“I swear,” Clint muttered, “that’s it, no more pizza for you, it blocks you up like the Lincoln Tunnel.”
Lucky whined, sniffing a lamppost anxiously before huffing and assuming the position.
“Took you long enough,” Clint grumped, impatiently waiting for Lucky to finish his business so he could bag it and get back upstairs before the cold damp air woke him completely up and made going back to sleep a total impossibility.
When Lucky finally moved on with a contented woof and Clint had bagged the evidence, he turned back towards his building, ignoring Lucky’s longing looks toward the hydrant down the block. As they passed by the alley next to the building, Lucky stiffened and barked, then tore the leash out of Clint’s hand and ran into the shadows.
“Lucky!” Clint ran after him, hoping Lucky was just after a rat or something, and it wasn’t, like, a mugging; improvised weapons were one thing, but he wasn’t sure how much crimefighting it was possible to do with a baggie full of warm dog shit. He skidded to a halt in front of the building’s dumpster, which Lucky was scrabbling at with his front paws, reared up on his hind legs and barking fit to bring the place down.
“Shh, Lucky! Geez, dog, what—” the baggie fell from his hand unnoticed as he looked more closely at what Lucky was trying to reach: the polished toe of a man’s dress shoe.
“Please let that just be a shoe,” Clint muttered, moving closer. “Please let that be—aw, leg, no.”
There was a man’s body attached to the leg; a white guy, middle-aged but well-muscled from what Clint could see. His head was shadowed by a trash bag, but Clint could see a few wisps of brown hair. Besides the dress shoes, he was dressed in a pair of very tight gray velour track pants, a man’s white cotton undershirt, stained down the front with blood, and a comically oversized windbreaker that said “Chigaco Cubz” on the front.
Clint put his hand in the sleeve of his jacket and moved the trash bag that was hiding the guy’s face, moving to one side to let as much light as possible fall into the dumpster. He didn’t want to corrupt any evidence if this was a body dump, but if this was some poor schmuck in trouble but alive, Clint couldn’t just leave him there to maybe freeze or bleed to death or something.
There—did the guy’s chest move? Clint bent closer, reaching out to feel for a pulse. As Clint’s hand brushed the guy’s jaw, he let out a long sigh, and his eyelids fluttered open to reveal his eyes, just a ring of blue around the blown-wide pupils. The man’s forehead crinkled in confusion, and he sniffed deeply as he looked around, unfocused and frantic.
“Hey, there, buddy, take it easy,” Clint said, trying to keep his voice calm. “I’m here to help.”
Dumpster Guy sucked in a sharp breath, his mouth falling open as his eyes struggled to focus on Clint. “Oh,” he said, his voice soft and full of wonder. “It’s heaven, after all.” Then he frowned. “But, wait. Why does heaven smell like rotten Chinese food?”
“Um,” Clint said. “This isn’t heaven? You’re in Bed-Stuy.”
“Huh.” The man seemed to consider this for a long moment. “But you’re here.”
Clint scratched his head. “I… live here?”
“Wow.” The man smiled up at Clint, guileless and sweet. “I never knew angels lived in Brooklyn.” He rustled around in the trash, trying to sit up, then reached out a hand. “I’m sorry, I know I’ve been a lot of trouble, but would you mind helping me out? That is, if it’s safe for me to touch you. I won’t be consumed by your heavenly fire or anything, will I?”
Clint just stared at him, completely unable to parse what was happening. This dude must be tripping balls if he thought Clint was an angel. Natasha, sure; Natasha could look super angelic while pulling you out of a dumpster. (Clint had heard. Shut up.) But a scruffy unshaven dude still wearing pajama pants and a hoodie, who hadn’t even caffeinated yet? Not so much.
“Ah.” Dumpster Guy drooped. “I apologize, I didn’t mean to presume.” He grabbed hold of the rim of the dumpster and started trying to haul himself up, sliding on the garbage bags.
“Wait, no! I didn’t mean—no, come here,” Clint spluttered, getting his hands underneath the guy’s armpits and hauling him over the side, just barely managing to keep him on his feet.
The velour track pants did not at all disguise the fact that Dumpster Guy was seriously packing in the groin department. Also, they said “Juicy” across the ass in rhinestones. From what Clint was able to tell, this was truth in advertising.
Clint was not going to perv on the possibly-hallucinating possibly-mugged guy who currently thought Clint was an angel. Clint was an Avenger, he was above shit like that.
Dumpster Guy smiled at him again. “I’m really very glad to meet you in the flesh, as it were,” he said. “Can I ask your name?”
“Clint,” said Clint.
“Ah,” said Dumpster Guy, with the air of a man learning something fascinating and new about the world. “So, do you take on the name to go with your corporeal form? Hawkeye was a very good choice, by the way, I felt safe with you immediately.”
“Wait,” Clint said, “you know me?”
“I know of you,” Dumpster Guy corrected him. “Well. I had occasionally idly speculated about the possibility that you, my guardian angel, existed, but I know a lot about your current… avatar. I pay considerable attention to Hawkeye’s career. I’m an, ahem, admirer.”
“Are you,” Clint said. This was totally unfair; weird fan encounters was more a Cap or Tony thing. They knew how to handle shit like that. Clint never knew what to say to regular fans, let alone strange ones, and today he hadn’t even had any coffee.
“Oh, yes. Well, who wouldn’t be, honestly?”
A lot of people, Clint thought, but Dumpster Guy was warming to the topic.
“He’s brave, talented, self-sacrificing, heroic, and humble, not to mention physically beautiful,” he was saying. “Honestly, it’s hard to think of a better form to take to keep me from being stricken with terror at the sight of you.”
“Wait, wait, hang on,” Clint said, his brain still reeling over the string of extremely flattering adjectives. “Let me catch up. You think that A, I am your guardian angel, and that B, I have appeared to you in the form of Hawkeye the Avenger in a dumpster in Bed-Stuy.”
“Well, everyone knows angels are terrifying,” Dumpster Guy said. “That’s why they always start out by telling people not to be afraid, but that sort of thing never works. It just stands to reason you’d eventually start trying to address the root cause of the problem.” He cocked his head. “I’m curious, did you pick Hawkeye because of his significance to me personally, or was it an affinity on your part?”
“I… you know what, never mind,” Clint said. “I’m not the one in a dumpster, here.” He desperately needed to figure out what was going on with this dude and get him somewhere safe before things got even more out of hand. “Can you tell me your name, man?”
“But you know my name,” Dumpster Guy said, sounding a little hurt. “You’re my guardian angel.”
“But you’ve, um, lost consciousness,” Clint said.
“Well, in a manner of speaking, one could argue—”
“So I need to make sure you… woke up okay.”
“Ah. Well, I suppose that makes a certain amount of sense. My name is—” he broke off abruptly, his face crumpling. “Steve? No. That’s not right. It’s… that is to say… I… I’m sorry, but I’m afraid I may be having some trouble after all.” He patted the space on his hips where pockets weren’t, somehow drawing his pants even tighter across the crotch that Clint was not at all noticing, before glancing down. “Oh! Of course, I remember now.” He shoved the lapel of his jacket aside, looking down at his chest. He had a “HELLO, my name is” sticker on. Upside-down. The name “PHIL” was written on it in black marker. “I’m Phil,” he told Clint proudly.
“Well,” Clint said. “Phil. Is there someone I can call to come take care of you?”
“But… isn’t that why you’re here?”
“I mean a human someone.”
“Oh, I shouldn’t think so,” Phil said. “I mean, I know a fair number of dead people, but I don’t feel like any of them would likely want to be disturbed on my account, and of course the living shouldn’t be troubled with my affairs any longer.”
“Phil, you’re not dead,” Clint said desperately.
“Well, that doesn’t seem at all likely,” Phil said, tilting his head skeptically. “I mean, I’m seeing you; that seems to imply I’ve entered a different spiritual plane. Unless… oh. Oh, dear.” He dashed around behind Clint and started patting anxiously at his back. “Oh, no, Clint! I’m so sorry!”
“What are you—do I have something on my back?”
“No!” Phil exclaimed. “That’s the whole problem!” He came back around to Clint’s front and grasped his shoulders, looking straight at Clint with his pretty blue eyes and, incidentally, blowing a gust of epically terrible breath in his face. “Clint. Where are your wings?”
“I don’t have any wings, Phil,” Clint said, in his best calming voice. Apparently his best calming voice wasn’t adequate to the task, because Phil looked as though he might cry.
“This is all my fault, isn’t it,” he said. “It’s because I got myself killed and thrown in a dumpster. That isn’t fair! I’m sure you didn’t do anything wrong, it was probably entirely my fault. Even an angel can’t prevent everything! I’m going to lodge a protest. Is there a complaint line? I mean, can I just…” He folded his hands and gestured skywards.
“Please don’t do that,” Clint said faintly, although he couldn’t help but be strangely gratified by Phil’s spirited defense.
“Well, I have to do something,” Phil said. “I’m not just going to, to, to move on or whatever when I got my own guardian angel in trouble. What if they make you work for a thousand years to earn them back? What—what if they strand you in Purgatory forever? What if—”
“Phil,” Clint interrupted, laying a hand on his shoulder. “Buddy. It’s really okay, nobody’s gonna do anything bad to me.”
“Of course you’d say that,” Phil said. “You’re still trying to protect me; it’s your sacred duty.” He set his chin, and Clint had the sudden conviction that whoever he was when he wasn’t in a dumpster with amnesia, Phil was one stubborn SOB.
“I’ll prove that it wasn’t your fault,” Phil said.
“How would you even do that?” Clint asked, and then smacked himself in the face. Stop encouraging the drugged guy, Barton!
“Well, I’m guessing that whatever happened to me happened fairly recently, given that I’m not, you know, decayed,” Phil said, with entirely too much calmness for the topic he was discussing. “Probably last night. Hm. Do you know, are we manifesting on the normal Earth, or is this some kind of replica on the spiritual plane?”
“Um,” Clint said.
“Because if it’s a replica, we’ll have trouble finding witnesses unless they died too. And if we’re manifesting on Earth, it will be difficult to collect evidence from the living.”
“This is Earth, Phil,” Clint said. “Also, you aren’t dead, and I’m not an angel.”
“I’m sure you’re required to say that,” Phil said. “I understand about operational security.” He paused. “Huh. I do understand about operational security. That must be a clue, right? Good.” He nodded to himself.
“You think angels have OpSec?” Clint blurted.
“Well, they must have, really,” Phil said. “Otherwise, people would be seeing them all the time and interfering with their work.”
“I know what that’s like,” Clint said, thinking of the inevitable civilians with cell phones who persisted in putting their lives at risk at just about every one of the Avengers’ battles. Just last week, he’d had to save a guy who’d been trying to take a selfie with a Doombot. Unfortunately, superheroes weren’t supposed to believe in the Darwin Awards.
Phil smiled at him, a little nervously. “I’m sure this is a rather unorthodox request,” he said. “But do you think you could use your power to manifest us for a while? Just so we can question the witnesses, you understand.”
“You can talk to whoever you want,” Clint said. He waved his arm emphatically, which was a mistake, because Phil looked at him starry-eyed, as though he’d just cast a magic spell or something.
“Thank you, Clint,” Phil said. “Er, I meant to ask, do you have a title or anything? Like… should you be Sir Clint? Or, or… Your Holiness? No, wait, that’s the Pope. I just—I don’t want to be disrespectful.”
“Just Clint is fine,” Clint told him, and Phil smiled brightly.
“Of course you would be humble,” he said. “Being… what you are.”
