Clint visits him every day in the hospital. Nat's in and out (and Phil knows she's worried because she doesn't protest when he calls her "Nat"), but Clint's there every day, from beginning to end of visiting hours, steadfast as the tide.
When they release Phil, Clint's there to drive him home, help him into the building. Clint brings him up the elevator, through the front door, onto the couch. Before Phil can even start to dismiss him, Clint's fetching him a glass of water and heating up some canned tomato soup from the pantry.
Later, when Phil's eyes are drifting shut in front of the TV, Clint half-carries him to the bedroom, undresses him chastely, and tucks him under blankets. Then and only then, Clint leans down and presses his lips against Phil's, cool as spring water. Phil doesn't have the energy to reciprocate much, but he can look back up at Clint and smile.
(This, the night of their first kiss, was the memory that Phil often wished he could blame for everything that followed. But his vaunted self-control was never quite strong enough to give it up as wholly perfect.)
SHIELD isn't done with Clint, just because he became an "Avenger"; they still send him off on missions, paired with Sitwell or Cho, names Phil trusts. But when he isn't busy saving the world, Clint's more often than not at Phil's apartment.
For the first couple of weeks, Clint plays the role of caretaker more often than lover; he cooks basic meals, tidies the apartment, sponge-bathes Phil when the chest wound's too fresh for a shower. They exchange kisses like secrets, brief and treasured, and Clint doesn't push things any further.
A few days in, Phil offers to let Clint stay the night, rather than travel home late, and it becomes a regular habit. They share Phil's large bed and sleep without touching. Whatever this thing is between them, they haven't spoken it aloud. Phil imagines it as a soap bubble, iridescent and unhurried. Push it in a specific direction, and it might burst.
One night, Phil wakes up from a dream to hear tell-tale rustling and harsh breathing from the other side of the bed. He's hard almost instantly. He thinks about saying something, but he doesn't, and then he thinks about touching himself, and he does. Stretching downward pulls at his stitches, though, and a gasp of pain comes out before he can stop it. The sounds stop from the other side of the bed.
"Hey," Clint says, voice hushed. "I could help."
"-- Okay," Phil says.
Phil doesn't reciprocate that night, but he does in the next. Clint's face has always been beautiful to Phil, beautiful like a fortress crafted by time and christened by battle, but the wideness of his eyes when he comes, the way that Phil's name is the breath upon his lips -- it's perfect.
Weeks become months, and Phil gets cleared to return to duty -- first at his desk, then eventually in the field. His breath still comes shallow sometimes, but he's back at work, Asgard is silent, and the Avengers save the world on a weekly basis, in ways large and small. The man I love is a superhero, Phil thinks, and can't hide the quiet smile of wonder that the thought elicits, even if "love" is a word that he hasn't yet dared say aloud.
He tells himself that he's saving the word for a special occasion, a near-death experience or proud victory. In the end, though, he says it one night when they're at his apartment, and Clint has been drying the dishes that Phil hands to him, swiping the towel through their crevices with the same neat precision that he uses to clean his bow. Phil sets down the scrub brush and the fork that he's holding and gives himself a moment to drink in and memorize the sight. "I love you," he says, and he isn't even sure if he's said it aloud until Clint meets his gaze without a trace of hesitation.
"Love you too," he says, like it's something they've been saying every day, and maybe they have, in different words. Phil realizes then that it's not a relationship that needs big gestures, because they both spend their careers fighting for the fate of the world. Moments like this, intimate and quiet and mundane, are what make this thing perfect.
Stark pulls him aside one day, walks to Phil's office and asks if it's secure; Phil tells him it is. "Barton isn't listening from the airducts?" Tony says, and Phil thinks it's a joke at first, but Stark's tone is completely serious.
"No," Phil says. "The Helicarrier airducts are impassible. To his great chagrin."
"Good," Tony nods. "Listen, I found something on SHIELD’s servers. I'm not supposed to know about it, and neither are you, but when I saw it, I figured you deserved to see it too." Phil raises an eyebrow and waits for him to continue. "It's a report that Natasha filed with SHIELD a few months ago, right when you were returning to duty. Came across it while I was looking for, uh, something else. Here."
Tony hands over a datapad that displays the scan of a neatly handwritten document. It's a form that Phil knows well. As an organization that has to deal with the possibilities of spy infiltration, alien influence, magic mind control, and experimental brainwashing, SHIELD realized long ago that agents needed a way to report unusual behavior without starting an automatic witch hunt. The Behavioral Discrepancies form goes straight to an internal investigation department, which gathers data and evaluates the necessity of a real inquiry.
Phil scans the form for relevant information, letting phrases jump out at him.
cohabiting in all but name --- relationship appears to be romantic and sexual in nature --- extensive evidence of his strict heterosexuality --- frequent previous statements denying any physical attraction --- proximity between the unexpected behavior and his period of mental influence by the alien Loki ---
On a personal note, Barton and Coulson are both valued colleagues and friends. I sincerely hope that my observations and concerns have some more mundane explanation.
