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Clint is lying on the couch, watching TV and lazily scratching Lucky when there's a soft knock on his door.

Curious, he rolls to his feet and pads across his apartment to the door. There is no one there when he glances through the peephole, but the knock comes again. Raising an eyebrow, he opens the door.

There's a tiny kid there.

"Trick or treat!" she shouts.

"Ella," a man's voice admonishes from the open door of an apartment down the hall. "That only works on Halloween, baby."

The man that comes through the door is a little older than Clint, average height, light brown hair thinning on top, and he has gorgeous blue eyes and a softness about him that tells Clint he laughs a lot. He's wearing a worn gray ARMY t-shirt and comfortably broken-in jeans that Clint immediately wants.

"I'm so sorry," he says, coming down the hall. "We're moving in and she slipped past me."

The little girl gasps suddenly, and Clint looks down, alarmed.

"Doggy!" she cries and then she moves so fast Clint's sure she's super-serumed up somehow, darting past him into his apartment.

"Ella!" the man says worriedly, scrambling after her. By the time he slips past Clint, the girl is kneeling by the couch, her arms wrapped around Lucky's neck.

"It's okay, he won't hurt her," Clint says quickly, just as the damn mutt swipes his tongue up her entire face. "Jesus, Luck!" he says in disgust, but she giggles.

"Unfortunately, we're still learning that not all dogs are nice," the man says wryly. "Come on, baby, we've gotta go."

"But Daddy, it's a doggy!" she says excitedly. She's cute, Clint thinks. She's got her dad's big blue eyes and the same light brown hair, done up in two short, slightly crooked pigtails atop her head. They stick straight up about two inches. She's wearing a ruffly pink skirt and a green t-shirt that says Daddy's Little Cupcake on it. And tiny pink Chucks.

"I know it is, Ella, but you can't just go running into other people's apartments! Come on, now." He reaches down to pick her up and swing her up onto his hip, and her little lip comes up in a really kind of adorable pout. Clint wants to tell her it's okay, tell the man -- his new tenant, apparently, he should really probably keep better track of things like that -- that she's not bothering him, but yeah, that actually is a pretty important lesson to learn.

"'m sorry, Daddy," she mumbles, burying her face in his neck, and the fond smile the man gives her as he brushes his lips over the wispy hair at her temple has Clint swallowing hard around a sudden lump in his throat. Lucky bumps against his leg and Clint reaches a hand down to scratch behind his ear.

"It's okay, honey, but please don't do it again. Don't leave our apartment without me, ever, okay?"

"'kay," she whispers into his neck.

"Promise?" He noses at her cheek until she giggles, and Clint smiles at the sound.

"Promise, Daddy."

"That's my good girl." He glances back at Clint, and his smile turns apologetic. "I'm so sorry about this, we were reading a book about Halloween at bedtime last night, it's her favorite right now, and -- "

"It's completely cool. Not a problem. I'm, uh, Clint Barton."

The man shifts the girl on his hip and sticks out his hand. "Phil Coulson, and this is my Ella Bella. Guess we're neighbors."

He hasn't mentioned a wife or girlfriend, Clint notices as they shake hands, and the way he’s looking at Clint is just a little past friendly. His grip is firm without being crushing. Those clear blue eyes are even more gorgeous up close, and Clint very carefully keeps his gaze away from the way his arm muscles flex as he holds his little girl.

Clint smiles, offering his hand to the girl. "Hi, Ella, I'm Clint."

She hides her face in her dad's neck again, and he laughs. He has a really nice smile, and Clint gets a little lost in the way it deepens the crinkles at the corners of his eyes. "Sorry, she's being shy now. Guess we'll go -- lot of unpacking to do."

"Oh, uh, yeah, 'course, and uh... well, if you need anything done or anything fixed or sh -- stuff like that, I... uh, that's me. So, just..."

"Oh," the man -- Phil -- glances around, and Clint tries not to wince -- his apartment is probably not the best example of his superintending capabilities. "That's great. Good to know. Nice to meet you. Say bye, baby."

"Can I play with the doggy again?"

Clint glances at Phil, who doesn't look horrified at the thought, so he shrugs, rubbing the back of his neck. "Sure, if your dad's okay with it. His name is Lucky."

"He has an owie on his eye?"

Clint's shoulders automatically tighten at the memory of Lucky's agonized yelps. "Yeah. Yeah, he had an owie on his eye, but it's better now. It doesn't hurt him anymore."

"Good," she says with a grin. "He's a good doggy?"

Clint grins back, rubbing the stupid dog behind his ear. Lucky mwurfs quietly at him. "Yeah. Yeah, he's all right."

"Say bye now," Phil tells her, and she waves happily. Clint finds himself waving back without exactly meaning to.

Phil nods at him and turns to leave, and Ella still waving over his shoulder.

"Bye!" she calls.

"Later," Clint tells her, still waving too, and it should be weird to wave at a kid while he's checking out her dad's ass in those jeans, but Clint can't really find it in himself to care.

 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

Clint stifles a curse as he opens the front door to see bits of shredded paper all over the floor of his apartment. "Dammit, Lucky!"

The dog is, of course, nowhere to be found. With a sigh, Clint leans his bow case next to the door and crouches to pick some of them up. Hopefully it's not another bill. Turns out banks aren't really thrilled to hear, Sorry, my payment's late 'cause the dog ate my statement.

It's a sheet of lined notepaper, and he frowns in confused frustration. The fragments of handwriting he can see don't look familiar.

There's part of the signature on one of the largest pieces of paper, and Clint can just make out Coul. He groans as he stands, ignoring the way his knees pop at the sudden movement. He's exhausted. A long op that nearly went to shit -- would have, without Sitwell barking last minute changes in his ear as he ran across rooftops in the snow -- and then he came home to find the Avengers assembling against some moron with some sort of ridiculous energy ray that had the pigeons forming attack squadrons.

"Goddamn rats with wings," he mutters as he slips back out the door.

It doesn't take long for Phil to open the door after Clint knocks. His lips twitch up into a quick smile.

"Great, you got my note."

Clint holds up the ripped notepaper. "Kinda. Lucky got your note first."

Phil grimaces. "Sorry. I knocked, but you weren't home. Figured a note under the door was the best solution. Guess not."

"'s all right. You should feel honored. He only does it to important papers, like my credit card bills."

Phil's half-laugh, half-grimace is enough to push away the gray edge of fatigue. Clint tries not to think about that.

"Something wrong?" he asks, waving the bit of note again.

"The sink in the bathroom's leaking. It dripped when we moved in, and I fiddled with it a little. It stopped for a while, but now it's back, and it's turned into a trickle."

"I can take a look," Clint offers, though he knows fuck all about plumbing. He bets he'll be calling a plumber in a few minutes, and tries hard to feel guilty about using the opportunity to take a closer look at Phil's apartment. Gathering intelligence is part of his job, or so Nat tells him.

Phil steps aside so Clint can step into the apartment. It's pretty bare still, since they've only been living here for a week or so. There are boxes stacked along the walls, and there is a heavy wooden desk in one corner of the living room, covered with stacks of paper and piles of books, a laptop open and flashing pics of Ella and her dad. A tiny pink desk is tucked up beside it, and Clint can't help his grin.

Ella is sitting in a booster seat at the kitchen table, munchkin sized makeup scattered on the surface. She glances at him and he stifles his laugh -- her face is a riot of colors. Clint sees blush, and eyeshadow, and lipstick and maybe even nail polish streaked on her cheeks. Phil is a little behind him, but Clint can practically feel the man's amusement.

"Hi again," Clint says with a wave.

