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Proprioception

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Jasper Sitwell has known Phil Coulson for three years now, give or take, and has formed some Opinions on the man.

He’s one of the best agents to have next to you in the field. He's pretty good company off, which is rare for their line of work. He's maybe a little cool and direct at times, maybe a little dull for some people's taste, but he has a decent heart and a calm demeanor and that's enough for Jasper, who gets more than enough excitement from both his job and his family and doesn't need more of it from his colleagues. On good days, he'd even go so far as to say he considers Phil a friend.

And as a friend, he can recognize a couple of flaws. He drives a little too fast, and coming from Jasper, that's saying something. The Captain America thing borders on obsessive and can get pretty weird. And the man is much too possessive about his food in the mornings. The last person to try what the newly recruited renegade circus act is about to do ended up flat on his ass in five seconds flat, and that was before Phil'd had his coffee.

Maybe he should be warning him. If it were anyone else, he would be. But in all honestly, Jasper thinks the kid could do with a good ass kicking, and it's been kind of a slow morning, so he sits back to enjoy the show instead.

And it's quite a show: Jasper'll give him points for stealth, for moving without making a sound, without seeming to move, almost, inching behind Coulson till there's about a hair's breadth between them, and waiting till Phil's distracted to snatch the chocolate glazed donut off of his paper plate. Or trying to, anyway. Because one second, Phil's eyeing some dry-looking cantaloupe on the far side of the table and reaching over in that direction, and the next his hand is wrapped around Barton's wrist.

"Good morning, Agent Barton," he says, all pleasantness and start-of-the-day optimism, like he'd greet any coworker at the breakfast table, which is technically what's happening. Barton grimaces, but from the surreptitious tug seems to realize he's not escaping just yet, so he adjusts.

"Morning," he mumbles, ducking his head. Phil smiles and lets him go.

"Are you hungry? There's plenty to go around." Barton flashes him a borderline homicidal look, but it softens into something else based on Coulson's expression, which Jasper can't fully see. There's a moment where the two of them seem to be sizing each other up, and then Barton reaches around him, close enough to actually touch this time, the whole of his front pressed to Coulson's side, his hand low on Coulson's back for a split second, while he grabs a pastry of his own. Then he whirls around and stalks off, like he's been personally offended by the interaction.

Coulson shrugs, completely unconcerned and apparently not confused at all, which makes one of them.

"Kids these days," he says as he walks by, and Jasper nods, because sure, why not.

Chapter Text

Her nose has stopped bleeding. She removes the handkerchief that's been keeping her from...she's not sure what, really, it's not like her clothes aren't bloodstained and ruined already. She hands it over. Is she supposed to be expressing gratitude? Blue eyes are watching her warily, but she's past worrying about making an effort.

"It looks okay now," he says, and he's a terrible, terrible liar, but at least he didn't say it wasn't broken, and at least he hasn't apologized for it. He fiddles with the ruined white cloth for a while, twisting it between his fingers, and glances, just once, toward the man it belongs to. The man in the suit, whose pacing is probably wearing very neat tracks into the filthy hotel room carpet while he makes clipped, deliberate statements into his cell phone.

He is a much better liar.

Barton, and she's not sure when she decided to retain his name, but she has, gets up and walks over to him. Trails him as he paces, looking for all the world like a little boy trying to get his father's attention and it's almost comical. When he finally achieves his objective, the other man comes to a halt, shakes his head, and then aims a significant look at her. She stares back, and he smiles, weary but comforting. It's not insincere, but it's meaningless at the moment, especially after he turns around and walks away from Barton, who comes back to sit next to her on the sagging, ancient couch.

"Do you need anything else? We got...not much, actually, but...water? Could head down, see if the kitchen's..." he keeps rambling. She stops listening. Not two hours ago this man had his hands around her throat and she had her thumbs in his eyes and that's only because fifteen minutes before then they'd disarmed each other entirely, and now he's trying to play host. Their world is a strange place.

The cessation of previously steady noise grounds her to reality again. The phone call has ended, and the man in the suit approaches them. The economy of movement with which he pulls up a chair and settles into it makes her wary. The way his knee bumps casually against Barton's does nothing to alleviate her concern.

"We may be in some trouble," he says, to both of them, and Barton, against all expectation, grins.

"Coulson, is this a 'fuck it, we're all screwed,' meeting? I told you we should've brought the vodka!" He goes to nudge her with his left shoulder, and she doesn't think she would have done anything: she's in shock, but she's not that on edge, and she's seen it coming, and he's obviously not a threat. She's stopped from having to know for sure by the fact that Coulson drops his hand onto Barton's right arm, just above the crook of his elbow, and Barton automatically stills. There's a pause, and then:

"You're flying us out of here tonight, Barton. Save the vodka for when we land."