“I’m just a guy with a bow,” Clint said.
“Of course you are,” Phil said, then closed one eye slowly in what Clint thought was probably supposed to be a wink. He closed his other eye right after, though, so Clint wasn’t sure.
“I take it that if I called you an ambulance right now, I’d just be wasting my time?” Clint asked.
“I’m afraid so,” Phil said, apologetic. “I’m not sure what spiritual concept is represented by an ambulance, but before I do anything else in my afterlife I need to clear your name of any negligence in the matter of my death.”
“You don’t even remember your name,” Clint protested. “How do you propose to do any of that?”
“I remember a lot about investigative procedure for some reason,” Phil said. “I’m going to retrace my steps until I find out what happened last night.”
“…I’m going to need a lot more coffee for this,” Clint said. At his feet, Lucky yipped.
“Oh my God!” Phil said, then looked horrified. “Sorry, I mean, oh my… goodness. Is that an angel dog? Or is it like me?”
“Lucky’s no angel, but he’s a good dog,” Clint said, patting Lucky’s head.
“Can I pet him?”
“Sure,” Clint said, shrugging.
While Phil crouched down to meet Lucky and let himself be slobbered on with every evidence of delight, Clint thought about the situation. Whatever it was that had happened to Phil to make him end up in Clint’s dumpster wearing probably-not-his-own pants, it was starting to look a lot more like the sort of thing Clint usually dealt with in his day job than an ordinary crime. It was weird that the man could remember skills—operational security, for crying out loud—and vocabulary, but nothing about who he was or how he’d gotten there. He wondered if Phil was a cop or something. Maybe he’d gotten too close to some lowlife with a new designer drug, and been dosed to teach him a lesson? Whatever had happened, Clint was starting to think that the best thing to do was go along with Phil’s retrace-the-steps plan until either they ran into someone who knew who Phil was or the drugs wore off and Phil realized that he wasn’t dead, Clint wasn’t an angel, and Bed-Stuy wasn’t the afterlife. And hopefully remembered the name and number of someone trustworthy who could come get him and take him off Clint’s hands.
Clint looked down at his ensemble and sighed. Oh well, he’d been seen in public in worse, and at least he’d grabbed his wallet and keys on his way out the door that morning.
“Okay, Phil,” he said. “We’ll play this your way. But before we do anything else, there’s something we need to take care of.”
“Do you have pressing heavenly business?” Phil asked.
“Something like that,” Clint replied.
He took Phil to the hipster diner that had opened up a couple blocks away from his building. The neighborhood hadn’t gentrified yet, but it was surrounded with gentrification, and Williamsburg was reaching out tendrils of fair-trade coffee and artisanal chutney merchants. Clint thought the place was kind of pretentious, but the food was good and cheap and the coffee was outstanding and came in a bottomless pot. Clint wasn’t even the only person there in pajama pants, though the host did look at Phil dubiously over his handlebar mustache. Phil shot the cuffs on his Chigaco Cubz windbreaker and raised an eyebrow, and the host put their menus down and scuttled off without a word.
For an amnesiac who still smelled a little like dumpster, Phil was kind of a badass. Clint appreciated that in a person.
Clint bought them each the breakfast sampler, figuring it was hard to go wrong with one of everything, and applied himself to getting his caffeine levels up while Phil ate a small mountain of breakfast food.
“You want some more?” Clint asked, when Phil started eyeing the puddle of syrup on his plate like he was considering eating it with a spoon.
“Oh, I couldn’t possibly,” Phil said, making big eyes at Clint’s sausage.
“Phil,” Clint said, trying to look stern. “Don’t lie to me.”
Phil wilted. “Sorry,” he said. “I’m still a little hungry, but I’ll be fine, you don’t have to get me anything else.”
Clint rolled his eyes and waved their waiter over, ordering more French toast and sausages. “So you do know one thing,” he said. “Whatever happened to you last night left you hungry.”
“Hmm,” Phil said. “That’s a good point. I don’t think I usually eat this much first thing in the morning, though I don’t really remember, as such. Another point of data.”
“So: hungry, no memories, dumpster in Bed-Stuy,” Clint said.
“Well, and the clothes,” Phil said, pouring himself another cup of coffee. “I’m fairly certain at least some of these aren’t mine.”
“What gave it away,” Clint said, preventing himself from an eye-roll.
“The shoes fit comfortably and are good quality,” Phil said. “So I assume they’re mine. The undershirt fits, despite its unfortunate condition, and my…” he lowered his voice, “undergarments feel comfortable as well. The jacket is shoddily made and too big for me, and the pants, though actually fairly good quality, are obviously not my size nor, I should hope, my usual taste.” He made a hilarious, prissy expression. “I think it’s safe to assume that I started yesterday evening wearing something that would call for formal shoes—probably a suit—and at some point during the proceedings those clothes were exchanged for these.”
Clint blinked at him. “Wow, Phil,” he said. “That’s… really good for a guy with no memory.” He was even more convinced that Phil must be a cop, or hell, maybe he was some kind of Fed? FBI or ATF or something. He tried to picture Phil in a suit and dark glasses, but it was kind of difficult with his upside-down name tag peeking out from behind the horrible jacket.
“Tell you what, Phil,” he said. “Once you finish breakfast, why don’t you come with me up to my place. I’ll lend you some clothes and you can look yourself over for clues, and then we’ll see if we can figure out where to look first.”
Phil beamed. “Thank you, Clint,” he said. “That’s very kind—although, of course, you would be. I’ve always wondered, do ang—do your people sleep? And do you need to eat, or is it just to blend in?”
Clint rolled his eyes. “Right now, man, I’m just like you,” he said. “Eat your sausages.”
“They’re very good,” Phil told him. “Is it because you’re here? Did you miracle them?”
Clint stuffed his last bite of toast in his mouth so he didn’t have to answer. This whole thing was really getting out of hand.
They paid—Clint left an extra-nice tip to make up for any residual dumpster—and collected Lucky from where they’d left him out front with a bowl of water and a sausage of his own. Phil practically ran back down the street to Clint’s building, eager to start his investigation. Clint led him upstairs: he shuddered to think what bizarre theological conclusions Phil was reaching from the mess. While Phil was in the bathroom, apparently going over himself for evidence, Clint laid him out a pair of plain ordinary sweatpants, one of the dozens of Avengers t-shirts that kept winding up in his apartment for some reason (Tony), some underwear, clean socks, and a spare hoodie.
“Feel free to grab a shower,” Clint called through the crack in the door. “And there’s some extra toothbrushes under the sink.” He didn’t get around to shopping very often, so when he did, he tended to stock up.
He took advantage of Phil’s preoccupation to change clothes himself, and felt much better prepared to face whatever the day might bring once he was wearing actual pants.
“Good thing we didn’t have plans today,” he told Lucky. He heard the shower cut off, and the sounds of someone rustling around in the bathroom; it was sort of nice, actually. Friendly-like. Maybe he should put some coffee on.
The door opened, and he turned to ask if Phil wanted coffee, but instead he said, “Towel.”
“Ah, yes,” Phil said. “Er, I hope you don’t mind? The towels were in the cabinet, and—”
“No, I mean yes, I mean, of course, it’s fine,” Clint said, remembering that he’d laid out clothes for Phil in his room. His room that was upstairs. And the bathroom was downstairs. Right. “I, um. There are some clothes for you upstairs.” He waved up toward the loft, trying to keep his gaze on Phil’s face—flushed pink under a layer of stubble, eyes bright, hair fluffed up and damp—and not the surprisingly strong curves of his bare arms, or the broad chest thickly covered with salt-and-pepper curls, or the well-muscled thigh showing through the part in Clint’s purple bath towel where it was wrapped around Phil’s trim waist. Clint swallowed hard through a suddenly dry throat. No, no, no, he was not going to perv on the amnesiac he’d just fished out of a dumpster. That would be inappropriate. And creepy. And wrong.
“Are you okay?” Phil asked.
“Urk,” Clint said. “I mean. Do you want some coffee? After you put on clothes. I mean. I put some clothes out for you. Upstairs.”
“So you said,” Phil said, his mouth quirking in a little half-smile. “And yes, I’d love some coffee. I’ll just go up and get dressed.”
“Yes,” Clint said. “That.”
On the floor next to him, Lucky sighed and flopped over onto his side.
“Thanks for nothing,” Clint muttered, as he did not watch Phil climb the stairs to see if his ass was as… juicy… in a towel as it had been in the velour pants. He flipped the coffee machine on and scrubbed his hands over his face. He might not be an angel, but Phil thought he was, and there was no fucking way Clint was going to take advantage of his vulnerability and trust. By the time Phil came downstairs again, Clint was in a better state of mind, more able to ignore Phil’s startling hotness (even when wearing Clint’s clothes, shit, he did not think that through) and focus on the case.
“So,” Clint said, handing Phil a mug of coffee. “Did you find out anything else?”
“I think I like Captain America,” Phil said, plucking at the shield logo on his t-shirt. “It feels like I do.”
Clint was not a petty man, and he had no regrets over giving Phil the first shirt on the pile instead of digging through it for a Hawkeye one. None. “Does that help?”
Phil shrugged. “Not now,” he said. “But every bit of data fits somewhere. I went over everything, but apart from some glitter in unfortunate places, most of what I found came from the dumpster.”
Clint forcefully removed his thoughts from speculation about which places Phil might have found glitter, and whether it might still be there. “Most?”
Phil smiled, looking, for the moment, sleek and smug as Natasha’s cat. “I did find this, on the back collar of the jacket.” He produced a battered-looking tag, seemingly out of nowhere, and handed it across the table to Clint.
“$2.99?” Clint said. “How does that help?”
Phil reached across the table and turned the tag over.
“Oh,” Clint said. “Huh. St. Gertrude the Great Thrift Shop, A Helping Hand To Those In Need.” He looked up, startled. “Hey, I know where that is!”
“Yeah?” Phil perked up. “Is it close by?”
“Ten minute walk, maybe?” Clint said. “I bought a bunch of kitchen stuff there when I moved in.”
“In that case,” Phil said, “I think we know where to begin.”
The bell above the door of the St. Gertrude The Great Thrift Shop clanged startlingly loudly as they came in. It was located in the basement of the parish hall, the entrance hidden around the corner and down a flight of stairs from the front of the building, and was marked only by a faded sign. Inside, the space was dim, crammed full of racks of clothes and shelves of dishes and books. A thin, stringy-looking man was perched on a stool behind the ancient cash register, reading a copy of Us Weekly. “Jen’s secret love child with Tony Stark!” the headline blared, over a photo of Jennifer Aniston wearing some kind of flowy top.
“C’n I help you,” he muttered, not looking up from his tabloid.
“Yes, actually,” Phil said, crossing over to stand in front of the counter. “I’m looking for some information about a jacket that was apparently purchased here recently, probably yesterday or last night. It was—”
“We close at six,” the man interrupted, turning a page. “Didn’t get it here, if it was last night.”
“Were you working yesterday?” Phil pressed. “You might recognize—”
The man shook his head. “Yesterday was Heather’s day,” he said. “But Heather was sick, so Father Robert filled in.”
“Ah,” Phil said. “Thank you.” He opened his mouth to say something else, then stopped, brow furrowing. Clint thought he might have swayed a tiny bit.
“Is Father Robert here today?” Clint asked, trying to pick up the conversation.
“He’s usually around upstairs somewhere,” the man said, turning another page.
“We’ll just… ask him, then,” Phil said, shooting Clint a grateful look. “Thank you again.”
“Yeah, fine,” the man said.
