“He’s in a tree,” Natasha says when Coulson answers his phone. “And he won’t come down.” She hangs up the phone before Coulson can respond. If he didn’t actually like her, he might consider it a power play.
He takes a company car to the mansion and keeps his eyes up as he pulls into the long, tree-lined drive. A third of the way down, an acorn bounces off the windshield, exactly where a bullet could take out his brainpan. Coulson is a little concerned he finds it amusing.
“Are you six?” he asks as he steps out of the car, pulled to one side just in case Stark feels the need for speed in one of his ridiculous hot rod toys.
Clint doesn’t answer, but another acorn comes straight for Coulson’s head. Coulson catches it one-handed an inch before it can bean him in the forehead. “Nice try.” He catches the back-up acorn aimed for his shoulder. “What is wrong with you?”
Clint still doesn’t answer, but there are no more acorns. Phil sighs and eyes the tree, then glances down at his suit. “Do not make me do this,” he says and if anyone asks, he is not pleading. “I like this suit.”
“I’m not that far up,” Clint says, and now that he’s spoken, Phil can actually see where he is. It still amazes him sometimes that Clint can just disappear like he does. The leaves on the tree are green, Clint’s in bright yellow, and Phil would swear he wasn’t there a second ago.
“Get down here,” Phil says, letting a little affection slide into his tone. Clint drops in front of him a second later, raising his eyebrows for praise for his perfect landing.
“And the Russian judge gives him an 8.5.”
“Ouch,” Clint replies, but he grins a little as he leans back against the tree.
“Any particular reason you were up there?”
“There are too many people in the house,” Clint says. “And Tony’s in crazy-robot mode, so there’s a dozen little whirring monsters tooling around, and I’m not allowed to shoot them.”
“When has that ever stopped you?”
“You said I couldn’t,” Clint replies.
Phil’s taken aback for a moment. Because, yes, he had specifically told Clint no shooting obnoxious things in the mansion, but he’d meant Tony. And maybe Thor when Thor started breaking things. “You need a go order to take out some robots?”
“I need…” Clint stares down at his feet and mumbles something Phil can’t make out.
“I need…” Clint looks at Phil, then reaches out, his fingers just barely brushing Phil’s tie. “I don’t like it here.”
“You have to deal with it,” Phil says. “It’s team-building.”
“Can’t we just go to the county fair?”
“Thor attempted to buy a lovely wench the last time.”
“And Tony actually made her an offer,” Clint says. He doesn’t move for a moment, absolutely still in the way that Phil knows means he’s playing through the options.
“The team needs to be in a central location for best availability,” Phil reminds him, “and while I can trust you and Natasha to respect the rules of order around base, we both know Stark would be a pain just to be a pain, and Thor would just try to take everyone out drinking.”
“Cap would go for it,” Clint replies. “And he’d help rein in the others.”
“We’d never get Banner out of the lab once he got in there,” Phil argues. He reaches out as Clint tries to become one with the tree. “Come here,” he says when Clint doesn’t move towards him.
“You can tell me you miss me,” Phil interrupts, taking two steps forward and pressing Clint against the tree. “I like hearing it.”
Clint looks sheepish. “I didn’t mean for anyone to know where I was,” he says. “I mean, yeah, I missed you, but I wasn’t trying to get you to come out here.”
“I just needed to get away, and there’s no place in the mansion where Tony can’t find me, but he’s crap about remembering to look up.”
“I liked my bunk at base.”
“I liked having you in my bunk at base.”
Phil can’t help but grin at that. “I liked being in that bunk.”
“And you won’t stay over here.”
“Team-building,” Phil says. “It really is. I assure you I do not care what Tony Stark may say about our relationship, but it’s important you all bond as a unit to be fully effective.”
Clint sags back against the tree, smiling a little when Phil crowds in closer. “How much longer?”
“I don’t know. I’m liaison and can make a recommendation when to start allowing outside persons full, overnight access to the grounds, but I don’t get the final say, and even if I did, I wouldn’t be giving the okay right now.”
“Why not? None of us are dead.”
“Because it was Natasha who called me about you being out here, and it should have been someone else. They should have noticed.” Phil presses his hand to Clint’s side when Clint looks shocked. It’s not that Phil thinks Clint’s about to rabbit; it’s that Phil has to touch him somewhere so he doesn’t hug the shit out of him. “They don’t have to care as much as she or I do, but they should care. You should all be worried about one another. You should know one another enough to notice when something’s off.”
