"...And rolling," Peter announces, snapping his fingers in front of the camera for lack of a better indication.
"Here we are, back on home turf in a very busy, bustling New York gearing up for the Christmas season," Natasha announces in her professional presenter voice, smiling her camera-loving grin while Clint beams in Peter's direction and matches Natasha's pace down the crowded sidewalk. The problem with New York being such an iconic city is that no one even bats an eyelid anymore at a film or TV crew trying to get some work done. These days, you're more likely to get shoved out of the shot than to be stared at in awe.
To be honest, though, Clint prefers it to the gawping. It makes him feel less like jumping out of his skin.
"With being so close to the festive weekend, it's that time of year to panic that you've left your gift shopping too late," he says, smoothly picking up his cue. "Good job we're on the case! In this special Christmas edition, we're going to help one man's sartorial life take a turn for the better."
"You heard right," Natasha assures their future viewers. "This week, we are taking on a special project. We're heading to the central office of SHIELD, the not-for-profit organisation helping vets returning from tours abroad readjust to civilian life – find a home, a job, and a good therapist. Our servicemen and women deserve nothing less, and we are incredibly excited to be able to help in even a small way."
"Our mission today is one Staff Sergeant Philip Coulson, SHIELD's de facto CFO. Phil takes care of their budget so that they can take care of their charges, but we have it on good authority that what he often forgets to look after is himself. Let's hear what his boss, Commander Nick Fury, has to say about him."
"And cut!" Peter calls, looking up from the camera. Billy the sound tech pulls up the furry mic, while Nat drops Clint's arm and stretches, flicking back her curls.
"Right," she says, looking around. "We've got an hour to kill before the meet. You guys want some coffee?"
Clint hums in agreement, looking up at the lead-coloured sky. "We're gonna get a blizzard tonight, I reckon. Good thing this one's local."
"Born and raised, apparently," Nat agrees. "Fury says that's part of the problem. Phil doesn't feel like he needs to fix what he doesn't think is broken."
Clint scoffs. "You've seen the photos. That guy needs help, and fast. He's not bad-looking; imagine what we can do with a tailored suit."
"You know, for someone so keen on good tailoring, your addiction to threadbare jeans continues to astound me."
Clint sticks his tongue out at her. "Well, I don't think it's broken, either, only I'm right. Besides, I know how to do work-appropriate."
"Uh huh," Nat drawls, rolling her eyes. "Tell you what. I'll help you put Phil into the suits you like drooling over, if you'll wear one as well for the final showdown."
Clint feels a strange tingle of premonition at the look in her eyes, but brushes it aside. He doesn't have anything to worry over, and he really wants to get Coulson into a jacket that'll show off those amazing shoulders.
"Deal," he agrees easily. Getting their guy out of the baggy t-shirts and hoodies and into fine threads is more than worth a couple of hours of a silk noose around his neck. Clint is willing to bet Coulson will look phenomenal in the get-up he has in mind.
Coffee downed, they make their way down the block and into the small modern office building that houses the SHIELD headquarters. The assistant director, Commander Maria Hill, waits for them in the central lobby, along with a bald man in wire-frame glasses that show off his shrewd brown eyes. They are both wearing office-appropriate attire – Maria clad in a sharp pencil skirt and a light blue shirt that brings out her beautiful eyes, and the man wearing a well-tailored, if inexpensive suit. Maria introduces him as Jasper Sitwell, the HR specialist who helps furnish the vets with decent jobs.
"Sam is coming down in a minute, and Steve is around here somewhere – oh, there he is." Jasper's arm goes out to indicate a tall blond man that makes both Clint's and Natasha's jaws drop.
"Hi," Steve says, giving them such a sweet, charming smile that Clint can feel the back of his neck heat. "Thank you so much for doing this. Phil is such a great guy, but, well, it's kinda hard to budge him once he's set his mind on something. Besides, cast not the first stone, et cetera." His smile turns self-conscious as he waves a hand over his own conservative shirt and khaki slacks. "I'm not exactly your average style expert."
"I'd say you do all right," Natasha says kindly; Clint has to bite the inside of his cheek not to laugh at the way Steve's cheeks flush under her attention. It's a fantastic look on him.
"If you help me get him into 501s and a cashmere v-neck, I'll buy you a crate of champagne each."
If Steve was blushing before, when he turns towards the speaker, Clint can practically see the pink throbbing hearts in his eyes from where he's standing.
"Hey, Peggy," Steve says, voice all breathless and halting and wow, it's been a long time since Clint has seen anyone so helplessly, adorably smitten.
"He's adorable," Nat whispers to him, echoing his thoughts.
Peggy gives them a searching once-over as she walks up to them, killer pumps clacking enticingly on the marble tiles. Her crisp forest-green dress sets off her blood-red mouth and hazel eyes to perfection; she looks like a 50s pin-up who could snap you in two if she so desired. He can definitely see the appeal for Steve, who turns to follow her progress like a sunflower in the morning sun. She stops several paces from where they stand, posture so straight and tightly wound, Clint can nearly see the uniform she channels.
"I've looked you up," she says in that delicious accent that Clint can't help but want to hear more of. "I like your approach, and I like your taste. I look forward to seeing the results."
Clint only just stops himself from saluting, to Nat's obvious amusement.
"I see you've met the Carter and Rogers show," someone drawls close to Clint's ear. Clint stiffens, forcing himself not to react. At his side, Natasha has gone silent and still. Clint clenches his fists and breathes in and out, reminding himself that their combat days are long gone.
They turn slowly, in unison. The man behind them has his mouth hanging half-open, as if in the middle of deciding what to say. He grimaces, expression turning sheepish.
"Sorry," he says earnestly. "I have to break the habit of doing that. Didn't mean to startle you; I know how much I hate it when someone else does it to me. Bucky Barnes." He offers Nat a hand.
She eyes him for a shade longer than polite before taking it. Clint takes the chance to look. Tall, dark-haired, square, strong shoulders, dancing eyes and a mouth that was made to curve into a smile. Barnes' gaze is steady, open, free of the usual lechery that Nat brings out in creeps. Clint finds he likes him – even better because he reached out to Nat, first. Looks like he knows who's in charge in their little duo.
On the heel of that thought, Barnes lets go of Nat's hand and reaches for Clint's. Clint doesn't hesitate, and is rewarded with a strong, warm grip. Yeah. Barnes will do nicely.
"So you're here to prettify our resident ball breaker?" Barnes asks, playful curiosity in his voice. "Kinda shocked Fury went along with this; man, the Commander's got balls of steel."
"Stop scaring them off, Barnes," Maria says mildly, smiling at Nat. "Sorry about him. His manners are still stuck in the 'Stan."
Barnes makes a face behind her back, sticking out his tongue. To his side, Steve cracks up, then bites the inside of his cheek when Hill and Peggy look at him, straightening his face into an innocent expression that must do wonders for him.
"I'm sure we can handle a bit of hazing," Nat says calmly, and Clint feels that grin coming on, the one that keeps making people take a smart step back. Right on cue, Barnes' eyes widen a bit – but there's no backing away from this guy. Probably the kind who's got more mouth than sense, Clint thinks (like does, after all, know like).
Barnes proves him right a second later, breaking into a smile to rival Clint's. "Oh, this is gonna be fun," he drawls.
Interestingly, Nat refrains from slamming him into the mat, metaphorically speaking. Clint darts her a look, takes in the angle of her lips, and just barely resists the urge to groan out loud. Oh, here we go. Barnes won't know what hit him. Then again, he looks just the kind of stupid to really enjoy Nat's particular brand of affection.
"Well, you're not wrong," Clint says dryly, slanting a look at Nat. On his other side, Sitwell coughs weakly into his hand, completely failing to disguise the giggle that came before.
Clint takes mercy on all involved. "Think we can meet our client?" he asks, pointedly looking at the elevators that lead to the upper floors.
"Yes, let's," Maria agrees, matching his dryness and sending them both an even smile.
"Before you do," says a smooth, deep voice rich with the kind of authority that makes you itch to salute. Coming towards them is a tall black man, bald, leather-clad, and imposing. His long legs eat up the distance; in seconds he stands before them, nearly blotting out the light, hands clasped behind his back while he observes them sharply out of his one remaining eye. "I want you to know that Phil Coulson is absolutely essential to this organisation. He is my one good eye, and I don't want a fool made out of him. Am I clear?"
Clint swallows, but straightens his spine. The others are now arranged around what could only be Commander Fury, their arms crossed or braced on hips, all of them wearing very similar expressions of ominous intent. It makes Clint wonder about this Phil Coulson, who he is that he can inspire such loyalty and protectiveness from his colleagues.
At his side, Natasha nods, smiling reassuringly. "I understand, Commander Fury, and let me assure you, this is far from our intention. We want what's best for your man, too."
Fury gives them the stare of doom for another half a minute, during which Clint desperately tries not to fidget. They seem to pass muster, because they're given a nod and a go-ahead to call in Peter with his camera. They do a quick introduction of Coulson's co-workers, before Fury makes the call to ask Coulson to come down to the lobby.
As a rule, Clint doesn't get stage fright. Meeting new clients is nerve-wracking, sure, but Clint is a master of smiling like he means it, of faking it till he makes it. He breathes in deep and plasters a friendly, excited smile onto his face, feels Nat straighten at his side and cock her hip in anticipation.
It's just as well he prepared.
The elevator doors open. Inside them stands a trim, unassuming man of medium height, wearing the worst second-hand tweed jacket Clint has ever seen. His pants are an inch too short at his ankles, and his shirt is a dull green that clashes horribly with his pale skin and makes him look corpse-like. He seems young, younger than Clint imagined he would be from the pictures. Granted, they're soldiers; they all feel older than their years, but even his receding hairline and the terrible clothes can't make him look more than thirty, just few years over their own age.
The man – Coulson – looks up from the file in his hands, and freezes. His eyes flit from one face to the next; he takes in the camera, Billy holding the mic towards him, and then, very surreptitiously, he checks the exits. Clint's heart clenches unexpectedly in his chest. There's a shadow of fear in the man's face; for the first time, Clint thinks how he would feel if he got ambushed like this, even by people he knows and trusts, and wants to kick himself for not using the noggin his momma gave him before he made to trigger the guy into a panic attack.
He steps forward, body language carefully open and nonthreatening.
"Hi," he says easily. "I'm Clint, and this is Natasha, and we're from What Not To Wear. Can you come over here for us, Phil?"
He keeps his arms out to his sides, and takes a step closer and to the left, blocking Nat a little but it leaves a clear path to the building's front door. Natasha moves, too, picking up his cue seamlessly as always. She smiles, close-mouthed and pleasant; out of the corner of his eye, Clint can see her drop her shoulders a little, tilt her head to the side, just like that becoming your average pretty girl – a world away from the infamous Black Widow, leader of the deadliest Black Ops team before it got screwed over by one of their own men in the middle of a mission, and she ended up breaking three vertebra, her coccyx, and her clavicle.
Phil Coulson watches them both with wary, shadowed eyes. He isn't running, though, which Clint tries not to be impressed as hell by. Phil's gaze finds Fury, and something flashes inside; something that looks hauntingly like betrayal.
Clearly, it's time to step in again.
"You got a great bunch of friends here, Phil. They have all banded together to call us in, give you a hand with adjusting back to civilian wardrobe. We're absolutely delighted to help out, as a way to thank you for your service."
Phil raises an eyebrow at him, his expression so skeptical that Clint cracks up despite himself. "Seriously, we just want to buy you some swanky new clothes, promise. And not to be rude about it, but we can see why your colleagues called." He spreads his hands out, splaying his fingers, grin wide and silly. 'Harmless, see?'
Phil watches him for a moment longer, then narrows his eyes at Fury.
