You have to understand, Natasha has known Clint for a very long time, and as his oldest friend, she reserves the right to meddle, even when she has to pull him along kicking and screaming. If left to his own devices, Clint would die an old man surrounded by motivational posters of cats clinging to trees, probably killing himself in some culinary experimentation that he read about on Pinterest. Natasha refuses to let this happen, because the ignominy of having such a friend gives her insomnia and cramps. She can’t help that she worries.
Natasha met Clint through the campus café. Clint likes to say that he had it all under control; Natasha says it was the first of many times of her saving his nose from being broken. They agree to disagree.
As a freshman, Clint’s work-study program offers him on-campus employment, which translates to whiling away his free time and sanity in the student-run café. He sets his own hours, which are many, and slowly despairs that everyone who goes to this school needs at least five minutes to decide on their order. The official menu never changes; he doesn’t get what’s so difficult.
An eight ounce, plain, black coffee runs a buck fifty, not much cheaper than the Starbucks on the corner, but the service is arguably faster, if meaner; Clint is surly in the morning, but his new policy should help: know your order, or end of the line. It catches on quickly, minus the lax-bro or two who never quite understands.
His favorite customer is this chick with red hair who never smiles at him, even though he makes an effort to at least be human and friendly in her presence, but he’s pretty sure if she ever actually made an expression at him instead of at her coffee, he’d die of shock. At least she doesn’t give him the dead eye that she gives the unfortunate frat boy of the day who decides to hit on her; he’s got that much going for him.
(It doesn’t occur to him until later she might like his snarky comebacks better than his smile.)
She’s one of his regulars: five past eight every morning, black coffee, two sugars—no room for cream, thanks, always a fierce expression on her face, except for the brief eyelid flutter of pleasure at the first sip of caffeine that doesn’t come from a can of Tab that the corner store sells. Not that Clint spends a lot of time thinking about that look, or how she reverently holds the cup, as if her hands could never be warm enough and this is the last source of heat she has.
Clint likes her a lot, likes the sleek way she weaves through the crowded quad, that ever-present sense of hunting that she gives off, the look she turns on the other café customers when they’re slow to order or too loud in the morning. Apparently, she doesn’t mind him so much either, if the way she wipes the floor with a violent customer is anything to go on.
After that, the only thing Clint can do is offer her his name and free coffee every morning, which gets him an almost painfully firm handshake, a flicker of a smile, and three syllables—Natasha. Somehow free coffee turns into commiserating about intolerable customers, turns into the two of them taking Cultural Anthropology, turns into to a Bronislaw Malinowski drinking game and Clint waking up during finals week naked in a fountain with Natasha hanging upside down in a tree a couple yards away.
Natasha and Clint develop an odd sort of friendship after that, one based off Nat’s ability to maintain a poker face in the face of evil, such as Dean Fury, who has had it out for Clint ever since he started a blog that speculated on the origin of his eye-patch—Clint’s most popular theory to date is that it was lost in a fight with the Financial Aid Department secretary, who carries around knitting needles but never any yarn—and Clint’s penchant for finding random games of campus laser tag and unbelievably cheap vodka. They make it work.
(And fine, in retrospect, he’s not exactly upset that she stepped in like a badass and took down that angry frat boy who was upset that Clint didn’t care to let him take all the time he needed to place his order, because Clint has many strong suits, his quick wit and his abilities with a sling shot or any projectile weapon to name a few, but punching isn’t really his thing. In any case, Natasha had it under control and like hell will he concede the argument now.)
He hits on her, just once, tries an awkward yawn and stretch movement because he spent months thinking of her red lips curling into a smile just for him, her crazy long legs wrapped around his hips, and then he got to know her, and now all he sees is her snarl of a grin, the easy sprawl of her legs as they talk while he closes up shop, but it seems the thing to do, seems to be the way to keep her here with him a little longer, before she realizes that Clint has enough issues to print his own weekly newsletter and she leaves.
So Clint slips an arm around her shoulder as they watch a movie, hoping she’ll lean into him and terrified of what will happen if she does. What he gets is a moment of intense stillness before she elbows him in the stomach, and as he gasps for breath, she steals his drink and turns to stare him down.
The crushing sense of relief he feels lasts only a moment before terror floods him at the sight of her glare. He pulls his arm back quickly, “I didn’t—”
“Clint,” she cuts him off, “this isn’t going to happen, you know that, right?”
And as he tries to stutter out an explanation, an apology, something to erase the last five minutes, she just nods decisively, turns back to the movie, and that’s that. He assumes he’s forgiven since she doesn’t disembowel him or break his nose.
(Of course, two months later they wake up naked in Clint’s bed, sore enough and with vague enough memories to remember that the sex had been athletic and great and definitely a mistake. He thinks they fell off the bed at one point. They lie there for a second, stewing in the awkward until Clint rolls over to ask, “Midterm amnesty?”
Natasha cocks her head, “Only if there’s bacon.”
As he heads into the kitchen, Natasha calls out, “I could also give you some pointers, if you want? There are a few areas of your technique that could use some work….”
Clint turns to glare at her, “Just for that, no bacon for you.”
Her laugh follows him, and as the bacon sizzles, he thinks they’re going to be alright.)
