he talks about his craft, mesmerizing maybe. He also thinks that necklace would be a good gift for Natasha.

“I was taught,” Clint says, leading them out of the booth and into the next, “that every handmade arrow had its own personality and that it was the job of the person making the arrow to make sure it got along not only with the bow, but with the archer.”

This booth looked to be related to the first artist, even if it was mostly sculpture instead of jewelry. They had similar styles. “By that logic,” Phil says, stopping in front of a wood carving that was all soft curves and swirls, intriguing for the material, “it would be nearly impossible for someone to use anyone else’s arrows.”

Clint shrugs. “It’s not a perfect metaphor, but it’s not exactly an exaggeration either. A lot of my first trick arrows were made by me and would be indistinguishable from the regular arrows to the untrained eye.”

Phil turns to look Clint in the eye. “You like good craftsmanship in all forms?”

“Basically.” Clint shrugs. “Skill is skill.”

It’s a gorgeous day, the bright sun cutting through the crisp autumn air making it feel a bit warmer than it actually is. Clint has stripped down to just his t-shirt, shoving his jacket into his bag. He doesn’t look cold, but his cheeks and nose are just a bit red and it keeps distracting Phil at odd times. As they walk up and down the stalls, they orbit one another in tight circles, staying deep inside of each other’s personal space, closer than even the milling crowds require of them. Phil finds himself wanting to reach out but not quite ready to commit to the action yet.

They don’t buy anything other than food, but Phil sees Clint pocket more than one business card. They pick up dinner at one of the restaurants whose wares they had sampled for lunch from one of the booths on display. The fair is in Queens, so it’s no more than three quick subway stops and a couple of blocks to Phil’s apartment. As soon as the door is closed, Phil puts the take out down and pulls Clint to him. The urge to touch has dug under his skin until it is nearly impossible to ignore. For Clint’s part, he melts immediately into Phil with a choked moan which makes Phil think he wasn’t the only one with an itch.

Both of their stomachs rumble and they separate with a laugh. The food is inhaled and Phil has no sooner put his plate down on the coffee table than Clint wraps his arm around him and pulls him down onto the couch. Clint is flat on his back with Phil on top, twisted a little awkwardly from having been pulled from the sitting position. Phil lets the kiss go on, Clint’s mouth easily distracting him from his awkward position. Eventually they straighten out and Phil feels the full affect of his body pressing into Clint’s, his chest and stomach seeming to cradle him perfectly.

“You feel good,” Phil murmurs between long kisses. “I can’t believe how good you feel.”

“Mmph,” Clint slurs, “ditto.” He swallows Phil’s laugh and then sucks on his tongue, his hands spreading wide onto the back of Phil’s ribcage.

They’re both hard. Phil can feel it even if they’re slightly off-center and during his more cogent moments he thinks Clint is keeping them that way on purpose. The kisses slowly get deeper and wetter and eventually Phil’s mouth is like a direct conduit to his cock and Clint’s sucking and biting and even his quiet sounds of appreciation zip right down to Phil’s hips. Clint’s hands are inching down Phil’s back until the tips of his fingers graze the top of his ass and he shudders, grinding down into Clint. They both tear away from the kiss with open-mouthed gasps and everything stills for a long moment.

“If you,” Clint starts, but has to pause to clear his throat. “If you go easy on the hips, keep it light, we can keep going, if you want. It won’t tip me over for a while.” His eyes are huge and luminous in the half-light of the living room. In their distraction the sun has set and there’s only a single lamp lit, giving the impression of permanent twilight. Clint’s bottom lip is caught in his teeth as he waits for a decision.

Phil leans down to suck that lip out from under Clint’s teeth, slowly drawing away until the light suction of his mouth can’t keep the lip from rebounding back into place. “Light?” Phil rasps, a little shocked at his own voice. “You mean like—” He rolls his hips achingly slow against Clint’s, taking care not to press down too hard when Clint’s erection touches his own. It feels nice — more than nice; exciting and enticing — and it makes him shiver in pleasure. “This?”

Clint’s head nods a little frantically. “Yeah, like that.” His eyes close as Phil does it again. “That’s really— nice.”

“It is,” Phil agrees, feeling a bit awestruck. “I like this,” he smiles, suddenly giddy with the feeling of not panicking. He rolls his hips again, so very slowly, and then swallows the hitched noise Clint makes while breathing out. Things slow down to a molasses-like crawl after that, everything narrows down to the excruciating tempo of his hips and the noises Clint makes as he reaches the top of the curve of each thrust.

Eventually they are tangled together so tightly Phil can feel every twitch Clint makes and their hands have long since made it under each other’s shirts, greedily stroking and squeezing wherever they can, and Clint has wound a leg around Phil’s waist which tightens and releases with each move. It’s still so slow, but the absolute pleasure of it overwhelms them and they can no longer kiss, just press their foreheads together and pant open-mouthed at each other as each roll of hips makes them shudder into each other’s arms.

“Oh, God,” Clint eventually whispers. “Phil, I— I can’t. We should stop. I need— I need—” His words are swallowed up in another wave of movement.

Phil needs, too. He aches everywhere, but especially his thighs, where he’s been holding himself tense and steady, not pushing in too hard, not pushing down into Clint’s heat and strength too much. They are pressed together tightly, but it could be tighter. They could be wrapped around each other, pulling one another into their bodies. “Yes,” he says, “I know. Me, too, but I—”

Clint kisses him and it’s messy and open-mouthed and, God, so perfect, but it messes up his rhythm and throws off the concentration he’s been hanging on to by a thread. He comes down hard, grinding again instead of rocking gently and Clint arches into it, whimpering inside of Phil’s mouth.

“Fuck.” Clint grits his teeth and shoves against Phil one more time before going still. “Fuck, God, you feel so good, but if you move too much more and I’m going to co—”

Phil twitches and Clint’s voice goes high for a syllable. “Sorry,” he whispers over Clint’s words.

“—ome.” Clint pants quietly for a few moments before swallowing loudly. “Phil.” His voice is trembling. “If you want to—” he cuts himself off before finishing that thought. “That’s fine with me. Haven’t done this in a while. It’s more fun than I remember.” He smiles shyly before turning serious again. “But please don’t yank my strings, okay?”

Phil looks at him and then brings a hand up to Clint’s face and traces it with his fingertips before cupping his cheek. “I can’t promise this is going to work out,” Phil explains. “I can’t promise a month from now I’m not going to decide that this just isn’t for me. I can promise I haven’t been this turned on in a very long time, and if it’s you or if it’s just a warm body is anyone’s guess, but in this moment, I really think it’s you.”

He kisses Clint softly. It barely moves their bodies to do it, but it still sends a wave of sensation through Phil and beneath him Clint shudders slightly. “I can promise not to run away,” he says after leaning back a few inches. “That if I wake up in the morning and freak out, I’ll do it with you next to me.”

Phil spends Clint’s thinking time being impressed at the number of complete sentences he’s managed while his entire body throbs with arousal.

“Okay,” Clint eventually whispers. “Okay. I can handle that.”

They stare at each other, and under him, Clint’s body is tense and unmoving and he realizes that Clint needs him to go first, to make the first move. So he surges, licking into Clint’s mouth and going for the absolutely dirtiest kiss he can manage. Clint groans, arches and reaches for Phil’s ass, grasping it firmly and pulling with the rocking motion of Phil’s body. Inside his jeans his cock is pushing against the wet fabric of his boxers, but he can’t care because Clint is gasping in his ear, moaning Phil’s name over and over again, and the idea of stopping, even to get a hand down his pants, or Clint’s, is unthinkable.

The leg Clint has wrapped around him hikes itself higher and Phil has to hook his arm under the knee to get to Clint’s ass to pull him tighter, oh, God, tighter, against him. They crash into each other over and over again and everything that Clint is — sights, sounds, feelings — all fuel Phil’s burning need to bury himself inside of Clint in any way he can.

They abandon kissing in favor of open-mouthed panting again, each move sending sparks down Phil’s spine and making his toes curl. Phil resists the pull to bury his face into Clint’s neck, to hide inside of the warmth that Clint’s skin would provide. “Fuck,” he rasps as they go from a smooth rocking motion to sharp pushes against each other. “Fuck, oh God, feel so good, so close,” he babbles.

“I need—” Clint’s eyes close and Phil can see his eyes roll under the delicate skin of his lids. “—need— uh— almost, Phil— almost— Don’t stop— Oh, God, please don’t stop this time—”

Something zings inside his head and Phil sucks on Clint’s neck, licks it, and then sucks hard, and under him Clint shudders and Phil’s hips snap down and then again and again until his balls ache and he can barely stand it. Clint meets him each time until his back and neck arch, his eyelids flutter and his bottom lip disappears under his teeth again and he stops breathing, just for a second, before he whimpers, mouth opening into a perfect oh and he comes apart.

Phil is so close, so fucking close, but Clint is beautiful like this, and it’s because of him, because of Phil he’s like this and it’s mesmerizing and he wants it to go on forever so he slows down and works Clint through it with careful rolls of his hips until Clint collapses back, boneless.

“Phil,” Clint slurs, “you sh’ keep goin’.” A clumsy hand reaches down between them, in the space that’s available only because Clint has gone limp and pliant, and presses against Phil’s cock which is straining against his pants. “Come on, want to see you,” Clint says.

The heat from Clint’s hand sears through his jeans, hot and perfect, and Phil’s hips surge against it as it miraculously doesn’t move, it just stays there, cupping him just right, the thumb digging into the material to find the sensitive head, and just rubs and Phil falls over the edge, shuddering hard, taking another half dozen thrusts as he comes. When his vision clears, Clint’s smile is goofy but guarded, and Phil feels about as uncoordinated as Clint looks so it takes some time to get his body moving and he misses Clint’s lips with his own, but Clint just chuckles as Phil kisses his chin.

“That,” Clint says eventually, when he apparently has most of his faculties back, but is still breathing hard, “was awesome.”

Phil is still taking inventory. He tingles everywhere and he’s so satiated he’s pretty sure he managed to unknot a muscle cramp that’s been plaguing him for a month. Also, he can’t stop smiling. “Ditto,” he says and Clint laughs and it vibrates through Phil causing a small after-shudder — he’s still damn sensitive. “Even if I haven’t come in my pants in decades.”

“I think,” Clint says, “the experience has been vastly underrated.” He takes a deep breath. “Everything okay over there?”

“So far so good,” Phil says, reaching up to touch Clint’s face again, to cup it and kiss it and let their noses bump. “I promise not to sneak out in the middle of the night.” He touches their lips again, pressing firmly. “Okay?”

Clint closes his eyes tightly for a brief moment and then opens them back up. “Okay.”

As they hobble off the couch to go clean up, Phil thinks about Clint’s eyes and how they look at him, like Phil is everything he wants, but is also everything he’s afraid of. It’s a power he’s not sure he likes having, but while it’s in his hands he vows not to abuse it. He won’t run off on Clint, won’t hide or avoid or get them assigned to perfectly innocuous assignments far away from each other. He will, if the time comes, talk to Clint openly and honestly. He will owe him that much, at the very least.

Chapter Text

After the cleanup and a few awkward sentences, Phil slips a movie into the DVD player and tugs Clint back to the couch. By the time it’s over, they’ve both mostly settled out of their nerves. Bed is weird only because Phil hasn’t shared a bed with someone, on purpose, while not on a mission, in a shitty safe house, with only one bed, in a very long time. They end up spending a long time talking in the darkness of Phil’s bedroom, curled up in each other as they explore the few subjects they don’t know about one another.

The next day, there is no panic attack for Clint to talk Phil down from, but he does wake feeling strange. Phil spends the morning feeling scrubbed raw and tender, like a new part of him is just making it out to the sunshine for the first time. He fights the urge to crawl under the blankets and stay there. Clint treats him like spun glass and Phil lets him, not quite sure how he fits inside his own skin anymore.

Over breakfast they share shy smiles and casual kisses and it’s very good, but Phil isn’t fooling himself. The real test will happen when he leaves the apartment. There’s a quasi-serious exchange just before Clint leaves.

“Am I going to come in to to work and find myself mysteriously reassigned?” Clint asks, leaning against the wall next to the door.

Phil raises an eyebrow. “Not by me.”

For their goodbye kiss, Clint once again sweeps Phil into his arms and dips him backwards. Phil lets him, because it makes him laugh, because it’s Clint. Because it’s fun.

After he takes his shower, he pauses in front of the mirror again. This time, he does look different. There’s a hint of beard burn in what feels like a random pattern. Low on his neck, just far down enough to be covered by a shirt collar, there’s a shadow of what looks like a bruise that he doesn’t remember Clint making. His hips also sport a few finger-shaped bruises. He traces the edge of one of them and then presses gently, the sensation making him hiss. He likes the physical manifestation of their evening. It makes everything seem more real. In a strange way, he’s proud of those fingerprints.

Still, he looks himself in the eye and takes a deep breath. “I,” he starts, feeling brave, “had sex...” it still looks and feels like him, the person in the mirror moves when he moves and speaks when he speaks, “with Clint.” His lips twitch with a smile he barely recognizes on his own face. “I,” he keeps going, buoyed on by his success, “had sex,” and yeah he’s smiling already - it’s been a damn long time since he’s gotten laid - “with a,” the blush starts before he can even begin articulating the first letter, “man.” It’s a whisper, he barely moves his lips to get the syllable out.

