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The Sherwood Lounge

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Phil steps inside The Sherwood Lounge and is a little surprised at what he finds. The decor is modern, yet classic - red brick masonry accented by brass and black along the bar. There are comfortable looking couches and chairs on the lower level, facing a small stage with a grand piano and a lone microphone stand. Everything about the place entices you to settle in and stay a while, to linger over good drinks and good conversation.

The man behind the bar turns to face him and Phil’s aesthetic appreciation of the lounge jumps to a new level. The bartender is gorgeous - a wide smile framed by a trimmed goatee and piercing blue eyes highlighted by the blue button-down he’s wearing rolled up over his tanned, well-defined forearms. His face isn’t beautiful in the classical sense, but chiseled and worn in all the ways that Phil finds ridiculously attractive.

“Hi there!” the bartender greets warmly. “I’m Clint. Welcome to Sherwood.”

Phil steps further into the bar, drawn forward like a moth to a beautiful and irresistible flame.

“Hi,” he responds. “I’m Phil --”

“Coulson. I know,” Clint finishes for him and then ducks his head with a charming blush. “I mean, Pepper mentioned you may be by to get a feel for the place. I’m a, uh, big fan of your work.”

Phil can’t help the surprised raising of his eyebrows as he takes a seat at the bar. Most of his work is displayed in decidedly more uptown locations compared to this neighborhood. Then again, Phil thinks as he turns and to take another look around the room, one his sculptures would fit in really well with the decor. He can imagine it just behind and to one side of the piano - a blend of iron and brass that would serve as both the perfect backdrop to a singer at the microphone or as a focal point on the otherwise empty stage.

“Can I offer you something to drink?” Clint asks, breaking into Phil’s thoughts.

When Phil turns back toward him, the bartender’s eyes are lit with amusement, as if he knew exactly what Phil was thinking.

“A gin and tonic, please,” Phil requests. “I have to admit, this place wasn’t what I was expecting.”

“Because of the neighborhood?” Clint asks with a frown and turns away to start putting Phil’s drink together.

Phil realizes too late that Clint probably lives in the neighborhood and his comment could easily be taken as an insult. “I’ve never been here before,” he replies, hoping there’s enough apology in his voice to salvage the younger man’s opinion of him.

“It’s okay,” Clint says with another friendly smile as he places the G&T in front of Phil. “I just thought we’d been making headway in people not seeing it as the same old, run-down neighborhood.”

“Then it’s probably my fault,” Phil admits. “I don’t get out much.”

“This is a special occasion for both of us then,” Clint responds, his smile widening when Phil blinks at him in shock. If he didn’t know better, Phil would think the bartender was actually flirting with him.

“So,” Clint prods after a moment of silence, “what do you think of the place so far? Do we make the grade, neighborhood and all?”

Phil is fairly certain he’s takinjg the commission, but tells himself that he doesn’t want to rush the decision and not because he wants more time to enjoy the view. “It’s a beautiful place and I think one of my pieces would work well here," he replies honestly. "But I'd like to stay and get a feel for the clientele, if you don't mind?"

Clint's expression, that had gone bright and happy at Phil's first comment, slides into a sexy smirk. "Now why would I mind having a gorgeous guy at the end of my bar?"

Phil feels his face flush, too much enforced time alone making him unused to even casual flirting. A new group of people enter the bar and Clint’s attention is drawn away, saving Phil from having to respond.

It doesn’t take long for the popular lounge to fill, even on a Wednesday night. Phil tries to focus on the atmosphere in the bar - the sights, sounds, and feel of the people enjoying a fun evening at a favorite locale - but finds himself continuously distracted by the man behind the bar.

Clint is cordial and friendly like the rest of the staff and it's clear they are a big reason behind the popularity of the lounge. Phil watches as several men and women attempt to flirt with the bartender, Clint deftly evading their attention without being rude. The younger man divides his attention equally between each customer and Phil can't help noticing that the only person getting an unfair amount of Clint's time is Phil. He also can't help feeling a little smug as the bartender subtly, but unmistakably flirts with him throughout the night.

Phil's own confidence increases as the night progresses, faltering only once when a beautiful redhead walks in and Clint makes a point of coming around the bar to greet her with a long hug. Phil turns away and doesn't see Clint greet the man beside her with equal warmth.

"Phil?" Clint says from closeby and Phil turns, surprised to find the bartender just behind him and looking a little bashful. "I wanted to introduce you to Bruce and Natasha. Old friends of mine and our entertainment for the evening. Bruce, Natasha, this is Phil Coulson."

"It's nice to meet you." Bruce extends a hand toward Phil, which is when he notices that the man's other arm is wrapped around Natasha's waist and she is leaning into Bruce's side. Oh.

"Likewise," Phil replies more warmly than he would have a minute ago. He shakes both of their hands and fights another blush at Natasha's knowing smile.

"We'll have to come back after our set," Natasha says, "and get to know each other."

Phil isn't sure whether to take it as a welcome or a threat.

"Don't worry about Natasha," Clint advises, correctly reading Phil’s thoughts. "She's only ever threatening to people she may eventually like."

Phil had already met Thor, a larger-than-life Norwegian who turned out to be a stay at home dad to twin six year olds, Darcy and Selvig. According to Clint, Thor's wife Jane, an emergency room doctor at a local hospital, insisted that her husband get out at least one night a week to maintain his sanity. When Thor resisted, Sherwood hired him on as a host/bouncer. Phil is certain that Clint must be paying Thor under the table to keep up the ruse. There is no way the owner is that understanding.

"You have interesting friends," Phil muses.

"Tell me about it," Clint mutters fondly before walking back behind the bar to help a customer flagging him down.

Phil ends up staying for both of Bruce and Natasha's sets. He learns during the break between sets that Bruce is an old highschool friend and that Natasha met Clint while they were both at UCLA - the fact that Clint had been there on an archery scholarship is both surprising and utterly fitting. Bruce had flown out to visit Clint during their third year, met Natasha, and the two have been together ever since. Natasha now teaches at their old high school and Bruce runs the organic grocery store a few doors down from Sherwood.

