"This is a really bad idea," Phil Coulson said.
Maria Hill made a "pssh" noise. "It's not, I promise."
"You can disarm three men in under a minute with your hands cuffed to a chair," Maria said, "and the idea of learning to dance turns you into a whining baby. Why did I bring you on this thing?"
Phil checked the map again. "Because you broke up with Sydney three weeks after you booked this trip and I'm not teaching any summer classes this year so I didn't have any alternative when you needed a substitute. How did my classes get cancelled so conveniently, by the way? Did you bribe Fury?"
"I'd never bribe a Dean," Maria said primly.
Phil hmm-ed under his breath and decided not to push that point. Yet.
"So why do you want to learn to dance?" Phil asked, finally finding their location on the map.
"We're on a cruise for the next two weeks," Maria said. "What else were you planning to do today?"
"I have a lot of reading to do."
"Research papers are not holiday reading," Maria said, rolling her eyes.
"I brought a novel," Phil protested. "I brought that thing you gave me for my birthday."
"We're dancing, Phil," Maria said. "Now quit your complaining, find us the damn ballroom and enjoy yourself or so help me you're getting all the eight AM lectures for the next two years."
Clint Barton hammered on the door frantically.
"Nat!" he shouted. "You in there? Fuck, you'd better be in there!"
The door opened and Clint almost fell inside.
"Nat, I need that magic goop you use on make-up," he said. "We're teaching in five minutes and I can't go in there with this stuff on my face."
Natasha rummaged on her tiny vanity and threw him a bottle and a package of cotton pads. Her red, curly hair was still damp and she sat on the bed to fasten her high-heeled shoes as she watched Clint deal with the lip-stick smeared over his face.
"What happened?" she asked, a smile barely twitching at the corners of her mouth.
"Mrs Kowalski," Clint said, scrubbing hard at one cheek. "She's pretty grabby and she thought that she'd paid for a lot more than she was getting."
"Ten years ago she might have got it," Natasha said.
"Ten years ago I was young, stupid and broke," Clint said. "And even then, I had standards."
"Now you're just stupid and broke," Natasha said, "and you still have incredibly low standards. Well done for getting older."
"Very funny," Clint tipped more make-up remover onto his cotton pad.
Natasha stood up and began carefully piling her damp hair into a style that wouldn't get in her face. "You just need to move a bit faster when she's going in for the strike. We need this money before the studio falls down around us."
Clint groaned and threw the used cotton pads in the trash. "Next time we're in a hole, Jimmy the Shark might be a better option. Working the cruise ships sucks. It sucked ten years ago and somehow it's even worse now. How do I look?"
"Beautiful." Natasha made a shooing motion. "Time to go. We can't disappoint our new vultures."
"They're students, Nat," Clint said, waiting as she locked her door. "Remember, we talked about this."
"If they look like ducks and quack like ducks," Natasha said.
"Duck vultures, great," Clint said. "Now I'll be thinking about cha-cha-ing duck vultures all afternoon."
Phil almost turned around and left when they finally found the dance studio. It was only Maria's tight grip on his arm and her quiet threats to give him Darcy Lewis as his TA next year that got him inside. The room was filled with other people to bear witness to his terrible dancing and they all looked too eager for his comfort levels.
Several women were even dressed in honest-to-god ball gowns with sequins.
Dancing with Stars had a lot to answer for, Phil decided.
The age-range around the room was surprisingly well distributed and there were more than a few men looking awkward and uncomfortable with white-knuckled women clutching their arms.
"You owe me at least three drinks for doing this," Phil said quietly.
Maria smiled cheerfully. "I'll throw in some wings if you take me to the dinner-dance tonight."
"Fine," Phil said, "but tomorrow you're leaving me alone with my reading, my wings and my beer. All day."
Everyone's attention was suddenly drawn to a door opening at the front of the studio, which effectively prevented Maria answering. Out of the corner of his eye, Phil saw Maria's eyes light up appreciatively as a small, slim, red-headed woman entered. She moved with grace and there was an air of brisk competence about her, despite the high-heels and calf-length skirt she wore.
"No," he whispered firmly.
"I know, I know, but I can look," Maria said.
Multiple breathless sighs and one low wolf-whistle pulled Phil's attention to the man who was now closing the door. His mouth went dry and he silently agreed with the more vocally appreciative people in the room. Normally a nicely muscled pair of arms or a great ass weren't characteristics that attracted Phil to a man. He liked to think that he was interested in more cerebral aspects. Apparently, he had just never seen the right arms or ass before.
Maria sighed as she saw him. "I am a rubbish lesbian."
Phil had to fight to suppress the smile. "You've just been single for too long."
"Pots and kettles," she whispered.
The woman marched over to the stereo in the corner and began thumbing through the menus on an iPod. Her partner moved to the centre of the room and smiled at the gathering, which caused one older woman to fan her face desperately and whisper something to a friend who promptly giggled.
"Hi," the man said. "I'm Clint Barton and this is my partner, Natasha Romanov. I can't promise that you'll all be the next Fred and Ginger by the end of this session but we'll give it a go."
Music suddenly blasted out of the stereo and Natasha joined him at the centre of the room.
"OK, time to partner up," Clint announced.
Phil held onto Maria's arm and allowed her to drag him into the formation that the instructors were herding people into. The next hour fitted into his personal description of a nightmare. He could see that the steps were simple and Maria seemed to pick it up quickly but he was forever stepping in the wrong direction at the wrong time. Maria started threatening to wear steel-toed boots around him.
The worst moment came when he was finally starting to get it, to move in some approximation of the right direction, and then Clint Barton suddenly appeared next to them with a flirty smile. Phil promptly stood on Maria's foot again and then nearly flattened an elderly couple behind him as he jumped back.
All that Barton did was laugh and compliment Maria on her rhythm.
By the time the music stopped and the instructors congratulated everyone on their amazing progress - conspicuously not looking in their direction, Phil noted - he was hot, irritated and sore.
"Maybe this wasn't a great idea after all," Maria said. "You actually seemed to get less coordinated the longer we danced."
"I think we can conclude that dancing is never going to be one of my talents," Phil agreed.
Maria sighed. "I promise, no more dancing."
Of course that was when Natasha overheard them and her smile seemed to daze Maria for a moment as she approached them. Phil's luck was proving to be that terrible this afternoon.
"He's not that bad," Natasha said. "Trust me, I've seen worse."
"My feet disagree," Maria said.
Natasha shrugged. "Bring him along to a couple more classes, I'm sure we can get him fox-trotting eventually."
"For the sake of my toes and his dignity, I'll have to take a rain check," Maria said regretfully.
"We've got a couple of sessions later this week," Natasha said. "If you change your mind, you know where to find us."
With that Natasha returned to the front of the studio where Barton swung a companionable arm around her shoulder and said something that made her laugh. Phil told himself that he was imagining the quick look that Barton shot him.
"Come on, I'll get you that drink," Maria said.
Phil decided before the second course was served that he should have negotiated for more than wings in payment for taking Maria to the dinner-dance that evening.
"So, then I told him that if his secretary understood him that much better then she could have him. I mean, it's like he tried to hit every cliché on his way out."
The woman on the other side of the table finally stopped to take a breath and Phil barely suppressed the urge to roll his eyes. He was remembering why he hated vacations in closed communities and a cruise ship was the height of one.
"So, honey, what brings you on this little trip of ours?" the woman asked. "I'm Carly, by the way."
"It's lovely to meet you. I'm Maria and this is Phil." Maria smiled sweetly. "My girlfriend broke up with me but she let me keep the tickets for this as a kind of 'sorry we fucked and it didn't work out' kind of thing. Phil's here to make sure that I don't scandalise anyone."
Carly's eyebrows were slowly rising towards her hairline with every word.
"I...see," she choked out. "I, ah, think I...oh, look, it's the display dancers."
"That was mean," Phil whispered.
"Fun, though," Maria whispered back.
Music began, a sultry Latin piece with a heavy beat, and Phil turned to look at the rapidly emptying dance floor.
Clint Barton and his partner stood in the middle, bodies not quite touching, and as he watched they began to move.
Phil had sat through a few episodes of Dancing with the Stars thanks to Maria and he was able to guess that they were dancing some kind of tango, but the way they moved showed just how much the dancing on TV was simplified. They circled the dance floor, sometimes moving quickly and sometimes halting to curl around each other seductively. Their legs were in constant movement, kicking around and between each other so quickly that Phil was amazed that neither of them got hurt.
There were lifts in the dance, none of them over Barton's head but the strength and control that both dancers displayed was amazing.
The entire room burst into applause as they finished with Natasha's leg curled around Barton's hip, staring intently into each other's eye, and Phil had to clear his throat.
"We are never going to be able to do that," Maria said dazedly. "They're incredible."
"Oh my," Carly said weakly. "I wonder when they're teaching next."
The problem with cruise liners, Phil felt, was that they took the concept of a floating hotel too far and this one was more like a floating city. It was nearly the size of an aircraft carrier, the corridors outside the main commercial areas were all identical and while there were maps at many of the junctions half of them were missing a handy 'you are here' arrow.
In short, he was lost. If he ever found their suite again, Maria was going to laugh herself sick. His only salvation would be if she got so absorbed in the casino she had abandoned him for that he managed to get back before her, a hope that was dwindling with every passing moment.
Phil rounded a corner and walked straight into someone, sending cardboard boxes flying everywhere. He was already apologising and gathering up boxes before he took in who he had crashed into.
"Hello again," Natasha said, stacking the boxes as he handed them to her. "I remember you from this afternoon. How are you friend's feet?"
"She's hobbling," Phil said, "but it's all an act designed to keep me away from useful work and force me to wait on her."
Natasha chuckled. "You're on a cruise...ah..."
He held out a hand. "Phil Coulson."
She took it and shook firmly. "Phil. You're on a cruise. Most people come here to relax."
"I'm not very good at that," Phil said.
"I'm getting that vibe from you."
When she picked up the stack of boxes, the pile was so tall that she had to look around rather than over it.
"Do you need a hand?" Phil asked.
Natasha hesitated for a moment before shrugging. "Well, you're already in crew country, giving me a hand can't make it any worse. You're looking lost."
"I think I passed lost and entered some kind of nightmare about three decks ago," Phil said, taking the top layers of boxes. "What is all this?"
"Snacks," Natasha said. "It's this way, and then I'll get you back to where you're supposed to be."
"Thanks," Phil said gratefully.
He followed her down a couple more corridors and as they went the muffled thump of music grew louder. The source of the music turned out to be a set of double-doors that Natasha kicked open, allowing a wave of sound to flood out and hit Phil like a wall. If he had not been carrying the boxes of chips, it would have been enough to send Phil high-tailing it out and possibly spending the rest of the night finding his own way back to the suite. Instead he had to follow as Natasha marched around the edge of the room to a set of trestle tables already laden with water bottles.
"What is this?" Phil asked, almost having to shout over the music.
Natasha set down her burden and stepped back as several people converged on them.
"This?" she said. "Best kept secret on these ships and the only reason some of the more annoying passengers don't get killed by homicidal entertainment staff."