The things he feels as he says those true statements scare him. Is he homophobic? Has he been that way all his life? Accidentally perpetuating hatred without realizing it? Or maybe it’s that at 45, it’s strange to find that he doesn’t know himself nearly as well as he thought he did. SHIELD training tries to dig into every nook and cranny. When Phil joined up, SHIELD training philosophy could be summed up as ‘know thyself’. The intensity of it has let up a little in the years since, mostly because it didn’t do what the training intended it to do. The idea was to avoid having someone use your own weaknesses against you. Unfortunately, over the years they have learned that everyone breaks under torture, eventually.

The previous week’s mess bleeds into the current week. Everyone’s schedule is back on track, mostly, but the data is all wrong now and it needs to be updated and evaluated. A handful of missions need to be rebuilt from the ground up. It also affects the big operation they have coming up in two weeks, which is Phil’s to take care of all the way through. A compromise of his most recent promotion was that he could pick his missions, go into the field when he felt his direct supervision is needed most, like when Natasha and Clint have to go in without an extraction plan and spotty intel. Though, if its been too long, he’ll pick something out of the pot at random to supervise from inception to implementation.

Thanks to the screw up at work, Phil is stuck personally on call for something big going down in China that can’t be postponed. It means he’s stuck going in to the office Sunday night and supervising from afar. The team on the ground should have it, but the intel is still coming in and someone needs to be available to process the data and update them as needed, so he takes it easy after getting dressed.

He curls up with the last half of his book and plows through it easily. He finds himself holding his breath for the pivotal moments, when the main character, this real person, admits various secrets to important people in his life, to strangers, to the world. When he finishes the last sentence he puts the book down and feels strangely contemplative.

He turns on the evening news to listen to while eating. His daily briefs are more informative, but sometimes it’s good to know how far any of the information has filtered down and how twisted it is when it lands. Phil listens idly as he grabs some leftovers from the fridge and pops them into the microwave. The talking heads from the previous show are still on and it’s nothing he hasn’t heard before, only, it is.

His heart pounds as he listens to these total strangers debate something that’s suddenly extremely relevant to his life instead of only tangentially connected, and he realizes he’s been too busy and too lucky to have run into something like this before now. Proposition 8 has made the news again, slowly stepping forward in the appeals process, and it’s nothing he hasn’t heard before, but it hurts him, viscerally.

A series of potential events rushes through his mind and almost half of them dim from sight as completely unachievable and the other half get labeled unlikely or currently illegal. It’s an oversimplification and some of his panic is ridiculous because it includes things he’d long ago decided weren’t likely to be for him. Like children. Or grandchildren. He’s always liked the idea of grandchildren more than children. Grandkids don’t require the sacrifices that the previous generation would.

Then there’s marriage, which is insane because they’ve barely been dating two weeks but Phil is a planner, always has been, always will be, and that he’s managed to wait even this long before realizing that all future plans with Clint would be harder, more complex, and sometimes just plain impossible means he’s already more invested than he realized. Phil isn’t sure how he feels about that.

His commute in to the office that evening is filled with seeing all the actions, all the events and moments that change just because his date — his partner? Partner sounded okay — is male. He thinks about how it will never end, how if he stays with Clint, that’s his life, constantly evaluating and deciding and taking chances in situations he normally wouldn’t have to think twice about.

Once he gets to work, he doesn’t get much more time to think about it and quietly not panic because the mess in China is just getting bigger and bigger and he’s forced to pull Natasha off her assignment nearby and send her in and then recall a handful more agents to be put on standby. Phil stares at his overnight bag, packed in case of emergency because his office is out of replacement shirts and ties and a few other items needed for long ops, and hates it when he’s right.

The operational parameters, goals, and cover stories change five times in two days. Clint is brought in and prepped to be shipped out Monday evening when it becomes clear the clusterfuck is only just beginning and while the details aren’t completely settled, Phil and everyone else are sure that the full team needs to be in place ASAP. Phil wants, aches, to go with him, but he’s needed on the ground, and while he’s technically not out of communications while in the air, it’s too risky. Instead, he’ll be transferring to the helicarrier and taking a slower route.

Watching Clint pack up and head out is difficult. It’s not his first mission since they started… dating, but it is the first one Phil is in charge of and isn’t a milk run. It’s also the first time Phil has seen Clint in his full field suit since it all started. The tight one. For some reason he can’t get over the fact that his hands have touched that ass.

They haven’t had a chance to really talk since that last morning in Phil’s apartment. Eventually they find themselves gravitating towards each other and a small piece of privacy. Phil’s office on the carrier, while larger than most, is still very small. There’s no room for a couch. There’s barely room for the tiny closet where he stores extra suits and sundries.

At the moment he doesn’t have a permanent billet on board, so any extras he wants on board with him have to fit into his office or it requires about five pounds of extra paperwork to get storage space. Something about wearing a quiver seems to make Clint take up extra space, so even though all his equipment is already loaded onto the jet he’s taking in an hour, it still seems like Phil’s office lost some precious square footage when they walked in.

They stare at each other. Clint’s entire body is too still and tense. He’s bracing for something and Phil has a general idea of what that might be.

“I promised you,” Phil says quietly, “that if I was going to freak out, you’d be there.”

“I know,” Clint says. “You’ve been too busy to freak out anyway.”

“Yeah,” Phil agrees, taking a step in Clint’s direction. “There was a moment Sunday night, but it wasn’t really about you.”

“Proposition 8,” Clint says, and it’s not a question at all. It’s not shocking since it’s been big talk at the SHIELD water cooler too. “It’s like looking for a red car and, suddenly, they’re all red. I remember the feeling.”

Something hot and thick piles up behind Phil’s chest, but he can’t seem to get it out. Clint’s face is closed off and his arms are crossed tightly across his chest. The tension mounts until, finally, something releases and Phil whispers threadily, “Clint…”

They step to each other at the same time and there’s a second where Phil has no idea where to put his arms around the quiver Clint is wearing but they work it out in between long kisses that seem to say more than Phil can put into words. “Be safe,” he whispers into Clint’s mouth. “Please, be safe, this is hard enough as it it.”

Clint swallows back a noise and keeps kissing him with a single-minded determination that takes Phil’s breath away at the same time it gives it right back. It’s always been hard to send assets he cares about on dangerous missions, especially ones he can’t be on site for. It’s always been harder to send those assets he’s cultivated for months or years who are now his friends as much as his subordinates and coworkers. Once, a long time ago, he sent a lover out into danger. He thinks maybe his brain has purposefully forgotten how hard that is, because right now he hurts inside at the idea of letting Clint go even as he knows there’s no doubt that’s exactly what he will do in a few minutes.

“Phil,” Clint whispers tightly, into his cheek as they press their temples together, “be safe.” He echoes Phil’s words back to him. “I can’t—” he stops himself, “I can’t—.”

Phil strokes Clint’s cheek. “Don’t make me promise something I can’t possibly keep,” he just about begs, because he’s close to that too, close to asking for things he has no right to ask for.

“I won’t,” Clint’s hoarse voice promises. “I’ve got a burner with me. I always do for ops like this.” He leans in for another soft kiss. “Can I call you?”

Phil closes his eyes so he can think. It’s not technically breaking any protocol. Clint will be doing shift work for a while. “Bring a second phone,” Phil says, “and only off shift.”

Clint smiles. “What do you take me for,” they share a short kiss, “an amateur?”

“No comment,” Phil says with a smile.

They leave it at that, no goodbyes, no promises, no exceptions, just professional nods. They’ll see each other again, Phil knows it. Worst case scenario involves meeting up on enroute to the final part of the operation, which is currently taking place in India.

Day 1

“Jones snores,” Clint whines as soon as Phil answers the phone.

“You do not have permission to smother your fellow agent.”

“Aaw, Phil.”

Day 2

“No really, he’s, like a jackhammer. I’m seriously worried about operational security.”

“I’m not doing the paperwork if you attempt any sort of medical procedure on his nose.”

Day 5

“Anchovies.”

“Anchovies?” Phil bites his lip. Jasper must be bored. The anchovies bit usually doesn’t come out until week three.

“An. Chovies.”

Day 10

Clint chuckles. “If we end up being apart longer than we’ve been together, I might do something drastic.”

Phil smiles. “I hate to break it to you, but even if the current schedule doesn’t change…”

“Hey,” Clint says, “don’t take away a guy’s denial like that, it’s rude.”

Day 14

“That was a good catch with the flunkies,” Clint says, and then after a beat he adds, “I miss working with you.”

Phil’s chest aches. “Me too.”

“I just… miss you.”

“Me, too,” Phil whispers.

Day 15

When Phil picks up, all he hears is breathing. “Clint?”

“I— I don’t want to push.”

“You’re not.”

Clint’s breathing stays loud and unsteady. “I don’t think I should miss you this much already.”

Phil’s throat closes up. He understands the feeling. “Me, too.”

Day 17

“I had a dream,” Clint’s voice sounds husky, even through the cheap cell phone speaker.

“I am not getting R and D to make you specialty nerf arrows.”

Clint’s chuckle sends something warm and pleasant down Phil’s spine.

Day 18

“Hi.”

“Hi.”

Day 20

Phil spends long minutes clutching at his phone, waiting. He knows, he knows everything is fine. He’s seen the reports, read them over and over. He just needs— The phone lights up. “Clint?”

“Hey,” Clint’s voice is extra gravelly. “I don’t know how much talking I can do tonight.”

Phil works hard to keep his voice steady. “You should ask Natasha to work with you on getting out of choke holds. It seems you’re out of practice.”

“So she has informed m—” he breaks off into a painful-sounding cough.

“Stop talking,” Phil says gently. “For once in your life, let someone else chatter.”

“Say plea—” He coughs again.

“Please,” Phil says quickly before Clint even starts coughing again. “Please,” he repeats, slower and a little more in control.

Day 21

“Hey.” Clint’s voice sounds a little better, but on the whole he sounds a lot more tired.

“Are you getting enough sleep?”

Clint sighs. “You’re good at this spy stuff.”

“Nah,” Phil says, “I’m just working to support my day job.”

“Paperboy?”

“Stripper.”

Day 25

“When do we meet up again?” Clint asks as soon as he picks up.

“The most current plan is three days,” Phil says, leaning back into his chair, “but accounting for the problems we’ve already encountered, probably more.”

“Right,” Clint sighs. The sound of shifting fabric comes across the line. “That’s what I figured.”

They don’t talk for a while, but Phil can close his eyes and listen to Clint’s breathing and imagine they aren’t so far away from each other.

“It’s not like we’ll have much time,” Clint says eventually, “when we hit India.”

“That sounds like my line,” Phil says.

“Yeah well,” Clint’s voice goes soft, “I maybe think about you a lot.”

“Me too.”

Day 29

“Jones was talking about his girlfriend,” Clint tells him, “about how this is the first time he’s had a long-term op away from home in three months.”

“How sad for him.” Phil can’t help but sound annoyed.

“Right?” Clint agrees. “I kind of wanted to smash his face in. I mean— at least he can talk about her! About how much he misses her! And how much he’s looking forward to their next date about how they— how they—” Clint’s voice slowly goes from angry to broken.

“Clint, are you okay?”

“Sorry, sorry,” Clint comes back with after a long silence. “I’m not complaining about that.”

“Clint,” Phil says, “you do know the secrecy isn’t because you’re a guy, right?”

“I know,” Clint says, “and really, that’s not what’s bugging me.”

“I miss you too.” Phil bites his lip. “A lot.”

“I’m worried you’re freaking out without me there,” Clint blurts suddenly. “I know you promised, but how do you keep that promise in a situation like this?”

Phil blinks at himself, because the last weeks haven’t been about that at all. “I’m more worried about you than anything else. Between that and work, I don’t have a lot of brain space left.”

Clint is silent, but it feels like a different silence than their usual.

“Clint?”

“I want to ask—” Clint pauses. “I want to ask if you’ve decided anything, but it feels like I shouldn’t.”

“You have every right to ask,” Phil shoots back, unaccountably angry at Clint’s past for making basic communication seem like such a burden. “You can ask. The worst I can say is that I’m not sure.”

“Are you?” Clint’s voice is almost too quiet to hear over the slight hiss of the line.

“I—” Phil opens his mouth to say it, to say he’s still thinking about it, but the truth is, these last weeks and days all he’s thought about is Clint, about how safe he is, about how far away he is, about the day they’re on the same continent for the first time in weeks. “I’ve decided that a lot of things scare me,” Phil says slowly. “A lot of things about saying yes to you scare me because I have no concept, no frame of reference for what they will be.”

“You read ‘Coming Out, and Out, and Out’ first didn’t you?” Clint asks softly.

“Yeah,” Phil admits, “and the rational part of me says that I should read more, learn more, experience more before I say yes.”

“That certainly sounds like you.”

“But the irrational part of me,” Phil continues on hoarsely, “thinks it’s time to stop dicking around and just marry you already.” The noise Clint makes hurts Phil’s chest and he has to take a deep breath before he can go on. “And then the rational side jumps in with a snide comment about how, with you, it’s not that easy.”

“It can be.” Clint is still whispering. “You’re Phil Coulson, you can do anything.”

Phil chokes on laughter. “God, you really believe that, don’t you?”

“Always have,” Clint says immediately, “always will.”

