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Slowly Falling (Down a Flight of Stairs)

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Sometimes, Clint really hates being the only “human” member of his team.

Natasha is in a league of her own. She can sit still while medical packs her for a bullet wound and Clint knows it takes two times the normal dose of anaesthetic to put her asleep. She heals faster than usual, too, and Clint’s never asked her how old she is. He’s known her for eight years and she’s always looked twenty-five.

It’s something the Red Room did to her and no one knows exactly what that might be. The organization is dead, its lead scientists killed, and Clint knows that because Coulson’s checked. Natasha was a victim as much as an asset there and she doesn’t know what was done to her – most of it before she was six years old. She has made what peace with it she can, and she doesn’t want to know more.

Medical wants to poke at her, but Fury’s never let them. If she’s with S.H.I.E.L.D., then she’s safe – that was the deal. Clint suspects she got a watered-down version of the Super Solider Serum, though. It’s the only thing that would make sense.

Banner, well, he doesn’t get hurt, anymore. Any injury above a paper-cut triggers the Hulk, and Banner hasn’t suffered anything as degrading as a broken bone or a torn ligament since he took a dose of gamma radiation that should have killed him. Even exhaustion and hunger – two states of suffering Clint knows Bruce has personal experience with – will bring out the Big Guy if sustained for too long. It’s why Banner likes to eat full meals as well as meditate, and get what sleep he can.

Clint doesn’t envy Bruce – not really. He’s sure that if he had an Other Guy, he’d be a raging green Clint-o-Hulk from sunup to sundown. But he is kinda pissed that Bruce hasn’t had to make use of Stark’s elite unit of physiotherapists, either. Especially when Bruce just half-smiles at him and says that Clint’s injuries will heal with time.

Stark himself is human, of course, but he might as well not be with that suit of his. The Iron Man armour takes most of Tony’s hits for him, and while Clint is not looking forward to the day Tony gets injury while outside of the armour – Clint worries about sniper’s, himself – it hasn’t happened yet.

Thor is, well, he's a god. Clint's never seen the man bruise, let alone break a bone. Thor just gives him a slap on the shoulder that sends him tumbling when he comments on it, and tells him that he has indeed been injured – and mightily! – during armed contest with a “Mangog”, whatever that is. That might be true, but Clint doesn’t think anything on this planet could hurt him.

Steve is, of course, in a class by himself. Clint wishes he could hate the Captain for that, but the longer he lives with him the more Clint knows that Coulson was right all along. Captain America really is the greatest human being in existence, and Clint feels privileged just to know him.

Unlike the rest of the team, Steve knows what it’s like to suffer – he had asthma before the discovery of ventolin and almost died half a dozen times before the age of ten. Even after his lungs opened enough to allow him to breathe, Steve lived in a world where a cold could kill you and pneumonia was a death sentence. He would bruise if someone looked at him funny, and if he had ever broken a bone it would likely have finished him off.

Clint, despite his crappy childhood, at least had his health. He may have been undernourished by the time S.H.I.E.L.D. found him, but he had survived on his own for five years with broken bones, wired jaws, and torn ligaments. Clint had broken into more than one pharmacy to steal antibiotics, and he never had the benefit of a physiotherapist before.

S.H.I.E.L.D. has changed all that for him, but Clint still hates to be hurt. In the field a wrenched ankle slows you down, and a torn shoulder gets you killed. Clint’s an expert on moving with broken bones, and he’s bragged he could win a speed contest with one functional arm and a shattered knee. The medics would never let him, of course, but he's sure he could do it.

So Clint doesn’t envy his team mates their various invulnerabilities or anything, but it kinds sucks nonetheless. Steve might be the only one who really gets it, but despite his history, he’s Captain America now. He might look vaguely embarrassed about it, but when The Absorbing Man takes The Hulk’s strength and throws them both through a wall, Steve bounces up and takes another swing at him, while Clint dislocates his shoulder, breaks his tibia, and sprains his ankle.

He still manages to bring the mutant down with a Hulk-strength tranq arrow, of course; it isn’t the first time he’s shot with a dislocated shoulder and it probably won’t be the last. He probably couldn’t have fired more than one shot, but no one else has to know that. Clint’s gotten the job done, fuck you very much, and it isn’t fair that he alone has to be carried from the battlefield like a civilian.

“If you try to walk on that leg, I will knock you unconscious and drag your ass back to medical,” Natasha tells him, walking up to Clint about to do exactly that.

He wants to tell her it isn’t that bad, but Natasha has that look in her eye – the one she gets when Clint does something stupid in battle. Clint raises his hands as she stalks nearer, wincing when the movement pulls at his – yup – definitely dislocated shoulder.

“In my defence,” Clint argues, electing to stay where he is on the pile of rumble that used to be a derelict apartment building, “if I hadn’t jumped down as a distraction, I would have been on this building when it fell.”

Natasha glares at him, which Clint takes as a sign of reluctant agreement. “It’s the ‘distraction’ part I take issue with,” she says. “Now stay still.”

She keeps him immobile until the medics arrive and cart him off to medical. The damage is about what he expects, and he’s proud of the grunt he suppresses when the doctor pops his shoulder back into place. He listens with half an ear to the lecture, nods in all the right places, and takes his little pill bottle of anti-inflammatories with him when he leaves.

The team’s waiting for him outside of medical, which is nice of them. Steve’s face has that you-got-hurt-and-I-didn’t-and-I-wish-I-got-hurt-instead-of-you look he gets sometimes. Clint gives him a smile and a then shrug, because really – what can you do? He’s the only human on a team full of superheroes; he’s going to get injured sometimes.

Stark has Happy drive them back to the Tower and the team gets Clint settled into the common room. He’s wearing a brace on his dislocated shoulder – he didn’t tear anything this time, but he needs to baby the ligaments for a few days – and a cast on his left leg. He’s going to be on medical leave for at least two months, though, and that sucks big donkey balls.

They fuss around him for the first day, which is pretty much par for course (but still kind of awesome), and after that things settle down. Nat does solo missions for S.H.I.E.L.D., and Tony spends most of his downtime in his workshop or with Pepper. Bruce has a lab and minions and everything, and Steve likes to walk the streets of New York and sketch. Thor splits his time between Asgard and Dr. Foster. As a result, Clint is basically left alone all day.

He’s okay with it – he really is. He’s on a team with important people and they have lots of important things to do. It’s just that Clint doesn’t have much if he’s not shooting at things or training to shoot at things. The hours between physical therapy pass slowly and by the third day, Clint’s about as bored a person can be.

He’s taking out his frustration on the toaster Stark has made unnecessarily complicated, having already given up on the coffee machine, when Phil Coulson wanders in to the common room kitchen.

“Oh, hey,” Clint says, blinking. Coulson is so quiet about sharing space that Clint has mostly forgotten he lives here, too.

“Good morning,” Coulson says politely. He walks to the fridge and pauses for a second before opening it with his right arm. Clint knows that pause – that's the half-second it takes to remember to use your non-injured limb.

Clint sighs into the toaster. “Getting hurt sucks.”

Coulson actually chuckles. “It does,” he agrees.

Clint watches the senior agent pour milk into a mug. He doesn’t actually know Coulson that well – they’ve never spent time together outside of the field. But Clint’s bored, and right now there is nothing to distract him from his own epic uselessness except Coulson. Clint watches him.

