Phil feels the first touch of cool hands against his bare shoulders, and it startles him. He half lifts off the massage table, right arm reaching for a gun he doesn't have, and he can feel his chest tightening where the scar tissue is rough and ugly. It's a constant reminder of what happens when you try to fight gods, demi or otherwise. He closes his eyes, grits his teeth in pain, and tucks his right arm along his side with some measure of embarrassment as someone readjusts the sheet that's exposed his bare ass.
It's just the massage therapist. Jesus Christ, Phil, get a grip.
Lately, his inner voice sounds suspiciously like a mildly pissed-off Clint Barton, and Phil doesn't know exactly when that happened. It should probably worry him more than it does, but he supposes it's his own way of surrounding himself with the people he cares about. Even though they all think he's dead. It's a lie Phil agreed to maintain, but he's been considering for a while how much of a mistake that might be.
A light male voice "tsks" at him gently from above, and Phil lets out a shaky breath as he gives in to the slight pressure on his shoulders that says, Lie back down. Relax. He wonders if most people need to be reminded of such things, or if their bodies naturally uncurl from a state of constant tension.
"Sorry," Phil says, trying to breathe deeply. He makes a conscious effort to unclench. "Old habits, and all that."
It's not the first time he's said it, and Phil considers the distinct possibility he'll never completely lose some of those ingrained reflexes, even when they're no longer necessary or appropriate. He's been back in the land of the living a few months, and he can't fault Fury for his choice of Tahiti for Phil's rehab. It's everything a tropical paradise should be. It's not Tahiti's fault he can't get used to not wearing a gun. Everyone involved in his rehabilitation has been personally vetted by SHIELD, so there's no reason to be wary. Except a lifetime of being suspicious of everyone has left its mark. Phil feels vulnerable in a way he never has before; of course, he's heard getting stabbed through the heart will do that to a man.
"I didn't hear you come in," Phil explains, his face settling somewhat awkwardly into the padded hole that's made for it. "I must have drifted off for a minute because I always hear you—well, not you specifically, but you, the therapists, collectively—coming down the hall. Not that you're noisy or anything, I'm just used to—" Phil lets out a halting laugh, and stops himself. SHIELD-approved personnel or not, he can't just blurt out "assassins." The irony that he's babbling to fill the silence isn't lost on him. "I'm used to people who are exceptionally quiet."
The therapist makes a humming sound, almost as if he understands, and keeps methodically massaging the muscles of Phil's shoulders. The hands are traversing his back in long slides now, distributing lotion evenly on his skin. Phil inhales coconut, vanilla, and the barest hint of something spicy, perhaps a note in the man's aftershave. It's pleasant, and Phil lets his eyes close.
He'll admit he doesn't like talking to the floor, but the massage therapists don't seem to care. In fact, they don't seem to care if he talks or doesn't, and Phil suspects Fury hired therapists who don't speak English or French just to fuck with Phil's predilection for politeness. Actually, he wouldn't put it past Fury to find some obscure guild of Tahitian massage therapists that have taken a vow of silence.
The steady warmth and light pressure feel wonderful against his skin. He's not about to complain since lately the therapists have been concentrating on loosening the muscles around the scar tissue, and afterwards Phil always feels like he's gone ten rounds with Natasha. Deep massage might be necessary, but it's uncomfortably close to painful, and it's exhausting. Phil didn't know you could get so tired from lying around. Knowing he's got a whirlpool bath to slip into at the end of the day makes it moderately easier to endure, but Phil's legitimately considering how they might begin recruiting massage therapists as interrogation experts. The right amount of pressure applied to the right spot—
Phil barely registers the quiet "sorry" the therapist blurts out in the breath-stealing moment of his own pain. The fingers have moved away to a safer spot, solid muscle that's already well-warmed, and Phil remembers how to breathe under the steady glide of those fingers. The man's hands are smaller than most of the therapists who've worked on Phil, and far more gentle. The hypnotic kneading of his shoulder is oddly soothing, and Phil tries to imagine the hands on his back as he catches his breath. Strong, but careful. Long fingers, soft with lotion. Gently calloused. Hands more than capable of holding a gun or a bow, and Phil realizes with a start he's getting an erection. For once he's glad all he can see is the floor. Now really isn't the time to let his repressed fantasies run away with him.
Gun callouses? That's what turns you on, Coulson? the Clint-voice in his head says, and that's not helping at the moment.
Clint Barton's been an asset, a genuine pain in the ass, and a good friend. Phil's been content with that. His feelings for Barton have been his private cross to bear, and he's never realistically considered risking their working relationship or their friendship for something that might be a romantic disaster. Probably would be. Almost definitely.
