Phil picked up the phone on the third ring. “Coulson here.”
“Hi. Uh, Phil?”
Coulson tried to place the hesitant voice. “Yes.”
“Clint here. From the Golden Arrow. The tea shop? Uh, Jemma gave me your number. Said I should call you.”
Phil scowled at the wall. He did not appreciate his colleagues meddling in his life. He kept his frustration out of his voice. “How can I help you, Clint?”
“Would you like to have dinner with me sometime this week?”
Surprised, Phil said the first thing that came to his mind, “I thought you were with that yoga instructor. I saw you kissing through the door.”
“Bruce. I am with him. We’re poly.”
“Poly?” His brain caught up. “Ah. Polyamorous. I see. How does that work?”
Clint’s voice held a smile. “Meet me for dinner and let me explain it to you? If it doesn’t appeal, I’ll stop flirting.”
“You’ve been flirting?” He thought back on the few times he’d been in the shop.
Now Clint really was laughing. “It’s wonderful that you think I’m that attentive to everyone.”
“I thought you were just being nice. I thought Melinda had told you about -” He stopped. “How about dinner on Thursday?”
“Great! Stop by the shop at six?”
“See you then.” He ended the call and stared at the phone in his hand. Scowling again, he went to find his intrusive colleagues.
“Leave her alone.” Melinda May said as she passed by the door and heard Phil’s berating of the young scientist.
“I wish you’d all leave me alone!” Coulson snapped.
“FitzSimmons, why don’t you head out for lunch?” Melinda offered innocently. They moved quickly out of the lab.
“She cares about you.” Melinda finally said. “You know that. You haven’t had a relationship in a few years and then your health took a hit. You obviously weren’t picking up on Clint’s flirting and Jemma knows how to be discrete. She didn’t tell Clint what you do and she didn’t give out your private number. So leave her alone.”
“Why does she have to meddle at all?” He demanded.
“Nick told us to.”
“Nick? Nick Fury. The head of our Agency asked you to meddle in my life?”
Melinda shrugged. “He’s your best friend. He said he could read the signs and that you needed a partner soon or waving a gun at a junior agent was going to be the least of our worries.”
“I’m not some horny teenager who needs to get laid!” Phil growled angrily. “And that was a one-time lapse in judgement brought on by a migraine, acid reflux, exhaustion, and sheer stupidity on the other agent’s part!”
“Don’t worry, he only said that to me. FitzSimmons don’t know anything about your current dry spell. Besides, I didn’t say anything about getting laid. Nick just wants you to have someone to go home to.”
“Clint is polyamorous.”
Melinda shrugged again. “Someones-” She stressed the plural, “to go home to.”
“And happily hooking up with Ward.”
Coulson knew that already -- everyone knew that already. “Mazel tov.” He sighed. “I have a date with Clint on Thursday.”
“Wear that purple tie with the grey stripes. Clint likes spicy food so expect Thai or Indian.”
Phil thanked her for the suggestion before heading back to work.
“Hi!” Clint exited his shop in a delicious smelling rush of air. “I was thinking either Italian or Vietnamese. Do you have a preference?”
“Hello.” Phil smiled. “You have some flour on the end of your nose.”
Clint grimaced. “I specifically asked Darcy if I looked okay. She said I looked perfect.” He rubbed at his nose.
Phil privately thought that he did look perfect. Coulson so often only had bruises and gun callouses to show for his work. Clint smelled like muffins and tea. Phil thought that would always smell better than gun oil.
“Melinda said you liked spicy food. So Vietnamese?” If he’d expected the man to dissemble and push for Phil to choose his favourite, he was disappointed.
“Great!” Clint turned on his heels. “This way!”
There was something infectious about Clint’s vitality that appealed to Phil. “Do you always have this much energy this late in the day?”
Clint laughed but slowed down a bit, “I’ve always been a night owl!”
“It’s not night.” Coulson pointed out. His breath caught in his throat as Clint threw his arms wide and stared up at the sky in a joyful gesture. This man was so happy and uninhibited.
“I’ve been up since 3 this morning. This is my night. I’m normally in bed before 8 on work nights.”
“Doesn’t that cut into your social life?”
“No more than whatever you and Melinda do.”
Phil expected the man to push for information about what he did. A spot of warmth bloomed in his chest when Clint went on without even a pause.
“My best friends all work with me or have similar schedules. I take the late shift at the shop on the weekends and most of them stop by to hang out if they’re going out. Or they eat at the shop.”
“No days off?”
Clint grinned. “Rarely. But I don’t mind. I’ve got my dream job.”
He would have asked more questions but they’d arrived at the restaurant. Once seated, Clint didn’t even bother to look at the menu. He was silent while Phil made his decision, only offering an opinion when asked.
Phil was surprised by how restful it was to be with Clint, despite the man’s energy. “You’re good at reading people, hmmm?” The slow smile he was treated to made that warmth bloom again.
“I own a café. People come to the shop for any number of reasons but the top three are: laziness, loneliness, and lethargy. Really, laziness, loneliness, and exhaustion but the alliteration is more fun.”