"Hi! Doggy?"

"He's sleeping, sorry," Clint tells her. It's probably true. Wherever the damn dog is, he's probably sleeping off his guilt.

"Keep playing, baby. We're just going to look at the dripping sink. Don't get that stuff in your eyes, all right?"

"'kay, Daddy."

Clint follows Phil down the hall and does his best to mind his own business, but his eyes are sharp, and he catches glimpses of baby pictures on the walls and Ella's bedroom -- done in pinks and purples, but is that... a Captain America teddy bear? He hides his grin.

The door to the other bedroom is closed, and he tells himself that's for the best as Phil gestures him into the bathroom.

The faucet is trickling steadIly, and sure enough, it takes about ten seconds for him to decide this is beyond his plumbing knowledge -- which is basically how to shut the water off if the faucet's dripping. He crouches and futzes around under the sink for appearance's sake anyway, and when he looks up, Phil's gaze darts away from him. Clint freezes and fights the grin that wants to spread across his face.

Phil was definitely checking out his ass.

"I'll get a plumber out here to take a look, as soon as possible, okay?" Right before he falls into bed for twelve hours straight.

"Sure, that's fine. Thanks for taking a look."

"Any time..." he trails off, attention caught by something as Phil gestures for him to go first down the hall. Three fingernails on the man's left hand are polished pink, the outlines wobbly and clearly Ella's handiwork.

Phil sees what's grabbed his attention and smiles sheepishly. "I was taking a little break from work, and you caught us mid-manicure."

This time Clint can't help his grin, and Phil just shrugs, grinning back.

They walk back into the kitchen to see that Ella has given up using her face as a canvas and is now drawing on the newspaper that covers the table with one of the lipsticks.

"Bye, Ella," he tells her as they walk to the door. "You look beautiful."

"I did my makeup all on my own, but Daddy did my nails!" She waves a hand at him, showing bright pink nails, and Clint grins, imagining Phil bent over her tiny hand, that little crease in his brow deepening as he concentrated on getting them just right. "They look fantastic," he tells her, "And you did a great job on his too."

She beams at him. "I could do yours!"

"Baby, no -- "

"Please?"

Those big blue eyes are already impossible for him to say no to. He glances at Phil, who looks apologetic.

"I'm sure you've got better things to do than let my three year old paint your nails," he murmurs.

Clint shrugs. His nap can wait. "What if I don't?"

Phil gives him a look that says, It's your funeral, but Clint's definitely not imagining the fondness in it, and he doesn't think it's all for Ella.

Turning back to the little girl, Clint asks, "Got any purple?"

 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

Natasha raises an eyebrow at him when she sees his nails, and he just grins at her and steals a bite of her muffin.

 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

Clint has just hung up the phone when Kate comes breezing out of the bathroom. Instead of settling back down on the couch next to him, she starts gathering her things.

"Goin' somewhere?"

"Teddy texted," she tells him as she picks up her bow case. "Gotta go."

"I just ordered food," he reminds her.

"Please," she scoffs. "Like you won't just feed my portion to the dog once I'm gone. Don't do that, by the way."

"Later, Hawkeye," he says, because some things must be said. He raises a hand lazily but doesn't get up from where he's sprawled on the couch, Lucky snoozing at his feet.

She rolls her eyes at him but answers anyway. "Good night, Hawkeye."

Then she's gone, and Clint stares at the door, thinking.

He's ordered plenty of food -- he could feed half of it to the damn mutt, but he's got a feeling they'd both regret that. There'll be enough for two people, definitely -- three if one of them is very small.

Pushing off the couch, he lets the thought propel him out of his apartment and down the hall, trying not to examine his impulse too closely as he knocks on the Coulsons' door.

Phil answers after a moment, and Clint blinks at him in surprise.

"Hello, Clint," he says with a little smile, and Clint is still staring at him. He's wearing glasses, black hipster glasses with thick frames that should make him look silly or academic or old or anything other than what they make him look, which is really hot. They make his big blue eyes bigger and bluer.

Phil's brow furrows a little and Clint realizes he's still staring. He clears his throat and forces himself to blink.

"Hey. I, uh, just ordered enough Chinese food to feed, like, twelve people, and my friend had to bail. I thought I'd ask if you guys want to help me eat it. Uh, I mean..." He backpedals furiously when he realizes he's just totally made it sound like they're Plan B, which they are, but Jesus, don't tell them that, Barton, you dummy. "I just -- "

Phil laughs, and then, to Clint's disappointment, takes off his glasses, rubbing the heel of his hand over the bridge of his nose.

"I just thought that, uh, Ella could play with Lucky a little, since I told her she could, and..."

"That sounds great, actually. I could use a break." Phil glances over his shoulder, and Clint follows his gaze to where Ella is sitting at her little pink desk, coloring something furiously with a blue crayon. "Ella Bella? Want to go to Clint's and play with Lucky and have dinner?"

She looks up, beaming at the idea and instantly abandoning her crayon. "Yeah!"

"Thanks for inviting us," Phil says.

Clint fidgets in the doorway, having just realized something. "Uh, yeah, um, anytime. I just realized, though -- I don't have much to drink in the fridge."

A six pack of beer and Katie's froofy coffee creamer is about it. Anything else in there is highly suspect and possibly creating new species.

"BYOB, then," Phil says with a grin, and Clint bites at his lip because Phil has a really great smile. He has no idea what he's doing with all this, but he's really hoping it doesn't all crash down in flames around him. But it's him, so it probably will.

"Give me just a second," Phil tells Clint, and then he turns back toward Ella. "Baby, put your crayons away, please," he asks as he heads toward the fridge, tossing his glasses on the counter as he goes. Reaching into the fridge, he pulls out a bottle of apple juice and grabs a little purple plastic glass that has Disney princesses all over it from the dish drainer.

"Not that I don't think you have cups," Phil murmurs apologetically, "But this is just easier for her to hold. Less chance of spills."

Clint just nods, since he's not all that sure he does have clean cups. He's a shit host, no wonder Katie glares at him all the time.

Phil glances back into the fridge, frowning, and Clint clears his throat again and tells him, "I have beer. I dunno if you..."

He trails off, glancing at Ella, who's frowning as she fits crayons back into a massive box -- Clint had no idea that many crayons came in one box. Her frown looks exactly like her dad's; it's kind of adorable.

"I don't know if I should," Phil says seriously, "It's a long drive home."

Clint grins at him and leads the way back to his place.

"Doggy!" Ella shouts and runs toward the couch. Lucky lifts his head, cocking it quizzically before pushing himself up. The little girl throws her arms around him, and Lucky woofs and steadies himself.

"Gently, Ella Bella. You have to play gently with him so he doesn't get hurt or upset."

"'kay, Daddy."

Clint grabs a couple of beers and a bottle opener, offering Phil a glass for his, quietly grateful when Phil declines. They both sit on the couch and watch Ella play with the dog for a while as they relax.

"So, uh, you said you could use a break when I came over -- you work from home?"

Phil nods, his eyes on his daughter. "Mmm. I write. Mostly military history, articles for academic journals, but I've written a few books."

The way Phil is avoiding Clint's eyes is curious -- Clint can see he's got a secret, but judging by the hint of a smile that plays around the corners of his mouth, it's not a shameful one -- it's one he enjoys keeping. Clint decides to let him keep it for a while longer, if only because his coy face is fun to watch.

"Military history, huh? What era?"

"World War II. European theater, mostly."

Clint thinks of Steve. "Lot to study there."