Clint meets Dan when Natasha drags him to some dive bar that she claims has decent music and better beer. She also says that exposure to people without money being exchanged can only be good for him, but since thus far he’s only been exposed to lukewarm beer and angry kids beating on their instruments, he’s not entirely convinced.
Dan is trying to carry three plastic cups of beer without spilling while periodically glaring at a guy standing along the wall. When Clint helps him out, Dan gives him a beer to hold and dumps another on his newly made ex-boyfriend.
They commiserate about the shitty local band, the false advertising of acceptable beer, and as the uneven beat pounds through his chest, Clint thinks that maybe Natasha’s plan was working out after all.
Two months in, Dan is still sweet and still likes curling up with Clint to watch crappy action movies, but something inside Clint is getting restless, starting to pull and scratch at the limits of their relationship and balk at the constant touching.
It’s not that he doesn’t like Dan, he does, it’s that Dan is starting to talk about going home next weekend, and is Clint doing anything? It’s that Dan wants to stay the night, wants Clint to come over and help him cook dinner, wants to make plans for Fall Break, and Clint just… can’t.
His heart scrabbles in his chest like a cornered animal, because Dan is asking for more and more and Clint doesn’t have that kind of generosity, doesn’t have that ability to love without second-guessing and giving in to fear.
So when he hears the desperate edge in Dan’s voice when he says they’re going on a double date with his roommate Clare, Clint immediately starts planning an escape route, because if Dan is catching on then it’s really time to bail.
Clare and Steve are cute, in terms of opposites attract. She’s tiny where he’s tall, dark where he’s light, loud where Steve is painfully shy. A pint-size Zooey Deschanel meets Captain America. They look like a couple in very-strong-like, maybe-even-love, and Clint feels like an imposter standing next to Dan.
When Dan abandons him for an in-depth conversation about soccer, Clint tries to look anywhere but at Steve, because eye contact means conversation, and while sitting in silence is physically painful, he’d rather that than small talk.
The problem is, Steve is built like a linebacker and takes up a lot of room across the table. He ducks his head when he does talk and scrubs the back of his neck when Clare brings up his drawing skills, looking so uncomfortable in his own skin that Clint fidgets in sympathy.
Dinner is awkward as hell, with Dan and Claire carrying the conversational weight, but Clint doesn’t do well with strangers and apparently neither does Steve, so Clint doesn’t know why Dan is so surprised and angry that the dinner was a bust.
Things make a bit more sense when Dan rounds on him later that night and accuses him of flirting with Steve. Clint isn’t sure when he would’ve flirted with Steve, maybe sometime between the utter silence after their introduction and the near silence while they ate, but he rolls with it, because this is the perfect out.
So Clint yells back, agrees with the flirtatious, under the eyelashes glances that he and Steve ostensibly swapped, the obvious subtext in the five words they exchanged, makes himself the bad guy because it’s easier this way, simpler.
When Steve comes in to the café later in the week, Clint learns that apparently Clare also took Steve’s uncomfortable looks as suppressed desire. Steve takes great pains to assure him that while Clint may be a handsome man—and in the background, Clint can hear Natasha choke on her chai tea—,Steve just isn’t interested in him in that way, and Steve’s whole face becomes more earnest on those last three words.
When Clint says that Dan had the same idea, Steve flushes a mottled red and begins stammering apologies, until Clint takes pity and reassures him of their mutual lack of attraction to each other. Behind him, Natasha has upgraded to full blown cackling.
On the bright side, he gets Steve in the divorce, and Steve turns out to be pretty great when he isn’t under the crushing pressure to perform like a good boyfriend.
Clint and Natasha may have been friends for two years now, but that doesn’t mean he knows much about her past, her history; Natasha’s silences and early morning stillness say enough for her. What he does know, is that he can count on one hand the amount of times he’s seen her smile at someone without tension in the corners of her lips, which makes the small smile as she’s talking to some guy in the coffee shop all the more surprising.
He nods to her when they walk in, but doesn’t call out, doesn’t want to ruin whatever that is, because whatever made her so distant and stereotypically Russian at times seems to be forgotten when the guy ducks his head and smiles back.
Natasha walks over after he leaves, and if Clint didn’t know any better, he’d think she was blushing. “So—who’s short, dark, and fluffy over there?”
Clint smiles broadly, but she only scowls back. “Bruce, he’s in my chem class,” and when Clint starts to say something, she cuts him off, “I don’t want to talk about it.”
And yeah, Clint understands that, he’s got a boatload of his own issues, but that doesn’t mean he’s not curious.
(Natasha tries not to think about Bruce too much, tells herself that it’s still early, that the warmth at the base of her neck when he touches her elbow cautiously might not mean anything, but then again, it might.
She doesn’t think about how sometimes he scares her, because for all his shy smiles and dark curls, there’s something in him that resonates with her, something heavy in his eyes that makes her think of Russia in winter—huddling around the fireplace and trying not to get too close but sometimes that almost burn is the difference between having feeling in the morning and waking up blue and shaking, and Natasha has always liked to skirt that line.)
When October comes around and everyone is struggling to fall back into routine after Fall Break, Clint wakes up and knows immediately that he isn’t in his own bed, isn’t in his crappy apartment shivering. He’s surprisingly warm and the sheets don’t smell like day old Chinese food; he looks over—Emily.