It felt good to laugh at Clint’s obvious silliness.
“Cafés offer a place to be alone surrounded by people. It gets people out of their apartments and to a place where they can get their basic needs met: food, shelter, attention.”
“Attention is a basic need?”
“It is for most people. You don’t think so?” He paused, “I guess I mean positive attention. People want to be taken care of, even for a little bit. They want to feel seen.”
Phil considered this for a while. He turned the idea around in his mind. It was true that some of the worst people he dealt with were people who hadn’t received enough positive attention in their lives. “So you’re providing a social service?”
“I wouldn’t go that far!” Clint put up his hands, “We still expect to be paid for what we do. But being kind and attentive doesn’t cost us anything more. Well, not too much more. It can be exhausting.”
“Then who takes care of you?”
“Nat or Darcy when I want cuddles. Bruce when I want sex. Sometimes my friends Steve and Bucky but they’re in a place where they’re not inviting as many people to join them. Sam and I have been seeing each other on and off but it seems as if he might become part of an exclusive triad with Steve and Bucky. Plus some folks that I see off and on when our schedules line up.” Clint’s eyes were sparkling at the way Phil was carefully keeping his face blank. “Go ahead, let it out.”
“That all seems so complicated. I don’t think I can do an open relationship.”
Clint shook his head, “I’m not in an open relationship with anyone, Phil. That implies that I can have sex with whoever I want. Polyamory only works when you’re communicating and taking one another’s feelings and needs into consideration. Bruce and my other partners know about every single one of my relationships or have said they don’t need to know. When they've expressed distrust or dislike of a potential partner, we’ve talked about it. For example, I know all about Bruce’s relationship with Pepper and Tony.”
“Tony Stark?” Phil coughed into his glass of water.
“Bruce used to work in the science and tech sector. He and Tony are good friends. Sciencebros.”
“And now he teaches yoga?”
“It’s a long story. Anyway, my point is that Bruce and I love each other but we don’t pretend that we don’t love or care about other people.”
“So he’s your primary?” Phil asked tentatively.
Clint grinned over his glass of water. “Polyamory 101?”
He felt himself turning red. “I googled it.”
Clint was nodding. “I can’t speak for every polyamorous person, but I don’t use that terminology. The idea isn’t completely flawed but at its heart, it’s not accurate to the concept of polyamory. It implies that that everyone has a partner that they’re closer to, someone that they love more than others. That’s true for Steve and Bucky, for example. But they don’t ever see anyone separately. But the idea that we’re all happier in a single relationship and then just branch out isn’t accurate. Or the idea that we're all just waiting for the right person to settle down with.”
“What if you found someone you loved who wasn’t comfortable with your polyamory?”
“Trying to change someone is just going to hurt you both.” A shadow had crossed his face. He shook his head. “I would never want to put someone through the pain of trying to change me. It’s hard sometimes to accept that my relationships with people might change, but I know that it’s a possibility when I start those relationships. Starting a relationship with someone who can’t handle this part of my life is cruel - to them and to me.”
Phil blinked. “That’s very self-aware.”
“You would not believe how much communication is required to keep relationships as open and honest as possible.”
“I’m sure I would.” Phil laughed. “All of my relationships have failed due to lack of communication.”
“On your part?” Clint asked.
It hurt him to admit it. “Yes. Every single time.”
“When was the last time you had sex?”
Phil tried to figure out why he didn’t mind this question from the other man. “Two and a half years.”
“Want to take care of that tonight?”
The waiter dropped off their meals, giving Coulson a chance to recover from the unexpected question.
“So?” Clint lifted some noodles with his chopsticks and waved them around. He was smiling brightly at Phil.
“I appreciate that the offer’s on the table. Maybe we could decide later?”
Clint’s smile broadened. “Sure! How’s your pho?”
Phil had to try the soup before he could answer. He loved it and said as much. This led them onto the safer topic of their favourite foods. Clint loved to cook and bake and Phil had traveled so much that this topic lasted their entire meal.
“There’s a great Middle Eastern café up the road. They have amazing desserts.” Clint paid the check and stood.
“You’re okay frequenting other cafés?” Phil asked as he tried to ignore the strange feeling of not picking up the bill for dinner.
“It’s bliss!” Clint laughed. “Especially when they make things I don’t.” He pointed up the street. “Shall we?”
“I’ll buy.” Coulson insisted.
“Okie dokie!” Clint didn’t try to argue. He saw a frown flit across Phil’s face and halted. “I try to take people I’m out with at face value. If you wanted me to say, ‘oh, no no, let me pay’ and have a back-and-forth about it for the sake of some set of social customs, I’m sorry, but that’s not me.”
Chuckling softly, Phil shrugged. “I don’t think I’m used to anyone being so damned honest about everything.”
“I hope you’ll take the time to get used to it.” Clint grinned flirtatiously.
“Let’s get through dessert.” He was feeling bold. “And then maybe a nightcap at your place.”
“Sounds great!” Clint was smiling wider as he set off again.