Clint is swirling the last few dregs of coffee in his mug when the commotion starts, the clanging of tools and Steve shouting for Bucky’s help. He tosses the rest of his almost cold coffee back before making his way to the garage, hands in his coveralls pockets, to check what’s happening. Steve is helping someone roll a car inside, a nice, recent Camaro, 2010 if Clint was to guess. Both Steve and their newest customer straighten up after pulling the car in, and Clint recognizes the man immediately, his eyebrows rising. TV makes Tony Stark look taller than he actually is, or maybe it’s just Steve’s impressive frame looming over Stark's.
“Broke down a block or so away, and I don’t have my tools, so if you don’t mind...” Stark grabs a wrench lying around on a tray, and Clint smirks, because Steve? Steve will mind.
“We can take care of it, sir,” Steve says, his voice deceptively soft as he takes the wrench from Stark’s hand gently but firmly. To his credit, Stark doesn’t look that surprised, but he pulls back a fraction, looking at Steve in a whole new way.
Clint grins at Bucky when he comes to stand next to him, touching their shoulders together and already hiding chuckles behind the back of his hand. “This is going to be interesting,” Bucky drawls out of the corner of his mouth.
"Do I look like I need your help?"
Steve stares Stark down, arms crossed over his impressive chest, t-shirt stretched tight over all the muscles working with machinery 24/7 put there. "This is my garage; I don't care what you look like, if you want your car fixed here you can leave it to us."
Stark looks him up (and up) and down, eyes lingering in places Clint knows for a fact eyes tend to stick to, the first time people meet Steve. "It's nothing personal," Stark says dismissively, reaching for the wrench again. "I fix my own breakdowns."
Steve holds it out of his reach, jaw setting in that way that Clint knows means trouble. "My shop, my rules. I won't risk you messing up the job and then leaving me to deal with it."
Stark takes a step back, looking astonished. "Don't you know who I am?" he says, not in the way that rich assholes normally do, but genuinely surprised. Steve's eyebrows furrow and he narrows his eyes.
"O-kay," Bucky says, straightening from his comfortable slouch against Clint's shoulder and striding forward. "I hate to break up the party, Barton and I were gonna place some bets in a minute, but in the interest of still having a place to work when this is over -- Stark, calm down. Rogers here doesn't watch much TV, or read the Society pages. Steve, you can stop glowering at genius boy. Steve Rogers, Tony Stark."
Steve lets his arm drop from where he's been protecting the sanctity of his wrench, eyebrows lifting. "Stark, as in--"
Too bad Stark seems to be about as patient in real life as he appears in those interviews of him online. "Yeah, as in. Now will you let me have the damn wrench so I can fix my car? I'm running late for a meeting as it is." He pauses, looks at his watch. "Well," he amends, "later than usual. Coulson and Pepper will have my hide for breakfast."
After that, Clint settles back to watch, an insistent wish for popcorn in the back of his mind as Stark neatly and methodically strips the car's engine apart and puts it back together in the space of fifteen minutes. Clint is mesmerised, he's man enough to admit it -- watching Stark work is an education, the man's got it down to an art form. There's something hypnotising in the sparse precision of his movements, something beautiful. The rest of the guys seem just as speechless as Clint feels -- even Natasha has crawled out from under the Chevy she's been fixing and is sitting there, sipping at her bottle of water and eyeing Stark's technique with professional detachment.
"Turn the key for me, will you?" Stark directs distractedly; since Steve is still staring, Bucky slides in the front seat and obliges. The engine purrs like a kitten.
"Good work," Steve says grudgingly over the sound. Stark turns around and grins at him, a long streak of grease over his cheek above that ridiculous goatee.
"I know," he says, smug and cocky and supremely unconcerned with Steve's opinion. Clint can see Steve's expression shift back to unimpressed.
Clint doesn’t know what Stark’s angle is here; maybe he wants to impress Steve, or maybe he just doesn’t care, but either way, it isn’t going to work. Steve is stubborn; he can be terribly belligerent when his buttons are pushed, and Stark appears to be taking a lot of pleasure in trying to get at said buttons as fast as possible. Clint just can’t decide why. Maybe he is as much of a dick as his public persona makes him look (Clint reads a lot of gossip magazines while he's waiting for clients to show up), but that would probably be too easy an explanation for someone like Tony Stark.
Bucky gets in between Steve and Stark again, leading Stark away as Steve turns around and starts throwing tools back in his toolbox, shoulders tense. Clint walks up to him after a resigned look towards Natasha, who nods at him curtly. It's his turn to manage the crisis; she took care of the 'Bucky-made-the-coffee-maker-explode' situation last week. They keep a tally.
“Will you relax? He’ll be gone in five minutes.”
Steve throws Clint a dark look that clears instantly, as if he’s realized there is no reason to take his anger out on Clint. It’s just wounded pride, and they both know it.
“I’m not in his office doing his job, but he’s in my shop doing mine.”
“Steve, you don’t even know what his job is.”
Clint sighs. This is going to turn into one of those 'mine is bigger than yours' things, he just knows it.
Stark does drive away five minutes later, leaving Bucky staring after him with a check for five grand in his hand.
"That's excessive even for a guy who by all accounts spends money like water," Clint says, plucking it from Bucky's lax fingers.
Bucky doesn't even look at him before stealing it right back. "Don't mean we won't cash it in," he says with a truly evil grin.
Steve's token protests are swiftly overridden.
Phil's looking at his watch for the twelfth time in as many minutes when the door opens and Tony staggers in, looking like he just went head-to-head with a giant robot. A giant robot that leaked motor oil.
"Tony, what the hell," Pepper says, looking him up and down. That's the third $15,000 suit that Tony's wrecked this month.
Phil refrains from saying anything. This ought to be good -- Tony's explanations for his tardiness get wilder and wilder the later he is.
"Car broke down," Tony says, which isn't what either of them are expecting. It's... actually kind of funny, something that mundane happening to Tony Stark.
Phil raises an eyebrow at Pepper, who just shrugs in answer, a smile tugging at the corners of her lips; they’ve mastered the Talk Without Words thing long ago, the two of them spend way too much time with Tony not to pick up some necessary skills. Tony slumps into his chair, looking at each of them in turn before sighing again, loudly.
“So, what did I miss?”
Pepper straightens up. “We were waiting for you.”
“Yeah, right, as if you don’t brief each other on meetings in the bedroom.”
Phil suppresses the urge to roll his eyes at Tony’s words, always trying to lower the tone, or get details from them. He’s chosen the worst two people to try and pry information from, even if both he and Pepper are Tony’s best friends; there is no chance they’ll talk about their feelings or their relationship with Tony more than strictly necessary. Both of them are too comfortable with keeping private things private, unlike Tony and his extravagant ways. Tony likes to advertise every move and every word; which is why it's good he's got both Pepper and Phil at his side - damage control.
“You haven’t missed anything, Tony. Now, can we get on with it?”
Tony turns to Phil, ignoring Pepper’s words.
“I went to this repair shop, they do custom classic, maybe you should give it a look. The owner – at least I think it was the owner – was kind of a prissy princess, though.”
Phil's eyebrows rise at that, but he feels a frisson of excitement crawl down his spine. "Any good?" he asks, because Tony can learn a hell of a lot about a shop just from standing inside it for five minutes.
Tony makes a face, but nods grudgingly. "Pretty good. They had an E-type Jag they were working on, and it looked damn near perfect. I'm pretty sure you can trust them with your Mustang."
Phil's pretty sure he can't trust anyone with his Mustang, but he's been told repeatedly that his protectiveness towards that car is somewhat overbearing -- so he squares his shoulders and asks Tony for the address before Pepper calls the meeting, such as it is, to order.
He doesn't have the time to so much as think about driving the car in until next Thursday, what with more meetings per day than should be legal, dealing with Tony's spectacular inability to turn in anything remotely paperwork-related on time, and actually having to schedule dinner with his girlfriend on both their calendars. It says something about their lives, although Phil is hard-pressed to determine what it is exactly. It doesn't seem to bother Pepper in the slightest; she kisses him goodbye every morning with the same calm serenity as when she kisses him goodnight, tucked under their sheets before turning her back to him and falling asleep with the same efficiency she employs in every other aspect of their lives. Doesn't necessarily bother Phil, either. It's routine, habit, the way they have lived their lives ever since that week when fate had pushed him, Pepper, and Tony together, on a crisp October afternoon at a small cafe mid-way between Harvard and MIT. Now, as then, they work better as a team than anyone else Phil has ever met -- and it shows where it counts, on their company's extremely healthy bottom line.
So, when his two-hour meeting with investors falls through because of conflicting schedules and damn time-zone miscalculations, Phil doesn't think twice before jumping in his boring, everyday Honda and pointing it towards the much-lauded garage. He'll just go in and have a look around before he makes up his mind on whether they're good enough to handle his beauty.
He thinks about his car, his baby, bought years ago from a scrapyard, with only bits of an engine and rusty paint peeling off the doors and hood. Still, when he sits in the front seat, hand around the steering wheel stripped of its original leather, the feel of it is not something he can explain. He’d tried in the past, but his words are so inefficient compared to what he feels that he’d given up after a while, stopped bringing it up, just so he didn’t have to try and be as eloquent as Tony could be when moved. Pepper gets it well enough, leaves him be when he has the time, sometimes curls up in the passenger seat with her legs tucked underneath her and reads a book while he putters about the car, just to be close.
As Phil drives his compact work car to the garage, he tries to make a list of all the things that need work on the Mustang, which is a ridiculous notion considering the car doesn’t even start. He wishes he had the time and expertise to do it all himself, but there are too many things needing to be replaced, tools he doesn’t own, parts he’d need to buy from the other end of the world, when garages can get their requests met much more easily. He’ll just have to make sure whoever gets to work on his baby can do the job right; which is why, when he pulls by the garage, he walks in slowly, taking in every detail.
The place is scrubbed clean, a little loud, inviting. There’s someone singing badly along to Lionel Ritchie, the sound of power tools not covering it up well enough. Phil waits to catch the attention of someone, and when he manages, a guy with messy brown hair and sparkling blue eyes saunters over.
“Hi! I’m Bucky. Apologies about the ear assault, Steve – my boss – gets lost in his own world when he’s working and doesn’t even realize. Steve, shut up, we have a customer!” Bucky yells over his shoulder, echoing in the large garage, and the singing stops as a head appears from beneath a car hood. Bucky turns back to Phil. “What can we help you with?”
For all of Bucky's bluster, he looks extremely competent as he listens to Phil outline the basics before he stops him with a hand in the air. "Hang on. We can do all you're describing, sure, no problem, but I think it would be much easier to explain all of this just the once instead of repeating yourself. Let me get our restoration expert."
The words are said with a bit of a smirk, but not malicious at all, only teasing. Phil hasn't noticed anyone else in the shop apart from the two men, but he stops obligingly and waits while Bucky makes his way to the back of the huge open space.
"Yo, Hawkeye! Come out here, I got one of yours," he hollers, edging to the side to look past a pile of bodywork. Phil hears a crash; then a spiky-haired head pops up from behind the metal.
"Yeah?" apparently-Hawkeye says, and what kind of a name is that for a mechanic? Phil watches as the man extracts himself from the mess, making his way towards the front of the shop while he rubs a cloth ineffectually over his grease-stained hands. He's not too tall, about Bucky's height, hair an indistinguishable color from assorted metal dust and paint flecks and grease. He's wearing a dirty wife-beater and the stained pants of a coverall suit. Phil sees the guy give him a lightning-fast once-over, then look him in the eye and smile. "Hi," he says, offering Phil one of his scrubbed hands to shake. Phil takes it; he's never been squeamish, nor particularly fastidious. The man's hands are strong, warm -- working hands. "Clint Barton. I got the restoration gig in this place."
"Don't let him fool you," Bucky says, nudging Barton with an elbow that sends him staggering. "Hawkeye's got the sharpest eye for detail I have ever seen, and I get around."
"Yeah, you do," Barton says dryly, but he's grinning, dancing out of Bucky's reach as he makes a swipe for him.
Phil finds himself smiling, too.
Barton turns back to Phil as Bucky scampers away, walking to the other guy in the shop – Steve, the owner, the prissy princess, from what Tony said. He doesn’t look like a princess much from where Phil's standing, but he’s not gotten to talk to the man, so who knows.