"It's a good thing Clint's gay or it could have been much more awkward than it turned out," Natasha says with a pointed look in Phil's direction that makes him choke on his sip of water. He considers himself lucky that Clint is on the far side of the bar helping another customer.

Natasha slinks off toward the stage and Bruce lays a consoling hand on Phil’s shoulder.

“If it helps,” Bruce says with a grin, “she’s usually a lot more direct than that. Claims it’s a Russian trait.”

Bruce walks off after his wife, leaving Phil to gape at his back until Clint reappears in front of him.

“You okay?” Clint asks.

“Yeah,” Phil responds with effort. “Water just went down the wrong pipe. How exactly did you meet Natasha again?”

“Oh, well...” Clint rubs the back of neck sheepishly. “I was actually supposed to take her out. I, uh, made a different call.”

“Take her out?” Phil asks. “Like on a date?”

“Yeah,” Clint nods. “There was this other guy on the archery team that I had the biggest crush on and, for some reason, I thought doing him a favor by asking out his girlfriend’s roommate so they could have sex in her dorm room would somehow help my cause. Nat raised that eyebrow at me and I ended up spilling my guts. She was the first person I ever came out to and she’s been my best friend ever since.”

Phil has to laugh. “That sounds remarkably similar to my story, except that I finally decided to come out by asking this guy in my business ethics class for coffee. Problem was, he thought I just needed a friend and, not only was he straight, he was engaged. They ended up breaking off the engagement, but Nick is still one of my closest friends.”

“Oh, I’ve got that one beat,” Clint grins and launches into the tales of his first attempts at dating men in college.

Phil gets so engrossed in Clint’s energetic storytelling, that he doesn’t realize how much time has passed or that Bruce and Natasha have finished their second set.

“How about it ladies and gentlemen? Who else would like to hear a song from our own Clint Barton?” Natasha’s voice rings across the lounge and Clint startles upright from where he’d been leaning across the bar toward Phil when he hears his name.

“Nat...” Clint says with a firm shake of his head.

“You offered me a boon for us coming in tonight,” Natasha reminds him from the stage, “and I want a song. Get your ass over here.”

Clint heaves a huge sigh, but starts to make his way over to the stage. Phil looks on in awe, his heartbeat quickening, as Clint replaces Bruce at the piano and Natasha repositions the microphone by the bartender’s mouth. Clint gives one last shake of his head before placing his fingers on the keys and familiar notes fill the now-quiet bar.

“When you're down and troubled and you need a helping hand and nothing, whoa, nothing is going right. Close your eyes and think of me and soon I will be there to brighten up even your darkest nights.”

Clint’s voice, like the rest of him, is unique and on the rough-edge of beautiful. His slower tempoed approach to the song and the raspy quality of his voice turns it into a haunting ballad. Clint’s eyes flick over and meet Phil’s for a split second before he closes them and continues to sing.

“You just call out my name, and you know wherever I am, I'll come running to see you again. Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call and I'll be there, yeah, yeah, you've got a friend.”

Phil doesn’t stand a chance.

~^~

Phil calls Pepper the next morning to accept the commission.

There is absolutely no reason for him to return to the Sherwood Lounge - Phil typically avoids getting more than a first feel for any location - and yet finds himself walking back into the bar less than a week after his initial visit. He tells himself that the way Clint’s face lights up when he sees Phil has no bearing whatsoever on his second visit to the lounge or each successive visit after that.

Phil is a horrible liar, even to himself.

"You mentioned archery," Phil says during one of his early visits. "Is the name of the bar just a big coincidence?"

"No," Clint responds and then hesitates. The pause is short, but it's enough to signal to Phil that whatever Clint is about to tell him is important. "Buck, the old owner, was big into archery - loved all the Robin Hood movies and volunteered to start up an archery club at the high school. That's how I met him and how I got into archery in the first place. He, uh, took me in after my parents died. Nobody thought giving a bunch of delinquents projectiles was a good idea, but there weren't too many other people volunteering other options."

"Nobody thought all of us hanging out at a bar was a good idea either," Jane points out from where she's sitting with Thor, ending one of their rare date nights with a visit to her old stomping grounds. It turns out Jane is also an old friend of Clint's from high school.

"Yeah," Bruce agrees as he walks up with Natasha, "but we all turned out okay. Well...everyone but Barton here."

Phil is about to pipe up in Clint's defense - there is nothing wrong with being a bartender - but Clint responds good-naturedly to Bruce's teasing. "Shut it, Banner. Not all of us can be Pepper."

"I don't think any of us want to be Pepper," Jane points out. "Can you imagine trying to corral Tony on a regular basis?”

Bruce and Clint both laugh and it takes Phil a moment to realize they’re talking about Tony Stark, the billionaire who runs Stark Industries and Pepper’s boss. As classy as Sherwood is, it’s not the type of place Phil would expect to see Stark frequenting and definitely not to make friends with the staff.

“Tony used to sneak out here with Pepper to hang out with us back in high school,” Clint explains when he sees Phil’s confusion. “I guess they met while Pepper was out at the mansion with her grandfather, you know, the Stark’s old butler?”

Phil nods and Clint continues. “Tony wasn’t used to being around someone like Pepper - someone who called him on his bullshit and didn’t care what his last name was. Anyway, the short version of the story is that she brought him out here to prove to him that we didn’t care either.”

“How many times has he offered to buy you a car?” Jane asks with a grin.

“I’ve lost count,” Clint responds with a wistful smile, telling Phil that the memories are fond ones. “He still starts off every phone call with a different car model. One of these days, I’m going to give him a heart attack by actually saying yes.”

“Clint taught him how to fight,” Bruce tells Phil, making him look up at the bartender in surprise. Clint doesn’t strike him as the fighting type.

“A bully is a bully, no matter how much money they have in the bank,” Clint shrugs. “I didn’t teach Tony to fight, so much as fight back. Bullies tend to only keep knocking you down if you stay down.”

“Remember the time we had to teach him how to use the subway?” Bruce asks.

“The look on his face!” Jane squeals and the long-time friends erupt in laughter.