"You got it, boss."

"As for you, Ms—what can I call you?"

"Romanoff." It's the first thing she's said in an hour, and he doesn't bat an eye.

"Romanoff. You're going to get asked some questions. They're not going to be pleasant. Your best move is to answer honestly, but be concise. Do you trust me?"

"No."

Barton laughs, obnoxiously loud, and Coulson cracks a small smile. It takes her a moment to realize why. She considers playing along and pretending it was intentional.

"Fair enough. Would you like to know what those questions are going to be?" She stares at him, and notices his hand is still on Barton's arm, light where she's left bruises. It's as though they've both forgotten it's there. She wonders what that's like, uncalculated familiarity. She wonders if they're fucking, if that's common at SHIELD, if it's something she'll be expected to do. "Romanoff." Her gaze doesn't waver, and he looks back at her evenly. She wonders why a man with such obvious ambition and potential would risk his career on a whim that wasn't even his own. She wonders. "Does blank staring mean yes?"

She nods.

Chapter Text

It's not that Tony makes her job harder. It's that Tony is her job, and Tony is impossible, so it's not actually possible to get harder than that. Most days, she's just riding the waves of better or worse.

Today is...mixed. Really, at one point in her life, she figured it would never get stranger than when her boss, the CEO and majority stock holder of a weapons company, decided to stop making weapons, about ten seconds after oh yeah, coming back from the presumed dead with a glowing, humming piece of technically impossible technology embedded in his chest, which just so happened to also be keeping him alive.

Oh, how wrong she was. Her boss is now a superhero. No secret identity or anything, because why make things easy. And now he's just gone and told a congressional committee to go fuck itself. And is holding court with half a Washington, D.C. neighborhood about sticking it to the man and the power of family-owned businesses and they're eating it up like he's not totally full of crap. Last she heard, he was giving out all-access passes to the Expo. Yes, this has been an interesting day.

She needs a drink. She's not getting one. Her phone's been buzzing, and she can't answer it, because it's too loud in here, and also because ultimately, on the continuum of "I'm just going to have a quiet night at home, no seriously, Pep, I mean it" (which Tony has said exactly never) and "I am Iron Man", PR-wise, this is probably not something that needs her immediate attention. It just means that her next few months are going to be spent dodging the IRS and FTC and any other government entity that can possibly get its licks in. Legal's going to be thrilled.

But if there's one thing that Pepper knows from years of dealing with DoD it's that as a general rule, government agencies move slowly. At the very least she has the time to get another half-smoke and an iced tea.

So she's in line, and she's waiting, and she can tell she's being looked at. There's a guy next to her, light brown hair, about her age, maybe a little younger, a few inches shorter. He's cute in a brutal sort of way, like he could take someone apart for you if you needed him to. He gives her a friendly, slightly flirty grin, and she realizes that there's something familiar about him.

"You're Pepper Potts, right?" he says, and she gives a tight-lipped smile back.

"Yep. That's me," because that's another thing about her life now: she gets recognized on the street. Or in line for a chili dog. Either way, it's not her favorite thing. It's actually why she's here, instead of on the jet to New York: she'd walked in, the hearing'd been on CSPAN and so had she, and upon making the connection the staff had basically refused to serve her until Tony or, more accurately, "YO, IRON MAN!", made an appearance. Tony had found the whole thing hilarious, as he tends to find everything that makes Pepper's life difficult. "Do I know you?" she says, and she hopes that makes him feel at least slightly as awkward as she does. It doesn't seem to.

"I was at the hearing." Which might explain why she feels like she's seen him before: he does look like a staffer, white collared shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbow, blue-stripped tie, dark slacks, a bit of a military bearing, but that's not rare these days.

"Okay."

"Your boss is kind of an asshole."

She has to laugh while looking straight ahead. What is this? Is he trying to bond with her? Flirt? "So I've heard."

"I mean, free country and all, but—"

It's her turn to order, and she does.

"It's on—" he tries.

"Tony, actually," because that's the other thing: Tony's in one of those moods, the kind that leads him to do things like waltz in, drop an obscene amount of cash on the counter, and declare everything, for the rest of the day and probably well into the week, to be on him. "You know. The asshole."

The guy gives her what he probably thinks is an utterly charming, rueful smile, and he's not far off. He orders a gigantic slice of red velvet cake and two forks, which strikes Pepper as somewhat presumptuous, until he tosses her a quick, professional salute and steps away.

"Nice to meet you, Miss Potts," he says, and melts into the crowd before she has a chance to say anything else.