The dance-floor was packed. Men dancing with women, women dancing with women, men dancing with men: Phil had been to a few gay clubs over the years and this was the most varied mix of dancing partners he'd witnessed. And the dancing made some of those clubs look like church hall dances from the fifties.
"It's very..." Phil trailed off.
"It would give most of the folks dancing in the main ballroom a heart-attack," Natasha said. "I think that's the point."
Despite himself, Phil smiled.
"Nat, didn't we have a talk about bringing home strays?" a warm voice said from behind him.
Phil turned, his heart sinking, and found Clint Barton standing just behind his left shoulder. His face was flushed, his hair was sweat-soaked and the tuxedo jacket and shirt had been discarded for a black t-shirt.
"Not even strays with great ass...shit, Nat, you can't bring passengers down here," Barton exclaimed.
"He got lost and I promised to show him back to his suite after I delivered that lot," Natasha said, gesturing to the table that was now strewn with open bags of Doritos.
"I carried some of them," Phil said, wondering where his conversational ability had gone.
Barton looked wary and said, "Sir, we'd really appreciate it if you didn't tell your friends about this place."
"Don't worry, I can keep a secret," Phil said.
A slow smile spread across Barton's face. "Well, in that case, let's make sure you have a really good secret to keep."
"Clint, no, that's..."
Natasha's voice got lost in the music as Barton grabbed Phil's hand and pulled him towards the centre of the dance-floor.
"What are we doing?" Phil asked even though it was fairly obvious.
"Dancing," Barton said cheerfully.
"Are you insane? I can't dance," Phil said.
Barton placed his hands on Phil hips, which was definitely distracting, and said, "I've seen much worse than you, trust me. You can dance, you're just overthinking."
It wasn't the kind of dancing that Phil had been doing earlier, all about feet moving in complex patterns. This was about hips and bodies moving together, following the beat of the music, and Barton's warm hands guided Phil with sure confidence. It was awkward and clumsy at first, his body clashing with Barton's because he could not find the rhythm. Then he got it, felt the beat in his chest, and moving with Barton became easier. Barton wrapped his arms around Phil's waist, pulling him closer.
Heat shot through Phil and he swallowed, not daring to look into Barton's face.
A thought passed through Phil's mind: he finally understood why dance was sometimes used as a metaphor for sex. It would have made him laugh if most of his breath had not been currently trapped somewhere in his chest.
The music became faster and Phil followed it, matching Barton's rhythm as the dance became wilder and his inhibitions dissolved and then there was a loud crash of drums and it was over.
Barton released him and stepped back with a cocky grin. Phil tried to catch his breath and not feel the chill on his skin where Barton's arms and body had been.
"See?" Barton said. "You can dance; you just need the right partner."
"I should go," Phil said, relieved that his voice sounded almost normal. "My friend will be worried."
A shadow passed over Barton's face for a moment, so brief Phil decided he must have imagined it, and then Barton grinned again.
"Sure, time to get back to your real life," he said. "Maybe you should bring your friend to another dance lesson. Nat's teaching a mambo session tomorrow."
"She's not...I'm not..." Phil took a breath. "I'll talk to her."
Natasha materialised at his side and Phil wondered how long she had been standing there.
"Time to get you back," she said. "Clint, stop teasing the passengers."
Barton rolled his eyes and walked away as another song began, already smiling that flirty smile at a tall brunette who was apparently more than happy to take a brief dance lesson.
"Don't mind him," Natasha said as she led the way out. "He never means any of it."
"Have you known him long?" Phil asked.
"Half my life," Natasha said. "What's your suite number?"
They did not talk much as she led Phil to an elevator, punched in the right deck number and gave him simple instructions to get to the right corridor. He smiled and thanked her as the doors closed and vowed that Maria was never getting him to another dance lesson again, particularly not one with Clint Barton instructing.
The next morning felt oddly surreal. Phil did all the usual things, showering and dressing in neatly ironed pants and shirt, but his mind kept wandering back to the feel of Barton's body moving against him and that oddly hurt look in his eyes.
It was easier to put it out of his mind when he left his tiny cabin and found Maria slumped in a chair in their small shared living area. Any worries he had about his inappropriate thoughts disappeared at seeing his usually unflappable friend and colleague looking distinctly green about the gills and dishevelled.
"What happened to you?" Phil exclaimed.
Maria winced. "Tequila."
"I thought you were going to the casino."
"I did," Maria said. "And then I spent my winnings on tequila."
"If you ever tell Fury about this..."
Her threat would have been more impressive if she hadn't gulped hard, put her hand over her mouth and sprinted for the bathroom.
It took nearly an hour before Maria was able to accompany Phil to breakfast. He spent the time sitting on the tiny balcony that came with their suite, soaking in the early morning sunshine and trying to focus on one the books he needed to read. When Maria finally emerged from the bathroom for breakfast, Phil took pity on her and left her to sit miserably at a table while he braved the buffet queue. He returned with a stack of dry toast for her and a plate of waffles for himself.
Maria looked faintly green at the waffles and hid her face in a mug of coffee so she didn't have to watch him eat them.
"So, what are your plans today?" Phil asked between mouthfuls.
"Baking my hangover out by the pool," Maria said. "If I'm feeling really adventurous later, I might hit the sauna."
Phil chuckled. "What happened to taking advantage of everything this ship offered? Dance lessons and rock-climbing and all the other activities you highlighted on that program?"
"Fucking tequila happened," Maria said with a grimace.
Clint decided as he waved her away that while Mrs Abraham was, at least, less grabby than Mrs Kowalski, she was no less unpleasant. Most of his clients expected to be dancing like someone on "Dancing with the Stars" after only a couple of lessons and their attitudes when they found that they were not mambo naturals could get nasty.
Natasha's studio was a couple of doors down from his and she always talked him down when clients got too overwhelming. Clint had a few minutes free so he locked up and headed over.
He saw Natasha as soon as he entered. She was sitting on the chair in the corner, bent over her leg with her head bowed, and he knew from years of friendship that the way she held herself meant she was in pain.
"Shit, Nat, what happened?" he asked, hurrying over.
Clint knelt beside her and placed his hands gently around her knee. It was hot and swollen under his touch. She drew in a sharp breath and looked at him, her face drawn and white although there were no tears.
Natasha Romanov never cried.
"Basketball," she said with a wry smile. "I twisted my knee."
Clint stared at her. "Basketball? You fucked your knee playing basketball?"
She shrugged apologetically.
"Jesus Christ, Nat, what the hell were you thinking?" Clint said. "You know what this-"
"I know!" Natasha shouted. "I know exactly what this means. But we've been working non-stop for seven weeks now and I needed a break. Just for a morning, I needed to do something else. It was a stupid thing to do. You don't think I'm kicking myself right now?"
A faint sound stopped any reply that Clint had and he turned to see the guy from last night, Coulson, standing at the door looking uncomfortable.
"I can see this is a bad time," Coulson said. "I just wanted to let Ms Romanov know that we won't be at her class this afternoon. Maria isn't feeling up to it."
Clint stood and waves a hand towards Natasha. "Well, as you can see that's not exactly a problem."
Natasha glared at him. "I've screwed up my knee but I can still teach. You know I can. It wouldn't be the first time."
"Teach, but not dance," Clint said. "Fuck. We're officially fucked."
Coulson raised an eyebrow and gestured towards Natasha's leg. "Is there anything I can do?"
"Turn back time?" Clint suggested and he sighed. "No, there's nothing."
"If you can still teach," Coulson said, "then I'm not sure I understand the problem."
Clint stood and began pacing. "Look, Coulson, is it? We're fine. We don't need your help."
Anyone else would have taken the hint and left. Clint expected it and when he turned and found Coulson still standing there, a look of mild interest on his face, he wasn't sure what to make of him. Coulson was all neatly pressed pants, buttoned shirt, tidy hair, not the kind of person who stopped to help people like them.
"Christ, Nat," he said for lack of anything else to say.
"What Clint is trying to say through all the swearing is that we don't just have teaching gigs here," Natasha said. "We're supposed to put on display dances including a big one at the Velvet Club next week. You know the club two decks up? It's their big show night and we're supposed to be the centre-piece."
"And Nat can't dance so we'll have to back out," Clint said. "That loses us our bonuses and any chance of another season if we wanted it."
"Can't anyone cover for her?" Coulson asked.
Clint ran a hand through his hair and gestured helplessly. "There isn't anyone! Everyone works here. Even if we could get someone to cover they'd never have time to learn the routine."
"Phil could do it," Natasha said.
Clint stared at her incredulously.
"You said he can move." Natasha gestured. "You're a great dancer, Clint, you can lead anyone."
"Not a chance," Clint said. "It would never work."
"Come on, you know he'd be far more popular as your partner for the Velvet than I would be," Natasha said. "That crowd would lap you two up."
"No," Coulson said. "I can't dance."
It was the first thing they had agreed on and Clint snuck a glance to see a horrified expression on Coulson's face.
That was a challenge that he couldn't back down from.
"Clint, just try it," Natasha said insistently. "What can it hurt?"
"I can't do it," Coulson said. "I can't dance. You've seen me."
That wasn't strictly true. Clint remembered the dance last night, the way that Coulson had responded when he finally relaxed and allowed himself to just go with the music, and while Coulson might not have the footwork yet he could definitely move. There was potential there.
Clint grinned. "Fine, you're doing it. We start tomorrow, my studio. Nine sharp, unless you've got other plans?"
There was a long moment where thoughts flickered across Coulson's face, too fast for Clint to read, and then he seemed to make a decision.
"Fine," Coulson said, looking calm and determined. "I'll be there."
Phil had been sure that nothing could be worse than the group lesson with Maria, but he quickly found that a private lesson with Barton could be even more humiliating. After stepping on Barton's toes for the third time in succession during the opening bars of the music, Phil glared at him and Barton took a respectful step back.
"OK, let's just...take a break," Barton said.
Phil had to have imagined Barton muttering, "And check for fractures."
It was a relief to take a minute and rest against a wall. They had been working for three hours and so far, Phil felt that he was actually getting worse. He knew several forms of martial arts, could disarm a man in less than ten seconds and had faced down lecture theatres filled with bored, hung-over students at eight on a Monday morning but this? It simply wasn't going to work.
Barton looked equally frustrated and he was stalking the room as if looking for something smash. Phil couldn't help admiring the grace of his movements even as he internally cursed the man's entire existence for putting him into this position.
That wasn't actually fair. Phil knew that could also blame Natasha Romanov for it but it was Barton that he found his irritation focused on.
"Ready to try again?" Barton asked.
Phil suppressed a sigh and left his comfortable wall.
"Now remember, if you start on the correct foot it's much easier," Barton said with a smirk.
At the end of the first day of lessons with Coulson, Clint grabbed two plates of food from the crew dining room and visited Natasha. He handed her the plates and flopped down to lie on the floor next to her bed.
"How did it go?" Natasha asked, ignoring his amateur dramatics in favour of wolfing down her plate of stew before it got cold. "He going to make it?"
Clint shrugged. "He's not as bad as I thought he'd be. In a couple of days, he might even get all the steps in the right order."