"You are a dead man," he says flatly, but comes closer after all. The other people in the group are smiling, looking more relaxed, so Clint takes his cue from them and lets himself lower the DEFCON 1 status.
"It'll be good for you," Fury insists, hands in his pockets.
"Look, you don't have to do it if you don't want to, but these guys have a credit card with five grand on it. If you won't let us or Pepper help you, at least you can go spend their money and learn a thing or two in the process," Maria adds, to unanimous nodding of heads all round.
Phil already looks to be wavering when Peggy walks closer and whispers something in his ear. Clint doesn't catch what it is, but it seems to work because Phil flushes faintly and and his shoulder drop from around his ears.
"I hate you all so much right now," he grumbles, but walks tentatively over to stand in front of Clint and Nat. Clint smiles at him again, taking a risk and sticking his hands in his pockets, rocking back on his heels a little.
"So? What d'you think? Wanna do it?" he asks, letting a little of his native drawl slip out with the words. "Oh, but you gotta promise us free reign on your closet. Anything we don't like gets trashed."
Phil shrugs, still flushed and avoiding their eyes – embarrassed, probably. There are people who downright freeze in front of a camera, and Phil seems like a private kind of person.
"Not much to trash," he says dismissively, tone settling into what must be his normal speaking voice. It's a pleasant, light baritone, nothing especially remarkable, much like the man. He squares his shoulders, and straightens his back, and then looks Clint right in the eye.
And that's the moment Clint has to employ all his tricks and training and professionalism not to gasp out loud. Phil's eyes bore into his, the most beautiful, deep, shifting blue Clint has ever seen. He realises that Phil might be an inch or two shorter than him, but he exudes such natural authority that if he said 'Drop' right now, Clint would go straight down on his knees without even thinking of disobeying – or wanting to.
Good god, who is this man?
"All right," Phil says, and that voice, where the hell did he keep all this before? "I'm in. Let's do this."
Since Clint is still gaping like a fish out of water, Nat steps smoothly in, saving them all the embarrassment of having to reshoot.
"Fantastic," she purrs. "We're gonna make you look so good, Sergeant Coulson, that no one will be able to say no to you."
Clint does not in the slightest appreciate the sly look she is throwing him out of the corner of her eye. He snaps his mouth shut and sends Phil one of his hottest, smoothest smiles, the kind that always manages to charm people out of their panties.
Phil Coulson does not even blink. Damn it! Crash and burn, Clint thinks wryly. Figures he'd be straight. He's only Clint's wet dream come to life. Of course Clint can't have nice things.
"Great," he says, clapping his hands and itching to wrap this up. "See you tomorrow at our studio, bright and early with all your clothes. Don't be late!"
Phil sends him an annoyed look framed by arched eyebrows. Ah, a sensitive spot. Clint is great at finding those and ploughing right into them.
Peter lowers the camera from his shoulder. "Great cut," he says cheerfully, pushing his glasses up his nose. Like this, he doesn't look much older than sixteen. There's a reason everyone is so protective of the kid. "Billy and me are off, we've got class. See you tomorrow, guys!"
Clint grins and waves, while Nat calls a goodbye. By the time Clint turns around again, Phil has disappeared. So much for building a rapport with a fellow serviceman. He tells himself he isn't disappointed, because it's true. Mostly.
Steve sidles up to him while Nat shakes hands with Maria and Fury.
"Phil's a little wary of strangers," he says apologetically. "Hasn't been back that long. You know how it is."
Clint does indeed know how it is. All of a sudden, he feels like an absolute shithead to make this about him. Phil just had a hell of a shock sprung onto him, in a setting that should have been safe; for all Clint knows, he might be having an anxiety attack right now, and here Clint is, pouting because the hot guy is straight and not into him.
He makes himself smile and roll his shoulders in an easy shrug. "Sure, man. No harm, no foul. Level with me, though. You think he's up to this? It's gonna be a trip way out of his comfort zone."
Steve rubs the back of his head, opening his mouth to answer just as Clint hears steps running fast towards them, and they both turn.
"Did I miss it?" the tall, seriously sexy black guy pants, looking at Steve forlornly. "I missed it, didn't I?"
Steve winces. "Yeah, Sam, where the hell've you been?"
"Damn it," the guy mutters, looking ticked off. "Got stuck on the phone with Stark. Man, I know he's your friend, but I'm gonna seriously punch him out one of these days."
"Sam's our resident counselor," Steve explains, ignoring that while Sam shakes Clint's hand. "Actually, he'd be the best person to ask what you're wondering."
Clint waits patiently while Steve explains, replaying the scene for Sam's benefit. Sam winces, then looks at Clint approvingly when Steve tells him about Clint's clearing of the exits. Of course these people hadn't missed it. Every one of them is, or has once been, in Phil Coulson's shoes.
"I don't know, to be honest," Sam says, shrugging helplessly. "He's been back six months. I think he's ready. The Director thinks he's ready. Hell, Barnes thinks he's ready, and he ain't the most stable of the bunch. Guess we'll have to wait and see. Be good to see the guy do something nice for himself for once, though. Maybe get his mind off work, remind him he's allowed to get back in the world again, ya know?"
"Got it. Not good to fixate," Clint says, nodding. He remembers when Nat came back, over a year after he got discharged. He used to spend hours on her couch just to force her to talk to someone. Sure would have been nice to have this organisation then, when it'd been just the two of them watching out for each other. It's another reason he wants to do anything he can to help them out.
"That's it exactly," Steve says, a small, sad smile on his face as he shoots a surreptitious look in Barnes' direction. Honestly? Clint is glad for Phil, that he had these people to come back to.
He leaves SHIELD in a pensive mood, determined not to let his own issues ruin this experience for Phil. Focused. Professional. Understanding. He can be these things, and not let his inner asshole eleven-year-old out to play.
Clint's first inkling that things may not go according to plan comes the very next morning, when Phil Coulson digs in his heels and flat-out refuses to go into the 3D mirror.
"Look," he says when Clint and Natasha gape at him, having exhausted a whole neighbourhood of good arguments. "I don't need it. I know my clothes are old-fashioned. I don't need to be convinced to get rid of them. I have no sentimental attachment to my tweed jacket, other than it's warm and comfortable, and I trust you two to help me find a good replacement that meets your style criteria." 'Whatever they may be,' Clint hears unspoken, and can't help the huff of amusement. The guy's got spark. If Clint was ever worried about Phil's ability to handle them, he has just been thoroughly reassured.
Phil shrugs at their speaking glances to the disaster that is his closet. "I never found the motivation to construct a whole new wardrobe. Just – give me a few rules I can work with. I'm good at following orders."
And doesn't that just spin Clint's wayward thoughts in a whole new direction. Phil smiles faintly, body language tight and contained. It's obvious how very uncomfortable he is with being thrust front and centre, and Clint should stop behaving like a hormonal teenager and move this along. He shares a look with Nat, who shrugs without moving her body at all. Won't get much footage out of this part, but they can always do some interviews with Phil's friends if they end up short – maybe raise awareness of the issue as a whole, throw in some statistics while they're at it. Phil makes a great poster boy without them having to infringe on his personal space more than they already are.
"All right," Natasha says with a smile. "In that case, let us give you an extended course on how to dress up your assets."
"But first – the trash can," Clint announces, brandishing the same.
The corners of Phil's eyes pinch, but he acquiesces with a nod. The rail holding his clothes is depressingly sparse – six faded shirts, three jackets in the same need of repair as the one Phil is wearing now, five pairs of pants that could charitably be called 'well-loved', and eight or so t-shirts in various stages of falling apart.
In contrast, there are eight pairs of workout pants, five hoodies much too big for Phil's frame – which can actually pull hoodies off, unlike so many men that only think they can and end up looking like they're wearing sacks. Phil's shoulders, once Clint lets himself look at them, are mouthwateringly muscular and wide, like they could take the weight of the world – and likely do, from what Clint has been reading between the lines. It's clear that working out is important to Phil – probably gives him a sense of safety and control, if he's anything like Clint.
Phil doesn't put up much of a fight as they trash his clothes, only shakes his head sadly.
"Honestly, I can't believe I've worn some of these for so long," he confesses almost unwillingly. "When I look at them now..."
He doesn't finish, but Clint can see the realisation on his face, and knows that the 3D mirror was truly not needed. The only time Phil puts up a fight is when Natasha lifts a very old, very threadbare t-shirt with Captain America's shield on it, a relic of Phil's youth, maybe. It looks soft, like it's been washed thousands of times.
"Not this one," Phil croaks, face suddenly pale. His fingers tangle in the fabric, tugging it out of Natasha's hands and holding it close to his chest. "Please. It's important to me."
Natasha shrugs. "It's not the worst of the bunch. It's got a certain ironic vintage style, and at least it looks like it actually fits you."
Phil cracks a genuine grin. The transformation of his face is astounding, all softness and eye crinkles that punch Clint's breath out of him.
"Used to be three sizes too big," he discloses. "My Mom bought it for me when I was twelve, right before she--" but his face creases, and he drops his eyes, and doesn't continue.
Clint knows, though, with the kind of gut clench that makes him sick. He knows what Phil was going to say, because no one looks like that when they talk about their mother, unless she's no longer with them.
Phil takes a deep breath, like he's settling himself. When he looks up again, the calm, reserved mask is back. "It's been with me through some things," he finishes, daring them to make something of it.
"Why bring it at all, if you feel so strongly about it?" Natasha asks kindly, while Clint can only stare, trying to push back the image of a small boy huddling in the soft cotton, brown hair a tuft over his head as he grinned up at you.
But Phil frowns at her, radiating disapproval. "You said 'everything'. I don't have much – a lot of the things I left in storage don't fit me anymore – all right, fit even worse than this lot," he concedes, cracking a smile. "I bulked up a lot in the last ten years. And 'everything' means all of it. I don't like cheating, not when lives don't depend on it."
"So you did cheat out in the field?" Clint blurts out, suddenly incredibly interested.
Phil levels him an unimpressed look. "For a given value of 'cheating'. It's war, I had to keep my men safe. Didn't you?"
"We both did," Natasha says, diffusing the heavy air that had suddenly descended on the studio. "It's why we're still alive. Peter, let's cut this bit out. Not everyone will get it," she explains when Phil looks chagrined.
"But we do," Clint feels compelled to say, looking right at Phil, willing him to understand. "We know."
Phil nods slowly, the cornered look fading from his face. Clint is intensely glad to see it go.
"And roll from now, Peter. What kinds of clothes did you leave behind?"
Phil looks pensive, not as used as them to the fast changes of subject necessary when recording a show. Clint wonders about calling for a break, to let Phil settle, but then Phil's face curves in a rueful smile.
"Just the usual teenage stuff," he says. "Jeans, a few hoodies, band t-shirts. My leather jacket. Damn, I miss that."
He looks as surprised as Clint feels at the admission. Clint's mental picture of him readjusts, still in the Captain America t-shirt but with jeans that hang low on his hips, and a black leather jacket hugging his shoulders. Shaken, Clint thinks to check, and yes, there is a small scar in Phil's left earlobe, such as is normally left behind when taking an earring out. Shit. Clint adds a silver stud to the image in his head, and nearly chokes on the next inhale. Christ above, the idea of that is incendiary.
"Oh, really," Natasha purrs, showing most of her teeth in a grin full of intent. "We'll have to see what we can do about that."
Phil beams at her, looking excited for the first time since they met him. The skin near his eyes crinkles again, and he looks so ridiculously charming like this, that Clint thinks they're getting a glimpse of the kid Phil Coulson must have been before the Army, daredevil and generous with his smiles and his affections for the people worthy of them.
