A week after Clint's last exam at university, the visits stop. Phil hardly notices at first, the end of the school year ensuring he's locked in a loop of frantically trying to keep up. Then, one night, he's reaching over to turn off his bedside light, ready to pass out, wondering fuzzily if it's going to be one of those nights that he lives for now (not that he's going to admit that to anyone), and his overworked brain catches up with the program at last. The middle-of-the-night knocks at his door have been getting rarer with the passing years, but Phil still sees Clint once every couple of weeks at least, more frequent at exam times. Yet three weeks have gone past without a trace, and no Clint to be seen.
He smothers the stab of pain in his chest, and tells himself to go to sleep.
Two more weeks, and still nothing. Worry spikes Phil's every thought, that something might have happened to Clint, and he'd have no way of finding out. No one knows about them. No one. Phil had spent weeks after their last encounter, prior to Clint's eighteenth birthday, feeling like utter shit, like filth, like a scumbag who had taken advantage of a kid, despite Clint's repeated, vicious insistence that he wasn't one. The only thing that had stopped Phil from resigning on the spot was the unequivocal knowledge that he hadn't pushed. He hadn't done a single thing, besides not turning Clint away. He'd let Clint take full control of how far it went; he had given Clint all the power.
He would never admit just how much his knees had been shaking when Clint had come back, once that last month before his birthday had melted away. Like Clint thought that would somehow make it okay; like Phil still shouldn't have known better.
He had. God help him, he had, and still he'd let Clint take what he wanted, manhandle him until Phil was where Clint needed him, slide down Phil's cock like he'd been wanting it for years. It had been Clint's choice, and maybe Phil should have tried resisting better, but in the end it came down to this: he couldn't refuse Clint a single thing. Not after everyone else was doing such a fine job of it in Clint's life. So Phil had let him, and this is where it took them, with Clint getting his fill, taking what he needed and washing his hands off of him when he was done.
And the kick of it is, Phil's happy for him. That part of him that isn't curled up miserably inside him is happy that Clint has seen the light, happy that he's finally moving on, leaving his past behind -- and yeah, Phil is part of that past, no question about it. Phil has to face it: it's over. It's just that simple.
He forces himself to stop pining over this, what is he, one of the school kids? He gets on with things, keeps himself busy, like he always does. This isn't the first time that Phil's been left behind in favour of something better, not that anyone here knows about it. It was stupid, anyway, to think that at twenty-four you have found the one person who loves you enough to stay at your side forever. Now, as then, he focuses on things outside of his own head, things that he has a chance to make better. He isn't important. He learned that lesson a long time ago.
Nevertheless. Things are hard for a while. His job has never felt so exhausting before; Phil starts losing sleep, trying to take on more and more in an effort not to think about things that make him feel like the worst person in existence. Clint deserves a new life -- a good life, where he doesn't have to settle because he thinks there's nothing else open for him, when he only needs to look around to know that's not true. To resent him for it is not acceptable.
And yet. Sadly, the facts are these: Phil is only human, in the end, and after a while things start taking their toll. The corridors of the school are haunted with memories; he can barely stand to go into the school bathroom anymore, or any of the other places where he'd caught Clint with all those people, selfish kids who didn't give a shit about him apart from what he could do for them. It had made his blood boil; to this day, he doesn't know how he kept himself from suspending the lot of them. The whole school is a tripwire, just waiting to explode in Phil's face one of these days.
When he catches his eyes lingering on the chair in his bedroom, whose back Clint has a habit of trailing his fingers over, Phil knows it's time for a change. It's that or go mad. The message Clint is sending him is plain as day. There's nothing to misunderstand.
Maybe it's time for a fresh start for him as well.
Phil puts down the last box on top of the growing stack, then straightens, stretching his back and looking around. There are boxes everywhere, and the house is almost bare, almost ready. Not long to go now. He picks up the tape gun from the table, and is just about to get to work when there's a knock on the door.
He sighs and puts it back down, passing a weary hand over his face as his gut does the familiar leap and sink, because sure as hell, just like the past twenty-seven times before, it will be a well-meaning neighbour, someone come to return something-or-other that they borrowed from Phil a while back. It won't be--the one person he wishes it were.
He makes his way to the door, plastering on his friendly Principal Coulson smile that hasn't seemed real in too long to count, ready to fake it until he makes it.
He feels his face go blank when he opens the door and sees Clint standing on his doorstep.