When he gets to the bottom of the document, hands trembling imperceptibly, Phil scrolls up to the beginning and rereads it with care. The message comes out the same.
This is what Phil knows: Nat likes and respects both him and Clint. She's never shown homophobic tendencies or disapproval of Phil's sexuality. She doesn't raise suspicions unless she has a valid reason for them.
Possible conclusions: maybe Clint's a Kinsey 1, and Phil happens to be his rare exception. (Possible; unlikely.) Maybe Clint's straight, but he's engaging in homosexual behavior for Phil's sake. (Even more unlikely; Phil's seen how he gets aroused at the sight and touch of a cock.) Or maybe Loki's influence on Clint isn't as gone as everyone thought.
Given the possibilities, Phil can understand Nat's rational concern, even if the fact that she submitted that form hurts like a knife in the gut. But Clint's never sabotaged the Avengers' work, never displayed any suspicious motivations, never acted abnormally. This isn't like Loki's control of his mind, when Clint became an icy-eyed shadow of himself. If this isn't Clint, then the imitation of him is nothing short of perfect.
Phil waits until that night, when good food and better sex have left the two of them sated. "It's funny," he says. "Until all this, I always thought you were straight."
"Wait, seriously?" Clint asks. He laughs. "I guess that explains things. I mean, I'd figured out a long time ago that you were -- interested in me that way. But that's why you never did anything about it?"
"Among other reasons," Phil agrees. Clint's answer is plausible, natural, but he can't help prodding it further. "So I'm not the first guy you've been involved with?"
"You're cute when you're jealous. Honestly? Yeah, you are the first guy. But it's not like I've had the time to get into that many relationships, period. Why, was I really that bad in bed?"
"No," Phil says truthfully. "And you know that. Believe me, I'll tell you if I have complaints." In response, Clint snakes one arm down Phil's torso and starts to stroke the skin at the base of his stomach, ever so soft. "Mmmmmm. But you were at least interested in men, right?"
Clint shrugs, but Phil can see his muscles beginning to tense. "I don't know; I guess I never thought about it. Is there something you're trying to drive at here?"
"Nah," Phil says, and he clasps Clint's hand in his own. "I've got you in my bed. Everything's perfect."
When Thor returns from Asgard, the following week, he brings something that looks like an oversized set of sparkling chimes. He waits until the Avengers are together, along with key SHIELD representatives, to tell them his visit's purpose.
"In my brother's captivity, he has spoken many things," Thor says. "As befits his reputation, many of them are false or misleading, chosen to fan the flames of doubt and discord. Yet I find that he varnishes his lies with truths, and he has spoken often of his enchantments' lingering effects in this realm -- 'cunning gifts,' as he calls them. I spoke of my concerns with my mother, she who has the greatest magical knowledge of our realm, and she gave me this talisman. When activated, its power will expand from this place as a resonant sphere, and any foreign enchantments that remain will be dispelled."
"Hunh," Tony murmurs. "An anti-magic EMP. Handy."
"You're not taking apart the Asgardian technology without permission, Stark," Phil says tiredly. "Thor. As long as it won't have any harmful effects, I can't see a reason to stop you." Fury nods in agreement.
Thor pulls out a rod of shiny black stone, as opaque as the crystal chimes are clear, and taps the chimes in a complicated order. Each note resonates in the air, pure and bright, like a Platonic ideal of music, divorced from reality.
With the final note, an unearthly chord hangs in the air for a moment, and then something like a shockwave crests over Phil. Within a split second, the room is silent again, though he presumes that the magic will take some time to travel across the earth.
Clint's face suddenly turns very, very pale, and he rushes out of the room. Uttering a quick apology to the others, Phil follows after him. He catches up to him in the nearest bathroom, where Clint is busy throwing up the contents of his stomach in a toilet stall.
Phil waits inside the doorway and tries to ignore the horrible fear choking its way up his throat. He waits while Clint coughs up the last dregs of vomit, flushes it down the toilet, and spends several minutes scrubbing clean his hands, his face, his mouth. He waits until Clint looks up and meets his eyes.
"God, I am so sorry," Clint says.
"What for?" Phil asks. Extensive evidence of his strict heterosexuality keeps repeating behind his eyes.
Clint shakes his head. "I need space. Tell them I'm okay now, SHIELD isn't compromised, but I need space."
"Okay," Phil soothes. "Anything you need."
Instead of responding, Clint heads for the door, sidestepping Phil. When he's halfway out, he pauses, just for a moment. "Just. When everything comes out, don't you dare blame yourself. You were -- you were perfect."
Clint has never been one to let fear control him. The more that something terrifies him, the more firmly he forces himself to walk up to it and spit in its eye. (It's one of the things that Phil loves about him.) So Phil isn't surprised when Clint requests Phil himself to conduct his initial debrief.
They watch each other for a moment in silence. Clint hasn't been to Phil's apartment since Thor arrived.
"I don't think that Loki forced me to do anything after Nat broke his control," Clint says at last. "I know what it feels like to have his presence in my head, telling me what I need to do; this was different."
Phil nods and waits.