“So, what do you need, um,” Clint trails off, and Phil picks it up.
“Phil. Phil Coulson. I own a ’65 Mustang, but it’s not exactly in driving condition at the moment. Meaning, it’s missing half of the engine. Amongst other things.”
“Convertible or full top?” Clint has got this look on his face, concentration, focus, like he’s already going through the parts he might need; the sight reassures Phil, and he allows himself to blow out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. Thing is, he kinda wants to put his car in between this man’s hands, for not entirely respectable reasons.
“Cool. Want to see some work I’ve done before?”
Phil feels the exact same way as the day he first went to meet his tattoo artist. To work on his back piece, he’d wanted someone competent, artistic, with something special, and he’d wanted to see their art before making any decisions. Now, he nods eagerly.
Barton smiles; it makes his eyes crinkle attractively. He motions Phil to follow, leads the way back to the little nook he'd appeared from. Once past the sheet upon sheet of metal, the space widens, turns cosy and ordered, barring the several tools dropped haphazardly on the ground -- must have been the reason for the crash Phil heard when Bucky first called for him.
The walls are lined with sketches, blueprints, paint samples; there are manuals everywhere, piled up in the corners, vying for space with vintage fashion magazines (what on earth are they for?), and car models from the 60s. Barton pulls out a thick album from under a textbook on Mechanics that looks like it weighs a dozen pounds, and thumps it on top of a battered desk that clearly sees frequent use. There's surface free of tools and spare parts just wide enough to fit the large book when it's opened. Barton flicks past a few pages, then steps aside and gestures Phil forward. Phil goes, curious to see what Barton's got.
For the first time in a long, long while, Phil Coulson is struck completely speechless. He looks down at the professional-quality photographs, and he could swear on a stack of Bibles that these cars have never even been driven outside of the factory they were put together in. The paintwork is pristine, the attention to detail that the close-up shots showcase breathtaking. Even a tiny detail like the mount of the side mirror is, for lack of a better word, perfect. Phil has been researching vintage cars restorers for quite a while now, ever since he first bought his baby, but no one else's work that he's seen has even come close to this level of expertise. He knows in his gut that this is the only man he could possibly contemplate letting lay his hands on his car.
He looks up to find Barton watching him calmly but with a faint trace of anxiousness, that of a dedicated professional having his work examined under the strongest magnifying glass. Phil is nothing but impressed, though, and he always makes a point of giving credit where credit's due.
"This is exceptional work, Mr Barton," he says, letting a hint of it color his voice.
Barton smiles; it's somewhere between indulgent and excited, because he knows that means he's getting more business.
"Glad you think so, I try my best. Steve has this policy, something about customer care and all that."
Phil raises an eyebrow. "Funny, my boss didn't seem so enthused by his customer care."
"Your boss?" Barton tenses, like he's now expecting a lawsuit to happen instead of a classic car to get his callused hands on.
"Tony Stark. Don't worry, he's not mad, he was actually impressed. Just not with your boss, I don't think."
Barton relaxes visibly, rolling his eyes. "Oh, yeah, last week. That was quite surreal. You work for him, huh?"
"Have done for most of my life. I'm 'the man behind his genius'." That was the way Tony always described what Phil did for him, and it had become a habit to just say the words, like they'd be printed on his CV if he ever was looking for a job.
"What, like, 'behind every strong man'...?" Barton says, lips twitching.
Phil rolls his eyes. "Decidedly not like that," he says, although he's fighting a smile. "Being Tony Stark's significant other, can you even imagine?"
Barton shudders. "God, it would be like sleeping with a robot armed with a weapon of mass destruction, and not knowing when he might go off."
Phil laughs, because if ever there was an apt description for something as indefinable as Tony Stark, this came pretty close.
"So," Barton says after a moment, looking away, down at his hands before he busies them with flipping the album closed and putting it away, "when might we expect to see the lady?"
Phil blinks for a second before he realises Barton means his lady. "I can drop her off tomorrow, if it's not too soon?"
"Not at all. I'm just finishing work on the Jag, so I can make a start the day after. I can look her over tomorrow, see what needs doing, and I can prepare a time and cost estimate for you, how about that?"
Phil nods eagerly. "Sounds like an excellent plan."
They shake hands again, Barton's broad, strong palm fitting his in a way that makes Phil slightly uncomfortable. "All right then," he says to cover the strangely charged silence, takes his hand back and sticks it in his pocket so he can stifle the urge to rub it against his leg. "Thank you for agreeing to take it on."
"Sure," Barton says. Phil leaves him standing there, another of those cleaning cloths in his hands.
He feels a peculiar weight on his shoulders all the way out of the door.
The car is beautiful, all sleek lines and sharp angles, fire-red paintjob gleaming in the half-light of the garage. She needs work, a lot of it, but she’s still gorgeous, and Clint is going to enjoy having her in his shop, if only to watch her, superimposing the way she’ll look when finished in his head. As for getting his hands on her... well, he can hardly wait.
He must have lost a bit of time staring at her, because when he looks up, Coulson is looking right back at him, leaning against the passenger side door. There's something proprietory in the way his hip is braced against the metal, shoulder resting on the side of the windshield, screaming Mine and Back off. Clint grins, because Coulson is gonna have to let go of that attitude sharpish if he wants his car to get the work she needs done -- Clint is going to have to get plenty personal with her to bring her up to snuff.
"She's a beauty," Clint says, running an appreciative eye over her curves. "How did someone like you pick up something like her?"
Coulson's lips twitch, and he gets this gleam in his eye, like he's planning to make Clint pay for his words. Clint resists the urge to let his grin widen. He'd like to see him try.
"I have my ways," Coulson says, low and ...okay, intriguing. There's something dark in his voice that Clint itches to explore. Sue him.
"What, you wooed her with your sharp suits and ties?"
"She appreciates a man who knows what he's doing with her, sure."
O-kay. Clint swallows, which -- uh. Okay. He'd better change the subject, this is getting a bit--okay, a lot unprofessional, and he's not that guy. He has a job to do.
"She needs a lot of work," he says, making his voice shift into business mode.
Coulson shrugs, a smooth shift of his broad shoulders. "I know. That's why I brought her here. Think you're up to the job?"
Clint debates whether it's worth bristling at the question, but direct as it is, there isn't any actual doubt in it -- Coulson's asking him for his professional opinion of his abilities, and Clint can give him that much.
"Yes, sir," he says, injects as much nonchalance as he can into it, because yeah, it's a big job but nothing Clint can't handle. "Just you wait; by the time I'm done with her she'll be winning all the pageants."
Coulson hesitates; Clint's not sure how he can tell that, just that there's a minute shift in his posture, a touch of uncertainty. "Just..." he starts, and Clint can actually hear the hesitance in his voice. It makes him all the more curious to hear what's going to come out of his mouth. "Don't make her too perfect?" Coulson says with a small wince. "I mean. I like that she has character. I'd rather you didn't whittle all of that away just so she can look like she's just rolling off the production line."
Clint--stares. There's no better word, stares and swallows and clenches his teeth, because this? Those words creep under his guard, make his heart beat just a little faster. He doesn't know how many times he's heard a customer say, "Make it perfect." He does it, of course, but something inside him dies a little every time he has to smooth out an angle that makes the car what it is, shows the world what it's been through and survived. He knows what's really going on is that he's projecting; and sure, his head isn't the healthiest place in the world, but it doesn't change the fact that it makes him ache to take something that's seen a few knocks and scrapes and polish and polish until it's nothing more than a blank slate, faceless, lost.
To hear Coulson say that, to know that he appreciates those imperfections that Clint loves, the flaws that make the car what she is, it--does something to him. Something warm, soothing, something that hums happily in his chest.
Coulson clears his throat, and Clint snaps out of the daze he's fallen into again. Coulson looks unsure, like he wants to take it back; like he thinks Clint will laugh at him. Clint falls over himself to make that look go away.
"Sure," he says, confident, deliberate. "Sure, I can do that. Yes. Count on it."
Coulson's face relaxes into something softer, a pleased smile curving his mouth. "Okay then. You'd better get to it."
Yeah. Clint had better, and fast, because he has no business thinking these things and feeling this way about his customer, or this car. It's just a job. He's been hired to take care of Coulson's car, and that's what he's going to do. All these weird feelings and emotions have no place in this. None at all.
“I’m going to start feeling uncomfortable in a second if you keep on looking at that car like that, you know,” Barton says a week in, when Phil is in the garage to check on progress. It’s good-natured, a little mocking, but it also sounds like Barton understands exactly where Phil is coming from when he looks at the car, sees the potential, imagines driving her on unending stretches of road.
He smiles, running a hand over the roof of the car, an appreciative noise leaving his mouth.
“Yeah, definitely getting uncomfortable.”
Phil chuckles. “Hey, I’ll have you know I’ve got a fiancée.”
“She must be very laid-back and understanding,” is Barton’s response, a teasing smile at the corners of his lips. Phil walks closer, his mind going to Pepper for a second, not lingering.
“She’s pretty special.”
“As special as the car?”
Barton is grinning now, leaning close to Phil, and for a moment Phil wonders if this is flirting; he’s lost the habit and the feel of it, too used to Pepper and their relationship, easy and comfortable. Phil licks his lips, looking away for a second, trying not to smile like a girl getting some attention; he’s better than that.
“She could emasculate you with her shoes.”
“Sounds kinky, I like that.”
Phil snorts, crossing his arms and smirking. Pepper would eat Barton for breakfast -- but she'd also like him, his irreverent humor, his cockiness, his cheerful disregard of any kind of formality. He's nothing like her, but Phil knows she'd appreciate the change of pace.
His musings are shattered by the ring of his cell, something obnoxiously cheerful that, despite his protests and repeated attempts to prevent, Darcy Lewis manages to sneak past him without him noticing. He ignores Barton's raised eyebrow, refuses to flush when whoever it is starts singing about flying from the west to the east to be near their love, swears to himself to kill Darcy the next time he sees her.
"Sorry, I gotta take this. It's my PA."
"You assign all your PAs love songs as ring tones?"
"That's not... It's not..." Phil trails off, flustered. "Oh, shut up," he tells Barton's smirk, thumbs the screen to take the call. "Darcy. You are a dead woman."
Barton shrugs unrepentantly while Darcy laughs in his ear, running his hand over the side of the car in an easy caress as he makes his way back to the front, where he's got the hood propped up. It's looking messy in there; Barton's taken most of what's left of the engine apart, probably trying to establish how far the damage goes, what needs replacing and what he can keep. The bits he's removed are laid out neatly on a workbench by the car, over a sheet of plastic. There’s distressingly little left inside; but Phil always knew this wasn't going to be a month-long job. He's prepared to wait when there's someone as clearly capable as Barton working on it. He watches as Barton gets back to work, strong, deft hands reaching inside and tweaking this, moving that, testing the fit between the parts. His fingers are long and sure, almost gentle, like he's touching something so much more than a mere machine. He reminds Phil of himself, when he works on the Mustang, respect written in every movement. A smile hovers over Barton's mouth as he works, peaceful, happy. It's blindingly clear that Barton loves his job, loves taking care of old, run-down machines, helping them regain themselves, become whole again. It's something that Phil can't help but like, can't help but endear Barton to him, no matter how ridiculous that sounds.
He realises that Darcy's been talking non-stop for the past five minutes that he's lost staring at Barton's hands. He forces himself to turn his back to the car, concentrates on what she's saying, yanks his mind back to business.
Still, he's almost sorry when it's time for him to leave, when the hour he'd allotted to himself for checking on the progress of the restoration runs out. It's not unlike a therapy session, the time he spends in the garage; unlike a therapy session, however, he leaves the place refreshed, calm, ready for the rest of his day, already looking forward to the next time he'll be able to visit.
He tries not to think too hard about that, or what is at the heart of it. He's got a feeling he's not going to like the answer all that much.
Clint looks up from his sandwich when Steve and Bucky walk into the small kitchen in the back of the garage, loudly arguing about the latest Batman movie. He leans back in his chair, closing the Mustang manual he was studying until two seconds ago.
“Oh, hey, Barton. What do you say, wouldn’t Poison Ivy make a better villain than Bane?”
“Dunno. Bane’s pretty hardcore.”
“Yeah, but Poison Ivy’s hot.”