It’s weird to see Coulson injured. Coulson has always kind of been a half-mythological figure to Clint. He’d been the one to recruit him, so many years ago, and all Clint can remember about the experience is the sensation of driving rain, a bland face, and a calm voice saying everything he’d ever wanted to hear. He’d been running for three days with a fever and a bullet lodged in his hip by that point, but he thinks it was the calm voice more than anything else that brought him in.

They aren’t friends, they’re hardly colleagues, but Clint respects the man. He’d been happy to learn the rumours of Coulson’s death had been exaggerated, even if he hadn’t been surprised. Clint knows that Fury plays a long game – years before the Avengers Initiative got off the ground, Fury had been cutting the puzzle pieces to fit. He put Coulson on the Iron Man case and had him lead the op in New Mexico that bagged them Thor. Of course, Fury couldn’t have known the direct outcome of those missions, but he must have had a pretty good idea.

Coulson came back from Malibu with some kind of strange, tension-filled friendship with the notorious Tony Stark. He managed to get on Thor’s good side, which honestly wasn’t hard, but even now they had some kind of weird in-joke going where Coulson calls him “Donald” and Thor just grins.

Clint had suspected something was going on back when Fury started to give Coulson and Natasha more missions together – duo ops to the middle of nowhere where they’d either kill each other or learn to get along. Natasha had known what Fury was doing, of course, but she’d agreed to it anyway. The project had obviously been a success, because Nat had come back from those missions with a respect for Coulson that was, from her, very strong praise.

Coulson was even put in charge of the hunt for Captain America for a while, though he was yanked back State-side before Rogers woke up.

Seen from a distance, it was obvious that Fury had intended Coulson to be the link between S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Avengers Initiative. When Coulson went down during the Helicarrier attack, Fury knew how to use his “death” as a rallying point. He forced the scattered Avengers into something regarding a work-able team, and it’d obviously worked.

Still, the Director isn’t a complete asshole. Once the danger was over and the situation stabilized, he’d informed the Avengers that Coulson had indeed survived. The team had been pretty pissed, all around. Stark seemed to take Coulson’s death personally, and had kidnapped the still-recovering agent from S.H.I.E.L.D. medical as soon as possible. He re-installed him at the Tower, converting an entire floor into a medical wing/recovery centre. Fury had offered Coulson the position of Official Liaison with the Avengers Initiative, which was obviously what he'd been aiming for all along.

Clint didn’t mind, though. Even though he could see how Fury had manipulated everyone into doing exactly what he wanted them to in the end, Clint has to admit that Coulson is good for the team. He keeps them focused. While Clint takes the high view, it helps to have Coulson on the street, watching the situation from the ground. Coulson might still be on medical leave, but he's been cleared to sit in the S.H.I.E.L.D. surveillance van and monitor their comm. frequencies during an op.

It's a good idea – Coulson makes excellent calls. Steve is still their leader and Stark is definitely the second-in-command, but Coulson knows how to handle them both. He can give Steve suggestions without compromising his authority, and he has proven he can keep Stark on track. He knows Natasha’s capabilities, and he both understands and respects Banner’s contributions. Coulson’s dry logic always makes Thor laugh but agree, and with the senior agent on site they've managed to keep property damage levels to a minimum.

As for Clint, Coulson treats him as an equal, now. Since joining the Avengers Initiative, Clint’s position in S.H.I.E.L.D. has been in flux. He's labelled as a “Specialist” and is still drawing pay, but he isn’t on the list as available for active missions. It could have caused conflict with Coulson if he had tried to treat Clint as a subordinate. Clint is the first to admit he has problems with authority, and he's enjoying his new independence from S.H.I.E.L.D.

Coulson has managed to hit the right tone, though. He gives Clint orders in a way that makes it clear they are suggestions, and he listens when Clint has valuable intelligence to contribute. If he thinks about it, actually, Clint can remember Coulson acting the same way when they worked together at S.H.I.E.L.D. At the time, Clint had thought Coulson was walking on eggshells around him, fearful that Clint might bolt if he used a heavy hand. Now, though, Clint realizes that's just the way Coulson is.

He is firm about things like following medical directives and he'll pull rank on S.H.I.E.L.D. teams when he needs to, but overall he’s been pretty cool.

Coulson knows how to get along with people, is the thing. He understands them. It would have been underhanded and manipulative if it hadn’t been so sincere.

Clint hasn’t known a lot of sincere people in his day. In his world, everyone wanted something, and Clint has gotten used to playing his hand close to his chest.

Case in point, at the moment Coulson is staring at Stark’s super-upgraded coffee machine as if it will spontaneously give up and surrender its secrets. Clint grins into his mug of tea and waits.

No one knows how to operate Stark’s coffee machine. The thing is a menace. It brews perfectly delicious coffee for Stark but absolutely refuses to work for anyone else. When asked, Tony blinks and acts perplexed, then hits a combination of buttons that does nothing but spray hot water everywhere when Clint reproduces his movements exactly.

Clint has decided tea is easier. Tea and bagels. Except the stupid toaster is staging a rebellion and taking forever to heat bread. Clint has been waiting in the kitchen for almost ten minutes now and thing is barely warm.

Beside him, Coulson takes a deep breath. He places his mug with milk in the bottom under the coffee spout, and slowly and deliberately presses a combination of buttons.

Clint smirks and starts glancing around for the dishtowel.

The machine bubbles. It hisses, whirls, and coughs – and then starts pour the most delicious smelling coffee Clint’s ever inhaled in his life.

“Oh my god,” he breathes, staring. “I can’t believe you got that infernal thing to actually make you coffee.”

Coulson’s lips quirk into a smile, but he keeps his eyes on the machine as if he knows better than to trust it. “It doesn’t always work, but I think I’m getting the hang of it.”

Clint raises an eyebrow, remembering the near-scalding burns he’d sustained in his one and only attempt to master the demonic machine. “You must have nerves of steel.”

The coffee stops and Coulson takes a careful sip. A tension in his shoulders relaxes. “No,” he admits. “I just have a terrible addiction to caffeine.”

“The curse of the desk promotion?”

Coulson smiles. “Something like that.”

“Well, don’t leave me hanging,” Clint says, dumping his tea into the sink. “Hook a guy up.”

He watches as Coulson punches in a distinctly different combination of buttons and shakes his head as the machine once again begins to pour. “I’ll figure out your secrets,” Clint promises the contraption in a threatening tone. Coulson chuckles.

Clint grabs his mug as soon as it’s full takes a sip. He groans. “Sweet monkey love, this is good coffee.”

Coulson quirks him a smile. “Been a while?”

Clint closes his eyes and inhales. “You have no idea.”

He opens his eyes and winks at Coulson. “And I don’t just mean the coffee.”

Coulson shakes his head, but smiles. Clint chuckles. He doesn’t actually mean to start flirting, but it’s kind of his default setting.

Clint looks across the common room floor at the entertainment centre Stark’s set up. Because it’s Stark, the thing had everything – two hundred inch flat screen TV, XBOX, Playstation, PC, and a half-dozen other gaming systems Clint had never even heard of.

“You wanna watch something?” he asks Coulson.

Coulson hesitates. “I really should be getting back to work.”

