Phil doesn’t have as much time to talk to Fury as he’d like before Nick disappears into the ether, leaving Phil holding the tattered reins of an organization that has been his whole life since he was eighteen years old.
“Project TAHITI,” Phil manages as Fury’s going through the minimal supplies on the Bus, restocking his duffel bag. “May found a flash drive with the information - my information - about the dangers of the GH serum.”
“Huh, I guess I shouldn’t have put it past her to dig up Arlington,” Fury says, eyebrows arched with surprise and not a little pride. Phil pauses for a moment. Melinda had left that tidbit out of her report, that the information about TAHITI had apparently been buried, well, not with him, but close enough. “What do you need to know?”
“How long were you, or, we I guess, working on it?”
“Not long. Our guest showed up before the Asgardians visited us in New Mexico, but he was an anomaly, a one-off. I was sure we’d killed him, blasted his little ship right out of the sky, but by the time we reached the wreckage, he was already healing. Now, I’m all for making new friends,” Phil interrupts with a snort and Nick glares at him, “but I didn’t much want to see what this guy was capable of awake. So we threw him in stasis and waited to see if any of his friends would come looking. When they didn’t, we thought we could do a little research on his healing, see if that was something we could use on some of our more, well, valuable assets.” Phil blushes, remembering what Fury had said to him in his office only hours before. Nick grins at him. “Hell, that’s why I sent you out to New Mexico when Thor’s hammer showed up and not a lower-level officer. You were already my weird-shit-from-space guy.”
“So this was before Thor,” Phil prompts, because he can’t remember any of it - not the awe or terror at seeing that alien body for the first time, or the trials he knows he must have overseen.
“It was late 2010. You bitched at me for fucking up your Christmas again, like you ever do anything for Christmas other than chinese food and scotch with Barton and Romanoff.” Phil loved that Christmas tradition, actually, and can imagine the conversation if Nick had asked him to give it up. Imagine, but not remember.
“So I was on TAHITI from late-2010 until New Mexico?” he asks, because that’s a long time, that’s…
“Nah, you figured out the tests weren’t working a while before then. Maybe six months.”
“When I asked you to shut down the project,” Phil notes with a sharp stab of anger.
Nick looks at him and sighs. “Yes, when you asked me to shut down the project, and instead I just took you off it and put you on Stark-watch and moved the whole thing to the side of a mountain and lied to you about it. Happy?”
“No,” Phil says curtly. Nick’s eyes skitter away. “But I’m alive, so I guess… thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” Nick tells him. Phil waits a few moments longer before asking his next question, the one that’s been burning through him ever since he saw his own face on that computer screen in a dingy motel room.
“So, that six months,” he starts, and he can see Nick tense. “I’m trying to think about what I did on Christmas in 2010, and I - it’s fuzzy. There’s a lot that’s fuzzy, Nick - hard to grasp, hard to hold on to.”
Nick turns to face him full on, and his face is grave but kind. Phil’s heart leaps in his throat. “It’s all gone, I think. If you saw the report - your report - you know that we had to take it all, all the time you worked on TAHITI, for the treatment to have any chance of success. That’s why it took so long on you, so many tries -” Nick turns away abruptly, like he can’t stand to look at Phil for this part. Phil remembers the agony of those sessions, sessions where they weren’t trying to heal him, he knows now, but where they were inside his mind, digging his memories out one at a time.
“Will they come back?” Phil asks. “The memories? Is there any chance -”
Nick busies himself with the duffel again, grabbing some food rations, a box of batteries. “I don’t know. The doc would have a better idea of that, but he’s gone off the grid. I’m hoping that doesn’t mean what I think it means.”
“If he were Hydra, I don’t think Garrett would have had to go to such lengths to find out what happened to me,” Phil reminds him. He’s thought about that too, about where Dr. Streiten disappeared to, if it had something to do with Phil and GH and that mountain of rubble behind him.
“Anyway, I just - I don’t know, Phil,” Nick tells him. “We tried to be real thorough - it was life or death for you, you know. Even tried planting a nice, boring desk job for you into the places where we had to take a lot of time, when you were in charge of the project. Tried to make sure you didn’t think too hard about any of that part of your life, since we weren’t sure it would hold up to scrutiny.”