"See?" Natasha said. "I told you this would work."
Clint sat up and started on his own plate of stew. "He's got no sense of rhythm and he's the most stubborn man I've ever met."
"You've worked with worse," Natasha said.
He shrugged. "At least he's in decent condition under those designer shirts. We worked pretty hard and he didn't start to look exhausted until mid-afternoon."
Natasha raised an eyebrow. "That's impressive."
"Yeah," Clint said thoughtfully. "He looks like a stuffy suit. Wonder what his story is?"
Phil got back to the suite with just enough time to shower before dinner. Maria raised an eyebrow when he reappeared in the living area with his hair still damp, shrugging into his jacket.
"I didn't see you at lunch," she said, locking the door behind them as they left. "What were you up to all day?"
Phil shrugged. "Rock climbing."
"Huh," Maria said. "Maybe I'll check that out tomorrow."
"What about you?" Phil asked, more than happy to divert the conversation. "What were you up to?"
"Catching up on my cultural references," Maria said. "I spent the day watching movies. Did people actually pay to see that Transformers thing?"
The second day of lessons was even more of a disaster than the first. Barton had several private lessons booked so his lessons with Phil were short, hurried half hours snatched through the day.
Phil had thought that would be perfect because it would give him some time to work on the research he planned to do. There was a small coffee shop near Barton's studio that was convenient and perfect to read and make notes in. Instead he found his mind wandering away from his books to run through footwork in his head. At one stage in the early afternoon he even started quietly tapping out the beat from the music in against his leg.
Even more disturbingly, he sometimes drifted off into thoughts of Barton and that was somewhere that he definitely did not want to go.
Not even if the man had an ass that really needed to be licensed as a lethal weapon and he seemed incapable of wearing pants that didn't show it off.
Phil couldn't remember the last time he had met someone that disrupted his focus this much. Even his last lover hadn't invaded his thoughts so often and he wondered now whether that should have been a sign that things would fizzle out after only a few weeks. Not that he planned to let his attraction to Barton go anywhere. A shallow appreciation of the man's physical beauty was one thing, but Phil had always preferred partners who could hold a good conversation as well.
A sudden influx of passengers looking for caffeine fixes pulled Phil out of his thoughts and he realised that he had been staring into space for several minutes without reading or writing a word. Phil sighed and forced his attention back on the books in front of him, determined to at least get some notes made on the chapter before the next half hour of dance torture.
By mid-afternoon the next day, Phil was finally starting to feel confident about having most of the right steps in the correct order. It still required concentration because so many of the steps were so similar and he still wasn't actually moving to any kind of beat, but having the dance mostly memorised felt like a small kind of triumph.
They completed yet another slow walk-through of the routine and Barton declared that it was break time. He grabbed two bottles of water from a bag in the corner and threw one to Phil, who snatched it out of mid-air and rolled his eyes at the obvious challenge in Barton's eyes. Then Phil's mouth went dry as he watched Barton guzzle most of his water in one long drink, head tilted back and his throat working as he swallowed.
Phil took a large sip of his own water before he spoke.
"Do you do a lot of this?" he asked, gesturing vaguely.
"It's kind of my job, Coulson," Barton said with a smirk before draining the rest of his water bottle.
"Nobody likes a smart-ass," Phil muttered under his breath. "No, I mean this. Us. Dancing."
"You mean dancing with guys?" Barton shrugged. "Some, yeah. I've got this couple that I work with back home, Mike and Danny. They do a lot of show dancing and competitions and I work with them on their choreography. It's one of their routines that we're using, actually. I modified it a bit to suit the Velvet Club's tone better and get it down to something you can learn in a week."
"Do they win?"
"They've won a few things." Barton grinned. "I've got videos, if you want to see."
There was a backpack next to the bag of water bottles and Barton pulled a battered laptop out of it. He sat on the floor, laptop balanced on his crossed legs, and gestured for Phil to join him.
"The quality isn't great," Barton said as he typed in a password, "but you should be able to get an idea."
He opened a folder of videos and clicked on one.
"This is the original of what we're doing," Barton said. "It was for a display thing a couple of years ago."
The video opened on two men standing alone in what looked like a run-down dance studio. After a few seconds tinny Latin music began pouring out of the laptop speakers and the men began to move. Phil recognised most of it and he could immediately see the differences between what they were doing and what he had learned.
There was definitely no way that he would have been able to learn the original dance.
"I'm simplifying the lifts a bit, too," Barton said as Phil winced at one of them. "We'll learn those later."
"Thank you," Phil said faintly.
The music finished with a crashing crescendo and Barton shut the laptop with a snap. "You'll be fine, Coulson."
"If I don't drop you on your head," Phil said.
Barton shrugged. "I promise not to drop you if you promise not to drop me."
"So, where does your friend think you are when we're practising?" Barton asked casually.
"Anywhere that she isn't," Phil said. "I'd prefer if she didn't witness this."
"Aw, are you shy?"
"If I'm going to make a fool of myself, I'd rather do it where nobody knows me."
There was a flash of something on Barton's face for just a moment, too fast for Phil to process it, and then it cleared and he jumped to his feet.
"You're not going to make a fool of yourself," Barton said, holding out a hand to pull Phil to his feet. "I can guarantee it."
"Please tell me that your day has been better than mine."
Natasha limped into Clint's cabin and flopped onto his bed. She looked drained and her red hair stood out starkly against her ashen face. Clint twisted around at the tiny desk beside the bed so that he could see her and winced in sympathy.
"What happened?" he asked.
"Group mambo," Natasha said, rested her arm across her eyes. "And then the Barretts, who will actually kill each other one day if they're left unsupervised for too long. Why the fuck do people take cruises together if they hate each other that much?"
"I heard this was something their marriage councillor suggested," Clint said.
Natasha groaned. "Their marriage councillor needs to be disbarred."
Clint rifled through the papers strewn across the desk and found a bag of M&Ms.
"Catch," he said as he threw the bag.
Natasha caught it without opening her eyes and opened it to pull out a handful.
"It's never going to not be weird when you do that," Clint said. "Hey, did you know that Coulson can do that as well?"
"Eat chocolate?" Natasha asked dryly.
"Catch stuff without looking," Clint said.
"No, I didn't know Coulson can do that. But then, I'm not watching everything he does and making googly eyes at him."
"I've been here for less than five minutes and we're talking about him," Natasha said, sitting up so that she could sort the M&Ms into neat little colour-coordinated piles. "Again."
Clint threw a pen at her head and rolled his eyes when she batted it away.
"So, how many of your toes did he break today?" Natasha asked.
"None." Clint grinned. "He even got the steps in the right order."
"Congratulations, you must be so proud."
"If we wanted to perform in slow motion with no rhythm, we're right on course," Clint said, sighing loudly. "He's obviously done a lot of physical stuff before, I've heard rumours that he was some kind of ninja in a previous life - how the fuck does someone like that end up moving like he does on a dance floor?"
Natasha frowned. "You said he could move when you made him dance at the staff thing, right?"
"When he loosened up a bit and got the beat, yeah."
"Then that's what you need to do," Natasha said. "Loosen him up. Get him to find the beat in the music. And when you've done that, put him in my hands for an hour. We need to get a costume adjusted for him and I guess that's my contribution to this train-wreck."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence, Nat. Always appreciated."
"This isn't working."
Phil rubbed at the ache settling just above his eyes and nodded tiredly. "It isn't."
"It's not just about the steps," Barton said. "The steps aren't enough. You've got to feel the music."
He moved away to fiddle with the stereo, which gave Phil a moment to quietly appreciate the joy of not moving before the music started again.
"Let's try something," Barton said as he returned. "Listen. It's like a heartbeat."
Before Phil could react or pull away, Barton grabbed his hand and placed it on his chest over his heart. Barton's hand stayed over Phil's so that he couldn't move it, not that Phil wanted to very much because he could feel Barton's hot skin through his thin t-shirt. Despite the number of hours he had spent with his hands all Barton's body, this gesture somehow felt far more intimate.
Barton began tapping on the back of Phil's hand in a rhythm that Phil quickly realised was the heartbeat that he could feel just under his fingertips but was also an echo of the music.
"Two, three, four," Barton counted softly. "Two, three, four."
Phil couldn't help looking into his eyes, finding only quiet encouragement there. The firm thump of Barton's heart was steady under his hand and Phil was surprised to find his own heart speeding up a little.
"Does this actually work?" Phil asked, feeling impressed at how steady his voice sounded.
"You'd be amazed."
"That's not actually an answer, Barton."
A sly grin. "Just trust me. And are you ever going to call me Clint?"
The counting resumed and after a moment Phil smiled and nodded. It was there, the feeling like a heartbeat under the music, and his feet began to move without conscious direction. All the doubts and fears drained way and his entire focus became the feel of Clint's heart under his fingers and the steady blue eyes staring into his.
Phil wasn't aware of the moment when Clint took his free hand, there was just a time when their only point of contact was his hand on Clint's chest and then there was more. Each step led into the next fluidly, turns and kicks and so many steps that Phil had no name for but that seemed as natural as breathing. Even when he finally had to spin away from Clint, to lose the physical proof of the rhythm that had been guiding his feet, Phil could feel it under his skin.
Maria slid into her seat at dinner that night with a sheepish apology for her lateness. Phil hadn't actually noticed because his mind still half on the afternoon in Clint's studio. It was becoming a habit, this distraction from the world around him.
"Did you wait for me?" Maria said. "I'm so sorry, you shouldn't have waited."
"It wasn't a problem," Phil said. "I got your note. I only got here a few minutes ago."
A waiter approached and Maria barely glanced at the menu before ordering. They both knew the menu at this restaurant by heart now but neither of them had felt like changing their evening dinner arrangements. Phil gave his order, asked for a glass of water and smiled blandly until the waiter left.
"I'm still sorry," Maria said.
"What was the hold up?" Phil asked.
Maria blushed. Maria never blushed.
"Or should I be asking who was the hold up?" he asked with a sly smile.
"Yeah, about that," Maria said awkwardly. "I'm sorry again. I know that we said we'd do the shore trip together tomorrow, but..."
"You have a date."
"I think that I have a date," Maria confirmed. "But there are group tours you could go on if you still want to see that temple you were talking about."
Phil shrugged, trying to look casual. If he was honest, he had almost forgotten their plans or even that the cruise involved shore trips. It felt as though everything he did was now focused on Clint, the studio and finding time to get away to practise. Instead of feeling disappointed, Phil's first thought was that it would give him an entire day of uninterrupted time with Clint.
"I'll think about it," he said, trying to sound casual. "I could actually use the quiet if the ship is going to be emptying tomorrow."
"Philip Coulson, this is a vacation," Maria said sternly. "You're not spending your entire vacation with your nose in a book."
"So far I haven't," Phil said. "In fact, so far I'm behind on the work that I'd been hoping to do."
"All that rock climbing," Maria said sceptically. "And what was it today?"
"Catching up on my pop culture references," Phil lied smoothly.
"Right," Maria drawled and he could tell that she didn't believe him.