*

Weeks later, when she's so angry at Tony that she almost can't stand being on the same coast as him, a couple of pictures end up on her desk, along with a very sweet note from Ben's press person asking if they have a preference for their wall of fame shot. She flips through them restlessly, knowing that she should just have Natalie do this, that looking through fifteen or so shots of Tony doing finger guns and peace signs and putting his arm around her and dragging her into the shot even after she told him not to will do nothing to calm her down. But maybe she doesn't want to be calmed down. Maybe she's pissed and has been for almost a decade and deserves the chance to fully feel it for once.

It's the seventh picture, an otherwise unremarkable shot of Tony leering playfully at the eponymous Ben's widow, that stops her up. In the far corner, out of focus but recognizable, there's a brown-haired young man with his shirtsleeves rolled up, leaning into a booth, practically on top of someone. His head is turned toward whoever it is and she can't really see either of their faces, but as Pepper looks closer, three things become clear to her in quick succession: that jacket looks vaguely familiar, she'd recognize that haircut anywhere, and Agent Coulson's hand is definitely wrapped around the guy's hip. Wait, four things: said guy's hand appears to be somewhere in the proximity of Agent Coulson's chest.

Aw, Agent Coulson's got a special friend, is her first thought, in a very annoying, very familiar-sounding voice, but that's almost immediately replaced by, wait, what? in her own.

Because those pictures were taken a couple of hours after she talked to the brown-haired guy. Had the two of them been there the whole time? Had SHIELD been watching Tony? Had SHIELD been watching her? Where they still? Is there something she can do about that?

Pepper puts the picture down on the corner of her desk. She shuffles the rest of the pile together again, reattaches the note, and calls Natalie into her office. "Take care of these, please. And see if you can get me a meeting with Phil Coulson, from SHIELD? His number's in my book."

"Of course, Miss Potts. What should I say it's concerning?"

"Mr. Stark," she says, because one way or another, it always is. She gets a brisk nod in response, and then Natalie hustles out the door.

She never gets her meeting. The picture disappears from her desk by the next day.

Chapter Text

The truth is this: he barely knows anything about Agent Coulson.

He feels bad about it, he really does. The man had obviously meant something to a lot of people. But he'd only really met him the once, when he'd first come on board the helicarrier, and he hadn't made much of an impression beyond basic professionalism and an undercurrent of concern. No real wariness toward him, and that had been appreciated, but there was a lot going on at that point and Bruce hadn't really had the time to think about it.

After the dust of New York has started to settle, back at the ruins of Stark Tower, Tony Doesn't Talk About It, but Pepper does. And wow, Pepper: nothing about Tony, about SHIELD or the Avengers or the past few days have prepared him for Pepper Potts, but there probably isn't anything in the world that could have done so properly, so he begrudges no one. He just lets himself be carried by the wave of competence and charm and caring that Pepper represents, and in trade, he listens.

She tells him about Tony, about how he's never really had a family but is suddenly brimming with plans for a tower full of superheroes. About how she has a voicemail message full of dead air she's afraid to delete. About Phil Coulson. At first Bruce wonders why she brings him up: they seem to have been close, comrades in Tony-wrangling, but the conversation had been elsewhere, and now it's not.

She tells him about the cellist, and Bruce quickly forms the opinion that she might have been more invested in the relationship than either of the participants were, and resolves to never tell her about Betty.

She tells him that she worries, now that Phil's gone. More than she used to, and that she knows it's ridiculous because in a way Tony's got more support than he's had in ages, but still, she worries. She'd known Phil, known what he represented, but she doesn't really know the rest of them except for Natasha and there seems to be a polite, mutual chill there. And so, she worries. She makes him promise not to tell Tony. He promises to try.

She tells him all this, and Tony overhears some of it, or possibly all of it, which Pepper possibly intends, because there's no way Pepper is unaware of when JARVIS is recording, or that JARVIS would do so without her consent.

So then Tony talks to him about it, or doesn't really talk to him, just generally throws statements out there, about grown men not really needing to be babysat and Pepper needing better friends who aren't self-sacrificing morons and being glad Bruce is there because he's a smart guy who doesn't do stupid things like get himself killed just to prove something, while growling at his monitors and designing light-weight, highly durable body armor.

Bruce wonders at his life, at being used to play a rather sophisticated game of telephone between the crazy couple of oddballs who are currently his closest friends. It's a hell of a thing.

*

If there's anyone Bruce knows less about than Agent Coulson, it's Clint Barton.

Now may not be the best time to broach the subject, but he is kind of curious. The man had come out of nowhere when he'd gotten the call and hasn't left since. He hasn't touched him, he hasn't spoken, he hasn't moved from the cheap pink-upholstered chair he'd dragged next to the hospital bed two hours ago. Everyone else, even Natasha, has gotten a little twitchy since then, but Clint remains stoic, elbows braced on his knees, chin braced on his hands, watching the steady rise and fall of the apparently-not-that-dead Agent Coulson's chest.