Phil thinks again about the fuzzy Christmas with the memory of a tree he’d never have bothered with, about a desk job he had found pretty boring, about the fact that he can’t remember being in the field for that whole six months - something that had never happened in his thirty years with SHIELD. He smiles wryly. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have.”
Nick shakes his head. “Whatever you say, it was all worth it, at least to me.” He grins at Phil. “Besides, early 2011 was pretty boring anyway. There was a fuck-ton of snow in New York and a shitty Green Hornet movie. You aren’t missing much.”
Two months later
He feels kind of like a dick when he sends the encrypted message: “The Director wants STD” - the nickname Clint insisted on using for Strike Team Delta, even though it made Natasha roll her eyes - along with the coordinates to somewhere Trip can meet them and get them to the secret base. He knows Natasha will see it as a message from Fury, knows that she’s one of only a handful of people in the world who know Fury’s not dead. But he’s not sure how to say “I’m alive, and all the reasons for not telling you are now outweighed by the enormity of the task Nick’s now set before me and I need you guys” and not sound like the worst person alive.
He’ll deal with the fallout when they arrive, he thinks. I can’t be worse than dying.
Phil does the cowardly thing when Natasha and Clint arrive two days later - he lets Koenig greet them with his big smile and his lanyard speech. He watches on the cameras in his office, drinks in the sight of them. Other than Nick, and now his new team, they’re the only people Phil has ever trusted completely. Well, and Captain America. And Pepper. And… Phil maybe needs to develop some trust issues.
He hopes that they still trust him, when this meeting is all over.
“The Director’s office is right through there,” he hears Billy say, right on cue, and Phil stands up, hands smoothing over his tie in a nervous gesture. Natasha’s mouth is curled in a tiny smile as she walks in, Clint on her heels. Phil watches, and can see the moment she realizes it’s not Nick Fury behind the desk. Her eyes widen enough for Phil to see from across the room, which for Natasha is tantamount to a gasp. Clint nearly runs her over, and when he looks up and catches Phil’s gaze, his gasp is loud enough that Koenig probably hears it outside.
Phil is suddenly frozen, torn between guilt and an overwhelming sense of relief that they’re both here, whole and real and standing in front of him. “I’m… hi,” he manages.
Natasha blinks and reaches behind her, grasping for Clint’s hand. Or maybe, from the way his are shaking, Clint is grasping for hers. No one says anything for a long moment.
“You’re just going to leave me hanging here, aren’t you,” Phil says with a weak sigh. “That’s fine, that’s… I deserve that.”
Natasha finally finds her voice, but doesn’t let go of Clint’s hand. “You’re supposed to be dead.” Her voice is low and toneless, and Phil’s stomach swoops.
“I was, for a while,” Phil replies, trying for a smile that feels all wrong on his face. “Didn’t take.”
“Nat,” Clint grits out, and Phil looks over at Clint, really looks at him for the first time. His hair is a little long, and he’s thin, thinner than Phil likes. He was apparently stuck on a mission in China when SHIELD self-destructed; Nick said it took them a month to track him down, and another month for some of Hill’s people to get him out. He looks drawn and pale, but Phil can’t look away from his eyes, shining in the harsh light of Phil’s office. He looks like a man who has no idea if he should cry or shoot something. He looks beautiful.
“It’s okay, Clint,” Natasha says, and Phil frowns at the way Clint leans back against the wall like his strings have been cut. She turns to Phil, her eyes still dark and unreadable. “Explain.”
Phil walks slowly around the desk until he’s only a few feet from them. “It’s a long story. I was… the thing with Loki, it was bad. And I was gone. And then I… wasn’t.” He wants to tell them about the lab, the serum, about the visions he gets now, the holes in his memory. About Nick’s betrayal, about Skye and 084s and the alien being who now exists only in Phil and Skye’s veins. But he doesn’t even know where to start, he doesn’t have all the answers he knows they will want. And most days he wakes up unsure if he’s even up to this task of leading SHIELD out of the darkness. “There’s more, but I don’t even know half of it myself,” he tells them. This is true, and with SHIELD in shambles and the lab under a mountain of rubble, he’s not sure how much more he’ll ever know about what was done to him, or how, or even how long.
“We’re going to need more,” Natasha says, and Phil nods, his heart beating faster at the notion of telling someone else about GH, about what lives inside him. “But maybe not today,” she adds, sizing him up. Phil exhales. Clint has still not said a word to him.