Clint makes a face. He isn’t one to push for human company, but he’s bored out of his skull. “Come on, one show. Or try and kick my ass on Mario Kart or something.”

Coulson glances at the TV, clearly wavering. Clint tries his best puppy-dog face.

Coulson actually laughs. “Please, stop,” he says. “Okay – one show.”

Clint grins and crosses the room, throwing himself down on the couch. He winces when the movement jars his shoulder. He tosses the remote towards Coulson, who puts down his coffee and catches it in one hand.

“Anything but Dog Cops,” Clint says, indicating the TV. “I’ve overloaded on that show the past three days.”

Coulson quirks an eyebrow but doesn’t ask. He turns on the TV and thumbs through the channel guide for a minute, before finding an old episode of Murder, She Wrote.

“Ooh,” Clint says, sitting forward. “I love this show.”

Coulson looks at him. Clint shrugs at the question written on his face. “We didn’t get cable back in the circus,” he explains. “Buck had this shitty old TV in his trailer, with bunny ears and everything. We watched what we could get.”

“And you could get Jessica Fletcher?”

Clint smirks. “Hey, don’t diss the old lady, Coulson. Jessica Fletcher is a smart cookie.”

“She also had a knack for finding trouble and knew how to pick locks.” Coulson shakes his head. “I can see why you two might have gotten along.”

Clint laughs. “I learned how to pick locks from Barney, not from watching Murder, She Wrote,” he explains. “And I never went looking for trouble; it just somehow always came to me.”

“Of course it did. With absolutely no prior warning whatsoever,” Coulson agrees in his usual dry tone. Clint grins. He's never seen how sarcastic Coulson can be up close before.

Clint slumps back into the couch and shuts up, devoting his attention to the episode. It’s one he vaguely remembers and it captures his attention to the point where it takes a couple of minutes for him to realize what he’s just done.

He's just talked about his brother. Clint hasn’t spoken about Barney in years, and he’s never brought him up in casual conversation. Clint shoots Coulson a glance, but the agent’s paying him no mind, his attention focused on Jessica and the yet-another-old-friend-in-trouble she’s run into.

Clint stares at him for another minute, but lets it go. Watching this show does bring up old memories, after all. That’s probably all it is.

They finish the show and Coulson wonders off to do paperwork. Clint fucks around for another hour or so, and then goes downstairs for his physiotherapy appointment at two.

He sweats and curses for over an hour with Melissa-the-evil-physiotherapist, then heads upstairs for a shower. By the time he’s finish, the rest of the team is back. Clint walks back into the common room and eats dinner with Natasha, fresh back from Taiwan.

He heads back to his own floor to sleep on the glorious mattress Stark’s given him and wakes in the morning to a near-empty Tower. Clint hits the gym for his morning physio routine and then wanders back to the common room floor for a late breakfast.

He’s staring at the coffee machine when Coulson comes in. Clint shoots him a grateful look.

“Thank god. Please convince this murderous thing to give me coffee, please? I need coffee, Coulson.”

Coulson quirks him a smile, but does as he’s asked. The combination of buttons he presses is different again, but Clint thinks he grasps the basics of the pattern.

“The curse of the injured, Barton?” Coulson asks, getting back at him for his dig yesterday.

Clint makes a face. “I hope not. I hate taking caffeine pills in the field. Still, this is gloriously good coffee. It might be worth it.”

Coulson hums a non-committal answer, and makes his own cup. Clint watches him carefully. He thinks the secret is the temperature of the water, which might vary depending on how recently someone has last made a cup of coffee.

They settle on the couch together with their mugs and Clint waves a hand at the remote. “Think you can find us some Jessica goodness again this morning, Coulson?”

Coulson shrugs but accepts the challenge. He scrolls through the TV guide but finds nothing. Clint tries to hide his disappointment, but Coulson switches over to StarkFlix and types in a search.

“Hey, you found it!” Clint says, sitting up. “Wow, the whole series, too.”

Coulson looks over at him and smiles. “You want to start at the beginning?” he asks.

“Yeah, totally.” Clint says. He stares at the TV. “I don’t even know what the first episode is.”

“You’ll like it,” Coulson promises, putting the remote down between them. “It's Jessica's first murder.”

Clint figures that sounds interesting, and they settled in to watch. Instead of rising after the first episode, though, Coulson clicks play on episode number two.

“You’re okay to stay?” Clint asks him. “You don’t have to work or anything?”

Coulson shrugs. “It can wait for an hour. You have physio after this, right?”

Clint sighs. “Yeah, with Melissa. I swear I don’t know how a woman so small can hurt me so much.”

“You’d better be careful not to let Natasha hear that,” Coulson says with a smile.

Clint waves that away. “Oh, no – I know why Natasha can hurt me. Natasha is a wily Russian devil. But Melissa has hands the size of baby rabbit paws – I don’t understand how when she presses on my back, the pain is like being hit by a runaway truck.”

Coulson frowns. “You really did a number on your shoulder, didn’t you?”

Cling shrugs. “It’s hardly the first time it’s been knocked out of joint.”

“Once in Milan, and once during that op in Mexico,” Coulson says, his eyes darting left to right as if he’s reading off a mental file. “You were left dislocated for a significant period of time in Mexico.”

Clint winces at the memory. “HYDRA goons working in the Mexican drug trade,” he says. “Never fun.”

“Melissa’s doing a good job?”

Clint nods. “Yeah, she is. Nothing like the goons we used to have in the circus.”

And there he goes again! Coulson isn’t even asking, but Clint is suddenly volunteering information about his childhood.

Clint looks at Coulson, but the older agent doesn’t say anything. He just continues to look interested.

Clint licks his lips. He was the one to bring it up. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to talk about it.

“There was this lady,” Clint explains hesitantly. “The Amazing Amié – she used to twist herself in these insane shapes for the townies.”

“This was before the popularity of yoga, I imagine,” Coulson comments dryly.

Clint finds himself chuckling. “Yeah. Everyone used to get muscle pain pretty bad once in a while and we didn’t have a doctor or, you know, a real physiotherapist or anything, so Amié sort of took the job on herself.”

Coulson bites his lip. Clint catches the expression and grins. “Right? She was this total hippie and used to make all her own salves – her trailer stunk. I used to hide from her all the time. One morning she caught me and I had to jump into the lake before Barney would let me back into our tent.”

Coulson smiles, but there’s a sadness behind his eyes. Clint catches his breath, not willing to face that expression, not when he’s talking easily about his brother for once in his life, but Coulson blinks and the look is gone.

“Is that where you learned to stand absolutely still on one foot for three hours waiting for the perfect shot?” he asks instead of voicing some more difficult question.

Clint feels relieved. “Yeah,” he admits. “Amié was actually pretty cool once I grew up a little.”

“I bet she had a fake French accent,” Coulson guesses with a smile.

Clint laughs. “The worst. When I finally made it to Paris I laughed myself sick when I realized how atrocious it was.”

“She sounds worse than Dr. DeBocker, the Army Doctor.”

“Oh no, was that a real person?”

Coulson sighs. “Unfortunately for my platoon? Yes. He was one of those old-time army doctors, a ‘take two aspirin and call me in the morning’ kind of guy. Half-way through one tour, he got it into his head he was a masseuse. You’d wake up on your cot and he’d be coming towards you with these big, beefy hands, and then he’d dig his thumbs into your already-sore-from-yesterdays-massage shoulder.” Coulson shakes his head, but his eyes are dancing. “He was a menace.”