They trade and share more anecdotes about their high school days and Phil can’t help wondering how differently his life would have turned out if he’d been lucky enough to make friends like Pepper, Clint, Bruce, and Jane when he’d been younger. Tony Stark was a lucky man.

~^~

A few weeks later, Phil walks into Sherwood to find Pepper sitting at the bar and talking to Clint. Her back is to the door, but the bartender’s sudden smile has her turning around to face Phil. Pepper’s eyes widen in surprise, but her smile and hug are warm.

“Phil!” she greets. “It’s nice to see you in person for once.”

Phil returns her hug and settles into his usual seat. “You’re the one that’s been globe trotting,” he points out, making Pepper roll her eyes dramatically.

“I didn’t realize how much I loved my apartment until I didn’t see it for three months,” Pepper replies with a laugh. “But enough about me. How are you? I wouldn’t have expected to see you here. I didn’t think you --”

“Here you go, Phil,” Clint says quietly, trying not to interrupt, but Phil automatically looks over at the sound of Clint’s voice. He smiles when their fingers brush and doesn’t notice that Pepper has abruptly stopped talking.

When Phil looks back at his friend, she is watching Clint walk away with a small frown and concerned eyes. Pepper is one of the few friends Phil stayed in touch with after the accident and the only person who knows the true reason behind why he left everything behind to become Phil, the artist. He doesn’t know what he would have done without Pepper’s support all these years, so Phil tells himself not to chafe at the words of advice he knows are forthcoming.

“I know you’re two grown men capable of making your own decisions,” Pepper starts and turns to look directly at Phil. “It’s just...he’s been my friend for a long time and...be careful with him, okay? It’s not my story to tell, but he’s been hurt a lot. I wish I could teach him to protect his heart a little more, but he wouldn’t be Clint if he did.”

There is a loud burst of laughter from the other end of the bar, distracting them both. Phil looks over and watches as Clint gesticulates wildly, clearly in the middle of a colorful tale that has his audience laughing again as it comes to its climactic ending. He has a sudden itch to learn everything underneath the bartender’s cheerful exterior.

“I think you two will be good for each other,” Pepper says softly.

Phil ducks his head in embarrassment, hoping he’s not as transparent to Clint as he is to Pepper. The thought that Clint is equally attracted to Phil is a heady idea, making his cheeks flush with warmth as Clint walks back over.

“Can you stay until Steve gets here?” Clint asks Pepper.

“I’d like to,” she responds, grimacing when her phone rings on cue. “Or not. Hi Tony. What’s Stane doing now? Yes, I’m at Sherwood. No, Steve’s not here yet. No, no, it’s okay. I’m on my way.”

“Stane still giving you trouble?” Clint scowls.

“Nothing we can’t handle,” Pepper replies confidently. “I have to go. Tell everyone I said hello.”

Pepper puts her hand on Phil’s shoulder to keep him in his seat, leaning over to give him a quick kiss on the cheek in farewell. She straightens and is immediately wrapped into a huge hug by Clint that sweeps her off her feet.

“Don’t stay away so long,” Clint requests. “We miss you...and Tony, just don’t tell Tony I said that. No wait, scratch that. Tell Tony Steve said it.”

“You’re incorrigible,” Pepper laughs, returning his hug and giving him a kiss as well. “Good luck tonight.”

Phil waits until Clint is back behind the bar before he decides to satisfy his curiosity. “Something happening tonight?”

“Still trying to get more investors for the neighborhood revitalization project,” Clint answers easily. “So Steve is bringing a bunch of them in tonight. He’s awesome with people - it’s hard to say no to that face.”

Clint gets called away before Phil can ask for clarification, and then a group of people walk into Sherwood and Phil needs no further explanation. The tall, muscular, blonde who leads the group into the lounge is undoubtedly Steve. The man’s model-good looks would attract anyone’s attention and Phil can’t help tracking his movement as he leads the investors down to the lower level. Steve smiles and waves at Clint as he passes and Phil has to blink a few times in response to the near-angelic quality of that smile. The devil would have trouble saying no to Steve’s face.

“So that’s Steve,” Clint says with an odd note to his voice that has Phil spinning to face him. Clint is looking across to where the investors are settling down in front of the stage and Phil gets the feeling that he’s avoiding looking him in the eye. “I can, uh, introduce you later. He’s actually a great guy, an awesome guy. I think you two would hit it off. He used to sketch a lot when we were younger. I should probably go...um...check on...something.”

Phil instinctively reaches out and puts his hand over Clint’s before he can slip away. Phil may not have dated much lately, but he knows a setup when he hears one. Whatever surface-level attraction Phil may feel towards Steve, it’s nowhere near the ridiculous level of infatuation he’s reached with Clint. Maybe it’s time to for Phil to be a little more up front about how he feels.

Clint looks down at their hands and then up at Phil, resignation warring with hope in his eyes. Phil realizes that he doesn’t know what to say. Instead of trying to blunder his way through an awkward confession, Phil lets his fingers trail up the back of Clint’s forearm in a light caress, before re-tracing his path and wrapping them loosely around the bartender’s wrist. Clint’s eyes widen a fraction before the side of his mouth lifts in a smile that Phil will never not find sexy.

“Yeah?” Clint asks.

Phil only nods and tightens his grip. Clint’s eyes darken and a shiver of anticipation runs through Phil. He’s not sure if he’s frustrated or relieved when they’re interrupted by one of the waitresses.

“Steve’s asking for you.”

“I’ll be there in a sec,” Clint responds without looking away from Phil. He looks cautious and more tentative than Phil has seen him before. “I have to go do this thing, but I’ll be back as fast as I can okay?”

Phil gives his wrist another quick squeeze before pulling his hand away. “I’ll be here.”

Afraid of being a distraction, Phil keeps his back turned before he gives in to temptation and looks over his shoulder. Clint is standing next to Steve, looking confident and relaxed as he talks to the investors. Phil can’t help a surge of pride as the men and women listen with rapt attention at whatever Clint is saying.

Phil lets his gaze wander to the potential investors. He doesn’t immediately recognize any of them, so he assumes that they are either consultants for the actual investors or what Phil’s aunt would call “new money”. The thought has Phil turning away and looking down at his drink a little guiltily. He’ll have to tell Clint the truth soon and hope that the younger man is as accepting of Phil as he was of Tony Stark all those years ago.

