Natasha kisses Phil first, when he drives her back to her tiny apartment, after yet another post-Tony Stark debrief. She's already said goodbye, he's got the keys in the ignition, waiting for her to get out of the car, and he's Phil. He's been part of her for almost as long as Clint, solid and stable and safe, so much simpler than Clint will ever be.
And so she kisses him.
And he kisses her back.
And it's nice. Lovely. He's careful, telegraphs how he's going to touch her before he does it and lets her lead. She feels small and delicate in his embrace, which is weird, because he keeps his hands away from all the weapons on her person, a visceral reminder that he knows she's dangerous and will never under-estimate her.
She doesn't invite him in, and he doesn't ask, just kisses her once more as she draws slowly away from him. He's smiling, sweet and almost bashful.
Natasha wants to show that smile to Clint. She wants Phil to smile at Clint like that as well, because she knows they both want him to, and she wants it as well.
Clint's on a mission, though, three weeks in Paris, and right now, Phil is smiling sweet and kind at her. She ducks in for one more kiss.
"I'll see you at work," she says, opening the car door.
Phil blinks slowly. "Yes," he says. "Sleep well."
He looks like he's waiting for her to say that this can't happen again, or like he's thinking of saying it. Natasha gets out of the car before he can.
It happens again.
More than once.
The day before Clint's due back, Natasha pulls back from kissing Phil and says, "Do you want to come up?"
The words sound strange, because every other time she's said them has been with seduction curled around every syllable, leading a target into her trap. With Phil, she just asks.
And then adds, "You have your go bag in the car, don't you?" in case Phil isn't quite sure of her meaning.
He just raises an eyebrow at her, and takes the keys from the ignition. So, he was sure.
She kisses him down into her bed, gets him mostly naked, and brings him off with her hand on him. He says, "Thank you," after he's caught his breath, and returns the favour without asking any questions, or saying anything about how she doesn't let him penetrate her.
Natasha doesn't fall asleep in his arms. It sounds nice, in theory, but in practice, it makes her feel trapped, and she always, always wakes up struggling. She saves them both from that by sleeping curled in the big, soft chair by her window, feeling the breeze on her face and feeling safe.
In the morning, Phil asks her if she wants to get dinner that evening.
She's not sure exactly what expression passes over her face before she can lock it down. Whatever it is, it makes Phil turn away slightly.
"With Barton," he adds, smooth enough that Natasha could almost believe he meant it that way all along. "Assuming he's still in one piece."
"Maybe," Natasha says.
The drive into HQ is very quiet, and Phil doesn't touch her at all when they part.
Clint comes back with the tail end of a concussion, a sprained ankle and a broken collar bone. He's had worse injuries – they all have – but Natasha hears his footfalls in the corridor outside the tiny office she's holed up in, less than an hour after she heard he was back. That always means more than just physical injuries.
His face, when he steps into the office, is confirmation enough. He's pale, expression drawn tight, and he's got an arm wrapped around his ribs, though the medical report says he doesn't have any injuries there. He smiles like a reflex. "Hey."
"Hey." Natasha doesn't smile. It's not an expression she can make look reassuring. "Rough mission?"
Clint nods. He won't say anything more, Natasha knows. He never does, and she never usually finds out why it was bad. Sometimes, she thinks that he doesn't know either.
"Buy me a coffee," she says, and brushes his shoulder with her fingertips as they walk out.
Natasha loves Clint in a weird way that doesn't think the rest of the world would call love. He's her frequent mission partner, the man who brought her into SHIELD and by extension saved her life, the closest and strangest thing she's ever had to a best friend, and the star of more than one fantasy after they've sparred. She would face down anyone and anything for him, the way she knows he would for her, and she would do whatever necessary to rescue him if she ever had to.
There's maybe only one thing that she can't do for him.
The evening of his first day back, she returns to her office after a meeting and finds Clint asleep against the wall. She's not surprised. This is pretty typical for Clint after a bad mission, when he wants to be physically close to someone he feels safe with, which usually means her. Over the years, they've battled out a sort of compromise, between what he needs and what she needs.