“I bet you miss him,” Clint teases.

“Robert’s hands are too small,” Coulson says, a little helplessly. Clint laughs, thinking of the massage therapist Stark has hired to round-out his alternative medicine team. ‘Small’ is not the word Clint would use.

“No, no!” Coulson protests, sitting up straighter. He gestures with his hands. “They almost tickle, they’re so small. I’m psychological trained to relax only after being worked over by huge, meaty paws. Robert doesn’t stand a chance.”

Clint laughs even harder. “Well, you know what they say about the size of your palms…”

Coulson groans. “Oh, please, don’t remind me. Dr. DeBocker used to say that every time we complained. We’d be like, ‘Jesus, Doc, tone it down a little or something’, and he’d puff out his chest and say, ‘Never have any complaint from the ladies! You men are too soft these days!’”

“Please tell me he didn’t do prostate exams.”

Coulson shakes his head sadly. “He ruined me for other men. It just isn’t the same any more.”

Clint laughs so hard, he nearly falls off the couch.

They trade stories until the TV beeps at them – Clint looks over and realizes the episode has ended and he’s late for his physiotherapy appointment. He apologizes to Coulson and runs, but he doesn’t try to keep the smile from his face.

Coulson is actually pretty cool to hang out with.

After that, it kind of becomes a thing. They meet in the kitchen after Clint’s first physio round of the day and hang out until he has to leave again at two. Coulson still has supervised work-outs himself, but he tends to go in the early morning. As Clint recovers, his sling is removed and he decides to join him. They get up early and hit the gym together – Melissa and Robert present to make sure they don’t over-do their workouts.

They talk a lot, conversation flowing easily, but they also learn how to sit together without speaking. It’s… comfortable. Clint had no idea Coulson could be such a cool guy.

“It’s Phil,” Coulson says one afternoon, while they’re watching TV.

Clint looks over at him in surprise. Coulson shrugs. Something weird must have happened to the lights in the room, because it looks like the tips of his ears are red.

“If we’re just relaxing,” he goes on, avoiding Clint’s eyes. “You might as well call me by my first name. I mean, it’s not as if I’m your superior officer, or anything.”

Clint shrugs to hide his sudden nervousness. “I know, but I mean – you kinda were, for a long time.”

Phil actually squares his jaw. Clint wants to tease him for looking like Captain America, but he doesn't. “I’m not now, though.”

Clint swallows his sudden attack of nerves. “Okay – Phil,” he says, rolling the name around in his mouth. Coulson’s ears darkened to a different shade of red. “You might as well call me Clint, then,” he points out.

Phil bites his lip, but smiles. “Clint,” he agrees.

It’s hard not to pay attention to the guy, after that. Clint starts noticing Phil around the Tower, more, and not just when it’s only the two of them. Phil wanders in and out of the common areas, nodding politely to Clint’s teammates but keeping a distance between himself and the rest of the Avengers. Clint notices it one night when he manages to get everyone around the table for dinner and Phil steps onto the floor to drop off some forms.

“Agent!” Tony shouts with a brilliant grin, drawing the attention of the rest of the table. “You’re looking too skinny – come and have some dinner.”

Phil quickly puts his bland smile on, the one he uses when he wanted to be forgettable. Clint frowns. He hadn’t realized it'd been a while since he’d seen that smile.

“I didn’t mean to intrude,” Phil says apologetically. “I can meet with you later, Stark.”

Tony waves that away. “Forget about the paperwork for a minute, Coulson. Come sit down and have some dinner.”

“Yes!” Thor booms. “Clint the Hawkeyed One has prepared an excellent meal for us this day! Sit and eat with us, Son of Coul!”

Unexpectedly, Phil’s eyes dart to Clint’s. His mask slips slightly, and he hesitates. “I – ”

Clint jumps out of his seat to grab another plate. “Come on, Phil – sit down. There’s plenty, really.”

Clint sees the way Natasha’s eyes narrow slightly at the use of Coulson’s first name, but Clint ignores her. He takes a plate from the cupboard and fills it with food, then grabs a set of utensils and a wine glass. The rest of the team clears a place at the table beside Clint, and Bruce drags a chair over from the breakfast nook.

Phil sits down carefully, obviously unsure of his welcome. Clint puts the plate in front of him and says, in a low voice, “I’m sorry – I thought you were still out at the Helicarrier or I would have invited you.”

Phil shakes his head. “I just got back. I really didn’t mean to intrude –”

“You’re not,” Clint says, meaning it. When he thinks about it, Clint realizes Phil has never had dinner with the team, not on any of the few occasions they’ve managed to get together as a group. He frowns, thinking back – could they have forgotten to invite him every time?

But no – Clint distinctly remembers Stark asking more than once if Phil would join them. The agent has always politely refused. Clint hadn’t thought anything of it before.

He frowns at Phil, now. Why is the man holding himself back? He watches Phil interact with the table at dinner. It’s obvious that everyone's missed him – Thor asks about details of his “latest battles”, and Steve strikes up conversation about the museum of art history. Stark teases him constantly throughout the meal, shooting him fond looks that say how pleased he is that Phil has joined them.

Even Bruce and Natasha pipe up on occasion and Clint watches every single member of the team bask a little in Phil’s attention. They’ve missed him. Even though Phil has lived with the team for the past few months in the same Tower, he’s been keeping himself apart.

The next day, Clint asks him why.

Phil looks honestly surprised by the question. “I don’t want to be a bother,” he says, sincerely.

Clint blinks. “You aren’t a bother. Everyone was thrilled you sat down last night.”

Phil’s mouth twists, and he looks away. “They feel sorry for me.”

Clint’s mouth falls open. “What? No they don’t!”

“Yes, they do,” Phil sighs. “Fury used my supposed ‘death’ to bring the team together, and they're still upset about that. I make them feel uncomfortable.”

Clint stares at him. He cycles his mind back to the few times he’d seen Phil and team interact, and that isn’t how he’s read the situation at all. “You’re going to seriously disrupt my assumption that you know how to judge and interact with people if you keep talking like that,” Clint says. “The team loves you. They miss you. Yeah, they were pissed off at Fury, and okay, they probably still are, but that was because it was about you. You’re the one they care about.”

Phil frowns. “Clint, the Avengers are a team of genuine superheroes. You don’t need me here. The team humours me.”

“We don’t,” Clint insists. “We work better with you on the ground.” He shakes his head. “And I’m not a superhero.”

Phil smiles with soft disbelief. “Of course you are.”

Clint decides not to argue, trying a different track. “Why do you think Tony kidnapped you?”

Phil’s eyebrows dip. “Stark’s answer to everything is to throw money at it. He built this rehab facility because he felt guilty.”

“He doesn’t – okay,” Clint admits, “maybe Tony does feel guilty. Maybe I do, too. Maybe we all feel it a little bit, because none of us appreciated you the way we should have. But we’re all happy you made it, Phil.” Clint says. “We’re all really glad you’re here.”

Phil stares at him. It’s clear he doesn’t believe him, but there’s a faint glimmer of something like wonder in his eyes.

Clint coughs and looks away. “So,” he finishes awkwardly, “maybe you should hang out with the team more. Come to dinner, or something.”