He’s still brooding into his drink when Clint returns a short while later, looking pleased.

“Looks like it went well,” Phil comments, genuinely happy at the positive response to the neighborhood revitalization project.

“Yeah,” Clint beams before his smile transforms into a smaller, private one for Phil. “So...Jasper, the other bartender, is back from his honeymoon. That means I don’t have to cover his shift tomorrow. I was hoping you’d maybe like to have dinner? With me?”

Phil lets his own smile widen. “I’d love to.”

~^~

Phil steps out of the subway the next night, smoothing down his jacket for what must be the hundredth time between his apartment and Sherwood. They had agreed to meet at the bar since Clint still needed to help with the monthly inventory and the restaurant they’re going to, owned by one of Steve’s friends, is only a few blocks away.

Clint had told Phil to dress nicely and he hoped that wearing one of his nicer suits wasn’t overdoing it. He turns the corner toward the bar and his jaw nearly hits the pavement.

Drop-dead gorgeous doesn’t begin to describe how Clint looks wearing a dark grey, three-piece suit as he leans casually against the building. He’s slouching a little with his legs crossed and his hands in his pockets, technically ruining the line of the suit, but Phil has never seen anything more attractive in his life.

Clint looks deep in thought as he turns his head towards Phil, his own jaw dropping when he spots the artist. Phil fights to keep eye contact and not drop his head bashfully as he walks closer. He’s been told on numerous occasions that he looks amazing in this suit and judging by Clint’s reaction, Phil’s previous dates had not been lying to him. Clint’s eyes are dark, intense, and almost predatory as they sweep up and down Phil’s body. He has to remind himself that, unlike five years ago when Phil rarely wore anything but a suit, Clint has only seen him in his now-customary jeans and light sweaters. Phil has even foregone his glasses for contacts tonight.

“You look amazing,” Clint says as Phil nears.

“Thanks,” Phil responds with a small smirk on his lips, confidence ratcheting up at how Clint sounds a little breathless when he speaks. “You clean up pretty well yourself.”

Cling shrugs and ducks his chin a little. “I wasn’t sure if I was overdressed.”

“I like the suit. You look great,” Phil replies and steps close enough to put his hand lightly on Clint’s arm. He’s long past admitting to himself that he has a thing for the bartender’s forearms. His tendency to constantly have his sleeves rolled to just below his elbows both feeds Phil’s fascination and frustrates him because he itches to touch.

Clint opens and closes his mouth a few times, clearly having an internal debate with himself, before straightening his shoulders and leaning forward to give Phil a gentle kiss. Phil’s eyes flutter closed, but the lovely feeling of Clint’s lips pressed warmly against his is over much, much too soon. Phil can’t help letting out a small noise of protest and feels Clint’s amused huff against his lips before he leans in for another kiss. This time, Phil reaches up to wrap a hand around the back of Clint’s neck to keep him in place. Clint’s hands settle on Phil’s hips as he angles his head just right and Phil loses himself in the kiss as it moves from a tentative welcome to hot, demanding, and skating the edge of propriety for a public sidewalk.

A passing car honks, startling them apart, and a familiar voice yells, “It’s about time!” as the car drives away. Phil drops his head onto Clint’s shoulder in embarrassment and one of the bartender’s hands lifts off his hip to make a presumably rude gesture at Jane.

“We should probably get going before anyone else drives by,” Clint suggests.

Phil straightens with a nod and Clint moves his other hand down to tangle their fingers together. He raises a questioning eyebrow and Phil nods again. They make the short walk to the restaurant in silence with their hands clasped together and their shoulders brushing periodically. He feels a bit like a lovestruck teenager and Phil honestly doesn’t want it to stop.

The restaurant turns out to be a quaint little French bistro with amazing food that Phil should remember more, except that all of his attention is focused on the man sitting across from him. Phil refuses to feel any embarrassment about how they spend nearly the whole time holding hands across the table - it's a good thing that Clint is left handed.

Clint is an attentive date and listens to Phil tell him about growing up in Chicago. Phil is glad that his parents had done their best to give him a “normal” childhood and skips the stories involving lavish parties, over-the-top vacations, and high-end sports cars.

“What made you decide to become an artists?” Clint asks as they’re lingering over dessert and coffee. “Not necessarily saying yours had an issue with it, but most parents wouldn’t be so understanding about spending money sending their kids to college only to have them choose to sculpt for a living. It took you a while to find your niche, right?"

Phil realizes that Clint must think he's always been a sculptor. "I actually did 'real' work for a while," he says with a smile. "It's why I moved to New York."

"Oh!" Clint smiles. "And here I was imagining you bucking society's expectations and giving everything to your art."

Phil swallows at how close to the truth Clint actually is. He takes a deep breath before speaking. "There was...I was in a pretty bad car accident about five years ago. It put everything in a new perspective, I guess."

Clint squeezes Phil's hand, but thankfully doesn’t offer the usual platitudes about fate and the accident “being for the best”. While Phil would never give back that moment of epiphany, he could easily have skipped the month in the hospital and the year of physical therapy that followed.

“I’m glad I had the opportunity to meet you, Phil,” Clint says and Phil has to retract his earlier thought. He’d go through years of physical therapy for the chance of meeting Clint.

“My dad was a pretty fucked up drunk,” Clint offers softly in return. “One night, he got it in his head to drive across town and wanted company. He was going to take me, but my mom talked him into taking her instead. They never came back. Barney, my brother, was already eighteen, so CPS let me stay until he shot a clerk while trying to rob a liquor store. Buck...he...he saved my life by taking me in and showing me that I could be good at something.”

“You came back when he got diagnosed?” Phil asks and Clint nods. He already knew that Sherwood’s former owner had died of fast-spreading pancreatic cancer. “You’re a good man, Clint Barton.”

“Nah,” Clint denies with a shake of his head. “Buck was family. You ready to head out? The waiter’s starting to give us the stink-eye.”

“What about the bill?” Phil asks as Clint moves to stand.