...Of course, Clint barely knows this man. This is all conjecture and assumptions, and Clint has sworn never to fall victim to those. And yet, the fact remains that Phil Coulson's easy, engaging smile is contagious, and it makes Clint want to grab him and dance him around the room; he wants to run his hands through Phil's hair to tidy it away from his face; wants to rub his fingers over those fascinating crinkles, then slide them down to touch the corner of Phil's lips.
These are decidedly not thoughts he should be having about their client.
"Let's take a look at the sample models, shall we?" he says as brightly as he can, hoping his desperation for a distraction from that image isn't as obvious as it feels.
Natasha slants him a look, but thankfully keeps her comments to herself. Phil shrugs and follows Clint to the three mannequins set up in the anteroom. Clint makes a show of explaining lengths and cuts and fabrics, going into some detail about lapel shapes and shirt collars and why the Italian cut of a suit jacket is still the most flattering for any shape. Phil watches and listens attentively, surreptitiously ogling the suit like he can't wait to put it on. Clint very carefully does not punch the air in victory.
"You guys make it sound so simple," Phil says with a wry smile, which is what clues Clint in that he might have gone a little overboard in his enthusiasm to get Phil on the inside of one of those.
"Don't worry," Nat says, smiling. "It'll come to you once you start trying them on. You seem to have an eye for design, how come you've never worn one before?"
Phil ducks his head, suddenly back to the shy, retiring man they met yesterday afternoon.
"I just," Phil says quietly, avoiding their eyes and hunching his shoulders. "I never thought I was worth one of those."
The simple, plainly-spoken confession punches Clint in the gut. Then Phil keeps talking, and it gets worse.
"I mean, I'm nothing special, I know that. Didn't seem any point in pretending to be something I wasn't."
Stuck for words, Clint can merely look at him and hope his face isn't completely crumbling in on itself. Phil is... Clint has only known him for a few short hours, but from everything he'd seen and heard, it was clear that other people saw Phil better than he saw himself. Thankfully, Nat comes to the rescue, placing a gentle hand on Phil's shoulder and sliding it down his back—
"That's the most ridiculous thing I ever heard."
Clint wants to slam his mouth closed, bite his lips so he can never speak again, but it's done, the words are out there in the open. Phil stares at him, clearly taken aback by the vehemence of Clint's tone. The silence stretches, and Clint realises that he needs to say something, anything to break the fragility of the moment. He grits his teeth and wades back in.
"Look, Phil, believe me when I say, I know what it's like to feel like you don't deserve something. That what you dream about is too good for the likes of you. I've been there. I was that kid for a long time. But listen. There ain't no one can tell you something's too good for you. And if they try? They're talking out of their asses. You are every bit as worthy as everyone else in this country, and more than some. The only people who have the right to pass judgement on you are the ones you give that power to. Okay? So you let yourself believe the mean words and the taunts, and someone's fists and boots, the only one who loses is you."
Phil isn't looking at him. His eyes are fixed on the far wall, but Clint knows that look. Phil isn't really seeing the room right now, and the way his jaw is ticking, Clint would bet he isn't even in this time anymore. Clint clears his throat, suddenly self-conscious about his outburst, because it doesn't take a shrink to see that he wasn't just talking about Phil there. The topic sure raises some zombies from the corpses Clint had buried deep inside, a long time ago. It has taken him a while to get to where he is today, mostly free of demons – and still, the tiniest things can set him off.
Clint will be damned if he lets Phil do this to himself, though, put himself down when the world has done such a good job of it already. It's like he's reciting words said so often, it's habit to believe them. Clint knows that impulse; oh yes, he does.
He shrugs and folds his arms across his chest, feeling a little too exposed for comfort. He knows better than to imagine this bit will get cut out when they air the episode – this kind of thing is network gold, all the more when it's actually unplanned.
"My point is, you wanna wear suits, you go right ahead, buddy. No one can stop you but that little guy inside your head. You gotta show him how to be brave, is all."
Now, Phil looks at him. Clint doesn't know what he'd been braced for – anger, indignation, flat-out hostility – but that isn't what he sees inside Phil's eyes. They are clear and direct, maybe a touch bright. They are the eyes of someone who has just had an epiphany bludgeon him upside the head.
"Right," Phil says faintly. "Okay." And then he grins, open and boyish and looking decades younger than the middle-aged professor he'd been dressing as. "Maybe I will try one on."
"Fantastic," Natasha breezes, smiling at him and stepping closer to thread her arm through Phil's, while Clint stands there, trying not to look as poleaxed by that smile as he feels. "Clint is great at spotting things that'll look good on people. He'll see you straight."
Clint stops gawping and clenches his jaw to stop from glaring. To his surprise, there is a hint of pink in Phil's face, eyes darting to Clint and away.
Interesting. Well, let's face it, he wouldn't be the only serviceman (or woman) to have hidden his sexual predilections. Old Uncle Sam did a number on too many people.
"Sure," Clint picks up smoothly, trying to tell Nat with his eyes that he'll get her back for that. "I think you'll look amazing in a suit. Honestly, you've got the frame to look amazing in just about anything."
Yeah, there's definitely a flushed edge on Phil's ears this time. Phil ducks his head, but he can't hide the pleased smile curving his mouth.
God, Clint would love to taste those lips.
"I think you're giving me too much credit," Phil demurs, but when he looks back up, there is determination in his face that looks gorgeous on him. "I'll be game to try on whatever you think, though."
"That's all we can ask of any of our clients," Nat says, smiling. "But, for the record? I think Clint is right. You'll look great in a lot of things. I think you've been hiding, Phil. I can't pretend to know your reasons, but – it's time to get back in the world, soldier. Unlike where you came back from, most things won't kill you – even if they feel like they might. Clint and I, we served, too. We know it can seem insurmountable to come home and go back to your life like nothing happened. Those experiences, what you went through, that will always be with you. But you can't let it control you, or dictate everything you do.
"First step? Stop dressing like you expect to have to strip it off and put on a uniform at any second."
That gets a laugh out of Phil – a little strangled, maybe, but real. Clint focuses on that, and decidedly not on the image Natasha's words conjured, because, nope.
"Fair enough," Phil says, giving them both a smile that doesn't look as forced as Clint had expected.
"All right," Clint says, clapping his hands and grinning at him while Natasha bounces a little with excitement. "Tomorrow morning, you can go wild on the stores of New York."
"I wouldn't go that far," Phil mutters, but inclines his head in agreement.
Clint waits a couple of beats, and then catches Natasha's eye, raising an eyebrow.
"Okay, this is good, cut it here, Peter," she says, smiling at Peter before turning back to Phil. "Are you okay? It got a little intense back there, we didn't intend for that to happen. It's the nature of filming, everything feels new and urgent and 'now'. People say things they wouldn't dream of bringing up in casual conversation."
"I'm all right," Phil says evenly. He heaves in a huge breath, and it might be Clint's imagination, but he looks lighter than when he came in this morning. "There wasn't anything you said that isn't true. Just – it's one thing to hear it, another to internalise it."
Clint grimaces. "Believe me, I know," he says, with feeling. "Sorry I came on a bit hard, man. Like you might've guessed, you're not the only one with issues."
"Yeah," Phil says wryly. "Yeah, I got that."
Briefly, Clint feels terrible. It's not his place to pull people's legitimately painful experiences out in the open.
"Hey," Phil says, stepping away from Natasha and consequently closer to Clint. "Seriously. I mean it. It's okay. You can't help your ghosts any more than I can help mine. But we're both trying, right?"
Clint stares at him, wondering what he'd done to deserve a guy like that walking into his life – for all that it probably won't last nearly as long as Clint might wish. He has no idea what to do with this easy, honest forgiveness for putting his foot squarely in his mouth.
"Right," he echoes, swallowing tightly and trying to give Phil a smile that isn't closer to a grimace.
"Right," Phil says again, shuffling his feet. "Well, I'd better go, then. Got some work to finish before I take the next two days off."
"Sure," Natasha says, coming to stand next to Clint. "See you on Wednesday. Darcy – that's our editor – will set you up with a video link for tomorrow evening's recap."
Phil nods, smiles again, and leaves.
Clint thinks he should really definitely not be bowled over by such a shy, sweet smile. He can only imagine what Phil might be feeling like, floating miles away from solid ground.
Natasha turns to him, raising both her eyebrows. He cringes, even before her dry, "You wanna tell me what the hell that was?"
"I know, I know," he says, rubbing a hand over his face and probably smudging the on-screen make-up a little. "I should've pushed it down. Don't know what came over me."
She keeps looking at him, expression turning speculative.
"There's something about this one, isn't it?" she says after a couple of minutes of silence, when he'd started to tentatively hope he was off the hook.
"Yeah," Clint admits, watching the spot where Phil had stood nearly hunched in on himself not long ago, uncomfortable with baring so much to strangers. Clint can only imagine how vulnerable Phil must feel right now. He hopes there is also a little bit of relief mixed in – to not have to hide those feelings any longer, and probably to have someone understand the way his own head was trying to trip him up.
Natasha hums again, more than used to the trouble Clint sometimes has with finding his words.
"Well, just be careful," she says quietly.
Clint doesn't have the courage to ask her what she means.
Phil's solo day shopping is not the disaster that always lurks around day three of a shoot. He is a little reserved in front of the camera, but he relaxes as the day goes on and he falls into the habit of narrating through his choices, trying to follow Natasha and Clint's advice and pointers to the letter. He doesn't go into the tailored section of the stores, other than to browse, but he manages to acquire several hundred dollars' worth of button-down shirts and long-sleeved t-shirts that hug his torso lovingly. He also gets two pairs of jeans, both of which make his ass look absolutely mouthwatering, enough so that Clint is watching the video feed with his jaw hanging open, and even Natasha's eyes look glazed.
"Wow," she says. Clint grunts in agreement because, seriously, damn.
And then Phil comes across a store that sells leather jackets, and they have to watch him shrug on one after the other, supple leather twisting and bunching exquisitely. Clint is this close to calling for a break in the viewing, just to get his breath back, when Phil draws the curtain of the changing room aside and steps out to face the mirror.
He has put on the darker pair of jeans that he got earlier, together with a charcoal greyish-blue Henley whose v-neck is a little deeper than the norm, not enough to reach the tops of his pecs but hovering across the divide, showcasing a few springly curls of chest hair that make Clint's mouth abruptly flood with saliva. He has on the jacket made of soft toffee-coloured leather with a belt-like collar and sideways pockets. The stitching around the shoulders make Phil's look even wider than Clint remembers. It isn't tailored, but it wraps around Phil's body as if it were, narrow over his sides with sleeves reaching just over Phil's strong wrists. It's almost as if it was made for him, patiently waiting for Phil to come find it.
"Well, it isn't Sid Vicious," Phil murmurs quietly to himself, almost absent-minded as he turns to look at the back of it over his shoulder. "I think it suits me more now, though. My juvenile delinquent days are long behind me."
'I was right,' Clint thinks faintly, with as much focus as he can command in the face of Phil's hands sliding over the sides of his jacket, feeling their way, as it were. Phil looks pornographic like that. Like Clint could walk right over, grab the back of his head and kiss him deep and filthy, and Phil would just back him up against the nearest wall and eat his mouth out.
"Fuck me," Clint blurts, knowing that the network is definitely going to bleep him but in that moment giving not a damn.
"I'll say," Natasha drawls. Her eyes are hooded when Clint glances over, dark and appreciative. "That boy cleans up good."
On the screen, Phil reaches down to check the price tag, then blanches.
"No," Natasha growls, outraged. "No way."
"I'm going to kill him," Clint declares as they watch Phil take off the jacket, slide it back onto the hanger, and leave it on the display with a last regretful stroke of his fingers. The look on his face... it makes something twist in Clint's chest and ache, because he has seen that expression, he knows the monologue running through Phil's head, the belief of 'I'm not worth spending that much money on.'