Phil hums in agreement and Clint sees Phil glance at him out of the corner of his eye. Now is probably when normal people would volunteer what they do for a living, but Clint's life is definitely not normal. An assassin who works for a shadowy quasi-governmental agency and moonlights as an Avenger probably has no business with a nice, academic professorly type and his three year old daughter, but, well, Clint can't seem to help himself.

Then again, Phil is, seriously, an academic. He probably has no more use for a former carnie who shoots sticks and bullets at bad guys for a living than occasional friendship, so it's not like it matters much.

Clint frowns down at his beer bottle and then notices that Lucky has unearthed an ancient, disgusting tennis ball from somewhere and is nudging it at Ella. Clint reaches down and snags it before she can, grimacing. "Ugh, that's gross. I don't even know where he got it."

His phone rings, most likely the food delivery, and he tosses the ball in the trash, wiping his hand on his jeans.

"I'm going to go down and get the food," he tells Phil. "Be right back. Bathroom's through there if you want to wash up."

Frantically, he tries to remember if he's got anything embarrassing lying around, but he realizes with relief that if he had, Katie would have yelled about it and probably thrown it at him.

"Thanks, Clint. Come on, Ella Bella, let's get washed up," he hears as he slips out the front door, and he's grinning as he jogs down the stairs, imagining Phil holding her over the sink as she scrubs her hands and chatters at him.

It's nice, sitting at a table with Phil and Ella, watching Phil cut the larger pieces of chicken into smaller bites for her as she squirms on the booster seat Phil went back to their apartment to get. It's not like he doesn't share meals with his fellow agents and Avengers, but conversations during meals with SHIELD agents tend to focus on topics that turn eavesdroppers green, and meals with the Avengers are always loud and boisterous and full of bickering and boasting. Talking quietly with Phil and listening to Ella giggle is the best part of a very, very long week, and it's over far too soon.

He watches them walk down the hall toward their apartment from his doorway, and Phil turns as they reach it.

"Thanks for inviting us over," he says softly, a shy smile on his face. "That was really nice of you. What do you say, baby?"

"Thank you," she says around a yawn, and Clint can't help but grin at her.

"Any time. Good night."

He watches their door for a few seconds after it closes, ignoring the desperate feeling of longing that wells up inside of him. He's falling too far, too deep, too fast, and he doesn't think he could stop himself if he wanted to.

 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

"Hi, Clint!"

Wiping his face with the edge of his hoodie, Clint jogs closer. "Hey, Ella! I like your coat! What are you guys up to?"

They are walking back from the bodega, judging by the bag in Phil's hand. He has his other hand wrapped securely around Ella's. Her hands are in fluffy pink mittens, a matching bobble hat on her head, a puffy purple coat enveloping her. Phil is in a well-worn brown leather jacket -- one that Clint immediately covets -- and jeans, a plain black watch cap on his head. His cheeks are pink with cold, but his eyes are sparkling, and he's smiling wider than Clint thinks he's ever seen. He looks incredibly hot, and Clint swallows roughly as a shiver of desire bolts through him.

"We're having a celebry breakfast," Ella tells him.

Clint frowns. His hearing isn't the best, it's true, but… "A celery breakfast?"

Phil laughs. "A celebratory breakfast, baby."

Clint blinks in surprise. "Oh? Good news?"

Phil's grin is a little shy now. "Pretty good, yes. You look like you just finished your run. Join us and I'll share my news with you. "

The wind whips suddenly, cooling the sweat on Clint's skin, and he shivers, turning to unlock the door. He gestures them in and says, "Yeah, um, okay. Thanks. I'll just shower? And then head over?"

Phil nods as he guides Ella through the door. "Great."

Clint is increasingly aware how much he needs a shower, and he doesn't really want to force poor Phil and Ella to be in a closed stairwell with him, so he points to the mailboxes with his keys. "Gonna check… see you in a few?"

"Sure," Phil says as they start climbing the stairs. "Come over whenever you're ready. My sous chef and I will start the prep."

Clint grins, and it only grows as he hears Ella ask Phil, "What's a shoe chef?"

*

"Come in," Phil calls when Clint knocks on the door fifteen minutes later, and he slips in, locking it behind him.

"More chocolate chips!" Ella is demanding, and Phil laughs. He pops one in her mouth but shakes his head.

"Nope, we want chocolate chip pancakes, not chocolate pancakes. Here, you stir."

Clint watches fondly as Phil holds the bowl so she can stir the batter with a whisk. Batter gets everywhere, and all three of them laugh.

Phil carries the bowl of batter to the hot griddle on the other side of the kitchen, away from where Ella's booster seat is secured, and Clint winks at her as she sneaks a chocolate chip out of the bag.

Maybe he shouldn't encourage her, but her big blue eyes are wide and innocent, and he can't help it.

"That's enough, Ella, no more."

Her eyes get wider, and Clint laughs. He can see that Phil is watching her in the microwave's reflection, but to her, it must seem like Phil really does have eyes in the back of his head.

"So," he says, watching as Phil flips pancakes with one hand and pokes at the frying bacon with the other -- that probably shouldn't be so hot, but manual dexterity has always turned him on. "Good news?"

"Daddy's book is almost done," Ella tells him. Her hand inches toward the bag of chocolate chips, and Phil turns halfway to raise an eyebrow at her. Clint picks up the bag and folds over the top, putting it out of her reach so she won't be tempted.

"Your book?" he asks.

"The final proofs of my newest book arrived yesterday," Phil tells him, pride and pleasure bubbling up in his voice.

"That's great," Clint says with a grin, slapping him on the shoulder. "What's it about? Or is it over my head?"

"Pretty sure less goes over your head than you like to pretend," Phil says ruefully. "It's, uh… I've been working on this one on and off for a while, since my undergrad days -- it's more a hobby than anything. I was pleasantly surprised, to say the least, that they accepted it. I assumed it was going to be a manuscript on my hard drive forever."

He transfers the bacon onto a paper towel to drain and then goes back to flipping pancakes.

"Do you mind pouring us all some juice?" he asks, and Clint nods. The kitchen is small, and he has to squeeze past Phil to get to the refrigerator. His hips press into Phil's ass for just a moment, and he resists the urge to rock into the contact, forcing himself to open the fridge and find the orange juice. The cool air is a welcome distraction.

"It's an in-depth analysis of the role of women in the early days of the Strategic Scientific Reserve, specifically the women who worked with and around Captain Rogers and the Howling Commandos."

Clint stares at him, nearly spilling juice everywhere. He realizes just before he makes a mess, setting the carton down with a thump.

"Daddy, are the pancakes almost ready?"

"Almost, baby. I've always felt that while the public is well aware of Steve Rogers' importance, and that of his teammates, too few know about the bravery and fortitude of women like Peggy Carter, whose support was just as integral to Rogers as Bucky Barnes' support was."

Clint is still staring, and Phil stops, cheeks flushing a little.

"I'm sorry," he says. "If I get going on Steve Rogers, Peggy Carter, and the Commandos, you'll never get me to shut up."

"Daddy loves Steve Rogers -- that's Captain 'merica," Ella tells Clint. "He was Captain 'merica for Halloween lotsa times as a kid."

"Here, honey, eat your breakfast and stop embarrassing your father."

"Ooooh, pancakes," Ella says happily, picking up her plastic fork. "Thank you, Daddy!"

Phil sets a plate of pre-cut pancakes and bacon in front of her, giving Clint a slightly mortified glance as he reaches past Clint for one of the glasses of juice he's poured.

"Congratulations on your book," Clint tells him, passing him another glass of juice, and Phil ducks his head and smiles.

"Thank you, Clint," he says, handing Clint a plate of his own.