Clint looks good, so fucking good, in a light blue shirt that brings out his eyes, a pair of jeans that are loose but just fitted enough to make Phil's hands twitch. He looks healthier, more grounded, eyes clear of ghosts like Phil has rarely seen them. Phil doesn't know what to do here; he's lost, and Clint just stares at him, like he's seeing him for the first time.
Phil smiles, tries to make it light and friendly while inside he's folding into himself, like that could take away the pain of being right, as usual. Clint is done with this unhealthy co-dependence; he's moved on, and Phil's happy for him. He is. Clint's okay; it's all that matters.
"Can I come in?" Clint says at last, tentative like he never is, and Phil stands aside to let him pass. Clint has only taken a few steps into the room when he sees all the boxes, the packing tape, everything pointing to Phil's escape.
"You going somewhere?" Clint blurts, eyes wide and full of something that Phil can't identify.
"Yeah," he says simply, looking around, rubbing a hand over the back of his neck before catching himself and letting it drop. "Yeah, I... I got offered another job. I decided to take it."
He sees Clint's throat bob as he swallows, as his fists clench minutely at his sides. "When did you decide this?" he asks flatly.
Phil looks away; he can't hold Clint's gaze, not now. He feels raw, too exposed. "About a month ago, after you..." he cuts the words off, furious with himself. He shouldn't be saying this; he's not trying to make Clint feel guilty. There's nothing to feel guilty about here.
"After I what," Clint says softly, and there's something in his face that punches Phil in the gut, a trace of uncertainty that Phil hates to see in him.
"I don't blame you," Phil says, wanting to get that out straight away, because it's true, and he's not trying--he's not that big of a dick. "It's good that you have moved on. I'm happy for you, Clint."
Clint looks at him, and he looks haunted, like someone slammed him in the gut. "You thought I'd left you," he says, and why would he put it like that, there's nothing--there's no relationship going on between them, they are just, Phil gives Clint what he needs from him because he doesn't know how to stop--he doesn't want to. Didn't. If he was what helped Clint hold on, cope, then fuck, it was a small price to pay.
He tries to say something, but Clint shakes his head, slashes his hand down and across, and Phil's words dry out. Clint looks shaken, angry, almost. Phil wonders if this is the anger that should have been there all along, at him, at the universe, at all the shitty things life has thrown at him. It would probably be a good thing, too.
"You have been the only thing holding me together for more years than I can count, and you think that I would... that I just up and decided that I was done? That I didn't need you anymore, so I threw you away like an old t-shirt?"
Bizarrely, the words make Phil think of that one ratty t-shirt that Clint had once left at his place, early on after he started university, slipping out of the door with the pre-dawn light, stealing away like a shamed, shameful thing. Phil has worn it to sleep for so many years now that it has started to fray at the edges, the logo cracked and worn. He should throw it away, he knows, but somehow he can't bring himself to. The memories it holds, of cold hands sliding under it, of so-late-it's-early nights, of Clint's body pressing desperately to his, seeking relief -- they're all Phil has now, all that's left of something that should probably never have started in the first place, but that Phil-- He would never go back, not even if he could, and if that makes him a bad person, then so be it.
He's been silent for too long. Clint looks stricken, and furious; and yeah, okay, so Phil has been expecting this, hoping for this, for far too long, for Clint to realise he can do better than this; that his old High School Principal, who was just like the rest of them in the end, is not who Clint should be spending his time with. Doesn't make the sting any lighter, but Phil forces his face to remain composed, to not give away the ache inside him. Good thing, remember?
(It doesn't help much, but Phil has no choice in this. He won't beg Clint to stay, not when he's got the chance for something better, to let himself believe he deserves more.)
"I don't believe this," Clint says faintly, face whiter than Phil has ever seen it. "You didn't even--you'd have let me walk away, if that's what I was doing. You wouldn't have even called to tell me you were leaving?"
And just like that, Phil's suddenly so angry he can barely see straight.
"Why should I, Clint? From the start, the very start, I told you this was your choice. I was letting you make it, and I would keep giving you that power, whatever it cost. I told you that, and I never took it back. It never changed. So forgive me when, after radio silence for three months, I get the message."
Clint stares at him like he's grown two heads, expression tight. "I didn't call, or come over, because I thought--" he stops with a frustrated sigh, raking his fingers through his hair and looking down. He looks good like this, the promise of five years ago fully realised in the broadness of his shoulders, the toned muscles of his arms, the strength of the chest that Phil knows for a fact is hidden under the shirt. Phil waits him out, because he has always waited, always let Clint take the wheel, pick the speed. Clint looks back at him finally, face open and earnest, eyes entreating.