They climbed back up to the main level and went around to the main church building. Clint started to go in the front, but stopped when he noticed Phil wasn’t following. “Something wrong?”
“Won’t the office be around the back somewhere?” he asked. “Oh, wait, I’m sorry. Do you need to… check in?”
“You know what,” Clint said, “It’s fine, let’s just go talk to the priest. Lead on.”
“It’s no trouble if you need to attend to any of your… special business,” Phil said, lowering his voice. It was both funny and kind of disturbing, how he seemed to think that being an angel was pretty close to being a spy.
“My only business right now is helping you, Phil,” Clint said, and was ashamed how much he enjoyed the happy smile he got in return.
“I’m sorry for what happened earlier, with the clerk,” Phil said a little later, as they hunted for the side door.
“It’s not a problem, but you looked like you felt a little off,” Clint said. “You okay?”
“I’m sure I’m fine,” Phil said. “I’ve been—well. I’m sure I’m just adjusting to my new circumstances.”
“You’ve been what, Phil?” Clint tried to look… guardian-y, which he imagined looked a lot like Cap when he was giving his “grapple arrows are for emergency use, not first-line solutions” speech.
It was pretty effective.
“Sometimes I get kind of… fuzzy,” Phil admitted. “I forget what I was about to do. It always comes right back, though!” he added hastily. “Like I said, it’s probably just me getting used to being in an… would you call this an astral body?”
“It’s your real body, Phil,” Clint said.
“Of course,” Phil said, not even pretending to sound like he believed Clint.
“Look, just—if it gets worse, tell me, okay?” Clint said. “I don’t want you to pass out and hit your head.”
“I’ll tell you,” Phil said. “But I’m sure it won’t be a problem. I’m feeling better already.”
They eventually found a door marked “Church Office” and located a secretary who put them in Father Robert’s office to wait while she located the man himself. Father Robert, when he came through the door, was a tall, middle-aged man with a beer belly—was it a beer belly if you were a priest? Should it be a communion wine belly or something instead?—and a booming voice.
“Phil!” he said, the minute he laid eyes on them. “My friend, it’s good to see you again!”
Well. That certainly helped matters. Maybe this whole quest would be over as soon as it started. Clint tried hard not to be disappointed at the thought. Phil may have been high as a kite and dropped in a dumpster and convinced he was currently dead, but he was… cool. Clint realized, now that there was a strong possibility that he wouldn’t have to do it, that he’d been kind of looking forward to spending the day with Phil, retracing whatever steps had led him to Clint’s doorstep—er, dumpster—that morning.
“Do we know one another?” Phil asked Father Robert.
“Ah,” Father Robert said. “Still having some memory trouble, I see.”
“Yes, unfortunately.” Phil shrugged.
“But you’re looking better!” Father Robert gestured at Phil’s ensemble, which, while not exactly high fashion, was at least clean and fit him reasonably well.
Phil beamed. “Oh, yes, Father, I’ve been very fortunate,” he said, and Clint got a sinking sensation.
“Phil,” he hissed.
Phil waved a dismissive hand. “Don’t be silly, Clint, he’s in the family,” he said. Apparently Phil thought being an angel was also like being in the Mafia.
“Father Robert, this is Clint,” Phil said proudly. “He’s my guardian angel.”
Clint buried his face in his hands. Somewhere along the line, he’d started considering whether he should stop correcting Phil on the whole angel thing; he looked so hurt when he thought Clint was trying to, to disavow him or something. Clint hadn’t reckoned on having to explain himself to a priest, though. He had never been what you’d call a religious man, but he’d spent enough time as the recipient of charity to be both respectful and somewhat wary of priests, nuns, and all their ilk.
“He was in my dumpster,” he said, his voice somewhat muffled by his hands.
“We’re trying to find out what happened to me last night,” Phil said. “I can’t remember any of it; I’m afraid I don’t even remember you, Father, but the jacket I was wearing had a tag from the thrift shop, so I thought this would be a good place to start retracing my steps.”
“Well, I’ll certainly do what I can to help,” Father Robert said. “I’m glad that you found a friend, though; I wouldn’t want you wandering the city alone in your condition.”
Clint felt a little better.
“Can you tell me more about what happened last night?” Phil asked. “Anything you can remember might help.”
“You showed up at the shelter just before five this morning,” Father Robert said. “I think Fern—she works the early shift at the Duane Reade, nice girl, she’s working her way through college—must have sent you over; she sends people our way pretty often, and you were talking about plants a lot when you got here. You said you weren’t tired, and it was pretty close to morning to set you up with a bed, anyway, but you let me give you a cup of coffee and a coat out of the bin.”
“Must not have had much selection,” Clint said without thinking.
“Oh, no, he picked that one out,” Father Robert said. “We had a real nice conversation about hope and faith being rewarded in due time; I’m planning on using it in a homily one of these days.”
“Well, Phil, there’s another piece of evidence for you,” Clint said. “Apparently, you’re a Cubs fan; the people who talk like that are the ones who loved them before they won the series.”
Phil’s eyes got huge in his face. “The… the Cubs won the series?” he asked, breathless with delight. “Really?”
“My hand to God,” Clint said, then glanced at Father Robert guiltily. “Um. Sorry.”
“Don’t be,” Phil murmured. He looked like he might be about to weep with joy. “I mean, of anyone, surely you’re entitled.”
Clint cleared his throat, eager to change the subject. “So what happened then? I mean, obviously Phil left here, so…”
“Ah.” Father Robert shook his head sadly at Phil, who was still looking kind of starry-eyed. “I think he might have been… seeing things,” he said. “We were having a nice chat about baseball, when all of a sudden he jumped to his feet, shouted something about calling for backup, and ran away like the hounds of hell were after him. By the time I got to the door, he was long gone.”
Phil looked up, his face gone slightly pink. “I’m sorry,” he said. “That was rude of me.”
“Think nothing of it, son,” Father Robert said. “You obviously weren’t to blame. I hope you’re doing better now?”
“I seem to be,” Phil said, nodding. “That is, assuming I didn’t just hallucinate what Clint told me about the Cubs.”
“No, that’s real enough,” Father Robert said, and Phil visibly stopped himself from saying something, or possibly just from squealing in delight. It was much cuter than a grown amnesiac should have been.
“So, you think the clerk at the Duane Reade sent Phil your way,” Clint said to Father Robert, trying to stay on task. “Would that be the Duane Reade I saw down on the corner?”
“That’s the one,” Father Robert agreed. “Fern has a strange schedule, she tries to fit work in around her classes. I think she’s still there for an hour or so; if you hurry you might be able to catch her.”
“Sounds good,” Clint said. He handed Father Robert one of his business cards, which he’d found in his kitchen one time after Tony had been by. He’d grabbed a handful on the way out the door, thinking they might come in handy. “Give me a call if you think of anything else that might help, okay?”
“Of course,” Father Robert said. “And… thank you for being such a help to poor Phil, over there. I’m not sure what happened to him, but he’s a gentle soul, and I hated to think of him being out in the city alone.”
“Thank you for trying to help him,” Clint said. “It makes a guy feel a little better about this city, knowing there are still people around who will help a stranger.”
“It’s God’s work,” Father Robert said, eyes twinkling. “As you’d know well, being a guardian angel and all.”
“Clint is excellent at his job,” Phil piped up. “Maybe you’ll run into each other again soon. You know,” he said, closing one eye—his coordination was still not extending to a very good wink, apparently— “Professionally.”
“Well, you never know,” Clint said, eager to get out of there before his face actually caught fire. “Thanks, Father Robert. We should be going if we’re going to catch—”
“Fern,” Phil said.
“Fern at the Duane Reade. And. Um,” Clint dug in his wallet and pulled out a crumpled fifty, which he tossed onto the priest’s shabby desk. “For the jacket. And the coffee.”
He hustled Phil out the door before Father Robert was finished with his thanks.
“Well,” he said. “That was embarrassing, but moderately useful.”
“I think he thought I was still drugged,” Phil said. “It’s a good thing I didn’t tell him about your halo.” While Clint was choking on his own spit, he added, “I can’t believe the Cubs won the series, and this isn’t even heaven yet.”
“Congratulations,” Clint wheezed.
Phil nodded, suddenly crisp and decisive again. It was strange, the way he shifted back and forth. “Well,” he said. “Let’s go talk to Fern.”
Phil seemed to be feeling empowered by their success; as soon as they made it out of the church building, he made a beeline for the Duane Reade on the corner. He very nearly stepped out into traffic, only Clint’s quick yank on the back of his hoodie keeping him from just jaywalking on across the street.
“Look where you’re going,” Clint hissed, as a cab blared its horn at them. “Are you trying to get yourself killed?”
Phil rolled his eyes. “It’s not like I can get any more dead than I already am,” he said.
“And that’s where you’re so, so wrong,” Clint muttered. “Look. Phil. You’re doing all this—” he waved his arm expansively, indicating the church, the Duane Reade, and Phil himself, “because you don’t want me to get into trouble, right?”
“…Right,” Phil said.
“So just, just trust me when I tell you that you getting run over right now would definitely get me into trouble, okay?”
Phil eyed him suspiciously, his pretty blue eyes awfully sharp for a guy in his situation. “Well,” he said at last. “I suppose you’d know.”
“Thank you,” Clint said. “Now, let’s just go down to the crosswalk and go talk to Fern, okay?”
Phil muttered something grumpy-sounding about metaphysical constructs, but he went.
Clint had been kind of worried that they’d miss Fern, or not be able to find her, or that she wouldn’t be able to help them much, but his fears were put to rest pretty quickly. As they came in the door, the clerk looked over and gave a happy little squeal. “Phil! You’re okay!”
Phil gave her a soft smile. “Fern?”
“Oh, you remembered! That’s great!” Fern enthused. She was wearing green cat’s-eye glasses and had her hair in pigtails with little green ribbons on them.
“I’m afraid I don’t remember anything earlier than this morning,” Phil said gently. “But I’ve been retracing my steps, and apparently I mentioned you to the priest at St. Gertrude the Great.”
“Oh, you found Father Robert? I’m glad, he’s good people,” Fern said. Her eyes flicked over to Clint and back to Phil; Clint tried to look friendly and non-threatening, which was honestly harder than people made it out to be. “So who’s your friend, Phil?”
“This is Clint,” Phil said. He aimed one of those warm little smiles at Clint, who felt kind of melty around the edges. No wonder this kid remembered him. “He’s my—”
Clint fake-coughed, loudly, and Phil rolled his eyes. “Friend,” he finished. “He’s helping me try to figure out what happened to me last night.”
“But… doesn’t he know what happened? Or at least who you are?”
“I’m kind of a new friend,” Clint said.
“He rescued me,” Phil said. “I was passed out in an alley.”
Clint, kindly, didn’t mention the part with the dumpster.
Fern looked between them again. “Well,” she said at last. “I’m glad you’re okay, Phil. How can I help?”
“Can you tell me about when you saw me last night?” Phil asked. “Anything I said or did that you can remember. The smallest thing might be a clue.”
“I’ll try,” Fern said. “You came in a little after my shift started at four. I gotta say, I was a little bit worried,” she said, leaning forward over the counter and looking confidingly up at Phil. “I think you might have been hallucinating or something, you kept talking to people that weren’t there.”
“I’m so sorry if I frightened you,” Phil said.
“Oh, no, it was okay, I could tell you weren’t, like, violent tripping. It was nice, actually. You kept talking about helping people.”