Bucky sits in front of Clint, Steve taking the seat next to him and getting his food out of a brown paper bag, conscientiously sorting it out in the order he’s about to eat it. Clint observes with amusement as Bucky grabs the manual, checking the cover.
“I see you got that guy’s business, huh?”
“Yeah, he brought the car over last week, don't tell me you hadn't noticed? It's only a great big hulking--”
“How long are you going to be on it?” Steve cuts him off, opening his salad container, probably crunching numbers in his head. They’re fine with the business they have, Clint knows that much, but he also knows that his side of things can be quite expensive; vintage car parts can be hard to come by.
“It’s going to be a while. Half of the engine is missing,” he replies with a smile, biting into his sandwich again. The bread has gone slightly soggy, but he’s too hungry to be bothered by it and finishes it happily, licking at his fingers afterwards.
“You sound excited.”
“Well, if I wasn’t excited, I’d be in the wrong line of work.”
“Sure it’s not because of the owner of the car?”
Clint frowns, but Steve picks up on Bucky’s words before Clint gets to reply, looking up from his salad. “What about the owner of the car?”
Bucky shrugs. “Seems to me there were some sparks flying between him and Clint.”
“Steve, I can assure you I was completely professional, and I have no idea what Buck’s talking about.”
"Uh huh," Bucky says, but Steve just rolls his eyes.
"I'm sure you were, Clint, I have no worries on that front. Just as long as you know what you're doing."
Clint kind of wants to bristle at this, because Steve? Steve's the last person who ought to be giving people advice about getting too invested in the owners of the jobs that come in, after the whole messy affair with Margaret Carter. He doesn't, though, because Steve's still smarting over that, even if the two of them are on much friendlier terms now than they were a year ago.
So he says, "I do," and leaves it at that. Bucky looks between them for a moment, catches Clint's eye and changes the subject. Unfortunately, his change of subject leaves something to be desired.
"Stark called yesterday. He wants to put us on retainer for all of Stark Industries' company cars, whenever they need service."
Steve's head snaps up; he scowls. "I hope you said no."
Bucky smirks. "That's talking like Steve the mechanic, not Steve Rogers the garage owner. Of fucking course I said yes. You stick to your motorcycles and leave the professionals like me and Natasha to do the hard work."
Steve bristles. Bucky, showcasing a move from the 'best friends since we were in diapers' school of management, talks right over him.
"It's enough money to let us work on that project you're so keen on without sacrificing business."
Steve deflates like a bouncy castle that has had a brief but vicious encounter with a small yappy dog. "Damn it," he growls. "Fine."
"It's not like you'll be working with him," Bucky says reasonably. "It's just his cars we're handling. You don't have to do a damn thing but cash in the checks. Come on, Steve, I know how long you've wanted to start restoration on that Harley. Be reasonable."
Steve maintains a sullen silence, but doesn't protest. Clint and Bucky are talking about yesterday's game when Natasha saunters in, wifebeater stained to hell and back and vibrant red hair damp at the temples. Everyone smiles at her, and she twitches a smile back, heading straight for the small fridge in the corner.
"You talked him round yet, Buck?" she says after swallowing half a bottle of water in one go.
Bucky smirks. "Like that was ever in question. He'd be mad to refuse Stark's dime just because he doesn't like the guy."
Clint smirks into his pomegranate, which he's picking at for the antioxidants if not for the taste. Natasha pats his shoulder approvingly. They might no longer be together, but she's gotten into the habit of watching that everyone eats healthily, at least at work.
"What about you, Hawkeye? Got your eye on the prize?"
It's Clint's turn to scowl. "Why does everyone assume that just because a guy's attractive, I'm automatically gonna try to get him in my bed?" he grumbles.
Bucky and Natasha look chastised. Steve, though, Steve is watching him carefully. He doesn't say anything, but Clint knows that look. Steve's way smarter than people give him credit for, and that’s partly why he’s managed to keep the three of them around for so long. Friendship and loyalty only goes so far.
“Right, well, anyway, lunch break is over for me, I’ve got a ton of work.”
Clint doesn’t wait for any reply or comment, just bins the wrappers of his food before getting out of the room with his manual under his arm; he’s heard enough about his new customer, and this has been way too judgemental for him already. He’s only met Phil twice; yes, the man is attractive, something dangerous and mysterious about him; and yes, Clint is intrigued, but it doesn’t mean Bucky and Natasha have any right to be dicks about it.
Clint rejoins his part of the garage, the Mustang in the middle of his usual organised mess, and he sits in front of her for a moment, manual open over his knees to a random page. There’s so much to do, he barely has any idea where to start with it all, but he enjoys making plans and preparing the work almost as much as he likes getting his hands dirty, so he allows his thoughts to wander around the car, getting through everything that has to be done for her to look like new once again. He can do this; it’ll just take a while, and possibly involve more of Coulson’s help than he anticipated.
But whatever his friends say, he’ll keep it cool and professional. It’s not his first rodeo.
"You wanna talk about it?" Pepper says, lifting a piece of steak to her perfectly lipsticked mouth. Phil will never understand how her make-up is always so pristine at the end of the day, when he often feels like he's been put through the wringer. He realises he's avoiding having to answer when he reaches for his glass, takes a sip of wine.
He doesn't say 'talk about what', because that's never worked on Pepper, even when they hadn't been together for close to a decade and a half. "It's nothing," he tells her instead, because really, it is. "You know I took the Mustang in for restoration last week? I haven't really heard back from the guy. I'm not worried, I just..."
"You miss its presence," Pepper says, smiling indulgently. Phil nods, relieved. Yes, that's it exactly. It must be. He shrugs.
"I know it's stupid."
"It's not stupid," Pepper tells him. "That car has been a staple in the garage for months. Even I feel like there's something missing when I go down there."
Phil smiles at her, reaching for the bottle to refill her glass. "What's on the agenda tomorrow?"
"Rhodey's coming in. We need to talk about the new project the military has for us."
"You mean the security protocol for the supercomputer?"
"That's the one. We're going out to dinner later, will you join us?"
"Is Tony coming?"
Pepper wrinkles her nose. "I don't know if he'll be out of the workshop by then. He's in the middle of one of his periods."
"He's been acting a bit odd lately, don't you think? Hasn't been out of there nearly often enough to talk to for more than five minutes. Do you think something's bothering him?"
Pepper chews thoughtfully, humming. "Nothing's flagged with me, but you're right; now that I think about it, it's strange that he hasn't been in yet to badger me about R&D's latest screw-up. D'you know, I don't think he even knows about it?"
They look at each other; Phil can see she knows that they'll have to double-team Tony, corner him and work out what it is that's got him into one of his avoidance moods this time. He feels nothing but warm contentment over how easily he can talk to her, how she gets him without needing to ask.
She looks down at her plate again after a moment, cuts off another piece. "So, dinner?"
"Let me see how the meeting goes. It's the end of month report."
"Oh, yes, it's the 25th tomorrow, isn't it? I'd lost track. Don't worry if you can't, it's just Rhodey. I don't think we'll be out all that late."
Phil shrugs easily. "Give him my best if I can't make it, won't you?"
"Sure." She smiles, soft, affectionate.
Later, he kisses her forehead softly as he spreads a blanket over her sleeping form on the sofa, takes the files off her lap and puts them on the coffee table before turning out the light and quietly slipping into bed in the other room.
Clint looks on with interest at Coulson hunched under the hood and surveying the work Clint has started to put together, still not quite over the surprise of Coulson showing up in the garage at all. Usually his clients are wealthy and clueless about their cars; they just want them working and purring so they can go about town in something vintage or classic, and be able to brag about it. They leave Clint alone while he gives them weekly or monthly reports; but no more than a few days pass between Coulson's visits, to run the palm of his hand along the planes of the car and ask pointed questions.
He’s been here an hour so far, looking things over, only talking when he has to. When he pops up over the hood, Clint grins; Coulson has grease on his forehead, and it’s an interesting look for him. Clint ignores how it makes his fingers itch.
“Did you find the transmission?”
“Still chasing a seller. Do you want a beer?”
Coulson freezes, his fingers tightening on the hood. The shop is now empty but for the two of them, Steve, Bucky and Natasha long gone; it’s past eight in the evening and Coulson looks like he could use a drink, heavy circles under his eyes that make him look like he’s been punched. The radio is playing some old Ricky Martin song, and Clint doesn’t really want Coulson to leave.
“I shouldn’t,” Coulson pauses, letting go of the hood slowly, peeling his fingers away one by one. “But I will, since you’re offering.”
“I am. Don’t move, I’ll be right back.” Clint jogs to the kitchen, grabs two beers from his stash in the fridge and makes it back in record time, popping both bottles open against the corner of his desk. They end up sitting on the floor side by side, Coulson apparently uncaring that his suit might get dirty.
“How did you end up working classics?”
Clint shrugs, reaching out to touch the tyre rim of the Mustang. “Kinda happened. I’ve always had a gift for repairing things, but the family business ended up not being for me, so I took off when I was about twenty, and hightailed it to the city. When Steve and Bucky found me I was living it up under a bridge; they were looking for a mechanic and I offered my services. The whole classics thing, I don’t know, it’s just something I discovered I enjoyed later on.”
Coulson takes a sip of his beer, his arm brushing Clint’s as they move. “What was the family business?”
Coulson’s tone makes it clear that if Clint doesn’t want to answer, he doesn’t have to. It’s not that he’s got issues with his past, but it tends to make people look at him strangely when he talks about it, so he tends to gloss over it whenever he can.
“Ah. Can’t blame you for wanting out. My father, he wanted me to take over the family shoe factory. I’m sure I would have been good at it; but then I met Tony during college, and Pepper, and going back to a small town shoe factory felt like ending my life at twenty-two. I couldn’t do it.”
Clint takes notes of the name Pepper, which is a new one. “Did you break your Dad’s heart?”
“Yes. But he got over it, and my younger brother took over instead of me. My Mom always said I had a ‘higher destiny’,” Coulson makes the quote marks with his fingers, making Clint smirk. “She’s always been a bit of a hippie.”
“I couldn’t tell you what my parents think of me now. Never talked to them again, they never owned a telephone.”
Coulson frowns at that, but Clint defuses the tension by drinking some beer and letting out a loud burp, making Coulson chuckle. It’s unusual, to be sitting in the middle of his corner of the garage with a man he barely knows, talking about his past and his life. The weirdest part is that it’s comfortable, easy, and Clint doesn’t feel judged for a single second, which is a new one. He refuses to let his heart beat a little faster at the realization.
“So, I get why Stark changed your life views. Who’s Pepper?”
Coulson takes a deep breath, which settles like lead in the pit of Clint’s stomach. “She’s Stark Industries' COO, and she’s also my fiancee. The three of us met at college; we all had these big ideas and big plans, and Pepper and I, we knew that we could make them come true if we followed Tony.”
“And you fell in love along the way?”
Clint is trying his best not to sound bitter, because it’s not fair to Coulson, and it’s not his fault Clint has some sort of unprofessional crush on him.
“Something like that, yeah. She’s just as much of a genius as Tony is, just in completely different ways.”
“And you don’t strike me as an idiot. You guys must be a good team.”
Coulson nods. “We manage. Mostly it’s Pepper and I running after Tony to keep him from fucking up the lot of us and the stakeholders. Sometimes I wonder what it’d be like to run the family’s shoe factory.”
“I think you’d hate it, and you’d live a life that is much too small for you.”
Coulson huffs a laugh, taking a drink of his beer. "I'd be about a thousand times less stressed, though," he says. Clint can hear that his heart isn't in it, however.
"Yeah, and about a thousand times more bored."
Clint takes a sip of his beer, tries and fails to stop the question he should not be asking from slipping past his lips. "So, d'you have a date for the wedding in mind? Should I have the Mustang ready by a certain time?"
Coulson's relaxed smile fades and he looks at the beer in his hands like it has betrayed him. His jaw ticks, like he's clenching his teeth.
"No date," he says shortly. He tips the bottle to his mouth and kills it off, then jumps to his feet much faster than looks natural. "I need to be off. Pepper and I have plans, and I hate being late. Thanks for the beer; everything looks great, you're doing an excellent job."
"Thanks," Clint murmurs, but he's mostly talking to the guy's back as he strides away. Something ugly rises in Clint's throat, threatening to choke him. How had the atmosphere changed so quickly? Was it something he said?