"I didn't want to do this anymore," he says, and god. Okay. Just keep breathing, Phil tells himself as the pain of it tries to tear him apart. This is nothing he wasn't expecting, hadn't told himself was coming all along. He shrugs, because he's not certain he could speak right now without his voice breaking, and turns away, picks up the tape gun and presses it firmly to the top of the box he was closing before the knock came.
Behind him, Clint sighs, hard. "Phil," he says roughly, and when Phil doesn't stop doing what he's doing, he growls. "Goddamn it, Phil, look at me."
Phil puts the tape gun down, takes a deep breath, tells himself to face it like a man. Clint looks at the edge of his tether, eyes flashing, hand clenching where he'd clapped it on Phil's shoulder to turn him around. "I didn't want to do this anymore," he repeats, and Phil grits his teeth in anger. He got the message, didn't he say?
"I wanted more," says Clint, and Phil's chest tightens.
"I know that," he says, fighting to keep his control. "I guessed as much. I'm not holding you back. You should go for what you want."
For some reason, this makes Clint huff a wry laugh, shoulders less tense than a moment ago.
"I am, you idiot. Will you stop and listen to what I'm saying? I want more, with you."
Phil's world grinds to a halt. "What?" he blurts, startled, off-balance like only Clint can make him. Funny, how Phil always thought he was unflappable -- until he met this guy right here.
Clint shakes his head. The hand on Phil's shoulder loosens its death grip, until it's just holding him in place, firm and warm and steadying. "I've been in love with you for years, since before I believed in love at all," Clint says quietly, looking right at him, blue eyes bright and hypnotising. "You never turned me away. You let me take and take, all you had to give, and you never asked for a single thing back. I didn't understand, before. I didn't know what it meant. I think I do now."
Phil swallows dryly, for the life of him unable to take his eyes away from Clint's face, what he can see there. He'd never let himself dream...
Clint watches him intently, a laser focus that never fails to make Phil's stomach flip to be the subject of. He can't hide a single thing; certainly not the blooming explosion of relief inside him that honest-to-god brings tears to his eyes, nor the helpless longing for what Clint said to be true. Clint's face softens at what he sees, mouth curving just a touch.
"God, please stop looking at me like that," he whispers, shaking his head.
"Like what?" Phil replies, just as softly.
"Like I matter."
"You do matter," Phil says, with maybe just a touch more force than he ought to -- but the way Clint's whole face lights up, it's kind of worth it.
"So," Clint says after a long moment, looking adorably bashful. Phil can't even feel ashamed for thinking it, which really says it all. "You're really moving."
"Yeah. They offered me a place at Northwestern, teaching English. I thought... Well. I guess I thought it was time for a change."
Clint looks sad again, guilty, which Phil does not want to see. "When are you leaving?"
"In a week."
Phil takes in Clint's face, a face he's known and loved so well for so long now, that keeps him steady in a way nothing else can. In that moment, Phil makes a choice. Damn it, he's done taking what he's given. For once, he's going to fight for what he wants.
"Look," he says quickly, before he can talk himself out of it. "I know I have no right to ask, it's a huge step to take, and you should think about it before you agree, there's no rush, you have all the time in the world, I can go first and you can--" But he's getting ahead of himself. He bites his lip, a habit he'd thought he'd trained himself out of. He starts again, slower, determined not to screw this up. "What I'm trying to say, to ask, is--"
Oh, thank god. Clint's lips are warm and familiar on his; his taste is exactly like Phil remembers from all their illicit nightly meetings, a hint of mint and coffee. He kisses back gratefully, relieved to be silenced. Clint's arm slides around his shoulders, and his hand comes to hold the back of his head gently, the tips of Clint's fingers scritching through the hair. He is warm and solid against Phil's front, holding him steady, a port in the storm.
"Yes," Clint murmurs against his lips when he pulls back, when they stand there bracing each other, sharing breath. "Yes, I'll come with you."
Phil can't stop the smile from taking over his face, so wide it makes his eyes almost shut. "Yeah?" he whispers, and Clint smiles back, kisses him again, slow and easy like their kisses never used to be -- but they will from now on, if Phil has any say.
"Yeah," Clint confirms, nudging Phil's cheek with his nose. "I'm done here, Phil. I'm done, and the only thing that's been keeping me is you. If you're not here, then why would I want to be? I'll go anywhere, if it means you'd be there with me."
"I am," Phil tells him, forehead touching Clint's. "I'm with you, for as long as you want me."
Clint's smile grows, slides over his mouth and makes it twist in ways that make Phil's heart sing.
"Baby," he says, looking right into Phil's eyes. "You'd better not make any other plans."