He remembers dinner and a movie, going out for drinks and stumbling back to her place, falling to her bed and making out until his jaw was sore, going down on her until she was whimpering and then just a bit longer, until sleep deficit and too many beers and the comfort of shared body heat lulled them to sleep.
She’s still sleeping, so Clint creeps out of bed—clothes still on, thank God—and sneaks out of her apartment, feeling like the world’s biggest asshole, but he can’t stay. Can’t watch her wake up and see that quiet morning lassitude, the slow gentle stretches of the warm and newly wakened. Better to quit while he’s not emotionally attached.
Clint checks his watch: half past, almost time to open.
She leaves a voicemail while he’s at work, calling him out on sneaking out, asking him to call her back, and the tight restraint in her voice lets him know that she’s pissed and that if he isn’t careful, this could be the end.
He dodges her and her calls for the next week.
His break up with Emily is very public and very loud. She storms into the café, hair a mess from the wind, lips bitten red in fury, and throws mug after mug at his head. Tells him to go to hell because he made her feel cheap, made her feel like just another notch in his belt, and she’ll be damned if she wastes another moment on such a fucking useless piece of shit like him.
It’s not that he didn’t deserve it, and the hush when she leaves the café makes it clear that everyone else thinks he deserved it.
Later that night, as Natasha plies him with vodka and perogies, he slurs out his determination not to date for a long, long time, because he can’t keep doing that, can’t keep watching their faces fall when he runs into them after weeks of silence, can’t keep setting everything up to fail, dominos just waiting to fall.
And when he’s ridiculously hung-over the next morning, clutching the toilet and wearing a pair of shutter shades for all the good they’re doing, Natasha rubs his back and doesn’t remind him of his rant, but he remembers his weak declaration, and decides it can stand.
Clint drags Natasha to Tony’s Halloween party only partly because Tony accuses him of having no other friends, and clearly his honor must be avenged. Mostly he does it because Natasha is awesome, so why wouldn’t he want her there to mock the music and costumes with him.
(Well, really he says, “Hey, come to Tony’s party with me? I’m 90% positive he’ll try to hit on you, and the inevitable smack down can only be impressive.”
Natasha looks at him with that terrifying soulless expression and punches his arm, says, “Dick move,” before agreeing to go only if he wears a costume of her choosing as an apology.)
They meet up at the café. Clint feels like a tool in his canary yellow cape until Natasha shows up in a surprisingly complex Batman costume, dragging Bruce behind her in what’s clearly his usual cardigan with elbow patches; then he just feels ridiculous.
When he turns to look expectantly at Bruce, Bruce just shrugs, “I thought Tony meant strippers in costume, not us,” to which Clint can only nod understandingly, because Bruce looks like a sad puppy and that definitely sounds like a Tony party.
Surprisingly, Clint has fun, a lot of which has to do with his new acquaintance, Thor, who definitely heard the bit about strippers in costume, only he took it as everyone was supposed to dress as a stripper. The tiny red g-string is a big hit with the sorority sisters and Tony tucks a truly ridiculous amount of money into Thor’s ensemble while Steve looks on in despair.
Steve does a lot of looking on in despair, a red solo cup clenched in his fist, as Tony flirts with one girl after another. Clint doesn’t realize until Natasha nods pointedly in Steve’s direction, and then he doesn’t mean to laugh, honestly, but if half of the campus has commented on Tony leering at Steve’s ass and pining awkwardly when he thinks no one’s looking, how Steve doesn’t see it is something Clint will never understand.
When they leave, party drunk and stumbling, Clint looks over at Natasha, sees her tuck her head into Bruce’s shoulder as he winds an arm around her waist, catches that small smile and the faint blush she hides when she sees Clint watching her. And Clint knows that this is a good thing, that Natasha has found someone to let in, to keep her together on those late nights when her past catches up, but he also knows he’s going to have to corner Bruce at some point, going to have to let him know that if he hurts Natasha, Clint is going to come after him like the hand of God, no matter that Natasha will probably cut his balls off for even thinking that she can’t handle herself, but it’s Natasha. Natasha who lets people in begrudgingly and then fights with everything she is, everything she took with her from Russia by way of tooth and claw, to keep them safe, and so if Bruce stomps all over the fucking gift of Natasha’s presence, Clint will be there with a shotgun and a shovel.
(At some early point, Bruce had told her that he wasn’t good at relationships, that someone had left him burned and raw, left him with this knot of anger in his chest, but Natasha’s no good with people either, so it seemed to even out. She just thought that at some point they would meet in the middle.
One morning, Natasha wakes up next to Bruce and realizes that this is the first time. The first time he’s stayed; the first time there were no awkward excuses as someone searches for that missing sock; the first time she’s woken up with her head on his chest and his breath slow and easy. She thinks about what that says about her, about him, that they’ve been dancing back and forth for two years and this is the first time they’ve been able to spend a night together.
Bruce wakes up quietly, just a deep inhale and quick tensing of muscles, and when he realizes that Natasha is in bed with him, or rather, that he is still there, she gets to watch a look of discomfort and regret cross his face. All this before he even opens his eyes.
She can’t decide if she should feign sleep or watch him sidle out. She chooses sleep. At least this way she doesn’t have to watch him avoid her eyes.