He thinks about it, but all he'd done is maybe get a little too personal in his questions. Coulson is his client, and he'd do well to remember that, no matter what else he wishes was there. Because it's perfectly obvious that whatever he's hoping for is not what Coulson's looking for from him; he's here to do a job, fix the guy's car. He's not here to talk to him about his fiancee, or his father's shoe factory, and fuck, he's certainly not there to be telling this stranger things about his personal life that no one knows, except for the three people who work in this shop with him.
He finishes his own beer and pushes to his feet, feeling abruptly exhausted. Enough's enough, Clint Barton; you're a grown man. Pull yourself together.
All the same, he feels a decade older when he locks up the shop than when he'd opened up that morning.
Phil slides past the bedroom door already wearing his most sorry expression, hanging his jacket on the back of it before walking closer to the bed where Pepper is sitting cross-legged, a file open on her knees. She has changed out of her work clothes, now wearing Phil’s own sweatpants and a white tank top that makes her look so normal Phil’s heart skips a beat.
“I’m so sorry I missed dinner.”
She looks up, bare-faced and beautiful, her hair pulled back in a ponytail, and smiles indulgently, patting the bed next to her. “It’s okay. What happened?”
Phil shrugs out of his shirt, draping it over a chair in the corner of the room before joining her, toeing his shoes off and letting them clatter against the hardwood floors. “Went to the garage. Got carried away.”
And isn’t that a way to explain it. He could tell her about talking with Clint, how easy and comfortable he found it, but he's feeling too guilty about letting her down to pester her with details of his evening. Phil is not of the habit of letting people in that easily, and he doesn’t usually care about their life story, either, but he wants to know Barton, what made him who he is today. It doesn't feel like something Pepper has to know right now, though. He should bring her to the garage one day.
“That’s okay. You’d have been bored anyway, so it’s probably a good thing. How is the car going?”
“Well. Slow, but Barton’s a professional, and he’s taking it seriously.”
Pepper hums. "I'm glad it's going well," she says, lifting her hand to trace over Phil's shoulder, down his arm in an absent-minded caress, following the lines of ink in a way that's familiar, soothing. Phil smiles, reminded all over again that he's so, so lucky to have her. She's all he ever wanted, from almost the first moment he saw her; they work, the two of them, effortlessly.
"I brought back a tuna steak from the restaurant for you, it's in the fridge. You forgot to eat again, didn't you?"
Phil lets himself slump back on the bed, throws an arm over his eyes. "God, I love you. Thanks. The meeting was hell today."
She doesn't shoo him away, they're far too used to working in the same space for that, but her attention palpably shifts back to the files, and Phil takes his cue. What he really wants is a long, hot shower, but he's got some work to get through before he can afford himself that luxury, work that he probably should have been doing instead of chit-chatting with Barton, nice as it had been. So he goes into the kitchen and eats the steak cold from the fridge, fetches the reports he got handed today and spreads them out on the kitchen table, dives in.
When he pokes his head in the bedroom an hour later, Pepper's still typing away, so he figures it's as good a time as any for that shower. Pepper doesn't even look up when he shucks his pants and drapes them on top of his shirt, pads barefoot into the bathroom and strips off the rest of his clothes. Undershirt, boxer-briefs, socks, they all go flying into the laundry hamper before he turns the taps and the room starts filling with steam. He steps inside the spacious cubicle, shuts the door behind himself and sighs when water just this side of scorching starts beating down onto his skin, washing away the remains of the day. It's blissful, and he feels himself start to unwind immediately.
He's loose and relaxed by the time he's clean, and half-hard from it. It's by no means new; he's gotten into the habit of beating off lazily when he takes his evening showers, just because it feels good and he can. He curls his hand around himself, feeling heat pool in his groin just from a few strokes, swelling to full hardness under his practiced touch. The need is a little closer to the surface tonight, it seems, because he tugs and his stomach contracts sharply, his balls twinge with pleasure. He bites his lip even though there's no need for silence; Pepper knows exactly what he's doing, because she does it, too -- they do it together sometimes.
Still, the steam curling through the air makes the space feel secretive, somehow, intimate and private. He closes his eyes, imagines Pepper's hand reaching forward, tugging at his nipple as her other hand reaches down to cup his balls, roll them in her palm. The jolt of want is familiar, but not enough to bring him off. It doesn't feel like a betrayal to think of other people while he does this; he knows for a fact that Pepper sometimes imagines another woman's hands on her when she does, he's indulged her in it often enough, with words if not actions. So the fact that he's imagining that the fingers touching him are thicker, rougher, callused, it's not a problem as such.
It's when the image of a broad chest behind a filthy, grease-stained wifebeater flashes through his mind that he feels a twinge of guilt -- but the raw blast of need inside him shocks him enough that he can't even react to it, try to change the direction of his thoughts. No, he can't stop imagining himself worming a hand under the cotton, spreading fingers over that ripped stomach, curling an arm around his waist until he can bring the man -- Barton -- in and lick inside his mouth. Can't stop the thought of Barton on his knees for him, those sinful lips closing on his cock, from invading the space behind his eyelids until he's spilling with a groan over his knuckles, the breath knocked out of him from the force behind it.
Phil stays in the shower for a while longer, forehead against the tiles as the water starts cooling down, trying to make sense of what just happened in his head. It’s just because they spent the evening together, and Barton has been on Phil’s mind, has to be. Phil’s not going to start worrying about this. He can’t really afford to.
The work on the Mustang goes ahead. Clint, after a lot of careful planning, gives himself three months to have the GTR back to its pristine condition, taking into account his other jobs, and the time that can be spent waiting for sellers to send crucial car parts. It’s a good schedule; some people might say it’s taking too long, but Clint isn’t the kind to rush a job that doesn’t want to be rushed. He’s happy spending time learning the car and its particular quirks, and developing a plan just for her.
Coulson comes in every few days, at least once a week. It’s usually after hours and he’ll spend a long while quizzing Clint on everything that he’s done, changed, replaced, tinkering with. He keeps a very close eye on all the work being done on his car, and when he’s satisfied, he’ll sit down with Clint and they’ll talk for a while, about their favorite cars, movies, music genres, random stuff that makes Coulson laugh or look serious and sometimes run away quicker than he has to.
It becomes a routine, something Clint looks forward to, and he knows he’d promised to stay professional, not let himself be charmed by Coulson’s – Phil’s, he’s been told to call him Phil - good looks and dry humor and non-judgemental words, but it’s proving hard. Clint looks up every time someone walks into the garage, heart hammering in his stomach like a teenage girl with a crush; he can’t help it -- the time he spends in Phil’s company is usually the best time of his day, sometimes of his week.
The others have stayed off his case since that time he lost his temper a little, but Steve keeps throwing him these looks every time he starts a little, looking at the door, or every time Phil comes in and he has to turn and pretend to be busy so he doesn't smile at him like an absolute idiot.
He's not an idiot. He's aware that this thing isn't necessarily healthy, getting invested in spending so much time with someone who is engaged. Then again. His self-preservation instinct had been beaten out of him at an early age, just another by-product of his less-than-conventional upbringing, and he's never been much for taking the safer option. Talking with Phil makes him feel good, makes him feel like he's someone worth spending time with not just for his skills, like someone worth talking to, maybe even being friends with. There aren't too many people Clint can say that about. He's got Natasha, and he's got Bucky and Steve, and that's about it.
It's been almost two months now, and Phil is slowly but surely gaining ground to that distinction. Clint now knows that Phil has an older sister he misses a lot, doesn't get to talk to much because they're both so busy; that he's got a nephew he barely sees and it's eating him up inside; that his fiancee is also one of his two best friends, and that he loves her unreservedly. That his other best friend came as a bit of a surprise to him, because he never expected Tony Stark to end up being on his 'it's three a.m. and I have to dispose of a body' list.
That he likes his coffee black and his beer light, that the lines of strain a day in the office puts on his face lighten and almost disappear when he's got his head under the hood of a car; that he takes care with his appearance, but isn't above getting his hands dirty.
Oh, yeah. And that it makes Clint's heart beat faster just thinking about said hands, capable, strong, curling around a spare part he's evaluating, and when he gives Clint his full attention, Clint feels like the only person in the world, special, important.
It's a problem.
Yet he can’t manage to feel guilty or embarrassed about it the next time Phil comes in, a large brown paper bag in hand. They go through the motions, talking about the car first, Phil going round and looking in for anything new or anything he wants to amend, the rhythm just the same as always. Once he’s happy with the newest changes and improvements, Phil sits next to Clint at his desk, and lifts the bag he’s left on the floor to dangle in front of Clint's face.
“I was thinking, maybe you’d like some food,” he says softly, sounding more unsure than he has in the last few weeks, since this whole relationship they’ve got going settled into an easy rhythm. Clint’s stomach growls in answer; he hasn’t had anything to eat today, too engrossed by some work on a ’67 Impala that was brought into the garage two days ago.
“God, yes,” is Clint’s appreciative answer, and Phil smiles, taking sushi boxes out of the bag. There’s a mix of maki and sashimi in there, California rolls and tuna handwraps. “Haven’t had sushi in forever.”
“There’s a place just down the street from the office. It’s really good.”
“Looks it.” Clint doesn’t waste any time digging in, and the two of them fall into an easy conversation about their favorite foods. Clint discovers that lasagna is Phil’s ultimate comfort food, and counters with his own answer, which is his mother’s chilli con carne recipe.
“I’ll make it for you one day, you’ll be amazed. It’s so rich and warm and creamy.”
Their arms are brushing as they pick and choose food in the boxes, and it takes Clint a moment to realize Phil has stopped moving, his chopsticks hanging in the space between them.
“What? Do I have soy sauce on my cheek?”
Phil smiles. "Yeah, you do," he says; there's a note in his voice that confuses Clint until he realises it's playfulness. Phil is teasing him. He swipes at his cheek just to call his bluff, and comes away with a smear over his knuckles. Huh.
Phil grabs a napkin, swiping it over Clint’s knuckles, fingers sure and warm, sending a jolt through Clint’s body. He wants to ask, what are we doing, am I naive or is there something happening here; he wants to be honest and open with what he wants, even if right now it’s oh-so-painfully obvious that what he wants is Phil.
But he doesn’t say anything, doesn’t have the courage to be rejected, because he knows it will happen. Even if Phil had feelings for him, even if Clint wasn’t imagining all of this, he knows that Phil is too much of an upright man to do anything while he's with Pepper, and Clint is not naive enough to believe Phil would choose him over the woman that has shared his life for over fifteen years.
He forces himself to lean back, trying to keep it as casual as he can as he leaves his chopsticks on the desk. “Thanks for that. Really was hungry.”
“You tend to forget to eat, huh?”
Clint nods. “I do.”
Phil leaves not long after that, climbing back into his boring company car and leaving Clint staring after him with something akin to despair. There's no way this thing can end well. Oh, sure, Phil's going to drive away in his shiny good-as-new Mustang, back to his lovely fiancee and his normal life, and the only time he might think of Clint at all is when he climbs into the car, when he turns the key and the engine purrs sweetly. While Clint... well.
He sighs and closes his eyes. He should cut this thing short, he knows it. He's been down this road too many times before to hope for a different destination.
Phil starts to notice the differences. It’s not big things, but it’s enough for him to pick up. Life with Pepper is easy and comfortable, but it’s also a lull, the two of them so used to one another that they don’t even fight about anything, they just let it go, get over it, and Phil’s going through the motions when he’s with her.
It’s different when he goes to the garage. The sounds, the smells, the smile on Clint’s face, the one he tries to hide most of the time, they rush through Phil’s body like freedom and happiness, and he feels alive, his blood thrumming in his veins whenever Clint’s close to him. Every word he says could lead to some argument or another, disagreement on car parts or what to put on a hot dog, little things, little things.
But Phil starts to notice them, and he starts to freak out a little. He’s not certain what it’s all supposed to mean, and it doesn’t help that Pepper pushes him to spend more time with Clint, delighted that he’s apparently made a friend outside of Stark Industries. She spends more evenings at work herself, poring over plans and schedules with Rhodes, keeping Tony in check, and the more they spend time apart, the easier it is for Phil to allow more than just friendship to seep through the cracks Clint is making in his armor.