“I took care of it while you were in the bathroom,” Clint confesses and grins at Phil’s scowl. “You can pay for the next one.”

“It’s a deal,” Phil replies and lets Clint tug him up by their joined hands.

He doesn’t complain when Clint insists on hailing a cab and instructs the driver to drop Phil off at his apartment first, but comes to an unusual decision when the cab stops in front of his building.

“I’m nearly done with the sculpture. Would you like to come up to take a look?” Phil asks.

“I’d love to,” Clint responds quickly, giving Phil a bright smile as they exit the cab.

They take the stairs up to Phil’s third floor studio and apartment - he actually owns the entire building, but uses the bottom floors mainly for storage of things from his past life. Phil feels a moment of apprehension as he unlocks the door and lets Clint precede him into the room. He watches Clint’s head swivel to take a quick survey of the room before his gaze lands on the sculpture on the far side of the large room. The younger man walks slowly toward it and Phil follows.

Phil stops a small distance away as Clint circles the sculpture, sucking in a sharp breath when he finally gets a glimpse of the bartender’s face. It radiates an awe and appreciation that Phil never realized he was searching for when others looked at his work. Seeing it on Clint’s face now makes every moment of indecision and self doubt about his art fade to nothing.

Clint starts to reach out toward the sculpture and then stops, looking up at Phil questioningly. Phil nods, not trusting his voice and not wanting to break the charged silence that fills the room. Clint extends his arm and touches - no caresses - a curved piece of iron before looking up at Phil again.

“It’s an archer,” Clint whispers.

Phil smiles and nods again, not overly surprised that Clint so easily sees through Phil’s abstract interpretation. The basic idea had been there from the beginning, but had only fully formed after they'd had a conversation about Clint's nickname while competing. “I was going to call the piece Hawkeye.”

Clint’s eyes widen and then, faster than Phil would have imagined it possible for the man to move, he has Phil’s face cradled in his hands and is kissing him with a passion Phil has never experienced before. Phil melts into the kiss, hands clutching at Clint’s biceps and then his shoulders to try and pull him closer.

“Phil...” Clint says against Phil’s lips, disbelieving and thankful, making Phil want to insist that no, he is the lucky one.

He doesn’t get a chance to speak because Clint is diving in for another kiss and Phil groans as their tongues slide together. Clint pulls away again with a gasp and Phil leans forward to chase after his lips, only to have the younger man step away and drop his hands. Phil opens his eyes and sees Clint with his own eyes closed, breath haggard, and hands clenched at his sides.

“I should...probably go before this goes further than you’d like,” Clint says reluctantly.

Phil steps forward until his body is pressed lightly against Clint’s, a satisfied thrill running through him as the bartender shudders in response. He leans forward, letting his breath ghost against Clint’s ear as he whispers, “What I want is you naked in my bed. Stay.”

Clint moans and turns his head to recapture his lips while Phil’s hands scrabble to pull at Clint’s jacket. As much as he loved seeing Clint in this suit, all he can think now is that there are way too many layers between Phil’s hands and Clint’s skin. He shoves Clint’s jacket off and onto floor, struggling out of his own as he steps backward to lead them to the bedroom.

“Too many buttons,” Clint mutters as he pulls off Phil’s tie, dropping it next to where Phil had thrown his in the hallway, and starting on the buttons of Phil’s vest.

Phil laughs, feeling happier than he has in years, and makes quick work of Clint’s vest and shirt. Clint shrugs off his shirt as they finally make it into the bedroom and Phil can’t help but stare. He’d been lusting after Clint’s forearms before, but nothing compares to finally having full view of the younger man’s broad chest and amazingly muscular arms.

“God, you’re gorgeous,” Phil breathes.

Clint blushes and reaches for Phil’s shirt, but Phil puts a hand up to stop his progress as the first few buttons come undone.

“There are scars from the accident,” Phil explains when Clint’s brow furrows. “They’re not pretty.”

Clint’s fingers dip under the fabric of Phil’s shirt, unerringly finding the largest scar and caressing it gently like he had the sculpture. “These scars saved you,” Clint says with a shake of his head. “They can never be anything but the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.”

Phil pulls him in for a fierce kiss before shoving him backward onto the bed. Clint bounces once and rises up to his elbows with a smirk as Phil reaches down for his belt. Clint lets Phil pull of his shoes, socks, and pants before he shimmies out of his boxer briefs while Phil rids himself of his clothes, now too turned on to worry about being self-conscious. The smirk disappears, replaced by the same look of awe and appreciation Clint had worn earlier. He holds out a hand and Phil takes it, following Clint onto the bed and settling on top of the bartender, both of them hissing as their bodies line up perfectly.

“How are you real?” Clint breathes against Phil’s neck, hips lifting to add to the delicious friction as Phil starts to move.

They don’t have too many options - neither of them hopeful enough about tonight to have grabbed lube or condoms - but the slide of their bodies against one another feels amazingly right and Phil can’t help eagerly anticipating all the nights ahead of them. Their sweat starts to mingle, helping with the slide, and Phil feels himself nearing the edge.

“Phil!” Clint cries, fingers clutching at Phils back and arching beautifully beneath him. Phil groans Clint’s name and follows him over the edge.

~^~

They spend a lazy morning in bed the next day, with Clint tracing Phil’s scars with his fingertips while Phil tells him about the months of physical therapy after the accident. There are old, faded scars on the back of Clint’s thighs and Clint explains in a small voice that his dad had tried to hide the beatings at first. Phil gives him a long kiss to chase the sadness away and they use the next hour to create much happier memories.

Clint leaves after a shared shower with a promise to return that afternoon for an early dinner before he’s due back at Sherwood. Phil can’t keep the smile off his face as he closes the door behind Clint and gets ready to meet Nick for their quarterly brunch.

“Well someone got laid recently,” Nick comments as Phil takes the seat across from him.

“I’d tell you to fuck off, but I’m much too happy and sated to bother,” Phil replies with no embarrassment. They’ve been friends too long for him to try and hide anything from Nick. “So am I still rich?” he asks, nodding at the folder on the table - Nick has been managing Phil’s finances since the accident.