It hurts, but she thinks about the look in his eyes when she surprises him with coffee, how he bought her that scarf she had eyed at the street market, and thinks that she won’t give up just yet.)
Eventually, their four years are up and as President Fury addresses their class, tells them while they may have given him his third ulcer and a new symptom of heart palpitations, he knows that this group will do great, inspiring things, if only because they were the pioneers of the “Shit Fury Says” Twitter and the “Maria Hill Sleeping Places” Tumblr.
Natasha graduates with a Bachelor’s in political science and dance and no idea what to do with either. She reads an article about dance as a medium for political change, but can’t think of her body as anything other than a weapon of her past, the lean expanse of her waist and the endless stretch of her legs as tools to remake someone’s mind, and so the idea of using herself once again is unappetizing. She realizes that in this political economy, if she plans on working for the government, she might as well go home to Russia. At least there, she could find quality vodka to drown her hatred of suits, wasted time, and needless paperwork to be completed in triplicate.
Clint decides he hates his degree in American history and never actually wants to think about the role that travelling circuses and fairs played in perpetuating the unspoken stereotypes of otherness and marginalization again. When he announces this at the bar, there’s a general cheer and someone buys him a shot in consolation.
Bruce decides he’s going to save up to go to India next year; he says to “find himself.” Natasha mutters something uncomplimentary in Russian, but takes it stoically otherwise.
Tony doesn’t think of the future beyond the next blueprint and with more money than God, he doesn’t need to. Steve flirts with the Army, much to Tony’s sad eyes, before turning to architecture and imagines sleek lines and open spaces and murals in mezzanines, and with connections like Tony behind the scenes, he makes out alright.
In the end, Clint takes a job as a manager of a local café, and Natasha roams the city, scouting out the mainstream competition and generally being as ruthless as possible in weeding them out, all to ensure One Shot Coffee’s eventual domination, which she imagines will be the stuff of legend.
To be fair, Natasha did have plans, more thought-out plans than Clint did, at least. She was going to go work on Capitol Hill, maybe as a lobbyist for someone or other, but when it came down to actually writing cover letters, she couldn’t do it. As Clint likes to crow while he grinds his free trade, organic coffee beans, she couldn’t sell herself to “the Man.”
Instead, Natasha hangs out in Clint’s coffee shop and takes shameless advantage of the Wi-Fi and the discounted coffee, with the occasional foray to other independent stores, just to see what’s out there and listen to some truly terrible open-mic performances. She surrounds herself with too many hipsters who whine about “not being able to meet anyone good in this postructuralist society that places such a high regard on social standing and appearance,” and who complain, “They just want to meet someone real, you know?” She hears them cry out that everyone is buying into this superficial bullshit, and no, “I only like The Arcade Fire ironically.”
Natasha sips her chai latte and mourns for her four years at college, which gave her Clint, an overpriced degree, a sense of disillusionment, but not much else.
Six months later, grace period ends and the reality of their student loans come crashing down.
Clint sends out a mass text, “STUDENT LOAN MEMORIAL SERVICE TONITE @ MY PLACE. BYOB.”
Steve responds with, “Is Tony coming?”
Clint shows the text to Natasha and she just laughs, hugging her pregame vodka, preparing for another night of awkward pining between the two.
By midnight, Clint is wearing a lampshade on his head while trying to dip Steve; Bruce and Tony, the latter in between covert glances at Steve, are attempting to calculate the chemical makeup of Toaster Strudels; and Natasha is still hugging her vodka and laughing at all of them.
Clint collapses on the couch next to her nudges her shoulder, nodding at Tony and the way Steve is trying to pour another drink without looking as he pines in Tony’s direction. He raises his eyebrow, “Think one of them will make a move?”
She smiles, “Not without help.”
Later, fuelled by cheap vodka, discussion of the coffee shop, and her usually repressed desire to match-make, Natasha turns to Clint and says, “You know, if I gathered all those fucking hipsters into one location, gave them five minutes of face time with a couple different people, maybe they’d stop whining and I could finally read my mystery novels in peace.”
Clint just laughs and takes another shot, “That’s speed dating, Nat, and while you’d have a better chance corralling cats and forcing them to get along, the event itself would be hilarious and magical. You could sell tickets just to watch the awkward.”
And thus, the idea for Hipster Speed Dating is born.
Hipster Speed Dating becomes Natasha’s project. She researches, for a given value of research, which actually entails her camping out in various “underground” cafes and listening to skinny boys in skinnier jeans talk about Dostoyevsky and the deeper meaning of Prague and the Jewish ghetto in Kafka’s work, while girls in scarves and cardigans and thick-rimmed glasses argue about social justice obligations and the upcoming election at the next table over.
Turns out, setting up such an event isn’t too difficult. A trip to Staples gets her supplies, and she’s already commandeered Clint’s shop as the venue after cutthroat negotiations—
“Wait a sec—what’s this about free coffee? Nat….”
“That can be your price of admission to the shit-show.”
He frowns, “I want 50%.”
She kicks him in the shins—“Fuck, Natasha, that hurt!” —“30%, and that’s that.”
—so she goes around to all the local shops, hanging up posters that advertise:
Need a date for Saturday?
Come to Hipster Speed Dating – Thursday, 7 PM
Meet other ironically inclined liberal arts graduates in a safe space.