Clint thinks for a moment, the same blank look of concentration from before going across his face. “Bruce gets white-knuckled on his coffee cups,” he says. “And Steve got sort of shocky-looking when I tried to explain Toddlers & Tiaras and then reality TV in general.”
“That,” Phil says. “When Stark comes to me with details like that, team-building has been completed.”
“We have to wait for Stark?”
“Sorry,” and Phil actually is because he is well aware that it will take a good long while before Stark pulls his head from his ass and does more than put on a good PR face for the team. “And you’re not chained here, Clint. You’ve got the right to come and go as long as you check in.”
Clint’s brow furrows. “Meaning what?”
“Meaning,” Natasha says from behind Phil, and while neither he nor Clint jumps, he feels Clint tense under the hand he has on his waist. “That you can spend time at Phil’s, you know.”
“Why didn’t you just say that?” Clint asks Phil.
“You rarely give me the chance for a good encouragement speech,” Phil replies. He twists when Natasha pokes him between his ribs. She’s giving him a look that reads, ‘now is not the time for snark.’ “Because you need to understand your responsibilities,” he amends. “It’s not just you or you and Tasha anymore. It’s bigger than the both of you, and you’re both pretty big to begin with.”
If Phil were under extreme duress—extreme, extreme duress—he would admit that the way Clint tries to keep from looking pleased at a compliment will forever break his heart. He understands the psychology of it, of Clint’s inability to articulate his feelings well, but that doesn’t make it easier to see it happen again and again even though he knows Clint is so far beyond where he was when he first joined up.
“Come on,” Natasha says, “let’s go in and shock everyone with your cooking skills and try a little bonding.” She tugs at Clint’s arm when he doesn’t move right away. “The sooner we all have dinner, the sooner Phil can start to shack up with you.”
“I don’t like that phrasing,” Phil says.
“Common Law married?” Clint suggests.
“That’s worse,” Phil says with a grimace, but he lets Clint kiss him goodbye anyway.
There’s a weekly staff meeting at the mansion, two hours long every Wednesday. They discuss battle plans and strategies, and Phil harasses everyone into signing their after-actions and reminds them that medical is a necessity and not just there to play “find the runaway Avenger.”
When he walks into the conference room one Wednesday, he finds Clint and Thor already there, a checkerboard between them, talking quietly as they play.
“Hey,” Clint says, glancing up from the board. “We’ll clear it off before you get started. Everyone else is still eating breakfast.”
“You’ve had breakfast?” Phil asks. He’s surprised because half the time, everyone has breakfast during the meeting, using the meeting itself as a reason to sleep in a little, since it’s first on the daily agenda for everyone.
“We have, Son of Coul,” Thor tells him, beaming at him. “We could neither of us sleep in this morn. It was excellent food. Clint has introduced me to French Toast. Midgard creates many delicious bread foods for the syrup you also create.”
“We try,” Phil says. “Don’t let me interrupt the game.” He walks past them, touching Clint’s shoulder as he goes. He doesn’t ask why they weren’t sleeping. He knows all the reasons Clint doesn’t sleep well, and he’s pretty sure Thor’s reasons would give him nightmares if some of the stories Thor considers fun to tell are any indication. He pulls down the projector screen and starts flipping through his notes. Clint and Thor’s conversation is quiet, but it’s a quiet room, so it carries.
“Loki and I played a similar game when we were boys,” Thor says. “I was very impatient with it, but he enjoyed it very much.”
“You can be sneaky at checkers,” Clint says. “You can trick someone into doing what you want.”
They fall silent, and Phil sits in his chair at the head of the table, watching them play a few turns as he adds to his notes.
“My brother liked it, too,” Clint says after a few moments.
“I did not know you had a brother,” Thor replies, looking up from the board.
“It’s not—” Clint scrubs a hand over his hair and jumps two of Thor’s checkers. “It’s complicated.”
“I understand,” Thor says. He reaches out and puts a hand on Clint’s shoulder, dropping it with enough force that Clint jerks in his seat. “We could have much to discuss if you would like.”
“It’s not something I really talk about,” Clint says. “But thanks.”
“If you wish to discuss it, I am here,” Thor replies and lifts his hand. He puts his concentration back on the board and manages to jump one of Clint’s checkers.
Clint glances at Phil. Phil gives him a small smile of encouragement, letting him know he appreciates Clint trying. More importantly, Phil is glad Thor recognized it as an attempt to bond. That’s one person off the list.
“I can’t get up there,” Clint says.
“Isn’t that why we have you?” Tony asks, ratcheting back his faceplate so he can give Clint a proper skeptical look.