Neither he nor Barton have exactly excelled at relationships, but Phil can't help harbouring a small secret hope that if they worked—unlikely as that may seem—they would be spectacular. There's always been a connection between them, mostly manifesting in harmless flirting and the occasional too-close-to-honest moment when one of them has almost died. However, Barton was long ago labelled "do not pursue" in Phil's book, and he's had years to come to terms with that decision.
Unfortunately, death has a way of kicking you in the teeth with your own bright ideas. Phil's been thinking an awful lot about Clint since his return from the dead. He's learned that sometimes miracles do happen, so maybe he's willing to push his luck where Barton's concerned. He's almost certain he wouldn't be rebuffed.
"You must be new," Phil says, not sure why he can't seem to stop talking to someone who likely doesn't understand or doesn't wish to speak with him. If nothing else, maybe it will take his mind off Barton. "I thought I knew everyone on staff, but I don't recognize your hands."
Abruptly the massage stops, although the hands aren't withdrawn. Phil tries to think if what he's said can be construed as offensive in some way. He backtracks. "I mean, you touch me differently than the others."
That doesn't sound any better. It's like his awkward conversation with Captain America all over again. Phil's faced down gods and Tony Stark, briefed world leaders and negotiated hostage situations, but somehow the art of small talk continues to evade him.
"It's good," Phil tries again, keeping his voice as neutral as possible. "What you're doing. It's good; it helps. You have really nice hands."
Phil sighs audibly and wishes he could remember to stop one sentence before he says something cringe-worthy. If the man's offended, he's handling it well because the hands return to their ministrations with only a slight hesitation. Why does he always have to sound like an idiot around attractive men?
Actually, Phil doesn't even know if his massage therapist is good-looking. All he can tell from his current position is that the man's hands are amazing, and thinking in that direction is not helping him relax, or forget about Barton. Clint's got fascinating hands. Elegant, nimble fingers that can tie a knot or string a bow quicker than the eye can follow. Phil's seen those hands broken, bloodied, bandaged, yet still capable of compassion.
Oh, man, Coulson, you've got it bad, you sorry son of a bitch, head-Clint says, and Phil can imagine the sympathetic grin. He needs to stop thinking about Barton or he's going to need a bucket of cold water dumped on him before he can get off the massage table without embarrassment.
Phil takes a deep breath and tries to let the massage do its work. He needs a distraction. If Phil shifts his head just a bit, he can probably tell what shoes the man's wearing. Therapists tend to come in two categories: flip-flops or Birkenstocks, so it's a genuine surprise when Phil gets a glimpse of combat boots and the bottom edge of black cargo pants.
He forces himself to remain still and breathe normally. The man could easily have killed him already if that had been his goal, and he hasn't made any attempt to get information from Phil. So far all he's done is give Phil the start of a good massage, and a somewhat embarrassing hard-on. Maybe he's just that rare Tahitian massage therapist who prefers combat boots to beach shoes.
The Clint-in-his-head is rolling his eyes at Phil with an expression that says, Seriously?
Yeah, even Phil can't bring himself to believe that one, and he sighs because he's never been terribly good at letting sleeping dogs lie. It's a trait he shares with Barton and Romanov, who haven't been far from his mind lately. What he wouldn't give for a little back-up right now.
The man's positioned himself to Phil's left, no doubt to take advantage of his weakened left arm and damaged side. The table's face-divot, although comfortable for massage, is less than ideal for creating a tactical advantage, as Phil can't get a decent look at anything without raising his head. In a word, he's screwed, which he realizes about the same time the hands glide to a stop, one on each shoulder, their grip tightening slightly.
"Is there a problem?" Phil asks, keeping his tone even, mentally readying himself to move. It's going to be painful, but his best shot is likely a solid grab to the guy's groin. It could buy him enough time to roll off the table, and get out the door.
The hands are pressing more firmly now, and the man has the advantage of position and leverage. Phil knows in a few seconds he won't be able to make a move. It's now or never.
The quiet words are lost in the background as Phil thrusts his left knee out to the side and forward, keeping the man in position. Phil puts every ounce of strength into grabbing the man's groin with his left hand—noting he isn't the only one with an inappropriate response—then twists viciously, squeezing the tender flesh at the same time.
The man doubles over in pain with a breathless, "Fuck!"
Phil pushes, using the resistance to help right himself, then slides off the table, sheet falling to the floor. Without hesitation, he moves away from the man, who's subsequently fallen to his knees, resisting the urge to add a kick to his chin. Phil's priority is sounding the alarm, and he's halfway out the door when he registers Agent Romanoff's standing a few feet in front of him.