Coffee and light snacks provided. Cover: $20, cash only—One Shot Coffee
5th St and Mockingbird
“Well—that should get their attention.”
Turns out, there’s a fair amount of people in the city that like the idea of meeting other painfully ironic, scarf-wearing singles. The first event is a success, and Natasha is still bored, so what should have been a one-time event evolves into Speed Dating Thursday at One Shot Coffee.
Clint is mostly just a spectator, brewing coffee and pushing muffins onto unsuspecting hipsters, but is the occasional fill-in when Natasha is short, and this works for them both until Clint meets Phil Coulson.
Clint meets Phil when Natasha is short a person one evening and Clint graciously agrees to fill in. Phil is wearing a pinstriped suit and a tie that Clint would swear has tiny Batman-symbol accents; he has the look of a lawyer and the sly grin of a cardsharp. Clint learns that Phil is there under duress: his assistant, Darcy, the pin-up bombshell whose laugh attracts the eyes of the entire room and keeps it there by way of her pencil skirt and plum colored blouse, threatened
that if he didn’t go with her just to make sure there were no sketch people who’d stab her and steal her liver, she’d misfile every incoming appointment and reorganize her color-coding system that he’d come to depend upon way too much. There was apparently also talk of harm if he didn’t at least talk to someone this week who didn’t work in his office, but that bit is mumbled. And so here he is, Phil Coulson, Risk Management and Insurance Fraud, quiet badass. (That last bit is left off, but Clint recognizes the set of Phil’s shoulders, the wry twist to his lips, and the steel just hidden in his eyes.)
For someone who’s usually pretty tightlipped, Clint finds himself spilling a lot in the course of their five minute conversation. By the end, Phil knows that Clint has feelings about American history, particularly the vaudeville and travelling circus era, that he hates the general public but especially the preteen persuasion, and unabashedly loves Mamma Mia! Even more tellingly, Clint has let slip that he has no family other than what he makes in Natasha and Tony, with a few new inclusions.
(By this point, Natasha is keeping an eye on Clint, on Phil, because Clint is leaning forward and there’s a genuine smile on his face, and the rarity of that sight in the presence of strangers is enough to raise her suspicions. It’s not until he throws his head back and full out laughs she realizes that maybe she should have been paying more attention, because she knows that face, remembers that laugh from when they first got drunk playing Where in the World is Claude Lévi-Strauss. Clint likes him. It’s the same face she saw when he was going out with Emily for two weeks, who Nat knew he liked because he’d come back from their dates and lean on the counter, this slight smile on his face that he only got when he was happy but not thinking about it, only to stop calling her because he said “she was moving too fast,” when she knows that Emily had only wanted Clint to be a bit more open.
She asked him once, what happened that made him so scared, and he just turned and said, “Eventually you get tired of sticking your heart out there.” Natasha learns later through careful digging and questionable hacking in the Student Life Office that Clint had been worked over by the foster system, by his brother, by just about every person he ever leaned on. She learns that his friendship with her is an exception that even he’s not sure how it slipped through.)
At the end of the night, Clint gravitates back toward Phil and nudges him gently, because all Clint knows is that Phil made him laugh, made him smile and feel for five minutes that he fit in his skin the way he’s supposed to, and he’s not ready to let that go. So he doesn’t analyze it, just talks about coffee and hipsters and then somehow The Vampire Diaries and the questionable love triangle being constructed between Elena, Damon and Stefan, and the whole time Clint can feel Natasha’s eyes on him, but if he doesn’t acknowledge it then obviously it’s not happening.
(What Clint doesn’t know but Natasha does, is that he functions a lot like a horse with blinders: he goes right up to that ledge and doesn’t see the whole picture until it’s time to jump, and usually he’d shy away, but maybe not this time.
She keeps all these things to herself, but isn’t surprised when Darcy comes up and says, “Sorry, hope I’m not distracting you from the failboats over there, but I just wanted to congratulate you on this event. Definitely not what I expected—absolutely in the best way, though, promise. But I’ve got to ask, what’s up with your boy? Because my boss is having actual expressions right now and I’d like to keep them.”
Natasha can only look at her placidly, because Darcy is playing a dangerous game, feigning dumb, like she didn’t know Clint’s name the instant her boss gave him a second look, like Natasha didn’t have Phil’s entry sheet memorized the moment Clint bit his lip like he pretends he doesn’t. But really, Natasha gets it, because when someone as guarded as Clint, or apparently Phil, lets you in even a little, you watch like a fucking hawk to stave off any future pain.
She thinks about Bruce, how she never thought she’d get the occasional lazy Sunday morning and how he always looks so surprised that she still wants to see him, so Natasha looks at Clint’s face, at the way his eyes are crinkling, how Phil is watching him, eyes soft and she can see, even from here, that Phil wants to reach out, put a hand on Clint’s elbow, on anything at all.
When she turns back, Darcy is watching her, something like understanding on her face, so Natasha just murmurs that if Clint is going to love, he’s going to put everything out there on a silver platter, and she’d rather it be worth it.
Darcy pauses before saying, just as quietly, “Phil has a secret collection of patterned and themed socks that he thinks I don’t know about. They come out on Fridays and alternating Tuesdays, after budget meetings. He needs a little shaking up; Clint would probably be good for him.”