From his peripheral vision, he watches Phil slowly nod. “Maybe I should,” he agrees softly.

 

*

 

Things change a little, after that. Phil does make more of an effort to spend time with the team or, rather, he doesn’t automatically make excuses if someone invites him out anymore.

Clint finds his own time with Phil rather compromised by that, because now when Steve asks him to accompany him to an art show, or Tony wants to show him something in the lab, Phil goes. Clint can’t really be upset about it, though. The team’s obviously thrilled to have Phil back among them, even if most of them take it as Phil finally feeling well enough to hang out with the team.

Natasha’s the only person who seems suspicious. She corners Clint about it one morning.

“So, Coulson’s become quite the social butterfly,” she says archly. “Or should I call him ‘Phil’?”

Clint avoids her gaze. “It’s good he’s getting out more with the team.”

Natasha watches him carefully. “It is, but I think there’s something else going on.”

“I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about?”

Nat glares.

Clint looks away. “We’ve just been hanging out. There isn’t a lot to do in the Tower during the day all alone.”

“You’ve never been good at being alone,” she agrees.

Clint clenches his jaw. “I’ve been alone plenty.”

“You have,” Natasha says softly. “But that doesn't mean it's good for you.”

Something in her tone tells Clint they’re no longer talking about hanging out bored in the Tower. “He’s just a friend.”

“He is. That’s a lot more than he was a month ago.”

“A month ago I’d never spent any time with him,” Clint points out. Not that Clint's bitter, or anything.

“You know what Fury was up to,” Natasha replies, following the twisty tracks of Clint’s mind with her usual ease.

“I do,” he agrees. Fury had wanted Phil to know the Avengers. He’d worked with Tony, Thor, and Natasha. He’d been put in charge of Captain America and even the hunt for Banner, for a while, before Phil had argued that they would be better off leaving the doctor alone until they needed him.

But Fury hadn’t assigned Clint to Coulson. Oh sure, he’d redirected Clint to New Mexico, and Fury had assigned him to watch over the Tesseract, but they hadn’t given him solo missions with Phil like they had with Natasha. He and Phil hadn’t travelled around the world together, living out of each other’s pockets, getting to know each other while eating street food in Morocco.

Clint can imagine what it would have been like, though. They would have gotten along as well as they did now. Clint would have mouthed off a little, and Phil would have laughed. Clint bets he would have been the only ‘problem asset’ who could’ve made Phil Coulson laugh.

Natasha puts a hand on his arm. “Fury knew you two would get along. He’s known Coulson longer than any of us. He knew you wouldn’t be a problem.”

“You assume that Fury wanted me on the Avengers in the first place,” Clint grumbles.

“He did,” Natasha says. Her voice is clear. Clint looks up and meets her eyes for the first time during their conversation. She looks serious and a little sad. “I saw the files, Clint. You were there. You can’t doubt that, now.”

Clint takes a deep breath. “I don’t doubt that I work well on the team,” he says slowly, knowing that was true. He gestures to his cast. “It kinda sucks being the only human on a team like this, though.”

Natasha smiles. “Now you know how Coulson feels.”

 

*

 

Clint thinks about that a lot over the next few weeks. His leg continues to heal and his shoulder is doing much better. Medical has cleared him for bow practice, and Melissa watches to make sure he doesn’t over-do it.

He’s never thought of Phil as the only human member of their team, before. Phil is almost super-human in his capacity as “Senior Agent Phil Coulson of S.H.I.E.L.D.” He’s badass. The junior agents still share stories of that time Phil took down a HYDRA base armed with nothing but a single pencil and a paperclip.

But Clint knows they talked about him all the time, too, and he still feels underwhelmingly human when compared to his teammates. He assumes it isn’t too much of a stretch to figure Phil maybe feels the same way.

Even though Phil is busier now, they still spent time together. Clint makes a point to seek Phil out when he has a few hours to spare. It works. Even if everyone else wants a piece of him, Phil somehow always finds time for Clint.

“Hey, Phil. Want to watch some Murder, She Wrote? We have left over cannelloni for lunch, if you want.”

“Sure. I can’t believe we have leftovers, though. I thought Thor had eaten the entire plate?”

“I put a few away last night on the sly. You can thank me by telling me how good they are again.”

“They’re fantastic. What was the sauce you used?”

“Mamma Rigelli’s secret recipe. I’d tell you, but then I’d have to induct you into the very solemn, very exclusive members club of People Who Know Mamma Rigelli’s Recipes.”

“Sounds fearsome.”

“You have to wear a chef’s hat and paint a beard on your face and jump over the counter three times.”

“I see.”

“That’s what she made me do when I was eight, at least, and traditions are important.”

“I’ll go get a marker.”

It can’t last, though. Clint’s healing faster every day, and Phil’s doing better, too. His physio load has dropped from twice a day to once in the afternoon, though he still meets Clint in the mornings to workout. He’s gaining strength back in his chest, and finally medical declares him ready to go out in the field.

Clint feels a seizing in his own chest when he hears, but he plasters a smile on his face and wishes Phil congratulations along with the rest of the team. Phil’s obviously excited. He’s smiling very nearly in public and informs the Avengers over dinner at Stark’s favourite shwarma restaurant that he will be joining them on the ground on their next op.

“But have you not been accompanying the team on our latest adventures, Son of Coul?” Thor asks, perplexed.

“This time he’ll be able to do more than stay in the van,” Steve explains. He throws Phil a warm smile. “It’ll be nice to have you in the field.”

“Thank you,” Phil says, obviously pleased. The tips of his ears re red again. Behind his water glass, Clint rolls his eyes.

“Just no more sneaking up on vengeful gods,” Tony mutters, looking like he’s trying very hard not to seem like he cares. “Because, you know, that didn’t work out so well for you last time.”

“I promise to be more careful,” Phil tells him solemnly.

Clint isn’t convinced. His sling has been off for two weeks now, and he’s been cleared for field work the same time as Phil. He keeps a close eye on the senior agent when their next call goes out – sewer monsters are apparently a real thing now, who knew? – and grits his teeth when Phil steps out from the van.

“Dammit, Coulson – get back under cover! The area is not secure!” Clint shouts into his comm. as he picks off the mutant alligators converging on Phil’s position. Tony is busy shooting the giant versions stampeding through the streets, and Cap is defending a group of civilians next to a coffee shop.

“Negative, Hawkeye,” Phil says, his voice obviously tense. “We have civilians on the street.”

Clint looks over and spots the group of twenty-something-year-olds edging around the S.H.I.E.L.D. van with cameras. Clint considers shooting an exploding arrow at their feet to get them running back to cover where they belong, but he doesn't have an arrow to spare.

He picks off alligators as he speaks, aiming for the eyes, the only place on their bodies their mutant-tough armour doesn’t cover. “There’s a group converging on your position, Coulson. No immediately backup en-route.” Natasha is surrounded and needs his help, and one almost gets the jump on Cap while Clint helps her out. The Hulk, Iron Man, and Thor are all holding they’re own, but that just means the hostiles keep turning towards easier targets.

“Understood,” Phil says, calmly shooting alligators in the face. He still has his StarkPad in one hand and is somehow offering insights on the battle. “Iron Man, take out the group on your six. Thor, blast a shot of lightening down that lamppost and fry the ones still coming up from the sewer. Hulk – smash more! They’re running from you. Turn and pursue.”