“You have me to shoot at stuff,” Clint replies. “Not to break my neck while shooting at stuff.” He looks from Tony, to the beam, to Natasha. “One, two, three upherd?” he asks.
“Can I make the shot with a pistol?” She asks as she takes a few steps back. They’re in a large room in a disused factory, the full team on call just in case Hawkeye can’t make his shot.
“I’ll pass you up the rifle once you’re up there. I don’t want you to overbalance.”
“Wait, what’s—“ is as far as Steve gets before Natasha takes four running steps and leaps, her left foot landing squarely in Clint’s cupped hands right before he heaves with all his might and sends her soaring into the rafters.
“I could have just lifted her,” Tony says.
“Or we could have grabbed that ladder,” Steve points out.
“What’s going on?” Bruce asks over comms, hidden away with Thor in a close-by building in case they need them.
“An ally oop,” Clint replies.
“Problem, Barton?” Coulson asks over comms.
“Rafters aren’t built for my weight, Sir. Widow will be taking the shot on my mark.”
“Confirmed,” Coulson replies.
“Wait,” Tony says, holding up his hands, “he can just do that? Can just change it up?”
“He’s not just doing anything,” Coulson replies before Clint can snark off. “It’s an ally oop. It’s a standard S.H.I.E.L.D. maneuver.”
“An ally oop?” Steve asks. “That’s what we actually call it?”
“Maneuver 17 in the Advanced Field Agent manual,” Coulson says.
Steve looks confused. “Is he joking?” he asks Clint.
“He never jokes on ops,” Clint replies as he hands Natasha his rifle. “East window,” he tells her.
“Copy that,” she says and disappears into the eaves. There is no sound above them as she moves.
“How do you know when she’s in position?” Tony asks. “And how do you even know she can make the shot?”
“First, move a foot to your left,” Clint tells him. Tony does so, and the knife aimed for his boot misses him by an inch. “Second, that was a really stupid thing to ask when she can hear you.”
“Tony,” Steve interrupts, “it was a really stupid thing to ask.”
“Thank you,” Widow says over comms. “I’m in position at the East window.”
Clint pulls a scope from a pocket in his vest and eyes the trajectory. “What angle is the rifle?”
“It’s balanced on the window sill,” Widow reports. “Slanting down half an inch.”
“76 degrees,” Clint and Tony say at the same time. Clint grins at Tony. “I know how to figure angles, thanks.”
“Habit,” Tony replies.
“Uh huh,” Clint says as he looks through his scope. “We want to tranq him. You’re aiming for his legs.”
“I know how to tranq a man,” Widow replies.
“Just reminding you,” Clint tells her, grinning.
“How many ops have you worked together?” Steve asks.
“A lot,” Clint answers. “We’re well-matched.”
“Anytime, Barton,” Coulson says on comms.
“Copy that,” Clint replies. He is silent for a few seconds. “Widow,” he finally says, “twenty degrees from your six o’clock. Let me know when you’ve got it.”
The comms are silent for a few seconds. “Got it,” Widow replies.
“On my mark,” Clint says.
“Get set?” Tony asks. He shrugs when Steve gives him a look. “Oh, like you weren’t thinking it.”
“Should you two really be talking while he’s trying to do this?” Bruce asks.
“Should you?” Tony retorts.
“Stark, cram it.” Coulson says.
“Now,” Clint says at almost the exact same moment. There’s the crack of the rifle, and their man—an alien disguised as a businessman—flinches before passing out directly into the arms of the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent disguised as private security. “Very nice,” Clint says.
“Downherd,” Widow replies.
“I’ve got her,” Steve says before Clint can move.
“Thanks,” Clint says, but he watches Steve very closely as he catches her.
“You think he was gonna drop her?” Tony asks. “She weighs an ounce.”
“I dropped her once,” Clint admits. “I didn’t figure Cap would, given the super-strength, but people forget to adjust for gravitational force of a falling body.”
“Did you just actually say gravitational force of a falling body?”
Clint raises his eyebrows. “So?”
Tony grins at him. “That would be an awesome band name.”
“Too long,” Natasha says as she walks over and hands Clint his rifle.
“I’m not even sure what just happened in this conversation,” Steve tells them.
“Science,” Bruce replies over comms.
“Everyone shut up and get back to base,” Coulson cuts in. “We need to debrief.”
“You’re gonna get in trouble,” Tony singsongs to Clint as they head down the stairs.
“No, I’m not,” Clint says.
“It’s in the manual,” Natasha adds.
“And it got the job done,” Coulson chimes in. “Now shut the hell up already.”
“He’s always so charming,” Tony says as he flicks off his comm.