Clint takes a deep breath, the way he always does when he's steeling himself to do something hard. "But this one time, back when he was in my head, I came to wake him up with some news. He was in bed at the time, not wearing anything. He looked me up and down and asked me if I wanted him, and it was a question, so I gave him the truth; I told him that I wasn't into guys like that. And he just looked at me and said, 'Yes, you are.' And I was. Just like that. I looked at him, and I wanted him to do -- things with me."
Phil's gut clenches. "Did he--"
"Nah. I think he found it funnier for me to want it but not get it. Fucking bastard. But it wasn't just him that I noticed, after that. I think that's why it didn't go away when Nat knocked me out. It wasn't part of his mind control; it was something he changed about who I was. Like cutting off a limb."
Clint holds Phil's gaze, briefly. "I'm not saying that there's anything wrong with it. You know that, right? It's just not who I am."
"Of course," Phil says, on auto-pilot.
The next several minutes are excruciating. When they're done with the debriefing, Clint looks down, wanting to say something but hesitant. Phil gives him a moment to choose his words. "I haven't stopped caring about you, sir," Clint says. "You've always been like the older brother I wished I'd gotten."
"Thank you," Phil says, because it's the appropriate response.
Thank you for stabbing me more brutally than Loki's spear ever managed.
Thank you for making it unequivocal that my touch disgusts you.
Thank you for making it impossible to hate you, because even now, you're wholly perfect.
Phil sets aside the things that Clint's left at his apartment -- clean clothes, his second-favorite sneakers, a couple Westerns -- and waits for Clint to drop by for an evening. Friends do that, after all.
Clint never does. When a month has passed, Phil tosses everything in a box and has it shipped to the Avengers Tower. Once it's gone, Phil spends a weekend cleaning every inch of his house, removing every trace that a second person ever lived there. When he's done, it looks like a model apartment in a magazine: clean, tasteful, charming in a relatable way. Paintings, not mementos, brighten the walls.
Phil's proud of himself, by the end of the weekend. His apartment has never been so spotless. Every inch of it is tidy and emotionlessly perfect.
Phil dreams one night that Loki returns to earth and visits him. Loki needs something from Phil, so he offers to change Clint back. His smile is knowing and cold.
In the dream, Phil says, "Yes."
In the dream, he gets Clint back, the way things used to be. Clint's grateful; he's happy that he can want Phil in the way that Phil deserves.
"I missed this," Clint says, and he sinks down onto Phil with a sigh of pleasure. The way his breath hitches, the smile teasing at the corners of his mouth; everything is genuine.
The worst part is that when Phil wakes up, he has a moment where he's heartbroken that Loki's offer wasn't real. It terrifies him, how much he'd betray to go back to when everything was perfect.
They spend another month as polite coworkers. If Clint has been dating anyone else, Phil doesn't hear about it; then again, he doesn't ask.
Phil gets an e-mail, one Monday.
project runway season finale at your place? i'll spring for pizza.
i miss you.
cbBefore his better judgment can stop him, Phil e-mails back "ok." He spends the next three days trying to quench baseless hopes, and trying not to read too much into "i miss you."
Thursday night arrives, and Clint shows up at Phil's door. He knocks, even though he still has his copy of the key, and when Phil opens the door, they both make an abortive movement toward each other, muscle memory of a greeting kiss. "Hi," Phil says; Clint comes in. They never touch.
While they're watching Project Runway, things feel almost normal. They speculate about who's going to screw up, talk back to the Confession Cam, and laugh at the judges' over-the-top insults. Clint steals a slice from Phil's sausage side of the pizza, even though he always says he likes pepperoni better.
Clint's wearing a threadbare University of Iowa t-shirt that says "GO IOWA HAWKEYES"; he used to say that he wore it just to make Phil roll his eyes. Phil never told him that his favorite part was how the thin fabric would ride up over Clint's stomach whenever he stretched, giving him a glimpse of the chiseled six-pack above and the tempting trail of hair below.
The t-shirt still rides up. Phil tries not to watch, gives it up as a lost cause, and instead tries not to get caught watching.
By the end of the extra-long finale, both of them are sprawling back on their respective sides of the couch, pleasantly loose from sleepiness and beer. "Guess I should head back," Clint says.
"The couch is yours if you want to crash here," Phil shrugs. He doesn't know whether he's hoping for Clint to agree or dreading it.
"Nah, I'm good." Clint doesn't move for a minute; Phil can feel his eyes on him. "Look, I know I don't have the right to ask for this, and the last thing I want is to make things worse for you. But my head's been pretty messed up. I still remember everything we did, and I remember it feeling amazing when it happened. But then when I actually walk myself through the memories, it just -- it doesn't work for me any more."
Phil listens. He's been through torture, had interrogators use jagged hunting knives to draw pinstripes on his skin, line by excruciating line. No matter what his brain's telling him, this can't be worse than that.
"It's crazy," Clint continues. "I look at you, and I don't want to kiss you. But then I remember how good it felt to kiss you, and then I start wondering if maybe I do want to. So -- I can't believe I'm asking this, but could I try it?"