“I’m so sorry for not telling you sooner. I’ve been… it’s been a rough year, and it was just never the right… If you feel the need to yell at me, now or at some point in the future, I will absolutely be okay with that,” his gaze skitters to Clint, sees the strange light still in his eyes, and skitters away. “I know from experience it’s cathartic.”
“Why now?” Natasha asks, and there’s the big question, right there.
Phil looks at them, tries to figure out how Fury did it, made pronouncements that didn’t sound like platitudes or politics. He decides to go for straightforward, something he hasn’t been with Natasha and Clint for a while. “Fury’s made me the new Director, asked me to put SHIELD back together from the ground up. I need people, good people, people I trust, to help me get this started. You two were the top of my list. Actually, right now? You two are my list, along with the team I have here.”
There’s a long pause before Clint makes a strangled sound, loud enough to be startling in the quiet of the office. “I can’t do this,” he says, and he turns and walks away. Phil can hear him break into a run as he rounds the corner.
“Natasha, what - “ Phil starts, and she shakes her head.
“Give him time,” she says firmly. “Give us both time.”
“Okay.” It’s hard, their reactions hurt more than Phil wants to admit. But he knows pushing won’t bring them closer.
Natasha nods. “It’s… good. That you’re back,” she says. “Seeing you was just… unexpected.”
“Impressive, right? I mean it’s no Fury-out-of-nowhere entrance, but I managed to surprise you for once,” Phil replies and smiles when she rolls her eyes.
“Don’t get cocky.”
It’s well past midnight when there’s a knock at the door of his small room at the base, and Phil is just about to get into bed. He opens the door to see Clint standing there, hands stuffed in his pockets, eyes bright with the same emotion Phil couldn’t place before.
“I want you to know, I’m angry at you,” Clint says without any preamble, pushing his way past Phil and into the dim light of the room. Phil closes the door. He’s not sure what to expect, but there might be yelling. Totally justified yelling. “Like, completely and utterly fucking pissed off,” Clint continues. He tugs his leather jacket off and drops it over the back of the desk chair.
“That’s understandable,” Phil manages to reply, his gaze sliding over the glory of Clint’s biceps in his black t-shirt, but Clint’s eyes are on him now, his strong legs stalking across the room until he’s right in Phil’s space, chest to chest, thigh to thigh. Phil fights not to pull away, and fights just as hard not to lean into the warmth of Clint’s body. It’s a line he got used to not crossing years ago, but he’s woefully out of practice.
“Good, just so we’re clear on that,” Clint says, his voice barely a rasp, eyes still mapping Phil’s face. “Fuck, I’ve missed you.” Clint’s hands wrap firmly around Phil’s waist, pull him closer.
Phil’s heart is beating fast enough that Natasha can probably hear it from next door. “W-what -,” Phil stutters, but then Clint’s mouth is on his. It’s exactly what Phil has imagined kissing Clint would be like, deep and rich and warm, and Phil’s body acts as if on autopilot, opening for it, leaning in for more. Clint moans, a broken sound that startles Phil more than the kiss itself, and Phil manages to pull back, gasping for air. “Barton, what are you doing?”
Clint goes deathly still for a moment, and if Phil hadn’t been reeling from the kiss, he’d probably have noticed the warning signs - the slide of his foot along the carpet, the way his eyes go suddenly dark. As it is, he finds himself turned and slammed forcefully into the wall, one arm twisted up and behind him painfully. He pushes against the hold just enough to feel the prick of a knife against his back, positioned perfectly to slide between his ribs and into his liver, maybe his lung.
“Barton,” Phil says, as steady and calm as he can manage. “Stand down.”
Clint huffs out a laugh; Phil can feel it against his throat. “Knew it was too fucking good to be true,” he mutters, toneless and dark. “Who the fuck are you? Hydra clone? Maybe one of those fancy LMDs?”
Phil tries not to shiver, remembering all the nights he lay awake on the bus wondering the same thing - was he himself, was he even human anymore? But he’s Phil Coulson, SHIELD agent even when there wasn’t a SHIELD anymore - he’s sure of who he is mostly because he has no one else to be. “Barton,” he tries again. Then, “Clint, it’s me. I promise. I promise you. It’s not a trick.”