“Like you’d know from charming,” Clint says as they step outside. Bruce and Thor are crossing from the other side of the street, S.H.I.E.L.D. already having moved in to scoop up the fallen alien.
“Nice work, everyone,” Coulson greets them, standing next to one of the S.H.I.E.L.D.-issue SUVs.
“Next time you call me out of the lab, make sure you need me,” Stark says.
“I make it my job to not need you,” Coulson replies.
“Wonderful,” Bruce mutters, “we’re already at antagonizing level two.”
“Nah,” Clint assures him. “We’re totally still in level one.”
“Level two includes swearing,” Steve says. He shrugs when everyone stares at him. “I do actually understand some things in this crazy new world.” He looks at Clint and holds out his hand. “Good work back there,” he says. “You and Widow did a great job.”
It’s so sincere that Clint nearly laughs, but he holds it together and accepts the handshake. “Thanks, Cap.”
“You’re gonna give him a swelled head,” Tony says.
“We could use an extra in case yours ever bursts,” Steve tells him, smiling sweetly.
“Flirts,” Natasha says under her breath.
“I give it a month,” Clint tells her as he turns towards Coulson. Coulson’s face is impassive, but there’s a flash of happiness in his eyes. Clint raises his eyebrows, and Coulson slides a glance at Steve. Clint rolls his eyes. “You total fanboy,” he mutters to him.
“He’s proud of you,” Coulson says in an undertone as everyone except Tony and Thor pile into the SUV. “It’s a step forward.”
Clint pauses, halfway in the SUV. In the two back rows, Steve, Natasha, and Bruce are talking about something. “A step forward?” he asks. “Like, regarding you actually coming over sometimes?”
“Regarding exactly that.”
“Tasha, high-five me,” Clint says, sticking his hand between the seats. She does so without looking away from her conversation. “Thank you.”
“Whatever,” she replies.
Clint is sorely tempted to hold Coulson’s hand on the way back to base, but he tucks his hands under his thighs instead.
“You’re going to mess up your wrists,” Phil tells him.
“No, I won’t.”
Phil reaches out and presses his fingers against Clint’s forearm. It’s a technical touch, checking the strain on Clint’s muscles, but Clint knows Phil doesn’t want it to be. Clint pulls his hands out from under his legs and puts them on his lap. Phil glances in the rearview mirror, then touches Clint’s fingers. “Thank you,” he says.
“Sure,” Clint responds. He gives Phil a quick grin then turns to look out the window. He catches Natasha’s eye in the reflection of the window, and she gives him a little smile that tells him she saw Phil’s gesture, too. They’re getting closer, he figures. Two down.
Bruce works in the SHIELD labs two days a week, coming in very early in the mornings and leaving very late in the evenings. He is quiet and unobtrusive, doing his work with efficiency and staying to himself.
At least, Phil assumes this until he walks in one day with an undated requisition form and finds Bruce and Natasha chatting together in Russian, Clint sitting in the corner with a novel, his feet propped up on an empty lab table.
“Didn’t know Russian was in your skill set, Doctor Banner,” Phil greets him.
“I haven’t spoken it for years,” Bruce answers, nodding hello to Phil and grinning at Natasha. “Nat’s helping me relearn it.”
Phil exchanges a look with Clint. Nat? his eyebrows ask. Clint shrugs in response. I’m not asking, he’s saying.
“You forgot to date your form,” Phil says as he lays it on the counter. “Supply can’t fill the order unless everything’s properly marked.”
“Oh, sorry.” Bruce pats himself down for a pen and smiles at Natasha again when she pulls it off the waistband of his slacks. “Thanks.” He dates the form and then reviews it, marking through a line item and then sliding it back to Phil. “I found that one,” he says, gesturing to the crossed-out line.
“That’s fine,” Phil says. “I’ll let you get back to it.” He and Natasha nod goodbye to one another. When Phil turns to do the same to Clint, he finds Clint standing behind him, just far enough back not to be spooky.
“I’ll walk you back to your office, Sir,” Clint says. “I’ve got to get down to the range anyway.”
They fall into step in the hallway, Clint warm and close. “Are we close enough yet?” Clint asks. “Natasha’s made a friend; that’s pretty impressive.”
Phil has to chuckle. “It’s incredibly impressive. You’re still missing Stark.”
Clint sighs and his shoulders tighten. Phil reaches up and squeezes the shoulder closest to him. Clint drops them into a more relaxed position. “I’m not a shiny piece of technology, coffee, or hot and taller than him. I’m pretty sure to get him to notice me, I’d have to paint myself up like a hot rod.”