“Screw that. You wouldn’t give a shit if I told you I spent all your money buying magic beans,” Nick retorts. “Tell me who put that smile back on your face. No wait, tell me who finally put that smile on your face because I don’t think I’ve ever seen it before.”

Phil lets out a small chuckle of agreement. No, he has to admit that nobody but Clint has ever made Phil this genuinely happy. “His name is Clint, Clint Barton. I’m doing a new commission and --”

“Wait,” Nick interrupts. “Clint Barton, as in The Sherwood Lounge, Clint Barton?”

“Yes, that Clint Barton,” Phil replies, not really surprised that Nick knows him. Nick has probably been to the bar and it's understandable for him to associate it with the friendly bartender.

Nick shakes his head good-naturedly. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. You’ve always been big on the underdog and that’s one hell of a rag-to-riches story.”

“What are you talking about?” Phil asks, his brow furrowing and a knot of apprehension settling in the pit of his stomach.

“Come on, Phil. You have to stop living under a rock,” Nick admonishes. “He was all over the news a few years ago. Local boy, done good. Went from being an orphaned foster kid to one of the biggest real estate developers in the country. Used money from his post-Olympics endorsement deals to buy and turn a few houses in LA and it took off from there.”

Phil could barely hear his friend’s words over the roaring in his ears and Nick finally notices that there is something wrong. “Seriously Phil,” he says in a softer voice. “You didn’t see the Locksley Company signs all over the neighborhood by Sherwood?”

“It never occurred to me. I...I never connected the dots,” Phil replies, but he can connect the dots now.

Clint runs the development company that is managing the revitalization project. They’re still looking for investors and Phil has a very large sum of money at his disposal. How could he have been such a fool?

“I have to go,” Phil says and stands to leave, but Nick lays a restraining hand on his arm.

“Phil. Whatever it is you’re thinking, it’s probably wrong. Don’t automatically jump to the worst possibility,” Nick advises. “From what I’ve heard about Barton, he’s a good guy. He’s not just out to make money.”

Phil slips out of Nick’s light grip and goes home. He wants to follow Nick’s advice, but he can’t help thinking that he is not the type of guy someone like Clint would normally fall for. There is only one logical explanation and it feels like he’s going through the most horrible kind of deja vu.

By the time there’s a soft knock at the door later that afternoon, Phil is seething with anger.

“It’s open!” he yells and stands, turning to face Clint as he walks into the apartment.

“Hey! You know that’s not the safest way to answer your door,” Clint greets with a wide smile that fades when he sees Phil’s face. “What’s wrong?”

“You run the Locksley Company,” Phil says through clenched teeth.

“I own the Locksley Company,” Clint replies with a confused furrow in his brow. “We’re not publicly traded. What’s does that have to do with anything?”

“You never told me you owned Sherwood, let alone a multi-million dollar company,” Phil fires back, stomach twisting when Clint bites his lip guiltily.

“Look, I know I should have said something the first night,” Clint replies, “but Pepper said you were squirmy when it came to meeting new people and you seemed comfortable talking to me as just a bartender.”

“You purposely kept who you really are a secret," Phil accuses.

“No! Not beyond that first night,” Clint responds. “I signed your commission check. When you came back after, I assumed you knew who I was and were okay with it.”

“Don’t try and deny it. You’re looking for investors. You were never interested in me, only in getting access to Mike Casper’s money,” Phil grits out.

“Who the fuck is Mike Casper and what exactly are you accusing me of, Phil?” Clint asks. He doesn’t raise his voice, but Phil can still hear the edge of anger to it.

I’m Mike Casper,” Phil replies, unable to keep his own voice from rising to a shout. “Or I used to be. Don’t try and tell me that you don’t already know that the Caspers are one of the wealthiest families in Chicago because I won’t believe you. You only slept with me to get to my money.”

Clint staggers back like Phil physically slapped him. The look of shocked anguish on his face is one Phil knows cannot be faked. The reaction deflates a little of Phil’s anger, but he clutches at it like a shield in the face of Clint’s obvious despair. Clint closes his eyes and drops his chin, shoulders slumping in defeat. When he looks back up at Phil, his eyes are filled with sadness and overwhelming disappointment.

“When I was kid,” Clint starts softly, “all I wanted was for people to look past all the bruises and scruffy clothes, for them to see me as someone who wasn’t destined to be like my dad or my brother. Buck was the first person to ever see past all of that to me underneath. I got lucky by finding Pepper and Steve, and we found the others together. I thought...I hoped that if I worked hard enough, then everyone else would be willing to see more than the worst I could be. I never thought that you...”

Clint closes his eyes again and takes a deep, shuddering breath. This time, when he opens his eyes, all the emotion is gone, replaced by a blank mask that sends a shiver up Phil’s spine.

“Thank you for the unpleasant reminder. Lesson learned.” Clint’s voice is hard and cold, leaving Phil suddenly unbalanced and unsure of what to do.

“But you knew who I was, asked for me specifically,” Phil points out, making one last attempt to anchor himself in his previous anger.

“I asked for Phil Coulson,” Clint replies easily. “I did not and still do not know who Mike Casper is, except that you claim to be him.”

“I don’t, I can’t believe you,” Phil says, hearing and ignoring the panic in his voice. “Why? What reason could you possibly have for wanting to know me?”

“BECAUSE I FELL IN LOVE WITH YOUR ART LONG BEFORE I FELL IN LOVE YOU!!” Clint roars and Phil gasps in shock.

The blank mask is temporarily replaced by a blazing anger and Clint’s chest heaves as he tries to control himself. The fight leaks out of him as suddenly as it had flared and watching it is almost more jarring the words that came before. “But I guess none of that matters now,” he whispers. “Goodbye Phil.”

Then Clint is gone and Phil sinks to the floor with boneless legs that can no longer hold him up. What has he done?