"So, who is she?" Phil asked, smiling politely as their waiter put a plate of pasta in front of him. "Should I be worried that you're going to be leaving the glamorous life of a college lecturer to run away with your vacation fling?"
Maria snorted. "Not likely. She's fun, completely un-Sydney-like, but I don't think you need to worry about stealing my office yet."
"Shame," Phil said. "Your office has a better view."
The door to Clint's studio was closed when Phil arrived the next morning and he could hear music through the door. A note at eye-level directed him to Natasha's studio and Phil hesitated for a moment before following the instructions.
Natasha was standing next to a rack of clothing looking pensive when he arrived.
"Sorry about the note," she said. "Clint had a last minute booking. I thought that we could get your costume sorted out while he's busy preventing matrimonial homicide."
Natasha smirked. "No offense, but did you really think you were going to perform in that kind of get-up?"
"-fine for a librarian or a college professor or whatever you are," Natasha said. "You're going up on stage to dance with Clint in front of two hundred people. Trust me, you don't want to look like a librarian."
Phil shrugged and gave in. "Fine. Do your best."
She walked along the rack pulling out jackets and pants seemingly at random, holding them up and shaking her head. Eventually a set seemed to meet with her approval and she held them out.
"Try this," she instructed. "I promise not to look."
It was a dance studio so there were a disturbing number of mirrors around but Natasha turned to face a plain white wall and Phil concluded that was as much privacy as she would award him.
As he started to change he asked, "So, do you often do wardrobe for Clint?"
"When he needs it. Clint's pretty good at basic repairs, but adjusting this kind of thing is a long way outside his comfort zone."
"Do you mind?"
"He has his skills, I have mine," Natasha said dryly. "I can barely cook an omelette, he can make a three-course dinner out of scraps. It's a fair exchange."
"Your needle for his skill with a spatula?" Phil asked, shrugging into the jacket.
"That sounds a lot dirtier than it is," Natasha said, her voice filled with laughter. "Are you decent yet?"
She turned around at his word and gave a low wolf-whistle. "You clean up well. The crowd at the Velvet is going to eat you up with a spoon."
Phil felt his face heat.
"Don't worry," Natasha said, getting a box of pins out of her pocket. "Clint will protect your virtue, he's a gentleman sometimes."
"That's very comforting," Phil said dryly.
Natasha smiled and limped around him slowly. "You're not quite as broad in the shoulders, I'll need to take that in and let the sleeves down a little. The pants will need the hems let down as well."
She began measuring and pinning things while Phil held as still as he could.
"So," he said after a while, "you and Clint."
"Me and Clint," Natasha agreed through a mouthful of pins. "We aren't together, if that's what you're asking. We tried that once. It lasted about a week before we got our sanity back."
"What happened?" Phil asked curiously.
Natasha snorted. "I wasn't his type. Too many X-chromosomes."
She shrugged and began packing away her supplies and notes. "You can change back now. He's my type but I'm not stupid. It hurt for about a day and then we went back to being friends, which works far better than anything else ever has for us."
Phil changed back into his regular clothes quietly while Natasha carefully looked the other way.
"I'm sorry about all this," she said after a short silence. "I never intended...well, ruining your vacation wasn't something I set out to do."
"You haven't," Phil said as he slid his arms into his shirt. "I think that I'm actually having fun, some of the time anyway."
"You're not the dry stick you look like are you?"
Phil didn't have time to reply to that. The studio door opened and Clint entered, pausing in the doorway. There was a brief moment where Clint seemed to hesitate with wide eyes but then his face closed down and Phil pulled his shirt firmly closed and began buttoning it.
"All set in here?" Clint asked.
"He'll be a hit," Natasha confirmed. "You?"
"No need to call the cops yet. I let them loose on the island five minutes ago. Hopefully the island will survive them."
"I take it that your clients don't get on?" Phil asked.
"That would be like saying that Ike and Tina had an amicable break-up." Clint scrubbed a hand through his hair. "You ready to practise?"
"As I'll ever be."
"Shit fuck damn ow!"
Clint felt every muscle in his back scream out in protest and he dropped to one knee, breathing deeply until the moment passed. When he looked up there was a worried expression in Phil's eyes.
"Sorry," Phil said.
"Don't be sorry, be better," Clint said irritably, completely aware that he was being reasonable but he was tired and the last thing he needed right now was to wreck his back. "Are you trying to kill me?"
"Yes, I'm trying to kill you," Phil said flatly. "We're performing in two days, we haven't even started to learn the lifts and this is exactly what I wanted to be doing instead of enjoying a day on a tropical island."
Clint snorted. "Who are you and what have you done with Phil Coulson? Do you even know how to enjoy a tropical island?"
"There are ruins. I had a guide book."
"Fucking boring ruins. I've seen them."
"Right now, they appeal much more than you do," Phil said, showing anger for the first time. "You want me to save your ass? Stop making me want to drop you on it."
They glared angrily at each other for a moment and then Clint took a deep breath. Phil was right and Clint knew it. There was still so much they needed to learn and the ship was getting claustrophobic.
"You want your tropical island?" Clint said slowly, a plan starting to form. "Then let's get out of here. Live a little, Coulson."
"I'm living a lot more than I-" Phil broke off. "Fine. Tropical island it is."
Clint swung down to sit astride the log balanced over a narrow stream. He was going to owe so many favours for the car loan, but out here, a couple of miles from the port with a salty breeze from the sea that was just a couple of hundred feet away, he didn't care. The breeze stopped the heat from getting unbearable and blew the neat blue shirt that Phil insisted on wearing against his chest. It was an appealing sight, Phil straddling the log with his legs and bare feet dangling below him, his shirt showing off his lightly muscled chest with every shift of the air.
Clint wondered briefly whether Phil owned anything less formal and then had a happy little fantasy about Phil in a pair of jeans. He gave himself a mental slap and refocused.
"So, how did you learn this stuff?" Phil asked.
It was a blatant stalling tactic but Clint answered anyway. "I used to get sent on these summer camp things. We spent most of the summer blowing off steam and learning new skills. Mostly it was practical stuff because it wasn't like most of us were going to college."
Phil raised an eyebrow and for the first time in his life, Clint didn't mind telling the full truth.
"Orphan camps." He shrugged. "There were a whole bunch of us from all over the place, the kids who got dumped in homes because nowhere else would have us. We'd get two months every summer and they tried to get us some skills that might get us jobs. I'm a decent car mechanic and I have awesome bread making skills."
Phil laughed at that and Clint grinned.
"So anyway, there was this dancing class thing and I signed up for it because I had a free slot and they didn't like us running around unsupervised. I'd already signed up for archery and I needed another sport, but all the good stuff was gone. Turns out, I was a pretty decent dancer. They taught us how to do the dances, how to break it down and teach it." Clint smiled reflectively "Took them several summers, but by the time I got into my senior year at high school I was good enough to help with some classes at a local studio. I ended up working there for a few years after school."
"Is that how you met Natasha?" Phil asked.
"Nat had been working there for a couple of years. It was her class that I helped out with."
"So you learned to dance, got some experience and then you went to work on cruise ships?"
Clint stood up carefully, teetered for a moment and then got his balance. "Something like that. Except for the bit where Nat and I only do this now when we need extra cash." He tried a small jump, relieved when he managed to land neatly rather than humiliating himself by falling into the stream below. "Now, the important thing about lifts is balance. I know that you've got some so...can I have this dance?"
Over the last few days, Clint had learned that he could get Phil to do almost anything if he was obnoxious enough. He held out his hand and beckoned, putting on his most shit-eating grin.
Phil looked up and sighed.
Clint raised his eyebrows, challenging, and a small smile twitched at the corners of Phil's mouth. Then Phil stood up smoothly without a wobble and Clint's breath caught in his throat because damn, a man with that kind of balance was too hot and too competent for whatever his stuffy day job was.
He was also going to be amazing at lifts.
Phil put his hand in Clint's and said, "There's no music."
"You just need the beat," Clint said and began counting softly.
This wasn't real dancing, all they could do was move back and forth along the narrow log, but somehow it felt like more. It felt like the night that he had first danced with Phil, their steps in sync and the energy flowing back and forth between them. Clint smiled at Phil, who looked like he was concentrating even though he didn't need to, and realised that he was maybe falling a tiny bit in love.
Phil shaded his eyes and looked out at the ocean.
"The best place to learn lifts is in the water," Clint called.
He was standing with the ocean lapping around his thighs, his black jeans were soaked and he had stripped out of his t-shirt and left it with their shoes higher on the beach. Clint's lightly bronzed skin was glistening with sweat and there was an air of confidence there that said he knew that his body was great and he wasn't afraid to show it off.
In contrast Phil felt over-dressed and under-confident.
"Come on, the water's warm," Clint said. "Or were you bitching about the lifts to be an asshole?
There was a loud splash as Clint tipped himself backwards into the water and came up spluttering and streaming water. His water-logged jeans moulded to his ass and thighs like a second skin, which wasn't helping Phil's composure at all.
Phil resigned himself to the humiliation and quickly stripped out of his shirt, leaving it with the pile of shoes and t-shirts, and walked slowly into the water. Clint hadn't lied: the water was warm and the tide barely tugged at his legs. The salt was going to ruin his pants and the water would probably feel even better against bare skin, but Phil wasn't prepared to expose that much of himself by stripping any further.
"OK, the only way lifts work is if we trust each other," Clint said when Phil reached him. "You'll hurt me if you don't trust me."
Their first attempt ended up with them both in the water. It was the same on their next few tries. Phil had to swim back to the shallower water after their fifth failure and Clint's arm around him to haul him back to his feel was unnecessary but welcome.
When they finally managed to execute one perfect lift, Clint pushed him into the water anyway and Phil hooked a foot around Clint's knee to pull him in with him. There was a moment of confusion where neither of them could find the ocean floor with their feet, which resulted in a lot of splashing and grabbing at each other for balance. Somehow they ended up standing chest deep in the water, Clint's arm wrapped around Phil's waist and Phil clinging to Clint's shoulder. Phil was close enough to see every drop of water in Clint's eyelashes and time seemed to stand still. He noted that Clint's eyes were a shade of blue that was almost grey and there was a trickle of water running down his face and just tracing around the corner of his mouth.
Then a wave broke over them and the moment was broken.
The sudden deluge forced them apart and Phil told himself firmly that the disappointment that felt like a cold weight in his stomach was out of proportion to whatever had been happening between them. By the time he had wiped the water out of his eyes, Clint was already heading back to the shore.
"Switch?" Clint called when he reached the shallower water.
There was one lift, halfway through the routine, where Phil would be the lifter and Phil quickly realised that it was actually much easier than he had expected with someone as experienced as Clint as his partner. Clint's balance and muscle control seemed to make him lighter in Phil's arms than he could possibly be.
They still ended up in the water a couple of times but that was because Clint seemed to take it as a challenge to find new ways to dunk them both.
After a while they reversed roles again and Phil was more conscious this time of how he held himself and what he did. Clint smiled his approval at the improvement and Phil cursed himself for the warm glow that spread through his chest at that.
When they were exhausted from the work, they waded to shore and flopped down on the hot sand where they allowed the sun to bake the water out of their clothes.
