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It all starts with a baby in a baby carriage.

This happens long before the Avengers Initiative, long before New Mexico and its alien visitors. Phil is still just Agent Coulson, liaison to no one in particular, and Clint is Agent Barton, codename Hawkeye. The bad guys du jour, a group of white supremacists trying to blow up a whole block of Harlem, aren't interested in hostages or Rube Goldberg schemes. They just want to kill as many people as possible, as publicly as possible. S.H.I.E.L.D. manages to keep the damage relatively contained, disabling the worst of the explosives, but they're still finding all the bodies in the wreckage of the bodega at ground zero.

"Sir," Phil hears from around the corner, and he starts moving before his brain even consciously identifies the voice as Barton's. When he turns the corner, Barton's got one hand on a stroller while he kneels beside a woman, checking for a pulse. Based on his expression, Phil guesses that he can't find one.

He walks over to Barton and puts a hand on his shoulder. "We did our best," he says quietly. He doesn't expect Barton to believe his words -- they've done this too many times before -- but it's his tacit way of saying, you need to move on. I need you here with me.

Barton understands, the way he always understands Phil, and stands up as Phil takes a look inside the stroller. The canopy managed to shield the baby from flying debris; she's uninjured and fast asleep, though her cheeks are tear-stained. She's wearing a Princess Tiana onesie (hey, Phil has nieces), and a matching pacifier lies near her parted lips.

"She's beautiful," Barton whispers reverently. Phil can't disagree.

For a few moments, they watch her sleep, perfectly calm despite the evidence of her earlier terror. "We should --" Phil begins to say, slow and uncertain, but Barton just says, "Yeah."

Then, as Phil watches wordlessly, Barton unbuckles her, lifts her out of the stroller, and rests her on his own chest, supporting her with one arm and stroking her back with the other. "Hey, short stuff," he whispers to her as she begins to choke out a few quiet sobs. "It's been a scary day, but I've got you now. I've got you now." Just as Phil braces himself for the sobs to turn into wails, Barton begins to rock her back and forth in a gentle, bobbing motion, until she curls up again and starts to drool enthusiastically onto his uniform.

That marks the first moment when Phil can't call him Barton any more, no matter how much he's always fought to maintain that line in his head. This is Clint, murmuring too softly for Phil to hear, while his free hand strokes the wispy hair that curls at the nape of the baby's neck. He glances up once with a challenging expression, like he's expecting to be mocked, but Phil doesn't say a word, not until they've delivered the baby to a social worker in the response team.

Then he turns to Clint and tilts his head a little. "You seemed very comfortable with her," he says, a question.

Clint shrugs. "My br-- we were some of the oldest kids in the orphanage, and they never had enough staff to do everything. So we got lots of practice, taking care of the little ones. You wouldn't believe how many stupid nursery rhymes I can sing on command."

Phil smiles, opens his mouth, and stops himself just short of saying, I'd like to hear them sometime. Because that would be inappropriate, and he's fought so long to keep his thoughts about Clint within the bounds of the professionally appropriate.

Phil doesn't realize until much later that this day, this moment with the baby, is the day he loses that battle for good. This moment is when professionalism officially stops being an option. For now, though, he just closes his mouth, heads over to check in on the med team, and leaves Clint in his wake, looking confused.

(And no, of course Clint doesn't keep the baby. That would be ridiculous. But when Phil calls the little girl's father a few months later, just to make sure that she's doing all right, the man tells him to thank "Mr. Hawkguy" and tell him that Emma adores the stuffed elephant she got for her birthday. Phil feels something funny tug at his guts when he envisions Clint picking out a toy, but he just says, very seriously, that he'll pass along the message.)

 

<3 <3 <3

 

Two years pass. Phil tries not to think about them, as they involve epic levels of sexual frustration and repressed feelings, Clint's possession by an alien demigod, Phil's near-fatal impalement, and the extremely rocky process of creating a team out of a group of superpowered divas.

Let's just say that his coffee consumption during this period probably single-handedly funds the economy of Ecuador, and move on from there.

 

<3 <3 <3

 

Next comes marriage.