There is no hidden twist to Phil's embarrassed smile, no wink, wink, nudge, nudge, Steve Rogers, don'tcha know aspect to it, and Clint wonders…

Phil doesn't seem to be the oblivious type, and if he is really a Steve fanboy, it seems like there's no way he doesn't know who Clint is, but if he does, he's kept that knowledge very close to his chest.

Clint's stomach is heavy as he tucks into his pancakes. He can't help but wonder if their growing friendship, the small hints of attraction, the shared meals and unplanned encounters in the halls of their building -- is it all manufactured, just for an introduction to Steve?

The thought hurts, because, well, all Phil had to do was ask. He's a great guy and Steve's always amenable to meeting respectful fans.

He doesn't want to think that Phil is working a long con to worm his way into Captain America's good graces. He realizes, however, as he eats really amazing chocolate chip pancakes and watches Ella happily crunch into a piece of bacon and chatter to her father about the friends she met in the park yesterday, that if Phil is using him as a stepping stone to Steve -- well, he's been used for worse things.

Ella, he knows, is not faking anything, and he contents himself with that. He'll enjoy his time with the two of them until it all falls apart, as things always seem to do around him.

 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

Clint knocks on the Coulsons' door to see if they want to share dinner -- his place or theirs, he's not picky, and they've shared about half a dozen meals at both by now. He has, however, gotten used to eating dinner much earlier than he used to, since three year olds go to bed pretty early.

There hasn't been any more discussion of Steve Rogers, Peggy Carter, or Captain America, and Clint has pretty much decided that -- as crazy as it sounds -- Phil doesn't really know who he is or what he does. He hasn't figured out how to bring it up, so he's reluctantly decided to let things be as they've been for now. Phil and Ella's friendship feels genuine, so he's going to try and believe that it is until proven otherwise.

Story of his life, really.

There's no answer, and he knocks one more time.

He's just resigned himself to frozen pizza alone in his apartment when the door opens.

"Hi, Clint."

Clint blinks in shock, staring at Phil. He realizes he's gaping, mouth open, and makes himself shut it.

"Wow, you look like hell," he blurts, and then he winces. "Um, sorry. No filter. Is everything okay?"

Phil runs a hand through his hair, and Clint tries not to grin at the way it fluffs up, like a grumpy dandelion. He really does look like hell. He's pale, and the circles under his eyes are dark. He's sporting two or three days worth of stubble, and it's very distractingly salt-and-pepper.

"Ella's got chickenpox," Phil says grimly, and all thoughts of distracting stubble fly out of Clint's head.

"Oh, man," he says with a grimace. "That sucks."

Phil nods, leaning tiredly on the doorframe. "She's over the worst of it now, and finally sleeping."

He backs up a step. "Do you want to come in?"

"If she's sleeping, you should probably get some sleep, no?"

Phil shrugs. "I probably won't sleep for a while. I want to make sure she's resting easy. I could..." He trails off, then sighs as he glances up at Clint through his eyelashes, which is totally unfair. "I could use the company."

Then he frowns. "You've had it, right?"

Clint shrugs. "Sure."

He thinks. It's not like he'd remember any part of his early childhood as being more miserable than any other. But he was exposed to pretty much everything during his time in the circus, and he never got it there, so it's likely he got it around Ella's age.

"Tell you what," he says. "I was just thinking about the pizza I've got in the freezer. I'm going to go grab it and a couple of beers, and we can sit on the couch and pretend like we're not listening for her to wake up."

Phil grins tiredly. "Sounds good. I honestly don't think I have the energy for anything else. It's been a rough couple of days."

He points vaguely behind him into the apartment. "I'm going to clean up. Meet you back here in ten?"

"Take fifteen," Clint tells him. "Spoil yourself."

The laugh it gets him is tired, but worth it.

*

Despite the fact that Phil can't have been eating much lately, he barely picks at his pizza. His worried frown makes Clint want to hug him or babble reassurances or something else stupid like that.

"She'll be okay," he says, mostly without meaning to, and Phil glances over at him with a faint smile.

"I know. It's just hard when she's so miserable."

"I bet." Clint could barely handle it when Lucky was hurt. He doesn't know how he'd deal with a sick kid. "I thought they had a vaccine now?"

"They do. Some good it did her," Phil says bitterly, and Clint glances over, bottle halfway to his mouth.

"Sorry," Phil sighs. "I just… I did what I was supposed to, and she still got sick. Though it's apparently a much milder form than what kids who aren't vaccinated get."

"Hey, you did what you were supposed to," Clint tells him. "That's more than a lot of parents do."

"Anti-vaccers," Phil says darkly, and Clint shrugs.

"Not necessarily even them. Some parents just don't care."

Phil's glance is curious, and Clint shrugs. He probably gave away more than he intended to, but that doesn't mean he has to say anymore about his trainwreck of a past.

"You, uh… you do a great job with her. She's an amazing kid. And you probably don't hear it enough. You're a great dad."

"Thanks," Phil says with a smile. He takes a bite of his pizza, grimaces when he realizes it's cooled completely, and then shrugs and eats it anyway. "That, actually, uh, that's nice to hear. It was hard when she was crying for her mom. Made me… made me feel pretty useless, really."

Clint doesn't know a lot about Ella's mom. He knows she's in the military, and overseas, and they Skype with her when they can, and that she and Phil are not involved romantically, but that's it. Phil has rarely spoken about her during the time he and Clint have spent together.

"They'll get to talk this weekend," Phil says, "But that kind of reasoning doesn't work with a sick three year old who just wants her mom now."

"Yeah, that's rough."

"She's usually pretty good as long as they can talk regularly -- it's a lot easier than when Sophia first went over, and Ella's starting to understand that Mommy won't be gone forever -- we mark off the weeks together on the calendar in her room -- but when she's sick, none of that matters."

"Sophia's in the army?" Phil is talking about her, so Clint feels safe asking a question or two.

"A major," Phil says with a nod. "We met a long time ago, in the army, even before I became a Ranger. We've been friends since then, always got together for dinner whenever we could after I got out. It was never anything more than that."

He picks up another piece of pizza, staring at it for a moment before dropping it back on the plate and wiping his hands on a napkin with a sigh.

"A few years ago, she was home on leave, and there was a service for a couple of guys we both knew -- IED -- she came over after it, and… we started talking, drank too much, and well…" Phil trails off, shrugs. "I'd never want Ella to hear it this way, but Sophia and I were drunk. And stupid, and we just wanted to…"

"Connect," Clint supplies, because he's been there. Oh, how he's been there.

"Exactly."

"No one who's been through that could blame you," Clint tells him, and Phil nods with curiosity in his eyes.

"Yes, well, we could have been smarter about it," he says wryly when it's clear Clint isn't going to elaborate on his own similar experiences. "The pregnancy was… a surprise, but mostly a welcome one. Neither of us ever expected to be parents, but both of us have always wanted children, so we decided to find a way to make it work."

The little smile on Phil's face is his customary thinking-about-Ella smile, and Clint finds himself smiling too. "Do you share custody when she's home?"

"I still have primary custody, though Ella stays with her whenever she can. My work makes it easier, especially while Sophia is overseas. It's not that she doesn't want to be here, but she's worked hard to get where she is, and she's proud of her career -- as she should be."

"Whoa, hey, no argument from me." Clint raises his hands. "She's got every right to focus on her career, and like I said, Ella's a great kid and you're doing a great job with her."

Phil grins tiredly. "Sorry. We're both used to defending our decisions. Maybe a little too much."

Clint is used to that, too. He just returns the grin.

Phil glances down the hall. "I'm going to check on her."

"I'll do the dishes."