"How did you find this place?" Phil asked, waving a hand vaguely at the deserted little beach.
Clint smiled lazily and his voice sounded slightly slurred, as though he was on the verge of sleep. "Trick of the trade. You get to know a few things after sailing the same route five or six times. Isn't this better than your ruins?"
"Maybe," Phil said, allowing a smile to tug at the corners of his mouth. "My ruins wouldn't have been as messy, though."
"What's a bit of sand when you're having fun?"
They stayed on the beach until the sun dipped towards the horizon, alternating bursts of lift practise and splashing in the ocean with lazy napping and talking while they dried out.
Phil was salt-coated and lightly burned when he returned to the ship and there was a happy hum in his chest that even Maria's blatantly curious looks couldn't dim.
Two nights later they were backstage in the Velvet Club and Clint wished that he could go back to that day on the beach with Phil and never leave. The buzz of conversation and the clink of glasses beyond the curtain were familiar but they made Clint's stomach clench anyway. This was why he had never performed seriously, why he had always stayed with teaching. Dealing with nerves like this every night would have driven him insane.
He could feel Phil's amused eyes on him as he paced and stretched and lunged and did every trick that he had to get his equilibrium back.
"I can't believe that you're nervous," Phil said.
Clint glared. "I can't believe that you're not."
Phil shrugged. "We've done everything we can to prepare. It's like I tell my students: there comes a time when all the preparation is over and you just have to get out there and do it. Admittedly I'm usually trying to persuade them not to study all through the night before an exam or drink half a bottle of tequila on their way in, but it's the same principle here."
"You sound just like Nat."
"I'll take that as a compliment."
Clint knew that his nerves were overwhelming him because Phil's perfectly fitted shirt, waistcoat and pants showed off his ass beautifully and he hadn't had a single inappropriate thought all evening. Well, maybe one, but he had spent the last fifteen minutes pacing and trying to avoid thinking about anything.
"Would it help if you talked me through the routine again?" Phil offered.
"Probably not," Clint said. "I don't want to confuse you."
Phil shrugged, conceding the point because they had actually had a couple of successful run-throughs earlier today and neither of them wanted to jinx that.
"Have any of your students actually done the tequila thing?" Clint asked.
"Once. It was a nightmare. We tried to sober her up but she was still singing 'I'm a Barbie Girl' five minutes before the exam started so we had to send her home."
"I think her friends tag-teamed her for the rest of her exams because it never happened again."
The noises beyond the curtain suddenly subsided and then there was a quiet click of a microphone before someone announced "Clint Barton and partner".
"That's our cue," Clint said as the opening bars played.
They took up their starting position as the curtain rose and Clint took a deep breath. The feel of Phil's hand in his seemed to anchor him to the moment. He looked into Phil's eyes and read the same nerves that he was feeling. It was surprisingly comforting and Clint felt some of the jitters start to melt away. In the back of his mind, Clint was aware of the music and the moment when it reached their cue. Everything else went away and Clint poured his thoughts and concentration into the dance, getting lost in it until nothing existed except the moment.
After it was over and they had been applauded and wolf-whistled and bowed their thanks, Clint spent a minute sucking in great gulps of air in the corridor outside the club and then he grinned.
"I missed that turn," Phil said, looking depressed. "And we didn't do the last lift."
Clint waved that away. "You still did great, really great. You had a little over a week to learn the routine and seriously, I've never seen anyone learn something like that so fast."
Phil's smile was both pleased and slightly shy and Clint thought that might be the most vulnerable he had ever seen him. There always seemed to be a wall of something - irritation, professionalism, calm, whatever - that kept Phil from actually showing what he thought.
"I should get back," Phil said suddenly.
The words cancelled out all the endorphins rushing through Clint's system and brought him back to earth. After tonight there would be no reason to see Phil ever again. He could already see Phil closing down, backing away, and it hurt more than he had expected.
Clint shrugged, pushing his feelings away firmly, and said, "Sure. Whatever you need to do."
The bathroom in Clint's cabin was tiny, smaller than the one Phil shared with Maria and he hadn't actually thought that was possible. People boasted about the luxury of life on a ship but apparently it was a fairly cramped sort of luxury unless you were wealthy enough to afford the largest suites.
Clint had given Phil the bathroom to change back into his street-clothes, muttering something vague about guests getting privacy. Phil managed not to smash his elbow into the shower cubicle when he pulled off his sweaty shirt but it was a close call and he had seen closets with more floor space than this bathroom. He changed quickly despite the cramped conditions and it was comforting to pull on his familiar clothes.
There were too many thoughts racing through Phil's head and he took a moment to splash water on his face. After tonight there would never be an excuse to go to Clint's studio or see him again unless Phil offered to take Maria to another lesson. The idea that this was going to be it, that they would say goodbye and never talk again, hurt more than Phil had expected. A harsh chuckle caught in his throat. It would be easy to leave and never say a word, but Phil knew that he'd regret the missed chance for a long time. The alternative was just as terrifying to contemplate, though.
Phil picked up his dance outfit, took a calming breath and opened the bathroom door. Clint was only half-dressed and he was holding his black t-shirt by the hem. It wasn't the first time that Phil had seen Clint's bare chest but in this room, with him standing next to his neatly-made bed, it seemed to hold more significance than before.
Something ached in Phil's chest when he saw Clint's sad half-smile.
"Where can I put these?" Phil asked, holding up the hangers.
"Here, I'll take them," Clint said, throwing the t-shirt onto the bed and taking two steps closer.
Their hands brushed as Clint took the hangers and Phil looked down, noting absently that Clint's feet were bare and his jeans looked like the black ones he had worn in the ocean.
"I didn't thank you yet," Clint said quietly and he was suddenly standing far too close. "Thank you."
"It wasn't a-"
"Big deal?" Clint snorted. "It was. Thank you. That's maybe one of the bravest things I've ever seen anyone do, getting up on a stage in front of all those people to do something they thought they couldn't do."
"I'm not brave," Phil said quietly. "All I did was let some strangers see me doing something I'd never thought about doing before."
"You are brave."
Phil took a deep breath, making a decision that he hoped he wouldn't regret. "If I was brave then I'd kiss you right now."
Clint's tongue flicked out to wet his lips. "Why don't you?"
"I don't know if you want me to." Phil swallowed, his mouth gone dry.
The kiss was just the barest touch of lips, gone before Phil could properly process that it was happening.
"You told me that you wanted to kiss me," Clint said softly. "That's a lot braver than I've been."
Phil couldn't help smiling at that. He put a hand on the back of Clint's neck and pulled him into another kiss. This was a real kiss, a firm press of lips and friction and then hot wet tongues sliding together. The suit fell to the floor, forgotten, as Clint's arms wrapped around him and Phil slid a hand around Clint's waist to pull him closer.
The skin under Phil's fingers was warm and smooth with firm muscles underneath. He pulled away from the kiss to gently trace the line of Clint's jaw and nose with his fingers and Clint nipped at the pad of his thumb.
"I'm fairly sure there are about a thousand rules about not doing this," Clint said but his fingers were busy with the buttons on Phil's shirt. "I'm not very good with rules."
"Usually I am," Phil said as he let his hand slide just underneath the waistband on Clint's jeans. "This isn't like me."
Clint pushed Phil's shirt off his shoulders and grinned, widening his eyes appreciatively. "It's my amazing ass, I've been told it's irresistible."
"That's exactly what it is, you've caught me out."
They smiled at each other for a moment and then Phil hooked an ankle around Clint's leg and flipped him onto the bed. Clint made a soft 'oof' sound as he landed and his grip on Phil's half-stripped shirt pulled Phil down on top of him.
"That's quite a move," Clint said admiringly. "Are you some kind of ninja college professor?"
"I wasn't always a college professor," Phil said.
"That explains a lot."
Phil didn't get a reply because Clint pulled him down for a deep kiss instead.
Clint's bed was too narrow and uncomfortable but leaving it was more difficult than Phil had anticipated. There was a smug grin on Clint's face and his hair was sweat soaked and stood up in every direction. With his head pillowed on one arm and a thin sheet barely covering anything, Clint looked like an invitation to sin.
As Phil dressed and then sat on the edge of the bed to tie his shoelaces, he tried not to feel guilty about leaving so soon after sex. It wasn't his style usually but Maria would definitely know that something was going on if he stayed the night.
When Maria started to dig into something there was no way to stop her and Phil didn't know why, but he didn't want her poking at this. He wanted to keep it just for himself for now.
"I've never done this before," Phil said, staring intently at his laces.
"A one night stand or fucking your dance teacher?" Clint asked, and surprisingly there was humour in his voice.
"The second one."
"Good. Because I'd ask for your money back if you'd had another dance teacher before me."
Phil looked up and there was still that look of smug happiness on Clint's face, which gave him the confidence to say, "Can I see you again?"
"I'm booked up in the morning," Clint said. "Everyone wants to get their moves polished up before the last night."
"Oh." Phil tried not to feel too disappointed.
"I've got a couple of hours free tomorrow afternoon, though. I guess it's today, actually. Come by my studio. You know where it is."
It was ridiculous how happy Phil felt. "I think that I can find it."
Clint's lips were warm and pliant when Phil kissed him and it was tempting to stay but Phil's willpower was strong and he pulled away.
"Tomorrow," Phil said as he left.
Clint waved vaguely, his eyes already closing in sleep.
The suite was dark when Phil got in and Maria's cabin door was open. He almost kicked himself because it was obvious that Maria was spending the night elsewhere but it was too late to go back to Clint. Instead he went to bed and carefully avoided any conversation with Maria over breakfast about where either of them had been the previous evening.
Early that morning Clint knocked on Natasha's door and opened it when she called.
"Thought I'd drop this off on my way past," he said, holding up the hangers with Phil's shirt and pants on. "Sorry they're a bit wrinkled, I kind of forgot to hang them up."
Natasha was lying on the bed with an ice-pack on her knee and a book in her hand. She looked at him and immediately narrowed her eyes.
"I know that look," she said. "That's your "I got well fucked" look."
"What? No! It's-"
"Jesus, Clint, what did you do?" Natasha frowned. "Oh, fuck, tell me you didn't."
"Tell me you didn't...tell me it isn't Coulson."
He had never been able to lie to Natasha so he bought some time by hanging the suit from her bathroom door.
"Come over here," she instructed.
"So I can punch you in your damn head, maybe get some sense into that stupid skull of yours." She groaned. "Christ, Clint, a passenger? Don't you always tell me not to do that? It's our number one rule. No fucking the clients. You made that rule when we set up the studio."
"He's not like that," Clint said, moving to kneel by her bed. "He's different."
"What, you think he'll call you when he gets back to..."
"New York," he supplied.
Natasha slapped him upside the head and sighed. "So he lives in New York, we live in New York. You think he'll call you when he gets back to New York, invite you out for coffee? Bring you home to meet the family? People like him and people like us, that's not what happens."
"He's different," Clint said, feeling defensive.
"Oh, you did not just say that. I can't believe you said that."
"It's not like-"
"Bullshit, it's exactly like that."