“Phil Coulson would know exactly why I was in this room right now. Whoever trained you got nearly everything right,” Clint tugs a little on Phil’s arm, viciously, “but Phil always had a few secrets up his sleeve. Makes trying to impersonate him pretty fucking difficult.”
“Clint -” Phil asks, his voice shaking. Maybe this was the truth. Maybe, in the end, the GH serum was Streiten’s way of changing him, maybe he was something created by Pierce or Zola or - but he feels real enough, with the pain shooting through his shoulder.
“You don’t get to call me that,” Clint growls in his ear. “You don’t get to wear his face, you don’t get to come here and make me believe -” Clint’s voice cuts off on a ragged sob and Phil can’t breathe. He’s known Clint Barton for fifteen years, and he can count on one hand the number of times he’s seen the man break down like this.
He tries to put it together - the way Clint’s hands shook when he first saw Phil, the light in his eyes, the way Clint kissed him just moments ago - and Phil knows what he wants to believe, but it’s not real. Clint isn’t Phil’s, not the way Phil has always wanted him to be. But Clint is holding a knife to his back, and Phil can feel the sharp shudders as Clint struggles to breathe. There are plenty of things Phil can’t remember - in the end Streiten and Fury took months of his life away, months where something could have changed… Phil’s whole body runs cold. “Clint,” he says, his voice barely a whisper, “are you my secret?”
“Fuck you,” Clint manages, and Phil’s head hits the wall with a sickening crack before everything goes black.
Phil comes to with a blinding headache and his arms tied to the bed above his head. He’s pretty sure he has a mild concussion; the light on the nightstand is still on and the glow is making him wince.
Clint is sitting on the chair facing him, his elbows resting on his knees, the knife twirling between his fingers. There’s no one else - no sign of Natasha at least. Phil thinks that is either a good sign, or a very, very bad one.
“Clint,” he starts, and Clint just shakes his head, one small gesture that chills Phil to his core.
“You don’t get to ask questions. I ask the questions.”
“I don’t know if that’s going to work,” Phil tells him plainly. He’s still not sure if this is him, forgetting, or Barton, remembering something that was never there, but seeing as Natasha gave Clint the all-clear on his Loki run-in nearly two years ago, Phil’s going to place odds on not having the answers Clint wants. Hell, on not having the answers Phil wants.
“Ve have vays of making you talhk,” Clint says, the absurd Russian accent paired with a sickening grin, the knife glinting in his fingers. If Phil thought Clint’s expression in his office was something new, this one is chillingly blank.
Phil swallows hard. “There are a lot of things I don’t remember,” he says. “You can ask, and I’ll try, but -”
“December 27th, 2010,” Clint cuts in. “What happened that day?”
It’s not the question Phil was expecting, but the date makes him shiver, and he knows this is about his memories now, not Clint’s. “I-I don’t know,” Phil says.
Clint’s jaw tightens. “Wrong answer,” he says, getting up slowly from the chair, and Phil knows what comes next when Clint’s voice sounds like that - he’s heard it through his earpiece, seen its aftermath.
Phil tosses out a lifeline, hopeful that he managed to mention the project to Barton in passing, that Clint’s attention to detail will give him the time he needs to figure this out: “Do you know anything about Project TAHITI?” Clint pauses.
“I think Phil was working on that project, yeah,” Clint says, cagey, “but that’s not what this is about.”
“What would you say if I told you I had no memory of working on that project?” he asks Clint. “It’s gone, all of it. I didn’t even know it existed until this year, and I didn’t know I’d been a part of it until a few months ago.”
“That just proves you’re not Phil Coulson,” Clint says, but he’s not moving as surely now, his weight shifting on his feet. Phil forges forward.
“It was a top secret project, so I wouldn’t have told you about it unless I trusted you. I trust you, Clint. You have to just hear me out, okay?” Clint stills entirely, and his focus on Phil is like a laser. He has to play this carefully, and saying ‘hey my memories are kind of shitty, sorry I don’t remember most of that winter’ doesn’t seem like something Clint will react well to. He wants Clint to hear it from him, but not from this version of him. “In my desk drawer, there’s a hidden space, left-side panel. There’s a flash drive inside. You need to see what’s on it.”
Clint snorts. “Yeah, I’ve used that trick myself. What’s in there, nerve gas? One of your micro-bombs?”