They're none of them quite sure what they're waiting for, but Bruce suspects Clint will be the first to know it when he sees it.

He's right.

Whatever it is must happen very quickly, because no one else seems to notice, but all of the sudden Clint's leaning forward with a soft smile spreading across his face. Natasha goes from curled in her chair and watching Clint to standing beside him in as long as it takes to blink, and everyone else begins holding their breath.

Coulson's eyelashes flutter, and Clint grins.

"Hey, boss. Sleeping beauty act's getting a little old," he says, in a low, cheerful, almost cheeky tone Bruce has never heard from him before.

Coulson blinks. He has blue eyes. They're unfocused at the moment, but still scanning the room with somehow hazy precision. Tony jostles past Bruce and Steve to get a closer look, but they all shuffle closer and then stop suddenly.

The corner of Coulson's mouth quirks. "Heeeeey," he says, gazing at Clint, and then he seems to remember everyone else. He giggles. "Gang's all here!"

Natasha and Clint exchange a look. "Morphine," they say in unison, and Clint grabs at Coulson's left hand, which had been moving, as if possibly to beckon someone closer, but in execution it kind of flopped around the vicinity of Clint's knee. It stays there, pressed down by Clint's palm. His eyes look past them both, though, and seem to settle on something. It quickly becomes obvious what it is.

"Tony. Tony. Tony!" he says; his voice is weak but the glee in it is obvious, and Tony looks utterly baffled.

"Um. Phil?"

"Anthony! C'mere!"

Tony looks torn, but the decision he's obviously dithering over is made for him; he doesn't quite recover from the not-subtle shove Steve gives him, and stumbles into a sitting-ish position on Coulson's right. His hands hover awkwardly for a moment before settling on his own thighs. Coulson doesn't seem to care about that; he just smiles, beams, really.

"I heard. 'bout what you did."

"Oh, well, you know me—"

"You're a good person," Coulson's voice sounds almost normal, but there's a strain of real warmth to it. It's very strange, or so Bruce guesses. Tony's staring like it's very strange, and he's speechless, so that's a pretty good sign too. And then Coulson reaches over, and pats a patch of mattress next to Tony gently. "Very good pers'n...an' I'm..." his eyelids flutter, and Tony looks halfway to bolting, but obviously can't bring himself to do it, plus Clint is leveling a pretty steady glare in his direction.

"Well. Thanks. I guess?" he looks uncomfortably, but deeply, pleased for half a second before Bruce sees him light upon an idea. "Hey! Phil, Captain America's here, so—"

"Steve!" Coulson's eyes spring open and he grins. "Steve Rogers!"

"Agent— I mean, Phil, I mean, sir, we're all so—"

"You are my hero. I mean. Captain America. But. Steve, and I just...just knowing you is...is..." and now Coulson's tearing up, which no one seems to want, and it's Clint, who's still got his hand on top of Coulson's and his glare fixed on Tony, who finally acts.

"Steve's gonna sign your cards, sir," he says, with so much tenderness in his tone that it softens his expression.

"Yeah?" Coulson smiles, an earnest, little-boy-full-of-wonder smile. There's some news that obviously hasn't been broken to him, but no one's about to do it now.

"Yeah," Natasha says, sharply, with a significant look to Steve, who nods. And then notices that's not enough, steps closer, and reaches out, palm flat. His hand wavers for a moment, but with Clint and Natasha blocking access on his left and Tony on Coulson's right , he's not left with much. He gingerly pats Coulson's leg, at about ankle-level.

"That'll have to wait till you're better, though, sport."

Bruce can practically see Tony mouth "sport" incredulously, but Steve ignores him, and Coulson seems utterly charmed.

"Cap'n's orders?"

"Captain's orders," Steve says, and after a moment, even offers an incredibly cheesy, publicity ready salute that has Coulson beaming and attempting to return it in kind, not with any kind of military precision, and he has to untangle his hand from Clint's first. Once he's done, his hand drops back to Clint's knee, where it's given a quick pat and pinned down again, as if for its own good. Bruce wonders if anyone else sees Clint run his thumb along the side of Coulson's wrist, and linger there, if anyone sees the way Clint's head is ducked, the way his gaze is tied to the place where he and Coulson touch.

Bruce thinks not. Everyone else seems pretty busy at the moment.

"—I'm just saying in between staying here, at shady government hospital inc, or back at the Tower, with the best medical care money could buy—"

"I know that's always the solution for you, Tony, what money can buy—"

"Not always, but in this particular situation—"

“I don't think Director Fury—"

"I think, Agent Romanoff, that at this point, absolutely no one in this room gives a fuck what Fury's opinion on anything is."