“Don’t use anything lead-based.”
“Not helping,” Clint replies, and his shoulders go from relaxed to slumped.
Phil feels like an ass. When they get to his office, he pulls Clint inside, locking the door behind him before backing Clint against it. “Hey.”
“Hey,” Clint replies.
Phil kisses him. “You can stay at my place tonight. Everyone’s cleared for the occasional night away now.”
“It’s not the same,” Clint says. “I mean, I know I can, but it’s not the same as you being able to come over to mine. I like you in my space.”
Phil kisses him again. “I like you in mine, so you’ll have to accept mine for the time-being, all right? We’re getting there.”
“It’s been weeks. I’ve made efforts.”
“I know,” Phil says. He wants to break down and agree they’re close enough. He really, really does. But he can’t. If they’re not cohesive—fully, properly cohesive—they won’t work in the right rhythm. “We’re getting there,” he repeats.
“I miss smelling you on my sheets,” Clint confesses, and Phil has to press his hands hard against the door to keep from calling it right there.
Tony walks into Phil’s office, flops on the couch, and grins. “So, how long have you been K-I-S-S-I-N-G with Barton?”
“A few years,” Phil replies and smirks when Tony nearly falls off the couch in shock.
“I didn’t expect you to just admit it.”
“I’m not ashamed of my relationship.”
“You never stay over, never show him affection in front of the team, never kiss him goodbye.”
“I must have if you knew about the K-I-S-S-I-N-G.” Phil knows he’s setting himself up, but he wants this conversation over.
Tony holds up his phone and flicks the image onto the wall. It’s a still from Jarvis’s cameras, Clint and Phil crowded into a dark corner, Clint holding onto Phil’s tie, Phil’s hands on Clint’s hips. Phil remembers that kiss. Clint had begged him to stay in a mostly-breath whisper, promised to sneak him out in the morning and no one had to know, and Phil had refused and apologized by kissing Clint until he was panting, hands gone slack and body limp, knowing Phil wanted to be right where he was even if he couldn’t stay.
“And?” Phil asks when Tony doesn’t say anything.
“The walls are soundproofed,” Tony says. “You can stay over.”
“I’m not worried about soundproofing, Stark. I just told you I’m not ashamed of my relationship.” Phil wishes he had a camera to take a picture of the shock on Tony’s face.
“So stay over,” Tony says, but there’s something not-casual about his tone.
“Why not? It can’t possibly violate any rules if you’re already sleeping together.”
Tony raises his eyebrows. Phil says nothing. Tony lowers his eyebrows. Phil stays quiet. Tony leans forward, elbows on his knees. He looks down at his feet for a moment. When he looks up, his face is serious, brows furrowed. “I don’t like to be in other people’s business—”
“Pull the other one.”
“I’m trying to have a moment here,” Tony huffs.
“About you and Barton,” Tony says. “He’s not being weird or anything, but he’s being sort of weird.”
“He’s acting like he misses someone, not in any way you can really point at, but I know a little something about missing someone, and I think it’s you, and I thought it might be because you don’t stay over, and I don’t know why you don’t stay over, so I thought I’d tell you no one cares if you do.”
Phil is glad he has his feet planted firmly on the ground so that he doesn’t slide out of his chair in shock. “Noted,” he says.
“Great.” Tony stands up and bounces on his toes. “I’m gonna go mock the toys in R&D.”
“We’re working on a new taser. Feel free to play test dummy.”
It’s only after Tony leaves the office, the door latched securely behind him, that Phil lets a grin break out on his face.
Clint walks into his suite at the mansion and stops short at the sight of Phil on his bed, wearing a pair of Clint’s sleep pants and no shirt. He’s propped up on the pillows, reading a book. “Yeah?” he says.
“Yeah,” Phil replies.
“I am scarred for life.” Tony announces as he walks into the kitchen the next morning. “I did not need to know you make those sounds, Coulson.”
“You should probably sue the guy who designed the place,” Phil replies. He’s in an undershirt and Clint’s sleep pants. Clint is serving him French Toast hot from the pan.
“I designed this place!”
“You should probably hire someone better.”
“There’s extra batter if you want French Toast,” Clint says to Tony as he sits next to Phil with his own plate. “Make sure to leave some for Thor. He’s way into it.”
Tony gapes at the two of them. “You two are unbearable,” he says, but he steps up to the stove and drops bread into the batter and makes a pleased noise at the back of his throat as he lays out the bread in the pan.
“We’re a team,” Clint whispers to Phil.
“Yeah,” Phil agrees. “We are.”