Clint sighed and shifted to sit on the floor with his back against the bed. Despite her anger, he felt Natasha's fingers carding through his hair comfortingly.
"I think I'm in trouble, Tasha," he said quietly.
"You're an idiot."
"Are you seeing him again?"
"This afternoon." Clint craned around to look up at her. "He's not like that, I promise."
"I'd like to believe that," she said. "I really would."
"I'd better get going," Clint said after a while. "I'm booked solid all morning and somehow I ended up with the Barretts and Mrs Kowalski."
"You're much better with them than I am," Natasha said. "And I don't think Mrs Kowalski likes my ass as much as she likes yours."
Clint shuddered. "Be thankful."
A woman brushed past Phil as he turned the corner in the corridor leading to Clint's studio that afternoon. He didn't really take in details apart from the angry expression until he pushed open the door and saw Clint.
There was lipstick smeared across his face and he was scrubbing frantically at it with a paper napkin. Clint turned to the door as Phil entered and he winced.
"Shit, Phil, this isn't what it looks like," Clint said. "I can explain, promise."
Phil closed the door and leaned against it, allowing his amusement to show. "It looks like you just got sexually harassed by a middle-aged house-wife and she left in a nasty mood. Isn't that what happened?"
Clint hesitated and then chuckled. "You left out the part where she offered me a shit-ton of money, but yeah, that's what happened."
"Do you get that a lot?"
Clint shrugged and made another pass with the napkin, managing to smudge the lipstick further rather than remove it. "Comes with the job, at least on the cruises."
Something in Phil's flat tone must have alerted Clint because he stopped trying to clean his face, fixed Phil with a piercing look and then his eyes widened.
"Are you jealous?" he asked.
"Of course not," Phil lied.
Clint grinned and sauntered across the studio, radiating smug pride with every step. "You. Are. Jealous. Because some nymphomaniac house-wife can't keep her hands off my admittedly-fabulous ass."
"I'm insulted for you that a nymphomaniac house-wife thinks you'd take money for sex," Phil said.
A shadow passed over Clint's face and he suddenly became intensely interested in the napkin in his hand. He muttered something too quiet for Phil to hear. Phil frowned and stepped closer, putting a hand on Clint's to stop the restless attempts to shred one corner of the napkin.
Clint shrugged and looked up, meeting Phil's eyes defiantly. "I said, I've done it before, kind of, so. You know. Don't be insulted for me."
For a moment Clint tried to turn away but Phil tightened his grip and Clint stayed.
"I slept with a couple of clients," Clint said. "Back in the old days, when Natasha and I did the cruise circuit the first time round. The money was good, they didn't actually say they were paying extra for sex, but they weren't exactly subtle about what they wanted and I figured hey, why not? They were using me, I was using them. We all got what we wanted except for the part where I felt like shit. So, you know, the sex-crazy house-wife isn't exactly barking up the wrong tree here."
He tried again to move away and Phil didn't let him, tightening his hand around Clint's and cupping the dancer's jaw with his other hand. Clint's confession should have shocked him, maybe even repulsed him, yet somehow it didn't. This wasn't something he had any experience with but Phil knew all about doing things that made him feel like the worst kind of human possible.
"Ten years ago, more or less, you let a couple of people pay you more than they should have for dance lessons and you slept with them," Phil said slowly, trying to organise his thoughts and find the right words. "Is that an accurate assessment?
Clint closed his eyes and nodded.
"Ten years ago, due to my actions, fifteen people were killed," Phil said. "Fourteen of them were supposed to die. One of them was an innocent bystander who was in the wrong place at the wrong time and I was the one who made the call to go in anyway." Phil smiled bitterly. "If we're trying to compete on what the worst things we've done are, I don't think you're going to win."
A moment passed. And another. Emotions flickered across Clint's face, guilt and relief and something else that Phil couldn't read.
Then Clint kissed Phil, hard and desperate and dirty. He kissed like he was drowning and the only thing keeping him afloat was Phil and this kiss. Phil wrapped his arms around Clint and held on, feeling overwhelmed and amazed at the rawness of Clint's emotions. No thoughts were possible, no careful planning of what to do next. Clint stepped back, never letting the kiss end, and Phil followed until Clint's shoulders hit the wall.
That seemed to be exactly what Clint needed because he groaned low in his throat and began clawing at Phil's shirt until he could get his hands under it and feel skin. When Phil had to tear away and take a deep gulp of air, Clint buried his face in Phil's neck and Phil gasped as Clint's tongue found just the right spot to make him shudder.
"Door," Phil panted, trying to hold onto some shreds of sensibility. "We should lock it."
Clint didn't stop licking and nibbling at Phil's throat. He reached out, there was a quiet click and then he hooked a leg around Phil's hips and ground slowly against him.
"I'm too old for this," Phil said, inspecting the impressive hickey on his neck in one of the mirrors before pulling up his shirt collar and buttoning it.
Clint snickered and threw a bottle of water to him. He had only bothered to put his jeans on, leaving him shirtless and barefoot again. Phil felt a little embarrassed by how much he liked that look.
"You are definitely not too old." There was a wide, happy grin on Clint's face. "I can personally vouch to anyone who asks, you are not too old."
"I think you're biased."
Clint shrugged. "I think that I just had really great sex against a wall with a guy who is definitely not too old for it."
Phil took a large gulp of water, suddenly aware of how thirsty he was and how tired he felt. If the floor hadn't been so uncomfortable, he was fairly sure that he would be asleep by now.
"Hey, so I talked to Dmitri earlier," Clint said, moving to the corner of the room to fiddle with the stereo. "Guy who runs the Velvet Club? He wanted you back next week, apparently we were a hit. I had to tell him that you wouldn't be here on the next sailing."
"How did he take it?"
Music began playing, slow and quiet. "He offered me double the fee if I brought you back for a rumba."
Phil choked on a mouthful of water.
"You know what a rumba is, right?"
"I know," Phil said hoarsely. "I've seen Dancing with the Stars a couple of times."
"Want to have a go?" Clint waggled his eyebrows suggestively.
"Don't you have clients?"
"Not for another fifty minutes," Clint said, holding out a hand. "I kept a couple of hours free just for you. We've got enough time to start you on a rumba, anyway."
"And this will just be a rumba?" Phil said doubtfully, but moving toward Clint anyway.
The buzz of satisfaction died as soon as Phil stepped into his suite. Maria was sitting on their small sofa looking as depressed as he had ever seen her, including during the first month after her break-up with Sydney.
"You know how I said that my summer rebound fling wasn't a problem?" Maria said, looking up at him. "I think it's a problem."
"Oh." Phil said down and awkwardly put a hand on her shoulder. "What kind of problem?"
"The kind of problem where I gave her my contact details back home."
"And what did she do?"
Maria rolled her eyes. "I didn't hang around to find out. I kind of threw my card at her and ran. Phil, how is it that we're so good at our professional lives and so fucked up in our personal lives?"
"I wish that I knew."
"Want to get drunk?"
Phil thought for a moment. "I hear the bar on the third deck has good Scotch."
The bar had good Scotch, a lot of tequila and Phil vaguely remembered something pink and sweet that Maria made him try. By the time they stumbled back to the suite, Maria was singing songs from Phantom of the Opera badly and there were big gaps in Phil's memory.
It was no wonder they both had the hangovers from hell the next morning.
A note had been slipped under the door by the time they went to breakfast and Maria went slightly pink when she read it and began to look more cheerful. She stayed just long enough to brush her teeth and try to conceal the worst of the hangover damage with make-up before rushing out of the suite. Phil told himself that he was being much more dignified as he walked slowly to Clint's studio.
Clint laughed quietly when he saw Phil and took his hand to lead him over to a small nest of blankets and pillows in one corner. When Phil raised an eyebrow, Clint smiled sheepishly and refused to explain. Instead he sat down, pulled Phil down with him and tugged and prodded until Phil was lying down and Clint could sprawl half across him. It was surprisingly peaceful to lie there with Clint's head on his shoulder and Phil realised after a few minutes that he was absently rubbing Clint's back and hadn't kissed him once yet.
It had to be the hangover making Phil hear things. Clint propped his chin up on Phil's chest and looked at him hopefully.
"Tonight," Clint repeated after a minute. "Stay with me."
"Why?" Phil asked, hating the word as soon as he said it.
"Because I want to wake up with you in my shitty, horrible bed and it's the only time I'm going to get to do it." Clint took a deep breath. "So stay."
"It's not the last night of the cruise."
Clint grinned. "Now I know this is the only cruise you've ever been on. Tomorrow night isn't restful for any of us. I'm doing a display dance up in the main ballroom if Nat's up to it and then we'll be docking in the middle of the night, so the corridors won't exactly be quiet for sneaking back to your cabin. You'll be leaving right after breakfast, which doesn't give you much time to finish packing. It's fine, I knew we wouldn't have much time when we started this so that's why I want tonight." He hesitated and then added, "If you do."
It would be the most irresponsible thing that Phil had ever done and he knew that he was in trouble because all he could do was say yes.
Clint surged up to kiss him thoroughly and grinned when they broke apart.
"You're not going to regret this," Clint promised.
A buzzer went off nearby and he groaned. "Sorry to kiss you and throw you out, but I've got the Barretts in five minutes."
"It's fine," Phil said. "I should go and empathise with Maria's hangover if she's back."
Clint smirked, rolled to his feet and held out a hand to help Phil stand. "You are looking pretty green."
"You should see Maria."
When Clint admitted to Natasha what he was planning that night, because he would never pull it off without her, she growled and threw pillows at him and then offered to run interference to get Phil in and out of his cabin. It was her way of being supportive even when she thought he was doing something stupid and Clint loved her more than ever for it.
"I plan to make your life miserable if you even think of moping when we get home," she threatened as she took a freshly pressed shirt out of his hands and swapped it for a t-shirt. "Stop trying to look like someone you aren't for him, you idiot."
"I have never met anyone more stupid about love than you," she said as she added her spare supply of condoms to the stash in his bedside drawer. "I'm embarrassed for you sometimes."
"You've got a ten minute window," she said as she limped away. "He'd better be punctual. Get him out of here by six or I'll kill you both."
Clint felt slightly shell-shocked by the time she left and his bemusement lasted long enough to cancel out any nerves until Phil knocked at the door. Then he was too busy taking in Phil's untucked shirt and wrinkled, salt-stained pants to do more than pull him into the cabin and kiss him.
"I had this whole seduction thing planned," Clint said much later. "You were going to be impressed by my sophistication and restraint."
Phil's low chuckle made Clint grin and he lifted his head just long enough to place a kiss in the centre of Phil's chest.
"You dressed casual." Another kiss, on Phil's collar bone. "I couldn't resist."
"Nobody has ever called me irresistible before. I've been fairly resistible over the years."
"You've dated a lot of blind people then."
"I still think you're biased."
They were silent for a while and Clint was on the verge of dozing off when Phil asked, "So, what do you do when you're not working the cruise ships?"
Clint propped himself up on one elbow to look down into Phil's face. There was only curiosity in his blue eyes, no judgement or expectation.