"Tony!" And Bruce isn't sure what Steve's more offended by, the implicit disrespect for a commanding officer or for a woman, but either way it doesn't look like it's going to end well.

"Guys." Clint's voice is calm, and that same even-keel mild that Bruce has gotten used to hearing very occasionally over the past few weeks, but it cuts through. His eyebrows incline and gesture, subtly, at the fact that Agent Coulson is once again asleep. Everyone looks suitably chastened. Well, Tony's mouth opens, but Bruce takes a rare moment of friend privilege to punch him in the arm. Tony's mouth shuts with a dramatic click.

They all file out. Clint is the first to go, making up for the time spent gently untangling Coulson's hand from his own and placing it back on the bed by pushing past them and hurtling down the hospital corridor with both fists shoved in his pockets; he's out of sight within seconds. Natasha looks after him, face blank, and after a breath or two turns on her heel and walks off in the opposite direction. With them gone, Bruce, Tony, and Steve exchange a glance.

"What was...?"

"No idea."

"Right."

Chapter Text

Tony used to be a lot better at parties.

Getting them started, keeping them going, making them memorable and/or infamous as needed, it was kind of his gift, and also his curse.

But now? Eh. Livening up some mandatory socializing is one thing, but genuinely trying to get the misfit toys to loosen up and enjoy themselves is a task of proportions behind quantifying. The fact remains, he's still not even sure he actually likes these people, and he is sure that uncertainty's mutual.

Also not helping matters? His go-to social lubricant is kind of a no-go for almost half the guest list, 100% of whom desperately need it: Bruce won't (despite alcohol being a depressant, so, you know, go figure), Rogers is apparently unaffected (like the poor bastard hasn't suffered enough), and Barton, well, who the hell knows with Barton (no one: no one knows with Barton, because god knows Tony has tried, and if his sheer persistence was not enough, he doubts anything would be).

And really, drinking around sober people stopped being fun about ten years ago (which he knows, from extensive testing in the area). Hanging out with people who hold their alcohol better than him may be even worse, because it feeds into his competitive nature and if there's anything that's ever been a guaranteed exercise in futility and self-destruction, it's trying to out-drink a Russian and a Norse God.

And Pepper's out of town, and Bruce (poor perpetually sober Bruce) is talking to the fantastic Dr. Foster, so really, Coulson is his best bet. Which is just sad, and even sadder, he can't for the life of him actually find the guy.

He asks around; the roof's a possibility, and he'd just like to point out, if he'd been allowed to host this at the Tower, like he wanted, this not-finding-people bullshit wouldn't be a problem. But Steve Rogers and his puppy-dog earnestness had come up with "morale building" on his own and wanted to see it through, so his shifty Brooklyn sixth-floor walk-up it was.

Rogers is not, in Tony's opinion, an expert host. He can't really blame the guy: as a seventy-year-old virgin who spent the wildest part of the 20th century on ice, he's kind of at a disadvantage. Which is why he should have left the party hosting to Tony, but no one ever listens, so: roof it is, because Coulson listens sometimes, if only to mock him with deadly subtlety after.

The roof is the next floor up, accessible through a door that's been propped open by a brick. Quality security, this place. Stellar.

It's a warm night, and the sound of traffic almost blocks out the murmur of conversation coming from behind the ventilation system. As Tony walks over, he hears a low, unfamiliar laugh. Huh. It's not Coulson's, Tony knows that much, but his brain doesn't get far in compiling the possibilities before it's confronted with the reality: Agent Phil Coulson and Clint "Hawkeye" Barton, sitting in a tree.

Well, not a tree. It's some kind of metallic staircase used to access the vents, but they are sitting: Phil's on the fourth step up, Clint's on the second, leaning back with his elbows braced on the step between them, and, oh yeah, his body's right between Phil's legs. He is, in fact, resting his cheek on the inside of Phil's thigh as he gazes up at him; Phil is running a hand through Clint's hair as he looks down with an equally moony expression.

Wow. Awkward.

Especially since if he's seen them, there's no way in hell they haven't noticed him, so there's really no way of saving this at all, unless he runs, and even then..."Uh, hi there? Sorry to interrupt—"

"You're not," Clint says, expression tending toward pissed but no more so than usual. He hoists himself up by the stair rail, grabbing an empty soda can as he goes. He half-twists to look at Phil, and taps the palm of his hand against the railing distractedly. "Was about to go get another anyway, you want anything?"

Phil smiles up at him. "No, I'm good."

Clint doesn't respond, at least not verbally, but there's something slightly off about his face when he turns back around.

"Stark," he says, as he walks past, and Tony realizes what it is: he's grinning.