And that’s that. They exchange numbers because their boys simply aren’t mature enough to keep a date without a carrot and a stick, and that smile on Clint’s face only comes rarely.)
Clint thinks about Phil that night, about the telltale lines at the corner of his eyes that crinkled when he was biting back a smile as he argued for the slow build up of a Damon/Elena relationship, about their parting handshake and how Clint hoped he wasn’t imagining that they both lingered just a bit. He thinks about the business card in his wallet, the scrap receipt he had handed to Phil that had his own name and number on it. He thinks about the awkward phone conversation that they’d have if he actually called and resolves to throw out the card out in the morning, to chalk it all up to caffeine consumption and a healthy fear of Natasha. He carefully doesn’t think about self-sabotage, about how Emily had thrown that phrase and a mug at his head when she stalked him down after he abruptly stopped returning her calls.
(Clint wakes up later that night, hard in his briefs with his imagination supplying Phil’s hands, firm on his chest, on his dick; Phil’s voice low and hoarse, scraping along Clint’s skin and sending shivers up his spine; and it’s all Clint can do to bring himself off before falling back, panting and staring up at the ceiling, feeling like sometime when he wasn’t paying attention, things had spiraled out of his control.)
Their first date is kind of a disaster. There’s actual fire, for one.
Natasha and Darcy don’t trust them to show up, because Clint is a self-saboteur extraordinaire and Phil is a coward in matters of the heart, which translates to an awkward dinner in a very public restaurant that they are literally escorted to. The maître d’ stares and Clint is torn between falling back into his rebellious days and sneering, or squirming uncomfortably in the suit he hasn’t worn since graduation; it fits just as poorly as it did then, and makes him think of years of posing for Christmas photos with foster families as he desperately tried to pretend he belonged.
Phil rests a hand at the small of his back, and for a moment, everything isn’t so bad, until Clint accidentally kicks the table and the candle falls over and well, things go downhill from there.
Clint falls onto the couch and immediately presses a pillow over his face.
Natasha watches bemusedly, “If you’re trying to smother yourself, it won’t work. Survival instinct’s a bitch.”
“If you’re going to break into my apartment to mock me, the least you can do is make me a drink,” Clint says as he sits up indignantly, looking ridiculous with his hair standing on end.
Considering she set him up on the first date from hell, a drink doesn’t seem too much to ask for.
Eight drinks later, Clint is upside down on the couch, his head on the floor, and he’s trying to sing as Natasha observes from a debatably more upright position, until he’s not, and he says softly, “I really like him, Nat,” and she can only push him off the couch and say, “I won’t let you screw this up. Promise.”
(Clint remembers nothing in the morning, but Natasha remembers that hesitant look on his face, the way his voice trembled just a bit, and resolves to be a bit sneakier about this matchmaking business.
And even though Clint has conveniently forgotten his confession, Natasha promised. She doesn’t make those lightly, has a lifetime of broken promises in her past, from her father, from her mother, from Bruce, and so Clint may jokingly promise to be careful or to actually clean the café bathroom without bribing one of his underlings, but Natasha never says it unless she means it.)
Their second date goes a bit better, in that Clint and Phil actually plan it themselves and Natasha limits herself to providing an excess of alcohol.
They go mini-golfing and Clint calls it a success, because to him, you’re not having fun until someone asks you to leave. Which security does. Who know they were so strict about waiting your turn. Phil says it has something to do with Clint imitating an old lady to complain about the family with four children in front of them. In any case, Phil is actually laughing so Clint isn’t too upset.
The cooler of beer resting in the backseat of Clint’s car is Natasha’s apology for meddling, and although he still wants to know how she broke into his car (again) without leaving a scratch, he’s learned not to ask and just take it for the peace offering it is.
He and Phil put it to good use at the drive-in, lying on the hood of his car, beers warming in their hands. The movie doesn’t even register, just the warm line of Phil against his side, the press of his hand on Clint’s thigh as he makes some point, the glimpse of his smile in the flickering light. Who can blame Clint for leaning over and slanting his mouth over Phil’s, swallowing his love for early cinema and avant-garde camera angles, when Phil tastes like hops from the beer and sugar from the m&m’s Clint found in the glove compartment and leans into Clint like he’s been waiting all night for this moment?
Natasha is needling Clint for details about his last date with Clint when Bruce interrupts and says, “I leave for India next week.”
From the sudden silence and the tense set of Natasha’s jaw, Clint guesses that this is just as new to her. “I’ll just—I’m going to be elsewhere, now.”
As he walks quickly into the kitchen, he can hear Natasha’s voice, low and angry, and Clint wishes he could do something, because she doesn’t deserve this. He turns for one last look and watches how the space between Natasha and Bruce grows; how Natasha’s face sinks back into her freshman year expression, empty; how Bruce seems reach for her hand and Natasha doesn’t flinch, but she stills, and then Bruce withdraws and he’s gone.
Clint ducks out the back door and calls Phil, needing to hear his voice and drown out the image of the lack of expression on Natasha’s face.
He tries to keep an eye on Nat after that, tries to make things a little smoother for her, but well, Phil. He knows that’s not an excuse, but Clint is a master of denial.