Clint keeps an eye on the entire battle as the team moves. He tries not to focus solely on Phil, and manages to shoot arrows fast enough to take out another two leaping gators.

Slowly, too slowly, the battle starts to shift. Phil gets his civilians corralled away and Nat backs up until she hits Rogers. The two of them fight seamlessly together while Iron Man, Thor, and the Hulk deal with their own mutant gators.

Clint offers insights from the air, watching his teammates' backs. Phil coordinates between the Avengers and the S.H.I.E.L.D. backup team that’s being kept fresh for other emergencies, at the same time picking off mutant gators that get too close with expert shots. Iron Man finally gets his group under control and rendezvous with the Hulk. Cap throws and reclaims his shield with expert precision, his movements focused on protecting his civilians, and Natasha watches his back. Thor is laughing like a berserker lunatic as he lights up the sky, frying scores of mutant gators with the power of his blasts. Clint picks off renegades where he can.

Finally, the battle is over. Clint shoots the last two hostiles leaping out of the sewers, and Phil rolls a grenade under his arrow. It splashes down into the sewer and detonates with a small puff. The street quiets.

Clint stays up-high to watch as S.H.I.E.L.D. arrives to cordon off the scene. Two teams are sent into the sewers along with Cap and Iron Man to finish clean up. Natasha and Thor watch the streets for strays while the Hulk finds himself a comfortable corner. In a few minutes he’ll be asleep, and when Tony comes back he can fly the snoring Banner back to the Tower.

Clint waits until Cap reports the sewer situation is under control and the crazed scientist behind the attacks is in custody, then he scrambles down from his position and goes to find Coulson.

“What they hell did you think you were doing?” Clint shouts, the suppressed anger and worry of the past two hours thudding through his veins.

Phil shoots him a vicious look. “Do not,” he spits out, “patronize me.”

That stops Clint in his tracks. “What?”

“I am whole, I am capable, and I am going to damn well do my job,” Phil says, furious and obviously trying to be professional about it. “Civilians were in danger and it was my duty to protect them. You do not get to dictate my movements as you do the rest of the team.”

Clint clenches his hands into fists. “I had the high position.”

Phil shakes his head. “They were hidden from your view until they moved forward. They were trying to get a good picture.” Phil holds up his hand to forestall Clint’s angry reply. “I know, they were idiots, but they weren’t hostiles. I couldn’t just ask you to shoot them. I had to get them to safety. I couldn’t do that from the van.”

“There were mutant gators all around,” Clint says, a little helplessly. “I just wanted to keep you safe.”

“You can’t,” Phil answers bluntly. Clint swallows. “This is my job,” Phil goes on. “I know I got hurt, and I know you feel bad about that. You shouldn’t, but I understand that you do. But that’s not my problem. I have a job to do, and I’m going to do it.”

Clint has to try one more time. “You’re not a superhero, Coulson,” he says.

Phil’s shoulders stiffen. “I know that,” he says. Then he turns and walks away.

 

*

 

Things change again after that, but not in a good way. Phil starts to avoid him. Clint hadn’t realized how much time they were spending together until they don’t, anymore. Phil doesn’t show up for morning workouts and he’s always busy during the hour or two in the afternoon when he and Clint would watch TV. He still has dinner with the team when they all get together, but he avoids Clint’s eye and conversation.

He's polite, but distant again. The Phil Coulson of old. Everyone notices it.

“Did you two have a domestic?” Tony asks one night, after Phil declines team movie time with a bland smile.

“We didn’t have a fight,” Clint grits out. “He’s mad at me for over-reacting about the mutant gator fight two weeks ago.”

“Have you told him you know it’s an over-reaction?” Natasha points out.

“No,” Clint sighs. “I should probably go do that.”

Steve gives him a sympathetic smile. “I know it’s hard to see a friend risking their life,” he says, his eyes full of gentle understanding. “But you have to respect their choice in life. This is what Agent Coulson does. He’s been a part of S.H.I.E.L.D. for years.”

“I know that,” Clint says, levering himself off the couch. “But I’ve never cared, before.”

He finds Phil in the gym, dressed in sweats and a t-shirt, punching the hell out of a workout bag.

“I’m sorry,” Clint says, sinking down onto the mat behind him. He doesn’t feel like beating around the bush. “I over-reacted during the battle, and I shouldn’t have done that. You’re an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., and you’ve risked your life professionally for years now. I of all people should understand that.”

Phil punches the bag a few more times instead of turning around. “I would have thought so,” he says.

Clint sighs. “I just – it didn’t matter, before.”

Finally, Phil stops and turns to face him. “Before what?”

Clint stares at him. Phil’s sweating and breathing hard. As he watches, a bead of sweat forms at his hair line and drips slowly down his temple.

“Before I got to know you,” Clint goes on, his eyes still tracking that rolling line of sweat. “Before I learned what a cool guy you are, before I got to be your friend. When you died, it sucked, but it didn’t hurt the way the thought of you getting injured now does.”

Phil swallows and looks away. “I’m really not that important,” he mumbles. “I just don’t want to be treated like a side-kick.”

“I know,” Clint says, a little helplessly. “I feel the same way myself, half the time.” He gives Phil a hollow laugh. “We work with gods and billionaires, gamma-radiation-enhanced geniuses, Captain America, and Natasha,” he says. “We’ll never stack-up.”

Phil shakes his head. “You are a superhero, Clint. You belong on this team. I’m the one tagging along.”

“You’re not,” Clint pushes. “You’re incredible, Phil, I’ve always thought so. The team would fall apart without you. I’m just a guy with good aim.”

Phil gives him a small smile. “You’ve always been more than that.”

Clint bites the inside of his cheek to hide how much that means to him. He looks away from Phil’s eyes back to the bead of sweat completing its trail down Phil’s face. He has the strangest desire to lick it away.

“I’m sorry,” Clint says again, so Phil doesn’t think he’s spacing out on him. “Friends?”

Phil’s smile is real this time. “Friends.”

Clint nods and smiles, feeling lighter than he has in days. He leaves Phil to shower and heads back to the common room. Everyone looks up when he walks in and Clint rolls his eyes, even though he knows they call all tell by the bounce in his step that things are okay again.

Clint watches the movie squashed between Rogers and Natasha and grins when Phil does eventually join them a half an hour later. Things go back to normal.

Mostly.

The problem is that Clint had said ‘friends’. Since that conversation, though, Clint isn’t sure if ‘friends’ is going to be enough.

He starts noticing Phil. He noticed him before, of course, much more so than he used to, but now he’s suddenly aware of Phil’s body in a way that he never was. Phil is lean and compact. He has a bland and forgettable face, but now Clint knows him well enough to see the glint of humour in his eyes and the sarcastic turn of his mouth. He sometimes wears glasses, when it’s late and he's reading, and Clint finds himself staring.

He starts having dreams, too. Dreams of doing more than just looking at Phil, dreams of touching him. He’s never been attracted to a man before, but Clint has to admit that’s probably what this is, the third time he gets distracted watching Phil work out. Phil has started showing up for their morning routine again, only now Clint hates it because he never gets anything done. He spends most of the hour staring at Phil.

The beads of sweat on Phil's skin mock him. Clint has a sharp, visceral desire to find out what they taste like.