Not theirs. Obviously. But after the Battle of New York, Bruce Banner had joined Stark's household, and the three of them worked out a polyamorous-open-menage-whatever-they're-calling-it (which Phil really did not need to discover by walking in on them in the Tower's breakfast nook). Regardless, his addition convinced Pepper of Stark's general stability and increased maturity enough to persuade her to marry him. They hold a lavish destination wedding on a private island in the Caribbean, and two hundred of their closest friends are invited to stay for a week in paradise, Quinjets on hand in case of emergency.

The only press allowed within shooting distance of the island are a small, hand-picked team who won't look too closely at the details (like how Bruce's room adjoins the honeymoon suite), and won't release photos of anyone or anything that hasn't passed S.H.I.E.L.D. inspection. The result is a generally looser atmosphere than usual; Phil sees more of Steve's shy smile than Captain America's practiced grin, and even Natasha laughs in delight when an actual dolphin nudges her impishly with its nose.

Phil himself tries to maintain some level of composure -- these are his colleagues, after all -- but it's hard to keep his stone-cold reputation in mind. All week, Clint keeps wandering over the island in shorts and thin linen shirts, handing Phil neon-colored cocktails every half hour, and urging him to "set down your damn laptop and stop pretending that you don't know how to swim or dance."

(Clint knows that Phil can do both those things, because he's had to do them on missions. But Clint doesn't know that Phil had to give up swimming for two months after Loki, and that he feels ashamed at how clumsily his muscles have returned to action. Clint also doesn't know that Phil learned to dance in college because he had a crush on the vice-president of the university's ballroom dancing club, and he still can't dance the foxtrot without thinking about inconvenient hard-ons and the delirious bliss of teenaged love.)

The wedding ceremony itself takes place on their fifth day there. Pepper looks radiant in a seafoam-green gown, Tony has a few moments of utter speechlessness when it's time for his vows, and Bruce practically glows as he hands each of them the rings to give one other. Halfway through the ceremony, Phil feels a light pressure on his hand, where it hangs loose at his side. Clint, who managed to seat himself next to Phil, has his hand resting against Phil's -- just brushing it, skin against skin, so casual that Phil could almost believe it's unintentional. Neither of them moves for the rest of the ceremony.

The reception takes place under the stars, with live music provided by the Portland Cello Project. Apparently, by the time that Tony realized that Phil's elusive "cellist" was a fictitious cover for his nonexistent love life, he'd already gotten hooked on their music. Phil can't complain; his own love for the group was what had inspired the deception. He leans back in a wicker chair, snags occasional hors d'oeuvres from passing servers, and lets his thoughts drift along with the music.

At some point, he hears a polite cough. Phil opens his eyes to see Steve standing in front of him, flanked by Natasha. He'd noticed them dancing together earlier, her confident guidance coaxing him out of initial stiffness. "I thought -- that is, Natasha thought -- that you might want a dance. If you're interested." Steve's flushed slightly, but his voice is firm.

Phil is quite certain that this is the Captain America equivalent of a pity fuck, but what the hell. He's dreamed about dancing with Steve Rogers since he was an acne-ridden adolescent wrestling with his sexuality; he's not going to turn down the chance to experience it, just once. (It occurs to him that he might have acquiesced more slowly if he'd had fewer glasses of champagne, but the thought is surprisingly unconvincing.)

Steve takes him out to the dance floor. They start out simply swaying back and forth, like most of the guests, and Phil can feel his cheeks burning from some combination of public embarrassment and teenage thrill. But then the musicians shift to a song that aches to be tangoed to, and he can't resist its draw.

Phil starts easy, leading Steve through some of the basic steps, then guiding him into more showy moves. He follows like a charm -- thank you, Super Soldier Serum -- and Phil becomes vaguely aware that the rest of the crowd is giving them some space in the center of the dance floor, applauding after each quick turn. Phil's busy focusing on the dance itself, but he's conscious of a wide smile breaking over his face. He's dancing the tango with Steve Rogers, and he doesn't think he'll ever forget the experience.

When the song finishes, the rest of the group starts to applaud, and Steve smiles broadly at Phil, face glowing with a faint sheen of sweat. "Thank you," Phil says, giving him a playfully formal bow.

"The pleasure's mine, sir," Steve replies -- God, he's young -- and Phil returns, with some reluctance, to his quiet corner. He owes Natasha something big.