"Barton." Tony nods back, stunned, and then gets over it. He clambers up onto the metal staircase and plops right down next to Phil, like a normal person. Phil glances over at him. He doesn't seem embarrassed, mostly curious, and that strikes Tony as odd: if they're secretive enough to sneak outside to fool around or whatever, they'd probably be at least somewhat concerned about him finding out. Tony can keep a secret when it's necessary, but he's well aware of his reputation, and he's not known for his discretion.

"Soooo," he drawls, which Phil seems amused at. "You and Barton."

Phil's amusement is short-lived: his normal-human-on-the-roof-drinking-a-beer face shuts down, and he reverts to bland government bureaucrat within a second.

"What about me and Agent Barton?" Phil's voice and eyes are calm, but there's not a lot of space on the step they're sharing, so Tony can feel the sudden tension in him, like he's about to bolt.

"You know. You. And Barton. You're...special friends?" He makes some wavy, overly elaborate hand motions in the hope Phil will find it funny, and it does earn him a chuckle, so, success. Phil leans back as he shakes his head.

"Just regular friends, Tony."

Tony snorts; Phil looks borderline insulted, but seriously. "Phil, come on. This," he gestures between them, the same-step-sittingness, lack of anyone between anyone's legs of it. "Is regular friends. That," he waves at the approximate position Clint had been occupying, and realizes, about halfway through the gesture, that he's basically waving at Phil's crotch. Phil's eyes drop for a second, as if checking something, and...oh. Oh god. "That was not regular friends," he finishes, lamely, and Phil blushes. It's not obvious, especially in this light, but he does, and the proof of it is that he immediately turns his head away.

"Clint is a very...tactile person. He doesn't mean anything by it."

Tony thinks this may be the kind of bullshit Agent Coulson tells himself on the subject; it may even be what Phil believes. That doesn't mean Tony has to subscribe to it. "Tactile, huh?" he bumps his shoulder against Phil's. "I don't think I've gotten so much as handshake from the guy."

Phil turns back and looks at him like he can't believe Tony's missed something so obvious. "He doesn't trust you yet."

"Well I don't trust him either."

Phil sighs. "Don't take it personally. Agent Barton's..." Phil seems to lose himself for a moment, but glances back. "It takes him a while."

"How long did it take you?"

Phil's fingers twitch, and he frowns. His voice is quiet when he speaks again. "It's really not...Clint's not gay."

And that may be true but Tony remembers the day at the hospital, the look on Clint's face when Phil woke up, and thinks that may not be the whole story.

"But you are?"

Phil gives him the I still have that taser look, with a hint of a smirk; not displeased with the question, more with the obviousness of it. "I'm private."

And Tony could push, boy could he push, but: regular friends, and Phil hadn't even objected to the label, and behind it all, Phil just looks so sad. So he shuts up, and sits there till Phil finishes his beer, and figures he can always ask Pepper about it later.

Chapter Text

"Do you trust me?"

Phil sighs. "What did you do this time, Barton?"

Clint laughs, but won't meet his eyes. Phil puts his pen down. "Clint?"

"I have to ask you something. But—" he glances at the door, then shuts it. Hesitates for a moment, takes a step further into the room, and stops dead.

Phil gets up; Clint looks fine physically, hasn't been injured lately, hasn't been off the radar for a while, so he's got no idea what he could have gotten caught up in, but with Clint, nothing short of a national security risk would get this kind of reaction. He goes to stand in front of him, close enough to reach out, should he have to. "What do you need?"

Clint looks as worried as Phil feels for a moment, then shuts it down.

"I need you to close your eyes."

Why? Phil's inner paranoid bastard wants to blurt out, but it's distant. He looks at Clint for a moment, and Clint nods at him, the please implicit and plaintive. He does as he's been asked, and for about ten seconds, nothing happens.

He can hear Clint breathing, but doesn't hear him move, which is a good thing from a professional standpoint but it makes the sudden contact, a hand light on his left shoulder, slightly more disconcerting than it should be.

"Barton?" he makes sure not to sound nervous, just confused, with maybe a strain of displeasure at having his time wasted.

"Phil," Clint says, from closer than he expected, and then there's another hand on his right shoulder. "I..." the hands slide down his chest, under his jacket, down along his sides, and it feels familiar.

"I'm not wired." He manages to hit baffled, insulted that Clint would think it's necessary to check.

Clint chuckles, and there's slightly more pressure on his ribs, more holding than stroking, before he feels the slight shift of his holster where fingers bump against it. "You are carrying though."

"You know where everything is." He doesn't; for security reasons, not specific to Clint but especially relevant lately, he's always held something back, just in case, for any possible advantage in a desperate situation.