She grins appreciatively, quirking an eyebrow as Phil reaches to cover himself with ... well, he's got nothing. He drops a hand in front of his groin, but it's not like she hasn't already seen everything. She raises up on tip-toe and peeks beyond Phil to where he's left his would-be assailant on the floor, moaning in pain. He's got a bad feeling when he sees the way her smile widens.
"It's Barton, isn't it?" Phil asks, and it isn't really a question. He doesn't even need Natasha's nod of confirmation to be sure. He can hear the current of expletives in a familiar cadence behind him now, and Phil's whole body flushes pink with embarrassment. For a multitude of reasons.
Natasha steps around Phil, snatching up the sheet he'd shed as he left. She hands it over without comment, keeping her eyes on Barton's bent frame as Phil wraps the sheet around himself, knotting it at the hip.
"I told you so," Natasha says, nudging Clint with the toe of her boot. They're both dressed in fatigues as if they've come from a mission, and it hits home for Phil how life has continued to go on without him. The thought leaves an uncomfortable hollowness in his stomach.
"I told him not to surprise you," Natasha clarifies, leaning against the door jamb. "I told him to just say 'hello' like a normal person."
"Good advice," Phil agrees, noting the dark flush of Barton's cheeks, the full bottom lip. The way his chin juts out when he's pissed off. Phil remembers he's supposed to be dead, and drops his eyes. He isn't ready for this. "Less likely to result in injury."
"I really didn't think I had to worry about a dick-punch, sir."
Barton looks up and meets Phil's eyes. There's anger there, mixed with palpable relief, and something else that's raw and hard to look away from. It burns through Phil like a brand, leaving him with a mouthful of lies and excuses he can't bring himself to offer up as consolation.
"You shouldn't be here."
It's the truth, even if it doesn't mean Phil doesn't want them here, both of them. He's shocked with how desperately he wants them here now that he's seen them again. Clint's hands had been on his skin, and he hadn't even been able to appreciate it because he hadn't known. Phil could choke on the irony, but he'd rather have Clint's hands on his skin again. He can't even say he's surprised by the visceral hit of his own desire.
"In fact," Barton goes on as if Phil hasn't spoken, "I figured if you ever put your hands on my dick, it would be—"
"And that's my cue to leave."
"—a lot more fun, and a lot less painful."
Between one moment and the next, Natasha's disappeared, closing the door behind her. Phil knows it's cowardly to think about going with her, but that doesn't stop him from considering it. He'd known it was only a matter of time before Clint and Natasha found him, but somehow he thought he'd have more time to sort through his feelings about dying. And not dying. To figure out what to do with the second chance he's been handed.
Clint seems to have gotten the pain under control, but he's no closer to getting to his feet. Instead, he slumps back against the wall, and Phil recognizes the gesture for what it is—resignation. It occurs to him for the first time that maybe Clint had imagined how this reunion was going to go too, and it probably didn't involve a fist to the groin.
Phil's careful to hold the sheet in place as he lowers himself to sit beside Clint.
"I'm sorry about the ..." Phil says, just as Clint starts with, "I didn't mean to ....." They both stop, and Phil lays his left hand on Clint's knee. It's not the first time he can remember doing it, but it's the first time it's felt this intimate.
"Why did you—I mean, I would've been happy to see you whether you're officially supposed to know about this or not, so why—" Phil's voice falls away. Clint's staring at Phil's chest, and Phil doesn't have to glance down to know exactly what's caught Clint's gaze: the damage Loki's staff had inflicted, the ugly, sickle-shaped scar that now bookends him front and back, although the front feels uglier somehow. Phil doesn't think he's ever seen Clint looking quite so ... upset. It makes him itch to fix it.
"It's not your fault, you know," Phil offers, and he knows he's nailed it the instant he sees Clint's eyes close, his lips pressed into a thin line. He also knows now isn't the time to try to convince Clint of anything, so he changes the subject. Maybe they both need a minute to collect themselves before this gets complicated. "Where did you learn to do that? I've had a lot of massages lately, and you seem to know what you're doing."
Clint shrugs and seems flustered by the praise. He shifts, brushing against Phil's bare arm in the process, sending a shiver down Phil's spine.
"I used to give massages all the time in the circus. Lots of sore muscles there, and believe me, I got told if I wasn't doing it right."
"You were definitely doing it right." Phil's well aware he's still only wearing a sheet. He wishes he could pass off the gooseflesh on his arms as a result of being mostly naked, but he's decided to stop lying, at least to himself.
"I shouldn't have—"
"Clint, I'm not complaining."