Phil closes his eyes. Clint may as well have said— What the hell, who is he kidding anyway? “I love you, too.”

Day 30

Phil speaks first this time. “Chatter has you grumpy. Everything okay?” Clint’s side is quiet and Phil worries. Declarations of intent aren’t supposed to make people unhappy.

“Yeah,” Clint says finally. “Slept weird.”

“Everything okay?”

Clint’s sigh is loud in his ear. “I think I’m forgetting what it’s like to kiss you.”

Phil’s not actually prepared for that answer. He can feel his eyebrows climbing upward. “Is that what your dream was about?”

“No,” Clint snaps at him, “everything but, and I woke up before I—”

Sweat breaks out across Phil’s forehead and palms. “Before you?”

Clint doesn’t answer, but his silence is punctuated by fast breathing.

“Clint?”

“You,” Clint finally starts, voice low and rough, running right across Phil’s nerves, “were fucking me and it was so good. I know what you look like when it’s good for you now, what you sound like, what I can make you sound like.”

“Oh?” Phil swallows.

“God, Phil,” Clint just about moans, “I can picture it, sometimes even feel it, you filling me up so perfectly, hitting all the good spots, and it’s you, so it’d be a steep and quick learning curve to perfect.”

Phil’s throat is suddenly dry and his legs spread just a little to accommodate his throbbing erection. “Clint,” he croaks, not sure what to say, too afraid to contribute and too afraid to stop Clint.

“It’d be tight,” Clint goes on. “It’s been a while for me and you’re a bit above average from what I’ve seen, and on that first slide in it’d be all I could do to stay still, because I’m going crazy with it Phil, wanting you. Sometimes I dream about prepping myself and finding you that first day in India. Finding a closet somewhere and begging you just to push right in and never stop.”

Phil grinds the heel of his hand into his aching cock. “Clint,” he pants, “God, I just might say yes, if you did that.”

Clint does moan this time, low and rough. “Don’t say that, I’m already so hard.”

That’s when Phil snaps a little. “Me too,” he says. “I dream, too. Those books gave me a lot of ideas, a lot.”

“Can you— will you—” Clint whines a little. “Is it okay if I touch myself? Will it be okay if we—”

“Yes,” Phil breathes out hard. “Oh, God, yes. Please.” His hand is already at his buckle and he’s thankful that he locks his room automatically at night so he doesn’t have to work out how to walk right now.

The sounds of fumbling clothes comes through the phone and then a long, drawn-out moan. “Oh, God, that’s nice.”

Phil runs his hand down his cock, slow and hard, matching Clint’s sighs. “Yeah,” he says.

They try to maintain the fiction Clint started but neither of them can concentrate enough and the quiet pants and choked moans are more than enough to keep each other going.

“I want to suck on you forever,” Clint babbles, “just, get on my knees and suck until my jaw hurts and my throat is sore and you can’t take it anymore.”

Phil’s hand is slick with precome as he fists his cock tightly, twisting slightly on the upstroke. “I want to watch you come,” Phil says. “I want to watch you so distracted by pleasure you can’t see straight and your toes curl. I want to touch you everywhere.” In his ear, Clint whines. “And I do think about fucking you Clint,” he admits. The dreams had freaked him out at first, not anymore. “Slow and hard, like that time on the couch, you under me, so close for so long.”

“Yeah,” Clint says unsteadily, “yeah, I like that, slow and hard until I can’t see straight, can’t talk, can only beg for more, but maybe I’d clench around you and I’d feel—” He gasps. “I’d feel all of you so perfect and inside of me.”

Phil is rocking into his hand, so very close.

“Are you...?” Clint asks. “Because I am, I am, I’m almost there and I—”

“Y-yes,” Phil says, the sharp bite of pleasure building just behind his balls, “just a little more, let me hear you, I want to hear you—”

“You too,” Clint gasps. “I want to hear— Oh.”

Phil can hear it as Clint stops breathing and then starts again in harsh half pants as he makes sounds, amazing sounds that go right to Phil’s cock, making it twitch and his balls draw up tightly. “Clint,” he whispers. “Clint, I’m— I’m.”

“Yeah,” Clint slurs, “yeah, come on, need to hear it.”

Phil’s eyes roll back as he comes hard enough make himself dizzy. As he returns to himself, he realizes that not only is he still fully dressed, he’s still at his small desk inside his room and not on the bed. Next time, the bed. He flushes, realizing that, yeah, if they’re stuck apart too much longer, there’s probably going to be a next time.

“Jesus,” Clint says, still sounding out of breath, “I think I popped a blood vessel.”

Phil snorts and flops backwards into his chair, his entire body tingling pleasantly.

Day 31

“Did I make it weird?” Clint asks right away.

“No.” Phil smiles. “No, I think that was a long time coming, actually.”

Clint muffles a snort of laughter.

“Dirty,” Phil says, a tiny thrill going up his spine.

“MMmm, in so many ways.” Clint’s voice has dropped to a dark rasp - it’s addicting, hearing him like that.

“Yeah.” Phil licks his lips. “I kind of like that about you, sometimes.”

“Only sometimes?” Clint asks, and Phil can hear his smile.

“Well,” Phil says, “it can be a little distracting sometimes.”

“For you?”

“Everyone else.” Phil’s smile is approaching so wide it hurts. “I’m a professional.”

“You are.” Clint has gone from rough and ready for anything to soft and affectionate. “It’s distracting sometimes.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Clint says, “I’m worried about a possible paperwork fetish developing.”

“There could be worse things.” Phil sighs extra loudly on purpose. “I wouldn’t mind being seduced via completed paperwork. It’s a dream of mine really.”

“Pervert.”

They fall into the comfortable silence they’ve been cultivating for the last month and Phil murmurs “Speaker,” before switching it over and tossing the phone onto the bed. It’s not a new protocol, to warn the other parties in the conversation about possible breaches in privacy, but they’ve used it with a different intent over the last few weeks.

Phil usually takes the first turn. His evening ablutions take longer and involve hangers and folding and all sorts of other stuff Clint doesn’t need to do. To be fair, he is much neater while on a mission, but field suits are meant to take a beating and keep on ticking. They don’t need the care Phil’s suits need to survive.

When they switch off, Phil curls up in his bed and waits for the sounds of Clint winding down. Technically Clint is sharing with Jones, but they’re running opposite shifts to maximize privacy. SHIELD doesn’t often allow for private rooms, but good handlers try to take the little things into account when working up mission specs. Well-rested assets are preferable to sleep-deprived, grumpy ones. Phil closes his eyes and listens to Clint putter around, to cloth moving up and down and tiny clatters of various objects being picked up or put down. Despite the fact that he’s listening to Clint strip, arousal isn’t the first thing on his mind; it’s comfort.

When Clint comes back to the phone, Phil’s room is lit by a single lamp next to his bed and there’s a book in his lap. It’s the compilation of essays. Phil prefers to avoid reading anything long and interesting when he needs his full attention elsewhere for long periods of time. It avoids accidentally staying up until 4 AM because he can’t put the book down. Usually he picks short story anthologies, but this time he couldn’t resist taking the book Clint bought him. He feels more centered when he can work on large projects that are too complicated for him to strategize off the top of his head, work through tangles and run contingencies, even if this particular project would laugh his ass off at being called a project. Also, Phil may have felt closer to Clint by taking the book with him.

“Imagine,” Phil says, voice low, going with the mood of the room, “one day we might even be in the same building doing this routine.” He tucks the phone under his chin and waits for Clint’s witty repartee. When it doesn’t come, he worries. “Clint?”

“I want that,” Clint eventually says, “a lot.”

“To be in the same building?”

“To go to bed with you.”

“I…” Phil swallows, he thought they’d covered this, at least somewhat.

“Not sex,” Clint says. “I like this nighttime routine of ours.”

“So do I,” Phil says softly, warmth blooming in his chest. The book in his hands is set aside so that he doesn’t accidentally twist at the pages.

“That’s why I took the chance, you know?” Clint says, voice just as quiet. “It wasn’t just that I was attracted to you.”

“I know,” Phil says. “You tipped your hand pretty early.”

Clint barks out a laugh. “Yeah, I thought so. Never could put one past you.”

“It was nice,” Phil tells him, “knowing that someone cared like that.”

“It was easy,” Clint admits shakily, “caring about you like that. It is easy.”

Day 33

In their month of separation, Phil and Clint have meandered through just about every conversational topic there is. From favorite foods, often season-, weather-, and injury-dependent, to things that shouldn’t annoy them to near-homicidal tendencies, but do anyway. They’ve gone through their bedtime routines; Phil likes to read, Clint has trouble turning his brain off without some minor distraction.

“Some weeks my couch gets more use than my bed,” Clint tells him. “Reruns help.”

Phil spends the rest of that conversation biting back that his bedroom has a television.

They’ve spoken of trivial matters, favorite actors, authors, even directors. The future has been brought up, in vague terms, thoughts about how they both want their careers to go. Phil has a firmer grasp on that one, but they get into a long conversation about possibilities. Clint has strong feelings about the promotion schedule when they’re done.

There are hours about habits, good and bad, and careful conversations about what causes nightmares and stress. They even veer into muscle cramps and old injuries territory, which leads them on a meandering path of old missions. Only with more illumination.

“When you wandered out without the tie,” Clint says, “and that top button unbuttoned, I nearly swallowed my tongue.”

Phil tells the story of Clint’s fifteen minutes of radio silence about six months before their date. “After the explosion, nothing,” Phil says, working hard to keep his voice even, “just static. I forgot how to breathe at first. I couldn’t remember the recovery protocol.”

“Finland,” Clint says, “when they clipped you and you hit the snow-covered crevice and vanished. I slugged your lookout. It was that or have a small breakdown.”

If dates could be described as simply invitations to get to know one another, a way to have a conversation while having something to concentrate on during the lulls, their month apart should equal some twenty or thirty dates. Still, Phil feels like they’ve stayed away from one very important topic. The immediate future. Not what happens directly after this operation finally concludes, but what happens right after that.

Well, no, if Phil is honest with himself, he’s a touch apprehensive about those first minutes he and Clint have alone with each other. He’s torn between worry that they won’t be able to stop and finding out he’s not quite as ready as he thinks he is for whatever might happen anyway. His dreams make a good argument about his commitment to trying new things, very enthusiastically, but fantasy and reality can often crash in the most dangerous of ways.

He thinks that maybe they should talk about it before India. Using the comfort and privacy of their routine has made some of the more difficult conversations easier. It feels vaguely like cheating, but they do need to talk about it. By the time his phone rings, his palms are sweaty and he’s already changed for bed.

“So,” Phil says nervously after they’ve exchanged their daily stories, “I’ve been thinking and considering that I’m over the age of 40, I find the word boyfriend vaguely inappropriate.”

“Boyfriend?” Clint asks, stunned. “Really?”

“Yeah,” Phil says, breathing out slowly, “really.”

Clint is silent for a little while, but that’s fine, Phil has a weird addiction to listening to him breath. He’s been trying not to examine that one too closely.

“It’s a problem,” Clint begins eventually. “After Boyfriend, which I agree, seems a little odd for two people over 30, there’s no good word for it that doesn’t, like, fast forward the whole relationship ahead to a whole new level.”

Phil bites his lip as his heart pounds into his chest. “So when do you know? When it’s appropriate?”

Clint laughs. “I hear the key to a good relationship is communication.”

Phil laughs along with him. The idea that they could be communicating even more is pretty hilarious. “So we’ll just know?”

“That’s what they say.”

“They?”

“The magazines in the doctor’s office.”

“What are my choices?” Phil leaps in, heart still racing, indecision making him sweat under the blankets. He kicks them off and waits.

Clint stops breathing. “I thought we covered this, everything after boyfriend just—”

“Clint.” He tries for firm and probably just misses it. “What are my choices?”

“Phil?” Clint’s voice is small and confused inside of the cell phone and it makes Phil’s arms ache to hold him close. “I don’t—”

Not for the first time Phil mentally lists all of the people from Clint’s past he wants to run down and make permanently miserable. “Partner? Does that sound right?” he asks, gently interrupting Clint’s confused silence. “I thought about lover, but I thought that sounded a little like boyfriend in terms of inappropriate.”

Phil pauses, to see if Clint has caught up yet, but at the continued silence he goes on.

“I briefly considered business associates,” Phil says gamely, “but that seemed to put you in a category with a couple hundred other people and I think that maybe overlooked the basic idea behind all this.”

Clint laughs and Phil starts to breathe easier. He goes on, “Then I thought, maybe euphemisms were the way to go? Swim Buddy? Safari Partner, Person I’d most like to hide in a dark cave with?”

Clint finally picks up the thread and says, “Special adult friend?” sounding less like someone just punched him in the gut. “Adults who are good at sharing?”

“Hmm,” Phil pretends to consider them, finally relaxing back into his bed for the first time that night. “Definitely closer.”

“Candlelit dinner friend? Monogamous bathroom buddy?”

“Monogamous roommate,” Phil says before he can stop himself.

“I—” Clint eventually gets out after a long pause. “I was worried I’d scare you off if I moved too fast, but monogamous roommate is a little intense.”