Phil's quiet laugh warms Clint, and makes it a little easier to ignore the sudden need to peek into Ella's room and make sure she's resting easy.

He picks up the paper plates and clears away the debris in the kitchen. Rinsing out the empty bottles, he puts them in with the recyclables and then takes a trip into the bathroom.

When he comes out, Phil is back on the couch and asleep sitting up, beer bottle tipping dangerously in his hand. His face is slack and calm, and Clint is rocked by the sudden wave of… fondness he feels.

In over your head, Barton, he thinks ruefully. He's no stranger to wanting things he can't have -- Phil Coulson is just another item on a very long list. But if he can just hold onto this for a little while -- quiet evenings with the two of them, a little corner carved out in their cozy life -- it might be enough.

Phil snorts himself awake, and Clnt stifles his laughter.

"I think it's time you hit the rack, soldier."

Phil scowls at him, but it loses most of its effectiveness because his sleepy eyes are only half-open.

"If she hasn't woken up," Clint assures him, "I think she'll sleep for a while, and you should too."

He finishes the last swallows of his beer and taps his empty bottle against Phil's half-full one, still tilted dangerously. "I'll show myself out."

His last glimpse of Phil for the night is him peering foggily over the back of the couch at Clint in the doorway. It's definitely not a bad one, even if he wishes he wasn't saying good night at all.

 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

Hand behind his back, Clint knocks on the door of the Coulsons' apartment. Phil answers quickly.

"Hi, Clint."

Clint smiles, hoping it gives him a chance to recover. Phil is in dark jeans and a royal blue button down shirt, which makes his eyes incredibly blue. He has the sleeves rolled up, which only draws attention to the muscles of his forearms.

"Hey," he says, and he realizes he's staring, so he tears his gaze away.

"Is that Clint? Daddy, is it Clint?"

Ella is behind Phil, hopping up and down, which makes her pigtails bounce.

"Hi, Ella," Clint says, stepping into their apartment. She's obviously excited at the possibility of seeing him, and he grins, pleased to know he's been missed as much as he missed her. "I'm sorry I missed your birthday."

"Where were you? You missed pizza! And cake!"

Clint laughs. "I know. I'm sorry I missed that too! I had to work. So, how old are you now? Thirteen?"

"Oh, god, no," Phil says with a groan, and Ella giggles.

"I'm four now, silly."

"Well, that's practically the same. Would you like your birthday present?"

She gasps, her eyes wide, and Phil frowns lightly at him.

"You didn't have to -- " he starts, and Clint rolls his eyes.

"Please," he murmurs. "Like I wasn't going to. I didn't, like, wrap it or anything, though."

He brings his hand out from behind his back, and Ella gasps again, grabbing the stuffed Golden Retriever puppy from his hands and squeezing it tightly. The purple ribbon around its neck flutters.

"Puppy! Daddy, look! Clint gave me a puppy!"

"Thank you for not giving her a R-E-A-L D-O-G," Phil says, and Clint laughs.

"Thought about it, but I figured you might actually kill me."

Phil smiles but doesn't deny it. "Ella, did you thank Clint for your birthday present?"

"Thank you!" she says, and he's startled when she darts forward and hugs his legs. Rocking a little, he waits until she lets go and then kneels down for a real hug. Her little arms are tight around him as the stuffed dog smacks him in the back of the head, and he holds her and closes his eyes and breathes in the smell of her baby shampoo.

All too soon, she wriggles out of his arms.

"You're welcome," he tells her. "Happy birthday, kiddo. You got a name for him?"

She holds the toy at arm's length, studying him, her face scrunched in concentration, and Clint grins at Phil.

"Fuzzy," she proclaims after a moment. "His name is Fuzzy."

"That's a good name," Clint says. "Fits him."

"Come on in," Phil tells him. "We've got some cake left, if you want a slice."

Ella's eyes go huge. "Cake? Daddy can I have cake?"

"You can have a small piece, to celebrate your birthday with Clint, okay?"

"Yay!" She throws her arms around Clint's legs again, nearly knocking him over. Then she grabs him by the hand, tugging him toward the kitchen. "Come on, let's eat cake!"

He laughs, happy to follow her lead. "Okay, let's."

 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

Clint's hand is shaking as he tries to put his key in the lock on his apartment door, and he swears. Blinking to steady himself, he tries again.

This mission was long, and he spent a few days as an uninvited guest of the target. He probably shouldn't have skipped out of Medical quite so early this time, but all he'd wanted to do was get home.

Get home and see Ella and Phil, hear her giggles and see his smile, which is stupid, because they aren't his. They aren't his to miss, and they won't be waiting for him with relief or welcoming smiles, but he's too hurt and tired to pretend like he doesn't… like he doesn't want.

The lock is still resisting his key, and Clint rests his forehead against the door in frustration. He wants to yell and kick at the door like a little kid, he wants to slide down the door, wrap his arms around his knees, tuck his head down, and cry. He's so tired.

"Clint?"

Clint's too tired to do much more than twitch in surprise, and he knows he should be more worried that his situational awareness is compromised enough for Phil to have approached him unnoticed, but he's too busy grinning into the door.

"You're home," Phil says, and Clint takes a moment to bask in the warmth of his voice before pushing himself off the door.

He wobbles a little.

"Whoa, hey," Phil says, concern heavy in his voice, and he hurries forward, setting his gym bag on the ground and slipping a hand under Clint's elbow to steady him. Clint fights the urge to lean into the touch.

"Ella?" he asks – croaks, really – because as much as he wants to see her, now that he's had a chance to think about it, he doesn't want her to see him like this.

"She's on a playdate," Phil tells him. "C'mon, let's get you inside."

He takes the keys from Clint's hand, and Clint wants to laugh at how easy he makes opening the door look.

Clint blinks. It is easy, he knows. Normally. Man, he's tired.

Lucky sits up with a woof when they come in, and Clint grins. Katie's been by to feed him and let him roam, Clint knows, and he wonders fuzzily if that's something Phil might be willing to do in the future, maybe.

"Sit down," Phil tells him, guiding him to the couch. Clint knows he should protest the made-of-glass treatment, but he can't quite manage to be indignant at it today.

Lucky dances happily around his feet as he drops onto the couch. Jumping up onto the cushions, Lucky circles a few times – stepping on Clint as he does so – before laying down with his head on Clint's thigh.

Laughing tiredly, Clint rests a hand on the mutt's head. "Hey, boy. How much trouble did you cause while I was gone?"

His eyes are threatening to close, but he blinks them open long enough to watch as Phil brings his own gym bag in and leaves it by the door, stowing Clint's gear bag and bow case by the coffee table. He waits for the jealous panic that always accompanies someone else handling his bow, but it never comes.

Phil is moving around the kitchen now, opening and closing cabinets and turning on the stove, and Clint loves the sight of him there, moving confidently, as secure in Clint's space as he is in his own. Clint closes his eyes around the memory, saving it for later, when his apartment is cold and empty with only Lucky to keep him company.

"Drink this," Phil says suddenly, the couch dipping as he sits beside Clint. He pushes a warm mug into Clint's hands, and Clint knows he should be alarmed that Phil has snuck up on him again, but he's beginning to think it's happening because he doesn't mind Phil encroaching into his space.

Clint sniffs at the mug, more for identification purposes than anything. Phil's had plenty of chances to poison him by now and hasn't, so Clint's pretty sure he's safe.

It's broth of some kind, and Clint sips at it. It's warm and hearty, and he lets the heat seep into bones chilled from spending several days in a damp concrete cell.

Phil's hand cups the back of Clint's neck, supporting his head, and he just barely curbs the twitch that wants to escape. It's even harder to resist the impulse to lean into Phil's touch.

