Phil starts gaming the first time he gets injured and taken out of the field for an extended amount of time. He sits at his computer with his full leg cast propped up on a chair and tries to figure out what the other soldiers in his unit find so addicting about online gaming.
After being glued to his computer for four hours straight, Phil has to admit that’s he’s definitely hooked. It’s relaxing in a way that Phil can’t really pinpoint, using his knowledge of military tactics and strategy in a fantasy world where nobody really gets hurt. He plays nearly non-stop for the two months he’s got the cast on, bouncing around from team to team until he finally finds a group that he’s comfortable with. It doesn’t take long for Phil to become friends with one of the other regular team members, Fletch, who also seems to have some sort of military background.
As the date of his next deployment nears, Phil makes a leap of faith and sets up a new email account so he can keep in touch with Fletch. It makes him feel a little creepy, because he has no idea who Fletch really is - he could be twelve for all Phil knows - but Phil has learned over the years that good friends aren’t easy to come by.
Cheezer42: Hey Fletch
goFLETCHyourself: what up cheez?
Cheezer42: I’m heading out soon. Won’t be on to play.
goFLETCHyourself: fuck. really? these other fuckers suck
Cheezer42: Yeah, I know. If you want to complain, I have hotmail. Same handle.
Phil gets an email from Fletch later that night and can’t help grinning happily at words on the screen. Fletch on email is surprisingly intelligent and well spoken compared to the bits Phil has seen in game chat. He still seems to think that capitalization is unnecessary, but Phil can forgive that. Phil is able to exchange a few emails with Fletch while he’s deployed and doesn’t feel at all guilty that a friend Phil met online gets more messages than the one he sends to his sister.
They stay in contact with each other throughout the years, although it’s far from constant communication - both Fletch and Phil move around a lot, so there are often huge gaps in their emails and even larger gaps between their online games. Phil eventually learns that Fletch is only about eight years younger than him, which helps to relieve Phil’s concerns about their ongoing friendship. They share surprisingly few details about their real lives, considering how long they’ve been friends, but Phil gets the distinct impression that Fletch is very lonely and wishes there was more he could do about it.
“You okay there, Fletch?” Phil asks into his microphone one night while they’re playing with a new team. He feels a little silly for asking, but Fletch hasn’t been his usual, exuberant self that night.
“Yeah...just...life, you know?” Fletch responds sadly. “I’m...kind of in love with my boss and it sucks ass.”
“That’s a problem?” Phil asks and watches as the grenade his character threw arches through the air and hits it target.
“Nice one, Cheez,” Fletch compliments. “He’s so far beyond and better than me, that we might as well be on different planets.
Phil watches as Fletch’s onscreen character jumps over a divide to shoot a rival team’s leader in the head and tries not to falter at Fletch’s love interest being another man. “If that’s how he treats you, then he doesn’t deserve you,” Phil says.
“Nah,” Fletch responds. “That’s the problem. He treats me like I matter, but I know how these things really go.”
“Can we go shoot stuff now?” one of the others cuts in. “Or are you not done playing relationship counselor?”
“That’s rich coming from someone who can’t hit a fucking bus with a self-guided missile. Shut your fucking mouth and go blow that bridge like you were supposed to,” Fletch orders.
They don’t say anything personal for the rest of the game, but Fletch gives him a quiet, “Thanks Cheez,” as they’re signing off for the night.
More years pass and Phil falls quietly in love with Clint Barton. He hasn’t told another living soul about it, but he’s typed and erased the confession on numerous emails to Fletch. It’s odd, but there’s something about Clint that makes Phil think about his longtime friend and he can’t help wondering if it would have been better to fall in love with Fletch instead. At least Phil had never unwittingly led Fletch to believe he was dead or had Fletch look at him with accusation and betrayal in his eyes. Then again, Phil had never seen Fletch in person, so maybe it was an unfair comparison.
“All right,” Fletch says to the gathered team members around them. “Everyone knows the game plan, right? Cheez is going to take point, you all follow and spread out while I go for the boxes. Cheez, you got the stats?”
“Give me a minute...uh...32.33% chance of success,” Phil replies, rubbing his hands together in glee. It’s been a while since he’s gotten a chance to play - most of his free time eaten up by the Avengers finally coming together and everyone moving into the Tower. The statistics may not show it, but Phil and Fletch have had the best games with worse odds.