Phil rolls his eyes. “Okay, fine, untie me and I’ll get it.”
“So it’s a weapon,” Clint says, voice flat.
“Oh my god,” Phil says, closing his eyes in frustration. His head really hurts. “You have watched The Princess Bride one too many times, Barton, if you’re going to play this ‘I can clearly not choose the glass in front of you’ game. I’m not a Sicilian, it’s not a bomb or a weapon. It’s a flash drive."
When Phil pries his eyes open, Clint’s gaze is on his face, more lost than empty now. Phil knows that feeling well, and wishes he could reach out and give Clint some comfort in this. Give them both some comfort. But since he’s still firmly tied to the bed, he’ll settle for Clint getting some answers.
“Clint, please,” Phil tries, on the edge of desperate, and Clint’s hands ball into fists and then release, like he’s shaking himself out of a trance.
“Okay,” Clint says, walking to the desk and yanking open the drawer hard enough to rattle the contents. He finds the hidden space easily and Phil watches him take out the drive carefully, eyes darting to Phil every few seconds as he opens up Phil’s laptop, attaches the drive and clicks on the only icon. ‘Report on Project TAHITI,’ he hears his own voice drift out of the machine, tinny, and Phil closes his eyes again. He knows every word of this report by heart now, and every word of every redacted piece of intel attached to it. He’d probably know more if he let Skye get her hands on it, but he’s not ready for that, not yet.
The report gets to the part about memory, about how the serum doesn’t work if the candidates remember receiving it, and Phil hears Clint take a deep breath and let it out. He waits until the whole thing is finished, Phil’s plea to shut down the program still ringing in his ears, before he speaks again. “Fury’s pretty terrible at following my direction,” he says, and blinks when the bed shifts. When he looks over, Clint is sitting on the edge of it, elbows on his knees, eyes on the floor.
“They gave you that stuff,” he says, and Phil knew it wouldn’t take long for Clint to catch up. He’s one of the smartest tactical minds Phil has ever known.
“Yeah,” Phil confirms, “and then they wiped it. All of it. Everything I’ve ever known about Project TAHITI, and a lot of the time surrounding it.”
“So, that December -”
“Gone, or most of it at least,” Phil tells him, angry and heartbroken all at once, because he thinks he has an inkling of what he’s missing, and it’s not just a bunch of snow and some bad comic book movies. “Far as I can tell, all my memories from before that Christmas to around April are fake - things they implanted to make me not think too hard about what was supposed to be there.”
Clint is quiet for a long moment. Phil blinks at the ceiling. His head isn’t pounding quite as hard anymore, but his heart certainly is.
“Do you remember that op we had in Morocco, back in ‘07?” Clint finally asks, and that one Phil does remember, though he’s surprised by the sudden turn in the conversation.
“Yes, fourteen hostages, not enough sight-lines. That one was a mess,” he replies. It had been a three-day standoff, and Phil had barely slept for any of it. They’d tried numerous times to come up with a plan that would take out the bad guys with no collateral damage, but in the end they lost two hostages. It wasn’t Phil’s best day.
“Right before the end, you were going to just walk in there and offer yourself as a trade,” Clint reminds him. Phil nods. It had seemed like a good idea at the time; Clint and Natasha had refused to even consider it. “It was a stupid fucking idea,” Clint says, and Phil remembers him saying pretty much exactly that at the time. “And it wasn’t even bravado - you were entirely sure you wouldn’t come out of that room alive.”
“There were fourteen people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were the priority,” Phil counters.
“Not to me,” Clint says quietly, and turns to finally look at Phil again. “The idea of you in that compound made me want to do crazy things, stupid things - stupider than usual,” he adds with a grin when he sees Phil’s eyebrow twitch up. “It was the worst few hours of my life, trying to talk you out of that, and at the same time I was blown away by how much you meant it, how much you were willing to give up to save those people. That’s when I knew.”
“Knew that my feelings for you had blown way past professional,” he finishes, a blush spreading across his cheeks.
Phil next breath is a little shaky. “Managua, ‘05,” he says. “When we missed our pickup and were hiding out in the red light district. You were shot and I was barely walking, and you gave every cent we had to a twelve year old girl who propositioned us, told her to take a few days off. When I got angry, you just shrugged and said ‘Kids deserve to be kids, Coulson’ and then managed to sweet talk us into a burner phone by trading them my watch. That’s when I knew.”