"Glad you're back," Phil says softly. "You got a concussion I need to worry about? Head trauma?"

Clint makes a noise of dissent, still drinking the broth. Then, he realizes he should probably come up with some story to explain why he looks like he got hit by a truck.

He blinks his eyes open, trying to focus beyond the warmth of the broth and Phil's soothing touch.

"I, um, I was – " he starts, and Phil huffs out a laugh.

"You don't need to come up with a lie," he tells Clint, and his voice holds the same mix of fondness and exasperation Clint has heard when Ella's made a huge mess but is being cute about it. "I don't think your brain is up to it today."

Clint forces his eyes all the way open, staring at Phil.

"What – but – I – "

Phil leans in very close, and Clint maybe kinda loses his breath at just how blue his eyes are at this distance. He can see the very light hint of freckles dusting Phil's cheeks and forehead, and it's very distracting.

"Newsflash, Hawkeye," Phil says seriously. "I know who you are."

Clint realizes his mouth is hanging open a little, and he closes it. "Oh."

Phil smiles, and Clint grips the mug tightly to keep from reaching for him.

"I've known since the first time I was in your apartment," Phil tells him. "Clint, you have a longbow over your couch, and archery targets on your walls. Half your T-shirts have bullseyes on them. And the other tenants are very proud – and unsurprisingly protective -- of you."

Clint stares at him, a little too out of it to properly process this information.

Faint color comes into Phil's cheeks. "I've spent… quite a bit of time studying footage of the Avengers fighting," he says.

Oh, right. Steve. Clint deflates, all of a sudden so tired he wants to curl up and sleep for a week.

"They don't catch you on camera very often, but, ah, let's just say I recognize… your form."

Clint frowns, preparing to protest that Phil has never seen him shoot, but the blush and the way Phil's not meeting his eyes anymore makes him realize Phil means his physical form – his body.

Heat rushes through him that has nothing to do with the broth he's just finished, but before he can figure out what to do with it, Phil grows serious again.

"I was a Ranger," he reminds Clint. "I know all about operational security and having secrets you can't share. Don't ever think you need to make up lies to cover things you can't tell me. I understand, and I won't press, and I'm just glad that you're home safe, and… mostly in one piece."

He smiles at Clint, and Clint mostly just blinks back at him. Phil's arm is stretched along the back of the couch, and Clint leans tiredly against his shoulder. That's a thing friends do, right? Lean on each other? It's not weird, right?

Phil must not think so, because his hand comes up to rest in Clint's hair, scratching briefly at his scalp.

"Rest," he says softly. "You look like you could use it."

Clint yawns, his eyes drifting closed again. "I can introduce you to Steve if you want," he mumbles, because now that he knows that his secret is out, he might as well get this over with. "He's a good man. You guys would get along great."

Phil chuckles, his hand still stroking gently through Clint's hair.

"I'm not going to pretend like my inner seven-year-old isn't screaming and jumping up and down at the offer, but you do know that isn't why I spend time with you, don't you?"

Clint hadn't really, not for sure, and it's nice to hear, but he doesn't know what to say, because he's still not sure what a guy like him has to offer a guy like Phil, other than his connections.

"You know that Ella and I enjoy your company, right?" Phil stresses, but Clint doesn't know why they do, so he just keeps his eyes closed and pretends to be asleep.

He's only intending to give himself a moment to figure out what to say, but everything catches up with him all at once, and exhaustion claims him.

*

He wakes up alone, stretched out on the couch, his favorite purple throw draped over him, and Lucky is curled up on his feet, snoozing.

He wonders briefly if he imagined the whole thing, but his phone is on the coffee table, a note tucked under it.

Call me if you need anything. I mean it. – Phil

Clint realizes he's stroking his thumb over the P in Phil's name. Rolling his eyes at his own ridiculousness, he drags himself off to bed.

 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

Clint and Phil are sprawled on Phil's couch -- well, Clint is sprawled and while Phil is less languid on the other end of the couch, his socked feet are up on the coffee table -- watching basketball while Ella is stretched out on her stomach on the carpet, coloring.

Clint wonders if Phil is actually watching the game, because he knows he's not. He's fascinated by the way Ella keeps turning the pages in her coloring book, picking little bits of each picture to color, carefully selecting the right crayon and then moving on.

Thor's cape ends up an eye-searing magenta, and Steve's uniform becomes a bright purple that Clint thoroughly approves of.

As far as he knows, Phil hasn't told Ella that their neighbor Clint is also the Hawkeye whose hair she's just made royal blue. It's completely fine with him -- he has no problem being just the guy who lives down the hall with a dog she loves. It just means fewer lofty expectations to come crashing down around him at some point in the future.

On the television, the buzzer sounds, signaling halftime, and Phil rouses himself. Clint glances at him and then quickly away as Phil stretches, the movement lengthening his torso and baring a narrow strip of skin at his waist.

"Bedtime, little girl," Phil tells Ella, and she pouts. "Come on, put your things away, and then we'll brush your teeth and put your PJs on."

"Can I have a story?" she asks, clearly dragging her feet.

"One story."

"Can Clint read to me?"

Clint glances over, startled. He looks at Phil, who is looking at him, eyebrow raised slightly in question.

"Um… yeah, sure. Go get ready for bed with your dad, and then I guess it's storytime."

While she's shoving her crayons into the box, Phil murmurs, "You don't have to if -- "

"No," Clint interrupts him. "It's, it's cool, I just… I don't think I've ever read to anyone before."

He's a little nervous, but he figures he can probably manage Cat in the Hat or something without fucking it up too bad.

Ella dashes to her room to put her stuff away and grab her pajamas, and Phil grins at him. "I'll come get you when she's ready," he says as he stands and then follows her.

Turning the volume on the TV down, Clint slouches back on the couch, listening to Ella and Phil talk quietly. Their conversation is too quiet for him to hear words, but he can hear her giggles and the amusement in Phil's voice, and he closes his eyes, a smile on his face.

He hears footsteps and opens his eyes to see Phil coming up the hall. "She's already half-asleep," he says quietly.

"Oh." Disappointment settles over Clint, and he blinks. He hadn't realized how much he was looking forward to it. "Maybe another night, then."

Phil smiles at him, and Clint thinks maybe his voice wasn't as neutral as he'd tried for.

"You're not getting out of it that easily. It's a short book, but she'll probably still fall asleep in the middle of it."

Clint follows him down the hallway to Ella's room, which is dark except for the little lamp on the bedside table. He glances at Phil, who gestures him toward the glider positioned beside Ella's bed. She's wearing pink pajamas covered in Disney princesses, and she's already tucked in, eyelids drooping. Clint is happily surprised to see that she's hugging Fuzzy, the stuffed puppy he gave her for her birthday. Her Captain America bear is sitting on the shelf by her bed.

"Hey, munchkin," he says softly, and she smiles sleepily.

"Hi, Clint."

"Ella picked out one of her favorites," Phil says from the doorway, where he's leaning on the jamb, arms crossed. It highlights the muscles of his forearms, and Clint tears his gaze away before he can stare too long, reaching for the book on the bedside table.

It's made of thick board, and the cover is black, the title spelled out in bright colors. There's a cartoonish picture of a pig in pajamas in a big yellow moon.

"'Pajama Time,'" he reads, flipping it open. "'The moon is up. It's getting late. Let's get ready to celebrate.'"

He reads slowly, keeping his voice low and even -- which also minimizes the chances that he'll stumble, since that's the last thing he wants to do in front of Phil, who maybe hasn't realized just how far from a Ph.D Clint is, education wise.