A few minutes later, Clint leans against a nearby palm tree. "Nice moves, boss-man," he says. He's half-shadowed and looking off at the crowd, so Phil can't quite read his expression.

Phil shrugs. "Thank Brian Myers. I'd been taking ballroom classes for seven months before I realized that he really was the only straight guy in the dance club."

"And look how little has changed," Clint says dryly, his gaze now following Steve and Natasha as they sway against each other on the dance floor. A beat passes, long enough for Phil to realize that the pang he feels is wistfulness, not jealousy.

He glances over and sees Clint watching him directly. Clint shrugs. "You could always try dancing with a guy who isn't straight. Just for the hell of it."

"I could," Phil says mildly, even as his body tenses with hope and alarm. "I think that the groom's occupied, though. Have anyone else in mind?"

"Well, I know you read the tabloid rumors about why Hawkeye can't hold onto a girlfriend, so he might be worth a shot. I hear his dancing's shit, though."

"I've wrangled worse, trust me." This is a terrible, terrible idea, Phil tells himself, but it's as if the champagne cemented a wall between that voice and the part of himself that's standing up and extending a hand to Clint.

Clint takes his hand and draws close. His eyes fix on Phil, unwavering, his irises the dark blue of midnight clouds. "Dance with me," he says, and Phil begins to lead.

They dance together at the edge of the beach, keeping their distance from the crowd. Clint steps on Phil's toes a few times, but he gets better with each song. The best part, though, and the worst, is when a slow song comes on, and he rests his head on Phil's shoulder for a classic hold-and-sway. Phil can feel Clint's breath against his neck, and it's the most exquisite torture he's experienced.

Near the end of the song, Clint murmurs something, so soft that Phil can barely hear it. "I'm sorry I'm not Steve."

Phil's hand tightens at Clint's waist. "I don't want you to be anything but who you are," he says quietly.

Clint exhales a soft huff at that, but he doesn't say another word. They keep swaying until the end of the song, and then Phil pulls away, making some excuse about champagne making him sleepy.

He returns to his room alone.

Phil sleeps restlessly that night, and when he runs into Clint at the breakfast buffet the next morning, he sees matching shadows under the other man's eyes. "Morning, sir," Clint yawns, his stubbled chin and untucked shirt turning the formality into teasing.

The thought comes to Phil at that moment, overwhelming in its clarity: I wish I'd spent the night with him instead. And that's a terrifying thought, because Phil's had infatuations before, but he's never trusted someone enough to hollow out a space in his life for him. He's never known with absolute certainty that he would have slept better with someone else at his side.

Phil knew before that wedding that he had a thing for Clint. But that day, he realizes just how hopelessly he's in trouble.

 

<3 <3 <3

 

Love, to Phil's deep irritation, comes next. What's frustrating is its non-specificity.

A biochemist with flower-power aspirations decides that what New York City needs most is love. She's good, too; by the time that they notice a pattern of unusual behavior, the chemical's been pumping through the municipal water supply for two days, and everyone who's drunk or cooked with unfiltered water has been affected. The one bright side is that the chemical's effects aren't too severe: heightened empathy, emotional openness, increased desire for interpersonal contact, but nothing too incapacitating.

S.H.I.E.L.D. gathers a team of unaffected operatives to take down "Doctor Love," Clint among their number (he'd been on assignment out of town, the lucky bastard). The mission goes smoothly enough; they track down Doctor Love, seal the security breach in the water supply, and get her to admit that the chemical's effects will wear off on their own within days. Then it's just a matter of detaining her and waiting for the rest of the city to return to its familiar, cold-hearted cynicism, while keeping out the flood of opportunistic con artists and criminals from elsewhere.

Phil hates the thought of taking sick days just because he's acting touchy-feely, but he knows that his usual tactic of glaring new agents into submission won't have its usual force. Instead, he effectively barricades himself in his office, using the opportunity to organize and complete paperwork that he'd let slide. He locks the door and promises himself that he won't open it, no matter who's on the other side.

Naturally, Clint breaks in without even bothering to knock. He sprawls casually in a chair, puts his heels up on Phil's desk, and says, "So how're you holding up, boss?"