Phil looks back on the past few weeks with a new perspective. Without his own fears and self-doubt clouding his mind, he can see all the ways Clint hadn’t tried to hide who he was. The unopened envelope sitting on the counter holding his commission check is printed with the Locksley Company logo on the front. Everyone in the bar always deferred to Clint's decisions, there were always piles of paperwork Clint needed to be signing, and Clint had no problem handling the group of investors when they’d come in. Bruce hadn’t been teasing because Clint was just a bartender, he was teasing because Clint had gone higher than any of them and come back to rescue the neighborhood and bar they all loved.

Be careful with him, Pepper had asked and at the time, Phil couldn’t imagine ever doing anything to hurt Clint. Now, he had let his own demons rear up and strike out at the one man who has ever loved Phil for Phil. Not Phillip Michael Casper with his family connections and money, but just Phil.

Phil feels more lost and adrift than he had the night he’d woken up in the hospital. He doesn’t know how to fix this, how to ask for forgiveness and drop the last of his defenses. Phil can admit to himself now that he’s fallen in love with Clint, but it does nothing to calm the chaos in his mind. With nothing else for him to do, Phil turns to the one constant he’s always had.

He sculpts.

~^~

Phil spends two straight days sculpting - pouring all of his hope and love into his work. He’s sitting on the floor and staring up at the sculpture when Pepper lets herself into his apartment. Her heels click angrily over the floor before stuttering to a stop just behind Phil.

“Phil,” Pepper sighs heavily after a few minutes. If there is anyone else besides Clint who can understand his art, it’s Pepper. “I came over here with every intention of slapping you so hard your ears would ring. He got drunk Phil, do you know what that cost him? Do you know how hard he works to not be...”

Phil drops his head and slumps forward, knowing he deserves every ounce of Pepper’s anger. He isn’t expecting a gentle hand on his shoulder or to find Pepper crouched next to him with understanding eyes when he looks over.

“I was prepared to hate you for what you did to Clint and now...now I’m just going to remind you that the anniversary party for the bar is in two days. Get some sleep and then decide if you want to fix this.” Pepper waits for Phil to nod and then her face hardens. “You are my friend and I love you, Phil, but Clint is family. I’ll respect it if you decide you don’t want this fixed, I’ll maybe even understand it a little. What I won’t allow is for you to continue to hurt him. Fix it or forget him Phil - there is no middle ground, not with Clint. Do you understand?”

Phil nods again before curling into Pepper, the idea of never seeing Clint again more painful than it should be after so short a time with him in Phil’s life. “Pepper...”

“I know, Phil, I know,” Pepper says consolingly, giving Phil a quick hug before standing and dragging him up with her. “It’ll all be clearer once you get some rest. Sleep, eat, and then call to let me know whether you want the piece delivered or not.”

Phil stumbles to the bedroom and collapses into the bed, hugging the pillow Clint had used, and breathing in what was left of his scent. He falls immediately into a dreamless sleep and wakes over twelve hours later. It’s dark in the apartment and Phil stumbles back out to the studio to find that Pepper had left on a single light over the finished sculpture. He grabs the phone - decision clear in his mind - and prays it’s enough.

~^~

The anniversary party is a lunch for the entire neighborhood. It’s been a year since Clint re-opened The Sherwood Lounge and kicked off the revitalization project. The celebration is for them all with Phil’s sculpture intended to commemorate all that they have accomplished and will continue to build toward.

He feels strange and out of place walking back into Sherwood after everything that has happened with Clint, regardless of Pepper’s reassurance that she has talked to the others. Phil glances around the room warily, heart sinking when he doesn’t see Clint among the assembled crowd.

“Mrs. Oliver’s sink sprung a leak and she can’t afford a plumber,” Steve says and Phil just manages to keep from jumping at his sudden appearance. “Clint went to take care of it himself. It...it’s what he does.”

Steve looks like there’s more he wants to say, so Phil waits him out.

“Pepper told us to give you guys space to figure this out on your own, but there’s something you need to know about Clint,” Steve continues earnestly. “He really is the best of us all. Clint...he...he’s our heart. He may have a tendency to dream big and jump in without looking, but he does it because he genuinely cares. After everything life has thrown at him, he’s never stopped caring, and he would never do what you accused him of.”

“I know, Steve,” Phil replies, hoping his sincerity is as clear as Steve’s. “It was all me and my demons, not Clint’s. I really do care about him, more than I was willing to admit to myself. All I can do now is explain and hope he forgives me.”

Steve puts a supportive hand on Phil’s shoulder, giving it a squeeze before letting his hand drop. “That’s good enough for me. Good luck.”

Steve walks away to be replaced by Pepper, who leads Phil up to the stage. He has never been present for previous unveilings and Phil fights not to fidget at having everyone’s eyes on him. The turtleneck sweater he’s wearing suddenly feels too tight and too warm, but all of it fades when Clint slips quietly into the bar. He's wearing a battered leather jacket over a wrinkled black shirt and grey jeans, with dark sunglasses hiding his eyes. He looks rumpled and beautiful and all Phil wants is to hold him tight and never let go.

Pepper chooses that moment to pull the cloth off the sculpture and there is a collective "Oh!" from the room. Phil, however, is only looking for one reaction and he watches as Clint's mouth opens in a silent gasp. The sculpture is no longer what he saw in Phil's studio. It is still the archer, but now he is buoyed by tendrils of bright brass that wrap lovingly around him and support him as he shoots towards the sky.

"Phil," Pepper prods and Phil tears his eyes away from Clint to face her. "The name of the piece?"

"Hawkeye in Flight," Phil responds. Pepper smiles her approval and the room breaks out in light applause.

When Phil turns back to where Clint was standing, he finds Natasha in his place. Her eyes are hard and piercing, but Phil holds his ground and they eventually soften with a nod of her head. Natasha then tips her chin toward the back office, a single raised eyebrow easily conveying her thoughts on the whole situation. Phil returns her nod in thanks and jumps off the stage to find Clint.

Phil knocks lightly on the door and then slips inside the office without waiting for a response. Clint is sitting behind the desk and looks up from the pile of papers in front of him. Phil's heart clenches at the dark circles under his eyes. Clint looks tired and unhappy and Phil aches knowing that he was the cause. He meets Phil's gaze without betraying any reaction to the artist's appearance before sighing and looking back down to make a notation on a piece of paper.