It’s slowly driving Clint mad. After the third night, when he gives in and jerks himself off to the image of Phil in his glasses giving him a blowjob, Clint cleans himself up and goes to find Natasha.

“Do I have a gay crush on our handler?” he asks, stalking into her room. He pulls up suddenly when he sees that Nat isn’t alone – Bruce is sitting on her bed with a gardening magazine spread out between them. Nat had expressed a desire to plant flowers on the roof and Bruce had offered to help before Tony got involved.

“Uh,” Clint says, shifting his weight awkwardly. Nat throws him an amused smile and Bruce slips off the bed.

“I’ll go place that order,” he says with a side-smile at Clint. Clint nods back and bites his cheek in embarrassment.

“I’m sorry,” Nat says when they’re alone. She sounds like she’s holding back a laugh. “What was that?”

Clint glares at her, but it’s half-hearted. “You heard me.”

“I did,” Natasha agrees. She takes pity on him and pats her bed. Clint walks over and collapses next to her. “I don’t know,” she answers, sliding a comforting hand through his short hair. “Do you?”

Clint buries his face in her comforter, surrounding himself with the safe, familiar smell. “I think so.”

Natasha hums a question, and Clint goes on. “We’re friends now, despite my fuck-ups, and I like him, you know? He’s cool and funny and he has terrible taste in TV, except for Murder, She Wrote. I can talk to him about anything and he always listens, and he has the best stories to share. I thought that was it, that was enough, but now – Jesus, Nat. How come I never noticed he was so hot?”

He can feel her shrug. “I think he’s handsome.”

“He’s more than handsome. His smile, his shoulders, those glasses,” Clint groans. “I think I’m dying, here.”

“So what do you want to do about it?”

“I have no freaking clue,” Clint admits.

“Well,” Nat says slowly, still carding her hands through Clint’s hair, “if Coulson were a woman, what would you do?”

“Um – well, in a movie I’d ask her to dinner, or coffee or something. I dunno. I’ve never really asked a girl out, before.”

“Yes, you’re more then ‘fall into bed first’ type, aren’t you?” He can hear the smile in her voice.

“Fuck you,” Clint says, but he’s grinning.

“Tried that, didn’t work out,” Nat replies with a shrug. She pulls his hair a little, and Clint laughs. “If you’re serious about this,” she goes on after a moment, “then you should do it. Ask him out to coffee.”

Clint feels his heart start to pound in his chest. “What if he says no? What if he says yes?”

“If he says no, at least you’ve tried. If he says yes, you’d better man up and take him out to coffee,” Natasha answers. She stops and draws her hands away. Clint rolls over and looks up at her sitting on the bed.

“If you do this, Clint,” she says, something serious in her voice, “you had better mean it. Coulson –” she shakes her head. “This won’t be something casual for him. If you get him to go out with you, you need to know that. It won’t be nothing.”

Clint licks his lips. “I think that’s what scares me the most.”

She smacks him lightly on the back of the head. “You’re a superhero, stupid. You're supposed to eat fear for breakfast.”

 

*

 

It takes him another week to work up the courage, but finally Clint finds Phil sitting on the couch waiting for him during their usual TV watching time. “Uh, hey,” Clint starts, wiping his sweaty palms on his thighs. “I’d really like to finish Murder, She Wrote,” he says, because they’re on season three by now and it's still an awesome show, “but do you want to, maybe, go out instead? Like, uh, for coffee? Or something?”

He winces. Suave, Barton. Suave.

Phil had been reaching for the remote when Clint walked up to him. He stops now and blinks, then looks up at Clint. “You want to go out for a coffee?”

Clint nods so fast he makes himself dizzy. “Uh. Yeah. If you want to.”

Phil seems to need to think about it for a second, but then he stands and brushes invisible lint off his slacks. “That sounds nice,” he says, without meeting Clint’s eyes. “Where would you like to go?”

Clint grins, feeling giddy. “Anywhere. I think there’s that shop two or three blocks from here that Bruce found, the one with the psychedelic compostable coffee cups?”

Phil smiles, though there’s something off about it. “Sounds good.”

They walk to the shop and make little conversation on the way. The coffee is good, but the date itself is awkward. Clint has no idea what to talk about, and Phil clearly doesn’t either. He’s obvious uncomfortable, because his shoulders are so straight he looks like he’s on military parade.

This is Phil, though, and Clint’s been talking to him for weeks now. “I would have thought you’d have put hazelnut syrup in your coffee,” he finally says.

Phil gives him a quick, fleeting smile. “The first cup of any new coffee experience should be pure, to better distinguish the various flavours and decide on the appropriate accompaniments.”

Clint grins at him. “I didn’t realize it was such a ritual.”

Phil raises an eyebrow. “Coffee is a serious thing.”

With the ice successfully broken, things get easier after that. They chat for almost two hours, going back several more times for coffee. Phil introduces Clint to his standard method of coffee-appreciation, and Clint has to admit the results are delicious. By the end of the date, Phil has created an entirely new coffee recipe, and Clint makes a mental note to buy it for him at random times throughout the next week.

The walk back to the Tower is significantly more comfortable, though Clint pauses in the elevator when it stops on Phil’s floor.

“That was, uh, fun,” he says, before Phil can step out of the waiting doors.

“It was,” Phil agrees. He’s smiling slightly.

“We should,” Clint takes a deep breath, suddenly nervous again. “We should do it again sometime.”

Phil nods, but slowly. His eyes come up to track Clint’s face. “Clint…” he says, finally. “Was this a date?”

Clint can feel his heart plummet down into his boots. Shit. “Uh… yeah?”

Phil’s expression retreats into blankness. “I don’t want to date you.”

Fuck. Clint’s read this entire situation wrong. He wonders if JARVIS has gained telepathic abilities and can just drop him out of the bottom of the elevator now.

“Sorry,” he says, staring at his boots and backing away. He can’t bear to look up at Phil’s face. Of course Phil wouldn’t want him. He’s always been out of Clint’s league. “I’ll just…”

“Wait,” Phil says. There’s something strangled in his voice. Clint doesn’t mean to, but he glances up. He sees Phil swallow. “Do you… do you actually want to date me?”

Clint laughs hollowly, which is appropriate because he feels like he’s been gored and left empty right now. “What? No. Of course not.”

He’s obviously not convincing anybody. “You want to date me,” Phil says, sounding shocked.

Clint swallows and toes the bottom of the elevator car. Tony’s put some pretty tiles in here, something that catches and reflects with the light. Are there specks of mica, maybe, in the ceramic?

He hears rather than sees Phil step forward. Phil hesitates, and then reaches out to tip Clint’s chin up with his hand.

Their eyes meet.

“Do you want to date me?” Phil asks again.

Clint swallows. He can’t look away. “Yeah,” he confesses hoarsely.

Phil looks terrified, but he nods. “Okay,” he says. He closes his eyes briefly, and then opens them again. “Okay. Tomorrow night? We’ll have dinner.”

Clint bites his bottom lip and agrees. Phil holds his eyes for a moment longer, and than steps backwards out of the elevator doors. JARVIS has obviously been watching the entire exchange, because he waits until Phil has stepped back to close the doors.

“Congratulations, sir,” JARVIS says softly as the elevator ascends to Clint’s floor.

Clint doesn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. “Thanks, buddy,” he says instead.