"It was stupid. I should've—"
Phil's had enough of that. He angles forward and kisses Clint on the lips, just a soft, inviting press. He waits for the surprise to pass, waits for Clint's brain to catch up with what Phil's telling him, and there it is—the moment Clint's lips press back, a little cautious, but sweet nonetheless. Phil leans his forehead against Clint's.
"Tell me why."
Clint huffs, but Phil knows he's won. He makes himself wait, closing his eyes so he doesn't give in to the temptation to kiss Clint again.
"You were lying there when I came in, and for a minute—" Clint shakes his head as if to make the memory go away. "For a minute, it was as if they'd lied to me—again—except you were dead for real, and I needed to put my hands on you, on that goddamn scar, and just make sure you were alive."
"I'm alive," Phil reassures him, and he doesn't think he's ever been more grateful for the miracle of modern medicine.
"Yeah," Clint agrees. There's an overwhelming sense of gratitude in that one word that makes Phil's heart warm. "Except once I'd touched you, I didn't want to stop, and it seemed like maybe it was the only chance I'd ever have."
"So you figured you'd just massage-and-run?"
Clint rolls his eyes. "It sounds bad when you say it like that. Tasha and I would've come back. Everyone's counting on us to—"
"Wait," Phil interrupts. "Who's everyone? Who knows you're here?"
"Well, everyone. The Avengers. And Pepper. I think Jane knows, so probably Darcy does too, and likely Dr. Selvig."
Phil closes his eyes. The number of security protocols that have been breached is probably staggering.
Clint doesn't seem to care as he continues. "I didn't think I'd ever say it, but thank God for Tony Stark and his inability to mind his own business. If it wasn't for him and Jarvis, we wouldn't have found you."
"Fury's going to—"
"Fury can go to hell." Clint's eyes have turned to steel. "He let us think you were dead, Phil. For months. He's lucky I didn't put a bullet in his chest for real this time."
Phil winces. He understands the sentiment, but SHIELD tends to take threats like that seriously, especially from operatives who are more than capable of carrying them out. Clint's never been the best at hiding how he feels about the higher-ups.
The eye roll again, and Phil can't help the slight smile it brings. He's missed Clint with all his anger and issues and reckless disregard for authority.
"Phil, I'm not stupid enough to actually tell Fury that, but it doesn't stop it from being true." Clint reaches out and rests his warm palm over the scar on Phil's chest. "I was kind of messed up after you died."
"So was I," Phil says honestly.
He turns so he can cup Clint's face in his hands and tug him forward. The kiss is still gentle, almost careful, and Phil's been cautious about relationships for too many years. He wants more. Clint doesn't resist when Phil's hand slips behind his neck and urges him closer, making the kiss more insistent. Clint responds immediately, mouth warm and pliable. Suddenly it feels as if Phil can't get close enough or kiss hard enough to show how much he wants Clint.
"It's okay," Clint is saying when they take time to catch their breath.
Phil almost laughs because for years it's been his role to reassure shaky agents, and now he's the one in danger of coming apart. His heart is pounding so fiercely he fears Clint must be able to feel it through the palm that's still resting against Phil's chest.
"It's not okay," Phil replies. "I should never have—"
"If you say you shouldn't have kissed me, we're going to have a problem."
"I shouldn't have waited so long," Phil says, and it's amazing how quickly Clint's face transforms from a glare to something that looks like happiness. "And now you're going to leave again."
"Whoa, whoa." Clint catches Phil's chin in his hands and tilts it up so he can look him in the eyes. "What the hell do you think Nat and I are doing here? We came to get you. We're taking you home."
Phil's been an agent too long to stop the automatic response of, "Fury will—"
"Let him. We're taking you home. Stark's got us all set-up in the tower, and there's a suite for you. He's got people who can help with your rehab." Clint's face is one part pleading and one part "I'll knock you out and carry your stubborn ass onto a plane if I have to." It's a look Phil knows better than to test.
"I'm going to need a massage therapist," Phil says at last.
Clint lets out a breath of relief, and nods, obviously thinking about logistics. "That's no problem. Stark's got more money than ... well, everyone, so he'll get you the best there is."
Phil gives Clint the look he saves for when he's being particularly obtuse about something. "I said," he repeats, slower this time, so Clint will actually hear what he's saying, "I'm going to need a massage therapist."
Just so there's no doubt what Phil's implying, he tugs Clint's hand back to his bare chest, and lays it over his heart, covering the scar Loki left.
"Oh," Clint says, blushing attractively, pressing his hand firmly to Phil's skin like he's swearing an oath. "You've got it. Me. Anytime. All the time."
Clint's grin is bright and a little bit wild as he leans in to kiss Phil again. It's the promise of things to come, and Phil hasn't felt this hopeful in a long, long time.