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A Measure of Hands

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Clint Barton keeps track of people with his hands.

Phil’d discovered this out on about their eighteenth mission together (not, of course, that he’d counted), and not entirely on purpose. “On purpose” would imply that Phil’d wanted the target’s base to implode due to some kind of alien tech, and that he’d actually planned on taking metal shrapnel to the thigh.

But, of course, he hadn’t, and the end result involved a lot of blood, a lot of pain, and a lot of swearing. There’d not been time to focus on blood, pain, or creative curse words in a variety of languages, though. No, instead, there’d been time to worry about two smoldering warehouses and some mad-cap last-minute evacuation.

“Lean,” Clint—Barton, in those days—had demanded, and Phil’d leaned. They’d hobbled together through smoking debris and wreckage, and Barton’d cushioned Phil’s impact when they’d half-jumped, half-fallen into the back of a transport van.

After the first few minutes, they’d managed to adjust to the speed of the van, to the bumpiness of the ride, and to the smell of sweaty agents in full riot gear around them . . . but even then, Barton hadn’t quite let go. Even when they sat up, even when the medic dropped to his knees and started field-dressing the mess of a wound (and every time Phil catches a glimpse of the scars in the mirror, he’s reminded of how messy the wound had been), Barton’s arm had stayed around him, Barton’s body pressed to his own.

From that point on, Phil noticed all the touching.

He just—never complained.

How could he complain, once he knew it was there? It wasn’t the kind of discovery where you wanted to fix it, not like mice in your kitchen or a hole in your favorite pants. No, instead, it was the kind of discovery he wanted to index, all the different ways that Barton—Clint—found to touch him. To brush shoulders as they leaned over reports, to press a hand to his back as he steered him down the hallway, to nudge their knees together when they shared coffee at dodgy Ukrainian cafes. He touched, Phil memorized the touches, and they—kept moving.

The first time they kissed, Clint cupped the side of Phil’s face like a blind man, his thumb pressed to the corner of his mouth. The first time they fell onto a worn safehouse mattress together after a mission, Clint wrapped himself around Phil like a boa constrictor.

Phil woke up the next morning with an arm around his middle and a leg splayed over one of his own. He showered with arms that snaked around his chest from behind and felt every inch of his skin. He ate hard toast and runny eggs with a bare foot resting on his thigh. And when he started to doze on the plane, fingers stroked the back of his hand until he fell asleep.

He can count the hours, weeks, months, and years they’ve been together in finger-whispers, silent nuzzles, knee-nudges, and shoulder-rubs. And he can count the near-misses (dozens, maybe hundreds) in fierce, demanding, too-long hugs, each tailored specifically to avoid bruises, stitches, dislocations, and broken-bones.

But when he’s finally released from medical, weeks after the . . . incident (he calls it an accident, sometimes, but Director Fury growls and Clint rolls his eyes), Clint’s away on a mission. He’s away, the apartment is empty, and Phil feigns disinterest when Jasper quietly slips him details during reruns of Supernanny and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. Phil never asks, because, of course, Phil’s not actually allowed to know, but it’s nice to know that Jasper’s not just there to drink Clint’s beer and bitch about the downfall of modern civilization through daytime television. So he acknowledges every little murmured secret with a nod, and—after Jasper’s helped him back into the bed (a California King with half the sheets unrumpled; Jasper mocks him for it)—he tries very hard not to think.

Except the apartment’s too-quiet without Clint filling the empty spaces. There’s a loneliness to it, somehow, one Phil’s not used to. It’s not that he’s alone—there’s Jasper, Maria, and even, on one unprecedented occasion, Tony Stark—as much as there’s something missing. As though being around their things isn’t quite enough, this time.

The afternoon of day eleven (not that he’s counting), Phil decides to make tea. It’s still hours until Maria brings over fajitas and her new blu-ray edition of Dirty Dancing, so Phil eases himself out of bed half-naked. He inches down the hallway, through the living room, and into the kitchen. The full kettle feels like a lead weight, but he places it on the burner and then stands there, watching the coils turn red-hot. He stands there and waits, because somehow—

He knows.

His eyes close when the hand touches his side. It’s broad and warm, with sure, calloused fingers, and Phil’s grip on the lip of the counter lifts to find it. Fingers tangle, and suddenly the single hand is two arms. They’re firm arms, certain as they wrap around him, and even without looking Phil can feel the rasp of bandages and cuts against his bare stomach. The cuts’ll scab over, maybe scar. He’ll memorize every one of them, indexing them the same way he’s indexed every lingering touch.

He feels his lungs open when a chest presses against his back. He leans his weight into that grip the same way he did on their eighteenth mission together.

“Hey,” Clint murmurs, a puff of breath against the back of Phil’s bare shoulder. Phil’s head lulls toward that little whisper of warmth, and he feels every inch of Clint in that moment: Clint’s forehead rolling against his skin, the press of his nose and then his mouth, the scratchy burn of his mission-stubble.

He almost groans at how good it feels.

Instead, he whispers, “Hey.”

“Miss me?”

“Parts of you,” he replies, but his fingers are wandering. They slide along the full length of Clint’s arm, feeling every centimeter of taut muscle. Clint’s hand splays, first along Phil’s belly and then climbing, until his thumb’s brushing somewhere just left of his sternum and just below his bandages.

Just below, Phil thinks, his heart.

Clint’s lips press silent words to the back of his shoulder. Phil recognizes every one of them.

But rather than reply, he asks, “Lose your razor on the mission?”

The laugh is breathy and warm, and Clint’s stubble tickles. Except neither of them moves, neither tries to break the contact, and when the kettle whistles, Clint lets go only long enough to turn off the burner.

Hands, Phil thinks, used to serve as a measurement.

Not a measurement of this—of life, of time, of near-misses and words unsaid—but as Clint’s thumb brushes his skin and they stand together in the silent kitchen, he thinks maybe the folks who came up with that system had the right idea.