Clint smiles at him. “I know. You already told me.”
Phil’s chest aches. How much had he missed? “December 27th?” he asks, and Clint shakes his head with a snort.
“Try February. This may come as a shock, Phil, but we were always kind of shitty at talking about our feelings.”
“Shocking,” Phil says, deadpan, and Clint’s laugh is watery but real. Phil holds deathly still as Clint leans over him, but all Clint does is carefully undo the bindings holding Phil to the bed. “That’s my favorite tie,” he says with a sigh when he’s finally free. “Totally ruined.” He tries to sit up, but can’t quite hide the hiss of pain as his head sways forward.
“Fuck, Phil, don’t.” Clint puts a warm hand on Phil’s shoulder, pushing him back down to the pillows. “Concussion?”
“You slammed my head into a wall, Barton,” Phil says wryly and Clint winces.
“You didn’t remember,” he says, hands open and helpless, and Phil is suddenly so angry, he’s almost incandescent with it.
“How could he do this?” he whispers harshly, and Clint tilts his head in confusion. “Fury - how could he just -”
“Hey, no - Fury didn’t know,” Clint tells him. “No one knew. Not even Tasha, though it turns out she’d totally guessed. We had a lot of talks about that, about if we should tell folks, but we ended up on the ‘it’s better to hide it now and apologize later if we’re found out’ train.”
“I didn’t want Fury to separate us,” Phil sighs, knowing exactly how that train came into being, and how much it was probably his own fault.
“Turns out it barely mattered anyway,” Clint tells him. He sits sideways on the bed and takes one of Phil’s hands in his, rubbing gently at his wrists where the bindings were tightest. Phil’s whole body thrums, not just from the contact, but the casual way Clint does it, thoughtless, like he’s touched Phil like this a hundred times before. “Once winter thawed out and you were off this project, Fury had us both running all over the place chasing down superheros and magical crap.”
“Hmm?” Phil prompts, trying to follow what Clint is saying and failing. His hand just feels so nice. His eyelids start to droop.
“Hey, don’t fall asleep on me, old man,” Clint pinches his arm, and Phil flinches, surprised. “No sleep with concussions,” Clint says, smiling softly at him. “Your rule, remember?”
“You gonna keep me awake?” he asks, and doesn’t hear the tease in it until Clint’s fingers twitch, his eyes going dark. “Clint,” he breathes, and Clint drops his hand, turns away. “No,” Phil says, reaching for him. “I want -” he starts, and Clint stills.
“What do you want, Phil?”
“I want to remember,” Phil tells him, his voice hoarse.
“I don’t know if I can give you that,” Clint tells him, shaky.
Phil pulls on Clint’s arm, pulls so he’s has to lean over Phil to avoid being pulled down to the mattress completely. “Then tell me,” he says, because he needs this, he needs every second that he’s lost, every moment with Clint that was taken from him.
“I don’t even know where to start.” Clint’s laugh is watery, lost, and Phil slides his hand up Clint’s arm, that gorgeous arm that Phil always wanted to touch but never did. Until -
“December 27th, 2010,” Phil prompts him and Clint’s blush deepens.
“It was stupid,” he says. “You’d cancelled on us for Christmas, you were stuck out in Jersey of all places. There was a blizzard, and we hadn’t heard from you, and - fuck it.” Clint leans in more, his body warm, his eyes sliding over Phil’s face. Phil watches, rapt. “I just missed you,” Clint says plainly. “I missed you, and I was pissed about Christmas, and worried because I heard the power went out in your neighborhood, and I went looking for you.”
“In a blizzard?”
“In a blizzard,” Clint nods, and Phil smiles because that is such a Clint thing to do. “Got a little stuck in it, and ended up going the last few miles on foot,” he says, sheepish, and Phil laughs.
“You’re a moron,” he tells Clint, but the affection in his voice is palpable. Clint grins at him.
“That’s what you said then, too.”
“Then what?” Phil prompts and Clint sighs.
“Then we were stuck at your apartment for two days and I was maybe shivering a lot and you maybe made some hot toddys and there was maybe some huddling for warmth, and then we, you know,” Clint trails off. But Phil doesn’t know, that’s what’s killing him, not knowing if Clint kissed him first, warm and tentative, or if Phil kissed Clint, desperate and wanting.