“Oh,” Phil said, looking pleased. Clint shook his head fondly. He really hoped it wasn’t going to turn out that Phil was, like, a supervillain or something, because he was honestly kind of getting attached. The guy was just so… sweet. Kind of annoying sometimes, granted, what with the whole angel thing and the stepping out into traffic and insisting on playing CSI: Phil’s Bender and all. But sweet. He noticed that Phil seemed to be drifting off again, his eyes going unfocused. He laid a hand on his back, just in case he wanted to topple over.
“Why did he come here?” Clint asked Fern. He could feel Phil startle a little under his palm.
“He was thirsty,” Fern said. “He wanted some water, but then he realized he didn’t have any money, so he put it back and was going to leave, but…” she trailed off, looking around her, then leaned forward and lowered her voice. “Listen, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t tell anyone this, because it’s kind of against the rules,” she said. “The manager doesn’t want us to encourage people to, um, loiter? But I could tell you were nice, and you weren’t there to make trouble, so I got you a bottle of water.”
“Thank you,” Phil told her, eyes big and sincere. “That was very kind.”
She flushed a little. “It wasn’t a big deal,” she said. “It was only 99 cents, and I have an employee discount.”
“Still,” Phil said. “I appreciate it very much.”
“Yeah, you said at the time,” Fern said. “You hung out for a little while to drink it, and I asked you if you were okay. You had, um. Some blood on your shirt.”
“Did I say how that happened?”
“You said you’d gotten into a fight,” Fern said. “At Casanova’s.”
Clint choked on air.
“I’m sorry,” Phil said. “Where?”
“Um,” Fern said.
“It’s…” Clint looked at Phil’s mildly questioning face, and at Fern, who was rapidly turning red. “Um, it’s a strip club? Down on 5th. Kind of mid-range.”
They both turned and looked at him.
“…So I’ve heard.”
“…huh.” Phil looked down, suddenly sheepish. “I… did I say why I’d been fighting?”
Clint kind of wondered that himself.
“Apparently somebody tried to grope one of the dancers?” Fern said. “I’m not sure if the bouncer was busy somewhere else or you just jumped in or what, but someone ended up with a bloody nose. You said you were making him apologize to Tatiana—I’m guessing that’s the dancer’s name? And she loaned you some pants.”
“Ah,” Phil said, and Clint could bet that he was thinking the same thing Clint was: finally, an explanation for the rhinestoned velour pants that Phil had been wearing in the dumpster.
“Did I mention anything else?” Phil asked.
“Not really,” Fern said. “I’m sorry I can’t be more help.”
“You’ve been a great help,” Phil said. “It sounds like I made something of a spectacle of myself at the club; surely we’ll be able to find someone who remembers, and maybe they’ll know something about where I came there from.”
“Or at least maybe they’ll have your pants,” Clint said.
“Or that,” Phil agreed. “And possibly, if we’re lucky, my wallet with them.” He shook Fern’s hand. “Thanks again,” he told her.
“No problem,” she said. “I mean, hey, if nothing else, it makes a good story later, you know? Good luck finding your pants.”
Clint bit the inside of his cheek, trying to keep a straight face.
Phil nodded gravely at her. “Indeed.”
“What a nice kid,” Clint said, after they left the store. “I’m gonna call the Duane Reade feedback line and give her all 5s.”
Phil looked at him curiously. “Can you do that?”
“I mean, it’s not like it’s a conflict of interest,” Clint shrugged.
Phil nodded. “True.”
They went down to the end of the block, the late morning traffic picking up as it got along closer to lunchtime.
“It must be difficult for you,” Phil said, as they turned towards 5th.
“What must?” Clint asked.
“Some of the places you have to go for…” Phil glanced around, making a nearby pedestrian huff and elbow past them. “Work. Must be offensive to your, um, heavenly virtue.”
Clint couldn’t have stopped his huge, honking laugh if the fate of the universe had depended on it. He laughed so hard he had to stop walking and lean against a lamppost, bent nearly double with his hands on his knees. “He—hah!—heavenly virtue,” he gasped. “Oh god. Sorry. I just. Heavenly virtue.”
Phil’s face fell. “There’s no need to be mocking,” he said, crossing his arms over his chest, and Clint felt like a heel.
“No, hey, I’m sorry,” he said, wrapping an arm around his aching abs. “Ow. I just meant, um, my work takes me all kinds of places, buddy, and very few of them have anything to do with virtue. I’ve seen things that would curl your hair.”
Phil raised an eyebrow, skepticism in a Captain America t-shirt. “I seriously doubt that. I may not know much about myself, but if Father Robert and Fern are to be believed, I don’t seem very easy to shock.”
“That… does sound pretty accurate,” Clint admitted, drawing a deep breath as his chuckles died off. “Okay. Sorry. I’m ready now. Let’s go find a stripper.”
“You know, that’s not anything I ever thought I’d hear an angel say,” Phil said.
“Still not an angel,” Clint told him, as they started down the street again.
“So you’ve mentioned,” Phil said, obviously not believing a word.
“You’re really stubborn, anyone ever tell you that?”
“I have no idea,” Phil said, “but it seems fairly likely.”
Clint laughed again, but this one was softer. “Yeah,” he said. “I bet you’re right about that.”
“So,” Clint said, after a minute. “What do you think the odds are that your friend Tatiana will be there?”
“No idea,” Phil said, “but I’m hoping we can find some kind of lead.”
“You seem to have been pretty talkative,” Clint said. “Hopefully you told someone here where you’d come from before you started getting up in some dude’s face.”
“I suppose we’ll find out,” Phil said, as they approached the club.
By the light of day, Casanova’s looked less than inviting, its neon signs pale in the sunlight. There was a vinyl banner hung at the front proclaiming “Gentlemans’s Lunch Prime Rib $14.99 No Cover Before 6 Girls Girls Girls.”
“Ringing any bells?” Clint asked.
“Not particularly,” Phil said.
“Guess it’s time for lunch, then,” Clint said.
Phil made a face. “I think I’d like to see their health inspection score first.”
Clint just grinned. “Hey, at least there’s no cover,” he pointed out.
“A small mercy.” They went inside together.
Inside, the club was washed with dim pink light and shaking with the pounding bass of the dance music. A dozen or so men were scattered around the club, some eating and some just watching the dancers. A cocktail waitress approached them, her white teeth gleaming in the reflected stage lights.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen!” she said. “Welcome to Casanova’s. Will you be joining us for lunch today?”
“No, thank you, ma’am,” Phil said politely. “I wonder if you can help us. I was here last night, and I think I may have left some of my belongings behind. I understand that Tatiana may have them for safekeeping—is she working this afternoon?”
“I can check,” she said, her voice turning guarded. “What was the name?”
They all turned to see a woman crossing the room toward them. Her long blonde hair gleamed under the pink lights and she was wearing a very small bikini that seemed to be mostly made out of pink feathers, sequins, and strings. She beamed at Phil and flung her arms around him in an enthusiastic hug.
“You’re back early,” she said to him in Russian. “I told you, it would be Tuesday at least.” She ruffled his hair with apparent affection. “Have you come to defend my honor again?”
Phil looked at Clint over her glittery shoulder, his eyes huge as he patted her gingerly on the back. “I’m sorry,” he told her, also—hey—in Russian. Interesting. “I’m afraid that I don’t remember what happened to me yesterday. I’ve been trying to retrace my steps. I’m guessing that you’re Tatiana?”
She pulled back, tsk-ing sadly. “You don’t remember me?”
“Much to my regret,” Phil told her. Clint was impressed; he wasn’t half that smooth, and he still had all of his memories.
Well, as far as he knew.
“I was hoping you might be able to tell me more about what happened while I was here,” Phil said.
“We understand that you’re working,” Clint added. “We’ll pay for your time.” Tatiana looked over in surprise, her lips twitching; probably at his accent. Phil spoke Russian like a businessman who’d worked really hard at Rosetta Stone. Clint, however, had learned his Russian in the circus, and had some sort of regional accent that made Nat roll her eyes and snicker. He’d never really tried to lose it; it led people to underestimate him, which was generally useful in his line of work.
“Very well,” Tatiana said. “Follow me.” She led them to a table in the corner, far enough away from the speakers that they could talk without shouting. They slid into the booth, Clint and Phil on one side and Tatiana on the other. She made some kind of signal to the waitress, who came by with a round of unopened bottles of water, condensation beading on their sides.
“So,” Tatiana said. “What do you need to know, Phil?”
“Anything you can tell me would be a help,” Phil said. “Where I came from, what I was doing here, where I left my pants…”
She laughed, a real belly laugh, warm and rich, and Phil and Clint both smiled back at her. “Well, that I can help you with. I have them.”
Phil looked torn between relief and trepidation.
“Don’t look like that, little fish,” she said, reaching to pat his hand reassuringly like she was Phil’s maiden aunt. (She looked twenty-five at the most and Phil had to be pushing fifty, but that didn’t seem to worry her.) “You did nothing improper.” She cracked open her water and took a long swallow.
“I don’t know exactly when you arrived,” she said. “You were sitting near a large party, but you didn’t seem to know them well. They were making a great deal of noise, buying dances and taking a lot of attention. I was taking a break, standing to one side of the room having some water, when a man began… making demands. He had been drinking too much, and he wanted to get things without paying for them, you understand? And some things that are not for sale.”
Phil frowned. “And club security permitted this?”
She shrugged. “The club was full, and there were many people making spectacles of themselves,” she said. “Honestly, I’m not sure how you noticed what was happening, but you did notice. You came over and demanded that the man should apologize to me and leave.”
Clint groaned. “I don’t suppose he agreed and left quietly,” he said.
She laughed. “He did not, no,” she agreed. “He tried to hit you,” she told Phil.
Phil, as best as Clint could make out in the pink lights, was blushing. “I’m so sorry.”
“It was impressive!” she said. “Everywhere he went to hit, there you were not. It was like watching a film.”
“So what happened?” Clint asked, fascinated.
She sighed. “My cousin Vasiliy, he works club security,” she said. “He saw what was happening and thought you were also at fault. I’m afraid he came around behind you and punched you in the face.”
“Ah,” Phil said. He touched his nose gingerly. “I did wonder why I was so sore.”
“I told him to stop at once, of course,” Tatiana continued, “but by then the damage was done. Blood everywhere. I had Vasiliy take the other man outside and brought you backstage to help you stop your nose from bleeding. I felt bad, you see, for letting him hit you.”
“No apologies necessary,” Phil assured her.
“That is what you said then as well,” she said, smiling. “But I told you, the least I could do was to have your clothes cleaned. They were covered in blood.”
“So the pants I was wearing…”
“Those were mine,” Tatiana said. “I gave them to you to wear while yours were soaking.”
“So what happened next?” Clint asked, fascinated.
“Once the bleeding had stopped, you told me that you needed to go; on urgent business,” Tatiana said, looking at Phil, “but you would not say what it was. So I told you to come back on Tuesday with my pants, and I would have yours ready. Only, you went away so quickly, you forgot your wallet.”
Ding ding ding! And there it was. Clint and Phil exchanged looks.
“Do you still have it?” Phil asked.
“Of course,” she said. “I thought you might come back for it, once you recovered from… whatever it was you had taken. We are holding it for you behind the bar.” She leaned forward, her big brown eyes wide, and stretched out a hand across the table. “Phil, listen, I am not a judge of what others do, but I would not suggest you take that again. You were very… confused. If you hadn’t done so well in the fight, I would have been very concerned for you.”
Phil patted her hand kindly. “Thank you very much for your concern, Tatiana,” he said. “I certainly won’t again if I can help it. I actually suspect that someone gave me something against my will last night. From what you describe, probably before I even got here.”
She frowned. “In that case, Phil, I hope you are more careful of your company.” She shot Clint a warning look.
“My friend here is helping me,” Phil assured her. “He was not the one.”
“Well.” She sniffed. “All right, then.” She glanced at the stage. “Forgive me, my set is next; I need to prepare.”
“Of course, Tatiana, thank you very much,” Phil said.
Clint dug a fifty out of his wallet—it was a good thing he’d stocked up with cash before they’d left his place—and passed it across to her. “Thanks for talking to us,” he said. “And thanks for looking out for Phil.”
She smiled, tucking the money into her top, where it peeked out from behind a frill of pink maribou. “He tried to look out for me, and asked nothing in return,” she said. “I appreciate that in a man.” She got up, amazingly steady on her tall plastic shoes. “I will tell the bartender to have your wallet ready,” she said. “Come back some time and visit, yes?”
“Next Tuesday, at any rate,” Phil told her, eyes crinkling in a sweet smile. “After all, we still have to exchange pants.”
They were quiet for a minute, drinking their bottled water as they watched Tatiana speak to the bartender and then vanish backstage, then in silent accord they went over to collect Phil’s wallet.
They opened it up in the vestibule, which had actual white lights and wasn’t so earsplittingly loud. It contained three hundred dollars in twenties, a receipt timestamped 12:17am from the Applebee’s on Fulton Street, and a New York driver’s license bearing the name Phillip Clarkson and an address in Queens.
“Huh,” Phil said, staring at his own face, brow creased.
“What’s wrong?” Clint asked.
“I thought learning more would trigger me to remember,” Phil said. “But this isn’t ringing any bells.”
“Hm,” Clint said. “Well, how about this; let’s go back to my place and look you up. Maybe we can find out more that way, yeah?”
“I—yeah,” Phil said, smiling at him in apparent relief. “Yeah, that sounds like a good idea.”
Unfortunately, Phillip Clarkson… didn’t seem to exist, or at least not in any real way. He had a phone number, which went to a voicemail that still had the default outgoing message turned on. He had a LinkedIn profile, depicting a string of actuarial jobs of three to five years’ duration and a current employment at a company that sold cargo insurance. When contacted, the cargo insurance company connected them to a voicemail line, which promptly gave a message that the voicemail box was full and hung up on them. He was listed as a speaker on the program of a few conferences about cargo insurance. Every instance of him that they could find was aboveboard, sanitized, and bland.
“None of this seems familiar,” Phil said, groaning as he tabbed through a Facebook account that was mostly pictures of classic cars and fountain pens, with an occasional link to articles about subway delays and municipal ordinances. “Also, I’m starting to get offended on my own behalf. I’m sure I’m not really this boring.”
“I mean, you got mysteriously drugged and then punched by a bouncer at a strip club before winding up in a dumpster,” Clint said. “So I’m inclined to agree with you there.”
“I wish you could just tell me what happened,” Phil sighed.
“Phil, buddy, believe me, I would if I could,” Clint said.
“I know,” Phil said, smiling sadly over at him. “And I’d never want you to break the rules on my behalf. I’m just frustrated. I thought finding out my name would be the break we needed, and instead it feels like we’re farther from answers than we were before.”
“Don’t take this the wrong way,” Clint said. “But, with your whole investigation… thing. Do you think that maybe you were, I dunno, only pretending to be an actuary? Because even before we talked to Tatiana, I was thinking that maybe you were, like, a cop or a fed or something. That maybe something happened to you while you were on a case.”
Phil sat back, blinking at him. “Huh,” he said. “Actually, that… yes.” He flipped through the open browser tabs again. “This all does seem almost aggressively ordinary and uninteresting, doesn’t it?”
“Almost like it was done up that way on purpose,” Clint said. “I mean, I’m not exactly an expert, but if I were going undercover or whatever, I’d want to be forgettable.”
“That’s an excellent point,” Phil said. “So, if we assume that looking into my identity isn’t going to yield immediate results, that leaves us without much to go on, except…”
“Yeah,” Clint said grimly. “Looks like we’re headed to Applebee’s.”
They’d spent several hours tracking down Phil’s information, so it was coming on for dinnertime by the time they got to the Applebee’s.
They went inside and stood in line at the host stand. “I guess we should talk to the manager?” Clint said. “Try to find out who was working last night and if they saw anything.”
“Right,” Phil said.
They stepped up to the front of the line. Before Phil could start talking, the host looked at him, eyes widening in an expression Clint was starting to find all too familiar.
“Hi, Phil!” the host—his name tag said Jamaal—said. “It’s good to see you!”
Phil blinked. “Thank you,” he said. “I, ah, I’m afraid I’ve been having some issues with my memory, so I don’t—”
“Oh, we know, it’s not a problem!” Jamaal said, smiling at Phil. “We’re just glad you’re okay; we were worried about you last night. I guess you found your…” his eyes flicked to Clint questioningly. “…Friend?”
“Clint’s my guardian angel,” Phil told him, the corner of his mouth curling in a distinctly smirky way. Clint sighed. He was starting to find Phil’s stubbornness kind of endearing; it was a problem.
“I’m so glad to hear it,” Jamaal said. “Come on, I’ll put you back at your favorite table, and guess what! Sabine is working again today! She’s gonna be really glad to see you too.”
“That’s very kind,” Phil said. He raised a questioning eyebrow at Clint, who shrugged. They seemed to have found the people who’d be able to answer their questions; no use pressing to see the manager just yet.
Jamaal led them over to a table which, Clint had to admit, had excellent sightlines. “Here you go!” he said, cheerfully. He looked at Clint for a minute, like he wanted to say something else, then set down the colorful laminated menus and neatly rolled silverware and went off back to the host stand.
“Well,” Clint said, looking at Phil. “Whatever else happened last night, you were certainly memorable.”
Phil buried his face in his hands. “I’m afraid to find out,” he said, voice muffled.
Clint spied a young woman with spiky dark hair talking to Jamaal. She turned around and saw them, then started heading in their direction. He nudged Phil’s ankle with his toe. “Hey, look alive,” he whispered. “I think this is—“
“Hi, I’m Sabine!” she said, over-enunciating a little. “Welcome back, Phil!”
“Hi,” Phil said weakly. “I’m sorry, but—”
“Don’t worry!” she said. “Jamaal let me know that your memory’s acting up again. It’s so nice that you have your friend here with you today! What’s his name?”
“…Clint,” Phil said.
“Hi, Clint,” Sabine said, turning to face him. “We’re so glad you could make it today! We were all worried about Phil being out on his own last night, without his friend to help him!”
“…Thanks?” Clint said.
“Let me just get you some drinks and you can look at the menu,” Sabine said. “Phil, I remember what you like! Clint, what can I get for you?”
“Just water for now, please,” Clint said, and Sabine bustled off.
Clint leaned forward. “Phil,” he said.
“I know,” Phil moaned.
“When you told them I was your guardian angel—”
“I think they think I’m your minder or something,” Clint said. “You were lucid enough at the strip club to notice that dude harassing Tatiana and get up in his face, but the place you were at right before thinks—”
“Believe me, I know,” Phil said. “Fuck.”
“Whatever you’re on, buddy, it’s weird shit.”
“Here we go!” Sabine said, appearing from behind them to drop an ice water in front of Clint and a… something… in front of Phil.
“What is that,” Clint said, horrified.
“It’s a virgin Bahama Mama!” Sabine said. “I put in extra cherries for you, Phil.”
Phil made the most hilarious appalled face Clint had ever seen in his life. He bit his tongue, trying not to bust out laughing in front of Sabine and ruin their chances at intel, but he could feel by the wobble in his jaw that he wasn’t going to be able to hold it forever.
“I gotta go,” he gritted out. “Bathroom.” He got up and hustled to the back of the restaurant, where he shut himself up in the farthest stall in the men’s room, sat on the toilet without pulling his pants down, buried his face in his hands, and laughed until his stomach ached.
Fortunately, there wasn’t anyone else in there.
He splashed a little cold water on his flushed face and went back out to rejoin Phil. As he left the bathroom, Jamaal popped up beside him.
“Hey, man,” he said. “Can I talk to you for a second?”
“Sure,” Clint said.
“I didn’t want to say anything in front of Phil,” Jamaal said. “But I thought you should know, there was a guy in here harassing him last night. I think he thought Phil was staring at him and his friends, or something? He kept saying shit and laughing, and Phil was getting kind of upset? Like, I guess maybe stress makes his condition worse or something? He told us what his name was when he came in just fine, but by the end of dinner he kept forgetting and getting all worried about it, so we made him a name tag.”
Light dawned. “That was you?”
“Yeah. He unbuttoned his shirt and put the name tag on under it. So he’d have a secret identity, he said.”
Clint bit his lip. Don’t laugh, he told himself. Don’t laugh. “Um, thanks for looking out for him,” he said. “I appreciate it.”
“No problem, man,” Jamaal said. “He’s a nice guy, you know? That other guy was an asshole. It’s not right, making fun of a guy that’s got… problems.”
“No, it’s not,” Clint said. “I mean, he’s not… he’s just having a bad day.”
“It could happen to anyone,” Jamaal said, nodding. “Anyway, he kept saying that he had an important message he had to deliver to his secret contacts and he said the host stand was a dead drop? So we held onto it for him.” He shoved a wad of paper into Clint’s hand. “Here.”
“Thanks, Jamaal,” Clint said, honestly touched. They were good people, the night shift at the Applebee’s. “We really appreciate it.”
When he got back to the table, Phil was nibbling on a platter of cheese fries.
“I was starting to feel bad not ordering anything,” he said. “What took so long?”
“I got some intel,” Clint told him. Keeping his eye out for Sabine and his voice quiet, he told Phil what he’d learned.
“I don’t know what this is,” he said, passing the wad of paper to Phil across the table. “But with any luck there’ll be some kind of clue.”
Phil unfolded it. Written on the back of what looked like some kind of pamphlet was a message scrawled in blue crayon: “Sitt weLL maRkS AIm tellll” and then a ketchup stain that looked kind of like the state of Louisiana.
“Um,” Clint said.
“That’s… less than helpful,” Phil said.
“What’s it written on?” Clint asked. “Maybe that’ll help? Or is it just the kids’ menu or something?”
Phil flipped the papers over. “Oh,” he said. “This is actually… I think this could be helpful.” He held it up; a theater program. “Maybe this is where I was before I came here,” he said.
“Lysistrata, huh?” Clint said. “Classy.” He looked at his watch. “If we hurry, we’ll have time to change and get there in time for tonight’s performance.”
Phil grinned, pushing aside his untouched Bahama Mama and throwing a couple of twenties down on the table. Clint pulled the skewer of cherries out of the drink, since Phil didn’t want them. Hey, cherries were good. They waved to Sabine and Jamaal as they left.
They grabbed a taxi back to Clint’s place, in the interests of time, and Clint was able to dig out some clothes for Phil that would probably be dressy enough for the theater. He wasn’t exactly a patron of the arts, unless by “the arts” you meant “Dog Cops,” but he knew that was a thing people dressed up for.
“I’m gonna grab a shower,” he said, since he hadn’t had one. “Help yourself to anything you need.”
He hurried through his shower and shaved as quickly as he could without nicking himself. He dug the jar of hair stuff that someone—he honestly wasn’t sure whether it was Natasha or Kate—had left in his cabinet, and tried to make his hair look like it was deliberately ruffled and not just full of cowlicks and apathy. He squinted at his reflection, hoping he’d at least be able to pass for a fancy theater person well enough to avoid any unwanted attention. Of course, if things kept going the way they had been so far, the actors would probably stop the play to greet Phil by name.
He opened the bathroom door, shivering in the rush of cooler air, and headed back to the bedroom to get dressed. “Hey, Phil, how are we doing on ti—ack!”
Phil was standing in front of Clint’s mirror, knotting a purple silk tie. He looked up at Clint, concerned. “Are you okay?”
“Fine,” Clint wheezed, “just, you know, breathed wrong.” He coughed a little, theatrically, and Phil smiled at him in the mirror and went back to perfecting the knot in his tie.
He looked. He.
Clint didn’t dress up much, okay, but he had some nice clothes because he was actually friends with Tony Stark and when you were friends with Tony Stark, nice clothes just sort of happened to you. He hadn’t thought too much about it, just pulled out what he had and invited Phil to wear whatever worked. They were pretty close to the same size, he thought. And yet somehow, Phil had gone through the pile and come out looking like—like the cover of one of those magazines that Tony’s usually on the cover of.
“You look. Nice,” Clint managed to say.
“Oh, thanks,” Phil said, sounding surprised for some reason. “The pants aren’t too small? I was a little concerned.”
He was wearing the pants from Clint’s gray suit. They were indeed a little tight on him, but instead of looking bad, it just showcased an ass that made Clint’s hands itch to grab and strong thighs that filled his head with terrible, terrible thoughts about how they’d feel wrapped around him and NO NO NO BARTON NO.
“Well, that’s the style now, right?” Clint said. “Like, skinny pants or whatever.”
“I suppose,” Phil said, smoothing his tie and folding the collar of his shirt down. Clint would have sworn he didn’t own anything that crisp and snowy white. The tie was a luminous, jewel-like purple, with tiny arrows woven in. Above it, Phil’s eyes looked amazingly blue.
“We need to leave pretty soon,” Phil said. “I’ll clear out so you can get ready.”
“Okay,” Clint said, and stood stupidly in the doorway watching him pick up Clint’s suit jacket and sling it over his shoulder like he was James Bond. He didn’t realize he needed to move until Phil was right in front of him, one eyebrow quirked inquiringly.
“Sorry!” Clint blurted. “Um, sorry. I kinda zoned out for a minute.”
“No problem,” Phil said. “You know, I was a little surprised you even had Armani at first—it didn’t seem like your usual style—but then I realized.”
“Realized what?” Clint asked. Phil smelled good. Really good. He wondered which of the multitude of little cologne samples Kate was always bringing him Phil was wearing, because Clint needed to buy like a bucket of it.
“Well, you never know what you may need in the course of your heavenly duties,” Phil said, and Clint’s lascivious reverie shattered like he’d fallen through ice into a freezing lake at the reminder that Phil was completely impaired and not available for anything but pure, platonic help.
“So of course you’d have a miracle closet,” Phil concluded.
“It’s not a miracle,” Clint said, though he didn’t know why he was still even bothering. “I just… Tony gives me stuff. You know, Iron Man?”
“Huh,” Phil said. “I wouldn’t have thought there’d be an angel using Stark as an avatar. He doesn’t seem like he’d really be consistent with your… brand values, for lack of a better term."
“Tony’s a good guy, man,” Clint said. “Most of the shi—stuff that people say about him is all lies anyway.”
Phil looked thoughtful. “Maybe that makes him an even better choice,” he mused. “I suppose it does make sense. There are all kinds of people, after all, so they must need all kinds of angels as well.” He smiled at Clint, eyes crinkling. Clint folded his arms and tried to subtly pinch himself to keep from getting a sexually-harassing boner, then remembered that he was blocking the door and stepped aside.
He turned away so he wouldn’t watch Phil go. Too bad the mirror was right there.
Forget angels, Clint was going straight to hell.
He got dressed as fast as he could, picking from one of several outfits that were lying on the bed; apparently Phil had assembled several candidates before making his final selection. He felt rushed and kind of schlubby as he went downstairs, but Phil looked at him with admiration shining in his eyes.
“That outfit really brings out the gold in your halo,” he told him.
“I don’t… thanks,” Clint said, giving up, and Phil beamed at him. “Yeah, come on, let’s get this show on the road.”
The theater wasn’t very far away—“off, off, off off-Broadway,” as Phil murmured in his ear, chuckling, when they stepped up to the little box office—and they were able to snag two decent tickets. The show was starting in less than five minutes, so they hustled to their seats, taking their programs—duplicates of the one from Applebee’s—without looking, and settling in just as the lights started to dim.
There wasn’t an orchestra, but as the theater settled, some slow music started to play. After a minute, Clint cocked his head. The song sounded really familiar, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it.
He leaned over to whisper in Phil’s ear, forcing himself not to take the opportunity to sniff him like a creeper. “Hey Phil, does this song sound familiar to you?”
Phil turned, and whoa, okay, bad idea; his breath on Clint’s ear made all the hair on Clint’s body stand on end. “It’s Liz Phair’s ‘Girls! Girls! Girls!’,” he whispered back. “On… I think that’s a balalaika.”
Clint blinked. Was that… normal? “Why—”
“Hush,” Phil said. “It’s starting.” And sure enough, the curtain was rising.
The stage was… weird looking: full of scaffolding, and everything either painted white or draped with gauzy white fabric. Everything went dark as a church bell tolled ominously, then a cascade of pink lights tumbled over the set while the music shifted into something peppy and electronic. A group of people ran out onto the stage, wearing nothing but wreaths of flowers on their heads and multicolored transparent togas.
“Does your vagina have a brand?” the song said, and the dancers humped the air, gesturing at their crotches. “Let your vagina start a band!”
Clint stared. He had very good vision—it said so right on his job title—and he was 100% sure there were a whole bunch of dicks flopping around underneath the sheer fabric. “Phil,” Clint whispered. “Phil, I think those are dudes.”
“It’s a gender-swapped production,” Phil whispered back. “Didn’t you read the program?”
“Obviously not well enough,” Clint muttered. “What the fuck is this music?”
“Pussy Riot,” Phil said. “Shh.”
On stage, the pink lights had resolved themselves into multicolored, pop-art style vulvas. Clint really should have read that program. He was not prepared. He’d always thought of plays as being kind of upscale and boring and Masterpiece Theatre-y, everyone sort of having a British accent even if they weren’t really British. He had no idea what he was currently watching, but it was pretty much the opposite of that.
As soon as he’d started to get used to the dick jokes and projected ladyparts—and the background actor who kept holding up a giant vulva puppet for some reason and making the labia “talk”—the scene changed to show a group of women, who were playing men. They were all bare-ass naked except for giant, multicolored fake beards and huge fake penises with bright blue fake balls and shaggy fake pubic hair made of yarn and feathers. The penises were painted in different rainbow colors. They got into some sort of fight with the group playing old women, but they all stopped speechifying in the middle of the scene to do an interpretative dance together while a video clip of Dick Cheney talking about the war was projected on top of them.
“Help,” Clint said. “Phil. I think I’ve been drugged.”
The person sitting in front of him turned around and scowled. Clint slumped down in his seat. “Sorry,” he mouthed.
Phil looked over and winced. “I know,” he whispered. “At least the strip club was intellectually honest.”
After the end of the scene—which featured everyone climbing scaffolds while a screen behind them flashed an animation of tiny dancing penises getting eaten up by vulvas with teeth, while the actor playing Lysistrata pretended to jerk off a pool noodle—the curtain fell, and the house lights came back up as the sound system switched over to Björk.
“What the fuck,” Clint said.
Phil sighed. “It’s pretty tedious,” he agreed. “This production isn’t nearly as subversive as it likes to think it is.” He stood up, stretching, and offered Clint a hand up. “Come on, let’s go see if we can figure out what I was doing here last night.”
Clint took it, still feeling like he’d been hit upside the head with something strange. A fish, maybe, or a, a jello mold. Something cold and wobbly. “I can’t believe we paid eighty bucks for this.”
Phil snorted, letting go of Clint’s hand. Clint tried not to feel disappointed.
“Maybe that’s why the amnesia,” he said, as they made their way toward the lobby. “Like, your brain couldn’t stand to keep the memory of the show, so it erased the whole night in self-defense.”
There was a concessions stand—were they called that at plays?—selling shitty beer and wine and, oddly, popcorn in little red-and-white striped bags. The audience was milling around, packed into the too-small space almost elbow to elbow and talking about post-modernism and mason jar salads. Or maybe post-modern mason jar salads; it was kind of hard to tell.
“Where should we start?” Clint asked, looking around. “I mean, it doesn’t seem likely that we’re looking for someone from the audience. Should we talk to the people at the concessions stand?”
“We should probably wait until they’re less busy,” Phil said. “Maybe the box office people, or the coat check?”
They went to the coat check first, because it was closer.
“Excuse me,” Phil said, and if Clint had thought he was smooth earlier in the day, he was practically a secret agent in the suit. “I was here last night, and I seem to have lost my—”
“Oh, hey!” the young man at the coat check, who had an acid-green fauxhawk, greeted him with apparent relief. “Mr. Clarkson! I’m glad you came back. That’s a nice coat, it would be a shame to lose it.”
“Thank you,” Phil said. “As I was saying, I’m afraid I lost my claim ticket, but—”
“Oh, it’s no problem, man,” the coat check guy—his name tag read “M@thew”—said. “I totally remember you. We had a nice talk about existentialism.”
“Oh,” Phil said, blinking. “Well. Good. Thank you.”
“No problem, man, enjoy the show.” He pulled a nice wool coat from the back and handed it over. Phil took it with a nod, and he and Clint moved over to a slightly less crowded corner of the room to see what they’d found.
“Dare I hope I’ve left something useful in the pockets?” Phil murmured, feeling around in the coat.
“Well, you’ve had pretty good luck so far,” Clint pointed out. “You may not have been in your right mind, but you were leaving yourself breadcrumbs like Hansel and Gretel.” He paused, thinking it over. “Actually, you know, if you had a conversation with the coat check guy about existentiawhatsis, you were probably okay when you got here.”
“I don’t think sobriety is a pre-requisite for that sort of conversation,” Phil said. “But assuming you’re correct, it would mean that whatever happened to me, it started some time between arriving at the theatre and going to Applebee’s. Aha!” He pulled something out of the inner pocket of the coat.
“A ticket?” Clint asked.
“For an art show at a gallery near here,” Phil said. “Dated last night, running from 6pm to 10pm. I’m guessing that was where it started.”
“It’s only nine,” Clint said. “Do you want to go see if they’re still there?”
“Don’t you want to see the end of the play?” Phil asked, eyes twinkling.
“I really, really don’t,” Clint told him, and they took Phil’s coat and escaped into the night.
The art gallery, as it turned out, was a total bust. The luck which had stayed by them all day so far, bringing them into the paths of clues and useful witnesses, had dried up completely, and nobody at the art gallery seemed to have any idea who Phil was.
It made sense, really, when Clint thought about it a little more. Phil had arrived at the theatre well enough to talk about philosophy with the coat check guy, and he’d arrived at the Applebee’s obviously impaired; whatever had happened to Phil hadn’t kicked in yet when he’d been at the gallery, and therefore he’d been acting normal and unmemorable. Clint still hated the way Phil’s shoulders slumped as they left.
“It’s not a total dead-end,” Clint told him, clapping him on the shoulder in as bro-like a manner as he could. “We’ve got a lot of information, we just need to put things together. Come on, let’s go back to my place. You wanna put everything up on the wall and connect it with string?”
Phil perked up a little. “I love doing that,” he said. “It looks so cool.”
“Right?” Clint chuckled, feeling overcome with affection for this debonair-yet-dorky weirdo. “Come on.”
Clint still had conspiracy-wall supplies on hand, because of Reasons, and he pulled out his thumbtacks and scissors and string and tape and post-it flags while Phil went upstairs to change out of the suit and back into the sweatpants and t-shirt from earlier. It was strange, Clint mused, that less than twenty-four hours ago he’d seen a foot sticking out of a dumpster and all he’d thought was that he hoped it wasn’t a body. Now that foot was wearing Clint’s socks and walking on Clint’s floors, and honestly, it was a little unsettling how much Clint liked it.
Not just Phil’s foot. That would be weird. But Phil.
He was hot, yeah, but he was also kind and respectful and smart and funny. If Clint’d met Phil in any kind of normal way, he’d have asked him out for coffee pretty much immediately. Of course, if he’d met Phil in any kind of normal way, there was no guarantee Phil would like him back. Sure, he’d said he was an “admirer” of Hawkeye, but that didn’t mean he’d go for Clint Barton, not once the drugs cleared and he no longer thought he was an angel. The kind of guy who recognized Armani on sight didn’t usually go for guys like Clint, at least… not seriously, not for anything more than a hookup. And Clint could see himself wanting more than that with Phil.
He shook his head, hearing Phil starting down the stairs. That was for later. Maybe. When Phil was better and didn’t think Clint was somehow in charge of his afterlife anymore. Maybe then Clint would see if there was any chance for anything. But for now, what Phil needed was a friend.
Fortunately, Clint had always been great at friends.
“Hey,” Clint said, as Phil wandered into the living room barefoot and rumpled-looking, Lucky trotting happily at his side. “I’ve got all the stuff. You wanna get started while I put some coffee on?”
“Sure,” Phil said, smiling at him. “Thanks, Clint.”
When Clint got back with the coffee, Phil had already made good progress, tacking the key pieces of evidence like the program, gallery ticket, and receipt to the wall and connecting them with string. He was sitting at the table, scribbling notes on post-its; he looked up and smiled.
“There’s more here than I was afraid there’d be,” he said. “Obviously I’m missing some big pieces, but we’ve filled in what I was doing last night pretty thoroughly; I don’t think there’s enough unaccounted time for me to do much else of significance.”
“That’s something,” Clint agreed, sitting down across from him. “And even though we didn’t get much from the gallery, I think that’s evidence in itself. Everywhere else you went last night, you did something noteworthy—”
“That’s one way to put it,” Phil snorted.
“You know, you could have done a lot worse on a bender than drink Bahama Mamas, try to defend a lady, and talk to a priest about baseball,” Clint said. “I think that speaks pretty well of you as a person.”
Phil looked away, clearing his throat. The tips of his ears went pink. “Well,” he said. “You have to think that. Being my guardian and all.”
“It has nothing to do with that, believe me,” Clint told him.
They worked on the wall for while, but eventually they ran out of reasonable theories and started just… chatting. Phil still couldn’t remember anything about himself, but he’d apparently retained his opinions and knowledge on a lot of less-personal topics. It was fun, talking to him, even if he did occasionally ruin it by saying things about how of course Clint would know that because of his supernatural powers or whatever. He was smart and funny and kind and a huge dork, and Clint found himself wishing… well. Wishing things that probably weren’t going to happen.
Clint didn’t want the conversation to end—he didn’t want to have to think about what they were going to do if Phil’s memory didn’t come back, the steps they’d need to take to get him back to his real life and friends, whoever and wherever they were. Clint was almost certain Phil wasn’t really Phillip Clarkson, actuary, but that wasn’t the point; the point was that even if Clint wasn’t Phil’s guardian angel, he was still being trusted with Phil’s care, and he owed it to Phil to help him get back to his own life safely.
He must have had a funny look on his face, because Phil stopped talking in the middle of a sentence.
“You look like you want to say something,” he said.
Clint shook his head. “Nah,” he said. “Just… I was thinking that I’m glad I met you, Phil.”
Phil looked down at his hands, a soft smile curving the corners of his mouth. “I… thank you, Clint,” he said. “Me, too. I mean, I’m glad I met you. I know what I asked of you is probably… unorthodox. I’m just sorry that we weren’t able to find all the evidence yet. But I promise I’ll keep trying.”
“Please don’t worry about me,” Clint tried again. “I promise I’ll be fine. I just want to make sure you’re okay, get you back to where you’re supposed to be.”
Phil’s mouth twisted. “I’m sure that’s what I’m supposed to want,” he said. “But… I’m not sure I’m cut out for that.”
“Retirement,” Phil said. “Or, you know. Purgatory or Heaven or whatever; I’m not exactly sure of my nomenclature. I’m assuming you wouldn’t still be able to work with me if I were going… elsewhere.”
“You’re not going to hell, Phil,” Clint said. “I mean, you’re a Cubs fan.”
Phil chuckled a little. “Regardless, I was wondering if…” he trailed off, looking uncomfortable. “I mean, I don’t want to presume.”
“Just say it, Phil,” Clint said. “I’m not going to be mad or whatever you’re thinking.”
“I was thinking maybe I could stay here with you,” Phil said. “I… it seems like we worked pretty well together, and I may not remember anything but I know that I like protecting people, and with the population always growing it seems like you must bring on new staff at least sometimes.”
“Phil,” Clint said, half-reaching across the table.
“I mean,” Phil said, speeding up as though trying to get everything out before Clint could stop him. “I understand that there are probably… tests, or something, and I’m sure I wouldn’t have the seniority to work with you right away, but I really feel like I could make a contribution, and—” he took a deep breath, visibly steeling his nerves. “I feel like we’d be good together. Working together, I mean. But also… maybe as friends? I mean, I wouldn’t presume to—I know that angels are genderless, and just because you took on a male-appearing form doesn’t mean that you—”
“Phil,” Clint said firmly, because if he let Phil get all the way to the way it sounded like that sentence might be going to end, he would never forgive himself, and more importantly, Phil would probably never forgive him once he got his memories back. “Stop.”
Phil bit his lip, looking crushed, and Clint cursed himself.
“I think you would make a great angel, Phil,” he said. “But, um…” he tried to think of some excuse that Phil would accept, since “you’re impaired and I’m not an angel” hadn’t worked very well so far. “It would be wrong to let you make that kind of decision before you get your memories back,” he said. “You couldn’t, um, consent. To angelic… stuff. It wouldn’t be right.”
“I’m not going to change my mind,” Phil said, smiling at him. “But I understand. And I appreciate your integrity, although of course it isn’t surprising.”
“Ha ha, yeah,” Clint said glumly. God, he was a terrible person. He’d been trying not to take advantage of Phil’s… state… but it was hard not to bask a little when Phil looked at him like that. Fortunately, just then, Phil yawned hugely.
“Hey,” Clint said. “How about you get some rest? Maybe you’ll remember more in the morning.”
“I am pretty tired,” Phil agreed. “If you don’t mind lending me a blanket, I can just—” he gestured at the couch.
“Um, how about no,” Clint said. “You’re taking the bed, deal with it.”
“I don’t want to put you out,” Phil said. “Really, the couch will be fine.”
“You’re my guest, and you’re… unwell,” Clint said. “I’m not putting you out with Lucky, geez.”
Lucky barked, wagging his tail at the sound of his name.
Phil looked stubborn. “But it’s your home, and I’m imposing,” he said.
“I’ll miracle it,” Clint said, hating himself. “But, um, I can only do that for me.”
“…Oh,” Phil said. “Okay.”
“I’m just gonna change the sheets,” Clint said, and fled.
Clint had fallen asleep on his couch a lot, but it was different somehow when you started the night meaning to sleep there. Especially, he couldn’t help thinking, when a hot guy who thinks you are literally an angel was sleeping in your actual bed.
After spending a while watching TV with the volume on mute and the captions on, he finally drifted off, wishing he really could miracle it to be more comfortable.
He woke up all at once the next morning, feeling like something was off. He stayed still, his eyes closed, trying to figure out why, taking an inventory of his senses. He was lying on his stomach. His back was hot where Lucky was curled up on top of him, and his feet were cold where they were sticking out from under the blanket. There was light hitting his face, visible through his closed eyes, and something…
He heard someone clear their throat. “Mr. Barton.”
He opened his eyes.
Phil was standing at the foot of the loft stairs. He was wearing Clint’s suit again, but he looked almost completely different than he had the night before; he was standing bolt upright, his arms crossed stiffly over his chest, not meeting Clint’s eyes. His face was bright, painful-looking red.
Clint tried to subtly wipe the drool off his face on the cushion and propped himself up on his elbows. “Hey, Phil,” he said. “How are you feeling?”
“Quite… recovered,” Phil said. “I’m happy to report that I seem to have regained my missing memories.” He sounded about as far from happy as it was possible to imagine.
“Hey,” Clint said. “Um, congratulations?” He hoped Phil wasn’t mad at Clint. He didn’t know how he could have done anything differently, but he still sort of felt like he should have. “I’m sorry if I—”
“No!” Phil said, then bit his lip. “I’m the one who’s sorry. I owe you an immense apology.”
“It’s really fine,” Clint said. “It wasn’t your fault.”
“Be that as it may,” Phil said. He looked like it was physically hurting him to even look at Clint, and Clint wasn’t sure whether that was because he was embarrassed or because he was disgusted at Clint for not having somehow convinced him that he wasn’t dead.“I’m afraid I may need to impose on you further.” He squared his shoulders. “My name is Phil Coulson, and I’m an agent of the Strategic Homeland Intervention—”
“Oh, hey, SHIELD!” Clint interrupted. “That makes a lot of sense. I was thinking fed, but you weren’t enough of an asshole for that.”
He might have been imagining it, but he thought he saw Phil’s shoulders relax a tiny bit. “Well,” he said. “I appreciate that,” and there, just for a moment, there was the ghost of a twinkle in his eye that reminded Clint of the easy-going, funny guy who’d thought he was an angel.
“Two nights ago,” Phil continued, “I was taking part in an undercover operation. We have recently seen several cases of overdose involving a drug that appears to be refined using alien technology, and have been attempting to discover the source of the drug in addition to its distribution network. In pursuing a suspect, I was apparently spotted by the criminal and dosed with the drug, eventually resulting in my… condition, yesterday.” He shifted his weight uneasily. “I hope you’ll forgive my presumption in borrowing your suit; I need to get in touch with my team as soon as possible. My experience may actually provide us the last link in the chain.”
“Sure, of course,” Clint said. “It looks better on you, anyway. Go catch the bad guy. Um…” he paused. “Maybe once you’re done, you could let me know how it turned out?” he said. “I mean, I feel like I’m kind of invested now.”
“I’d be happy to,” Phil said, miserably. “I’m sorry, would you mind if I used your phone?”
“Go ahead,” Clint said, struggling to get out from under fifty pounds of sleepy dog.
Phil nodded crisply and strode over to Clint’s phone. (Clint felt marginally less skeevy about admiring his back view in the gray suit pants now that he no longer thought Clint was an angel.) Phil dialed a number from memory, let it ring for a few seconds, hung up, then immediately picked up and dialed again.
“Coulson, Phillip J,” he said, his voice crisp and authoritative. “Alpha sierra 425 echo. Connect me to Agent Sitwell, please.”
Huh. Well, Phil’s crayon note from the Applebee’s made marginally more sense now. Not to mention—shit, AIM. How had Clint missed that? If AIM was involved, it was no wonder Phil’d been amnesiac and hallucinatory for more than a day.