“Awesome,” Fletch responds with equal glee in his voice. “Now before we go in --”
“Let’s do this!” one of the other gamers suddenly yells and rushes into the virtual building. “Jaaaammiiiiiieee Saunders!”
“He just went inside,” Phil says dumbly, blinking at the screen in front of him.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck! God damn it! He’s pulling a Leeroy Jenkins!” Fletch yells over the mic and Phil follows as Fletch’s character runs after their wayward teammate. “Fucking Saunders! Stop, god damn it! Stop, you fucking moron! Everyone spread out!”
It’s no use. Their team gets decimated and Fletch continues to scream a string of curses at Saunders. There’s a loud crash as Fletch takes his frustration out on something breakable and it takes Phil a split-second to realize that he heard the noise both through his headphones and through the wall in front of him - the wall separating his room from Clint’s.
“Fucking incompetent asshole! You’re never playing with us again!” Fletch screams and there’s another thump through the game and through the wall. Phil takes off his headphones.
He calmly gets up from his desk and walks out of his room toward Clint’s closed door. Every Avenger has at least one other person with emergency access to their room and Phil knows, regardless of Clint’s anger at his faked death, that he is still the person Clint chose. The door opens without a sound and Phil finds Clint standing in front of his computer, headphones still on, and glaring daggers at the screen.
Clint is so distracted that he doesn’t realize that Phil is in the room until he’s only a foot away from the archer. Clint spins, immediately tensed for a fight, before he see Phil and relaxes.
“Jesus, Coulson,” Clint says after moving the mic away from his mouth. “Don’t sneak up on me like that. What’s up?”
Phil doesn’t say a word. He reaches up, taking off Clint’s headphones and throwing them on the desk behind him, before wrapping his hand around the back of Clint’s neck and pulling him in for a kiss. Clint makes a surprised sound and grabs at Phil’s waist, hands tense. Phil wonders for an instant if he’s read this wrong and Clint is going to push him away, but then the archer is wrapping his arms around Phil and deepening the kiss. Phil melts into the kiss with a sigh.
Clint rests their foreheads together when they eventually break apart to prevent oxygen deprivation and Phil can’t help the goofy grin that steals across his face - talk about getting what you wish for.
“Not that I’m complaining, but isn’t this a little sudden?” Clint asks.
“I don’t know, Fletch, I think it’s probably years too late,” Phil responds and grins wider when Clint’s eyes go wide as he leans back.
“Wait. What?!” Clint exclaims. “You’re Cheez? You’re a gamer? You’re my gamer?”
Phil places his hand on Clint’s jaw, smile fading when he remembers their earlier conversation. “There’s a reason why I treat you like you matter, like you’re my equal, Clint - because you are. Don’t ever think that I’m somehow better than you because I’ve been lucky enough to get a formal education or never been forced to decide between life and legality.”
Clint’s eyes are still a little disbelieving, but the smile he gives Phil is genuine, if small. “So all these years when I’ve wished I could fall in love with my friend Cheez instead of being stuck on you?”
“I’ve pretty much been in the same boat,” Phil admits.
“It’s nice to finally meet you in person, Cheez,” Clint says and lets his smile widen.
“Likewise, Fletch,” Phil responds. “Are you still angry at me for letting you think I’d died?”
“No,” Clint answers softly. “Fury explained that it wasn’t your call. The Council’s a bunch of assholes and Fury did let it slip to Nat and I before you officially came back. It just...it hurt thinking you could have willingly kept us in the dark.”
“I wouldn’t have done that to you, any of you,” Phil says.
“I know,” Clint agrees before grinning. “Fury said you tried to escape enough times that the Council just gave up trying to keep you locked up. You’re pretty badass, sir.”
“I had a good reason to come back,” Phil points out and is utterly charmed by the blush that steals across Clint’s cheeks.
“Would you...maybe like to get a cup of coffee?” Clint asks, straightening up and taking a small step back.
“I’d love to,” Phil says before he catches sight of several flashing windows on Clint’s screen - the others checking to see where they’ve gone. “Should we?” Phil asks, waving his hand at the screen.
“Nah,” Clint responds and reaches back to turn off the monitor. “I think it’s time to live in the real world for a while.”