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Twentieth Time's the Charm

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The first time definitely doesn't count.

Clint's sitting alone in the common room, half-watching late night talk shows while he waxes his bow string. (No, it's not a euphemism.) He hears the stream of profanity drifting into the room before the elevator doors even open, but as soon as Tony steps into the room, he stops talking and starts walking toward Clint with a predatory expression. "Robin Hood, my favorite scoundrel! Need you to do me a favor." Tony doesn't wait for a response; he just collapses into the couch, awkwardly close to Clint, and keeps talking. "See, Pepper made me tell JARVIS not to let me into my workshop or suits if he thinks my blood alcohol is too high. But Pepper is not a relevant concern to me right now, and what I really need is to get into my workshop, get spectacularly drunk, and build something really amazing. Maybe a flying car. Cap seemed sad that we still didn't have flying cars. And you can't tell him, but I get indigestion from making Captain America sad."

Clint nods. It seems the safest plan of action. Tony's half-slumped on his shoulder by now, and his breath reeks of so much alcohol that it's probably flammable.

"So you'll help me out?" Tony says delightedly, apparently reading far too much into Clint's nod. "Fantastic! See, JARVIS, I found a responsible adult to babysit me, so will you pretty please let me into my own damn workshop now?"

"I regret to remind you that only Ms. Potts or Colonel Rhodes can override your lock-out codes, sir." JARVIS doesn't actually sound like he regrets it at all.

"Oh, fuck you," Tony glares at nowhere in particular. "I am perfectly capable of avoiding blowing myself up. Hell, I was drunk welding when I was fifteen, and you know it."

"Okay, Tony." Clint's a fan of "live and let live" as a philosophy for his teammates' self-destructive life choices, but he has his limits. "Let's get you to bed, and in the morning, JARVIS will let you build all the flying cars you want."

"He'd better, the fucking traitor," Tony grumbles, but he doesn't resist too much when Clint pulls him to his feet and guides him to the elevator, one arm around his waist. He leans against Clint the whole way up to the penthouse, and says something quiet into his shoulder that sounds a lot like "don't want to be alone."

Clint keeps expecting Tony to be less pliant as he helps him into bed and fetches a glass of water. He's seen Tony drunker than this and still maintaining his cocky asshole persona, but tonight, it feels like all the fight's been drained out of Tony.

When Clint turns to go, Tony grabs his wrist and pulls him back. His gaze is suddenly sharp and cogent. "Think you could help me out with a rebound pity fuck?"

"That's not --" Clint starts to say, and Tony cuts him off with a low, bitter chuckle.

"I know it doesn't sound like a good idea right now, but trust me on this one. I can't get Pepper back, and I can't make myself into less of a failure of a human being, but at least I can get fucked hard enough to forget about how I screwed things up. Seriously, it'll be fine. No strings, no next-day awkwardness, just a little favor."

It's not like Clint's never thought about it, or like he'd normally turn down no-strings sex with someone attractive -- but. He watches Tony, hesitating.

"Please," Tony says. His voice sounds tiny, defeated, and Clint can't resist the urge to smooth away that brokenness with a kiss.

They don't talk much while they're having sex, beyond brief check-ins and guidance. Tony's body shudders wordlessly while Clint thrusts into him. It's far from the best sex that Clint's ever had, but it's not bad.

Afterwards, Tony clutches him so tight that Clint immediately dismisses the idea of leaving. Tony mutters occasional fragments of computer code as he dreams, and Clint finds himself relaxing into sleep more swiftly than he normally would with someone new.

Clint kisses Tony on the forehead before he leaves, the next morning. True to Tony's word, there's no awkwardness when they run into each other later; Tony just gives Clint a small half-smile of gratitude.




The second time doesn't count, either. Two weeks after the break-up, Tony has a Stark Industries formal event, something for charity that he can't blow off. He finds Clint at the range, the morning of the gala. "Help me make Pepper jealous," he announces.

Clint sets down his sidearm and raises an eyebrow. "In my experience, pissing off Pepper Potts is rarely a good idea. Besides, wouldn't a supermodel on your arm work better?"