 

*

 

The second date is a disaster. Clint fusses over what to wear, and then what to bring, and ends up in a pair of jeans that are too loose and arrives at Phil’s floor empty handed. Phil meets him at the elevator door and they make quick, blushing eye contact before leaving for the restaurant. They both sit in silence for the majority of the meal, fiddling with their silverware.

Clint can’t think of a single thing to say. Phil’s “I don’t think I want to date you” is still bouncing around his head. Phil’s clearly trying to think of something, but can’t. He opens his mouth several times without any words coming out.

Clint’s heart sinks further and further into his chest. This was a mistake. Phil is obviously humouring him, and just as obviously failing. Clint watches him glance around the restaurant, plainly in a hurry to leave. Clint doesn’t even know why he picked this place – he can’t pronounce half the things on the menu, and he’s learned a dozen languages for S.H.I.E.L.D. When his meal comes, he hardly tastes anything.

“This was a mistake,” he finally says, when they’ve paid and left. They’re standing out on the street corner and Clint looks anywhere but at Phil. “I get that you’re trying to be nice about this, but it’s obvious that you don’t want to be here. Just forget that I asked and we’ll go on pretending that this never happened.”

Phil is too silent at his side. Clint nods to himself, his eyes still on the pavement, and walks away.

“No, Clint – wait!”

Phil’s voice stops him. There’s something shaky and terrified in his tone. Clint turns back.

Phil’s standing on the sidewalk, his hands clenched into fists at his sides. “I’m sorry,” he says. Clint nods and starts to back away – he doesn’t need to hear Phil try to apologize for this – but Phil shakes his head and takes a step forward.

“No, listen to me for a moment. I’m sorry that I… that I said what I did in the elevator yesterday. I’ve been beating myself up about it all night, and now I haven’t slept, and I’m nervous, and I’m sorry for ruining our date.” He laughs a little hollowly. “I just – I want this so bad, Clint. And I’m – I’m terrified that I’m going to fuck it up, so of course I’m fucking it up.”

Clint’s mouth is suddenly dry. “You want this?”

Phil looks like he’s drinking in the sight of him, like Clint is a glass of water and Phil’s spent too long lost in the desert. “You have no idea,” he says. “I’ve wanted you since the first day I met you, since weeks before that, since Nick passed me a copy of your file and said he’d found me an honest-to-god superhero. You’re incredible, Clint. You’re smart and funny and far, far too good for me. I knew I’d never have a chance with you, and I’d accepted that.”

Clint can’t do anything but stare. Phil takes another hesitating step towards him. “I never even thought we could be friends, I figured I’d go on lusting from a distance. But then Stark moved me into the Tower and I had to figure out how to be close to you, how to actually have a civilized conversation with you without making a fool out of myself, and then you got injured and we actually started to hang out, and god, Clint. Do you have any idea how many hours of footage I’ve had JARVIS erase? Nights where I lay in bed doing nothing but staring at the ceiling and practising out loud all the ways in which I had to not fuck this up?

“But you were so good, and funny and sweet, and jesus – I knew I was already head-over-heels for you, but over the past few months I’ve fallen in love with you all over again. I never thought I’d have this, that you’d actually know me, that you'd care the least bit about me, that I’d ever be anything more than a suit to you. And then –” he lets out a shaky breath, “then you asked me out to coffee. I spend the entire time telling myself that it was just a friends thing, it was not a date, and then it was a date, and...”

He looks up into Clint’s face. “Do you have any idea how terrifying that is? To suddenly be offered something you’ve wanted for so long?”

Clint swallows. He thinks of having a family, of lying in bed at night clutching his hands to his chest and just wanting so badly it hurt. “Yeah,” he rasps.

Phil bites his lower lip. “That’s what this is for me, Clint. I just – I’m sorry I’m telling you all of this, I promised myself I would absolutely not tell you any of this, but I need you to understand – I want this. I want this so very much. Too much.”

Clint doesn’t know what to do. He takes a deep, shuddering breath, and steps towards Phil. He lifts his hands and cradles Phil’s face, tugging him gently forward. Their lips meet for a brief, dry kiss.

“I want this too,” Clint says, pulling back just enough to lean his forehead against Phil’s. “I’m sorry I never noticed you before. I’m sorry that I didn’t understand how much fun you were, how awesome you could be, how much I would enjoying hanging out with you. I respected you, I liked you, but I didn’t… I didn’t want then what I do now.”

He swallows, feeling his hands reflexively tighten around Phil’s face before he consciously relaxes them. “But I don’t… I’ve never liked a guy before. Like this. Like I like you. I mean… I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m going to need help through this, Phil. But I want to try. With you. I’m falling in love with you, Phil. I have been for months now.”

Phil’s hands come up to touch Clint’s waist. He’s shaking, Clint realizes, tiny little shudders that transmit from Phil’s hands through Clint’s shirt to his skin. It’s frightening, but its also a little reassuring, how much Phil has no idea what to do here either.

“I’d like to teach you, if you’d let me,” Phil says finally. “I don’t… there is so much that I want to teach you, Clint.”

“I’d like that,” Clint admits. He bends down and brushes their lips together again. “I still want to date you, though. I want to do this right.”

Phil laughs, a little shakily. “Okay,” he says. “I still think dating you is the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done, but okay.”

“I’m terrifying,” Clint says, not entirely jokingly. “Great.”

Phil leans back and meets his eyes. “You’ve always terrified me. You challenge me. It’s one of the many things I love about you.”

Clint licks his lips. Phil’s the one who initiates the kiss, this time. He pushes open Clint’s lips and invites himself in. Clint groans and buries his fingers in Phil’s short hair. He lets Phil take over, losing himself in sensation.

He doesn’t know how long it is before they pull apart. He’s panting slightly, and Phil looks flushed.

There’s something in this eyes, though. Clint groans. “We can’t just go from here to bed, can we?”

Phil grins a little wickedly. “You’re the one who said you want to date me.”

Clint lowers his hands to Phil’s waist and tugs him closer. “You said you didn’t.”

“I lied.”

“Phil Coulson,” Clint says, pretending to be shocked even though he can feel himself smiling. “You would never.”

“I totally would,” Phil deadpans, but he hooks his thumbs into the waist of Clint’s jeans and rocks their hips together. Clint can feel something hard and thick against his leg, and he groans. “I’m not lying about how much I want this, though.”

“Yeah,” Clint pants, rubbing back. Fuck that feels awesome. “I’m getting that.”

Reluctantly, Phil leans away. He unhooks his thumbs from Clint’s jeans and takes his hand instead. “Come on, let’s walk back to the Tower. We can practice what we’re going to say to the rest of the team.”

Clint squeezes Phil’s hand and follows him back. “Can we just say – we had a date, it kinda sucked, so we’re trying again tomorrow?”

Phil looks over at him and smiles. It’s a sweet, gentle smile, full of promise. Clint likes it. “I think that works.”

“And then I nominate we stop giving them updates. Tony is going to sic JARVIS on us enough as it is.”

“Don’t worry about JARVIS,” Phil says confidently, “we have an understanding.”

“So he’ll turn the cameras off when I finally get you into bed?” Clint asks with a grin.

“Yes,” Phil says, releasing Clint’s hand to tug his head down for another kiss. “He will.”

 

The End.