"Damn it," he says, frustrated enough to slap at the top of his thigh. Natasha lays a comforting hand on his, squeezing reassuringly.
"I know," she says. "Don't worry. We've got this."
That night, Clint can't sleep. The leather jacket, folded neatly in the store bag, is burning a hole in his living room carpet, waiting to be delivered to its new owner. Helpless to stop himself, Clint takes it out and tugs it on, enjoying the rich scent of new leather and how smooth it feels under his palms. He strokes across the chest that fits just that little bit too loose, imagines Phil's shoulders filling it out, a centimeter broader than his own.
Imagines those shoulders under his hands, bracing his legs open while Phil takes him in his mouth; or holding on tightly to them as Clint bends him over the bed and pushes inside him.
It's so unprofessional that it makes his skin crawl a little, but it's also not something he can stop thinking about it. His cock is rock-hard under his sleeping pants, and Clint palms himself a couple of times before he forces himself to stop and take that damn jacket off, or risk crossing a boundary he would rather die than overstep.
Doesn't mean he doesn't lie on his back in the middle of his bed and stroke himself with a punishing rhythm, trying and failing not to think of Phil's pretty eyes and even prettier mouth. When he comes (breathless, gasping Phil's name, one of his hands tight on his cock and the other fondling his balls and reaching behind them to rub a finger over his hole), and suddenly all he wants is to roll over and bury his face in Phil's neck, that's when Clint admits to himself that he might be in serious trouble here.
He is such a fucking idiot. He couldn't have waited until the day after to do this? Once Phil was safely out of his reach, and Clint wouldn't have to see the surprised, hesitant welcome in his eyes when Clint and Natasha showed up? Because this – it should not sting to know that for Phil they are two people he would only be relieved to leave behind, but oh, it does. Clint bites the inside of his cheek and forces his smile not to fall.
"Brought you something," he says, flinching inwardly at how rough his voice comes out. Phil blinks at his tone, but it's not until Natasha pulls out the jacket and bundles him inside it that he flushes from hairline to collar, looking down and biting his lips. He is wearing glasses today, stylish, medium-thick black frames that only Darcy could have picked out. Like so many things, it should not make him look sinfully hot, but Clint is beginning to realise that he is definitely biased in this particular case.
"Phil," Natasha says gently. "You look stunning in this. Why didn't you buy it yesterday, when it was obvious how much you liked it?"
Phil's mouth is a white line. He shrugs, before raising his head to look at them. His eyes are very blue.
"I messed up, I think," he confesses. "I got back last night, and I couldn't stop thinking about what you said, Clint. I intended to go back to the shop today. I guess it's going to take some time to change my way of thinking. Sorry."
Clint breaks. "No, don't be sorry." His hand is on Phil's shoulder. When did that happen? "You deserve all the nice things you want. In fact—come on."
He gives Phil no time to stop him; wrapping his hand around Phil's wrist, he tugs him out of the casual attire store where they'd met him and across the street, into a menswear store that specialises in tailoring. He piles a bunch of pants and jackets onto a rail, talking all the while – explaining, pointing out the differences between lapel types, width, and roll, and what adding a vest can bring to a suit.
"A wide notch lapel would work best for you, I think." He holds up a jacket to lie flat over Phil's chest. "It suits a single-breasted cut, you're broad enough to not need the extra help from a double-breasted jacket – although, let's try a medium-width point lapel, too, see how that works with your shoulders. And a three-piece suit, too, I got a feeling about that."
"I feel like Gatsby," Phil murmurs, looking bemusedly at the multitude of shirts Clint piled in his arms, all of them selected to bring out Phil's eyes and the golden sheen of his skin. He gives Clint that same sweet smile Clint remembers from yesterday.
Magnified yet unencumbered by the glasses, Phil's eyes make it difficult for Clint to look away. His heart pounds in his chest, and he jumps when Natasha appears behind Phil, draping several lengths of silk over Phil's shoulder before pushing him in the direction of the changing rooms. Clint waits, fidgeting, until Natasha steps on his foot. She sighs, rolling her eyes.
"I'll go look for some tie pins, how about that?" she drawls. Behind the camera, Peter stifles a giggle and presses the button to stop recording. "Go on, go in and help him get dressed."
Clint is still staring after her, a hot flush scalding his cheeks, when there is a yelp from the direction of the changing rooms. Clint doesn't even stop to think before rushing in. He turns the corner at a jog, in time to see a young man trip over a pair of pants trailing from the chin-high pile of clothes in his arms. The guy flails, sending the clothes flying, and grabs for the first thing his hand catches – which just happens to be the curtain separating Phil from the rest of the room. As if in slow motion, the man falls forward, yanking the curtain with him.
All coherent thought leaves Clint's brain. He is dimly aware that he should check if the guy is okay, because he landed full-length with something between a grunt and a whimper, but his attention is fixed on Phil to the exclusion of all else. Startled blue eyes lift to Clint's from where Phil has spun around in surprise, fingers still clutching at the unbuttoned sides of a light green shirt. Clint is an utter, utter asshole, because he cannot look away from the deep V of pale skin revealed by the fabric. Phil's fine chest hair does nothing to conceal the sickly white of scar tissue crawling up on the left side, from collarbone to nearly his sternum, bottom edge hidden by the shirt and the hands holding it closed with a white-knuckled grip.
Shit. Clint looks up in time to see the flinch on Phil's face, the angry, embarrassed flush on his cheeks.
"Yeah, it's not exactly pretty," Phil says with a defiant sort of off-handedness. He looks down, mouth twisting, his fingers relaxing enough to grab hold of a button and its corresponding buttonhole, jamming them together. "Sorry you had to see this. Hope it didn't put you off your lunch."
To say that Clint is taken aback would be an understatement. Behind him, the young man is stammering apologies and collecting his load, backing around the corner of the changing rooms section as fast as he can go. Clint stands there, watching the mortified flush spread down Phil's chest, until he feels the familiar snap in his mind. He always does better when he's scrambling to read a situation, to make the quick-flash calls other people won't, or can't. He steps closer, reaching to put his hands on Phil's wrists – not touching his chest, but not letting Phil hide it, either.
"Don't," he says quietly. Phil's arms tremble a little under his palms, and Clint has to swallow tightly against the shocking urge to put his arms around Phil and tuck him close against his body. "You've got nothing to be ashamed of."
Phil looks down at Clint's hands on him; his fingers spasm on the edges of the shirt. There is a pinched look to his eyes, and Clint suddenly realises that this right here is responsible for most of Phil's issues with self-worth, of unconsciously wanting to hide himself away.
"You don't understand," Phil mutters, almost too quietly for Clint to hear. "I wasn't anything special before, but now, I just. What's the point of dressing up when underneath I'm this?"
Clint's chest clenches painfully. He clears his throat, a spur-of-the-moment certainty taking hold of him, compelling him to act.
"I'm going to show you something," he says, letting go of Phil's wrists. He doesn't look at him as he steps back, bends over and rolls up his slacks – past his ankle, mid-shin, over his knee. The scars stand out, pink even after so many years: pockmarks where the pins went in, thin, sharp lines where the cuts were made, spanning both his legs as far as the fabric bunches up. Clint looks up at Phil, forcing himself to watch Phil's face as he takes in Clint's mangled skin.
"There's more," he says, just as quietly as Phil had spoken. "All the way to the tops of my thighs, and that's not to mention the burn marks higher up."
"What did this?" Phil whispers. He hasn't looked away.
Clint shrugs. "An SUV flipped on me while I was pulling out the four members of my unit that were trapped inside. We took some friendly fire, the vehicle was already half-capsized from a pothole up to my knees. Couldn't get away fast enough. Then it lit on fire."
"Jesus," Phil says, face white. "How did you make it out?"
"Natasha," Clint says simply. "She rallied the guys, got them to lift up the SUV so she could pull me out before the fire got more of me. I was in and out of surgery for months. My left leg was shattered in four places, my right in five, and my right hip had to be replaced."
Phil looks up at his face at last, eyes full of such concern that Clint finds a lump blocking his throat all of a sudden.
"How do you do it?" Phil asks.
Clint doesn't need to ask for clarification.
"I don't let it define me. I won't let it tell me what I can and can't do. The clothes, they can be like an armour, Phil – prop you up and keep you safe until you can deal with what's underneath. Mine just happens to be a lot more stylish than yours – at least, until now."
He gives Phil a crooked smile, heart skipping a beat when Phil returns it. Encouraged, Clint decides to impart one more tiny shred of wisdom that keeps him going when the days are bad.
"Did a lot of reading when I was laid up," he says, bending down again to let his pants down. "Natasha brought me a book as thick as my bicep, told me that just because I was resting my body didn't mean my brain should turn to mold. It was Shakespeare's Collected Works, and you'll laugh, but I'm telling you, reading The Tempest during an actual tempest is just asking for trouble – my damn apartment got flooded through the supposedly-double glazing, it was ridiculous.
"Anyway. Towards the end of Act Two, Scene One, Antonio says, 'What's past is prologue, what to come in yours and my discharge'. And I realised: sure, I could let this be the end of my story – or be brave enough to make it the start of the next part. It was up to me."
He chances a look at Phil. He's just standing there, listening, but his hands have stopped creasing the cotton beyond salvation, and are now more toying with the edges. Clint swallows, clearing his throat as embarrassment attempts to rise from laying himself open like that. He rubs at the side of his neck, ruffles his hair helplessly.
"I've always had an eye for detail, style, too. By the time physio got me more or less walking again, Natasha was pretty much as done with combat as I was. She came up with the idea for this show, and somehow, we happened to be in the right place at the right time to get picked up by our network. It was pure chance; but then again, it always has been, for us."
Phil is quiet, digesting all that. The changing rooms seem deserted, like they have been cut off from the world – which is why both of them jump out of their skins when Natasha rounds the corner, heels clacking on the hard wooden floor. She stops in surprise, mouth pouting open before her lips mold into her on-screen smile and she turns, rounding the corner again.
"Just a moment, he's nearly decent," they hear her tell Peter. Phil's eyes widen in panic, searching out Clint's. Clint smiles, and twitches the curtain closed between them again.
"There was an incident with a pair of pants," he calls out to Natasha, who comes back into the room with Peter trailing behind her. "All fixed," he adds through a smile that feels more like a rictus on his face. He ignores Natasha's teasing eyebrow, turning to face the curtain again. "Are you ready, Phil?"
Phil doesn't reply, but the curtain draws back and Phil steps out towards them, and all the remaining words in Clint's head might as well be in Vietnamese.
Phil in a suit is nothing short of a revelation. The warm, velvety black hugs his shoulders, makes his torso look long and lean, yet strong. Even with the pristine white shirt he'd changed into left open at the collar for lack of a tie, Phil still looks like a million bucks of cool cat. The pants are just long enough to edge over the tops of his loafers; they could stand to be taken up half an inch, but even as they are, they make Phil's legs look like miles of delicious muscle.
"Holy wow," Natasha murmurs. Clint's eyes drag up and down Phil's frame, catching on distractions like the bare hollow of Phil's throat, the way his strong hands seem to be shown off by the cuffs of the jacket that stop above the base of Phil's thumb. Then Clint looks at the groin – and nearly swallows his tongue, because that - Phil's baggy pants certainly did a good (or terrible, depending on your point of view) job of not even hinting at that.
Clint feels a little faint.
"Phil, you don't even know – come here, look at yourself," Natasha says eagerly, picking up where Clint's brain left off, which is why she is the brains of this operation all the way.
Phil obliges, letting Natasha turn him to face the mirror. She and Clint watch, curiously silent, as Phil's eyes go very wide, and he checks out his reflection.