But even though he should put distance between them, should start going to the garage less than three times a week, if not more, Phil can’t help himself. The way he feels around Clint, it’s something he hasn’t felt in years, and he can’t let it go, despite the guilt that surges through him when Pepper smiles at him. He keeps on telling himself he’s not doing anything wrong, he’s not doing anything wrong. They're just friends, it's natural to be excited about meeting someone that you can talk to so easily; it's a validation of your sense of self. Deep down, though, he knows.
It's not just because he can't come anymore without thinking of Clint, his hands, his shoulders, his trim, toned body. He could cut that out altogether for a while; his sex drive has never been something that takes over the whole of his life (at least so far). No, it's because he catches himself all the time, seeing or hearing something and thinking that he can't wait to tell Clint about it. Clint, not Pepper. Not his girlfriend of thirteen years, his fiancee for nine of those; no, a loud-mouthed, cocky, irreverent, rude, smartass mechanic, that's whom he wants to share the little idiosyncrasies of his day with.
And that's what, when it comes down to it, he should have put a stop to at the start, because when the fallout happens, it takes away much more than a harmless flirtation from Phil's life.
It all comes to a head one evening when he drags himself out of the office at eight, and can't face going home to an empty apartment because Pepper is at a business dinner with Rhodey again; so he points his car in the direction of the garage and doesn't think too hard about his reasoning. It's late when he gets to Brooklyn, closer to nine than he's ever made it before, and he doesn't even know if they'll still be open at all, but he's here already and turning back now would leave him feeling adrift without the anticipated dose of snark in his life. The garage lights are still on when he gets there, dimmer but present behind the large windows. He pushes open the smaller door to the side that they use when the big doors are closed; the faint sound of a base line comes from the back, the small space that is Clint's alone.
Phil makes his way closer quietly, his footsteps covered by the music – he recognizes Cher singing about believing, and he can’t help but smile, about to make a comment on Clint’s music choices; he never gets the chance. He freezes when he sees Clint, his mouth going dry.
Clint is mopping the floor, singing into the top of the mop, dancing around a bucket of soapy water, and he’s shirtless, skin gleaming with sweat in the dim lights, muscles bunching and tensing as he moves, singing the wrong lyrics under his breath. Phil can’t tear his eyes away from the sight of Clint’s bare back, hips, swaying in rhythm with the music, the overalls he usually wears rolled down, almost obscenely low.
It is a hot evening, Phil can’t deny that, but here and now it feels to him as if the temperature has skyrocketed up twenty degrees, and his clothes are suddenly constricting, too much to bear; fuck, he’s thirsty, so thirsty. Phil swallows hard, and a moment later Clint looks up, stops dead in his tracks. Phil watches the flush spreading up his chest, his eyes catching on dark nipples before going higher, to Clint’s face, his deer-caught-in-headlights look.
And then Clint chuckles, uneasy, scratching the back of his neck, embarrassment clear in his movements.
“Didn’t expect anyone to come in.”
“I’m sorry, I should have called,” Phil says, voice a little hoarse, and he takes two steps forward, the soles of his shoes squeaking against the wet floor. He’s magnetized, vibrating with need; he has to stop.
He can't stop.
Clint stares, frozen in space, blue eyes wide and dark. He licks his lips. Phil feels it like a punch in the gut, like a barrier somewhere deep inside him snapping in half; the need to take that mouth crests like a ten-foot wave, washing away whatever common sense he has left. Clint's eyes darken when Phil closes the distance between them; he doesn't move away, holds his ground. His gaze burns where it lands on Phil's mouth, rises to meet his eyes, daring him to finish this thing he started between them. He raises his hand slowly, deliberately, rakes tanned fingers through his blond hair--
Blond. Blond, not red, not the color of an almost-ripe strawberry glinting in the sunlight. Blond, and short, and spiky where it should be long, sleek, caught up in a perky ponytail. Phil hauls to a stop so suddenly he staggers, feels the blood drain from his face. What is he doing?
He swallows dryly, but it's nothing like before, when his want had almost consumed him; now his mouth tastes like ashes, like something broken beyond repair.
"I'm sorry," he rasps, doesn't even stop to clear his throat before he backtracks the way he came, despair burning through his veins where only desire lived just a moment ago. "I can't, I have to--"
He can't even finish. He turns, because he can't bear to see the look in Clint's eyes anymore, the hurt shimmering inside, the resignation. Phil is a bastard for doing this to him, for leading him on and making him think that Phil's someone who could make good on the promise of his actions. He is despicable, letting this get so far, almost cheating on Pepper, almost turning Clint into 'the other man' with no regard for his feelings on the matter. Somehow he doesn't think that Clint would be okay with going behind anyone's back like this, even if it was an option.
He barely makes it to the car before his knees give and he sinks into the driver's seat. No one follows him -- which is good. It's right. Clint obviously understands what almost just happened, and why it really shouldn't have. He starts the engine, pulls away, doesn't look in the rear view mirror but straight ahead into the darkness. The drive home passes in a daze of anger -- at himself, at how he could have been so stupid. He dismisses the ache inside as his due; he doesn't deserve a friend like Clint, someone so warm and open and easy to talk to, someone who--has become so indispensable to his life.
Fuck, he doesn’t even deserve Pepper and her unconditional support, and her soft touches and smiles. He doesn’t deserve any of it, when he's been such a bastard, wanting so much more than the perfection he’s already got.
He has to stop driving mid-way back to his apartment, breathing hard and eyes blurry with fury and pain, mixed feelings and desires making it hard to think. He needs to calm down, he needs to go back to being logical; he still hasn’t done anything wrong, despite wanting to. He hasn’t acted on his feelings for Clint and he turned away before he could, and now he’ll put distance between them, and resume being entirely devoted to Pepper. He’ll bring the spark back, possibly get those wedding plans back into motion. He’ll prove to her he’s worth her love.
There isn’t anything else he can do. Make amends, move on, try to forget about Clint and his laughter, his hands, the liquid heat of his eyes. Phil can do this, because he’s not in love with Clint, but with Pepper. He might miss Clint’s friendship, but that’s all.
It's tentative, quiet, which is (much as Clint hates to admit it) the only reason Clint doesn't jump three feet in the air. He lays down his blowtorch carefully, because he shouldn't be using it anyway when he's this distracted. He turns to face Steve, who's watching him closely, this earnest look on his face, the one that always gives Clint hives. No one should care that much, not for someone like him.
"You all right?" Steve says, and Clint bristles.
"Yeah, fine. Why shouldn't I be?"
Steve doesn't answer, just drops his eyes down to the hole the blowtorch has apparently burnt through a perfectly good sheet of metal. Clint glares at him, refusing to defend himself. It happens, and it was an old sheet of metal anyway, he was just testing a pattern out on it.
Steve sighs, rubs a hand through the short bristle of hair on his head. It didn't used to be like this; it was longer, flowing lines he liked to wear parted to the side. He'd buzzed it all off, after, because Peggy had liked threading her fingers through it when she used to ruffle it fondly, and he couldn't stand to look at it when things had gone sour. For the first time, Clint wants to ask how Steve got over that, all his efforts being for nothing, no matter how hard he tried to get Peggy to see him as more than a friend. How he lived with the ache of the woman he loved choosing someone else over him when she'd fallen blindly, helplessly in love herself.
Not that that's what happened to him, or anything. He and Phil are nothing like Steve and Peggy. In fact, there is no 'him and Phil'. He has a job to do, and once he's done it, that will be it. He won't have to see Phil ever again.
He wonders, in his weaker moments, when it's dark and he has to close up and the shop is empty, a yawning pit of metal and parts threatening to swallow him whole, why knowing that doesn't seem to make anything better.
“You’ve just been quiet lately.”
Clint knows that it’s just concern, that Steve's question is legitimate, too, but he can’t help how defensive it makes him feel. He doesn’t want to talk about it, just wants to put it behind him, doesn’t want to be reminded of how close they’d come to crossing that line, breathing into each other’s mouths, Phil standing right there, before turning away, running away.
“I’m fine, Steve.”
“Phil’s not shown up for a while.”
Clint straightens up, his back creaking as he changes position, resisting the urge to punch Steve, or slam a heavy manual on his desk, or throw his coffee mug at the wall. He needs to get to a gym, burn out some energy, pent-up frustration, but he knows that Steve doesn’t deserve to get Clint’s anger thrown in his face.
“No, he hasn’t. I guess he’s been busy with work.”
Steve leans against the desk, forcing Clint to look at him. “You can talk to me, you know. Whatever happened, you know I don’t care. I’m not an idiot, Clint, and I’m not blind, either, I know you have feelings for the man, and I don't blame you for it.”
Clint smirks bitterly, because yeah, if ever there was a guy that would understand, it's Steve. It just. It hurts to even think about it; he thinks that actually trying to talk it out might break him, because it wasn't just the attraction he lost. He also lost someone who was fast becoming his friend, whom Clint actually enjoyed spending time with. Who looked at him and saw him, not the orphan, or the homeless kid with nowhere to go, or the mouthy shit with attitude Clint knows he resembles a lot of the time. And now Phil--Coulson was just gone, dropped him like a burning towel, hasn't even been by to look him in the eye and get this whole misunderstanding sorted out. That's how important Clint is to the guy, which is to say not at all.
He exhales heavily, slumping against the desk next to Steve. "Look, I'm sorry. I don't want to talk about it. I'm sure you understand why."
He sees Steve watch him out of the corner of his eye, but doesn't turn his head. He doesn't want Steve to know just what a fucked-up number this latest rejection did on him. He stares hard at the floor, waits for Steve to be satisfied with his inspection.
"All right," Steve sighs. Clint throws him a quick look, and the corners of Steve's mouth quirk. There's nothing happy about that smile. "I get it, I do. I just--I want you to know that when, if, you want to talk about it, you can come to me. I won't judge; hell, I'm the last person who would. I've made my peace with what happened with Peggy, but it took me a long time, even longer because I wouldn't admit there was anything wrong, or anything to talk about. I don't want you to go through the same thing alone."
To his horror, Clint's eyes burn a little at that. He looks down, blinks hard. "I do know I can come to you, Steve," he says, a little hoarse. "I know you'll try your best to make this easier, but the thing is, you can't. Nothing can but time and distance. I just hope I get enough of both so I can get my shit together."
Steve nods, and Clint knows he'll try to give him as much as he can of both. There's a reason Clint's never going to leave this place, and it isn't for lack of opportunities. It's because he's never going to find a better bunch of friends anywhere in the world. Steve straightens, claps his shoulder, sending him listing a little.
"There's nothing wrong with having a heart, Clint," he says quietly, a little sadly. "Don't let this convince you otherwise."
“Phil? Phil, are you listening to me?”
Phil’s head snaps up from his laptop, turning to Pepper sitting next to him on their couch, a frown creasing her brow. He swallows, a blush creeping up his cheeks; it’s not the first time in the past two weeks his mind's gone off to wander and think about Clint.
She sighs, looking down at her hands over her lap, twisting her fingers together in a show of stress he’s not used to seeing any more, and it’s his turn to frown, his heart in his throat.
“Is everything okay?”
“Why don’t you tell me, Phil?” Pepper looks at him again, sadness in the corners of her eyes. “You’ve been subdued recently. Snappy, too. You've been working much more than you have for the past three months, you’re not making any time for your car any more. You’ve been unhappy, Phil. Won't you talk to me about it?”
Phil closes his laptop, giving Pepper his full attention, which is something he realizes he hasn’t done in too long. She still deserves better, he can’t get over it, and he’s been trying his best not to use work as a screen between the two of them, but he’s obviously been failing. Such a coward, and he still feels guilty, stupidly guilty, because he still wants Clint and every time he goes to bed, wraps his arm around Pepper’s waist, he longs for something else.
What can he say, though, that wouldn't sound like the worst excuse in the world, or break Pepper's heart to pieces? He doesn't want to be that guy, the one who leaves his fiancee for something better, like he's upgrading or something similarly sickening. But.
But he's tried. He's tried so hard, and nothing's worked. He hasn't been able to put Clint out of his mind; hasn't stopped wanting to turn right instead of left when he drives out of the parking lot at the office, even though he doesn't let himself. He'd thought he had it under control; he thought he had it covered, that he wasn't acting any different, but obviously he'd failed on that front, too, and god, he can see how much it's hurting Pepper to be shut out. His stomach churns; he wants to throw up.
"I'm sorry," he says, and he means it, so much. "I'm sorry, Pepper. It's nothing you're doing, I can promise you that. I've just--I've been a bit of an idiot about something."