When he's about three quarters of the way done, he glances down to see that Ella is completely out, face slack, mouth half-open, and he stifles a laugh.

"Do I keep going?" Clint whispers, and Phil laughs quietly.

"No," he murmurs. "You can stop now. She's asleep."

"What if I want to know what happens next?"

Phil rolls his eyes, and Clint grins at him as he closes the book and sets it down on the little table by the bed. He looks at Ella, fast asleep now, Fuzzy clutched in one arm.

She can be a little hellion -- he's seen it -- but right now, she looks innocent, and beautiful, and so vulnerable, and fierce protectiveness surges through him. He may not have any claim to her but friendship, but he'd do anything to keep her safe, and that means a lot, coming from a man with his skills.

The depth of the connection he feels rocks him, leaving him shaken. He glances over at Phil, who's watching Ella sleep with a look on his face that is is soft and full of absolute love. Clint is still rattled by the sudden understanding of how deeply he cares for Ella, and it's like another punch to the gut when he realizes just how much he wants Phil to look at him that way.

The urge to bolt shudders through him. When he stands up, Phil looks over at him with a smile.

"Good job," he whispers as he leads Clint back down the hall. "Never would've guessed it was your first time."

His grin over his shoulder is mischievous, and it surprises Clint into a chuckle. The desperate longing settles down a little, but he needs some time alone to process everything. He knew he'd gotten attached, but he didn't realize how deeply he was entangled, and the fear that now that he knows, it'll be snatched away from him like everything else he's ever loved, is staggering.

Once they're in the living room, he tells Phil, "Thanks for letting me read to her."

"Gave me a night off," Phil says with a smile. "You're welcome to it, any time. I think I've read Pajama Time a hundred and fifty times."

Clint grins faintly. "I, uh… I think I'm gonna go, if that's all right."

Phil frowns. "You sure? She's down, and she probably won't wake up. We can finish watching the game."

"I've, uh… I'm going out of town soon. For work. So I've gotta do some prep stuff."

He's technically not leaving until the weekend, so he has time, and his words have the unfortunate effect of making Phil frown. Clint wants to swear -- the last thing he wanted to do was make Phil worry.

"Piece of cake," he says with a lazy grin. "I'll be back before you know it. But I'm, uh, gonna take off."

Phil follows him to the door. "Good night, then. And, Clint -- try and stay safe."

Clint ducks his head and nods, and tries not to be completely charmed that Phil watches from the doorway until Clint is back in his own apartment, like he might be kidnapped by goons in the hallway of the building or something.

With a wave and a grin, he shuts the door, letting out a shuddering sigh. Sleep is going to be a long time coming, tonight.

 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

"Hey, Cap!" Clint says with a nod, passing through the kitchen on his way out the door. He grabs an apple, buffs it on his shirt, and takes a bite.

"Barton," Steve says, and then he smiles, gesturing with his tablet. "Oh, hey, Clint. You've got a fan."

Clint stops. "Hmm?"

"I heard about this book, all about the women who worked with the Commandos," Steve says, and Clint jumps in surprise. There can't be too many books like that, right?

"Sounds interesting," he says neutrally.

Steve's brow furrows. "I wanted to make sure no one was saying anything… hurtful about any of those ladies," he says darkly. "They were braver and worked and fought just as hard as any of the men. And a lot of people think they didn't do anything more than administrative work, or that they were only there for the comfort of the men."

His face brightens. "But this book is really great. The author, he gets it."

He taps on the thick volume in front of him with his knuckle, and Clint moves closer, curious. Picking it up, he gives a cursory glance at the cover and then flips it over.

Phil is staring back at him, blue eyes huge behind his glasses. Clint guesses he's supposed to look serious and professorly, but Clint can tell he's uncomfortable, the corner of his lip curled in a tiny smile.

Clints lip twitches with the need to smile back.

"Maybe I'll take a read," he says airily, and Steve grins.

"You should. He likes you."

Clint stares at him, and Steve laughs.

"I was looking around on the internet to see what else he's written, and I came across this interview. Look."

He hands the tablet to Clint, pointing at a paragraph on the screen.

"You've said that Captain America was a great influence in your childhood. Do you think that, with his return or rebirth, whichever it may be, the boys of today might say the same thing in the future?"

Coulson: Boys and girls, yes, of course. The values that he's always stood for – hard work, respect, honesty, integrity, selflessness – these are still values we want to instill in our children. I know I certainly want to instill them in my daughter. But I can tell you, if I were a boy today, Captain America would not be the only Avenger to win my admiration.

Dr. Coulson is engaged in the topic now, eyes bright as he gestures with both hands while he speaks. When asked to elaborate, he smiles, somewhat coyly, as if he knows his answer will be unexpected.

Coulson: Hawkeye.

It is surprising. Hawkeye is often called the forgotten Avenger, and I tell Coulson this.

Clint stops, breathes deeply. It would be wrong to say it doesn't hurt, just because he's used to it, because it does. It always will. But he can put it aside because he wants to know why Phil admires him. Because what the fuck...

It's obvious Steve knows where Clint paused – Clint can feel his concern, and he completely ignores it, focusing again instead on Phil's words.

Coulson: He's not flashy. He's not superpowered or scientifically modified. He does what he does through hard work and the gifts he was born with, and that's exactly what makes him admirable. He's proof that you can be good, that you can do good, that you can become a hero – even a superhero – if you work hard and have a good heart.

Clint stares at the tablet until it dims with inactivity. He taps it with his thumb, ducking his head at Steve's fond chuckle.

Scrolling up, he sees the dateline and stops, surprised. The interview was published about two weeks before Ella first knocked on his door.

Phil has felt this way since before he knew Clint, and he's known who Clint was the entire time he's known Clint.

He wonders why Phil's never said anything, and is floored when he realizes that if Phil admires him like this, he might be as unsure of Clint's response as Clint has been of his. He might have been too nervous to try and say anything.

Okay, that's gonna stop. Tonight. He is so done with this insane dancing around each other.

He hands the tablet back to Steve with a smirk. "Maybe I should look this guy up."

Steve laughs in surprise.

"Maybe you should," he calls as Clint heads for the door.

 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

Clint whistles as he finishes shaving and futzes with his hair, trying to tamp down the nervous energy that's making him jittery. He has no idea what he's going to say to Phil, but he's determined to say something tonight. He's seen the way Phil looks at him, and he's done wondering if what's between them is just flirting and friendship, or if it's more.

"Please let it be more," he mutters.

Coming out of the bathroom, he yelps and stifles a curse, clutching at the towel around his waist.

"Jesus, Katie!"

"Why is your apartment so clean?" Kate asks him suspiciously. She glances around, eyebrow raised. "You actually have clean dishes, and your counters aren't sticky. And I don't see a single empty pizza box, balled-up sock, or crumpled t-shirt anywhere."

She turns back to him, coffeepot in hand, eyes wide. "Are you dating again?"

Clint blinks. "What? No. Excuse me, I can be clean when I want!"

"Mm hmm. And the only time you want is when someone is occasionally sharing your bed. So what gives?"

Going into his bedroom is not an escape -- he's just getting dressed because there needs to be less nakedness when Kate's in his kitchen.

"I'm not dating anyone," he calls as he shrugs jeans on and pulls a shirt over his head. And it's true, he and Phil aren't dating, though he wants them to be. Hopes they will be, soon. Phil and Ella and Clint share dinner a few times a week, that's all, and, well, Phil's place is always clean, and he has a kid. Clint kinda feels like he has no excuse.

He comes out of the bedroom to see Kate eying him while sipping her coffee.