Phil was being agent-y on the phone, and Clint had to admit that if there were more SHIELD agents like him, Clint would have complained a whole lot less about having to work with them over the years. He was halfway into a daydream about going on a mission with Phil and maybe pulling off some kind of awesome shot and saving his life from a doombot or something when Phil hung up the phone.
“Could you please direct me to the roof, Mr. Barton?” he asked. “My team is sending a quinjet.”
“Sure,” Clint said. “Um, just lemme get some pants.”
Phil turned, if it were possible, even redder. “Of course,” he said. “My apologies.” Then he went and pointedly looked out the window while Clint extracted himself from dog and sofa and went to make himself marginally decent.
Clint sighed. Phil couldn’t even look at him; whether it was anger or just embarrassment, things weren’t exactly looking good for project See If Phil Likes You When He’s Sober.
He put on some jeans and walked Phil up to the roof. Within five minutes, a quinjet hovered over the roof and let down a ladder.
“I’ll make sure your clothes are laundered and returned to you, Mr. Barton,” Phil said. “Thank you for your assistance.”
“No problem,” Clint said. He didn’t tell Phil to keep the clothes, because he was a deeply pathetic man, and he wanted Phil to have to talk to him again one time.
Phil nodded sharply and climbed the ladder up into the jet. As he entered the hatch, he was already taking a headset from someone and snapping out orders.
Clint watched the jet fly away, then sighed and went downstairs. Lucky still needed a walk, after all. He’d just stay away from the dumpster.
Later that day, a very deferential junior SHIELD agent had come by Clint’s place and picked up the conspiracy wall—first taking a series of photographs of it in situ—and Phil’s dumpster clothes, which Phil had packed up in neatly labelled paper bags, for forensics purposes. She’d also given Clint a SHIELD non-employee expense reimbursement form. As a brush-off, it was extremely polite and professional. Clint sulked about it for a week.
On the eighth day since Phil had left, Clint came back from walking Lucky (in the opposite direction from the dumpster, because there was no use tempting fate) and saw a familiar be-suited figure standing on the stoop ringing the buzzer, a garment bag slung over one shoulder. His heart gave a traitorous leap in his chest, and he tried to keep his face looking at least halfway normal rather than grinning like some kind of killer clown.
“Hey,” he said, and Phil actually jumped before turning around.
“Mr. Barton,” he said, then cleared his throat. “I, ah, I brought your clothes. And we’ve wrapped up the case. And you’d expressed an interest in the outcome, so…”
“Yeah, sounds good,” Clint said. “Come on up, you know the way.”
Phil’s ears turned red, but he went.
Purely as a data point, Clint noted that Phil’s ass looked just as good in his own suit pants as it had in Clint’s.
They went up to Clint’s apartment. Clint offered to make coffee. Phil declined. Phil gave Clint the garment bag. Clint hung it over the banister. Then they sat on the couch awkwardly for a minute while Lucky pestered Phil for ear skritches.
“So,” Clint said at last. “AIM drugged you, huh.”
“Yeah,” Phil said, sounding relieved. “Fortunately, there don’t seem to be any lasting effects. It just has a euphoric effect, followed by a period of amnesia and, ah, visual hallucinations.” He leaned forward on the couch, elbows on his knees, staring down at his clasped hands, and was quiet for a moment before taking a deep breath. “I feel like I have to say,” he said quietly, “that I hold you in the highest esteem, Mr. Barton, and I assure you that nothing I said or did while I was—under the influence—came from anything but the utmost respect for you, both as a person and as an Avenger. Furthermore, I hope—”
“Clint,” said Clint.
Phil looked over at him, eyes wide. “I’m sorry, what?”
“Call me Clint,” Clint said again. “I want you to. I… Phil, I feel like I’m the one who should apologize, here. I should have spotted the AIM connection as soon as I saw your note. I could have called SHIELD myself, or at least the team, and got you back to your people. I’m really sorry.”
“That’s not your fault,” Phil said at once. “That note was written in crayon, for God’s sake. Nobody would think it was anything but—” he waved a hand. “Ramblings.”
“I should have seen that it was more,” Clint insisted. “I knew you weren’t just some guy on a bender, it was obvious. And Jamaal even told me you’d said it was a dead drop message; I should have taken the whole thing more seriously.” He took a deep breath. Now or never, Barton. “The thing is,” he said. “Um. I was… I was having fun.”
“Hanging out with you, I mean,” Clint said. “It was fun. I mean, I was worried about you because of the amnesia thing, and I felt like kind of an asshole for letting you think I was an angel—”
“Oh God, don’t remind me,” Phil moaned, burying his face in his hands.
“—But what I’m saying is, I liked you,” Clint finished. “I mean, I do. Like you. And maybe this was the drugs, in which case we can forget I ever said anything. But it seemed like possibly you might like me back.”
Phil went very still.
“I mean,” Clint continued, “In, like, a dating kind of way.”
Phil looked up, swallowing hard enough that Clint could hear it. His face was soft and open, a little slack with surprise.
“Are you… asking me out?” he asked, his voice unsteady.
“Unless you’re opposed to that,” Clint said, “in which case I’m gonna ask for a do-over.”
“I’m not opposed,” Phil said. “I…” he started to reach out toward Clint, then pulled back, folding his arms over his stomach. “Shit,” he said.
“Hey, Phil,” Clint said. He leaned over a little and laid a hand lightly on Phil’s bowed shoulder. “It’s okay.”
“You’d seriously like to go out with me?” Phil said, turning to face him, his eyes huge. “After I dragged you all over Brooklyn and subjected you to hours of delusional ranting?”
“Yeah,” Clint said, shrugging.
“Because I like you,” Clint said again. “You’re smart, and nice, and funny, and you get along with my dog. Plus, you’re hot. Seriously, I had to keep reminding myself it would be a dick move to hit on a guy with no memories.”
“I… oh,” Phil said softly. “Wow.”
“I mean, I’m not exactly a catch,” Clint said. “I work a weird schedule and sometimes supervillains try to kidnap my loved ones. Plus, you know, I kind of grew up in the circus.”
“I like the circus,” Phil said. “And I’m pretty hard to kidnap, actually.”
“So… is that a yes?”
Phil blinked at him, a smile slowly dawning on his face. “That’s a yes,” he said.
“I have to warn you, though,” Clint said. “I am about 100% likely to give you shit for the angel thing at some point.”
Phil groaned, shaking his head. “You’re certainly entitled,” he said.
“It was flattering,” Clint said. “Nobody’s ever mistaken me for an angel before.”
“Then they must never have gotten a look at your ass,” Phil said. “I mean. Um.”
Clint cracked up laughing, letting himself slump sideways on the sofa, his shoulder brushing up against Phil’s. Phil was stiff at first, then gradually relaxed, then finally started laughing too.
“You see,” Clint said. “This is gonna work out great. A match made in—”
“Don’t you dare,” Phil said, sounding amused and appalled at the same time.
“—Heaven,” Clint finished, and shot Phil a shit-eating grin. Phil rolled his eyes, but Clint could tell he was fighting back a smile of his own.
“So,” Clint said, because he’d always believed in striking while the proverbial iron was hot. “About that date.”
“It’s ten-thirty in the morning,” Phil said. He sounded surprised, but not unhappy.
“Perfect,” Clint said. “We can go have brunch at the hipster diner.”
“I did actually skip breakfast,” Phil confessed, looking sheepish.
“I have it on good authority that putting cream in your coffee doesn’t turn it into food,” Clint told him. “So what do you say?”
Phil smiled. “I say that sounds like an excellent idea.”
In the eight days since Phil had run out of his life like his juicy ass was on fire, Clint had sometimes wondered whether he’d been exaggerating their rapport in his memory, or if Phil, restored to his normal personality, would turn out to be a jerk. These were, as he quickly came to appreciate, entirely unfounded concerns. Once Phil got it through his head that Clint didn’t hold any of it against him, he actually seemed relieved to be spending time with someone who had already seen him wearing a stripper’s pants and covered in dumpster juice.
“I have to admit, it’s kind of freeing to know you’ve already seen me in the least dignified possible situation,” he confided, dragging his sausage link through a puddle of maple syrup. “I can only improve my image from here out; it’s not like there’s any mystique left to shatter.”
“Is that usually a problem?”
He shrugged. “SHIELD can be remarkably image-conscious; it gets pretty tiring after a while.”
“I get that,” Clint said. “Why do you think I live out here instead of staying at the Tower full-time? That shit gets old pretty damn fast.”
“I imagine it must.” He paused for a moment, then sucked in a breath. “Is that why Tony Stark gives you clothes?”
“He’d do it anyway,” Clint said. “He’s not trying to be an asshole about it, it’s just his way. You go away on a mission one time and there’s new pants in your closet when you get home.”
“I find that hard to imagine,” Phil said.
“Well, I mean, fair warning, if you stick around, it may start happening to you,” Clint said. “We’ve got a standing rule, if you see someone exclusively for more than six weeks you have to bring them to team dinner. I mean, assuming that’s what you want,” he added hastily, because Phil’s eyes were about to bug right out of his head. “You don’t have to. I mean, I’d like to. But we can take it slow or if you decide the whole Avenger thing is too much—”
“Clint,” Phil said. He still looked bemused, but fond.
“I look forward to team dinner in a couple of weeks,” Phil said, and Clint beamed at him from across the table.
On the way home, Phil walked almost shoulder-to-shoulder with Clint, on the side opposite Lucky’s leash. After the third time their arms brushed, Clint just reached out and grabbed Phil’s hand. His fingers were chilly and stiff, but he relaxed all over at Clint’s touch, lacing their fingers together, and didn’t let go until Clint needed both his hands to open the door to his building.
“I guess you have to get back to work?” Clint said. “I mean, you know. SHIELD-ing.”
“Yeah,” Phil said. Clint didn’t think he was imagining the reluctance in his voice. “I—can I give you my number? I have yours. I mean, from the incident report.”
“I would love your number, Phil,” Clint said, charmed. He liked this Phil, who somehow combined soft-sweatpants-Phil and Armani-Phil into one awesome Phil package. With an awesome Phil package, not that Clint was looking. Much.
“I’ll text you, then,” Phil said. He shifted his weight backwards, preparing to leave, and Clint found his hand tightening on Phil’s before he realized he was going to do it.
“Not so fast,” he said. “Don’t I get a goodnight kiss?”
“It isn’t nighttime,” Phil murmured, the corner of his mouth ticking up. He leaned in, though, tipping his head in towards Clint’s, so Clint took that as Phil co-signing to his plan. He pulled his hand gently free of Phil’s and reached up to cup his cheek.
“Then maybe I want a good afternoon kiss,” Clint whispered. They were only a few inches apart; Phil met him in the middle. Phil’s lips were soft and a little chapped, and Clint let himself get lost in learning them for a minute, until Lucky, tired of standing at the door and not going inside where his food bowl was, gave an impatient bark.
They broke the kiss but stayed inside each others’ personal space. Phil still smelled amazing.
“I’ll text you,” Phil said again.
“You better,” Clint told him.
He texted less than a half hour later.
Do you like Dog Cops? It read. There’s a new episode tomorrow. We could get pizza and watch.
This is Phil, he texted again immediately afterward.
Clint grinned. Sounds good, he sent back. My place, 7?
It’s a date.
Clint sighed happily, and saved Phil’s number.
He named the contact “Juicy.” If things went well, he’d be able to get an appropriate picture soon enough.