“I’m sorry,” Phil struggles to say, and he is, but he also is fighting a sudden feeling that monogamous roommate is exactly what he wants, because it comes with falling asleep with Clint every night they can, listening to him putter around and then curling up in bed and listening to his breathing slowly even out, relaxing into the easy rhythm of life. A life together. “It’s ridiculous right? Three dates in.”

“Yeah,” Clint agrees with him, voice faint. “Also I’ve found that I’m less likely to do stupid stuff if I don’t know the relationship milestones are coming.”

“So I shouldn’t tell you before I clear out a drawer for you?” Phil tries to shrug it off, tries not to tell Clint that running is okay, being scared is okay, as long as he comes back, because if the idea of moving in together was intense, then that level of trust and commitment (and quite probably love, but he’s not ready to really think about that yet despite having said it out loud, which is absolutely absurd considering their conversation) would probably freak Clint out even more. “Just hide your stuff in there and when you go looking for it tell you it’s been put away in your drawer?”

“Yes,” Clint says quickly, “and then pretend that we totally had a conversation about it like adults and then picked a date for it to happen.”

“We are talking about it like adults,” Phil can’t help but say, because they are, or as close as possible as it is in their circumstances.

“Ah! But you haven’t picked a date. You are going to surprise me,” Clint counters, desperation lacing his voice.

“Clint,” Phil says in exasperation, “the problem is that I want to surprise you right now.” When he finishes, he winces. He didn’t mean to keep pushing it.

“So do I,” Clint says immediately, like somehow bringing the conversation into the theoretical makes it easier for him keep it going. “But,” he comes back, voice a little more stilted, “three dates. That’d be crazy, right?”

There’s something he’s not saying; Phil can hear it. Which is a little impressive considering how much they’re actually talking around instead of outright saying.

“I mean,” Clint is still going on, “according to Bill Clinton and probably some High Schoolers with purity pledges, we haven’t even really had sex. Or seen each other naked—”

“Yes we have.”

“Decontamination doesn’t count.”

Phil stretches his legs out and shifts, searching for a comfortable position, like it will somehow make this conversation any easier. “Is this like a what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas sort of thing?” Phil can’t help but think their conversation has possibly lost the plot somewhere back near the beginning.

“More like, whatever happens during the awkward naked time while we’re all hoping we’re not already dying isn’t sexy, ever,” Clint says wryly.

“Fair enough.”

The silence that descends is slightly less comfortable than their usual, but it also feels loaded with unsaid things. Fuck it. Phil is a brave man, objectively speaking - he faces armed psychopaths several times a year; if that’s not brave, he doesn’t know what is. “I want you there,” he makes himself say. “The idea of going to bed with you at night and waking up with you in the morning, of making breakfast together and sharing a bathroom and having dumb arguments about our towels and my dry cleaning bills, of all of it. I can’t think of anything I want more.”

There’s a clattering of noise over the line, so loud Phil has to pull the phone away from his ear. “Clint?” There’s muted cursing, more clattering, but no bullets or explosions or yells from voices he doesn’t recognize, so Phil sits up in bed, presses the phone back to his ear hard enough to push the cartilage uncomfortably against the side of his head and waits while Clint gets himself under control or pretends to lose the line.

Eventually the noise stops and is replaced by the familiar pattern of Clint’s worried breathing.

“Clint?”

“I prepared myself,” Clint finally comes back on the line. “After that first night, I prepared myself for disappointment, I prepared myself for a long and careful wait. I prepared to take what you were willing to give and I prepared myself for the idea that anything like this would take years to get to.”

Phil’s chest aches at the confession, but it doesn’t stop him from saying, “You prepared yourself long before that night.” It’s like once he found that place where all of his words about this lived, he can’t un-find it. “You were expecting me to say no, weren’t you?”

“All the time,” Clint blurts out immediately. “…all the time.”

The loaded silence is back, only this time Phil has no idea what’s waiting in the wings. There can’t possibly be that much left. Can there?

“Phil?” Clint finally asks softly.

“Yes?”

“What about sex?” Clint eventually asks. “You didn’t mention sex. If you want all of that without the sex, that’s something I’m okay with, but you have to tell me that now.”

The lump in Phil’s throat just keeps growing. “God,” he says faintly, “you really do love me.”

Clint’s laugh is thin and reedy. “I do,” he says. “I really do, and don’t get me wrong, I can’t deny the sex has been a hot topic on my mind, but I’m pretty sure I want you more. The way you said.”

Phil closes his eyes and imagines Clint on the other side of this conversation, probably holed up someplace mostly comfortable and dark. Clutching at the phone with shining eyes and twitching fingers, pouring his heart out to someone he can’t see, hasn’t seen in a month, and has only been on a handful of dates with. Phil can imagine Clint smacking himself and shaking his head, mentally listing why this is stupid and reckless. Then he imagines sliding in beside Clint, running fingers through his hair and kissing his temple, curling around him and sliding his hands under Clint’s clothes, following them with his lips.

Nothing about that makes Phil want to run and hide, other than how it isn’t even two months since their accidental first date.

“I can’t promise you everything,” is what Phil tells him, what he really means is penetration. Anal sex. They both know it too. He had a girlfriend once, who was mildly adventurous, but nothing close to that. The idea of it both scares him and makes him feel uncomfortably vulnerable, but if he adds Clint into the mix, it scares him less. “I’m a fan of orgasms,” Phil says, “and despite the fact that there’s very little data, all signs point to enjoying them even more when you’re involved in some way.”

“Okay.”

“Clint?” Phil asks because that okay sounded anything but.

“I’m just seriously considering proposing a relationship based entirely on phone sex and fully-clothed make out sessions.”

Phil laughs, tension easing out of his frame and it feels like he can take a completely deep breath for the first time since the conversation started. “Let’s just call it a good place to start negotiations, okay?”

“Okay.”

Chapter Text

Day 37

It goes to hell near the end of Phil’s active duty shift. There’s an emergency band transmission from their guys in Russia. There’s a completely separate operation happening near the Russian/Mongolian border but the info dump from the AIM computers is barely in SHIELD’s systems an hour before every warning system they have begins ringing.

Phil’s console fills with data so fast he can’t keep up and he has years of practice skimming the downloads. He immediately dumps the view and goes for the subject lines. Their operation has been labeled All Information for weeks. Phil’s job is to do the major sorting and response. In most cases that leaves them with faster and more decisive mission parameter updates, except when the data dump is this big. He scans frantically, calling in everyone in their control corner. The bridge of the carrier can be sectioned off for smaller operations. It leaves everyone in a position to work separately, but to quickly share information across the board if necessary.

“I need eyes!” he calls out and immediately two stations connect with his little corner. “Find me the high priority update in this and then sort down based on time sensitivity. If you’re not sure, just send it to my station.”

The activity surrounding him increases tenfold and conversation ceases in favor of muted clacking and quiet whispers.

“Sir!” Someone shouts to grab his attention, because the data is already flowing into his screen. He shoves everything out of the way to bring it up. It’s still a wall of text, but it’s smaller at least. He hits the highlight capability and in ten seconds he gets a list of watch words with links back to their sentences. He stops breathing when the list generates. AIM.

He reads quickly. Their weapons maker is an ancillary arm of AIM and the deal they’re trying to work their way into is between them and Hydra. No wonder this has all been a shit-storm from the start. “Someone get me ground operations! Now!”

But it’s too late. Official channels have either been cut or flooded with static. Cell phones come out almost immediately. It’s not always as secure, but in a pinch, contact is contact. Everyone starts coming up empty when he gets the idea. It’s gonna cost him some face later if the wrong person reads the report, but he doesn’t care. His burner is out and into his hands before he can finish the thought. Ground operations and support staff aren’t allowed to keep the same shift changes, so Phil might still be officially on duty, but Clint should be just coming off and in a position to answer his phone.

“Phil?” Clint answers almost immediately. Their routine involves Clint making the call. Phil’s schedule is more regimented and less likely to be disrupted. He’s also not going to risk death if the phone rings at the wrong time.

“Go to ground, now.” Over the line he can hear Clint immediately begin to scramble. “We’ve lost contact through official comm channels. Your target belongs to AIM and—” He’s interrupted by a loud bang and a muffled curse.

Clint’s voice comes back for a brief few seconds. “Acknowledged, going dark. Secondary objectives confirmed.” Then nothing.

Phil feels like throwing up, but there isn’t time for that so he moves on to the only thing he can do: work. He sets wheels into motion and starts an in-depth analysis of the new chunks of data. Distantly, he keeps an eye on the retrieval team’s progress. There won’t be much of it for a while. Regrouping after an incident like this requires a certain amount of wait time.

Six hours in, the first safe house pings, but the tension in Phil’s body doesn’t ease until hours later when Clint’s voice filters through the radio.

“Hawkeye reporting in.”

Phil feels the nausea rise back up. “Acknowledged Hawkeye. Status?”

“Nothing permanent,” Clint says quickly and Phil takes that to mean some bruises that are rainbow colored. “I managed to get all of our equipment trashed before getting out.”

“Good,” Phil says completely unprofessionally, his chest finally expanding fully for what feels like the first time in hours. “Good.” He closes his eyes and lets Clint breathe in his ear for a few seconds before finding his professionalism again. “Good work, Agent Barton. Pickup will be ready within the hour.”

“Thanks, I could use a serious nap,” Clint says easily. “Oh hey, can you tell Tasha that I—”

“Wait,” Phil cuts him off. “She’s not with you?” His adrenaline is already ramping back up. If Widow is in the wind, this is more serious than they thought and they already thought it was pretty damn serious.

“No,” Clint says. “No, I haven’t seen her since the scramble and that was through a scope.”

Phil freezes and runs frantically through scenarios, none of them good. “Okay that’s it, I’m calling a code 7, back to base with speed. All intel will be shuffled through the main computer and analyzed.”

Clint is already moving, probably repacking anything he may have already unpacked. “See you soon, boss.”

Clint is off the line before Phil can say anything. He’s halfway through sending out a new set of orders to his team when he realizes Clint is coming to him. In person. They could even be in the same room within the hour. That idea is beyond distracting and he nearly loses his train of thought twice. If anyone is monitoring his heart rate for the next hour, Phil is probably going to find a summons to medical in his inbox in the morning. He checks the time, okay probably closer to the afternoon. God, it is late.

Anyone involved in the rescue op is going to need some down time. He hates making that decision. It means leaving an asset in enemy hands for hours while he does nothing but rest and sleep. It feels like a betrayal, no matter how many times he wakes up after a solid four hours more rested and brain calmer knowing it was the right choice.

Clint’s account comes in before his transport lands. He must have been working on it from the moment he could get his hands on a terminal. Finally, an hour after Clint signed off, Phil releases the current duty shift for a full break and personnel essential to the rescue for five hours. Enough time to shove some food into their mouths, take a little time to decompress and get a full sleep cycle. The fresh shift will monitor everything while they sleep.

Briefly, Phil thinks about seeking Clint out, but he just doesn’t have the energy to even begin that let alone explain why, so he shuffles to his billet and lets himself inside. The light is already on and hope flares inside of him as he takes in every inch of his room. On his desk is a covered tray, in the corner is a go bag, and on the bed is the most beautiful sight of all, Clint Barton smiling shyly.

“Hi,” Phil says, stopped in his tracks. It’s an effort to remember to close the door behind him.

“Hi,” Clint says back, already levering himself off the bed and crossing the room in long, quick strides.

Phil is worried it will be awkward right up until it isn’t and their arms slide around one another easily and without a single hitch and they pull each other close, a full body press, and Phil burrows his nose into Clint’s neck and breathes deep.

“Phil,” Clint murmurs. “God, I feel like I shouldn’t be this happy. Tash is missing but, God,” he briefly squeezes harder, “it is so good to see you.”

Phil squeezes back before gently disentangling them just enough to meet Clint’s eyes. “She’d smack you for thinking that,” he says before leaning in for a careful kiss that doesn’t stay careful for long. Whatever restraint they had been maintaining crumbles within seconds of their lips touching. The starvation diet they’ve been on has left them hungry. Phil’s back hits the wall, cushioned only by Clint’s hands, but he’s already past it, sliding his own arms down the length of Clint’s body, savoring every inch.

Clint’s entire body is pressing nicely up against Phil and it’s perfect, absolutely perfect. “Clint,” he whispers between long kisses, “I missed you, so much.”

“Me too,” Clint says, hands sliding down Phil’s ass, squeezing firmly. “God, you feel good next to me.” He helps Phil straddle his thigh, rocking almost roughly against him.

Phil’s not quite hard yet, but he’s coming along at a fast clip. Clint’s thigh is beyond perfect, a little wider than he’s used to but firm and ready, and if Clint keeps doing that thing with his hands and tongue, Phil worries this might lead to another sticky pants incident. Phil rolls his hips again, his eyes nearly rolling back at the same time. He pulls Clint in, his chest expanding under Phil’s hands as Clint’s breath stutters.

“Fuck,” Clint says when they stop to pant for breath. “Fuck, I really want to suck your cock.”

And like that, Phil is completely turned on, to the point where his pants actually hurt. He grabs Clint any way he can and just hauls until he’s sure Clint’s on his toes and the wall is supporting both of them.

They roll and there’s not a lot of space. But the few feet next to the door are soon occupied by Clint’s back and only his back. He wraps his one free leg around Phil’s hips and it’s mostly muscle memory that has Phil slide his hands under Clint’s ass and finish lifting until he has no other choice but to remove his leg from between Phil’s thighs and wrap it around him as well.

