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Don’t Ask About the Limp

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Phil sat in a booth in a bar in Capitol Hill, wondering why he always let Maria pick the place.

Philz Bar was absolutely not anywhere on Phil's list of favorite watering holes in DC, if only on principle. It wasn't even Maria's; he was pretty sure she picked it way back in the day out of the phone book mostly to get under Phil’s skin. It'd worked; Phil had no idea how she could tell it worked, but ever since then this had been Maria's de facto location for senior-command-only-booze-required crying circles. Twenty-something years on, he was over it. It wasn't a terrible place, aside from the name; it had a sedate pretentiousness that Phil always associated with DC, with deeply cushioned seats, shelves of esoteric beer bottles and well-thumbed books lining the walls, a dignified tabby cat that was currently sitting by the door licking its paws. It also had easy multiple exits.

It was also a company bar, in a company town, so the staff knew the meaning of discretion and didn't bat an eye when a bunch of serious-looking people in even seriouser-looking suits or uniforms showed up and huddled in the corner in ominous fashion.

A drink, tall and electric blue, topped with a slice of pineapple speared on a pink umbrella, appeared in front of his face where he was contemplating the grain of the wooden tabletop. "Thanks," he said unenthusiastically at it.

Maria pushed the glass at him. "And congratulations," he added, taking the awful thing before it tipped off the edge of the table into his lap. Making Phil drink the most ridiculous drinks on the menu every time they went out was another part of Maria's inexplicable and never-ending campaign to needle Phil just to see if she could. Sometimes the drinks weren't half bad, but as a rule they were cloyingly sweet and horrifically colored and had names that should be put on trial for crimes against the English language.

This wasn't one of the things Phil could get over. At this point, it was mostly Phil intent on out-stubborning Maria that kept him from crying uncle, and kept her buying the damn things.

At least the cocktails tended to be the most expensive drinks on the menu - a scant consolation, but Phil took what he could get.

She dropped into the seat across from him, stirring her more sedate jack-on-the-rocks with a finger. "I feel like I should be receiving condolences instead."

He rolled his eyes, unable to dredge up even an iota of sympathy. "Junior agent to assistant director in less than twenty years. That's pretty good in anyone's book."

"Only because Dum Dum had a heart attack.”

“Well, your positive thinking and sunny personality certainly didn't get you there," Phil countered.

His gambit worked: her always too-serious face cracked, a loud snort of laughter escaping. "God, the sheer amount of bullshit I'm going to have to deal with now," she sighed, her head sinking down to rest her chin against her forearms. "Why didn't you take the job, Phil? I know Fury offered it to you. You'd be better at it."

"Rumors of my enjoying paperwork have been greatly exaggerated," Phil replied. Dryly, because that was the only way to respond when Maria got like this. She didn't do anything as grandiose as self-pity, but a certain amount of complaining whenever something good happened was her version of tossing a pinch of salt over her shoulder. "And he only offered it to me after you told him to fuck off."

"I thought he was kidding."

“He’s never kidding.”

Maria waved him off. "Of course he does. What about you?" she returned. "How's your new job?" She tapped trim, brutally short nails on the tabletop. "I think I'm jealous, actually. You get your own Special Ops team and the assignment of a lifetime. I get the World Security Council, otherwise known as herding temperamental cats who have all the opinions."

"I didn't ask for it." It felt absurdly like a confession. He knew Maria would’ve preferred to stay in the field, only taking the job out of an unshakable sense of duty to Fury and the SHIELD mission. On the other hand, Phil's own promotion – after the initial scare of Fury offering him AD instead – had been the highlight of his week. His year.

"So who's on the roster? I hear you're poaching May."

He eyed her suspiciously. "Is that going to be a problem?" This earned him a flat, unblinking reptile glare that he answered with another exaggerated eye roll. "You dated her more than ten years ago, Maria."

The stare turned deadlier. Phil was surprised that his head didn't spontaneously explode under its focused heat. She snatched the swizzle stick out of her drink and pointed it at him. "It's not that," she gritted. "Guess who all the department heads come to when they want to bitch about a certain somebody stealing their best and brightest?"

"Good thing I’m not dumb enough to be AD, then." He chewed on his pineapple slice, trying his best to hide his smile.

Her eyes narrowed. "Have you told Barton he's not on the team?"

The drink in his hand nearly tilted over. He righted it before it could do much more than rock, but Maria caught the small tell and her lips curled. That expressive forefinger tapped against the tabletop again.

"No," he said with dignity. "He’s been in Colombia until late last night, so we haven’t had a chance to talk."

"He won't be happy."

This caught Phil off-guard. "Why wouldn't he be? He gets to work on his own. He'll like that."

"I don't know, why wouldn't he be thrilled that the guy he's been following around like a puppy for the last fifteen years is moving on to bigger and better things and leaving him behind?"

"Nobody’s leaving anybo—He has not been – " Phil started, strangling on pretty much every part of that sentence. "He's worked with other handlers besides me. Very well too, might I add." He paused, then burst out, "A puppy, seriously? Don't exaggerate."

"Oh good lord." Maria muttered into her drink.

"All we’re doing is asset cultivation while his particular skills are needed elsewhere. And, I think we all can agree that Clint Barton and Tony Stark should never be in the same room together. He—"

"Has arms that can make a nun cry," Maria finished for him, cruelly.

"Well, yes – I mean, no," Phil floundered, eternally grateful that the bar was dimly lit and hid his expression and deepening blush from her always too-discerning gaze. To avoid incriminating himself further he took a deep gulp of the blue monstrosity. He regretted it instantly, the harsh gasoline taste of bottom-shelf rum burning down his throat and filling his sinuses with sickly-sweet fumes.

"I suppose no one's ever told him that going sleeveless is against regs," she mused as he gagged. "Although I can see why no one's bothered."

"Where's Jasper?" Phil tried once he got his breath back. "It's not like him to be late."

"Probably stuck in traffic. Don't change the subject."

Maria was a terrible friend, Phil thought, glaring at her, knowing there was nothing he could possibly say that would sufficiently explain everything to make her mind her own business. It was an impossible task, he knew all too well; the tenacity and single-minded focus that made her one of the best in their field also made her supremely aggravating when those qualities were focused on him, because sometime in course of their acquaintance Maria had decided Phil was like the little brothers she already had three of and was therefore worthy of bullying over his love life – or total lack of one – even if he was her senior by a good seven years and her own love life was just as DOA.

“Our meeting is scheduled for tomorrow,” he told her, not bothering to mention that the original meeting had been postponed, Clint just back from spending fifteen days entrenched in a conflict zone and looking about two degrees of incline away from passing out.

That piercing no-bullshit stare didn't even flicker. She was opening her mouth to add more commentary when the subject in question appeared in front of them like a phantom, pulled up a chair with a loud, extended screech, and sat down on it backwards in one graceful motion. "Hey, sir. And ma'am," Clint said, smirking.

This time, Phil maintained a good grip on himself and his drink. Nothing spilled, but it was a close thing.

Clint looked good. Leather jacket, worn jeans, a gray henley with frayed cuffs that Clint liked to worry at when he wasn't paying attention. Phil swallowed another gulp of his drink, this time not tasting it all.

"Barton, you better not have followed us here," Maria snapped, crisply enough that Clint straightened up sharply as if he’d been smacked. But before Phil could react, a hand slapped down on the table between them and Jasper said, “Throttle down, Maria, geez. I invited him.”

“Hello,” Phil said pleasantly enough. His smile never wavered as Maria bit out, her voice like the Arctic wind, “Who the hell else did you invite?” Then in a slower, more threatening cadence, “...Jasper?” because Jasper Sitwell, despite his sour on-duty demeanor, was – notoriously – an extrovert firmly devoted to the adage the more the merrier.

Like tonight, apparently.

Phil was not pleased.

Well, Phil corrected himself. He was certainly not displeased.

But he was also extremely fucking dismayed.

He couldn't seem to stop staring at the curvature of Clint’s shoulders and biceps as they strained against the leather of his jacket, now that Maria had gone and pointed them out.

Clint leaned into Phil. "Is this okay?” he asked in a low voice. “Sitwell said you guys were cool with it.”

“It’s fine,” Phil reassured him, giving him a warm smile while keeping an ear cocked at the hissed conversation between Jasper and Maria. “How are you feeling?”

“S’okay. Passed out until about four this afternoon. Went to HQ and Sitwell ambushed me.” He nodded at the pair across the table. “Is there going to be bloodshed?”

“Not more than usual,” Phil told him.

Jasper was saying with blithe innocence, “What, it’s Friday night and all these guys – yes, Maria, there are other people coming – were just sitting around HQ doing nothing except handling their guns, and you know we don’t want them doing nothing but handling their guns,” his grin shading the word into spectrums of obscene meaning. Then he leaned in and whispered something into Maria’s ear. Phil watched with dismay as her eyes turned to him and a slow grin matching Jasper’s, the kind that never boded well for Phil, crept onto her face.

“No,” Phil said immediately. "Whatever this is, no."

“Why, whatever do you think it is, Philip?” Maria asked with tooth-decaying sweetness, enunciating the last p with relish.

“A belated party for your promotion,” Jasper interrupted before she could continue. “I mean, for both of you, but I think Madam Assistant Director here will stab the first person who says congrats to her, so it’s actually just you. DRINKS!” he shouted before Phil could veto this plan. “Drinks all around. First round’s on me. Phil, what do you want? The fuck is this blue thing? Is this yours?”

“I’ll buy,” Maria interrupted, standing up. “I know what he likes.”

“Wait, no. No, no,” Phil was protesting, because dammit, a pub party was absolutely not on the agenda, especially not Maria coming back with another cocktail that he'd have to choke down under her watchful eye if he couldn't pawn it off on someone else. He just wasn't ready for this, mentally or physically; before coming he’d changed out of the suit and into chinos and a worn merino sweater that announced to the world that he was off duty, a state never meant to be seen by anyone below Level Five. He’d even taken out his contacts, which normally only ever happened on the weekends if he was at home or if it'd been one fucker of a mission and his eyes had gone on strike.

He was debating the merits of making a break for the door and how far Maria would let him get, when “Congratulations,” came at his elbow.

Clint. He’d forgotten Clint for a second there.

He twisted around, his knee knocking into Clint’s under the small table. Clint was watching him, infinite amusement playing across his face as if he knew exactly what Phil was thinking. Phil was pretty sure his own eye was twitching, if his blood pressure was anything to go by. “How did you—“

“Sitwell told me on the way over here.” Clint said, and continued smiling crookedly at him. “So, congrats. I know you wanted this for a long time.”

“Thank you,” he said. The look on Clint's face, by all appearances genuinely glad for Phil, made guilt curl in his gut like nausea. He'd been feeling good about the entire situation until Maria had come along like a wrecking ball, damn her, and now doubt had crept in like a silent fog, misgivings about whether he'd made the right call materializing that hadn’t been there before.

Clint’s knee still rested against Phil’s where they’d knocked together. His eyes slid down, lingered on Phil’s sweater with something that looked very much like disbelief. Phil was very sure Clint could see every detail of how shabby it was, all the pills and snags where he'd caught it on the edge of his desk and where long use had worn the wrists and elbows down into discolored, frayed patches, and once again he silently cursed himself for trusting Jasper to show up alone. Clint had seen him in less dignified clothing, sure, and several times in total dishabille when the mission had gone very, very badly, but he'd never been...scruffy.

Phil did not allow himself to fidget under that intense scrutiny.

Apparently realizing he was staring too long for politeness, Clint blinked, glancing back up to Phil’s face. He shifted in his seat and cleared his throat, but thankfully didn’t comment. “Let me get you a drink,” he offered instead. He glanced behind them at Maria, who seemed to be fighting Jasper for the tab, still holding Phil’s intended magenta cocktail aloft, then back. “A real drink," he amended. "Scotch neat, right?”

“If you could also intercept Hill while you’re over there, I’d appreciate it.”

A more familiar smirk emerged. “Collateral damage might be high, sir, do you still authorize this action?"

"I do. Spillage highly recommended." Phil couldn’t help a corner of his lips twitching up in reply.

This got him a mocking salute and a low laugh. "No guarantees, but I'll try."

***

‘Other people coming’ turned out to be apparently every off-duty agent stationed in the DC branch, which, Phil thought dismally, shouldn’t have been a surprise. Despite his deadpan demeanor, Jasper had a biting, sarcastic humor and a talent for inventing words of the four-letter variety that made him a hit among more people than Phil would’ve believed if he hadn't witnessed it himself.

Considerably less extroverted and having honed his façade of bland government goon to a tee, Phil was not nearly so popular; he knew that the hordes of almost painfully young agents streaming through the door and crowding into the tiny bar as the staff exchanged panicked glances were hardly coming solely for his (or Maria’s) sake. But there were a few that he was genuinely glad to see, colleagues from way back with so much history and shared experience and spilled blood that they were bonded deeper than friendship: May, Wilson, Woo, Simms, Masters.

Coming back from the restroom, where’d he’d had a very long conversation with Melinda (which was to say, he talked and she looked at him skeptically or rolled her eyes or looked as if she were pondering very seriously just how hard it’d be to twist off his lips), and trying to make it back to his table while nodding and graciously accepting congratulatory backslaps and handshakes, Phil was glad to see Natasha slip in the front door behind a bunch of techs from R&D. She made a beeline for him.

“Power looks good on you,” she greeted him, feathering light kisses across both of his cheeks. She had on perfume, something elegant and sophisticated. Chanel perhaps, feminine but also hard, as steely as the strength he could feel in her hands as she gripped his.

“I don’t know about that,” Phil laughed. “It’s just me.”

She hummed at that. “Where’s Clint?”

“I’m not sure.” Casually, as if Clint hadn't spent the entire evening practically glued to Phil's side, long-fingered hands sometimes lightly touching the small of Phil's back, blue eyes alight as he greeted other agents he knew, and only occasionally disappearing to return with more drinks.

Natasha pursed her lips at him, totally and completely unimpressed.

Phil gave up. “Karaoke machine.”

She trailed light fingers under his chin until he met her eyes. “Stupid,” she chided, and then was gone, wafting expensive perfume behind her before he could even formulate the answer, What are you talking about?

Which was just like her. Natasha Romanoff, the queen of having the last word.

He was staring after her, thanking his good fortune that she’d decided some five years ago that Phil was also included in her very exclusive circle of trust because Natasha was one of the best and also one of the most terrifying people he knew besides Maria, when Maria said into his ear, “So, back to Barton,” as if they were continuing a conversation that’d happened only minutes before. Except that’d been two hours ago, and Phil was in no mood to retread the same ground again.

So, he ignored her. Not so easily shaken, she trailed him expertly as he threaded his way through the crowd, doing his best to appear like he wasn't fleeing, then jabbed him from behind in the ribs with sharp fingers. He stifled a yelp. “What about Barton?” he hissed, rubbing his side.

“Donkey shit pickle juice assloaf motherfucking communist!” Jasper’s voice came bellowing across the bar, audible over the bass in the anteroom. A chorus of groans and boos followed. “Oh, what. Too soon? The Soviet Union’s gone, I know this because I was there, I helped.”

Craning to see over the heads, Phil saw Natasha hustling Jasper unceremoniously from where he’d been ensconced as King of Guitar Hero. His glasses were crooked and his tie had disappeared. The top four buttons of his shirt were unbuttoned, revealing a ratty undershirt with a jagged hole at the neck. He was hanging onto the microphone with all his strength, continuing to sing Uptown Girls off-key, the lyrics punctuated with more obscenities and yelps as Natasha appeared to be doing something that looked like a Vulcan nerve pinch.

“You suck!” someone shouted from the crowd who sounded very much like Clint. “Let the lady sing!”

“Who said that? You come up here and say that to my face!” Jasper yelled back.

“Oh lord, Jasper’s drunk,” Phil sighed. The whiskies Clint bought for him and the subsequent shots Jasper pushed on him hadn’t done much for Phil except give him the beginnings of a headache. He’d been looking forward to a quiet evening with his best friends, decompressing from the stress that being senior leadership entailed, but Jasper had to be Jasper. God knew Phil loved the man dearly, but there were limits. “Maybe someone should get him before Romanoff murders him.”

Unfortunately, where Jasper got loud when drunk, Maria got stubborn; she pinched the meat of his tricep hard, right where she knew it would hurt the most. “We’re still talking about Barton.”

You’re still talking about Barton. I’m talking about Jasper and saving him from almost certain death.”

“Why don’t you just ask him out?”

“Jasper?” His brain snagged on the image of Jasper naked (which he'd seen before, once, in an incident involving a decontamination chamber that they never, ever talked about) then caught up with the conversation. “Oh. Wait, what?” His eyes went to Clint instantly in the dim light as if drawn by a magnet. Clint was leaning casually against the long wooden bar, watching the ruckus on the floor. He was laughing, the long lines of his body relaxed as he watched Natasha in a way that made something that felt like a steel band squeeze around Phil’s chest.

Maria pinched him again, but this time more gently. Almost kindly. “Uh huh. You were saying?”

“I’m his superior, Maria,” he told her, tearing his gaze from Clint reluctantly. “You know that.”

She sniffed. “You technically aren’t, not anymore.” She leaned in, very, very much in his personal space in that alpha dog way she’d picked up from Fury, and stared him straight in the eyes without blinking. “I'd say this is an excellent opportunity.”

He bristled at that, even as he was tempted to laugh in her face. “Semantics.” The headache was advanced a bit further now, like a cat sneaking up on an unsuspecting mouse. “Can we not talk shop right now?”

"Semantics," she mocked him. “We’re not talking shop. You're just coming up with excuses.”

“It’s really none of your business either,” he said to her. He tried to project a hint of threat in his tone, which she completely ignored. Of course.

“It is my business, Phil. As your boss. And as your friend. You’re just so –” she searched for the right word and settled on, “—adolescent about this. Both of you. It makes me cringe from second-hand embarrassment.”

He blinked at her. “Both of us?” he echoed. “You know about Barton and Romanoff, right? They’re – you know.” Phil wasn't usually this incoherent, but dating was too insipid a word to describe what Clint and Natasha were to each other; an item was too high school, and a couple was an overstatement.

She studied him for a long moment with a sardonic eye. “It’s a good thing you’re both cute, otherwise I might have to kill you both to save the world from all this idiocy,” she said at last, and rattled the ice in her glass.

Phil was so done with this conversation. Was, in fact, done with it fifteen years ago, when he'd first brought in an angry, distrustful Clinton Barton who'd managed to get himself on the kill list of at least three separate organizations. He'd been thinner then, dark shadowed eyes watching everyone and everything, as if he'd had spent a very long time alone with no one to watch his back. He’d especially watched Phil, tracking him across the room, following his every move, showing up in inconvenient places, and on several occasions breaking into Phil’s apartment for no apparent reason except to rearrange the alphabet magnets on the refrigerator into random shapes and sometimes creatively spelled words if certain letters were missing.

Maria had noticed.

Decades later, she still continued to worry at the issue like a terrier with a bone. In fact, had probably gotten worse about it, if that was even possible, as Clint had gradually learned how to trust his team and developed a better sense of personal space as far as Phil was concerned.

Clint was a grown adult, Phil reminded himself firmly. Phil wasn’t abandoning him, or whatever the hell Maria was implying, so Phil gave her his best bland stare of politely feigned interest that was generally effective at frightening junior agents and senior staff alike into instant silence. Unfortunately Maria was one of the few people thoroughly impervious to Phil’s best faces so she simply matched it with the glare that she usually saved for interrogations with especially recalcitrant subjects. It involved flared nostrils and a certain angle of her thick eyebrows and her lips thinning dangerously into a white line, and Phil had to admit, it was very effective.

The hard clink of a glass on the table next to them interrupted their stand-off. Phil had never been so not-relieved to look over his shoulder and see Clint watching them warily.

“Everything okay?” Clint asked, mostly at Maria’s murder-face.

“Hill was just about to go rescue Sitwell,” Phil said pleasantly. “Weren’t you, Maria?”

"Ah, Agent Barton." The way Maria’s expression magically smoothed off her face as if it had never existed was almost schizophrenic. Now her eyes twinkled and she had a dirty little grin on her face that Phil didn’t trust for a single instant. “Did you know,” she said abruptly, addressing Clint, “When I first met Coulson, I broke his leg in three places.”

Phil was, even if he said so himself, a deliberate man. He didn't act rashly, or without reason or thought, nor did he lose his temper easily. But even so, it took all the self-control he'd ever cultivated over forty years of living to refrain from doing something childish like kicking Maria under the table. It was a closer thing than he would ever admit. This was the all-too-familiar segue into Maria’s most favorite story ever, and Phil’s least, and of course she always chose to trot it out at the most inconvenient times. “As you will recall, I broke your tailbone over my desk in return,” he said through a veneer of deadly calm, in an attempt to cut her off at the pass.

Clint gazed at them for a long moment, and Phil could pinpoint the exact moment he decided to call the bluff. Clint's face cracked into a comical leer. “Were you having sex?”

Maria didn't even hesitate. “I couldn’t sit down for two weeks," she told him with a straight face.

Phil barely kept himself from slapping a hand to his forehead as Clint’s eyebrows took off into the stratosphere.

No,” Phil said with heavy patience. “I was INSCOM at the time, and –”

“Army Intelligence, what an oxymoron,” Maria interrupted.

“Yes, thank you, it’s like I’ve never heard that before. Are you going to let me finish telling Clint the story or do you want to make up some more lies about what really happened?”

“Lies, please,” Clint said, smiling a little even as his eyes flicked back and forth between them as if he were watching a tennis match. “They’re usually more interesting.”

“INSCOM intercepted some very incriminating photos of a certain powerful US senator and his two mistresses,” Maria explained. “SHIELD wanted them as collateral against budget and appropriations day. Coulson came back to his office early and found me rifling through his file cabinets. Now add something about a mountain lion.”

“You nearly got me sent up on charges of treason and espionage,” Phil complained, drawn into her story despite himself. “You couldn’t have made a diversion to keep me from coming back to my office?”

“It worked out fine, didn’t it?” Maria countered, their usual back and forth twitching the corner of her lips up into her version of a genuine smile. Softening her normally stern face to something that was almost tender, it was foreign and a little scary except to those who knew her very well -- and impossible to not respond in kind.

When she offered her glass, he lifted his own (another whiskey, thanks to Clint) and tapped it against hers in silent salute. Then as he drank, she surprised him by hugging him. She was bad at it, obviously way out of practice; her bony shoulder bumped his chin as she came in and her sharp collarbone dug into his adam’s apple while she was there, and her hand patted his back in an awkward one-two. As she let go, she kissed him on the cheek, a hard bird-like peck that almost hurt. All affectionate gestures so very unlike her that Phil couldn’t even begin to fathom what they were for.

“Long story short, Director Fury offered me a job for managing to keep myself from being beaten totally black and blue,” he continued as he turned back to Clint smiling. He stopped short.

Clint was watching them, face shadowed in the dim light. Clint was a man of almost excessive physicality, always fiddling with whatever was within reach as if his hands felt empty without something between them, and only stopped when sleeping or in position on a mission. But now he'd gone very still, a change so sudden and jarring in light of the previous warm camaraderie that Phil couldn't even begin to identify what had caused it. Then he thought back on the last minute.

Ah. So that was what the twinkle in Maria's eyes was. Evil. Pure evil.

“Oh look, there’s Ainsley. He promised to buy me a shot.” Maria announced, smirking at the both of them. She ruffled Phil’s hair and disappeared into the crowd, apparently well satisfied with herself.

Maria was the worst friend ever, Phil thought, unsure where to put the emphasis to really get his feelings across on the subject.

There was an awkward silence then in which Phil clawed at his hair, trying to get it to lie flat again. She’d ruffled it with booze-wet hands, confirming that once again, Maria was an awful friend.

Clint wasn't looking at Phil, he was frowning down at his beer as if it held all the answers to the universe.

It was unfair that he was forced to pound three shots in a row, Phil reflected, then drink an uncounted number of whiskies and neon-colored drinks, one of which had even had a gummy worm at the bottom, and still feel like he was back in high school with his first crush, back when he was a hundred pounds soaking wet with coke-bottle glasses and a Captain America t-shirt two sizes too big.

Decades and an improved fashion sense later, he was still the quintessential nerd, in love with the high school football captain. He groaned silently at his own brain.

“It’s okay,” Clint said finally, spinning the beer bottle in his hands. It was probably the same one from the beginning because Clint didn't drink – to avoid affecting his aim, Clint claimed, but Phil suspected had more to do with his alcoholic father. It sounded as if he was trying to convince himself of something.

“What’s okay?” Phil said slowly.

Clint just replied, “Everything,” which wasn't enlightening at all. “You know.” He gestured after Maria. Phil blinked at him, and he added hastily, “No, really. I’m fine with it. Congrats.”

Jasper chose that moment to crash into their table. “Hang on, hang on, I’m texting Blake,” he yelled into Phil’s face. “Asshole refuses to come out, says he’s tired or something. You’d think he’s not our age. How old is he?”

Jimmy Woo wove over then, his phone also out, his hair spiked into black tufts and sticking every which way. “Yo,” he nodded at them before saying to Jasper, “What’s that song he hates? The really annoying one? By that kid?”

“Friday?”

“Right, right, so,” tapping furiously on the phone, and right before Phil’s disbelieving eyes they launched into a duet, bawling the lyrics at each other in turn: “Friday, Friday, it’s – something something – Friday–”

“Are you texting that to Blake? Do it. Do it.”

“I am already, shut up. How does it go? Partyin’, partyin’ yeaaaaaah—“

“Hey.” Clint’s low voice tickled Phil’s ear. He turned to find Clint’s face only inches away. The words were careless, the tone pleasant, but Clint looked tired. “I’m leaving. I’ll see you later.”

This was where Phil said, See you tomorrow and did not allow himself to watch him go. This was where he met Clint the next day at the designated time in his office, and business proceeded as usual. Then Phil would leave for Malibu and Clint would leave for Dubai, and he and Clint probably wouldn't cross paths again for a very long time. But the words choked and died in his throat before they could even form. What came out instead was simpler, spoken with a fervor that came of more than just escaping drunken asshole friends: “Wait. Clint, wait."

He was rewarded with Clint pausing for a fraction of a second. He glanced at Phil, his expression in the uncertain neon lights unreadable. It was the barest of invitations, and the only opening Phil needed.

Phil grabbed his jacket and followed.

***

They managed to escape. Unnoticed even, because Maria was leaned up against the pool table, absorbed in conversation with Natasha. What they could possibly have to talk about, Phil didn't have the mental bandwidth to suss out properly, too distracted by Clint’s warm hand clasping his as if he were afraid of losing Phil in the press of bodies as they wended their way through the crowd. Jasper and Jimmy were flitting around the room like drunken magpies, taking selfies with as many people as they could ambush, and weren't even looking in their direction as they slipped out the side door.

The air outside was bitingly cold, in contrast with the warmth inside. The street was silent, deserted except for a car or two going slowly by in the intersection, streetlights gleaming yellow on the glistening pavement.

Clint dropped his hand as soon as they got outside, and with the blast of cold air into his face, Phil came to a dismal awareness that what fuzz of alcohol there had been was irretrievably gone, the warm intimacy that'd accompanied it and the underlying thrum of attraction and thrill of potentiality also disappeared. Or at least banished, back where it usually resided in the no-man’s-land of wishful thinking and out of the realms of possibility once again.

In other words, reality.

Neither made a move to walk away.

Clint looked Phil in the eye. “Tony Stark’s got nothing on Sitwell,” he said conversationally. “Except more money, maybe.”

“Jasper missed his calling as a wedding emcee,” Phil murmured. He was unable to shake the feeling that he and Barton would do what they always did, this careful friendship that always skirted but never crossed the border of professionalism. They’d always be LinkedIn friends, never Facebook friends, not even Facebook friends with the relationship status of It’s complicated.

Clint snorted a laugh, a sound both unsurprised and exhausted. That disconcerting gaze blinked away for a second, then returned. “Come on man. Fuck all this classified Level Seven bullshit. I know you’re assigned to Tony Stark. He’s back from Afghanistan, he’s got some robot battlesuit he built in a cave out of spare parts, of course Fury’s interested. It’s not that hard to figure out.” He lifted his chin and looked like he was bracing himself to hear a lie. “I’m right, aren’t I. Tell me I'm right.”

“Of course you are,” Phil replied and tamped down on the tired laughter that threatened to rise as Clint checked, as if he was surprised at the total lack of hesitation in Phil’s honest reply.

“Wait, that’s it?” Then he said more slowly, his voice gone hoarse, vulnerable in a way Phil was sure was unintentional, "I guess you were going to tell me tomorrow that I'm not assigned to you anymore." His fingers tapped a restless rhythm against his thigh, a nervous tic, as he shifted in place and very carefully kept his searing gaze on Phil’s face.

Phil held his eyes. “You know.” It wasn't really a question.

“Nat told me. But I kinda already figured.” A shrug, shoving his hands deep into his pockets. “You and Nat are leaving for California at the end of the week, and I’m not.”

Phil’s insides were in free fall. “I'm sorry, Clint,” he said. “Fury and I decided Natasha would be a better fit to cultivate Stark and keep him in line, considering his tastes."

“You think I can't seduce Tony Stark?”

“No one's seducing anyone,” Phil said firmly. There was a tension that was twisting in his gut that felt as if every nerve in his body were being drawn taut. He really should postpone this talk until tomorrow, to maintain that increasingly blurred line between personal and business, but he couldn't bring himself to be Agent Coulson just now, not with Clint with eyes that were resigned, his jaw set, something about his posture brittle and defeated. That niggle of doubt, so helpfully planted by Maria, flowered into alarm.

He took a breath, fighting the urge to sound apologetic. “The SpecOps team doesn't have a set roster, Clint. The few permanent members will provide administrative and logistical support while you – as well as Natasha, and a number of other special agents – will be on rotation for certain ops as your specific skill sets are needed. Natasha’s on the first op because if she can't handle Tony Stark, we’re paying her too much. You might be on the second, or the third. I don’t know yet.”

Clint and Nat might be on an entirely different, much more specialized team later if Phil’s overall mission objective panned out, Phil couldn’t say. But that was little more than a Level Eight twinkle in Fury’s eye at the moment, a hypothetical so dependent on an unbelievable number of variables coming together that even calling it a long-shot was an understatement.

“In the meantime I thought you’d be happier working without a handler,” Phil continued, a note of bewilderment escaping his control. “All evaluations have shown that you work best alone, with a minimum of interaction with a handler, or none at all. You like structure, but only a background one.” He swallowed past a suddenly dry throat. He was babbling against the impenetrable wall of Clint’s silence, he realized, and allowed himself one more sentence before shutting up. “And when you do need a partner – you have Natasha.”

Clint's answer, when it came, was barely above a whisper. “But I don’t have you.”

“You don’t need me, that’s the point,” Phil replied, wondering at the emotion in Clint’s voice, the way he’d refocused on Phil, something dark and wild in his regard. All at once a giant hand seemed to squeeze all the air out of Phil's lungs. “I thought you’d be okay with being on your own. Happy, even.”

This was apparently the absolutely wrong fucking thing to say. Clint slammed to a stop in the middle of the sidewalk as if he'd hit a wall and nearly shouted, “I’m not talking about the assignment, Coulson, jesus fucking christ.”

Phil stared at him.

"Look, I'm happy for you," Clint said in a quieter tone. "And yeah, you're not wrong. Like always."

He started stalking across the street, scrubbing his hands through his hair in his agitation. He whirled to face Phil, and it was as if a long-held dam had given way, words tumbling out. “It's fine, I guess. Absolutely fine. I mean, at least, if we’re on different assignments now, I won’t have to see you and Hill being all, all –” he gestured at the sky, as if to express the futility of the universe. “You know. Perfect,” he ended in a sigh, and this was where Phil figured out what the hell Clint was talking about.

“Clint.” Phil was caught in a laugh. “That is not what it looks like.”

“Really? Because that sure looks—“

“You really don’t know Hill and me very well if you think we’d be good together.” Phil cast about, then broke into a helpless grin that was more relief than actual humor. “I mean, she broke my leg when we first met.”

“Nat shot me when we met.”

“That doesn’t really help my argument here that Maria and I are not dating.”

Clint stopped, evidently caught on that technicality. “Nat and I aren’t dating, either.”

This surprised Phil more than it should have. “But you were.” It turned into a query at the end. He hadn’t known they’d stopped. He should’ve, though, that was his job.

“And then we weren’t.” Clint gave him a shrug. “Long story short, she doesn’t do relationships, and me—” Long glance at him then, from under long lashes. It was almost flirtatious.

Oh. “Oh,” Phil said, wrestling his voice down from that higher register that was absolutely, definitely, not a squeak. "Is that so."

Maria was going to be unbearable after this.

"Stupid," Clint chided, and damn if it wasn't the exact same tone Natasha used, too, and he was about to protest when Clint was suddenly there in his space, the solidity of his body pressed up against Phil hard enough to rock him back a step.