"Is it about Clint?" Pepper asks, because she is actually the smartest person Phil knows, and that includes Tony.
He can't stop his instinctive flinch at the name. God, when will all this stop? What if it never does? What if he has to go through life pining like some fucking schoolboy with a stupid crush? He runs a hand over his face, not sure how to manage this situation, not sure there is a way to manage it. Then Pepper drops a hand on his shoulder. The touch feels heavy.
“You’ve been talking about him and the car non-stop for the past two months, and suddenly, it’s all gone, and you’re quiet, and angry, and you barely look me in the eye any more. I can take a hint or twelve, Phil.”
“Pepper, I am sorry, so fucking sorry, I am an idiot, and a coward, and this is crazy, it’s just crazy, I don’t understand what happened, but I promise you, I haven’t cheated on you.”
He takes her hands in his, and she squeezes her fingers around his own. When he looks into her eyes, she doesn’t look angry, just sad, resigned. She extracts one hand from his to brush the back of her fingers along his cheek, smiling softly, loss written all over her face.
“I’m sure you haven’t. I trust you. But it’s not me you want any more, and now you’ll never get it out of your head. You have feelings for him.”
“I love you.”
“But it’s not incompatible, is it? You can love me, and be in love with him. Hell, you can even be in love with both of us. But he’s making you happier than I do, and I’m not selfish enough to turn a blind eye to that.”
Phil looks at her and aches. He's broken something perfect, and there's no getting it back now. He looks at her and sees years, a whole decade falling away from him; he looks at her and feels a terrible loss that threatens to break him apart. He loves her, he does; he likely always will, but not like that, not anymore.
"God, Pepper, I never meant for this to happen."
Pepper smiles, bites her lip. "I know you didn't. And I didn't, either. Look, this isn't a one-way street, here. You and I, we've been together for so long that we've forgotten what it's like, to be in love like this, to see the world in a new way, through fresh eyes. I'd forgotten it, myself. But--"
She pauses, looks away, flushes just a touch, like she does when she's going to say something he might not like. "I think I've found it again, too," she finishes, her flush deepening.
Phil blinks. Wow, he really has been preoccupied if he missed such a huge thing. Pepper hasn't been acting much different, but now that he thinks about it, she's less stressed when she gets home from work in the evenings, and that tension that used to gather in her shoulders and neck has been missing for--well. Months now. Fuck. And he calls himself her fiance. It's clear that he's been neglecting her shamefully.
"Do you want to tell me about it?" he says, and surprises himself with how much he means it. There's nothing ugly in his wish to know, merely a curiosity he'd feel if any of his close friends started seeing someone else.
It's that more than anything that really drives it home for him, for both of them. Somehow, through the years in between, they'd started drifting apart, until they've been going through the motions, until all that's left is a lingering kind of affection, the kind he feels for his sister, for Tony. Certainly nothing like what he feels for--for Clint.
Pepper lets out a watery chuckle and shakes her head, hair swishing along with the movement. "Not yet. But I promise I will eventually."
Phil nods; it's fair enough. God, their whole lives have just been completely turned around, and Phil has no idea where they're supposed to go from here. They've built a life together, bought an apartment together, constructed their world piece by piece, always together, and now they're supposed to let go of each other? Phil isn't sure he knows how to do that.
"So. What now?" he asks, because he can't think of anything else to say, has no idea where to start, where to end. Somewhere along the way, he knows Clint is waiting, and he knows he has to go see him, but not now, not like this. Pepper licks her lips, and then she shrugs, an uncharacteristic move for her.
"I have no idea. I guess soon enough one of us will move out, but for tonight, maybe we can just... I don't know, do you want to watch a movie?"
Her eyes are brimming with tears, and Phil inhales sharply, feeling pain spike up in his stomach. He gathers her in his arms and buries his face in her hair, closing his eyes when she digs her fingers in his shoulder blades.
"A movie sounds great."
"This the guy?" someone says; keys clang off metal rails, and heavy footsteps come closer. Clint's drunk, but not so drunk that he can't work out they belong to the officer in charge of lock-up tonight -- a tall, thin man with kind eyes that have seen too much. Clint kind of sympathises.
When he allows himself to think about it, then okay, maybe it was a stupid idea. But he had this bow and he had these things he wanted to throw into the river - pieces of Phil’s car’s carburetor that won’t be used anymore, that he sticks to the heads of plastic arrows - and he’s sort of drunk, and it’s the middle of the night so he probably looks dangerous, he gets that, and in retrospect, he shouldn’t be surprised by the police showing up to take him away.
The cuffs are not necessary, but Clint is too used to them to complain; it’s been a while since his last arrest, and this, this is pretty embarrassing in itself, but he can’t even regret it. He’s going crazy, running around in his own head with thoughts of Phil and where Phil is and what he’s doing, probably with his fiancée that he loves dearly, not Clint. It shouldn’t hurt so much.
“Clint Barton? Got someone to see you,” the guard says, and Clint looks up, brushing his nose against his sleeve, fingers curled around it. He watches as Bucky appears, smirking under the baseball cap he’s wearing, like he’s afraid to be recognized.
Clint sighs in something he will deny to his grave is relief. At least it's Bucky, not Steve. Steve, with his soft, sad eyes, who won't judge him in the slightest but he'll look at him like his heart is breaking that he can't help, and it's not what Clint needs right now. He's an idiot to let himself get to this state, and he doesn't deserve Steve's understanding, or his concern. At least Bucky will get him out of here without making that face at him, the one that Steve pulls out when he's caring at him, the one that makes Clint feel warm and so alone all at once.
"Yeah, I did. Thanks, man."
Bucky looks at him for a long, long moment fraught with tension and recriminations that neither is going to voice. Then Bucky sighs, his whole posture slumping forward.
"You're an idiot," he says, but it's in that affectionate way that's his default whenever one of them fucks something up. Idiot or no, they're still a family, no matter--no matter what else happens in their lives.
The guard looks unimpressed, all but tapping his foot while the silent exchange takes place. "You bailing him out or what?" he wants to know, scratching his scruffy cheek.
"Yeah, yeah, sure," Bucky drawls, waving a bored hand. The keys jangle again as the guard gets the cell open, stands aside to let Clint stumble out.
"I gotta get my bow," he mutters, heading for the front desk to sign the forms. "I'll pay you back, Buck, thanks."
Bucky follows him silently, looking like he's swallowing something back; probably to do with his next paycheck coming in, courtesy of Ph--Coulson. Clint's grateful for small mercies. Bucky is all kinds of insensitive, but at least he knows when to keep his mouth shut. They all do. It's not like Clint's the only one who's been fucked over a few times in his life.
The night air is humid, too warm, stifling. Clint sucks it in anyway, the comforting weight of his bow strung over his shoulder, keeping him grounded as much as it can. Bucky stands at his shoulder, sticks a cigarette in his mouth, lights it up. The smell of burning tobacco stings Clint's nostrils pleasantly, a throwback to when he used to smoke, that first lungful that was the only thing he woke up for some mornings, back when things were... not like they are now. Bucky takes a huge gulp of smoke, lets it out on a huffing exhale.
"Wanna talk about it?" he drawls, not like he's expecting an answer -- or rather, like he knows the answer he's gonna get all too well. Clint shrugs anyway, because yeah, no. He feels like enough of an idiot already, thanks. Seriously, what was he thinking, letting himself go off the deep end like that, over some guy he should have known all too well not to get tangled up with? Smooth, Barton.
Bucky smokes quietly for a bit, the cherry red end of his cigarette lighting the night with an eerie tinge. They walk towards the garage without a word; it's not all that far, really -- Clint tends to stick to the vicinity of things that make him feel safe when he gets like this, and there's no safer place than the garage for him, not now. Even his dingy apartment feels too small, too suffocating, nothing in it that can keep him sane other than his bow, and he's got that with him. Bucky finishes his smoke, hand hovering over his jeans pocket, like he's debating another, but he lets it fall after a moment. Steve is gonna give him enough hell for the one he had already.
“Gonna sleep in the garage?”
Clint nods, pushing his hands deep in his pockets, and doesn’t say anything. He can’t find the words to explain, anyway, how this is the only place that feels like home. Bucky sighs, reaching out and fisting a hand in the back of Clint’s leather jacket, pulling him close, foreheads touching. It doesn’t mean anything else than simple reassurance, family.
“You’ll be okay.”
"You know that, do you?" Clint says bitterly, because right now? He's not so sure, himself. "Is that what you know?"
And oh, was he wrong. The look Bucky's giving him now is every bit as bad as the one Steve usually lets him have, full of so much fondness and fierce protectiveness.
"Yeah. I know. I know, because we're right here, and we're gonna stay here, with you. You don't have to do this alone, Clint."
Clint huffs. "Steve said the same thing."
"Yeah, well, Steve gets a thing or two right occasionally," Bucky mutters. He sounds tired, and Clint feels abruptly guilty for dragging him out of his place, to come help him pull himself together. He knows Bucky doesn't think of it that way, but it's not like Clint can suddenly turn off years of being told he's worthless. It's years and years in the past, but some days the voice in his head sounds as fresh as if his father's drunken voice had yelled it yesterday.
He takes a deep breath, pushes that voice as far back as it'll go, under layers and layers of Steve and Bucky and Natasha, sticking by him no matter what, the only family he'll ever need.
“Yeah. I’ll be okay.”
Phil sits in his office, staring into space. It’s been a week since he broke up with Pepper, and the engagement ring he gave her so long ago now lives in the top drawer of his desk, with a post-it note stuck to it. They haven’t talked; she hasn’t been staying at their apartment, and it’s not like Phil blames her, but he still hasn't managed to compute what he’s done, how he could have done that. So many years, and suddenly it’s all gone, with a snap of his fingers, like a lapse of sanity. What the hell has he done?
He loves Pepper, he really does. And he’s let her go, for a crush, for someone he barely knows, for someone who could reject him. Phil hasn’t been alone in so long, he has no idea how to do it anymore, how to live his life without Pepper; since she left, take-away boxes have been piling up on the coffee table and the kitchen table, he’s not done the dishes in a week, dirty clothes have been strewn on the bedroom floor, socks and boxers and shirts. And it’s not that he can’t do it, and he knows how to, and he’s done it before, but he lacks the energy, the motivation, without Pepper’s teasing and outright demands and gentleness and quiet support.
It was a mistake. Was it a mistake? Phil has no idea anymore.
Clint. Clint is still there, though, every minute, reminding Phil that he’s done this for a reason, for Clint. Maybe breaking up with Pepper was a stupid idea, maybe it was a terrible mistake, but better this than to betray her, hurt her even more by cheating on her, by wanting someone else more than her. He's not so self-involved to think he isn't hurting her now; his heart is aching, tearing him apart at the thought of what he's done to her. But at the same time, he also cares for her, loves her enough not to put her through the slow death of their relationship, leaving her wondering, was it her? Was it something she did? At least this way she'll know, unequivocally, that it's all on him. A mistake, but a fair one, Phil reasons with himself, the right thing to do when he’s been unable to stop thinking about Clint, especially at night, tossing and turning in bed, a starfish in the empty sheets. Clint, god, Clint and everything he makes Phil feel, alive and strong and interested and impassioned, the kind of man Phil wants to be every day of his life.
Phil’s eyes shift to the wall, the painting hanging there chosen by Pepper long ago; Phil had let her do it, but always found it boring, unable to understand the depth she saw in it. She always got so enthusiastic about art, in a way Phil didn’t get half the time, and even if she enjoyed spending time in the car with him, it was just her indulging him. They had found each other through Tony, when they were kids, when they didn’t know what their lives would bring, when they hadn’t figured out anything. And fuck, Pepper had helped Phil figure out so much, just by being her amazing self; but someone like Clint got him in a way Pepper never had, and he understood Clint in a way he had never understood Pepper.
Maybe it was a mistake; but maybe it wasn’t. Only time will tell, time that isn't going to be easy, especially not when he's pretty much left on his own, without his best friend to help him find his way. He can't go to Tony, either; for one thing, Tony will probably kill him when he finds out. For another, Tony has been... distracted recently. Not quite himself, since before this whole thing with Clint started.
There's only one thing he knows to do in situations like this -- regain control, whatever it takes. And since his life is a mess right now, he can start with the small things, the things that are less likely to turn around and smack him in the face. Tonight, he'll do the laundry. It's a start.