"Here to accuse me of stealing from children now?" Clint asks bitterly.

Phil flinches, but takes a step closer toward the desk. "I deserve that. I came to explain."

Clint puts down the pen with a clatter and drops his head into his hand. "Phil..."

"I know I don't deserve another chance, I’m not asking for that," Phil continues quickly. "But I think you deserve to know that you did nothing to warrant my reaction. That I assumed the worse because it's all I've ever gotten."

Clint looks back up at that and Phil takes it at his cue to keep going.

"What I didn't tell you about growing up in Chicago was how political it was. How you were judged by who your family was and who you knew. You didn't make friends, you made allies. I thought I had gotten away from it all after moving to New York, but then I found out that the man I'd been seeing, the man I thought I was in love with, was using me to try and get seed money for a new company. I didn’t think, I just ran and I was so upset that I never saw the truck coming." Phil’s voice catches and it feels like those first few days in the hospital - when it seemed like he’d never get enough air in his lungs again.

"That was when you stopped being Mike Casper and became Phil Coulson?" Clint asks, giving Phil a moment to compose himself. Clint’s eyes and face are still shuttered and Phil wishes he knew how to see past the mask.

"Yes," Phil replies. "Coulson is my mother's maiden name."

They stare at each other and the silence stretches until it becomes unbearable. "Please say something," Phil pleads. "I need to know what you're thinking. I need to know that you believe me. I need...I need you."

"I thought you weren't asking for a second chance," Clint responds.

Phil drops his head in defeat as Clint's words knife through his heart. He’s lost him.

Then there is a warm hand on his cheek and Phil looks up in surprise at Clint, who is suddenly standing in front of him, eyes focused and serious, but no longer shuttered.

"That was quite a grand gesture out there,” Clint tells him. “Even if the others didn’t understand the art, your face was pretty clear.”

“I wasn’t sure I could find the right words,” Phil confesses, “to show you how I feel, to apologize.”

"You are an idiot," Clint says and Phil's heart swells at how fond it sounds. "Tony Stark is one of my best friends. If all I wanted was money..."

Phil reaches up to place his hand over Clint's and leans into the strong, callused hand against his cheek. "I know. I am so sorry."

Clint gives a slight shake of his head before reaching up to place a soft kiss on Phil's forehead and then resting his own against it. Clint’s eyes close as he speaks, “You don't know how much it hurt to think you would believe that of me."

"I will apologize every day for the rest of our lives if you let me." Phil turns his head into the side of Clint's neck and wraps his arms around the younger man to pull him closer. "Please."

Phil's hope surges as Clint wraps his arms around him in return. "Pepper is always telling me to stop handing my heart out for people to stomp on. This time, she told me it would be worth waiting for you to explain."

"I’ll never be able to pay her back for what I owe her," Phil responds and tightens his hold.

Clint chuckles with a quick kiss to Phil’s temple. "Nah. I think she's used to fixing people that are more broken than we are."

"Is that what we are? Just a little broken?" Phil asks, pulling back to look at Clint.

"Just a little,” Clint says with a warm smile. “It's what we do, isn't it? We rebuild what others have discarded into something new, something beautiful. Why not try with each other?”

There aren’t any words Phil can say to properly respond, so he places a hand on the back of Clint’s neck and pulls him down for a kiss. Clint leans into the kiss and the vice on Phil’s heart finally releases.

“Thank you,” Phil says when they break apart.

“For what?” Clint asks with an adorable furrow in his brow.

“For believing me. For forgiving me,” Phil repliess and Clint shakes his head.

“You’re not the only one with a shitty history,” Clint reminds him. “Fair warning. This probably won’t be the last we’ll have to deal with fallout from one or both of our pasts. I have a feeling this won’t be the last bump in the road for us.”

“I think we’ll be okay,” Phil says, filled with a sudden confidence. “I may not always be able to keep from doubting myself, but I’ll never doubt you again. I’ll walk whatever road is in front of us as long as it’s with you. I love you, Clint.”

“I love you too, Phil.”

Their lips meet again and everything else melts away. Neither their pasts nor their uncertain future can take away this moment, a moment Phil would never have imagined until he’d walked into this bar and met Clint Barton.

~^~

Eighteen months ago...

Clint steps out of the bar, relieved that Steve and Bruce had offered to clean up after the memorial service for Buck, but he doesn’t feel like going back to an empty hotel room. He starts walking instead, head bowed with no clear destination in mind.

It should be easy, Clint tells himself, to go back to the life he’s built in California. He has a house, a business, and the respect of people who would normally not have given him a second glance. It should be easy, except that coming back to New York has shown Clint everything that he hadn’t found in LA.

Clint had made friends, but nothing like the family he’d formed with Bruce, Natasha, Jane, Steve, and Pepper all those years ago. Even Steve didn’t seem overly enamored with the West Coast. Things were comfortable and stable, but was it enough?

Lost in his thoughts, Clint doesn’t realize how far he’s walked until he nearly runs into a suit-clad businessman rushing to catch a cab. He’s about to look for the nearest subway entrance when something catches his eye and Clint is drawn inexorably to a sculpture gracing a small courtyard between two buildings.

Strips of metal rise up from the pedestal in a seemingly chaotic, twisted jumble and Clint’s eye is caught by one piece that meanders through it all as it rises steadily upward. He’s never considered himself a fan of abstract art, but this sculpture hits him at his core and fills him with a sense of acceptance.

Clint steps forward until he can read the placard at the bottom: “The Long Road Home” by Phil Coulson.

Home, Clint thinks and suddenly the answer is clear to him. He had built a life in LA, but it had never become his home. Home is sitting around and getting teased by Bruce, Natasha, and Jane. Home is Steve and Pepper's unwavering support. Home is Tony’s unending generosity and Thor's equally limitless good cheer. Home is New York and The Sherwood Lounge.

He takes one last, long look at the sculpture and smiles. Clint is coming home and he has Phil Coulson to thank for it.

fin

Chapter Text

What spurred this fic:

   

 

What Phil normally wears to the bar:

   

 

What Clint and Phil wear on their first date:

   

   

 

What Clint and Phil wear to the anniversary party: