Spring arrives with the usual flurry of invitations to Agent and Agent weddings.
For an international spy organization, it's amazing how many weddings happen between SHIELD agents. SHIELD agents are a closed, suspicious group of people, busy flying around the world or working all night in the labs; interoffice romance is generally the only relationship that fits into their schedules. That's why they always end up company affairs.
Clint gets it. Sort of. There's a lot of pressure and a lot of secrets that can't be shared, and that tends to torpedo relationships with civilians. Plus, all that life and death excitement can make a big party with all of your workmates -- followed by a week away to get some -- sound good. Then there's the high-stress environment and secret-keeping, and the divorces from that, so there's always a collection of single people too busy to meet outsiders. So the cycle continues every year.
Clint should know. He did it with Bobbi and he has the divorce to prove it.
Clint enjoys weddings. He only has a few simple rules. Don't drink so much you start the conga line. Don't dare Fury to competitive limbo. Don't have sex with Phil Coulson.
These are important rules. Rules Clint has developed through experience and living through the horrible consequences. The kind of hangover that makes death look like a mercy. Wrenching his back and limping around the office for a week, known as Fury's limbo bitch. Having the awkward morning after where Phil smiles and suggests getting coffee, and reminds Clint of outstanding action reports, and it turns out that sex makes absolutely no difference to how Phil sees him. They're colleagues, they're part of a great team, and they're friendly, if not actually friends -- and none of that changes with a few extra post-wedding benefits.
It's a rule for a reason. And this is the year Clint's going to follow it. Really.
The Davison wedding is a daytime, garden thing and the women wear floral dresses and the men mostly wear khakis and light shirts. A few have a jacket thrown on.
Phil wears a dove gray Armani suit that probably costs as much as one of Clint's bows. Simple dark tie and white shirt, and he looks like he stepped out of a magazine spread. All sleek lines and wide shoulders and a smirk that says he knows he looks good.
So Clint says hi. They're kinda friends and it's a celebration. Be rude not to say hello.
Clint's not sure how being friendly somehow ends up with Phil pressing him against the trunk of a ridiculously huge -- like mutant gigantic -- tree, kissing and groping him through the best fitting pair of cargos Clint owns.
This stuff always happens to him. There must have been a point where he could have said no politely and side-stepped this from happening again. But when Phil's got a hand down the back of his pants and Clint's grinding against his thigh shamelessly, it seems like a dick move to stop now. Especially when it feels so good.
"You know, I drove Lola in today," Phil whispers into Clint's ear. Clint has strong feelings about Phil's car and how good Phil looks in it. "Want me to give you a ride home?"
The next morning, Clint wakes up to Phil coming out of the bathroom. He's freshly showered, hair towel dried and sticking up every way.
Phil throws a fresh towel on the bed. "I think I left you ten minutes of hot water."
Clint pulls a face. He knows how much Phil likes a long, hot shower -- especially after a late night. There's going to be three minutes of hot water, if that. "Any chance of coffee?"
"After a shower. You want me to make it here or go to the diner round the corner?"
If Clint says here, there's a good chance Phil will cook pancakes. And then there'll be one of those mornings -- like one of dozens of mornings in various safe houses, making breakfast and lying low, talking about nothing important until one of them gets a call to go into headquarters (SHIELD doesn't really believe in weekends).
It won't be bad, it's just a bit jarring after rolling around naked in Phil's sheets. It's easier to get dressed and head out. "Diner. I can hear the hash browns and bacon calling me."
Phil looks a little queasy. "You know grease doesn't help a hangover, right?"
Clint drags himself out of bed, snagging the towel on the way past. "You can still get pancakes."
"Are you moping?" Natasha asks when she finds him on the range.
"I'm not moping." Clint releases another two arrows. "I'm maintaining my skill set."
"You're shooting frowns on the targets."
She right. He has three paper targets now with frowny faces dotted like emoticon braille. "A good friend would ignore that."
Natasha gives him a level stare. Usually, she reserves that look for Tony Stark. "What is the cardinal rule of weddings?"
"Don't sleep with the bride." Clint thinks for a moment and then adds, "and never admit it if you do."
"What is the cardinal rule for you personally?"
Clint pulls a face at her. "Nat."
"You slept with Phil again, didn't you?"
Clint huffs. "Maybe."
Natasha punches him high on the arm. The punch was for breaking his own rule -- after all, he'd told her to punch him if he was stupid enough to do it again -- and it makes him hiss. Natasha doesn't pull her punches. "Don't spend the next week moping about it."
Charlotte from Logistics gets married in upstate New York. Clint was born in the middle of nowhere, the kind of town surrounded by corn fields stretching to the horizon, but he's a New Yorker now. The empty space is kind of freaking him out.
It's pretty. Green lawn and big oak trees but Clint can't believe he had to drive for hours just for trees.
"The pine tree," Phil says, right beside him because Phil is a stealthy bastard, no matter how formal the occasion. (And this is formal. The groomsmen are wearing tails and top hats. Clint's... wearing a jacket. The soup stain is barely noticeable.)
"The pine tree?" Clint asks.
"Best perch for watching the wedding." Phil gives him a sly, sideways glance. "Tell me you wouldn't be more comfortable up high."
"Yeah, but I wouldn't pick a tree with rotten branches." Clint points to the third branch up. It's splitting and if one branch is rotten, there's a good chance the others won't take his weight.
"I'll take your word for it," Phil says, squinting into the distance. It's weird but Clint likes the crows feet around Phil's eyes. Those wrinkles make him look more human and approachable. Like Coulson's the kind of guy you can just reach out and touch (as opposed to the guy who will break your pinky if you sneak up on him). "You don't like the place?"
"Eh." Clint shrugs. It's not New York, but most places aren't. "Not thrilled about having to drive home. A wedding where you can't drink feels like a waste."
Phil gives him a look. It's the 'there was a working elevator / fire escape / parachute you could have used instead' look. "You didn't get a room here?"
"People are staying here?"
"I am," Phil says with a smile and Clint has to remind himself of his rule. He is not sleeping with Phil. He still has the bruise from the last time Nat punched him.
It's 6am and Clint is creeping down the carpeted corridor in his socks. He has his shoes in one hand because he works with a lot of sneaky, nosy people and maybe he needs a new rule. Don't do the walk of shame past the bridal suite. Sneaking out the morning after feels really cheap when you know someone's enjoying their honeymoon on the other side of that door.
His clothes are rumpled. He hopes it's the rolled out of bed look, but on Clint, it usually looks like he's three days into being homeless. It's all Phil's fault. If it hadn't been for Phil pressed up against his back, Phil's lips on his neck, tongue warm and teeth sharp, Clint might have thrown his clothes over a chair. But, no, Phil had his fly undone and his talented fingers had been on Clint's cock while Clint was scrambling to get out of clothes and feel naked skin, and everything had ended up in a pile on the floor.
He's nearly at the end of the corridor when the last door silently opens. There's a flash of red hair and Clint knows he's been caught.
Natasha raises one judging eyebrow. "Are you okay to drive?"
"Yeah, I didn't drink that much. Phil's got Lola."
"Ah," Natasha says, understanding. This is why Clint's sneaking out. Because Phil in that red convertible does things to Clint. It makes Clint suggest pulling over into a back road and testing public indecency laws, leads to him inviting Phil up for coffee and a blowjob.
Part of it's the car -- she's a gorgeous cherry red convertible -- but most of it is the sheer geeky glee of Phil driving it. It might look like a shiny classic, but Lola has more tricks and firepower than a terrorist hideout. She's been part of SHIELD or the SSR for decades, and Phil knows all the stories. Really, Lola's just the biggest piece of Phil's old-timey spy junk collection.
Much better Clint leaves now. Watching Phil be ridiculous and adorable for the whole drive home is going to be torture when he can still feel Phil's nails scraping his back and Phil's teeth catching on his hip.
"You know you're ridiculous, right?" Natasha asks quietly, shaking her head.
"All part of my charm."
Clint does much better at the Wilson shindig. He dances and talks to people who aren't Phil. He has a reasonable number of drinks -- enough to be buzzed, not enough to challenge Fury to anything. He's having a good time.
He really is. He's not drifting by Phil's seat every twenty minutes to check on him. He's not.
And if he was, well, it would be justified. Phil's sitting there with his right arm bandaged and the morose look of Phil Coulson on the good drugs. Everyone else gets loopy and happy when morphine and oxycodone kick in. Phil is the only person Clint knows who sighs mournfully and looks like his dog ran away.
"You okay?" Clint asks next time he's passing by. (It's on his way to the bar. By a very circuitous path.)
"It's just a bad sprain," Phil says, sighing and looking down at his right hand. His eyes are glassy and his tie is crooked; he looks miserable. "It should be fine in a week."
"You want to get out of here? We could split a cab," Clint says, and there's a hot itch between his shoulder blades. If he looks up, he's sure to see Natasha glaring at him from across the room.
Clint keeps his head down.
On the one hand, it's the first wedding this year that Clint hasn't had sex with Phil. He wants to say he's following his own rules but it's really that Phil's injured and drugged, and Clint has some standards. Not many, but some.
On the other hand, he does sleep with Phil. Because Phil asks him to stay and even says please. Because Phil looks sad and alone, as if Clint was the only person he could rely on to be there.
Because, deep down, Clint likes the idea of being that person for Phil. Being someone who could make Phil happy and take care of him. Who'd look after him and cook him comfort food when he was sick. (Not Clint's comfort food. Spending his formative years in a circus has left Clint fond of stale popcorn and hot dog casserole. But Phil's comfort food is All American: apple pie and mac'n'cheese.)
So when Phil asks and holds a hand out, Clint says, "Sure," and strips down to a T-shirt and boxers. He crawls into Phil's bed and gets to be the big spoon.
He wakes up still curled around Phil, his arm loose around Phil's waist. He lies there for a little while, warm and comfortable, listening to Phil sleep.
Phil wakes up with a groan. "Well, this is embarrassing."
No, it's not, Clint wants to say. He was happy to be here. "What's a little embarrassment between friends?"
"Can we never speak of this again?"
Clint agrees. Of course, he does. He's the idiot who keeps sleeping with Phil, even though he knows it will end like this. It's friendly and casual, and every time Clint feels like he failed an exam he didn't know he was taking. Like if he was just a bit smarter, if he knew the right answer, he could make Phil look at him and see someone Phil could want for more than one night.
Natasha's going to kill him.
Natasha doesn't kill him.
Natasha spars with him and leaves him bruised and limping. When he points out they didn't actually have sex, Natasha raises two arched eyebrows.
"Are you saying you didn't sleep with him because you know this is a self-destructive pattern and it only hurts you in the long run?" she asks carefully. "Or was he high on painkillers and you didn't want to take advantage?"
"Can't it be both?"
"You need to stop sleeping with him or you need to talk to him," Natasha says. She's been saying that for three years now. And every year, Clint knows this is the year he'll do it.
He will. He has to. He isn't getting any younger and this is ridiculous. It's gotten to the point where Clint's stopped dating during wedding season because it feels like cheating.
"He's really good in bed," Clint says weakly and Natasha calls him something insulting in Russian.
Clint has plenty of opportunities to talk to Phil over the next two weeks. Hiding out in safe houses, sprawled on the couch in Phil's office or sitting in the jet coming back from a mission. There are lots of times when it's just him and Phil.
Clint could bring up the subject instead of talking about Dog Cops or Supernanny or the last few cards Phil needs to complete his Captain America collection. He doesn't because he's a coward. It will be awkward and might be painful, and while he knows he should, he really doesn't want to.
So Clint takes the other option. Instead of talking about it like adults, he flirts with a friend of one of his tenants and invites her to Agent Cho's upcoming wedding.
Natasha shakes her head when he tells her. "You're an idiot," she says. She makes it sound like an endearment.
"There were two options. I'm choosing to sleep with non-Phil people."
"Only you, Barton."
The reception's in full swing by the time Clint sees Phil. He's at a table talking to Sitwell and Natasha, and it seems safe enough to go over and say hi.
Clint introduces Kerrie -- oops, no, it's Kathy -- and it all goes well. No weirdness from Phil, no hurt feelings or narrow-eyed jealousy. Phil just smiles as if Clint was any other friend, as if they haven't been naked and sweaty with each other after numerous similar events, haven't laid there panting with jizz on their skin. No, Phil makes small talk and corny jokes.
He's a good wingman, actually. When Kathy talks about her freshman year at college, and Clint can feel the defensive jokes coming (the urge to call himself a high school drop-out before someone else does), Phil's the one who talks about Clint learning to fly, how quickly he picked it up but still panicked over the exam. Phil mentions Lucky and how kind Clint is to animals. Phil tells stories -- highly adjusted stories with classified details changed -- that make Clint sound good.
Clint doesn't know if he should be embarrassed by the flattery, or amazed that Phil can make him sound like a fantastic guy while telling the truth.
It's a great night and a great date. It doesn't matter that Phil's being charming and looking amazing in his suit. Or that Phil isn't even disappointed that Clint's going home with someone else tonight. Nope, that doesn't matter at all.
At the end of the night, Clint walks her to her apartment door. They're talking and flirting, and it's going really well. They're drifting closer and chatting, then she leans in for a kiss and Clint ducks his head to the side. The kiss lands on his cheek, and she laughs like she meant to do that, but the moment's weird.
For all of Clint's flirting, for all that Kathy has a cute smile and a nice laugh, she's not the person Clint wants to be kissing.
Kathy says she had a good time and says goodnight, but it's awkward. They both know Clint was the one who moved away from the kiss.
Clint rubs the back of his neck as her door closes. He should get a cab home. He really should, but Phil's apartment is six blocks away, and it's nice weather for a walk.
When he presses the buzzer for Phil's apartment, Clint makes a mental note to get out of the country for a few days. He's going to need an ocean between him and Nat when he tells her about this.
Phil smiles when he opens the door. He looks at Clint for a moment and then says, "You want to stay the night?" like he hasn't spent half the night talking Clint up to a random date.
Clint could say no. Clint could discuss this with reasoned maturity. Instead, Clint leans in and kisses Phil on the mouth. There's a lot of tongue and greedy, groping hands until Phil drags him inside, slamming the door shut behind them.
There's a sniper mission in Poland, forcing Clint to spend five hours freezing his nuts off waiting for the shot. It's worth it when he calls Nat from the safe house that night, and she spends ninety seconds cursing in Russian.
"It's nearly summer," Clint points out. "Wedding season's almost over. Two more, maybe three, and then it'll all die down."
"Until you repeat this farce next year." This is why Clint doesn't have a lot of friends. Most people don't have Natasha's endless patience for his crap. Admittedly, that patience also means bruises after sparring sessions, but still.
"But no more moping. I've been looking at it the wrong way, Nat."
Clint nods earnestly, then remembers they're on the phone and Nat can't see it. Doesn't matter. He's got this figured out. "Every year it's the same thing, right? Weddings followed by great sex that means nothing to Phil. Instead of moping, I'm going to start taking pride in it. For a dozen times every year, I get to sleep with someone who is way out of my league without ruining our professional relationship. That's an achievement."
There's a long silence. That's never a good sign. Slowly, Natasha asks, "This is your new approach?"
"Yep," Clint says confidently, even as he's scanning the room for possible exits. It's an instinctive reaction to Natasha's tone. Hurriedly, Clint adds, "If you think about it the right way, it's kind of awesome. I get to have something I really want, even if it's just temporary, and I don't have it long enough to ruin anything. Bobbi and I couldn't be in the same room for months after the divorce, and that's not going to happen with Phil. It's a good thing."
Natasha takes a slow, careful breath as if she's planning an explosive frontal assault. "So it's a good thing that you're in love with Phil, and you get to be a seasonal booty call?"
"Hey!" Clint squawks because there's explosive and then there's the destruction of a nuclear blast. He did not deserve the latter. "He's not-- And I'm not-- You're twisting things, Nat. If it's the closest I get to what I want, and I'm happy to take it, it's not fair to make it sound so-- so--"
"Cheap?" Natasha suggests. "Manipulative? Self-destructive?"
"Tacky," Clint mumbles.
"Is it fair on Phil?" Natasha asks calmly. He should know better than to let her catch him unawares, but that question stuns him. "Would he lead you on if he knew you had feelings for him?"
"Of course not," Clint says quickly. Phil is kind and decent; he wouldn't knowingly take advantage of someone's feelings. (Unless it was in an interrogation room. Phil's great at applying the emotional pressure when he needs information.)
Clint's been known to do stupid things for the right reasons, and Phil's always had his back. He trusts Phil to make the good choices, the right choices. Phil wouldn't take advantage.
"This can't go on forever," Natasha says firmly. "Eventually, you'll be bitter and throw it back at him in anger, and he'll feel terrible. Or he'll meet someone else and break your heart. The longer you ignore it, the more it will hurt one of you."
"Shut up," Clint says, and, "Stop being right about everything."
"If I'm right about everything, talk to him."
Clint spends a restless night waiting for extraction. Sometimes he hates that Nat knows him so well. He can deal with eventual heartbreak: the second time he slept with Phil, he knew he'd feel lousy the next day. A bit of future pain wasn't enough to stop him enjoying the now. Every time since then, he knew it would hurt later but it was worth it for Phil's smiles, for Phil's voice going rough with want, for Phil's warm hands on his skin and his teeth on Clint's shoulder and his body meeting Clint's.
But the idea that he's keeping information from Phil, that Phil will feel disappointed in himself when he finds out that Clint, maybe, sort of, kinda has feelings for Phil… Clint's not okay with that. He knows that's why Natasha said it like that: maximum impact.
He can procrastinate and put off the awkward conversation when it's only his own feelings at stake. It doesn't feel fair to do that to Phil.
Clint knocks on Phil's office door. He thought about going to Phil's apartment, but given that he was so recently fucking Phil over the couch… He might get distracted.
"You got a minute?" he asks when Phil looks up.
Phil hits a couple of keys and locks down his screen. "Sure. Bolivia?"
"Nah, Bolivia's fine. I'd prefer Peru, but it'll work." Clint steps inside and closes the door behind him. "This is more about the wedding on Saturday."
There's the tiniest twitch of eyebrow and Phil looks intrigued. "What about it?"
"I can't have sex with you afterward."
Phil looks a little confused by the statement. Fair enough. Even Clint doesn't usually say such ridiculous things. "You were just checked by medical. They said you were fine."
"Not physically. Physically, yes, fine, but no. Every wedding I promise myself I'm not going to sleep with you, and then I do and then Nat tries to knock some sense into me, and I promise I won't do it again but I do, and here it is," Clint says, drawing a hand through the air. "My line in the sand."
Phil watches him blandly. He gives nothing away. "Because Natasha doesn't want you to sleep with me?"
"Because the sex is incredible and you're—And then—" Clint stops. Realises he actually doesn't know how to say this. He knew there was a reason he'd put this conversation off for so long.
"Words, Clint. You need to use actual words."
"It's great but the next morning, it's like nothing happened." Clint takes a deep breath and forces the words out. "I can't keep doing that."
Phil crosses his arms and leans back in his chair. He looks like he's reviewing a complicated mission. "Do you remember the Petersen wedding?"
The first time they'd slept together. He remembers Phil's shirt had been open to the third button, and how long he spent staring, imagining licking the dip of Phil's collarbone. "Sure."
"You suggested casual sex. That nothing had to change."
Clint doesn't remember saying that, but it sounds like him. "Probably. I was pretty drunk. I would have said anything to get you into bed."
"And that's not what you want now?"
If he's honest, that's not what Clint wanted then. But it feels a bit pathetic to admit it. "It's not."
"Okay," Phil says with a sharp nod. "No more casual sex. Anything else?"
"Um…" Clint could confess that he's got a bit of a torch for Phil, but that's only going to be humiliating. Phil keeps watching him, waiting for an answer. "No."
Simpson gets hitched in Manhattan, but Clint's on assignment in Indonesia so he can't make it. Nguyen and Smith tie the knot a week later, and Clint doesn't have a good excuse to avoid that one. He begs Natasha to incapacitate him for a few days, but she refuses. So he dresses nicely and makes himself smile (okay, he forces himself not to scowl, basically the same thing). Weddings are a lot less fun when he knows he won't get laid at the end of the night.
As soon as the dance floor gets crowded, Clint escapes to the balcony. There's a chill in the air. Clint looks up, but the skies are never dark enough in New York to really see the stars.
Clint fiddles with a thick rubber band he found in his pockets. (It's not the weirdest thing he's found in his pockets, not by far.) Above the low drone of traffic and the distant cry of a siren, he hears footsteps behind him. He glances over his shoulder.
Weddings would be a lot easier to get through if Phil didn't look so good in a suit. They'd also be easier if Phil hadn't spent the last thirty minutes talking to Jenny from Finance and laughing at her jokes. Not that Clint has any right to complain. He doesn't have any claims on Phil.
"Hey," Phil says warmly. "Getting some air?"
"There were toothpicks on the table." Clint holds up the rubber band around his fingers and mines a slingshot. He snaps the band between his fingers, remembering Jenny giggling at Phil. "Nobody deserves to lose an eye because I'm jealous."
Phil gives a small shake of his head like he doesn't believe Clint had worked out force and trajectories before he walked away. Phil should go back inside. He shouldn't step closer and lean a hip against the railing, right beside Clint's hand.
Clint's traitorous chest goes tight. Clint knows Phil: how he stands, how to read his expressions and the tone of his voice. He can see the flirtation in Phil's body language, in the slight curve of his lips and the mischief in his eyes.
"What are you doing out here?" Clint asks and it sounds like a line. Like a bad line.
"Looking for you," Phil replies, drifting closer. He glances at Clint's mouth. "Wanted to make sure you hadn't run off to join the circus."
"Been there, done that." The smart thing to do would be to walk away but Clint never manages to do the smart thing. One last time. Then he'll have the rest of the year to get over this. "And thinking of things we've done before..."
Phil leans forward and kisses him, all lips and soft, open mouth. He slides a hand low on Clint's back, stopping right at that line between charming and groping. He keeps his hand there when he pulls back. "My place?"
"Sure," Clint says, and Phil leans in for another warm kiss. "One last time for the road."
"No," Phil says, pressing another kiss to Clint's lips.
"Not one last time. Not casual sex. Not," and Phil steals a kiss and then another, "casual."
Clint's confused and really turned on. Add in some hay bales and a big top, and he'd be reliving his teen years. "What?"
"You don't want casual sex but you still want me," Phil says. Clearly, Clint's attempts to hide his seething jealousy weren't successful. "So let's drop the casual part."
"Sex with consequences. Sex that changes things."
Clint wants to object, wants to point out his own flaws and check if Phil's thought clearly about this. Luckily, he pushes down that initial reaction before he opens his mouth. "Sex that means something?" he asks carefully, not ready to believe that Phil means what Clint wants him to mean. What Clint's been too scared to ask for.
But if anyone could read between Clint's lines, could understand the things Clint can't say, it'd be Phil.
Phil holds him a little tighter. The glint in his eyes makes Clint think of a challenging mission going to plan. "That's the idea."
Clint grins. "Okay."
Clint wakes up in Phil's bed, warm and cozy. Behind him, Phil shifts as he tries to get out of bed. "Going somewhere?"
"I was going to have a hot shower," Phil says, yawning and rolling to his back.
Clint keeps his eyes closed, keeps facing the wall. For a moment, he's scared Phil might have changed his mind. That it will be the same old pattern: Phil getting up and ready for his day, and Clint wishing that included him. "You mean use up all the hot water?" Clint replies, carefully staying still.
"It can wait," Phil says after a moment, rolling back towards Clint. There's an arm on Clint's hips, a warm body curling up behind him. Phil presses a kiss to Clint's bare shoulder. "I don't have to get up for anything specific. Do you have plans?"
"Nothing I can't blow off."
Clint imagines a future of waking up like this when it isn't wedding season. When it's summer and they're only under a sheet. Or winter, when there's a bite in the air and they huddle under covers for warmth. It's a nice thought.
Reaching down, Clint laces his fingers through Phil's. Phil responds with another kiss to Clint's skin, low on side of his neck.
Clint smiles to himself. "Keep doing that and something will be getting up soon."
"That is a terrible line," Phil says, but he presses closer anyway.
Yeah, Clint could definitely get used to waking up like this.