Clint settles against him and Phil moans, licking up Clint’s neck and sucking on a patch of delicate skin. There’s a hard heat pressing into him, and Phil can’t stop his hands from worming between them and feeling out the shape and size of Clint’s cock, nervousness and worry almost completely forgotten. Clint gasps and his cock practically leaps into Phil’s hand, even from under the stretched material of Clint’s tac suit.

“Oh fuck, please Phil,” Clint rasps, hips rolling in what little space there is. “Is it okay? Can we— Please touch me?”

Phil is nodding before Clint even finishes. “Of course it’s okay.” He’s already pressing his palm flat against the bulge, trying to work out the best way of gaining access without dropping them.

“Desk,” Clint gasps into his ear. “Desk, desk, desk.” He’s already tightening his hold around Phil’s neck and hips and Phil can’t do anything but comply. His hands go back to that amazing ass and his fingers spread over it, clutching just a little before he gets his knees under them and takes them the three steps to the desk. Clint catches himself as Phil lets go, avoiding a terrible fate for the covered dish in the corner, a single arm bracing from behind and leaving him arched and perfect under Phil.

They lose themselves to kissing, and Phil is only dimly aware of his tie and jacket being removed, but he doesn’t care because all it does is make Clint feel closer, so close that eventually it feels like he’s sinking right into Phil’s skin, hot and amazing.

When he comes back to himself, the top half of Clint’s suit is peeled away, revealing miles of skin, of which he wants to explore every inch, twice, but that thought quickly leaves his head as Clint’s fingers start on his belt. His hands aren’t steady so there’s a generous amount of brushing and touching and Phil is about to go crazy with it when Clint suddenly stops.

Phil swallows back a whine and forces himself to focus. “What’s wrong?”

Clint’s eyes squeeze shut and he takes a few gulping breaths. “I just...” he pants, “is this okay? Should I slow down? Is—”

Phil swallows his questions with a soft kiss. “Thank you,” Phil says quietly, finding a well of patience and serenity from someplace inside him, despite the aching throb of his cock that sends shocks of pleasure up his spine with each subtle shift of their bodies, “for being so careful with me.”

“I just...” Clint swallows and opens his eyes. “I can’t hurt you,” he says quietly.

“You won’t,” Phil says confidently as he reaches for his shirt and slowly starts to undo the buttons. “I trust you.”

Clint makes a noise that Phil can’t interpret but his hands cover Phil’s and slowly take over the careful push of buttons through their holes. He stops at the waist line to finish removing the belt and open the button under the buckle before he gently tugs the tails of the shirt out to reach the last two buttons.

His shirt flutters to his side and Phil aches to move, but he senses Clint needs him to wait, so he does. He locks his muscles and shivers through the gentle fingertip caress of his stomach and chest until finally Clint’s fingers land, once again, at his waist.

“Can I?” Clint asks quietly, reverently, and at that moment Phil knows that Clint isn’t asking for more than he can give, so he nods. Clint’s hands shake as he lowers the zip of Phil’s pants, which don’t go anywhere because he’s still clamped in the firm embrace of Clint’s thighs. It does give Clint more than enough room to slide into them, into the soft cotton of his boxers which are stretched wetly over his straining erection.

Clint is so delicate, so careful as he wraps his fingers around Phil and it’s so wonderful Phil’s chest aches. “Clint,” he rasps, trying to express it all. “Oh," he whispers at the first full stroke, "Oh Clint," Clint strokes again and Phil is lost, pushing out one shaky breath after another. “Oh fu-” His words get subsumed into a sharp breath as sensation pulls at him. Clint’s hand keeps moving in its steady and devastating pace and it’s a fight to concentrate on anything else.

Phil’s fingers are nearly unable to get Clint’s suit open enough and he stops a few times, savoring the way Clint’s hand holds him, twists on the downstroke, and makes his entire body light up. The first touch of Clint’s cock is like a revelation for how unremarkable it is, just soft skin and firm flesh and heat and still it’s satisfying to wrap his hand around it and squeeze experimentally. Clint’s hand skips a beat and they both laugh lightly, trying to work out how to get off without distracting one another so much that it just becomes an exercise in frustration.

“Wait,” Clint says, “let me draw upon my larger body of knowledge here.”

Phil laughs and nods, waiting, but unable to let go of Clint’s cock - he’s too fascinated by the new feelings under his fingertips.

Clint kisses him and then wiggles and shuffles in such a way that their hips are somehow even closer together and then some clothing is peeled further away and Clint guides his hand, the one wrapped around Clint’s erection and then there are fingers and heat and perfect pressure and his hand is guided into a larger hold with Clint’s fingers intertwining Phil’s.

“There,” Clint says breathlessly. “I think we can work it out from there.”

Phil laughs again, a little breathless as well - such a simple solution, such an amazing feeling. There’s a throbbing, a counterpoint to Phil’s heart, and he can feel it as Clint’s hand moves them up and down for the first pass, pressing their cocks together, bathing them in friction and heat.

“Oh,” Phil says, watching their shiny heads pressed together, disappearing between their palms. “Oh that’s…” He reaches out to Clint, needing to hold onto something. He settles his free hand on the back of Clint’s neck as their foreheads touch.

“Yeah,” Clint breaths out. “Jesus, I can’t believe how good you feel.” His chest heaves as he says it.

“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” Phil says, slightly giddy. “With you,” he says quickly, when he realizes what he sounds like. “Here,” he gasps as their hands get faster, slicker, “with me. In the same room.”

“You,” Clint loses his train of thought for a second, “and me both.”

After that it devolves into slick heat and open-mouthed kisses and the faint feeling of surreality that, at his age, Phil’s finding an entirely new plane of sexual adventure that starts so simply, so perfectly, in the spectrum of Clint’s flushed skin and hooded eyes and his hand firm in Phil’s, holding them together.

Phil wants to be closer, wants to pull Clint into his orbit in such a way that he can never leave. He wants to kiss and hug and lick and suck and pull every ounce of pleasure from Clint’s skin and savor it all at once, together.

When he comes, it’s a shock that punches him low in the gut, leaving him breathless and shaking. Clint keeps their hands moving through it, pushing the last ounces of pleasure out of him. “Oh, God,” Phil whispers. “Clint, please, come, I need to, I need you to come.” Phil’s arms ache. He wants to gather Clint close. He wants to keep Clint going, tilted back in pleasure and want, eyes flickering shut as his back arches, and then inside of Phil’s hand he twitches and stripes white between them, hot and wet, easing Phil’s shaking hand as he helps Clint through it.

Clint finishes with a whimper and Phil pulls him into a sticky hug, their naked chests pressing together with a quiet squelch. “I love you,” Phil whispers with awe. He’d thought about it, considered it, knew it with an almost certain feeling, even said it once, but now with Clint shivering and holding him just as tight in his arms, he knows it’s a fact, probably has been for a long time. It feels different to say it here, with Clint shaking in his arms. It feels real.

“Phil,” Clint says into his neck, burying his head as far as he can. “Fuck, that was good.”

They clean up in silence, using damp cloths and gentle touches, before climbing into bed wearing fresh underwear. They take the covered tray and its simple dinner with them. They eat their sandwiches, bags of chips and bottles of water quickly and with little conversation.

Phil’s yawning before he even gets through half his sandwich; next to him Clint is the same. Phil’s alarm has been set since before getting to his room, so all that’s left when their plates are empty is to turn off the lights and curl up with each other. Phil can feel the tension in the air. Clint’s muscles feel stiff under his hands when only minutes earlier they had been lax and loose.

“Phil,” Clint says when they’ve settled into the darkness and finished arranging themselves into comfort, “tell me again tomorrow and I’ll say it back.”

Phil blinks some sleep fog out of his eyes, stroking a hand down Clint’s smooth back. “Tell you what?”

“That you love me,” Clint says quietly. “Tell me again tomorrow, when we haven’t had enough sleep and you’re still grumpy because the coffee hasn’t hit you yet and everything is going to hell with stress because we have to plan an incredibly dangerous infiltration to save our friend and your last orgasm wasn’t seconds earlier.” He runs his hand down Phil’s chest. “In other words, when it’s the absolute last thing on your mind. Tell me then and I’ll say it back. I’ll mean it and I know you’ll mean it too.”

Phil carefully tilts Clint’s head in his direction and presses a slow kiss into Clint’s mouth, then his cheek, jaw, temple and eventually back to his lips. “I don’t need you to say it back,” he says carefully. “It’s not about mutual validation.” He lets their noses rub together. “If you’re not ready to say it, that’s fine. You’ve already told me how invested you are. The rest? Will come.”

“Please,” Clint says so quietly Phil has to strain to hear it, “tell me tomorrow.”

“Okay,” Phil agrees, brushing a thumb across Clint’s cheek bone, “tomorrow.”

*****

The alarm cuts through Phil like a knife, but something stops him from reaching out immediately to silence it. There’s movement next to him and on top of his chest and— oh right, Clint. He can’t help smiling just a little, even as the alarm keeps blaring, getting slightly louder as Clint fumbles with Phil’s phone, unused to the layout.

“Top button,” Phil says in a rusty voice without opening his eyes. “That’s snooze.”

Another few seconds of fumbling and then blissful silence. Phil’s phone is deposited onto his chest, a rectangular weight on his breastbone while Clint settles back down to his side, an arm flung carelessly across Phil’s stomach.

“Morning,” Clint says rubbing his nose along Phil’s shoulder. “Wait, is it morning?”

Phil blinks his eyes open, hoping to work some moisture into them before having to focus on anything. He does the math. “Ish.”

Clint chuckles. “You know exactly what time it is don’t you?”

“Yep.”

“You’re just playing it cool, aren’t you?”

“Yep,” Phil says, lips curling up into an easy smile. He looks down to see Clint relaxing against his side, a warm, pliant length that Phil just wants to close his eyes and enjoy. It takes him a shockingly long time to remember why he can’t, and he instantly feels just the tiniest bit guilty. “Is it okay if I grab the first shower?”

Clint pushes up onto his elbow so that he can look Phil in the eyes. His other hand is still relaxed onto Phil’s stomach, rubbing absently over his t-shirt, “Yeah, I was thinking you’d do that and I’d run and grab coffee and a bagel for both of us.”

Phil takes Clint’s free hand into his own and watches as their fingers automatically wind together. He wants to study that feeling the image evokes, but he’s got a job to do and he needs to be able to push that feeling away, just a little, or this will never work. “Sounds good,” is what he says, but he doesn’t move just yet. He wants thirty seconds to savor and memorize this feeling, these touches. The idea of Clint in his bed, warm and sleepy and just for him, it soothes something inside of Phil he didn’t know was aching.

Soon, sooner than he wants, he brushes his lips over Clint’s knuckles and untangles them. While Clint slides into sweats and slips out, Phil lets the hot water wash away as much tension as it can. The rescue mission is going to be damn dangerous and there’s not nearly enough intel for Phil to begin feeling comfortable and confident inside of his own head. He has allowed an extra twenty minutes in his schedule to skim the latest briefs and to see if the relief shift has put together anything of use before he’s due to lay the plan out for the operatives.

He finally gets around to scrubbing off the last bits of dried flakes from last night when it hits him. He touched another man’s penis. It’s dumb, absolutely dumb, but there’s some last vestige of something inside him that feels betrayed and scared. Like a point of no return was passed, a sign post on the way to bending over a desk without question and he’s utterly embarrassed for himself, for all of it, for even thinking like that at all. The flushed face that greets him in the mirror seems redder than simple hot water would induce and he takes a few long breaths trying to stop his thundering heart.

Phil grips the edges of the sink tightly and tries to get out the words of the exercise he’s taken on as his own way of stretching his limits. “I…” Damn it, he looks away. He can’t be this distracted today, it’s dangerous and unprofessional and just like that, doubts start to leak all over his mind.

Clint is sitting on the bed when Phil exits the bathroom, laptop perched on his knees, scrolling with one hand and sipping coffee with the other. Before Phil can say anything he looks up with a smile that quickly drops off his face when he focuses on Phil.

“Phil?” he asks, carefully putting the coffee on the nearest flat surface and closing the laptop. “Everything okay?”

“No,” Phil says immediately. Lying would be dumb. Clint can read him without trying these days. Over the phone and barely breathing, Clint can read him. “Sorry, just, it’s nothing, it’ll pass, but I don’t have time to work through it right now, so can we—”

“Yeah.” Clint is standing, but keeping his distance. “Hey,” he says, reaching out slowly but not touching until Phil nods sharply and then only squeezing Phil’s bare shoulder, “this is fine. Normal even. Thank you for telling me.”

Clint gives him another squeeze and then slides away into the bathroom. By the time he comes out, a humid puff of steam following him, Phil is fully dressed except his tie and jacket and is chugging down the last of his coffee, eyes scanning the last of the priority emails and memos. While they slept the satellites that were tasked made it to their destinations and have spent several hours scanning with every filter known to man. Phil stars three sets and sends them back to be added to the briefing packet. He prefers having days to plan an infiltration, but he can do it in hours if necessary and some days it seems necessary comes just a bit too often.

To his right, Clint is sliding into a fresh tac suit with nimble fingers and a grace that is only born out of years of practice. Clint drops down onto the corner of the bed closest to where Phil is sitting and starts shoving his feet into his boots. He’s going fast, mission speed fast, where buckles and zippers seem to magically do themselves up. Phil has a gnawing feeling in his gut that Clint is pushing his prep time on purpose.