"I can't believe that's me," Phil confides in a whisper.
"You're a damn knockout," Clint says roughly. He pulls himself out of whatever headspace the sight pushed him into, and takes the tie Natasha hands him. It's almost the exact shade of blue as Phil's eyes. Clint could get lost in that tie.
"You know how to do up one of those?" Natasha asks.
"Uhm. Kind of? They've never come out right."
"Well, we can't have that. Clint, you wanna do the honours?"
Clint swallows, forcing his fingers not to tighten and crush the silk. "Sure," he says, stepping behind Phil and draping the length around his neck when Phil flips up the collar of his shirt.
Their fingers brush over Phil's throat, when Phil's hands return to do up the last button and Clint doesn't pull back fast enough. The tingle it sends up Clint's arm and down his spine is completely unacceptable.
He doesn't tangle his fingers with Phil's, or push them away to do up the button himself, or show Phil how to tie his tie by touch. Neither does he lean in to press his lips to the side of Phil's neck, or any other number of things he longs to do, because he is a professional, goddamn it. Instead, he takes a deep breath and walks Phil through tying a half-Windsor, his arms brushing distractingly over Phil's shoulders with every flick of his fingers. Phil pays attention, and nods in all the right places, and his eyes never leave Clint's hands in the mirror.
Clint tells himself that's really for the best.
"Now you try it," he say when it's done and been appropriately admired.
Then he has to hastily look away from the sight of Phil's fingers pulling the knot apart, because some things are just too much to take.
Phil needs only a couple of tries to grasp the direction of the twist, and once he has it, his movements are smooth and effortless. Turns out, he has a new-found penchant for ties, because he choose four more to go with the two suits and five shirts that they end up buying. Natasha also makes him get a gorgeous silver and chrome tie pin, as well as a pair of cufflinks.
They are in the shape of crosshair targets. Clint wants to throttle her, but that would be hard to explain to the network and their current client both.
They plough through three more shops before it's time for Phil to visit their hairstylist, which is an excellent thing because Clint desperately needs a couple of hours to regroup before they move on to the final catwalk.
Thinking about it, Clint realises with a pang that after tonight, he will have absolutely no reason (or excuse) to see Phil again. He finds himself disturbed by how awful that thought makes him feel. He has known the man for, what, four days? Wanting to jump his bones is one thing. Clint can cope with that just fine. Wanting to have dinner with him, to hold his hand while Phil tells him about his day? That's another kettle of fish entirely, and an absolutely ridiculous way for Clint to be feeling.
And yet, there he is. With the ground shifting under his feet because tonight will be the last time he'll see Phil. Who is probably looking forward to being left alone, and be done with this makeover ambush. Clint's mouth quirks when he thinks of the flash in Phil's eyes when he'd looked at his boss upon being conscripted for this challenge. He thinks wistfully that it would have been fun to hear about the revenge Phil enacts on his boss and co-workers; and then he forces himself to stop thinking of their client entirely. There is no way that would end well. Besides, Phil has shown no inclination whatsoever that he sees Clint as anything other than his temporary style guide, and Clint should really stop doing these things to himself. When did his MO become falling for unattainable, clearly uninterested men? His life is tough enough without him looking to sabotage himself on top of it.
By the time Natasha turns up again from the Tae Bo class she teaches on Thursdays in the martial arts club next door, freshly showered and with her curls bouncing around her perfectly made-up face, Clint is jittery for this to be over, along with the danger of making an idiot of himself. Natasha looks at him knowingly. Clint is grateful beyond belief when, instead of the chiding he knows he deserves, she merely slips a hand into the crook of his elbow and hugs his arm to her, pillowing her head on his shoulder. He turns to tuck her body into his, bussing the top of her honey-scented hair. Thank god for this woman. No man will ever mean so much to him as she does. He'll get over this stupid crush in time, he's sure of it.
At last, the studio is set and Peter gives them a thumbs-up from behind the camera stand.
"Let's see how our soldier coped with his mission to get back in the world," Natasha says warmly. "Phil, come on out!"
A shadow steps into the mouth of the dark corridor, and then walks towards them. Clint's heart skips a beat, before slamming to life in his chest.
"Get out," Natasha says, grinning delightedly.
Phil is dressed in a pair of blue jeans that, praise be to the Lord, fit him beautifully, just the right kind of loose over his thighs and hugging his ass to perfection. Over them, Phil wears a simple v-neck long-sleeved t-shirt in a deep, dusky violet-grey that makes his eyes shine like the ocean lit by playful sunlight. The shirt clings to his body – not tight and tacky, but draping over his torso in a caress of soft cotton mix that manages to make Clint jealous. And of course, to top that off – the leather jacket. It makes Phil's body look longer, showcases his shoulders to emphasise how Clint could probably climb them if he were ever allowed.
"Wow," he says, pulled back to the present moment by Phil shifting in his chocolate brown leather loafers. "Phil, you look amazing. Get over here."
Phil walks closer, and now, in decent, well-fitting clothes, the swaggering sway of his hips is on full display. He stalks nearer like he is king of the pride cornering his prey, and seriously, seriously, how is Clint supposed to even?
Phil comes to stand between Clint and Natasha, turning to face the mirror. His hair has been cut close to his skull, tidy and stylish at the same time. His eyes pop from behind the frames sitting on the bridge of his crooked nose, giving him a sexy professor look. His wide, generous mouth quirks when he looks at himself in the mirror, and Clint's knees weaken all of a sudden.
"See, this kind of thing would be perfect for the day. Swap with a shirt for a smarter look, or even go full-out with a pair of slacks as well." Natasha waves a hand in front of Phil's body, as if to illustrate her words, while Clint can only stand there and try to look like he doesn't want to drop to his knees and mouth over the breath-stealing bulge in Phil's jeans.
"It will take you from a baseball game to a night club, just switch out the t-shirt with something more fitted," Natasha adds.
"Say something," Clint murmurs when Phil remains silent, flushing at how intimate it sounds. Shit, he needs to get a grip.
"I look – amazing," Phil says, sounding so surprised that Clint wants to laugh. He settles for a warm smile instead.
"Yeah, you do," Clint says earnestly. "Do you see now why everyone wanted to get you out of those clothes—and into new ones," he finishes hurriedly. His skin feels hot all over. It's terrible.
Phil catches his eyes in the mirror, eyebrows rising over those horrible sex-symbol glasses.
"I think I do," he says.
Clint claps his hands and forces a smile before something worse slips through his demolished brain-to-mouth filter. "Fantastic. Let's see something else. How about showing us a work look?"
"Sure," Phil says, nodding and walking away.
Several seconds later, Natasha reaches up and shuts his jaw with two amused fingers. Clint wants to die from mortification.
"He looks good," he says defensively, very aware that Peter is still filming.
"Definitely not denying that," Natasha says, much too smugly for Clint's liking.
Thankfully – or possibly not at all – Phil comes back before Clint can embarrass himself some more. He pauses in the corridor, then walks into the light dressed – well, like schoolboy Clint's wet dream come to life. He is wearing tailored slacks, a plaid shirt and burgundy tie neatly tucked under a knitted navy cardigan. He looks like a college professor that Clint longs to debauch.
"My God," Natasha drawls. Clint knows she would rather use an expression much less suited for polite company, but she, unlike Clint, remembers that this is being filmed for network television. (He knows, because he wants to say something similar before pinning Phil to the nearest wall and sliding to his knees.)
"You don't think it's too much like my old look?" Phil asks, looking self-consciously at his reflection.
Natasha tilts her head. "Hmm. Maybe a little bit, but one, these clothes actually fit you, and two, you can totally pull this off."
But Phil isn't looking at Natasha. He is looking at Clint, meeting his eyes in the mirror, the question painfully obvious. Clint's breath tangles in his throat, and he wonders how to explain to the guy that all he'd have to do is walk into a gay club, take a seat at the bar, and watch the line form.
"It's good," he blurts out. He cannot make his eyes stop wandering Phil's frame, lingering on the way the slacks shape his legs, the shoulders the cardigan wraps over, the neat knot of his tie lying over the chequered pattern of his shirt. He wants to tug that tie undone, press a kiss to the hollow of Phil's throat behind it.
Shit. This is getting way out of hand.
"Trust me. You look...really good," Clint finishes lamely, kicking himself for how useless he feels when Phil's face goes blank and closes off.
"If you say so," he murmurs, non-committal. Clint hates everything that is stopping him from walking over there and kissing that hangdog look off Phil's face.
"All right, final look. Phil, show us The Suit."
The capitals click neatly in place from Natasha's mouth. The back of Clint's neck tingles, premonition making his breath come out short. When Phil walks back into the partitioned-off part of the studio, Clint knows that he was absolutely right to have worried.
Phil wears the equivalent of a nuclear explosion to Clint's self-control. He has left the glasses off, small mercies, but without the black frames his blue eyes look huge, steady and liquid at the same time, an ocean Clint could drown in. But the suit – god, the suit. Black with the thinnest pinstripe, single-breasted with a wide notch lapel, it makes Phil look like a sophisticated, classy customer, untouchable for the likes of mere mortals. There is a vest under that jacket – a three-piece suit, is Natasha trying to kill him? The shirt is a crisp white that makes Phil's skin look tanned in the strong lights of the studio, and the tie – the tie is the darkest, richest purple, the kind that makes Clint's insides clench and buzz with arousal all at once.
"Wow." Phil's voice is shaky, but pleased as he looks at the two stunned presenters. "I've never had anyone react like this to seeing me before."
"Well, you should have," Clint's mouth says before he can bite it shut. "I mean, you will from now on, because – you look phenomenal, Phil."
Phil flushes prettily, mouth twitching like he's fighting down a smile.
"Do I?" he asks quietly, walking closer. His hair is neat, short but styled, the kind of magic only Thor can weave.
"Yes," Natasha says, honest about it. "You really, really do. Phil, you don't have to hide behind your clothes anymore. You can let them do the talking – like this suit is. It practically screams, 'Come get me if you think you can.' In this suit, you can rule the world – or at least New York."
Phil laughs, like he's supposed to. Pink clings to his cheekbones still, a touch of shyness mixed with the new-found confidence with which he stands in those clothes.
"I think our work here is done," Clint says.
It won't be until he watches this episode on air that he will hear the wistful sadness in his voice, and cringe and hide his face in his hands. Right now, all he feels are all the emotions raging war in his chest, pushing his heart back into a small, tight cage.
"Thank you for everything," Phil says. Clint can't quite look at him, too afraid of what his face will give away.
"It has been a real pleasure, Phil Coulson," Natasha says graciously, stepping closer to press a kiss to his cheek.
Then Phil turns and moves to stand before Clint, holding out a hand in Clint's field of vision. It's a beautiful hand, strong and dependable. It's a hand that has saved people, Clint knows without being told, and will probably do so again, just not with a weapon this time.
"Thank you," Phil says again. "Clint," he adds after the slightest pause, just long enough to register as not entirely deliberate. His voice is quiet, earnest, ringed with certainty, meaning to say those words exactly. This is what he sounds like at work, Clint thinks, when everything is within his reach and he is master of his little world.
God, Clint is going to miss him.
He takes the offered hand, painfully aware of every little detail, the warm skin, the callouses on Phil's fingers, the strength of the grip.
"You are entirely welcome, Phil," Clint replies, voice as quiet as Phil's. He looks up, lets go of Phil's hand despite the reluctance curling in his gut, and forces a smile. He'll be damned if he looks like some damsel who has just been rejected by Prince Charming (no matter how close he feels to it). "Have a great life," he adds, and never has he meant those words more, no matter how many times he has said them on the show. He hopes Phil's life is the greatest, that he reaches all the goals he sets himself, that he is happy and fulfilled.