There's a 90% chance that this'll only make things worse, Phil thinks. Clint is straight, and straight guys do not enjoy making out with other men. But there's that 10% chance that it'll work -- Clint will see how good it feels and want more. That 10% chance is worth anything.
"Okay," Phil says. "Come over here?" He doesn't want to be the one moving in, in case it makes Clint feel trapped.
"Yeah." Clint takes one of those deep breaths. Then he heads to the other side of the couch, bends toward Phil, and kisses him.
They start with several closed-mouth kisses, teasing and light; then Clint presses in and works Phil's mouth open, and it's full-on making out, teeth and tongue and Clint's hand gripping at the base of Phil's neck. Phil had known that Clint was a good kisser, but he didn't realize how much he'd missed it until he had to go without. This feels like gulping in air after two months of suffocation.
When Clint pulls away, several minutes later, Phil knows he probably looks like a disheveled mess. He can't keep the joy out of his smile, and he just looks up at Clint, praying to the universe that he can have this again.
Clint looks, and looks, and then he looks away. "I need to think about this," he says, beginning to gather his things. "See you around."
As usual, Clint locks the door behind him, so Phil doesn't have to move from his spot on the couch. He tries not to think, because he wants to let himself ride this high for as long as the endorphins last.
If it weren't for the fact that the two of them had been pressed together, close enough that Phil could feel the complete absence of Clint's hard-on, the moment would have been perfect.
Thursday nights at Phil's apartment become a regular occurrence. They watch reality TV, eat take-out, and have light conversation. The following two weeks, Clint asks if he can kiss Phil before he goes, and they do, and then Clint leaves.
By the fourth week, Phil's frustrated in every sense of the word. "Clint, I know that these kisses aren't turning you on. If you don't want to do them, you don't have to do them. But if you want to try to get there, I can use my mouth differently."
Something flashes across Clint's face, too quick for Phil to decipher. "We can try that," he says.
It takes time, but Phil's good with his mouth, and he's well acquainted with exactly how to make Clint come. Early on, he glances up; Clint's eyes are closed, and his hands grip the pillows of the couch. After that, Phil doesn't worry about making a visual show of it, just concentrates on the mechanics of friction and pressure and warmth. It takes time, but Clint does come, and Phil savors every drop of the familiar taste.
Clint's eyes flutter open, wide-pupiled and a bit dazed. "Thanks," he says. Then a silence so long it verges on awkward. "Did you want me to --"
"Don't worry about it," Phil says, because he knows how to read between Clint's lines, and that isn't an actual desire to reciprocate. They kiss once before Clint leaves, lips on lips, and then Phil stands staring at the closed door. He can still taste Clint's seed on his tongue: sharp, bitter, perfect.
"Could we just keep things low-key this week?" Clint asks, the next Thursday night. He just returned from a hard mission away, so Phil understands the desire, but he also knows the other statements that underlie it: By low-key, I mean platonic. Because trying to be sexual with you is something I have to force myself through, not something that helps me relax.
But Phil just agrees, and they eat pad thai and watch TV in comfortable silence. This time, when Clint gets ready to leave, he pats Phil on the hand, like he feels obligated to make some kind of physical connection. "Thanks for understanding. I wish I could give you what you deserve."
"You're here," Phil says, and then he lies. "That's enough."
As usual, Clint sees straight through it. "You've always deserved better than some circus fuck-up turned soldier, and now I can't even make up for it with sex. I'm not enough."
"Too bad. You're what I have, and what I want." Phil means for the words to sound teasing. They come out almost possessive.
"Yeah," Clint says, and he pushes the door open. "Perfect."
The next week, halfway through Phil's blowjob, Clint asks, "Can I fuck you?"
Phil lets Clint's dick slip out of his mouth. "If that's what you want," he says.
They move to the bedroom, and Phil undresses and opens himself up with his own fingers. Clint keeps his eyes on Phil's face. By the time that Phil's ready for him, Clint's dick is half-soft, but Clint brings himself back with a few slicked-up strokes of his own hand.
Phil doesn't need to ask to know that Clint would feel better fucking him doggy-style, but he doesn't miss the moment of relief on Clint's face when Phil rolls onto his hands and knees. But then Clint surprises him; instead of pushing right in, he leans forward to hug Phil from behind, and he plants a kiss on the back of Phil's neck. His cock rests easily in the crack of Phil's ass, and when Clint sits back up, he lets his hands slide down Phil's back on either side of his spine, the touches long and unbroken.
"Let me know if I'm hurting you," Clint says, and Phil doesn't reply every moment that you're near me.
Clint hasn't forgotten how to do this. He knows how to keep the intensity just short of pain, how to angle into Phil's prostate with every thrust. He makes it good for Phil, who comes embarrassingly quickly, and a few minutes of sped-up thrusting later, Clint comes too.
After, Clint rolls over to lie on his back, eyes closed, a faint post-orgasmic smile on his face. Phil rests on his side, watching Clint, feeling the sweat evaporate from his skin. He lets himself hope, just for those transitory moments.
He lets himself hope right up until Clint sits up and begins to reach for his clothes. Clint gives Phil a quick smile, but that's all it is -- a gift, not a window into any new emotion.
Clint must see something in Phil's eyes, then, because he stops dressing and crouches by Phil's side of the bed. "Hey," he says, and gives Phil a hug, the movement only slightly stiff. "I still," he begins and stops; it's clear that what he says next isn't what he originally intended. "I still want you to be happy, whatever happens."
"I know," Phil says.
"Next week?" Clint asks. He's tugging on his t-shirt, patting his pockets to check for cell phone and wallet.
Phil's hand clutches into a fist and presses into his hip, where he can still feel the bruises from Clint's fingers. The burst of pain grounds him, adds brightness to his smile. "Sounds perfect."
Next week doesn't happen, because Clint gets called off on assignment. Thursday afternoon, Natasha stops by Phil's office. "You free tonight?" she asks, in a tone that says that she already knows he is.
They go out for Ethiopian together, and Phil watches Nat as she scoops up food with her injera, popping each bite into her mouth with perfect grace, neat and non-provocative. If Clint were here, he thinks, Clint's fingers would be dripping with spicy sauces, and he might offer them to Phil to lick clean.
Clint's not here. And if he were, that still wouldn't happen any more.
A comment about the generous use of peppers turns into a long conversation about spices and the cuisines of warm climates; they trade stories about favorite meals eaten on warm nights. Once they've finished eating, Natasha sits back deliberately. Coulson sips on his glass of honey wine.
"You should break up with Clint," Natasha says without preamble.
Phil doesn't respond, I know. "Why?" he asks.
"Because he won't do it himself. He loves you, Coulson. He's loved you for years; you're the only person in his life who's always treated him with respect and never let him down." Including me, she doesn't need to say. "He knows how happy he made you, and he thinks that if he tries hard enough, he can make that happen again."
She doesn't need to spell it out for him, not really. Phil's read every psychological evaluation of Clint ever written. Younger child, history of abuse and abandonment. Craves attention and fears rejection. Learned the hard way to play peacemaker, to give whatever it took to maintain the status quo. Holds himself responsible for failures, even those beyond his control.
Phil knows the evaluations, but he's never been entirely objective about Clint, the way Natasha always could be. "If I broke things off, would that make him more happy?"
"At first, of course not. But he'd ultimately feel free to pursue other opportunities that fulfilled his needs. Besides. Phil. It's not just his happiness that I worry about. Is this game you're playing good for you?"
"I'm not sure if I care, to be honest." He tries to temper his response with a light laugh, and fails.
Natasha narrows her eyes. "Clint does. Do you want me to tell him how much he's hurting you? I won't even have to lie to him."
She's right, Phil knows. Clint might not end things for his own sake, but he'd end them if Nat convinced him that it was what Phil needed. He'd do it, and then he'd never stop feeling guilty about it. "I'll do it," he says finally.
Natasha's nod isn't devoid of sympathy. "Perfect."
"You've met Darcy, right?" Phil asks Clint on Monday. He ran into Clint in SHIELD headquarters, fresh from his mission debriefing with Hill; suggesting lunch felt so natural that he didn't even stop to consider otherwise. They're in a nearby Korean restaurant that used to be a favorite for lunches together; they'd tease each other about kimchi breath on the walk back, then exchange lingering kisses before they parted ways.
"Your research assistant -- the young one with glasses?"
"That's her," Phil nods. "I overhear her conversations sometimes. She seems to think you're pretty attractive."
"Jealous?" Clint asks, with a teasing smile that doesn't reach his eyes.
"Actually," Phil says, pausing for a bite of bulgogi, "I was thinking she'd probably say yes if you asked her out."
Clint sets down his chopsticks and doesn't say anything for a long moment. He's upset, clearly, but he's not telegraphing why. "How about you just tell me what you want?"
"I want you to give a pretty young woman a chance. Take her out, see how the chemistry goes, and take things further if you're both so inclined."
Phil tried to keep his words calm, but Clint's jaw just tightens further. "Is this some screwed-up equivalent of a pity fuck? Does she know that her boss is trying to set her up with his boyfriend?" He spits out the last word, like it hurts to have it lingering in his mouth.
"I never said we had to be exclusive. Especially not now."
"I never said I wanted to date anyone else."
"Darcy's a beautiful, smart young woman," Phil says, and emphasizes the word woman. "I think you two would get along well."
Clint's jaw is twitching imperceptibly. "Fine. If that'll make you happy."
Phil doesn't say anything, but he instinctively reaches for Clint's hand where it rests on the table, a gesture of comfort. He stops halfway when he realizes it might not be appropriate.
Clint doesn't move his hand to complete the touch. His face isn't angry, isn't disappointed; it's the face that Clint takes on when he's slipping into a role, the mask impenetrable and perfect.
"You will not believe who asked me out this morning!" Phil hears drifting from Darcy's cubicle, before he shuts the door to his office.
SHIELD has good soundproofing. The silence borders on painful.
This is the thing that Phil has discovered about jealousy: it's not possessiveness. It's not fear that others will take what you have. It's the empty ache of seeing others have something that you never will.
But Phil is a pragmatic man. He never really had Clint, so his choice is between hoarding him anyway or letting at least one of them be happy.
Phil is a pragmatic man, and Phil is not Captain America. He learned long ago that life meant picking the best compromise, because only superheroes could afford to hold out for something perfect.
On Thursday night, they share pizza and snark about Chopped! at Phil's apartment. They don't share anything else.
On Friday night, late, Phil's reading a policy brief on his couch. His legs are clothed in pajama pants and curled up under himself. The knock at the door is so unexpected that he starts to grab his sidearm, before he recognizes Clint's distinctive knocking pattern.
Clint's wearing what he used to call "date night clothes": a silky button-down that hints at all his muscles, and pants too tight for optimal maneuverability (but ideal for emphasizing the tight globes of his ass). His shirt's rumpled, but not so much that it looks like it's been taken off and put back on, and his lips have the pink glow of indulgent kisses. Clint’s eyes take in Phil's bare chest and threadbare pants, and Phil knows that the lust in them is left over from Darcy, he knows, but he doesn't give the slightest damn right now. "Tell me what you want," he asks.
"Can I --" Clint asks, and he squeezes his eyes shut. "I really just want to fuck you right now."
"Okay," Phil says. He guides Clint in, locks the door behind him, and before he can stop himself, he asks, "Can I kiss you?"
A twitch at that, but not quite a shudder. "Yeah, okay." Clint's eyes close for the kiss, but his lips part pliantly.
"Thank you," Phil whispers after, and then they move to the bedroom.
Clint fucks him from behind, like before, but it goes faster this time, as if he's worrying less about technique and just letting himself enjoy the rough, slick pistoning. He doesn't say Phil's name, but he doesn't say Darcy's either, thank God. (It only takes a few minutes for the sour miasma of lube and sweat and pre-cum to overpower any remnants of her perfume.)
Phil spends the whole time biting his tongue, because if he lets himself make a sound, it's all going to come spilling out: I love you, please don't stop, you feel so good, I missed this so much, I love you, I love you, I love you. He realizes, after he jerks himself to completion and sprawls boneless while Clint pounds into him, that not all the salt water trickling down his face is sweat.
When Clint finishes with a choked gasp and ties off his condom, he flops onto his back on the mattress beside Phil, close without touching. They lie in silence for several minutes; Clint's breath echoes Phil's unevenly, intersecting but never falling into sync.
"So do you want to talk about it?" Phil asks finally.
Clint shrugs, his gaze fixed on the ceiling. "The date went well. She's cute, good rack, nice sharp tongue. We ended up at her place, on her couch, and it was -- good, you know? The way her tits pressed up against me, the way her hips slid over mine, wide open and easy."
Phil nods, even though he knows Clint isn't looking. He wanted this to happen. He wanted Clint to have the things that he couldn't give.
"But I couldn't do it," Clint says. "It's bullshit, you know? Hot chick, turning me on like crazy, and all I could think about was how I wished I could feel that way about you. So I told her I wanted to go slow, and then I came here. Because you're safe, and you get me, and some kid fresh out of college isn't even in your league." He takes a harsh breath, exhales slowly. "Fuck, Phil, I miss dating you. I miss wanting to jump you every time I heard your voice on the comm. But when I look for the place where that stuff used to be, there's just nothing, and I hate that."
Phil doesn't say anything, but Clint doesn't continue, and the silence lengthens into awkwardness. At last, Phil places a hand on Clint's shoulder, feeling the muscles tense and then relax at the touch. "Just a hug, no expectations?" he asks, and Clint says, "okay." So Phil wraps his arms around Clint, the way that they used to embrace after tight situations or weeks apart, when all they wanted was reassurance that the other was still there.
They spend the night like that. Phil isn't sure which of them falls asleep first.
In the morning, he remembers waking up in the middle of the night from the roar of a motorcycle engine. He'd breathed the familiar scent of Clint's hair, nuzzled his neck with a sleepy kiss. For the space of those few drowsy minutes, he hadn't remembered Loki and Nat and the months of guilty wanting. He'd just tugged Clint flush against his skin and let himself drift back to sleep, content in the knowledge that everything was perfect.
Monday morning, Darcy steps into Phil's office. It's 7:30, a half hour before she usually shows up, and right in the middle of the quiet hour he normally savors for its calm efficiency.
She steps into Phil's office, closes the door, and says, "You know you have options, right?"
"Excuse me?" Phil sets down the report he's reading, because Darcy has the tone of voice she gets when she's unlikely to stop talking for a while.
"Mixed-orientation relationships. They're a thing, Google them. I mean, usually they start out because two people get married without realizing that one of them is gay, but some people make it work. And then you've got stuff like friends with benefits, polyamory, sex toys, bi porn, the works. You have options."