"Maybe I just want to be sure," and there's steady pressure wrapped around his left thigh, sliding briskly down to his knee, then along his calf; Phil's mind whirls into overdrive before he can get any further, picturing where Barton would have to be to get that kind of grip, how to overpower him, anything to stave off a physical reaction when they're this close. He focuses on keeping his breathing steady, but there's no hiding the way he chokes on nothing but air when something (Clint's head, from Phil's mental schematic of the situation) bumps against his hip. Clint's hands (around Phil's right ankle by now) falter for a moment, but slide up again, brisk and professional.

"You're tense," Clint says, his hands splayed over Phil's ribs again, and Phil want to laugh, to sob, to open his eyes and kick Clint out.

"I don't know what this is," he says instead. It comes out honest, because it is, and he's got enough things he's trying to control to fight it.

"I—" he thinks he hears Clint swallow, knows he feels his thumb slip under his belt for a moment. "You could ask."

Phil waits for a moment, listening to Clint's breathing, or maybe it's his own.

"What is this?"

Clint's hands slide up his chest again, and they feel warmer now, more sure. They settle on Phil's shoulders. "Tony said...last week. On Steve's roof. Apparently that's not...normal..."

There's a pause, as if Clint's waiting for his reaction. "I'm so glad you're taking tips from Tony Stark about what constitutes appropriate..." Clint's hands slide down over his biceps, past his elbows, and encircle his wrists. Phil takes a breath, but it doesn't help; when he speaks, it sounds uneven to his own ears. "...human interaction."

Clint laughs, quiet and soft; his fingertips, which Phil hadn't been able to feel through his clothes, are rough. His thumbs caress the skin over Phil's pulse. "He said I was leading you on. That it was a," Clint's voice hitches. "A dick move, letting you—asking you to—if I didn't—"

"I don't expect—"

"You should," Clint all but growls, and his grip on Phil's left wrist tightens as he drags Phil's hand forward, and presses Phil's palm flat against the front of his jeans, where Phil can feel his erection straining under the fly.

He opens his eyes, and Clint looks actively furious at him.

"How could you not know?" he says, letting go of Phil's wrists in order to grab him by the shoulders again. "You know every fucking thing about me, how could you not know?"

"I..." he starts, with absolutely no idea how he's going to finish, and it's then that Clint kisses him. It's rough and confused and angry and perfect, and he slides his arm around Clint's waist in a half-conscious effort to make sure he stays. Clint melts against him, his mouth going soft and pliant, his body warm and yielding. Phil can hear his heartbeat in his ears, knows he needs to catch his breath, but he can't bring himself to pull away until Clint does. Clint's endurance far surpasses his, especially now, and it'll probably be a while, but he can't bring himself to mind. When they finally do break apart, he blinks at Clint, at the wide grin and the flushed cheeks and bright eyes, and feels his knees buckle. "I need..." he pauses, sucking in air. "I need a minute."

Clint's expression goes from gleeful to panicked to full of righteous indignation then cycles between all three as he drags Phil around and shoves him back into his desk chair. He hovers, checking his pulse, glancing up at his face and then away. "Phil, what the hell—are you—should I—"

"I'm fine," he says, reaching out and resting his hand on Clint's chest. "Clint. I'm fine."

Clint stares at him, blue eyes wide and focused, and then he nods sharply. Drops his hands, takes a brisk step back, bumps into Phil's desk, and ends up leaning against it like that was his intention all along.

"You're going to want to talk about it, aren't you." It's not even really a question, but Phil nods.

"We're going to have to."

Clint groans; his head falls back, and he stares at the ceiling. "This all went so much easier in my head," he says, conversational, but his grip on the edge of the desk is tight enough to turn his knuckles white.

"How so?"

Clint laughs, rough and self-deprecating. He drops his head, rolls his shoulders, and continues to completely avoid eye contact. "Was just going to come in here and sweep you off your feet, I guess."

Phil stands up slowly and walks over to him. When he's close enough, Clint's gaze flickers up to his face and then away. Phil drops his eyes as well, watches his fingers brush over Clint's knuckles, the back of his hands.

"You get that I'm not turning you down?"

Clint nods, and his grip on Phil's desk weakens. He shifts, till he's more sitting than leaning, and Phil takes a step closer. Glances up; Clint's still looking down.

"I'm sorry," Clint says, gruff but sincere.

Phil leans in, presses his palms over Clint's hands. "What for?"

"Everything. Should've told you before. Shouldn't've kissed you without...like that. Without asking."

"It's fine," Phil says, and thinks that may not be quite enough. "I'm glad you did."

"Yeah?"

"I wouldn't have done anything if you hadn’t." Clint looks up at that, pained, but Phil just shakes his head. "Even if I had known. It wouldn't have been a good idea."