Finally with a muted thump, Clint sighs loudly. “Phil?”

Because he is brave, because he isn’t a child, and because underneath his fear and doubts and worry he cares deeply for Clint, Phil lets his chair be swiveled into Clint’s line of sight. He smiles. It’s a little brittle.

Clint presses his lips together and gives Phil about a half second of contemplative staring. “Put it away,” he says finally. “Put it away and deal with it later. I won’t feel betrayed or angry because you have to be Agent Coulson when you walk out of this room. I’ll worry, because that’s what I do. But I’ll also be rescuing my best friend and I need you out there, sir.”

He adds the sir on purpose, Phil is very sure of that. “I’m not changing my mind,” Phil says, “I’m just—”

“Mostly straight,” Clint interrupts him with a small smile, “and in your mid forties. You’ll get there.”

Something hot and achy wells up inside of Phil’s chest and as scared as he is, that feeling is welcome. He tucks it deep inside and holds it tight, because he knows that feeling is often only once in a lifetime and he’s found it. So no matter how scary it is, he’s going to keep it. He nods at Clint and deliberately takes that moment to tie his tie.

Clint’s smile stays where it is, but he nods shortly, all business, and stands to leave. Just as he’s about to open the door, Phil calls out to him, “Agent Barton?”

Clint’s smile grows just a bit at the title. “Sir?”

Phil takes a half second to finish placing the knot at his throat before going on. “I do love you.”

All at once, Agent Barton is replaced by Clint, just briefly. “I love you too,” he says, before giving off a saucy wink that is pure Barton and heading out.

Phil grabs his jacket and tablet, more than ready to meet the world. He has an agent to recover and some bad guys’ asses to kick. It’s gonna be a hell of a day.

Chapter Text

When Phil leaves his quarters, he is every inch Agent Coulson, Senior Handler and team leader. It’s a natural weight that settles onto his shoulders and it feels good there, comfortable and recognizable. It’s an experience born decades ago and honed to exacting standards in the years that followed. As he enters the conference room, everyone is there. Clint is in his usual spot, off to the side, where he claims he gets a better view of the projections. The three-dimensional, interactive projections. Phil has given up on understanding that one.

The briefing starts off the way this kind of thing usually does. When the team walks into something like this with only hours to go, the plan starts out as one of the typical SHIELD infiltration scenarios and they all work together to modify it based on available personnel, equipment, and the lay of the land.

They go with Standard Infiltration C. For once there’s enough manpower for a three-pronged assault with enough to spare for snipers and specialist ground troops. It’s all going fine. Phil remains calm and collected and is relieved to be able to work alongside Clint without getting distracted by his, well, everything.

Then they start talking modifications.

“I’m better inside,” Clint says. “Look at the vent shafts, it’s an old setup. The modern stuff is more efficient, but they never replaced the huge piping.”

They talk about it a bit and assault team leaders toss ideas back and forth, but the truth of the matter is AIM is never going to believe they’re holding something SHIELD would consider more valuable than Black Widow. At most, there might be something of equal value, like the data in their computer core. There are vague hopes that they can also grab something that will illuminate more of the connection between AIM and HYDRA.

The problem starts when it becomes clear that Clint is right - more than right - it all works much, much better with Clint on the ground. Also, aside from Phil, he’s the most likely to catch any signals Natasha might send out. Something heavy and sharp builds in the pit of his stomach as the time for Phil to make the final decisions gets closer and closer. The doubts from earlier come back, only now it’s about putting Clint in danger without flinching. Its always been hard but now he has visions of Clint’s sleepy smile overlaid on top of Agent Barton’s face.

“Take ten,” he finally says when the last of the recommendations finish. “Get coffee, go pee, Google something useful, I don’t know.” He pinches the bridge of his nose. “Just, take a breather.”

The tension in the room seems to snap at his orders. The lights come back to full, the individual lamps go down and everyone starts to mill. A few stay where they are, typing diligently away; about half leave, probably to take care of something personal. Maybe double-checking facts that can’t be done from within the room. Phil takes himself to a corner with a window and crosses his arms tightly, trying to hold that feeling inside of himself, as if he could somehow keep the sinking feeling of imminent failure from leaking out and tainting the entire team.

“Hey,” Clint says softly, off to his side, “what’d we miss?”

Phil raises an eyebrow of inquiry. “Miss?”

“You’ve got that look,” Clint says.

Phil shakes his head. “I don’t know.” He stares out the dimmed window into the air currents. “It’s this op,” he says pressing his fingers to the cold glass. “Nothing has gone right from the start and I have this feeling in the pit of my stomach that this is going to explode in our faces, again, but I— I don’t trust it. Because...” Phil hesitates, closing his eyes and lowering his voice even more. “Because a lot of that feeling is about you, about being the person who orders you in and then having to listen to you die.”

“Phil,” Clint whispers, “don’t put that on you—”

“I don’t know if I can do it,” Phil pushes out over Clint’s assurances. “I don’t know if I could just listen. I don’t know if I could live with myself after.”

“First of all,” Clint keeps his voice low, “thanks for the vote of confidence.” It’s said with a wry humor that blunts the impact of the words. “And second, you’re Phil Coulson, Agent of SHIELD. If it comes down to it, you will give it to Hill, or even Fury. Because you’re good at your job— No,” Clint corrects himself, “you’re the best and you don’t pull punches. You know when to take people out of the game.”

A cold spike of fear runs through Phil. “I don’t know if I’m okay with that.”

“What?” Clint asks.

“I—” Phil has never been so aware of the public nature of the meeting room. Still, he and Clint both have a certain level of reputation that allows them a moderate amount of privacy in a public room. “I thought the hard part would be my self image.” He shrugs. “Maybe it still is, but not the parts I was expecting.”

Next to him, Clint has gone very still. “Phil?”

“I have to be able to do my job Clint.” Phil finally looks to his right, where Clint is staring, sightlessly, out at the sky. “I have to, it’s not an option. If I can’t do my job, I don’t know who I am anymore.”

There’s a noise, nearly inaudible. Clint’s face doesn’t move, but Phil knows it came from him. “What does that mean?” Clint asks.

“I don’t know,” Phil says feeling nauseous.

Clint is silent and so still. It’s unnatural from him without a rifle or bow in his hands. He’s pale and his hands are clenched tightly, trembling. “That’s not fair. How could you— right now? Jesus, you asshole, I have to go and—”

“I know,” Phil says, throat tight. “I’m sorry.”

Clint takes a deep breath, then another. “No.”

“What?”

“No,” Clint says again. “No, this is you running scared and because you think it’d be a douche bag move to blame it on the sex, you’re using your job, the one thing you know I won’t argue about.” He turns, eyes blazing. “Well guess what, I am. I’ll quit before I let you do that to me, to yourself. This job? I don’t need it anymore,” Clint leans in, only just this side of inappropriate, “not like I need you.”

Phil blinks at him, stunned beyond words.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Clint goes on. “If I have to take that route, I’m gonna make you,” he pokes Phil in the chest, firmly, “work for it, but I’m not letting you give up on it either.”

Phil stops his hand from rising before it can do anything revealing, like take Clint’s hand, or touch his face. He’s absolutely floored by the depth of feeling. In fact, he feels a bit unworthy of it. Apparently, despite more than a month of conversations, they seem to have left a few things out, like how Clint more than loves him, Clint is beyond head over heels, Clint passed by head over heels miles ago. It’s frightening the way nothing else is. “And here you were worried about a simple empty drawer,” Phil says around the lump in his throat.

Clint goes pink and he breaks eye contact. “Yeah well,” he says, crossing his arms tightly, “the last time I looked, recognizing when you weren’t fit to command was part of the job. Only control freaks think voluntarily stepping down is somehow failure.”

Phil’s snort happens before he can stop it, because this is Hawkeye, Clint “I Only Broke The One Hand, I Can Still Shoot” Barton.

“I know,” Clint says, a little sulkily. “It’s still a valid point.”

They stare at one another for what feels like years.

“Breathe through it Phil,” Clint says eventually. “You’re just freaking out. Put it away. Save it for later. I know you can.”

Something inside Phil crests and breaks and his shoulders slump. “I’m sorry,” he says roughly, “that was a shitty thing to do.”

“Damn right,” Clint says, leaning in a scant few millimeters, “but understandable.” His voice goes just a touch soft and affectionate. “Agent Coulson is human you know? That’s allowed too.”

Phil chuckles, feeling slightly easier. “Lies.”

Behind them, everyone is already filing back into the room and Phil is swallowing his doubts and fears, packing them neatly away for later and oh boy, is there going to be a later. Clint gives him one last, long look, and his eyes clearly say he wishes they could touch, even briefly. Phil, because, God, that was the absolute shittiest thing he could have ever done to an asset about to drop, leaves his corner and brushes past Clint, just close enough that their hips barely meet and then brings his hands up to “balance” as they shift past each other. Clint’s face has a knowing look, but there’s also a small smile that makes Phil feel a bit better.

The break has brought up a few pieces of valuable intel, including the on-site inventory. Maria has been getting creative with the paperwork again, to their advantage. They make the few adjustments needed and then Phil does what he’s come to learn is something unique to his style. He summarizes the plan and then opens it up to anyone, for any reason. Not everyone takes him up on it, but plans like these, made on the fly by very tired people, need as many eyes and gut feelings as they can get.

He lets the silence go on for five seconds, an affirmation by the group of their belief in the plan. He takes the time to meet as many eyes as possible before nodding curtly. “You have your orders. Wheels up in twenty.”

With a plan in place, the room coalesces in a way that doesn’t happen before the decision is made. It’s always a sight to see and it amazes him each and every time. This time, there’s no shuffling out, it’s all steps with purpose and half jogs. Phil waits; he likes to be the last one out of these meetings in case someone prefers to speak to him privately.

The only person who stays back is Clint. It’s not even a waste of time; he’s probably been prepped since before the meeting. He’s not piloting for this, so there’s no preflight for him to handle. He could be coordinating, but he knows and has worked with large portions of the infiltration team before. In reality, all Clint has to do is pick up a comm with the right frequency and make sure his stuff made it from point A to B. Five minutes, tops.

Clint moves next to him, so close the body heat warms Phil’s side.

“We good?” Phil asks.

“Always,” Clint says, “always.”

“Even when I’m a scared asshole?” Phil smiles, still feeling brittle.

“Especially then,” Clint says, letting their knuckles brush.

Phil turns, so he can see Clint out of more than the corner of his eye. “I’m still— something doesn’t feel right.”

Clint smiles. “Of course it doesn’t. This has been a shit show from the start and they managed to capture Natasha of all people.” Clint takes his hand then, threads their fingers together easily and Phil goes with it without even trying, finding the action soothing. “I trust you to do your job. Do you trust me to do mine?”

Phil nods. “Of course.”

“Then that’s all that matters.” Clint squeezes his hand and then lets go, heading out to his duty station at a full jog. Phil watches him go around the bend in the hallway before stepping back into the conference room and closing the door. Palms flat against the cool surface, Phil rests his head there and closes his eyes.

He’s never felt this off-center going into an op without being physically wounded beforehand. The very idea of Clint stepping off that transport and into that compound makes his throat threaten to close up and his heart beat madly. The fear that he’ll one day have to listen to Clint die painfully from a far away perch bubbles under the surface of his skin, hot and aching. He thinks if that happens he might just go a little crazy.

Maybe, after this is done, Phil should look into alternative assignments, a way for them to work together but avoid this possible conflict of interest. The idea appeals to him for all of thirty seconds, until he remembers exactly who they are, who they work for, and the kinds of things they both prefer to do professionally. At least if Clint stays with SHIELD, within Phil’s line of sight, Phil will have some sort of leverage and a direct line of information if something goes wrong.

With a sigh, he lets it go for now, compartmentalizing it far away from his conscious mind before heading up to the bridge to begin coordinating the attack.

When he enters the bridge, all eyes turn to him. He’s got the main seat for this rather than being shunted to one of the smaller corners. Protocol on situations like this gives the team leader access across the board and all hands on deck unless there’s another situation nearby requiring the same sort of access of resources and no other carrier can be tasked. Still, Phil never gets over the tiny thrill of having that many faces turn to him for orders.

Being nominally in charge of a small section of the bridge versus the whole bridge is made different by a series of tiny gestures. The first being a specialized comm and tablet handed to him the moment he steps on deck, instead of having to get it himself. The second being a full-time assistant and file wrangler. Someone will be with him the whole time, but while Phil might not have the option for more than 15 minutes of rest and a cup of coffee now and then, the entire purpose of the rotation of fresh faces serving as his Operational Assistant is to have a clear head and eyes searching for just the data Phil needs that second.

He gives everyone a nod and slips the comm into place. “Alright, Ladies, Gentlemen…” Phil pauses for timing, even if this little ritual greeting is old hat to most people, “Agent Barton.” Clint chuckles in his ear, louder than the rest, but still there. For now his frequency will pick up everyone. They’ll pin it down later if need be. “Let’s get this operation started. SAR 1 and 2, you are cleared for take off. Blue skies and inattentive guards to all of you.”

“Thank you, Agent Coulson,” echoes back into his ear, twenty some odd voices overlapping just slightly, creating a short, staticky echo.