"Both of us, apparently," Phil murmured, hypnotized by how close Clint's expressive lips were, only inches away, close enough to feel the warmth of his breath. He'd been this close to Clint before, of course, but that'd mostly been under combat, and that one time Clint had fallen asleep next to Phil in a transport to Liberia, Clint drooling all over Phil's shoulder with his short hair soft against Phil's cheek. But here it was, that tantalizing mix of cocky and vulnerable and brave that Phil found so attractive, that had Clint watching him with wide, wary eyes and chin tilted up in challenge but not giving a single inch.

Phil was a man used to denying himself the things he wanted, but he had limits.

They met in the middle. The first moment was Clint, taking one long inhale as if fixing the feel and taste and scent of Phil in his memory forever in case it never happened again, before his hands, warm and rough, ran up into Phil’s hair and clenched there, pulling Phil in.

Phil lost himself in the sound Clint made then, the way his muscles flexed involuntarily under Phil’s roaming hands, the way his breath roughened when Phil inclined his head and parted his lips and let Clint in, all soft lips and warm breath. Somewhere in there Phil's hands cupped Clint's neck and his thumbs were stroking along Clint's jawline, feeling the soft skin overlaid by the rasp of stubble and Clint's pulse thrumming under his palms.

They might’ve continued in that vein until morning found them frozen into icicles in that same spot in the middle of the street, except Phil’s phone buzzed in his front pocket, making them both jump.

I swear by the moon and the stars in the sky

Jasper. Phil stared blankly at the text. At first he could only wonder incoherently if it was some kind of cipher he was too discombobulated to figure out, all the blood in his brain having migrated further south. But as the meaning slowly trickled in past the immediacy of Clint who, obviously beyond caring and completely undeterred by the interruption, had his cold nose tucked past Phil’s scarf into the crook of his neck and was doing something interesting there involving his lips and tongue, Phil seriously considered going back inside and jamming his phone up Jasper’s nose.

His phone buzzed again, this time with a text from Woo: I swear like the shadow that’s by your side I’ll be there

Phil swore with feeling. “I’m going to kill them.”

A glance at the bar behind them revealed little, its windows dark and empty. Which, okay – Phil would've been excessively disappointed if anyone had been visible, seeing as they were all covert operatives.

A growl must’ve escaped him then because Clint breathed a laugh against his skin. He'd wormed his hand underneath Phil's sweater and was stroking the coarse hair just south of Phil’s bellybutton with a calloused thumb. Now his thumb pressed in a hard counterpoint just above Phil’s hipbone and dragged downwards, dipping into the waistband.

“Maybe we should get going,” he suggested, even as Phil received another text, then another, with alternating lyrics from I Swear and then suddenly slewed across a whole range of songs, starting with Truly Madly Deeply and ending with Hit Me Baby One More Time except Jasper substituted key words with their considerably filthier synonyms.

Phil hadn't even known Jasper knew how to rhyme words besides ‘Nantucket.’

Although he was all too aware of Jasper’s love of excruciating 90’s music from several lengthy and torturous road-trips with Jasper and his 120Gb iPod.

Clint reached up and poked at Phil's forehead until the deep crease between his eyebrows ironed out. “My place?” he asked Phil in a tone that strove to be light but fell just short of the mark. Too-sharp eyes panned Phil’s face for any sign of reluctance, even as he ran light fingers in slow circles over Phil's stomach.

“I can do one better,” Phil said, smiling with his whole face, and watched that mask of worry fall away, replaced by that brash, intimately familiar smirk that sent a corresponding shiver up his spine. “Mine’s not at SHIELD HQ and I have a queen-size bed.”

“Hell yes,” Clint crowed, throwing his hands up as if he’d just scored a field goal. Just as Phil was torn between rolling his eyes or kissing him again, Clint whirled and shot the bar both middle fingers.

A sardonic cheer went up from the bar.

***

Phil woke to a crash and a muttered, "Aw, coffee, no." Then ominous hissings, and splashings, and then some creative curses. A quick check revealed the other side of the bed disappointingly empty but still warm, as if the occupant had vacated it only a short time before. Another check revealed his pants on the other side of the room, slung extravagantly across a potted plant in the corner.

Phil emerged to find Clint waging war with Phil's espresso machine, a battle that Clint was apparently losing. The machine was venting steam in long, ominous hisses, hot water dripping onto the floor, wet coffee grounds scattered over the counter. Clint was more than a little wild-eyed, all tufted hair and bleary-faced, obviously ill-prepared for this kind of guerrilla warfare first thing in the morning.

“This was what we call ‘bargaining failure,’” Phil drawled from the door where he was watching all this. “The inability to reach a mutually advantageous and enforceable agreement.” Stony-faced, he was chewing on the inside of his cheek to keep himself from laughing.

Clint made a pathetic noise, more at the machine than at Phil. “What happened to having a normal coffeemaker? This one has more buttons and levers than an airplane.”

“It’s the most expensive item I have in this apartment, so be nice.”

The irritated look Clint threw him made the laughter he was holding in break free. This side of Clint was new. Though he'd seen Clint perfectly alert and combat-ready on countless early mornings and in less than ideal circumstances, this Clint was tousled and completely non-functional, a blanket seam reddening his cheek and arm, unguarded and kind of ridiculously endearing. He had on only his boxers and Phil’s ratty West Point t-shirt, but for all that, as Clint continued to poke forlornly at the machine (which hissed at him again), he was beautiful in the morning light, the warm sunlight picking out the blonde highlights of his rumpled hair and laying like yellow butter along the planes of his face and the muscles of his arms.

Phil crossed the kitchen in what felt like the speed of light and crowded Clint against the countertop. Clint went with it, slow smile lighting his features and that low laugh that did things to Phil, backing up until his back hit the edge of the counter and his hips were neatly socketed against Phil’s.

Phil stroked his neck, curling his fingers into the short, silky hairs there. "Good morning," he murmured.