“Show me,” he gasps, and Clint makes a rough sound in the back of his throat and surges forward. Phil is ready for a kiss, but Clint’s mouth lands on Phil’s throat, tongue tracing hot lines against his skin, and Phil keens with surprise.
“Yeah, you did that then,” Clint murmurs against his skin, and Phil’s fingers tangle in his hair as Clint sucks and nibbles from his ear down to his Adam’s apple.
“You didn’t kiss me first?” Phil asks, panting, and Clint shakes his head, his nose brushing Phil’s chin.
“Too much of a coward for it,” Clint tells him. “We were so warm under all these blankets, sleeping through the snow, and I had enough whiskey in me to make me stupid, to make me think you wouldn’t wake up if I just leaned in a little, just put my mouth here,” he brushes his lips just under Phil’s ear, feather-light, and Phil shivers. “But of course you woke up, you’re a fucking superspy under all those suits. So we just lay there for a second, neither of us moving, and I’m kicking myself, and you say -”
“Don’t stop,” Phil breathes, because that’s what he’d say, that’s what he’ll always say if Clint wants him like this, if Clint’s mouth was on him, anywhere.
“Phil,” Clint sobs out, shuddering, and suddenly they’re kissing for real, Clint’s hand cradling Phil’s head, Phil’s hands bunched in the fabric of Clint’s shirt. It’s awkward at this angle, but when Clint shifts, pulling back, Phil just growls and yanks him closer until Clint is almost on top of him. Clint just folds himself into Phil’s side, shoving one thigh between Phil’s legs and rolling his hips. Phil breaks the kiss with a curse and Clint just moans, burying his face into the crook of Phil’s neck.
They’re writhing against each other, panting, and Phil can picture it, the two of them clinging desperately on a cold winter’s night, buried in blankets, years of pent-up frustration rushing to the surface. “Just like this?” he asks, because he wants to know, he wants to hear it from Clint.
“No,” Clint slides his hand down Phil’s chest to the waistband of his sleep pants. “Like this,” he says, slipping his hand inside, wrapping tight around Phil, and Phil has to bite down on a shout. Clint is still riding his thigh - Phil can feel him, so hot and hard against Phil’s hip - but Clint’s focus shifts to Phil’s face. “I wanted to touch you so bad,” he whispers, “I wanted to see you fall apart for me.”
“Yes, yes,” Phil gasps, and Clint kisses him again, hot and messy, and neither of them pull apart when Phil comes hard in Clint’s hand, biting at his lower lip, or when Clint groans into Phil’s mouth, shuddering, and Phil can feel the hot wetness of Clint’s orgasm seep through his clothes.
They lay there for a long minute, after, both of them struggling to breathe. Phil slides his fingers into Clint’s hair, taming it a little, his thumb pressing soothing circles to the back of Clint’s neck. “What then?” Phil prompts, and Clint laughs a little.
“Then we were total idiots for a while - we must have hooked up half a dozen times before we had an actual conversation about it.”
“That is completely unsurprising,” Phil nods. They hold on to each other tightly for a few more minutes before Clint shifts back with a grimace.
“At least this time we have hot water for cleanup,” he tells Phil and Phil winces in sympathy.
“Kind of glad I don’t remember that part,” he agrees. Clint climbs out of bed and ambles to Phil’s small, private bathroom - a perk of being Director. He comes back with a warm, damp cloth and Phil cleans himself up. His shirt is a mess, so he pulls it over his head and tosses it to the side. He looks up sharply when Clint makes a small, shocked sound. “What -” he starts, but Clint is sitting close, his hand reaching out to hover over the scar on his chest from where he was impaled. “Oh,” Phil says.
“Phil, holy fuck,” Clint says, his voice thick with emotion, and part of Phil wants to pull his shirt back on, cover up the scar he’s still not used to when he looks in the mirror. Instead, he pulls Clint’s hand closer, presses it to to the raised skin and lets Clint feel his steady heartbeat underneath it.
“I don’t remember a lot of that either,” Phil tells him. “And it was… bad. This part, and the part after. But I’m okay,” he reassures, and Clint leans into his shoulder, hand still pressed to the scar.