Things between him and Phil ease when they finally get that they’re old enough that it’s not about trying so hard, it’s about feeling safe and feeling like home when you watch some crappy movie on TV, tuning out midway through to neck like teenagers on the couch. They go paintballing, and Phil holds his own against Clint’s years of hunting and target practice and archery extracurriculars. They spend a misguided day at a museum, and surprisingly, it’s Phil who runs out of patience first when Clint is content to spend a little longer staring at van Gogh’s Cypresses, wondering about how it might feel to perch there, to rest until your heart beats with the forest and the wind tells you when change is coming.
They learn and they grow and it feels like Phil is burrowing his way into Clint’s everything and it scares Clint, but he sticks it out and clenches his teeth because he’s tired of people throwing mugs at his head and crying. He’s tired of denying himself those easy moments that Natasha and Bruce had, tired of trying to fake it until he makes it, tired of thinking that he’s happiest alone.
And he thinks that things are going so well, and then Clint hears Phil talking on the phone about him, about how he actually likes this guy, Ma, and yeah, he knows it’s been a long time coming, but he really thinks this is it—and then Phil turns and sees Clint in the doorway and that slow, warm smile spreads across his face, like simply seeing Clint is enough to brighten his day. Clint walks over and winds his way into Phil’s space, wrapping an arm around his waist and leaning in to rub his cheek against Phil’s gray shirt, but inside he’s freaking out and doing his best to not tense up, because Phil is some sort of body language savant and Clint isn’t ready to have that talk yet.
The thing is, Clint doesn’t know what to do with that kind of honest emotion, even if it’s not at him, it’s about him, and that smile on Phil’s face? The quick kiss he brushes across Clint’s forehead? Clint is already thinking about the best way to run.
It goes on for two weeks before Natasha figures it out. Two weeks of gradual pulling away—clipped conversations, backing out of dinners then lunches then brunches (when did Clint turn into someone who “does brunch?”), ignoring phone calls and text messages, until Phil hunts him down. It’s like Emily all over again, only this time, Clint is having trouble rationalizing it to himself and Phil is way too dignified to throw a mug at his head. No, Phil just comes in to the café and actually waits in line, only to tell Clint that he’s going away on a business trip and when he gets back, Clint better have pulled his head out of his ass, or Phil will do it for him.
Clint stands there, dumbfounded, until a customer awkwardly coughs and places an order. As he struggles to get his composure back, Clint spies Natasha slowly shutting her laptop and very deliberately straightening up her things on the table before she stalks towards him, and Clint swears he sees death coming his way.
(Natasha doesn’t blame herself, but she still feels a certain amount of guilt. She had promised she wouldn’t let him run this into the ground, but in the wake of Bruce leaving and the subsequent radio silence except for a couple postcards with smeared ink and descriptions of scenery, Natasha had let herself… wallow.
The look of fear on Clint’s face as she approaches is actually a good sign, because it means he knows he has fucked up, and that means she can still help him fix this.)
Clint is partially convinced Natasha is going to drive him out to the suburbs, kneecap him, and leave him amidst the soccer moms and preteens in a Target parking lot, but when she parks on the street in front of a brownstone, he’s not actually sure if this any better. Then he sees the plaque with the teacup and the engraving, Lady Mendl’s, and he knows it’s not.
She doesn’t say anything until they’re seated, and even then it’s just to say, “Try the cucumber sandwiches; you’ll like them.”
He doesn’t. Clint hates mint and Natasha knows it, but the look of amusement on her face as he bites into the cucumber with mint crème fraiche makes him hold his tongue.
As she’s sipping her tea, Clint questions idly, “Why didn’t we go to The Russian Tea Room, patronize the motherland and all that? Wouldn’t that be more your style?”
She raises an eyebrow and deliberately sets her teacup down with a gentle motion. “I had no idea you were so dedicated to “the motherland,” as you put it. A visit can be arranged, if you’d like?”
Clint sees the look in her eyes, the strain in her jaw, and shoves another cucumber sandwich in his mouth before he chokes on his own foot.
(It’s true, there is the famous Russian Tea Room, where Russian expats used to gather and think of better days. She went one winter afternoon, hoping for the good bits of Russia to be present, the bits with warm and spicy tea, and backhanded conversation that you know means just a little bit of harm in the best way, but all that trip did was sharpen the lingering edge of her memories, the hints of never being good enough or interesting enough. Thinking back on the always too curt tone of the waiters, the look of expectancy and irritation in their eyes, if she had wanted that version of Russia, she would’ve gone home. )
They sit in silence, picking at the sandwiches, sipping tea slowly, until Clint breaks. “How do I fix it?”
Natasha smiles and pushes the teapot across the table. “Drink,” she says, and in between cups of tea and more clotted cream than he ever wanted, they hash out a plan to salvage his relationship.
It mainly involves actually expressing his emotions, and Clint feels a little sick.
The plan hinges on Clint not talking to Phil on the phone, so he calls when he knows Phil is busy. Cowardly, yes, but it also comes with the handy option of recording and rerecording a voice mail until Clint sounds less like he’s going through puberty and more like an actual adult. It also circumvents Clint’s unique ability to maneuver everything into an argument.