There's pounding footsteps in the hall outside his apartment, and Lucky sits up with a quiet bark. The footsteps stop outside his door.

"Lucky!" Ella calls, giggling. "Hi, Lucky! Hi, Clint!"

Kate is staring at him, and Clint realizes he is grinning. He clears his throat and ducks his head, shrugging as he moves toward the door.

"Hey, kiddo," he says as he opens the door. "Where's your pop?"

Her face scrunches up in confusion. "Pop?"

"Where's your dad?" He leans out of his apartment to see Phil climbing the stairs, grocery bag in each arm. "There he is. There's your pop."

She giggles. "Pop. Pop pop pop! Hi, Lucky! Hi. Hi."

Lucky has trotted out to greet her, and she pats him on the head.

"Need help?" Clint takes one of the bags from him anyway, and Phil smiles at him.

"Thanks. Oh, hey -- " Reaching into the bag, Phil pulls out a roll of paper towels. "I noticed you were out, so I grabbed you some."

"Thanks."

"Pretty lady," Ella says suddenly, and Clint glances at her. She's still absently petting Lucky, but she's staring into Clint's apartment.

"Hi, sweetie," Kate says with a smile. "Thank you. What's your name?"

Clint feels a tug on his pants, and he glances down, surprised to see Ella hiding behind his leg. He remembers her hiding her face in Phil's neck the first day they met, and he's stunned to realize she's trusting him to protect her. A fierce ache wells up, and he pushes it down.

He looks over to see Phil watching them with a thoughtful look on his face, and Clint wonders if he's upset that Ella has come to him rather than going to her dad. Phil smiles, but his expression is unreadable.

Resting a hand on Ella's head -- her pigtails are low today, like Mary Anne's on Gilligan's Island -- he turns to Katie.

"Katie, this is Ella, and her dad, Phil. They live down the hall. Ella, Phil, this is Kate. She's a good friend of mine."

Phil has moved closer, standing behind Lucky and Ella so that he can see through the doorway. He nods at Kate. "Hello."

She smiles at him. "Hi."

Clint glances back and forth between them, puzzled. There's a strange tension in the air, and he's not quite sure what's causing it. Lucky notices it too, giving a soft whine.

"We're just having a cup of coffee," Clint tells Phil. "Do you want one?"

"No, I've gotta put this stuff away. Perishables, you know. Come on, Ella Bella. Let's go, you can play with Lucky later." Taking the bag of groceries from Clint, he nods at Kate without even really looking at her. "Nice to meet you."

Clint is left standing in the doorway of his apartment, paper towels in hand, watching Phil walk quickly away, Ella skipping behind him. Their apartment door closes behind them, and Clint blinks.

"What the hell?"

"He thinks we're sleeping together," Kate says behind him, and Clint jumps, turning to stare at her so quickly that his neck cracks.

"What?"

"Young woman in your apartment, drinking coffee out of your mug, you're barefoot and clearly just out of a shower, and you introduced me as a good friend? Come on, Hawkeye."

"But… that's… no."

"And I take it back. You're not dating that man. You're in an actual relationship with him. He bought you paper towels because he noticed you were out? How often is he over here that he's keeping track of your paper goods?"

"I…" Clint can only stare at her, bewildered.

"His kid's cute. And she loves you as much as she loves Lucky."

She rinses the mug and sets it in the rack to dry. "They seem great. So you need to find a way to go tell him that we're not sleeping together."

"You're like twelve!" Clint blurts out, and she rolls her eyes.

"Don't be a dumbass." She slips past him, punching him in the shoulder. "Bye, Hawkeye."

"You just came over to steal my coffee?"

She snorts. "Your coffee sucks. No, I was going to see if you wanted to get some practice in, but you've got more important things to do. Go talk to him."

He rubs the back of his neck. "Maybe later," he tells her, because even though he meant to talk to Phil, now things are all weird, and sometimes it's best to just --

"Ow!" he yelps as she grabs his hair and pulls him down to glare into his eyes.

"Now."

With one last shake, she's gone.

 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

"We're not sleeping together. I mean Kate and me. We're not sleeping together, she's like my kid sister," Clint says as soon as Phil opens the door.

Phil blinks at him and then glances behind him, and Clint winces.

Shit. Ella. "Sorry," he mumbles. "I tried to wait until after her bedtime. But I want to -- I need to talk to you, and I needed to get that out of the way first so you'd actually listen, okay?"

"She's down, but I don't know if she's asleep yet. Come in."

Clint comes in far enough for Phil to shut the door behind him.

Phil probably wants them to sit on the couch and have this conversation like civilized adults, but Clint knows if he goes over there, he'll feel trapped. He'll be skittish, and that's the last thing he wants. If he stays here, by the door, he can bolt if he needs to.

He really hopes he won't need to.

He digs his fingernails into his palms to keep from wrapping his arms around himself.

"I don't -- I don't really have any family," he tells Phil. "Katie -- she's the closest thing I got. It's not, we're not… like that, okay?"

Phil looks sad -- for him, Clint realizes, and that's not really how he wanted this talk to go, but maybe it's a start.

"I'm sorry for jumping to conclusions," Phil says.

Clint shrugs. "Not a very big jump. I can see how maybe it looked bad."

"Still, I don't have any right -- "

"No, listen. I… look, we can both pretend like all this time we've spent together is just friendly -- I can do that, if you want me to -- but… but I know that, at least for me, you and Ella -- you're more than just the neighbors down the hall."

Phil is looking at him, eyes wide and startled and hopeful, and Clint opens his mouth to continue, and then shuts it, having no idea where to go from there. This happens twice more, and then he shrugs.

"I'm shit at this, Phil -- at talking about things like this."

Phil moves closer, and Clint licks his lips nervously, breath hitching when he realizes Phil is tracking the movement.

"Do you want this?" Phil asks him, his voice pitched far lower than usual, and Clint shivers.

He reaches out, resting his hands lightly on Phil's waist, and he can feel an answering quiver run through Phil.

At this distance, Clint can see the brown and gold flecks in the deep blue of Phil's eyes, the light freckles that dust his cheeks and forehead, the crinkles around his eyes that deepen as he smiles. He's so gorgeous, and he's so close. So close.

He nods jerkily, pulling Phil closer, eyes drifting shut as he leans into the kiss. Phil's lips are soft against his, his cheeks slightly scratchy with evening stubble, and it's perfect. Phil's arms slide around his waist, one curling around the nape of his neck, the other splayed across his back to pull him close. He groans into the kiss, tilting his head, mouth opening under Phil's.

There's a thump as Clint's back hits the front door, and they break apart with a laugh.

"Stay the night," Phil murmurs, nosing at Clint's neck and breathing deeply. Clint shivers. "We can have pancakes in the morning."

Clint laughs. "Pancakes aren't exactly the main draw in that offer, you know that, right?"

Phil glances up at him through his eyelashes with a smirk, and Clint bites his lip to stifle a groan. It doesn't help, because Phil's eyes go darker when he sees it.

"Ella?" Clint asks. "I don't want… If I stay, I don't want it to, like, confuse her, or traumatize her or anything. I…" I love her, he thinks, but doesn't say, because maybe he doesn't have that right yet.

Phil grows serious. "You won't. If you're serious about this, you won't. She loves you already, Clint."

The look in Phil's eyes says Ella may not be the only one, and Clint can't help pulling Phil into another deep kiss.

"I'm very serious about this," Clint says breathlessly. "And I'd love to stay."

Forever, he thinks, and as Phil kisses him again, joy bubbles up inside him at the idea that it might not be such a ridiculous idea after all.

END