"Nat and I run a dance school in New York," he said. "She inherited some money a few years back, I had a little bit of savings, so we put our money together and bought a fixer-upper studio that we're still fixing up. That's why we're working the ships this summer - it was cheaper to close down the studio for the summer than keep it open and we're trying to make enough money to pay for the materials for some bigger repairs. It was this or take a loan from Jimmy the Fish."
"Jimmy the Fish. Sounds trustworthy," Phil said dryly.
"And that's why we're trying to do this the legal way. That and his collection policy on overdue payment sucks and I like my kneecaps."
"Have you got it all?"
Clint shrugged. "We've got one more sail scheduled. We should have enough after that. A couple of the parents of kids that Natasha teaches are donating their labour and I've got some skills from those summer camps. As long as we don't find anything unexpected, the money should stretch."
"I guess teaching dance isn't profitable."
"We make enough to get by." Clint smiled. "What about you? What do you teach?"
"International relations," Phil said.
"Not really." Clint considered him carefully and smiled. "You've got ninja skills, you've made life-or-death decisions and now you teach international relations, which I assume is related to your work before you became a dusty college professor. I've worked out your secret identity."
"You're James Bond," Clint said mock-seriously.
"Nothing like that exciting."
"Don't ruin my fantasy."
It was easy to lean down and kiss Phil, slow and lazy, and Clint smiled against his lips. "Actually, I take that back. James is definitely not as hot as you."
Phil flipped them over and rocked his hips suggestively. "You're deluded, but I'm not going to complain."
It was an inside cabin so there were no windows, but Clint woke up just before dawn anyway and frowned as he saw the time. They had left a low light on and there was just enough illumination to see Phil's face. He looked softer in sleep, all his masks and careful blandness stripped away.
It was another side of the man to store away. Clint had seen him calm and bland, sarcastic and irritable, slyly funny and, over the last couple of days, raw and passionate. He hadn't seen him this relaxed before, the lines melting away and leaving him looking younger, happier.
The idea that he had first met Phil less than two weeks ago seemed incredible, as did the idea that he had almost ignored him during that first disastrous dance lesson. Clint decided that he had clearly been burnt-out from too many weeks in the strange atmosphere of the ship.
Phil took a deep breath and opened his eyes, looking up sleepily. "I can feel you watching me, you know."
"I'm not sure whether that's hot or disturbing," Clint said with a grin. "Maybe disturbingly hot?"
"I'm having serious doubts about your sanity."
"You'd get on great with Nat, then. She always doubts my sanity."
He leaned down and brushed his lips across Phil's.
"What time is it?" Phil asked.
"Probably nearly time for you to get back." Clint frowned. "Where does your friend think you've been all night?"
"I'm fairly sure that she doesn't care. She went for dinner with her fling and told me not to wait up." A wry smile crossed Phil's face. "Hopefully I'll see her at breakfast so that I don't have to send out search parties for her."
"You guys must be pretty close."
"We served together in my old life," Phil said. "I helped her apply for a position at my college when one opened up."
"Just like Nat and me."
"Just like that." Phil shifted closer and trailed a hand down Clint's chest to rest on his hip, which sent pleasant shivers down Clint's spine. "So, how is the waking up with me in your bed thing working out for you?"
"So far?" Clint grinned. "Pretty fucking awesome."
"How long do we have?"
Clint considered the question carefully, looking at the clock and trying to plan even though it was very difficult with Phil trailing open mouthed kisses along his neck. "Long enough."
The corridors of the ship were still quiet and mostly deserted when Phil left. He didn't see an older woman leaving a cabin several doors down from Clint's. Her eyes widened and then she glared at him before stalking away.
Maria was close to bouncing as she arrived at breakfast. Not that Maria ever actually bounced, but in anyone else her bright grin and confident stride would have been bouncing. She had a plate piled high with waffles and bacon and Phil guessed that whatever had gone on with Ms Summer Fling it had been successful.
He cut a careful piece of French toast, dipped it in maple syrup and chewed slowly. "Good night?"
"A lady never kisses and tells," Maria said primly, pouring herself some coffee. "I got her number, though."
"And where does she live when she's not touring on tropical cruises?"
"Washington." At his raised eyebrows, Maria shrugged. "DC. This is why people invented phones, Phil. If it's worth it, we'll make it work."
"And if it's not?"
"Things fizzle, you know how it goes." Maria gestured with a forkful of bacon. "We'll know each other really well, though, by the time we actually see each other again after this and aren't you always telling me that good relationships start from friendship and knowing each other? So, I'm taking a tip from you."
"You're also plotting an awful lot of phone sex," Phil said shrewdly, "and I'd appreciate it if you didn't use the shared line at work for that."
"Like I would," Maria said, offended.
Phil shook his head and took a sip of coffee.
"Want to hear the gossip?" Maria asked with a conspiratorial grin.
"Not particularly, but that never stops you."
"Pfft. You're just as interested as I am, you just like to look superior about it." Maria grinned. "So, apparently this morning one of the passengers lost her jewellery. She claims that she put it away in her safe after her visit to the casino last night, went out for drinks with some friends and when she checked on it this morning it was gone. Safe open, no jewellery."
"We have a thief?"
"It gets even better than that," Maria said cheerfully. "She thought that she saw one of the dance guys hanging around that deck when she was going out - you know the one, taught us that day? Anyway, they arrested him this morning. He's got no alibi and her jewellery was found behind the stereo in his studio."
Phil's heart lurched and his breakfast suddenly felt like a cold, hard lump in his stomach. "Are you sure? Sure that it's Cli-Barton?"
She shrugged. "That sounds like the name. Phil, what's wrong?"
"I have to go," Phil said, pushing his plate away.
"I don't know. The steward? The captain?" He stood and hesitated. Where would they be holding him? "I've got to go."
He left her staring after him, wide-eyed with surprise, and tried not to think about consequences.
When Maria found him a couple of hours later, Phil was sitting on their balcony feeling stunned and wrung out. He let her wrap an arm around his shoulders and they sat for a while. It was oddly comforting.
Then she nudged him and said, "Philip Coulson, you dog."
That forced a reluctant chuckle out of him and he turned to face her. "Is it all over the ship?"
"Gossip moves at light speed in an enclosed community," Maria said. "It's absolutely all over the ship and if anyone has an Internet connection it's probably all over Facebook, too."
Phil groaned and put his head in his hands, feeling slightly nauseous. "Fury's going to kill me. No, he's going to fire me. And then he's going to kill me and get my next five papers rejected from every peer reviewed journal in existence."
"You're being a little melodramatic now," Maria said. "So you had an affair with a hot dance teacher. I saw those biceps, I'm still a rubbish lesbian sometimes. I can appreciate why you did it. This was all on your own time. You didn't do anything to bring the college into ill-repute and Fury will probably be delighted to learn that you're not so obsessed by your work that you can't have fun sometimes. He was the one who arranged for you to be here, if you hadn't worked that out yet."
"I'll make sure they see photos of Barton," Maria promised. "You'll get so much respect for hitting that, they'll probably all hand in their papers on time for at least two months."
He looked at her seriously. "This isn't funny."
She sobered and rubbed his back. "I know. It doesn't look good to anyone who doesn't know you well. Fuck, Phil, you even surprised me and I thought you'd never be able to do that. Remember, the gossip will die down eventually. Your spotless reputation is a little tarnished, maybe, but we can come back from this."
The sick feeling in Phil's stomach subsided a little and he sighed. "Did I do the right thing?"
"You'll have to ask him that," Maria said, "but in my opinion? Yes, you did the right thing. You're just going to have to live with a bit of attention for a while."
She paused and then said with a wicked grin, "So, was he worth it?"
Phil tried to look severe and forbidding, but he suspected that the smile he could feel tugging at the corners of his mouth ruined the effect.
"He was worth it."
Burying himself in work had always been Phil's main coping mechanism when things were out of his control. Writing academic papers didn't require emotions or introspection or long, heart-felt discussions about how he felt.
It required calm, analytical thought. Reading, taking notes, reviewing notes and putting everything together to form a new idea with evidence to back it up, that was what he needed when everything else went to hell.
He wasn't sure why he brought his books and notepads down to Clint's studio to work, except that it was quiet and he could only tolerate a certain amount of Maria's attempts at sympathy. There were no fellow passengers here giving him looks that ranged from admiring to faintly disgusted and Phil couldn't hear the whispers and giggles when people thought he wasn't paying attention.
It was actually a relief knowing that the ship would be docking tonight and he could go home. Not that he thought life at the college would be easier - the academic grape-vine was far too efficient for that - but at least his colleagues would mock him up front and then return to their regular schedule of academic fratricide.
The blankets and cushions hadn't been taken away so Phil had a comfortable nest to work in. His concentration was so complete that he startled when the door opened.
"It figures, the last place you'd think to look for someone is always where you find them," Clint said, closing the door behind him. "I've been looking everywhere for you. I even tried your suite - is your friend always that scary?"
"No, she's usually much worse."
Clint looked exhausted. His eyes were bloodshot, his hair looked like had been running his hands through it constantly and there were new stress lines around his mouth. A line of tension across his shoulders that Phil hadn't seen before made something in his chest ache. He wanted to pull Clint down beside him and touch him, maybe just massage away some of the tension in Clint's jaw, but something held him back. That seemed too intimate, too much for whatever they had been doing together. Neither of them had ever said aloud that this meant more than some really great sex and it seemed cruel that this had to be the moment when Phil realised how much more he felt.
Instead Phil said, "They released you?"
"They had to. Turns out, someone gave me an alibi." Clint smiled tiredly. "And Nat backed that someone up. Then a whole bunch of people came forward about Mrs Kowalski's behaviour and, to top it all off, someone made some calls and it turns out that this isn't the first time she's tried to pull this trick."
"So everything's going to be OK?"
"Well, I'm not going to have to find bail money, at least."
Phil frowned. "But?"
Clint gave him a half-shrug. "I'm fired. Off the ship tomorrow, I'll never work for this cruise line again, that kind of thing. They'll let me keep the bonus from the Velvet Club if I don't make a fuss."
"Because of me," Phil said, closing his eyes and feeling depressed and tired. "They've fired you because of me."
There was the sound of footsteps and he opened his eyes to find Clint kneeling in front of him. Warm, calloused hands enfolded his and when Phil searched there was no anger or blame in Clint's eyes.
"Hey, getting fired is a lot better than getting a criminal record," Clint said. "And it's hell of a lot better than ending up in jail. If you hadn't said anything then it wouldn't have matter what Nat told them, I'd be getting handed over to the cops tomorrow. Nobody else would have said anything, nobody would have looked further, that would have been it for me. You put your reputation on the line today. I've never met anyone who would do something like that for someone like me."
"It wasn't much."
Clint snorted. "Yeah, sure. Your friend was pretty angry and outlined all the many ways this could blow up in your face. I had no idea that the academic shit was so bitchy."
"It can be."
"That's why you've blown me away," Clint said softly. "Nobody has ever done something like this for me before."
He leaned forward and kissed Phil, soft and gentle, only a sweet touch of lips that said more than his words could. Phil felt a weight drop away from his shoulders and he smiled when they broke apart.
