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Feels So Good (Feelin' Good Again)

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When Clint was a kid, before everything went to shit, he loved getting sick on weekdays. He'd get to stay home from school, and his mom would heat up Chef Boyardee and play him Disney movies. Getting sick on the weekend, on the other hand, meant that he'd be missing out on time doing Fun Things.

These days, it's the inverse. Getting sick on a weekday means that Phil will make him a mug of tea in the morning, dash out the door, and return home as soon as he can -- which often isn't until seven or eight in the evening. But unless there's an actual crisis in effect, Phil tries to step away from work on the weekends, and Clint has done everything in his power to encourage the habit.

So when Clint's sick on a weekend, like his current bout with the cold-from-Hell-yes-literally, he spends the whole day letting Phil mother hen him, and he secretly loves every minute of it.

At 10 o'clock in the morning, Clint's lying on the sofa in front of the TV, taking alternating sips of honey-sweetened cream of wheat and lemon-chamomile tea. The TV is playing a ridiculous cartoon from the seventies about "Captain America and Friends" (yes, Phil has the full run on DVD), and that's when Clint catches his first whiff of it. The scent. The aroma that's come to mean safe, and nurtured, and loved.

The first stage is the scent of chicken roasting. Phil always stuffs them with halved lemons and garlic cloves, then slips a little herb butter under the skin, so that the whole house fills with the smell of salty-sizzling chicken fat, interwoven with supple garlic and bright lemon. He roasts them until they look like a magazine spread -- burnished to a coppery brown, their meat perfectly moist -- and he always gives Clint a few scraps of the crispiest still-hot skin, which practically crunches in Clint's mouth.

Then Phil lets the roasted chicken cool down. There's nothing much else for him to do at the stove, so he usually ends up snuggling with Clint on the couch, stroking Clint's hair when he rests his head on Phil's lap. Clint's brain feels too fuzzy to focus on the plot of the cartoon, but that's okay; the pads of Phil's fingers resting on his neck are enough to reassure him that everything's right in the world. He's never quite sure how long Phil sits there with him, because he usually ends up drifting into a congested but happy nap.

Eventually, Phil replaces his thigh with a pillow under Clint's head, eliciting a plaintive whimper from Clint. Clint can hear him walk back to the kitchen, where he methodically dissects the chicken, separating flesh from bone and skin with an ease that shouldn't be as hot as it is. (If Phil ever turns serial killer, the world's basically doomed, because Clint will be too busy ogling his knifework to bring him in.) Within a few minutes, Phil's got a pile of neatly chopped chicken meat to set in the fridge, while everything else goes into a large pot with the chicken drippings, followed by a halved onion, a couple of carrots, some celery ribs, and black peppercorns and fresh thyme for seasoning.

This is the kind of magic that Clint can appreciate. The way that Tony can match a vintage wine to a plate of French food, or how Natasha can style her hair to look like anything from a sorority pledge to a European princess -- they're impressive, sure. But Clint's always loved the classics: a wood shaft between his fingertips, raunchy jokes exchanged over cheap beer. Phil takes the simplest of ingredients, proportions and prepares them with thoughtful care, and creates a harmony that hadn't previously existed.

Clint's not surprised, in retrospect, that Phil was exactly what they needed to make the Avengers coalesce. He's just glad that they only needed the tragic story of Phil's death, and not the real death itself.

Once Phil's added water and brought the stock to a gentle simmer, he returns to Clint. "How're you feeling, babe?" he asks gently.

Clint really wishes he had the strength to answer with a playful kiss. Instead, the best he can do is hum, "'M okay." Then he looks up at Phil, eyelashes fluttering in a way that's almost deliberate. "Tell me a story?"

"Only if you come back to bed to hear it," Phil says.

"'Mmkay," Clint nods. With Phil's help, he stumbles back to the bedroom and manages to get under the covers in under four tries. He appreciates the relatively limited amount of snickering on Phil's part.