A string of thoughts run through Phil's head, and long practice lets him sort through them swiftly and calmly. First: Darcy clearly knows what's going on between him and Clint; how that happened is interesting but currently irrelevant. Second: she's attempting to help them, in her own Darcy way. Third: he has some research to do. Fourth: somehow, she seems to think that things could work out, that Phil could let himself hope, which is -- terrifying, and more than a little unbelievable.
Phil raises an eyebrow. "Have you considered that giving advice on my personal relationships is a bit inappropriate?"
"Did you consider that setting me up with your boyfriend might be a little inappropriate?" she shoots back. "I asked him about you straight off, when he asked me out, and he said that you were okay with it, so I figured 'hey, cool, open relationship.' But you have no idea what the hell you're doing with him, do you?"
Phil's pretty certain that anything he says will get the same response, so he just smiles thinly, his "I don't entirely buy it, but I'm listening" expression.
"So, for the record, Clint is hella hot, and I would love to hit that any time, but only if and when you two get your act together and decide if you're going to shit or get off the pot. Which really needs to be ASAP, because you've been emotionally constipated for months. Got it?"
Darcy turns on her heel and leaves.
Once the door's shut, Phil can't suppress the half-hysterical laughter. The thought of her and Clint uniting forces is terrifying. Except that's not true, because the Clint of the past months, ever since Loki's magic withdrew, isn't the Clint he knew and loved. Clint's -- he's not even been walking on eggshells, he's been walking on daggers, blood dripping from his soles even as he musters his willpower to take the next step.
There are many things that Phil wants, but more than anything, he wants to take away the bed of daggers beneath Clint's feet. He sets aside the reports he's been working on and clears the next two hours of his schedule to research and think. Maybe it's too late already, but maybe he can still salvage something for them from this mess, even if it'll never be perfect.
"I'd like to try something tonight," Phil says. He's wearing his usual casual clothing for their Thursday night TV-watching, but his voice has half-shifted into professional briefing mode, and he can see Clint's body straighten up slightly in response. "I need to get a baseline on what you actually want, regardless of what you think I want. I can't operate without good intel."
Clint nods, posture still alert. Phil had forgotten how beautiful he looked when he slipped into that single-minded focus.
"So for tonight, we're doing exactly what you want: nothing more, nothing less. I'll tell you if you ask for something I can't give. Otherwise, the night's on you. You can leave right now, you can turn off the TV, you can do anything or nothing physically. You can take us to a karaoke bar, if you want." That makes Clint chuckle; Phil's low opinion of karaoke isn't much of a secret. "Got it?"
"Got it," Clint repeats back, the terse acknowledgment of an agent on a mission. Then his gaze turns introspective. "I've gotta think about my answer to that. Mind ordering dinner while I decide?"
"Not at all," Phil says; at least Clint wants to share a meal. He retreats to the kitchen to shuffle through delivery menus; he settles on wings, because Clint always lights up when they order them, like a kid getting offered ice cream for dinner.
When Phil returns to the living room, Clint's still sitting in the exact same position, but his eyes track Phil's movement. "Pretty sure I can't give you a complete answer to your question," he says.
"Oh?" Phil prompts, sitting down on the far end of the couch.
"There are some things I know I like. I like eating dinner with you and hearing you give me crap about how I avoid vegetables. I like watching TV with you, even when it's really shitty, because you get into it so much that I can just watch your reactions if I'm bored with what's on screen. I like -- fuck it, I like it when you give me head, because you're really, really good at it."
Phil smiles at that one, even if he can hear the oncoming "... but."
"That's the easy part. The confusing part is things like letting you touch me -- you know, resting up against you while we're watching TV, or lying down with my head in your lap. I remember how good it felt, and it's not like it was a sexual thing, but when I think about doing it now, I just tense up. Because maybe you'll want more, you'll want something I can't give."
"That makes sense," Phil says, because it does, even if it hurts. "What if I said that I liked being close to you, too, and if you want to try that tonight, I won't expect or push for anything more?"
Clint shrugs. "Worth a shot."
So Phil turns on the TV, and he gestures invitingly at the open space to his side. He's still a bit surprised when Clint stretches out and rests his head on Phil's thigh. They stay like that for a whole episode of Apprentice, and when Phil dismantles the contestants' business plans, he can feel Clint's laughter as soft vibrations against his skin.
Dinner arrives, and Phil doesn't want to move, to disrupt this fragile equilibrium. But then Clint's sniffing the air and hopping off the couch with a grin, saying, "If you got that fake tofu wing shit again, I will murder you."
"They taste the same, if you close your eyes," Phil retorts, just to see Clint wince as he pretends not to recognize the quote.
The chicken wings (made from real dead animals, as Clint verifies) are both delicious and frustrating, because Clint sucks the meat from the bones and licks the sauce off his fingertips with a tongue that's God's gift to Phil's libido. By the time they're finished, neither of them is looking at the TV; Phil's watching Clint openly, and Clint's following his gaze, swirling his tongue around the drumettes with sinful lasciviousness. He's got a smile twitching at the edges of his lips, but it's fond, not mocking.
At last, Clint sets down the final bones with a sated sigh. "You are totally my favorite," he says, and then, "Hey. Can I try an experiment?"