"Nah. Supermodels can be bought. Hunky superheroes can't."

"'Hunky'? Been keeping up with your gossip rag reading list?"

"C'mon, Clint, it'll be fun," Tony wheedles. "I'll figure out how to make that bolo arrow you keep fantasizing about."

"Eventually you'll run out of weaponry to bribe me with, you know," Clint says, giving Tony a small smirk.

"I'm not worried," Tony smirks back. "Sooner or later you'll let me bribe you with sex."

Clint rolls his eyes and asks about the dress code.

At the gala, Tony seems to be using Clint more as a distraction from Pepper-watching than as a way to elicit jealousy, to Clint's utter lack of surprise. Tony does pull him into a couple of long, obscene kisses when Pepper looks their way, though.

(Clint discovers that Tony's a much better kisser when he's not falling-over drunk. He plunders Clint's mouth with the utter confidence of someone who knows just how effectively he's making Clint imagine that clever tongue around his dick.)

Pepper and Tony circle each other all evening, trading long glances, but they don't actually talk until the night's winding down. Pepper finally corners Tony and Clint, striding purposefully with Happy in her wake. Her smile is as bright as cut glass. "Tony, Clint, how nice to see you," she says.

"You too." Tony's smile is just as sharp, just as hollow. "Here by yourself tonight?"

"Oh, no, I'm here with Happy," Pepper says.

"Well, obviously," Tony says, "but I meant someone other than your chauff -- oh." His voice trails off as Pepper wraps her arm around Happy's waist and deposits a kiss on his cheek.

Silence widens between them like a chasm. Clint can hear a chorus of intoxicated laughter drifting from the other side of the ballroom.

At last, Tony turns sharply on his heel and walks away, sparing neither word nor glance for any of them. Pepper's face seems to be softening with genuine sympathy, but Clint hurries after Tony; he catches up just as Tony's about to hop into a cab. Grabbing the door, Clint slides into the seat beside Tony, seconds before the cab screeches away from the curb.

Tony spends the entire trip systematically dismantling and reassembling his Starkphone, without saying a word. When they step into the elevator of the Avengers Tower, Clint turns to Tony. "Pity fuck?"

"Jesus, yes," Tony says. He proceeds to practically devour Clint, stripping him so quickly that he's naked and rubbing himself against Tony's tuxedo pants by the time they reach the penthouse. They don't actually make it to the bed, but that's okay, because Tony keeps condoms and lube in the spectacular wetbar that Clint fucks him against.

It's better this time, even if there's a certain reckless nihilism in the way that Tony pushes himself down onto Clint, always skirting the edge of pain. When they finish, Tony tips his forehead against the nearest wall and just stands there for a minute, naked and vulnerable even with his face hidden. He tries to punch the wall -- solid stone, rough enough to tear up bare skin -- but telegraphs the blow enough for Clint to catch it in his palm.

"C'mon," Clint says, and he guides Tony to the bedroom. He tries to leave Tony, give him some privacy, but Tony tilts his head and looks up at him.

"You don't have to go," he says, but Clint's pretty sure he means please don't go. So Clint doesn't.




Clint's mostly certain that the third, fourth, and fifth times don't count. Tony spends a weekend at a luxe resort that's probably-but-not-definitely a Maggia front, and Clint's there as back-up in case Tony trips a few too many bells with his inability to be subtle. By "back-up," of course, SHIELD means "posing as Tony's boyfriend," because Fury thinks that it'll avoid putting them on their guard.

Clint suspects that he got the job because of the photos of that gala that have been floating around SHIELD by e-mail -- specifically, the photos of him enthusiastically sucking on Tony's tongue. The whole thing doesn't really bother him, though, because a) his ass looks damn good in those photos, and he's not ashamed to have it ogled, and b) an all-expenses-paid weekend on the coast of Mexico isn't much of a punishment.

Regardless, the weekend goes off splendidly. The two of them dig up evidence that the resort is actually a front for a Mexican drug cartel, not the Maggia, which is both good (fewer resources, lower-grade tech) and bad (fewer scruples about murdering famous Americans). This kind of work is old hat for Clint, and they leave the resort victorious and minimally injured.

And if Clint didn't actually get much sleep in their terra-cotta-tiled, silk-sheeted suite, because Tony was too busy exploring new sex positions with him every night (and one memorable warm afternoon), he could chalk it all up to maintaining their cover.




The sixth time doesn't count. They're crouched together in the rubble of a HYDRA base, waiting for backup that's a solid half hour away. The explosion that took out the base and blew out Tony's repulsors caught Clint in its radius, and his whole left side is a raw, agonizing patchwork of burns and lacerations. Tony's suit says that the injuries aren't life-threatening, but they don't have anything for the pain, not even a flask of liquor to numb things. Clint's spending most of his energy on staying awake and avoiding screaming.

Tony keeps twitching beside him, the way he does when there's a problem that he can't fix but can't give up. "Endorphins," he finally says. "Hold on."

Then he's pulling off his gauntlet and unzipping Clint's pants, and Clint would make a smart-ass remark if everything didn't hurt so damn much. As it is, all he can do is lean back and grit his teeth as Tony wraps his fingers around his cock with terrible gentleness.

The first few strokes do absolutely nothing for him. (To be fair, this is the least romantic environment for a hand job that Clint can imagine.) He's about to tell Tony to stop when he notices that, despite the overwhelming background noise of pain, his dick's starting to harden in simple physical response. Within a few minutes of careful stimulation, the pain's still there, but it's muted, and his brain's starting to turn the buzz of post-battle adrenaline into something profoundly more enjoyable.

Then Tony starts to talk. He's speaking quiet and matter-of-fact, using the same voice he has when explaining new technology to Clint, and he tells Clint about what he's going to do to him when they get back to the Tower, how he's going to tie him up and tease him for hours, until Clint's a mess of desperate lust. He tells Clint how he's going to finger him open, slow and sloppy-wet, until he's so loose that Tony can just sink into him without resistance. Tony keeps painting these erotic pictures, and his hand works Clint's cock just hard enough to keep him wanting but not coming. ("Can't let you do that," he says once. "Once you come, the endorphins simmer down and everything comes back. You won't thank me for it." Clint doesn't stop begging, though.)

Tony lets go at the first sound of the approaching Quinjet, scrambling to fasten up Clint's pants. "Nice job, Cupid," he says, quietly.

Clint doesn't get out of SHIELD medical for a couple of days, but in his first night back in the Tower, Tony shows up at his bedroom. "Don't want to get a reputation as a cock-tease," he shrugs, and finishes the job.

That doesn't count either, though, because it's really just the completion of something already begun.




The seventh time doesn't count, because there's not even any physical contact. The team (sans Natasha, who's off doing a solo op) gets hit by a wave of brain-altering radiation from AIM, in the process of bringing down one of their science labs. (It's not actually radiation, but the more detailed explanation involved several words that Clint's pretty sure weren't English.) Steve, Thor, and the Hulk's super-tough biologies seem to shake the rays off without ill effects, but Clint and Tony aren't as lucky.

Bruce speculates that AIM was trying to develop a way to facilitate instant, undetectable communication in the field; the rays both amplify a person's thoughts and give them sensitivity to others' brainwaves. Basically, group telepathy for everyone who's received the rays -- or, in this case, two-way communication between Tony and Clint.

The echo chamber effect is almost overwhelmingly disorienting at first, as Clint finds himself listening to Tony listening to him listening to Tony, but like any physical sense, their brains manage to work things out, more or less. Clint heads to the archery range, since it's always been his favorite meditative exercise -- rarely a challenge, but a good way to sink into single-minded focus. By the end of the day, Tony and Bruce have made good progress reverse-engineering AIM's device, and everyone eats some pizza and heads for their own beds, like the mature, responsible adults they are. It's not that Tony's brain isn't distracting, but Clint's very, very good at ignoring distractions to his focus.

Unfortunately, that only applies when he has a focus.

It starts as the smallest thought: the completely understandable connection between "bed" and "jacking off," which immediately segues into I wonder if Tony could feel me jacking off.

Yes, but don't let that stop you, Tony replies, clear and unexpected in Clint's head. Then he proceeds to tug off his silk boxers and grasp his cock, eliciting a burst of pleasure that reverberates through Clint, leaving him instantly hard.

Turns out that the echo chamber effect isn't such a bad thing, where Tony's improbably erotic mental images are involved. But hey, they manage to stay in their own respective beds, so it's practically just masturbation, right?

Of course, they don't stay in their respective beds for the eighth and ninth times. But Clint has to deal with Tony teasing him all day with mental images of increasing explicitness and intensity, so if there's any justice in the world, those times shouldn't count. A man can't help being tempted beyond his limits to endure.

(Clint's not disappointed when they then figure out how to reverse the ray's effects, three days after they got hit. Absolutely not disappointed at all.)




The tenth time clearly doesn't count; they establish that beforehand and everything.

Somehow, Clint's not sure why, the other Avengers seem to have decided that he and Tony are in a Relationship. He discovers this misconception when he's at one of their "Avengers' Nights Out," a.k.a. "Tony reserves the VIP room at a beautiful-people club and buys drinks for everyone, thereby bribing them into showing up."

Clint's just minding his own business; he walks up to the bar for another drink, squeezes up next to a gorgeous guy with a delicious Portuguese accent, and ends up getting enjoyably handsy with him on the dance floor. When Tall, Dark, and High-Cheekboned steps out for a cigarette, Clint feels a steel grip around his arm; he nearly flips the stranger over his shoulder before realizing that it's just Steve.

"I can't believe you did that!" Steve shouts over the music.

"Did what?" Clint's genuinely confused; he starts racking his brain to remember whether Steve had previously expressed homophobic judgment.

"Tony wasn't watching, Clint, but he could have been! Don't you respect his feelings?"

"I have no idea what the hell you're talking about!" Clint shouts back. He can see his new friend making his way back through the crowd, but he raises one finger of "hold on, I'll be right back" and follows Steve back to the VIP area.

Inside the glass-walled room, the music volume's low enough to talk without yelling, which is a good start. Bruce and Tony occupy one corner, discussing some kind of sciencey data that's visible on the Starkpad between them. (Clint would tease them for working on their night out, but he suspects that this does count as recreation for the two of them. Despite Tony's reputation, Clint's found that he tends to be uninterested in partying; maybe it's the lingering influence of Pepper Potts, or maybe it's the way that Bruce keeps glancing at Tony and blushing, like they're viewing porn instead of statistics.)

Steve glances at Tony, clearly hesitant to bring up the subject in front of him, so Clint plunges in. "Hey, shell-head, mind if I make out with a hot Brazilian on the dance floor?"

Tony looks up and raises an eyebrow. "Why the hell would I mind? Just let me know if any clothes start coming off, so I can watch."

"So you two aren't -- uh?" Steve glances at Bruce, looking for reassurance, and Bruce shrugs, an "I'm as confused as you, but I'm staying out of it" expression on his face.

"Any further objections from tonight's chaperone?" Clint asks, and when Steve shakes his head slowly, still looking off-kilter, Clint returns to the dance floor. High Cheekbones is nowhere to be found, goddammit.

"So," Tony says late that night, when he and Clint are sharing some 3am pizza rolls back at the Tower, "apparently the team thinks we're dating."

Clint tilts his head, pops another pizza roll in his mouth, and talks while he chews. "We're not, right? I mean, not that you're --"

"Oh, I absolutely am," Tony cuts him off. "I'm terrible to date, just ask Pepper. Hooking up with people and making shiny toys for them is so much more in my comfort zone."

Clint grins. "Guess I'm in luck, then."

"Pretty much, yeah," Tony agrees with a matching smirk. "So now that we've established our total lack of commitment or emotional entanglement, want to have some strings-free sex? It's been way too long since I rode someone cowboy."

"Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker," Clint says, and they're off.

He makes sure to wear Tony's shirt to breakfast, the next morning, just to watch Steve look even more confused.




The eleventh time doesn't count, because it doesn't actually end up happening. Clint's feeling cooped up and bored, so he goes to pester Tony in his workshop (and wheedle him into letting Clint borrow one of his lust-worthy cars).

His plan gets pleasantly short-circuited when Tony turns to see him, and his eyes light up. "Excellent timing; I've been horny all day. I blame yesterday's slime monster."

"That's ... a little disturbing, actually," Clint says.

"Maybe so, but I know I saw you checking out our Star-Spangled Man's pecs when he was all wet and slippery."

Clint shrugs and mirrors back Tony's grin. "Hey, I've got eyes."

"And what pretty eyes they are, Legolas. But back to my point, it's not your eyes I'm interested in right now."

Clint laughs, steps forward until Tony's face is inches away, and cups the bottom of Tony's face with just the slightest pressure against his throat, the way that makes Tony shudder and tilt his hips up to meet Clint's. "Tell me what you are interested in, then."

Things are progressing pleasantly, with hands sliding under pants and t-shirts getting rucked up to reveal bare skin, when Clint hears the soft click of the workshop door opening. He turns to see Bruce, who's staring at the two of them, and there's this awful look in his eyes: hurt, embarrassed, resigned. "I'm sorry, I didn't -- sorry," Bruce says, and he hurries out before Clint or Tony can say a word.

Tony watches Bruce disappear, then extracts himself from Clint's personal space. "That was weird," he says finally.

"Not that surprising, though," Clint shrugs, and feels a pang of guilt on Bruce's behalf.

"What do you mean?"

"You really don't know that the guy's been in love with you for months? I figured you just weren't interested."

"Oh." Tony's lips linger on the hollow sound, and his eyes are still fixed on the empty space where Bruce was. "I should -- go talk to him."

Clint pats him on the back. "Run along then, genius."

After Tony's dashed off for the elevator, Clint sighs and resigns himself to the prospect of a cold shower. He's been cockblocked for far worse reasons, though, so he figures he can't complain.




"He's on a flight to India," Tony says, shortly after the twelfth time. (Which didn't count, incidentally. Tony showed up at Clint's bedroom and said, "Distract me from how badly I screwed up?", and Clint said, "Won't this make things worse?" Tony just shrugged. "In for a penny, et cetera, et cetera.")

"You let him go?" Clint asks, because it's not like Bruce had that much of a head start.

Tony shakes his head. "He's freakishly good at disappearing when he wants to. Only found him by analyzing security footage at all the local airports, and by then, he was in the air. I'd implant a tracking device in him if it wouldn't get crushed during the first transformation." Tony closes his eyes and exhales sharply. "Fuck."

"Is this where you want me to play relationship counselor? Because I've gotta warn you that I'm going to do a shitty job of giving advice. Good at listening, though."

"I don't know. Let's be honest, I don't even know what I want from him. If I were seventeen, I'd be all over him; he's the kind of person I used to wish I knew. Someone who followed me on my tangents, who could keep up with me intellectually, who didn't care about my name or money, but who had needs I could fill. He would've been perfect. But I gave up on that a long time ago, and I've seen too much of how I deal with actual relationships to inflict that on anyone again."

Clint's lying on his side, idly tracing the lines of Tony's stomach. (He tries to hide it, because God knows Tony's already self-conscious about his arc reactor, but the blue light reminds Clint uncomfortably of memories he'd rather forget.) He runs a single fingernail down the hollow of Tony's hip. "You said he can keep up with you intellectually, right? So you trust his judgments?"

"Sure, yeah. Not over my own, obviously," Tony adds with a smirk.

Clint shrugs. "Maybe you should. Clearly he thinks that it'd be worth a shot."

"And if I fuck it up, I lose the first friend I've made in twenty years."

"How 'bout I promise to give you a really spectacular consolation blow job if things go tits-up," Clint sighs. "Will that convince you to grow a pair and go for what you both want?"

Tony lets out a bark of unexpected laughter. "Incentivize that with a second round now, and I might take you up on it."

"Twist my arm, then," Clint says, and follows it up with a long, wet lick up Tony's cock, still sticky with come from their last round.

(Clearly, the thirteenth time doesn't count; bribery is a valid motivational technique.)




The fourteenth time doesn't happen for a while. Tony decides that he needs to make a grand romantic gesture and personally search for Bruce through the slums of Kolkata. (the wiring here is atrocious, he texts Clint. i should start a humanitarian initiative to teach people how to steal electricity efficiently.) Eventually he finds him, makes a patented Tony Stark charismatic appeal for forgiveness, and spends a week holed up with Bruce in an eco-touristy boutique hotel, having sweaty, brainy sex. Clint's happy for them, even if he wouldn't be surprised if they solve equations aloud as foreplay.

Tony eventually persuades Bruce to come home (or he wears him out with sex and kidnaps him; Tony's vague on the details), and the two of them show up in the Avengers Tower, giddy with mutual delight. They're more or less joined at the hip for the first week, and Clint really doesn't mind. He just ends up going out more, finding hook-ups at clubs when he gets itchy. He isn't as recognizable as Tony or Cap, but there's usually at least a couple of Hawkeye fans eager to give their idol a warm mouth to fuck.

There's the occasional smidge of jealousy when he sees the two of them napping against each other on the couch, of course there is, but it's not jealousy of Tony specifically. Just a bittersweet twinge that nobody's ever cared enough to make the grand romantic gestures for Clint. But of the two people he's ever trusted enough to accept that kind of attention from, one told him flatly that she didn't do romance, and the other's dead. So.

Bruce approaches Clint eventually, inviting him to his kitchenette and serving him masala chai made with Bruce's own spice blend. "I owe you thanks, from what Tony tells me," he says.

Clint shrugs. "Tony's a good guy, when he's not being a dick. I like to see my friends happy."

"So you're not upset that --"

"Jesus, why does everyone think that I'm in love with the guy? Yeah, we had sex sometimes, and I wouldn't say no to having it again, but none of it really counted. It's not like what you have."

"But did you want it to be?"

"Hell fucking no," Clint laughs. "I don't have the patience or the geekiness to handle that much Tony Stark in my life. I mean, more power to you, but no."

"Hunh," Bruce says. He sips his tea and looks contemplative for a moment. "I wouldn't mind, for what it's worth."

"Wouldn't mind what, exactly?"

"If you wanted to continue whatever it is you two do. I'd prefer it didn't happen while I'm around, or in our bed, but you seem to be good for him. And I like sex as much as the next guy, but Tony is ... not precisely 'the next guy' in that respect."

"Truer words. Just let me know if you change your mind; I don't want to get in the way of things."

Bruce quirked a half-smile. "I appreciate that."

"Sure thing. And hey, if you ever decide you want to join us, I'm not averse to experimenting." Clint follows the offer with a wink, just ridiculous enough to soften his words into a joke, if that's what Bruce wants.

Bruce tilts his head a few degrees, looking Clint up and down in that patient, observant way he has. "Not just yet, but I'll keep that in mind." (It's enough to make Clint regret bringing up the subject, because he's completely distracted by the mental images it evokes.)

The two part amicably, but Clint doesn't race straight to Tony's room; it's not like that with them. But a few days later, after they finish beating up a sentient land-squid in LA, they crash at Tony's Malibu house for the night, because flying back to New York after dark is too much damn effort.

Clint's certain that Tony has actual guest rooms, but he doesn't end up seeing any of them. It's the fourteenth time, and casual post-battle "we're fucking awesome" sex clearly doesn't count. Doesn't make it any less satisfying, though.




The fifteenth and sixteenth times are similarly casual, meaningless, and incredibly fun. Tony's happier, now that he's with Bruce, and it comes through in everything he does, including screwing Clint into the mattress. The seventeenth time is for Tony's birthday; Bruce approached Clint beforehand and told him that Tony'd shared a fantasy of getting fucked from both ends. Clint feels like a bit of a third wheel with them, just there for the sex while they're busy making heart-filled gazes at each other, but there are worse things than being a glorified sex toy for two gorgeous guys.

The eighteenth time happens when Clint realizes that the idea of being a glorified sex toy actually turns him on a hell of a lot. He tells Tony and Bruce what he wants, and they give it to him: shove him down on the bed, use his slack hole long after he's come, order him to lick their cocks clean, slap his face when he forgets himself and speaks. It's one of the hottest experiences of Clint's life.

They're kind afterwards, offering him warm blankets and cool water, stroking Clint's hair and telling him how good he was. But there's a moment when he tightens his hand around empty air, and a shard of pain pierces him, jagged and unexpected, with the sheer desire of wishing he had someone more, someone who'd hold him all night and whisper love into his ears.

That moment is how he knows that none of those times counted, not really.




The nineteenth time might actually count, in a fucked-up way. Fury gathers the team and tells them he has something important to show them. He explains that SHIELD's medical research teams have certain experimental treatments, so new that they didn't know for months whether they'd work or what effect they'd have. He says -- and then Clint stops paying attention to a single word, because Coulson's entering the room. He's thin and pale-skinned, sitting in a wheelchair pushed by a medical aide, but he's alive. He's alive.

Coulson meets Clint's eyes, and Clint can't get out a single word.

Fury's still talking, warning about organs in the process of healing, but all Clint hears is that Coulson's been transferred to the Helicarrier for this stage of recuperation.

"I couldn't rest, thinking about the mountain of paperwork that had to be building up on my desk," Coulson says, attempting a smile.

(There wasn't a mountain. There wasn't anything, because everyone at SHIELD knew that Coulson was dead; they hadn't reassigned his office out of some mixture of superstition and respect, but no one went inside it. Clint knows this, because he'd break in sometimes, just to curl up on the sofa and smell the familiar scent of dusty leather.)

Clint waits behind after the briefing to ask Fury for leave time, and Fury just raises an eyebrow. "I've already filled out the forms." Then the slightest crinkle softens his eye. "He's in private room 6 in Medical."

"Thank you, sir," Clint says fervently, and he spends the rest of the day soaking in the presence of Phil Coulson. Coulson sleeps most of the time -- the doctors explain something about energy drain from tissue regeneration -- but when he's awake, he listens and laughs softly at Clint's stories of life with the Avengers.

The nurses kick Clint out of Medical early in the evening, so he hitches a ride on a transport back down to New York. On his way down, Clint texts Tony. u free? could use company.

Tony spends the night with him; they watch ridiculous heist movies until they fall asleep on the couch, then shuffle over to bed at some point in the middle of the night. It's all non-sexual until the morning, when Clint wakes up with a matched pair of hard-ons -- his own, and Tony's nestling in his ass -- and it's as easy as anything to roll over and stroke their cocks together, damp with spit and pre-cum, until they're making a messy wet spot in the middle of the bed.

The nineteenth time shouldn't count -- just a night of distraction between friends -- but it's the first time that things between them feel wrapped in a web of Clint's own emotions, so Clint figures it might count after all.




The twentieth time ... well. Clint has no idea where the twentieth time falls.

Tony insisted on moving Coulson to the Avengers Tower as soon as Medical would let him go, which makes it even easier for Clint to stop in to see him all the time -- sometimes to relax together, sometimes for a second opinion on an op, and sometimes just to reassure himself that Coulson's still very alive.

("You don't have to spend all your time hovering over me," Coulson says once, and Clint just looks at him blankly. "What made you think I'm here because I have to be?")

Sometime in the first few weeks, "Coulson" becomes "Phil." Sometime after that, Clint drops in right after Phil gets out of the shower; he's dressed, but his undershirt clings to his damp skin, translucent in a few spots, and a rivulet of water slides down his temple. Clint thinks about how much he'd love to map every inch of that skin with his mouth, and then he thinks, holy shit, I'm in love with Phil Coulson.

He realizes that he's been standing in Phil's doorway for a long while without moving, but when he focuses back in on Phil's face, his eyes sparkle with suppressed laughter. "I was wondering how long it would take you to figure it out," Phil says, and then he draws Clint in for a kiss.

They kiss until Clint notices that Phil's leaning against the wall to keep himself standing, and his breath's getting shallow in a way that probably isn't due to arousal. He guides Phil to the bed with a supportive arm, which Phil accepts gratefully.

Phil glances down, then looks up, wry and slightly hesitant. "You should know that the doctors have told me I'm nowhere near being cleared for 'vigorous activity.'"

"I'm a sniper," Clint shrugs. "I can wait until my target's in range." Then he pauses. It's not that he's ashamed of his occasional thing with Tony, but there's so much at stake here that he finds it oddly difficult to say aloud, just in case it tears open the gossamer net drawing him and Phil together.

"Talk to me," Phil says, and that's what Clint needs to shake off the moment of inertia.

"If we're going in that direction, you should probably know that Stark and I have -- it's nothing, really, doesn't mean anything. But we've been doing some, uh, 'vigorous activity,' on and off. Bruce knows, but I can stop if you --"

"Barton," Phil says firmly. "It's okay. I'm not upset that you were involved with someone else when I was just your dead handler. Are you trying to tell me that you regret what happened, or that you want us to stop this, or that you want to continue your involvement with him?"

Clint takes Phil's hand and strokes his thumb over it, tracing out the too-prominent veins. "Sir, I don't think I can overstate how very much I do not want to stop this." Phil laughs, quiet and fond. "So if it bothers you, I'll keep things professional with him. But you know me; regs make me itchy, and Tony's -- good at scratching my itches, I guess. I'd try for you, though."

"Regulations don't make you itchy," Phil says calmly. "What you hate is blanket rules that override your ability to respond to individual situations. Clearly, what you have with Stark is working, and I'm in favor of things that make you happy."

Clint presses his lips shut, because all he wants to say is god, I love you. Which is ridiculous this early. (Probably.) Instead, he says, "So, what's on the menu for us now?"

"Kissing is good. I'll check about anything further."

Clint nods, and he helps Phil lie down on his back. "I can do kissing."

A few weeks pass, and they're amazing, ridiculously amazing. Clint's never been that guy, the one who falls head-over-heels and goes on five-hour quests to find Phil's favorite tea and gets distracted in morning briefings because he's remembering the color of the sunrise on Phil's face. Somehow, though, here he is.

Everything's amazing, except Phil's heart. The doctors swear that things are going according to schedule, that he'll return to full capabilities in the long run, but meanwhile, they've outright forbidden sex of any kind. Clint might push forward anyway, but this isn't a broken leg or a missed deadline that he's risking; it's Phil's life, and he's lost that once already.

That's how the twentieth time happens. Phil knows that Clint's going crazy from the restrictions; he's suggested before that Clint spend an evening with Tony, but Clint insisted that what he wanted was Phil, not just sex. Finally, Phil says, "Let's compromise. How would Stark feel about me watching the two of you?"

He asks. Stark approves. (So does Clint's dick.)

The three of them end up in Clint's bedroom one evening; Phil's watching from a comfortable chair (fully clothed, at least at first), while Clint and Tony take up the bed. It seems awkward at first, incongruous: his rough, lusty times with Tony, juxtaposed with Phil's intense aura of calm and protectiveness. But they plunge into things, and by the time that Tony's got Clint with his ankles hooked around Tony's neck, tugging him in to thrust deeper, everything feels easy again.

"You were really gorgeous back there," Phil tells him, later, when the sweat has dried and Tony's gone.

Clint shrugs; he knows he's terrible at taking compliments. "It's just this thing we do," he says. "Hasn't ever counted towards anything real."

Phil casts his eyes heavenward, the familiar look that Clint usually interprets as "if you weren't so charming, I'd murder you myself." "Of course it counts. You two seem to be good friends; that's real enough. I'm glad you have him. As much as he drives me crazy most of the time."

"Yeah, but --" Clint begins, then trails off, unsure how to explain the fundamental division to Phil: there's real sex, lovemaking, the thing that he hopes he'll do with Phil someday -- and then there's just hooking up, which is all that Clint usually gets. Meaningless.

Phil just gives him the brief lip-quirk that's his version of an eye-roll. "You'll figure it out eventually. Here's the executive summary: don't stop what you have on my account, and don't dismiss its value on account of your own self-image."

Clint still doesn't get it, but he's learned -- slowly, painfully, and only after many years of experience -- that Phil is usually right, so he lets it rest. "I can do that," he says.

After the twentieth time, he stops counting.