“Hi,” Clint returned. “Sorry for breaking your coffee maker?”

"No, you're not." This morning after should’ve been awkward, Phil reflected, but a blush refused to rise at the memory of Clint moaning under him, hips rising to meet each thrust into hot, tight heat, long-fingered, calloused hands clutching Phil anywhere he could reach. Phil could still smell Clint all over him, could still taste him, and oh god, he just wanted to bury himself in Clint and never come up for air. It didn’t matter that they’d only officially been doing this – Clint’s warmth imprinting itself on Phil’s skin like a brand, Clint smelling like coffee, sleep-rumpled in Phil’s kitchen as if he’d always belonged there – for less than eight hours; with the clarity of hindsight Phil could recognize that they’d been doing a G-rated version of this for years.

As if catching the trend of Phil’s thoughts, Clint’s blue eyes darkened and a completely filthy grin appeared. "Okay, no. But only because it's possessed. I was doing the world a favor."

Phil’s normal defensive response – chiefly, rolling his eyes – seemed to have gone offline.

The thin cotton boxers slid down easily, just enough for Phil to draw Clint out. Clint’s eyes drooped and his mouth parted as Phil licked down Clint’s body, still marveling secretly at being allowed to do this, laving down tanned planes of skin and muscle and testing the texture of the fine hair on Clint's arms as Clint moaned. Something about the way Clint shifted, his hips unconsciously arching into Phil’s touch, ignited a deep simmer at the base of his gut. He bit the soft skin just below Clint’s belly button, earning himself a jerk and Clint’s cock going even harder in his hand, before following the arrow of blonde hair trailing down.

“Fuck, Phil,” Clint said in a voice that was destroyed as if he’d spent the last three days screaming at the top of his voice. Calloused fingers came down, cradling Phil’s cheek. Not asking but just touching, as if reassuring himself that Phil wasn’t going anywhere.

Phil slid the tip of his nose down the pliant skin of Clint's belly, then took him into his mouth. Clint’s breath left his lungs in one long exhale as if he'd been punched.

His back arched like a cat’s and Phil had to practically lock his arms around his thighs to keep Clint from collapsing when his knees buckled. That was flattering; Phil hadn't done this in ages. Years. Clint's hands were running all over Phil's shoulders, fingernails digging reddened grooves into Phil’s back as he tried his best not to thrust. Encouraged, Phil added tongue, then fingers. Clint kept giving those lovely high breaths and those creative obscenities, his thighs trembling on either side of Phil’s head, and Phil pulled off just as Clint jack-knifed over like he'd been kicked in the gut and came with a jagged groan.

Phil stroked him through it, not wanting to let go because Clint was still making those breathy, broken moans that made his own arousal spike into a high, hot haze.

Finally Clint blew out his breath, his entire body seeming to go boneless. He looked down at Phil, wide eyes dazed and impossibly blue. "How are you so damn perfect," he said wonderingly. Phil nearly laughed, because what— except he saw that Clint was being totally serious.

"It's all about faking it," he told him truthfully, too distracted to dissemble, unable to help rubbing his cheek against the silky skin of Clint's inner thigh. He was still desperately hard but he was willing to wait, enjoying the warm comfort of the kitchen and Clint being here. "Fake it until you make it, as they say."

"God, come here," Clint groaned, and pulled him with an easy strength to his feet. He pressed his mouth to Phil’s again, open and wet. Phil went with it, beyond caring about anything except having Clint under him, all laughing blue eyes and hot mouth. Then Clint pushed Phil’s pajama pants down and slid his thigh between Phil's, pressing upward.

Phil choked. He was moving then, involuntarily, against the solid muscle of Clint's thigh, the rasp of the coarse hair against his cock making his arousal spike higher. Then Clint wrapped his talented fingers around Phil's cock and it was too much, too perfect. Clint's eyes were soft as he watched Phil's face, each stroke punctuated by Clint's low murmurs encouraging him to come for me and you're so hot like this, and wanted you forever.

Phil came so hard it almost hurt.

They slid to the tiled floor, Phil’s entire body buzzing. He couldn't stop nipping at Clint’s lips, kissing him contentedly until Clint pulled back and rested his forehead against Phil’s. The silence was interrupted only by the hissing of the espresso machine and Clint’s breathing.

“I’ll be gone at least six months, maybe less if Stark proves amenable,” Phil said at last. Quietly, unwilling to break the peace, but it needed to be said. “Your missions will probably be shorter.”

“Will Fury let me come visit?” Clint asked. He sounded drowsy. “Take a little R&R every once in a while in Malibu.”

“He’ll have to,” Phil said, not knowing how he’d get Fury to agree but determined that it would happen. “Hill will probably help us.”

Clint snorted. “Will she?”

“Yes,” said Phil, because Maria was going to take the credit for last night, and damned if he wasn’t going to make her earn every inch of it. Jasper too; Phil hadn’t checked his phone this morning yet, but he’d glimpsed the blinking light of multiple text messages that he planned on never, ever reading.

Fuck,” Clint groaned loudly then, startling Phil upright. He smacked his hand to his forehead as if remembering something. “Fuck,” he said again, and looked like he was trying to meld into the floor and out of existence.

Phil cleaned himself up while waiting Clint out, because Clint was also naked, his boxers puddled on the floor in front of the refrigerator (which had its magnets rearranged into the shape of an arrow), and therefore his melodramatics weren’t exactly having the effect Clint probably intended.

“Want to share?” Phil asked, sitting back down in front of him and dropping a washcloth onto his stomach.

Clint twitched feebly on the floor. "Natasha is going to be so goddamn smug," he said to the ceiling. “There’s going to be no living with her after this.”

He could only look puzzled as Phil started to laugh.