"Like I said, anything you want."
"So, I'm ... still not so comfortable with the idea of a dick in my mouth. But I really want to do something for you, and I'd kind of like to try jacking you off. That okay?"
"Very, very okay." Phil's throat feels suddenly dry.
"Awesome," Clint says. He scoots over until he's snug against Phil, one arm around Phil's shoulders, the other one unbuttoning his jeans. They watch together as Clint pulls out Phil's half-hard cock and wraps his fingers around it. When Clint brushes his thumb over the tip, Phil hisses softly at the contact, and Clint smiles.
Phil doesn't do anything while Clint jerks him off -- just leans back and enjoys the ride. Clint studies Phil's cock like it's a bomb to be disarmed, making pleased little hums when he hits the right rhythm to make Phil's muscles twitch and tense. He's good at this, even better after the months of learning Phil's body, and it doesn't take long until Phil gasps a warning that he's about to come. Clint just finishes him off, firm and steady. He doesn't lick Phil's come off his fingers, but he doesn't hurry to wipe it away, either.
After, Phil lies back against the couch with his eyes closed, feeling pleasantly boneless. Eventually he looks at Clint, who's watching him, a small smile on his lips, his gaze affectionate. "So that went well," Clint says.
He can't suppress a soft laugh. "No complaints on my end either. Can I --?" Phil glances down at Clint's pants, which are decidedly not tented.
"I'm good, I think," Clint says. "Some of what we did before wasn't bad, but this is really good. I like making you happy."
"You do," Phil says, quiet. He grabs a handful of napkins left over from dinner, wipes himself clean, and fastens up his jeans. "I'd like to, ah, hug you, if that's something you'd want."
"Phil Coulson: secret Care Bear," Clint grins, but then he wraps Phil in a close embrace. Neither of them moves, even when the moment stretches so long that the hug pretense becomes ridiculous. It's just too damn good to feel Clint in his arms like this, loose and unguarded, for Phil ever to pull away.
Some hours of TV and body warmth later, Clint gets up to leave -- not, Phil thinks, without reluctance. What knocks the breath out of his lungs, though, is what Clint says when he's standing in the doorway. "Thanks," he says. "Tonight was perfect."
Clint keeps coming back.
They keep trying new things. Some of them work; some don't. (The night that Phil blindfolds Clint, ties him comfortably in place, and proceeds to silently touch and tease every inch of him is a particular success. The time that he tries to give Clint a hand job while making out with him just doesn't work.)
(Yes, the failures hurt every time. They simply become less frequent.)
They learn to cushion the attempts at sex with negotiated no-sex zones, times when they can hug and relax around each other without the looming threat of insufficiency or frustration. They learn that backrubs feel sensual but safe to both of them, and that Clint likes giving happy endings better than receiving them, because he loves turning Phil into a limp, blissed-out puddle. They learn that watching porn together can have the same trashy hilarity of watching reality TV, with the added bonus that Phil sometimes distracts himself from the bouncing silicone breasts by sucking Clint's dick.
Thursday nights become Thursday and Friday nights, and Friday nights become weekends, and every time that Phil stumbles over Clint's second-favorite sneakers in the middle of the night, it hits him like a spear to the heart, the knot of old pains and new, still-cautious joys. He holds tight to Clint when he returns to bed, and Clint just buries himself more comfortably into Phil's arms.
At Tony's holiday party, Phil -- who's pleasantly ensconced in conversation with Pepper Potts -- nudges Clint in the direction of a very tipsy, very flirty Darcy. The two of them come back down from the rooftop, an hour later, looking disheveled and slightly embarrassed, but grinning. Phil meets Clint's eyes, grins back in approval, and turns back to Pepper. (He doesn't complain when Clint wraps his arms around him from behind and rests his chin on Phil's shoulder for the next ten minutes, though.) Darcy blushes a bit, the next work day, and Phil just raises his eyebrow at her until she focuses on her work.
Clint and Darcy settle into a friendly, non-commital "thing" (as Darcy calls it). Phil keeps waiting for Clint to tell him that he wants to start spending weekends with her, and Clint keeps saying that he'd rather spend them with Phil, and eventually Phil even starts to believe him. He tries out having his own "thing" -- at least, he lets Johnny Storm persuade him into an evening of enthusiastic and painfully athletic sex -- and decides he's happiest as a one-man guy.
As Tim Gunn would say, they make it work. Phil suspects that he'll never stop looking at himself in the mirror and wondering why a hot, straight young man wouldn't leave him for greener pastures. But Phil remains a pragmatic man. Clint made his choice, vocally enough that even Natasha was persuaded, and Phil has no right to question it.
Natasha visits Phil after that, to confirm that he's happy too, and that's when Phil has his final epiphany. No, the Clint Barton that he's dating -- the Clint Barton that he might live with one day, might even marry -- isn't the man with whom he first fell in love. He comes with his own duffel bag stuffed with challenges, and some are entirely unanticipated. But he's the Clint that exists, clever and funny and unexpectedly fragile, and he's Phil's, and exactly as he is, he's perfect.