There’s only the paint job left to do on the Mustang, and Clint has been pushing it back and pushing it back, like it would change anything if he never finished working on the car. Phil hasn’t come back to the garage, not in weeks, not since their almost-kiss that effectively destroyed everything. It must be so easy for him, going back to his fiancee, going on with life like nothing happened, like he hasn’t made Clint fall in love with him.
It’s not something Clint wanted to admit to himself at first, but now it doesn’t fucking matter anymore, it’s a fact whether he admits it or not. He’s in love with Phil, and he never stood a chance to have him, either. It’s all been stupid and hopeless, from the start, and yet Clint hadn’t been able to stop the ride, get off before it was too late and he got his heart broken. And now he’s trying to nurse said heart back to health, by doing silly things like not working on Phil’s car. It’s really quite fucked up.
“Hi,” is all Clint needs to hear to whip his head around, seeing Phil in the mouth of the garage, standing there awkwardly. He’s looking straight at Clint, but Steve rushes forward, smiling like he does with all their customers, like he doesn’t hate Phil a little, which Clint knows he does.
“Oh, good evening, Mr. Coulson. We're just about to close up, was there anything you wanted?”
“Hi, Steve. I, um. I just wanted to see the progress on my car. And, also, I'd like to talk to Clint.”
“Sure. Clint isn’t available, but I can show you the car.”
Phil motions towards Clint, raising an eyebrow. He looks drawn, tired, dark circles under his eyes that Clint can see all the way from here. “He’s right there, Steve. It’ll only take a few minutes.”
Phil starts walking towards Clint, but Steve puts a hand on his shoulder, stopping him in his tracks, voice hard when he speaks next. “I’m sorry, he’s not available to speak with you.”
“What are you going to do, huh? Go on, Rogers, I got nothing to lose, here.”
Steve stands there stubbornly, arms crossed tightly over his chest, glowering down at him. He's like a boulder, feet set, immovable, a solid barrier between Clint and the one man he both longs and dreads to see. Phil glares at Steve, hands clenching by his sides. Then, suddenly, his eyes snap to Clint, lock him in place with his gaze. Clint watches them shift, take him in, and fights the urge to close his eyes and turn away.
Just like that, Phil deflates, lets out a sigh that seems to come from his toes.
"Look," he says, quietly, but Clint can still hear him; he doesn't know whether to be pleased or to despair. "I know I fucked up. And I know I've got no right to ask, not really. But if Clint will let me, I want to apologise. I swear I'm going to leave if he wants me to, but you're not the one to make that call for him, Rogers. I want to hear it from his mouth."
Clint can practically see Steve thaw. It's the right move, to emphasise that it's Clint's choice. It's also somehow worse, because before, Clint could have just pretended it was Steve's call. Not now, though; now it's him that has to stand up to Phil and tell him to fuck off.
Phil watches him; Clint thinks there's something pleading in his eyes, but he's well aware of what wishful thinking can do to you, and he's having none of it, however late in the game he's found his backbone. Still, though... He can't turn Phil away without hearing what he has to say, no matter what the guy's put him through. He doesn't want to be one of those people, hung up on someone years after it's all over. If this is how it ends, he, too, wants to hear the words to his face.
Steve's watching him carefully; Clint gives him the tiniest nod, braces himself as Steve stands aside reluctantly. Phil approaches, steps slow, hesitant. Clint busies his hands with something, he doesn't even know what he's holding except that it has a lot of edges that dig into the pads of his fingers when he squeezes.
"Hi, Clint," Phil says softly.
"Phil." He's not gonna give him anything. He is calm. He is still water. He is not going to fucking drop to his knees and beg like some loser kid.
The silence stretches. Up close, Phil looks awful. He's dropped some weight; his suit hangs looser from his shoulders than Clint remembers (and he has perfect recall when it comes to appearances. It's a fucking curse, is what it is). Clint's not gonna be the first to break, though.
Phil takes a deep breath, lets it out. "I just wanted to say, I'm so sorry about last time. I never intended any of this. And I'm sorry I did that to you. I had no right to behave the way I did, not then."
Clint's mouth is halfway open to say "Fine, thanks, whatever," when the rest of it hits. "What do you mean, not then?" he mutters. "What's changed?"
Phil's lips pinch, but he doesn't look unhappy. He looks drained, sure, but kind of... relieved?
"I wasn't in a position to make any kind of promises before. Now, I am," he says simply, which, Clint doesn't--
"Wait. You--did you and your fiancee break it off?"
Phil takes a moment, raising his eyes to Clint’s. He can see Steve is standing close, not close enough to be eavesdropping, but enough to be able to jump in and bodily drag Phil away if needed, which Clint is thankful for. He’s also thankful that Bucky and Natasha are away on an emergency call-out from one of their usual customers, stranded on the highway, and they're not coming back tonight.
“We did. It became painfully apparent that we were both miserable, and with the wrong person,” Phil pauses, apparently wanting to add something, and not quite sure what.
“I see. I’m sorry to hear that,” he manages to choke out, not meaning any of it. He’s over the moon that Phil is single, maybe not available but at least hurting some, if not because of Clint then because of the circumstances; it’s only fair.
Phil looks at him closely, cataloguing his reactions. He doesn't look reassured; but then Clint doesn't want him to be. He's not going to jump into Phil's arms like nothing happened at all -- because it did, and an apology just isn't enough.
Phil seems to get some of that at least, because his mouth softens from its tight line, quirking into a self-deprecating smile.
“I know I hurt you, and I acted like an asshole," he says, doesn't pause for Clint to contradict him, which Clint likes, because he's not planning to. "So it’s probably too late to be telling you this, but if you still want me, Clint, here I am. I work too much, and I forget to eat sometimes, and I fall asleep in random places because I push myself too hard. I watch terrible TV shows, I love smelly cheese, my showers always last too long, I have bouts of road rage, and if I start ranting about the cost of heating, I am unstoppable. I have no idea what I’m doing, because I haven’t done it in thirteen years, but God, I want you.”
Clint feels himself relaxing, allows his heart to pick up speed, because it looks like all this wasn’t as hopeless as he thought, and maybe for once things will go his way. He doesn’t dare think it too hard -- it wouldn't be the first time he's been wrong about something like this -- but as he looks at Phil, his world reduced to the two of them, he can’t stop hoping for it anyway.
Phil looks apprehensive, like he wasn't just trying to talk Clint out of falling even more hopelessly for him (which, by the way? A lost cause if Clint ever saw one). Clint bites his lip so he doesn't grin like a loon, says, "Smelly cheeses, really?" Because it's a question that needs asking, and because the way Phil's cheeks pink is addictive.
Phil shrugs. "Dealbreaker?"
"Not so much," Clint admits, because Phil just broke up with his fiancee for him, Clint can allow himself to be magnanimous. Also, Phil looks like he hasn't eaten anything in days, let alone cheese of any kind. "I'd go on and warn you off myself, too, but you've seen the worst of it already. What you see is what you get with me."
"Is that right," Phil murmurs, eyes drifting down Clint's body in a way that is thoroughly distracting. Clint absolutely does not harden a little when Phil's eyes linger on his chest.
When Clint looks up to check the time, it's closing on eight o'clock and the rest of the shop is dark and empty. Steve has tactfully disappeared, which more than anything reassures him that Phil is for real, because Steve has a freakish sixth sense for sincerity and listening to what people are actually saying, not how they're saying it.
"D'you want a drink?" he says, giving in and letting a bit of that grin slip out.
“Yes,” is Phil’s rapid answer, a smile on his own lips. It's not quite perfect yet, this thing between them; it needs work, smoothing out rough edges, replacing a few rusty parts, retuning the engine until the dischord left behind from their pasts fades away. In the end, though, it's the way they fit together that will make the difference, the way each of their imperfections slot around each other to shape their future. There’s so much to look forward to, and Clint wants to touch Phil so badly his hands are shaking. He steps closer, which is not the way to get to the kitchen from where he’s standing but god, wanting a drink has to be a metaphor right now, he can’t even think past this.
“Or we could – are you really thirsty?”
Clint looks up and over Phil’s shoulder to make sure that the garage main doors have been closed. They are, which is fortunate but he isn’t quite sure Steve thought that one through – now there is really nothing keeping Clint from getting what he’s been dying to have for months right here, right now.
Phil groans, shaking his head quickly as he reaches out, curling his hand around the back of Clint’s neck to pull him close, not hesitating for a second this time around. Their lips crash together in a mess of a kiss, uncoordinated and just this side of too eager before they adjust, fit their bodies against one another and slow the rhythm, Clint fisting his hands in Phil’s shirt as he loses his mind in the kiss. Phil kisses like he means it, wholeheartedly, mouth demanding and warm against Clint's, an arm around his waist bringing them flush together, so warm against each other. Phil lets out a broken sound, tilts his head and opens for Clint's tongue when he presses it against the seam of his lips. Predictably, Phil tastes of coffee, likely more than advisable, but god, all Clint wants to do is climb inside and curl up to stay.
Phil is clinging to him, which is flattering but also sends his pulse rocketing, makes his arms close around him without hesitation, holding on tight to broad shoulders that feel like they could take the weight of the world. They don't break apart until his lungs are screaming and Phil makes a desperate sound, and even then for no more than it takes them to breathe deeply and dive back in. Clint honestly feels like he might die if Phil stops kissing him; that all of this would disappear like a fragment of a dream. Phil feels real enough under his hands; his weight is solid and sure when he presses him back against the side of the Mustang, bracketing him with arms braced on the edge of the roof on either side of him as he licks the roof of his mouth, strokes over his tongue. Clint is undone by the sweetness of it, underneath the desperation; the way Phil's eyes are closed, lashes tickling his cheekbones, the way he rubs the edge of his lower lip against Clint's, the way his nose nudges over Clint's cheek tenderly, like all Phil wants to do is hold him tight and never let go.
It's more than Clint can take; he fists one hand in Phil's short hair, tips his head back, lets his thighs fall open until Phil's leg crowds between them, bringing it in contact with Clint's desperately hard cock. Phil groans loudly, not a scrap of his usual restraint left, sounding destroyed.
"Clint," he rasps against his lips, forehead pressing to Clint's. "If you don't stop me now, I don't think I can hold back."
Clint doesn’t actually want Phil to hold back, or to stop, it’s all too much of something he’s been wanting for so long. He takes a deep breath, makes a small, needy sound, and he knows he’s done for when Phil rolls his hips into his own, showing how desperate for it he is.
“I don’t want you to stop. The shop’s closed, nobody’s going to come in, and I don’t have the strength to wait, Phil.” Phil takes a sharp intake of breath himself and closes his eyes forcefully, swallowing hard. Clint leans in, kisses open and wet along Phil’s neck, his fingers reaching for the first button of Phil’s shirt. “Phil.”
Another groan, desperate, almost pained, Phil’s hands clenching around Clint’s arms. “Okay, okay, yes. Fuck yes.”
Clint noses around Phil’s collarbone, letting go a delighted sigh he hadn't realized he’d been holding in. He undoes Phil’s shirt slowly, button by button, careful and precise until his thumbs touch skin, making him lean back just to be able to look, a little breathless already. He pushes Phil’s shirt off his shoulders and stops dead in his tracks, taking in Phil’s arms, every inch of skin entirely covered in tattoos.
The ink is beautiful, flowing, black and gray and color mixing in a spiral design, interspersed with the body and tail of a dragon, scales a gorgeous silvery blue, the spine a darker, jewelled blue. One of his arms has a Koi fish design, too, in a beautiful tangerine red. Both his arms are inked right up to the cuff of his sleeve, so when his shirt is on, they are invisible. Clint doesn't know why this turns him on so much, knowing that under the plain white cotton lurks something so gorgeous, so utterly extraordinary, something secret that only a select few people know about. Just the thought of it turns the flames inside him into an explosion.
"Fuck me," he rasps, eyes stuck to the skin before him. "Oh my god, Phil." His cock is trying to drill its way out of his pants; he wants his mouth on them so bad he's shaking with it. So he leans forward, licks along a curl of dragon scales, traces a sakura flower under Phil's arm, tugs the shirt off entirely and stares. He grabs one of Phil's arms and raises it, chases the tail of the Koi fish around, rubs his fingers over the white foam of a wave that crests over his shoulder. Phil takes all this patiently, moves where Clint nudges him, gasps quietly when Clint bites lightly right at the edge of the tattoo, where his arm meets his shoulder. Clint savors the unconscious noise, moves his mouth up his neck, sucks at the spot where blood pulses close under the surface.