Phil's eyes widen at the words, and he bites the corner of his bottom lip, as if he wants to say something, but can't bring himself to.
"Thanks," he says again, slightly breathless.
Then he turns and walks away – out of the studio, down the stairs, out of the building, out of Clint's life.
"And cut! That was fantastic, you guys. Right, Darcy and I have a load of editing to do, but I think this episode is going to turn out great - probably one of the best you ever did, really. I got a meeting with the extremely hot lady from the SHIELD office tomorrow, to do a few short interviews with the staff before we film the reveal, and then we can cut it together..."
But Clint has tuned Peter out, letting him babble happily as he packs up his equipment.
"Just gonna—grab a coffee," he says vaguely, the first thing that pops into his head. He needs a few minutes to get himself together, get his head screwed on straight. He absolutely cannot be crushing on their client. (Former client, supplies his mind, in a voice that sounds suspiciously like Phil's. Clint ignores it. So not helpful.)
He bursts out of the side exit to the building housing their studio, and spends a couple of minutes just sucking cold air into his lungs. He tips his head back towards the sky, watching clouds chase each other with something very close to despondency. He feels alone, bereft, as if something incredibly important has just slipped from his grasp. His eyes sting; angry, Clint squeezes them shut and leans his back on the cold bricks, scrubbing at his face and refusing to even think about crying.
"Wow," Natasha says softly. The tips of her maple-brown boots enter Clint's field of vision, unacceptably blurry. "Wow, Clint, I didn't..."
"I don't wanna talk about it," Clint says stubbornly. He stuffs his hands in the pockets of his jeans and hunches his shoulders, pushing himself away from the wall. "It's over. It's done." Maybe, if he repeats it to himself enough, it would actually come true. "Coffee. You want some? I sure want some. Won't be a minute," he calls over his shoulder, cringing at the false cheer in his voice when Natasha can no longer see his face. He ignores her exasperated huff.
It is finished, whatever it was. Whatever had happened, or not happened between them. Clint will move on from it if it kills him. He doesn't know any other way.
It's the twentieth of December, and Clint is reduced to maudlin staring at his TV guide, contemplating a Christmas Day spent on his own. Normally, it's him and Natasha, curling up together, eating takeout Thai and marathoning some sci-fi show neither of them has had time to keep up with. But because, unlike Clint, Bucky Barnes is not a coward, Natasha is being whisked away for Christmas lunch with the other members of the orphans club at SHIELD, to be joined later by others escaping the suffocation of their extended families' get-togethers. Clint has, of course, also been invited to this social extravaganza, but even though he does like Barnes and Rogers and Wilson a lot, and would have been pleased as pie to spend time with them, it also means an encounter with Phil, and Clint... just isn't ready for that yet. Pathetic, he knows – but there it is. It's been over a month. He should be well over his stupid crush.
The truth is, though – he isn't. Not even remotely. For a guy they spent less than three full days with, Phil Coulson has dug out a place for himself in Clint's mind that he is exceptionally disinclined to relinquish. Since that episode, Nat and Clint have gone on to film two more for January release, and yet Clint still gets blindsided at odd moments by the memory of a slow smile creeping across Phil's face, reaching those beautiful eyes and setting them alight. The self-deprecating scrunch of his nose when Clint or Natasha complimented him. The teasing quirk of his mouth when he had been pushed into pair after pair of tight-fitting jeans by an adamant, vociferous Natasha.
The soft, understanding look he had given Clint when he'd seen the scars, warm sympathy and respect in his eyes. Clint can't forget any of it, try as he might. The only other person who has ever looked at the scars like they could be something beautiful, has been Nat, and she has more than her fair share of those herself. Clint has largely made peace with them, but they aren't something he likes to advertise. He still doesn't know what made him show Phil – maybe it was the need to let Phil know he wasn't alone; that Clint understood. Understanding and acceptance are not easy to come by in general, especially of something so intimate, so personal.
Whatever the reason, the deed was done, and Clint doesn't regret it. He'd do it again, if it came to that. Any momentary embarrassment is worth it, to drive away the lingering sadness and pain hidden not-quite-perfectly in Phil's eyes. Even if it means that, in just over an hour from now, Clint will have to watch himself make like a fool and moon over Phil on cable TV.
There is another party going on right now, not so far away, in the pretty SHIELD HQ offices. Nat is there, probably sipping Cosmopolitans and bantering with her new friends. Clint, obviously, is not there. Because he is pathetic. Just damn ridiculous.
Because he cannot bear the thought of watching Phil cringe when he sees the look that had been on Clint's face in almost every scene – the besotted awe, the staring, the creepy lingering looks. Oh, god. This is going to be excruciating. Clint needs, like, all the vodka in the world. He can only hope like hell that Peter edited the recording so it's not quite that painfully obvious.
Just a couple more hours, he tells himself. He is going to watch the episode, give himself exactly thirty minutes to mope, and then he's going to put this whole thing behind him and move the fuck on.
Lucky's tail thumps encouragingly on the sofa. Clint realises that he may have growled that last part out loud, and deflates with a wince.
"Sorry, boy," he says, feeling guilty about ranting at his dog. Lucky has enough shit to deal with, without his owner's colossal lack of dignity. For an animal that has only been acquainted with Clint Barton for two and a half weeks, poor Lucky is sure a victim of Clint's rotten luck. First, the cut on his eye from the hit-and-run that Clint had rescued him from had become infected, and he'd lost that. Then, he'd spent one whole night barfing because of an adverse reaction to the anaesthetic the vet had used. Then, the blood tests had come back with a bad case of anaemia, since Lucky had been crawling with ticks at the time and only three months old, so his immune system had crashed. To top it all, he had a fracture in one of his hind legs that would mean he would limp for the rest of his hopefully-long, and considerably healthier, life.
At least it had taken Clint's mind off his bout of self-pity over being left out in the cold looking in. First of all, it wasn't his first time, and he'd adapt soon enough. And secondly, you can hardly proclaim yourself to be the saddest wretch in all the kingdom when you have an injured dog whimpering on your couch.
Lucky is much better now. The eye scab is healing up nicely; he can start putting weight on his leg again, up to a point; and his appetite is definitely returning, going by the way his ears perk up when Clint rustles the pizza delivery menu in his direction. He makes Clint smile, brings out the protective instinct always secretly lurking under his skin, gives it something to focus on that appreciates his care. So it's all fine. If Lucky can survive such a traumatic accident and bounce back, then Clint can't be the idiot who pines after a man who doesn't want him.
That settled, Clint orders food and mixes himself a vodka cranberry, in honour of the festive season. Then he stretches out on the sofa in front of the TV, fiddles with the DVD recorder's settings (he records all their episodes, okay, there is nothing strange in that!) and tries not to down his drink all at once. He's got to pace himself. He has a lot of vodka to get through.
One hour and twenty minutes later, he sprays his mouthful all across the coffee table that holds the remains of their giant meatlover's pizza, trying to cough burning liquid out of his lungs.
"Peter Parker, you are a dead man," he chokes out, eyes watering.
Oh, god. It's actually worse than he'd feared. Stupid evil motherfucking Peter Parker, do not believe that innocent face and 'who, me?' expression, the kid is a damn menace. He has not only edited the episode to showcase each and every one of Clint's bad choices, he has also made it seem as if Phil is returning the sentiment. Now Clint knows he's losing his damn mind, because wow, up on that screen Phil looks like he is falling into Clint's eyes, and like he's hanging onto every one of Clint's words, when Clint knows for a fact that that's not possible.
Clint hates everything. But most of all, he hates Peter for pandering to ratings and doing this to him.
Curled miserably on the sofa with his hand buried in Lucky's sympathetic fur, Clint watches the episode roll, watches Phil tug the jacket of his suit to lie better over those sinful shoulders, and the way Phil's eyes seem to dart to him when Clint is gesturing at something. Is this... Is Clint hallucinating? Is he seeing things he wants to see? Or is it—is there a hint of a possibility that...
His phone chimes.
Wow, Barton, googly-eyed much?
Clint scowls down at the text from Kate, his archery range buddy. Kate's got his number, all right.
Your sympathy is heartwarming, Bishop, he sends back sulkily. He gets nothing but a row of evil grinning faces in reply, which is as per standard. Kate Bishop does not do sympathy when she can rip the piss out of him instead.
Seriously, though, who's the hunk and when are you taking him out to dinner?
Clint doesn't reply to that one, because he sincerely doubts he can sound anything like coherent explaining it in less than three single-spaced pages, let alone one hundred and forty characters. God, the idea of taking Phil out to dinner, knowing he agreed, that he wants to spend time with Clint like that is – a little overwhelming, and far too attractive.
Clint gets genuinely distressed at the part where they're done, and he wishes Phil the best life possible, because at the time he doesn't recall seeing the way Phil's eyes dimmed and his smile turned sad. If he had, well, he might have actually given in to any of the number of impulses over the past three weeks, and called him.
And wow, can they just talk about the family-and-friends reveal for a minute of sixty. Because Phil is wearing one of the suits he and Clint picked out together, along with a gorgeous heather tie patterned with dark purple diamonds, and his hair is tidy, and his shirtsleeves are spotless, and he is wearing the crosshairs tie pin, and Clint needs to die because he wants to jump Phil so, so badly.
"He looks amazing," says Sam Wilson, beaming. "Natasha and Clint did a spectacular job getting Phil in clothes that finally fit – and suit him. I guess all those reports about Clint Barton's eye for style weren't exaggerated, after all."
In the solitude of his apartment, Clint flushes bright red and groans in despair, hiding his face in Lucky's side while Lucky licks at the exposed skin of his neck. Fucking Sam Wilson. Hammer it in, why don't you. Not even the sight of Steve beaming with his shoulder pressed to Peggy's, wearing jeans and a gorgeous light blue cashmere v-neck sweater, can lift Clint's mood.
"I can't thank them enough," Phil's voice is saying as the camera shows him at his office (there is a small plush corgi with an SPCA badge on his desk that is so absurdly charming and adorable that Clint's insides melt), and at a bar close to SHIELD HQ that Clint actually frequents himself, chatting and laughing happily with Sam and Steve and Maria; and walking alone near the Hudson, hands in the pockets of that infamous leather jacket, looking pensive but peaceful. "They didn't just help me see past the block I hadn't realised I'd put there myself, but they also opened my eyes to the future in a way that I could never have reached by myself. Natasha's unfailing encouragement, I cannot even tell you how much I appreciated it. And Clint..."
Phil looks right into the camera now, back at the party, in the suit and shirt and tie, blue, blue eyes steady and unflinching.
"Thank you," he says simply. "For everything. What you said, I know it's going to stay with me for the rest of my life."
Holy shit. Clint can't breathe. The credits run, and the commercials start, but he stares at the TV until some ridiculous Christmas cooking and decorating show starts up instead. His phone chimes again and again; Clint ignores it until it annoys the fuck out of him and he turns it off. He doesn't realise he is breathing hard and his hands are shaking until he notices Lucky eye him reproachfully and grumble at him, trying to crawl closer.
"Shit," he whispers, dropping his face in his hands. The TV drones on, explaining how to baste a turkey in what Clint considers to be unnecessary detail. Instead of brussel sprouts being drained, Clint sees the sliver of skin on Phil's stomach, tantalisingly appearing and disappearing as he tried on sweater after sweater. The parsnips remind him of the scars under both their clothes, out of sight but never out of mind. How brave Phil is, to go on, every day, to try and help others even when he himself feels so broken.