Today, though, she hurt one of her closest friends, and maybe screwed up the nice thing they had going. Today, her tolerance for people near her – needing her – is exhausted, even for Clint.
"Wake up," she says quietly, crouching in front of him.
His left hand twitches as he opens his eyes, an aborted reach out for her. They've always been able to read each other; he knows she doesn't want him there.
"You shouldn't be sitting here," she tells him. "Come on."
"Are we-" He cuts himself off, maybe because he needs to breathe through getting to his feet, maybe because it's the wrong question. "Where to?"
Phil has infinite capacity to pet and soothe anxious agents, and no plans for the evening. The first time Natasha ever saw Clint let his guard down was with Phil. "Someone safe," she says.
In her apartment that night, Natasha turns on the radio, because there's too much silence. Her apartment isn't big enough to dance in, but she finds a classical music station and closes her eyes, easing from stretches into ballet positions. This is her peace, a solitary sort that will never be part of her life in SHIELD.
But that night, when she closes her eyes, she sees Phil smiling at her through candlelight, the image vivid enough to be a memory.
She sees Clint, fuzzy with sleep and reaching for her hand, completely certain that she'll be there.
She sees herself, leaning in to kiss Phil, and always, always reaching back when Clint reaches for her.
Natasha doesn't make mistakes, but she thinks, perhaps, that she may have made one in sending her two boys away together. She'll see them in the morning, but in that moment, alone in her apartment with her music, she misses them.
She takes a deep breath, turns off the radio, and puts on her shoes. Natasha has always been one for action, once she's seen the action she needs to take. This is hardly an exception.
If Clint was doing this, he'd probably climb in through the window. Natasha isn't sure what Phil would do, other than that it would likely include a certain degree of ceremony, since Phil is a romantic at heart, as well as being a little traditional.
But it's not either of them doing it, it's Natasha, who could do ceremony or climbing through the window, but chooses instead to balance the stack of take-out cartons in her left hand, and press the buzzer for Phil's apartment with the other.
The door buzzes open. Natasha frowns as she nudges it with her hip. They can't possibly have known it was her. She shifts the boxes again, giving herself the best possible access to the gun under her jacket as she climbs the two flights of stairs to Phil's apartment.
The front door there is open as well, but before Natasha can draw her weapon, Clint's voice calls, "Hey, Natasha."
She's not at all surprised to find he's sitting, injured leg on a cushion, in Phil's bay window, the one that looks down onto the street. From street-level, with the apartment dimly lit, Natasha wouldn't have seen him.
He smiles at her, small but real, and she smiles back, matching it. Phil was a good choice; Clint looks better than he did at HQ a couple of hours ago.
"Hello," Phil says softly, from the kitchen doorway, where he's drying a glass and wearing jeans. This shouldn't be Natasha's world, but somehow it's become part of her, like her pistols and her heels and SHIELD. "Would you like to close the door?"
Phil ducks into the kitchen, getting plates by the sounds. The tiny sliver of her that worried he would be weird about the morning melts away. Neither one of them does weird, not over things like that.
"Chinese?" Clint asks.
"Korean." Natasha hands him a box, letting her fingers brush his. He smiles down at their hands, his own fingers curling over hers, not holding on, but holding. "You okay?" she asks quietly.
"Good now." He tips his head back, eyes closing. "You're staying, right?"
Natasha feels Phil watching them from across the room. When she looks, he's just waiting, patient and certain. "Yes," she says. "I'm staying."
Phil hands out plates and utensils, rolling his eyes a little when Clint shakes his head and eats straight from the carton. Natasha settles in the big, soft chair, so she can keep an eye on Clint and lean into Phil, in the corner of the couch.
The lights are low, but every shadow is familiar, like the quiet that falls as they dig into their food. Natasha curls her feet under her, breathes in the warmth and the spice of the food, and thinks that she could stay like this for a while.