Clint likes storytime with Phil. Sometimes he'll convince Phil to tell him stories from his times as a young Ranger and as a field agent, and those stories are the best, because he learns new things about Phil, comes away with a heightened appreciation of his husband's badassery, and usually gets some juicy dirt on Fury in the process. But more often, Phil will bring over case files, whether they're profiles of persons of interest to SHIELD or briefing packets for upcoming missions. Of course, Clint usually has to reread them later, but he loves to hear everything laid out in Phil's calm, even voice. Phil claims that it helps him get new angles on his work, so Clint doesn't feel too guilty asking for it.

Phil sits down on the bed, legs stretched out, a StarkPad on his lap. "Eastern European war criminal, or radiation-mutated factory worker?"

Instead of answering, Clint smiles sleepily, because he has the coolest husband on the planet. "Love you," he murmurs. "Uh. Radioactive guy?"

"Gal, actually," Phil corrects, but fondly. "Theresa Monroe, thirty-seven years old, lifelong Chicago resident. Two children, no spouse. . ."

Clint doesn't even get to hear how the radiation altered her before he's asleep.

When Clint wakes up again, the house is full of stage two of The Scent. The chicken stock's been simmering for a few hours now, enough to render glistening bubbles of golden fat and glean all the richness from the bones. He pulls himself out of bed and stumbles out to the kitchen, where Phil's straining the stock through a fine mesh chinois. The aroma doesn't have the smoky darkness of the roasting stage, but all the vegetables and herbs and chicken have fused to create an elixir that smells like the cheerful, over-indulgent grandmother that Clint never had.

Once the stock's clear and the solids are in the trash, Phil tastes it and adjusts the seasoning. He ladles out half a mug of the seasoned stock for Clint, then fixes him with a pointed gaze. "You can have it once you lie down on the couch."

Clint protests, just for show (and because he really likes it when Phil manhandles him), but soon he's horizontal again, wrapped up in a quilt, cradling the mug of chicken stock. It tastes even better than it smells; the salty, savory warmth soothes his throat all the way down, and the stock's richness on his tongue -- what Phil calls "mouthfeel" -- fills him up without upsetting his stomach.

He can hear the rhythmic chopping of a knife in the kitchen, and he knows from experience that Phil's dicing vegetables: more onions, carrots, and celery, plus whatever looked fresh at the produce aisle, from leeks to mushrooms to baby pattypan squash. They get tossed into the strained stock in a precisely regulated sequence, so nothing's overcooked or underdone, and while the vegetables soften, Phil gets started on the noodles.

If Clint were a little more steady on his feet, he'd be watching this part, because it's the most magical. Simple flour and water and eggs turn into a smooth dough, sprinkled lightly with dried herbs and garlic. Once the texture of the dough is just how Phil wants it, neither too sticky nor too dry, Phil lets it rest. When the vegetables are a hair short of finished, he rolls the dough out and cuts it into thin strips, then slides the noodles into the pot, where they'll soften and puff up within minutes. It's the last and most complex stage of the Scent, when the noodles and vegetables and chicken all dance together in an orgy of home-cooked deliciousness. (Clint told Phil this metaphor once, and Phil couldn't stop laughing for five minutes.)

Finally, after one last taste for flavor balance, Phil stirs in the chopped chicken meat to warm it back up, then pulls out two bowls. The homemade noodles have thickened the broth slightly, and Phil spoons out servings with balanced proportions of meat, vegetable, noodle, and broth. It's an obsession with detail that sometimes drives Clint crazy, but on days like today, it just makes him feel uncomfortably sentimental.

Phil joins Clint on the couch, handing him a bowl of perfect, homemade chicken noodle soup. Then he places a single kiss on Clint's forehead. "We're almost through the last DVD. If you aren't better by tomorrow, I'll have to start up Bucky Barnes and the Kid Commandos."

Clint really isn't sure whether that's a threat or a promise, but right now he doesn't care. Lying here, leaning against Phil's shoulder, with a bowl of soup that tastes like warmth made manifest, there's nothing he would change about the world.

Clint loves getting sick on the weekend, because even when his body feels like steamrolled shit on a biscuit, Phil never lets him forget how much he's loved.

 

(the end.)