"Damn it, I should call him," Clint says out loud. Maybe tomorrow, when the first rush of mortification from playing dress-up on cable TV has had time to fade a little. Clint has a good idea just how vulnerable Phil must be feeling right now, how exposed. The last thing he wants to do is spook him. This is creepy enough as it is – even though Phil is no longer a client, there is still the issue of Clint being a sort of mentor figure to him, for however short a time. At least now, Phil would feel perfectly entitled to say no to Clint's stupid, clumsy advances. Which is good. That's a good thing. No pressure. Clint is definitely going to call tomorrow, even if Phil tells him to fuck off. He could never live with himself if he doesn't at least try.
Lost in thought, he nearly falls off the sofa when his doorbell rings. Lucky lifts his head from his paws, swivelling to twitch his nose hopefully at the door.
"No, no more takeout for you," Clint says automatically, huffing when Lucky gives him an innocent look. "Whatever, faker, I've got your number."
He pushes himself to his feet, sweeping a despairing glance at all the staples of spending the holidays alone – the blanket and pillows nest on the sofa, the piling takeaway boxes, the empty row of beer bottles. Then he looks down at himself, cringes, and trudges fatalistically to open the door. There is fuck-all he can do about any of the messes in the next two minutes before the caller goes away. Clint would let them, too, if he thought he'd be able to avoid the resulting chewing out from whichever friend is out there, which he does not.
He opens the door, and stares at the huge dusky blue eyes in Phil's pale face.
"Hi," Clint blurts automatically, eyes sweeping hungrily over the fitted black jeans, the (extremely familiar) leather jacket, the soft blue scarf wrapped snugly around Phil's throat.
Meanwhile, Clint remembers, here he is, in his pathetic purple bullseye pyjama pants, unflatteringly loose faded t-shirt, bird's nest hair, in his pathetic apartment eating pathetic takeout with his pathetic injured dog who already thinks his adopter is a moron.
"Hi," Phil replies, sounding somewhere between lost and adorably determined. He pushes his black frames back up his nose with an index finger pink with cold. He is shivering.
"God, come in," Clint says, galvanised by the sight. "Do you want a drink? Here, come stand by the heater."
"I'm all right," Phil says, but his teeth are chattering and Clint isn't having that. He tows Phil over to the big window in the living room, where the double heater sprawls under the sill. Then he darts back, liberates one of the blankets from the tangle and wraps it around Phil's shoulders, drawing the edges tight around him.
For a long, breathless moment, they stand before each other, almost close enough for their breaths to meet in the middle. Phil's eyes sparkle like the most gorgeous sapphires; his nose is crooked, broken and never quite set right. He is looking at Clint like Clint hung the stars in the night sky, and Clint stands there stupidly, his fingers clutching the blanket in a death grip, pulse booming in his ears loud enough to drown all other sounds.
If he just leans in, closes the three inches of space between them, he could kiss Phil's cold mouth, warm Phil's lips with his breath, wrap an arm around Phil and tuck him close, like he has wanted to for what feels like an eternity.
And then Lucky, with his usual sense of tact, woofs an inquisitive welcome from the couch and tries to stand, tail wagging.
"Lucky, you damn idiot, sit your butt back down," Clint growls, at once miffed and knee-shakingly relieved by the interruption. Phil shudders again, and his fingers creep over the edges of the blanket, holding it in place as Clint reluctantly lets go.
"I'll get you a drink," Clint says, at the same time as Phil says, "Who's that?"
"That's Lucky," Clint says over his shoulder as he picks his way to the kitchen and the bottle of Laphroaig he keeps for when it's so cold out that his extremities are in danger of falling off. "Also, a dumbass who is allergic to staying still even when he knows he's not supposed to be moving around, since he's not remotely healed yet."
"What happened to him?" Phil asks while Clint pours him a measure of neat scotch, all the better to warm him up from the inside out.
"Got hit by a car that drove off. Fucker. I was just coming home from the store, saw the whole thing. Drove him to the vet, got him patched up."
"And brought him home? Of course."
There's a funny sort of half-laugh in Phil's voice that curdles Clint's insides. "Hey, I wasn't just gonna leave him," he says defensively, shoving the drink at Phil and crossing his arms over his chest.
Phil flushes. "No, that's not – I didn't mean it like that. It's just – damn it, you're gorgeous, smart, considerate, and you rescue injured animals? I just. How are you real?"
Clint's face flames. He ducks his head. "You make me sound like some sorta Superman."
Phil shakes his head. "No. Superman is boring. You are wonderful."
When Clint looks up at him, Phil looks braced for backlash, one hand clutching the glass and the other fisted tight onto the blanket. He looks small and vulnerable and excruciatingly beautiful – and so very approachable.
Maybe, Clint tells himself, please, just maybe—
"Look," he says roughly. "I'm not that special. No, I'm not beating myself down or anything. You saw me on a good day. Other days are not so good."
Phil takes a step forward, blanket trailing endearingly behind him. "You remember who you're talking to here, right? I know something about bad days."
He lifts the glass to his mouth and takes a sip, huffing as it burns down his throat. Then he sets it on the edge of the coffee table, shuffles closer, and curls his hand in the voluminous fabric over Clint's chest.
"Tell me if I'm way off track here," he murmurs, eyes tentative under long dark lashes that Clint wants to touch with the pad of his finger, feel them feather over his skin. Then Phil leans in, and presses his mouth to Clint's.
Clint's heart feels like it's going to burst out of his body. It's deafening him, pounding in his ears, but Clint tries to swallow past that and steps closer, until he can feel Phil's chest pressed to his and Phil curls an arm around his neck, bringing them flush together. He hasn't let go of the blanket, and it cocoons them both in warmth and comfort. Clint snakes his arm around Phil's waist, just like he wanted to earlier, feels the shift of muscles even under the supple leather. His fingers dig into it when Phil's tongue flicks teasingly against his upper lip; Clint groans and tilts his head, letting Phil deepen the kiss as their bodies align and shape themselves around each other. He fits so perfectly in Clint's arms. Fireworks go off in Clint's brain (and in his pants, but come on); it's touch and taste and sensation, heat, the hint of sweetness from whatever Phil ate before he came here, the way Phil's fingers catch on the back of his neck, as if wanting to hold on but not quite sure if they're allowed.
Before Clint is ready for it, Phil pulls back, panting against his jaw and laughing a little, a joyous sound that folds itself around Clint's heart and makes him feel lighter than he has in years. Phil's lips brush a kiss over his stubble, quick like he can't help himself.
"Wow," Phil breathes, voice full of a kind of excited awe that makes Clint grin, too, and blush at the same time. "So, um. I guess you're on board with this?"
Clint's arms tighten around Phil's back. He lets go with one of them to trace his fingers over Phil's cheek, the corner of his mouth. His thumb follows the curve of Phil's bottom lip, slick from Clint's kisses.
"So much yes," he says quietly, unable to help the euphoric grin when Phil beams at him. "And you're sure?"
Phil sighs happily, his hand tracing the plains of Clint's chest over the soft cotton.
"I like you so much," he says simply. "Every day I spend with you, getting to know you better, is going to be amazing."
Clint's breath actually hitches. "I can't believe you're real, and you just landed into my lap out of the blue."
Phil's smile turns deliciously crafty. "Well," he drawls, "not yet, but I have high hopes that that can be arranged."
Clint's dick, which up 'til now was moderately interested, promptly leaps to attention at the tone.
"Why, Staff Sergeant Coulson, are you trying to seduce me?" he says breathily as he bats his lashes.
Phil gives his face a level look. "Is it working?" he asks, and it's so calm and collected that if it weren't for the bulge in Phil's pants, Clint might have been taken in. As it is, it just gets him unbearably hot.
"Hell yeah," he says; but at the same time... "Uh, how would you feel about a raincheck on that, though? Let me take you out. Or, you can take me out, if you like. Dinner, or coffee, or drinks, no cameras, just you and me, spending time."
Phil surveys him through narrowed eyes. "Are you trying to... date me?"
"Why, don't you want to?" And that's the million-dollar question, isn't it.
Phil smiles like the sun coming out from behind the clouds, then leans in and kisses him again. It's harder than before, less tentative and more sure of its welcome, and it's intoxicating.
"I do," Phil says, with a self-deprecating smile that Clint wants to taste. "I definitely want."
"Woof," says Lucky, bored of being left out of the hugging and petting.
"Just so you know, my dog is a high-maintenance attention hog," Clint says against the edge of Phil's jaw, because it bears giving Phil some warning, as he begins the slow process of untangling them without actually losing contact with Phil's body.
"We'll learn to share you, somehow," Phil says, and Clint laughs, squeezing him tight for a second.
"Hey, Clint?" Phil says softly, smiling when Clint turns with a questioning hum. "He's definitely lucky to have found you."
"Oh, god," Clint groans, hiding his face in Phil's shoulder and marvelling how easy all of this is. It's like they've been doing it forever. "You can't say things like that."
Phil huffs a laugh and kisses the top of his head. "I can when they're true," he points out reasonably.
Clint bites his lip, then reaches up to undo Phil's scarf and press his mouth to the hollow of Phil's throat like he has been dreaming over and over again. Phil squirms, but only holds him closer.
Here come the next fifty years, Clint finds himself thinking, and isn't even a little bit scared.
It's been three weeks. Three weeks of deliciously languid time spent together, of Christmas dinners with the gang and handholding and walks by the Hudson on New Year's Eve, and dinner, and coffee, and late night movies and achingly arousing makeouts on Clint and Phil's sofas, taking turns. Three weeks of building need, of talking through a Saturday night, surprised to see the first light of morning tease at the windows of Clint's apartment; of Phil's body tucked under his arm, Phil's hand on Clint's thigh, proprietary and possessive and enough to make Clint want to tumble him down onto the sofa and open his pants and swallow him whole.
It's mostly Clint's own doing, those three weeks of crackling anticipation, but that doesn't stop the sob of relief and the heartfelt, "Oh, thank god," that Clint moans in the air over Phil's head when they get home from dinner with Natasha, and Bucky, and Sam, and Steve, and another bunch of SHIELD people, Phil's dear friends and now Clint's too, and Phil pushes him into the wall by the door, puts his mouth on Clint's neck and unceremoniously palms Clint's cock through his jeans.
"Hmm," Phil says, vibrations over Clint's skin that's going to be marked and bruised beautifully tomorrow, going by the force of Phil's mouthing and sucking and biting at it. It makes Clint's knees think seriously about giving out altogether. "I take it you're on board with this?"
His breath is a sensuous slide over the damp skin of Clint's neck. Clint whimpers and throws his head back; it ricochets off the wall, but the sting only throws the zings of pleasure into sharper relief, until they spread through Clint's whole body and lodge in his balls, making them ache.
"Yes. God, yes, please."
"Oh, so you're done with the waiting and being noble? You think you can solve this case of blue balls for me now?"
Clint opens his eyes and narrows them mock-fiercely at Phil. As an intimidation tactic, it fizzes out immediately, with no more than a pointedly raised eyebrow from Phil and a timely twist of his wrist.
"I wanted to do it right," Clint complains, trying to move his hips in just the right way to push his cock further into Phil's grip.
Phil kisses him in response, slow and thorough and filthy enough to make Clint moan, exploring his mouth as if they have all the time in the world and Clint's balls aren't about to explode with the need to be touched.
"I respect that," Phil says, once he lets him go. He's striving for casual, but his pink cheeks and the rasp in his voice give the game away and make Clint's hands itch for him. "But now, I would really like you to fuck me hard until all I can say is your name."
Clint groans like he's dying, another flash of pain sparking behind his eyelids as his head bangs into the wall again.
"Low blow," he manages, then whines as Phil's fingers grip and flex.
"If you like," Phil replies, and then his hands shift, slipping the button of his jeans open.