“Yeah,” Clint says wetly. “Yeah, you are.” They’re quiet for a moment before Clint whispers, so quiet Phil can barely hear. “I’m so sorry, Phil. So sorry. Shouldn’t have let that bastard on the ‘carrier.”
Phil runs hot and cold. “No, no, Clint - “ he pulls back, makes Clint look at him, “you did not do this. I have never blamed you for this, understand? This was Loki, and the part after was all Nick. None of this was you.”
“Looked like me on the video playback, boss,” Clint tells him, and Phil wants to punch whoever let Clint see footage of the helicarrier attack.
“We’re going to have to agree to disagree on this one, Barton,” Phil tells him firmly, “because if you try to apologize to me again for this, I’m going to have to put you down.”
Clint startles at that, laughing a little. “That a threat or a promise, sir?”
“A little of both,” Phil tells him, and leans in to kiss him again before Clint can blame himself for anything else. But speaking of apologies - “My turn,” he says, and Clint blinks at him. “When I woke up and the world wasn’t over, and you were all a team, or the bare bones of one, Fury and I decided to keep my recovery from you. You know now that I had no idea that there was a much bigger reason for me to tell you I was alive, but that doesn’t excuse it. I should have told you - I thought about it a lot this year, when my team was in trouble - but I figured if I was going to die again, at least you wouldn’t have to mourn me twice.”
“That’s a stupid fucking reason, Coulson,” Clint tells him, and Phil nods.
“I know. I’m sorry. And knowing what I know now about us, I just. I’m pretty sure I screwed myself royally on this one.”
“Yup,” Clint agrees, but he’s smiling again, and Phil pulls him closer.
“Gotta make up for lost time, then,” he says, lips skimming Clint’s jaw, and Clint pushes him back to the mattress.
“Here’s what I don’t understand,” Phil says a few hours later. He and Clint are naked, boneless, with Clint draped half over Phil’s body.
“Hmm?” Clint’s thumb is tracing Phil’s nipple and they both sigh a little when it puckers under his fingertips.
“I get why I don’t remember the start of us, because it’s all tied up in TAHITI. But after April - why didn’t I remember us being together?”
Clint hums for a moment, thinking. “Well, I got shipped off to Europe in March to do some recon about the tesseract, and by the time I got back, you were in Malibu, and after that we were only in the same place at the same time for maybe a week total. I had Phase Two shit, you had Captain America watching duty,” Phil flushes and Clint laughs, “and we were so on the down-low… it was hard.”
“But there were times we were together,” Phil says, frustrated. “I know you were in New Mexico for part of that op when Thor showed up, and I can’t -” Phil freezes, suddenly overcome with embarrassment. Clint raises himself to one elbow and looks down at him quizzically. “Oh god, the motel in New Mexico.”
Clint’s grin is shit-eating, and Phil closes his eyes. “Yeah, that one was pretty memorable.”
“I thought -” Phil puts his hands over his face and laughs. “I thought it was a dream. A fantasy I made up.”
“Pretty vivid fantasy,” Clint says, teasing. “I seem to remember not one but two broken lamps.”
“That really happened, jesus,” Phil exhales, and Clint drops a kiss on his shoulder. “I guess my brain just couldn’t comprehend how that could be a real thing, without any of the context that I lost. It just filed it away with all the other -” Phil stops but Clint is watching him, eyebrows raised.
“All the other fantasies you had about me?” he prompts and Phil wants to hit his smug face with a pillow.
“Yes. Asshole,” he answers, and Clint doesn’t laugh, just pulls Phil closer.
“Remember any of the other ones?” he murmurs against Phil’s throat. “The third floor executive bathroom in the Triskelion was pretty fantastic -”
“Oh my god,” Phil splutters, laughing despite himself, and when Clint kisses him again, Phil feels settled in his skin in a way he hasn’t in months. When they separate, Phil presses his nose to Clint’s temple and holds him close. “Did I ever say - no,” he stops himself, “it doesn’t matter. I hope I did, but I know it would have scared the shit out of me. But you have to know how much I -”
“You said it,” Clint says, cutting him off with a squeeze. “We sucked at feelings for a long time, but you said it, before.”
Phil closes his eyes, grateful. “And then what?” he asks.
Clint kisses his chest, right over his scar. “And then I said it back.”