Phil's biting his lip by the time Clint lifts his head; he surges forward, takes Clint's mouth, moans into it. The warmth of Phil's bare skin against his drives Clint insane; he must have more of it. He reaches down, draws his dirty wifebeater over his head, drops it to the floor as he tugs Phil forward again, groaning when their chests brush skin to skin for the first time. Phil's chest hair is sparse, not very long; it tickles a little where it rubs against Clint's nipples. He bites his lip to hold back a desperate, needy whimper.
"Inside," Phil gasps, throws open the door of the car and pushes Clint in, helps him over the seat and into the back. He climbs in after him eagerly; Clint sinks into the leather he cleaned with his own two hands, bites his lip when Phil kneels over him, grabs fast at Phil's shoulders and pulls him down on top of him.
"Oh, god," Phil says desperately when their cocks brush together, rock-hard. Clint smirks. Phil wouldn't be the first customer to have an unnatural attachment to his car, and Clint knows all the signs. He takes Phil's hand, places it on the door behind his head so his fingers trail along the paintjob, palm rubbing against the leather of the interior. His other hand slides lower, cups Phil through his pants, squeezes, closes around as much of his length as he can fit through the fabric and strokes lightly. Phil's losing it above him, hips snapping, face flushed, chest damp with sweat.
The position has the added bonus of bringing Phil's arm near Clint's mouth; he gives in to temptation, nips at the edge of the dragon's body, licks over the wind spiral. Phil's skin tastes warm, alive, just a hint of sweat. It's delicious.
Phil's leg slides up the seat, presses snugly against the bulge in Clint's coveralls. Clint whines in his throat, hips snapping up, rubs himself shamelessly over the firm muscle while he sucks a hickey into Phil's arm, close to his shoulder. It's fast, dirty, nothing more than the two of them rubbing off desperately against each other, too turned-on to even think about undressing further, even though just the thought of it scrambles Clint's mind.
"Next time I'm going to take your pants off, spread your legs, get on my knees for you and blow you sitting right here in the back," he promises darkly, breathy, teeth catching at his lower lip when he lets himself imagine it.
Phil's hips stutter. His cock jerks in Clint's grip; he squeezes reflexively. Phil comes keening his name, pressing into his touch, sagging against the back of the seat. "Fuck," he says, hoarse, a little disbelieving. Clint is still rolling his hips like he’s about to die if he doesn’t come in the next second; to be honest, that’s exactly how he feels, his body on overload. Phil grabs at him, pulls him closer, and Clint comes panting in Phil’s mouth, moaning his name brokenly.
“I haven’t come in my pants since I was a teenager,” Phil says a moment later, nosing around Clint’s cheek, lips dragging along Clint’s jaw, his eyes still closed. When Clint pulls back, just enough to look at Phil, he sees the smile on his face, expression of complete bliss spread over his features, and Clint grins, framing Phil’s jaw with a hand.
“I must be that good.”
Clint almost asks Phil, about Pepper, about what happened, needing to know more, but it’s torture to even think about this look gone from Phil’s face, and the talk they have to have can wait until they’re both done thinking this might only be a dream. He wants to curl up into Phil’s arms as they sleep; he wants to look at every inch of tattoo and commit it to memory; he wants to fuck Phil and be fucked by him; he wants to wake up to Phil in the morning, check out his apartment, know the way he looks right after a shower, or relaxed on the couch, watching a movie. He wants everything, and it’s hard to even put a name on it.
“How about we go back to mine?” Clint asks, leaning close to press his nose under Phil’s jaw. Phil nods, dragging his hand along Clint’s spine damp with sweat, curling his hand around the back of Clint’s neck.
“Yes. Could get food on the way. Or I can cook you something.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
Talking can definitely wait.
"Are you sure this is a good idea?"
"For the tenth time, Phil, yes. Everyone gets on just fine with Tony, and Steve can be polite for the sake of the occasion."
Phil isn't all that convinced, but he adjusts his tie anyway, checks his new cufflinks that he loves, even if he gave Clint hell for giving him cufflinks shaped like little presents for Christmas, the sap, and takes a deep breath. It's the first time his two worlds will meet properly -- even if 'collide' is a better term for what's about to occur. Tony's Christmas parties are legendary, and just like every year, everyone's encouraged to bring as many guests as possible to fill the vast Stark Hall that has been decked out for the occasion. And of course, the second Phil had mentioned it to Clint (in the garage, because he'd foolishly thought it was safe to talk about it there, really, what could possibly go wrong), and Bucky and Natasha had overheard, they'd gotten that look in their eyes that Phil knows only too well. It might as well spell mayhem.
"Nothing's going to go wrong," Clint tells him, again, as he shrugs into his jacket and reaches for his tie.
"Don't fiddle," Phil admonishes. Clint scowls, but pulls his hand back down. Phil knows he hates ties, but god above, he looks stunning in a suit. He can bear it for one evening.
Clint's expression changes when he catches Phil looking, softens, a sly smirk curling his mouth. He resettles the jacket over his shoulders pointedly, movements slow and suggestive, then runs his hands over his shirt and down his pants, like he's making sure they're tidy. It's the flimsiest excuse in the history of the world, but Phil lets him get away with it, because the visual is something he will never get tired of seeing.
They ride the elevator down to the garage together; Phil tries not to react to Clint's eyes trailing down his body in the mirror, because they are late as it is, but it's an effort.
"Stop that," he says out of the corner of his mouth, has to clear his throat when it comes out hoarse.
"Stop what?" Clint says innocently. His hand slides inside the pocket of his pants, stretching the fabric over his hips -- he's half-hard underneath. Phil has to look away, now.
"You are a menace."
Clint smothers a laugh, lets Phil walk out first when the elevator dings and the doors swoop open. There she is, his beauty, gleaming enticingly under the dim lights. She beeps encouragingly when he presses the button on the keypad, and he slides inside, takes a moment to appreciate the scent of leather and the smooth feel of the steering wheel under his hands.
Clint, at his side, is wearing that look again.
"Don't be jealous, honey," Phil says, mostly just to be an ass. Clint scowls.
"Not jealous. I was the one who prettied her up for you, remember?"
Phil just hums and turns the key, relishing the purr of the engine, pulls out of the garage and steps on the gas, not even attempting to hold back his delighted grin. The journey back into the city is calm, although traffic picks up the further in they get, so it takes a good hour before they pull up before Stark Hall's entrance. Phil hands over the keys reluctantly, but Clint catches his hand and tugs, so he sighs and follows.
As with every year, the place is stunning. There's a Christmas tree inside the lobby that rivals the one outside the White House, laden with red and gold ornaments (which tells everybody who knows Tony in the slightest exactly who's responsible for the color scheme this year). The lobby's full of people arriving, taking off their plush coats to be hung up, chit-chatting as they make their way through the enormous doors to the Hall.
“Maybe this was actually a bad idea,” Clint lets slip as some guy takes his coat too, and Phil rubs a hand between Clint’s shoulder blades, smiling softly. This is his element, he’s been to too many of these parties not to have become used to them, but Clint is new to all this, and Phil cannot imagine Clint being comfortable in this situation; nor does Phil want him to. He loves Clint in a wife beater and used jeans, with engine oil on his forehead and an easy grin on his face, tasting of sweat and not caring about the way he looks. This is too much of a farce for him, but he’s still doing it for Phil, squaring his shoulders in his suit and forcing a smile on his face.
“We can slip out early, I promise. Just got to say hi to a few people, mingle for a bit. Do my job, you know.”
Clint nods, smiles at Phil. “I’ll just find Steve and make sure he behaves.”
Phil wants to kiss Clint like he’s never wanted to kiss anyone before, right at this moment, the quiet comfort that they’re supporting each other, that they’re doing this together; he settles for grinning as they make their way into the great Hall, standing close enough to Clint to make a statement, but not actually touching Clint, even though he wants to.
“Remember what we talked about?”
Clint nods, hands in his pockets again. “No getting drunk, no crazy shenanigans, no talking politics. I’ll make you proud, Phil, don’t worry about it.”
“Not worried. Well, no, I’m worried, but not about you.”
Phil smiles, leaning close for a moment, touching his shoulder to Clint's; and then they make their way inside the room properly, grabbing glasses of champagne from a random tray as they both survey the room, looking for familiar faces. Phil wouldn’t mind if the whole affair was just them, just family, but they have to deal with this first to make sure the stakeholders are happy, and then they’ll be free to do anything they like.
He spots Steve first, and Pepper a second later. They're chatting, a glass of champagne in Pepper's hand and something sparkling in Steve's that probably isn't alcoholic -- Steve won't even accept a beer most nights, and he's certainly not going to start drinking in a situation so out of his control. He puts a hand at Clint's elbow, nods at them.
"I didn't realise they knew each other," he says, already wondering whether he needs to do damage control of some kind.
Clint follows the direction of his gaze, swallowing a little nervously. It's ridiculous; Phil has told him every single detail of what happened between him and Pepper, but Clint watches her like she's going to plant a left hook in his eye.
"Come on," Phil says gently, sliding his hand down to Clint's, rubbing a thumb over the back of it. Clint takes a deep breath and sets his face into something blank, unemotional. Phil hates to see it. He knows Pepper; she'll see right through it, but Clint doesn't need to know that, if this is what keeps him together.
"Steve deals with her when it comes to any issues with cars that need servicing, not Stark," Clint murmurs as they near. Pepper laughs, and Clint turns his hand, laces their fingers together. Phil squeezes them reassuringly. He finds it unbelievable that Clint thinks he's going to take one look at his ex-girlfriend and regret them breaking up -- but Clint's deadly serious. It makes Phil want to kiss him all the more.
They're almost there when something catches Clint's eye; he looks round and groans, "Aw, hell."
Phil turns his head, too, and bites his lip so he doesn't groan, too. Tony approaches at speed, heading straight for Pepper. Phil will bet the Mustang he doesn't realise the guy in the suit with her is Rogers.
"Pepper, you have to come, Senator Stern has cornered Fury, this can't end well--hello. Have we met?"
Phil quietly sighs and closes his eyes. It had all been going so well.
"Mr Stark," Rogers says stiffly. Phil notices Bucky and Natasha closing in at a near run from the other side, while Pepper takes Tony by the arm and tugs him away.
"No, really, you seem familiar, have I hit on you before?"
"Tony," Pepper snaps. She catches Phil's eyes and they frown at each other in dismay. This is not like Tony at all; he's an ass, sure, but he's never this rude, or this purposefully clueless.
Unexpectedly, at least for Phil, Clint's the one who steps up. "Stark, you're stealing my limelight. I'm about to meet my boyfriend's ex-fiancee, whom he broke up with because of me, for the first time. Surely I'm supposed to be the insecure drama queen here."
Tony stares at him for a long moment, then bursts into helpless laughter. "Sorry," he gasps, "sorry, sorry, you're quite right. Pepper, I like him. Don't kill him."
Pepper gives him an unimpressed look, then turns to Clint. Phil holds his breath. Not that he's worried, because he isn't, Pepper's as classy a lady as they come, but it's Clint, and suddenly this seems like a terrible idea.
"It's lovely to meet you, Clint. I've heard so much about you," Pepper says, warm, easy. Phil could kiss her, break-up or no break-up.
Clint relaxes ever so slightly at his side. "Hello, Pepper. Likewise."
Phil actually doesn't know what's happening around him. He can't take his eyes off Clint, can't even fathom how he isn't hauling him close and kissing him breathless right the hell now. He manages to stay put, drink his champagne as Clint and Tony start a conversation -- about cars of course -- and Steve gets dragged away by Natasha and Bucky, probably to keep him from punching Tony in the next five minutes, which Phil appreciates immensely. Pepper slides close to Phil, clicking her glass with his.
“So, he’s the one, huh?”
Phil picks at a thread at the bottom of his pocket, feeling nervous about the whole thing, even now, even though they’d talked about it so many times in the past few months. It’s all been such a blur and so crazy, finding a new life with Clint after spending so long with Pepper; but it’s been good, too. Satisfying. He hopes she’s this happy, too.
“Yeah. He’s the one.”