When Phil shows up in his suit, tie loosened around his neck, Clint wants to slip into his space and wrap his hands around Phil’s waist, untuck his shirt until he can touch skin. But Clint doesn’t have that right anymore, so he clenches his fists in his pocket and tells Phil to come in.
Clint paces in front of the couch, hands gripping his hair until his knuckles whiten, and Phil is honestly concerned that Clint is going to lose chunks of hair during this breakdown. It’s silent except for Clint’s frantic breathing, until he sits himself down on the couch as far from Phil as he can, and, staring straight ahead, says, “It’s highly possible that I have serious trust issues. And major abandonment issues. It’s kind of a thing. A couple therapists have mentioned it. And Natasha. And I’ve been trying, I have, because I don’t want you to be another regret, but I’m a fucking coward, Phil, and I don’t know how to get over that.”
Phil reaches out blindly to get some sort of grounding contact with Clint, something to keep him on this couch, and blurts out, “Like this.” When Clint immediately stills even more, Phil thinks he’s crossed some line, that somehow in his weeklong absence, Clint became more of an island and more unreachable than he had been before Phil left.
And then he realizes that his hand is actually way higher on Clint’s thigh than he meant it to be.
“Wait, I meant by actually talking to me, not—that,” and then his appalled look fades to something a bit more considering, “at least, not just that.”
Clint lets out a strangled laugh before sprawling back on the couch and scrubbing a hand over his chin, “I really am sorry, and trust me, Natasha reamed me up one side and Darcy got the other, but I need to say it and you definitely need to hear it. I was a dick, and a coward, and I still am, but the past three weeks without you have been miserable for me. I saw a preteen being accosted by a pigeon outside the café, and I wanted to text you, because you always have a quip ready. I forgot the name of that one song, you know the one, the na na song?”—and here Phil murmurs, “One Direction?”—“And I wanted to call you because I knew you’d know exactly what I was talking about. I wanted to text you obnoxious puns and spelling errors all week, because you get this look of fondness and exasperation and I love it.”
Phil just sits for a second, watching Clint not watch him. “So why didn’t you?”
Clint takes a deep, shuddering breath, “Because I have this constant fear that you’ll get tired of me; that you’ll wake up and realize I’m just a café manager; that I’m nothing special and you could do so much better than me. And I thought if I did it first, maybe it wouldn’t hurt as bad.”
“And what?” He looks confused.
“Did it hurt less?”
“No, fuck no. It felt—it felt like sophomore year, when Natasha stopped talking to me after I accidentally-maybe-on-purpose used her as a shield for Tony’s flirting, and I was alone with my thoughts again, only worse, because buying you a truly impressive amount of vodka wouldn’t solve anything.”
Phil doesn’t know what to say, because Clint’s right. Buying him alcohol wouldn’t erase two weeks of not knowing if he’d done something unforgiveable or if Clint had opened his eyes and seen Phil’s stodgy ties and patent leather shoes and decided that a corporate boyfriend just wasn’t his thing anymore. So he says nothing, just twines his hand with Clint’s and they sit there, silent and leaning on each other, tacitly agreeing that this can be fixed.
(Weeks later, Clint will tell him, half-asleep and barely intelligible, how afraid he was for that particular conversation. How he had terrible dry mouth and his stomach felt like a pit of snakes just waiting to strike, and Phil had been so impassive, so quiet, asking such pointed questions, that Clint could only word vomit everywhere and hope that he said something right. As he traces random shapes on Phil’s chest, Clint goes on, saying it felt like being blindfolded and asked to protect something precious and only knowing if he’d been hit if Phil slammed the door behind him.
Phil has no response other than to curve his hand a bit tighter over Clint’s shoulder and brush his lips over his forehead, because what can you say in the face of such bone-deep fear that doesn’t sound condescending.)
When the two of them stumble into the café the next morning, Natasha and Tony are there, catcalling and pointing out the hickey on Clint’s neck, on Phil’s wrist, and it doesn’t hurt anymore when Clint leans into Phil, doesn’t give him pause when Phil tightens his grip on Clint’s hand and smoothes a kiss on his temple.
As Tony distracts Phil with obnoxious questions about ways to commit insurance fraud, Natasha gives him a look, a double check that everything is alright, and Clint can only smile, because they’re getting there.
Clint buys Natasha fern as a thank you gift. He grins widely when she cautiously opens the door.
She raises an eyebrow.
“Well, I was going to get you a kitten, but that seemed like the kind of thing you’d want to pick for yourself.”
As she holds the plant out at arm’s length, Clint slips around her to settle on her couch. “Thought you should know Phil and I made up, so, thank you.”
Natasha doesn’t say anything, and Clint turns to see her giving the fern a questioning look. “It’s not a bomb, Nat. You water it, give it some sunlight; not that hard, I promise.”
Three months later, the fern has somehow died, which Clint doesn’t understand, because he specifically picked a fern due to its hands-off manner and relative inability to die. He and Phil are doing fine, so clearly the fern is not a metaphor for his and Phil’s relationship.
That doesn’t mean he can’t be a little concerned. “Nat—you killed our love fern!” Clint’s cry of outrage carries through the apartment.
Natasha leans around the corner, and her question of “Was that what that was?” mingles with Phil’s wry, “You’re basing our relationship on the health of a fern?” to drown out the sound of Clint’s laugh.
Yeah, they’re getting there.