The thought of Phil on his knees before him, taking Clint's cock into his mouth, letting it slide in as far as it'll go, makes Clint's hands latch onto Phil's waist, bracing himself.
"I don't want—I mean, only if you want," he stammers.
The slow, confident smirk that lifts Phil's mouth is a sight to behold, so sexy it makes Clint's insides turn to liquid. "I want," Phil murmurs against his mouth, brushing their lips together – and then he lowers himself on his knees, taking Clint's jeans with him, and there is a hot, damp slide against his naked cock as Phil presses his open mouth to the underside.
Clint's hand fists itself in Phil's hair of its own volition, the short strands tickling his knuckles.
"Baby," he moans, keeping his hips still with an effort that is almost beyond him. "God, you feel so good."
"That shouldn't sound as hot as it does," Phil comments dryly from his position at Clint's feet. Clint means to reply, to snark something witty or hint that Phil's mouth would be at its best otherwise occupied, but then Phil fills said mouth with the tip of Clint's cock, and words lose all meaning. Phil hums, pulling back to lap at the crown and then licks his lips, eyes sliding shut.
"I dreamt about this," he says, so quietly that Clint wonders if he was meant to hear it at all. Before he can work out what to say, Phil sighs in what sounds perilously close to bliss and opens his mouth again, taking nearly half of Clint's cock with a moan that vibrates over Clint's skin, making him shudder violently.
Clint's hands spasm, one on Phil's left shoulder and one on the back of his head, trying not to pull his hair. Phil leans back and then forward again, jaw slack and mouth wet and tight around Clint's length. His eyes are closed, and his hands are braced on the back of Clint's thighs, holding himself in place until his nose touches Clint's lower belly and the head of Clint's cock is nestled in his throat.
The sound that climbs out of Clint's throat is obscene, nearly violent in its intensity. His gut is burning with desire and his lungs feel tight, unable to hold in the need to lunge forward and take, to bury himself inside Phil in any way he can. He craves being one with Phil so badly, it's all he can think about. He needs to feel Phil's body under his hands, letting him in.
"Phil," he whispers, stroking a thumb over the hinge of Phil's jaw, the tight skin of his cheek as Phil struggles not to pull back. Clint does it instead, gently exiting Phil's throat while his bare ass presses against the cool wall. His dick slips out from between Phil's slick lips as he moves away to look up at Clint.
"Everything okay?" he asks. His voice is a little rough, a reminder of the fact that he was swallowing Clint down just seconds ago. His thumbs are circling over burn scars and puckered skin, soothing and claiming at once. Clint's knees shake.
"Perfect," Clint says, nearly overwhelmed by the urge to kiss Phil deep and thorough, lick into his mouth until that uncertain edge is gone from his eyes. "I just want to touch you. Please," he adds, hands urging Phil up and sliding under his cardigan. Phil's shirt is tucked into his jeans, and it's suddenly too much, too many clothes paralysing Clint with indecision about what he wants to take off first.
Back on his feet, Phil pulls away and looks at him for a long minute. Phil's eyes are dark and hooded, gorgeous blue a thin ring around the pupil. Clint aches for him, to be looked at like that, for Phil to want this as much as Clint wants him. Phil's hands wander over Clint's arms, fingers searching out and pressing into the muscles, leaving behind trails of fire. Then, he lets go and reaches for his own belt. Nimble fingers open the buckle and tug the leather tongue out of its confinement. Phil's right hand grabs the buckle; he takes a step back and, with a sharp, controlled movement, pulls the belt out of its loops.
Clint stands there, mouth dry, as the belt slides free and, carried by momentum, whips around one of Clint's thighs before falling to coil obediently at their feet. The click of Clint's hard swallow is loud enough to carry; when Clint looks up, Phil's eyes are hungry, features stark, desire etched into every line. Phil lifts his hands and takes the edge of his cardigan with them, lifting it over his head. Then his fingers are on his shirt buttons; for the first time, he fumbles – whether with apprehension or impatience, Clint doesn't know, but at last, it spurs him into action. His fingers tangle with Phil's, rushing around and tripping each other up until Phil's shirt is open and spread apart, until Phil's gorgeous chest is on full display. Clint makes a thin, high noise of desperation, and leans in, pressing his lips to it, tracing pectorals and collarbone, licking at the scar where it curves around Phil's left nipple.
Phil shudders, hands coming to grab at Clint's elbows to keep himself upright. Clint feels half-crazed; he wants to devour this man, wants to possess him, wants him to know what he does to Clint, wants to make him feel so good he will never want to leave Clint's bed again.
"Clint," Phil gasps when Clint takes his nipple in his mouth and sucks, teasing it with his teeth. He staggers, and Clint's arms shoot up to catch him; it brings their mouths close again, and Phil leans in and takes Clint's, groaning all the while.
"Need you to fuck me," he says when they break apart again. "Please, I need, it's been so long, and you're, I—Clint—"
"I've got you," Clint says, tucking Phil's face into his neck. "I've got you, Phil."
They make it to the bedroom, pausing only to kick off the rest of their clothes and leave them in a tumble on the floor, to be sorted out tomorrow. Phil's bedroom feels as familiar as his own by now, shades of light, earthy grey and white, a nice wide bed, a framed poster of Captain America on the wall. Clint doesn't give any of that a second look, focused on getting Phil on the bed and crawling between his spread legs. He lowers his mouth to Phil's belly, nipping at the skin before kissing open-mouthed at Phil's flushed, wet cock.
"Supplies?" he lisps around the head, loathe to lose contact with the soft skin under his lips.
Phil shudders and reaches over to the night stand, opening the drawer to throw a bottle of lube and a string of condoms on the bed by Clint's hand. Clint takes the lube, then changes his mind and opens a condom, rolling it on first – it's not like he isn't hard enough by now to drill through the wall. Then, he spills some of the gel on his fingers and reaches for Phil again. He trails his forefinger over the head of Phil's cock, down the length of it, over his balls; he presses at the spot behind them, watching with satisfaction as Phil arches on the bed and keens, and then he slips his fingers lower and pushes one of them inside the tight heat of Phil's body.
Every man is different. Some need lots of prep, others just enough for their body to remember how to take the intrusion. Phil is tight, muscles fluttering around Clint's finger for long minutes before they start to unwind. Clint moves a little, in and out, side to side, curving and flexing and, at last, jabbing lightly. Phil's hips jerk, and just like that, his body loosens, letting him in. So that's how he likes it.
"You're so perfect," Clint breathes, keeps up a litany of murmured praise and reassurance as Phil moans and spreads his thighs for more.
"You wanna turn over?" Clint says after a while, when Phil's body is twisting as if trying to decide whether it wants to push up or down into the bed.
"Okay," Phil agrees immediately, and Clint pulls out his fingers, taking the chance to wet them again as Phil turns. Phil pillows his head on his folded arms, ass in the air, and Clint can't help himself – he leans in and bites at one lush, perfect globe, licking a trail over it leading inwards.
Phil stiffens. Clint leans back immediately, looking up at the tense shoulders.
"You wanna stop?" he asks, stroking one hand over Phil's back, tracing the bumps of his spine with his fingers. "We can stop."
"No," Phil says desperately. "No, I don't wanna stop. Just... not that. Please. I've never... It's too much."
"No rimming, check," Clint says easily, fingers digging gently into the muscles to the left of Phil's spine until Phil's body melts into the bed again.
"Not never. Just not now."
"Hey, it's okay. It's not for everyone. But if you ever wanna try it, you know I'm your man, right?"
"You're my man," Phil repeats, a soft, dreamy note entering his voice, and hell, Clint just has to turn him over again so he can kiss him, deep and sweet.
"I am," he confirms against Phil's lips. Phil's hips are twitching again, so Clint takes a chance, lifts Phil's leg to brace against his arm and pushes two fingers back inside him, stretching him open. Phil moans and cants his hips upwards, and Clint knows he got that part right.
He doesn't stop until Phil is taking three of his fingers freely, until Phil is kissing him with increasing desperation and his cock has left a pool of precome on his stomach. Still he keeps at it, until Phil pulls back from his mouth and says, "Now, Barton, before I die of old age."
Clint rolls his eyes at the sass, but Phil is into this enough that it's just a question of slicking the remaining liquid over his cock, and lining up – and then losing his damn mind.
He sinks into Phil's body with hardly any resistance. Phil is tight, but his muscles give, and he tugs Clint further onto him when Clint tries to brace himself up on his arms so not to squash him.
"Not gonna break," Phil insists, breath hitching. He looks a little overwhelmed, but in a good way, as if he had forgotten how this could feel. Hell, Clint had forgotten how this could feel, or else it had never felt this fucking good ever before. He sheaths himself fully with a thrust, balls resting against the skin of Phil's ass, and his chest is full, so full like it could burst, and he maybe even wants to cry a little, because this is like a religious experience, it's that intense.
"I love you," he says against Phil's mouth, before he kisses the words into his lips. 'Love you, so much.' Phil kisses him back desperately, legs falling open and coiling loosely around Clint's hips.
"Really?" Phil says. It's ridiculous, that a grown man could look so damn adorable like this, cheeks flushed and eyes bright and lips bitten red by Clint's and Phil's teeth both.
"What, you think I'm lying to get into your pants?" Clint groans, starting to rock into him, setting up a slow rhythm to start them off.
"You could be lying to get me into yours," Phil counters, and Clint has to laugh and kiss him again.
"Hey, guess what?" Phil says a little later, when Clint is stroking into him full-out and they're both losing their breaths with how good everything is.
"Tell me," Clint says, twisting his hips and nailing that spot inside Phil, memorising the location and doing it again and again until he thinks Phil has forgotten what he wanted to say in the first place.
"I love you too," Phil says, fisting his hand in Clint's hair and pulling him down to try and crawl into his mouth.
Holy motherfucking shit. "I'm gonna," Clint says, shocked, and then he does, he can feel his cock jerking inside Phil's body, emptying himself deep into that addictive warmth. He freezes, eyes wide and mouth hanging open. "Um, sorry, that's—never—" he tries, panting. He can feel the spirals of lazy euphoria start to suffuse him. There's no way to talk himself out of what just happened; he's still coming, droplets milked out by the mindblowing undulation of Phil's body.
"A likely story," Phil says under him, sounding highly amused and highly aroused. He is also smirking like a fiend. "So is that what does it for you? Saying I love you? Aww, Clint, you never said."
"Wow, you are an asshole," Clint says, marvelling at how long it has taken him to realise this. It's another chord that weaves into the contentment buzzing inside him, taking it to a whole another level. "I'm in love with a bastard."
Phil hums, sounding pleased. "Isn't it great how we're really coming to know each other?"
"I'll give you 'knowing each other'," Clint warns. He pulls out, making Phil gasp, and at any other time, he would stick his tongue right inside him, make him come on that, but while he is no less an asshole than Phil, he isn't actually a dick. So instead, he slides three fingers back inside Phil's body, curves them to press on his prostate, and swallows down his dick.
Phil comes in twenty seconds flat. Now that's a new personal record, Clint thinks smugly, even as Phil swats him weakly over the side of his head.
"Is everything a competition for you?" he grouses, but Clint can see the languid, pleased smirk curving his lips.
"Be glad this thing is," Clint advises, licking his mouth clean. Phil's dark eyes are focused on him; he licks at the corner of his own mouth and drags Clint up to him with a hand in his hair. Clint, because he's feeling magnanimous, goes without a fuss.
"Have a great life," the officiant says.
"That's my catchphrase," Clint protests, amongst cheers and whistles and laughter and clapping.
"Focus, please?" Phil says fondly, then turns his face and kisses him breathless in front of all their assembled friends and family and Lucky barking like he thinks all the attention is for him.
Well. Maybe Clint will let the State of New York borrow it just this one time.