"Guess we surprised some people," he said.
Clint flopped down and rolled over to rest his head on Phil's thigh. Books and pens scattered everywhere but Phil didn't mind: he took the opportunity to bury his fingers in Clint's hair and gently massage his scalp. Clint smiled and closed his eyes, some of the stress melting away from his face. If he had started purring, it wouldn't have been a shock.
"I guess we did," Clint said sleepily.
"What will you do next?"
"Go home, maybe borrow what we need from Jimmy the Fish. Nat and I will work it out."
"How did Natasha take it?"
"She swore a lot in Russian and sent me to find you."
Phil began gently rubbing Clint's temples and was rewarded with a low groan and Clint's smile widening.
"If it's alright by you," Clint said, "I think I'll nap now. It's been a long day."
Spending an evening in the main ballroom with everyone trying to sneakily watch him was close to the bottom of Phil's list of pleasant ways to spend an evening. He actually couldn't think of many things that he wanted to do less. Staying in his cabin wouldn't have been hiding, precisely, but there was still a lot of packing to do and he could easily have made that process last all evening and probably through breakfast as well.
Maria had rolled her eyes, thrust his dinner jacket at him and glared until he complied.
Her answer when he asked why Ms Summer Fling couldn't be her date had been a calm hand-wave and a promise that he'd get to meet Ms Summer Fling if he got off his ass and took Maria to the final dinner dance.
It was exactly as awful as he thought it would be. Their table was at the edge of the room and Phil took a seat that kept him partially hidden, but he could still see the covert glances and whispers. Maria and her friend kept up a cheerful, light conversation and Maria threatened him with a salad fork every time he tried to escape.
The reason for her insistence and threats of violence became clear after dinner had been cleared away. Phil looked up from his careful consideration of the weave of his napkin to find Clint standing at their table. He looked uncharacteristically nervous and he swallowed when his eyes met Phil's.
"Hi," Clint said.
Phil could already feel the curious eyes on him so he smiled. "Hi."
That seemed to be enough to restore Clint's usual cocky swagger and he held out a hand.
"Dance with me?"
Maria kicked Phil sharply on the ankle and made a shooing gesture. He was frozen for a moment and then there was a low wolf-whistle from somewhere nearby. Years later he couldn't have said why that would be what spurred him to stand and take Clint's hand, but it did and the relief on Clint's face was beautiful.
"What are we doing?" he whispered as Clint led them to the front of the ballroom.
"Probably something really fucking stupid."
"Good to know."
There was a band at the front and a microphone where a woman was singing something insipid. By the time they'd woven their way through the dancers, the conductor had noticed the commotion they were creating and gestured the musicians into silence. The singer continued for another couple of bars and then she trailed away. Clint stepped up to the microphone and cleared his throat nervously.
"Uh, hi." He cleared his throat again. "My name is Clint Barton. You've probably heard a lot about me today. A lot about what I did and didn't do and who I did it with. What you probably haven't heard is that this guy," Phil's heart did something odd when Clint glanced at him, "this guy stuck his neck out for me when he didn't have to and he did it even though it's going to make his life suck when he goes home. What we did was against the rules, which I'm not arguing with because I was staff here and he, well, he isn't. But I wanted everyone to know that it wasn't what you all think it was. He's an amazing guy and a great dancer and I wanted you to see in him what I do. I was supposed to give you all a dance show with my partner Natasha. I've been asked not to. So tonight, I'm going to it with this man instead. Philip Coulson. He's kind of my hero right now."
There were couple of loud cheers mixed with a few quiet boos and Phil spotted Natasha standing next to Maria, both of them with camera phones out. He felt a little breathless and he didn't know whether it was Clint's words or the prospect of dancing in front of such a large audience. The absolute silence apart from his friends celebrating was worse than a hostile crowd of students.
"I don't know whether you're insane or the corniest man I know," he hissed as Clint signalled something to the band and shrugged out of his jacket.
There were a number of enthusiastic wolf-whistles from the audience at the sight of Clint's biceps and the whistles were joined by hoots when Clint gave Phil a quick kiss.
"Probably a bit of both," Clint said with a cheerful grin. "Shall we?"
"I don't think that we have much choice now," Phil said as the opening bars played.
Clint's arms felt good around him, better than anything else had for a long time, and Phil forgot to be nervous when their eyes met. He let the music wash over him and pushed everything else away. This would be their last dance and every time their bodies touched he could feel the spark between them. His feet moved without conscious thought and he never let his gaze waver from Clint's eyes, memorising the colour and the way that they could sometimes say all the things that neither of them could put into words.
Maybe this had been one of the least sensible things that he had ever done, but Phil couldn't make himself regret it. Not when there was this moment that he could hold onto.
They spun and turned around the dance-floor, each step flowing into the next effortlessly. Phil caught Clint perfectly in their first lift and the audience clapped. Clint's approving smile when their next lift went flawlessly was better than the cheers and hollers around the ballroom.
"Ready for the big finish?" Clint asked. "Promise not to drop you."
Phil kissed him, just a touch of lips, and Clint's grin lit up the room.
The cheers for their final lift were deafening and Phil was almost blinded by the camera flashes. Clint let him slide slowly down his body and smirked when Phil rolled his eyes at the blatant sensuality of the move.
"I think anyone complaining about that will get lynched," Clint said as he wrapped his arms around Phil.
At the edge of his vision, Clint could see other people joining them on the dance floor in pairs and small groups. The band smoothly switched to something slow and loose, which suited him perfectly. There was no form or structure to their dance now, just the flow of two bodies moving to the music in perfect harmony.
He felt Phil take a deep breath before he said, "So, what about that bonus?"
Clint's face heated but he met Phil's eyes. "Doesn't matter. Nat got us work on another line for a couple of weeks. It's not great money, but it's better than nothing and we'll figure out the rest if we're still short when we get home."
"Not Jimmy the Fish?"
"Nat likes her kneecaps too much. She'd never let us do it."
There was just a ghost of a smile on Phil's face, barely there for anyone else looking but Clint had learned something: the important stuff, the things that were about big emotions and terrifying epiphanies, were the things that Phil kept inside and rarely allowed people to see.
Clint was half-tempted to see whether he could draw Phil away and leave the ballroom but a tap on his shoulder and a quiet "can I cut in?" stopped him.
Phil's friend Maria looked no less intimidating in an evening gown than she had in jeans and a shirt. Clint was a little concerned that she and Natasha seemed to have become friends so quickly. The two of them together would be a terrible force. Natasha gave him one severe glare and then grabbed Phil's hands, placed them on her hips before she spun him away.
Maria looked at him with one eyebrow raised and Clint shrugged philosophically. She felt small and delicate in his arms, even though they could see eye to eye, and he missed Phil's solid strength immediately.
"That was nicely done," she said.
Clint shrugged. "Did you get what you needed?"
"I think so."
"And will it help him?"
Maria smiled wickedly. "My thesis was on the ways that media spin and control stories. I teach media theory. If I can't find a way to spin this into something that makes him look good, at least for his students and friendlier colleagues, then I don't deserve tenure."
She shrugged. "He's going to get some trouble for this - it's probably already all over Facebook - but nothing he can't handle. The next couple of academic conferences are going to be hell and there's going to be at least one moron trying to score a point when he presents that paper he was supposed to have been working on over the summer. He'll get past it."
They danced in silence for a while. Clint could see Natasha and Phil not far away and they seemed to be getting along, judging by the small smile on Natasha's face. She put something in his hand and kissed his cheek before steering them back to Clint and Maria. There was a wordless exchange of partners and Maria was already talking animatedly with Natasha when an eddy of the crowd hid them. Taking Phil in his arms again, one hand resting high on his back and the other clasped in Phil's, was the best feeling in the world.
"I don't even want to think about what they're talking about," Clint said.
"Nothing good," Phil agreed.
Nobody was paying them any attention now. They were just one more couple in a sea of people trying to make their last night go on for as long as possible. Clint leaned in to steal a kiss, smiling against Phil's lips.
"What?" Phil whispered.
"That was pretty corny," Clint admitted.
"Sometimes corny is good."
Clint pulled Phil closer and closed his eyes, willing the music to play forever.
A cold breeze sent brown leaves gusting down the street and Phil pulled his coat tighter. It was so different from the tropical heat and blue skies of the summer. Fall had set in and there were already Halloween decorations in some of the store windows. It seemed like a good neighbourhood, lots of small stores and businesses mixed with neatly kept apartments. The building in front of Phil showed signs of recent work, the paint still fresh on the sign and trim.
He checked the address on the card again and felt a sick flutter of nerves in the pit of his stomach. There had been no promises or plans at the end, just hard kisses goodbye and one quick glance over their shoulders as they walked away.
The door opened and Natasha stepped out. She saw Phil immediately and after a moment's surprised recognition she smiled and nodded towards the door.
"He's in there," she said. "I wasn't sure whether you were ever coming."
"Thanks," he said briefly.
She nodded and strode briskly down the street, all trace of her limp gone.
The studio smelled of varnish and fresh paint. Phil took a moment to look around, taking in the mirrors and the rolls of posters that would probably cover the walls when the paint dried. The door swung shut behind him.
"Nat, did you forget your purse again?"
Clint was sitting on a dust-sheet carefully painting the baseboards. There was paint spattered on his arms and a smear across one cheek. Even his hair had flecks of white in the dark blond and the tight jeans and white t-shirt he wore were covered in paint of all hues.
"She didn't," Phil said and watched as Clint froze for a moment before looking up with an expression of disbelief.
"I thought that I'd see how the work was going," Phil said. "It looks good."
There was pride in Clint's smile. "We've had a lot of help, but it's shaping up nicely. Hopefully we'll be starting classes up again next week."
"That's good." Phil hesitated. "I'm sorry. I planned to be here sooner."
Clint shrugged and focused on sealing his paint tin and wiping off his brush. "I didn't really think you'd be here at all, so you know. This is sooner than I expected."
"I didn't know you were back until a few days ago. Maria arranged for me to have all the intro classes that I'm qualified for, it's been a lot of work."
It was impossible to read Clint's expression. He was shuttered and blank. "Like I said, not a problem."
"And I wasn't sure whether you'd want to see me," Phil said quietly.
Clint looked up and there was honest surprise on his face. "Not want to see you? Why the fuck wouldn't I want to see you?"
"Things sometimes seem different when people get home, you know how it can be. A holiday fling doesn't look the same when there are bills to pay and garbage to put out."
There was a long pause and then Clint said, "For a smart guy, you're not very bright sometimes."
The bright smile on Clint's face, filled with happiness, was enough to settle the gaping hole in Phil's chest.
"Would you like to get a coffee?" Phil asked tentatively.
Clint stood up and walked towards him, cocky and confident. "Sure, we could start with coffee."
Reaching out, Phil hooked his fingers through Clint's belt-loops and pulled him close.
Clint's arms went around him even as he said, "I'm going to get paint all over your coat."
"I can live with that," Phil said. "I'm sure it won't be the last time you create a mess."
Then he kissed Clint, paint and all, and neither of them felt like saying much for a long time.