Phil listens through preflight, hears the team leaders run down the objectives with their subordinates. There’s talk of alternate plans, what happens if there’s a failure at any critical juncture, and various comm checks, and in the back of it all Phil can hear Clint going through the various electronic components of his bow and quiver. They can run at near silent, but Clint is making the extra noise on purpose and there’s a very quiet whine when Clint runs the backup boot up sequence that the mics pick up better than regular human ears.

All of this has been done at least once before, but it’s a routine that soothes the nerves and has caught more than one equipment failure before deployment into an active operation. Clint takes over when Jenkins is done, giving a brief idea of how well Natasha would fare under torture, the kinds of signals she might employ and various other tidbits that might save someone’s life.

That’s when Phil lets himself feel his fear for Natasha. She’s so tough and capable, and after situations like this Phil has conflicting urges to wrap her up in soft cotton and make sure she knows there is help around if she needs it and to let her go and retreat into herself until she feels strong enough to come back out. The first might land him with a broken bone, the second, a broken agent. There’s some guilt mixed in this time, because he’s managed to forget about her capture for long minutes at a time when he and Clint are in the same room, the same bed.

He knows she’d find that sort of guilt unhelpful and damaging, but it still sits there, a hard pit in his stomach. It took a while for most of SHIELD to treat her as an incredibly skilled colleague, for her to find a few genuine friends who weren’t suspicious of her every twitch, and to be seen as an integral part of SHIELD and not a cautious ally. Forgetting about her while she is chained up in a dark basement somewhere feels like a betrayal of all of that work.

She’d smack him silly if she knew he felt that way.

They’d decided on a drop instead of landing, keeping the birds in the air meant faster emergency evac and extraction. The irony is doing a jump during blackout conditions is arguably one of the most dangerous aspects of the extraction. Yes, going up against armed guards at an entrenched base of operations and a security system all designed to keep intruders out is pretty dangerous, but parachuting in blind, even with the night vision goggles, can kill an agent just as dead.

Ironically, that’s not the part that makes Phil start to sweat. Clint’s been jumping off of and out of things without nets and wires since almost before puberty. If anyone could soft land with a chute malfunction, it’s him. No, he feels his stomach start to churn when Hawkeye’s biosign breaks off for his entry. They haven’t planned anything fancy and most of the main assault team is only supposed to look like they’re going in for the data banks and Widow and technically she’s still on their list of objectives, but mostly they’re a distraction for Clint.

Phil manages to get his team fairly far into the perimeter without raising too many alarms. They want Clint well inside when the people in the compound start looking at their perimeter, but he also wants his people nearby in case Clint runs into problems.

Clint’s comm line has been silent, a good sign that still leaves Phil tense. They’re coming up on the most dangerous part. The ductwork may be large and old, but it hasn’t survived some more recent remodeling wholly intact. There’s a chunk in the middle where Clint has to work his way from one section to the other in plain sight.

Clint’s “Fuck!” startles him so badly his pen drops and skids across the slick floor of the bridge. Someone hands him a replacement right away but he still feels like an idiot. Then the noises over Clint’s line start filtering through. It’s the muffled thumps of hand to hand. At least there are no bullets being fired, but Clint doesn’t sound very happy either. The sounds stop abruptly and Phil can’t get air into his lungs. There’s a loud thump and then Clint cries out in pain. The scream never really stops, just lowers into an almost steady whine that goes up and down with Clint’s breathing.

“Hawkeye,” Phil says, shocked his voice is steady, “do you need assistance?”

Clint grunts. There are more grappling sounds and they match up with Clint’s pained moans. “Damnit,” Clint’s gruff voice says absently, “now you’ve made me look bad.” Another thud, a third, and then clattering. Clint hisses in pain and mutters curses under his breath. “Sorry Alpha 1, they knew I was coming. He went right for my shoulder, fuck that hurt. Hold on.” Footsteps and then a dull thud with a faint crunching noise and Phil knows with a certainty that was the body mic picking up cartilage moving back into place. He shivers. “Hawkeye?”

“Alpha 1,” Clint says, sounding ragged, “I’ve got limited right arm rotation. It’s gonna kill any extreme climbing scenarios we might have. Also, I’ve got maybe 30 or 40 minutes before it really stiffens up.”

Phil desperately wants to sit down. The cold sweat is making him shiver. “Can you still shoot?”

Of course he can; what Phil means, what the whole team knows he means, is can Clint still draw a bow? Those specialty arrows and their amazing payloads can be pretty damn useful.

“Probably. I can loosen the draw, won’t go as far or fast, but it should be fine.” Clint pauses and audibly swallows. There’s some shifting over the comms again. “I’m moving on, continuing to primary objective.”

“Acknowledged,” Phil says, clipped. The sound of Clint’s shoulder being wrenched out of his socket comes back to him at uneven intervals, pushing nausea into a real possible problem. He motions for water to sip and it appears in seconds. Phil trusts Clint’s assessment of his abilities. He’d never endanger anyone else, that would be unthinkable, but his impeccable aim will probably have to compensate for a shaking arm. That takes time, energy and skill. The first two Clint will be growing short on any second.

In between, there’ve been two injuries on the strike team, non-fatal, but serious enough to take them out of the mission. That’s fine, but Phil doesn’t even start to feel relieved until Clint comes back in and says he’s in position.

“Widow looks unconscious and banged up with some bleeding, but I can’t see anything from here that would slow her down too much. I’m also betting she’s not really unconscious.”

Yeah, Phil isn’t either. He waits while Clint gets into position. The vent is huge, but about 20 feet off the ground. No prisoner could get to it without help and this little fiefdom seems to have figured that they’d catch whoever came in intending to be that help well before they made it this far.

Considering they thought far enough ahead to tell their men to go for Hawkeye’s arms, that seems a little short-sighted.

Clint and Natasha do a little handshake protocol made out of fingernails clicking against metal and it’s confirmed that she is indeed, awake.

Phil forcefully turns his attention back to the main action. The strike team has made it to a computer terminal connected to the main server, but there’s a large number of security flocking to their location so Phil is going to have to make a call at some point in the near future.

The strike team is working their way back out, another member down, but being helped along, when Clint’s pained gasp comes through.

“Hawkeye?” Phil’s hands wrap around the nearest bit of railing and hold it so hard he goes white around the edges.

“Ambush,” Natasha’s voice says. For a second Phil forgot that Clint always brings her a comm. “Went right for his shoulder—” muffled sounds of fighting, “again apparently. Hold on.”

Usually, Phil spends this time counting the seconds, to see if she breaks a previous record, but all he can do is strain his ears and listen for any information he can glean and remember that he fucked with Clint’s head before leaving and didn’t even really mean most of the words that came out of his mouth. No. That’s a lie. He meant a lot of them but breaking up with Clint was never in the cards. At least, he thinks so.

There are crashes, grunts, and okay that was a bullet, Clint’s voice cracking even as he’s a sarcastic son of a bitch, Phil isn’t sure he can ever do this again, but he’s not sure he could ever give this to someone else to do either.

“Fuck,” Clint says. “I liked this shirt— erk!” Clint’s voice turns into muffled gags and slaps of skin against skin. Natasha screams in the background, in Russian, but Phil recognizes those curses.

“They really like their choke holds in this organization,” Nat says under her breath and suddenly Phil has a crystal clear image of what must be happening, but it comes in pieces. Clint’s lips white with lack of oxygen, his boots struggling to maintain a firm grip on the ground, his forearms bulging, trying to work the arm from around his neck, his right shoulder all but useless. Phil suspects its been dislocated again from what Natasha has said.

“They were waiting for us,” she says between hits, “and I’ve had kind of a crappy day.”

Phil holds in a watery smile. That means Black Widow is about to stop holding back, damn the consequences. He futzes with the dials and enhances a specific frequency of sound and— yep— the sound of fabric slicing and squelching flesh. Once, twice, four, six, Phil has stopped breathing and he’s not sure he’ll start up again until— a choking gasp in a deep, nearly baritone voice and then a few telltale slams that signify Clint’s re-entry to the fight.

“Nat, could you— grrrng— Holy fuck, you could have at least waited for me to breathe out,” Clint whines, then coughs a familiar cough. Fuck, Phil’s chest hurts listening to it. “Alpha 1, obstruction cleared, proceeding to extraction—” There’s a cough and some Russian muttering.

Natasha comes on. “Proceeding to extraction point, as long as this idiot stops talking.”

Clint must make the “why do you hate me when all I give you is love?” face because Natasha’s comm line has a very clear snort of tolerance.

The rest of the extraction goes as planned. They only blow the building up a little because India can get tetchy about that sort of thing and they’re far closer to being nuclear than anyone wants to say out loud. So they confine the fire and brimstone to the main server rooms.

Phil listens to them, all of them, as they drag their wounded to the pickup zone, load onto the quinjets and get the hell out of there. As soon as they’re up, the triage people take over and get detailed information about their future patients' injuries and whatever medical treatment has been given. Phil forces himself to stay on the line. Technically at this point he can go off call, but he almost never does and it’s important to him that he maintains his regular habits. He can’t change. He can’t.

Chapter Text

In general, Phil dislikes having anyone wounded. Listening to Natasha’s emotionless litany of horrors and injuries always makes him upset, but now, hearing Clint’s scratchy, coughing voice give his rundown nearly puts Phil off his feet. He manages to keep it together until the pilots are cleared for landing, then he calmly takes his comm out of his ear, hands it and the specialized tablet off to his current aid who hands Phil’s personal tablet back to him, and leaves the bridge. He makes it about two corridors over before needing to duck into a lavatory and throw up.

It’s over pretty quickly, but he takes the time to splash some water on his face and rinse out his mouth. He frowns at the lingering acidic taste. He’ll grab some of the chalky breath mints Medical gives out for stomach problems. His hands still have a mild tremor when he exits. He clutches his tablet in one and shoves the other into his pocket for the rest of the walk down to Medical.

Like a good senior agent who just oversaw a major operation, he stops at the front to grab the summary. He’s nominally responsible for making sure all injuries are accounted for, seen to, and then followed up on with proper prescribed protocol. It’s also Phil’s job to make note of any job-threatening and life-changing injuries and to send those files on to the proper departments.

He bump passes the files to his tablet and scans the reports of the three injured agents from the strike team. Nothing major, thankfully. He gets Natasha’s which is currently incomplete because being held required a full work up, but the outline is there and it’s not very comforting. He pauses over Clint’s, finger hovering. The decision to open it is taken from his hands when a raspy “Hey boss,” floats over from the far curtain.

Phil braces himself and crosses the room to slip behind the fluttering bit of fabric. Clint is shirtless and casually leaning back on his bed. The industrial lighting the medical wing uses only highlights the livid bruises on his body and makes the undamaged skin next to it look unearthly pale. There’s a terrible ring of red just turning purple under Clint’s chin and Phil can glean all sorts of information from the angle and depth of bruising. He forces himself not to.

“Barton,” Phil says, still absolutely shocked by the steadiness in his voice. “Romanov okay?”

He smiles. It’s a little sloppy. It’s possible someone has already given Clint something to take the edge off. “Oh yeah,” Clint says and his voice is still nearly a full octave lower. Phil had thought that the poor connection of two burner phones or the strange pickups from the comms might have exaggerated the voice of a bruised throat; they hadn’t. “She’ll be fine. They rolled her off for a private consultation a few minutes ago.”

Phil tries to say something else, anything else, never more aware of the lack of privacy one pathetic curtain can provide, but the lump in his throat swells and all he can focus on is the bruises, the irritation slowly being swallowed by deep purples and reds, the swelling, the stiff way even drugged-up Clint holds himself.

“Oh, hey,” Clint rasps, “no, I’m fine, c’mon Phil. I’m fine.” Clint catches him in his paralysis and the dopey look is gone from his face and Phil realizes he was playing it up. Maybe he always played it up because before it used to make him smile, just a little. When Clint got a little silly, it seemed to soothe whatever jagged edge would press into his chest, but this time it seems to have done the opposite and just pushed the broken glass in further.

Clint’s hand reaches for his and Phil clutches at it, hard enough to feel the knuckles grind a little, but Clint doesn’t complain even though his hands are just as bruised as anyone else’s after a prolonged hand-to-hand combat. He just squeezes right back. Phil stares at their hands tangled together and it feels like the image should be a source of warmth and comfort, but all he’s got is that pit in his stomach that keeps growing. He feels out of control and completely unlike himself.

Clint twitches and goes still before leaning towards Phil. “Hey, Phil, look at me.” He pauses and Phil looks up, catching Clint’s eyes. He concentrates on the way his lashes sweep elegantly across his lid. “Pack it up, okay?” Clint pleads with him. “Just a little longer? Then we can talk about it?”

Phil is nodding, taking deep breaths and remembering his training with the suddenness of a flash flood. He knows how to compartmentalize. He was practically weaned on it. Clint smiles at him and then loosens his grip, and at first Phil is confused but then something filters in that Clint must have heard already, that Phil should have heard already, but he catches on and their hands are separate by the time the ward doctor appears.

Clint mostly has soft tissue damage, which should sound comforting, but it doesn’t. There’s some worry about the shoulder, dislocated and relocated twice, within an hour, both relocations done on the fly without the same attention a medical professional might have given it.