Phil knows, distantly, that he should be kicking Clint out right now, before he does something that he regrets. But Clint looks so concerned, and he's always so concerned about Phil, so thoughtful toward him, which makes Phil feel guilty for keeping him at arm's length.

After a few moments, Phil realizes that he's been staring at Clint without answering his question. "I'm fine," he says. "You know I love you, right?"

Clint doesn't move an inch, but suddenly all his muscles are tense, frozen. He laughs uneasily. "You love everyone right now, Coulson. Give it a couple of days, and you'll be back to your usual self."

"But I'll still love you then," Phil says, urgently. It feels somehow very important to wipe the sadness out of Clint's eyes, to let him know that Phil hasn't just been oblivious to his overtures. "Sometimes I feel like I'm going to burst with how much I love you. It kills me every time you drop off the comms, every time I watch you fall off a building or take a hit. If I didn't have to stay professional for my job, I'd--"

"Stop," Clint cuts him off. "This isn't really you, and you're gonna regret saying all this once you're better. I should really go." He's not moving, though -- just staring at Phil with wide eyes.

"I'm sorry." Phil sighs. "I don't want to make you uncomfortable. You deserve someone younger and less piss-poor at relationships than me." He pauses, mentally replays what he just said, and begins to giggle. "I really am under the influence, aren't I?"

"You really are." Clint doesn't look as amused as he normally does when Phil's embarrassing himself, though. He swings his legs off Phil's desk and stands up. "But for the record, I've always hated the idea of 'deserving' people. We all deserve to get what we want, no more and no less."

The silence after his words couldn't be more clear: and I want you.

Phil rests his face in his hands. "I'm tired of this game we keep playing," he says, dully.

"You're not the only one," Clint says. "But if you're still tired of it once you're done being drugged, you know where to find me." Then he leaves, locking the door behind him as he goes.

Eighteen hours pass.

When Phil wakes up the next morning, the drug finally out of his system, he spends about ten minutes cursing himself in every language he knows, including Quenya and Esperanto.

Even then, he doesn't go straight to Clint's quarters. But he goes to Fury, and he's carrying a letter formally requesting that Sitwell replace him as the S.H.I.E.L.D. liaison to the Avengers.

 

<3 <3 <3

 

Inevitably, it all ends with Phil and Clint sitting in a tree, kissing.

Clint's never gone easy on Phil, though. The tree is in a small park in Harlem, where Phil had to trace Clint the old-fashioned way (where "old-fashioned" includes facial recognition software), after Clint carefully picked all the trackers out of his uniform and went AWOL. And it's an old, craggy-barked oak tree -- not impossible to climb, but not trivial, either. Phil's certain that his suit will be a complete loss.

But he clambers his way up regardless, then shimmies out to the half-concealed branch where Clint's sitting. He's been watching Phil climb, with some bemusement; the other half of his attention is directed at a little girl clambering over the playground, dressed in a bright purple Hawkeye hoodie.

"Someone you know?" Phil asks as he pushes himself into a seating position next to Clint.

Clint shrugs. "Remember that baby that I found a few years ago, after the Neo-Nazi attack near here?"

"I remember," Phil says. Normally he'd stop there, but he came here with a mission, and he'll be damned if he backs down, now that he's got bits of bark and leaves embedded in his D&G pants. So he clears his throat and continues, "That was the day I realized that I was falling for you."

Clint jerks his head to stare straight at Phil. "You... You what?"

Phil repeats himself, patient as always. "That was the day I realized that I was falling for you. And yes, this is me, being tired of the game we've been playing since then." He had left Fury's office with an accepted resignation, accompanied by Nick's knowing smirk.

"Thank fucking God," Clint breathes. With barely a moment of hesitation, he pulls Phil into an awkwardly balanced kiss.

They kiss, slow and wet, for several minutes, before Clint pulls away enough to smile wickedly. "Want to get out of here? Because as great as kissing you is, I've got a list of other things that I want to do too, and most of them aren't appropriate for a kids' playground."

Phil shrugs, stealing another quick kiss. "We've been doing things backwards for long enough. Might as well start doing them right."

After all, they've already experienced love, marriage, and a baby in a baby carriage. They've got the rest of their lives to enjoy all the moments in the spaces between.

 

(the end.)