"Because you're my boss."

"Yes." Which is the truth, the easiest part of it. The rest is: Because you're you. And you were alone, and you needed someone you could trust, and I would've been taking advantage if I'd made it more. He nods to himself, reassuring them both. You're not alone anymore. I'm not scared anymore. "I'm not your boss anymore."

Clint smirks. "Guess not," he says, and his hands slip out from under Phil's, snake around his wrists, and yank Phil forward. "You want to take this slow?"

He's off-balance, and Clint is very, very close. "Slow?"

"Coffee? Dates? Sneaky yawn-stretching, arm-over-the-shoulder moves? Y'know, normal...stuff?"

Phil thinks about it. They've never been normal. They've been taking it slow for more than a decade. It's important to move forward.

"No," he says. "I'm good."

Chapter Text

"No, I'm good," Phil says, and kisses him.

It's not like before, except that it kind of is: not as hard and fast and desperate, but just as sure. Clint lets go of Phil's hands in order to grab his waist, and Phil's mouth slips away for a moment, catching his breath, before coming back. His hands cup the back of Clint’s head, keep him where he wants him, and Clint swears he'd never move again if that's what Phil wanted. He'd just stay there, sitting on Phil's desk, kissing or waiting to be kissed, for the rest of his life.

Clint's aware that's kind of crazy. It's not his fault; Phil is driving him crazy, with all those sweet slow kisses, interspersed with quick separations and deep inhales, and he's got the warm air from Phil's lungs all up in him, filling his chest till it feels like he's going to burst.

Phil eases up for a moment. He's still close, but not enough that Clint can feel every breath. He opens his eyes, and Phil smiles at him, sheepish.

"I may have gotten a little carried away," he murmurs, low like it's a secret, like Clint's the only one who gets to know that Phil isn't always 100% in control of his actions.

Clint grins. "I'd be a fan of you getting more."

Phil chuckles, leans in to press his forehead against Clint's. It's weird, strangely intimate, but he presses back. Phil seems to appreciate it, because he stays there, quiet, for a little longer before pulling out of his grasp.

"Things are going to change." His hands are uncertain for a moment, before they come up to flatten his tie back against his chest. "There's...there's things I can't do."

"Like what?" Clint huffs. "Anal?"

Phil laughs, startled, but then sobers. "Like having you in here with the door closed."

Clint raises his eyebrows. "Are you serious?" Phil gives him a look, and he has to laugh. "Are we fifteen?"

"Clint—"

"Okay. Fine," he says, getting up. He walks over to the door, throws it open, then turns back around, and stalks back over to where Phil is standing, looking at him like he may in fact actually be fifteen. Clint crosses his arms. "Happy?"

Phil rolls his eyes. "Thrilled." He starts to turn away, probably to go back to his desk so they can Talk About This some more, but Clint reaches out. His hand rests against Phil's arm, right above his elbow, and Phil hesitates. He's still for a long moment before he turns back around. His eyes narrow and he gives Clint the patented Phil Coulson Professionally Evaluative Scan, which is normally guaranteed to put Clint on edge, but he resists the urge to look away and keeps his hand on Phil's arm.

"We keeping this a secret?"

Phil looks as surprised as he ever does, and his eyes soften. "Of course not."

"Good, 'cause I'm about to kiss you again."

He waits for Phil to nod before closing the distance. Their lips meet, and Phil gives that quiet little sigh, the same one he makes when he's done for the day and finally gets to go home. Clint's probably heard it a thousand times before, but he's never understood it until just now.

"Coulson, I'm gonna need you on the damage negotiations again, the governor's being an asshole." Clint bolts back. Fury gives him the same vaguely disgruntled look he always does when he finds Clint in Phil's office, and keeps talking. "Think Sitwell can handle the team this week, or am I going to have to take time from my busy schedule to babysit a forty-seven year old man?"

"Stark will behave," Phil says, absolutely calm, as if he hadn't just been caught in a compromising position with his sometimes-subordinate.

Fury grunts in disbelief. "Fine. Barton?"

He tries to take inspiration from Phil's serenity, and manages: "Sir."

"Get your ass down to the armory, they've been paging you for half an hour." He swallows. Fury stares at him for a moment, and Clint makes the mistake of staring back. "Now, Agent Barton."

"Got it, sir," he says, daring a quick glance to Phil once he's at the door. Phil smiles at him, and his fingers twitch by his side. Clint squeezes the doorframe, then taps at it twice with his palm, more to displace the energy than anything, but Phil's eyes crinkle as he shakes his head. Clint grins to himself as he turns around.

Things are going to change, Phil had said.

Not too much, Clint hopes. Just enough.