“Feel free to ice anything you want, but no movement,” Dr. Howard admonishes. “No range, no acrobatics, no climbing...” Clint starts making faces as the list goes on and Phil finds himself able to laugh, a little. The list is a culmination of Clint’s years of battle with the medical wing. Phil has heard it several times now, from completely different shifts and locations. Phil is fairly sure its appended to Clint’s file but Phil has just enough integrity not to go looking for it.

“I’d like to get a closer look at all of your injuries before I discharge you,” the doctor goes on. “Take the anti-inflammatory like they’re a religion. You can slack off on the prescription painkillers after a day or two, but keep icing it regularly until your range of movement starts to significantly improve.” Dr. Howard looks up from his chart and sighs deeply at Clint’s innocent face. “Look, just, remember that pain on its own can sometimes be a detriment to healing. I know we have this conversation every time, but one day I hope some of it might sink in.”

Clint nods and does a decent job of looking contrite.

Phil eyes him and isn’t fooled at all. “Muscle relaxers?” he asks.

Dr. Howard sighs again. “He never takes them.”

“He’s staying with me for the first few days,” Phil says. He’ll take them.” It’s nothing they haven’t done before, though it might be argued that Clint’s injuries aren’t quite so serious as to require supervision, but it is his shoulder which can make most everyday tasks very difficult.

“But it wasn’t my muscle that got—” Clint starts to say.

Dr. Howard gets to it before Phil can. “You know as well as I do that compensating for a damaged anything can cause all sorts of problems.”

Clint doesn’t argue, though Phil has a feeling that’s more to do with him than anything else. If he focuses on the tasks at hand, getting through the hours seems easier. He has work to accomplish in the four and a half hours it takes the carrier to make it back to New York. Reports to file, recommendations to read, and data to sort. Then he concentrates on collecting Clint’s affects, his meds, and his instructions.

When it’s finally time to go, Phil spends a few torturous minutes making sure Clint can dress himself and then watching him walk unsteadily down the hall. He is belted carefully but securely into the transport down to the main offices in Manhattan by Phil himself. Putting on the 5 point harness requires a bit too much flexibility from Clint for Phil’s liking and he’s not giving Clint a chance to try it for himself. Once they’re finally on the ground, Phil carries their bags as Clint once again walks carefully down the aisles in the garage to Phil’s car.

Phil makes it all the way into his apartment before he can’t stand it anymore. When the door is closed, Phil drops their bags and pulls Clint to him, presses their lips together, and then hugs him gently. “I’m sorry,” he whispers over and over.

Clint makes quiet shushing sounds. “Phil,” he says and coughs a little, “come on, let’s sit down.”

The cough gets his attention and he pulls away enough to get a good look at Clint. He knows where every bruise is, despite the shirt covering them up, but it’s his neck that keeps Phil’s attention. His fingers brush against the too-hot skin and Clint swallows a noise, but Phil doesn’t think it’s pain. Phil leans in and noses the skin carefully, following it with gentle kisses. He doesn’t realize he’s shaking until Clint’s hands take his.

“Come on,” he says again and tugs him to the couch. “Sit.”

They sit and Clint pulls him close. “No,” Phil says, “you’re hurt.”

“So’re you,” Clint says quietly, voice somehow made softer by the soft tissue injury. “Now come here.”

Clint arranges them carefully, putting a pillow here and there to cushion some bit of them, more him than Phil. It doesn’t take long and eventually Phil, without his shoes and jacket, is curled up with Clint, upright but leaning on one another into the corner of the couch. One of Clint’s legs is casually thrown across Phil’s lap where he clutches at it tightly, the other is bent at the knee, supporting Phil’s back. Phil leans into Clint’s upper body as much as he dares.

He has nothing to concentrate on but his own trembling and Clint’s broken body. His hand skims down Clint’s torso, barely touching the fabric of his shirt until Clint’s hands stop him briefly to take it off. He uses only his left arm, pulling the fabric over his head and then down his right one.

For once, Clint is sticking the letter of the doctor’s orders and Phil knows it’s for him and he’s just grateful he doesn’t have to fight with Clint on this. He’s not sure he could handle it at the moment. Clint’s shoulder looks swollen and angry and the muscles surrounding it tight and unhappy.

“I’m fine,” Clint says, moving Phil’s hand to lay flat on his stomach. “Nothing’s broken,” he coughs, “just brui—” He coughs again and looks frustrated.

Phil looks him in the eye and gives him a brittle smile. “You didn’t have to listen to it. Worry that it was partially your fault.”

Clint’s eyes go soft and sad, he shakes his head and he reaches for Phil’s fingers, with his right hand, to tangle them together. But that’s okay because it doesn’t pull the arm away from his body at all, and he brushes his free hand through Phil’s hair before pulling him gently in for a soft kiss.

Phil closes his eyes and sinks into the kiss. He knows it’s just the series of events, the long separation and the conversations that were increasingly not enough, their emotional and physical reunion, followed by “I love yous” and then that mission where the separation, still a raw and jagged wound, was ground into by making him listen to Clint scream in pain.

“I can’t do this again,” Phil whispers into Clint’s temple. Clint tenses up under him and Phil shakes his head. “No,” he’s quick to say, “I don’t think I mean it that way.” When he’s done Phil realizes that probably isn’t what Clint wants to hear.

Clint stays quiet, but he squeezes Phil’s hand.

“I threw up after, on the way to see you,” Phil admits. “It was a close call too.” He traces the edge of one bruise high on Clint’s chest. “If that happens mid mission, that’s it. Any hint or pretense of objectivity is over.” If that happens on a mission, it deserves to be over.

Clint kisses his temple in return, pulling him closer, stroking at his cheek with his left hand. “You need to talk to someone,” he whispers, not putting any vibrations through his voice box, so it’s barely a sound in Phil’s ear. “Someone who isn’t me. Because every time you say you can’t do this again… or anymore, I just— You need someone who doesn’t make you feel…”

“Exposed?” Phil guesses, closing his eyes. “Not going to happen, but I take your point.”

“I wish—” Clint cuts himself off and kisses Phil again. “It’s too much just for me. I love you, and I don’t want to hurt you but I don’t have it in me to give you advice that might—” Clint’s voice chokes to a halt. He wasn’t able to stick to his gentle whisper. Phil doesn’t blame him.

Phil runs a hand down Clint’s flank, attempting to soothe the quiet coughs and his own nerves.

“If it’s what you really need,” Clint whispers to him, touching their foreheads together, “to not be with me, I’ll understand, but I can’t—”

“Shh,” Phil interrupts him. He can’t listen to it, any of it, not the voice, not the ideas, not the words that obviously hurt Clint to say, on all levels, he just can’t. “I understand,” he says quietly, “and thank you. But that’s not an option.” At least he doesn’t thinks so.

They don’t move for a very long time. Clint dry swallows his meds and Phil lets him get away with it because he can’t bear to let him go just yet. They don’t talk about much. Phil doesn’t want to make Clint use his bruised throat and he just wants to bask in them. It’s as close to their nightly phone calls as he’s had in nearly two days and it’s soothing to just listen to Clint breathe, even if there is a slight hitch to it.

Eventually Clint’s stomach rumbles against Phil’s, whose stomach returns the favor only a few seconds later. They both share a smile and Phil digs out his phone and pulls up the pertinent app. There’s some debate, but in the end Phil just adds, to the other food, three quarts of soup for Clint to sip in case his throat makes things too difficult. Clint is almost asleep, pliant and warm against Phil’s side and he never wants to move again when the buzzer sounds. Clint clings to him as Phil disentangles himself from his grabbing hands.

“Food,” Phil admonishes, laughing, his face cracking a true smile for the first time in hours.

“Hmm,” Clint puts on a pouting face that only makes Phil laugh harder.

The door buzzes a second time and Clint finally stops holding onto the nearest body part of Phil’s. They eat their food at the couch and Phil can’t help but notice that Clint stays on the softer side of things, the soup especially seeming to hit the spot.

“Shut up,” Clint says quietly, smirking between sips. “You have on your ‘I told you so’ face. It’s ruining my appetite.”

Phil puts his hands up in mock surrender. “I didn’t say anything.”

Clint starts to droop about two-thirds of the way through his meal and Phil quietly begins cleaning up, leaving out just the parts that Clint seems intent on finishing. There’s a jaw-cracking yawn where Clint’s mouth and arms seem to work on automatic, stretching instinctually until he overextends and tries to pull them back with a pained yelp. His arms come in, but the jaw keeps working through the yawn that won’t be interrupted. Clint’s face resembles an especially unhappy cat when his body finishes.

“Come on,” Phil says quietly, “we both need rest.”

They undress quietly. Phil slides his suit directly into the dry clean pile and slips into his night clothes before Clint even manages the first stage of undressing.

“C’mon,” Phil says, “I got you.”

He peels the layers off Clint, finishing what was started with just his shirt in the livingroom. Phils eyes stray to each exposed bit of skin as it appears, re-registering all the injuries as they come. Phil’s instincts fight him, but he’s used to that when Clint is injured. He’s used to holding himself still and separate, wanting to help but unable to— Oh. He freezes long enough that Clint taps his chest lightly. Phil shakes his head apologetically and finishes getting Clint changed and into bed. He leaves Clint shirtless, but takes a clean shirt with them to the bed.

“Lie down,” Phil says, digging into a nearby drawer. He pulls out a small bottle of the stuff left over from the last injury Phil had that required physical therapy. It wasn’t much more than hand cream, but it was thick enough that it would take more than a few seconds to soak in. The PT guy had recommended it for Phil’s own leg cramps that seemed to plague his last injury.

Clint lies there looking tired but curious. Phil dollops out a generous amount and warms it in his hands before gently placing them on the most swollen areas around the ball joint in the shoulder. Clint makes a pleased noise and his eyes shut halfway as Phil runs his hands along the contours of the muscle, carefully working to move fluid away from the joint and to soothe the aching muscles surrounding it.

“Can you?” Clint asks even as Phil’s hands slide down past his pectorals and to the upper parts of the ribcage that live under his arm. Clint sucks in a sharp breath but doesn’t say anything, only smoothly releases it. Phil deftly manipulates the arm, careful never to overtax the joint, so that he can carefully loosen up all of the muscles that went tight with the two dislocations. It’s more muscles than most people would think and by the time Phil is done with the deep work on the biceps and triceps and resumes the careful surface rubs that are meant to, once again, move excess fluid away from the area, Clint is one half-asleep, limp puddle of archer.

“Thank you,” Clint murmurs, wiggling more firmly into the bed once Phil gets up from his place on the edge of the mattress, where their hips were touching gently.

“You’re welcome,” Phil says just as quietly, still a little frightened at how long he’s apparently wanted to do that. Not just touch Clint, that one he’s slowly coming to terms with, but to physically take care of him when he’s injured.

Clint’s injuries historically make Phil’s days difficult. After checking Clint into Medical, he always seemed to have one irritating thing after another to do and the worst offenders of his sensibilities, of good taste, style, etiquette, and competency seemed to always find their way to his office door. Phil recalls feeling slightly out of control by the day’s end, needing to spend long periods of time in the gym, working through what felt like a festering energy under his skin.

Clint’s level of relaxation is such that Phil doesn’t really want to make him sit up and slide on the shirt. It’s not too cold in the room and Phil will be sharing the blanket, so it shouldn’t be a big deal. He leaves the shirt at the foot of the bed, within reach of Clint if he does get cold, and climbs in next to him.

Clint’s body automatically rolls to him, curling up sleepily while tangled up in Phil, and it feels like Phil can take his first genuine deep breath in days. Clint’s nose brushes back and forth against Phil’s shoulder, catching his attention. Phil moves both of them just enough so that their lips are within reach. Clint kisses him slow and sleepy, lips barely separating between kisses.

“Everything okay?” Clint eventually asks when their motions slow to a stop and leave them nose to nose, occasionally shifting slightly.

The shaky feeling from earlier, where everything felt out of his depth is gone, mostly, and on top of it lies Clint’s relaxed body and carefully hopeful eyes. Phil looks Clint in the eye and takes a trembling breath. “I’m scared.” It’s hard to say. It’s not that Phil never gets scared. In fact he’s always had a healthy respect for fear. It’s useful, and ignoring it can be dangerous. However, lying there, looking into Clint’s tired eyes, sayings the words, is the hardest thing he’s ever done in his entire life.

Clint gives him a wobbly smile and reaches out with his less-injured arm to touch Phil’s face, skim down it with sensitive fingertips. “Me too,” Clint says before closing his eyes and leaning his head in close enough to touch foreheads. “Never stopped us before,” he says, nearly inaudibly.

The measure of peace that descends on Phil when he can finally shut down all of his doubts and fears and just concentrate on the tiny cocoon he and Clint make out of their blanket shocks him to the core. Once in a lifetime, he reminds himself and he knows right then, with a certainty that should scare him but doesn’t, that this is worth the effort and struggle. This is worth changing his entire life. This is worth making the tough decisions and the routine struggles he’d never had to deal with before.

This is worth everything.

Next to him Clint sighs, having drifted off to sleep in the middle of Phil’s worry, and all he can do is tighten his hold, carefully because Clint is still injured, and as Clint’s body settles into his, natural as anything he’s ever experienced, Phil knows he’s going to fight to keep this, no matter what it takes.

After all, fear never has stopped him before.